The books I read this year were an assortment of the good, the bad, and the ugly. If I have one reading regret, it’s that I perhaps spent more time reading review copies of less-than-stellar books than I did reading books I personally chose. Some of those review copies were worthwhile (Jon Bassoff’s Factory Town), while others … well, let’s not even name them. They’re best forgotten.
There were some diamonds in the rough, though, and if I have another reading regret, it’s that I didn’t write full reviews of them for Book Dirt. (Goals for the year, then: read more books from my own to-read list, and review them promptly as I do
Don’t think that because I read some clunkers in 2014 that my best-of picks only seem good by comparison. The following titles would be standouts in any year.
I’m tempted to say very little about this unusual mystery novel, originally published in Latvian in 1972, and published in English by Peter Owen books in 1990, because I enjoyed discovering something about which I previously knew nothing, and everyone should do that sometimes. I bought The Cage in a used bookstore, intrigued by the packaging, and perplexed that I’d never heard of the author. The fact that it was translated and on a high-quality press seemed promising. It delivered. The Cage is different from other mystery novels in its almost-philosophical level of introspection, which might be a turn-off for some, but seemed refreshing to me. It concerns the investigation into the disappearance of Edmunds Berz, an architect. As we learn about what kind of man Berz was, we simultaneously learn about the detective, Valdis Struga, especially as he personally identifies with the missing man ("He had the feeling he was looking for himself"). As the book shifts gears halfway through to focus on what actually happened to Berz, it gets even deeper—and more compelling. It’s introspective and claustrophobic in a way that might be described as Highsmithian.
Some of you will be turned off as soon as I say “time-travelling serial killer,” but bear with me. What if I tell you that The Shining Girls is a book about a time-travelling serial killer that manages to be smart and literary? I’m serious. It’s best not to think too hard about why and how Harper Curtis can move through time—I’m not sure he understands it himself. But the fact is, he can, and he makes the most of it in a depraved way. The chapters from the killer’s point of view are as riveting as they are chilling. But, what sets this book apart, besides the unconventional plot, is Beukes’ treatment of Curtis’ victims. They’re all compelling women with interesting stories. They shine, which is why Curtis is drawn to them in the first place. Beukes has found a way, as impossible as it seems, to write a book about eviscerated women that manages to celebrate them at the same time. The historical details are also spot-on, whether she’s talking about fan dancers in secret prohibition-era bars or underground abortionists in the ‘60s. There’s a lot to like here. It’s several books in one, and they’re all good.
Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman is high on my list of all-time favorite reads, so I could kick myself for waiting so long to try another of his books. Obsession is one of my favorite subjects, and The Collector plumbs its depths in some beautiful and provoking ways. Ferdinand Clegg is a clerk, a nobody, who wins a bit of money, and uses it to purchase a remote house. He then kidnaps the object of his secret obsession, the pretty and privileged art student, Miranda Grey, and keeps her there, much like he keeps the butterflies he collects. What’s brilliant is how, as Fowles reveals the thoughts and feelings of the two, their roles blur. It’s easier to sympathize with Clegg than with spoiled and catty Miranda, but as we learn her backstory, we see that she, too, strives to have someone understand her. Nothing here is black or white (maybe there’s a reason Fowles chose the name Grey?), and the nuances are disturbingly lovely. The Collector isn’t just one of my favorite reads of the year, but ever.
This may be the most unusual book I’ve read by Shirley Jackson, and it’s a difficult one to write about. For starters, I’m not completely certain what happened in it—and that’s a good thing. There’s a blurring of reality here that makes even the mundane mysterious. And on the surface, the story is a little mundane, as 17 year-old Natalie Waite leaves her family to attend an all-girl college. She takes walks, she writes letters to her father, she befriends a professor’s wife—all fairly ordinary. The brilliance of Hangsaman is in the telling. The writing is masterful and deeply psychological, to the point that many people, like I did, misremember the book as being in first person. Natalie’s a bit of a fantasist, and she’s maybe even a bit mad (there are shades of The Bell Jar here), so there’s a dream-like quality to ordinary events. Then there are some unusual events that are never quite explained: girls being slapped in the middle of the night, stolen items, a voice behind a wall. I didn’t find out until later that Hangsaman is based on a true event, and I’m not going to mention it here, as it makes the ending somewhat of a spoiler—though still just as mysterious. The first thing I did when finishing the book was turn to the net to see what other people had to say about it. If you read it, I’d love to hear what you think of it.
What were the best things you read in 2014? Any specific reading goals for the coming year? Comments are always welcome.