Posts from December 2014
December 16th, 2014
As I’ve mentioned a couple of times along the course of our epic journey, I read more new books in 2014 than in any previous year of my life, and that preponderance re-shaped the very topography of my reading itself. The rough balanced that had held for many, many years, a more-or-less equality between new books and old books (except for travel years, when old books tended to rule the roost)(unless I was staying someplace in proximity to good used bookstores – as was true, for instance, in the great multifarity that was old Austin, or the beautiful pre-gentrication bohemia that was Hermosa Beach) – that balance has shifted drastically in the last few years. I now read almost 90% new books – the endless bounty of the world’s publishing houses (and the ever-growing ranks of self-publishing), rather than the endless bounty of the Brattle Bookshop, as it were. This may very well alter the tone of Stevereads, which is, after all, the autobiography of my reading – but I’ll let the New Year sort that out.
In the meantime, now that our revels here are ended for 2014, I want to pause and thank you all, newcomers and long-time readers alike for being a part of Stevereads. It’s the time of my life writing the book-commentary that is Stevereads, and your emails (always welcome! email@example.com) and active reading bring me a joy that hasn’t dimmed in the eight years I’ve been back in the book-chat world. So thank you all again, and Happy New Year.
December 15th, 2014
This is a tricky category, of course; it wanders over its nearest borders with a good deal of recklessness. Some of this year’s top Nonfiction picks might just as easily qualify as history, for example some species of sociology, or even biography, but against its oddness I every year lay its unfailing ability to get under my skin, to move me. That quality is rare, and this kind of book is for some odd reason, the most likely to possess it (hence its place of honor here at the end of our Stevereads festivities). These tend to be sui generis books, and I think that accounts for the narrative snap so many of their more straightforward genre cousins so often lack. In quest of that extra little charge, I read all kinds of general nonfiction every year; here are the best of the best from 2014:
- The Novel: A Biography by Michael Schmidt (the Belknap Press) – For the book that represents the biggest single amount of sheer fun in 2014, Schmidt’s wins by a country mile. His hyperenergetic tour of all prose has something happily quotable on almost every single one of its 1200 pages. This is one of those books every book-lover should read. You can read my review here
- Inferno: An Anatomy of American Punishment by Robert Ferguson (Harvard University Press) – There’s no bleaker or more discouraging book on any of my 2014 lists than this study by Robert Ferguson about the almost unbelievable iniquities of the American prison system, and there are few that are more eloquently written. You can read my review here
- The Naked Future: What Happens in a World That Anticipates Your Every Move? By Patrick Tucker (Current) – Tucker’s broad-range look at the always-increasing capabilities of apps and computer programs to shape predictions about their human users is incredibly lively reading, and it’s incredibly informative, but the thing about it I liked the most was its optimism: Tucker insists on seeing the bright side of all these coming technologies – and he’s very convincing.
- The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014 by Carlotta Gall (Houghton Mifflin Hardcover) – This lean, intensely kinetic book is the outcome of Gall’s wide-ranging and thoroughly brave reporting on the ground in Afghanistan and Pakistan for over a decade, and it’s an amazing, at times harrowing gallery of set-pieces and personality-portraits, all informed by Gall’s signature combination of tough-mindedness and tender-heartedness.
- Reading the Grapes of Wrath by Susan Shillinglaw (Penguin Books) – Sometimes, great things come in small packages (just as sometimes wretched novels come in huge packages, but that’s a rant for another time), and in 2014 that was nowhere better demonstrated than with this brilliant, passionate little book Shillinglaw’s written about The Grapes of Wrath. No matter where you stand on Steinbeck’s fiction – whether your despise it or only hate it – you’ll love this book. You can read my review here
- Capital: The Eruption of Delhi by Rana Dasgupta (The Penguin Press) – The vast, teeming, thoroughly disreputable and irresistibly alive city of Delhi is captured beautifully in Dasgupta’s prose; his keenly-trained observer’s eye shifts from the bizarre to the pathetic to the vaguely heroic with ease. Delhi’s future is as uncertain as that of every other megalopolis in the fragmenting, frying, flooding new century, but Dasgupta’s book is a loving snapshot of its present.
- Storm Surge: Hurricane Sandy, Our Changing Climate, and Extreme Weather of the Past and Future by Adam Sobel (Harper) & Superstorm: Nine Days Inside Hurricane Sandy by Kathryn Miles (Penguin) – It’s the slimmest but sometimes most reliable silver lining of any major ‘act of God’ natural disaster: first-rate book-length works of reporting. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, US publishing has so far seen two superb examples, both rich in narrative and personal detail, both crystal-clear on the science of storm cells and the devastation wrought by this one. I whole-heartedly recommend both books.
- Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity by Prue Shaw (Liveright) – This luminous book – from one of our greatest living Dante scholars – gives readers a wonderful (albeit tantalizing) taste of what it might be like to be a student in one of Prue Shaw’s classes. With the ease of total mastery, she tours the world of Dante – his work, his history, his philosophy – and it’s all done with such cheerul confidence that this most forbidding of medieval writers suddenly seems to open like a blossom. The paperback should go to every single person thinking of reading Dante – or re-reading him.
- Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast (Bloomsbury) – When I first saw Roz Chast’s actual four-page cartoon by this title in the New Yorker, I was floored; as bittersweet and worldly-wise as her illustrations always are, nothing in them had prepared me for that spot-on and utterly unsentimental precis of having aging parents. The book that followed is equally impressive, both funny and unsparing, happy and sad by equal, amazing turns. Of all the books on my lists this time around, this one stands the greatest chance of making you cry and laugh in the same sitting.
- The Last Pirate: A Father, His Son, and the Golden Age of Marijuana by Tony Dokoupil (Doubleday) – To put it midly, everything about Dokoupil’s debut seemed calculated to disenchant me; father-son emotoinal dramas have tended to weary me since Edmund Gosse (my own Irish forefathers having drained that particular bog dry three-quarters of a century ago now); the romanticization of drug-dealing that’s hinted at in the book’s subtitle vaguely irritated me (the current U.S. sweep to legalize yet another addictive carcinogen – let alone the way its partisans tend to characterize it as healthy – has left me, as it were, fuming); and of course there’s the looming threat of the memnoir, a “personal recollection” that’s quite literally too good to be true. But Dokoupil knew better than his reader (this one, anyway): not only is his book gorgeously, electrically written – this, the Best Nonfiction Book of 2014, is the arrival on the publishing scene of a major new voice – but it’s also heartbreaking and stunningly wise.
