Thursday, January 07, 2010

My Favorite Books of the Decade 2000-2009

Thank goodness for school holidays. Thanks to this academic hiatus, I have been able to post my favorite films of the decade and my favorite television shows of the decade. Now comes my favorite books of the decade. It should be noted that these are books that were published between January 1, 2000 and December 31st, 2009 and read by me during that period. On Thursdays, I will try to regularly review either a movie or film in 2010.
Here are some capsule reviews of some of my favorite books, with full reviews accessible by clicking on the titles.
10. Fledgling. The final work from one of my favorite science-fiction authors who unfortunately died during this decade, in 2006. Octavia Butler was one of the very few African-American women to write in this genre, and she was quite successful, with her writing winning both of the highest accolades in the field, the Hugo and Nebula awards. Fledgling is Butler's re-imagining of the vampire myth, with the lead character being a genetically modified member of the Ina race, who appears to be a 13-year-old black girl but who is actually a 53-year-old creature who feeds on humans in symbiotic, mutually pleasurable relationships. As usual, Butler's work deals provocatively with issues of race, power, Author: Octavia Butler. Released: 2005.

9. Anathem. One of the most highly regarded science fiction books of 2009 gets on the list for its sheer inventiveness. Neal Stephenson is well-known for his genre-busting works such as Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon and his New York Times best-selling works of historical fiction that make up the Baroque Cycle. His books are generally huge and Anathem is no exception. This time Stephenson is playing with several different speculative fiction forms: alien first-contact, potboiler set in an insular academic/religious community, and road trip/quest. The story is told as a first-person narrative by a Fraa Erasmas who appears to be some kind of monk in an order devoted to the contemplation of mathematics and science. In fact, a slightly skewed look at mathematics and science play an integral role in the book, because Stephenson uses an encyclopedia of neologisms in the text to describe topics familiar to any college math/science major--half the fun of the book is trying to figure out what basic mathematical concept he is referring to using faux ancient terminology. The plot is a delightful romp and one is sad but satisfied when the book comes to an exciting conclusion. Author: Neal Stephenson. Released: 2009.
8. The Nine. The only work of nonfiction on my list of favorite books of the decade. Generally, I prefer fiction, and speculative fiction, at that, when I read. However, I am intensely interested in United States constitutional law, and so the Supreme Court is a hobby of mine. One of my all-time favorite books is Edward Lazarus' Closed Chambers: The Rise, Fall and Future of the Modern Supreme Court. Jeffrey Toobin's The Nine is an updated version of this insiders look at the inner workings of the SCOTUS. It is an absolutely fascinating read for anyone who has ever cursed the name of Antonin Scalia. Author: Jeffrey Toobin. Released: 2007.
7. Southland. An absolutely brilliant book which combines many of my favorite things: Los Angeles, law, mystery, history, openly gay characters, and an intellectually interesting analysis of race and gender. Southland is set in three different times: the 1930s south Los Angeles, the 1965 Watts riots, and post-Rodney King uprising West Los Angeles. The main character is Jackie Ishida, a Japanese-American lesbian law student, who together with an African-American guy named James Lanier attempts to figure out why her grandfather bequeathed nearly $40,000 in cash to a black guy named Curtis Martindale that she had never heard him mention before. It is a family drama, murder-mystery and historical fiction, all tied together with excellent plotting and well-crafted writing. I wish all mystery novels were as engrossing and meaningful as Southland. Author: Nina Revoyr. Released: 2003.
6. Cloud Atlas. This book was given to me by a friend who thought I might like it without telling me anything about it. It's a perfect way to encounter David Mitchell's brilliant onion of a novel. It was only after I finished reading it that I discovered how well-regarded and highly celebrated Cloud Atlas is. There is a brilliant conceit to the novel which I do not want to reveal, but suffice it to say that whatever your favorite genre is, you will not be disappointed. (I should warn you that Cloud Atlas still gets this high a ranking in my favorite books of the decade despite the fact that there were probably 50 pages in the middle of the book that I skipped unread without any loss of enjoyment in the novel, and without substantially detracting from my overall evaluation of the book as a masterpiece.) Author: David Mitchell. Released: 2004.

