2014 — My Year in Reading

stack-of-books70. That’s how many books I read this year. Goodreads has this handy tool that allows you to set a reading goal and then measure your progress. My goal for the year was 80, so I have fallen far short. But still, 70 is a lot of books.

(If I never buy another book, at that rate it will take me something like 20 years to read all of the unread books I have in my house, so while 70 seems like a lot, it’s not, really.)

Looking at the list of what I’ve read (Goodreads helps with that, too), I see that I read quite an eclectic mix of things. Lots of fiction of course, aided by my role this year as a judge for the Library of Virginia Literary Award for Fiction, but I usually read loads of fiction anyway. I facilitate a chapter of Reading Liberally, so I usually read a “political” book once a month. And I was in a spiritual book club–since disbanded–so I was reading books in that genre for the first part of the year, but I’m drawn to those generally, also, so I kept reading them even after the club fizzled.

I don’t like all the “Best of 2014 Lists” I see because they aren’t comprehensive. The New York Times includes only those books they reviewed, bloggers obviously only include those books they’ve read, and so on, so they aren’t really “Best of” anything except the Best of What We Actually Read. I could do that, but instead let me just mention some of the highlights.

In fiction, I really liked Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic: A Novel. Like his masterpiece Let the Great World Spin, this one consists of separate narrative threads woven together, but with the added dimension of time, as they span 150 years. I’m a fan, and was predisposed to like this, but the book did not disappoint. I also really liked Elizabeth Strout’s The Burgess Boys: A Novel, a book about siblings from a town in Maine, but also a story about refugees (both literal and metaphoric). The book didn’t have quite the impact that Strout’s Olive Kitteridge did in terms of awards and readership, but I think it’s actually a better book.

Other fiction (novels and story collections) I liked (more or less in the order in which I read them) and recommend:

The Biology of Luck by Jacob Appel
Haints by Clint McCown
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Out of Peel Tree by Laura Long
The Assembler of Parts by Raoul Wientzen
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
The Last First Day by Carrie Brown
Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline
Guests on Earth by Lee Smith
Seeing Red by Kathryn Erskine
Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai
The Man with the Golden Arm by Nelson Algren

In nonfiction it’s harder to pick my favorites, but one standout for me was Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan. As a skeptic anyway, I’m drawn to narratives that use facts and logic to make sense from legend, and that’s what this book does. The other standout for the year is probably Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America’s Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941 by Lynne Olsen. I don’t read a lot of history, but this was fascinating, and Olsen’s style is very engaging. I’ll read more by her, certainly.

Some other nonfiction titles that impressed:

American Hipster by Hilary Holladay
The Good Soldiers by David Finkel
Townie by Andre Dubus III
Dust to Dust by Benjamin Busch
Whistling Vivaldi by Claude M. Steele
Why I Read by Wendy Lesser.

It was a good year in reading. I’ve decided on a goal for 2015 of 72 books–that’s just 6 per month–and I’ve already got a few underway. What did you read this year?

The Problem of Knowledge by A.J. Ayer

The Problem of KnowledgeThe Problem of Knowledge by A.J. Ayer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read a portion of this book in college and decided it was time I read the whole thing. It’s an important work in the field of epistemology, but not particularly readable. Still, Ayer was a major 20th Century philosopher and I’ve always been drawn to his work. Not this book, so much, but still it gave me a lot to think about.

View all my reviews

2014 Reading: The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert

sixthextinctionThe Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert

This book was the September selection for my book club, the local chapter of Reading Liberally. Unfortunately, the member who proposed the book wasn’t able to come to our discussion, so we weren’t very lively, but I found the book fascinating.

Kolbert writes for The New Yorker and I gather that many of the chapters had previously appeared as essays in that magazine, which is why, perhaps, the book doesn’t quite hang together as a single argument. Still, the individual pieces–about mass die-offs of amphibians in the tripics and bats in New England, the extinction of ancient species as well as modern species, and the rapid changes that are occurring in biodiversity and the environment–are startling. She tells a compelling story about some frightening things that are happening right now and along the way draws parallels with the mass extinctions that have taken place in the past.

One of the members of our group complained that the book didn’t, in the end, make a case for anything, or didn’t tie this large body of evidence together in order to draw a conclusion about what’s happening on our planet. That’s a fair criticism, I think. In the hands of another writer, perhaps, an argument for taking action might have been made, or we might have seen predictions about the future if nothing is done. Instead, the reader is left to draw his or her own conclusions. Kolbert shows what happened in the previous mass extinctions and presents evidence that suggests the current extinction, which has been going accelerating since the appearance of humans is even worse.

