Thursday, 19 November 2009

50 novels of the 2000s - 40 to 31

The next batch for your perusal. I also thought you might like some stats on the final standings.

The most nominations come from the year 2005 (7); the least from 2009 (3).

The nominations come from 14 different countries.

Women make up just under a quarter of the entries (12).

Only one author has more than one novel in the top 50.

So on with the run down . . .

40. The Bear Boy – Cynthia Ozick (2005)

The Puttermesser Papers was one of my favourite books from the nineties. The Bear Boy didn’t sound so promising (no golems here). But in this tender, occasionally disturbing coming of age tale, Ozick proves her versatility and her tremendous storytelling powers. A different class from start to finish, it’s a book that makes you yearn for a New York you could never know.

39. The Testament of Gideon Mack – James Robertson (2006)

One of the most inventive and curious novels I’ve read, with a beautifully controlled and dextrous way of describing the inner and outer worlds. Robertson imbues the narrative with so many superb images – disappearing and reappearing stones, the devil's shoes – and so much tension between what is real and what is imagined, that it’s difficult not to be swept up by its crackling prose. If you didn’t read it because it was a Richard & Judy pick: shame on you.

38. The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – Junot Diaz (2007)

Drown is one of my favourite story collections and had a huge influence on my reading habits back when I first read it in 1996. Oscar Wao, however, didn’t quite hit me where I thought it was going to. It is a great read, wonderfully executed and superbly detailed. It’s also funny and uses footnotes properly, instead of just as some kind of Po-Mo affectation. I wanted to love this more, but unfortunately it’s merely very good rather than great. Which is still awesome, obviously.

37. The Last Samurai – Helen DeWitt (2000)

A hundred times the book that The Curious Incident... or any number of the genius kid books we’ve had inflicted on us over the decade, The Last Samurai (or The Seventh Samurai, as my proof copy has it) is a touching, beautifully written and utterly believable evocation of a the inner struggle of a boy who understands ancient Greek, but doesn't know who is father is. This is how you do erudite without being tricksy. This is how you do intelligent without being smug. This is how you write the kind of book Jonathan Safran Foer imagined Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close would become.

36. Embers – Sandor Marai (2001)

Male friendship isn’t tackled enough in serious novels. There’s a kind of unspoken devotion and bond that makes such a relationship different to any other kind. Basically it’s a lot like Brokeback Mountain without all the fucking, and Embers manages to express these feeling expertly. It’s dark a brooding affair, and one that makes for great winter reading.

35. It’s All Right Now – Charles Chadwick (2005)

Tom Ripple is the closest we’ve ever had to a English Rabbit Angstrom. He’s an astonishingly normal man, a devote of American crime shows, of cosy suburban living, of regular middle class life. But he is also a lens through which we see thirty years of English contemporary life, and a voice that is stunning in its insight, its exactitiude and its emotional intelligence. It's All Right Now deserves far more recognition than it got at the time, and has received since.

34. Oxygen – Andrew Miller (2001)

Miller’s first two novels were historical and I rather gave them a wide berth; but Oxygen was something quite different. Four characters, all coping with their own strains and stresses, their own failings and mortality – and yet it wasn’t in any way depressing (unlike his follow up, The Optimists). A truly special piece of work, Oxygen is a book I hadn't thought about in years, but once remembered came back to me with almost astonishing clarity.

33. The History of Love – Nicole Kraus (2005)

Nicole Kraus is married to Jonathan Safran Foer. In their house, she wears the literary trousers. Leo Gursky, the mute at the heart of this book is nonetheless a teller of tales, of love stories that cross generations and decades. It is energetic, witty and shamelessly romantic. It should be read, delighted in and savoured.

32. Lark & Termite – Jayne Anne Philips (2009)

This tale of families – those we create and those we are born into – is the first I reviewed for a national newspaper. I was lucky that I got a book so rich and so deftly written. Phillips writes a kind of mythologized Americana, a fuzzy, beat-up kind of place that is at once familiar yet ultimately unknowable. It is, in the truest sense of the word, haunting

31. Falling Man – Don Delillo (2007)

After his two superlative novels of the nineties (Mao II, Underworld), Delillo’s output in the 2000s was somewhat slight. Both The Body Artist and Cosmopolis were not vintage stuff by any stretch, though as with all of Delillo’s work there was always something wonderful to be found. Falling Man is not as good as Underworld or Mao II (few novels are, to be fair) but that’s not to do it a disservice. The opening scene of Keith leaving the aftermath of 9/11 is one of the best things he has written, right up there with Underworld’s opening. The novel’s conclusion in Las Vegas is also the kind of exemplary prose married to ideas we have come to expect from Delillo. What comes inbetween is, however, a little messy, a little underdeveloped. While it’s not his best book, it does remind us that there is no one – and I mean no one – who is better when they’re at the top of their game.

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