eMusic’s Best Books of the Decade
Listening to a book is often a very different experience from reading one, so coming up with a list of the decade’s best was a challenging task. Exquisite prose and craftsmanship are key elements of great reads, of course, but these books also have to sound good through headphones. Tight plotting and riveting narrative performances are crucial. The best audiobooks of the past ten years may not all be worthy of fancy literary prizes (although many are!). But these are the ones that changed our ways of thinking, made us laugh, grabbed us and kept us listening way past our bedtimes and long after we’d arrived at our destinations.
Note: This list contains the audio editions of books that were published between 2000 and 2009. This does not include new audio performances of books that were published before 2000.
#1 An exquisitely written book within a book within a book
Books within books are risky devices. A nested book can neither relate too neatly to its frame story nor travel too far from it, overwhelm it nor fall short of it. Happily, both Blind Assassins - Margaret Atwood's book and the book it contains - are enhanced and enriched by the other's existence.more »
The novel's main narrative traces the decline of the Chase family, a Canadian industrial dynasty, over the course of the... 20th century. We are told outright that Laura Chase, narrator Iris' sister, drove her car off a bridge following World War II. We expect her reasons might be found in the Blind Assassin, her posthumously published novel. This account of passion between a well-to-do woman and a political reactionary contains yet a third story, that of the planet Zycron and, yes, its blind assassins. Iris, for her part, gives details in abundance, spanning an entire century but only revealing half of the story. She is in no rush to reveal her secrets, and it is a credit to Atwood's talent that we relish every moment of the time she takes. Few writers could pull off such a leisurely pace without seeming artificially suspenseful, but Atwood does it with grace. Her story contains so much, and yet nothing feels extra. Every sentence of each of the intertwining plot threads is exquisite, each detail feels necessary.
#2 Beloved writer surveys everything from lobster to porn
Editor's note: David Foster Wallace passed away on September 12th, 2008. His unique point of view, his prescient observations, his humanity, his wit, are and will be greatly missed.more »
David Foster Wallace does his homework. In "Big Red Son," the first of 10 essays collected in 2005's Consider the Lobster, Wallace examines the adult film industry with the shrewd deadpan of a respected scholar. Here's how many porn starlets have killed themselves. Here's... how often the title of a celebrated 1983 porno gets mistyped in Adult Video News. Here's an excerpt from 1997's AVN Awards Best Supporting Actress' acceptance speech. Now, either we can believe that the author is secretly the Samuel Pepys of adult movies or at least its Ken Jennings), or we can simply accept the truth of it: David Foster Wallace is just that good. These essays, originally printed in Harper's, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic and such, are simply opportunities for the author to throw himself completely into his subjects. Among them: Updike, Kafka, John McCain and cruelty to lobsters. Yep, some of these pieces are long (an hour or more), but it's no sweat for a guy this skilled in wit and pacing. And besides, it wouldn't kill you to do some homework, too.
#3 Jon Stewart’s take on US history becomes even better when you hear it
"Welcome, non-reader." From the moment you hear The Daily Show host Jon Stewart's voice utter that deliciously tongue-in-cheek salutation, it's clear that this is no ordinary audiobook. As a rabid fan of both America (The Book) and its primary author (other Daily Show writers contribute), I was skeptical that this tome, with its panoply of visual jokes and lush graphics, could be successfully rendered in audio. Put simply, I was stupid.more »
The... original 2004 book version generated controversy, including a ban from Wal-Mart stores and a temporary ban from several Mississippi public libraries. However, America (The Book) was also a New York Times bestseller and generated not only America (The Audiobook), but America (The Calendar), and a paperback "Teacher's Edition" published in 2006.
If someone were to ask me whether she should pick up the print or audio version of Stewart's side-splitting send-up of our beloved nation and its governance, I would be hard-pressed to choose. With appearances from Daily Show luminaries such as Stephen Colbert, Ed Helms, Rob Corddry and Samantha Bee, the audiobook comes to life in a way that the (albeit brilliant) print version just can't. Even if you've read America cover-to-cover more times than you'd care to admit, check out the audio version. I swear on the sainted heads of our Supreme Court Justices, you won't be disappointed.
