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The Cannonball Read's Ten Best Novels of the Decade

By Nicole Fuscia | Books | December 23, 2009 |

By Nicole Fuscia | Books | December 23, 2009 |

For me, personally, books are the most important medium. Music aficionados, movie enthusiasts, and television junkies tend to look at me like I’m giant loser, but I just don’t give a damn. Throughout my life I have accumulated and devoured countless books, and I’ll read anything — fiction, nonfiction, plays, cereal boxes; I rarely discriminate. One thing that the Cannonball Read has taught me is that I’m not alone. You’re out there, in the shadows, with piles of books on shelves, floors, toilet tanks, tables, ironing boards, and any other possible surface. My sister asked me last week why I had books in the linen closet. The answer: “I’m running out of places to put them.”

I’m not knocking the Kindle owners or the audiobook fans, but there is nothing, nothing, nothing in the world like a new book, just waiting to have its spine cracked. There are good books and bad books, mediocre books and life-changing books. Books, for me, are everything. From the response that we’ve gotten around these parts regarding the Cannonball, books are everything to a lot of you, too.

In the spirit of the “Best Of” lists, Dustin asked the members of the Cannonball Read group on Facebook to name their top ten books of the Aughts, which would become a comprehensive list. Approximately forty people responded, and a total of 170 titles were named. That is outstanding. Just fucking outstanding. Here, for your consideration, are the Cannonball Readers’ Top Ten Books of the Aughts:

10. The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde — Fforde has a wonderful grasp of his heroine and manages to keep the narrative flowly quickly. Too quickly at times, the one word that keeps popping in my head when trying to describe this book is “manic.” But it’s beyond fun to see how he interweaves the mystery of the missing manuscript with his own version of Jane and Rochester. It must be a daunting task to write two of the most well-known fictional characters into your own story, but Fforde’s obvious love of literature and his quirky sense of humor make the retelling feel seamless. And Thursday is pretty fascinating, a well-layered and headstrong woman in a book comprised mainly of headstrong men. It’s interesting to see the differing opportunities afforded to both Thursday and Jane Eyre. Thursday emulates Jane in certain ways: her stubborness, her intelligence, her straightforward way of dealing with others. And yet Jane has so many limitations due to her class and the century in which she lives, it’s almost as if Thursday is a near reincarnation of her. Julie

9. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood — I was struck by how similar Iris is to Offred, the main character in The Handmaid’s Tale, although their worlds are so different. Iris feels completely constrained by her family, just as Offred was constrained by society. Iris doesn’t understand Laura’s wildness and unconventionality, but loves her anyway, just as Offred sees her friend Moira as taking unnecessary risks rather than simply trying to do something, anything, that she has decided for herself. The Blind Assassin is certainly forthright about the constraints placed on Iris, Laura, and other women of the time, but it is not Atwood’s main concern; Atwood deals with issues of class, political ideology, loyalty, aging & death, and perhaps most importantly, the ways that we construct our version of the world based on what is easiest, rather than what is true. Atwood balances all of these threads — both thematic and narrative — and doesn’t misstep once. fff

8. Atonement by Ian McEwan — A lot’s been made recently of Ian McEwan’s partial plagiarism of select passages of Lucilla Andrews’ memoir No Time for Romance, one of the inspirations McEwan credits in his book. But the lifted sentences themselves do nothing to detract from the staggering power of McEwan’s 20th-century panorama, nor the man’s clear gifts as a storyteller. Atonement shows a remarkable narrative focus and fantastic psychological insight, as McEwan introduces and interweaves the conflicting members of the Tallis family on an afternoon in 1939 that sets up the action for the next 60 years. Young Briony Tallis, only 13, witnesses what she believes is a crime, and her confused testimony damns the wrong man and becomes the weight she must live with for the rest of her life. McEwan’s layered prose demands patience; he spends the entire first half of the novel on Briony’s night in question, shifting perspectives and subtly highlighting how so much of our lives and actions are based on often incorrect perceptions of the people around us. It’s sprawling and sad and often downright beautiful. By the end, McEwan pulls off something pretty amazing, and I really can’t go into it except to say that the story suddenly gains weight and perspective as it references the very pages that have come before. If McEwan cribbed a couple sentences, I can live with that; the rest is astonishing. — Daniel Carlson

