Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 Reading List and Best Books of the Year

Best Books of the Year


  • All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr
  • Lila, Marilynne Robinson
  • The Children Act, Ian McEwan
  • 10:04, Ben Lerner
  • Nora Webster, Colm Toibin
  • Redeployment, Phil Kay
  • The Invention of Wings, Sue Monk Kidd
  • The Secret Place, Tana French
  • The Drop, Dennis Lehane
  • Fourth of July Creek, Smith Henderson


  • In the Kingdom of Ice, Hampton Sides
  • The Most Dangerous Book, Kevin Birmingham
  • How About Never Is Never Good For You? Bob Mankoff

Graphic Novels

  • Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, Roz Chast
  • March (Book One), John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell
  • The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains, Neil Gaiman and Eddie Campbell
  • Bone, Jeff Smith
  • The Graveyard Book, Vols. 1 & 2, adapted by P. Craig Russell from the novel by Neil  Gaiman
  • The Shadow Hero, Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew

A few thoughts on the “best” books:

There is no particular order to the best fiction of 2014. If, however, I were to pare the list from 10 to two, I would recommend All the Light We Cannot See and Lila.

Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings has been overlooked in the year-end rush to compile “bests” lists. Her fictional history of the Grimke sisters is powerful and moving.

Ben Lerner grew up in Topeka. He went to high school with my daughter. I judged the kid in forensics. I’ve said all that to explain my pride in Mr. Lerner, who is going to put Kansas on the literary map. He is brilliant, and his second novel, 10:04, is receiving praise from such disparate sources as NPR, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

The Drop and The Secret Place are thrillers/mysteries. I thoroughly enjoy the genre and these writers.

The Most Dangerous Book is a riveting account of efforts to bring James Joyce's Ulysses to publication.

Roz Chast’s graphic memoir could have been listed among the non-fiction. I chose to put it with the “graphic novels” to demonstrate the range and quality of books now being published under that broad and unwieldy designation.

For the same reason, I listed March (Book One) and Bone. Both were issued prior to 2014. Normally, I would not include books not published in the calendar year on my “best of” list. (March is also a work of non-fiction.)

The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains isn’t strictly a graphic novel, but I had to put it somewhere. It’s another in a long line of brilliant efforts from Neil Gaiman.

The Shadow Hero is the only graphic novel on the list featuring a super-hero. Again, it is not my customary practice to include such books on this list, but Yang and Liew warrant a broader audience for this comic book. It’s fun with purpose.

Scattered throughout the list are several books (Aqualung and Harvest, among them) from the 33 1/3 series. The series is ideal for the music lover. The books vary greater in how they approach each album, but are equally rewarding.

Reading Results

I read a record 175 books in 2014. That’s roughly a book every 2.08 days or every 50 hours. My previous personal high was 161 in both 2009 and 2013.

Typically, I am read a portion of three books each day; a story collection, a novel and a work of non-fiction.  I read one short story each morning, which allows me to complete several story collection or anthologies in the course of a year. Novels take from two to four days depending upon the length of the book or the complexity of the writing. (I can vanquish a good thriller in one day.) I usually limit myself to a single chapter of non-fiction.

My daily goal is a minimum of 100 pages in the novel. The story collection and non-fiction do not count toward that goal.

Rarely, a day goes by that I don’t read a graphic novel. Some are listed here, most are not. (See best of.)

Reading the Classics

I introduced a tiny, but significant, framework to my reading this past year. At the beginning of each month I read or re-read a book considered a literary classic.

In 2014 I started with Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. Amazingly, for someone who considers himself a Dickensian devotee, I had never read Great Expectations, which easily ranks among Dickens’ finest novels.

Dickens will launch my 2015 reading too. I know of no finer writer.

The classics, by month, were:

January – Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
February – Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather
March – The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
April – A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway
May – The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien
June – Brighton Rock, Graham Greene
July – Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
August – Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
September – The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon
October – Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky
November – The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton
December – Lord of the Flies, William Golding

The books I enjoyed most were by Dickens, Cather, Tolkien, Vonnegut and Chabon.

Death Comes for the Archbishop isn’t my favorite book by Cather – that’s My Antonia – but it’s close; it is so finely written, elegant, and true. I first read The Hobbit as a high school freshman and have returned to it through the years, and will again in the future.

Kavalier & Clay is a raucous tribute to the men who launched the comic book industry. Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five is a high-wire act, using the fantastic to lay bare the horrors of war. I liked the movie; love the book.

