It’s hard to believe it’s that time of year again, and even harder to believe this is the sixth of these lists I’ve done. This past year has been a bit different than the first five years for the site. First, there are now several contributors who reviewed many books I’d have liked to have read and that may have made this list. Second, film coverage has significantly increased, given my regular reviews of Criterion Collection releases and my participation in The Eclipse Viewer podcast. The list below, though, is old-school: it simply lists my ten favorite books that I read this year and that I reviewed on The Mookse and the Gripes. Links are to the original reviews.
With no more explanation, here are my ten favorite reads from 2014, listed in the order in which I reviewed them.
The Time Regulation Institute, by Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar, translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe (original review from January 7, 2014): “It’s a book filled with ideas, energy, and a fascinating critique of an important transition in Turkish — and our — history. As such, I highly recommend it, though, as I mentioned above, I sometimes found myself out to sea. Consequently, I will warn readers looking for a tight narrative to look elsewhere — to look elsewhere for that narrative, but not to look away entirely.”
I knew when I finished this book at the beginning of January that it would make this list. It made it easily.
Lives of Girls and Women, by Alice Munro (original post, with links to all story reviews): I hope anyone paying attention to this blog knows that Betsy and I are working our way through all of Munro’s work. We began this collection last year and finished it early this year. We accumulated 24,000 words on the eight stories, and I don’t think we covered a fraction of what’s in this beautiful, important book about a young girl’s coming of age in rural Canada.
And upstairs seemed miles above them, dark and full of the noise of the wind. Up there you discovered what you never remembered down in the kitchen — that we were in a house as small and shut up as any boat is on the sea, in the middle of a tide of howling weather.
~from “The Flats Road”
Autobiography of a Corpse, by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, translated from the Russian by Joanne Turnbull (original review from March 12, 2014): “It’s a tragedy that Krzhizhanovsky had to deal with the politics and censorship of Soviet Russia — that shouldn’t go unmentioned — but I don’t think the themes that pervade his work, closely linked to the forces he lived under and yet so universal, would have been explored in this way were it not for that system. Krzhizhanovsky would have been thinking of other things instead of digging deep into his soul — in the dark — to pull out these bizarre stories. Also, while frustrating at times, I’m glad these didn’t suffer under any editorial attempt to make them fit what I expected. The book is imperfect — and, in a way, because of that, it’s perfect. There is a great void (rendered beautifully in these works), and these are the broken echoes — could they be any other way? — of a man shouting.”
Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill (original review from May 6, 2014): “It’s not the topic that’s so fresh and new here, obviously, it’s the telling, it’s the wealth of sensitive, finely crafted sentences [. . .], it’s the way Offill taps into the fragmented day-to-day life and extracts the strangeness (and wonder) of it all. [. . .] The book is also fresh and unique because of its genuine, intimate darkness. We get a sense we are coming to know this woman in ways even her husband could never comprehend. She doesn’t want him to.”
I see that Ms. Offill’s book has shown up on a number of year-end best lists, including one you should all go check out, John Self’s here, where he says it is “probably my favourite new book this year.”
The Conductor and Other Tales, by Jean Ferry, translated from the French by Edward Gauvin (original review from May 30, 2014): “The Conductor and Other Stories is made up of 25 stories, taking up all of 141 pages. Each story, as you can see, is very short, some just a paragraph or two (the longest is twelve pages, all brisk). [. . .] While not every story deals with the same themes, it seems the majority of them concern characters who are tired of being awake. The day-to-day battle of existence is getting to them, and one notes that you never rise into sleep: you fall, you collapse.”
Only now do I realize that four of the ten books here are short story collections, each unique and masterful. Do not neglect the short story.
Annihilation, by Jeff Vandermeer (original review from June 24, 2014): “I love — absolutely love — stories like this. I thought of Stalker, as I said, but I also thought Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Bioy Casares’s The Invention of Morel, the television show Lost (with its best mysteries), and the old computer game Myst. These lonely treks through haunted physical space that emerge as lonely treks through the human mind.”
This being the first book in a trilogy called The Southern Reach Trilogy, the story continues on in Authority and Acceptance, each also published this year.
Conversations, by César Aira (original review from August 13, 2014): “Though time will tell as things settle out, this is my favorite Aira novella in years, perhaps just ranking behind my two all-time favorites, Ghosts and An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter. Not that Conversations is anything like those two, other than in its Aira zaniness.”
What with my love for short stories and Aira, I’m thrilled that New Directions is putting out a collection of his short stories in 2015. I’ve read about half of it, at this point, and promise you’ll be hearing about it more at about this time next year.
A Little Lumpen Novelita, by Roberto Bolaño (original review from September 16, 2014): “If [the narrator’s] reassurances at the start of the novel — and those that recur throughout — seem a bit defensive, a bit premature, that is because they are. I hope she’s found some stability and security in her adulthood, but I’m not sure. That she wants me to think so, while offering me nothing more than this story, concerns me a great deal. Her future, which was always so blank to her, still feels blank to me. And, thus, Bolaño continues to haunt from out of time.”
One thing I’d like to note is that I read this book in the middle of a Bolaño spree, during which I reread both By Night in Chile and 2666, two of his masterpieces. This book fits well in that crowd. It’s no slight remainder.
Conversations with Beethoven, by Sanford Friedman (original review from November 5, 2014): “What surely started out as a kind of experiment or challenge for Friedman has allowed him to find a new way to express silent rage, horror, and loneliness. What a remarkable effect it has when the main character, the one we feel we see and hear so often, the one whose physical body is breaking down explicitly in front of us as we read the doctor’s reports, is rendered as silent as a ghost?”
NYRB Classics published this book along with Friedman’s debut novel Totempole.
In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, by William H. Gass (original review from December 4, 2014): “This collection contains five short stories (though a few are relatively long), each set in, as the title suggests, the heart of the country: the American Midwest. But not just the heart of the country; the heart of the heart of the country. What we find here are worlds so unique, alienated, and insular that we come to understand, as strange as the physical world we see in these stories might be, we’re actually within a character’s head. That is the central space, and everything else emanates from it, is formed by it.”
If you’re looking for a chilly treat during this winter season, see the cover of this edition and read the first story, “The Pedersen Kid.”
I want to wish you all a wonderful holiday season and a very happy 2015.