Friday, January 2, 2015

Top 30 Books of 2014

2014 was a year where a lot of happened to me: some of it was astoundingly good, and some of it was cripplingly bad. But through it all, I had one of the most fruitful reading journeys I have ever had, where more than ¼ of the 125 books I read I could confidently deem fantastic. I split my list into two categories: books by authors I had read before and authors that were new to me.

Old Authors:

15. The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea by Yukio Mishima: I read Mishima’s The Temple of the Golden Pavilion last year, and found it hysterical for all the wrong reasons, but here, the late Japanese author’s total lack of humor works in his favor, telling a story of a gang of young hoodlums and the new boyfriend of one of their mothers that explores the different natures of a man’s personality, and how they clash with an indifferent world.
14. Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever by Dave Eggers: Not the best title, and book that I predicted would divide critics, I am glad to say I am on this book’s side. Written entirely in spoken dialogue, it tells the story of a damaged young man who has kidnapped people of his past to try and fix himself. It is a jarring read, but an exciting one, asking tough questions about where the true misfits of the world go when no one wants them.
13. Live By Night by Dennis Lehane: The Second book in a trilogy set during the era of prohibition, this novel follows the story of Joe Coughlin, just a boy in the previous book, The Given Day, now a low-level thug in the Boston Mob, who, through a series of violent encounters, finds himself in the sweltering heat of Miami working as a rumrunner. Like all of Lehane’s books, it mixes violence action, and pathos perfectly, with a shocking ending that comes out of nowhere. I am eagerly awaiting World Gone By, the next novel, out in March.
12. Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch: If you liked The Dinner, published last year, this is as equally revolting. A story that follows a successful doctor down the path of depravity, it will turn off some with its brutal cynicism, but I found it funny and interesting, especially certain parts about what it’s like to sit through a play that you don’t want to see.
11. Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson: A book to rival The Killer Inside Me in both social subtext and body count, Nick Corey, like Lou Ford, is a monster in a man’s body, and profoundly confused as to his place in the world, whether dealing with his ball-breaking wife or killing those who get in his way. All the while, Thompson speaks volumes about a certain post-war American listlessness better than most books deemed classics.
10. The Bottoms by Joe R. Lansdale: A writer who never fails to amaze me does so again with his most lauded work, a dark, southern gothic tale of swamp monsters, who ugliness is only eclipsed by the very human monster of racism, but don’t let such heavy topics get in the way of the yarn spun by the champion mojo storyteller.
9. Nine Inches by Tom Perrotta: The First collection of stories of Perrotta’s in almost two decades is just as good as his novels, and in some parts better. From a timely story of a pizza delivery boy lost after high school, to one about a chaperone at a school dance who finds a chance at love in an unexpected place, these stories bring out the poetry in everyday life, which Perrotta is a master of.
8. Fortunate Son by Walter Mosely: No other writer can talk about race the way Mosely can. He bypasses all the clichés and gives the reader an honest, if sometime harrowing look at modern race relations. This story, about two brothers separated by race and astoundingly different strands of luck, is fascinating book that forces the reader to look at all sides of a sensitive topic.
7. John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead: After two novels that did very little for me, this book is something truly special. What begins as one black man’s trip to Talcott, West Virginia evolves into a weirdly interesting look at the legend of John Henry, and even some of those affected by the legend through the years. It reads like Bolano’s 2666, in that it isn’t much of a page-turner and doesn’t have a clear theme, but it’s a wild ride that will reward you if you take a chance with it.
6. Life and Death are Wearing Me Out by Mo Yan: The 2012 Nobel Laureate tops his other massive work, Big Breasts and Wide Hips, with this equally massive and even more bizarre tale of reincarnation in mid-century China under the rule of Chairman Mao. Despite who weird it gets, it all fits together, and even a jaded reader can applaud Yan’s talent and audacity
5. The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood: Another writer I had kind of written off proves me wrong with this engrossing tale of three women and their interactions with another who has deliberately made their lives miserable. Some might call it misogynistic, but I saw it as a portrait of three flawed humans who always seem drawn to the brightest light, even when it leaves them blind.
4. Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth: I never thought filth could be so good at showing one man’s inability to connect with his surroundings. Roth’s novel tells of Mickey Sabbath’s life after his mistress dies and his wife finally dumps him. In between many graphic flashbacks, we see Sabbath try to kill himself with sex the way some might try to drink themselves to death with gusto and little dignity. It’s downbeat, all right, but pretty hilarious too.
3. To Rise Again At a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris: Ferris’s third novel might be his best, telling the story of a wayward dentist who finds his life taken away from him by a someone who is posing as him on social media. It is written with humor and grace, having a scene of teeth being flossed coming off as a breathtaking act of love and charity. Ferris reached a new level with this truly great book.
2. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami: This seemingly quiet novel is the kind of book one writes after a book like 1Q84. It shows Murakami’s age and wisdom, the kinds of things he thinks about in the twilight of his years. It is a book of regrets that cripple you and the hope that shines through even in the darkest moments. It is a work of silent beauty that was a highlight for me this year.
1. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell: I guarantee that you won’t read another book quite like this, juggling equal parts human drama and folly with fantastical elements that never get in the way of each other, making for an epic that spans across time and space and the human soul in a way that leaves the reader breathless and irrevocably changed, this is a true book for the ages that is destined to become a classic.

