An Abundance Of Person (You were created from genius and born to greatness. Book 1)
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But the time frame is not quite as random as it may seem. This mini-era packed in the political, social, and cultural shifts of the average century, while following the arc of an epic narrative perhaps a tragedy, though we pray for a happier sequel. They also reflected the fragmentation of culture brought about by social media.
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But given the sheer volume of stuff published each year, it is remarkable that a survey like this would yield any kind of consensus—which this one did. Almost 40 books got more than one endorsement, and 13 had between three and seven apiece. At least one distinctive new style has dominated over the past decade.
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Whether it changes the world is, as always with books, not really the point. It helps us see more clearly. Better not launch this canon into space just yet. By Christian Lorentzen. It is also, more precisely, a novel about universal human potential.
Genius 101 (Psych 101)
A boy undertakes rigorous training and goes in search of his father. What makes it a story of our time is that the boy lives in an insufficiently heated London flat with a single mother. What makes it singular is that his training begins at age 4, when he starts to learn ancient Greek, before quickly moving on to Latin, Hebrew, Arabic, Japanese, Finnish, etc. Is this boy, Ludo, a genius? Sibylla, his mother, is of two minds about it.
Mill, who did Greek at age 3. So a novel that appears on the surface to be elitist — concerned as it is with great works of art, scientific achievement, and excellence generally — is actually profoundly anti-elitist at its core. She knows it happened to her parents — a teenage-whiz father who was accepted to Harvard but made to go to seminary by his Christian father; and a musical prodigy mother who never went back to Juilliard for a second audition — and to herself. Whatever the world had in store for Sibylla changed forever the night Ludo was conceived.
Per our panel. The Corrections , by Jonathan Franzen September 1, 6 votes Arriving in bookstores ten days before the September 11 attacks, The Corrections recounts the tragicomic breakdown of a 20th-century American dream of middle-ness: midwestern and middle-class.
The Lamberts, with their mentally disintegrating patriarch, Christmas-obsessed mother, and grown siblings tackling depression, professional failure, adultery, and celebrity chefdom, may not seem as universal as they once did, but the sensation of certainties evaporating as we pitch headlong into this still-young century has only gotten stronger. DISSENT: Freedom August 31, I prefer this in large measure because it focuses on a feature of human life that has gotten less fictional coverage than family and love: male friendship.
The ratio of taut plot to ghastly subject matter is disturbingly effective. Kathy H. The questions it raises are perfectly of-our-century. Never Let Me Go is a prime example of an author with impeccable taste in ideas and the control to execute them.
A Premature Attempt at the 21st Century Canon
Most authors are lucky if they have one of those things going for them. This novel is a rare symphony of both. How Should a Person Be? Slipping imperceptibly from ironic to earnest, challenging to chatty, her voice is sui generis and ideally suited to capturing the experience of making art — and decisions — in the modern world. The concerns of her breakout work of autofiction include sex, self-documentation, aesthetics, and friendship, as well as the titular question. The title is a perfect joke, a mission statement of deranged grandiosity, straight-faced and self-aware.
Across four books and over the lifetimes of its two unforgettable main characters, the Neapolitan quartet explores female rage, agency, and friendship with a raw power. All that over a decade when women have begun to express their anger and agency in new ways.
Lila and Elena grow up inured to the violence and corruption that defines their hometown of Naples in the s, even as they yearn for something better: beauty amidst the ugliness, and intellectual fulfillment, which can be as heady as romantic love. Her 21st-century classic is structurally just that kind of awoke re-shuffling. The book is a world: teeming, immeasurable, unplumbable, materially solid but finally enigmatic.
Yet Faye is less a protagonist than a character-shaped black hole, pulling stories and confessions out of everyone she encounters as if by inexorable gravitational force. Their disclosures allow Cusk to examine the ways we try and fail to make meaning out of life.
The result is fiction like ice water, cold and clear, a mirror of our time. At the same time, the novel opens out into a deeply moving portrait of England careerning from the quiescent s into the horrors of World War II. A bravura account of the Allied retreat from Dunkirk stands as one of the most indelible combat scenes in recent literature, slamming home the confusion, terror, and banality of war with visceral immediacy.
The 21st century is young, but this one will be on this list 50 years from now. The narrator, a self-loathing stoner American poet on a fellowship in Madrid, is a privileged jackass trying to appear deep. How can we live with our own fraudulence? Why should we make art, and what kind of art can we make now?
To all these questions Atocha Station is an answer. DISSENT: September 2, is the story of a poet and novelist the author of a book very much like Leaving the Atocha Station as he contemplates in vitro uncoupled parenthood, radical politics, fleeting love, and a looming, potentially lethal arterial condition. Lerner moves from touristic escapism and the question of artistic fraudulence to the deeper burdens of settling, reproducing, and creating something great. On top of that he gives the much bemoaned Brooklyn novel a good name.