My own expectation is that the human species is not threatened with extinction because we will find a way to survive and adapt even while we kill off everything else. That’s not a particularly cheery thought, though. Maybe we should start over on another planet and get it right this time.

2014 Reading: Special Like the People on TV by Tommy Dean

tommySpecial Like the People on TV by Tommy Dean

This is a fiction chapbook by a friend who graduated from my MFA program after I did. It’s worth investing the time to read this slim volume, if only for some exciting turns of phrase. One woman is described as “a half moon of beauty, even in her forties.” Another is “as safe as a bran muffin.”

But make no mistake: these are dark stories. They reveal losers in a downward spiral, children making mistakes that will haunt them, couples living on the edge of catastrophe. And all of them, it seems, think things could have been different if only that last break had gone their way.

In the opening story, “Alone, Baby,” the protagonist is a woman whose husband has gone in search of a pregnancy test–unwanted, failed, or wished-for pregnancy is a theme of the book. Sitting alone in a parking lot, she notices a child left alone in a car. Where is the mother? Doesn’t she know it’s not safe? When the mother returns, the woman realizes the struggle she faces, doing the best she can, which will never be enough.

In “The Weight of the Moon,” the main character is set to rob at gunpoint a drug dealer. He needs the money–he’s made some bad choices and the bills have piled up. And this seems like another bad choice in a long series. “The money,” he says. “Now. Or it’s over for both of us.” He’s right about that, I think. It’s over for him.

Some of the stories here are very short, less than a page, such as one of my favorites, another featuring a wished-for pregnancy, “Compatible.” It begins: “He felt that by getting married he had made some kind of half-hearted promise to give her a child. Twelve years later, he had run out of excuses.” In another story, a woman can’t stand the sight of a family of snowmen because she’s unable to get pregnant. In another, a teenager sits in her bathroom, trying to find the courage to take a pregnancy test.

Although the impact of the stories taken together is quite bleak, each of the stories is a gritty slice of hyper-realism. You know the people in these stories, I would guess. I surely do.

2014 Reading: Whistling Vivaldi by Claude M. Steele

9662130Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do (Issues of Our Time) by Claude M. Steele

I read this book because Northwestern University picked it this year for its One Book, One Northwestern program (which invites all new students to read the same book and then presents a year of related programming in order to explore the topic in depth), and during an alumni conference I went to last week we were able to participate in a discussion. The discussion was so-so (too many people hadn’t actually read the book), but I thought the book was terrific.

Steele, a social psychologist, has been studying the phenomenon of “stereotype threat” for decades. Basically, this is when stereotyped groups are perceived to perform poorly in a certain area. Members of the group then when tested in that area are afraid they will confirm the stereotype, and as a result they perform less well. If the “threat” is eliminated–if the test is presented as something else–the group generally performs as well as members of other groups.

The book presents an overwhelming amount of experimental data that seems to confirm the theory and its corollaries. Plus, helpfully, one chapter offers some concrete suggestions for eliminating the threat’s effect on performance. The book is a pretty quick read, is written in a clear language that doesn’t use too much psychological jargon, and makes a compelling argument. I highly recommend it.

2014 Reading: Tinderbox by Lisa Gornick

tinderboxTinderbox: A Novel by Lisa Gornick

I had not heard of this novel until I saw that the author would be in the area visiting WriterHouse. I like events there because they usually aren’t just a reading–which I would also enjoy, of course–but often involve a conversation between the featured author and another writer who has taken a close look at the book under discussion.

In this case, the “other writer” was Virginia Pye, author of River of Dust: A Novel, which was the topic of discussion when I interviewed the author in the same venue. Ginny’s book takes place in China and Lisa’s book is set mostly in Manhattan but with significant episodes in Peru and Morocco, so the topic of the conversation was, primarily, the importance of travel in the work of these particular writers. Given my own interests and the key role travel plays in my work, I was glad to participate in the event.

I enjoyed the book, for the most part. Gornick is a psychoanalyst and so she digs more deeply into characters than I think a lot of writers do, revealing not only their backstories but also their serious flaws. I saw similarities with the work of Amy Bloom, another therapist. The characters in the book all–with the exception of the six-year-old, but one guesses he’ll develop his quirks later–have noticeable psychological problems. We all have issues, of course, but most issues don’t need the help of a therapist to deal with. All of these people needed help and not all of them were getting it, which helps add drama to the narrative. The only one in therapy, in fact, was the therapist, Myra, who is the book’s central character.

