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The Best Fiction of the Decade 2000-2009
Forty books selected and reviewed by Ted Gioia
Listed in alphabetical order by title.    













2666 by Roberto Bolaño        

Early in 2007, the Colombian magazine Semana asked a panel of experts
to select the 100 best novels in Spanish published during the last 25 years.
Few were surprised to see Gabriel García Marquez take the top honors with
his
Love in the Time of Cholera. But who was Roberto Bolaño, who,
captured both third and fourth spots with his novels
The Savage
Detectives and 2666?

To read the full review click here















The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by
Michael Chabon     
   

The period leading up to World War II was the Age of Heroes in the United
States. During this era, Americans were introduced to Buck Rogers (who
first appeared in Amazing Stories in 1928), Dick Tracy (1931), Flash
Gordon (1934), Roy Rogers (first film appearance in 1935), the Green
Hornet (1936), The Phantom (1936), Superman (1938), Lassie (1938),
Batman (1939) and Captain Marvel (1939).  And then the real age of
heroism began, with young American men going overseas to fight against
the Axis powers, in a struggle that was perceived by the general public as a
similarly unambiguous confrontation of good versus evil.

We should not be surprised, then, that Michael Chabon’s exploration of
heroes and villains,
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, should be
set primarily during this same period.  Much of the appeal of this
fascinating book stems from Chabon’s ability to blend the sometimes
heroic (or mock heroic) exploits of his characters with the feverish pop
culture heroism of this period in American history.  These different levels
of heroism get hopelessly muddled in the course of the novel, but they
never lose their charm.  As Chabon realizes, even today we are all suckers
for a story of truth, justice and the American way.

To read the full review click here

















Atonement by Ian McEwan        

There were so many ways Ian McEwan’s novel
Atonement might have gone
wrong. If critics were like Olympic diving judges and factored in “degree of
difficulty,” they would treat McEwan’s story line as if it were a back-flying
two-and-a-half somersault. If this were NASCAR, fans would be waiting for
the first big crash.

How do you get all this stuff to cohere in a single volume? After all, here is
a book that leaves the starting-gate as a Jane Austen country manor
romance and crosses the finish line as a post-modern meta-fiction. Along
the way, we get a World War II historical piece and a hyper-realistic
account of a nurse’s life—both of which could stand alone as novellas—and
don’t forget the “wronged man” crime mystery, or the steamy scene in the
library that would leave them blushing and breathless at The Jane Austen
Society.

To read the full review click here

















Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald

If W. G. Sebald had lived longer—he died in a 2001 automobile accident at
the age of 57—he probably would have been named a Nobel laureate.
Horace Engdahl, the secretary of the Swedish Academy (perhaps best
known for his critique of the insularity of American writers) mentioned
Sebald during a 2007 interview when listing deceased authors who would
have been worthy recipients of the Nobel Prize in Literature. (The other
names cited by Engdahl were Ryszard Kapuściński and Jacques Derrida.)

Sebald is poised midway between these two other figures, Kapuściński the
practical man of the world and Derrida the theorizing thaumaturge of the
academy. Sebald’s writing seems on the surface to be deeply immersed in
the day-to-day—an effect accentuated by his unconventional
incorporation of black-and-white photographs into his novels. Yet the
more deeply one penetrates his stories, the more ethereal they become,
existing less in the world around us, and rather in the memories, dreams,
obsessions and volatile emotions of his characters.

To read the full review click here

















Bel Canto by Ann Patchett        

A Third World terrorist group holds hostage a prominent group of
politicians, executives and a famous American soprano who had the bad
fortune to be entertaining the wrong audience at the wrong time.
Government authorities settle in for a long stand-off, and attempts to
negotiate the release of the hostages falter in the face of untenable
demands. A bloody confrontation seems likely.

Sound familiar? We have all seen similar set-ups in countless Hollywood
action films. But Ann Patchett’s
Bel Canto will defy every expectation you
bring to this rich book. Her story has nothing in common with
Die Hard or
Air Force One or Speed or the many other good-versus-evil stories that fill
up the racks at Blockbuster.

Every stereotype of the genre is over-turned—first of all, because Ann
Patchett has no interest in writing an action novel, or even a suspense
novel. But also because her most interesting developments take place in
the inner lives of her characters. Imagine Henry James tackling a Tom
Clancy scenario, with a dose of
Lost in Translation added in for good
measure, and you will get some idea of the piquant flavor of this odd but
endearing book.

To read the full review click here


















The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz        

Readers almost forgot about Junot Diaz.   His 1996 short story collection
Drown earned praise for its spicy prose – a mixture of English, Spanish,
slang and street talk – and its harsh tales of life among Dominican-
American immigrants.  But even back in 1996, this slim book of tales was
seen as prelude to the great novel the twenty-seven year old was already in
the midst of writing.  

To read the full review click here















Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem

Has Jonathan Lethem, who started out as a masterful reconstructive
surgeon building genre formulas into high literature, turned into our
greatest exponent of the “buddy novel”?  The signs were evident in
Motherless Brooklyn (1999) and even more pervasive in The Fortress of
Solitude (2003), but stand out all the more starkly in his Chronic City
(2009), which also finds Lethem returning to the New York
terroir of his
best known work.  

