Sunday, December 21, 2014

Top 5 books of 2014

It's always tough to put together my take on the year's Top 5 books -- I've read a lot this year but by no means everything. When the New York Times's "Notable Books" list came out, I saw that I was on a very different track than the general reading population: there were a lot of books I'd not yet read and a lot of books I had no plans to read at all. For instance, having read The Yellow Birds from a few years ago, I've little interest in reading this year's National Book Award winner Redeployment. I've also not yet made it to Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See, Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North and A Brief History of Seven Killings, despite their positive reviews. There are other inclusions on the "Notable Books" list that I would object to: Denis Johnson's The Laughing Monsters, for instance, is unforgivably lousy, and Sarah Waters's The Paying Guests overloaded and uninspired.

Hopefully my list will illuminate a few books that have been left out of the more mainstream compilations. These five books have each entranced me this year in their own ways. They are all exceptional achievements and each get my whole-hearted recommendation. In no particular order:

Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation

I've recently featured VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy on the blog, so I'll keep it brief: VanderMeer made a feverishly readable trilogy with Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance, and introduced readers to the world of Area X in a wickedly memorable fashion. Annihilation follows an unnamed biologist who is sent with a team of women to investigate scientific anomalies in a mysterious jungle. The book is part Lovecraft, part Tarkovsky's Stalker, mixed with the conspiracy of the better arcs of television's LOST. Annihilation is maddening and gorgeously written, and although the subsequent volumes of the trilogy give VanderMeer's story a perhaps-unwanted level of clarity, Annihilation remains a fine example of literary horror and can arguably be read as a standalone book.

A longer review of Annihilation can be found here.

Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle Book Three

I do not understand the Knausgaard naysayers. If you don't like Knausgaard, chances are you're letting the glut of rave reviews negatively motivate your experience with the text. If you're reading something, anything, solely because "everyone says it's the best thing they've ever read", you're entering into a intellectual relationship with your fellow readers instead of with the author, and if that's the case, why read it at all? This may sound biting but I think a good reader is able to separate hype from a hyped book and can take a text for what it is without the clutter of press shaping one's enjoyment. A review and a recommendation should be an encouragement to discover something great, not a challenge, and if you end a book thinking "I don't see what the fuss is all about", then you may have started it for the wrong reasons.

Karl Ove Knausgaard is an exceptional writer, and the third volume of My Struggle is a fine example. It's a 400-page childhood memory, unadulterated by the author's penchant for philosophy and chest-puffing. In fact, those two traits may be the only reason I'd accept for not liking Knausgaard (he is wildly self-aggrandizing in other volumes), but if that's the case I'd still recommend Volume Three. This is pure memory, so simple there's very little to dislike.

A longer review of My Struggle: Book Three can be found here.

Michel Faber, The Book of Strange New Things

Michel Faber tackles religion and science fiction in a fine novel that abstains from leaning too heavily towards either theme. The Book of Strange New Things is about a missionary sent to the nearby planet Oasis in an effort to connect with the indigenous population. It's a far-fetched concept but Faber sticks it: he gracefully steers clear of sci-fi tropes and resists lapsing into the religiously polemical. As insane as the novel is, it remains devastatingly realistic. This realism is achieved thanks to the difficult evolution of Peter the missionary's relationship with his wife back on Earth. Much of the novel is built on their transmissions to each other. Their love, and the difficulty with which they try to connect, renders the cosmic fantasy of The Book of Strange New Things almost as an afterthought. It's a remarkable book.

A longer review of The Book of Strange New Things can be found here.

witzend, ed. by Wallace Wood and Bill Pearson

First published in 1966, witzend was an underground comic made with the intention of giving artists and writers a platform for sharing their work while retaining rights and creative control of their characters. In a gorgeous, two-volume set, Fantagraphics has compiled every issue of witzend, including all front-and-back matter from each. Not only are the comics great, but there's an even better "narrative" flowing underneath the series, between each issue. Amidst letters from readers, editorial manifestos, messages from Wood how to best support witzend, and Wood's resignation from editorial duties after four issues, the entirety of witzend becomes a story in itself.

A longer review of witzend can be found here.

William T. Vollmann, Last Stories and Other Stories

Full disclosure, I've only read a third of Vollmann's Last Stories and Other Stories: at a massive 700 pages, Last Stories and Other Stories is unapologetically dense. The heft of this book (as well as Vollmann's other novels) makes Last Stories and Other Stories a tough review: oftentimes, a perfunctory early review will be rushed out around the time of publication and a more meaningful review left for after the early press rush subsides. Dwight Garner's worthless July 8th review "Dead Girls as Objects, or the 'ick' in Lovesick" seems to have nothing to do with the novel I've read partially read, and its publication takes all the emphasis out of Kate Bernheimer's excellent Times review from August 15.

Although I'm only a little over 200 pages in, I'm confident that Last Stories and Other Stories is one of the best books of the year. Vollmann writes with an old-world mastery: these stories read as if lost in time, like they were passed down orally from generations. Stories of pirate treasure, monsters, and paranormally bleeding statues are interspersed among semi-fictionalized tales of embedded reportage during the author's time in Bosnia. The story "Cat Goddess" follows female surrealist (Max Ernst's lover) Leonor Fini, other stories echo Poe and Lovecraft and other classic horror authors. A vampire story is coming next. Last Stories and Other Stories reads like a fever and is one of the most riveting works I've ever encountered.

