Sunday, January 4, 2015

Books I read in 2014

I read some great short stories at the beginning of 2014, but most of the full-length novels I read were forgettable. Two books loomed large over the year for me: Donna Tartt's "Goldfinch" and Phil Klay's book of short stories "Redployment." After I read "Goldfinch," no other book could compare. Reading actually felt less fun. I fell into a slump, feeling like no other book would ever compare again, until I read "Redeployment." I can't wait to read it again. Other super props to "Lonesome Dove," "The Tender Bar" and the two Sherman Alexie books I read.

1. Sherman Alexie - War Dances (****)

2. Barry Hannah - Ray (***)

I could have used more of an anchor at times reading this book. It's all over the place. But holy cow the sentences.

3. Eudora Welty - A Curtain of Green and other storise (*****)

Welty is so skilled at describing people. Every story has a new way of rendering characters physically. They are all so sharp and original. These stories cracked me up, even as some have a sinister lining.

4. Antonya Nelson - Nothing Right (****)

This is a rough lot of characters. Nearly every story has an adulterer. But Nelson made each one feel real. This collection showed me the expanses short stories can hold. But a few of the tales dragged on. I grew tired of some of the repeated tensions (so many car accidents). I also wish they had stayed in one geography. Because so many of the stories happened in Kansas, I felt confused in the handful that moved to Texas, Montana or Arizona.

5. Wells Tower - Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned (****)

Junot Diaz said the difference between a novel and a short story is a short story can be perfect. In this collection, Wells Tower has a quite a few pieces of perfection. There were a few that didn't thrill me, but overall, I loved this book. I love his voice. His sentences show new ways of seeing and feeling the world.

6. Amy Hempel - Reasons to Live (*****)

This collection is so funny and surprising. I hadn't had so much fun in reading in years. This book especially works because the humor comes with grave emotions. "In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried" is so sublime. I was laughing until I was sobbing.

7. Rainbow Rowell - Eleanor & Park (**)

This just was not my thing. I don't usually read young adult novels, but reviews made me think this was the kind that crossed barriers. But it's definitely a young adult novel. The voice really annoyed me.

8. Donna Tartt - The Goldfinch (*****)

I would have read another 800 pages of this book. Tartt takes no shortcuts. Life is lived at its actual pace. I love the breadth of knowledge showcased here. Tartt always knows just the right reference for the time, the place, the character. I got lost inside these pages.

9. Adelle Waldman - The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P (*)

This reminded me of the young adult book I had just read. The sentences and the character lacked sophistication. It's hard to delineate what makes good writing and what makes amateur writing, but it's easy to recognize in the reading. In this case, I might have liked the book more if Waldman had spent less time laboring over how awful Nate is. She needed a "save the cat" scene early on to make me like him. Instead, she wrote him as a one-dimensional character. It made me feel like she had issues with some guy out there and couldn't see any humanity through her own hurt. This was not fun to read.

10. Ben Marcus - Leaving the Sea (**)

Experimental pieces aren't for me. I need an anchor. I loved the first section, though.

11. Edwidge Danticat - Claire of the Sealight (****)

All of the stories don't tie up neatly in the end. They form the lives - the losses, the disappointments -- that becomes the air around Claire. We need those other stories for the reader to know in the end what world waits her. I loved each of the chapters as if they were short stories. The way each revealed more about he last was a special treat. Great characters and great writing.

12. Raymond Carver - What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (****)

Initially, I admired this book more than I enjoyed it. The minimalist tone just didn't draw me in. But halfway through, I think I learned how to read them and liked them much more. I still don't think the tone is exactly for me, but it is so impressive what he can do with just a few words. Each sentence does a lot of work conveying information. The stories all feel real and funny and human and alive.

13. Lorrie Moore - Bark (***)

Maybe my hopes were too high for this collection, but I just didn't feel very excited reading it. There were nice sentences here and there, good plots and great first lines. But the stories lacked some magic. I left a few feeling confused about what actually happen and others unsure if there was much meaning in the final words. Every piece has run before in a magazine, and I think I might have enjoyed any of them in that context. But they never quite worked together to make a satisfying book.

14. Sherman Alexie - The Loneranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (*****)

15. Ishmael Beah - Radiance of Tomorrow (***)

I admire the details and the intimate look this novel offers readers jot a world they may never know. But I wish it had more focus. The scope is too large. It's hard to keep all the characters straight. There are many micro plots. Years pass. If it had been more closely focused on Bockarie, I think I could have settled in better. Still, I felt like the book taught me a lot, and the language is new and interesting.

16. Kiese Laymon - Long Division (***)

There is a lot to love in Kiese Laymon's debut. The characters are fresh, vivid. The sentences are special. The plot is original.

