My Year in Reading

I did a lot of reading in 2014, and I thought I’d wrap it all up here. It felt like a lot of reading, anyway. I know there are folks out there more voraciously bookish than myself, but mixing it in with being a dad, a teacher, and writing, it felt like a hell of a lot of reading. The following is a collection of micro-reviews for each work I read throughout the year. Spoiler: I liked all of them; if I don’t like a book I don’t finish it. I had some false starts and works that I just put down and never picked up again, but the books below are the ones I loved (some only liked) and completed–in no particular order because I’m not even going to try to remember that. I won’t be providing synopses (maybe a little), but I will provide links with which you can access them. Below you’ll find the titles, authors, page counts, my brief thoughts, and the answers as to whether I would read each work again if I could go back and re-make that choice (the answer to that question will always be yes for these books, but in varying degrees of enthusiasm).


Cloud Atlas

Author: David Mitchell

Pages: 509

Thoughts: I have a policy about books and movies, which I follow most of the time. It is this: If a book has been adapted into a film, I will not watch that film until I’ve read the book. This one was an exception. The movie, starring Tom Hanks, came on TV one evening and I just watched it, not really thinking I would even finish before nodding off. I was fully engaged for the entirety of the film and deeply affected. I got the book as quickly as I could and began reading. It was my first read of the year and a powerful one. I was impressed by its complexity in both plot and style–6 interconnected stories, protagonists, voices, and styles sprawled throughout time (and the book). David Mitchell gave me a minor stroke, and then I thanked him for it.

Would I Read it Again?

Over and over and over.


The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Author: Neil Gaiman

Pages: 178

Thoughts: Neil Gaiman is regarded as a god of letters and stories. Well, he might actually be a god–ALL WORSHIP THE GAIMAN. What impresses me most about Gaiman is his fearlessness when it comes to genre and form. He’s done it all and done it well: novels, short stories, screenplays, television scripts, graphic novels. And he’s written for child, YA, and adult audiences. His work is amazing and magical. This novel (probably be more accurate to call it a novella) strikes me as the kind of work that would have never been published were it not for its author’s god-status. That is not to say that it’s not amazing. I finished it quickly and loved it. It will elicit a nostalgia for childhood and cause you to wonder on the kind of figurative (and maybe literal?) magic you’ve forgotten from that time of your life.

Would I Read it Again?

Sure


The Virgins

Author: Pamela Erens

Pages: 283

Thoughts: I loved this book, and what really drew me in was the narrator and his unreliability. This is a story that lets you know right up front that it is tragic. The story is really about its narrator, who views the objects of the novel, two angst ridden teens (“the virgins”), from afar. We follow the narrator’s meanderings as he tells–and invents–much of their story. You have to question him through every page, and I love that. I wrote a lengthier review for this novel here, if you’re interested.

Would I Read it Again?

Yep


The Good Lord Bird

Author: James McBride

Pages: 417

Thoughts: I laughed through this book, a narrative which manages to somehow be a work of both high seriousness and bawdy humor (it also won the National Book Award in 2013). The Good Lord Bird is a period piece about a fictional slave who is “liberated” as a child by John Brown, the real-life (and incredibly violent and controversial) abolitionist. The protagonist (named “Onion” by the “Old Man”) is mistaken by Brown for a girl and then must spend over a decade pretending to be a woman while following Brown through his bloody mission to end slavery. I put this book down a few times. The story never really sucked me in, but reading it was such a pleasure. Onion tells the story in first person–a heavy and entertaining vernacular, full of colloquialisms that will just have you grinning. It’s also a great work of satire that doesn’t romanticize the period or the historical figures involved.

Would I Read it Again?

Yes. I’ve even considered teaching it to my American Literature classes.


Wolf in White Van

Author: John Darnielle

Pages: 207

Thoughts: John Darnielle is an amazingly talented musician/lyricist and heads the band The Mountain Goats. Really, you should check them out. Anyway, it seems that he’s a pretty good novelist as well. Damn him for his multifaceted artistry. It’s not surprising, actually; his music is heavily story-driven. Wolf in White Van is his debut novel and was long-listed for the 2014 National Book Award (damn him for that, too). This is the story of a sad, sad man who is indirectly responsible for the death of two teens who took the sad man’s mail-order role-playing-game into the real world and suffered the consequences. That might sound all interesting, but the story is less about that tragedy and more about the tragedy of the narrator. He is monstrously deformed and lonely. His face is something grotesque, the result of a childhood accident. The narrator moves us backward to that personal tragedy through the vehicle of his disjointed and often disturbing psyche and reflections. You will feel both pity and repulsion for this character, and that’s what I loved about the novel. There are plenty of good 80’s fantasy references as well (Conan the Barbarian, anyone? By Crom, yes!).

