Best Reads of 2014

2015-01-04 10.28.26This is the season when the lists of “Best Books” published in the previous year sprout like mushrooms after a wet week, and the Wall Street Journal has produced a handy consolidated list in different categories. (Scrolling down that web page I encountered the surprising revelation that Lena Dunham is “friend” of the WSJ.) Other lists take into account that people actually read books in years other than the one in which they are published, and this is one of those. I read and listened to 56 books last year, and here are the 11 very best: Links below are to my full reviews.

The Cowboy and the Cossack by Clair Huffaker – I hope I’ve worn you down sufficiently in my praise of this novel to make you give up and read it for yourself. An adventure tale when life was, if not without complexity, less ambiguous. As refreshing for today’s reader as cool morning air after a sleepless night in a smoke-filled room.

Down by the River by Charles Bowden – this nonfiction book describes the failings of the U.S. War on Drugs and the consequent destruction of Mexican society. In the 12 years since the book was written, the situation has worsened. Bowden died last summer, and my review includes links to remarkable reminiscences about his work and fearless character.

Miracle Boy and Other Stories by Pinckney Benedict – a collection of amazing short stories by an author whom I met recently at a celebration for his former teacher, Joyce Carol Oates. (Got his autograph, too.) Benedict’s viewfinder is just one click away from reality as you see it. Unforgettable.

Pictures at an Exhibition by Sara Houghteling – caught up in Monuments Men fever, I found this novel hit just the right note of adventure story, intellectual interest, and writing style. A bit of a sleeper.

His Excellency George Washington by Joseph J. Ellis – historian Ellis set out to write a readable, not over-long biography of Washington and for the first time succeeded in making him interesting—no, fascinating—to me.

The Fragrant Harbor by Vida Chu – I would read more poetry if it were as satisfying as the work in this slim volume. Poems to revisit and savor.

An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris – a novelization of the Dreyfus case, in which anti-Semitism ran amok in late 19th c. France. I never could keep straight what this case was all about. I’ve got it now.

The Civil War of 1812 by Alan Taylor – having spent so much time in Upper Canada (Ontario), I was captivated by historian Taylor’s descriptions of the motivations and tactics of people on both sides of the St. Lawrence. A much more interesting war than you probably think (!).

The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy – To preserve my mental health, I allow myself only one Cormac McCarthy novel per year, given his bleak plots and searing (here’s a case when that word legitimately applies) writing style. Wouldn’t have missed it.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson – Some readers found this novel hard to follow. I listened to it, which can make continuity problems even more difficult, but had no trouble. A contemplation on “how things might have been different,” from the perspective of a hall of mirrors. The author must have cornered her local market in post-it notes.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt – OK, this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel has received mixed reactions, and it’s the only Big Book on this list (Big also in terms of its 775 pages). I’ve read and liked her other books, and I liked this one a lot. Especially Boris. See if you don’t end up speaking with a Russian accent . . .

Off to a great reading start in 2015, with four new book reviews to post soon.