Do you need to like the characters in a book? Of course not. I did, though, like Myra and also her daughter, Caro, despite their quirks. These are the women who are holding the family together under enormous stresses. The men in the family, however, were less admirable. Larry, Myra’s ex-husband, brought their marriage to an end by cheating on her, and while he’s not a jerk, he does seem awfully needy. Their son, Adam, is especially unlikable. The nurse, Tali, who emerges late in the book, is somewhat heroic, but lest we be too fond of him, we’re told that he’s a slob. He’s the best of the bunch.

Apart from the characters, the story is quite interesting. The narrative is launched by the impending arrival in Myra’s home for a year-long visit of Adam, his Moroccan wife Rachida, and their son Omar. To help handle this household, Myra engages Eva, a young woman from Iquitos, Peru, who is descended from Moroccan Jewish traders. This is the classic “a stranger comes to town” story arc, and it works very well here; the arrival of all of these strangers in a previously sedate household will create all kinds of problems for Myra to deal with.

And beside the story, there is the background, which is also very interesting–this unusual historical connection between Morocco and Peru, and the coming together in New York.

Except for the portrayal of the male characters here–perhaps something no one else will be sensitive to–it’s an enjoyable read, and I recommend it. 

2014 Reading: The Second Amendment: A Biography by Michael Waldman

2ndamendThe Second Amendment: A Biography by Michael Waldman

We are reading discussing this book this month in my book club, Reading Liberally. This is exactly the sort of book I had in mind when I started the local chapter of the group several years ago. Many liberals know what our positions are supposed to be–just like conservatives–but we need to do a better job than conservatives do of understanding the issues. Staking out positions isn’t good enough.

So, I know what my view of gun control is, and I know what my understanding of the 2nd Amendment is, having studied it in law school. But I was less clear on the drafting history and the real motivation of the drafters of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. That’s what is wonderful about this book. It’s repetitive at times, but it is wonderfully researched and footnoted.

Beyond the history lesson, though, the book includes a discussion of relatively recent developments on the Supreme Court and also outlines the rise of the influence of the NRA. The book has a slight bias toward more gun control, even in light of the Heller case that first ruled that the 2nd Amendment creates an individual right to own guns. What I would like to have seen here, though, is an outline of what kinds of controls might be acceptable given the current court’s rulings.

So this is a very good book, and I recommend it, but it leaves questions unanswered.

2014 Reading: Dust to Dust by Benjamin Busch

dusttodustDust to Dust: A Memoir by Benjamin Busch

You may know Benjamin Busch as an actor on The Wire and other television programs and movies. I’ve never seen The Wire—no TV, no cable, no satellite—so I haven’t seen his acting work. I know him because we’re Facebook friends, although I’m not sure how that came about. And I’ve known of him for a long time, since I read his father’s essay in Harper’s about Ben’s military service. You see, I was a fan of the fiction of Frederick Busch, Ben’s father. The elder Busch, who died suddenly in 2006, was a terrific novelist and story writer. (I have a shockingly large collection of his books, more than one signed by him; I even had the pleasure of hearing him read once in DC at Chapters and I remember him talking about his dogs, which made me like him even more . . .)

Anyway, because of our connection on Facebook, I decided I needed to read Ben’s memoir, Dust to Dust, which is partly about his service in Iraq, but also is about growing up and a good bit about mortality. It’s a terrific, lyrical book, and if you haven’t read it I recommend it. It is structured thematically, each chapter dealing with an “element”—water, soil, wood, stone, ash, etc.—and approaches each theme with anecdotes from childhood, his military service, or his more recent life in rural Michigan. It’s unique, I think, because it’s far from chronological, and yet we still get a sense of time passing from his early interest in the military when he was a boy to his final deployment to Iraq.

As I was reading it, I was drawing a contrast with Townie, the Andre Dubus III memoir I read recently. Dubus is also the son of a hightly regarded writer, and was also a fighter (in a very different way), but his memoir proceeds from his earliest days to the present. It also ends shortly after the death of his father, as Dust to Dust does. The books make an interesting pair.

