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.

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A New Project: The Stories of John Cheever

I have finished reading the next book in the Time Magazine project, Iris Murdoch’s Under the Net, and will post some thoughts about it very shortly as the series chugs along at its deliberate pace. It is always my intention to speed things up, lest I devote another 10 years to completing what seemed at the beginning like a perfectly modest challenge, but other commitments always rear their heads.

One of those commitments is what should prove to be a stimulating, enriching new series of posts over at Trevor Berrett’s wonderful lit-blog The Mookse and the Gripes. Trevor was once a patron at my public library, and I have continued to keep his website bookmarked in the years since. It is therefore a real pleasure that I’ll be writing about John Cheever’s collected stories over the next few months on his blog. Please check them out and join the discussion!

I don’t plan on writing about all 61 stories, so I will periodically add the titles I’ve chosen to discuss here.

#16: Falconer (1977), by John Cheever

He needed time, but he would not pray for time or pray for anything else. He would settle for the stamina of love, a presence he felt like the beginnings of some stair.

220px-Falconer

Q. Do you think your works will be…dated?
A. Oh, I don’t anticipate that my work will be read. That isn’t the sort of thing that concerns me. I might be forgotten tomorrow; it wouldn’t disconcert me in the least.

When John Cheever gave that answer during his Paris Review interview in 1976, broke and recovering from a legendary, decades-long alcoholism, he couldn’t have known how dramatically his fortunes were about to change in the coming years.

By the time he died in 1982, Cheever was unquestionably at his critical and commercial peak, riding the wave of a valedictory resurgence: his fourth novel, Falconer, was published in 1977 to great fanfare, and a year later, thanks to the efforts of his editor Robert Gottlieb, his epochal collected stories received rapturous reviews and a dedicated place in every bookworm’s shelf. Even a substandard final novel, Oh What a Paradise It Seems, written as his physical health was collapsing, couldn’t dim his stature as one of America’s preeminent writers.

Thirty-two years later, Cheever’s premonition that his books would be consigned to a long and yellowing future on library shelves, which might have seemed a tad disingenuous at the time, now seems prophetic.

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