A look at my personal "Best of 2014."
In 2014, I read 2.7 books a month. (This statistic would not hold up under scientific scrutiny, but it's probably not too far from the truth.) Only one of them was awful; the rest ranged from okay (The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny; Kinder Than Solitude by Yiyun Li) to the sublime (see below).
So, in the spirit of those ubiquitous Best [Fill in Product Here] of the Year, here is my list of Notable Books Read in 2014. (Sorry, Ayelet Waldman, you're not on this list, but believe me, I feel your pain.)
- The very first book I read in 2014 was The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, whose writing I admire but stories I sometimes find mushy and saccharine. Not so with this tough, searing saga of a missionary family living in a village deep in the heart of the Congo during the tumultuous final years of Belgium's brutal colonial rule.
- White Dog Fell From the Sky, by Eleanor Morse, wonderfully captures the many landscapes of Botswana and is a fairly faithful snapshot of that young country in the late 1970s, about a decade into independence (and the same years of my own idyllic childhood there), as it struggled to manage the conflicts between ancient traditions and modern development, and the challenges of sharing a border with its apartheid-riven neighbor.
- We Need New Names, by NoViolet Bulawayo, tells of the vibrant childhood of an impoverished girl in a Zimbabwe slum and her less compelling but more materially comfortable adolescence in Detroit.
Dead White Men
- Continuing my campaign to conquer the seminal works of literature, I read In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, the second volume of Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time. The complicated sentences flow hypnotically, but I tired of the obsessive navel gazing of the precocious and excruciatingly sensitive protagonist, who worships aristocracy, refinement, and the narrow definition of beauty of the French Belle Époque. Fingers crossed he'll mature into a bomb-throwing anarchist in the next volume.
- Adding to my "life list" of classics, I finally read Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace. Whereas Proust has trouble keeping track of characters and details, War and Peace is flawlessly plotted with almost every detail meticulously in place. As the two titles illustrate, Proust is concerned with the effete and the mannered, while Tolstoy takes on the conflicted nature of all humanity. To those who say "life's too short" for Tolstoy, I see your cliché and raise you: "A mind is a terrible thing to waste."
- It was an abysmal year for nonfiction, as I only managed to read two biographies and a book of science-fiction literary criticism. While neither sci-fi nor lit crit is especially my thing, In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination was written by my idol, Margaret Atwood, and a joy ride to read.
- In fact, I read just as much Atwood as nonfiction, as I also devoured The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam, books two and three of her chilling, prophetic Oryx and Crake trilogy. All I can say is, if you haven't read the trilogy, you should.
Speaking of Trilogies
- I had the intense pleasure of reading Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies back-to-back, and wait in excruciating anticipation for Hilary Mantel's final book of this profoundly beautiful, incredibly moving chronicle of love, loyalty, and political machinations in the court of Henry VIII.
- For an idea of what our future might hold, I looked to some of my favorite writers (including the Atwood novels mentioned above), and they saw dystopia. Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go is a creepy tale of seemingly normal British boarding-school kids bred to be organ donors, a nightmarish portrait of our disposable society run amok.
- Chang-rae Lee's haunting, gorgeous On Such a Full Sea takes the reader on an odyssey through an environmentally ruined America where allegiances are stripped down to the bare minimum.
- Published in 1956, No-No Boy by John Okada (a new edition was issued this year by University of Washington Press with a foreword by Ruth L. Ozeki) was a trail-blazing work in Asian-American literature. Written in outsider-art prose, it depicts the split identity and loyalties of a Japanese-American man returning to his hometown of Seattle after serving time for refusing to join the army and pledge loyalty to the United States during World War II.
- My Year of Meats by Ruth L. Ozeki leads the reader on an eye-opening tour of the American meat industry and modern-day Japan.
- I always try to read at least one book by an "Alice" author, and this year it was Too Much Happiness by the Nobel Prize-winning, reigning empress of the short story, Alice Munro, who deftly explores the dramatic creases in ordinary lives, illuminating the mundane to find the profound.
- Iris Murdoch's The Sea, The Sea is a literary psychological thriller, a gripping meditation on memory, jealousy, and the haunting influence of first love.
My hope for 2015? That Margaret Atwood wins the Nobel Prize. My resolutions: to read more nonfiction, to scour my own bookshelves for those long unread classics, and to re-read some old favorites.