Books of 2014: My Favorites

Every year feels like a ‘busy year,’ but this year felt like an especially busy ‘busy year.’ And although I read less this year than I did last year or the year before, I read more deliberately.  I took fewer reviewing assignments and read more for leisure.  I caught up on some 2013 titles I’d missed like The Unwinding, The Girls of Atomic City, and The Skies Belong to Us (all first-rate reads). And I made time to read about some of my own personal obsessions.  While training for the New York City Marathon I indulged in the distance-running cult-classic Once a Runner at the recommendation of my WNYC colleague Jim O’Grady. And after moving deeper into Western Queens, I geeked out on the history and flavor of my new neighborhood in Dan Karatzas’ highly informative Jackson Heights: A Garden in the City and Matthew Burgess’s vividly gritty Dogfight.

But old habits die hard and I read more than my share of new releases too– enough to report that 2014 had some standouts. Last year’s picks were mostly works of fiction (as has been the case in years past like 2011 and 2010), but this year my taste veered more towards non-fiction.  Still, what all of these books have in common is that they’re deep dives with compelling characters and stories.  In no particular order, here are my top ten books of 2014: 

Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade (Walter Kirn) The first time I heard Clark Rockefeller’s name was when I worked at CNN. He’d just kidnapped his daughter in connection with the messy divorce he was going through with his wife– a wealthy McKinsey executive with degrees from Stanford and Harvard– and I’d been assigned to work on a brief piece about the perplexing and abrupt unraveling of their life together.  But the story kept getting weirder.  Rockefeller, as it turned out, was actually a German-born conman whose real name was Christian Karl Gerhartsreite– a man eventually linked to the 1985 murder of his landlord’s son.  In this memoir of sorts, writer Walter Kirn (the screenwriter behind Up in the Air) retells the strange story of his own friendship with Rockefeller. On one level, Blood Will Out chronicles Rockefeller’s trial, but the court testimony is really just a backdrop for Kirn’s own meditations about what it means to be the kind of person capable of forming a 15-year friendship with a sociopath.  Kirn’s willingness to face his own flaws is a large part of what makes this book captivating. It also helps that Kirn has a dark sense of humor about all this.  By the end of the trial, he’s settled on a nickname for Rockefeller more fitting than any of the half-dozen aliases the conman picked for himself: “Hannibal Mitty.” The runner-up? “Gatsby the Ripper.” 

Unspeakable (Meghan Daum) Though Daum is a veteran essayist, my introduction to her came in a recent New Yorker essay she published called “Difference Maker.”  It’s about all the young people whose lives she’s tried to help through various volunteer stints– and about the ways her idealism has fallen short. It wasn’t just polished (in the way all New Yorker pieces are), it was downright piercing. And there was much more of her smart, smart writing in this collection. Daum is not afraid to venture deep into the dark places in her own mind and heart; still, these essays always seem to end on an optimistic note. It’s so subtle that you never feel as though she’s forcing things into some predetermined worldview– you just come away with the feeling that you’ve spent time with someone who has reckoned with her demons and weaknesses but still has a hopeful, open heart.

Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America’s Most Powerful and Private Dynasty (Daniel Schulman) It’s easy to see the Koch brothers as caricatures. But it’s not particularly useful to look at them that way– they are, after all, among the country’s wealthiest and most powerful men.  If you want to know how the Koch brothers became the Koch brothers– and how our country produced these men and what they believe they stand for– read Sons of Wichita. Schulman painstakingly takes the reader through their childhood, teasing out the way their father’s attempts to make his boys into tough, independent young men shaped a fierce rivalry between them, and how that rivalry shapes their pursuits to this day.

We are Not Ourselves (Matthew Thomas) This sprawling novel follows the lives of three generations of an Irish-American immigrant family settled in New York.  Eileen Tumulty doesn’t have an easy childhood in Woodside, Queens, but when she climbs her way up into the community of Jackson Heights with her marriage to Ed Leary, a quiet scientist, she feels confident that a better life is in reach.  It is– but tragedy lies ahead too.  Thomas plots the gradual shifts that take place both in the minds and hearts of his characters as well as on the streets of their neighborhood with patience and control.

