Starting a new list to go with the new year and need to put last year’s somewhere. Since I’m forever complaining I never read any more, seeing that I did manage several books reassures me “never” might be an overstatement. I appreciated this tweet by Austin Kleon (minus the “Throw your phone in the ocean” bit, of course.) The rest is excellent advice if you’re longing to spend more time with a book in hand. On that note, here’s what I read in 2014 – a short list by reader standards – and a few thoughts about whether or not the book was worth it.
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart – It was super sad! And funny! And brilliant. This is my favorite of his I’ve read (excluding his blurbs, a world unto themselves). Reading work by someone whose style is so different from mine inspires me to play around more with my own writing and, more importantly, I’m not consumed with envy or despair at the end. As in, “Oh my god, this is exactly what I want to do and I’ll never do it this well so why even bother ever writing again since the world has enough books in it anyway and who I am to think I’m worthy of adding another and jesus why is this bottle of wine already empty? Life is horrible.” So, yeah. With Shteyngart, I don’t get that. (And that how Super Sad True Love story is about me.) Super satisfying.
Monsieur Pain by Roberto Bolaño – A rather sweet noir and one of the slimmest of Bolaño’s books. He’s an author whose works I fell into a few years ago, beginning with hauling The Savage Detectives around Taiwan for two weeks, which was not the ideal way to consume dense and complex storytelling. But the fault is mine – his writing is fantastic. Some books need to be approached with the understanding that there will be time and commitment involved. If I attempt to rush through them, it’s not good for either of us. Where was I? Yes, Monsieur Pain. A relatively quick read that I was happy to have experienced.
Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell – I started to write “delicious short stories infused with magical realism” and immediately realized how idiotic that sounded. This is why I rarely review things. Anyway, loved this. She also wrote Swamplandia, which is on my list of all-time favorite novels.
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt – Happened upon this for a song at Green Apple and dug it. Do note that I am a sucker for Western noirs. They turn into movies in my head, all starring Viggo Mortensen.
Switch by Chip and Dan Heath – Nonfiction! This book is about how to change. Things. People. The world to some extent. Breezy, occasionally surprising, seemed spot on. I’ll report back on how effective the advice is as soon as I’m done changing everything.
The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings – Hadn’t seen the movie, wasn’t sure what to expect, enjoyed the dramatic unfolding of family dynamics. Classic beach or airplane read.
Cain by José Saramago – Another random find at Green Apple. Devoured it. Described as “wickedly funny” and I can’t improve on that succinct description. Satire, sex, sideways cleverness. Reminded me of what I like about Vonnegut. Because of this book, when I saw another by Saramago on sale at Northtown, I snagged it. Looking forward to more.
This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz – Collection of short stories, probably my favorite read of the year. I can’t do justice to Diaz and will have to hope that saying what I like about his writing is “it’s perfect” suffices. By which I mean, the words are put together in such a way as to enrapture the reader into following character after character without even considering stopping and that the telling is done by relaying details, dialogue, actions in such a way that understanding, sympathy, longing are all elicited without ever having been banged over the head with Here Is The Meaning and How You Should Feel like so many authors are prone to doing. You could give this book to someone to show them what writing is supposed to be.
An Untamed State by Roxane Gay – Couldn’t put this down, mostly because the subject matter is horrific and I didn’t want to leave off until I knew whether things would be okay or not. The balance between messaging and storytelling was tilted a bit too far toward the former for me to love this book unconditionally, but not much wrong with it either.
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell – I made it about four-fifths of the way through this one and then couldn’t be bothered to finish. Much of it I enjoyed. Ultimately I wearied of characters as the ratio of effort to reward shifted unfortunately.
The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta – Totally readable, but I confess to adoring Election so much that I’ve never been able to be infatuated with any of Perrotta’s other books. Usually, I would rather have just re-read Election than whichever other one I’ve gone through.
Better Living Through Plastic Explosives by ZsuZsi Gartner – This! Another short story collection. Fantastic. It delivered the kind of reading in which I was simultaneously wholly caught up in the stories and at the same time part of my brain was whooping, “Now, yes! This! This is writing!” Very cool.
As the Great World Spins by Colum McCann – This is a book already celebrated in zillions of reviews as amazing and marvelous and more. I completely agree. I knew nothing about it going in – I acquired it when I hosted a book swap at my house – and had no idea where it was going, found myself immersed nightly, looked forward to returning to it during the day, was fully satisfied with it at the end.
All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews – Here’s what I said about this book on Facebook: “You know when you absorb a story so completely that the characters are as real in your thoughts as people you actually know? That.” The other potential favorite. If I were to pick a favorite. Who knew a book about a suicidal sister could be hilarious? I also cried a whole bunch. And yeah, the people in this book will hang in my memory more vividly than much of my “real” life.
The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman – The other book I didn’t finish. I was horribly disappointed in this book! Partly because based on all the rave reviews, I gave it to a (extremely picky) friend as a birthday present years ago. How embarrassing. The other reason is because it starts out well enough, but spirals into an increasingly boring read as character vignettes are interspersed with italicized narrative. Look, I love character vignettes – in fact, the format of this book is rather exactly the way in which I write – but ugh, the characters grew less interesting with each turn and at some point it felt like Rachman stopped even trying to adhere to the fine advice that writers show, not tell and just went, “Oh here, here’s the story” instead of actually writing a story anyone would want to read. I don’t understand why this novel rated such admiration. Boo.