Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Books of the Aughts: Top 5 fiction books I read this decade, not written this decade.

I probably did myself no favors by posting about the non-fiction books before the fiction books. This list was much harder to pare down. A few of the novels I might have included in the top five, I left out because they're part of series, and I wouldn't have wanted to slight other books in the series. For instance, I started this decade by finishing John Updike's original four-novel Rabbit cycle. I really loved those books, but I love them as a whole set too much to single out any one. Then, with kids growing up, the decade ended with high ratings for most all of the Little House on the Prairie books, which we read aloud as a family at bedtime. I especially enjoyed Little House in the Big Woods, but again, enough to not put the others in the top five. This whole caveat paragraph may, of course, just be a copout to talk about more books I liked than just five in the category:

Top 5 fiction books I read this decade not actually published in this decade
Microserfs, Coupland, Douglas, 1995
I had never heard of Coupland, who has quite a little body of work until my
then-new coworker Carrie Richards recommended his books very enthusiastically in 2007, and she said Microserfs was a good one to start with. This was the most engaging novel I'd read in a long time, maybe since TC Boyle's Drop CityMicroserfs is about a group of Microsoft employees in the mid 90s who end up leaving to try their luck with a tech startup. The setting is so prosaic, so real that the characters and the relationships that they form end up feeling hyper-real. I was drawn in by the friendship, care, love and grief that comes to people living lives that - well, that make them complain that they have no lives. Long hours of coding and testing and geek parties. Coupland develops narrative tension that you could cut with a knife, but it feels like aside from the tech references, he's writing in all one-syllable words. Microserfs is simple, straightforward realism that - against all odds - becomes transcendent.

Out of this Furnace, Bell, Thomas, 1941

This is one of those books that every Pittsburgher (and everyone who has reason to care about the 'Burgh) should read. It helps to understand the psyche of the people and neighborhoods of the region, derived as they still are from the immigrant labor experience. Bell's story traces three generations of an immigrant family in the upper Monongah
ela Valley - Homestead, Munhall, Braddock and in the steel mills. Along the way, we view the development of a community in a new, foreign and sometimes-hostile milieu. We see the promise of prosperity maintain its near-but-unattainable distance. Along the way, there is also love and friendship, betrayal and despair. It's a gripping story with a useful dose of sociology/anthropology thrown in as a bonus.

The Things they Carried, O'Brien, Tim, 1990
My wife had read this and recommended it to me in the kind of way that one cannot ignore. A lot of people I know and like have read this book, and it turns out they wo
uld all recommend it in that way. I would too. A set of linked short stories set in and after the Vietnam war, the books is incredibly involving. An interesting attribute of the book is that the author turns often directly to the reader and talks about storytelling. Also, the way the stories are told, there is a theme about how stories get told, changed and even edited for the audience. War stories seem to be especially subject to exaggeration or suppression or eliding of details. Read. This. Book. Now.

The Fifth Business, Robertson Davies, 1970

This book was a risk in that Robertson Davies was recommended to me by my b
oss. I say it was a risk because the last time I took a boss's fiction recommendation, I wound up slogging my way through 100 Years of Solitude. But that was a different boss. With an intricate plot and original characters, Fifth Business is a gripping story that had me turning pages, especially early on. Davies wrote in trilogies, and this book left me looking forward to his other "Deptford Novels" and the rest of his oeuvre. I've enjoyed his other books but remember this one best.

Middlemarch, Eliot, George, 1872
Going into the holiday season in 2003, I found myself in the mood for a good Victorian
romance. When I mentioned that to Paige, she said "You have to read Middlemarch. It's so good and so gripping, it's Victorian romance but so much more." She was, as usual, absolutely correct. Middlemarch is a long book, which, along with Paige's law school and Charlie's active toddlerhood, account for the over two months it took me to read it. The edition I read was one page shy of 800. Not all of those 800 pages are exciting and interesting, but an incredible majority are. Middlemarch is a story populated with lots and lots of people, whose lives intersect closely, as lives would have in a Victorian Midlands town. The determination of one's birth and heritage loom large; Middlemarch and its nearby estates function very much on a caste system, but one with porous boundaries. The characters are finely drawn and nearly all sympathetic, if clearly flawed. If I were to recommend this book to someone, I would advise that if they don't think they could read 100 pages per week to wait until a lifestage when they could. It truly is a page turner if given the chance.


Jacksons said...

The Things They Carried is what I wrote about teaching to my American Studies class in the book Great Books for High School Kids, Eds. Rick Ayers and Amy Crawford. I love Things and I love teaching it to high school kids. May not be able to use it in Vietnam next year, though. Govt censorship and all.

JFo said...

If anyone's curious, you can find Great Books for High School Kids here:


Jacksons said...

Besides story telling, the other, and intertwined, big theme is Truth. How do we know what's True? How do we convey Truth?