The ten best books that I read in 2014

This year to date, I have read 28 books. If all goes according to plan, I’ll squeeze one more in before midnight on the 31st, matching my total of 29 for 2013. My annual goal every year is 50 books, but I’ve only reached that once, in 2011. Can you tell I like tracking my reading habits? My Goodreads is pretty intense.

One thing I haven’t done a ton of but would like to do more of in 2015 is review my books – and not just give them some arbitrary stars on Goodreads. This year, I’ve read a lot of books that have made me think and ruminate and ultimately want to write. For now, I can at least write something about the books that I really loved in 2014.

10) The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector (translation by Benjamin Moser)

This one has been on my to-read list for ages, and I was thrilled to see the new Moser translation at Posman Books at Chelsea Market when I was in NYC for work in September. It’s an extraordinarily unique book – half the story of a desperate narrator and half the story, as told by this narrator, of a poor, stupid young woman – that provides tremendous insight into the love and revulsion that an author can have for and from their character, and the simple, desperate life of the slums of Rio de Janeiro. This was Lispector’s last work, and is widely considered to be her best; she is regarded by many as Brazil’s greatest female author.

9) The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle

A fantastic combination of satire, character study, and musings on race and society, The Tortilla Curtain rings just as true today as I’m sure it did upon its release in 1996. It’s the story of the winding, crossing paths of two completely different couples: Delaney and Kyra, rich white Los Angeles liberals who live the aptly named “Arroyo Blanco” housing development; and Cándido and América, recent Mexican illegal immigrants struggling to find their American dream. Some Goodreads reviews rag on the absurdity of some of Delaney’s liberal guilt and devolution into paranoia and unbridled racism, but they ring absolutely true. When I was almost done with the book, I came across a really good, really apt article on Jezebel, “I Don’t Know What to Do with Good White People,” by Brit Bennett. It’s a good companion piece to Delaney’s self-congratulatory, ill-advised liberalism.

8) Augustus by John Williams

I read two John Williams books this year, and both are in my top ten. John Williams was an English professor at the University of Denver who didn’t write Stoner, his first book, until his early forties. His third and final book, Augustus, was published when he was 50. Stoner was reissued by my favorite publishing house, The New York Review Books Classics, in 2003, and has enjoyed some popularity among book nerds since then. This year, they finally reissued Augustus, and I loved it. While his three books are all dramatically different, they all share a spare but aching style and a commitment to pure, honest storytelling that promotes a deep connection to the characters. This is especially amazing with a book like Augustus, an epistolary novel that retells the story of historical characters that we all know, but makes them relatable and, ultimately, haunting.

7) The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer

This book is a good basic introduction to America in the mid-2010s: where we are now, how we got here, and what the hell went wrong. Packer borrows the style of John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy to provide extended biographical sketches of a cog in the American political machine (Jeff Connaughton), an enterprising small businessman in the rural south (Dean Price), and a teen mom in Youngstown, Ohio (Tammy Thomas). He intersperses these stories with smaller sketches of American institutions like Oprah Winfrey, Colin Powell, and Newt Gingrich. The book doesn’t make explicit connections between these stories or to the American history that brought them to where they (and we) are, but that’s okay by me. They’re fantastic thumbnails of American life that explain our country’s recent history without hammering you over the head with it.

6) Ada or Ardor by Vladimir Nabokov

Some would say that I’ve done Nabokov all wrong. I haven’t read Lolita, and I think may I not for a long time. I’ve preferred to get to know Nabokov through his lesser-known works. Pale Fire is on my all-time favorite books, and Ada or Ardor typically comes up as a rival to Pale Fire and Lolita in terms of Nabokov’s genius. It shares some of the same themes as Lolita (Nabokov really loves to write about sympathetic sexual deviants), but, from what I can deduce, is far more complex, difficult, and overall rewarding.

5) In Dreams Begin Responsibilities and Other Stories by Delmore Schwartz

Delmore Schwartz is perhaps best known as the inspiration for Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift and his role as one of Lou Reed’s muses. But most of his books are out of print or difficult to find, and I had never heard of him when I found this at Bookworks. All of the stories are fantastic, but the title story is especially great, recounting the author’s dream about his parents before they were married.

4) Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle

I’ve been a huge Mountain Goats fan for a solid 10 years now. John Darnielle’s songs have always been novels in miniature, creating tiny worlds and giant stories in a few minutes with some acoustic guitar and accompanying singing, talking, and wailing. So when I found out he had written a book, I was psyched because 1) favorite band, and 2) I knew it would be fantastic, based upon Darnielle’s skills as a songwriter. I didn’t anticipate it would be this good, and that it would win a bunch of awards, and Darnielle would become regarded as one of the best new authors of the year. But I’m so excited for him, and for all of the people who now know about his genius, because this book is like a long-form Mountain Goats song in all the best ways, from the dark subject matter to the aloof but heartbreaking protagonist.

3) How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie

I had a boss who lived by this book and tried to get me to read it several times when I was working with him. It never happened, but the title always stuck in my head, and when it came up cheap for Kindle, I bought it and dove in. This book is seriously a life-changer. It’s full of common sense written in a clear, accessible way, and is surprisingly relevant given that it’s 60+ years old. Case in point: Carnegie advocates using people’s names whenever possible, because they’re “the sweetest sound in the world” to the listener. It sounds stupid and obvious, but it absolutely works. (By the way, this is [still] available for Kindle for just $2.99. You have no excuse.)

2) Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

This has ended up on a ton of year-end lists, and for good reason. Station Eleven is a fantastic post-apocalyptic novel, skipping backwards and forwards in time in a way that disorients but also acclimates the reader to a sad, confusing, and dangerous new world. The chapters describing the immediate aftermath of the flu that wipes out most of the world population in just a few days are especially good, because they’re almost disturbingly relatable: cell phones stop working, the Internet goes down, lights go out, cars run out of gas, and people die where they are, trying to escape from something that is inescapable. It really seems like it could happen.

1) Stoner by John Williams

Like Augustus, Williams’ Stoner is a character study. Unlike Augustus, it takes place at the University of Missouri throughout the middle of the 21st century. It’s alternately heartwarming, quiet, infuriating, and sad. As Steve Almond said in his effusive piece on the book in the New York Times Magazine earlier this year, “I [have] never encountered a work so ruthless in its devotion to human truths and so tender in its execution.” Actually, Steve Almond said everything I feel about this book, but far more eloquently, so go read his piece, and then read Stoner.

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