In 2014 I read 80 books, just shy of last year’s 85. Here’s a quick list of all but the top ten, sorted. Afterward we’ll cover my ten favorites.
Special Harry Stephen Keeler Category for So-Bad-It’s-Good-ness
The Mystery of the Fiddling Cracksman (Harry Stephen Keeler); I, Chameleon (Harry Stephen Keeler); Mad Men on the Couch (Stephanie Newman); Fancy Pants (Susan Elizabeth Phillips)
For the first time ever, Harry Stephen Keeler isn’t the only author in the so-bad-it’s-good category! He’s joined by Stephanie Newman, a Freudian psychoanalyst whose entertaining book marries unsurprising, fluffy analysis of the Mad Men characters’ mental issues to a constant and unrelenting insistence that everybody would benefit from Freudian psychoanalysis. It’s just fun enough you can forgive how shamelessly self-promoting it is. Also: most book adaptations are movies, but this book has been turned into a cake.
The other so-bad-it’s-good book is the most entertaining entry so far in the ongoing Hate Book Club series, where my friend Patricia and I read terrible books so you don’t have to. And speaking of Hate Book Club…
Real Marriage (Mark and Grace Driscoll); Men Are from Mars and Women Are from Venus (John Gray, “Ph.D.”)
There are the other two Hate Book Club selections!
Just Kind of Okay (or So Forgettable I Forgot Them Already)
Priceless (William Poundstone); Red, White, and Drunk All Over (Natalie Maclean); The End of Suburbs (Leigh Gallagher); Who Could That Be at This Hour? (Lemony Snicket); Three Squares (Abigail Carroll); Foreign Gods, Inc. (Okey Ndibe); The Omnivorous Mind (John Allen)
Very interestingly, 5 of these 7 are non-fiction.
Disappointing but with Some Merit
Wanderlust: A History of Walking (Rebecca Solnit); City Rules (Emily Talen); The Interestings (Meg Wolitzer); The Brothers Karamazov (Fyodor Dostoevsky); The Circle (Dave Eggers); The Flamethrowers (Rachel Kushner); Bad Feminist (Roxane Gay); The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid (Bill Bryson)
City Rules was interesting, but when I requested it at the library, I didn’t realize it was an actual school textbook. My bad. The Interestings was a good and well-written book, but one plot line was so much more compelling than the others that it kind of ruined the book for me. Knowing how good Wolitzer could get left me disappointed that the rest wasn’t on the same level. The Circle is a clear “sequel” to 1984, with Facebook and Google as the villains. There are even catchy slogans like “Privacy is Theft”. But Eggers doesn’t make the descent into dystopia believable: we’re expected to believe that technology turns literally everyone into obedient, unquestioning sheep.
Roxane Gay’s essays are generally terrific, but if you try Bad Feminist, prepare for an opening section that is incoherent to the point of being a shambles. I’m amazed she let anyone read it. Bill Bryson is a personal writing hero of mine, but his memoir of youth is filled with proclamations that everything he saw and did as a kid was the best thing ever, and his glorifications of 1950s life made me think, “But what about women? Or black people? Or immigrants? Things were not so peachy back then.”
And then there’s the big issue: The Brothers Karamazov. I read it for the first time in college, more specifically during a summer break working at Walmart. I’d get through a chapter at a time on breaks in the back of the store, so yes, I did first read “The Grand Inquisitor” in a Walmart uniform in the break room while everyone else watched Mrs. Doubtfire. And it was a formative experience. It changed how I see writing, and became my favorite novel ever.
I revisited it this summer with high expectations, and was totally let down. The plot felt slower and more mechanical; the characters all seemed paper-thin, especially saintly Alyosha; the philosophical debates seemed more one-sided than they had before; everything involving the children annoyed me. I kept waiting to remember why I loved it so much–and waiting.
I spent the whole summer reading Russian literature, starting with Crime and Punishment and ranging through everything from Pushkin to Sorokin. Karamazov was the least interesting book.
Pretty Good Non-Fiction, if You’re Interested in the Subject
Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time (Jeff Speck); Doubt: A History (Jennifer Hecht); Summer of ’49 (David Halberstam); Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution (John Paul Stevens); Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry (Helaine Olen); Political Fictions (Joan Didion); Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message that Feminism’s Work is Done (Susan J. Douglas); The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (Steven Pinker); Dave Barry is from Mars AND Venus! (Dave Barry)
Pretty Good Fiction
Paper Towns (John Green); The Cuckoo’s Calling (J.K. Rowling); The Member of the Wedding (Carson McCullers); Collected Short Stories (Leo Tolstoy); The View from Castle Rock (Alice Munro); Endless Night (Agatha Christie); Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn); Day Trips: A Collection of Speculative Fiction (anonymousish); A Void (Georges Perec)
Day Trips is by a friend of mine and I’m not sure if (s)he wants public credit for it. It’s a collection of stories with goofy/bizarre supernatural twists, like a visit to the vampire dentist or a child with an unfortunate superpower. You should read it; the link goes to a cheap Kindle sale.