December 14th, 2014
This year’s list of the worst malefactors in the Republic of Letters in 2014 could really have been boiled down to one entrant (which will become evident, and which all of you should be heartily ashamed of making so popular), and that entrant perfectly typifies exactly the same kind of cold-eyed arrogance that characterized the worst fiction of the year as well – the reek coming off these pieces of crap has the same aroma: reflex, laziness, and, most of all, an insufferable sense of entitlement. Instead of books we have product, and once it’s been manufactured by cheap labor, it then has to be marketed and hyped – in which process, my own shabby profession, book reviewing, now reliably features to an absolutely disgraceful degree. In fact, even talking about these things as books almost seems fraudulent … if only the greater fraud weren’t clearly being perpetrated on unsuspecting book-buyers everywhere. For once, this Stevereads list appears early enough before the book-buying holidays to function as a warning instead of merely a ‘what-were-you-thinking’ castigation. And so, with that in mind, here are the worst of the worst: the Worst Nonfiction Books of 2014:
10. The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History by Boris Johnson (Riverhead) – The boorish, opportunistic, popularity-pandering Mayor of London here slaps his name on a string of Wiki-factoids and bald lies revolving around the boorish, opportunistic, popularity-pandering WWII Prime Minister and his bulldog tenacity, adding yet another and one of the most nakedly needy bumper-stickers to the Churchill pile.
9. Instinct: The Power to Unleash Your Inborn Drive by TD Jakes (FaithWords) – It’s harder and harder with every one of this fraud’s tawdry little books to understand how anybody can take him seriously, as an honorable or interesting person, much less a “man of God” – and yet the ranks of his followers swell with every passing year. This latest thing purports to show you the way to “achieve ultimate success,” which couldn’t any clearer be huge amounts of money if there were piles of the stuff on the cover. Jesus Himself would be tempted to shin-kick this guy.
8. Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief by James McPherson (Penguin Press) & Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee by Michael Korda (Harper) – These two slightly sloppy and necessarily blinkered books – by two historians who ought to have known better – aren’t the only examples of retrospective whitewashing of appalling historical figures on our list this time around, nor are they the worst examples of it, but they’re plenty bad enough, celebrating the heroism of two of the worst traitors in American history … while at the same time contributing virtually nothing new or interesting to the study of their life and times.
7. The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan by Rick Perlstein (Simon & Schuster) – This big follow-up to Perlstein’s Nixonland has a crackerjack subject: the unlikely, alarming, and deeply inexplicable political rise of Ronald Reagan. But although Perlstein gives the subject a generous amount of space, he also gives it a generous amount of massaging; if you follow the veritable blizzard of notes and citations back to any of Perlstein’s primary sources, you’ll find him spinning and stage-managing the facts in such a persistent way as to make the whole thing irritatingly untrustworthy. You can read my full review here.
6. The Nixon Defense by John Dean (Viking), World Order by Kissinger (Penguin Press), & The Greatest Comeback: How Richard Nixon Rose from Defeat to Create the New Majority by Pat Buchanan (Crown Forum) – As I’ve learned in spending a year studying the career of British historian David Irving, some of the truly evil creatures of mankind’s history are perfectly capable of mesmerizing the biddable and the deeply flawed even long after they themselves have died. Even though Hitler died when Irving was still a small child, Irving as a full-grown man fell under the Fuhrer’s dark spell as surely as if he’d been standing in the crowd at a Nuremberg speech, and that same process was very much at work in 2014’s book world, as can be seen in this unholy trinity of books still under the shadow of Richard Nixon: the oily John Dean’s bizarre ongoing acrobat-act of both trying to exonerate himself from all blame for Watergate and, somehow, trying to exonerate also the Boss he betrayed; the odious former Nixon Wormtongue Henry Kissinger, who in his latest book has the gall to decry the lack of trust and consistency in international relations, when he himself did more to destroy those things in world politics than any other person in the 20th Century, and the thuggish former Nixon flunky Pat Buchanan, who wants more than anything to convince you all what a grand guy the Boss could be, if you caught him at just the right moment. I was jaw-dropped aghast reading through each one of these horrifying zombie-jobs, and I’m seriously hoping this trio represents the last gasp of trying to rehabilitate one of the foremost occupants of Hell.
5. The Price of Silence by William Cohan (Scribner) – The more I thought about Cohan’s long re-hash of the notorious rape scandal that engulfed the Duke Lacrosse Team in 2006, the angrier and sadder it made me, and re-reading it prior to drawing up these year-end lists actively infuriated me. Cohan is a fantastic writer, but that just makes things worse: what on Earth is he doing here, writing a breathless what-really-happened account of an incident that was thoroughly destroyed in court? What word by ignoble attaches to an attempt to re-grow some credibility for lying ‘victim’ and re-accuse three young men who, though undoubtedly A-holes, were also indisputably innocent? The book lies there, like a stain on the carpet. You can read my full review here
4. Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay (Harper) & Men Explain Things To Me by Rebecca Solnit (Haymarket Books) – If the general ruck of 20-something coffee shop hipsters are nowadays almost spectacularly ignorant of all culture, art, literature, politics, and history that doesn’t directly affect their own lives or Twitter followings, how much worse must such a situation be for the young women among their number, so many of whom have imbibed a culture in which it’s perfectly acceptable not only to know nothing but to proudly reject learning anything unless the source happens to be female? It’s a thoroughly closed circle of shrill ignorance, and in 2014 it was epitomized by these two books, Bad Feminist – in which Roxane Gay confuses talking with having something to say – and Men Explain Things to Me – in which Rebecca Solnit makes it clear that all men, simply by virtue of their genitals, are misogynistic condescending A-holes. It’s an ongoing intellectual embarrassment that actual intelligent feminism has spawned a modern offshoot so brainless and bigoted, so bereft of ideas or informed outrage, and so mired in grade-school prose, but we can always hope 2014 represented an all-time low-point.
3. Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion by Sam Harris (Simon & Schuster) – It isn’t just that as Harris grows older he grows more offputtingly abrasive, although that’s a factor in why Waking Up appears here. And it isn’t just that the book is in its essence a cringe, a crucial step back from the honest, godless precipice where Harris has spent all of his popular publishing career until now, although it’s certainly that, a strong feint to the idea of the warm, embracing arms of an invisible something just a bit beyond human experience. No, the main thing that lands this book on the list is that apart from its condescension and apart from its hypocrisy, it’s also abundantly bad: turgid, sloppy, gaseous, distractible – product, rather than any kind of important construction. If this is the state of New Atheism, the movement needs a new firebrand.
2. Capital by Thomas Piketty (The Belknap Press) – Like a few other culprits on our list this time around, Piketty’s bloated, nearly-unreadable crap-suzette ‘study’ of the fissile nature of capitalist societies wouldn’t have gained anywhere near the level of notoriety it did if it weren’t for the craven me-tooism of its reviewers. For two awful months (until, South Sea-style, the thing’s bubble burst under the pressure of its own absurdity), it was lovingly and lengthily reviewed in every literary journal in Christendom, and if professional reviewers were out of their depth and required actual economists to step in and write pieces pointing out Piketty’s errors, fair enough. But the only reason so many non-economist reviewers even attempted it in the first place was a plain, damning thing we’ll see again as we slouch toward our #1: simple in-crowd opportunism.
1. My Struggle by Karl Knausgaard (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) – Contenders come and go, of course, but there was never any real doubt that this grubby monstrosity would be the Stevereads Worst Book of the Year in the category of Nonfiction – taking all the boring volumes as one book, and more importantly, taking the whole noxious project as nonfiction rather than the fiction a uniform chorus of bandwagon-jumping book critics hailed it as all throughout 2014. Since half the people so obviously tracing-papered by its sloppy, lazy prose are suing the author’s publisher for slander and the other half are in therapy to deal with their entirely-natural feelings of betrayal, since walking tours are now conducted in the author’s tediously-recreated Norway and parts West, and since every store receipt and theater ticket stub can be called into evidence, this isn’t fiction any more than his cast-iron solipsism would make the author another Proust (oh wait – he was already called that by The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The London Times, The Los Angeles Times, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, Pope Francis, Henry Kissinger, Noam Chomsky, Lucille Ball, and former U.S. Presidents Ford, Reagan, and Lincoln). Although Knausgaard’s navel-staring is the loathsomely prominent choice as Worst Nonfiction Book of 2014 (among its many, many other sins, it manages to be even less interesting than its infamous namesake), surely a dishonorable mention must go to the legion of critics who were, until the mania passed, so proud of being able to name-drop which volume of “My Struggle” they were currently wading through. Seldom in recent memory has the Republic of Letters been so badly failed by its very own watchdogs, all of whom could surely see in 10 pages that this particular emperor had no clothes but not one of whom stood up and said it (or better yet, simply declined to give it page-space). When the Big Fraud of 2015 comes along, we’ll all have to hope for better.
December 13th, 2014
There are some years when the practitioners of fiction seem almost embarrassed by their profession – not because that profession still hasn’t turned its back on own charlatans, but rather because it sometimes seems like the reading public itself is increasingly turning its back on their profession in favor of pap. I’ve lost count of how many times in the last few years I’ve read some jaded op-ed or blog post lamenting the death of the novel, this time doomed not by TV or the Internet but by the rapid erosion of your average adult’s ability to pay attention to anything longer than a tweet or more complex than a YA novel. But if there’s some truth to that (I now know dozens of of adults who openly admit that all they read these days is fiction written for children – although even the bravest of them no longer try to justify this degradation to my face with the blasphemous follow-up of “I’ve read everything else …”), it certainly isn’t reflected in the Best Fiction of 2014! Each of these wildly separate novels has one thing in common with the others: confidence, not only in their own craft but in the architecture of fiction itself, as vast and elaborate as their builders can make it. Here are the best examples of that craft in 2014:
10. The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters (Riverhead) – Waters’ story of a staid mother and daughter in post-WWI London forced for economic reasons to take in a young married couple as boarders is, much like a handful of other choices on this list, deceptively quiet at its outset, a remarkable small-scale drama that Waters steadily complicates. This is the author’s most elegant and confident work – a joy of subversion.
9. The Emperor Waltz by Philip Hensher (Fourth Estate) – There are a couple of examples on our list this time around that display not just confidence but elaborate confidence, and Hensher’s is the first of them, a great sprawling thing dramatizing the subtleties of ostracization in, I think I counted, five different time periods (and in many soft gradations inside each of those periods) and all of it coming together in the end in a great symphonic superstructure exceeding anything Hensher’s ever done.
8. To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris (Little, Brown) – I’ve been a fan of Ferris’s work almost since the moment when I stopped being an enemy of it. His low-hanging-fruit workplace-novel debut, Then We Came to the End, filled me with the same combination of ennui and contempt that I’ve felt in bookstore break rooms over the decades, hearing co-workers gripe and whine. But I thought his second novel, The Unnamed, was incredibly strong, a masterpiece of modern personal dislocation. That dislocation them certainly continues in To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, a winningly garrulous story of a hapless dentist whose life is gradually and mysteriously appropriated online.
7. The May Bride by Suzannah Dunn (Pegasus) – It’s certainly a stunning act of authorial confidence to write a Tudor-era novel with hardly a Tudor to be found anywhere in it, but Dunn not only does this but does it magnificently, telling the captivating, raw human story of a strong-willed young woman who marries into the rising Seymour clan and eventually finds herself at the heart of a wrenching scandal. You can read my full review here
6. Tigerman by Nick Harkaway (Knopf) – Sergeant Lester Ferris finds himself on the dilapidated cut-adrift former colonial possession of Mancreu in Harkaway’s sharp and unforgettable novel about heroism and life-saving. Lester’s adrift himself when he encounters Harkaway’s most hilarious creation to date, a young boy so smart and pop culture-saturated that he’s effectively superimposed his own fantasy world over the rotting hulk of Mancreu. The chemistry Harkaway creates between these two quickly spreads to the whole of this utterly marvelous book.
5. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (Scribner) – The threat of cliches that hovers around the premise of Doerr’s book – a blind French young woman and a technically-oriented German young man, tossed together by the Second World War – very nearly disinclined me to read it. I was drawn in by the lyricism of Doerr’s prose, and the complexity of what Doerr was doing – the confidence of it all, again – kept me eagerly reading his unabashedly, gloriously conservative novel to the end.
4. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (Random House) – As with Philip Hensher’s book, so too here: hyper-abundant narrative confidence. Mitchell returns to the storytelling profusion that won him such renown with Cloud Atlas, joyously elaborating an intentionally disjointed story of two rival sects of immortals and the young woman who finds herself caught between them and then gradually, impeccably drawing the whole mass of it to a precisely-controlled and masterful conclusion.
3. Lila by Marilynne Robinson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) – We turn from sprawling symphony to intimate sonata in Robinson’s stunningly moving novel anchored in small-town Iowa and explicating the torturous, groping love between hapless preacher John Ames and his much-younger and much-wilder wife Lila. Robinson has been on the good and bad sides of these Stevereads lists, but this book is a calm and questing demonstration of genius.
2. Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut (Europa Editions) – It would be too easy to describe Galgut’s beautiful fictionalization of the years E. M. Forster spent in India as “Forsterian” (I know this because roughly 200 book-reviewers unhesitatingly did just that), and it would sell the book short, too. Actually, our author is here taking several narrative risks all his own – almost always with praiseworthy results.You can read my full review – and note how much my appreciation grew with this re-reading – here
1. An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine (Grove Press) – Alameddine’s novel is a miracle of understatement. Its heroine Aaliyah, is thoroughly bookish in a way every one of Alameddine’s bookish readers will instantly recognize, and Alameddine steadfastly refuses to load her story with epiphanies or princes charming. The story is immeasurably stronger for this restraint, and the book lingers a long time in the memory, mainly because we feel that we know Aaliyah and have known her all our lives. You can read my full review of this, the Best Novel of 2014, here.
December 12th, 2014
It’s always a lurking danger when dealing with novels, novelists being by nature the vilest narcissists this side of book reviewers, but this year it runs the table in the “Worst Fiction” department: arrogance. Specifically, the belief on the author’s part that they, and not their stories, are the proper object of their readers’ attention. Ordinarily, it’s a vice endemic to memoirs (or the Stevereads-dreaded memnoir, in which the author rather ostentatiously lies about things they’re at that moment attesting to be true). But the blurring of categories between fiction and memoir – seen in the baleful rise of the “my-life-in-literature” hybrid known as the “shelfie” – has allowed a certain sinister seepage into the precincts of fiction, and along with it the aforementioned arrogance that idiot-memoirists employ as a stock-in-trade. Certainly this explains a great many of the crappy novels on our list today: “I sat down to write this,” we hear our authors say, “True, I didn’t bother to shape the plot or craft the dialogue – whatever – but it comes from me! Are you calling nine thousand Twitter followers wrong??” The result is an inversion that always bodes poorly for the Republic of Letters: fiction that’s more painful to read than it was to write. Here are the worst offenders of 2014:
10. California by Edan Lepucki (Little, Brown) – If there were a special Stevereads award for “Worst Example of Somebody Who Never Reads Science Fiction Half-Assedly Writing Science Fiction” (we could call it the Atwood Prize), this ridiculous bit of fluff would win it even in a fairly crowded field. Lepucki’s disjointed story of young couple navigating a post-apocalyptic America is even more thoroughly stuffed with genre cliches than Cormac McCarthy’s The Road – it’s a wonder there was room left for crappy prose.
9. Revival by Stephen King (Scribner) – The bedrock mystery of Stephen King – how the man could write fiction steadily for 40 years and never, even for a moment, get any good at it – gets no solution in this turgid, tangential, boring, self-referencing kinda-sorta “update” of the classic horror story “The Monkey’s Paw,” with plenty of soppy period sentimentality and King’s usual trite, leaden gear-work involving priests and losers doing stand-in for good and evil. Prime Atwood Prize stuff here, as always.
8. Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi (Riverhead) – Oyeyemi’s labored, boring novel, the story of a young woman named Boy who arrives in a small Massachusetts town in the 1950s, meets people with names like Arturo, Mia, Webster, Snow, and, eventually, her own daughter Bird, and encounters ham-fistedly-rendered versions of benighted racism at the hands of characters who might as well have been named Snarkly, Bad-Baddy, and Smog in this limp little storyboard for a bad Hallmark movie.
7. Every Day is for the Thief by Teju Cole (Random House) – Cole’s latest ghastly-dull novel harps at yet more length on the slang and depradations of postcolonial Africa, as his main character returns to Nigeria after a lengthy stay in bloated old racist America, only to encounter a long chestnut-string of expat cliches in such rapid order that the whole thing might have been a kind of prose version of a Wole Soyinka one-act stage lampoon – except there’s no good humor here, no intelligence, and no style. If the reader didn’t know that Cole himself was Nigerian, the book would evaporate entirely.
6. Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty (Putnam) – The sheer popularity of this disasterously cliched and lazy novel about three female friends in Australia raising kids and dealing with ‘family stuff’ is appalling enough even when seen at a distance; when you actually hunker down to read it, things get ever so much worse. The writing is utterly lifeless, the five main characters are shrill and flat, and the two big plotlines are wrapped up so unimaginatively that the book’s last 50 pages feel like some kind of elaborate prank.
5. Young God by Katherine Faw Morris (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) – Telegraphic chapters, tweet-long paragraphs, and a young author who looks like the ‘reality-TV’ show cast member you’re supposed to love to hate – there’s everything here to despise in a debut novel except length. You can read my full review here.
