Guides | June 20, 2007 | Comments ()
As promised, Pajiba presents The Generation’s Best Books as defined by our readers. I’m sure many will find egregious omissions and outrageous additions, but overall, I think you did a damn fine job — this top 15 list encompasses the high-brow, the sci-fi, the romance, the best sellers, and the cult favorites — much to our dismay, there are even two Oprah selections on the list (we can’t help it that she picks a decent novel on occasion). And certainly arguments could be made for the inclusion of many other books, but it’s hard to argue with the choices below.
The criteria was pretty simple — using our book diversion from a few weeks back, we tallied up the mentions from your top five lists. We did limit the list to one book per author (for variety), although we weighed an author’s entire body of work when making the placement determination. Depending on which calculation we used, any of the top three choices could’ve been number one, but I believe the decision we came to most reflects the overall popularity of the selections. Likewise, at least ten books could’ve been considered for the bottom five, but we had to cut off the list somewhere. If you’re curious, the selections that just missed the top 15 cutoff were The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingslover); Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (Mark Haddon); Wicked (Gregory Maguire); Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (Susanna Clarke); and The Blind Assassin (Margaret Atwood).
And with that, here are the Top 15 Books of this Generation.
15. Black Swan Green, David Mitchell — Given his ability to juggle literary tropes and miens in the astounding Cloud Atlas, I should’ve been less impressed that David Mitchell could bring the same skill to an autobiographical bildungsroman. Taking an average, middle-class kid in early ’80s England, Mitchell creates a fascinating narrative — poor Jason Taylor has it rough: bickering parents, cruel bullies, and a congenital stammer he refers to as “Hangman,” all in the midst of adolescence and a claustrophobic suburbia! Mitchell’s view of Jason is elegantly-written, sweet and pretty hilarious, achieving an earned emotional response, whereas his last efforts were chiefly technical marvels. Jason’s troubles become an all-too-proximate vision of our own adolescences, revealed in alarmingly relatable ways given most of our separation from early ’80s English culture. He eventually finds his outlet and muse in his burgeoning literary skills though, of course, he also recognizes this as another aspect of his alienation; while reflecting on his new interest in composing poetry on a typewriter, he notes: “If I ever admitted that out loud I’d get BUMHOLE PLUMMER scrawled on my locker.” … Told you it was hilarious. — Phillip Stephens
14. The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold — I go through this phase every few years of trying to expand my literary horizons beyond what I might normally read by picking up books well-touted by those more “in the know” than me. And I probably would’ve never picked up The Lovely Bones had it not been for such a phase. The book starts off with 14-year-old Susie Salmon being brutally raped and murdered. And sure, rape and murder is right up my reading alley. But this isn’t really a crime drama or a murder mystery in the normal sense (in fact, the reader is informed of the killer’s identity by Susie herself on page one or two), nor is it an overly dark and dismal tale. Rather, it’s a surprisingly beautiful and uniquely touching family story — and “beautiful and uniquely touching family stories” are most assuredly something I don’t read of my own volition. Yet Sebold’s story, told through Susie’s relatively unique voice and perspective, reels you in from the very beginning. In a lesser author’s hand, the book could’ve become a mangled mess as Susie observes (from her own version of a sorta-Limbo/Heaven) the aftereffects of her murder on her family and loved ones. And although Sebold’s execution isn’t flawless, and a few missteps are made along the way, she manages to overcome any problems in the narrative to give us a surprisingly truthful and honest look into what makes up (and breaks up) the family bond, and how folks buckle under and/or recover from their grief. — Seth Freilich
13. The Kite Runner , Khaled Hosseini — I still find it incredible that Kite Runner was the first book ever published by an Afghani author in English. But beyond that, it’s a pretty remarkable book in and of itself — it cannot have been easy for a fiction author writing post 9-11 to have crafted a novel that seamlessly merges the incredibly depressing history of Afghanistan with such a touching story of one family, but The Kite Runner makes the Afghan-Russian war and subsequent rise of the Taliban an engrossing plot development in an intimate account of the lives of two boys, one Pashtun and the other Hazara. There may not have been much interest in the topic in the U.S. prior to the war, but credit Hosseini for splicing an unusually informative account of Afghanistan’s historical troubles into a powerful, touching piece of popular fiction. The novel is about class, friendship, and redemption, and it brilliantly uses the kite as the central metaphor in the book. The cyclical nature of much of the plot can start to feel cheesy at times, but the quality of the writing and the sincerity of the characters’ struggles to redeem themselves carry the book through to a moving conclusion. — Dustin Rowles