Then again, this is Jonathan Lethem we are talking about.  So don’t expect
a conventional story of budding friendship.   This is not
Tuesdays with
Morrie
 or even Bouvard et Pécuchet.  Chase Insteadman and Perkus
Tooth—oddball character names not found in any phone directory are a
trademark of this author—settle into an unconventional alliance after
meeting in the offices of a DVD reissue house where both are helping on
projects.  Chase is a former child television star living off residuals who has
been enlisted to provide voiceovers.  Tooth is an extravagant cultural
critic, formerly with
Rolling Stone, hired to write liners notes.  Together
they form an odd couple, the critic serving as oracle and madcap mentor to
the thespian.

To read the full review click here
















Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

In adopting the term “conceptual fiction” to describe a body of modern
writing—which I have done in more than fifty essays and reviews to date—I
have tried to draw attention to a area of experimentation in contemporary
novels that is still poorly understood. These works of conceptual fiction
cut through the great divides in criticism: divides between highbrow and
lowbrow, genre and mainstream, popular and literary. They represent the
fruition of a quasi-hidden alternative tradition in modern writing, with its
own genealogy and masterworks. As such, they deserve—but rarely
receive—a response from critics and scholars that is sensitive to this larger
framework.

These works have their strongest roots in the often despised—but more
often merely neglected or patronized—science fiction and fantasy books of
the middle of the 20th century. This alone explains much of the incoherent
response to this tradition, which treats half of the defining books as hack
work, and bows down before the others—Márquez, McCarthy, Saramago,
Rushdie, Auster, Murakami, etc.—but only after isolating them (safe from
contamination) in a different section of the library. Yet this is only part of
the richness and complexity of the conceptual fiction tradition: an even
longer lineage can be constructed, back to Verne and Wells in the
nineteenth century, even further to Swift's
Gulliver Travels, Thomas
More's
Utopia, and eventually to the earliest stirrings of conceptual fiction
in myths and folktales. In short, the tinkering with conceptions of reality
and delight in the fanciful—key qualities of these works—are as old as
storytelling itself.

David Mitchell’s
Cloud Atlas is almost a textbook example of how this
tradition is enlivening contemporary fiction. It is an exemplar of this vital
area of development in modern writing—all the more vital because it
manages to be bold and experimental without destroying the key elements
of narrative structure, character development and linguistic
comprehensibility that earlier progressive movements often ignored at
their own peril. The power of a book such as
Cloud Atlas is amplified
because its higher level complexities don’t require the ground floor level of
the story be burnt, pillaged and destroyed. Instead of trying to keep up
with the Pynchons and Gaddises, who only live in the penthouse, Mitchell
occupies the whole building, even the boiler room and broom closet.

To read the full review click here

















The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

Some novels, such as Ulysses or Lolita became well-known among the
general public due to legal wrangling that hindered their publication.  Other
books gain fame through awards or movie adaptations.  The Corrections,
one of the masterpieces of new millennium fiction, is unfortunately best
remembered for the 'Oprah Incident.'

In 2001, when Oprah Winfrey announced that
The Corrections would be a
selection for her book club, Franzen’s publisher increased the planned
print run tenfold – from 80,000 to 800,000 copies. Everyone should have
celebrated. One of the finest contemporary novels would be exposed to an
enormous audience, and a successful TV show was offering a platform to a
brilliant young writer.  And lots of people did celebrate . . . except author
Franzen who mocked Oprah’s program in an interview on NPR (although
he admitted he had never watched an episode), and expressed concerns
that male readers would not read
The Corrections because the Winfrey
imprimatur would mark it as a book for women.

To read the full review click here
















The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by
Mark Haddon

Fictional detectives are a quirky lot. Sherlock Holmes assisted his powers
of ratiocination with the help of cocaine and morphine. Hercule Poirot
showed tell-tale signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder—he was strangely
fixated on keeping an exact balance of 444 pounds, 4 shillings and 4 pence
in his bank account. Nero Wolfe, that Falstaff of private eyes, weighted
almost 300 pounds and hated to leave his home—I guess that’s what
happens when your author’s name is Stout.

But when it comes to the modern and post-modern novel, the investigators
get even stranger. In
Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem relies on a
detective afflicted with Tourette syndrome, a disorder that leaves its
victims with nervous tics and a tendency to exclaim obscene, insulting or
inappropriate remarks. Not a good thing on a low-key stakeout, needless to
say!  In Thomas Pynchon’s recent novel
Inherent Vice, our private
investigator is a hippie whose excessive marijuana and drug use has left
him with barely enough functioning brain cells to recognize his
surroundings, let alone unravel a murder mystery. In Paul Aster’s
The
New York Trilogy, the line is blurred even further, and it is sometimes
hard to say whether our investigator solves crimes or merely writes about
them.

Then we come to Mark Haddon’s
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the
Night-Time
in which a 15-year-old autistic boy tries to find the culprit in a
local murder. Christopher Boone models himself on his hero Sherlock
Holmes—that is, when he is not dreaming of becoming an astronaut—and
keeps a journal of the progress of his investigation as part of project at his
school for students with special needs.