5. Perdido Street Station and/or The Scar. Hello, Hollywood? Miéville writes the most imaginative and terrifying "weird fiction" (as he himself calls it) of anyone writing in speculative fiction today (that I have read). Unfortunately for Hollywood, the books are probably unadaptable even in these post-Avatar days. I discovered Perdido Street Station by looking for sci-fi/fantasy novels that had won multiple awards at and China Miéville was the only author at the time who had two books in the Top 20 whom I had never heard of! Lots of people either hate or love his work, but I was completely blown away by both Perdido Street Station and its "sequel" The Scar. I put both books on the list of my favorites for the decade because they are both excellent and I didn't want to choose one over the other. Both books are set in the city-state of New Crobuzon on the planet of Bas-Lag, one of the most intriguing and well-imagined locales in all of speculative fiction. However, I found the third book set in New Crobuzon, Iron Council, almost unreadable. It has sat by my bedside for nearly 6 months, untouched past the third chapter. Interestingly, there are almost no characters shared between the three books except New Crobuzon itself. That, and the fertile imagination of the author, are the real attraction here. It is a place you will not soon forget. Author: China Miéville. Released: 2000 and 2002.

4. Unaccomplished Earth. When people ask me who my favorite author is, I almost always immediately reply "Jhumpa Lahiri." She writes about the immigrant experience of Bengali (South Asian) people trying to assimilate, acclimate and accomodate "American" values. Although, I am not Bengali, since I am an immigrant from the Caribbean I think the universal nature of her description of the experience of how outsiders become insiders resonates deeply with me and any other group of people who feel marginalized in this culture. Plus her prose is simply beautiful and her plotting is generally surprising and realistic. In the past decade Lahiri also released her first novel, The Namesake, which was made into a well-regarded film starring Irfan Khan and Kal Penn, but I think it is in her short stories that Lahiri gets the reader to spend just the right amount of time with her characters, instead of the extended commitment of a full novel. Accustomed Earth is her second collection of short stories, her first (in my opinion, inferior) collection, Interpreter of Maladies won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2000. Author: Jhumpa Lahiri. Released: 2008.

3. The Name of the Wind. The best fantasy novel I have ever read, and that probably includes The Lord of the Rings. What makes The Name of the Wind so compelling is that it blends multiple genres. It is a coming-of-age tale, a mystery, a orphan-makes-good story and a memoir. For good measure, it is also set in a school of magic, like the esteemed Hogwarts in the Harry Potter novels! This is just the first book in what the author calls The Kingkiller Chronicles. It is hard to imagine that the next book (The Wise Man's Fear) can live up to the first, but even if it is only half as good, it will be a remarkable achievement by this first-time author. Author: Patrick Rothfuss. Released: 2007.

2. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. A heartbreaking work of staggering genius. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2008. A stunning melange of sci-fi/fantasy geekdom and Dominican Republic history and folklore, wrapped around an immigrant story and an impossible love story. Although this is one of the few books in my Top 10 that I have not re-read, I think it is because the memory of how shattered I was by reading the ending the first time still haunts me. Author: Junot Diaz. Date Released: 2007.

1. Pandora's Star & Judas Unchained. Although not as overwhelming as his reputation-ensuring Night's Dawn trilogy, Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained (sometimes called The Commonwealth Saga) are a monumental work in their own right. I disagree with critics who think that what the author begins in the first book he fails to bring to a satisfying conclusion in the second book. In all honesty, they are really one huge masterwork which the economics of modern publishing required to be split into two parts. Clearly, the author must be enamored of the vibrant, complex, exciting universe that he created in these books because he has returned to them in his next huge work, the excellent Void Trilogy, whose first two books The Dreaming Void and The Temporal Void have been released already, to mostly ecstatic reviews. I believe that the enthusiasm with which the Void Trilogy books have been greeted with is animated by residual good feeling from those who have read and enjoyed the Commonwealth Saga. It should be noted that these new books are an interesting departure for Hamilton since they feature a well-written and engaging plot thread which is almost entirely fantasy-based instead of the military space opera hard sci-fi for which he is most well-known and appreciated. I have re-read all four books Hamilton has published this decade and can honestly say they have given me the most enjoyment of anything that I have read since 2000. Author: Peter F. Hamilton. Released: 2005 & 2006.
Honorable Mentions: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susannah Clarke, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch, Resurrection Men by Ian Rankin, The Emperor of Ocean Park by Stephen L. Carter, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling, The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides and Spin by Robert Charles Wilson.

Best Book Read This Decade (Published Before 2000): Doomsday Book by Connie Willis.

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