2014: A Book Review

In a concept blatantly stolen from my friend Tommy Collison, I’m switching up my Thursday-posting schedule to get in a breakdown of the books I’ve been reading this year. I think making year-in-reviews of books is a fantastic idea; at any given time, a solid 20-25% of my brainspace is devoted to thinking about what I’m reading and wondering what I’m going to read next.

I’ll post a list of every book I read this year under the cut, but for now, here are some quick reviews:

Top 5 Nonfiction Books

5. Little Golden America, by Ilya Ilf and Eugen Petrov, is one of the weirder books I read this year. It was written in 1936, by two Soviet humorists who were sent by the USSR to the United States and instructed to go on a road trip and write about their experiences, with predictably strange, funny, and incredibly interesting results. Think Jack Kerouac as written by Abbott and Costello with a healthy helping of Communist propaganda, and you’ll have some idea of what reading this book was like. It was amazingly interesting – I would absolutely recommend it.
4. Hell’s Angels, by Hunter S. Thompson, is well-known enough already that anything I could say about it would likely be redundant. Suffice to say that Hunter S. Thompson’s prose holds up in 2014 and will likely hold up until the end of time, and though the book’s topic and values are now somewhat dated, reading this book is still a ridiculously enjoyable experience.
3. Gimme Something Better, by Jack Boulware and Silke Tudor, is an oral history of Bay Area punk from the late 1970s up to about 2008. I haven’t read much about punk rock since I was roughly fourteen, but doing so is always worthwhile: the idealism, love of music, take-no-bullshit practicality, and fierce teenage black-and-white stick-it-to-the-man anger of punk are always in equal parts entertaining and inspiring. I especially loved this book because it features landmarks and neighborhoods from where I grew up: Rockridge, Blondie’s Pizza, Gilman, the Lawrence Hall of Science.
2. I read Unspeakable Things, by Laurie Penny, in about two hours on a car ride this summer, and I’ve been rereading it over and over ever since. I’ve been a feminist for a long time, but I’ve never read a feminist writer that I’ve connected with as instinctively and automatically as Laurie Penny. This book is witty, poignant, passionate, and stunningly well-written; I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s without a doubt one of my favorite books of all time.
1. And the Band Played On, by Randy Shilts, is totally cheating – I haven’t finished it yet. It’s a history of the AIDS epidemic from 1980 to 1985; it was published in 1987, and written by a gay journalist working for the San Francisco Chronicle who himself died of AIDS-related complications in 1994. Reading this book, I’m stunned that it’s almost entirely information I didn’t know before. Almost all the education I’ve received about AIDS was scientific and medical, and while I’m incredibly grateful to have gone to a school with an excellent sex education program that taught me how AIDS worked and how to have safe sex, I can’t believe that the history of the political maneuvering, homophobia, and incompetence that contributed to the epidemic was never taught to me in schools. This is in part selfish: as an LGBT person, I feel like I’ve been cheated of one of the most significant parts of my community’s history. I’ll likely be writing more about And the Band Played On, as well as recommending it to all my queer and straight friends.

Top 5 Short Story Collections

5. Red Plenty, by Francis Spufford, is only a short story collection in a loose sense of the phrase; the stories in it are all very closely connected, and they’re not quite “short stories” so much as “slightly fictionalized and narrativized historical essays”. Red Plenty is a history of the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death, focusing mostly on the 1960s – it’s where I got the recommendation for Little Golden America. It’s stunningly well-researched and an incredibly interesting read.
4. My Man Jeeves, by P.G. Wodehouse, is another book that needs no description. The adventures of Bertie Wooster and his valet Jeeves are well-known to almost everyone (though my God, if you haven’t actually read a Jeeves story, please do so immediately) and I’m always struck by the quality of Wodehouse’s prose – the man could turn a phrase like absolutely no one else.
3. I Sing the Body Electric!, by Ray Bradbury, is my Ray Bradbury short story collection of the year. I think at this point I’ve read roughly 80% of Bradbury’s body of work, and every time I track down a Bradbury short story I haven’t read before, it’s like Christmas and twelve birthdays all rolled into one. Out of principle I don’t have a Favorite Writer, but if I did, Bradbury would be a strong contender for the title.
2. Pretty Monsters, by Kelly Link, is a collection I’ve read about five times at this point. Kelly Link is a creepy, imaginative, emotional, and very weird writer; her novella Magic for Beginners, included in Pretty Monsters, has images and themes that have been circling in my head like goldfish in a bowl ever since I read it for the first time, six or seven years ago.
1. Battleborn, by Claire Vaye Watkins, is secretly my fave for fairly self-centered reasons: it’s another book that centers California and the American West, and writes its setting with vividness, honesty, careful attention to detail, and emotion. Many people who know me know my love for what I call, for lack of a better term, “southwestern gothic”; Battleborn is southwestern gothic at its best.