To read the full review click here
















Downtown Owl by Chuck Klosterman

If this isn’t the great North Dakota novel, I don’t know what is. When they
teach “Our State” in Fargo and Bismarck,
Downtown Owl ought to be on
the reading list, enshrined alongside Lawrence Welk, knoephla soup, Angie
Dickinson. . . and, yes, I suppose we need to include that unfortunate
incident with Gordon Kahl and the federal troopers.  But don’t let that Kahl
stuff fool you. Did you know that North Dakota has the smallest
percentage of non-religious residents of any state?

To read the full review click here


















Empire Falls by Richard Russo

Despite its Gibbon-esque title, Empire Falls operates on a small scale with
few imperial pretensions. Decline and fall are certainly part of the story,
but the collapse here is centered on a small Maine town where the victims
are the local workers, who have seen industries shut down and jobs
disappear. In the township of Empire Falls, people get by on nostalgic
recollections of yesteryear supplemented by unrealistic hopes for the
future.

Stories of struggling inter-generational family businesses rarely get readers
jazzed up—they much prefer a love story or a mystery—although authors
as diverse as Thomas Mann (
Buddenbrooks) and Philip Roth (American
Pastoral) have built grand fictions on this foundation. Empire Falls, which
won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002, is not out of place when mentioned
alongside these classics, and like these other novels works its wonders on
the most intimate levels, in spaces where no accounting debits or credits
can capture the closing balance. Richard Russo uncovers the hidden
personal stories—both among the Whiting family who “own” the town, and
the citizens who rely on the wealthy locals for their own livelihood—and
shows that the individual mishaps and calamities of the high and low are
often far different from what we first suspect, if no less tragic.

To read the full review click here
















The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa

When the Colombian magazine Semana surveyed 81 experts to pick the
100 best novels in Spanish during the last 25 years,
The Feast of the Goat,
Mario Vargas Llosa’s gripping account of a political cult of personality run
amok, finished in second place. Only Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia
Marquez’s
Love in the Time of Cholera ranked higher.

Even so, this novelistic treatment of the murderous regime of Dominican
Republic strongman Rafael Trujillo is relatively unknown in the United
States. A quick check of Amazon.com shows that Mario Vargas Llosa’s
novel doesn’t rank among the top 100,000 sellers. In contrast, Junot Díaz’
s
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao—which also deals with the
Trujillo regime, although more cursorily—sits in the top one hundred.
Fortunately readers don’t need to choose between the two: the Republic of
Readers (unlike the Trujillo’s Dominican Republic) has room for many
diverse and contrary voices, and both these novels are well worth reading.

To read the full review click here














The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem

More than any other writer of his generation, Jonathan Lethem has
delighted in mixing up highbrow and lowbrow styles.   Pulp fiction recipes
and high literary aspirations somehow peacefully coexist with each other
in his works, and the most puerile fantasies are elevated into ‘serious” art,
yet without losing any of their playfulness.

In
Motherless Brooklyn (1999) he took the formulas of a Raymond
Chandler potboiler, and transformed them into a colorful, quirky novel
about amateurish investigator with Tourette syndrome trying to solve the
mystery behind the murder of his mentor.   In
Amnesia Moon, from 1995,
he drew on Philip K. Dick, and in his short story collection
Men and
Cartoons
(2004) he somehow managed to create Gabriel Garcia magical
realism by mixing stark confessional literature with the trappings of comic
books. As far back as his debut novel,
Gun, with Occasional Music (1994),
Lethem combined all of the genres, mixing mystery, sci-fi and elements of
film and literary traditions into a amalgam that proved as strange as it was
pleasing.

But Lethem’s masterpiece is
The Fortress of Solitude, a semi-
autobiographical novel of epic scope which follows the emotionally
charged relationship of two friends, Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude over
the course of three decades.   As always, Lethem adds a dose of the
fantastic – the two friends share a magical ring that was handed on by a
scraggly wino superhero – yet the overall mood of the novel is starkly
realistic and intensely introspective.   Here Lethem rises above the
playfulness that characterized his earlier book, and creates a powerful
narrative with compelling characters who don’t need a cape and super
powers to grab our attention.  

To read the full review click here
















Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson is a peculiar author.  After all, how many novelists
contribute an article to the progressive journal
Salmagundi defending the
Puritans?  (The bottom line: they were not prigs, despite what you may
have heard to the contrary.)  And how many contemporary authors,
instead of sharing their thoughts about Mailer or Bellow or Updike and the
like, write lucid literary criticism about McGuffey Readers?

But Robinson’s fiction is as non-conformist as her essays.   In an age of
prolixity, she made us wait almost a quarter of century for her second
novel,
Gilead, which won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 2005.  Like its
predecessor
Housekeeping (1980), it was a thin volume – revealing an
author who reaped sparingly while other wordsmiths sowed widely their
Joyce Carol Oates.  And  when
Gilead finally arrived, it proved to be as
transcendent and delicate as
Housekeeping had been dark and haunted.

