My Literary Year in Review, 2014

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This was a frustrating year for me as a reader. I finished far fewer books than I usually do, but I also found myself less patient with many of them in general. Some books swept me up from the start with their style and narrative, while others were awkward struggles. I gave books less time than I have in the past to capture and hold my interest, and I found myself gravitating toward those books that sought to speak honestly, slowly, and deeply about their characters or the real world.

Frances and Bernard, Carlene Bauer (2013) A gorgeous, tender, moving story about the love and anguish that accompany relationships, both those between men and women and those between penitents and their God.

Doctor Sleep, Stephen King (2013) (quit) It's not like I don't know what dumb situation I'm getting myself into when I pick up a new Stephen King novel. But I do it anyway. I have only myself to blame.

Return to Oakpine, Ron Carlson (2013) Ron Carlson's become one of my favorite writers, and this slim, gentle novel about a group of men reuniting in middle age has some wonderful moments. It touches on weighty things like death, family, and the damnable passage of time, but it never feels preachy or cheap.

Telegraph Avenue, Michael Chabon (2012) (quit) Dissident Gardens, Jonathan Lethem (2013) (quit) Death of an Ordinary Man, Glen Duncan (2004) (quit) Orfeo, Richard Powers (2014) (quit) I went on a bad run here. I couldn't lock into the Chabon, no matter how I tried. It seemed to keep slipping right out of my fingers, all curlicued language and scattered plotting. The Lethem worked for me for a while, but it also suffered the drawback that inevitably comes from shaping a novel as a series of mostly independent vignettes: there's little motivation to continue when you hit a couple of bad ones. The Duncan I picked up because I enjoyed the mournfulness of The Last Werewolf, but again, I felt myself plodding through mud. The Powers started strong but dropped off, and I found myself thinking of homework when I picked it up.

The Good Soldier, Ford Madox Ford (1915) Ford's novel hooked me from the first line, and I was amazed at how the structure and language still play so well a century later.

In the Blink of an Eye (2nd Edition), Walter Murch (2001) Walter Murch is a gifted editor and sound designer — his C.V. includes Apocalypse Now, The Conversation, The English Patient, so many others — and this book, a collection of lectures he gave about the art of film editing, is wonderfully instructive about the art of the process. His argument is that we edit the visual narrative of our own lives by blinking, and that the best cuts in movies are those that fall where characters and viewers would naturally blink to shift their focus.  

Red Rising, Pierce Brown (2014) (quit) It's a YA novel set on Mars. Lots of potential, all squandered.

Waiting for the Barbarians, Daniel Mendelsohn (2012) Mendelsohn's one of the best critics writing today, hands down.

Necessary Errors, Caleb Crain (2013) A deep, sprawling read about disaffected post-grads teaching English in Czechoslovakia in 1990. Leisurely paced, quietly affecting, and bittersweet.

Dead Harvest, Chris Holm (2012) Sometimes, a discount paperback is a discount for a reason.

Five Came Back, Mark Harris (2014) (unfinished) Harris's investigation into Hollywood and World War II filters culture through the life and work of five filmmakers: John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens. I like it quite a bit, though not as much as his Pictures at a Revolution, about the shift in American film culture in the late 1960s. I set it aside to pursue other titles, but I'll be coming back.

Red Moon, Benjamin Percy (2014) Compulsive and addicting to start, then regrettable and questionable at the end, not unlike gorging on a bag of candy. It blends post-apocalyptic ideas and werewolf adventure with a little more style than you might expect — similar to the way Justin Cronin's skill elevated The Passage and The Twelve — but it becomes clear as the novel unfolds that Percy's not sure where he wants to go, so he figures he might as well go everywhere. It's a novel's worth of story that's padded out to become a cliffhanger meant to start a franchise, and that kind of manipulation is unpleasant to wade through.

struggle_YIRMy Struggle: Book 1, Karl Ove Knausgaard (2009) As compelling and fresh and insightful as almost everyone else has made it out to be. Knausgaard writes honestly about childhood and regret, and his strained relationship with his father becomes the narrative through which the rest of his life is understood. It's a fantastic book.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith (1943) Friends of mine used the word "inspiring" when describing their affection for this book, and while I understand the emotional connection at the root of that, the term I kept coming back to was "resilience." Betty Smith's lightly fictionalized account of her childhood in turn-of-the-century Brooklyn is a grim, committed evocation of sorrow, suffering, and the role that luck plays in life. The main character, Francie, is above all a fighter, and her young life is something to be survived.

Night Film, Marisha Pessl (2013) Pessl's skills at crafting a page-turning narrative are tempered by the ham-handed nature of her prose and observations. (Additionally, she seems unable to let go of the quirk that requires her to italicize at least one emotional description per page: at first, it just seems weird, but then, you realize it's intentional, and you wonder why it's happening. [You get the idea.]) Still, it's a little engine that could, and for all its loopiness, I found myself strangely compelled to finish.

Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak (1957) (quit) I have convinced myself that I am the kind of person who should read and enjoy Russian classics, even though I haven't finished one since college (and that was spotty).

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, Claire North (2014) Another propulsive little page-turner, this one taking a fanciful premise (what if you kept living your life over again when you died?) and teasing out the complications (would you become depressed? egomaniacal? bored?). Some of the side characterizations are a little bland, but the elliptical, almost mournful nature of the narrative is what makes it work.

Zone One, Colson Whitehead (2011) Whitehead's post-apocalyptic novel is unnerving for many reasons, not least of which is the driving notion that maybe an apocalypse wouldn't be so bad given the current state of things.

Lost Horizon, James Hilton (1933) (quit) The book that gave pop culture Shangri-La. Compelling in its early sections, but muddier in the middle, and I found myself returning to it with the attitude of a student resuming an unappealing summer reading assignment.

acres_YIRA Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley (1991) One of the best books I read all year, and one of the best I've read in a long time. The idea of reimagining King Lear in the American Midwest of the 1970s might sound rickety on paper, but Smiley's narrative is rich, sad, complicated, and never gimmicky. It's the kind of family drama that expertly explores the prisms through which we view our lives and loved ones, and how it's sometimes impossible for two people to agree about something even when they were both right there when it happened. Sweeping, heartbreaking, and glistening with a sense of place and purpose.

Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles, David Thomson (1996) (quit) Thomson's a smart writer, but his style is best suited to the bite-sized entries he crafts for The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. Stretched to book length, it can become cloying and uncertain.

De Niro: A Life, Shawn Levy (2014) Author and film critic Shawn Levy's book about Robert De Niro is the best kind of biography: a heady, insightful blend of production history and film criticism, with a skillful narrative and a genuine drive. Throughout, Levy doesn't just want to explore what made De Niro one of the best actors in American history, but how someone once so committed to stretching himself would come in later years to play a series of forgettable roles in broad comedies. (The highest grossing films in De Niro's career are the three films in the Meet the Parents series and the animated Shark Tale.) His approximate answers: the work of being the best is taxing, and after a while, a career can start to exist for its own sake, quality notwithstanding. But even that's too simple a summation. Levy's lengthy book is full of wonderful stories, observations, and analysis, and it's one of the best film-related books I've read in a while.

By the numbers:

Total books finished: 14 Nonfiction: 5 Books (finished) released in 2014: 3 Books (finished) released before 2014: 11 Books (finished) released before 2000: 3 Favorites: A Thousand Acres, My Struggle: Book 1, Frances and Bernard, De Niro: A Life, Necessary Errors