Monday, January 18, 2010

Books of the Aughts: Top 5 Fiction books read and written this decade

As I wrote up the other lists, I thought this one would be difficult. Turns out, it's not. Turns out, I liked non-fiction more than fiction this decade. And it seems I liked fiction written before the aughts more than fiction written during the aughts. Still and all, the list:

Drop City, Boyle, TC, 2003 After reading George Eliot's Middlemarch, I needed something lightly entertaining. I knew from previous books I've ready by Boyle that he is capable of filling that bill. Drop City was a pleasant surprise, weaving together the story of a commune in California with a bush town in Alaska. Boyle skillfully depicts the familiar interplay of a close community, albeit with the overlay of perpetual drug use and free love. Two things were striking about how he handled the subject matter. First, he takes a sober view of the consequences of being high all the time and passing each other around for unrestricted physical intimacy. Plus, he doesn't hide the fact that "hippie chicks" were the unthanked engine that made the commune run. Society quickly devolves to a hunter-gatherer division regardless of the quest for enlightenment. Second, when crises befall the commune and its new neighbors in Alaska, the high quality people are sorted out from the rest pretty quickly. The best evidence for their high quality is the way they stop buying into the hippie norms. This was a story that I wanted to get back to when I wasn’t reading it.

The Pleasure of My Company, Martin, Steve (yes, that Steve Martin), 2003
I listened to this book on CD, read by Martin, in the car on a trip back from visiting my brother Drew in New York. It was a mixture of bad weather and construction all the way home, but I so enjoyed the trip because of this novel. The protagonist is neurotic to the point of crippling mental illness, which traps him in his apartment and his imagination. He constructs a life and an alternate reality based on what he sees out his front window in Santa Monica until he meets some people who explode his boundaries and reintroduce him to the wider world. The book offers both a sensitive and insightful portrayal of mental illness and moments that made me laugh out loud. I think that the fact that I experienced the book as read by the author enhanced the experience greatly over reading it off the printed page.

After This, McDermott, Alice, 2006
McDermott is such a gifted author that she can write a book like this that's not exactly about anything. Oh, there are characters - an Irish Catholic family on Long Island from t
he 30s to the 70s - but the plot is like angel food cake. You know you're reading it and that things are happening in the lives of the characters, but you couldn't say what the story is. This is especially provocative when the title seems to refer to some specific event. It really doesn't; there are many turning-point moments in the lives of different characters, but there is no one neutron bomb for the whole family. Even as I wrote this review, I realized that that may be the point. It's not after "this" big thing for all of them. It's what life is like for each of them after specific, individual things happen. One of McDermott's most deft techniques is to progress a single storyline months, years or decades ahead in the space of a paragraph, a sentence or even a phrase. The largest voids of time appear between chapters. Suddenly, a daughter is out of high school and on a semester abroad. Suddenly, an adult character has aged irretrievably. After This is a very enjoyable read, even if I can't say what it's about.

The Entitled, DeFord, Frank, 2007
This book was all over NPR in the summer of 2007, and being a baseball fan, NPR fan and Frank DeFord fan, I felt I must follow my trifecta. This is an engrossing novel for a baseball fan to read. I would not recommend it to the non-baseball fan. The jacket quotes from baseball insiders all endorse DeFord as getting the baseball life right. It certainly felt very authentic and "inside" to me as a reader. The plot - a star player caught in a scandal and his journeyman manager's response in the midst of what may be his only shot as a big league manager - is compelling. DeFord is skilled at spooling out narrative and character development in a way that gathers speed and interest as the story proceeds. If I have one complaint, it is that the climax and denouement happen very quickly - as though DeFord reached the page limit
for which he was being paid and did not care to go further.

The Blue Star
, Earley, Tony, 2008

An excellent follow-up to Jim the Boy, Tony's novel from 2000. My boss discovered Ji
m the Boy and was surprised to hear that I knew Tony when he lived in Pittsburgh; she didn't even know he had lived here. I'm sure many of his readers don't know that. We re-encounter Jim, his mother and his uncles about 8 years after the action in Jim the Boy. Jim, a high school senior at the brink of World War II, falls in love. Those three things - high school, the war and love - drive the story, which is a page-turner that this reader found wishing not to end. A marvelous novel; a quick read.

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