To read the full review click here

















House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

Some novels experiment with language or plot or chronology.  But how
about a work of fiction that takes typography to the next level?

I can tell that you’re hesitant.  Okay, could I interest you in an exciting
novel featuring heroes who combat the ultimate evil . . . a house with lots of
extra space?  And I mean lots of space.  

Hmmm, still not taking the bait.   But wait, there’s more (as the infomercial
announcer says).   This book also features a hidden code in the footnotes,
and it spells out secret messages for those who figure out the rules. It
includes a pioneering index—yes, full of mistakes, I’ll admit the page
numbers were hastily compiled—but which lavishes readers with entries
for and, in, so, dark and all, among others.   Starting on page 64, the author
provides the longest list of photographers outside of the master files at
Getty Images. Hell, this book even has words in different
colors.   And I
save the best for last:  there are several pages that you can’t read without a
mirror.   

Wait! Don’t run away!

To read the full review click here



















The Human Stain by Philip Roth

Nathan Zuckerman figured as a recurring character in Philip Roth’s fiction
for more than a quarter century before the publication of
The Human
Stain
. By any reasonable measure, this stand-in for the author –-
Zuckerman is a novelist who frequently reminds of us of Mr. Roth -- would
have been ready for retirement in the year 2000. He is reclusive and in
poor health, and hardly the right figure to step forth as a protagonist in an
exciting work of fiction.

Zuckerman, in short, is a survivor. He has survived prostrate cancer –- just
barely, and is now incontinent. He has survived his second divorce. His sex
life is kaput. His ties with the past and his interactions with the external
world, have loosened, indeed almost totally unraveled, and the author has
relocated to a quiet New England cabin where he can pursue the solitary
craft of writing.

Nothing here prepares us for high drama. Yet the aging writer has one
carryover from the past, a skill refined over decades that sets this powerful
tale in motion. Zuckerman is a great observer, with endless curiosity, and
when his solitude is broken by chance encounters with provocative
individuals and events, he feeds on them ravenously, The details of lives
are, after all, the sustenance of any author, and Zuckerman takes an almost
voyeuristic delight in the stories he can pick up second-hand.

To read the full review click here
















Invisible by Paul Auster

If Shakespeare forever remains the master of the play within a play, Paul
Auster has staked his claim to the book within the book.   His characters
often write books, or plan to do so.  They anguish over manuscripts, obsess
about texts, find their personal destinies via real or imagined narratives.    
Even more to the point, their very existence is frequently presented as
situated within books or possible books—and I’m not talking about the one
you hold in your hand while reading Mr. Auster.   As these meta-narratives
battle for supremacy, readers are left to puzzle over their own changing
relationship to texts that may eventually prove to be mere texts within
texts.   Welcome to the world of fiction as a house of mirrors!

To read the full review click here
















Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

Fifty years ago, if you had asked literary critics to predict the future course
of the novel, they probably would have predicted a great awakening of
wordplay and experimentation with language.   But they would have been
wrong.  Many of the most provocative writers of recent decades have stuck
to conventional sentences and normal syntax (pace Joyce).  Yet they have
made daring explorations of the nature of reality.   In short, their
progressive tendencies have proven to be metaphysical rather than
linguistic.   

This re-examination of the real is at the heart of the fantastical landscapes
of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the pulp fiction-ish narratives of Philip K. Dick,
the ‘alternative universe’ histories of Michael Chabon and Philip Roth, and
the sci-fi scenarios of Wallace’s
Infinite Jest, McCarthy’s The Road and
Atwood’s
The Handmaid’s Tale.   Indeed, the pervasive incorporation of
sci-fi plots into serious fiction, from Kazuo Ishiguro to Jonathan Lethem, is
a sign of this pronounced shift in the literary weather.

Few writers have poked more holes in conventional notions of reality than
the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami.   Other writers have explored
what has come to be known as “magical realism,” but most of them—such
as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Alejo Carpentier and Ben Okri—have tended to
come from Third World settings where myth and folklore loom large over
the cultural landscape.  In these environments, magical realism seems a
natural extension of an on-going and tradition-laden literary dialogue.

To read the full review click here


















The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell

The angle on Jonathan Littell that the media will pick up on is the colorful
case of an American-born author writing in French. His award-winning
novel
The Kindly Ones was originally published as Les Bienveillantes in
2006, and only now appears in English in a translation by Charlotte
Mandell. If Horace Engdahl, soon to retire as secretary of the Swedish
Academy, is correct in claiming that American writers are too insular and
parochial, what better way of breaking out of the box than to move
overseas (Littell lives in Barcelona), write in French, and set your novel in
Germany?

Yes, Littell’s background makes for an interesting sidebar story. But I
would be the last person to advise you to read
The Kindly Ones because of
the author’s mailing address and passport status. (For the record, Littell
holds joint US and French citizenship, the latter granted, despite his lack of
permanent residency and New York birth, because his "meritorious
actions contribute to the glory of France.") The attraction here is inside the
book, an ambitious novel that seems to hark back to an earlier age of
fiction, in which authors—and, let’s be honest, publishers—still had
confidence in big, sweeping, serious fiction on a grand Tolstoyian or
Dostoevskian scale.

