Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Three Literary Standouts of this Last and Dreary Decade

by Sean Flannigan

I have no "Top Ten" for this decade, or for that matter, any decade. I usually take little note of when something was written, for the most part. New writers are easier to place in a time-line, though. It's happening now. You can't miss it. I can't say what is best of this decade because I haven't read all the books of this decade, or even just the notable ones. There are a lot. But, I have read some and a few were really amazing. So, of the books of this decade that I have read, I think that three really stand out.

In no particular order:

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

This beautifully and intricately written novel blew me away. There are few books, beyond even the last ten years, that operate on so many levels as this one. The character, being what Wikipedia tells me is called "intersexed", is already a strange and mysterious persona, the idea alone holding for the great majority of humanity a perspective none could entirely fathom. But, its masterfully woven threads of his/her embattled and sometimes incestuous Greek ancestry and his/her sexually-identified and narratorly present, and his description of the 5-alpha-reductase deficiency that Calliope suffers from, captures the reader fully and makes them feel if not always good at least a little weird, sad and obsessed (especially if that reader is me). It was also the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in 2003. This is a novel of much heft, emotionally and physically. It is a great achievement and thus has made its mark within my three notables of this last decade.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

Despite what many may assume, you do not have to be into comics to be into this book. It involves all of those many segments of human emotion, from the entirely squishy to the absolutely jagged. Sometimes I get pissed. On occasion I will cry. That sort of stuff. Plus the in between. This novel was also a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, in 2001. As with most Chabon novels, the story centers around a very Jewish protagonist, or rather two. Cousins, Kavalier (a recent refugee of Prague) and Klayman (as he is named before he renames himself something decidedly more catchy) come together in New York City. They find they both enjoy drawing and both adore that famous Jewish escapist, Harry Houdini. What follows is success and disappointment, pain and joy, confusion and clarity (and probably many other opposing themes). What stuck out, what really glued me to this book, was the characters. They were strongly developed, lived next to my bedside, in my wandering work-time thoughts, and past the point of reading them. I didn't want this book to end and I felt that those characters would survive beyond the last dot delivered by Mr. Chabon. I think that they have.

Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

This was my latest read. Although it didn't win the Pulitzer prize, it did feature a Jewish protagonist. It also garnered much praise from many major publications and even some very well-known authors (Updike and Rushdie, to name two). The strands of this story are each as strong as the other. In one, the Ukrainian translator, Alex, relates his story of adventure in helping a Jewish-American traveler, who he refers to as the "hero," find and assemble pieces of his family's past, which he plans to write a novel about. Another strand is the novel-in-progress of this "hero" (whose name happens to be the same as the author's) in which he details this past, going back to his great-great-great-great-great grandmother, glamorized in many shades of the most beautiful magical realism. The third narrative is the letters from Alex to Jonathan, post-adventure, where he shares his critiques of Jonathan's novel-in-progress and the events going on in his own life, back in Ukraine. Having such varied perspectives, this novel shines with a nearly unrivaled imagination. It was as intriguing and funny as it was melancholy and sentimental. This author has a strength of prose and breadth of emotion that isn't found readily and should be, when found, held close and never let go. Everyone should read this.

So, there you are. These are the good books that I have liked this last and dreary decade. The best thing to do when a tyrant rules your country for most of a decade: read good books. And on a side note, these covers were the particular covers of the versions that I read. They hold a certain nostalgic significance. I can almost feel their weight and smell their pages. It feels good. Kindle will never take over. Nothing can beat having a physical book in your hand, and the wear that they endure is proof of their significance. OK, enjoy.


  1. Sean's wrong, by the way. Kindle or something from Apple or Google will so take over. Books will find a status akin to that of vinyl records. (Sad face?)