Top 5 Fiction Books

5. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz, appealed very specifically to my etymologist heart: the way Junot Diaz uses words, both in English and in Spanish, is incredibly masterful and skilled. Oscar Wao is another book that’s received more than enough hype already; it takes readers from New Jersey to the Dominican Republic, and from 1955 to 1997, using brilliant prose and incredibly imaginative characterization. It’s absolutely worth a read.
4. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson, has also received plenty of praise from various sources already. There’s a whole essay to be written about the idea of Lisbeth Salander as a power fantasy; while reading the sequels, it was hard for me not to compare her to heroes like Batman, another character with a dark past who combines fairly emotionally unhealthy behavior and black-and-white morality with extraordinary superpowers. It’s hard for me to recall a female hero of whom I’ve been able to say, “Wow, she’s not a good person, but I really wanna be her.” I’m glad Lisbeth Salander exists.
3. House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski – okay, okay, I can’t seem to put anything on my top 5 fiction list that hasn’t already gotten hyped up already. There’s really nothing I can say about House of Leaves except that it’s the most convincing argument for the continued existence of physical books that I can imagine, and that if you read it, I’d love to talk about it.
2. His Majesty’s Dragon, by Naomi Novik, has not been hyped up by a hundred sources and so I’m very pleased to recommend it. It’s a fantasy series – I’ve been reading fewer and fewer long fantasy series since I turned thirteen, but it’s nice to know that my SFF nerd days aren’t quite over – and it can be best described as “sort of like Master and Commander, but also there are dragons.” It has far and away the best worldbuilding I’ve ever seen (and this is coming from someone raised on Lord of the Rings, so please take that declaration very seriously), as well as spectacular characterization and incredibly gripping and imaginative storytelling. Peter Jackson might make a miniseries!
1. Angels in America, by Tony Kushner, I know this is a play and not a book, I don’t care, I know I’ve read it three or four times already, I don’t care, I have nothing to say about Angels in America that I haven’t already said about Angels in America, I care about Angels in America more than absolutely anything in the world except maybe Hamlet. Have you read Angels in America? Please read Angels in America.

It was a good year in terms of books: I read 103 total and enjoyed the hell out of almost all of them. Here’s the full list under the cut, in alphabetical order by title:

13 Little Blue Envelopes, by Maureen Johnson
Affinity, by Sarah Waters
Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
American Elsewhere, by Robert Jackson Bennett
Angels in America, by Tony Kushner
Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy
Antony and Cleopatra, by William Shakespeare
Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay
Battleborn, by Claire Vaye Watkins
Blood of Tyrants, by Naomi Novik
Blood Powder War, by Naomi Novik
Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut
Broken Homes, by Ben Aaronovitch
Brothers in Battle, Best of Friends, by Bill Guarnere and Babe Heffron
Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. Clarke
Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein
Crucible of Gold, by Naomi Novik
Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet, by Julian Assange
Detroit: An American Autopsy, by Charlie LeDuff
Down and Out in Paris and London, by George Orwell
Emma, by Jane Austen
Empire of Ivory, by Naomi Novik
Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell
First Among Sequels, by Jasper Fforde
Gimme Something Better, by Jack Boulware and Silke Tudor
Giovanni’s Room, by James Baldwin
Girls Like Us, by Rachel Lloyd
Girl with a Sniper Rifle, by Yulia Zhukova
Hard Choices, by Hillary Clinton
Hella Nation, by Evan Wright
Hell’s Angels, by Hunter S. Thompson
His Majesty’s Dragon, by Naomi Novik
Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, by David Simon
House of Cards, by Michael Dobbs
House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski
I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith
Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism, by Eric Burns
I Sing the Body Electric!, by Ray Bradbury
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke
Lexicon, by Max Barry
Little Golden America, by Ilya Ilf and Eugen Petrov
Lost in a Good Book, by Jasper Fforde
Maskerade, by Terry Pratchett
Maurice, by E.M. Forster
Memoirs of Montparnasse, by John Glassco
Moon Over Soho, by Ben Aaronovitch
Motherless Brooklyn, by Jonathan Lethem
My Man Jeeves, by P.G. Wodehouse
No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State, by Glenn Greenwald
Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen
Okay for Now, by Gary D. Schmidt
One Bullet Away, by Nathaniel Fick
One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
One of Our Thursdays Is Missing, by Jasper Fforde
Pretty Monsters, by Kelly Link
Raising Steam, by Terry Pratchett
Red Plenty, by Francis Spufford
Rivers of London, by Ben Aaronovitch
Shadow Show, edited by Sam Weller and Mort Castle
Smarter Than You Think, by Clive Thompson
Someplace to be Flying, by Charles de Lint
Something Rotten, by Jasper Fforde
Soviet Women on the Frontline in the Second World War, by Roger Marwick and Euridice Cardona
Spirit and Dust, by Rosemary Clement-Moore
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon
The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help, by Amanda Palmer
The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Díaz
The Crimson Petal and the White, by Michel Faber
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, by Tom Wolfe
The Emperor of All Maladies, by Siddharta Mukherjee
The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde
The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, by Catherynne M. Valente
The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, by Stieg Larsson
The Girl who Played with Fire, by Stieg Larsson
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson
The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt
The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker
The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson
The Seven Percent Solution, by Nicholas Meyer
The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man, by Luke Harding
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson
The Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith
The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas
The Well of Lost Plots, by Jasper Fforde
The Widowmaker, by Robert McMahon
The Woman Who Died A Lot, by Jasper Fforde
The Year of Endless Sorrows, by Adam Rapp
The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers
Throne of Jade, by Naomi Novik
Tipping the Velvet, by Sarah Waters
Tongues of Serpents, by Naomi Novik
Un Lun Dun, by China Mieville
Unspeakable Things, by Laurie Penny
Victory of Eagles, by Naomi Novik
We Have Always Lived In The Castle, by Shirley Jackson
We Were Liars, by E. Lockhart
We’ll Always Have Paris, by Ray Bradbury
Whispers Under Ground, by Ben Aaronovitch
White is for Witching, by Helen Oyoyemi
Why We Broke Up, by Daniel Handler
Wikileaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy, by David Leigh
With a Little Help, by Cory Doctorow


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