Would I Read it Again?

Maybe


Cat’s Cradle

Author: Kurt Vonnegut

Pages: 191

Thoughts: Okay, so, funny story: A fellow English teacher at my school left for an employment opportunity somewhere else. When she left, a lot of the books and various sundries were up for grabs. I took a set of about 20 copies of Cat’s Cradle. I had never read it but thought I might and that I might then teach it. That was a couple years ago. A few months ago a student picked it up and asked me if it’s any good. I had to be honest and tell her I hadn’t read it (to my chagrin). To my further chagrin, she berated me for having a book on my bookshelf (20 of them, no less) without having read it. She then offered to read it if I would read it, too. It was an agreement, a literary pact. You don’t turn that down. Do you know how rare something like that is for an English teacher? You don’t say no. YOU DO NOT SAY NO. So we read it. And I’m so damn glad I did. Vonnegut hardly needs my review, but I’ll offer it regardless. I love the bite-sized chapters. The humor is phenomenal, but there are also moments of deep satire that knock you over and leave you in reflection long after the book is back on the shelf. In addition, it helped me develop a tolerable and working definition of my own faith–which is really far too personal to go into here.

Would I Read it Again?

Certainly


The Untold

Author: Courtney Collins

Pages: 274

Thoughts: This is Courtney Collins’ debut novel, and its original (Australian) title is The Burial. It’s a fiction but is loosely based on the life of 19th century Australian female cattle-rustler Jesse Hickman. And it is beautiful. Courtney Collins has been called a female Cormac McCarthy. It’s a great compliment, but she doesn’t really need it; her work stands well enough on its own. The most compelling (and delightfully unusual) aspect of this novel is its narrator. Early in the novel (this really isn’t a spoiler; I promise) Jesse kills and buries her own newborn child (it was a mercy killing and heartbreaking to read). The child then becomes supernaturally aware and somewhat omniscient and tells its mother’s story–in a voice that is so lyrical and vivid in its description, I should add. If you enjoy westerns and/or McCarthy (with a mild dose of Gothic), give this one a read.

Would I Read it Again?

Mmhmm.


The Great Gatsby

Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald

Pages: 192

Thoughts: When I was in college I had to read Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles; I hated it–hated reading it, anyway. But I’ve never been able to kick it. I loved talking about it, writing about it, later teaching it. I love Tess and her tragedy and the threads of paganism woven into its narrative and symbolism. Wait, I’m supposed to be writing about Gatsby. I only mention Tess in order say that I have similar feelings about this book. First of all, let’s just ignore the fact that I waited until I was in my thirties to read The Great Gatsby. After finally reading it, though, my immediate response was that I didn’t care for it…but then I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I didn’t like the characters. I couldn’t understand why Daisy is such a big deal–how anyone could really fall in love with her (to the extent Gatsby does, anyway). She’s shallow (most of the characters are, actually), and a coward. But I loved everything beneath the plot–the inadequacy of excess, Fitzgerald’s genius with language and poetry, the strong implications that Nick Carraway (the narrator) is gay. And the last 2 chapters are just beautiful.

Would I Read it Again?

Yeah.


The Goldfinch

Author: Donna Tartt

Pages: 771 (so much book)

Thoughts: Oh, lord, who hasn’t read–or at least attempted to read–The-effing-Goldfinch? There was a lot of talk about this one in 2014, and then it won the Pulitzer, and then there was more talk…and more talk. Some critics were like, “What’s the big deal? It’s just literary, escapist crack for smart people.” And some other critics were like, “OH MY GOD, The Goldlfinch is gold, it’s a triumph, she worked on it for like 10 years, and its BIG.”  I agree with all of the above. It is an incredibly plot-driven novel, and literary critics get all snobby and elitist about that kind of thing. But I enjoyed it, and it was smart: art, antiques, intrigue. And how could you not love Boris?

Would I Read it Again?

Yeah, I suppose.


Serena

Author: Ron Rash

Pages: 367

Thoughts: Oh, Serena. Serena. Serena. Serena. I love the Southern Appalachians and Smoky Mountains in which I live, and this novel is a love letter to those mountains and the people who have carved out a life in them. The story begins in 1929, just before the beginning of the Great Depression and the formation the Smoky Mountain National Park. Serena, the title character, marries George Pemberton, the owner of a vast logging company throughout Western NC and East Tennessee. They’re rugged, powerful, overly privileged people, and Serena will (and does) do anything to protect and expand her husband’s–and her–empire. You will love her, worship her, fear her, and hate her. I love the work of Ron Rash. He’s a local treasure, and I’ve had the privilege of meeting him multiple times and accompanying our students to visit with him for readings and Q&A. While sitting close enough to slap his thigh, I heard him say, in answer to a student’s question, that of everything he’s written, Serena is his favorite and the work of which he is most proud.

