Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A special treat for Christmas, sponsored by cute husband

Since his last final was yesterday, cute husband has emerged from the study lair he inhabits for the better part of the day during the semester to chime in with his own excellent Top Ten Books of the Decade list.  He actually held his list to a legitimate ten and only cheated once or twice on books actually written in the decade (the point is he read them this decade).  His explanations are much better (and longer) than mine.  You'll see why he's one of my favorite writers--so smart!  so eloquent!

Take it away, Corey!

2666/The Savage Detectives- Roberto Bolano (2008): A star in Latin America for quite a few years, Bolano (recently deceased) has been suddenly embraced by the American/European literary elite. Believe the hype. The massive 2666 is sprawling, disjointed, fascinating, with a sense of dread hanging over every page that is pitch-perfect for our times. Detectives is slightly more cohesive, slightly more muscular, and a masterpiece in its own right. What’s so great about this fellow? Most writers understandingly create a character and then allow the twists and turns of their stories shape and evolve that character. Bolano creates characters (thousands of them…), fleshes them out fully, and lets their quirks and psychoses shape the narrative; he lets his characters write the story…

A Prayer for Owen Meany- John Irving (2002): One of the first books Alison insisted I read… If Bolano lets his characters write the story, Irving is on the other pole of the spectrum, in constant and complete control of every part of the story. I think he can be a little hit and miss, but in this book it works to perfection, stringing the reader along, attaching us to the characters, then pulling it all together with a bang that is both exhilarating and moving. This is a world-class piece of storytelling.

The Road- Cormac McCarthy (2007): This is the most depressing, distressing, devastating book I’ve ever read. Many of the haunting and unspeakable horrors in this book seem more at home in those twisted Saw movies than in a book many people are calling a masterpiece. What makes it all so impressive is that anyone can write horrifying stuff- McCarthy makes it all seem honest (and thus more horrifying), and at the very end creates a glimmer of hope that’s earned, not contrived.

Fay- Larry Brown (2009): I echo Alison completely on this one. She gave this to me as a gift a few years ago and I finally got around to reading it this spring. It is a tremendously well-written book that creates a true, sticky, ugly, deep-south environment for its characters, rather than the “bustling city streets” that so many young writers today rely on.

Nickel and Dimed- Barbara Ehrenreich (2003): Most of my friends have world-class metabolisms, can live large and never worry about developing the gut I’ve been dragging around since starting college. In the past, when one has made a crack about a severely overweight person (there are far too many in this country), I’ve tried to explain what a non-stop, endlessly frustrating job losing weight is, but just can’t. Ms. Ehrenreich’s book takes a similarly unexplainable circumstance- the constant struggle for survival that is living on near-minimum wage in this country- and makes it plain to even the most privileged of us. We’ve heard a lot about the unemployment rate lately- try reading this book, then consider that every person you see working retail this Christmas, every waitress who takes your order, are considered “employed,” and many are even thought of as “middle class.”

Somewhat Honorable Mention: The Lucifer Effect- Dr. Phillip Lombardo (2006): This is a book, very much like “N&D” above, that you try to mention and discuss in conversation, and that folks who haven’t read it, or, thankfully, haven’t “been there” can’ t understand. Lombardo was the psychiatrist in charge of the famous “Stanford Prison Experiment,” in which everyday college kids were cast as “guards” and “prisoners,” and cruel, humiliating behavior reared its head in a matter of days. Lombardo compares his experiment to the conditions that led to the torture at Abu Ghraib. It’s a fascinating and troubling argument that we can’t just write off the soldiers responsible as “bad apples,” that in the wrong situation we’re all subject to our darkest demons. Unfortunately, Lombardo can’t help but being an arrogant jerk who admits his mistakes, then qualifies them and rewrites history, thus the honorable mention.

His Dark Materials- Phillip Pullman (2006): I can’t say enough about the effect Harry Potter has had getting kids to read. And I am an admitted and proud Lord of the Rings geek. But for my money this trilogy combines the magic and briskness of the Potter books (briskness is lacking in the clunky LOTR books), with the complexities and sense of discovery of LOTR (something that’s lacking- at least beyond contrived mysteries- in HP). It’s impressive stuff.

The Book of Daniel- E.L. Doctorow (2003): I think Doctorow is one of the better writers out there, and this is my favorite. It’s the story of the children of two martyrs directly based on Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. It’s a fascinating bit of speculative history, but most impressive are the subtle little scars that reveal themselves in the two children.

The Inheritance- David Sanger (2009): Since starting law school I’ve gotten increasingly wrapped up in non-fiction, and this book gets the honorary NF spot because it’s well-researched, well-written and an absolute must read for anyone who claims to care about national security. Considering it was written in 2007 and early 2008, aimed at describing the challenges that either Presidential candidate could face, it’s also a pretty strong argument for an end to the politicization of national security.

What Is the What?- Dave Eggers (2006): I wasn’t crazy about Mr. Eggers’ first book (Staggering Pants…). Thought it was sort of self-indulgent, showy and thin. It was mighty popular and critically acclaimed though, and he could’ve easily continued on that path and still been a big young literary figure. Instead he discovered non-fiction, and it’s a great fit (between Alison’s Zeitoun and my pick here). What is the story of a Lost Boy of Sudan, a gripping, terrifying, uplifting true story; It’s a testament to how good it can be for a very talented writer to get out of his head and tackle a first-class story.

Dishonorable Mention- Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace (2001-2009): I began this book 8 years ago, mostly to impress myself (and girls, ask Alison), with its girth and Mr. Wallace’s reputation. I never finished, and only recently picked it up again, starting fresh. I’m about halfway through its 1,000 pages, and still can’t decide whether it’s an overly showy, but valuable, book, or if it’s a pretentious waste of talent. Lately I’m leaning towards the latter, but that said, Mr. Wallace predicts (in 1998 or so) with remarkable accuracy a number of things about our culture, including Netflix and the demise of network TV.

**Note from Alison: Yes, in college Corey always seemed to be reading Infinite Jest.  I learned from talking to his roommate that each night Corey would fall asleep reading Infinite Jest in the top bunk and then in the middle of the night it would drop down onto the bottom bunk, hitting Corey's roommate (often square in the head).  And at over 1000 pages, it's a big book.  What can I say, it did impress me...and the rest is history.

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed both of your posts on Top Ten Books, it makes me want to do some more reading. I love A Prayer for Owen Meany (I think Alison and I may have read this at the same time in high school.) Also, Corey, Andrew has The Road but hasn’t read it yet. It sounds REALLY depressing. Have you seen the movie? Merry Christmas to both of you!


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