There will be a backlash against a novel so sober and sprawling. If you
received a large inheritance and decided to replace your home with a
skyscraper, the neighbors would be mad as hell. And the literary
neighborhoods are hardly any friendlier than the Joneses next door. In the
current literary world, which seems to have taken to heart the maxim that
“small is beautiful,” a work on the scale of
The Kindly Ones is likely to
scare, irritate or intimidate many among those who make their living
draining the ink-blood out of toner cartridges.

To read the full review click here
















The Known World by Edward P. Jones        

Why do many historical novels, especially the zealous and ambitious ones,
strike me as being so clumsy? I would suggest that the problem arises from
an almost intrinsic inflexibility of the novel—which has always been a
narrative form built around the exploits and perspectives of individuals—
when it tries to addresses causes and results of a social and collective
nature. For better or worse, storytelling coexists comfortably comfortable
with heroes and villains, and gets lost when it tries to portray a Zeitgeist or
even what demographers quaintly call a “cohort group.”

This is why the battle scenes in Homer always get reduced to a series of
conflicts between two people. Even the great epic poet nods, or rather
gives up when faced with the challenge of describing the reality of the
battlefield. Much rarer is the daring of
War in Peace, in which Tolstoy
comes close to capturing the essence of large scale conflict—yet even in
this masterpiece, the novelist succeeds mostly because he openly
embraces the chaos of the confrontation, a confusion so pervasive that
even a Napoleon is incapable of grasping its true particulars. Yes, it is all
too revealing that the greatest war novel of all time succeeds by admitting
its inability to make sense of its subject matter.

A novel such as Edward P. Jones’s
The Known World faces a different, if
related challenge. In focusing on the situation of masters and slaves in the
antebellum South, Jones is addressing a subject that immediately forces us
to grapple with issues of good and evil. In other words, a historical novel of
this sort is inevitably a vehicle for reflection on moral values. Yet, given
the individualist tilt of this narrative form noted above, such a tale must
take on the guise of a tale of heroes and villains. Such novels generally
proceed by identifying the'good guys' and 'bad guys' in the opening
chapters, and then moving them towards either a happy or tragic ending.

Yet Jones refuses to play this game. Much of
The Known World deals with
the situation of blacks compromised by their social setting, and becoming
slave owners themselves, or serving as overseers—essentially slave drivers
who enforce and preserve the same system of exploitation in which they
themselves are victims. Here the hero can turn out to be the villain, and
Darth Vader doesn’t always wear a scary mask to help you sort out the
underlying allegiances.

To read the full review click here




















Lark and Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips        

Lark is seventeen years old, studying secretarial skills in Winfield, West
Virginia in the late 1950s. Her mother is gone, her father is a question
mark, and the only home she knows is her aunt’s ramshackle house off a
gravel alley in a downscale part of town. Her constant companion is her
disabled younger half-brother, Termite, an orphan who can’t walk or speak.

This setup creates certain expectations on the part of the reader—
expectations that Jayne Anne Phillips will do her best to undermine and
subvert. A lesser author would focus on the elements of tragedy or
melodrama here. If, say, Khaled Hosseini or Mitch Albom were relating the
story, the good guys and bad guys would quickly emerge as stick figures
and play out their predictable roles. Phillips, however, isn’t interested in
identifying heroes and victims, and at almost every point in this novel
where she could opt for a stereotype or clichéd plot twist or sentimental
angle, she resists the temptation.

To read the full review click here


















Lush Life by Richard Price

Novelists once looked to the great authors of the past for inspiration. Not
any more. Books imitate movies nowadays. Face it, Tarantino has more
influence on the contemporary novel than Bellow or Updike. Students in
writing programs are more likely to check out the brothers Coen than
The
Brothers Karamazov
. And when young writers use the word epic, they
aren't referring to Homer or Virgil; more likely, the three
Godfather films.

Richard Price, author of the recently published Lush Life, could serve as
poster boy for this new type of fiction. Of course, Price knows the value of
the big movie deal. He earned an Oscar nomination for his screenplay to
The Color of Money, and more recently has written for the HBO series The
Wire
. Even when Price writes novels, such as Clockers or Freedomland,
the movie is rarely far behind.

To read the full review click here
















The Master by Colm Tóibín

To write a psychologically charged novel about Henry James, as Colm
Tóibín does in his 2004 novel
The Master, sets up certain expectations—
expectations that Tóibín will toy with and subvert during the course of this
book.  James, after all, is the master of the resonance between the exterior
appearance and inner life.   Does one dare give the literary lion a taste of
his own bitter medicine?

No novelist wrote more resonant dialogue than James, but not because the
dialogue itself stood out, but rather because he probed deeply into the
spaces between the sentences.  He was a connoisseur of the unsaid
overtones, the hidden agendas, the self-deceptions, the meaning behind the
meanings that make a conversation into something rich and
multidimensional.  In his hands, a chat about the most innocent topic can
be a staging ground for soul-wrenching turmoil.  

