My Favorite Novels of the Decade

As we wind our way down to the end of the decade I will consume a whole lot of “best of” lists from magazines, newspapers, blogs and websites. I love me some lists. And I love to create my own as any regular reader of this blog can attest. In the next few weeks you can expect to see a post about my favorite films of the 2010s, my favorite albums of the decade, and my favorite albums of 2019. But I thought I’d start with a list of my favorite novels of the decade.

Please note that my lists reflect my favorites rather than what I consider to be the best. I’m not a professional critic of music, films or writing, and while I have opinions on these sorts of things I prefer instead to simply share the art that brought me joy. It’s harder to disagree when I’m not declaring that a book, album or film is objectively the best — I’m happy to do that over a coffee or an adult beverage if you are so inclined, but I write these posts to identify art you may wish to discover on your own to see if they also bring you joy.

So with that, here are my 10 favorite novels of the 2010s, starting with a few honorable mentions:

  • Love and Other Consolation Prizes by Jamie Ford (2017). This was a selection from my men’s book club this year that really jumped out. Ford weaves together a heart-wrenching story of immigration and survival that is beautifully told and very unique.
  • The Sellout by Paul Beatty (2015). It’s a book about a black man living in LA who wants to reintroduce segregation. Yes, it’s a satire. And yes, it’s biting and hilarious. Beatty won the Man Booker Prize for this novel, becoming the first American to win the prestigious U.K. award.
  • Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley (2016). I was not prepared for the emotional ride that this story about a man and his canine companion took me on. It was funny and sad, but ultimately a story of growth and survival.
  • The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi (2015). Bacigalupi’s dystopian take on life in the American Southwest after the water dries up is one of the scariest stories I’ve ever read. It’s fiction, but it hits home so hard I almost wanted to move to Oregon directly after reading it. Check out my full review.
  • Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe (2012). No countdown of great novels is complete without Tom Wolfe. Back to Blood isn’t his best novel, but it’s pure Wolfe and that’s good enough for me. RIP Tom.
  • The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall (2010). What if a man with four wives and 28 children had a midlife crisis? It’d make for a darn funny novel. Udall also happens to be a member of the famous Mormon political family that includes a host of current and former U.S. Congressmen that spans generations.
  • Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan (2012). You’ll definitely enjoy the hidden secrets of this fictional bookstore in San Francisco. It’s a crazy, fun ride full of mystery and conspiracies.
  • There There by Tommy Orange (2018). One of the most talked about and best reviewed novels of the decade, Orange weaves together a selection of stories about Native Americans growing up on the hard scrabble streets of Oakland. Powerful, eye-opening, and important.

10. State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (2011). Patchett is one of my favorite novelists and State of Wonder is a great example of why. It’s an adventure story that takes place in the Amazon where a group of scientists are searching for plants that could lead to pharmaceutical breakthroughs and the huge financial rewards that come with it. Needless to say there is intrigue and ethical dilemmas. Patchett writes unique and developed female characters that give this old man better insight into the finer gender.

9. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (2011). Rarely has a novel captured my teenage years as well as Cline’s futuristic tale of throwback video games and 80s pop culture. It’s dystopian and familiar at the same time, and god help us if we continue down the path toward all of us living in a virtual world. Such a blast of a novel, and just an “ok” film version if I’m being honest. If you are geek that came of age in the 80s (or just someone who loves the 80s) this novel will undoubtedly resonate with you.

8. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (2014). From the author of Cloud Atlas comes this hair-raising tale of supernatural beings with a not so pleasant plan for mankind and the group of mystics working to foil their plans. It doesn’t sound like a novel I’d be interested in from the sleeve notes, but damn Mitchell is otherworldly in his tale-telling abilities — perhaps the best storyteller and writer of his generation.

7. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (2016). This is perhaps the most inventive novel of the decade and it’s deserving of all the accolades it received when it was released including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the National Book Award for Fiction, and the Goodreads Choice Awards Best Historical Fiction. I’ve read three of Whitehead’s novels now and he is clearly one of the country’s best authors. I’m also looking forward to the upcoming Amazon series based on the book.

