I became a parent in the Spring of 2014. Which is a wonderful thing, but it means that I spent my severely reduced reading time with books like The Happiest Baby on the Block Guide to Great Sleep (useful, but a pretty excruciating read); Be Prepared: A Practical Handbook for New Dads (useful, and an enjoyable read); and The Berenstain Bears and the Spooky Old Tree (still a classic).
I did manage to pull off one half-assed review about a book I hadn’t finished reading, but for the most part my 2014 was spent dreaming of all the cool looking books I had no time to enjoy. Needless to say, this has left me woefully underqualified to make any kinds of judgments, even subjective ones, about the Best Books of the last 12 months.
And yet, I remain undeterred — what is the end of a year without a list of things? And while I may not have a top 10, I’m sure I can come up with something that fits our habit of doing odd and unorthodox year-end lists.
So here is my list of
Top Ten Books [I had Time to Read] This Year.
Capital in the 21st Century by Thomas Piketty. My “favorite” book of the year. I finally did finish it, and it’s essential reading for this day and age. A proper and detailed assessment of how our world works without any of the breathless distractions of outrage or politics. A little wonky, but that’s what it needs to be. Read the full review: “TL;
DR Must Read”
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami. We took a trip to Portland and I had to buy something from Powell’s Books. So let me first say that Colorless is one of the more beautifully designed books I’ve ever held. It’s a lovely artifact. The story itself is pretty standard Murakami. People feeling weird about their identities and realities while some strange things happen. It was a quick, easy read, and a pleasantly nostalgic experience after having moved away from Murakami in recent years. But again, it’s pretty much the same novel he’s always writing, with a few interesting tweaks.
J.D. Salinger: The Escape Artist by Thomas Beller. Back in the ’60s the critic George Steiner complained in The Nation about the “Salinger Industry,” which he felt was the disproportionate amount of attention paid to the young author and his meager, and dwindling, output. Here in the early ’10s, it feels like the Industry is back up and running. Two biographies, a documentary, new works expected in 2015 and a feature film starring Chris Cooper as Salinger expected sometime in the unknown future. Unfortunately the output to date has not been so great. The biographies have ranged from adequate to downright terrible, and the documentary was roundly disliked. I haven’t read Joanna Rakoff’s My Salinger Year, which was well reviewed, although Salinger is said to not be as central to the action as the title would imply. I did get to Thomas Beller’s J.D. Salinger the Escape Artist, and despite every expectation that I would be disappointed, I actually enjoyed it. Beller doesn’t shoot the moon, looking for revelations or controversy, he mostly just sticks to his experience as a reader, with some interesting facts thrown in along the way.
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. I enjoyed this book, and that’s what counts right? I don’t know what to say about whether it’s high-minded literature with a genre twist or just genre that stands a little higher than its peers. And honestly, who cares? It’s an odd adventure story that is beautifully crafted. It has characters you care about and events that raise the heart rate a little. Just go with it.
My Struggle: Book 1 by Karl Ove Knausgaard. I did not enjoy this one, and that’s what counts. I actually read the first 100 or so pages at a tear, but the steam ran out as I got into the boring retelling of the narrator’s band’s failed gig when he was a teenager, or the almost minute-by-minute account of trying to get to a New Year’s party, and so on and so on and so on and what felt like a few more so ons. Knausgaard has been compared to Proust, but Proust’s great gift was to imbue everyday occurrences with extraordinary and unseen depths. Towards the close of the novel, Knausgaard and his brother must clean out his parents’ home after his father’s death, literally sorting through the wreckage. But the writing is flat and monotonous. He strips the meaning out. I felt more of the burden of annoyance at having to scrub human waste from sheets and floors than I did the powerful tragedy of a life that left only this behind. Maybe I missed something, because a lot of people seem to love this book and it’s many follow-ups — we’re up to book three in the English translation, with three more still to come — but my primary emotional response was pity for the creative writing workshops of the future, where people will inevitably have to endure the long and relentlessly uneventful submissions of little wanna-be Knausgaards.
My Bright Abyss by Christian Wiman. A beautiful antidote to the uncomplicated and often crude perceptions, and presentations, we tend to have of what it means to be a Christian, or even a religious or spiritual person these days. I read it at a, well, providential moment, when my wife was experiencing significant health issues during the closing months of the pregnancy, and I needed to find ways to balance burdens and fear and hardships with gratitude and wonder and faith. I loved this book, and will read it again in less trying times, and expect to feel just as much. Read the full review “God Help is Hard to Find.”
Unapologetic by Francis Spufford. Another good book on Christianity, and much more palatable and entertaining than My Bright Abyss or pretty much any other treatments of the subject in a long time. Spufford is the kind of guy who could bring up religion around the dinner table and get away with it. Read more in the review “God Help is Hard to Find.”
The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman. For those unfamiliar with the series, The Magician’s Land is the third and final installment in a trilogy about teenage magicians. The short version is that the books are something of a grown-up’s Harry Potter, but there’s more too them than that; for one, the series has stronger connections to Narnia than to Hogwarts, but you also get a lot more angst, a lot less of the rounded-corners charm of young adult fantasy, and fewer happy endings. I really liked these books, even if I at times found the characters themselves tiresome (I’m not kidding about the angst). If you liked The Chronicles of Narnia and/or Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, you will find something to like here, especially in the third volume, which is the best of the series.
Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon. “Bleeding Edge is best understood not as the account of a master of ironized paranoia coming to grips with the cultural paradigm he helped to define but as something much braver and riskier: an attempt to acknowledge, even at the risk of a melodramatic organ chord, that paradigm’s most painful limitation.” Those are Michael Chabon’s words, which I feel best capture what’s going on in this book, which I enjoyed very much because it’s classic silly, sexual, strange and sentimental Pynchon, but dedicated to what feels like a new enterprise: “Bleeding Edge is about September 11, 2001 as a serious and traumatic event that transcends conspiracies and paranoia… Pynchon is chronicling the point at which the current of irony that propelled the culture in the 1990s shifted from being a product of boredom and hipness to being a product of overwhelming fear.” Those are my words. Read the full review “Hard Refresh.”
The Luminaries by Elanor Catton. This is another good, confusing one. Well written, complicated, a gripping read. A confusing ending. Elanor Catton was only 28 when she won the 2013 Booker Prize for this one. I think there is a lot to look forward to from her in the years ahead. Read the full review “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena?”
Pretty good year.