Would I Read it Again?

A colleague and I combined our educational funds to buy 30 copies with the intent to teach it. So, yeah.


Ploughshares Spring 2014

Guest Editor: Jean Thompson; Authors: many

Pages: 206

Thoughts: Ploughshares is a literary journal published by Emerson College, and it’s one of the most prestigious of its kind. Many of our nation’s great contemporary writers published their first stories and poetry in Ploughshares. If you’re an aspiring writer of literary short fiction, poetry, or essays, you should consider submitting your work here. If you’re considering subscribing to a literary journal this year, this is a great choice. I’ve read through some of the other issues in 2014, but the spring issue is the only one I read cover to cover, which is why I have it listed here.

Would I Read it Again?

Great stories. Great Poetry. Yes.


The Walking Dead

Author: Robert Kirkman

Pages: Not really sure

Thoughts: I love comics. I don’t collect them or read a lot, but I do like them and respect the genre. The combination of storytelling and art is more than I can resist, and I love this series. I’ve been reading it for a couple years (and, yes, I love the show as well). The stories and characters are complex, and the theme of how and why we survive in the face of extreme adversity and loss remains consistent throughout. The illustrations are beautiful: black-and-white masterpieces–detailed and expressive. I’ve stayed up-to-date with the series through the year, so I’m including it here.

Would I Read it Again.

Yes, and I’ll continue until the series’ end.


What I’ve Stolen, What I’ve Earned

Author: Sherman Alexie

Pages: 156

Thoughts: In interviews, Alexie has said that though he has experienced great success as a novelist (National Book Award Winner for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian), he still thinks of himself as a poet first. That is how he started. This is his most recent volume of poetry, and like all of his other work–both poetry and prose–focuses on Native American characters and themes. Alexie’s humor is biting and condemning–even accusatory at times–and so is his poetry. It is often hilarious and at times poignant. But he makes me feel like an ass for being white. This isn’t a criticism–it’s often quite funny. I think he wants everyone to feel like an asshole. I think he would admit that he is often an asshole. I believe his mission in writing is to make us aware of our assholery so we can then do something about it. I read a lot of poetry, but this is the only complete volume I read this year, and it was a good choice.

Would I Read it Again?

I’m afraid Alexie would make fun of me, but yeah.


Your Fathers, Where are They? And the Prophets, do They Live Forever?

Author: Dave Eggers, the golden child of McSweeney’s Publishing

Pages: 212

Thoughts: So, yeah, the title. But whatever. Eggers is a literary rock star, but his work hasn’t been scoring in recent years. This one got some bad reviews, but I liked it. A guy in his early thirties is trying to find the root causes of his dissatistaction and screwed up life. His method involves kidnapping various mentors and other influential persons from his life, chaining them up in separate bunkers on an abandoned military base, and questioning them until he feels satisfied. The entire novel is in dialogue–no narrator whatsoever. This felt gimmicky at times, but I enjoyed it. I can understand why others might not like this book, but being in my early thirties, stuck somewhere between “generation x” and the “millenials,” I could empathize with the protagonist on some levels. I’m not nearly as dissatisfied, pitiful, dangerous, and extremist as this poor fellow, but I could identify.

Would I Read it Again?

Yeah, why not.


The Painter

Author: Peter Heller

Pages: 364

Thoughts: I usually keep myself informed on literary news–what’s being published, lists of great books coming out this month or this year–and that is usually how I make my decisions about what to read, but sometimes, and these are the best times, I find a book while thumbing through the bookshelves of our local bookstore, a book I’ve not heard of, sometimes a book that will wedge into my identity and never leave. Peter Heller’s first novel, The Dog Stars, is one of those books. It was published in 2012. So when I discovered that Heller’s second novel, The Painter, would be releasing only two years later, I was in thrilled anticipation. Heller’s style, established in The Dog Stars, carries over into the The Painter. It might as well be the same guy speaking, which is absolutely not a problem for me. It’s a voice that is minimal and lyrical, sacrificing grammatical orthodoxy for the sake of voice and rhythm. Jim Stegner, the novel’s protagonist and storyteller, is a painter and a fly fisherman. He’s also a murderer on the run who can’t stop making art. Let me give you the first three paragraphs:

I never imagined I would shoot a man. Or be a father. Or live so far from the sea.