#4 Wao, indeed
Even if it hadn't won the Pulitzer Prize, Junot Diaz's first novel, the follow-up to his acclaimed short story collection Drown, would still read like the most entertaining form of Great Literature. Its transcendent prose illuminates the big issues - love, death, the immigrant experience - with the brisk, unfaltering pace of a comic book.more »
Ostensibly, Diaz tells the coming-of-age story of the titular Oscar de Leon, a geek extraordinaire growing up in... Paterson, New Jersey. Oscar is fat and unhappy, master of the role-playing game but loser in all things love-related. But the novel is alternately narrated by his sister Lola and family friend/Lola's sometime boyfriend Yunior, and as it traces the de Leon family's catastrophically bad luck (attributed to the Dominican evil spirit fuku) back through the decades, weaving in the real history of the dictator Rafael Trujillo, it becomes a wider and more fragmented mosaic, its own sci-fi/magical realist/postmodern genre.
The audio version is helmed by the smooth-voiced Jonathan Davis, who relates the story as told through Yunior, along with the convincingly earnest Staci Snell, who takes on the role of rebel teen Lola. Studded with Spanish and hip-hop colloquialisms, pop culture shout-outs and enough literary references to please an English major, The Brief Wondrous Life is as joyful a listen as a tragedy can be.
#5 This book will change your life. Or at least your dinner plans.
People often describe a favorite, classic book by saying, "Everyone should read this. "They are usually talking about Jane Austen. I would make a case for The Omnivore's Dilemma. This is a book for which I am such an evangelist that my own copy is usually absent from my bookshelf, forced upon one friend or another who made the mistake of saying they had yet to read it. It should be required... reading for anyone who ever asks, "What should we have for dinner?" which is the question Michael Pollan sets out to explore in this fascinating, remarkable work.more »
His method of inquiry is reminiscent of his previous book, The Botany of Desire: he explores 4 archetypal answers to the question, in this case 4 meals. To wit: industrial (fast food), big organic (Whole Foods), small organic (self-sustainable farm), and hunter-gatherer (wild boar, wild mushrooms, sea salt).
And what, in the end, is the answer? What shall we have for dinner? The brilliance of this book is that it shows you why and how to keep asking yourself that question, everyday, every meal. Whether your dinner plans require a kosher butcher, the absence of eggs and milk, or saying grace to the divinity of your choice, you answer the question yourself.
#6 A beach read about human cadavers? Read on…
A good writer can make the mundane seem interesting. A great writer, like Mary Roach, can make even the most morbid of topics - in this case, human cadavers - fascinating, compelling and even, perhaps most unexpectedly, funny.more »
Roach has thoroughly researched the myriad productive uses of the dead to aid the living, and the resulting work is an exhaustive guide to death and decay in antiquity and modernity, with an eye toward... the future. There are curious factoids galore here, a sampler of which reveals how little most of us know about what happens to our bodies once we expire. For example, we learn that the human head "is the approximate size and weight of a roaster chicken"; that human cadaver crash test dummies have helped save approximately 8,500 lives per year since 1987; and that "ballistics gelatin" - a variant on Jell-O - serves as a stand-in for cadaver parts in tests to determine the efficacy of bullets. Roach has crisscrossed the world, from a crematorium in China to a conference on human composting in Sweden to the University of California San Francisco Medical School gross anatomy lab. Along the way, she has asked numerous experts the questions we might ask - and a few we might not dare - about every aspect of our postmortem selves. Shelly Frasier narrates, giving personality to Roach's vibrant, witty and highly digestible descriptions of our "lives" after death.
#7 Sedaris takes on midgets, speech therapists and the French language
David Sedaris's fourth collection contains some of his sharpest and most bittersweet writing. "Go Carolina" recounts his childhood battles with a speech therapist, dispatched to cure his sibilant s, and "Giant Dreams, Midget Abilities" recalls his brushes with a midget guitar teacher, who encourages young David to think of his instrument as a beautiful women. This being North Carolina in the 1960s, young David isn't about to explain that the beautiful woman... angle doesn't do it for him, although he does suggest "Oliver" might be a fitting name for his instrument.more »
Sedaris is at his best when out of his element, as in the string of essays devoted to his back-breaking attempts to learn the French language. In "See You Again Yesterday," he bluffs his way through summers in Normandy with a growing vocabulary of disconnected and poorly chosen nouns, rapidly exhausting the semantic possibilities of "bottleneck" and "ashtray." In the title story, a tyrannical Parisian teacher does her best to crush the spirits of a class of foreign students. The author's breakthrough comes when he can comprehend every word of the abuse she hurls his way.
Like any good humorist, Sedaris writes to be read. His performances here lend the stories a touch of authenticity and the occasional uncanny edge. It's one thing to read Sedaris describe his childhood obsession with singing commercial jingles in the voice of Billie Holliday, and another entirely to hear him actually do it (and surprisingly well, at that). The lightly abridged version contains 23 of the book's stories, including a handful performed in front of a vocally appreciative audience.
#8 An oral history of the war against zombies
World War Z by Max Brooks is an "oral history" of the war against the zombies, told through interviews with the ordinary and not-so-ordinary men drawn into that global struggle. Rumors of a "walking dead" disease are ignored, governments misread or try to profit from the crisis and the human race literally has to run for the hills. Slowly, courage and common sense prevails. The book speaks with wit and intelligence to... the general feeling over the last few years that something bad is going down. Brooks, in two books now, brings a refreshing logic (yes, logic) to tales of the undead. Why would zombies stop marching at the sea? How long would it take the military to realize uranium-depleted shells were useless and what soldiers really needed were sharp, heavy shovels? When would people accept it was no use making air holes for the snarling relatives they've locked up? A book of interviews is perfect for audio, and an all star cast, including the author, Alan Alda, John Turturro, various Reiners and Mark Hamill, avoid caricature, as they bring to life such characters as an aging Chinese doctor, an Israeli operative, a CIA agent and a Palestinian youth.more »
#9 McCarthy’s bleakest, most harrowing and most intimate novel
In the ash-strewn world of a post-apocalyptic U.S., a father and son trudge their way towards the coast in Cormac McCarthy's bleak, ascetic novel. In the grip of permanent nuclear winter, the western U.S. has become like something out of Mad Max. Roving bands of scavengers patrol the few remaining roads, searching for victims to rob, rape and eventually eat. Although the unnamed father tells his small boy that they're the "good... guys," they seem to be the only ones left, the last vestige of civilization in a land bereft of hope. McCarthy's characteristically laconic prose is as immaculate as shards of bone, scattered across the lifeless terrain like the remains of some long-dead species. McCarthy's most harrowing novel is also his most intimate and spiritual, posing the question of whether faith is the last bulwark against despair, or merely a fool's inability to accept the end when it comes.more »
#10 An inspiring guide to writing for newbies and pros alike
Given the rate at which Stephen King churns out books, it's no surprise that he approaches writing like a blue-collar job and not an intangible art. Rather than fanciful new-age credos, On Writing is full of hard-nosed practical advice, which makes it invaluable to the beginning writer and a healthy reminder for the rest. A few of King's tips: Read a lot. Write a lot. Keep it simple. ("Second draft =... First draft - 10%".) And, perhaps most important, don't forget to have a life outside of writing, so you have something worth writing about.more »
King hasn't always been so balanced, as recounted in "C.V.," the book's first section. Tracing his formative encounters with the written word, the compact autobiography also covers his years of addiction to drugs and alcohol, when he might go through a case of tallboys in a day or keep a wad of cotton balls handy to plug up his bleeding nostrils. In those days, King says, he wrote on a gargantuan desk that dominated his writing room, but he now prefers a humbler post in the corner. "Life isn't a support system for art," he writes. "It's the other way around."