4. Landline by Rainbow Rowell (St. Martin’s) – The burning question of whether or not popular children’s book author Rainbow Rowell could follow in J. K. Rowling’s footsteps and make a successful move to adult fiction (Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy being, against all odds, quite good) isn’t answered by the steaming pile of poop that is Landline; or rather, it’s answered in the worst way possible: for a large section of the reading populace, this is adult fiction now.
3. Friendship by Emily Gould (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) – Our baleful theme of arrogance could scarcely be better exemplified than by this bloated status update masquerading as a novel: you’re quite simply not supposed to pick up this book without first knowing who Emily Gould is – and that a priori justification is openly meant to justify this entire little vanity exercise.
2. On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee (Riverhead) – The last of our Atwood Prize-winners, Lee’s bumbling, self-contradictory botch of a novel is exactly the kind of dystopian novel a writer knowing nothing and caring nothing about genre fiction (to say nothing of internally-consistent world-building) would produce if he wanted to generate some creaky ‘social commentary’ and net a rack of plaudits from book critics who, like him, wouldn’t go near real science fiction if their Starbucks Rewards cards depended on it.
1. You’re Not Much Use to Anyone by David Shapiro (New Harvest) – In a narcissism black hole singularity, the goddam author is on the book’s front cover.
December 11th, 2014
This, as long-time Stevereads readers (and my long-suffering friends) may know, is the nerve center of my reading, my favorite of the genres in which I roam. More than historical fiction, which I’ve actually written (and whose self-published ranks I regularly patrol as the U.S. “Indie” Editor for the redoubtable Historical Novel Review), and more than natural history, which brings me such joy, and more even than history itself. As I’ve mentioned, I read more new books in 2014 than in any previous year of my life, and a whopping percentage of those were biographies – in fact, it’s quite possible that I read nearly every major mainstream biography published in 2014, and this despite an ominous trend that showed itself early and kept right on happening throughout the year: as even a glance at the list of winners will show, a great many of the subjects of these books were utterly dreadful people. So in 2014 I had the surreal experience of reading thousands of pages about people I would cross the street (or in some cases, the continent) to avoid. So 2014 will really stand out in my memory as the year the biographer’s art pulled more than its share of the weight! Here are the examples of that art from this year:
10. Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph by Jan Swafford (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) – Swafford’s monumental book on the second-greatest composer of all time can’t do much with Beethoven’s repellant personality or personal hygiene, but everything it can do with the rest, it does with vast learning and elegant prose. You can read my full review here.
9. Rebel Yell by S. C. Wynne (Scribner) – Confederate general and American traitor Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson is one of quite a few figures on this list I’d have thought no author could possibly make interesting, let alone sympathetic, for a stretch of several hundred pages, but Wynne somehow does just that. No student of the American Civil War can afford to miss this great book. You can read my full review here.
8. Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured by Kathryn Harrison (Doubleday) – You could fill a well-stocked room in a library with all the books and pamphlets that have been written about the Maid of Orleans (in fact, the venerable Boston Public Library used to have just such a space), so the odds against anybody writing a must-read new biography seemed impossibly long. But Harrison manages it. You can read my full review here.
7. Wilhelm II: Into the Abyss of War and Exile, 1900-1941 by John Rohl (Cambridge University Press) – This enormous conclusion to Rohl’s three-volume life of the Kaiser (translated by Sheila de Bellaigue and Roy Bridge) has as its core the part of the man’s life that changed history: his petulant escalation of various world crises helping to precipitate the First World War, and then his disastrous leadership of Germany during that war. And despite the book’s punishing physical dimensions (the egregiously-overpriced e-book is definitely the right option in this case), it’s endlessly involving to read.
6. The Literary Churchill by Jonathan Rose (Yale University Press) – The monsters just keep on coming in our 2014 biography list, but even in this case, the irritating tedium of the subject was entirely counteracted by the enormous narrative skill of the writer! Alongside everything else he was doing over the decades, Churchill wrote constantly for publication, and Rose sculpts a fascinating portrait out of all that deadline prose. You can read my full review here.
5. Bismarck: Sturm uber Europa by Ernst Engelberg (Siedler Verlag) – This one could technically have gone on the “Best Reprints” list, but Achim Engelberg put such extensive and loving care into shaping this wonderful single volume out of his late father’s magisterial two-volume biography of the Iron Chancellor that I wanted to included it here even though its content isn’t strictly new. The book is searchingly brilliant, and if some well-heeled American academic press ever undertakes an English-language translation, Engelberg’s masterpiece will get the wider readership it so thoroughly deserves.
4. Napoleon by Andrew Roberts (Viking) – Bonaparte has had over 50 biographies in the last 50 years alone, so it could reasonably be assumed there was nothing left to say about his rise to power, his reign of terror, his defeat and exile, his second rise to power, his second reign of terror, or his second defeat and exile. Roberts justifies his book on the basis of a newly-utilized trove of letters, but he needn’t have bothered: the only real justification for any book is the prose of its author, and in this case, Roberts produces an absolute winner. You can read my full review here.
3. Updike by Adam Begley (Harper) – Our monster-roundup, nearing completion, now advances far enough to include the milquetoast version that is lousy and forgotten 20th-Century novelist John Updike, the subject of this smart, sensitive, utterly fantastic biography by Adam Begley, who re-reads all of Updike’s novels even though they aren’t worth reading, re-lives all of Updike’s failed relationships even though not one single one of them reflects well on the “Rabbit, Regurgitated” author, and sifts through all of Updike’s whining, minatory correspondence. It’s a protracted, masterful examination, a hefty and elegant tombstone with which to bury forever a worthless career.
2. Stalin: Volume I: The Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928 by Stephen Kotkin (The Penguin Press) – Kotkin is with his loathsome, psychotic subject for the long haul – this enormous volume is rumored to be the first of a grueling three – and although it isn’t possible to say this first volume humanizes its famous subject (all Kotkin’s research only reinforces every other biography ever written about the man: Stalin was simply a rabid animal), it does a spectacular job of illuminating him.
1. Faisal I of Iraq by Ali Allawi (Yale University Press) – I didn’t quite have the heart to end my Best Biographies list with a monster, and thankfully, I didn’t have to: Ali Allawi’s definitive and beautifully written biography is the life of a hero (albeit one who wasn’t lucky enough to live in heroic times) rings with bravery and idealism. Allawi follows King Faisal through all the adventures of his life and transmutes it all into the Best Biography of 2014. You can read my full review here.