As a child, you imagine your life sometimes, how it will be.

I never thought I would be a painter. That I might make a world and walk into it and forget myself. That art would be something I would not have any way of not doing.

Now, please, get this book and read the rest.

Would I Read it Again?

I guess that’s obvious.


The Other Side: A Memoir

Author: Lacy M. Johnson

Pages: 194

Thoughts: While discussing a rape that was mentioned in the news with one of my 11th grade English classes, a male student suggested that the rape might have been the victim’s fault. I tactfully informed him otherwise and warned him against victim blaming. Had I read Lacy Johnson’s memoir–which tells of her violent rape, emotional and mental trauma, and her ongoing recovery in vivid, courageously honest detail–I might not have been so restrained. It’s not an easy read, emotionally, but it is a crucial read–one I’m  tempted to hand out to every single one of my students.

Would I Read it Again?

Yes.


The Bone Clocks

Author: David Mitchell

Pages: 624

Thoughts: This was another much-talked-about novel of the year. Upfront, I’ll say that I don’t think it’s as good–or meaningful–as Cloud Atlas, but I still enjoyed it immensely. The joy of a David Mitchell novel is its puzzle, and this one’s pieces are scattered throughout its pages meticulously; I enjoyed gathering and piecing them together. Much like Cloud Atlas, Mitchell shows off his versatility in voice and style and intricate plotting. The Bone Clocks is really a collection of 6 connected novellas, each told in a different voice by a different character yet focused on a single girl. It’s also an eclectic mix of genres, varieties of realism blended with scifi/fantasy. Though I wasn’t as moved by this work as I was by Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, I was still enchanted enough to stay up past my bedtime, and I may or may not have procrastinated that stack of grading on my work desk.

Would I Read it Again?

Mind-bending fun–that’s my jam.


The Revolution of Every Day

Author: Cari Luna

Pages: 388

Thoughts: This is Luna’s debut novel, coming out of Tin House–a great publisher and lit mag. The work definitely has an agenda, drawing attention to issues regarding homelessness, hunger, and the human right to housing. It does this by taking its readers into the New York of the mid 90’s and introducing them to the squatters of 13 House. There were moments when I tired of this book–the soap opera-ish drama of “family” dysfunction, infidelities, jealousies, and a secret (or not-so-secret) pregnancy–but, for the most part, I fell in love with the characters and felt invested in their struggle to keep their home.

Would I Read it Again?

Sure


Station Eleven

Author: Emily St. John Mandel

Pages: 333

Thoughts: This wasn’t the last book I read of the year, but I saved it for the last because it is the best I read and one of the best I’ve ever read. I was hoping that by time I reached this point in the post I would have figured out how to tell you what this book means to me. I’m not sure I have. Mandel, like many authors who have tried to capitalize on the success of books like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, offers us an apocalypse–in this case, brought on by a super flu that spares little of humankind. The apocalypse has been done over and over and over, but Mandel makes it fresh and focuses not so much on survival, as many of these stories do, but on living. In Mandel’s post-apocalypse, stories, art, and music are still relevant–and crucial. In a violent and unpredictable world thrown back into 19th century (or earlier) modes of living, where communities know nothing of each other and make their own laws–or eschew laws altogether–a “traveling symphony” of musicians and Shakespearean performers live a nomadic existence, moving from town to town to entertain survivors with plays like “King Lear” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Because, well, that kind of thing just matters. The influence and relevance of literature in Station Eleven isn’t limited to high-minded classics such as Shakespeare; the novel’s heroin carries with her a comic book she received as a young child. She knows it and recites it to herself as though it were the dearest scripture. Mandel not only suggests that survival requires art, but she gives us art outside the stifling culture of artistic/literary elitism; a comic book can have just as much artistic merit and value as Shakespeare (maybe more so). As far as expressing what this book means to me, were the actual apocalypse to take place and I only had time to grab a couple books, I would reach for this one.

Would I Read it Again?

I probably will actually read it again.


If you’re still reading, bless you. And thank you to all those who follow and read. I look forward to continuing my binge-reading this year. Right now I’m reading a phenominal (and bizarre) collection of short stories by Julia Elliott, The Wilds. It’s a wonderfully odd medley of Southern Gothic and scifi/fantasy. I’m loving it. I also plan on reading through Ursula K. Leguin’s Earthsea series this year. I also look forward to those surprises waiting on bookshelves. Have a great year, everyone, and read a book or two.

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