Here's a list of all the books I read in 2014 month by month:

1.         Jar of Fools, Jason Lutes.
2.         Great Expectations, Charles Dickens.

3.         Stalin’s Ghost, Martin Cruz Smith.
4.         Blue Heaven, C.J. Box.
5.         Iron Council, China Mieville.
6.         The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker, Stanley Crouch.
7.         The Astral, Kate Christensen.
8.         The Silver Dream, Neil Gaiman, Michael and MalloryReaves.
9.         Ten Years in the Tub, Nick Hornby.
10.       Below Zero, C.J. Box.
11.       The Yankee Years, Joe Torre & Tom Verducci.
12.       Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, J.K. Rowling.
13.       The Rapture of the Nerds, Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross.

14.       Kings of the Road, Cameron Stracher.
15.       Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather.
16.       Andrew’s Brain, E.L. Doctorow.

17.       This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett.
18.       The Invention of Wings, Sue Monk Kidd.
19.       March (Book One), John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate Powell.
20.       The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, Alan Bradley.
21.       The Pagan Lord, Bernard Cornwell.
22.       Catch and Release, Lawrence Block.
23.       A Compendium of Collective Nouns, Woop Studios.
24.       Orfeo, Richard Powers.
25.       Tom’s Town, William M. Reddig.
26.       The Kept, James Scott
27.       This Dark Road to Mercy, Wiley Cash.
28.       The Free, Willy Vlautin.
29.       Granta #124 Travel.

30.       The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck.
31.       Super Boys, Brad Ricca.
32.       The Valley of Amazement, Amy Tan.

33.       After I’m Gone, Laura Lippman.
34.       A Land More Kind Than Home, Wiley Cash.
35.       One Summer, America, 1927, Bill Bryson.
36.       The Lords of Discipline, Pat Conroy.
37.       Redeployment, Phil Kay.
38.       Nowhere to Run, C.J. Box.
39.       Chomp, Carl Hiaasen.
40.       The News: A User’s Manual, Alain de Botton.
41.       Relentless, From Redshirt to the Rock of the Jayhawks,Travis Releford  w/Matt Fulks.
42.       The Final Country, James Crumley.
43.       The Renegades, T. Jefferson Parker.
44.       Tracks on a Page, Louise Erdrich, Her Life and Works, Frances Washburn.

45.       A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway.
46.       The Best of McSweeney’s, edited by Dave Eggers and Jordan Bass.

47.       The Lion Seeker, Kenneth Bonert.
48.       Life is a Wheel: A Passage Across America by Bicycle, Bruce Weber.
49.       Three Weeks to Say Goodbye, C.J. Box.
50.       Scratch Monkey, Charles Stross.
51.       All Our Names, Dinaw Mengestu.
52.       Fortunately, The Milk, Neil Gaiman. 
53.       Game Six, Mark Frost.
54.       The Best American Short Stories 2005, ed. Michael Chabon.
55.       The Wounded and the Slain, David Goodis.

56.       The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien.
57.       B.B. King’s Lucille and the Loves Before Her, Eric Dahl.
58.       The Blazing World, Siri Hustvedt.

59.       How About Never Is Never Good For You? Bob Mankoff.
60.       A Permanent Member of the Family, Russell Banks.
61.       Cold Wind, C.J. Box.
62.       Dusty in Memphis, Warren Zanes.
63.       Congratulations, by the way, George Saunders.
64.       Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling.
65.       American Romantic, Ward Just.
66.       In Paradise, Peter Matthiessen.
67.       Toast, Charles Stross.
68.       Flyover Lives, Diane Johnson.
69.       All Clear, Connie Willis.
70.       Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? Roz Chast.
71.       Force of Nature, C.J. Box.

72.       Granta #125, After the War.
73.       Brighton Rock, Graham Greene.
74.       A Long and Happy Life, Reynolds Price.
75.       The Contract With God Trilogy, Will Eisner.

76.       All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr.
77.       Wake, Anna Hope.
78.       Hyde, Daniel Levine.
79.       The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Lois Stevenson.
80.       Aqualung, Allan Moore.
81.       Breaking Point, C.J. Box.
82.       The Painter, Peter Heller.
83.       The SFWA Grand Masters, Vol. 3, edited by Frederik Pohl.
84.       The Dragon Masters, Jack Vance.
85.       The Toon Treasury of Classic Children’s Comics, ed. by Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly.
86.       Midnight in Europe, Alan Furst.