December 10th, 2014
It’s always when I read a lot of history (and I read more new history in 2014 than in any previous year of my life) that I wonder even more intensely than usual why anybody would ever read anything else. Here, after all, are the stories of mankind in all its unpredictable voracity, told by chroniclers who – the good ones anyway – have spent months and years away from their families, their friends, and their porn in order to root through archives and bring forth the tales of murder, war, peace, and heroism that the Roman historian Livy (no slouch at it himself) rightly characterized as the essential narratives of humanity. It’s true that fiction can show you other worlds, and that’s a miracle in itself. But history done well can show you your world, as it was and by easy extension always will be – and these (in addition to the Honor Roll titles already mentioned!) are the best examples of history done well in 2014:
10. The Fortunes of Africa: A 5000-Year History of Wealth, Greed, and Endeavor by Martin Meredith (Public Affairs) – The much-vexed continent of Africa has had its share of great accounts in print (including Thomas Pakenham’s The Scramble for Africa and of course John Reader’s magnificent Africa: The Biography of a Continent), but to the best of my knowledge, The Fortunes of Africa marks the first time two of those great accounts have been written by the same person. Meredith produced the intensely good The Fate of Africa back in 2011, and in this new comprehensive history, he outdoes even himself.
9. Give Me a Fast Ship: The Continental Navy and America’s Revolution at Sea by Tim McGrath (New American Library) – McGrath’s account of the puny, brand-new Continental Navy and its confrontation with the veritable fleet of British warships sent to crush the American rebellion is rippingly told from start to finish, as exciting as the best of the Aubrey-Maturin novels
8. The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century by Jurgen Osterhammel (Princeton University Press) – Osterhammel’s panoramic history of the ‘long’ 19th Century (translated by Patrick Camiller) shifts so effortlessly from broad-stroke social analysis to fine-grained personal profiles and back that despite being very long and very detailed, it’s genuinely compelling. You can read my full review here.
7. Christendom Destroyed: Europe 1517-1648 by Mark Greengrass (Viking) – The Penguin History of Europe continues with this magisterial volume detailing the history and surprisingly wide-ranging after-effects of the Protestant Reformation across all aspects of European society and beyond. Greengrass’s historical insights glitter on every page – as a work of Church history, the book could hardly be bettered.
6. The Early Morning of War by Edward G. Longacre (University of Oklahoma Press) – Longacre’s nuts-and-bolts history of the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861 is so spirited in its telling and so authoritative in its presentation that it takes its place immediately as a masterpiece of military history, as magnificent a portrait of its battle as Stephen Sears’s Landscape Turned Red (about Antietam) or Gettysburg: The Last Invasion by Allen Guelzo.
5. The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union by Serhii Plohky (Basic Books) – Plohky’s shrewd book about the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 is very strong on the history of the period (including quite a lot that will be new even to experts) and even stronger on the author’s witty and often subversive revisionism – a very droll, very Russian account of the U.S.S.R.’s sudden disintegration.
4. Islam and Nazi Germany’s War by David Motadel (The Belknap Press) – The surface implausibility of Motadel’s subject, the uneasy interactions between the Third Reich and the Muslim world, turns out to be remarkably fruitful in Motadel’s handling, revealing a great deal about the Muslim populations of almost a century ago, and revealing even more about the curious combination of ruthlessness and stupidity that was Nazi Germany. You can read my full review here.
3. Supreme City: How Jazz Age Manhattan Gave Birth to Modern America by Donald Miller (Simon and Schuster) – Miller’s sprawling, muscular history of Manhattan in the early years of the 20th Century bristles with oversized personalities – everybody from Babe Ruth to F. Scott Fitzgerald – and with huge amounts of the author’s fantastic writing. You can read my full review here
2. Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David by Lawrence Wright (Knopf) – This slim, packed narrative history of the 1978 Camp David conference at which U.S. President Jimmy Carter worked hard to broker a peace between Anwar Sadat’s Egypt and Menachem Begin’s Israel is so effortlessly readable that its meaty historical insights actually sneak up on you. You can read my full review here.
1. Hiroshima Nagasaki: The Real Story of the Atomic Bombings and Their Aftermath by Paul Ham (Thomas Dunne Books) – The history of the Second World War isn’t exactly short on horrors, but for its weird, terrifying combination of tragedy and science fiction, no incident in the war matches the detonation of atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Paul Ham’s book, the best work of history in 2014, captures that tragedy better than any other study of the subject. You can read my full review here.
December 9th, 2014
The genre of fiction in 2014 was too anemic to warrant an Honor Roll, but this wasn’t the case at all for other genres, many of which fielded works so strongly they readily overflowed the arbitrary 10-title limit of my ‘Best’ lists. In 2014, Honor Rolls were easily possible for four or five such genres, and I’m thinking the whole system needs an overhaul for 2015 (I never anticipated reading so many new books in one year – that fact alone might call for some new arrangement). But in the meantime, in an effort to stop the Honor Rolls from swamping the lists, I’ll combine History and Biography into one list of superb runners-up – the “best of the rest” as it were, for my two favorite genres:
10. John Wayne: The Life and Legend by Scott Eyman (Simon & Schuster) – Biographies of John Wayne just naturally lend themselves to schmaltz and goo, and the wonder of Eyman’s super-readable book is how little it indulges in such excesses. Instead, we get Wayne the man in all his contradictions – and some first-rate analysis of Wayne the actor, a phenomenon that tends to elude even seasoned critics.
9. Gandhi Before India by Ramachandra Guha (Knopf) – Another intensely readable book from Guha, whose 2007 India After Gandhi is a masterpiece of the historian’s art. This new book playfully inverts that earlier work’s title and gives us the best, most comprehensive, and most insightful look ever written of Gandhi in the decades before he became a charismatic and slightly insane national figurehead.
