Best Books of 2014

Here is a recap of another year in reading! I present to you my favorite books read in 2014.

89723Best Book To Make You Gasp Every 20 Pages: The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson 

Short stories are not my thing, mostly because I love stories so much that I naturally want them to be long, dense, bulky—to have pages and pages that I can snuggle into and forget myself. Shirley Jackson, fortunately, can do more with a single sentence than many authors can do with a full novel. She will forever have a place in my pantheon of favorite writers. I also read and enjoyed her We Have Always Lived in the Castle this year. It was delightfully wacky, but it’s this brilliant collection of stories that will remain with me. [5 stars]

17292511Best Book About A Sexually Depraved Middle School Teacher: Tampa by Alissa Nutting

So apparently my thing this year was reading books about female teacher pedophiles? Viva 2014! But there’s something so fascinating about how authors choose to depict these protagonists: are they depraved or does something about their gender, about coming from the fairer sex, excuse their otherwise illegal actions? Nutting’s psychological portrait of 8th grade teacher Celeste Price is cutting and terrifying, mostly for how Celeste’s voice is so precise and unapologetic that her normally deplorable actions seem–dare I say it?–occasionally reasonable. [4 stars]

894054Best Book About A Love Lost (And Found) In Translation: The Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo

Oh this beautiful book that no one has read! Guo masterfully depicts the struggles of a young Chinese woman to assimilate culturally and linguistically to her new life in London, including an older British lover. I consider myself a romantic, but I find it’s the stories where love doesn’t work despite trying so so hard that capture me. I still think of Zhuang and I still worry for her and I still hope that somewhere—in a fictional China—she found a way to be full and happy. [4 stars]

881655Best Book About The Fragile Bond Of Sisterhood: The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

The Blind Assassin is about sisters, yes, but it’s also about so many other things that I had trouble finding a “Best Book…” title for it. Because it’s so vast but it’s so deep too. By casting her net so wide, Atwood has fingered some true feelings here, the ones that hollow out your insides but then fill you up later, months after turning the last page, because truth is forever. [4.5 stars]

17333223Best Book That Shows You How Life Is Tragic But Kinda Okay: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

This could also be titled “Best Book That Kept My Brain Moving, Stirring, Gathering For A Week” or “Best Book I Bullied My Sister Into Reading Immediately After Me” or probably just “Best Book I Read in 2014” because this thing just intoxicated me. I still regularly ponder Theo and his tragical life story. But mostly I remember (and tremble at!) all the wonderful things Tartt was trying to say in this chef d’oeuvre. Throughout this monster bildungsroman, she occasionally stumbled and lost her way, faults for which other critics have been extraordinarily cruel, but I think that these many losings all led to findings. Which is kind of the point. [5 stars]

16045140Best Fictional Book That Is Actually An Early 21th Century Anthropological Report On 20-Something Dating Rituals: The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman

My other favorite protagonists from 2014 are recalled kindly, nostalgically, with a hint of a smile on my face, but dear old Nathaniel P. is recalled harshly, antipathetically, with a clenched fist by my side. I hated Nathaniel P. but I have known Nathaniel P. A keen portrait of a young Brooklynite who is self-assured about all the wrong things and self-doubting about all the right things, this novel embodies an archetype very particular to this moment in time. May the Nathaniel P’s of the world die out, but may Adelle Waldman’s incisive and yet sympathetic biography of them live on. [4 stars]

Honorable Mentions:

Notes on a Scandal: What Was She Thinking? by Zoë Heller [4 stars]

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton [5 stars]

The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan [4 stars]

The Man of My Dreams by Curtis Sittenfeld [4 stars]

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Review: Sister Queens: The Noble, Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile by Julia Fox

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Blurb:

When they were young, Juana’s and Katherine’s futures appeared promising. They had secured politically advantageous marriages, but their dreams of love and power quickly dissolved, and the unions for which they’d spent their whole lives preparing were fraught with duplicity and betrayal. Juana, the elder sister, unexpectedly became Spain’s sovereign, but her authority was continually usurped, first by her husband and later by her son. Katherine, a young widow after the death of Prince Arthur of Wales, soon remarried his doting brother Henry and later became a key figure in a drama that altered England’s religious landscape.