87.       Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury.
88.       The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains, Neil Gaiman; illustrations,
Eddie Campbell.

89.       Thunderstruck, Elizabeth McCracken.
90.       Stone Cold, C.J. Box.
91.       Lion Heart, Justin Cartwright.
92.       Updike, Adam Begley.
93.       The Noble Hustle, Colson Whitehead.
94.       We Are Not Ourselves, Matthew Thomas.
95.       Back of Beyond, C.J. Box.
96.       Adventures in the Dream Trade, Neil Gaiman.
97.       The Jaguar, T. Jefferson Parker.
98.       The Snow Queen, Michael Cunningham.
99.       Fourth of July Creek, Smith Henderson.

100.     Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut.
101.     The Zhivago Affair, Peter Finn and Petra Couvee.
102.     The Raw and the Cooked, Jim Harrison.
103.     Harvest, Sam Inglis.
104.     Woke Up This Mornin’, Poetry of the Blues, ed. A.X. Nicholas.
105.     The Great Glass Sea, Josh Weil.
106.     Deadly Beloved, Max Allan Collins.
107.     Was, Geoff Ryman.
108.     Iron River, T. Jefferson Parker.
109.     The Highway, C.J. Box.
110.     Good Omens, Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett.
111.     Eye of Vengeance, Jonathon King.
112.     The 50 Greatest Cartoons, ed. Jerry Beck.
113.     Unmanned, Dan Fesperman.
114.     Equoid, Charles Stross.
115.     About Town, The New Yorker and the World It Made, Ben Yagoda.
116.     Zombie Baseball Beatdown, Paolo Bacigalupi.
117.     The Fallen, T. Jefferson Parker.
118.     Wolves Eat Dog, Martin Cruz Smith. 36
119.     Frank Einstein and the Antimatter Motor, Jon Scieszka.

120.     Binocular Vision, Edith Pearlman.
121.     In the Kingdom of Ice, Hampton Sides.

122.     The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon.
123.     American Recordings, Tony Tost.
124.     The Long Way Home, Louise Penny.
125.     Bone, Jeff Smith.
126.     The Secret Place, Tana French.
127.     Bill Self: At Home In The Phog, Bill Self with John Rohde.
128.     Kill My Mother, Jules Feiffer.
129.     Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel.
130.     The Famous and the Dead, T. Jefferson Parker.
131.     The Best American Mystery Stories 2005, ed. Joyce Carol Oates and Otto Penzler.

132.     Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky.
133.     The UnAmericans, Molly Antopol.

134.     Wolf in White Van, John Darnielle.
135.     Personal, Lee Child.
136.     Men of Tomorrow, Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book,
Gerard Jones.
137.     Magic for Beginners, Kelly Link.
138.     An Unnecessary Woman, Rabih Alameddine.
139.     The Drop, Dennis Lehane.
140.     Highway 61 Revisited, Mark Polizzotti.
141.     Lila, Marilynne Robinson.
142.     Abattoir Blues, Peter Robinson.
143.     The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, Hilary Mantel.
144.     The Art of Neil Gaiman, Hayley Campbell.
145.     Some Luck, Jane Smiley.

146.     Shots Fired, C.J. Box.
147.     The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton.
148.     The Peripheral, William Gibson.
149.     The Children Act, Ian McEwan.
150.     Stone Mattress, Margaret Atwood.
151.     The Burning Room, Michael Connelly.
152.     The Most Dangerous Book, Kevin Birmingham.
153.     My Dog Skip, Willie Morris.
154.     Wait For Signs, Craig Johnson.
155.     Old Books, Rare Friends, Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern.
156.     The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell.
157.     Mort Walker’s Private Scrapbook, Mort Walker.
158.     100 Things Royals Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die, Matt Fulks.
159.     The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan.
160.     The Laughing Monsters, Denis Johnson.

