A few months ago, I got a poke to do one of those silly “do this now” things on Facebook. We were asked to pick up the book lying nearest to us and quote a sentence from it on a particular page–I think it was page 58. The book near me at that moment, though I’d read it sometime prior, was Junot Díaz’s The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I grabbed it, flipped open to the directed page–and found there one perfect sentence. I remember thinking, “Damn, you can flip this book open anywhere and find perfection. Wow.” This book has gotten tons of attention–major prizes, big reviews, bestselling status–but it’s nice to see that a novel so well-crafted, so funny, so idiosyncratic, so…wondrous, can still capture the imagination of large audiences. If you haven’t read it yet, you should.
Months before Ian McEwan's Atonement was published in the U.S., the galley was being passed from bookseller to bookseller at Book Soup, where I worked at the time. My usually jaded coworkers were effusive, and by the time they had passed the book on to me, my interest was piqued. Atonement introduced me to McEwan, one of the leading literary lights of the last 25 years, a prolific and sometimes controversial novelist. It proved to be quite an introduction. Atonement is told in three parts, nestling the mannered charms of an English country house up against an arresting tale of Britain at war, and it has an ending that turns an admittedly accomplished but conventional novel into a gut-punch of a book that toys with the idea of the reliable narrator and gets one thinking about the ethics of story-telling and the power that a writer has to bend history to his will. McEwan was a Booker winner in 1998 for Amsterdam, but it was Atonement that cemented him as that rare thing, the literary superstar. Read an Excerpt from Atonement. More Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far) Best of the Millennium, Pros Versus Readers
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As we had hoped, our "Best of the Millennium (So Far)" poll stoked a fair amount of conversation around the web last week. List-making, as we've argued in the past, is an imperfect enterprise, and reactions ranged from "Great picks" to "Why didn't you mention x?" One of the difficulties of reaching consensus on books is that there are so many of them; The Corrections' appearance at #1 in our poll may reflect the likelihood of our panelists having read the book as much as it reflects inherent excellence. In our survey of 56 panelists - who had, collectively, 280 votes to allocate - something like 160 titles were mentioned. And so, as we sifted through the ballots, what struck us was not a "unified sensibility," but an exhilarating diversity, which we plan to share with you in the coming days. As we continue to discuss our "Best Fiction of the Millennium" results - and the heuristic value of list-making in general - we'll announce the rest of the titles that received votes, and maybe some of those that came up in the comments. We hope that you discover some pleasant surprises on these lists, as we did, and we hope you'll continue the conversation about what books from the last decade were worth your reading time. First, though, we thought we'd post an "Honorable Mention" list of 15 books that received multiple votes in our poll but didn't crack our Top 20. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon. This massive - and massively popular - novel follows two comic book creators in the World War II era. Any Human Heart, by William Boyd. A series of journal entries documents the life of an Englishman and his century. (See our review.) By Night in Chile, by Roberto Bolaño. A Catholic priest embroiled in the hothouse of Chilean politics delivers a riveting dramatic monologue. The Children's Hospital, by Chris Adrian. A flood of possibly divine provenance turns the titular hospital into an ark in this, the second novel from a hugely ambitious young writer. A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, by Ken Kalfus. Paired disasters - a divorce and a terrorist attack - mirror each other in this novel set in New York in 2001. The Feast of Love, by Charles Baxter. Stories of love knit together a community in Ann Arbor in this novel by a critical favorite. The Golden Compass/The Amber Spyglass, by Philip Pullman. The first and third installments of the His Dark Materials trilogy open up a parallel universe of daemons and Dust. The Great Fire , by Shirley Hazzard Traveling East Asia after World War II, an English war hero finds love among the ruins. (See our review.) HomeLand , by Sam Lipsyte. Class notes from a ne'er-do-well form the spine of this comic novel. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Samantha Clarke. Two magicians spar in this novel, which is long and erudite in the Victorian manner. (See our review.) The Master, by Colm Tóibín. Tóibín, an Irishman, recreates a pivotal period in the life of Henry James. The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint, by Brady Udall. A half-Apache youth matriculates at the school of hard knocks and various other failing 1960's institutions. Oblivion, by David Foster Wallace. Wallace's final collection of short fiction is dark and dense, bleak and exhilarating. Remainder, by Tom McCarthy. McCarthy bends the legacy of the Gallic avant-garde in the direction of pop perfection in this novel of memory and forgetting. Still Holding, by Bruce Wagner. The final entry in Wagner's cell-phone themed trilogy explores the glitter and emptiness of Hollywood.
When I discovered W.G. Sebald, I read Vertigo first, and then The Emigrants and The Rings of Saturn. Minutes after I read the final page of The Rings of Saturn, I flipped it over and began again. I read that book six times, maybe seven, and taught it once. Still I avoided Austerlitz. Maybe I was saving the finest chocolate for last or maybe it was fear: fear of the subject matter, fear that the book would fail my expectations, fear that it would be so good that I would never write again. When finally I read it (nearly straight through, though its complicating visual interruptions give less relief than its scanty paragraph breaks), I understood it to be Sebald’s greatest work of art. My description implies that the novel is breathless but in fact it is calm and wise, its terror subtle, creeping, accumulative. In its layered explorations of the limitations and possibilities of the narrative I and the narrative eye, Austerlitz changed how I read and how I think. The novel offers evidence that silence not the only decent response to atrocity, that art can carry a fiery, gentle intelligence to our hardest questions, that the human heart can be reached—broken—through the intellect. Read an excerpt from Austerlitz. More Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far) Best of the Millennium, Pros Versus Readers
There are, in Cormac McCarthy’s impossibly affecting novels, details that simultaneously open up his dismal universe and draw in the reader. In Blood Meridian, it’s the Apache wearing the wedding dress. In All the Pretty Horses, it’s the bullet hole in the wallet. In No Country for Old Men, the glass of milk, still sweating on the coffee table. In The Road, it’s the can of Coke, pulled from the guts of the vending machine. No, it’s that the soda has somehow stayed carbonated after the cataclysm. No, it’s that the father lets his son drink the whole thing. Surely this is one of the most humane and deeply inhabited moments not just in fiction from this millennium, but in all of literature. And yet the book is rife with such moments, replete with such deep empathy for the father and son that some of the bleakest passages will turn your stomach as only love can. This is perhaps the most shocking aspect of The Road: what remains, what you remember years after you’ve read the book, is the beauty, the compassion, the relentlessness of possibility that burns on the colorless horizon. You understand—much in the way that you first understand poetry, through feeling and syntax and imagery rather than logic—that no matter how desolate the story, it is made bearable through language. There is, the novel asserts, something like triumph in the very telling of a tale, a commitment to the act of witness, and to receive a story is to exalt the imagination, to participate in the process of faith, to accept deliverance. Why else, then, would the father in the novel—when his son is too scared to sleep, when the noise of the world dying its cold death keeps him awake—comfort the boy with narrative? They’ve been stripped of everything except voice, but even on the darkest path words can retain their meaning, their promise of light that will lead lost travelers home. Read an excerpt from The Road. More Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far) Best of the Millennium, Pros Versus Readers
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In Lydia Davis' hands, things are both exactly what they are and not quite what they seem, and after an hour or so, Varieties of Disturbance starts to look less like a collection of experimental fiction and more like an adventure story.
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