Friday, May 05, 2006

Favorite Novels of the Past 10 Years
May 5, 2006

In the past 10 years, more than 100,000 novels have been published in the U.S., a statistic that gives even passionate readers like myself paradoxical feelings of euphoria and alarm.

Among those thousands, there are undoubtedly scores of books I would enjoy and perhaps one or two that might change my life. But which ones? In the past year I managed to finish 71 books (and didn't finish another 30 or so). Of the ones I read for my own pleasure, I would strongly recommend only three: "Writing Home" by Alan Bennett (1994); "Power of One" by Bryce Courtenay (1989); and "On Beauty" by Zadie Smith (2005). I enjoyed many others, but not enough to stake my reputation on.

Thinking about my favorite books of the past decade is challenging for different reasons: For one, there isn't enough room to name them all. But of more concern is that 10 years ago -- even five years ago -- I was a different person: If I reread the books I once considered masterpieces, would I feel the same way now?

I don't claim the novels below, all published in the past 10 years and listed alphabetically by author, are the best of the crowded field -- most of them didn't win prizes or become bestsellers. I just remember thinking, as I finished each of them, "This was one of the best books I've read for a long time."

* * *

The Untouchable by John Banville (1997)

Victor Maskell has spent his life dissembling -- as an officer in the British intelligence service, then a double agent for Moscow. But when he is 72 years old, knighted and retired in gentlemanly comfort, Maskell is publicly exposed as a traitor. The disgraced Maskell begins writing a journal explaining how he got into the business of betrayal. It wasn't just the Cambridge connections, the seductions of Marxism, the cleaving of the world into white hats and black hats. Duplicity was also his gift and his drug. "I have never done anything in my life," Maskell writes, "that did not have a purpose, usually hidden, sometimes even from myself." Here he reveals himself, in subtle shades of gray.

* * *

The Rotters' Club by Jonathan Coe (2003)

Set in Britain in the 1970s, "The Rotters' Club" follows four Birmingham schoolmates as they are tossed around by social, political and economic forces beyond their control: The Irish Republican Army, the demise of organized labor, growing racial tension and the smudging of class distinctions. "The Rotters' Club" is quietly indignant, but also funny. People think the 1970s were "all about wide collars and glam rock," one character says, "and they get nostalgic about Fawlty Towers and kids' TV programs, and they forget the ungodly strangeness of it, the weird things that were happening all the time." A sequel, "The Closed Circle," was published last year.

* * *

Cooking With Fernet Branca by James Hamilton-Paterson (2005)

An English author, Gerald Samper, buys a house in the Tuscan hills, where he can write and cook (Otter With Lobster Sauce; Garlic and Fernet Branca Ice Cream) in tranquility. But next door lives the noisy and vulgar Marta. For the next few months, Marta becomes "the principal bane of my life, or primo pesto, as I expect they say in Chiantishire." Marta, alternately narrating the story, has her own view -- Gerald is "stranded up here in mid-life, blundering around in DIY outfits in a daze of alcohol while singing fake arias." Swigging gallons of Fernet Branca, the two wickedly satirize music, movies, politics, publishing and the notion that the Tuscan sun is somehow nicer than other suns. Fernet Branca, incidentally, is a liqueur "whose charm is discreeter even than that of the bourgeoisie."

* * *

Trumpet by Jackie Kay (1999)

Millicent Moody has quite a story to tell: Her late husband, the famous jazz trumpeter Joss Moody, was a woman. Millie and Joss kept the secret for more than 30 years, and it comes to light only because a doctor examines Joss's body after he – she -- dies. Their adopted son, who didn't know until then, is understandably angry and determined to get revenge by telling all to a journalist. But in the end, this melodic novel isn't about gender oddities; it's about love, loyalty, privacy and grief.

* * *

I Know This Much Is True by Wally Lamb (1998)

At almost 900 pages, this is a giant book, both literally and figuratively. The author seems to have omitted nothing he ever thought about schizophrenia or domestic abuse. But Mr. Lamb manages to keep the plot moving at a lively tempo while not rushing his characters to maturity. The main character is the lovable, hateful Dominick Birdsey, whose identical twin, Thomas, is a paranoid schizophrenic. Dominick, himself no paragon of mental stability, is his brother's keeper and resents it bitterly. Yet he also can't help feeling guilty that through the tiniest genetic fluke, he has escaped a life sentence to madness.

* * *

The Missing World by Margot Livesey (2000)

Amnesia is an age-old dramatic device, but Ms. Livesey finds a new way to exploit it. Hazel Ransome has been hit by a car and lost her memory of the past three years. Her former lover Jonathan, realizing that she no longer remembers their ugly breakup, begins a campaign of trying to persuade her that they never separated. Fearful that she might meet someone who could fill in her missing memory, Jonathan keeps Hazel under virtual house arrest until a roofer and an unemployed actress take matters into their own hands. Ms. Livesey juggles ideas about evil and decency with humor and compassion.

* * *

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett (2002)

Don't be put off by the premise: Gun-toting South American terrorists take civilians hostage and hold them captive while making preposterous demands. You may think you don't need a novel to tell you what happens next; you can just read the newspaper. But Ms. Patchett imagines hostages and captors, whose political and language barriers at first seem insurmountable, creating a new society in which the labels "hostage" and "captor" gradually cease to have meaning. It turns out they all speak one language: music. Ms. Patchett doesn't glorify or excuse terrorism; she simply peels back the layers of her characters' public faces until you can see their souls.

* * *

Seven Types of Ambiguity by Elliot Perlman (2004)

Told by seven narrators who are loosely connected, this novel centers on a man's obsessive love and his willingness to do almost anything to win back the woman he lost nine years earlier. But in some ways, the plot is beside the point. What mesmerizes is the way each character explains his or her role in the drama in a distinctive but coherent voice. There is plenty of suspense here, but Mr. Perlman also wanders off into lengthy and provocative disquisitions on the nature of psychiatry, law, wealth and the English poet and literary critic William Empson, whose most famous book, published in 1930, was called "Seven Types of Ambiguity."

* * *

The Rich Man's Table by Scott Spencer (1998)

Imagine being the illegitimate son of a fictional Bob Dylan, growing up in the shadow of the most popular folk-rock singer in the country yet never acknowledged, let alone loved, by him. That's Billy Rothschild's unlucky lot in this chronicle of a young man's quest for identity -- his own and that of his lonely, drug-addicted, misunderstood and overanalyzed father, Luke Fairchild. Mr. Spencer skewers the pretensions and self-pity of both Billy and Luke, but he does it lovingly. "I had been chasing after him so long," Billy thinks of his legendary father, "that I had neglected to listen to him … to find out what was decent in him and what was decent in America."

* * *

My Secret History by Paul Theroux (1996)

A journalist, Andre Parent, roams the world, first as a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa then as a travel writer, and has many relationships -- sexual and otherwise -- but remains largely untouched by love. As a child and adolescent, when he was headed for the priesthood, he learned that keeping secrets is crucial to survival. His evasiveness serves him well as a writer, but not as a human, and Parent isn't a particularly admirable narrator. But his frank confession of a lifetime of deceit is rich in truth and insight.


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