All over the universe media outlets are publishing lists of The Best Books of the Decade – here’s one from The Boston Globe, and another from Salon.com – so who are we to be behindhand? But wait; our lists will have a twist. Instead of limiting ourselves to books published in the last decade, we’re listing favorites from among the books we’ve read in the past decade, regardless of when they were published. Why? Because we’re like that, that’s why. Here goes.
The Globe makes a point of leaving J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books off of their list and Salon.com doesn’t mention them at all, but on my list they’re right at the top. I’ve heard lots of criticism about Rowling’s shortcomings as an author and much of it is valid, but frankly this isn’t anything I care about – the Potter books do not pretend to be great art. They are great stories, set in a detailed imaginary world and peopled with characters who we love and hate and fear for. The plotting is sheer genius – it develops steadily over seven books and thousands of pages, and as its intricacies are revealed, Rowling does not disappoint. I stand in awe of her epilogue, which reveals exactly enough about what happens to Harry and the rest. As I finished the seventh book I steeled myself for a feeling of sadness that it was all over, for wanting at least a little bit more. Instead, as I read the last page, I felt…happy. And satisfied. How does she do it?
Evidently I have a soft spot for adventurous English children, as my love of the Potter books and my collection of tattered E. Nesbit paperbacks will attest. That being so, I wonder that it took me so long to find Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons. Set in rural England in the summer of 1929, it tells the story of a group of children who have sailboats, a lake with an island in the middle of it, and the bare minimum of adult supervision – when they ask for their father’s permission to camp on the island he cables to their mother, “BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS, IF NOT DUFFERS WON’T DROWN.” In other words, it’s a little slice of escapist heaven.
Speaking of escapism (not to mention England between the wars) I went on quite an Agatha Christie binge this past decade. And what is there to say about Dame Agatha that hasn’t already been said many times over? Her mysteries are the bar against which I measure all others. Great writing? Not at all, her style is rather plodding. Memorable characters? Very few – apart from Poirot and Miss Marple she gets by with a stock cast of red-faced colonels, acid-tongued spinsters, absent-minded clergymen, and other familiar types. Ingenious plots? Sometimes, but she doesn’t rely completely on them, as evidenced by the fact that she sometimes recycles plots from her own books. The appeal of a Christie mystery lies in the author’s ability to trick her readers, time and time again. She never “cheats” – there are no surprises at the end of the “Hah! Here’s a vital piece of information that the reader was never given” variety. All the clues are in plain sight, but even with a recycled plot, she still gets us. My hat is off to the woman.
Nick Hornby’s Juliet, Naked is the last book I finished, and since I enjoyed it, I’ll just go ahead and add it to this list (which is seeming more and more random even as I write it.) This book is Hornby doing what he does best – illuminating the lives of an aging fanboy and the woman who loves (or at least tolerates) him and somehow making us care about their pasts, presents, and futures. The couple in question are Duncan and Annie, and the latest fly in the ointment of their relationship is the fact that Annie has begun a long-distance e-mail friendship with Tucker Crowe, the semi-obscure, completely retired, and reclusive American musician who just happens to be Duncan’s life-long preoccupation and the object of his worship. It’s good Hornby, which I consider high praise, and I recommend it without reservation as an absorbing, fun read.
Which, I now realize is what all of these books are – just good fun (and for some reason, all British…hmmm.) Maybe my colleagues, who will be posting their lists later this week, will choose some books that aren’t British and that offer a little more food for thought than my list. Maybe they won’t. As for me, the next books I read will be two that I chose from the Globe’s Best of the Decade list: Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red and Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies. We’ll see how that works out.