These days, King's primary addiction seems to be books. He says he'll whip out a paperback in the checkout line or pop in an audiobook while waiting for a light. King, who does a good chunk of his reading behind the wheel, treats the recording like a lively one-sided conversation. If you want to talk back, you'd better start typing.
#11 Rolling Stone‘s sharpest wit remembers his wife, one mix tape at a time
Even if you only knew Renee Crist as the byline on the sharpest capsules in the back of the legendary Option magazine, her death, at age 31, came as a punch in the gut. Even in the space of a few hundred words, she could convey a ferocious sense of life, one extinguished far too soon. In his musical memoir, Rob Sheffield, who married Crist in 1991 and buried her in 1997,... thinks back on their joyous, tumultuous and tragically truncated relationship through their mutual love of music.more »
A staff writer for Rolling Stone and frequent VH1 talking head, Sheffield reflexively passes his experiences through the prism of pop culture, and his knee-jerk reference-dropping occasionally grows tiresome, especially when the subject strays from his relationship with Crist into superfluous asides. What passes, just barely, for sardonic deadpan on the page sounds more like glib irony when Sheffield reads it aloud in the sibilant monotone of a college-radio DJ.
Still, the heart of the book is Sheffield's heartfelt tribute to a woman he loved, and there it's impossible to imagine anyone else behind the mic. His voice brightens as he bullet-points the subjects of their recurring marital spats, and its pitch drops noticeably as he recounts the shell-shocked months after her death, when he spent his days reading in an Applebee's so he could be sure not to run into any of their friends. In its headiest passages, Mix Tape is an inspired fusion of criticism and autobiography, as when Sheffield rereads Nirvana's In Utero not as a preemptive suicide note, but as the testament of a young husband awed and somewhat terrified by his all-consuming love for his wife. Sheffield might have borrowed a title from Cobain's widow for his strangely inspiring account of his own ordeal: Live Through This.
#12The best kind of children’s book – the kind adults love too
The best children's stories appeal to readers of all ages, and with that criteria, Neil Gaiman's Coraline is a story that can be passed up through generations as well as down. Coraline Jones is a bored, creative little girl living with her too-preoccupied parents in an apartment building outside London, shared with two dotty former actresses and a crazy old man who may or may not train circus mice. When Coraline discovers... that a mysterious door leads to an alternate world that contains her same apartment, only with her "Other Mother" (remarkably similar to her own mother, only much more evil and with buttons for eyes), dwelling inside, she is forced to fend for herself.more »
Gaiman's tale is spooky and slightly existential, but what makes it a delight to listen to is the way he, like Roald Dahl, treats his young audience seriously. He's not afraid to use funny big words and to make his heroine tough but also snotty, and to craft a story in which children do die. The result is scary and beautiful as well as entertaining and fast-moving. The author reads his own work for the audiobook, and does an excellent job with voices and tone. Listen to Coraline on a long family car trip, when you and your companions of all ages can lose yourselves in the worlds Gaiman has created.