161.     Lord of the Flies, William Golding.
162.     Let Me Be Frank With You, Richard Ford.

163.     Full Measure, T. Jefferson Parker.
164.     The Secret History of Wonder Woman, Jill Lepore.
165.     10:04, Ben Lerner.
166.     The Paying Guests, Sarah Waters.
167.     The O. Henry Prize Stories 2014.
168.     All My Puny Sorrows, Miriam Toews.
169.     Rose Gold, Walter Mosley.
170.     Nora Webster, Colm Toibin.
171.     Deep Down Dark, Hector Tobar.
172.     The Lewis Man, Peter May.
173.     The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison.
174.     Revival, Stephen King.
175.     A Map of Betrayal, Ha Jin.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Kidd's The Invention of Wings soars

Book Read - February
14.       Kings of the Road, Cameron Stracher
15.       Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather
16.       Andrew’s Brain, E.L. Doctorow
17.       This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett
18.       The Invention of Wings, Sue Monk Kidd
19.       March (Book One), John Lewis and Andrew Aydin,
            illustrated by Nate Powell
20.       The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, Alan Bradley
21.       The Pagan Lord, Bernard Cornwell
22.       Catch and Release, Lawrence Block
23.       A Compendium of Collective Nouns, Woop Studios
24.       Orfeo, Richard Powers
25.       Tom’s Town, William M. Reddig
26.       The Kept, James Scott
27.       This Dark Road to Mercy, Wiley Cash
28.       The Free, Willy Vlautin
29.       Granta #124 Travel

Books Bought – February
B.B. King's Lucille and the Loves Before Her by Eric Dahl
A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash
The Free by Willy Vlautin
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings is an early entry for the best book of 2014. This fictional account of the Grimke sisters, daughters of the confederacy who became leading voices in the movement to abolish slavery, and of a slave, who valued freedom more than life, is a powerful and moving novel.

Kidd’s prose is crisp and clean with impressive flights of lyricism.

Reading Wings and John Lewis’s autobiographical March during African American History Month was unintentional on my part. But whether serendipity or the subconscious at work, the timing brought a depth to my reading in February.

March Book One (I eagerly await Book Two) demonstrates how the graphic novel – or in this instance a graphic autobiography – can tell a story simply, yet powerfully. Nate Powell’s illustrations are the perfect complement to Lewis’s voice.

The Kept, This Dark Road to Mercy and The Free all fall into the same nebulous category of books that elude easy categorization. The Free, the newest novel by Willy Vlautin, is the best of these three books.  You may have passed the books protagonists on the street today, as you checked out at the supermarket or visited a friend in the hospital.

Not literally, of course, but Vlautin draws an affecting portrait of everyday people – a kind-hearted nurse, a dying soldier, a man holding down multiple jobs yet still schuffling to survive.

Vlautin is largely unknown as a novelist. Those who have read his books, such as Lean On Pete, know that he writes simply, yet powerfully. Perhaps, he’s little read because we see ourselves too clearly in his characters.

After reading This Dark Road to Mercy I rushed out and bought Cash’s first book. Dark Road is the story of two sisters who have been kidnapped by their father. Dad has stolen some money and is being followed a murderous fellow intent on reclaiming the money and taking revenge for an eye injury suffered years before in a baseball game.

Events converge in St. Louis with the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home run chase as a backdrop. It’s not great literature, but entertaining as hell. Cash is a writer to watch.

Revenge also figures in The Kept, which follows a mother and son, the only survivors of a family mysteriously slaughtered by three men. In uncovering the motive for the murders, the son learns a disturbing truth about his mother.

Death Comes For the Archbishop by Willa Cather continues my 2014 plans of re-reading one great book each month. I don’t think this is Cather’s best book -- that status is held by My Antonia – but it’s close. Cather’s respect for the archbishop, his work and faith, for the people of New Mexico and for the country’s landscape, infuses the book with a palpable grandeur.

New books by Alan Bradley and Bernard Cornwell are each part of a series that I recommend without reservation.  Both characters – a 12-year-old sleuth with a disturbing knowledge of poisons and a Saxon warlord who wields a mean sword – are vivid  characters. I am always, always, ready to read their next adventures.

E.L. Doctorow’s new book, Andrew’s Brain, was hugely disappointing for a work by a major American author. The same was true of Orfeo by Richard Powers.

Catch and Release, a collection of short works by Lawrence Block is uneven.

Ann Patchett’s collection of essays and articles, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, illustrates Patchett’s range as a writer. Frankly, I’m a fanboy. She’s funny and insightful in equal measure. Plus she owns a bookstore. No wonder I’m crushing on her.

Tom’s Town, a history of Kansas City and boss Tom Pendergast, is a product of its time. Despite showing its age, it remains a fascinating read and told me a lot about the town I now live in.

I enjoyed Kings of the Road, about Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers and Alberto Salazar, but was left wanting more.

No such disappointment with A Compendium of Collective Nouns. If you’re a word person, this is a delightful book, best enjoyed a few pages at a time.