Well, it’s list time again. The first decade of the century is behind us, and what have we got to show for it? Right. Best not to think too much about it. But at least there were the books, and some great ones! Here are the titles that really sang for me, either because they were just what I needed, or because they are incredible pieces of work, or both. Either way, if you haven’t read these, you’re missing out Here are ten books that will be well-worth reading far into the next decade and beyond:
River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, by Peter Hessler (Travel/Memoir)
The mid-1990s saw an exodus of young would-be writers to foreign parts, people like Josh Swiller, Tom Bissell, Rolf Potts and others. I love all their work, partly because I was one of them too, but Hessler’s account of his two years teaching in Fuling are something truly special. The place and its people come to life. You fall in love with it and feel like you’ve lived there too. There is no higher praise for a book about life elsewhere.
The Death of Vishnu, by Manil Suri (Fiction/Novel)
I read this book while doing a profile of Suri for Poets & Writers, and it has stayed with me ever since. It tells the story of Vishnu, an apartment building’s errand man who lies dying on the landing which is his home while life goes on around him. It is equal parts brutal, funny, tender and sometimes wise, much like what I imagine life in urban India is like.
Population 485, by Michael Perry (Nonfiction/Memoir)
When I tell people about this book, I feel like I always have to qualify: No, it’s not as boring as it sounds! That’s probably not fair, but I can see they don’t believe me that this book about life in a small Wisconsin town is one of the best books about life in America to come out in the last decade. It’s full of humor and pathos and big characters. More to the point, it has a transcendent quality which is hard to convey in an elevator, to someone important. You just have to read it.
God Lives in St. Petersburg: and Other Stories, by Tom Bissell (Fiction/Short Stories)
When I first read these stories, I was amazed and moved, but I also felt a rush of pride that someone from my generation had produced a work of art of such clearly lasting value. The stories are spare, and hit you deep down. They are full of vivid scenes, unflinching portraits and hard won bits of wisdom. If God lives anywhere, it’s in this kind of storytelling.
The Yacoubian Building, by Alaa Al Aswany (Fiction/Novel)
I stumbled into this book after hearing an interview with Al Aswany on the BBC. It was conducted in his office where he still (at that point) ran his dental practice. I got completely lost in the book, and his depiction of Cairo, probably even more than if I had actually gone to Cairo. It is an intimate, raw and empathic portrait of the lives of the men and women trying to find their way through the labyrinth of modern life there.
Them: Adventures with Extremists, by Jon Ronson (Nonfiction)
I can’t think of many writers who could write about Islamic fundamentalists, neo-nazis, Bilderbergers, and a former BBC sportscaster who thinks the world is ruled by lizard people, tie it all together and have it make sense. But Ronson has done just that, and his romp through our collective nightmares (and his own) is hilarious, alarming and disarming. A fascinating document of our delusions, and just a great read.
What Is the What, by Dave Eggers (Fiction/Memoir)
Of all Egger’s contributions to literature in America, this, for me, is the best. The journey of Valentino Deng from Sudan to America is epic, the stuff of legend; a journey to rival The Odyssey. There are many such stories in Africa, but they are usually only told in an effort to get you to open your wallet. But this story (a kind of lightly fictionalized memoir) unlike so many others, is unburdened by guilt and untainted by the zeal that ruins so much other writing about the continent.
The Places in Between, by Rory Stewart.(Nonfiction/Travel)
Not long after both the twin towers and the Taliban fell, Rory Stewart decided it was time to complete in the missing link in his walk across Asia, and to walk across Afghanistan. It was winter, and the odds were against him. But armed with great language skills, a wealth of knowledge about the country’s long and illustrious history, Stewart made it. The only thing more remarkable he wove all that erudition and adventure into this seamless, transporting read.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Díaz (Fiction/Novel)
This book was long in coming, and the bar was set very high by Diaz’s previous short story collection, Drown. But it was worth the wait. I read this for an assignment, before the hype machine had really kicked, before the awards started being handed out. But I knew from the tears on my cheeks when I finished it, that Diaz had done something new and real and great.
Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, by Christopher McDougall (Nonfiction)
Since I already effused about this book below, I’ll just say that aside from the running aspect, this one does so many things on so many levels that a great nonfiction book should do: It tells an amazing story (with many others told along the way), it make some important points, and it changes the views many of us had about how we arrived at the point we’re at today. What more can you ask? Oh, and it’s just a lot of fun.