I love Alice Munro, but The View from Castle Rock is not as consistent as some of her other collections.
A Void is notable for being written in French without the letter “e”, and then translated into English, also without the letter “e”. It’s about as silly, weird, and flamboyantly written as you’d expect, including an e-less rewrite of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”:
‘Twas upon a midnight tristful I sat poring, wan and wistful
Through many a quaint and curious list full of my consorts slain –
I sat nodding, almost napping, till I caught a sound of tapping,
As of spirits softly rapping, rapping at my door in vain,
“‘Tis a visitor,” I murmur’d, “tapping at my door in vain –
Tapping soft as falling rain.”
(Why “vain/rain”? Because instead of “Nevermore”, the “Black Bird” says “Not again!”)
Really, Really Good Non-Fiction
The Lawyer Bubble: A Profession in Crisis (Steven J. Harper); Rapture Ready!: Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture (Daniel Radosh); Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Thomas Piketty); Making of a Chef (Michael Ruhlman); Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? (James Shapiro); Racism Without Racists: Colorblind Racism and the Persistence of Inequality in 21st-Century America (Eduardo Bonilla-Silva); The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijackings (Brendan Koerner); Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook (Anthony Bourdain); Choose Your Own Autobiography (Neil Patrick Harris); The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap (Matt Taibbi)
If you’re thinking of going to law school, you need to read The Lawyer Bubble before you apply.
Capital in the Twenty-First Century is a monumentally important book, but I recommend you not do what I did, which was read it on spring break.
It’s weird that this is the only category where all the authors are male.
Really, Really Good Fiction
David Copperfield (Charles Dickens); The Thirteenth Tale (Diane Setterfield); Pere Goriot (Honore de Balzac); The Remains of the Day (Kazuo Ishiguro); Revengeance & The Rip in the World (Patricia Ladd); The Yiddish Policeman’s Union (Michael Chabon); Vampires in the Lemon Grove (Karen Russell); Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoevsky); Forty Stories (Anton Chekhov); Petersburg (Andrei Bely); The Queue (Vladimir Sorokin); Eugene Onegin (Alexander Pushkin); The Idiot (Dostoevsky again); The Master and Margarita (Mikhail Bulgakov); Riches (publication forthcoming; that same anonymousish friend from earlier); Northanger Abbey (Jane Austen); The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Muriel Spark); Madame Bovary (Gustave Flaubert)
Wow, this was a great year for books. At least ten of those deserve to be in the top ten! The Queue is a hilarious all-dialogue novel of Soviet subjects waiting in line for rations; The Master and Margarita has a sadistic, repetitive first half and then a magical finale; Northanger Abbey is now my second-favorite Austen behind Emma.
Informative second opinion: my mother hated Madame Bovary. She found the title character initially sympathetic, but then increasingly immature, needy, and annoying. She thought the other characters were thin, the famous writing “purple”, and the plot little better than a teen melodrama.
The Top Ten
Here we go! A totally arbitrary list based mostly on what I both loved and want to talk about in detail!
10. Tender at the Bone: Growing up at the Table (Ruth Reichl). Ruth Reichl became one of America’s most influential food writers and critics, but her start was modest. The first chapter is a catalog of the many times that her mother, a horrible cook, poisoned people with metaphorically and/or literally rotten food. Puking aside, the book is joyful and full of recipes that made me hungry. Rhyming summary: if you like to eat, this book’s a treat!
9. Ball Four (Jim Bouton). When I was a kid, my parents had an old copy of this, which I was banned from reading. As an adult, I understand why–turns out being a pro baseball player entails lots of sex and drugs! Who knew?
Ball Four might be the best-written baseball book ever. It might be the best memoir ever written by an athlete. Constantly hilarious, filled with unmakeupable characters, and unusually stylish for the subject matter, it would probably entertain somebody who didn’t like baseball. But I love baseball, so I loved every page.