8. John Quincy Adams by Fred Kaplan (HarperCollins) – America’s sixth president (and his fascinating wife) got a very satisfying amount of attention from scholars and historians in 2014, and Kaplan’s book was the pick of the bunch for its research and its hugely engaging prose. It might get some serious competition on those scores from Phyllis Lee Levin’s forthcoming book on JQA, but for now, this is the book to beat on the subject of the smartest U.S. president of them all.
7. The Price of Fame by Sylvia Jukes Morris (Random House) – The second volume of Morris’s biography of playwright and diplomat Clare Booth Luce is a thoroughly remarkable achievement, extensively (some critics would have said ‘compulsively’) detailed and informedly sympathetic. You can read my full review here.
6. The Unknown Lloyd George by Travis L. Crosby (I. B. Tauris & Co.) – Crosby’s biography of the polarizing and fascinating Lloyd George is an instant high-water mark in studies of the man and his period. You can read my full review here
5. The Wars of the Roses by Dan Jones (Viking) – Jones follows up his fantastic volume on the Plantagenets with this unfailingly gripping narrative of the contest between York and Lancaster for the throne of England. You can read my full review here
4. The Devil’s Alliance: Hitler’s Pact with Stalin, 1939-1941 by Roger Moorhouse (Basic Books) – The Hitler-Stalin Pact, so often relegated to fairly cursory treatment in larger narratives of the Second World War, is here given center-stage dramatization by Moorhouse, whose 2010 book Berlin at War was so memorably gripping. The Devil’s Alliance is every bit as good as that earlier book; it’s surely the definitive work on the ultimate super-villain team-up.
3. The Pity of War by Miranda Seymour (Rowman & Littlefield) – Seymour’s enormously entertaining (and hugely detailed – the sheer amount of research here is impressive) book acts as a much-needed counterweight to the glut of World War One histories that appeared in 2014; it paints the much larger picture of just how incredibly interconnected England and Germany were in the decades preceding the outbreak of war in 1914. Even long-time students of WWI will learn a great deal from this wonderful book.
2. The Spanish Armada by Robert Hutchinson (Thomas Dunne Books) – This latest book from one of our best working popular historians focuses on Spain’s epic naval assault on England in 1588 but also skillfully weaves in the much broader story of the whole conflict. You can read my full review here.
1. Queen Anne: Patroness of Arts by James Anderson Winn (Oxford University Press) – Winn’s droll sub-title seems designed to snag the attention of period fans, since poor old Queen Anne cared not a farthing for the arts and infinitely preferred privy council meetings to playhouses (and indeed, very often treated the latter as if they were the former). But our author is cannier than that, and he pulls off an absolutely splendid biography of Anne just the same. You can read my full review here.
December 8th, 2014
As I’ve mentioned in previous years, the health of the debut fiction field is often an excellent gauge of the health of the whole book-scene (the vigor and inventiveness of reprints being another). Hardcover books are, after all, obscenely expensive, and a first-time author is a chance, a speculation – not something an increasingly timid readerate is willing to countenance, and hence something that runs any publisher a much greater risk than, say, David McCullough writing about the Wright Brothers. That publishers are still willing to take that chance – and that they’re still finding authors who warrant it – is surely a good sign. 2014 had a healthy number of debut novels, and although a whopping 70 percent of them were garbage, the rest had some genuine merit. Here are the best of the bunch:
- On Earth As It Is In Heaven by Davide Enia (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) – Enia’s powerful 2012 novel about a boy’s rise through the ranks of the sport of boxing in late-20th Century Palermo is finally available in a lean English-language translation by Antony Shugaar. This story of Davidu’s becoming a man is punctuated by some of the most riveting boxing sequences since Dennis Lehane’s The Given Day, and Enia gives his characters sweet moments of vulnerability as well.
- Black Lake by Johanna Lane (Little, Brown) – Lane’s story of the Campbell family’s awkward, partially doomed efforts to hold onto Dulough, its picturesque house on the Irish coast is elegantly understated in a way that debut fiction usually can’t even comprehend, let alone effect. Characters and landscapes are evoked in single lines of memorable beauty, and the book’s conclusions are convincingly bittersweet.
- Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson (Ecco) – “Bittersweet” is certainly the key tonal register in Henderson’s brilliant debut novel about extremely battered, extremely hopeful rural Montana social worker Peter Snow and his straining, imperfect attempts to help the people around him, especially one particular boy who’s been so coarsened by his barbaric family that he’s almost beyond reclamation. The almost painful purity of Henderson’s prose is incredibly memorable, and I’m hoping it presages a long, long career.
- The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel by Magdalena Zyzak (Henry Holt) – Zyzak sets her droll, often very funny shaggy-dog story in the fictional country of Scalvusia in 1939 as she follows a swineherd named Barnabas on his Don Quixote-style quest for the hand of a local beauty who seems beyond his reach. The story grows more and more absurd as it rambles along, but Zyzak has such an assured comic sense that it all works wonderfully.
- Us Conductors by Sean Michaels (Tin House) – Michaels’ amazingly confident debut historical novel tells the story of Lev Termen, the inventor of an electric musical instrument called the theremin, and Michaels follows Termen throughout the course of his career, from his years in Jazz era Manhattan to his troubled eventual return to his native Russia. On paper it seems less than promising, but Michaels fills his narrative with such energy and mordant insight that it all reads as grippingly as a gladiator novel.
- Waiting for the Electricity by Christina Nichol (Overlook) – The main character of Nichol’s utterly winning comic novel, Slims Achmed Makashvili, is an unapologetic optimist unbowed by the rampant crime and poverty and zany venality of his home in economically-collapsed post-Communist Georgia; Slims has a dream of making his way to America (including by importuning Senator Hillary Clinton in a series of hilarious letters), and although every single plot development in the novel is predictable, Nichol’s storytelling power carries it all off wonderfully.
- The Sixteenth of June by Maya Lang (Scribner) – The centrality of “Bloomsday” – or indeed of James Joyce in any capacity – really ought to torpedo my enjoyment of any book, but the x-factor will always be talent, and in this graceful, funny novel about one particular day in the life of a Philadelphia family, Lang deploys more than enough talent to win me over.
