Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Book List 2014

It's time for my first annual best books of the year list of books that were mostly not published in 2014. I set myself what ended up being a modest goal of reading 50 books this year, and ended up finishing somewhere around 80.

Thanks to the easy magic of Goodreads, I was able to look back on those titles and come up with an honest-to-goodness this is the best of what I read this year list. One or two were by authors I have read before, but most were by writers I've been meaning to read for years, or caught me by surprise.

10. Among the Thugs - Bill Buford

By far the best book I've ever read about soccer hooligans, doughy English men punching people, lighting things on fire, and running away from the authorities. Buford inserts himself into a you-are-the immediacy of bad behavior and social class, but he never lets himself overshadow the story.

9. Hiroshima Nagasaki - Paul Ham 

There were a couple of popular history books I could have slid into this spot,. but none of them offered as clear and moving overview of the big picture alongside the immediacy of everyday life for those living in Japan at the end of World War II.

8. Stephen King - It/The Stand 

Last year, I started reading Stephen King again for the first time in decades. This year I backtracked to two of his longest, most popular, and most critically acclaimed novels. I've come to terms that King is not always as scary as you think he's going to be, 90 percent of the characters sound like the talk exactly like Stephen King would and have no concept of popular culture outside the baby boom generation, and after a 1,000 pages, the endings can be a little anti-climatic. But, I've also come to appreciate that King creates worlds filled with a wonderful sense of dread and humanity.
If only he had stuck to the creepy clown and not the giant cosmic spider at the end of It.

7. Ross MacDonald - The Lew Archer novels 

About 75 percent of the time I spend at the library is in the mystery stacks looking for the proper mix of literary, hardboiled noir. This year, I finally took the dive into the Ross MacDonald Lew Archer novels. It's pretty much the perfect mix of post-war California detective fiction with good, tight, smart writing.

6. John Connolly - The Gates

Do you miss Harry Potter? Do you wish Harry Potter had more lovably cranky weiner dogs and bad dwarves who steal ice cream trucks, all while the minions of the dark side try to invade a small English town? Of course you do! John Connolly's Samuel Johnson series has been my go-to recommendation for anyone looking for outstanding new young adult fiction.

5. Daniel Woodrell - Winter's Bone

I guess they made this into a movie with JLaw. I haven't seen it. Maybe some day I will. If it is a fraction as tough and moving as the book, it will be worth it. But you should read the book instead. Or also. Just read the damn book if you haven't already.
I also read several of Woodrell's earlier, more explicitly crime/noir novels this year. You should also read those.

4. Vladimir Nabokov - Lolita 

I should have read more classics this year. Maybe next year. I got about half-way through Bleak House, which was still a good 400 pages, and I do love me some Dickens, but the timing just didn't feel right.

I also read the Great Gatsby again. By my totally arbitrary rules, I didn't consider that for my list of best books I read this year because I've read it before. That rule could easily change next year.

Which leaves me with Lolita, which may well be a better novel than Gatsby anyway. English wasn't even Nabokov's first language, and still, there are maybe a dozen writers who have ever lived who are more accomplished in their first language than Nabokov was in his second.

3. Donald Hall - Essays after Eighty 

Simple and profound. Nothing else I read this year came close to this small volume essays when it came to writing about life, loss, simple pleasures, struggles, and about writing itself. There are a hell of a lot of writing guides and manuals out there that offer far less practical information about what it is to live and write than can be found across a page or two of Hall's latest.

2. Andre Dubus - Selected Stories

I reread some Raymond Carver short stories this year. I may never be sure of what I really think about Carver. I feel like I should love him or hate him, but he just sits there, capable, workmanlike, touching on themes I should care about more.

Instead of reading Carver again, I will read more Andre Dubus. His stories are in the Carver territory, but much more human, mystical, and touching. It doesn't hurt that many of his stories take place within a mile or two outside my door. But these stories would be about real people with real lives and struggles regardless of the geography.

1. Peter Matthiessen - Shadow Country  

As soon as I finished reading Shadow Country this summer, it was all I could do not to turn back to page one and start reading it again immediately. If that isn't a sign of a novel that stays with you, I don't know what is.

Matthiessen hits on all the big themes of the big American novel, the violence, the expansion of the country, what it means to be an American, what is truth, but never lets the excitement of the underlying story get away from him. I also read The Snow Leopard and At Play in the Fields of the Lord this year, and both of those could easily have made my ten best list, if it were not for my arbitrary rules. But Shadow Country was the one novel that lived and stayed inside my head this year more than any other.