Overlooked Books of the Decade

What should have been on your nightstand this decade? The Daily Beast picks the most overlooked reads of the past 10 years—none of which involve a wizard, a vampire, or a code.

By the Lake
By John McGahern


This is nothing less than one of those novels which reflect life itself: Very little happens, but everything matters. The conversations, loves, losses, appetites and routines of a small, lakeside community in Ireland are captured in startlingly high resolution. Cattle trudge through muddy fields, and people turn their collars against the wind—but to what end? The answer will be different for everyone who reads it.

World War One: A Short History
By Norman Stone


Norman Stone has a rare gift, particularly for a nonfiction writer: Not a word of his feels wasted, or a sentence superfluous. He puts that talent to good use in this short history of a very big topic. The result is a work of real scholarship, which will leave you more knowledgeable—and wanting, craving, to know more.

Requiem for the East
By Andreï Makine


Few novelists manage to mix critical acclaim with household popularity. But, for the Russian-born French author Andreï Makine, the gulf between the two seems especially—and unfairly—wide. The literati throw all sorts of bouquets in his direction: comparing him to Nabokov, likening him to Proust, and saying he's a cert for the Nobel Prize one day. But, so far, his work doesn't quite seem to have seeped into the popular consciousness. If you want to close the gap, then his Requiem for the East is as good a place to start as any. The full sweep of Stalin's purges, of the Cold War and of 20th-century ideology can be found within its pages. But it's Makine's ability to capture the small and the personal that is really compelling—and which, more than anything, conveys the tragedy of a people overcome by events.

Sepharad
By Antonio Muñoz Molina


Imagine a collage on top of a collage on top of a collage. Now imagine that each collage is made up of fragments from post-War Europe: diaries, news reports, conversations, memories, fears, that kind of thing. What you've got is Antonio Muñoz Molina's multistorey (and multistory) novel Sepharad. Few other books relate, quite so powerfully, how the horrors of history, of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, can impact on individual lives. The truth, in this case, is terrifying.

Tokyo Year Zero
By David Peace


David Peace is fast becoming a British Institution. His books are more or less routinely hailed by the London critics. They go on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies. And then they're made into acclaimed films and television dramas. But, even over here, his Tokyo Year Zero seems to get treated like a footnote, a minor work. For my money, though, it's his best novel yet: a crime thriller whose beat is the fear and anguish of post-war, post-Hiroshima, post-Nagasaki Japan. The question it asks: Can anything rise from the rubble?

Austerity Britain, 1945-1951 and Family Britain, 1951-1957
By David Kynaston


Two books here, published two years apart, but it wouldn't feel right separating the first entries in David Kynaston's intended seven-volume history of post-war Britain. What he achieves in both is extraordinary: Nonfiction that is as readable as it is exhaustive, as warm as it is quirky, as personal as it is universal. Which is to say: It succeeds on practically every level. By the time Kynaston gets round to finishing this project, he'll have written one of the finest ever chronicles about an age and its people. It deserves the widest readership possible, and not just in Britain.

The Amalgamation Polka
By Stephen Wright


It's funny how family trees work out. On one branch you've got Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain, a serious-minded odyssey through Civil War America; the kind of thing that can be made into movie starring Nicole Kidman. On another branch, you've got its unhinged cousin, another odyssey through Civil War America, only this one more delirious and riotous at every turn: Stephen Wright's The Amalgamation Polka. As for who'd make the movie, I don't know. Maybe Kenneth Anger. Either way, Wright's book loses none of the emotional impact, for all its strangeness.

Piano Notes: The World of the Pianist
By Charles Rosen


Non-pianists, fear not. Charles Rosen's study of piano music is so fluent, so impassioned, that it's difficult not to get pulled in. Like Alex Ross' more recent The Rest Is Noise, it manages that most difficult feat: conveying, in words, the full wonder of music and musical experience. A joy whether you're a full-blown keyboard addict, or just someone who cares to dabble.

Never Apologise: The Collected Writings
By Lindsay Anderson (edited by Paul Ryan)


Ignore the fact that none of the articles collected in this book were written during the past decade; just be grateful we've got them all in one handy volume. Their author, Lindsay Anderson, is now best known as the director of films like This Sporting Life (1963), If.... (1968), and O Lucky Man! (1973). But he was also one of the 20th century's most incisive and insightful critics. Here we've got his film reviews, his polemics on the state of cinema, his essays on his own films, his writing on theater, and even his views on criticism itself. Dip into it regularly, and consider it an education.

The New Frontier
By Darwyn Cooke


Darwyn Cooke's The New Frontier is Big News among comic-book fans, but it hasn't made the same leap into mainstream respectability as, say, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon's Watchmen. Maybe it's because, on the surface, it's the stuff of geek heaven: a tale that overlaps Golden Age superheroes, like Superman, Wonderwoman and Batman, with their Silver Age counterparts, Green Lantern and The Flash. But its scope is more wide-ranging than all of them. Like your typical episode of Mad Men, The New Frontier is really about the 1950s/60s America in which it's set; a melting pot of hope and paranoia. Oh, and Cooke's retro artwork is a treat.

Woman's World: A Novel
By Graham Rawle


Here's one for the shelf marked “Books that shouldn't work, but do.” Woman's World by Graham Rawle is essentially one long gimmick: a novel made up of over 40,000 genuine clippings from women's magazines of the 1960s. But a gimmick needn't be a bad thing. What we get here is a literary triumph as much as it is a visual one. Proof that words really are recyclable.

Experience: A Memoir
By Martin Amis


OK, so everyone has heard of Martin Amis. Everyone has read The Rachel Papers, Money, London Fields, and all those other great novels. But has everyone read Experience, the first volume of his memoirs? I'm not so sure. Despite the healthy critical reception it received at the time, even hardcore Amis fans seem to neglect it. Which is a shame. After all, what he produced here is perhaps his most tender and incisive work; not only an account of his unfinished life, but a clear-eyed examination of just what it means to live. This is, simply, our greatest literary stylist at his peak.

The Murder Farm
By Andrea Maria Schenkel


Immensely popular in its native Germany, Schenkel's debut novel, Tannöd, crossed English-speaking waters with a kinetic translation and an evocative new title: The Murder Farm. The contents are as eerie, and as grimy, as those three words would have you believe. The story starts with the horrible murder of a farmer and his family in a 1950s village, and, from then on in, it's propelled along on a stream of blood, tears, and suspicion. The joy—if that's what you call it—comes from piecing together the babbling testimony of the various surviving villagers. But, be warned, it hardly paints a kind portrait of humankind.

Pandora in the Congo
By Albert Sánchez Piñol


As the Beach Boys might have it, Albert Sánchez Piñol's second novel is sheer fun, fun, fun. Fun because it's a ripping adventure story in the tradition of H. Rider Haggard or Edgar Rice Burroughs. Fun because it's an acidic parody of adventure stories in the tradition of H. Rider Haggard or Edgar Rice Burroughs. And fun because Piñol clearly enjoys playing around with the structural possibilities that arise from having a ghost-writer (or two, or is it three?) as a key character. Despite it all, though, it never comes across as arch or cynical. No, this is fun and humane.