Ousted from the positions of power and influence they had been groomed for and separated from their children, Katherine and Juana each turned to their rich and abiding faith and deep personal belief in their family’s dynastic legacy to cope with their enduring hardships. Sister Queens is a gripping tale of love, duty, and sacrifice—a remarkable reflection on the conflict between ambition and loyalty during an age when the greatest sin, it seems, was to have been born a woman.

Review:

Although I normally find it reductive or even counterproductive to proclaim how far feminism has come in mere centuries when things like this still exist, after finishing Julia Fox’s biography of two Spanish queens–Juana the Mad and Katherine of Aragon–I have to say, oh my GOSH, isn’t it great how far feminism has come in mere centuries?

Because these women suffered. And even though sometimes their suffering equated to “I might have to sell my bejeweled golden plate because my prince husband widowed me and now my father-in-law, the King of England, won’t pay for new dresses (#royalproblems),” they still suffered acutely simply because of their gender. But as I’ve observed again and again in pre-feminist times, women found subtle ways to fight back.

By examining the cases of these two sisters—the younger daughters of famous Spanish power couple Ferdinand and Isabella—we find many of the textbook sexist tactics used to deny women their personhood. From birth, princesses are told they ought to have been princes, a nasty bit of belittling caused by ridiculous male primogeniture laws. But no matter, princesses can also serve the kingdom by marrying foreign princes. They are raised as such, to recognize that their supreme role is to move to a faraway land, sometimes as young as 14, to marry a man, sometimes much older, that they’ve never met, and to abandon their home country likely forever and always.

It stretches the limits of my imagination to even consider that: packing up at age 14 saying goodbyes that will last forever.

Once married, the women must breed breed breed. Produce as many princes and princesses for the kingdom; princes are, of course, de rigueur, a job that Queen Juana does magnificently well as the consort in Burgundy and a job that Queen Katherine fails at miserably. The queens must watch as their husband inevitably chooses one of their ladies to be his mistress and must pretend not to be offended by any bastard children given titles.

Sometimes, if all the boys in the family happen to die (literally the WORST thing these people could imagine happening in the entire UNIVERSE—European royals of the sixteenth century are wonderfully dramatic), a queen will inherit actual power. Normally, however, one of her own relations—a male cousin, a father, even her own son—will attempt to wrench control of the power from her, as happens in the case of Juana, who is imprisoned and labeled “loca” to invalidate her claim to the crown. Calling a woman crazy to deny her autonomy…Sexist Playbook Rule #1, although the Hapsburg kings were not the first to use it nor would they be the last.

There’s a terrible amount of death. Dozens of miscarriages, perfectly healthy bridegrooms keeling over in under a week, heads rolling for questionable allegations of treason. Widowed queens marry their widower nephews. This time period is literally incomprehensible to me. Again and again throughout the story of these two tragic Spanish queens, I had to stop to wonder, “Why the hell did these people care? Who cares about ruling Castile when you already rule half of Spain, Navarre, Sicily, and Naples? WHY?”

This time period is incomprehensible to me, not only in terms of outdated gender ideologies but governmental and religious ideologies as well. It’s frustrating and confusing and crazy stupid fascinating, and I was so glad to try to understand it (for I will never actually understand it) via the stories of these two regal but oh-so-very-doomed women.

4 out of 5 stars

Review: Wild by Cheryl Strayed

12262741Blurb:

At twenty-two, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother’s death, her family scattered and her own marriage was soon destroyed. Four years later, with nothing more to lose, she made the most impulsive decision of her life: to hike the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State—and to do it alone. She had no experience as a long-distance hiker, and the trail was little more than “an idea, vague and outlandish and full of promise.” But it was a promise of piecing back together a life that had come undone.

Strayed faces down rattlesnakes and black bears, intense heat and record snowfalls, and both the beauty and loneliness of the trail. Told with great suspense and style, sparkling with warmth and humor, Wild vividly captures the terrors and pleasures of one young woman forging ahead against all odds on a journey that maddened, strengthened, and ultimately healed her.

