Monday, January 12, 2015

Favorite Books of 2014

Wait! Don’t go! I’m not quite done reviewing the year in pop culture! Back at the beginning of 2014, I thought I’d try compiling a list of my favorite books. Turned out to be an ever-changing project, because I read a crapload of books. And the list must be limited or it just becomes TL;DR. Ironically. If it’s not obvious, these are all books I read for the first time in 2014, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they were released in 2014. In before the person who says, “Heeyyyyy, Carrie isn’t new!” Yeah, see, that sort of casual idiocy is why we need more people reading books.



8. Cooked by Michael Pollan
Although I don’t agree with Michael “Omnivore’s Dilemma” Pollan as much as I used to, he’s still a wonderful scribe of all things food-related, and my mouth watered for his latest. With Cooked, he zeroes in on the titular ritual, so simple, yet largely abandoned by Americans in an age of fast food and supermarket deli counters and entire frozen meals in boxes. He argues that cooking is not only nutritionally superior but also socially and familially important. But he’s no armchair scholar; he goes out and gets his hands dirty, greasy, saucy, spicy, and brothy! The book is broken down by the four cardinal elements: Fire (smoking, barbecuing), Water (boiling, stewing, braising), Air (baking), and Earth (fermentation). Each provides a glimpse into a fascinating food culture, from the zealous rivalries of Southern barbecue pits to the humble nun whose homemade, FDA-unapproved cheese is more antiviral than most drugstores. I learned a ton, and was inspired to try more things in my own kitchen, which is exactly what Pollan is hoping for. He knows how cooking soothes the soul.

7. Carrie by Stephen King
Talk about a nice surprise! By now, everyone knows the entire freaking plot of Carrie: homely schoolgirl gets horribly bullied, is psychic, murders everyone at the prom. The movie versions have their merits, to be sure, but King’s venerable novel crackles and zings with storytelling brio. What I didn’t realize was that it’s a “found novel,” composed partly of interviews and testimonials from the shell-shocked survivors. None of the film, TV, or stage Carries have unleashed a swath of rabid destruction as apocalyptic as in the book. The entire town feels Carrie’s wrath, and it not only satisfies a horror junkie’s thirst for carnage, it also dives deeper into Carrie’s tortured soul and into themes of motherhood and feminine mystique. It’s a cry of despair against misogyny that is still VERY relevant in the year that gave us Elliot Rodger and #Gamergate. Like all artists, Stephen King looks back on his early work and finds it juvenile and unpolished. But I thought Carrie kicked ass, it’s in no way dated, and I guess now I should be kinder to my own teenage scribblings...

6. Reamde by Neal Stephenson
It’s not easy to describe a Neal Stephenson book, as it tends to transcend genre, stir in history, philosophy, and magical realism, and be the size of a minivan. He quenches my fetish for really long-ass novels, and now he’s proven he can even make an action thriller seam highbrow. I could try and explain the plot of Reamde, detailing via flowcharts how a Chinese computer virus infects a fantasy MMORPG and somehow leads to Russian mafioso, Islamic terrorists, and hapless programming nerds chasing one another across the globe. I could, but you probably already know if you want to read this or not. Actually, even if you think you don’t, you should. Stephenson’s writing style is thrilling, high-minded, and never takes itself too seriously. His large cast of characters are either lovable or love-to-hateable, and since you never know where his story will go next, who will be chasing whom and why, you’ll be surprised how fast 1,056 pages bolt by. Let this be the book that cures your fear of book length.

5. The Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero
I didn’t see the innovation of this novel coming, and that’s the whole point. Edgar Cantero’s insidious debut finds a wry European chap (we never learn his name or nationality) learning he’s inherited a huge old Gothic mansion in Virginia from a suicidal relative. He moves in, along with his...friend? Lover? Bodyguard?...a mute teenage Irish girl with punk stylings. The mansion is haunted and its previous owners were part of a creepy secret society, blah de blah, soooooo predictable. But Cantero has all manner of crazy shit in store, and the novel’s a Rubik’s cube. Like Carrie, it’s a “found novel,” and its diary entries, audio logs, schematics, numerical cyphers, and dream transcripts mislead the reader while always pointing toward the truth. Obviously I’m not gonna spoil the places this book goes, but it’s admirable how even the red herrings are important, how the ambiguity about the main characters and their motivations pays off. You have to pay close attention while reading it, but the reward is how every narrative puzzle piece snaps together by the end. I’m seeing quite the authorial career for Mr. Cantero!

4. Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
In May of 1996, eight people died in a storm on Mount Everest, during what was supposed to be a straightforward climb. Two were legendary alpine guides. Today, Everest is a human traffic jam; every year, hundreds of tourists jostle for the summit. And that is why Into Thin Air is the scariest thing I read in 2014. Nearly two decades later, it howls a warning. Plenty has been written about the ’96 Everest disaster. It’s been picked down to the scraps. What mistakes were made? How could such trustworthy guides go astray and get themselves and their clients killed? Jon Krakauer doesn’t know any more than we do, but unlike us, he was there. What makes Into Thin Air stand out is not only Krakauer’s terse, haunted writing style, but the personal ordeal that has raised questions about his own behavior. He wasn’t a hero -- he slept while others were out saving lives, and his confusion during the storm may have contributed to the death of a friend. But can any of us say we would’ve done better? Krakauer’s shock and guilt lend the narrative a timeless urgency and remind us that even the “survivors” were scarred by the mountain. And it’s going to happen again.

3. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
I’m always super skeptical of “traditional” fantasy novels. Tolkien laid the groundwork, and so many authors are content to tread the same path, usually with lame cosmetic changes (“My Elves are actually called ‘Dyrnyrians’ and they have antlers!”) and boring, stuffy prose. Skeptically, I went into The Name of the Wind, and imagine my delight to discover that Patrick Rothfuss hates the same fantasy clichés as I do, and mops the floor with them! His organic world unfolds in the telling; like George R.R. Martin, he uses supernatural elements as seasoning rather than the main course. The best conceit in his narrative is that the hero, a legendary warrior/minstrel/mage named Kvothe, already did all his heroic deeds, is now cozily retired and running a backwoods inn, and reluctantly spills his life story to a traveling scholar. Kvothe’s tale moves at a sedate pace, and much of it is a flashback to a magic academy that’d send most Hogwarts students home in tears after the third day. There’s plenty more to come -- this is the first in a trilogy -- and it’s looking like Kvothe’s journey, both past and future, will rival that of the best Frodo Bagginses and Arya Starks. Best of all, this feels like a real world, full of real people doing real things. It inspires me to write more and makes me hopeful for the future of the fantasy genre.

2. The Fault In Our Stars by John Green
So much for cynicism. I read The Fault In Our Stars out loud to myself, and there were moments when I was crying too hard to get the words out. Because my father had leukemia when I was born (he survived), and because, when he was very sick, he used laughter as a sword and shield. And so does John Green, and so do the young heroes of his famous, beloved novel. You’ve heard about it, of course. You know about the (perfectly decent) film adaptation and the fan culture. I assure you, The Fault In Our Stars deserves its teeming minions like Twilight never will. The doomed, defiant love between the cancer-stricken Hazel Grace Lancaster and guy-of-her-dreams Augustus Waters provides all the tearful meltdowns teen girls crave, but it’s also funny, sarcastic, and brutally honest. Yes, cancer support groups are bullshit. No, your illness won’t magically go away, and life isn’t fair, and that author you admire is not going to become your new best buddy. But if you stop waiting for a fairy tale ending and start living life, as no one else can live it for you, you will find happiness. For all its tragedy, The Fault In Our Stars is a novel about joy. And it speaks to any reader of any age. Okay?

1. Night Film by Marisha Pessl
Do I offend, by placing The Fault In Our Stars behind a lurid thriller about murder and horror films? Aww, you know Hazel and Augustus would find it hilarious. Night Film dazzled me with its implications. It stars a journalist who fell from grace after his libelous attack on a Dario Argento-esque cult horror director. Now the director’s daughter/leading lady is dead under creepy circumstances, and our hero, against his instincts, is drawn back into the dark, oozing world of underground filmmaking and those who obsess over it. The ghastly myths of the films begin to infect the waking world. Night Film seethes with unease, with the sense that something is lurking out of frame. It shares traits with other books on this list -- a found footage format, ambiguous heroes, an injection of the supernatural into the mundane -- but it stood above them all in my mind. People have complained about this book. It’s all smoke and mirrors, they say. It is defeated by its own lack of answers. Hah. You want a clear-cut narrative where everything is as it seems, go read Winnie the Pooh. Go be safe. I like to be teased. I like to be made to form my own theories about what’s going on. Night Film offers such wicked games, right up until its wide-open ending. I walked away unsettled and satisfied and a bit giddy. And not many novels can do all that.

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