Yet this same author who laid bare the inner workings of his characters did
a exemplary job of hiding his own private life—and this is what gives Tóibín
such a rich field for his imaginative recreation.   You can read through all
five volumes of Leon Edel’s biography of James, only to learn that this
fellow is still a cipher.  Even some of the most basic questions can only be
answered with conjectures and hypotheses.

To read the full review click here



















Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

As I strolled into Starbucks with Jeffrey Eugenides Pulitzer Prize winning
novel
Middlesex in my grasp, the barista asked me, "What's that book
like?" I mulled over his question, then brightly responded: "Best book I
have ever read about a hermaphrodite."

Funny, my barista doesn't chat me up any more.

To read the full review click here
















Netherland by Joseph O'Neill

With summer on its way, let's curl up with a novel that deals with that great
American sport . . . cricket.

Cricket! you exclaim. What's American about that? But listen to Chuck
Ramkissoon, the flamboyant West Indian at the center of Joseph O'Neill's
recent novel
Netherland, and he will set you straight.

"Cricket was the first modern team sport in America," Ramkissoon
explains. "It came before baseball and football. Cricket has been played in
New York since the 1770s . . . Cricket matches were watched by thousands
of fans. It was a professional sport reported in all the newspapers. There
were clubs all over the country. . . So it is wrong to see cricket in America
as most people see it . . . an immigrant sport. It is a bona fide American
pastime."

If your eyes are already glazing over at this, you may want to pass on
Netherland, with its Field of Dreams celebration of Yankee cricket.  
Perhaps you (like me) have been stuck at dinner or, even worse, on a long
flight, next to a cricket enthusiast, who will quote every statistic and will
elaborate, ad nauseam, on the differences between a bouncer and a bunsen,
a flipper and a floater. And did you ever hear about Dennis Lillee and Javed
Miandad in 1981 . . .

To read the full review click here


















Oblivion by David Foster Wallace

Those scared off by David Foster Wallace’s 1,100-page magnum opus,
fearing that
Infinite Jest may be no laughing matter, will find the short
stories in his 2004 collection
Oblivion an easier access road to this brilliant
and quirky writer.   Think of it as Wallace’s
Dubliners, but without the
epiphanies.  As for those whose only experience with this author is via his
expansive and unwieldy major novel, they may be surprised at his deftness
in the shorter form.   

Say what you will of this author—and pretty much it was all said, in the
aftermath of his suicide death at age 46—his writing never lost its capacity
to morph into surprising new forms.  Some authors seem destined to tell
the same type of tale over and over, but even in the context of the eight
stories that comprise
Oblivion, Wallace revealed his ability to recalibrate
his approach to match the subject at hand.   And whatever he addressed
throughout his all-too-brief career—tennis schools, lobsters, Alcoholics
Anonymous, you name it—he did so with an intensity of perception that
leaps off the page.

For example, the opening story of
Oblivion, “Mr. Squishy” deals with an
unlikely literary subject:  market research and product positioning.  These
are areas I have some experience with—at one point in my own repeatedly
"recalibrated" life I managed the market research and strategic marketing
function for a NYSE company.   Wallace’s ability to get inside the thinking
of a marketing executive is uncanny, and he has mastered all the jargon
and pseudo-scientific techniques of the trade—so much so, that I can’t help
but wonder what research or personal experiences  he drew on to make this
portrait so vivid.  The ad account execs on
Mad Men come across as kids
playing at marketing concepts by comparison.  

To read the full review click here
















Old School by Tobias Wolff        

When fictional characters mix with famous historical figures, the result is
often a
Forrest Gump-ish fog of implausibility spreading over the tale.  In
the world of E.L. Doctorow’s
Ragtime, Harry Houdini’s car might break
down in front of your house.   In Woody Allen’s
Zelig, the nondescript
protagonist is even more successful than a White House gate-crasher,
mixing not only with the President, but also the Pope, Babe Ruth and many
of the leading figures of the first half of the twentieth century.  Shucks, I
thought I had hit the big time when, as a child, I briefly spoke with Moe
Howard (of the Three Stooges) at a restaurant in Westwood!  At its worst,
these types of stories can appear exploitative, extracting a larger-than-life
quality from the dearly departed that the narrative would not be able to
sustain without this parasitical taste of fame.  

Tobias Wolff is thus clearly taking chances when he forces several famous
dead authors to serve as characters in his novel
Old School.  He runs other
risks here too—he might find that his own authorial voice cannot match the
powerful spirits who inhabit this book, or that his attempts to speak
through their mouths sound forced or unconvincing.  Tolstoy had it easy
by comparison—it’s much easier to write dialogue for Napoleon than to
bring Ernest Hemingway on to the stage of your story.  One expects so
little eloquence from a general or even an emperor….

To read the full review click here















On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan        

Every year the Literary Review, a London literary journal, hands out its
infamous “Bad Sex” award.   This dubious honor highlights bad writing
about (mostly) good sex.   But if an award were given for good writing
about (mostly) bad sex, Ian McEwan would win it hands down for his latest
effort
On Chesil Beach.