#13 A grimly funny travelogue by the NPR darling
If you think history's boring, you're doing it wrong. Sarah Vowell - the This American Life reporter with the adorably shrill voice of an inter-dimensional imp - knows that if it bleeds, it leads. And so her cross-country pilgrimage to sites related to the assassinations of Lincoln, McKinley and Garfield is littered with bloody towels and brain bits and other antiquated grotesqueries. Vowell is not ashamed of her self-avowed death-obsession, but she's... not a ghoul, either. Her voice lowers as she reverently recreates the final moments of these long-ago-fallen leaders; she even kinda pities the murderers. That said, Assassination Vacation is grimly funny, in that what-a-world, stranger-than-fiction kind of way that makes you actually want to trek out to the backwoods Virginia home of some John Wilkes Booth conspirator or give the chronically unlucky Robert Todd Lincoln a big old hug. Seriously. The dude has seen some things. (Fans of this book are likely trivia buffs, and so might be interested to learn that the audio version boasts brief vocal walk-ons by Conan O'Brien, Catherine Keener, Dave Eggers, Stephen King, Tony Kushner and other unrelated notables.)more »
#14 A powerful and profound prelude to Beloved
It is arguable that the defining moment in Nobel laureate Toni Morrison's storied canon is in her iconic 1987 novel Beloved, when a runaway slave kills her infant daughter to save her from a similar fate - in other words, out of mercy. In her first novella in five years, Morrison returns to this moment in title and otherwise. In A Mercy, she tells a similar story, set nearly 200 years earlier,... from several different perspectives.more »
At the center is Florens, a precocious 16 year-old slave girl, and her life on a farm somewhere "in the north" of America circa 1690. Surrounding her are her master, the relatively compassionate Anglo-Dutch landowner Jacob Vaark and his wife Rebekka; an Indian servant Vaark rescued from a disease-riddled tribe; a mulatto slave named Sorrow; and a free African blacksmith, with whom Florens falls in love. Beneath this rich portrait of early American slavery is another voice - that of Florens' mother, who gave her daughter up not out of indifference, but out of mercy. At the core of this lovely, lyrical novel is the rawness of a newly colonized America, which ultimately saves the story from feeling too similar to its masterful predecessor, making it, instead, a powerful and profound prelude.
#15 The story of 20th-century classical music
he often-misunderstood world of 20th-century classical music is fortunate to have an advocate as capable as Alex Ross. A critic for The New Yorker, a devoted music blogger and a recent MacArthur Genius, Ross has taken the lead in popularizing contemporary classical without dumbing it down. The Rest Is Noise, his first book, is the rare layperson's history that can also satisfy the experts. Telling the story of classical music since... 1900, the book conveys Ross's delight in this music without sacrificing the intellectual rigor it often demands.more »
Ross starts with Mahler and Strauss, whose music formed a bridge that crossed from the extravagant Romanticism of the late 19th century to the strange modern music of Schoenberg, Cage, Stockhausen and beyond. Although the music is always the center of his focus, Ross also delivers stirring portraits of the composers behind it: especially strong are his evocations of Schoenberg, the uncompromising prophet of atonality who nonetheless craved popular respect, and Shostakovich, the maverick and innovator who played an anxious game of cat and mouse with the Soviet authorities for the better part of his career.
Throughout, Ross's story is enriched by an awareness of the greater cultural trends against which 20th-century classical music was composed. Beyond the obligatory inclusion of the two World Wars, Ross also shows how the music was impacted by popular music, literature, social and religious movements, and more. His breadth of knowledge is further proven by an exhaustive roll call of composers, although one of the book's few flaws is that too many of them are jammed in near the end. Several years in the making, The Rest Is Noise is a substantial work, a popular history of 20th century classical music against which all further entries in the field will have to be judged.
#16 A history of the inhabitants, both human and animal, of Warsaw zoo in WWII
At first, it seems like a too-weird-to-be-true, high-concept movie pitch: in wartime Warsaw, Jews hide in abandoned animal cages as bombs burst around them - and Nazi scientists plot the revival of extinct Aryan animals. However, The Zookeeper's Wife is actually a much rarer breed of narrative, a genteel World War II story that turns out to be as much an elegy for Warsaw's lost intelligentsia as a cloak-and-dagger Resistance thriller.more »
Warsaw Zoo... director Jan Zabinksi brought his wife Antonina to live in a villa overlooking the Pheasant House in 1931. At the time, Warsaw was one of the great European cultural centers. The Zabinskis adored holding plays and performances on the zoo grounds, encouraging artists of all stripes to use their animals as creative material. This halcyon period did not last, of course. By 1939, Hitler had begun his brutal progress East, and the Zabinskis, like all Poles, faced a new and terrifying reality. However, they did not submit to Nazi rule, even as their prize animals (including a baby elephant!) were removed to zoos in Germany. Instead, they chose ever more dangerous paths. While raising children and a menagerie of animals, they stored a cache of Underground guns beneath the elephant enclosure, and hosted an expanding coterie of "Guests" - Jews and political undesirables - in their house and on their grounds.
