This was a post I was not going to write. But when a flurry of Best of the Decade write-ups began doing the rounds, it got me thinking on my reading over all these years.
And I must say, in this regard, the last decade has been nothing short of spectacular. So much so that the prior periods don’t even come close. Not by a long shot.
So what made this decade such an amazing one for my reading?
Well, I started following a lot of amazing fellow book bloggers, who introduced me to a whole range of excellent books out there. Most of these books were completely new to me. It also inspired to me to start a blog of my own, even though that was pretty much towards the end of this decade.
The online marketplace also changed the scenario dramatically. Making a note of the books that looked tempting was one thing. But being able to buy them online changed the game altogether for me, simply because most of these books were not stocked in bookshops I visited in Mumbai.
And then of course, I feasted upon releases and reissues by publishing imprints such as NYRB Classics, Pushkin Press, Peirene Press, Penguin Modern Classics and some more. In the latter half of the decade especially, my reading widened to translated literature as well.
What I have done for this post is to select the top two books in each of the ten years. These were the best books I read that year (and not necessarily published that year).
So without much ado, I present to you My Best Books of the Decade…
The Impostor – Damon Galgut
Damon Galgut was a big find for me in 2010 as I devoured three of his books in quick succession. I couldn’t really decide between The Impostor and In A Strange Room, but finally picked up the former. On any other day, that could very well change, which in a nutshell really means that both are great. Here I will focus on The Impostor though.
After being kicked out of his job in Johannesburg, Adam Napier moves into an abandoned dwelling on the dusty edge of a remote small town. It’s a ramshackle property lent to him by his brother, a crooked developer. The house is located in the Karoo, a kind of a semi-desert in South Africa, practically in the middle of nowhere, where the atmosphere is eerily still and ominous.
Adam, meanwhile, is hoping to recover from the loss of his job and his house in the city. He has accepted that “disappointment is the dominant theme of his life.” And yet, he has ambitions to become a poet and hopes the solitude in this new environment will get his creative juices flowing.
One day, by chance, Adam meets Canning – a mysterious and shadowy figure from his past. Canning immediately recognizes Adam as his childhood friend and greets him warmly, but Adam has no clue who he is. To make matters murkier, Adam is intrigued by Canning’s enigmatic and beautiful wife, Baby.
While The Impostor has all the delicious ingredients of a thriller, the novel is also a statement on the greed and corruption in South Africa post-apartheid. Galgut’s prose is top notch – spare, lyrical and absorbing with not a word wasted. There is a sinister air that pervades the novel, which is both unsettling and gripping at the same time.
Any Human Heart – William Boyd
Any Human Heart is a wonderful, ambitious novel by Boyd told in the form of diary entries of a single man’s life against a landscape spanning the twentieth century in many continents – the Bloomsbury set, the General Strike, the Spanish Civil War, 1930s Americans in Paris, wartime espionage, and New York avant garde art. The central character is Logan Mountstuart and he chronicles his life from his early childhood in Montevideo, through his years at a Norfolk public school and Oxford, tracing his haphazard development as a writer.
We learn of his successes, his failures, his marriages and his alcoholism, with 20th century events serving as the backdrop and a richly etched supporting cast.
Stoner – John Williams
Stoner sank without a trace when it was first published in 1965. But once NYRB Classics reissued it in 2003, ‘Stoner’ went on to become a cult classic. It is now also published by Vintage Books.
The protagonist in the novel is William Stoner, born in poverty to parents who are small farmers. They just about scrounge some money to pay for his education. But they make it clear that he needs to major in a degree related to agricultural sciences. So that he can put to use the knowledge gleaned in the farm when he takes over from his father.
Stoner starts out his education accordingly, but as the year progresses, he decides to switch to a completely different subject. Agriculture is not for him. He develops a passion for literature and language and chooses to become a professor in this field.
The book then is an account of both his professional and personal life. Professionally, we learn of the crippling politics that mar university life and how Stoner is not spared from it either.
Of his personal life, we are given a glimpse of his marriage to Edith, the subsequent unhappiness in this union accentuated by lack of communication, an awkwardness also present in his relationship with his daughter Grace. And then comes along a passionate affair which has ramifications for Stoner both professionally and personally.
Stoner, then, is by no means a flashy hero. But he leads a full life and that too with dignity. This is a beautifully rendered novel and John Williams’ sensitive writing makes the story of this ordinary man quite extraordinary.
The Slaves of Solitude – Patrick Hamilton
The Slaves of Solitude was the first Patrick Hamilton novel that I read and I fell in love with it.
