Five favorite fiction titles of the new millennium (actually eighteen, with twelve nonfiction titles and some music thrown in for good measure)

September 23, 2009 at 7:10 pm (books, Music)

So I get an e-mail from The Millions, asking me to name the five best fiction titles I’ve read since the new millennium. I ignored the request for as long as I could. Then I got prodded again, informed that  the deadline was fast approaching, and would I mind awfully responding to this request?

So, here  goes…

I began by looking at my yearly “Best of” compilations on this blog, and at older lists that I’ve archived in hard copy. I was facing, as you can well imagine, a challenging task.

What became clear at the outset was that many of my favorite books in recent years have been nonfiction:

barnes *********review**************

Historical true crime; a book that haunts me still...

Historical true crime; a book that haunts me still...

discovery ***review*** – actually I did more than one post on this astounding book, which introduced me to, among other wonders, French people on stilts: stilts. Equally amazing was the discovery, in the pages of Robb’s chronicle, of a connection between one Madame de Genlis (1746-1830) and a small, very old,  overlooked volume on my own bookshelf:  the-travellers-companion-2.

In honor of France, that rich repository of the arts, here is the Barcarolle from one of my favorite operas, Tales of Hoffmann (“Les Contes d’Hoffmann”) by Jacques Offenbach. The singers are soprano Irina Iordachescu and mezzo-soprano Cristina Iordachescu. (And yes – they are sisters, from Romania.)


Food is ordinarily my least favorite subject for either reading or conversation. But Michael Pollan offers some revelatory insights on the subject; in addition, he writes with wit and brio.

omnivoresand its companion volume, which I reviewed:food.


best-american-magazine All of the essays in this  collection are excellent; several are extraordinarily powerful. I was horrified and outraged by Susan Casey’s “Our Oceans Are Turning into Plastic…Are We?” and fascinated by Caroline Alexander’s portrait of mountaineer Reinhold Messner. Alex Ross, whose writing about music is superb, wowed me yet again with his analysis of the miracle that is Mozart’s music.

And Eric Konigsburg’s “Praire Fire” will haunt me forever.


Here are Jeffrey Tate and the English Chamber Orchestra performing the final movement of Mozart’s Symphony No. 41, the “Jupiter:”

( The individual who posted this video has appended some very nice commentary; you can read it here.)


I treasure the two histories artfully woven by Italian journalist Andrea di Robilant from the cloth of his own history: venetian2 lucia.  If you’re looking for a love story with the resonance of Romeo and Juliet, look no further than A Venetian Affair.

Like Andrea di Robilant, Josceline Dimbleby reaches into her own past to tell the poignant story of May and Amy Gaskell. This is the kind of quintessential English story that I am continually seeking.  may The fact of this book’s strange synergy with Penelope Lively’s novel The Photograph only adds to its intrigue and fascination.

At this point, there are four biographies I’d like to mention. Jenny Uglow’s Nature’s Engraver introduced me to Thomas Bewick, an artist of whom I had not previously heard. natures-engraver One of the joys of this book lies in the in which Uglow recreates Bewick’s world, in a way that only the best historians can do.

I could not find words sufficient to praise Donald Worster’s  magisterial life of John Muir. This is probably the most poetical biography I have ever read. I was flagging passages of exceptional eloquence; this is how the book looked by the time I finished it: john-muir-book

John Muir’s name is being heard rather frequently at present, with Ken Burns’s documentary series on the national parks about to be shown on public television. If you want to know more about this great man’s eventful life and tremendous achievements, look no further than Worster’s superb volume.

I’m going to slip a 1999 biography in here, since it pairs so well with Worster’s book: olmsted3 Like Donald Worster, Witold Rybczynski gives us a meticulous yet leisurely examination of a life of consequence. In the process, an entire world is recreated. One thing that fascinated me in particular was the story of Olmsted’s travels in the antebellum South. He recorded his observations, and they include his Northerner’s incredulity that such a way of life could not only exist but could be taken for granted as right and normal.

At any rate – outstanding biographies of two great men. I have given them both as gifts to my brother, who has a deep and abiding interest in American history.