6. Moonglow by Michael Chabon (2016). Chabon has been churning out brilliant novels for decades now and he’s definitely among my favorite novelists. Moonglow is his best work in a long time and it’s so interesting in that it blurs the lines between fact and fiction. The story is a tribute to his grandfather, as told by a character named Michael Chabon. My full review is online.

5. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (2013). This Man Booker nominee is the story of a writer named Ruth who lives in the Pacific Northwest and one day while walking along the beach she finds a diary written by a teenage Japanese girl. The novel takes the reader back and forth to the life of the girl as well as the writer who makes it her mission (or obsession) to find out what happened to the young girl in the wake of the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami. This story has everything I love — it spans multiple time frames, it has multiple narrators, it teaches the reader about history and about a different culture, it is contemporary, it provides life lessons, it is heartbreaking and uplifting, it is philosophical, it has rich and interesting characters, and it even includes a little physics and just the right touch of magical realism. 

4. Barkskins by Annie Proulx (2016). Proulx is an American treasure and now that she is in her 80s we should cherish every word she writes before her time runs out. She is the author of my all-time favorite novel, 1993’s The Shipping News, and she also penned Brokeback Mountain. Reading Barkskins seemed like a daunting task at first because it’s so dense, but I should have realized I’d end up enjoying every sentence of its 736 pages. Here’s my full review.

3. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (2013). This coming of age story about a 13-year-old boy who loses his mom in a terrorist attack has it all — fascinating story lines, interesting characters, intrigue, mystery, and so much more. The 2014 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction kept me on the edge of my seat the whole way through and the story has stuck with me since. I haven’t seen the film yet, and I know it didn’t get great reviews, but I loved this novel so much I’ll definitely be streaming the movie once it’s available. It seems I really do love coming of age stories whether in books or movies (hint hint there will be a major coming of age story in my upcoming post about my favorite films of the decade). Don’t let the film’s bad reviews keep you from reading this novel as it’s clearly one of the best novels of the decade.

2. Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter (2012). I’m a sucker for stories that jump around from generation to generation and take place in multiple locations (see A Tale For the Time Being above). Walter’s satirical look at Hollywood culture takes the reader from Italy to L.A. and from the 1960s to today. The lives of the main characters are weaved in and around the story of the filming of 1963’s Cleopatra and the love affair between Liz Taylor and Richard Burton. I find it cool when writers mingle fiction with reality to give their fictional characters an anchor based in reality. Tarantino recently did this with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and it worked great. Walter is an inventive writer and it’s impossible not to love Beautiful Ruins. There’s been a film version in the works for years but it hasn’t gotten out of development yet. I sure hope it does.

And my favorite novel of the 2010s:

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson (2012). Winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, The Orphan Master’s Son is a brilliant tale set in North Korea that pulls you in from the first moment and takes you along on a journey that seems impossibly hard to imagine. The protagonist is a young North Korean named Pak Jun Do who journeys from orphanage to soldier to prisoner. Apparently Johnson based this novel on interviews he did with North Korean refugees and it is based on stories they relayed to him about life inside the mysterious country. It is from this novel that I learned about just some of the travesties going on under the regime of the Kim family. I love a novel that can both entertain and educate and Johnson’s amazing novel does both using brilliant storytelling and beautiful prose. Johnson is a gifted writer and his future work will always be on my reading list. Plus, he’s an ASU grad so there’s a great Arizona connection. Fork ’em!

Book Review: The Water Knife

lakemead

Spoiler Alert: this review is part book review and part political rant about climate change!

I love a good dystopian story. We’re binge-watching The Man in the High Castle right now and we have “enjoyed” The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu. But the Allies didn’t lose WWII and while misogyny is experiencing a comeback in these highly charged political times, I really don’t see either of those scenarios taking place anytime soon. Dystopian stories are supposed to be warnings or lessons about what might have been or could be. Dystopia is fine as long as it’s a vision of an extreme and unlikely world. This is the reason The Water Knife is such a terrifying novel — not only is the nightmare scenario of the novel possible, but we’re also actually pretty close to it becoming a reality sooner rather than later. The world in The Water Knife is disturbing and it takes place in the city I call home. Yep, like it or not, Phoenix is ground zero in a world where water is scarce. Hey, it’s a desert after all and as many people have noted, it’s a monument to man’s arrogance.