Review:

For someone who only walks to work and back home, to the grocery store then back home, to a friend’s place and once again back home, I really do love books about people hiking thousands of miles in the wilderness. Where a friend is someone you happen to pass on the trail, the grocery store is whatever dried food you can carry on your back, and home is nothing more than a tent perched on bumpy tree roots. I enjoyed Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, a more academic yet still autobiographical account of his months-long jaunt along the Appalachian Trail. In Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, she recounts her adventure along the Pacific Crest Trail but in an altogether more emotive fashion. Her story is less guidebook or school report and more so the confessions of the innermost pieces of her soul, a highly polished personal journal of sorts.

That’s why sometimes it can, unfortunately, read like a literary afterschool special that warns not against the dangers of bullying or taking candy from strangers but the dangers of doing too much heroin after your mother dies tragically young or, um, deciding to hike a 2,000 mile trail through deserts and mountains with no preparation. I say afterschool special because that’s what Strayed’s style occasionally reminded me of. U-rah-rah-ing alongside self-evident morals and platitudes. But I hesitate to excessively fault her for this because that’s what recovering from depression requires: indomitable positivity cloaked with endless truisms. Clichés are, after all, cliché because they are so universally true.

But what I’m really here for in Wild (or any book describing a feat of human physical and mental strength, honestly…) is the triumph of the human spirit. In my daily life there are very few things, if any, that are truly hard. Backbreaking or braincrushing. So I find stories where people choose to flee from their comforts for a life that is decidedly uncomfortable hypnotic and intoxicating. I brim with questions and pride and awe. People often expostulate about the transformative power of reading but I found Wild transportative. For a few hours I left my living radius of 5 city blocks for a snow covered ridge in the Sierra Nevada or a solemn forest of trees standing like sentinels. It was a nice trip.

4 out of 5 stars

Review: White Teeth by Zadie Smith

3711Blurb

Epic and intimate, hilarious and poignant, White Teeth is the story of two North London families—one headed by Archie, the other by Archie’s best friend, a Muslim Bengali named Samad Iqbal. Pals since they served together in World War II, Archie and Samad are a decidedly unlikely pair. Plodding Archie is typical in every way until he marries Clara, a beautiful, toothless Jamaican woman half his age, and the couple have a daughter named Irie (the Jamaican word for “no problem”). Samad —devoutly Muslim, hopelessly “foreign”— weds the feisty and always suspicious Alsana in a prearranged union. They have twin sons named Millat and Magid, one a pot-smoking punk-cum-militant Muslim and the other an insufferable science nerd. The riotous and tortured histories of the Joneses and the Iqbals are fundamentally intertwined, capturing an empire’s worth of cultural identity, history, and hope.

Zadie Smith’s dazzling first novel plays out its bounding, vibrant course in a Jamaican hair salon in North London, an Indian restaurant in Leicester Square, an Irish poolroom turned immigrant café, a liberal public school, a sleek science institute. A winning debut in every respect, White Teeth marks the arrival of a wondrously talented writer who takes on the big themes —faith, race, gender, history, and culture— and triumphs.

Review

Part of the problem of spending more than a year in a country that doesn’t speak your native language is that you start to speak zero languages perfectly. My English, planted and watered from age zero, no longer blooms: the whistly interdental “th” in words like thistle and think occasionally exits my mouth as “z”; my prepositions have gone to absolute shit—a sentence like “I go in London” sounds completely acceptable to me until an American friend points it out; and my vocabulary has dwindled depressingly, so much so that it took me 30 seconds of searching—“dwe, drin, drendle…”—to find the word “dwindle.” My French suffers similarly but also rears its obnoxious Gallic head at the most inopportune times. On the phone with my mother I can’t find the words to say, “You’re being ridiculous,” so I’m forced to pronounce, “N’importe quoi,” even though her Anglophone brain will certainly not understand. And likewise I’m finding it difficult to find the proper English words to explain my dislike for Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, though I can say in French that it was her “déjanté” (possible translation: nutty?) tone that put me off.

