I am a bit shocked to realize 2014 was the year I loved everything I read. I review books with some frequency and this year I don’t think I gave a single book a negative review -- and not because I was feeling particularly giddy about art or life -- I simply had the strange fortune of liking what I read. Most all of the books I reviewed this year were books I requested to review and none really disappointed. My highest recommendation out of that group goes to Helen Oyeyemi’s startling and exquisite Boy, Snow, Bird (which will also always hold a special place in my heart for getting both of us on the cover of the NYTBR.) I can also recommend Chang-rae Lee’s stunningly mystifying On Such a Full Sea; Darcey Steinke’s charming, gorgeous Sister Golden Hair; William T. Vollmann’s relentlessly haunting Last Stories. These were books I was paid to read, but frankly would have read anyway. Out of the all the books I read for pleasure, the standout was Will Chancellor’s debut. He had the misfortune of becoming my friend or else I would have certainly tried to review A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall. This is what we writers call a BIG BOOK -- the ambition here is matched by the talent and Chancellor’s storytelling abilities place him with the best. You’ve go water polo, academia, art world, and myth playing out in locations that span across the globe from Palo Alto to Iceland. And, well, I’m a sucker for father-son epics and novels that at least partially and unabashedly deal in ideas. Speaking of ideas, two more, books that were unlike anything else: one came from a writer I know well and love wildly, the Chinese avant garde writer Can Xue and her second English-translated novel The Last Lover. I don’t know what to say -- it is as ever very hard to piece and probe and dissect and even just arrange in a line, but the pleasure for me of reading her is reading something truly surreal in our time, an era where so many books feel painfully, embarrassingly, appallingly safe. On the other side is someone I’d never read before: T.J. Clark. I’m lucky to know a lot of excellent art historians and a visit to a venerable Midwest art department resulted in my picking up and falling in love with this art historian's work. His The Sight of Death: An Experiment in Art Writing came out in 2006 and is simply a collection of personal, political, and philosophical musings and meditations on two Nicolas Poussin painting that were hanging in a room in the Getty in 2000. For several hundred pages, this diary where seemingly nothing happens cast a very strong spell over me, and I still don’t know how he did it. Maybe to some “Novel of Ideas” or “Books of Ideas” sound like critical and commercial death sentences, but they have always been my page-turners, and especially in 2014 and undoubtedly onward. May we not fear concepts, philosophies, themes in a time (all times?) when it feels like our survival depends on it. More from A Year in Reading 2014 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
I concluded my voyage through Liberal Arts in May 2000—a typical fairly useless poised-to-succeed-and-doomed-to-fail twentysomething of a hazy new millennium, and a less typical city-sluck Irangelite-turned-Brooklynite with no concept of the country I’d lived in for nearly two decades—when George Saunders’ second collection came out. I was of course was many universes and still many years removed—it took me a few years to discover him—from the five stories plus title novella of Pastoralia. But I was already lovedrunk on American stylists and dark humorists and determined to only follow writers who turned my world upside down—still, I don’t think I had ever read anyone as revolutionary as Saunders. I certainly didn’t know of a writer with a world as fully realized as his, that America that I wholly dreaded and yet came to grasp more tenderly after going through Pastoralia’s psyche-of-below-average-to-average-America rollercoaster ride. Immediately I fell in love. First reason: the humor that was earth-shattering; best reason: the humanity that was something else. Saunders is in many ways our most contemporary writer, the voice of the Boomers/Gen X-ers/Millenials world we currently inhabit, the scribe of Saracuda-crazed Jerry-Springerian Red America of the Eighties/Nineties/Aughties. But it’s not just the scenarios but the sentences—especially the seamless coexistence of high and low that only reminds us their segregation in art is actually what’s shocking—that in themselves tell me Saunders isn’t simply one of our best writers, but one of our best humans. Even in the lowest and lowliest Saunderian universe—"Winky's" self help seminar, perhaps, to combat those “crapping in your oatmeal”—there is the infusion of an entirely genuine authorial affection. His America, our America, is of course horrible but without the horror. Is he funny? Is he wacky? Saunders is mostly observant. The average man in Pastoralia works as a caveman at a theme park ("Pastoralia") or male stripper at an aviation-themed-strip club ("Sea Oak") to make ends meet. Does life look like this? Actually in our America of Reality™ and color-coded neverending War(s?) on Terror, of Parables of Joe Plumber and Tales of Tito The What-Did-He-Do-Again, I’d say we’re more there than we might wish... and maybe closer than Saunders even guessed while writing Pastoralia just before the end of a decade and millennium, and the beginning of a rather Unbrave New World. Read an excerpt from Pastoralia. The Millions review of Pastoralia George Saunders Year in Reading More Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far) Best of the Millennium, Pros Versus Readers
Porochista Khakpour was born in Tehran, Iran in 1978 and raised in the Los Angeles area. She attended Sarah Lawrence College and the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars. Her debut novel, Sons and Other Flammable Objects (Grove/Atlantic), came out in September 2007 to much acclaim from The New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, The Chicago Tribune, and San Francisco Chronicle, among others.This year's reading list gets the theme The Year of the Guiltiest Pleasures, which I felt was much needed as I embarked on the scary roller coaster ride of debut novel launch. As usual my #1 New Year's Resolution of the past 15 years - read (and love) George Eliot's undoubtedly-masterpiecical Middlemarch - didn't happen, so I turned to a book I really should have read when I was an undergrad at that bastion of preposterously-privileged art-snobbery, Sarah Lawrence College. Donna Tartt's The Secret History had been recommended to me for years, but I always had the wrong idea about it - I thought it was like The Odyssey for a particularly precocious YA set. Boy, was I wrong - Tartt is a brilliant writer and she writes one of the most engaging novels about early adulthood that I have ever read. The book centers around a secret society/humanities clique at a rather Sarah Lawrence-ish small private college (I think it was based on Bennington) and chronicles their rather deadly fall. I'm sure it's no Middlemarch, but I must say I could not put it down and was so depressed when it was over.Also in embracing my Eliot avoidance, I read two memoirs (a genre I usually hate) by two controversial artists I usually love: 50 Cent's From Pieces to Weight: Once Upon a Time in Southside Queens and Tracey Emin's Strangeland. The latter is a really raw, almost unreadable look at a very tormented British visual artist's sexual history and the former is the coming-of-age tale of a true NYC "G" who went from living like a kiddie-range clay pigeon (he was shot nine times!) to a huge artist who now sells over 20 million records worldwide and has a Vitamin Water named after him. Even if you hate hip hop, how could you not be interested in a story of a kid who loses his drug-dealer mom at age 8 and then takes on her vocation before he's in junior high? I admire 50. One day I will write the best novel before a Post-It bearing the bold Sharpied mantra: "get rich or die tryin."More from A Year in Reading 2007