12. The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen — This is the book that made me want to write; to be a writer. There’s probably no greater praise I can heap on The Corrections than that, subjective as it may be. Franzen’s novel filtered Nabokovian mordancy through a 21st-century built on Baudrillard’s hyperreality, and the results were breathtaking — not an adjective I often attach to any artistic effort, but Franzen’s take on the modern American family, with its accompanying hilarities and quiet devastations, was exactly that. I’ve read The Corrections almost annually for much of this decade, and each time I’m overwhelmed by a different emotion — most prominently sadness or humor, but both coupled with the genuine awe of an author mastering his craft. It’s a story of extremely unpleasant situations that befall often unsympathetic characters, but it’s still unfailingly true: Alfred Lambert, the Old World paterfamilias, is enduring a physical and mental dissolution that mirrors the less literal crumbling of his wife and three children, all of whom are failing to live up to even the vaguest semblance of a personal or objective American Dream. Franzen’s narrative hovers near autobiography, which gives his technically-admirable satire a painful whiff of genuine despair; either of these taken on their own could make a great American novel, but both? Devastating. — PS
11. Geek Love, Katherine Dunn — I don’t know how many times in the past 10 years I picked up Geek Love, thinking this is finally the day that I’m going to give in to the hype and buy it, only to reread the book description and put it back down disgusted. But you folks put it on the list, which meant that I finally had to read the damn thing. And sadly, for fans of the book, I’m the only one on staff who has. Why sadly? Because with all due respect, I hated it. My initial impression was borne out. It wasn’t just the horribly uncomfortable idea that the Binewski parents would breed their own circus freaks, using a variety of drugs and radioisotopes; it was that there was never anything about the carnies that I could find relatable, likable, or even interesting enough to compensate for my squeamishness. Granted, Katherine Dunn has an incredible knack for detail — she paints a disturbingly vivid image of carnies — but, if anything, that made me like the book even less. It’s not the book’s fault, so much as it’s my own phobia, I suppose — as I was reading it, my own son was growing inside the womb, and Geek Love only exaggerated all my worst fears: Polydactyly, genetic defects, human tails, fins, dwarfism and stillbirth. Reading Geek Love was a genuinely horrific ordeal for me though, fetal development aside, I still had a difficult time finding what was so redeeming about the book. There’s nothing particularly absorbing about Dunn’s matter-of-fact narrative, and while I appreciated that she tried to speak about these characters in human terms, I still couldn’t get over my own revulsion. There were parts of the novel (the telekinetic rape, for instance) that I even found a little offensive. Maybe that makes me a circus-freak bigot, but while those who get some sick joy out of genetic mutations might enjoy Geek Love, others like myself will probably read it in a constant state of recoil. Certainly, there’s something to be said for the book’s main theme, about societal acceptance of outliers, but I prefer more aesthetically palatable protagonist, like Heathers’ Martha Dumptruck, instead of a guy with fins instead of arms and legs. — DR, (with apologies)
10. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers — In 2000, Eggers singularly popularized the literary memoir for the hipster generation, largely by using a variety of fictional devices — hyperbole, experimental narratives, fantasy sequences — to create a literary nonfiction book, of which there is now a proliferation. You can’t pick up a memoir these days without reading, on the dust jacket, comparisons to Eggers’ groundbreaking memoir (and trust me, I’ve read them all — none compare). And you could probably argue that, in some small way, his novel paved the way for personal blogs — he made it acceptable to self-indulgently prattle on about the mundaneness of one’ s life (though, in most cases, by “acceptable” I don’t necessarily mean “interesting.”). More than that, Heartbreaking Work introduced an entirely different set of rules to the genre — he turned it on its head by making fun of literary memoir conventions (hell, before Heartbreaking Work, I don’t think I’d ever even read a literary memoir). He did so by dealing with tragedy and death in an unexpected way, a way meant to thwart pity instead of extracting it — he handled it with a black sense of humor that managed not to diminish the impact of the novel’s core events: the deaths of his parents of cancer 32 days from one another when Eggers was 21. He could’ve easily written a melancholy weeper, a pity me, pity me screed, but Eggers used his parents’ deaths as a starting point to write a novel about life and surviving and enduring and taking care of his little brother and the “Real World” and picking yourself up after tragedy and fucking Frisbee that broke and healed and tickled your heart all at the same time. Sure, there’s been a certain amount of backlash since Heartbreaking Work’s publication against the sort of overly clever, self-conscious post-ironic irony that Eggers popularized, but it hardly takes away from the book’s initial impact, a dizzying debut that floored me then, and still floors me today. — DR
9. Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk — You’ll almost never hear me say this, but David Fincher’s film did more justice to the idea behind Fight Club that Chuck Palahniuk’s original book. Palahniuk has proudly inherited the “crown of shit” of modern pop satire from Bret Easton Ellis, both of whom launch infamously morose attacks on modern American culture by upping an ante of sheer perversity and hoping it will be considered genuinely transgressive art. The results have been more miss than hit, especially since Palahniuk has tried to make an entire oeuvre out of his shock-jock credibility. Fight Club at least sees him at a more inventive phase. The unnamed protagonist of this novel has predictably lost his identity in the monster of consumerism, but the way he regains it is more shocking - through maniacal, often willfully self-destructive violence. Both book and film tap into a very real kind of masculine mania, but Palahniuk doesn’t quite explore the idea and its consequences as much as exploit them by engaging in humorous or disgusting transgression-porn. Still, it’s not a read you’re likely to forget. — PS
8. Everything is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer — I cannot in honesty or good conscience pretend to be one of those people who knew about Foer from the beginning, as if I was aware of his stunning debut novel back when it was published in 2002 and just had to wait for everyone else to come around. The first thing of Foer’s I ever read was his short story “A Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease,” originally from The New Yorker but included in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2003, which I picked up because it included works by several enjoyable authors but was also edited by Dave Eggers. I had read and loved A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius the summer I turned 21, so Eggers was my gateway drug to a lot of postmodern and deeply ironic literature aimed at males of my approximate intellect and musical taste. But Foer’s short story fascinated me; the way he joyfully used symbols and abstract language to put down on the page a mix of feelings that most people would describe as inexpressible, or at least damn difficult to explain, was exhilarating. That’s what drove me to seek out and read and love Everything Is Illuminated, a sprawling, emotive, beautiful story about a character named Jonathan Safran Foer going in search of the woman who saved his grandfather’s life during World War II. Part of the book is straightforward mystical historical narrative about the ancient citizens of his European shtetl, and the other part is relayed in the broken but heartfelt English of Alex, the Ukrainian tour guide who assists Foer (the character) in his journey. The whole thing’s kind of sweeping, and downright pleasurable to read. I’m glad I made it to Foer when I did; I’m definitely in for good. — Daniel Carlson
7. Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris — I’ve been meaning to pick up a Sedaris novel for the longest time, but have gone without doing so until now out of nothing more than sheer laziness. Due to the hype surrounding his work coupled with recent allegations of embellishment, I was a bit worried the reading experience might be tarnished — however I was still able to enjoy Me Talk Pretty One Day relatively unscathed. I believe that anyone complaining of exaggerations or embellishments probably isn’t fully grasping the imaginative context of the novel to begin with. I mean, clearly, the verbose, articulate exercises in self depreciation are tongue in cheek and not written by the same bumbling, incompetent drug-addled burnout described in the book’s pages. Seriously people, we’re talking about a grown man here who fancies himself an alter-ego called “Mr. Science.” What more do you need to know? At any rate, I found Me Talk Pretty One Day to be an easy and entertaining read. From the title, I had been anticipating something more along the lines of “coming of age” material, similar to Paul Feig’s Kick Me: Adventures in Adolescence. Sedaris’ memoirs, on the other hand, only dip into childhood memories and instead mostly skip straight into adulthood and family anecdotes; followed by the second half of the book mostly recounting tales of living in and adjusting to France with his longtime partner, Hugh. My favorite excerpts were those dealing with Sedaris’ hilarious and eclectic family which, as I’m sure most (if not all) of you know, also includes comedienne Amy Sedaris, of “Strangers With Candy” notoriety. The story about the parents with the crazy dog was hysterical, not to mention that it made me so ridiculously glad that my own parents spoiled “dog child” comes in the form of a 16 pound Jack Russell Terrier and not a Great Dane. — Stacey Nosek
