My Favorite Reading—2014

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These are my favorite books that I read in 2014. Only a couple were actually released in 2014, but as Rust Cohle said, time is a flat circle, and that is especially true when you’re a reader. Choices listed in alphabetical order, by author. If you have any must-reads, please share.

The Anthologist, by Nicholson Baker

This is a story of a man struggling with the task of writing an introduction to an anthology of poetry that rhymes. Funniest book on this list—which as you’ll see, is not saying much. But still. Supergenius at work here.

Wave, by Sonali Deraniyagala

In the first ten pages of this memoir, she loses her parents, husband and children in the tsunami of 2004. In the book’s acknowledgements the first person she thanks is her therapist, and understandably so. A blunt but accurate subtitle to Wave would be: How to Process Grief, by Someone Who Had it Way Worse Than You.

The Man in the Blue Scarf, by Martin Gayford

I’m going to trot out the overused—and generally misused—word “unique” to describe this abundantly illustrated book, in which the author recounts his experience sitting as a model for painter Lucien Freud. Freud paints slowly, working on maybe just the forehead in one sitting, so, as you can imagine, it takes a good long time for him to get to that blue scarf. The book is one-third diary, one-third biography of Freud, one-third a history of portraiture, and entirely fascinating.  A note about how I came to read this book—I was visiting New York and chanced across it while browsing at 192 Books, which is a tiny but meticulously curated shop on 10th avenue, and my favorite bookstore.

The Tremor of Forgery, by Patricia Highsmith.

The cover copy touted it as Graham Greene’s favorite Highsmith book, and it’s easy to see why. As in Highsmith’s great Ripley books, there’s a murder, but this time it’s committed by a “have”—an American screenwriter in Tunisia—against a have-not. The notes of discord accumulate brilliantly, and the minor characters are great, particularly an ex-pat painter who truly doesn’t give a shit. I had never heard of this title before I stumbled upon it while browsing at the great Brickbat Books in Philadelphia.

Basin and Range, by John McPhee

The over/under on books about geology that I would read in my lifetime was ½, and w I hit the over. The title refers to the section of the western U.S. that McPhee explores with geologist friends, but the best part of this book is, improbably, the 80-page-or-so digression that reviews the history of the study of geology; it’s a reminder of how much religious teaching was blown up, and how much perspective was gained, by establishing that Earth’s existence could be measured in millions of years, and not thousands. Fun fact: A geologist posited the theory of evolution in an unpublished paper years before Darwin set sail for the Galapagos. That detail it gives a hint of how much of the planet’s life can be divined by studying the rocks.

Showtime, by Jeff Pearlman.

Greatly enjoyable, both for its basketball insights—demonstrating, for example, that Jack McKinney, and not Paul Westhead or the loathsome Pat Riley, was the true architect of the Lakers’ Showtime offense—and also for its insanely high gossip value about what went on at the L.A. Forum in the 1980s. Honestly I never knew that many people had sex in basketball arenas.

Home, by Marilynne Robinson.

I read Gilead, the first book in this trilogy, last year, and Home is the second installment. (Lila, the third part, just came out in 2014 but I haven’t read it yet.). Home re-tells the events of Gilead from the perspective of a minor character, and the story here is sad in the best way—Robinson draws out an awful lot from these rural Iowans from the 1950s, reliving the story of the prodigal son. The best book I read this year.

Moth, by James Sallis

See previous digression.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt.

Everyone was reading The Goldfinch this year, so I read Tartt’s previous book. Whatever. The Secret History is great. College, old-money preppies, Dionysus, a killing—Tartt works several of my sweet spots to tremendous effect.

All Fall Down, by Jennifer Weiner

The Philadelphia Inquirer’s reviewer called this her best novel yet, and I see no reason to dissent.

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In Praise of James Sallis

In the past six months I’ve been reading more crime fiction than usual—whereas such books had been about 20 percent of my reading diet over the years, it’s now at 50 percent and creeping higher. Ever since becoming a mystery writer in June (I honestly thought I had written a book in which a murder was solved, it took a publisher to tell me it was a mystery), I figured it was time to become more completely read in the genre.

While I already had my faves—Patricia Highsmith and Donald Westlake, to name a couple—I had plenty of crime-fiction blanks to fill in. In recent months I have read, for the first time, titans such as James Lee Burke, Elmore Leonard, James Ellroy, Reginald Hill, and Ruth Rendell. I expect I’ll be reading more titles from all of these writers, with the exception of James Ellroy, whose staccato style just isn’t my thing.

But the favorite discovery of my survey thus far is a name I had never heard of: James Sallis.

I came across Sallis’s name accidentally, while running a search for the best books of Scottish author Val McDermid (whose A Place of Execution is a tremendous page-turner). Google led me to a story in which McDermid named her favorites in crime fiction. Her top five included Sallis, whom she called, “the great secret of American fiction.” She praised him for “fascinating, damaged characters, atmospheric settings, spare storytelling and beautiful prose.”

Val had me at “damaged characters.”

I found Sallis’ book Moth at the local bookseller, and I am glad I did, for I have never read anything like it.

The book’s cover touts Moth as “a New Orleans mystery,” and the New Orleans part is fair enough, even though the story heads off to Mississippi for a while. But the plot of the “mystery” could be fairly summed up as: the main character searches for a missing woman, asks around for her and, about two-thirds of the way through the book, he finds her. After which more happens, but the mystery is done.

I skipped the “spoiler alert” notice because The Moth has so little to spoil. No reversals, no characters with hidden motives, no surprise killings, none of the typical devices that amp up, or pay off, the narrative tension. But Sallis makes it work, in part because it feels like Sallis isn’t so much upending the expectations of the genre as ignoring them. It if feels good, he does it.

Characters will sit and talk for a while, just to talk. At times the hero, ex-detective turned literature professor Lew Griffin, will make a point about books, or share an idea he has for a story he wants to write, and it feels like Sallis is shucking the “Griffin” guise and speaking directly to the reader. Then he puts on the Griffin guise again and gets back to the story. It’s a funny way of asserting authorial privilege—of saying that I’m the one on stage and I can do whatever I feel like. Trust me to make it worth your while.

And Sallis does, for my money. I wouldn’t want every book that calls itself a mystery to pay as little regard to structure as Moth does, but it’s fun to see that it can work so well. I’m glad to discover a joy that so many Sallis readers already knew.

As I continue with my crime-fiction survey, I will also be drilling deeper into Sallis. I have the specific title that McDermid actually recommended, What You Have Left: The Turner Trilogy on order.