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.