Because a few things got in the way, I was only able to read 82 books this year, 19 shy of my goal of 101 books each year. But I made up for it by reading what are probably some of my favorite books of all time, and a lot of them were released this year! I’ve split it up into two lists, with authors I’ve read before and authors I haven’t. Here’s to another 101 in 2014.
10. A Moment in the Sun by John Sayles: This 950 page monstrosity about a disparate group of people living in and around the time of the Yukon gold rush is as rich as it gets. It gets violent, introspective and epic, and there is a lot for a bibliophile to chew on as you plow through McSweeny’s thick paperback. Be sure to pick this one up with both hands.
9. A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers: A mixture of Waiting for Godot and Death of a Salesman create what is easily Dave Eggers’ most accessible, and probably best work, having only read a few short works. There are moments of great truth in this book, where Eggers gets right to the heart of human desire, no matter the age of the person. And it’s entertaining as well.
8. What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt: Because she is married to Paul Auster, it’s unavoidable to compare to him, but I don’t feel like that is a bad thing. This book about two men whose relationship with each other perverts itself through each of their sons feels like a long-lost Auster novel. It has the same sense mystery, twists and emotional revelation as his early period. And even though the events are dark, I still feel great warmth when I read it.
7. All Souls by Javier Marias: A new international author to love in the way that I love Bolano. He takes a tired subject, the campus novel, and injects it with the same kind of oddball, scatter-shot storytelling that made Bolano’s thick novels so great. It’s a short read, barely a hair over 200 pages, and they go by quick.
6. The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers: The best war novel I have ever read. It’s a deeply poetic and viscerally violent look at war through the eyes of a young man filled with regret. But not regret at the people he has killed, but the people he has let down. It is a personal story that shines a light on bigger issues, which is what literature is supposed to do.
5. The Man in My Basement by Walter Mosley: Leave it to an author like Mosley to give readers the most unique look at race relation in the past quarter century. It takes hot button topics and places them in a narrative that would be at home in a Rod Serling show. It manages to be creepy yet never lets go of the gravity of what it is trying to say about guilt.
4. The Dinner by Herman Koch: This is the most gleefully cynical book I read all year. Over the course of one dinner and 300 pages, we find out the levels that people will go to protect their own, even when they deserve to be tossed to the wolves. With a cool twist about who is really telling the story (which I won’t reveal), this book deserved to be a bestseller and the subject to many water-cooler conversations.
3. Big Breasts and Wide Hips by Mo Yan: Despite the goofy title, this novel is a near masterpiece in epic storytelling. Through the misfortunes of one woman and her unfortunate offspring, who fall victim to the tides of violent change, Yan captures a certain kind of Japanese identity that exists in his country. But I really don’t care about that. It’s just an old-fashioned, long patient kind of storytelling reminiscent of the best of John Irving that makes this book, and his author, so important.
2. The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vasquez: To compare someone to Bolano again, this is a horror novel of the highest order, but a more cerebral one, with real-life atrocities taking the place of the supernatural, which is all the more frightening. Vasquez captures a culture of fear that infected Columbia under the iron rule of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. It wasn’t just a war on drugs, it was a war on people, and it is no less scary than Bolano’s Santa Theresa or Stephen King’s Derry, Maine.
1. Rivers by Michael Farris Smith: The best new author I’ve read in awhile, as well ad the best debut I have come across in years. A unique kind of post-apocalyptic setting is presented here, one that is filled with epic weather changes in the Gulf of Mexico and an ocean of rain falling from the sky. In it is one lone man who must trek to the border somewhere near Tennessee. On the way he becomes a savior to a group of captured, pregnant women, which only bring up memories of his tragic past. A suitcase full of money, and plenty of bloodthirsty men willing to kill for their own salvation fill this epic tale of redemption. It comes with my full seal of approval.
10. Donnybrook by Frank Bill: Indiana’s own Frank Bill presents a damned wild ride into heartland of America where violence is a form of communication and depravity is a way of life. It is hard to find any moral center in this novel, but it is there if you look for it behind the piles of dead bodies and broken teeth. With the promise of a sequel, I’m in!
9. Clockers by Richard Price: After reading a few unimpressive novels by Price, this was the first one that was a homerun. The story is long, but simple, and focus on two men trying to navigate the hellish landscape of a crime-ridden New York City. The dialogue pops with double entendres and loose metaphors that are music to the reading ears, and a twist near the end forces the reader to ask questions about violence and where it really comes from.
8. Gone, Baby Gone by Dennis Lehane: Another transcendent crime thriller from the best one working today. Unlike his more mature books, like Mystic River and The Given Day, this book is probably his darkest one as well as his most ambiguous, with an ending that questions whether the right thing was done.
7. Ladies and Gentleman by Adam Ross: After the rather confusing Mr. Peanut, Ross gave readers a more straightforward look at dark modern life with this collection of stories. Things like honesty, kindness and good will are all negotiable in the world presented here, as long as something desired sits on the other side of these virtues.
6. Number9Dream by David Mitchell: Another book by an author I had almost written off, this novel balances the creativity with quality, presenting 9, almost spate narratives that build toward the rebirth of our damaged narrator. It will leave your mind racing as well as your heart aching.
5. The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver: A more optimistic look at a subject matter than Shriver’s famous We Need to Talk About Kevin. Through alternating chapters, we see the cause-and-effect of one possible kiss, each of which lead to complications both good and bad, that are unavoidable. It makes a really touching point about the ups and downs of life, and really earns its heartwarming moments.
4. The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano: After talking about people who make me think of him, let me talk of the man’s books themselves. With this and 2666, Bolano made a permanent mark on the world that will last for generations. And while 2666 could be about the acceptance of death, The Savage Detectives could be about the celebration of life. But it’s all open to interpretation, but what isn’t are the little stories weaved throughout this epic tale. From a ghost in a mineshaft to an oral sex contest, it’s all crazy, intriguing and full of life, showing us that Bolano’s death in 2003 is one of our young century’s greatest losses.
3. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt: I don’t think I can wait another 10 years for a new Tartt book Life is too short and she is too good to be so sparse in what she publishes. But I can rest easy knowing that this is her best work. Even at 778 pages, there is not a word wasted, and she provides the same kind of philosophical thriller that she did with The Secret History. It makes you think about the reasons people do things, and why certain objects contain an almost physical memory that the holder clings to even if it sinks them.
2. NOS4A2 by Joe Hill: Another epic 700-page book announces a change in a great writer. Here is the novel that will propel Hill out from under the shadow of his famous father and possibly make him the greatest genre writer of his generation. There is a real maturity in this story not seen in his other books; a real kind of summation of themes that he has been playing with and can now lay to rest and grow as a writer. This is a masterpiece of horror, and what’s better is that it doesn’t signal the end of a career, but a new beginning of one.
1. The Son by Philipp Meyer: The best book I have read since I have started reading seriously back in 2010. While I loved American Rust, Meyer is dealing with something better and grander here. This epic, which spans 150 years and three generations of oil tycoons, takes the idea of America’s founding and turns it on it’s head in a way I have not experienced before. The violence is gruesome, on both sides, and haunts the future generations in a breathtaking and ingenious way, as evidenced by the opening. A real set-in-stone masterpiece I hope gathers a huge following. I am still in awe of this book.