I read more in 2014 than I have in the past few years, but I didn’t read as attentively as usual. It’s been a year of tremendous change for me and the family, and that has perhaps not lent itself to deep introspection. Nonetheless, it’s worthwhile to pause now and think about what I liked, what I didn’t, and what it meant as I enter a new year of words on the page.
The best of the bunch
My favorite reads were a bit of a hodge-podge this year. Several were united by the theme of travel: Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines blended fact and fiction to perfection, meditating on rhythm, movement, and nomadism. Wildmen, Wobblies, and Whistle Punks: Stewart Holbrook’s Lowbrow Northwest (ed. Brian Booth) was a rollicking reintroduction to the lore of the Northwest, an apt pick upon our relocation to Seattle. West with the Night, by Beryl Markham, is a memoir that focuses on the pilot’s exploits, and yet she grows remarkably contemplative by turns: "You can always rediscover an old path and wander over it, but the best you can do then is to say, 'A, yes, I know this turning!' -- or remind yourself that, while you remember that unforgettable valley, the valley no longer remembers you." And though slightly less literal, Anne Carson’s dazzling prose-poetry masterpiece Autobiography of Red often touches on growth, change, and how one is transported: “How does distance look?' is a simple direct question. It extends from a spaceless/within to the edge/of what can be loved. It depends on light."
I, like many others, write more often when I travel, and so my fondness for an exploration of diary culture was not surprising. A Book of One’s One, by Thomas Mallon, inspired me to greater vigilance in keeping my own notebooks, paltry and thin as they may be.
Another important thread was tied to family, relationships, and changing dynamics within them. Elizabeth Smart’s words continued to haunt me in her story of a love affair, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, though admittedly I should have read this book before I read its sequel, The Assumption of the Rogues & Rascals, not after. In Department of Speculation, Jenny Offil’s economy of language makes the feats of her storytelling even more amazing, packing a tale of motherhood and a fractured relationship into a slim, masterful work. And Rufi Thorpe’s The Girls from Corona del Mar offered characters -- friends so close as to feel like family -- that were incredibly well drawn and yet still puzzling, in ways, to the last page, resisting easy answers and thus reflecting the very problem of being human.
I continued to be drawn to older works, those that have fallen into obscurity to some degree. In Women Against Men, I was enraptured by Storm Jameson’s solitary characters. Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes “[showed scorn for] pretending life’s a safe business.” I spent a good deal of time with Tove Jansson and want to revisit The True Deceiver, her enigmatic novel of a Scandinavian winter. I dined on several MFK Fisher books, including Serve It Forth, relishing the flavors of her writing on food, travel, and love. Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s was darker, and more wonderful, than I could have hoped. Around Halloween, I read Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, entranced by the ghostly mystery. And The Home-Maker, by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, upended gender roles at a time when they were fairly conscribed, and this book is a delight in its pragmatism and lack of sentimentality about what people can achieve when they’re working toward ends that suit their personalities.
Fact not fiction
Although I was drawn primarily to fiction this year, there were some highlights in the nonfiction pile as well. A character like Patricia Highsmith would be nearly unbelievable if imagined in a novel; Joan Schenkar’s biography of the fabled writer fleshed out her life in gruesome detail. As an editor, I make a habit of reading style guides of many stripes, and I particularly enjoyed Steven Pinker’s latest book, The Sense of Style, which laid out a philosophy of broad-mindedness rather than rote application of rules that may not hold water; style, he suggests, should be used “to enhance the spread of ideas, to exemplify attention to detail, and to add to the beauty of the world.” Finally, in a taut essay collection, Leslie Jamison’s excellent The Empathy Exams looked at the emotion as a point of inquiry, emphasizing the importance of extending our horizons to better connect with those around us.
Just passing the time
Finally, some other immensely enjoyable pleasures that I took in quickly, greedily, and with great glee. I was late to the party on Alexis M. Smith’s Glaciers, but the quiet, slim novel resonated with me as another searcher, a collector of cast-offs. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was difficult to put down. Several Rainbow Rowell books -- Eleanor and Park, Landline, and Fangirl -- offer charming characters and quick-moving plots. Lizard Music, by Daniel Pinkwater, is a strange vacation from reality for one little boy. Helen Oyeyemi crafts another world, familiar and yet remote, in Boy, Snow, Bird. Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven gives a glimpse of the world after collapse, dark and yet lit with shards of art that glitter amid the decay. Broken Monsters, by Lauren Beukes, is a fast-moving and unnerving thriller. A. S. King cautions us against drinking potables made from a dead bat in Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future. Another solitary searcher takes center stage in Amy Rowland’s The Transcriptionist. Jincy Willett’s Amy Falls Down is a funny ode to the underdog, a tribute to second acts. Lydia Davis’s bite-size stories in Can’t and Won’t are polished gems. Oh, I could go on and on; there are more, so many more, in the full run-down of my 2014 book diet. Read heartily, read often, read on!
How did 2014 stack up with previous years? Check it out: