Sunday, December 27, 2009

The best of the decade: Books

From , December 13, 2009

Némirovsky, Dawkins and Pullman: we found lost novels, fought over God and seen a children’s author sweeping the board

1 Austerity Britain 1945-51(2007)

David Kynaston

Few historians have the power to make you feel you actually inhabit the times they are writing about. Kynaston does. Crowding the pages of this exhaustive look at post-war Britain with hundreds of voices from all walks of life, he summons up the spirit of the age with precision and generosity.

2 Suite Francaise (2006)

Irène Némirovsky

The literary discovery of the decade, this Russian-born novelist died in Auschwitz and was almost unknown until the publication of this unfinished novel, essentially two free-standing novellas, both masterpieces.

3 The Corrections (2001)

Jonathan Franzen

Franzen famously blindfolded himself on several occasions while writing this novel, in an attempt to gain sufficient intensity. Daft, perhaps, but it worked, drawing from him a vivid re-creation of a dysfunctional family and its slow, steady disintegration.

4 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (2005)

James Shapiro

Among a slew of excellent Shakespeare books to emerge this decade, Shapiro’s study of a year in the Bard’s life — spanning the completion of Henry V and the drafting of Hamlet — stood out.

5 Experience (2000)

Martin Amis

Say what you like about Martin Amis, he can still make good books, not just good news stories. His take on autobiography was undeniably his, and his teeth, at least, are now embedded in literary history.

6 The Plot Against America (2004)

Philip Roth

Roosevelt is defeated for the presidency by the Hitler-admiring aviator Charles Lindbergh, and an isolationist, fascist USA results. Roth’s writing was revitalised in the mid-1990s, and here it reached its apogee.

7 Finest Years: Churchill as Warlord 1940-45 (2009)

Max Hastings

Hastings combines a confident overview of strategic truths with a fund of wonderful anecdotes and, above all, a subtle and nuanced portrait of his magnificent central character.

8 The Year of Magical Thinking (2005)

Joan Didion

Her husband’s sudden death precipitated Didion’s devastating memoir of grief. Relentlessly, beautifully clear and lucid — even as it detailed her deepest delusions — it’s a masterful anatomy of loss.

9 The Road (2006)

Cormac McCarthy

McCarthy’s bleak stories have been surprise bestsellers. The Road, about a father and son trying to survive a post-apocalyptic America, chimed with his anxious audience.

10 Bad Blood (2001)

Lorna Sage

Sage’s legacy is the story of her childhood in Wales and Shropshire, which won the Whitbread biography award a week before her death. A dark, comic picture of post-war life.

11 Middlesex (2002)

Jeffrey Eugenides

A three-generation, sprawling saga, woven from multiple themes, that takes the Stephanides family from Smyrna to Detroit. It is no coincidence that the central character, Calliope, is named after the muse of epic poetry.

12 Then We Came To The End (2007)

Joshua Ferris

An outstanding first novel that takes on the topic of workplace lives, as the herdlike denizens of a Chicago ad agency bicker and bitch while they wait for the chop. A bitingly satirical piece of fiction, written before the downturn in 2008, more topical all the time.

13 Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self (2001)

Claire Tomalin

Another milestone for Tomalin; or, rather, another doorstop biography that managed to sparkle and entertain. Britain’s most famous diarist, and one of its naughtiest husbands, gained an unlikely champion.

14 Persepolis (2000)

Marjane Satrapi

Satrapi’s graphic novel, based on her youth in revolution-era Iran, is funny, sharp, heartbreaking and political — full of colour, though drawn in black and white.

15 Home (2008)

Marilynne Robinson

Robinson’s stealthy critical success was recompensed when Home — only her third novel in nearly 30 years — scooped the Orange prize. It tells of an Iowan family’s past in her unique lyrical style.

16 Men of Honour: Trafalgar and the Making of the English Hero (2005)

Adam Nicolson

The Napoleonic wars took place in the Romantic period, with a new middle class emerging — so what kind of men were fighting? Many books were published to celebrate the bicentenary of Trafalgar: this was the best.

17 A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003)

Bill Bryson

Bryson attempts to unravel the mysteries of science for the general reader. The result is a popular primer that won the respect of academics while opening eyes to the opaque and mysterious world of big bangs, quarks and quantum theory.

18 The Feast of the Goat (2000)

Mario Vargas Llosa

One of the decade’s most terrifying novels. Surveying General Trujillo’s brutal dictatorship in the Dominican Republic, it’s the most distinguished dissection of a Latin American hell since Conrad’s Nostromo.

19 A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000)

Dave Eggers

Eggers has never again got near the sheer chutzpah he displayed in this first outing, a memoir that describes how the 21-year-old coped when his parents died, leaving him to bring up his little brother.

20 The God Delusion (2006)

Richard Dawkins

Dawkins argues that the evolutionary process of natural selection destroys any respectable basis for a belief in God, while using evolutionary psychology to account for the rise of religion. A militantly atheist polemic, but also a work likely to last.

21 The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (2008)

Alex Ross

Ross tackles a century of classical music, correlating it with the events of world history. Out of all the Sturm und Drang, he weaves something coherent and fascinating.

22 Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic (2003)

Tom Holland

Holland helped to kick-start a revival of interest in classical history with a robust retelling of the story of the Roman republic’s collapse.

23 The White Tiger (2008)

Aravind Adiga

A low-caste Indian, now ruthlessly making his way as an entrepreneur, looks back over his life. An evocative, deeply unflattering depiction of modern India.

24 Stuart: A Life Backwards (2005)

Alexander Masters

Masters’s second go at writing the life of his friend Stuart, an “ex-homeless, ex-junkie psychopath”; the first effort ended up in the bin after Stuart told him bluntly that it was “bollocks boring”. Supremely poignant.

25 Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything (2005)

Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner

So many ideas books emerged this decade, and not all of them written by Malcolm Gladwell. Economic theory is pithily applied to human experience.

26 On Chesil Beach (2007)

Ian McEwan

This was McEwan’s underdog — a slimmer work, but no less substantial for that. A young couple, honeymooning in the early 1960s, struggle to reach intimacy.

27 The Amber Spyglass (2000)

Philip Pullman

The finale to Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy became the first children’s work to win the Whitbread book of the year award.

28 White Teeth (2000)

Zadie Smith

At just 25, Smith reached a wide public with her generous novel, a multicultural patchwork spanning London and beyond.

29 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003)

Mark Haddon

Written for adults as well as children, Haddon’s gripping book follows the attempts of an autistic teenager to find out who murdered his neighbour’s dog. Perfectly pitched and structured.

30 Hitler, 1936-45: Nemesis (2000)

Ian Kershaw

Kershaw concluded his epic biographical task with an account of the nine final seismic years in the life of the Führer.

  • Bestselling fiction:

1 The Da Vinci Code Dan Brown (5.20m)

2 Angels & Demons Dan Brown (3.17m)

3 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time Mark Haddon (2.06m)

4 Deception Point Dan Brown (1.97m)

5 Digital Fortress Dan Brown (1.85m)

6 The Lovely Bones Alice Sebold (1.60m)

7 Atonement Ian McEwan (1.52m)

8 The Kite Runner Khaled Hosseini (1.51m)

9 A Thousand Splendid Suns Khaled Hosseini (1.43m)

10 The Time Traveler’s Wife Audrey Niffenegger (1.34m)

  • Bestselling nonfiction:

1 A Short History of Nearly Everything Bill Bryson (1.75m)

2 Dr Atkins’ New Diet Revolution Robert Atkins (1.66m)

3 The World According to Clarkson Jeremy Clarkson (1.47m)

4 The Sound of Laughter Peter Kay (1.29m)

5 The Highway Code (2001 edition) (1.28m)

6 Billy Pamela Stephenson (1.23m)

7 A Child Called “It” Dave Pelzer (1.21m)

8 Eats, Shoots & Leaves Lynne Truss (1.18m)

9 You Are What You Eat: This Plan Will Change Your Life Gillian McKeith (1.14m)

10 Stupid White Men Michael Moore (970,000)

The bestseller lists have been prepared by The Bookseller using data supplied by and copyright to Nielsen BookScan

  • Writer of the decade

If anyone could make us feel less anxious about the dumbing-down of books in the Noughties, it was Ian McEwan. Here was a British author — the only British author — who consistently crossed the divide between intellectual endeavour and popularity without compromising his standards. The past decade has been a miraculous one for McEwan — two number-one bestsellers in Atonement and Saturday, a jaw-dropping 99 weeks in various top tens, and the satisfaction of seeing two of his books, Atonement and Enduring Love, made into films. Despite two shortlistings, all that was missing was that elusive second Booker win. That may have to wait till 2010 and his ecological novel, Solar.

  • Buy these books with up to 20% off

You can order any of these books with 10% off, buy two and save 15%, or buy three or more and save 20%. Free p&p on all orders; call The Sunday Times Bookshop on 0845 271 2135 and quote code RY156.


The 100 Best Books of the Decade

From Dan Brown to Cormac McCarthy: the really big books

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