The Worm Awakens: The Decade In Review (Part 1)

on Friday, December 13, 2019
Well, it’s been close on a year and my resolution to reinvigorate this here blog has come to naught. Almost a hundred and twenty books down and not a peep from me, even when Jesse Ball put out something new. Seriously, I might as well have been in a coma. Anyhoooo... a few days ago I woke from a fever dream with the revelation that I was ready to start again, to venture back out from my hole of literary self-absorption (I’ve spent the last two years galavanting about the place spruiking my own book) and write about some novels I’ve loved. And what better way to start than with a decade in review: my top 20 books of the… um… teens? Post-naughties? Pre-twenties? Shit, has anyone actually worked out what we call the last ten years? But I digress.

On average, I read about 120 books (overwhelmingly novels) a year. Sometimes more than that, occasionally fewer. I used to keep a detailed book diary but, being the technological troglodyte that I am, it was on the local drive of my old computer that one day just cacked it on me and, well, here I am, left to rely on my 8th grade maths skills. So can we all just smile and agree I've read somewhere between 1,200 and 1,500 books since 2010? Sifting through my Bookworm posts, I’d forgotten quite how much I'd loved some of them and now I’m desperate to reread them. If only I had the time. Guess I’ll have to settle for splashing about in the jacuzzi of nostalgia that is a Top 20 list.

Before I do, though, I want to give a quick shout out to three non-fiction books that absolutely blew me away. First up, Patti Smith’s stunning memoir of her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, Just Kids (2010). Has there ever been a better reflection on New York's countercultural boom? Ten years on and I still think about that beautiful friendship, its triumphant marriage of art and humanity, and how tragically it ended. Next up, Behrouz Bouchani’s incendiary prison memoir (is that even the right category?), No Friend But The Mountains (2018). A damning indictment of contemporary Australia, made even more relevant in the wake of the current regime’s doubling down on inhumanity. Bouchani is the true north to Australia’s moral compass, and his book is as important as Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago or Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man. Finally, one of the few books that have fundamentally changed the way I think about the world, Who Killed My Father (2019) by Édouard Louis. I’ll have more to say about this in the coming weeks, but Louis’s J’Accuse against France’s capitalist structure and the collateral damage it makes of its workers is heartbreaking, infuriating and as close to downright perfect as any modern political tract could possibly ever be.

Alright, on to my Top 20 of the Decade. Now, I'm not claiming these are the best books written in the past ten years but they are most certainly my favourites. Kicking things off with numbers 20 to 11:

20. Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander (2014)
Hands down the funniest book of the decade. The premise alone is downright hilarious - neurotic Jewish guy escapes to a dilapidated house in the country only to find an elderly Anne Frank hiding in his attic, working on the follow-up to her diary. But it is the battle of wits that follows that will have you howling with laughter, with the odd pause to wonder just how sacrilegious Auslander’s whole undertaking really is. Unadulterated, irreverent genius.

19. An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine (2014)
This beautifully wistful novel about an old woman locked in her basement in war-torn Beirut, dutifully translating classics got me right in the feels. Aaliya is one of the most endearing characters I’ve met in a book, and her witty, sometimes cutting opinions on literature and life are just marvellous. Read it and feel better about the world. Full review here.

18. How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu (2010)
A lovelorn time machine repairman reminisces about his life and the relationships that have shaped it. And how he might use his shitty job (it ain’t as glamorous as it sounds) to change it. Yu has been disappointingly quiet of late but, hey, when you pull out a masterpiece this early in your career, why not sit back and take a break? Or, you know, shoot yourself far into the future and let the people of 2374 enjoy your next outing. Full review here.

17. A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler (2015)
In the year that everyone fell over themselves to praise Hanya Yanigihara’s massive gut punch, A Whole Life, it was a similarly titled, much smaller book that really did it for me. Seethaler’s quiet, spare tale of an unremarkable man watching the horrors of the 20th century unfold around him in the Austrian alps is absolutely extraordinary. A masterclass in narrative containment.

16. The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray (2016)
I don’t know what it is with me and these bonkers science-tinged benders, but god I seem to love them. Maybe it’s just that their subjects tend to be so far out of my wheelhouse, or that they touch on familiar themes in new and exciting ways. Or just that, when done right, they are a magnificent joy to read! Whatever. All you need to know is this: John Wray wrote the best of them. Taking in everything from theoretical physics, kooky cults, pickling (of the gherkin variety), the Holocaust and the culture wars, The Lost Time Accidents absolute floored me. It’s a riveting, joyous romp of a read. Full review here.

15. The People In The Trees by Hanya Yanagihara (2013)
Yeah, yeah. You loved A Little Life. You thought it was the best book of the decade. Well, you’re wrong. Fight me. Granted, it was pretty good but face it, Bucko, it wasn't THAT good. It wasn’t even Yanagihara’s best book. That honour goes to the morally complex, deeply unsettling The People In Trees, in which Yanagihara asks one of the most important questions of modern times: how much can we forgive genius for the moral failings of its vessel? And trust me, when it comes to this particular genius - a scientist who discovers a tribe who might possess the secret to eternal youth - the failings are colossal. Full review here.

14. Black Rock White City by A.S. Patric (2015)
Winner of the 2016 Miles Franklin Award, Black Rock White City is one of the greatest invocations of immigrant life in Australia ever put to paper. Wrapped in a carapace of existential mystery, this astounding novel is ultimately a meditation on displacement, marginalisation, casual racism and what it means to be Australian in the wake of national and personal trauma. It was my book of the year in 2015, and remains a favourite that I revisit from time to time. Full review here.

13. Our Souls At Night by Kent Haruf (2015)
I was late to the Haruf party. He’d already died before I read a word. But there was something about the collective grief at his passing, and the air of celebration about this, his swan song, that left me with no choice but to pick it up. Simple in what it has to say - two elderly neighbours find companionship (or is it love) following the deaths of their partners - it is Haruf’s delicate style and gentle, gorgeous prose that renders this little book a masterpiece of human connection and compassion. Full review here.

12. The Fates Will Find Their Way by Hannah Pittard (2011)
You know how some books just lodge themselves in your soul and refuse to leave? How they keep ebbing and flowing in the tide of your consciousness, causing you to suddenly think of them at the least likely of times? Well, I can’t think of any book that does this more for me than Hannah Pittard’s incredible debut. The novel traces the lives of a group of small-town kids in the years following the abduction of their friend. From teenage life into adulthood, it tracks the ripples of grief while proffering some truly profound insights into the way our moral understanding evolves over time. A remarkable book, and one of the finest debut novels I’ve ever read.

11. Census by Jesse Ball (2018)
There are many ways to honour the memory of someone you have loved and lost but nothing I’ve read comes close to the surreal beauty of Census, Jesse Ball’s homage to his brother. The references are oblique; this story of an old man taking his son across a strange landscape as he tries to make a census of its populace captures the spirit of Ball’s love more than any straightforward memoir could possibly have done. It is a novel of enormous heart, and one that chokes me up every time I venture back into its pages. Full review here.

Well, that's enough to digest for one sitting. Check back soon for my Top 10.


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