The Best Books Read in 2014

Another year, another barrage of best-of lists for us all to wade through; here’s one more, just in time for Christmas.

You know, if you pay enough attention to these lists, you can zero in on a handful of titles that have coalesced into establishment favorites. Such titles this year might include Richard Flanagan’s Booker-winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Matthew Thomas’ We Are Not Ourselves, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, and Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. I am sure these are all excellent books, and I look forward to getting to each of them in time. (I tend to reflexively hold off on reading books at their hypiest so as to avoid getting drowned by it.)

So you won’t find any of those consensus favorites here. This year I read somewhere around 70 books — not bad considering I lost nearly six full weeks to a move — and this list of the 12 best reflects I think a librarian’s curiosity, zig-zagging from new to old, fiction to non, one genre to another, whatever seems appealing on a given day.

I have chosen the first 11 books in random order, saving my favorite read of the year for last.

 Can't We TalkDivide Thank You For ServiceVictim

I’ll begin by confessing that I’ve never connected with a graphic novel as much as I did with Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? The longtime cartoonist for The New Yorker channels her parents’ voices so uncannily it may well raise your own anxiety levels, but she also deals with the indignities of aging and the grown adult’s child-like fear of a parent’s impending death. The real-life photographs of the refrigerator is what did me in for good.

The book that got my blood boiling the most was The Divide by Matt Taibbi, who toned down his usual hyperbole to deliver his best work to date, a despairing look at the two completely different ways we prosecute crimes committed by poor people and by super-rich people. By the end, your anger at our impotent legal system will give way to a begrudging numbness. When you’re done watching The Wire, read this.

We have many works of literature that attempt to describe the brutal realities of war (such as Phil Klay’s Redeployment this year), but not as many that cover the long-term consequences once the war is over. David Finkel’s Thank You For Your Service, which intimately profiles the “after-war” facing many families of our combat veterans, is therefore an act of public service. Finkel’s eye for detail, mixed with his gift of compassion, make this essential reading for those of us (most of us) who have not been made to sacrifice for our country’s decade of war.

The first half of Gary Kinder’s Victim: The Other Side of Murder reads like most true crime books, offering a minute-by-minute account of the 1974 Hi-Fi murders in Ogden, Utah, a particularly gruesome episode that left three people dead and two perilously close. But it’s the second half, in which Kinder exhaustively details one survivor’s inconceivably long road to recovery (including months in the ICU and dozens of surgeries), that turns Victim into a classic of the genre: once the culprits of a violent crime get captured, what happens to the victims and their families weeks, months, years later? This is what attempted murder looks like, and it is unforgettable.

How to be bothDear Committee Love Me Backnative son

On the fiction side, my favorite new novel published in 2014 was How to be both, the latest work of alchemy from Scottish author Ali Smith, whose writing never fails to lift my literary spirits. Smith’s ingenious gambit this time is to present a story in two parts; their order will depend randomly on which copy you pick up. Beyond that, it’s chock full of the wordplay, cheeky humor, and heartbreaking tenderness that define all her works. I wrote about this novel at greater length here.

Over the course of a reading year, you sometimes need a short novel to cleanse the palate and get you back on track; Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members was just the trick. Told through the endless letters of recommendation one fed-up professor must write over a school year, it’s a fresh spin on the seemingly exhausted genre of the campus novel. It joins my shortlist of go-to (ahem) recommendations that are short, sprightly, yet substantial, a list that includes Mark Dunn’s Ella Minnow Pea, David Levithan’s The Lover’s Dictionary, and Calvin Trillin’s Tepper Isn’t Going Out.

Another short book that packs a punch, albeit for very different reasons, is Merritt Tierce’s searing portrait of a waitress, Love Me Back. Tierce has the verisimilitude of restaurant life down pat, but her novel is primarily a triumph of voice: the jagged, brutally frank voice of a self-destructive woman cutting back and forth in time as she recounts a lost period of her life. Tierce’s refusal to sum things up or offer an easy escape route for her protagonist make this a particularly unsettling read.

I read 5 more books from the Time list this year (a pace I intend sincerely to pick up in 2015), but the only one that truly lingers in memory is Richard Wright’s still-ferocious Native Son. I will write more about this novel soon (I’m working on the essay for it now), but let’s just say that reading this during our summer/fall of civil unrest was not lost on me.

 Uncle Janice The Whites The Public Library

I reviewed two books for Library Journal that will be published in 2015, but it’s never too early to start beating the drum. Richard Price, very likely the country’s finest living crime writer (if crime writing is even what he does), always takes a long time between novels, but the seven years since Lush Life made me fear that he had packed it in. No worries: The Whites, written under the transparent pseudonym Harry Brandt, shows he hasn’t lost anything on his fastball. I suppose a Brandt novel is more plot-driven than a Price novel, but you’ll know within 5 pages that nobody else but Richard Price could have written it.

