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The 20 Best Books of the Decade (2000-2009)

November 6, 2009  |  7:00am
The 20 Best Books of the Decade (2000-2009)
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10. David Foster Wallace: Consider The Lobster And Other Essays [Little, Brown and Company] (2005)
Wallace’s final collection keeps breaking your heart, and not just when you’re reading “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart.” That mind, containing multitudes. That matchless maximalism, literally breathtaking. He hooks us with nouns, the personsplacesthings of contemporary culture—talk-show hosts, state fairs, cruise ships. Then he captures us with verbs. Forget the lobster. Wallace shows us considering. He is all action and propulsion, a mind at work, more alive than we will ever be. Anne Trubek

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9. Jonathan Safran Foer: Everything Is Illuminated [Harper Perennial] (2002)
We shared it with our loved ones, pressing it into their hands like a locket. This astonishing story of self-discovery—of loss and hope and faith and sacrifice—is the story of every immigrant, every wanderer and sad romantic. It is fiction and fable. It is ancient and modern. It is guileless. It reminds us who we were and where we came from, and it shows us how to love for all time. Nick Marino

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8. Joan Didion: The Year of Magical Thinking [Knopf] (2005)Carving out a unique place in the lexicon of memoir, Didion documents her husband John Gregory Dunne’s death and her state of mind in the year after. The sequence of searingly painful scenes is articulated with such clarity that they have the opposite effect of what we expect: Rather than depress, the book liberates and inspires. In an almost unprecedented literary voice, Didion combines great depth of feeling with a journalist’s cool detachment. The reader comes away feeling honored at having been included. Rosanne Cash

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7. Craig Thompson: Blankets [Top Shelf Productions] (2003)
Blankets is Craig Thompson’s lyrical bildungsroman told in graphic-novel form. Maligned and mistreated by his religious family and community, a self-loathing Thompson grapples with faith and love only to discover that loss is everywhere. The expert drawings and absorbing narrative depict the inherent sadness in growing up, but the real resonance is found in the marriage of text and image. Amanda Stern

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6. Markus Zusak: The Book Thief [Knopf] (2005)
By some unfathomable marketing logic, publisher Knopf labeled Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief as young-adult fiction. Formerly called “juveniles,” YA books typically lack the swearing, sex and inscrutability of “adult” literature, and publishers can sell them to schools by the score without fear of parental backlash. Despite its reductionist label, The Book Thief transcends age and most other categories and has found its footing among adults. Since its publication in ’05, this remarkable, deeply emotional Holocaust tale—narrated by Death and focused on the maturation of a grieving girl named Liesel—has stayed on bestseller lists around the world. Orphaned by the loss of her Communist parents and traumatized by the death of her brother, Liesel is adopted by an Aryan family as the Nazis take power. She learns to read after stealing three books, and the words she comes to love resuscitate her heart. Then she meets Max, the Jew her new family hides in the basement at their collective peril. Critics always search for books that will be read long after we are gone, and The Book Thief is without question one of these immortal works. Destined to join Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Anne Frank’s diary in the rarified reaches of category-transcending triumphs, Zusak’s masterpiece belongs in the highest ranks of serious literary achievement. I wept when I finished it, partly out of its passionate, fervent humanity, and partly because I wanted it to go on forever. David Langness

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5. Jeffrey Eugenides: Middlesex [Picador] (2002)
In many ways, Middlesex resembles Eugenides’ 1993 debut, The Virgin Suicides: Both novels are heady with self-discovery, closely kept secrets and fumbling sexuality, all etched in the author’s gorgeous, quivering prose. But Middlesex mines a deeper, richer field. The book tills three generations of a family’s evolution from Greek farmers to Detroit suburbanites, ultimately grappling with the unimaginable burden laid by history on the body of Calliope Stephanides. It’s a masterpiece—beautiful, brave and devastating. Rachael Maddux

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4. Marilynne Robinson: Gilead [Farrar, Straus and Giroux] (2004)
In this Pulitzer-winning novel, dying 76-year-old Reverend John Ames pens an explanatory letter assessing his checkered lineage for his six-year-old son. Although the missive is chockfull of Ames’ theological contentions and his own shortcomings, it never once dips into that loathsome territory of storytelling as sermon. Instead, his commentary is quietly profound. It creates an aching hope that we, too, may be so enlightened when our time comes to pass from this world. Elissa Elliott

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3. Cormac McCarthy: The Road [Knopf] (2006)
Don’t believe The Road is great because of its meditations on the human condition. It ain’t. The Road is an adventure book. That’s why it’s great. A father and son travel an American wasteland, avoiding bands of cannibals. Sound like fun? Hell yeah. McCarthy spares the ponderous “wisdom” that can sometimes make his work a slog. Father and son are hunted. Starving. Probably doomed. Father despairs. Son has faith. Both are right. That’s beyond wisdom—that’s eternal truth. Victor LaValle

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2. Dave Eggers: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius [Simon & Schuster] (2000)
We understand any mixed emotions about this pick. Eggers himself has moved on from this book’s hyperactive po-mo voice, and progressed to a more mature style—shouldn’t we move on, too? Doesn’t this debut memoir, published at the dawn of the century, seem dated? No. Please resist the reflex to knock A Heartbreaking Work as outré. Recall instead how hilarious, smart, vibrantly alive and simply fun this book was to read. And read it again. Thomas Mullen

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1. Michael Chabon: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay [Random House] (2000)
Ever since my eyes lingered over the concluding sentence of Michael Chabon’s magnum opus and I pressed the book shut with a gale-force sigh of yes indeed, I have owed The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay this little fan letter. To simply recount Kavalier & Clay’s narrative—a pair of cousins reunite in 1939 in New York City, combine their artistic gifts and ultimately help usher in the Golden Age of Comics—misses the point. Plenty of authors can unspool a fascinating yarn. What sets this particular novel apart is the alchemical explosion triggered by the convergence of Chabon’s 200-proof delight in the comic-book artform with the writing craft and conscientious research he invests in every single one of his novels. What is the comic-book formula if not an exaggerated Technicolor recasting of the American ideal? A world of perfect moral clarity where Good and Evil wear bold, legibly written nametags? A world in which sheer will and determination can propel a man to skyscraper-leaping heights? Our heroes, a pair of mere mortals, spackle over their crippling insecurities by writing and drawing men of steel. Chabon paints the superhuman fantasy with such gleeful strokes that you recoil when faced with the crushing reality that would-be Clark Kents like Josef Kavalier and Sam Clay—like you and me—have hearts of kryptonite. Jason Killingsworth

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