John Muir

John Muir

frederick Law Olmsted, painted by John Singer Sargent

Frederick Law Olmsted, painted by John Singer Sargent


Finally, there is this book: tchaikovsky. It may be a cliche to say a book changed your life, but – this book changed my life. As I read about the composer’s childhood and youth, the grandeur and mystery of nineteenth century Russia rose up before me; it became a world that was almost more real than the one I was actually in. And then the music…I’ve always loved Tchaikovsky, but I began to hear his works in a new way, especially the symphonies. And for the first time I became acquainted with the magical Suites Number One and Two for Orchestra, courtesy of my husband, who is so expert at ferreting out the world’s hidden musical treasures.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: 1840-1893

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: 1840-1893

In a post on Leonard Bernstein, I embedded a video of Michael Tilson Thomas leading the San Francisco Symphony in the fiery final of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. In the clip below, Barenboim leads in the Chicago Symphony – known as “the mighty Chicago” in our house – in a performance of the same music at Carnegie Hall in 1997:

And here is Bernstein knocking himself in an effort to teach music appreciation to an audience of skeptical teenagers:

“I want it, I want it!” – few things in life can ever top Bernstein when he’s in full showmanship mode. As these young people attained adulthood, they probably realized that their teacher meant a particular kind of wanting, more accurately, I think, called yearning: for love, for a meaningful life, for reassurance as the end of that life draws near.

I was supposed to be writing about fiction, right? Ah well…there are many more nonfiction titles that I could mention here, but it really is time to move on.


My original list of fiction titles from which to cull my five favorites numbered twenty-eight. I made no distinction between novels and story collections, or “literary” fiction and  crime fiction. I found that I was doing battle with myself on several fronts. While I wanted to name authors that I feel deserve more recognition, I believed equally that I should try to evaluate each title on its merits, whether or not the author were already well known. I wanted to make sure that at least one title from my favorite genre made the cut, but again, I didn’t want to include such a title solely for that reason. No worries on that score, really; I’ve read plenty of terrific crime fiction since 2000.

After much proverbial gnashing of teeth, I settled on the following Five:

by_the_lake.large case-histories

unaccustomed ideas-of-heaven

dialogues2Lack of coherent structure is one of my chief complaints concerning contemporary fiction. Case Histories, on the other hand, is one of the most elegantly structured modern novels I’ve read. In addition, Atkinson made me laugh out loud – that is, when I didn’t feel like weeping.

The two story collections could not be more different from each other, yet both, in their uniqueness, are superb. I reviewed the Lahiri at some length in this space; the Silber, more briefly. When asked to select a book and lead the discussion in January for my friends in AAUW, I was torn between these two titles. Ideas of Heaven had a slight edge because of its stunning variety of subject matter. I look forward to re-reading it.

I consider Dialogues of the Dead to be among the best in Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe series. (Two others I strongly recommend are On Beulah Height and The Wood Beyond.)

John McGahern’s gorgeously written novel is in a  class by itself. By the Lake plumbs the human condition so deeply that it breaks through to a kind of eternal truth; namely, that certain rites of daily life confer a kind of holiness and immortality on those who are caught up in them.

John McGahern: 1934-2006

John McGahern: 1934-2006

I look forward to reading By the Lake again – and again…


I began my e-mail to Max of The Millions (Maximilian?) with the sentence: “This is excruciating!” For one thing, there were  numerous titles that I consider to be on a par with the above five. Among them:  The Careful Use of Compliments and The Miracle at Speedy Motors by Alexander McCall Smith, The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher, The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa, To Heaven By Water by Justin Cartwright, Saturday by Ian McEwan, Digging To America by Anne Tyler, The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers, Intuition by Allegra Goodman, The House on Fortune Street by Margot Livesey, The Girl of His Dreams by Donna Leon, Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy… and on and on. It’s ridiculous, as you can plainly see.

The exercise was enjoyable, if a bit masochistic!


  1. kathy d. said,

    This is a great list. Although I rarely read nonfiction, it is nice to read about these books.

    On the fiction, I do like Kate Atkinson and Jhumpa Lahiri. Will have to look at some of the other books. Am drawn to Reginald Hill now and just checked with a friend who does like his books. Will start with the suggested ones.

    But would love to know all 28. One gets reading suggestions from others’ lists.


  2. kathy d. said,

    And I do love Donna Leon although can’t remember which of her titles I like the best as I’ve read all of them. Enjoyed Anne Tyler’s Digging to America.

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