8. TIE: Soul and Other Stories / The Foundation Pit (Andrei Platonov). The big discovery of my Russian literature binge, Andrei Platonov wrote with an off-kilter syntax that keeps you on edge. He was writing about 1930s Stalinist Russia, a surreal and terrifying place, and he used the odd prose to make those unpleasant realities even more unnatural and strange.
Just check out how bizarre this is: “Voshchev took his things into a bag; he then went outside so as better to understand his future out in the air. But the air was empty, motionless trees were carefully holding the heat in their leaves, and dust lay boringly on the deserted road–the situation in nature was quiet. Voshchev did not know where he felt drawn, and at the end of the town he leaned his elbows on the low fence of a large house where children with no family were being habituated to labor and use.”
The Foundation Pit is a novella about hard-labor workers realizing that the foundation they’re laying is not for a foundation, but rather their own mass grave. As you can imagine, the novel is both terrifying and massively heavy-handed. But then you remember: that stuff really happened. The short story collection Soul is even more powerful, overcoming the somewhat sexist nihilist title story. The final story, “The Return”, is one of the best short stories I’ve ever read, period.
Both books come with lengthy discussions of the challenges of how to translate Platonov. The translators have done heroic jobs, though I can only imagine what the Russian is like. This is one of the most memorable prose stylists of any country or any era.
7. The Language of Food (Dan Jurasky). From the profound to the fun. I told you the rankings were arbitrary. This is a fun little book where a linguist breaks down the wording of restaurant menus, talks about the etymology of famous foods, and asks questions like, why is the word “ketchup” Chinese if the Chinese don’t eat ketchup?
6. The Southern Woman (Elizabeth Spencer). Elizabeth Spencer was born in Mississippi, then spent her adulthood in Italy and Montreal, writing about characters from her past and present. The short stories range from okay to totally amazing; she belongs with Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, and Carson McCullers in the gallery of Great Southern Writers. (She’s still writing now, at age 93.)
5. Devices and Desires (P.D. James). P.D. James died this year at age 94, writing to the last. Devices and Desires is a murder mystery inspired by her visit to a stretch of remote shoreline where the government had just built a huge nuclear power plant. Like all James’s best novels, this is a human psychology study disguised as a murder mystery. You could read it for the clues, or you could read it for the insights into secrets, the nature of family, how love creates resentment, artists embarrassed by attention, bigotry against bisexuals, or the unintended consequences of tiny deeds.
4. The Johnstown Flood (David McCullough). David McCullough has become the reigning king of history books, and if you want to know why, read this, one of the most vivid, alive, scary, and real non-fiction books I’ve ever read. The prose is as economical, precise, and chilling as Hemingway. Difference is, the story’s true.
3. The Goldfinch (Donna Tartt). The best Charles Dickens novel since Dickens’s death, The Goldfinch is thrilling web of eccentric characters, coincidences, an orphan with an uncertain future, unlikely friendships, sex, drugs, terrorism, suburban squalor, and the inspirational power of great art. It’s also a good example of that last thing. Dickens would have been proud of the way that, over a huge number of pages, Donna Tartt combines serious artistic purpose with page-turning pulpy plot twists. An instant classic.
2. Dead Souls (Nikolai Gogol). If you’ve ever said, “I know all those Russian authors are supposed to be super great, but they’re too serious/intimidating for me,” have I got news for you! Dead Souls is a silly, even outrageous comedy about a weirdo who’s wandering around the countryside buying dead serfs from rich landowners. Along the way, he meets a parade of goofballs who make him look normal by comparison. Sorry, Dostoevsky: this is my new favorite Russian novel. The only problem is that Gogol died before finishing it. Argh!!!
1. How to Be a Woman (Caitlin Moran). Caitlin Moran is an Englishwoman who grew up in a poor household and escaped by becoming a punk rock writer/critic. Her book is a hybrid memoir/manifesto, using hilarious stories (like how nobody told her what periods were until much too late) to illustrate her strident feminism. (She says things like “I want a Zero Tolerance Policy against all the patriarchal bullshit” and urges people to shout “I am a strident feminist!” By the way, I am a strident feminist!) There are chapters on why you should have kids, why you should never have kids, trying to find a good bra, and her experience having an abortion.
Roxane Gay, in the way-above-mentioned Bad Feminist, criticizes Moran for her Anglocentrism and white-people-centrism. Fair. There is one pretty unfortunate racial analogy. But otherwise, this book combines spot-on messages, wacky personal confessions, and nonstop hilarity. Most of the chapter titles end in exclamation marks. Put simply: no other book this year made me as excited to be reading as How to Be a Woman.