Thursday, November 21, 2019

My 13 Favorite Novels of the 2010s

At the end of decade, both of great novels and a lot of writing about them (I started this little blog endeavor on Oct. 1, 2009!), let's look back on some of my favorites of the 10 years.

In the last decade, I read 620 books. So obviously, it was EXTREMELY difficult to pare this list to 13 (and this doesn't even consider non-fiction, which are detailed in a separate post). My goal was actually to get down to 10, so I did a first pass, wound up with a list of about 30. Cut that to 20, and then cut it again, but couldn't get it under 13. I just had to include all of these.

These 13 books, which definitely represent my penchant for long novels (more than half of them are over 500 pages!), are in no particular order. If you ask me which of these is my favorite, I may tell you something different on different days. So, here you go — my favorite 13 novels of the 2010s:

Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013) — Whenever I try to recommend this novel, and I do that frequently because it's a book I think EVERYONE should read, I get tongue-tied and flustered and struggle to find anything intelligent to say. It usually dissolves into, "Here, just read it. You'll love it." And almost everyone has. It has some of the best biting social commentary about race and culture that I read. And it takes pleasure in poking fun at we dumb Americans and our foibles. But it's also just a riveting story of love and culture clash and coming of age. And it's Adichie, so you know it's brilliantly written.

The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell (2014) — It's probably not too often you get emotional at the end of a mind-blowingly bonkers 600-page speculative fiction novel that takes you around the world and through several planes of existence. But with this one, I did. Not because of anything that was happening in the book, necessarily, but because I was so attached to this novel, I didn't want it to end. Remember how people got treated for Avatar-related depression after that movie came out? That's how I felt here. Only David Mitchell could do that with a novel, I think.

Arcadia, by Lauren Groff (2012) — This is definitely not Groff's most well-known or well-liked novel (that would probably be Fates and Furies). But this is still my favorite of hers. And I've read every word she's written, because she's a friggin' genius and one of my favorite writers. Maybe it's because it's the first book of hers I read, but this novel about a hippie commune in upstate New York just left such a lasting impression on me, I had to include it here. It's about authenticity and expectations vs. reality and it's heartbreaking and funny and just so damn good — a literary work of art, indeed.

A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James (2014) — It took me a long time to talk myself into reading this novel: It certainly has the appearance of difficulty. It has dozens of narrators, dozens of years of narration, Jamaican dialect, Bob Marley, gangsters, drug wars, assassinations, and so much more. But once I found my reading rhythm here, the rest of these 700 pages flew by. I remember thinking the whole time I was reading that this was just like The Wire, only set in Jamaica in the 1970s. Some books you read for the plot, some for the writing. And some you read as an experience. This is one of those.

The Overstory, by Richard Powers (2018) — The most recent novel on my list is probably the toughest sell: It's 500+ pages about trees. But if you're at all interested in the environment, and humans' place on earth, and downright fantastic storytelling and characters, this is a novel you'll love too. One of my favorite quotes from a novel this decade: “This is not our world with trees in it. It's a world of trees where humans have just arrived.” This one's pretty good, too: “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.”

Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn (2012) — The novel that launched a thousand copy cats (unreliable narrators, shifting POVs, despicable characters), made having "girl" in the title of any thriller a must for like three years, and made Gillian Flynn a household name certainly deserves every piece of accolade it gets. I remember certain people who know things about books (Rebecca, from Book Riot, for one) absolutely raving about this novel well before its release. And wow, were they right.

Shotgun Lovesongs, by Nickolas Butler (2013) — This novel was the start of what has been one of my favorite literary "friendships" of the past decade. Butler's novels remind me so much of one of my other favorite novelists, Richard Russo. So when I got the chance to meet Butler and have some drinks with him to talk books (he graciously did a reading at RoscoeBooks in August, 2017), I almost fell out of my chair when he said something about how he also loves Russo's books because of how much Russo cares about his characters. EXACTLY! That's exactly what I think about Butler's characters when I read his novels, too: The tenderness and care with which he renders them is so evident, especially in this novel about high school friends returning to their small Wisconsin hometown in their mid-30s. It's about how friendships change over time, and about how music influences our lives. It was a novel I read at just the right moment in my life and it's one of my all-time favorite novels to recommend, too.