6. The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger — I’ll concede that I was barely even aware of this novel until it surfaced so very frequently on our book diversion; honestly, I thought it was written by Anita Shreve and I’d begun to wonder about the collective taste of our readers. But, since no one else had read The Time Traveler’s Wife, I bit the bullet and picked it up. And over the next few days, I barely managed to pull myself away from it. It was kind of phenomenal, to be honest. Also, you people are cruel; if I were to create a list of the tearjerkiest novels of all-time (as we did with movies and songs), The Time Traveler’s Wife would rank at the top. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever genuinely wept while reading a book, but all the stifling in the goddamn world couldn’t keep me from welling up as the last page was turned at 5 a.m. after a long night of reading. The Time Traveler’s Wife is a love story — I’d wrongfully expected something painful, along the lines of The Notebook — about Henry DeTamble, who involuntarily travels through time because of a genetic disorder, and Claire Abshire, his future wife. Henry doesn’t get to choose when and where he travels to — his subconscious chooses his destination for him. Consequently, Claire meets Henry for the first time when she’s six and he’s 41, while he meets her for the first time when he’s 28 and she’s 20 (it’s hard to explain in brief — you just need to read the book). The novel basically tracks their love affair throughout the course of Henry’s life, and while I’m generally pretty averse to sci-fi, the time-travel elements were downright engrossing. I don’t know how to properly explain the “feel” of the novel, except to say that — while some of it sort of feels like Samuel Beckett’s adventures in Quantum Leap — the overriding emotion while reading it is more akin to the feeling you get watching the scene where Al Calavicci’s dances with his first wife in the “Georgia on My Mind” season-two finale (“M.I.A.”). It’s heart wrenching. Just plain heart wrenching. For those of you, like myself, who generally avoid novels with huge mass appeal, I’d recommend making an exception for The Time Traveler’s Wife — you will float around for days in a heartsick funk, but it’s completely worth it. — DR
5. His Dark Materials, Phillip Pullman — Philip Pullman comes from a strong tradition of British atheism, much of which has given way to unbearable sanctimony (Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, I’m looking at you). Pullman attempted, in this remarkable trilogy of children’s fantasy, to turn the tables on the Christian mythos, specifically C.S. Lewis’ Narnia epic, which Pullman lambasted as “propaganda.” Whether intentional or not, His Dark Materials isn’t a paean to atheism per se, but an explicit rejection of the cultural and literary position of the Christian church. But it honestly doesn’t matter whether you care or not about Pullman’s subtext, because this trilogy is fantastic. Starting with a looking-glass universe wherein every individual’s soul is manifested as a magical animal, or daemon, Pullman builds a fantastical but remarkably fluid universe threatened by the metaphysical tyranny of the Church. The allegorical subtleties and rich, high fantasy are augmented by the impressively complex characters, centered on heroine Lyra Belacqua’s journey through the multiverse. His Dark Materials is a damn rewarding read that packs dense literary and religious traditions into an adventurous but exceedingly dark world. It’s ostensibly aimed at kids, but it’s more than a match for everyone else. — PS
4. Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman — Full disclosure: I’m a raging Gaiman whore. Normally, that would mean I’d tell you to take this blurb with a grain of salt. But in this case, you can stick that grain into an orifice of your choosing, because I defy anyone who appreciates the Pajiba sense of humor to not find this book uproariously funny. Good Omens is, simply put, The Omen as told by Douglas Adams (only Douglas Adams is actually two other guys, and the creepy little kid isn’t so much creepy as befuddled). Specifically, it’s the story of Adam Young (who happens to be the antichrist only, due to a teensy mistake, he’s being raised by the wrong family) and the various dramatis personae who become involved in his life (including, among many others, an angel and a
fallen sauntered-downwards angel who have spent a bit too much time on Earth, the four Apocalyptic Horsepersons, and the descendant of a witch). The majority of the action takes place over the course of the half-a-week before the Apocalypse is scheduled to ruin a perfectly nice Saturday night dinner, and the resulting story moves at a break-neck speed. But the plot, strong and entertaining though it is, is almost secondary here. There’s a “British sensibilities” type of humor here which results in the book’s true strength being its little bits. Choice turns of phrase, sharply satirical observations and hilarious jokes give the novel an eminent re-readability, as you’ll continue to be entertained despite knowing exactly what’s coming (in fact, there is probably only one book I’ve read more times than Good Omens). And it just so happens that the book is quite educational too — among other things, you’ll learn the truth behind highway design, something which you probably don’t even know you need to know. — SF
3. High Fidelity, Nick Hornby — High Fidelity may not have been the best written book of the generation, or even the most important, but for me and other like-minded folks, it was the most influential — it was the first book I’d ever read that didn’t just make pop-culture allusions, but made them critical to the story. Hornby spoke about movies and, especially, music, in an intelligent, conversational manner that often felt like your own thoughts. His voice was casual, unpretentious, and perhaps more relatable than any other author’s I’d ever read before 1995 — he brought the back pages of Spin magazine to mainstream America and Entertainment Weekly and VH1 have never been the same — and, for good or bad, Hornby is responsible for the current popularity of dick-lit. What’s even more remarkable is that, even before John Cusack’s adaptation, I think a