The backdrop is England in the middle of World War II, a war that seems to show no signs of ending. Meanwhile, the main setting is the boarding house located in the suburban town of Thames Lockdon. The central character is Miss Roach, a middle aged woman, who is renting a room in this boarding house run by Mrs Payne. Here on a daily basis she has to deal with mind numbing boredom and the bullying at the dinner table by the nasty Mr Thwaites.
Miss Roach is savvy and sensible but to escape from her drab surroundings, she starts going out drinking with a wayward American lieutenant, a relationship based on rather shaky grounds. And then comes along Miss Roach’s friend Vicki Kugelmann, whose presence makes the proceedings in the boarding house only livelier.
Hamilton is great at portraying London at the time of war, the great uncertainty permeating daily living, and the drab and dull existence of its inhabitants. And his depiction of the claustrophobic confines of a boarding house – the politics, the nastiness, the excruciating boredom – is spot on. In addition to this, there are also some wonderful comic scenes in the novel, all of which make The Slaves of Solitude a heady cocktail not to be missed.
Mrs Bridge – Evan S Connell
Mrs Bridge is a gorgeous novel told in 117 short vignettes. It is based in Kansas City and centres around a well to do family – Mr and Mrs Bridge and their three children. However, as the title of the novel suggests, the story is mostly from the perspective of the mother.
Mrs India Bridge is a housewife in Kansas City and much of the action and drama is of a domestic nature either at home or the social clubs of which she is a part of. Her husband, Walter Bridge, has a steady, well-paying job allowing the family to live in comfort, but he is away most of the time.
The novel has no plot as such. A lot of it revolves around the fears and anxieties of Mrs Bridge, which is conveyed to us through her actions, rather than being explicitly stated. Mrs Bridge, then, addresses many themes such as the claustrophobia of domestic life where a housewife is waiting for something to happen, class differences, and the dynamics of family life in a smaller American city. It’s a stunning novel and its sequel Mr Bridge (told from the husband’s perspective) is just as good.
The Doctor’s Wife – Brian Moore
I have read only a couple of Brian Moores, but both have been brilliant – The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne and The Doctor’s Wife.
Sheila Redden is a quiet, thirty-seven-year old doctor’s wife and is on a holiday in the French Riviera. It’s where she and her husband had their honeymoon twenty years ago, and she is looking to recreate some of that magic. Sheila’s husband is delayed because of his work, but Sheila heads to France anyway.
Little does she suspect that after a chance encounter in Paris she will end up spending her holiday with a man she has only just met, an American ten years her junior.
Four weeks later, Sheila is nowhere to be found. Own Deane, her brother, follows her steps to Paris in the hopes of shedding light on her disappearance. But will Sheila ever reappear?
The Doctor’s Wife is a gripping, poignant read. As ever, Brian Moore is brilliant in his portrayal of women when faced with an internal crisis.
My Face for the World to See – Alfred Hayes
This is the first Alfred Hayes I read (a fab one), and a good reminder that I need to read his other two books too.
As per the blurb on Goodreads…My Face for the World to See is set in Hollywood, where the tonic for anonymity is fame and you’re only as real as your image. At a party, the narrator, a screenwriter, rescues a young woman who staggers with drunken determination into the Pacific. He is living far from his wife in New York and long ago shed any illusions about the value of his work. He just wants to be left alone. And yet without really meaning to, he gets involved with the young woman, who has, it seems, no illusions about love, especially with married men. She’s a survivor, even if her beauty is a little battered from years of not quite making it in the pictures. She’s just like him, he thinks, and as their casual relationship takes on an increasingly troubled and destructive intensity, it seems that might just be true, only not in the way he supposes.
Hayes is great at conveying the desperation in this relationship and the trappings of Hollywood. A stunning, stunning book.
The Ripley Novels – Patricia Highsmith
Patricia Highsmith was a real find this decade. I began with the novel she is most famous for – The Talented Mr Ripley. And having loved that one, went on to devour the next two books in the Ripley series – Ripley Underground and Ripley’s Game.
Tom Ripley is a murderer and a psychopath. But what is so fascinating about Highsmith’s storytelling is her uncanny ability to make the reader root for him. There is great psychological depth in her characters and an overall feeling of delicious dread and unease all due to the sheer quality of her writing, which is stylish and compulsively readable.
Also, while the Ripley Novels are a great place to start if you have not read her before, her non-Ripley books are equally brilliant. Those which I would particularly recommend are The Cry of the Owl, Deep Water, Edith’s Diary and This Sweet Sickness.
Dept. of Speculation – Jenny Offill
Dept. of Speculation is a wonderful, heartbreaking read. A slim novel, the story is a portrayal of the first heady days of romance to the bitter reality of the protagonist’s husband having an affair. While this is a theme done to death in countless novels, where Offill excels is in the narrative technique. The story is told to us in scraps and fragments, which taken together form a very powerful whole.
