Somehow, it only occurred to me in the last month or so that we are ending this, the first decade of the 2000s. While I hardly feel qualified to create a list of the best books of the decade, I can definitely add to the noise with a list of my favorites. I only had a few rules, one of which was that the books on the list all had to be published during this decade. The only other rule I really had was that I needed to truly love all the books on the list, not just like them, so some books that are making a lot of “Best of” lists (The Corrections or Middlesex, for example, both of which I enjoyed but did not love) aren’t here.
Reviewing the decade, I realized that I spent a lot of time re-reading books from the previous decade (hence, perhaps not the most well-rounded list), and I read as many story collections as novels, although only one story collection actually made my list. Only two of the books I read since I started the book blog made this list. Most of the books here are from earlier than 2005. I was also surprised to find three non-fiction titles among my favorites (yes, surprised by my very own list!), especially because by the end of the 1990s I was beginning to feel all memoired-out.
Without further ado, my favorite books of the decade:
Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories, by Alice Munro. Runaway seems to be the most popular choice for all the wonderful books Munro published in the last ten years, but this was my favorite. I’ve read this collection more times than I can count, and my perpetual re-reading of this book is probably one of the reasons this list isn’t longer. The title story and “The Bear Came over the Mountain” are two of my favorite short stories of all time.
The Human Stain, by Philip Roth. This novel, about a professor charged with racism (an oversimplification, but I don’t want to give anything away if you haven’t read it), is simply stunning. It’s a little bit of everything: a suspense novel, an “American dream” (or American nightmare) novel, an academic novel, a relationship novel. Truly one of the finest books I have ever read.
The Bright Forever, by Lee Martin. This is a quiet story about a young girl who disappears one fine summer day from a small Indiana town. Told from multiple points of view, this novel is more than the story of a missing girl: it’s a tale of love and loss, of friendship and community, and finally of loneliness.
Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl. This is one of those books that people seem to love or hate, and I absolutely love it–but I didn’t at first. No. The first time I picked this book up, I read about a hundred pages and set it right back down again. While on the surface this book had all the elements that should have made me love it–an academic setting, a quirky clique of students, a murder (I will never stop trying to capture that feeling I had when I first read The Secret History)–I thought it was pompous and overly clever. It sat untouched on my shelf until one day, as books are wont to do, it called to me and I picked it up and read from where I had left off straight through to the end…and then I started again from the beginning. I think the second time I read it I felt less concerned with what Marisha Pessl was trying to accomplish than with Blue van Meer herself, which made the constant term-paper-like references to other works (some real, some fake), less device-ish and more part of the character. Maybe that was it. Whatever it was, I was sold. It’s a smart, funny novel, with a terrific ending.
Empire Falls: A Novel, by Richard Russo. I’ll be honest: my favorite Russo novel is Straight Man: A Novel, but since it was published in the 1990s, it doesn’t make the cut. Russo does a wonderful job with this family saga, told from different points of view. This book is both humorous and sad. When I finished it, I felt a little lonely. I didn’t want it to end, I felt I knew these characters and all their flaws so well.
Fingersmith: A Novel, by Sarah Waters. Everything in this book works: the atmosphere is perfect, the pace is terrific, the twists are unforeseeable and shockingly fun. And while, after all the reviews I read, I expected to be surprised and entertained by the story, I never really thought that Waters would have such terrific command of her prose, but she does. I also loved The Little Stranger, but for the sake of brevity, I decided to go with Fingersmith.
The Glass Castle: A Memoir, by Jeanette Walls. This was a book I resisted, but when my book club picked it, I went ahead and read it and found I could not put it down. It’s shocking enough to imagine poverty and homelessness, but to imagine living that way on purpose, with children…it’s almost unbelievable. But Walls writes about her childhood with clarity and empathy and very little self-pity, and offers her family all the love and dignity she believes they deserve. After decades of self-indulgent memoirs, this was refreshing and heart-breaking.
Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx, by Adrian LeBlanc. This made my favorite books of 2009 list, but it deserves a place here as well. I would say this is a critical book in terms of understanding our society.
The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri. It was this or Unaccustomed Earth, but I went with The Namesake because I always feel like I want more from her stories, and I feel like The Namesake offers me everything I am missing in her shorter work. This is a universal story in terms of family, a specific story in terms of offering a clear picture of what it means to be or feel “other” in the place that is supposed to be one’s home.
A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Mooreland, Indiana, by Haven Kimmel. First, Kimmel writes beautifully. Second, she manages to tell stories from her childhood with such purity. I love this book for its dramatic irony, for the fact that Kimmel knows very well that we can see all the family issues at work, even as she seems to gloss over them with the sort of self-centered grace that children often have.
You Remind Me of Me, by Dan Chaon. I just finished Await Your Reply, and it feels too soon to say whether it’s a favorite or not, but I loved Chaon’s first novel, which tells the intertwining stories of three characters in a small Midwest town. Both books deal with questions of identity, but where Await Your Reply deals with the fluid nature of identity, You Remind Me of Me focuses simply on how we become who we are.
My Life in France, by Julia Child and Alex Prud’Homme. This is a wonderfully joyous book, a book about finding one’s passion and pursuing it without hope of glory but for the sheer joy of the pursuit. Julia Child’s voice rings like a clear bell on these pages. I read the hardcover, but I had the audio going in my head the whole time, because the tone is so friendly and intimate, I felt as though Julia were sitting across from me telling me the story herself. Forget that annoying Julie Powell and her stupid experiment. This is the real deal.
Case Histories, by Kate Atkinson. This is one of those books I keep meaning to go back to, and I plan to this year, as well as to continue with the other Jackson Brodie books, One Good Turn: A Novel and When Will There Be Good News? This was one of the first books I picked up a few years ago when I was starting to branch out from my very small world of literary fiction. It seemed to be a safe bet, and it was. It also made me laugh out loud, which generally guarantees a book a spot on a favorites list as far as I am concerned (assuming I am laughing with the book, and not at the book).
The Likeness, by Tana French. I could have picked In the Woods just as easily, to tell the truth, but I chose The Likeness because I think the comparisons to The Secret History are warranted in their own way, although French has a different style than Donna Tartt, the idea of being part of a group that makes one feel she is part of something beyond the ordinary is always compelling.
What were some of your favorite books of the decade? Feel free to link to your own list, if you made one.