The Water Knife is a 2015 novel by Paolo Bacigalupi. It takes place in the near future, where climate change has devastated the Southwestern United States. Phoenix has become a wasteland of abandoned suburban homes and a weigh station of sorts for climate refugees from Texas and other states who are hoping to find a new life in Los Angeles or San Diego or Las Vegas, where water rights have provided enough for American refugees to live more comfortably. But California and Southern Nevada have closed off their borders to stem the tide of climate refugees and Phoenix has in effect returned to its lawless, cowboy Western roots. Oh, and the American abandonment of Texas and Arizona along with other drought-ravaged states has enabled the region to become a haven for drug cartels who have long ago taken over Mexico and now moved in to run the former American territories and serve as “coyotes” that provide passage across the border. Add to this the “oasis” buildings built by the Chinese to house political and corporate bigwigs and workers which tower over the poor residents of Phoenix who now live in shanty towns built up around pay-for-water wells. Don’t worry though, Phoenicians can get some drinking water by peeing into a “ClearSac” which can provide a little “clean” water. So, it’s not all bad.

The Phoenix in The Water Knife is pretty awful. Think Mad Max meets Waterworld. But is it really far-fetched, or are we truly headed toward this future?

Let’s put aside climate change and its causes for argument’s sake. What do we know about water in Phoenix? The Colorado River typically accounts for nearly half of the city’s water supply. The water in the Colorado River comes from snowmelt in Colorado, and a huge portion of that water sits in Lake Mead on the Nevada/Arizona border and Lake Havasu on the California/Arizona border.  More than 30 million Americans across seven states — California, Arizona, Nevada, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico — rely on this water for survival. Yes, survival.

Now here’s something I learned in the novel. The water rights for the Colorado River are not equal. The Colorado River Compact divides the river basin into two areas, the upper division (comprising Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming) and the lower division (Nevada, Arizona, and California). The states in the upper basin have higher priority to this water than the states in the lower division. That’s not too bad as long as there’s enough water for everyone. Ah, but there’s the rub my parched friends.

In the past 13 years, Colorado’s snow has been melting at a faster rate, vanishing earlier and earlier each year. Lake Mead, which reached its highest point ever in 1983 at  1,225.44 feet, today — Saturday, October 27, 2018 — Lake Mead sits at 1,078.84 feet.

So what? If the lake levels dip too low, Arizona could lose about a seventh of its annual water allotment to the Central Arizona Project, which supplies much of the state’s water. What’s “too low”? If the water level falls to 1,075 feet above sea level, a shortage declaration would be issued and cuts would be scheduled. Wait, what? That’s like three feet from today’s levels. Yep, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said last month that there’s a 57 percent chance that Lake Mead’s water levels would be so dismal in 2020 that Arizona and Nevada would face cutoffs. If Lake Mead’s water level falls below 1,050 feet, Arizona would lose an additional 80,000 acre-feet of water.

The same U.S. Bureau of Reclamation reported in August 2018 that it predicts Lake Mead will dip just below the threshold to 1,075 feet as early as May 2019. At the beginning of 2020, Lake Mead levels are predicted to be at approximately 1,070 feet and then predicted to fall to as low as 1,053 feet in the summer of 2020.

The Environmental Defense Fund recently wrote: “Arizona is running out of time to figure out new ways of conserving and creatively sharing an increasingly scarce water supply. We need to collaborate now in order to avoid catastrophic and economically destabilizing impacts in the very near future.”

It’s not like nobody has been talking about this, or that the media has dropped the ball. Just last month Joanna Allhands of the Arizona Republic wrote an opinion piece with the headline: A Water Shortage is in Arizona’s Future, Like it or Not.