Kinda funny then—in French, I would say “assez cocasse”—that this entire novel is about the feeling of unbelonging culturally and religiously told from the point of view of various Jamaican and Bangladeshi immigrant and immigrant children in London. The older generation, exemplified by the phony Muslim Samad who complains about his sons’ ungodliness while engaging in adultery with his red-headed English mistress, clashes with the younger generation, led by three British-born children of immigrants who don’t have time to care about their ancestors or culture or religion because they’re too busy trying to find cigarettes to smoke.

It’s hilarious at times, particularly when a certain character drops repartee that is just dripping with sarcasm and/or hypocrisy. It shines brightest when the characters aren’t aware how ridiculous they’re being. But after a certain point, Smith trips and falls into parody. It becomes so ridiculous that it’s impossible the characters don’t realize how ridiculous everything is.

Like learning a foreign language and like adapting to a new culture, writing a book that is comic yet not comical is a difficult balancing act. You must push envelopes but never blow them wide open. Unfortunately what Smith does in Act II of White Teeth, her debut novel, is tantamount to taking a bomb and exploding the envelope to smithereens. It’s over the top, and she loses the characters, the story, and, worst, the reader. Stories should be inventive and exciting and new, and Zadie Smith is certainly a welcome break in the somewhat stolid line of British literary tradition, but I also advocate mostly coloring inside the lines, simply moving envelopes and not destroying them, respecting the old ways while also giving heed to the new.

3 out of 5 stars

Review: Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham

949797Blurb

Of Human Bondage is the first and most autobiographical of Maugham’s masterpieces. It is the story of Philip Carey, an orphan eager for life, love and adventure. After a few months studying in Heidelberg, and a brief spell in Paris as would-be artist, Philip settles in London to train as a doctor.

And that is where he meets Mildred, the loud but irresistible waitress with whom he plunges into a formative, tortured and masochistic affair which very nearly ruins him.

Review

I’ve come to the conclusion that in my life I’ve done a lot of waiting. Waiting for a school bell to ring, waiting to leave for vacation, waiting to go to university, waiting to hear back about that job, waiting to see a friend I haven’t seen in months: in short, waiting to live. Because implicitly, any act of waiting is an act of not living. That is, unless authors like Somerset Maugham write epic bildungsromans like Of Human Bondage and force us to remember, or at the very least to acknowledge, that our lives are lived in the waiting.

It’s a message I couldn’t wait a single moment more to hear, a message for me right here, right now. Because currently I’ve been waiting too much, thinking more about how my life could be than contenting myself with how my life is. I have taken to studying calendars. I count weeks and make fantastic calculations: only 79 days until I know whether I’ve gotten into grad school, which is equivalent to a childhood summer vacation; only 38 days until I go to Berlin, equivalent to the NFL postseason.

Philip Carey, Maugham’s vaguely autobiographical protagonist, does a lot of waiting too. Orphaned and club-footed, he spends a childhood waiting for adulthood, and once he arrives, he spends his early adulthood waiting for something better, the thing he had actually dreamed of. In one heartbreaking sequence early in this serious chunk of book, Philip spends months praying nightly for God to cure his clubfoot. The miraculous day arrives and Philip jumps out of bed, only to walk to breakfast limping as usual. Philip feels that these nightly calls to heaven were wasted. And in a way they are. But Maugham also warns us against simplistic thinking: nothing is wasted if it makes us who we are.

I love nothing more than some good retrospection, and 80% finished with the book, I paused, awed at how far Philip had come. We follow him across Europe, through various failed relationships, and discarded career attempt after discarded career attempt. The most simultaneously unsatisfying/satisfying component of the novel concerns Philip’s frustrating and illogical love for Mildred, a fickle, dull, and rude woman who never returns his sentiments. Although it seems that Philip never learns and that he will wait forever on a woman who will never love him, we can see, eventually, once Philip himself sees it, that love is toxic, but the most wonderful thing we know. It’s an answer. With Philip we learn, as his life unfolds like a tapestry, that beauty is an answer. Happiness may be fleeting but beauty is not, so we must search not for happiness but beauty.

For anyone susceptible to waiting too much and too long, I suggest reading a bildungsroman. There’s nothing like it to bring you through everything, up and down and out again. Life goes on. We get through things. Waiting can be the most important thing you ever do if you realize that it’s not really waiting.

4 out of 5 stars