2014 – The RB Lit Review

And so, friends, we come to the end of another year.  So many books read, so much to recap – so let’s dive in.

VITAL STATS, YEAR FOUR:

  • Books Read: 137
  • Pages Read: 48,900 (an exact round number – weiiiird)
  • Average Rating: 3.89 (a definite drop from the last two years, although this may reflect a somewhat broader scope of reading? or sharper critical thinking? who knows.)
  • Highest Rating(s): – 6 out of 5
    • Jeff VanderMeer’s The Southern Reach Trilogy (AnnihilationAuthorityAcceptance) was maybe the coolest thing I read all year. Yes, technically I read the first book at the end of last year – but I’m ranking the trilogy as a whole.  It’s something greater than the sum of it’s already-really-great parts.  Where the first book begins the cycle as a horror-adventure story, the second veers sharply and becomes a cross between a spy novel, a spy spoof, and the creepy dread of 70s psychological horror (like The Thing).  The third book takes all of these threads and weaves them together, turning into something Weird while containing strands of bildungsroman and country-life novel.  VanderMeer juggles voices, tenses, plots, strangling vines, tunnels that are towers, whale-monster-things, and all sorts of stuff to create a trilogy that leaves the reader honestly satisfied.  Not everything is answered but, in this, he makes the series feel just like life: we don’t always get all the answers but must be satisfied instead with what we do get.
    • David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, like the year that George Clooney would’ve won the Oscar for Michael Clayton except there was Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood, would be the knock-out favorite in any other year.  Much like with Marisha Pessl’s Night Film, I was captivated by this book from the first page and couldn’t bear to put it down.  My sister, delight that she is, picked up a copy in my stead at BEA (getting Mitchell to sign it “from your sister and David Mitchell”, best inscription maybe ever) and every day I didn’t read it, I could feel its power grow. And when I finally did read it, I was bowled over not only by Mitchell’s ability to jump between genres – we knew that about him, have known it – but the obvious joy he had in writing this book and tying all of his novels together a little more directly.  Lots of folks in the critical world had issues with his decision to introduce high fantasy craziness like the Anchorites and devote so much time to their adventures – but for my money, it was as much if not more fun than the chapter following grumpy Crispin Hershey or the lovely, heartbreakingly lovely, chapter about young love.  A masterpiece.
  • Lowest Rating(s):  – 1 out of 5.  Three books ranked lowest for me this year, two of them coming out of the Tournament of Books: How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (for which I caught some flack from John Warner in the commentary) and The People in the Trees.  For the former, it was the gimmick of the second person that rubbed me the wrong way, and the author’s lack of attention to proper detail (nowhere is going to look as it does now in 70 years).  For the latter, it was just boring – a biography of a person I didn’t care about who turned out to be a skeevy bad dude.  But I didn’t care from the start so how was his fall meant to affect me?  The third book was You Should Have Known, a frustrating and false-ringing attempt at a relationship thriller that was just poorly executed from word one.
  • DNF – A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace.  For various reasons, I’m throwing in the towel on Wallace.  Although he’s a brilliant writer, skilled of observation and of turn-of-phrase, he lacks any sort of empathy in his writing and for me that’s an unpardonable sin, especially for a journalist or essayist.  Just not for me.

CONTRIBUTOR THOUGHTS
This year, it was my great pleasure and excitement to have a contributor join the team: Ms. Dani Lencioni.  Although she only covered one event for us this year, we’ve got big plans for the year to come and will undoubtedly be seeing more of her.  As a sort of extended introduction, we asked her to tell us her favorites this year, in color!

I read more wonderful books in 2014 than I have in most years past, which makes the thought of a comprehensive Year End or Favorites list downright impossible. Looking back on 2014, I realize that this was the year of coming-of-age novels for me. Lots of incredible young protagonists in lots of beautifully built worlds, both familiar and fantastical.
But my straight up favorites are, in no order:

Young God by Katherine Faw Morris
It’s a horrific and gorgeous bolt of grit-lit lightning. Morris’ raw but assured voice guides the story’s leading lady, 13-yr-old Nikki as she careens in and out of some truly brutal situations. But while she exists in an undeniable nightmare full of violence, abuse, drugs, etc, Nikki is adamantly not a victim, but a master, of her circumstances. As scary of a world as Morris creates, her lens is refreshing and her writing is stunning. (To add to the effect, I read this in about 90 minutes on a plane flight back to my hometown which reminds me a whole lot of Morris’ North Carolina hills.) 

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
A totally different kind of coming-of-age story – one that spans years and years, has multiple central characters, and they all live in a relatively easy world. One thing I really appreciate is about this book is that the growing up really happens throughout the characters’ whole lives, which is how it goes (or so I hear from my lofty mid-20s perch). It’s one of the most relatable sets of characters I’ve encountered – partially because of their circumstances, all meeting at an artsy summer camp and then growing up in living in New York. But more so because of how honestly and unpretentiously Wolitzer writes about friendship, about change, and about the ceaseless work of growing up. 

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Knowing that I’m one of many to fall in love with this book (and with Egan as a writer), I’m so, so glad I got around to it this particular year. It’s a flawless book as far as I’m concerned, and I really can’t do it justice in review. It’s real genius is that every single character is fascinating and unique and not an ounce contrived. Comprised of incredibly truthful, delicate stories, Egan creates perfect portraits of complicated humans, and each story speaks straight to the difficult beauty of living, learning, loving, etc – especially in New York.  

SUPERLATIVES:
To round out the year, we came up with some superlatives for other books we read that we really enjoyed – and events we loved, people we loved, things we loved, etc etc.  Thanks for joining us this year – this was far and away the blog’s best year yet, so here’s to much more next year: we’ll have Woolf 2015, our ongoing Vonnegut 201x, more parties, more reviews, more contributors, and most importantly… more books.
(Oh and hey: want to hear me talk about books IRL?  SUBSCRIBE to So Many Damn Books, co-hosted by Christopher Hermelin & me.)

Best Book You Missed:
The Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero

Best Story Collection/Short Fiction:
St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell

Spookiest Book:
Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes // We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Most Depressing Relationship:
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

Prettiest Covers:
The return of Harper Perennial’s glorious Olive Editions

Best Grown-up Fairy Tale:
Of Bees and Mist by Eric Setiawan // Tigerman by Nick Harkaway (okay so fairy tale is pushing it but…)

Best Party:
A Night with The Morning News & The Tournament of Books
Runner-up / Best Party Series:
FSG’s Originals Series

Best Use of Footnotes:
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz // Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham

Best Part of #Murakami2014:
When the talking cat showed up in Kafka on the Shore

Best Book Someone Gave Me After Cleaning Out Their Desk Drawers:
The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To by DC Pierson

Smartest Read:
Either Embassytown or The City and the City (both by China Miéville)

Alright that’s it!  Get out of here!  Happy New Year!!  Looking forward to seeing you on the next rotation ’round the sun.

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