Offill is also brilliant at depicting the early days of motherhood – the mundaneness of looking after the baby’s needs interspersed with moments of unrequited and unquestionable love for the child. The novel also examines the role of women – Can they be mothers and have a fulfilling career at the same time?
For instance, in the novel, the protagonist in particular wanted to be an ‘art monster.’
‘Women almost never become art monsters, because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.’
Offill’s writing is fresh and raw and tugs at the heartstrings.
Traveller of the Century – Andres Neuman
What a fabulous book this turned out to be. Here’s the central premise of the novel…
Searching for an inn, the enigmatic traveler Hans stops in a small city on the border between Saxony and Prussia. The next morning, Hans meets an old organ-grinder in the market square and immediately finds himself tangled in an intense debate—on identity and what it is that defines us—from which he cannot break free.
Indefinitely stuck in Wandernburg until his debate with the organ-grinder is concluded, he begins to meet the various characters who populate the town, including a young freethinker named Sophie. Though she is engaged to be married, Sophie and Hans begin a relationship that defies contemporary mores about female sexuality and what can and cannot be said about it.
Traveller of the Century then is a wonderfully intellectual novel, brimming with ideas and discussions on art, philosophy, literature and love. Very immersive reading!
The Vegetarian – Han Kang
I keep harping about how amazing The Vegetarian is. And this is another chance for me to do so.
One day, Yeong-hye decides to stop eating meat – an act of revolt unheard of in Korean society, thereby shocking her family. Combining three tales told from the viewpoints of Yeong-hye’s husband, brother-in-law and sister (Yeong-hye is the central focus in the novel although we never hear her voice), The Vegetarian is an excellent novel that examines rebellion, mental illness, and desire. It’s the book that has made me a fan of Han Kang and I intend to read every novel of hers that is released.
The Awakening – Kate Chopin
First published in 1899, The Awakening is a remarkable book and is widely seen as a landmark of early feminism.
Edna Pontellier is a wife and mother with a comfortable home and a conservative husband. But marriage with its insistence on social conventions distresses her and so does motherhood with its relentless demands. She yearns for independence and a creative life of her own.
And then one day she meets Robert Lebrun and succumbs to his devotion. It also unleashes a desire in her to discard social mores much to the alarm of her husband and pursue her passion for art. What will be the consequences of these actions for her and those around her?
The novel was considered radical in its time and sent shockwaves through American society and a lot of its themes resonate even today.
The Blue Room – Hanne Orstavik
Just a few weeks before I talked about how Hanne Orstavik is a writer to watch out for when I wrote about her superb novella, Love. But what made me want to read Love in the first place? It was because of how brilliant her earlier novel The Blue Room was.
Johanne is a young woman in her twenties who lives in Oslo with her mother. When she falls in love with Ivar, she finally feels ready to leave home. The couple plan a trip to America. But on the morning of her departure, Johanne wakes up to find the door of her room locked.
Has her mother locked the door? Why? It’s Johanne who is the narrator of the story. But how reliable is she?
The Blue Room is an excellent portrayal of a mother-daughter relationship, one where the mother seems to be overprotective. It’s a novel dripping with uneasiness, something that is the trademark of Orstavik’s writing as was amply visible in Love too.
Play It as It Lays – Joan Didion
Play It as It Lays begins with an internal monologue by Maria Wyeth, who is in her early thirties and in a psychiatric institution. The only thing keeping her going is her daughter Kate. Maria is not keen on going over her past, a topic that the psychiatrists are interested in exploring. But we do learn of what went on before, and this is narrated to the reader in short, sharp chapters that make up the rest of the novel.
A not so happy account of Hollywood ensues and Maria’s journey oscillates between highs and lows, as she hurtles towards a statis in her acting career and a collapse of her personal life.
Maria begins to indulge in self-destructive behaviour. She plunges into long nights of compulsive driving, wandering Southern California’s freeways, through motels and bars, drinking and chancing sexual encounters with actors and ex-lovers before being finally institutionalized.
Didion’s evocation of 1960s Los Angeles and Hollywood is brilliant – a mix of glamour and grimness. But what stands out is the quality of her writing. It is intense yet detached, and endlessly fascinating.
Compass – Mathias Enard
Enard’s Compass is a massive 445-page tome and takes place over a single night; all in the mind of the Austrian musicologist Franz Ritter. Ritter is suffering from an unnamed illness, terminal probably and he is prone to bouts of insomnia.
This is one such night then when he is unable to sleep and so spends all those hours thinking about his travels in Istanbul, Aleppo, Damascus and Tehran. Most have been in the company of the French scholar Sarah for whom Ritter carries a torch; there are many sections where he reflects on his unrequited passion for this fiercely intelligent woman.