A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara (2015) — I'm fairly certain this novel has permanently scarred me. And I'm sure I'm not alone in that. It's funny how whenever you somehow stumble into a conversation about this novel, how the reaction is almost universal: A consternated grunt, a sigh, and an "Oh my god, that book..." Every time I catch a glimpse of the cover art on this book — the guy wincing, seemingly in pain — it's an appropriate reminder of what it's like reading this novel!

The Heart's Invisible Furies, by John Boyne (2017) — Boyne, most famous for his YA novel The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, had published more than a dozen novels. But it wasn't until I picked this one up, not really knowing what to expect, that I understood his genius as a storyteller. I was blown away. This is a masterpiece. I laughed, I cried, I wondered if Boyne is the new John Irving (to me), to whom Boyne actually dedicated this novel.

Version Control, by Dexter Palmer (2016) — Often, reading outside your "comfort zone" pays huge dividends. I remember picking up this book a little skeptically, not usually a fan of the time travel novel. But because it's also the story of a marriage, I thought I'd give it a shot. And it ended by being one of the best reading experiences of the decade! Yes, it is a time travel novel of sorts, mixed with a story of a marriage, but what stands out most is that it's chock full of ideas touching on philosophy, physics, theology, and how technology impacts everyday life. Palmer pulls off quite the neat trick here: Masking a "novel of ideas" within a really fascinating plot about a marriage going off the rails. Everyone I've talked into reading this somewhat obscure book has loved it, too. I keep hearing from friends, "Have you found anything else like Version Control?" Sadly, I haven't — this novel is wholly unique.

— Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel (2014) — A post-apocalyptic story about the power of art and storytelling? Hell yes, this is a favorite of the decade. "Survival is insufficient!" What good is living if you can't adorn it with art, stories, music, etc.? But what really sticks with me about this novel is its careful, meticulous construction. I was in awe of how St. John Mandel put this novel together, and therefore, what a pleasure it was to read.

The Martian, by Andy Weir (2014) — This was the one book I think I had the most fun with from this list. From the opening line of this novel ("I'm pretty much fucked.") through its harrowing rescue at its end, this novel is just pure reading joy. The combination of 4th grade humor and the actual science — the combination of low- and high-brow — is something I absolutely love in books, specifically, but really any media. And so it was also awesome that the movie version lived up to the fun of this novel — Matt Damon was a near-perfect Mark Watney.

The Nix, by Nathan Hill (2016) — When Book Expo America was in Chicago in 2016, I skipped the George Saunders signing to stand in line for a debut author named Nathan Hill. It was the right decision. Hill's novel is so friggin' good. It's expansive, but feels intimate — I remember thinking that even at 600 pages, I could've read 600 more. But it's so well written and such a smart book. I really can't wait to see what Hill does next. (Plus, he was just such a nice man when I met him!)

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Nothing To See Here: Flamingly Good

Nope, nothing to see here, just some 10-year-old kids on fire. No big deal! If the premise of spontaneously combusting children in Kevin Wilson's awesome new novel Nothing To See Here sounds crazy, that's because it is. But what if I told you that unexplained fire children is only one of several characteristics that make this one of the more fun reading experiences I've had this year? Would that sweeten the deal? Well, it's true!

What stands out here, and why I blazed through this novel in about two days, is how clever and how engrossingly written it is. I've heard it said that Wilson is a "writer's writer," which certainly jibes with how novelist Taffy Brodesser-Akner (whose novel Fleishman Is In Trouble is also terrific) describes Wilson in her glowing NY Times review. She says she loved this "perfect" novel so much it set her back "egregiously" in writing her own. That's about the highest praise you can give a fellow scribbler!

