Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Best Books of 2014

Here is my annual, highly personal list of the best books I read in 2014, which means that they were not necessarily published in 2014.  Being a free-wheeling kind of gal, I do not present them in any sort of order; nor do I force my choices to fit a numerical conceit (top 10, 5 favorite).  So this is just a list of books I happened to read this year that would immediately leap to my mind if you were to ask, “Read anything good lately?”

Also, while I have many close friends who are superb writers and I love to match-make their excellent books with readers, I have chosen not to include on this list books by friends.

The Lost Weekend by Charles Jackson.  Ai-yi-yi…this is not a cheerful novel!  It’s a bare-naked, honestly brutal account of an alcoholic descending through the depths and then some.  The author suffered from alcoholism, and this was one of the first books to share the realities of this disease—though, when written, people considered alcoholism more of a failing than a disease. On the writing side, Jackson worked miracles with the interiority of the story.

Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson.  Late to the party here! This collection of linked stories is cited by about a zillion other writers as having been deeply influential, and I finally got around to reading it this year…and found that it, well, deeply influenced my work.  Brilliant on the sentence level, and brilliant in its piercing look at the type of people we might usually look away from.  On the writing side, one of the reasons that I finally picked it up is that I read somewhere that part of Johnson’s process here was juxtaposing incidents that seem unrelated, which is something I was trying in my own writing this year.

The Homesman by Glendon Swarthout. I’ll never separate the experience of buying this book in post-AWP Seattle at the famous Elliott Bay Book Company, during an afternoon of shopping with the intention of buying something I had never heard of by a writer I had never heard of.  Another dark novel, set in the Plains during the 19th century when several frontier women lost their minds during a hard winter and had to be driven via wagon back east to their families.  An unattractive spinster and a criminal with a heart of gold-ish should NOT scare you away: this book is relentless and gut-wrenching as well as austerely gorgeous.  On the writing side, the writer takes a huge risk with a point-of-view shift that leads to an even huger risk; both moves hit the jackpot, IMHO.  (A new movie has just been released…I’m curious but a little reluctant to mar the perfection of my experience with the book.)

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill.  An experimental novel that examines a relationship through glittering fragments of writing that are in turn clever, sad, hilarious, insightful, informative…and that are sometimes all of those things simultaneously.  Don’t fear “experimental” here: this masterful book has heart, and you will (and should) read it all in one delicious swoop.  On the writing side, this book demonstrates that even the most commonplace story (“girl meets boy” etc.) can be fresh and feel utterly unique.

Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead.  I discovered this book after reading a stand-alone excerpt in One Story magazine, and I had to read more.  It’s set in the ballet world, but the book is beyond ballet; it’s about any artistic pursuit, and beyond that, about the hard choices life forces upon us.  The ending is so stunning that you’ll want to flip back to the beginning and read it all again.  On the writing side, the author broke rules all over the place with regard to chronology and point-of-view, and it was exhilarating for me as a reader to see it all work out—and comforting for me as a writer to discover that yes, it was possible that my own non-chronological work might have a shot at pulling together.

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff.  I wrote here in further detail about this memoir, for which I am surely the perfect audience, since I love coming-of-age stories about literary young women in New York. Throw in J.D. Salinger and I’m totally sold!  On the writing side, I admired how the author was able to find a shape to her life to create dual narratives that informed each other, keeping the reader flipping the pages, wanting to know what happens next. 

Longbourn by Jo Baker.  So much could go wrong in what might seem to be a simplistic “Downton Abbey meets Jane Austen” set-up in this book about the servants who work for Pride and Prejudice’s Bennet family.  And yet so much goes right instead!  The book is smart and perfectly written and a page-turner, and no one will ever view laundry in quite the same way. (Yay, washing machines!)  The events of P&P happen in the background and provide narrative structure for the story, but I think even non-Austen fans (if there are any?) would still enjoy this book without that double narrative.  On the writing side, this book is a poster child for the joys and benefits of research.  Also, who says women can’t write about war?? These war scenes are among the most relentless I have ever read.

Driving with the Devil: Southern Moonshine, Detroit Wheels, and the Birth of NASCAR by Neal Thompson.  Every list needs an outlier, something that doesn’t seem to fit, and this book is that.  It’s a nonfiction account of the early days and rise of NASCAR, which came about thanks to the young men who loved raising dust on southern dirt roads hauling hooch.  Yes, NASCAR.  Me.  I loved it, and raced (haha) through this book…and by the end, I was pondering how I could swing a trip to Daytona.  On the writing side, this book had a strong, smart narrative and read like a novel. But more importantly, reading this book reminded me of one of the most important traits any writer must have (IMHO), which is to be open-minded, and, really, simply open to the whole wide world, to the prospect that any day when you learn something new, something you didn’t know or had never thought before, that that is also the definition of “a good writing day.” Be open to surprising turns!

So, a list of eight, and I know I said that I wouldn’t try to push a numerical construct, but I guess I lied, because I’m going to round out the list with an amazing short story I read and an amazing essay so I can make an even 10:

“Antarctica” by Laura van den Berg is found in the new edition of Best American Short Stories, edited by Jennifer Egan, about a woman whose problematic brother died while doing research at the South Pole, and her attempt to find the truth of what happened there, and, well, the truth of a number of things.  On the writing side, this story balanced present action and flashback beautifully, as well as balancing scene and summary. (Okay, I can’t resist mentioning my other favorite stories from this volume: “God” by Benjamin Nugent and “Long Tom Lookout” by Nicole Cullen.)

“Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain” by Leslie Jamison, from her collection of essays, The Empathy Exams.  While I enjoyed and admired other essays in that book, this is the one that leapt forward for me (and is online, so you can read it too, right here) because it explored sentimentality and pain and the clich├ęs that women writers battle, ultimately giving power to the female story, and then, on the writing side, making sure that we understand that what it is, what we’re all doing, is writing the HUMAN STORY, and making us feel essential for doing so.


Onwards! There are wonderful books waiting ahead in 2015!

Work-in-Progress

DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.