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"

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