Thursday, 17 December 2009

Books of the decade

If the Guardian, the Times, and the Telegraph can get away with filling space with a book list, then surely I can too. Presenting:

10 pretty good books of the decade

They may or may not be the best books of the decade, but they're definitely the ones (a) I found most entertaining and (b) hadn't slipped my mind while compiling the list. In chronological order,
  • A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers (2000)
A serious memoir wrapped in multiple layers of flippancy. This could have been a very irritating formula, but it works. The truly heartbreaking story grounds the knowing humour perfectly (compare the witty-but-hollow feel of the much less serious McSweeney's website). His follow-up novel You Shall Know Our Velocity was a bit of a let down, but I've heard good things about his more recent work.
  • The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (2001)
The opening of The Corrections almost put me off reading it entirely. At the time I thought it was pretentious, but re-reading now I think it's just suffering from too many adjectives. Either way I'm glad I carried on, as the other 652 pages are superb. A grand American family saga that goes on to encompass the whole of the pre-9/11 world (or at least organised crime in Lithuania).
  • The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents by Terry Pratchett (2001)
Pratchett spent much of this decade expanding the Discworld into 'young adult' territory, which as far as I can tell involved not much more than adding chapter breaks. The Amazing Maurice is the first and finest of them. Has a similar style to his earlier non-Discworld Truckers trilogy, which is also top notch Pratchett.
  • Schott's Original Miscellany by Ben Schott (2002)
Not only a diverting collection of trivia, but a really beautifully laid-out book. Though maybe you have to share my graphic design nerd tendencies to care about that aspect. The countless inferior imitations that followed are testament to the original's appeal, not least as a stocking filler. Speaking of which, the following year's hit, Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynn Truss, only just missed out on the list, for performing the hitherto unimaginable feat of making punctuation rules fun.
  • Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre (2003)
Attentive readers of this blog (there must be one out there) won't be surprised by this choice, a very funny and rude satire on Texan/Mexican life. Think of the tastiest burrito you've ever eaten, then imagine it made out of words. (Can blogs get into Pseuds corner?)
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon (2003)
My book of the decade. Second, for the utterly believable portrayal of an autistic child. Third, for the story, full of suspense and moving by turns. Fifth, for its freshness and non-stop innovation. And seventh, for the very rare sight of maths in literary fiction (but you'll enjoy it whether or not you like maths, I promise). His next book, A Spot of Bother, is also worth a look, though it's a lot more conventional.
  • A Nice Cup of Tea and a Sit Down by Nicey and Wifey (2004)
The complex process of sitting down and having a nice cup of tea has long cried out for a rigorous analysis. This book does the job so well that any future study will inevitably live in its shadow. Naturally, the bulk of it deals with biscuit reviews. I didn't realise it was possible to write with such passion, wit and forensic detail about biscuits, but the authors' enthusiasm for the subject shines through on every page. Beware Nicey's controversial views on bourbons though. Go to their website for a taste.
  • The Ancestor's Tale by Richard Dawkins (2004)
It's a shame that Dawkins is now best known for his militant atheism, as it might put off some who would otherwise enjoy his popular science writing. Aside from a couple of unnecessary (and already dated) political jabs, this book is Dawkins at his purely scientific best. The conceit is to take a trip back in time to the dawn of life, stopping off along the way to hear the stories of all the lifeforms who have branched off from our line of descent. It's an inspired idea and very well executed. Notwithstanding my earlier comments, it's well worth getting the hardback version: the design and illustrations are a large part of what makes this so good.
  • Watching the English: the Hidden Rules of English Behaviour by Kate Fox (2004)
An insightful look at the English psyche from an anthropologist's perspective. If you've ever wondered why exactly it is that American adverts put you off the products they're advertising, or why you get annoyed with queues in continental Europe, or why your goodbyes always get stretched over half an hour, or why you have an instinctive dislike of Mercedes drivers, this book has all the answers. There's an "I do that!" moment on almost every page, though you can probably skip over the strange thesis-like conclusions to each chapter (once an academic...). If only every country had a book like this written about it, the world would be a much more understandable place.
  • The Harry Potter series by JK Rowling (1997-2007)
If you've managed to get to the end of the decade without reading these, you're obviously never going to. All I can say is it's your loss.

It's slightly perturbing to see that almost all of my selections come from the first half of the decade. Maybe it's because I spent most of the second half in Germany, and all the good books passed me by. Or maybe 2003 was genuinely a high water mark. Anyway, if you're desperate for some late noughties literature, two that just missed the cut are The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid (2007) and A Fraction of the Whole.

And 5 disappointments...
I'm sure these aren't the worst books published this decade, but for various reasons they didn't live up to my expectations.

  • Life of Pi by Yann Martel (2001)
Starts off an entertaining yarn but I started to lose faith by the time they arrived at the island of meerkats. The real kicker, however, is the ending. Not for the way it pulls the rug out from beneath the reader, but for the chance this gives the author to deliver a wholly unconvincing sermon about the necessity of having a fairy-tale worldview.
  • The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown (2003)
Let's be clear: I'm no Dan Brown hater. I think Mark Lawson's spiteful judgement says far more about him than it does about Brown. I get the appeal of the book, both the puzzle-solving against the clock and the inspired weaving of historical fact and fiction. Nevertheless, it's difficult to defend the writing. Part of the problem for me was that I had already seen the film, so there was only the paper-thin characterisation, tin-eared dialogue and just-plain-weird narration left to enjoy. Best just to watch the film really. Audrey Tatou's in it.
  • The Timewaster Letters by Robin Cooper (2004)
Robin Cooper, aka Robert Popper, was half of those responsible for Look Around You, a spot-on parody of old educational TV science programmes. I was therefore expecting great things of The Timewaster Letters, but it wasn't to be. Writing hoax letters is a fun idea but Henry Root did it much more productively back in the 80's.
  • Saturday by Ian McEwan (2005)
This is the only McEwan novel I've read, and unless someone can persuade me that it's atypical I'm not likely to try another soon. The individual sentences are well-written, but after a few pages of medical matters you realise that you're reading his undigested research notes, and the spell wears off. Also, I don't care what disease the villain has, the ending is still ludicrous. On the plus side, it does a reasonable job of explaining why the morality of toppling Saddam is not as clear as the average Guardian editorial would have you believe.
  • Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner (2005)
Not because of their contrarian views, but because the fascinating - and at least superficially plausible - theories in the first couple of chapters quickly give way to pure filler. The last chapter, concerning children's names, is particularly brazen. It's clearly an economic experiment designed to find out how little you can write and still call a book.

That's all from me. What are your picks of the decade?