A Decade in Books: 2014
2014 was a year of big change: I finished my thesis and graduated with an MFA in Creative Writing, G. and I got married that summer, and in September we moved to the San Francisco Bay Area where she was beginning a PhD. I remember a lot of my reading from that year vividly, the books locked into a specific time, place, and feeling.
Chris Hadfield’s memoir about being an astronaut is the first book I read in 2014 and I loved it so much that it reminded me how much I used to love space as a kid, and that I wanted to be an astronaut myself for a little while. I wrote an essay about it for The Puritan and read Andy Weir’s The Martian because it was a bestseller and I knew it was being made into a movie.
G. and I spent part of the summer in Germany where she was taking a German language course in Dresden. I read David Mitchell’s Number9Dream in the plane on the way to Germany, rapt, and I read poor Stendhal in Dresden, flopped in the grassy banks of the river Elbe during an early summer heat wave. On weekends we travelled around a bit to places like Berlin and Prague. I had just read Laurent Binet’s HHhH, which is an excellent French book about Operation Anthropoid, an assassination attempt on top Nazi commander Heidrich — “the Butcher of Prague.” In fact we were in Prague just around the anniversary of the events, and G. and I were quite moved when we happened to walk past the church where the agents had hidden and been killed.
Having spent time in Dresden, which was almost entirely destroyed by allied bombing during the war and later rebuilt as a kind of fake version of the city’s pre-war architecture, I wanted to write an essay about reconstruction after war, and read Slaughterhouse Five, whose climax is the author’s real memories of hiding out in a slaughterhouse as a war prisoner when allied bombs decimate the city.
What surprises me is how many books I read in 2014 — 50, which is almost one a week, an excellent average for me. Of course I wasn’t working in the spring, and then I worked a bit during the summer but continued to have a more patchy work situation in the fall until I found a job as a teacher in a private school in the Bay Area at the very end of the year. And so I ate up long, heavy books like The Red and the Black and Bleak House and, when fall came around, I went to the university library and read lots of things I’d been meaning to get to for a long time: The English Patient, Joan Didion, Zadie Smith… These are all wonderful books, wonderful writers. Yes, 2014 was a year of catching up: I finally got around to reading American Gods, The Secret History, Nicholson Baker, Marilynne Robinson, Enduring Love (I’d long been keen on McEwan and was working my way through his back catalogue). I loved them all. This must surely have been one of the best reading streaks of my life.
A few misfires? It seems that everyone was reading The Flamethrowers when it came out; I read it quickly and easily but I remember being a bit bored by it, but then also finding the pan review in The New York Review of Books to be rather unfair. Similarly with The Corrections, a book I had heard so much about (although I read it long after even Freedom had come out). I didn’t find it boring, but can I say that it really brought me anything? No, although I remember the ridiculous scene when one of the characters stuffs a piece of salmon into his pants in an upscale food store and it begins sliding down against his leg. I remember the scene but I can’t say I found it all that funny.
And then there are the books that I continued reading to G. before bed every night — a tradition we had begun with Tim Parks’ wonderful Italian Neighbours. We were somewhat disappointed by his follow-up An Italian Education, but Gopnik’s classic Paris to the Moon was a pleasant book in the same vein (we had no idea we would eventually end up living in Paris about 4 years later). Washington Square was another book we read together before bed, and that one was also underwhelming — but it was also short, thankfully.
A few words on Gloria. Keith Maillard was my thesis advisor at UBC and although I haven’t read all of his books I would hazard to say that this is his masterpiece. I’m ashamed that I actually hadn’t read it before or at least during my time as his student. It’s a wondrous book, the kind of perfect, lengthy novel you can dive into, feel the tingling thrill as it submerges you under its surface. The narration is smooth, masterful: from the first few lines — “It was well past the time when anyone should feel the least bit embarrassed by asking for another drink” — you know you’re in the hands of a master. The novel takes place over the course of a single, long summer in the life of a young woman in the 1950s, who’s hesitating between going to grad school or entering married life, with flashbacks woven in to different periods of her earlier life. There’s sex, violence, love, discussions of literature, beautiful writing. I usually dislike when books use the main character’s name as a title but I can’t see what else this book could possibly be called, because once you’ve met and spent time with Gloria — beautiful, smart, deep, capable, brave; but also proud, troubled, insecure, unsure — she seems so real, like a friend everyone’s heard about, the woman in the room no one can ignore. AND THE THINGS MAILLARD PUTS HER THROUGH. He makes you love her, and then he breaks your heart by having her go through these excruciating coming-of-age trials. But of course she triumphs in the end, and she picks the right choice. It’s an extraordinary novel.
Reading List: 2014
Chris Hadfield, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth
Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics
Michel Folco, Dieu et nous seuls pouvons
Kevin Barry, There Are Little Kingdoms
Louise Fournier, FLQ: Histoire d’un mouvement clandestin
Andy Weir, The Martian
Jean-Christophe Ruffin, Immortelle randonnée
Alice Munro, The Moons of Jupiter
William S. Messier, Dixie
Zadie Smith, NW
Nick Hornby, Ten Years in the Tub
Dante, Inferno (translated by Mary Jo Bang)
Donna Tartt, The Secret History
Paul-Éric Blanrue, Les malveillants
Robin Jenkins, The Cone-Gatherers
Alan Bennett, A Life Like Other People’s
Laurent Binet, HHhH
Neil Gaiman, American Gods
David Mitchell, number9dream
Stendhal, Le rouge et le noir
Charles Dickens, Bleak House
Nicholson Baker, The Anthologist
Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five
Ian McEwan, Enduring Love
Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane (audio)
Rick Gekoski, Outside of a Dog
Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient
Ben Macintyre, A Spy Among Friends
Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping
David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks
Joan Didion, After Henry
James Salter, Last Night
Adam Gopnik, Paris to the Moon
Frederick Taylor, Dresden: Tuesday 13 February 1945
Elizabeth Bowen, The Last September
Michael Ondaatje, Coming Through Slaughter
Al Alvarez, Where Did It all Go Right?
Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers
Zadie Smith, Changing my Mind
Javier Marías, Your Face Tomorrow 2: Dance and Dream
Geoff Dyer, Out of Sheer Rage
Tim Parks, An Italian Education
Keith Maillard, Gloria
Christopher Reid, Nonsense
Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking
Henry James, Washington Square
Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
Pierre Lemaitre, Rosy & John
Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections
Henry James, The Turn of the Screw