McEwan has merely dabbled in erotic writing before.   The library scene in
Atonement may have been steamy, but it was the shortest coupling in
English fiction since the wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am moment in
The
French Lieutenant’s Woman
.  In McEwan’s more recent novel, Saturday, a
young woman in London undresses, but merely to recite a Matthew Arnold
poem.   (Ah, life must be different across the Big Pond!)  But now McEwan
devotes an entire novel to a honeymoon night gone terribly astray.  

To read the full review click here














The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall

Eric Sanderson awakes with his memories erased by a traumatic incident.
He finds a note in the foyer of his home, apparently written by himself
before his memory loss. “If you are reading this,” the message states, “I’m
not around any more. Take the phone and speed dial 1.”

The phone call brings him to a Dr. Randle, who tells Sanderson that his
amnesia is recurring, and has happened to him ten times before – all as the
result of his mental deterioration following the death of his girlfriend. But
Dr. Randle warns him: “In the past, you’ve written and left letters for
yourself to be read after a recurrence. I must ask you -- and this is very
important now, Eric -- under no circumstances, write or read anything like
this.”

Soon a letter arrives from the “first Eric Sanderson,” advising him not to
trust Dr. Randle. “She is wrong about what is happening to you, Eric. More
important, she can neither help nor protect you.” Dozens of these letters
come in the following days, each presenting more clues and puzzles.

To read the full review click here



















The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy’s fiction has always possessed an apocalyptic edginess—
so who can be surprised that he finally wrote a novel about end times? Or
that he seems so much at home in the bleak and ominous landscapes of a
dying planet Earth?  His post-Armageddon setting for
The Road, from one
perspective, is merely an extension of the violent, inhospitable
borderlands he has been writing about for decades

You can tell a lot about writers from whether their eschatology comes with
a bang or a whimper.  For Cormac McCarthy there is only a long, drawn-
out and anguished grinding to a halt.  There is no Rapture in this author's
vision of the final days: everyone is left behind here.

To read the full review click here

















Runaway by Alice Munro        

Storytellers usually delight in decisive heroes.  But author Alice Munro has
made her mark as a connoisseur of indecisive protagonists. Instead of
Julien Sorel, who rises from poverty to conquer high society in Stendhal’s
The Red and the Black, instead of Captain Ahab who goes fishing but will
settle for nothing smaller than
Moby Dick, Munro presents us with
characters who have second thoughts, then third thoughts, then second
thoughts on their third thoughts.  They are focused on what, in the popular
parlance, is called “processing.”

“It wasn’t possible to tell the whole truth because she couldn’t get it straight
herself,” writes Munro of a typical protagonist in the story “Trespasses.”  
“She couldn’t explain what she had wanted, right up to the point of not
wanting it at all.”  In the title story to the collection
Runaway, a woman
decides suddenly that she wants to abandon her husband, but on the bus
out of town she changes her mind, forces the driver to let her off and calls
her spouse to have him pick her up.  Her husband, meanwhile, is planning
to blackmail a neighbor, but then changes his mind just as quickly as his
wife has done.  Let others worry about the purpose-driven life or the five-
year plan;  Munro is our leading chronicler of the irresolute, our poet of
the desultory.  

To read the full review click here
















The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño

Before his death in 2003, Roberto Bolaño was little known in the United
States. Perhaps everything else makes its way easily across the Mexican
border – people, drugs, manufactured goods, killer bees -- but the border
patrol doesn’t require a big fence to stop literary works at the Rio Grande.
Indifferent publishers and a shortage of good translations are sufficient
obstacles. Even Bolaño’s translator Natasha Wimmer admits that she had
not heard much about the author before encountering
The Savage
Detectives
.

To read the full review click here
















The Sea by John Banville

In Banville’s The Sea, winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2005, every page
is dotted with words such as assegais, horrent, cinereal, knobkerrie,
prelapsarian and mephitic. Where others would mention the quiet, he
refers to the “flocculent hush.”   Our author—or is it the narrator—
especially likes medical terminology, so the reader confronts references to
adipose tissue, erythema, climacteric, strangury, eructations and the like.  
Clauses such as “the declivities of my shoulders on either side of the
clavicle notch” or “the taut concave integument below his breast-bone” are
par for the course.   And a garden description won’t deign to mention a
shrub, but will call attention to “Lupinus, a genus of the Papilionaceae.”

If Banville can’t find a term sufficiently esoteric, he invents one.   When I
looked up “avrilaceous” on the web, I was surprised to learn that the only
author to use this term is John Banville.  I guess that is what happens when
you exhaust all the existing five-syllable words in the dictionary . . . you get
to create some new ones.

To read the full review click here


















Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl        

The individual chapters here are labeled as though they were required
texts on a syllabus. Chapter one, for example, is called “OTHELLO,
William Shakespeare.” Chapter two is named “THE PORTRAIT OF THE
ARTIST AS YOUNG MAN, James Joyce,” etc. etc. The concluding section
of the novel is in the form of final exam for a college class in three sections:
true or false questions, multiple choice and an essay. Along the way, Pessl
packs her novel full of citations of other books—ranging from the plausible
to the frivolous (but don’t waste your time trying to track down the
apocryphal sources)—as well as provides visual aids, and various highbrow
and lowbrow cultural references. The gamesmanship starts with the very
title of Pessl’s book, with its overtones of a Festschrift and plot-predicting
hints of
Academics Gone Wild (which might have been an even more
suitable name for this novel).