But the novel also felt overly didactic. It has some important messages, but I think Laymon could have imparted them better without having his characters repeat them over and over again. This could have used a show-don't-tell edit. The time traveling aspect also felt too heavy handed. But it was fun to read, and there are a few phrases in here I absolutely love (see: getting nice with myself). I love the book's perspective, and I would definitely buy his work in the future.

17. Gary Shteyngart - Little Failure (***)

The jumpy narrative prevented me from ever settling down for a compulsive reading session. It's just too clever and too bouncy to feel like a genuine story. But he does have considerable talents. And certain scenes were fun to ready, but I prefer a story with slightly fewer winks.

18. Phil Klay - Redployment (*****)

No review I could write would do justice to just how good this collection is. It is the best book I have read all year. So moving and beautiful and real.

19. Siri Hustvedt - The Blazing World (***)

I loved the structure -- and many sections -- of this book. I am particularly impressed by Hustvedt's ability to render so many different kinds of voices. And I love the story -- the initial plot, the characters, the twists. But the novel as a whole just wasn't consistent enough for me to rate it higher. Harriet's notebooks are difficult to read. They are boring and too jumpy, and whole that may be the point, it did not make for good reading. I didn't get anything from them so I started skipping them somewhere in the 200s. I initially also liked the academic references but they began to slow the story down. Finally: the barometer. He made Harriet seem cooky, I guess, which is useful, but overall he again just slowed down my reading and did not add enough. All great ideas that should have been more closely edited down to what matters.

20. James Salter - A Sport and a Pasttime (***)

Great sentences, great descriptions. The only problem is I never felt like reading it. It was easy enough once I got in -- again, he writes such dreamy lines -- but the book never beckoned me back. I am not too wild on the perspective and treating of sexuality, either.

21. Chris Kraus - I Love Dick (**)

Very inventive and interesting, but it droned on too long. I felt like it was often saying the same thing.

22. Jeffrey Renard Allen (***)

The writing is beautiful but also incredibly difficult to follow. I am reading this at the tenth of the pace I normally read. It's slow-going and dense, at times confusing but always beautifully rendered.

23. John Green - The Fault in Our Stars (****)

A few months ago, I read Eleanor and Park. It was one of those YA books that newspapers promise adult adults will love, too. I hated it. It felt very much like a young adult book to me.

The Fault in Our Stars is very much a YA book, too, but the writing is so much better then E&P was. It is the book I would have loved to have read as a teenager. Yes, the language is a bit too much at times. No, regular teens don't talk this way. But that's why we read books sometimes. To disappear. To remember how big life once felt. For my part, I got totally lost in the story. It was a welcome break from the business of adult reading.

24. Larry McMurtry - Lonesome Dove (*****)

25. Dinaw Mengestu - All Our Names (***)

I really liked reading this book. The plot moves forward nicely. The mystery keeps you hanging on. But I only gave it two stars because I just felt some distance the entire time I read it. I never felt like I really knew the characters. Because of that, I never really believed or felt moved by their love (neither the romantic nor the platonic). The last line is pretty but it did not resonate with me at all because I just did not emotionally believe it.

26. John Jeremiah Sullivan - Pulphead (****)

I had more fun reading this than I've had reading anything all year. And on the strength of more than half the essays (On This Rock, Mr. Lytle, The Final Comeback of Axl Rose, Peyton's Place, Unknown Bards, the Last Wailer), I want to give it five stars. The work is so impressively original. No one else thinks up the connections he makes. But there were just too many duds for this to be a perfect book. That's fine. I fully support his trying everything he wants to try because sometimes it is just so awesome. But I personally never want to read him writing about government or the environment again. And I want to forget I ever read Violence of the Lambs.

27. Alice Goffman - On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City (***)

The level of research in "Fugitive" is astounding. It really reminds me of a more data-driven "Random Family."

But this is not a book of journalism. It may be more readable than an average ethnography, but it's less readable than an average book. There are definitely sections to devour. And it's most always interesting and well written. There is so much poetry in the quotes. But it was also often repetitive. And I found it difficult to keep the characters straight by the third chapter. There are stories here and there, but they don't all piece together one after the other. There is no plain arc.

To that end, I actually most enjoyed reading the final methodology note. It was written like an actual whole story -- with a beginning, middle and end -- rather than in chunks of narrative.

Of course, I may be asking the book to be something it never intended to be. It was billed as scholarship, not narrative nonfiction. Still, with all the press it's getting, I thought this might be helpful for potential readers to know ahead of time.