lot of people probably pictured Rob Gordon as an older Lloyd Dobler — a character that turned pop-culture obsession into something more than the preoccupation of fanboys and geeks. In a way, he romanticized, and maybe even sexualized it. Rob Gordon has gotten a lot of us laid over the past decade — thanks to Hornby, an encyclopedic knowledge of Elvis Costello’s extensive back catalogue isn’t nerdy, it’s downright appealing to certain subset of liberal arts majors who wear horn-rimmed glasses, tight-fitting ironic T-shirts, can quote from the works of Gloria Steinem and Wes Anderson, and who will eventually name their children Zooey, Franny, Waker, or Seymour. And if you need further evidence of High Fidelity’s influence, you need look no further than at least 40 to 50 percent of the pages on this site, including our comment diversions, which are really just an (unoriginal) twist on Hornby’s Top Five lists. Indeed, in a list of top five books I’d want if I were stranded on a desert island, High Fidelity would be at number one. — DR
2. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon — The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay was Michael Chabon’s first real manifesto, and it established the twin towers that would dominate his fiction thereafter: Jews and comic books. His first two novels were largely autobiographical affairs: The Mysteries of Pittsburgh was a story about a guy in his 20s written by a guy in his 20s, and Wonder Boys reflected the troubles Chabon went through following the success of Pittsburgh and his subsequent creation and later abandonment of a massive follow-up. But after exorcising his own demons through the character of Grady Tripp, Chabon’s focus shifted from specific subjects to grand ideas, and Kavalier & Clay still stands out as his most epic work to date. The sprawling story follows cousins Sammy Clay and Josef Kavalier in the period surrounding World War II as they ascend through the ranks of the still-developing comic book industry. Finally free of his own hang-ups, Chabon is able to weave a story that’s even more personal than the novels that preceded it, creating a dense tapestry of characters, motivations, and meaning. More than ever before, he stacks his sentences to the point of breaking, caught up in the act of creating a tone as much as a story, as if he’s so caught up with the burning urge to pour out the tale that he can’t be bothered to slow down for punctuation. It’s a big story, and sad, and sweet, and so damn pleasing to read that I doubt Chabon will ever top it. But that’s to be expected: He created a full-on masterpiece. — DC
1. Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides — Much like with The Lovely Bones, I stumbled upon Middlesex almost by chance, deciding to read the book that had just garnered the 2003 Pulitzer. All I knew at the time was that it was about Cal Stephanides, a hermaphrodite born as Calliope (his actual condition is known as 5-alpha-reductase deficiency, and little did I know that knowledge of this genetic curiosity would come in handy years later as a “Nip/Tuck” fan). But it’s also about Turkish/Greek history. And family ties. And immigration and adolescence and ’60s race riots and genetics and gender roles. There’s so much to the book, in fact, that when I first started reading it, I muttered to myself once or twice about how I didn’t care about Cal/Calliope’s grandparents and their emigration to the States. I just wanted to get to the hermaphrodite, damn it! But very quickly, I wasn’t muttering anything of the sort anymore, and I was suddenly engrossed and transfixed by every single detail Eugenides laid out before me. As the story jumped forward in time, in fact, I actually bemoaned that I wasn’t going to get to spend more time in that particular period and space, as I simply wasn’t ready to move on to the next bit just yet. And the fact that I had to be pulled through the book in such a way, reluctant to move forward, is a result of the book’s true strength — its writing.
Over the weekend, I was hanging out with a friend as we watched his 10-month-old daughter figure out how to climb up a step on her own for the first time. When she managed to pull it off, she was absolutely radiant with joy and, as cheesy as it may sound, it was one of the most beautiful and pure moments I’ve ever witnessed. And at the risk of blowing the roof off this finely built house of cliche, that amazing moment of clarity and unbridled elation that came with her discovery of something truly new in her universe is pretty much the way I felt when I finished Middlesex. With the possible exception of Kavalier and Clay, Middlesex is simply the single best written book I have read in my adult life, and I finished it with a clearer vision than ever before of what, exactly, a book is capable of doing (and this comes from someone who hated, and couldn’t even finish, Eugenides’ first novel, The Virgin Suicides). I don’t necessarily mean that it’s got the best story arch, or the best characters, or the best expression of personal growth or whatever. All of these elements are excellent, to be sure; but I mean that I have not read another book that did so much with the words themselves. I’m not a competent enough writer to adequately express what I mean in terms of how strong the writing and the storytelling craft is, so I’ll just say this — over the last four years, I have told everyone who’s ever asked that they should read Middlesex, regardless of their literary tastes, and not one person has ever said I led them astray. — SF