Predominantly a natural history writer, Diane Ackerman has the eyes and ears of a poet (she is, in fact, a published poet). The Zookeeper's Wife could have been a straight history of a fascinating time and place, but Ackerman finds the tragic-comic heart of the Zabinskis' world, relishing every detail. It is easy to see how she might identify with Antonina, a truly sensitive woman, whose acute understanding of animal behavior extended to the best and worst of humankind. Suzanne Torren's precise diction feels appropriately old-world for this story.
#17 Ian McEwan brilliantly illustrates the dangers of a single lie
Ian McEwan's lapidary novel hovers just on the edge of being too beautiful. Set mainly in the run-up to and during World War II, the story opens in a sprawling, dusty English country estate, and then moves to the front lines, both at home and abroad. McEwan's writing is immaculate, as pretty as a period piece, but you don't always feel the sweat and blood seeping through the pages.more »
The simmering romance between... Cecilia Tallis a priggish, pampered artistocrat, and Robbie Turner the son of her family's housemaid, however, does not fail to get other juices flowing. Their furtive coupling in a darkened study is powerfully erotic, and the surest sign that McEwan does not feel bound by the rules of the story's era. (Surest, that is, until the book's startling coda, about which one shall henceforth keep schtum.)
Every Eden has its snake, and theirs is 13-year-old Briony, Cecilia's smart, sullen sister, a precocious tyrant who writes novels and plays for her own amusement. When her playmates decline to act their assigned parts in the play she's written, Briony creates her own drama, unfairly pinning a horrendous crime on Robbie and ushering in an era of bloody reprisals.
Intriguingly, McEwan's villain acts as his surrogate. Briony may be a monster, but she is also an author, and her arrogance is that of a creator who expects her puppets to do her bidding. The sin that occurs in the novel's first part provides for the attempted expiation of its second, but the true nature of Briony's penance is hidden in the space between words. Whether her contrition amends her crime or compounds it is a question that lives on after the book's covers have closed.
#18 A haunting sci-fi masterpiece by the author of The Remains of the Day
Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go chronicles the lives of a group of isolated children raised in a bucolic countryside boarding school in late 20th-century dystopian Britain. This sweeping work by the author of The Remains of the Day was shortlisted for the famed Booker prize in 2005 and listed in Time magazine's list of the 100 Best English-Language Novels since 1923.more »
When I began listening to Never Let Me Go, I... was immediately struck by the first couple lines of narration in the story: "My name is Kathy H. I'm 31 years old, and I've been a carer now for over 11 years." The voice of the narrator, British actress Rosalyn Landor, seemed much too old and sophisticated to be believable as an average woman in her early 30s.
But Kathy H. is no average woman, and Never Let Me Go is no average story. And as I continued to take in the tragic tale of Kathy H. and her friends Ruth and Tommy, I soon realized that only a voice as haunting and powerfully melancholic as Landor's could do justice to Ishiguro's masterpiece.
#19 The gripping debut volume in the now-famous thriller trilogy
In this gripping debut - the first installment of a trilogy swiftly becoming a publishing sensation - disgraced financial journalist Mikael Blomkvist accepts a confusing but lucrative freelance assignment: move from Stockholm to a rural town in northern Sweden to help the elderly Henrik Vanger, head of a once-dominant industrial family, and find out what happened to his grand-niece Harriet, who disappeared 40 years ago. The case is a commanding twist on... the famed locked-room mystery - due to unusual circumstances, the suspect list is limited only to members of the Vangar family, a deeply twisted clan with a harrowing set of secrets. Eventually, Blomkvist teams up with the titular heroine of the book, a savvy but anti-social technological savant 25 years his junior. The unlikely pair tackles not only Harriet's case, which turns out far grislier than expected, but also the corrupt corporation that caused Blomkvist's professional downfall.more »
Stieg Larsson, who died suddenly shortly after finishing his trilogy, was, like Blomkvist, a journalist and political activist, and his treatment of corruption both large and small is intelligent and piercing. The translation is imperfect, but stiff prose is easily overlooked thanks to masterful plotting, an evocative setting and a set of complex heroes whose deep flaws make them all the more appealing.