28. JR Moehringer - The Tender Bar (*****)

Wow. I have loved Moehringer's journalism, so I expected this to be good. Still, it really exceeded my hopes. All the note-taking he did in bars really paid off. I have never read a memoir that felt more real. The sentences are great; the themes potent. This book blew me away. Definitely going into my top 10 favorite books of all time.

29. Jeff Hobbs - The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace (***)

I loved the beginning of this book. But the book's tone takes a sharp turn when the author appears 125 pages in. The childhood portions were so well reported. It feels strange that the Yale portions of this book rely so much more heavily on the author's own experiences. It becomes too much about Jeff Hobbs. I wouldn't mind some details about Hobbs to understand the juxtaposition of Rob's being his roommate, but I don't need to know all about Hobb's track issues and the first time he smoked marijuana. Which gets to my bigger issue with this book: Hobbs includes too much -- too many characters, too many details. This is a story about Robert -- not Raquel. I get that he did the reporting. And I don't mind his recreating scenes. But I don't understand why some of the scenes are in here. They don't really propel the narrative. They just feel like a tedious re telling of Rob's life. By the end, I had trouble feeling like this life was "short" at all. I had read every single conversation he had ever had.

Overall, I enjoyed it, though. I loved reading the first section and the rest of the book was quite instructive, if no longer exciting to read.

30. Don DeLillo - Pafko at the Wall (****)

Pretty lines and some times - many times - brilliant. At other times I felt like there were too many words and not enough meaning. I think this may be my own failing as a reader or as someone who doesn't really know baseball. But there was plenty to underline, especially in the novellas beginning.

31. Susan Orlean - Saturday Night

I read this a few years ago, when I was a younger journalist, and I thought it was so quirky and fun. Reading it now I see how well she builds context in many of the pieces. The details are fun and often funny, but the reason they work is the set-up. That said, the idea is better than the sum here. Some of the essays are brilliant: some are just too-long Talk of the Towns. I lost steam. There was little to distinguish them after a while. I needed more (and by that I mean different) Big Thoughts to keep the momentum going.

32. Lena Dunham - Not That Kind of Girl (***)

33. Anne Lamott - Bird By Bird (*****)

34. Hilary Mantel - The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher (****)

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Best songs of 2014

This is no music critic's list, no higher thought allotted into the making of it. I picked the songs I liked best, the ones I played more than others. You might find some embarrassing (Yes, Coldplay and Nick Jonas), but when I look back on this year, this will be what I played and played. Some are stand-ins for others (Like I nearly always listened to Taylor Swift, Too Many Zooz, St. Paul & The Broken Bones, Sinkane, Beyonce as albums. And some have deplorable lyrics ("Try Me"), but this is what was in my headphones as I rode the bus home.

1. Spoon - "Inside Out"

2. I LOVE MAKONNEN f/ Drake - "Tuesday"

3. Beyoncé - "Drunk In Love" (See: nearly any other song on this album. This was just the most ubiquitous)

4. Coldplay - "Magic"

5. FKA Twigs - "Two Weeks"

6. Future Islands - "Seasons (Waiting on You)"

7. The War on Drugs - "Red Eyes"

8. Sharon Van Etten - "Your Love is Killing Me"

9. Taylor Swift - "Out of the Woods"

10. Sinkane - "Mean Love"

11. Too Many Zooz - "To The Top" / "F.W.S."

12. Rae Sremmurd - "No Flex Zone"

13. Todd Terje f/ Bryan Ferry - "Johnny and Mary"

14. Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment - "Sunday Candy"

15. Vic Mensa - "Down On My Luck"

16. Jamie XX - "Sleep Sound"

17. Rick Ross - "Sanctified"

18. White Sea - "They Don't Know"

19. Beyoncé - "Mine"

20. Boots f/ Beyonce - "Dreams"

21. Sinkane - "Young Trouble"

22. Rae Sremmurd - "No Type"

23. Beck - "Blue Moon"

24. Bleachers f/ Grimes - "Take Me Away"

25. How to Dress Well - "Words I Don't Remember"

26. JJ - "All White Everything"

27. Ages and Ages - "Calamity is Overrated"

28. Ought - "Today More Than Any Other Day"

29. Party Next Door - "West District"

30. Dej Loaf - "Try Me"

31. Mac DeMarco - "Brother"

32. J. Cole - "G.O.M.D."

33. Darkside - "Gone Too Soon"

34. Angel Olsen - "Hi-Five"

35. Childish Gambino - "Sober"

36. Grimes - "Go"

37. Nick Jonas - "Jealous"

38. St. Paul & The Broken Bones - "I'm Torn Up"

39. Milosh - "Right Never Comes"

40. P. Reign f/ Drake - "DnF"