Monday, December 15, 2014

7 Favorite Books in 2014

I didn't read as many books this year compared to last year. I just finished number 35. Here are my 7 favorite, in no particular order:

The Orphan Master's Son


     I had read an Adam Johnson work previously--2003's Parasites Like Us--and enjoyed it, and I had heard plenty of praise of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Orphan Master's Son: it didn't come close to disappointing. I read it back in January, and it still stuck with me all the way to the end of the year. Starring Jun Do (a nod to the anonymous John Doe), a North Korean orphan who becomes a kidnapper, The Orphan Master's Son's main character is really North Korea: it's totalitarian way of life, its daily acts of violence, a place where one's identity can become lost in the fold. North Korea is a place that many of us can't even imagine, but Adam Johnson does the impossible with The Orphan Master's Son: he takes the facts of North Korea and turns them into one of the most immersive and impressive fictional worlds in recent memory.

The Art of Fielding

     The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach gave me the same feeling as last year's incredible Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. Not because the books deal with similar subject matter, but because both are from debut novelists and have sharply-drawn characters that you begin to legitimately care about. The book is around 500 pages, but you'll wish there were 500 more: it's intricately drawn, with every sentence, plot line and character showcasing Harbach's skill with the English language. If you know nothing about it, it may be casually referred to as "that baseball book", and although the sport of baseball plays a major part, The Art of Fielding is about so much more: friendship, love and loss in a college-era story. The heart of the novel focuses on Henry Skrimshander, a prodigal short-stop in high school who gets recruited by Westish College catcher Mike Schwartz, and his experiences playing at the next level. The Art of Fielding marks the exciting beginning for Chad Harbach, and it's a novel that absolutely anyone can enjoy.

Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage.

      Rob Delaney has been the king of Twitter for years now, and his first book contains a variety of painfully honest stories that showcase his darker side. It also showcases how humor is one of the best ways to overcome situations in life that can fill you with sorrow. The writing world always contains stories and biographies of men getting drunk or high and doing completely stupid shit, but Delaney is a master at portraying the lessons he's learned with an excited fervor that brings the readers in. The highlights: having to take an explosive shit while out jogging with no bathrooms available, drunken near-death experiences that shaped his life (including a drunk-driving accident that left him seriously injured), and the experiences having your first child. But the real lesson of Delaney's book is about the hard times in life: if you can laugh, you'll be much better off.

Tenth of December

I try and read a couple of short story books a year, but Tenth of December, by George Saunders, may force me to up that number in the coming months: some of the writing here is better than...well...just about anything. This is the first Saunders that I have ever read, but I'll be seeking him out in the future. He is a master at getting deep inside a character's thoughts and feelings and motivations, and these ten stories showcase a simple expertise in telling moving tales. And some of these short stories are incredibly funny and incredibly satiric, but still can surprise you with shocking twists and slow burns of surrealism. Take "The Semplica Girl Diaries", where a father attempts to please his daughter and compete with neighbors by buying her Semplica Girls, women trafficked from third-world countries to be lawn ornaments. Or "Escape from Spiderhead", a satiric look at love and pharmaceuticals--these are the works of an American original.

No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State

     I'll be the first to admit that you shouldn't read No Place to Hide for a completely unbiased view towards Edward Snowden and the NSA leaks: it was written by Glenn Greenwald, who Snowden contacted to divulge the dangerous information. But God Damn if this is not an incredibly exciting and shocking account of the process of the information leak. It reads like a thriller. If you think that Edward Snowden is a villain, you will hate this account, because it essentially portrays him as an American hero for divulging information that--one could argue--the public deserves to know. And Greenwald displays plenty of his own opinions about the matter. But it doesn't stop No Place to Hide from being one of the most thrilling (and shocking) non-fiction books in 2014.

The Light Between Oceans

     The Light Between Oceans
 is from yet another debut author, and the skill in which M.L. Stedman wraps the readers into the words is astounding: this book is damn beautiful. Listen to the plot and tell me that you're not interested: Tom is a WWI veteran and a lighthouse keeper on a tiny rock island off the coast of Australia. One day, him and his wife find a rowboat that washes ashore with a crying baby and a dead dude inside. Despite Tom's militaristic moral code, the couple decides to potentially raise the baby as their own, but the past--as it always seems to do--has a tendency to catch up with them. The story is great, and it's already been optioned for a film directed by Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines), starring Michael Fassbender as Tom. Like The Art of Fielding, the subject matter doesn't even matter: The Light Between Oceans can be enjoyed by anyone who enjoys reading a great novel.

The Magician's Land

     I'll start this off with a confession that will piss off many avid readers: I just started the Harry Potter series throughout the past year, and though they are (basically) enjoyable, I don't love them. I'm not sure if the movies ruined the story for me, or Rowling's writing annoys me (which it does sometimes), or I just missed the boat with the total madness when they were coming out. But Lev Grossman's The Magician's Trilogy--full of sex, magic, alcohol, and angst--is more my magical cup of tea. And The Magician's Land, the final novel in the three-book series, is a completely fitting ending. Though Grossman takes plenty from Harry Potter and Narnia, he creates a world that is completely his own, and this third book takes the characters to new, much more mature level. Even the most jaded readers, ones who never thought they could love the fantasy genre, can find something to love in The Magicians Trilogy: the only sad part is that it's over only when Grossman hit his true stride.

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