Kushner sets her heroine, Reno, in the middle of all of it, usually astride her battered Moto Valera; passionate, vulnerable, relentlessly curious, and only a little bit compromised. The book is a feminist action-adventure, a love note to the last decade before neoliberalism choked the world, and a monument to sheer gumption. Books endorsed by two panelists. Erasure , by Percival Everett August 1, The University of Southern California English professor has published some 30 volumes, mostly fiction, and Erasure is among his best.
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A comic romp through academic pieties and perversities, it centers on a literary hoax gone bad, in ways that predicted our current higher-educational climate. Everett is always, in a sense, writing about race, and always not. He also writes about himself — and not — with a Hitchcock-like cameo in the form of a derelict-in-his-duty, wastrel of a literature professor by the name of Percival Everett.
Downtown Manhattan is their center of gravity, but these characters have been scattered, before waking up to find themselves so much human debris in the wake of personal failures, betrayals, and AIDS. The Known World , by Edward P. Jones August 14, This intimate portrait of the great national nightmare of slavery comes disguised in the britches and mourning dresses of an antebellum historical novel.
It was widely praised upon publication for revealing an obscure chapter of American history — free people of color who owned slaves — but the history itself was largely invented. Having denied the consolations of historical distance, The Known World forces a reckoning with a moral horror that lives still. The novel begins in a buzz of fear and the pitch increases steadily, unbearably. The Line of Beauty follows a young gay man, Nick, who lives with the family of a Tory MP under Thatcher — who makes an unforgettable cameo appearance.
This is the story of two initiations. How we care for people in pain is at the heart of this moving, unsentimental look at our fragility, written with remarkable metaphorical and lyrical power. This is McCarthy at his most restrained, and consequently most resonant. There is no fiction subject more trendy and more urgent than the multifarious possible ends of the world; McCarthy led the way, and might be impossible to surpass.
Some poets are easy to love; Seidel is so good you revere him despite yourself. He also captures the absurd melancholy of modern existence in dark, crystalline stanzas. It could be written for an audience in ascendancy, told in vernacular but expertly formed and composed. It could concern the intensely personal, but telescope out to the historic and the political. The astounding Oscar Wao did all of that, leaving us with a lasting understanding of the American experience as encompassing lives beyond our blinkered borders.
Wolf Hall , by Hilary Mantel April 30, Any writer could have done the research that informs this remarkable historical novel.
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But only genius, gimlet-eyed, wicked Hilary Mantel could have created the animating intelligence at the heart of it: Thomas Cromwell, adviser to Henry VIII, antagonist to Thomas More, brilliant and ambitious, heartbroken and ruthless. No book this learned should be so wildly entertaining. Fox , by Helen Oyeyemi June 1, Not since Angela Carter has a writer subverted classic fairy-tale tropes the way Helen Oyeyemi does, to transformative effect.
Fox has the brains and the heart to win over both those who enjoy unraveling how fiction works and those who just seek pure enjoyment. My favorite by a nose is Lives Other Than My Own , a book that defies tidy summary, but which, though preoccupied with the very saddest human experiences — the deaths of a young child and a sibling — is also believably a book about happiness, one which earns its happy ending.
But this book kept me pinned to its pages until the end. Whitehead has written terrific novels that more directly address the horrors of American history, but never one that more accurately portrays the horrors of the American present. DISSENT: Sag Harbor April 28, This thoroughly uneventful but linguistically dazzling autobiographical account of an upper-middle-class black holiday enclave accomplishes what very few books attempt: to remove the contemporary black experience from the realm of extremes. Unlike the more zeitgeisty Underground Railroad , this is neither a lament about subjugation nor a tale of individual escape.
It neither denies the persistence of racism nor revels in the lingering wound. In this book as in real life, anti-blackness is but a single facet of the black experience. It is genuinely fresh. She unpacks layered cultural identities in the tradition of Dickens, Eliot, and Austen. If Smith was in E. Dalloway— esque journey through London. NW is not only about the intersecting lives of characters who grew up together in a Northwest London housing project, but also leveraging the complexity of the modernist project to ask difficult questions about race and social status.
White Girls , by Hilton Als January 1, En route to the airport, I ask one of my boyfriends to tell me, in his own words, why White Girls belongs here. As it happens, the boyfriend has, stored on his phone, favorite lines from the book. My Struggle: A Man in Love , by Karl Ove Knausgaard May 13, What was it about this thoroughly Gen-X Norwegian man that caused so many readers to plunge into his struggle — an epic stretching over nearly 4, pages — as if it were their own?
Was it the agony of his relationship with his alcoholic father?