New Authors:

15. Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander: One of the funniest books I read this year is also one of the saddest as well. A neurotic Jewish man finds a living, breathing, chain-smoking Anne Frank living in his new suburban home. Hilarity and tragedy ensue, which, in Auslander’s mind, is an oxymoron.
14. The Elixir of Immortality by Gabi Gleichmann: This novel surprised me. It is an ancient epic, way out of my interest range, but it’s centuries long story about a family cursed and blessed by their connections to history’s most violent moments and a recipe for a healing potion is fast, intelligent and never boring.
13. Care of Wooden Floors by Will Wiles: A cathartic novel for anyone who has a perfectionist friend who’s highly skilled at making you feel small, this weirdly philosophical novel takes a the odd concept of a man making a mess while housesitting for his friends into something that is suspenseful and quite scary. You’ll never look at a wine stain the same way again.
12. The Halfway House by Guillermo Rosales: This swift, bleak novel, which is like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest without a ray of hope, is still very moving by the end. The narrator, stuck in a hellish environment of unchecked insanity, bullying attendants and bodily fluids, tries, against all odds to find a sense of humanity, which always seems out of reach.
11. Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce: Tierce’s fierce debut novel feels like quite the revelation. We see our sad narrator, a newly single mother hop from waitress job to waitress job and from horrid love affair to horrid love affair, all written with an acute honesty and s strong new voice from a talent I anticipate great things from.
10. Hard Rain Falling by Don Carpenter: This prison novel from the 1960’s is one of the unsung classics of American literature. We follow the lives of two youths in the Upper Northwest: one a naïve black kid and another a ruthless conman, whose lives intersect through four decades, ending up in prison, where what happens might be misinterpreted as something else, but really is an act of friendship. This is a harrowing story of survival that deserves a wider audience.
9. A Single Shot by Matthew F. Jones: A writer who joins the ranks of Daniel Woodrell and Frank Bill as backwoods poets, this haunting novel of one man’s mistake while hunting will leave a deep mark. The violence is quick and grime, and the shock ending is truly mesmerizing.
8. Dirty Work by Larry Brown: I read this soon after seeing the movie Joe this year, based on one of Brown’s books, and it didn’t disappoint, with this being the best anti-war novel I have read. Through his simple prose and simple story of two wounded vets sitting across from each other in a VA hospital, Brown speaks volumes about suffering, the will to live, and what people do to show love.
7. Save Yourself by Kelly Braffett: When I talk about adults who read Teen Fiction, what saddens me is that they never find their way to books like these, a book about real teens with the key element missing from a lot of popular teen novels: moral ambiguity. Through the shattered lives of a few adults and teens in Pittsburgh, motivated by revenge and salvation, Braffett has crafted a violent thriller that makes you feel and think.
6. A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz: The book that almost ruined my New England vacation, Toltz has written a book that feels like John Irving on a drunken rampage inspired by Iain Banks. A story of family betrayal and quest for independence for one man whose family overshadows everything, this book seems tailor-made to breeze through on lonely summer days.
5. Young God by Katherine Faw Morris: A fast-paced tale of backwoods greed and depravity, Morris has written a truly singular work in one of my most-loved genre, and in Nikki, the sociopathic narrator, a truly unique character who never asks for forgiveness and is unpredictable as she is interesting.
4. The Man From Primrose Lane by James Renner: The one book that might rival The Bone Clocks in originality is the most surprising book I read all year. What starts out as a simple murder investigations starts to take a one of the weirdest turns I’ve ever read in a book, and if you follow it down it’s demented rabbit hole, you’ll be rewarded with a stunning work of imaginative energy.
3. Cataract City by Craig Davidson: There is no other established writer this year that caught my attention more this year than Craig Davidson, and his hyper-violent novel of wilderness survival, dog racing and bare-knuckle boxing. This book juggles so many different styles and settings, from the snowy woods of upstate New York, the dingy halls of a local wrestling show or the sweat and blood soaked floors of a makeshift boxing ring in someone’s basement, Davidson never missteps, and produces a singular work of transgressive fiction.
2. Voodoo Heart by Scott Snyder: The Best collection of short stories I have read since Joe Hill’s 20th Century Ghosts. It has everything I want from a short story collection. The stories are written with care and are self-contained. And they deal with a variety of subjects, such as desperation, loneliness and resignation, in some very unique settings, like hot air balloons and traveling freak shows. If you like short stories, this is a must-read.
1. Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson: The best debut novel I have read since Philipp Meyer’s American Rust, I am glad I saw this book on many year end lists, because it surely does deserve recognition. There is a hunger in Henderson’s story of a social worker in the early eighties, trying to fix his own life and the life of a troubled young boy. He swings for the fences with many memorable scenes that can be scary, sad, violent, and revelatory. Reading this, I knew I was in the presence of a future giant, and no other book this year made me feel as fulfilled when I finished it than this one.

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