#20 A page-turning history that reads like a novel
Never was truth more stranger than fiction than the story of one of America's earliest serial killers, the man calling himself H.H. Holmes (though Herman Mudgett was his real, more mundane name.) While the World's Fair was entertaining hundreds of thousands of visitors in 1893 Chicago, Holmes entertained himself in diabolical fashion by torturing and murdering over a dozen unlucky souls at a nearby hotel. Instead of a standard true crime novel,... The Devil in the White City is something greater thanks to Larson's masterstroke of alternating the increasing terror of Holmes' crimes and architect Daniel Burnham's quest to create an imaginary city on the grounds of the World's Fair. The result, read in somewhat workmanlike fashion by Tony Goldwyn, unites diverse components to make a concerted point about the changing face of America at the dawn of the 20th century.more »
#21 An account of the War on Terror that makes you feel it in your gut
Dexter Filkins wasn't there from the beginning, exactly, but for a Western journalist, he was definitely one of the first. "There" meaning the front lines of what came to be called the War on Terror and its arenas of a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and the post-invasion Iraq. Filkins, a New York Times correspondent, chronicles his time - running from about 1998 to 2007 or so - in both countries in The Forever War,... constructing beautiful, immersive vignettes that recall Michael Herr's great Vietnam book Dispatches. Nothing can touch the manic energy of Dispatches, those little vignettes snowballing and cascading into an orgy of despair and violence, but The Forever War is one of the most human accounts of war and its victims that I have ever read.more »
Here's the best way I can think to illustrate this: whereas any other Western writer might see a battle between Afghan warlords and the Taliban as a fight between "warring tribal factions" waged by "a young Taliban fighter," Filkins sees people. He talks to them, shares their names, sees past the cultural divides. He can write about talking to a powerful Afghan warlord and realizing that the man was a hick - a hick, he actually uses the word - and uneducated, and how the warlord realized that Filkins realized that, and the way the conversation shifted as a result. It's the way you might recount to a friend the interaction you had with someone at the mall. Somehow, Filkins always connects on a very human level. It's startling.
That said, Filkins doesn't hesitate to condemn or cast judgment. Certainly he's more of a moral relativist than anyone in the American government, but you'd be surprised by the hard lines he's willing to draw. He sees evil. Not on a cultural or political level but, again, on a human level. And we can sense from Filkins' experienced, weathered voice that this is a man who has seen pain and hard times, this is a voice that is qualified, that we can trust.
Filkins puts himself into his story. He talks about daily life in Baghdad, and its rapid disappearance after L. Paul Bremer's disastrous decisions as head of the Coalition Provision Authority. He talks about his friendships with both American military leaders on the ground and the leaders of both the Iraqi government and resistance. He even has nice things to say about Ahmad Chalabi, praising his wit, intelligence and conversation skills, all the while investigating and questioning his relationship with Iran. (Filkins even visits Tehran with the former INC leader.)
There are plenty of Iraq books that offer a damning, expansive view on all of this occupation's flaws, but there are few that make you feel it in your gut. That share the utter horrors of war, the way it has punished the normal people in Kabul or Tikrit. Filkins doesn't have answers. But he can explain why war is cultural in Afghanistan (Afghans were shocked when the US military and then Al Qaeda began fighting there; they were trying to kill each other, whereas for Afghans, war is closer to a very serious game of pickup basketball. Victory and defeat are not measured by death, but in honor.). He can explain the insane lives that Iraqi interpreters must live. He can tell us about the heartbreaking death of an American soldier. He can explain this forever war, and the horrific costs it has ravaged. For that, we owe him our thanks.