To read the full review click here


















Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson

Reading Denis Johnson is like watching those car chase reality shows on
TV.   The speed and hi-jinks get your adrenalin pumping.  And though the
plot seems simple enough, the ending is always a surprise.  Cops will tell
you that there is only one way to pursue a vehicle, but a thousand ways for
the chase to come to an end – none of them very pleasant.   

Johnson’s characters follow a similar destiny.  Some crash, others burn
out, a few simply run out of gas.  The most daring pull off the road into the
fields, slamming through fences and barriers, hoping to find some
makeshift path so daunting others won’t dare follow.  But someone always
follows.  When you are hell bent and out of control, you never really
escape – least of all from yourself.  

To read the full review click here

















Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

I have spent too many evenings in hotel rooms in various Asian cities,
wasting my time watching television shows in languages I don't understand.
Then again, I have found that I don't need to know the native tongue to
recognize a recurring theme in the local dramas and soap operas.

These shows always revolve around unhappy parents—stern fathers and
grieving mothers—who constantly try to manipulate and interfere in the
lives of the younger generation. I can't translate a single word of dialogue,
but just the looks on the faces of that aggrieved mom and exasperated
daughter sum up decades of inter-generational conflict. If looks could kill .
. . no Bollywood actress would live past the age of twenty-five.

This is the world that Jhumpa Lahiri captures so evocatively in her latest
collection of stories
Unaccustomed Earth. Her characters move freely
from country to country, continent to continent, job to job, but the
psychological ties of family and culture are not so easy to leave behind.
Each of her narratives is both firmly embedded in the here-and-now of the
Indian ex-pat experience, but also full of the resonance of the inescapable
past.

To read the full review click here
















White Teeth by Zadie Smith

The year formerly known as Y2K began with euphoria and not—as many
had predicted—a computer crash.  As subsequent events proved, a
different sort of crash was just around the corner.  The dot.com bubble
wouldn’t burst for a few more weeks—the NASDAQ reached its all time
high on March 10, 2000—so the fin de siècle sense of good times and
prosperity could hang around for a bit longer.  Even the publishing
industry felt the exuberance, irrational or otherwise, as it anticipated the
first novel by a young sensation scheduled to appear on January 27,
2000.   Back in 1997, at age 21, Zadie Smith had received a £250,000
advance for
White Teeth and an even more distant second novel, although
she was still a student and an unproven author.  Now the reading public
would see what the fuss was all about.

To read the full review click here

















The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

How things change!  The novel of social mobility was once a trademark of
American fiction.   Perhaps its transfer overseas is to be expected, but
when India—the traditional home of a hidebound caste system—steps
forward as the setting of a grand contemporary rags-to-riches story, the
implications are clear.  Even the world of fiction, it seems, is flat.    

Then again, Horatio Alger might not recognize his offspring in
The White
Tiger
the debut novel by Aravind Adiga and recipient of the 2008 Man
Booker Prize.  Balram Halwai, our ambitious hero, may be a successful
“entrepreneur” in Bangalore, but he readily admits in the opening pages
that he needed to commit murder, robbery and assorted other peccadilloes
in order to get his start-up funded.  Instead of venture capital he relied on
vengeance capital, and the returns have been spectacular.

To read the full review click here
















The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon

Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a strange, brilliant
book that readers will find difficult to classify. Is it a Zionist
Da Vinci
Code
? A work of alternative reality in the manner of Philip K. Dick? A hard-
boiled mystery novel? A grand literary effort in the high style? It is, in fact,
all these things, and more.

Twelve years ago,
The Washington Post dubbed Michael Chabon as “the
young star of American letters.” Chabon, who turns forty-four in a few
days, has lived up to the early hype. Since the dawn of the millennium, he
has seen his Wonder Boys made into a movie with Michael Douglas, and
won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for his novel
The Amazing Adventures of
Kavalier and Clay. Along the way, he turned down a chance to appear in a
Gap ad, and sent
People magazine packing when they wanted to place him
on their list of the “50 Most Beautiful People.” (And who says that serious
novelists don’t lead glamorous lives?)

To read the full review click here
Contact Ted Gioia at
tedgioia@hotmail.com

Visit his web site at
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OTHER ARTICLES OF NOTE
FROM GREAT BOOKS GUIDE

Exhuming Robert Musil:  A
Fresh Look at The Man
Without Qualities

The Fourteen Skies of Michael
Chabon

Life After Potter

The Nobel Prize in Literature
from an Alternative Universe

Hamlet Wore Ladies
Underwear (and other literary
secrets outed)
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter:
www.twitter.com/tedgioia

Contact Ted Gioia at
tedgioia@hotmail.com

Visit his web site at
www.tedgioia.com

Great Books Guide is an
Amazon.com associate


Disclosure:  This web site and its
sister sites may receive
promotional copies of review
items and other materials from
publisher, publicists and other
parties.