The story is about Lillian, a late-20s, down-on-her-luck woman, who takes a job as a nanny (governess?) for her friend Madison's step-children. Madison's husband is a rich and powerful U.S. Senator, who is about to be nominated for secretary of state. Madison and Lillian had been fast though unlikely friends at an exclusive high school, where Madison, as a privileged rich kid went as a matter of course, but where Lillian had to earn a scholarship. The two have remained pen pals of sorts after an unfortunate incident in which Lillian had to leave the school and go back with her "kind" at public school.

But now, Lillian, who works two jobs at grocery stores in rural Tennessee, and lives with her mother, jumps at the chance to do something different (also to reconnect with Madison), even if that something means taking on a challenge for which she is woefully ill prepared: Nannying spontaneously combusting children.

So what's Wilson up to here? Why flaming children? As Brodesser-Akner mentions in her review, it's clearly a metaphor for...something. She says she was having too much fun reading the novel to put much thought into it. My take is that the "children on fire" idea is just a way to present the children as a unique problem, and then show how rich, privileged people often just throw around money and influence to deal with their problems in ways we plebeians can't.

Privilege and wealth are certainly the undercurrent of this on-the-surface light and funny novel. Rich people have it so much easier: They have available solutions that aren't possible for everyone else, and often with methods that are less-than-ethical or scrupulous. If those problems are, say, children — specifically, children with a strange affliction that might prevent a powerful man from becoming even more powerful — well, then they're just like any other problem: They need to be dealt with. The kids' best interest is secondary to everything else. The fire thing is a good way to make this point less heavy than if the kids had a rare and very sad disease.

Anyway, so Lillian, whose charge is basically to keep the kids under lock and key, works to be the cool adult, trying to earn the kids' trust, all the while trying to minimize the effects of their affliction. They do a lot of swimming, and she reads to them, and they try to convince Carl, a buttoned-up fellow who runs the mansion, to take them on clandestine outings. But then, of course, things go awry, as they're wont to do in novels like this.

I was one of few readers, I think, who wasn't a huge fan of Wilson's previous novel, The Family Fang. And I hadn't really considered reading this new one until Wayne, the manager at RoscoeBooks, said it's the best thing he's read this year. I needed a little change of pace after 700+ pages of logging and labor organizing, and this was just thing. Really loved it!

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Deep River: Karl Marlantes' Deep Dive Into Labor, Logging

One of my favorite historical novelists, Leon Uris, died in 2003, and since he's been gone, I haven't really ever found a historical writer I like as much as I did Uris. His novel Trinity is actually one of my favorites of all time! But with Deep River, Karl Marlantes follows in Uris's footsteps by producing a compelling brick of a novel with unforgettable characters struggling uphill against injustice during a turbulent moment in time.

Marlantes, whose 2010 Vietnam War novel Matterhorn was a huge hit, grew up in the Pacific Northwest. Deep River, is basically telling the story of his family roots there. The novel is about Finnish immigrant loggers in the early 20th century, and one particularly tough woman named Aino who gives up nearly everything for the early awakenings of the labor movement.

Aino escapes Russian rule (though not completely unscathed) in Finland as a teenager, and joins her brothers Ilmari and Matti in Washington state near the Columbia River just after the turn of the century. Her brothers have already set up a home base as loggers and craftsmen, and Aino works to make herself useful while she gets her bearings in this strange new land of opportunity.

Aino is unquestionably the star of this show, as she immediately starts in, organizing the loggers to petition for better working conditions. The loggers work in a terribly dangerous environment, and they can't even get fresh straw to sleep on at night. Aino has successes and failures, both in labor organizing and love, as do her brothers. Marlantes covers about 30 years in their lives in the U.S. — there are births and deaths, tragedies and good times, love and loss. It's a family saga in every sense of the phrase.

I realize 700 pages on logging and labor is a little bit of a tough hang for a lot of readers, but I got really attached to these characters, Aino especially. And that's what kept me picking up this doorstop novel. Highly recommend if, like me, you're a fan of Leon Uris or his ilk.