#22 More sly epiphanies from one of North America’s greatest writers
"The things that were wicked mysteries to others were not so to her and she did not know how to pretend about them," writes Alice Munro about a teenager named Lauren in "Trespasses," taken from Munro's excellent 11th collection of short fiction Runaway. The quote encapsulates what's made Munro probably the greatest living North American writer. These young Canadian girls and women from small towns flirting with the idea of joining the... 20th century live in half-shaded worlds, but they experiment with the other half, to mixed results. If the fruit they taste isn't exactly forbidden, it doesn't bring them knowledge either.more »
Munro's girls possess febrile imaginations; they make choices that usually leave their kin dumbstruck, and there's almost always a cost. In "Passion," a hotel employee accepts a ride to the hospital from the married son of the older couple she's befriended, an alcoholic doctor. The protagonist of "Tricks" enjoys a brief night with a Slovenian clockmaker that her awakening libido transforms into something momentous. Munro, herself a writer who came to maturity near the end of the century, avoids grand epiphanies. Her stories begin with a whirl of incidents and images that gradually build, alert to marks of class distinction: these are women who pin extra money to their underwear in case they lose their purses. Similarly, you can't read Runaway in one sitting; Munro's filigrees reveal themselves when you're doing the dishes or fighting with your parents, both of which her characters might recognize.
#23 Sharp African stories from a promising new voice
Given the weight of his compelling New Yorker short stories and the fact that he was shortlisted for the "African Booker," Uwem Akpan's first collection, Say You're One of Them, comes with high expectations. Akpan, a Jesuit priest turned writer, grandly delivers. His stories of an impoverished Africa are bracing without being heavy-handed, and the strong audio narration might make you forget you're listening to someone reading a book.more »
From the horrors of... the Rwandan genocide to a mother letting her son sniff glue in order to stave off hunger pangs on "Ex-mas" night, Akpan's themes are bleak. Yet his light touch and skillful presentation make the stories more engrossing than depressing. Part of this is due to Akpan's narrators, as each of the tales in this collection is seen through the eyes of a child. Without sentimentalizing his subjects, Akpan uses his young protagonists' naï¿½vetï¿½ to both deconstruct the lives of the adults and imbue his stories with hope. The results are daringly honest, energetic narratives.
Much has been made of Akpan's dialogue, which mixes French and English with pidgins and African languages like Idaatcha and Egun. Although the mï¿½lange of tongues can be difficult to navigate on the page, the audio version shines. Wire cast member Dion Graham and actor Robin Miles draw on African accents and rich impressions to render the dialogue at once foreign and comprehensible.
Say You're One of Them marks the powerful debut of a talented voice in contemporary fiction. One longs to see which side of Africa Akpan will explore next.
#24 A book for baseball wonks and business gurus alike
Statistics don't lie. Just ask Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane. In 2002, Beane, a one-time New York Mets first-round draft choice whose own career went bust, turned the team with one of the smallest payrolls in major league baseball into a fiercely competitive, financially successful franchise. How did he do it? By ignoring the advice of seasoned scouts - and letting the numbers do the talking. Ideal recruits, claimed Beane, were... batters with the best on-base percentage and pitchers with significant numbers of ground-outs. His unusual approach landed Beane amateur players largely overlooked by deep-pocket teams like the Red Sox and Yankees. Among them: pitcher David Beck, whose eerily double-jointed left arm immediately earned him the nickname "The Creature."more »
Former bond salesman and bestselling author Michael Lewis (Liar's Poker, The New New Thing) is in clear command of his material, and his enthusiasm for the game is contagious. This is a great choice for baseball wonks, business gurus and everyday folks inclined to root for the underdog. As a longtime Dodger fan, I'm not one to get overly invested in the A's, but Lewis's vivid descriptions of negotiations in the Oakland boardroom sent prickles of sweat down my neck.