Gottland: Mostly True Stories from Half of Czechoslovakia (Mariusz Szczygiel) Truth is stranger than fiction. Reporter Mariusz Szczygiel defty proves this in a series of short inquiries mapping the history of the Czech Republic. There is, for example the story of the Bata men, Tomáš and his half-brother Jan, who turned a smaller cobbler’s workshop in Zlín into a vast shoe empire built on idiosyncratic corporate maxims. Or the story of Kafka’s 80-some-year-old niece, Věra S., who, in her prime would loan out her name to colleagues not allowed to publish, but in her old age, is fiercely protective of her privacy. My own personal favorite tale in this volume was about the herculean erection and then subsequently equally herculean demolishment of a 100-foot-high statue of Stalin in Prague—a project no one, really, wants to remember at all.  After the statue—the largest ever monument to Stalin—is gone, “Not a single line about the monument’s destruction appears in the press.” Szczygiel depicts a country whose citizens display uncommon resourcefulness and resilience in the face of the absurd.

Praying Drunk (Kyle Minor) Repetition—of words, phrases, and entire thoughts—is what gives prayer its force, so it’s only fitting that in Praying Drunk, preacher-turned-novelist Kyle Minor uses repetition to deepen the power of his sad, soulful stories. Plot lines appear again and again, as do characters.   Part of the reason repetition is so effective in Praying Drunk is because the scenes, characters, and moments that flash past again and again are so searing in the first place. “Another suicide,” is the first sentence of Minor’s story “There is Nothing But Sadness.” But there’s really more than one suicide in that story, and by this point in the collection the reader has watched more than one of these characters die before in a previous story. Minor’s writing evokes the circling habits of memory itself—the mind’s inability to resist picking up the jagged fragments of a tragedy for inspection again and again. The lesson is clear: the habits the mind takes up long outlive memories of the experiences that built those habits in the first place. Better pray.

The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas (Anand Girdhardas) Ten days after the 9/11 attacks, a Texas auto body repairman named Mark Stroman walked into a gas station just outside Dallas and shot the man behind the counter in the face, a Bangladeshi immigrant named Rais Bhuiyan. It wasn’t the first-time Stroman, an avowed “American terrorist,” targeted a brown-skinned gas station attendant. He had already killed Waqar Hasan, also a convenience-store worker. Eleven days later, he’d go on to shoot and kill another gas station owner, an Indian-American Hindu named Vasudev Patel. Of all the men Stroman targeted, only one, Rais Bhuiyan, would survived his attack. Searching for meaning in the aftermath of the assault, Bhuiyan found forgiveness for his attacker. Mark Stroman had been sentenced to death, but Bhuiyan began to campaign to save his life. New York Times Columnist Anand Giridharadas chronicles the entanglement of Bhuiyan and Stroman’s fates in “The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas.”

The Fishing Fleet: Husband Hunting in the Raj (Anne de Courcy) At the height of the British Raj, some of the empire’s most eligible young men were stationed in India, where intellectually challenging work and good pay attracted Oxbridge’s finest. But strict British anti-miscegenation laws limited their opportunities for finding a spouse. Enter the Fishing Fleet– boatfuls of young women who came to India to seek their fortune, too. In her lively history, de Courcy focuses particularly on 20th-century husband hunters, those whose journey was part of “the last flowering of the British Raj” before India’s independence. Their colorful diary entries and letters provide a lens into the courtship rituals and, more broadly, extravagant existence and comically overwrought regal rituals of the ruling class.

On Such a Full Sea (Chang-rae Lee) This dystopian novel imagines a time in the future where problems like income inequality, climate change and food insecurity have deepened dramatically, changing the fabric of society entirely. In fiction-logic, it’s totally plausible; any way you look at it, it’s completely terrifying. Lee uses this setting as the backdrop for a classic tale of lovers torn apart. I was entirely enchanted by the dark spell this book casts.

 Without You There Is No Us (Suki Kim)  I booked an interview with Suki Kim for The Takeaway purely as an excuse to read her book.  I wasn’t disappointed on either count– the book, which details her time working as an instructor at university in Pyongyang run by Christian missionaries, is extraordinary; hearing her reflections on the process of writing the book was fascinating.  “Heart-breaking” is an adjective I could use to describe pretty much every book I’ve read about North Korea but it’s all the more applicable to Without You There Is No Us because Kim’s relationship with her material is so personal.  There’s her family’s own backstory– the uncles and cousins abducted into North Korea to be never heard from again.  And then there’s the bond she forms with her students, these bright, hopeful, and deeply misled young men whose lives are constrained beyond their comprehension.

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