But there’s a young gun coming up that might be Price’s eventual heir: Matt Burgess’s second novel, Uncle Janice, takes what seems like a standard police procedural story and breathes life into it. As I wrote in my LJ review, it “retains the madcap energy of Elmore Leonard’s best fiction while introducing the most irresistible police precinct this side of Joseph Wambaugh’s Hollywood Station.”

And for my final choice, sentiment got the better of me: Robert Dawson’s photographic essay The Public Library gets the nod over Redeployment, which won the National Book Award and should definitely be read. We live in a time when public libraries have never been of greater importance and in higher demand, yet they’re perpetually the first things to hit the chopping block come budget time. Dawson’s tribute to one of our nation’s proudest legacies is a stirring reminder of what the American public library can be when we put our collective imaginations together (answer: anything). I wrote about this book at greater length here.

I recommend all of the preceding books without reservation, but none of them gave me more pound-for-pound delight as the summational work of an old master in dire need of a cultural reevaluation.

John Cheever

Children drown, beautiful women are mangled in automobile accidents, cruise ships founder, and men die lingering deaths in mines and submarines, but you will find none of this in my accounts.

Back in January, I read John Cheever’s Falconer as part of my ongoing Time project.  As I wrote in the subsequent essay, I viewed the novel, which received some of his best reviews upon its publication in 1977,as a series of vividly-drawn episodes that don’t really cohere as grandly as we expect a novel to. It’s those individual set pieces that I’ll take away more than the book as a whole.”

I liked what I read, even if I thought the sum was lesser than its parts. I realized I wasn’t done with Cheever and needed to judge him on what he’s best known for, the stories. I also needed to abandon my prejudices of the man, whom I’d been led by popular culture to believe was thoroughly outmoded, a legendary drunk, and a sexually confused sitcom punchline.

And so I finally took The Stories of John Cheever, the big book with the iconic cover, off my shelf and started going through the 61 stories, one by one, night after night, over the course of several months. I had read certain stories (“Reunion,” “The Country Husband”) in various contexts before, but this was the first time I went through the whole thing cover to cover, tracing the author’s evolution.

It blew my mind.

The prevailing thought on Cheever now is that he’s a stodgy relic of a bygone era, a stenographer for the country club set whose stories form the template of every Mad Men episode ever written. It’s not totally wrong; Cheever’s characters do fit a certain profile, and the first batch of stories, though immaculately written, seem to color inside these lines (“The Season of Divorce,” “Goodbye, My Brother”).

But keep reading and you start to see Cheever rebel against his preferred milieu, a narrative jujitsu in which he seems to play both sides: he’s not merely the jaded outsider holding up the suburbs for detached ridicule but a deeply sympathetic chronicler of our darkest impulses and appetites; Cheever likes his characters too much to judge or hate them (it’s what separates him from his chief rival John Updike), and it’s the only reason you can read all 690 pages of this book and still want more.*

To be sure, there are phases of Cheever’s career that do nothing for me. I don’t much care for the Italian pieces (“The Duchess,” “Boy in Rome”), and I prefer the late-era Cheever, which dives headlong into levels of surrealism and digressiveness the earlier stories, fixed more squarely in the prototypical New Yorker tradition, do not.

Exhibit A: “The Death of Justina,” whose placement about two-thirds of the way into the collection serves as a convenient line of demarcation, where Cheever by 1960 says goodbye forever to a certain kind of storytelling. Most of the subsequent pieces are really just extended exercises in voice that defy easy summary (try describing what “The Chimera” is getting at in a line or two).

There’s so much more that could be written about this collection. How about the range: any collection that can run from “The Enormous Radio” to “The Swimmer” (with “The Country Husband” in between) is pretty awe-inspiring. I also haven’t yet mentioned the writing itself, those long loping Cheever sentences floating along on their inimitable cadences, nor the too-many-to-count list of killer opening and closing lines.

I still have four of his novels to read, but I have the feeling that, like Falconer, they will suffer for the length and that the big red book is the prime Cheever. There’s a reason this book caused such a stir when it was published, sweeping most of the literary awards and single-handedly restoring Cheever’s long-festering reputation. It really was the best book of 1979, and had it been published 35 years later, I have little doubt it would be the consensus favorite of 2014. It is certainly mine.

———–

*”Cheever seemed to be constantly presuming his readers were East Coast sophisticates—probably with ancestral ties to the Mayflower crew,” Brad Leithauser writes in an illuminative essay about Cheever’s prose. “It took me a while to see that this assumption of a sort of clubby exclusivity was, as so often the case with Cheever, a kind of delicate, straight-faced joke.”

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Comments

  1. Pierre says:

    My only difficulty with Cheever is persuading people that his work is enduring and universal. He deals with loss and loneliness. And these will turn up in most people’s lives and pay no attention whatsoever to where they live, how poor or rich they are. His world is a vanished WASP world only in its physical features—emotionally it’s always the present, and it will always be not just his, but ours.

  2. Great comment, Pierre. I completely agree with you.

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