Enard’s basic theme is that Western writers, musicians, artists and Western culture in general owes a lot to influences from their Eastern counterparts. Thus, while in political terms there might not be much in common between the two regions, when it comes to culture, both the East and the West have learnt immensely from each other. Compass is erudite yet accessible and abounds in cultural references as diverse as The Arabian Nights, Agatha Christie, Mahler, Don Quixote, Kafka, Beethoven, Layla & Majnun.
It is a paean to the Orient, an ode to Otherness, and Enard’s passion for the Middle East shines through in this brilliant novel.
Solar Bones – Mike McCormack
Solar Bones is a wonderful, quiet story of a man, his whole life, his work, his marriage, his children set in a small town in Ireland. This novel was the winner of the Goldsmiths Prize in 2016.
The novel opens with the sound of the Angelus bell. Marcus Conway hears this bell as he enters his home and realizes it is empty with none of his family members around.
Marcus Conway uses this moment to reflect on his entire life, the moments of happiness interspersed with many trials and tribulations. We learn that Marcus is a civil engineer responsible in a small way for the building of roads, bridges, buildings during the boom time in Ireland, now all of it having gone bust.
Marcus also recalls his marriage, scenes of intimacy with his wife, and then her debilitating illness, which almost destroys her. He also thinks back on his relationship with his son who is in Australia trying to figure what to do with his life next. And with his daughter, who is a budding artist and holds her first solo exhibition with a painting medium that shocks him. But more often than not Marcus ruminates on the pressures of his job, and the corruption of highly placed officials in his field.
The narrative style is unusual and innovative, quite poetic infact. This is no linear narrative though as Marcus reflects on many things, not necessarily in any particular order. This then is an ode to small town life, a novel suffused with moments of happiness, loss and yearning, and quite simply beautifully penned.
The Cemetery in Barnes – Gabriel Josipovici
Josipovici’s novel begins on a quiet note in Paris and then moves on to become darker and unsettling. In just 100 pages, we are introduced to three stories across three time spans in three places (London, Paris, Wales), all involving the protagonist who is a translator and good at his work. Our narrator ruminates on the art of translation, makes frequent references to Orfeo, the French poet du Bellay’s poems, and Monteverdi’s opera – and because of Josipovici’s masterful storytelling skills, it all feels seamless and lucid without ever coming across as either complex or knotty. But the best thing about this book is how wonderfully ambiguous it is making it open to multiple interpretations.
Basic Black with Pearls – Helen Weinzweig
Here is the intriguing blurb from NYRB Classics – “Shirley and Coenraad’s affair has been going on for decades, but her longing for him is as desperate as ever. She is a Toronto housewife; he works for an international organization known only as the Agency. Their rendezvous take place in Tangier, in Hong Kong, in Rome and are arranged by an intricate code based on notes slipped into issues of National Geographic. But something has happened, the code has been discovered, and Coenraad sends Shirley to Toronto, the last place she wants to go.”
Told from Shirley’s point of view, it quickly becomes clear that things are not what they seem, and we are left with a narrative that is surreal and disorienting, but all in a good way. Is this then a straightforward espionage tale or something deeper and complex? Weinzweig’s idea for this multi-layered novel was inspired by the Canadian artist Michael Snow’s Walking Woman sculpture series – the concept of a one-dimensional woman moving nowhere.
The Neapolitan Quartet – Elena Ferrante
Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels took the world by storm when they were published, and My Brilliant Friend – the first book in the quartet – is where it all started. Set in a poor and violent neighbourhood in Naples, these novels chart the friendship between two women – the fiery and fiercely intelligent Lila Cerullo and the clever and hardworking Elena Greco. Their story begins in My Brilliant Friend when the girls are eight years old and ends with the last novel The Story of the Lost Child when the two women are in their sixties. Intense, frenetic, cinematic in scope with richly drawn characters, all the four books are fabulous. I came very late to these books, but it was essentially high quality binge reading!
The Copenhagen Trilogy – Tove Ditlevsen
It was thanks to Twitter that I discovered the joys of Tove Ditlevsen’s memoirs.
Childhood, Youth, Dependency (together called The Copenhagen Trilogy) are three brilliant, short books which explore the themes of writing, marriage, parenthood, abortion and drug addiction in a very frank voice. Ditlevsen’s prose is clear, unadorned, and highly absorbing.
One interesting thing about the trilogy is how the mood differs in each of the books. While Childhood is intense and gloomy, Youth is more lighthearted with moments of comedy. Dependency is the best of the lot, quite unsettling and harrowing in some places. Overall, the trilogy is a remarkable piece of work.
That’s it from me. 20 fab books. Looking forward to another super decade of reading beginning tomorrow.
Happy New Year!