The book also brought to mind a couple of other recent reads. The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers (whom I met at the Library of Virginia Awards last year) is a novel about a young soldier’s service in Iraq and its aftermath.  The Good Soldiers by David Finkel is nonfiction about a whole unit deployed to Iraq. Both books do a good job of showing the horror of war and the particular challenges of Iraq. Busch treats some of the same material—he’s as familiar with the grimness as Powers, but he has some of the detachment that Finkel, a journalist, shows. These three books would make a good core for someone interested in the literature of the Iraq war.

I’ve been thinking of tackling a memoir project, and I’d be very happy if I could come close to the humanity that Busch displays here.

2014 Reading: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon

kavalierandclayThe Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon

I listened to the unabridged audio version of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay—mostly in the car but sometimes at the gym. I haven’t been going to the gym much lately, so it took a really long time to get through the book, which is 500 pages but feels longer. I liked it very much. I knew before I started it that it was about comic book creators, but I didn’t realize what its underlying themes were. The largest of those themes is escape—Joseph Kavalier’s escape from the Nazis, his escape from the gloom of the war and his family’s death, his escape from Antarctica, and Sammy’s escape from the lie he lives. And of course there is the comic book character they create: The Escapist, a figure inspired by Joe’s training as a magician and escape artist in his native Prague.

The theme underlies the story, which is a bit rambling but never veers off course. Joe arrives from Prague in 1939 and lives with Sammy and his mother in New York. Sammy, whose father had been in vaudeville, works in a novelty company but aspires to draw comic books. Joe is an artist who needs work, so their collaboration is instant and almost immediately the invent The Escapist and their comics are a hit. Joe meets Rosa and life seems good, but then the war rears its head. Joe joins the Navy and disappears and in his absence life gets very complicated for Sammy and Rosa.

Although a lot happens to Sammy and Joe, and they each have their adventures, together and separately, there isn’t really a single plot. What makes the book work is the change we see in Joe and Sammy, a steady change over the course of twelve years.

The book was a deserving winner of the Pulitzer Prize. It’s very impressive.

2014 Reading: The Car Thief by Theodore Weesner

carthiefThe Car Thief by Theodore Weesner
Astor & Blue Editions

The Car Thief, republished as an eBook in 2012 by Astor & Blue and now available in paperback also, was Theodore Weesner’s first novel, originally published by Random House in 1972. Weesner, a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, went on to publish several more novels and a collection of short stories and is said to be, though nearing 80, working on a memoir and a new novel.

The book tells the story of young Alex Housman, in 1959, in Detroit, a sixteen-year-old car thief. He is driven to steal—but not to steal, exactly, Alex is a joy-rider—out of boredom. He lives with his alcoholic father, has memories of being abandoned by his mother and separated from his younger brother, is ashamed of the squalor in which he now lives. He’s a smart kid, but doesn’t apply himself in school. But, of course, getting caught is the best thing that could happen to him, and after a stay in a juvenile detention center he’s on his way to rehabilitation. He’s seen what the future can be, and he wants no part of it. It’s a fragile recovery, though, with pitfalls and setbacks. The great tension of the novel is the reader’s fear that Alex will make a mistake and backslide, and his journey unfolds against the drama of life in his dysfunctional family.

It’s a coming-of-age story, one that is based closely on Weesner’s own life. The biographical note on the author tells us that his home life was similar to Alex’s and, like Alex, he was charged with car theft as a teen. The coming-of-age genre refuses, unfortunately, to go away, and so it’s hard to imagine that readers today will care much about Alex and his 1959 problems. We’ve got more than enough contemporary coming-of-age stories as it is, and way bigger problems.

Still, it’s a compelling read. Alex is a troubled kid, and if we don’t exactly like him, it’s not hard to sympathize. If he doesn’t behave well toward girls—and he doesn’t—he hasn’t had very good role models. His father is a drunk and his mother disappeared years earlier, resurfacing only long enough to take her younger son away. And if he doesn’t make very good choices, it’s because he gets no guidance. Alex is left to fend for himself most of the time—cooking, laundry, house cleaning—and school doesn’t interest him at all.

Fortunately, though, after his arrest, he is aided by two men who understand where he’s coming from. Without them, Alex’s life would take one tragic turn after another. That, maybe, is the message here. You can’t expect a kid to grow up and get it right without someone showing the way. In this case, it’s Mr. Kelly, who runs the juvenile detention center, and Mr. Quinn, his probation officer and counselor. From them he gets discipline and advice. In them he sees men who have come from similar backgrounds who have risen above their youthful mistakes. He sees that he doesn’t have to end up like his father.

We can’t expect kids to figure everything out by themselves, the book appears to be saying. We have to show them the way.