The third annual cool stuff we read (and recommend) in 2014 list
Reading is our primary entertainment, although this year we were more than once distracted by some pretty great movies too (but that’s another list). We’re very picky because life is precious. Requirements: great prose and good storytelling for both fiction and non-fiction, and — when the last page is turned — something within
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us should be changed: an opinion, an understanding, an appreciation, or if it’s really good, a revelation. These listed books — presented in no particular order — leapt over one or all of these criteria. Note: We don’t worry about when they were published, only that we read the book in 2014. We offer thanks (with a little wide-eyed envy, at least on Kathleen’s part) to these writers who engaged our brains this past year. Back to Back Julia Franck, Grove Press Sister and brother Ella and Thomas are innocent, young and happy children when post-World War II’s newly borne East Germany begins its descent into isolation, paranoia and institutionalized cronyism. Even as a translation from the German, a nearly perfect and wrenching book. Not to be missed. The Other Alexander Margarita Liberaki, Noonday A thrift store special, Clark purchased this book, published in 1959, solely because of the blurb on the front cover from Albert Camus: “I am deeply moved by this book. It is true poetry.”Turns out, a war with one’s self is indeed mesmerizing and poetic. Thank you, Monsieur Camus, for the tip. Limonov: The Outrageous Adventures of the Radical Soviet Poet Who Became a Bum in New York, a Sensation in France, and a Political Antihero in Russia Emmanuel Carrère, Farrar, Straus and Giroux Truth is stranger than fiction. Through the lens of a single life story, an alterntive everyman perspective on Russian history and culture, and a piercing glimpse into the country’s proud, contrarian, artistic soul. Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Woman’s Prison Piper Kerman, Spiegel & Grau/Random House Even with its uneven writing and unpredictable layering of anecdotes, this book still manages to sneak up on you. The prose is average, and that’s okay, because that’s not where the power rests. Kerman shines a light where it is so needed: the cumulative generational effect on women and children — and ultimately on society — of the misguided war-on-drugs. Take note: the book is deeper than the cool Netflix series, and the real Piper is an impressive advocate. Talk about lesson-learned. Redeployment Phil Klay, Penguin Go straight to hell in Iraq. This author has a spare writing style that amplifies a heart-wrenching honesty about the emotional and physical cost of this Kafkaesque war. All the connected stories work, but the chaplain’s perspective resonated particularly with Kathleen. The Silence of Animals: On Progress and other Modern Myths John Gray, Farrar, Straus and Giroux Gray keeps us humble, reminding readers that disappointment in humans — even that which is caused by the horrors of war — is just another hubristic way for humans to assert evolutionary culmination. Nope, we are not. We are animals. Facing up to that is the essence of existentialism. Accept life as it is. Expect nothing, except, likely, disappointment. Under the Black Flag: The Romance and Reality of Life Among the Pirates David Cordingly, Random House Delivering a 30-gun broadside of information, this is a fast voyage through a fascinating period of history. Sadly, there is no Captain Jack Sparrow. Rogues and brutes, all of them, but Clark did see glimmers of an anarchistic political philosophy. Slightly redemptive, but only slightly. Yarrrr. Poilu: The World War I Notebooks of Corporal Louis Barthas, Barrelmaker, 1914-1918 Louis Barthas, Yale University Press This self-described French pacifist, socialist and barrel-maker painstakingly chronicled his experiences the trenches of World War I. Recently translated into English, it provides an invaluable first-person perspective on the grotesque brutality, disregard for life and collective stupidity of trench warfare. Warning: Don’t read before or after Redeployment. Contained in these pages is just too much disappointment in the human species. The Goldfinch Donna Tartt, Little Brown/Hachette A clever story with art as a central theme and intricate descriptions, this book is as wonderfully thick, meandering and ponderous as a 19th century Russian novel (but one of the lighter-weight ones, in the Dr. Zhivago category). Kathleen’s faith in the reading world was lit anew with its best-seller popularity. Shadow People Erin Cole In a town filled with rumors, cheaters, drug dealers and alien-abduction survivors, it is difficult to know what is real and what is not. This gem of a horror story grips from start to finish. The details are exquisite; especially the early appearance of portentous vulture feet. Unique. Ignorance: How it Drives Science Stuart Firestein, Oxford University Press Honesty in a science book is rare. Scientist-writers tend toward pomposity or density, and typically mythologize the scientific process. In this book, we are reminded in exquisite and provocative prose that scientists are human, and their hypotheses, tactics and output, thus, are as well. Serendipity does indeed strike the prepared mind. A fabulous book. The People in the Trees Hanya Yanagihara, Anchor/Random House The academy meets the jungle with an unusual level of detail, enhanced by its loose connection to real events of the era. Page-turning with accurate scientific descriptions, but not for the fainthearted. Kathleen is still pondering if the author played a cruel trick on his readers in the final chapter. The Death of Ivan Ilyich Leo Tolstoy, the master As he lay dying, Ivan treasures unbearable physical pain, soul-wrenching regret and volcanic marital rage, given the light-extinguishing alternative. Tolstoy was apparently going through a spiritual crisis when he wrote this novella, and it shows. Writing as personal penance. Sahara Unveiled: A Journey Across the Desert William Langewiesche, Vintage/Random House Ride along on this epic journey across a desert as large as the continental United States. Deceptively plain, poetic prose as if conscious of — or at least appropriately influenced by — the desert itself. Goat Mountain David Vann, HarperCollins A dark, crackling story about a boy, his father and his grandfather who go deer hunting in the mountains of California in the late 70s. The book plumbs the depths of violent urges, and the dynamics between generations of males in a lyrical, moving style. It also managed to be a startling mirror of Clark’s rural upbringing. Riveted: The Science of Why Jokes Make Us Laugh, Movies Make Us Cry, and Religion Makes Us Feel One with the Universe Jim Davies, Palgrave Macmillan Trade Why does the brain sit up and pay attention? Premised on evolutionary psychology — shorthand for “fascinating, but impossible to verify” — this book posits some answers. Did you know lonely people find rooms coldest and that riding an escalator up makes you more generous than going down? Related: Want more good stuff? Check out our Best of 2013 list.