Honorable Mentions

These go to Richard Powers's Orfeo and David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks, two great novels that got a little too caught up in their ambitious conceits. They're still both very good, but don't say I didn't warn you if you get a little frustrated!

That's it for me this year - my next post will be a summary of reviews I've written in 2014 and then I'll be taking a short break. Back in late January!

Currently reading:
Ada by Vladimir Nabokov

Currently listening to:
FKA Twigs, "LP1"

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Haruki Murakami, The Strange Library (signed, limited edition)

Only a few months after the publication of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage, Haruki Murakami's short story The Strange Library has just been released in an exciting fully-illustrated single volume. The story is a revised tale Murakami originally wrote in 1982, bulked up with affecting illustrations of old-fashioned academic curiosities. The story follows a boy's visit to the local library and his subsequent imprisonment in the library's labyrinthine basement. On the heels of the maturity of Colorless Tsukuru, readers will find The Strange Library to be vintage Murakami at his best (and worst): talking sheep, peculiar similes, and confoundingly literal magical realism. These quirks are lavishly illustrated throughout the book: talk of the "new moon" results in a page of old moon phases, and talk of being trapped inside a jar full of caterpillars gets an excerpt from an old entomology encyclopedia. It's an easy, fun read (cover-to-cover in about thirty minutes), but at around only $12 for the trade edition remains worth the price of admission. What's more, the US and UK editions are illustrated differently: Chip Kidd takes the US edition for a spin, and the UK version is full of found images from the London Library. Really interesting to see these geographical differences and consider how they might affect the book.

As expected, a limited edition was made of The Strange Library and it's really quite a nice piece. It is refreshing to see Harvill Secker tone it down for a change: their last two limited editions had retail prices of over $1000 each, and in my opinion sucked a lot of the enjoyment out of the concept, landing on something too nice for a bookshelf but not nice enough for a gallery. However, I think they nailed it with The Strange Library: the book is little more than a specially packaged, signed and numbered trade edition, but those little differences transform the book into something special.

This is the outer case. Curiously, that "2014 02 12" surrounding the "Strange Library" insignia is the exact publication date.

The edges of the clamshell have some nice marbling:

But it's not a typical clamshell: the front boards open up to reveal the book set inside a cut-away base. The marbling from the edges looks beautiful as full endpapers.

Sliding the book out, you can tell that the library pocket on the front (also stamped with 2014 02 12) has something inside.

Instead of a tipped in signature page or something bound inside the book, the pocket card is signed by Murakami and signifies the edition number. This is number 50 of a worldwide edition of 100.

I think the simplicity of this is absolutely lovely: the retail price of the book was 100 GBP before it sold out, and I think that's entirely appropriate. The humble design doesn't try to make a trade edition anything more than it is, but embraces its innate characteristics and overall vibe to transform it into a striking volume, perfect for the strange library of any collector.

Currently reading:
J by Howard Jacobson

Currently listening to:
Tom Waits, "Real Gone"

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer (signed, first paperback edition)

Appearing on FSG's new "FSG Originals" imprint that specializes in first-paperback-edition novels by lesser-known names, Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach Trilogy nearly took over my entire reading summer. Annihilation, the first volume, is a cross between LOST and Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker with a pinch of Lovecraftian Old Gods in the mix and is a serious contender to be one of my books of the year. The book follows four female scientists through "Area X", a mysterious realm of ecological overgrowth that has been under scientific scrutiny for years by the Southern Reach corporation. The biologist in Annihilation seems to quickly lose her mind upon entering Area X and has an encounter with a remarkably strange creature in a tunnel who appears to be writing scripture on the walls with luminescent moss. Annihilation is a disarmingly good work of classic horror and will make you want to share it with all your friends.

I've hooked my wife, my brother, his girlfriend, and my co-workers on the Southern Reach and plan to with some lucky recipients this Christmas. I can't think of another book that instilled this kind of excitement in me.

I think, in part, FSG's to blame. They released this book exceptionally well. VanderMeer planned (or perhaps completely wrote) all three books first so the publisher could know with certainty that the trilogy wasn't going to fall victim to the same plot-loss that takes its toll on scads of other popular sequential fiction out there (I'm looking at you, Mockingjay). And, since the books were all essentially completed at the same time, FSG initiated a very tight release schedule for all three books. Annihilation hit shelves early summer, Authority (about what happens inside the Southern Reach) towards the middle, and Acceptance, the final volume, at the beginning of September. It feels the marketing and release schedule was laid out solely for the betterment of VanderMeer's books; no tricks, no stringing fans along, and little possibility that anyone would lose interest by the time the trilogy concludes. Pretty amazing planning, I think.

Here are my three Southern Reach books, signed to me and my wife at the Brooklyn Book Festival this September. 

Now, even better: FSG just released an omnibus edition of all three books in a single hardcover. It's really beautifully designed, and the list price is cheaper than all three paperbacks together. Here's a photo from the Drawn and Quarterly bookstore's instagram feed -- I have a copy here, but it's already wrapped and ready to give this Christmas. I encourage you to do the same!

If you're interested in reading more about The Southern Reach trilogy, I've written some detailed reviews here.

Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation (Review)
Jeff VanderMeer, Authority (Review)
Jeff VanderMeer, Acceptance (Review)

Currently reading:
Superman Comes to the Supermarket by Norman Mailer
J by Howards Jacobson

Currently listening to:
The Serial podcast