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Fourteen books I'll remember having read in 2014

December 23, 2014

Because of work and grad. school, my best of lists are either incomplete or a few years behind, but the following are some of the books I'll remember having read in the calendar year of 2014, even if they were published a year to decades ago:


Image courtesy of The Omnivore.


& Sons by David Gilbert (2013)

I read Gilbert's second novel towards the end of the summer, which was an appropriate time for doing so because in many ways this novel is about youth and talent and places fading. The reclusive novelist on which the novel centers its attentions, A. N. Dyer, is at the end of his epoch, as is the state of the novel, as is the state of New York City, as is the century in which Dyer garnered his mythic fame. Is the novel perfect? No. But, to be honest, what book is? James Wood of The New Yorker critiques the novel as too long and perhaps too contrived, but I'm not sure I agree. These criticisms feel more like superficial nitpickings of a superb writer's talents. When I finished the book, I felt moved and noted that if I ever feel writer's block, then I can always turn to a page of Gilbert's, type a sentence of his, and let the rest come. In short, the words--and what else is a book--are both warm and inspiring.

The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert (2014)

This nonfiction text tells the story not only of our species but the planet on which we live in a series of chapters that could each stand alone as an independent essay. I wrote about this book earlier in the year, and my feelings towards it have not changed. In fact, I look forward to reading it again sometime.

Painted Cities by Alexai Galaviz Budziszewski (2014)

All of these short stories take place in Chicago, and while they are specific to the Windy City, many of them feel like they could have been breathed into being by the urban souls of Anywhere, USA. Of particular interest to me were the ways in which the characters so often re-imagined the glass and concrete of the city into a neighborhood of fleeting dreams.

Arabian Nights and Days by Naguib Mahfouz (1979)

This 1995 translation of the Egyptian novelist's 1979 text is worth reading whether one loves fairy tales, the bastardized 1,001 Nights, Disney's Aladdin, or any story in which more than one telling arrives closer to the truth. The structure of the novel is more web than plot. The conclusion is also more meditative therefore than a moment chasing closure. The result is something to think about, and I believe the reading of this book more than any of the others mentioned here helped me the most in finishing my own novel.

According to Pearlman, just a bunch of fuckers playing basketball.
Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s by Jeff Pearlman (2014)

This book could've been titled Fuckin' Showtime: Magic Fuckin' Johnson, a Fuckin' Tall Recluse, a Fuckin' Egomaniac of a Coach, Spencer Haywood, a Lot of Fuckin' Coke, a Bunch of Easy Women, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 19-fuckin'-80s. Seriously, that's how it was written.

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer (2014)

I wrote about this a little while ago. Parts of it are still creepy to think about, like The Crawler. The Crawler is creepy.

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride (2013)

I've always wanted to write an adaptation of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain from the perspective of Jim; James McBride made me think such a thing's already been done. I mention this because the literary tradition of the South that McBride adapts here matters as much to the text as the American history he reinvigorates with fresh voices and perspectives.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013)

It would be easy to boil all the race relations and feelings of Black Otherness in America to the experiences of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, but to do so, while revealing, would still be a lie. Adichie's novel needs to be read because it explodes the daily ways in which American life reifies race and its representations. Deaths at the hands of police brutality, never-ending protests, shallow news coverage, and inexplicable violence in the name of said protests are difficult and trying events, but they are in no way the entire shape and substance of what a thorough discourse on race relations in the world would look like. Adichie's novel is something to read in order to understand the scope.

Also, it's not a bad love story either. I wrote earlier about the novel here.

The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer (2013)

I won't link to the page again, but this is another book I've mentioned before in passing. I've included it again here because almost every other piece of contemporary nonfiction I've read since has echoed the ideas and sentiments of Packer's text, only none of those works articulates these notions quite as thoroughly as Packer does. To try and understand the last thirty to forty years, this is as a good a place as any to start.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion (1968)

I've taught several of the essays included in this collection of essays, but I've never read them as part of a greater whole. It's striking that in a collection aimed at explaining the atomization of America in the 1960s Didion constructs a collection held together by fraying visions of California, barking dogs, fading movie stars, and vast deserts. Her deftness of tone is also incredible; how her writing is a candle that both burns and illuminates her subjects. Forget Mad Men: the first section of this collection, titled "Life Styles in the Golden Land", does more to explain the miracles and disasters of all the world's Don Drapers ever could.

The New Mind of the South by Tracy Thompson (2013)

Again, I wrote about this book in the same post where I first spoke on Kolbert and Packer's texts. Moreover, I can't think of another book that spoken to such extent on the times and forces that shaped my formative years in Athens, Georgia and Fredericksburg, Virginia. This and Packer's Unwinding are the pages of grandfather's southern Virginia tobacco farm eroding in the summer rains and autumn winds. So much has changed. So much is the same. A really good read for anyone born of the South, raised in the South, escaping the South, or looking to return.

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain (2012)

I'm not sure about the novel in its entirety, but I think any critique is me doing my best impression of James Wood (see above) and simply nitpicking. The novel isn't perfect, and yet Fountain's ear for soldiers' voices just might be. I have not served in the military, but I have friends who have been to both Iraq and Afghanistan. I have also met their friends and brothers in arms. I am no expert at war and the conversations of those who have experienced it, but when reading Fountain's novel and the thoughts of its protagonist Billy Lynn, I felt like I was once again at a bar or a wedding or a backyard football game with those friends and their friends who have been to war. Fountain's plot may be an act of contrivance, but the voices in this book are frighteningly authentic and that is why I will remember it.

The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media by Walter Benjamin (2008)

This text is the one grad. school reading I'm permitting myself to include here (mostly because who wants to read Cultural Studies graduate readings other than Cultural Studies graduate students). Anyway, theoretical works often risk seeming impractical, but I feel I've written the words, SEE BENJAMIN, in almost everything I've read since. So, yeah, there's that.

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy (1992)

Read it for Cormac's words:

"That night he dreamt of horses in a field on a high plain where the spring rains had brought up the grass and the wildflowers out of the ground and the flowers ran all blue and yellow far as the eye could see and in the dream he was among the horses running and in the dream he himself could run with the horses and they coursed the young mares and fillies over the plain where their rich bay and their rich chestnut colors shone in the sun and the young colts ran with their dams and trampled down the flowers in a haze of pollen that hung in the sun like powdered gold and they ran he and the horses out along the high mesas where the ground resounded under their running hooves and they flowed and changed and ran and their manes and tails blew off of them like spume and there was nothing else at all in that high world and they moved all of them in a resonance that was like a music among them and they were none of them afraid neither horse nor colt nor mare and they ran in that resonance which is the world itself and which cannot be spoken but only praised.” 

Yep. Merry Christmas!

Bryan Harvey can be followed on Twitter @LawnChairBoys.

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