- In the Light of What We Know by Zia Halder Rahmen (Picador) – In Rahmen’s strong, grim debut, a London-based investment banker whose life is unravelling encounters – after an absence of many years – an old acquaintance of his, a troubled and problematic genius who now seems to have come unhinged completely. The meeting sparks a surprisingly big web of interconnected stories in which virtually the whole of the 20th century is served up in fractured, compelling scenes. It’s a complicated, amazing performance.
- High as Horse’s Bridles by Scott Cheshire (Henry Holt) – Cheshire opens his riveting debut with the figure of prodigy boy-preacher Josiah Laudermilk, and that set off warning bells for me, since contemporary fiction making hay out of cartoon-evangelism has grown inexpressibly tiresome. But this novel has higher sights and takes the reader to much more rewarding imaginative territory, especially when it comes to Josiah’s relationship with his father. It’s prickly, extremely thoughtful storytelling.
- Reckoning by Rusty Barnes (sunnyoutside) – Ordinarily, the single sub-genre of contemporary fiction I hate the most is hick-lit, in which iPad-loving Prius-driving central-AC-enjoying authors fetishize the poverty and allegedly concommitant realness of the Ozarks or west Texas or the Arkansas foothills. And since the locus classicus of this sub-genre is the dirt-poor communities that dot the hollers of Appalachia, you’d think no book set there would stand a chance of making any Stevereads list (at least, any of the good ones). And yet, the single best debut novel I read in 2014 is just such a book: in Reckoning, Rusty Barnes tells the story of what unfolds from the moment when 14-year-old Richard and his friends find a beaten and disoriented woman named Misty in a swimming-hole, but Reckoning does much more than that. With a sharp asperity, an utter lack of condescension, and best of all a downright poetic prose line, it captures not just a strange place but what it’s like both love it and hate it. It’s a genuinely haunting accomplishment; you should all go to the Sunnyoutside Press website and order a copy.
December 7th, 2014
The arithmetic that governs centennial celebrations in the Republic of Letters is schoolishly simple: you start with one (1) bromide, you multiply it by ten (10) factoids gleaned from Wikipedia, you increase that total by the number of readers who are likely to know anything at all about your subject (Arabic civilization gave us the concept of 0), and then you tack on a “we shall be forever changed by [X]” and – presto! You’ve got yourself a commemorative volume ready for the bookstores! And the bigger the subject [X] is, the more such books will be calculated into existence. In this arithmetic, few subjects could be bigger than World War I, the start of which had its centennial in 2014. The presses poured out books, and because the subject has always fascinated me, I read them all. Most were just the kind of soulless calculations I describe, but a few very gloriously beat the math. Here are the best:
- A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire by Geoffrey Wawro (Basic Books) – Wawro shifts the usual focus to the problematic Hapsburg Empire’s role in the First World War, and in doing so, he manages to provide a terrific new perspective on some of the best-trod material in history. You can read my full review here.
- Collision of Empires: The War on the Eastern Front in 1914 by Prit Buttar (Osprey Publishing) – Buttar’s fantastic, eye-openingly detailed account of the almost-unremembered war the Central Powers fought on their eastern front – in East Prussia and Galicia and the Carpathian Mountains – broke excitingly new ground for me, which was the last thing I expected any of the glut of WWI books to do.
- The Long Shadow: The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century by David Reynolds (Norton) – Reynolds’ book acts unwittingly almost as a counter-measure to the dozens of micro-studies that appeared in 2014 concentrating on specific battles or specific campaigns (precious little on specific generals or politicians, but maybe that’ll be corrected at the 200th anniversary). He looks instead at the much broader long-term effects WWI had on Western culture and political infrastructure, and he does a neat, well-written job of it.
- War of Attrition: Fighting the First World War by William Philpott (Overlook) – That the ultimate ‘winner’ of the First World War was the United States is just about the closest the glut of WWI books came to a common theme, and Philpott’s vigorously-written book concentrates on the pragmatics of the gradual U.S. military involvement. You can read my full review here.
- The Great War for Peace by William Mulligan (Yale University Press) – In every celebratory crowd, there’ll always be at least one rebel, and Mulligan fills the role admirably in this extremely thought-provoking book, in which he argues that the First World War, far from being the pointless, slogging waist it’s usually considered, was an enormous reinforcement of humanitarianism, in the long run. You can read my full review here.
- Hundred Days: The Campaign That Ended World War I by Nick Lloyd (Basic Books) – In the surge of campaign-specific accounts the WWI centenary saw, Lloyd’s was the best, a quote-rich study of the Hundred Days campaign that did so much to bring the shooting war to an end. You can read my full review here.
- Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I by Alexander Watson (Basic Books) – It’s the bad guys who take center stage in Alexander Watson’s gripping, massive book: Germany and Austria-Hungary, their histories, their sometimes-crazed motivations, their economies, their war aims, and their ultimate fates. As with a couple of other books on this list, it’s carried along effortlessly on the strength of the author’s fine prose style. You can read my full review here.
- The Politics of Wounds: Military Patients and Medical Power in the First World War by Ana Carden-Coyne (Oxford University Press) – Ana Carden-Coyne moves her own WWI book away from theaters of war and decisions of state and centers it instead on the human costs of the fighting: the thousands and thousands of wounded men. Carden-Coyne traces these men through their injuries, their long and often heartbreaking recoveries, and their new lives. This was by far the best of the small-scale WWI books I read this year.
- Fire and Movement: The British Expeditionary Force and the Campaign of 1914 by Peter Hart (Oxford University Press) – It would hardly be a centennial extravaganza if there weren’t a few invigorating revisionist titles in the midst, and Hart’s is a fine example of the breed: a dust-blowing new look at the BEF’s role on the Continent. You can read my full review here.
- The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global order, 1916-1938 by Adam Tooze (Viking) – This, the best World War I history of 2014, is actually about much more than just the immediate war, as Tooze’s subtitle makes clear. Instead, he delves deeper than any other writer into the economic and deep-sociological shifts that the war unleashed throughout the world. Anybody who’s read Tooze’s great book The Wages of Destruction will have some idea of the brilliance to expect in this new book, but even those readers will be impressed all over again. My full review coming next week in the Washington Post.