7. The Lovely Bones by 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

6. American Gods by Neil Gaiman — I loved this book and as a result it is nearly impossible for me to say anything constructive about it. It seems that intelligently told stories of gods and people reduce me to moron. I love it, I love it. Seriously I love it. I suppose the bottom line for me and why I loved this so, was the ideas. Ideas about divinity, humanity and how to be in the world. It’s a fantastical novel set in our world and ‘backstage’ in the world of the gods but it manages to ring true. It’s the truth of it that gets me. It tends to be what gets me about any work of fiction or art. It doesn’t have to be real but it has to be true and this is true. Read it. CatAg

5. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers — Just the story of the two brothers’ lives after the death of their parents is tragic and fascinating. When I think of my maturity level when I graduated from college and the amount of pressure Dave Eggers must have been under, I do not understand how he managed to cope. But Eggers brings much more than just a straight re-telling of his personal tragedy: he is funny. The mundane but often hilarious details of his life and conversations as well as his random daydreams, and self-deprecating and often self-conscious statements that break into the middle of scenes add an entirely new dimension to the narrative. I was amused to find Egger’s rating on the sexual orientation scale graphically depicted on the copyright page along with his height, weight, and haircolor.

But there’s also more to the story than a simple recounting of the years with some tongue-in-cheek. Eggers sensitively explores why he’s even writing a story about his parents, his life, his friends. He wants to be powerful and important, to be well-known, and he often imagines himself as such. Is he just using his parents and some of his friends’ stories to gain fame or is there a greater good coming from this? Is the story helping him deal with his parents’ death? Most of the time when Eggers is challenging himself he does it through the dialogue between himself and another person: his brother or a friend. I could see myself easily being annoyed by this technique, but Eggers manages it so well that I found it a creative and interesting way to enlighten the reader about his inner thoughts. Sophia

4. Me Talk Pretty One Day by 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

3. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffeneger — I’m not quite sure how to even begin talking about this book. It’s quite possibly one of the most unique and beautiful love stories I have read, and one of the most haunting. I know most people cringe inwardly when they hear a love story praised, immediately picturing cloying schmaltz and cheap little romantic platitudes, but The Time Traveler’s Wife is anything but. Niffenegger is a gifted storyteller. She flows flawlessly through the complicated timeline and draws fascinating characters everywhere; even the supporting players are clearly written and could have great stories of their own. And she understands love. This is hard for me to explain, but Niffenegger writes Henry and Claire’s relationship with no embellishments: they have fights and problems, their characters are very different but they compliment each other. Their love is beautiful and touching because it is so real, as extraordinary as their circumstances are. It is one of the most insightful looks at relationships I have ever read. And it made me cry about four times. Claire and Henry’s love is so powerful, true, and sad, and told so simply and beautifully, that the writing never comes off as unrealistic or cloying. It’s moving without being cheaply sentimental, simply and beautifully written. Figgy

2. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides — This is a lot more than just a story of a family. Each and every character becomes a real person, fascinatingly filled out and believable. And this story is told by Cal, who highlights some of the small details of the lives of his parents and grandparents that irrevocably made him what he was. The story is beautifully and sensitively told with detail that fills out the locations and communities. The first part of the book consists of an escape during war, a love story between Cal’s grandparents, and the travel and life of immigrants making a life in the United States. The second part of the book is the story of the second generation in America—how Cal’s parents relate to their own parents and their Greek heritage—as well as how they fall in love and build a life together. The third section of the book is the story of Cal, or Calliope as she is born. This is mainly a coming-of-age story that is utterly relatable, but made even more dramatic by what the reader knows about Calliope. Sophia

1. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon — Brilliant. Just a fucking brilliant book. It’s the only Chabon I’ve read, but I’m immediately a fan. What blows my mind is, this book almost follows the same general narrative structure you’d find in those odious three hour melodramas that pass for Oscar winners, something like a The Curious Case of Benjamin Button or The English Patient. At the barest bones of course. It’s about two cousins who change the face of comics during the era of World War II, and about the woman they both love.

But that’s where Chabon leaves all the other saps behind and breathtakingly layers his story. There’s so much going on here, any single narrative thread could have made for an outstanding novel of its’ own accord. It’s cinematic and vast, mind-blowing simple and yet incredibly complex. It’s an intense story, and well worth jamming through. It does the same tricks as Forrest Gump, mixing real famous figures with fiction, but instead of feeling hokey and gimmicky, it’s entirely natural. — Brian Prisco

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.