The Water Knife is a cautionary tale told with a big slice of reality. Which is why I think it’s terrifying. I’m an environmentalist, but I’m not Chicken Little. I mean, the sky may actually be falling. But will things get as bad as Bacigalupi would have us believe? Unfortunately, I don’t think we’re far off. You can choose to believe we’ll come up with some kind of magic pill to keep us from heading over the falls, but given the current political climate and our inability to agree on even the basic fundamentals of how a society should run, what makes you think we’ll be civil to each other when the water starts to dry up?

It’s a fact that Las Vegas has water rights over Arizona. And California, with the fifth largest economy in the world, has far more power than Arizona and its tap into the Colorado River is above Arizona’s. Somebody is going to lose this battle and Phoenix is not in a good position to win.

9780385352871_custom-b9151d61a5c6869bf30190fa56d69a11c7c8bcd9-s400-c85Bacigalupi’s vision is dark. In the novel, the powers that be in Southern Nevada and California do whatever it takes to keep their communities from drying up. They protect the water with troops and drones. They protect their borders. They make deals with shady characters from cartels to the Chinese. They cheat and steal. They kill. They ruthlessly cut off water from one community to save another. People a lot smarter than I believe future wars will be fought not over oil, but over water.

The Water Knife is fiction, but it leaves the reader with a lot to think about. Especially if the reader, like me, lives in a city of almost two million people in the middle of one of the hottest deserts on Earth in which most of its water gets delivered via a single canal that stretches 336 miles from Lake Havasu to Central Arizona.

In the novel, the Central Arizona Project canal has already been compromised. But it really wouldn’t even matter if there’s very little water in the lower division anyway. And say what you will about climate change, facts are facts and when it comes to the Colorado snowpack the proof is in the runoff. The shit is already hitting the fan and it’s probably only going to get worse — and there’s not much we can do about it.

Given all that, the Phoenix of The Water Knife may be inevitable. My son thinks we should get out of Dodge now before things start to get ugly. He makes a compelling argument. At best, we have a few years until by law we have to start rationing. After that, with no solution in sight, people and businesses will start to leave. Who is going to buy your house? Why would a company relocate to Phoenix? Seriously, before we run out of water to drink it’s more likely our economy will tank. Maybe we should sell our house now and move to a more climate change friendly environment (Portland anyone?).

With all that as the backdrop, I still have to say The Water Knife is a great novel. The characters are believable and several are downright relatable. Lucy is a tough journalist trying to tell the story of what Phoenix has become without getting herself killed by the cartels or the powerful people fighting over water rights. Angel is a former criminal turned “water knife” who does the heavy-handed bidding of the Southern Nevada Water Authority and its ruthless leader who will literally do anything to keep Las Vegas from going dry — including killing and stealing. Maria is a refugee from Texas trying to survive in the Valley of the Sun by doing whatever it takes, including selling her body for a hot shower and enough money for a little water to drink. The lives of these three characters, each with their own motivations, collide around a long-lost document that could change the water rights of the Southwest forever.

I admit, despite the overall theme of the novel, it was fun to see Phoenix woven into the story like a main character. Bacigalupi certainly did his homework about Phoenix and its water history. Central Arizona Project, Phoenix suburbs like Chandler, Tempe and Mesa, even the Target on Elliott Road just south of Guadalupe turns up in the story. It was easy to imagine several of the scenes taking place in Gilbert or Ahwatukee.

Another interesting “character” that shows up in the novel is Marc Reisner’s  1993 nonfiction book Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water. Reisner’s book is read a lot in academic circles, and it takes a historical approach to understand how cities came to be built in the Arizona desert in the first place and why maybe, just maybe, they were doomed from the start because the water was never going to last forever. I haven’t read Cadillac Desert, and frankly, I’m afraid to now, but I will definitely get to it once I get over my anxiety after reading The Water Knife.

One thing I will say: I’m never going to take water for granted again!

Further reading:

The cost of drought: Less water from Lake Mead in 2020, higher rates for consumers

Arizona cancels water meeting amid difficult negotiations on Colorado River deal

Cost of drought: Less water from Lake Mead in 2020, higher rates

Phoenix Prepares For The Worst Amid Looming Colorado River Shortage

Colorado River Drought Cuts in Arizona Would Be More Severe Than Expected