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2014: How (and What) I Read Now

I continue with my series of year-end posts discussing my favorite media experiences of the year with books, my first love. I cannot go to sleep without reading a few pages. I rarely drive without an audiobook in mid-chapter. I never fly without a Kindle-load from my list. The three types of “books” (paper, ebooks, audiobooks) find their way onto my list in various ways.

Books on paper are almost always gifts. Sometimes because of my Amazon wish-list, but rarely any more, since I specify the Kindle edition, and sometimes from the library, especially choices for my book club. Kindle downloads come as gifts now (I’ve trained my friends), but more than anything, they are impulse purchases, usually after reading a rave review or a relentless reminder from Amazon’s collaborative filter. I even tried Hoopla, an app offered via the LA Public Library. (Not so user-friendly.)

As a result, the longer I live, the more behind I get. I just can’t read enough, or fast enough, to get to all those books-in-waiting. Hence, I make no pretense of trying to rank the year’s “best” books as I do with movies and television. These are the titles that brought me the most pleasure in 2014, no matter the year in which they were published. And to which I gave four stars on my trusty Goodreads site, where I review most everything I read. Feel free to friend or follow me there or Facebook to get reviews more quickly.

The Kills (The Kills, #1-4) by Richard House

A war novel with few soldiers and little fighting. A mystery within a mystery. A meditation on fraud and memory.  This and much more, House’s massive story cycle or collection of related books -- shall we call it a quadtych (yes, a very bad neologism) manages despite its 1,000 page length to hold one's attention with a cavalcade of characters, settings, hurling plots and, well, mysteries. It wouldn't work, of course, if the writing weren't so damned good, which it certainly is -- the chilly lovechild of an unholy three-way between Patricia Highsmith, Graham Greene and John le Carré,  and maybe a soupcon of David Foster Wallace's brilliance at making the quotidian feel quite compelling.

The first book, in which a military contractor in Iraq escapes from what becomes the central event of the story cycle -- the fleecing of a multi-million-dollar budget earmarked for a brand new secret city in the Iraqi desert . Is our hero a dupe, under the sway of the puppetmaster who hired him, and who runs the Halliburton-like contract firm?  His misadventures on the run in Turkey and Malta with some German filmmakers made me think of Greene, a bit like The Comedians.

By the time we finish the cycle, though, most of the assumptions about who did what and who knew what are brought into question, or at the least, in very high relief. Down in Malta, we have a diplomatic family in disarray, having fled chaos in Syria, cleverly intertwined with a tale of the Russian Mafia, corporate hit men, private language schools and various factotems who are still trying to figure out what happened to those pursuing our original fugitive.

Hovering above both stories is the tale of a bloody multiple murder which imitates a crime in a novel -- this is the subject of the third book, set in Naples. Baroque double switchback would be how I'd describe that plot. Is everyone lying?

Finally, I would not want to leave out book #2, which is in some ways the most rooted in the point of the whole exercise, since it's set in Iraq and involves a range of men, recruited to run a remote "burn site" in the desert, up until the point when they learn that this is to be the site of the new  and secret "Liberty City." Chronologically, its events come first. Gritty, confounding, confusing, maddening, this is the world of military contracting and the time-honored methods of fleecing governments and exploiting the working class.

If you've got the time, this masterpiece is worth the effort.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

I want to deliver a breathless rave of a review about this scrumptious novel, coin a blurbable quote about the incomparable narrative thrust, endearing cast of characters, and pristine depiction of time and place, but my words are not up to the wonderful experience I had reading this book, one of the best reads for me of the last few years. I'd not read Tartt before, but compelled by some great reviews and its appearance on the best-seller lists, I added The Goldfinch to my wish-list and got it for Christmas. Boy am I glad!  Slightly longer than typical best sellers at 700+ pages, I found myself racing through the thing, a hundred pages a sitting, often into the night. Tartt has a gift for storytelling, that's for sure, and I'm glad I opened the package.

Police (Harry Hole #10) and The Son, both by Jo Nesbø

Harry Hole snarls more authentically than most angry, brilliant, alcoholic police detectives. He is one angry Mutha, and with good cause. He seems to be the only Norwegian cop who can actually solve complex criminal cases, but the bureaucracy and the criminal underworld just won't let him do his job, and won't leave him alone when he tries to give up. I love Harry Hole, and I love the tales Nesbø weaves for him to interact with. They are, in many ways, the apotheosis of the Scandinavian police procedural, a genre I have been in love with since the days of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (See this year’s New Yorker profile of Nesbø for more back story).

We have here, indeed, another very complex tale of crime perpetrated against cops, and the solution blocked by other cops, all coming together to reveal the motive, and therefore, the criminal. Thanks Harry. Thanks Jo.

Is there a word for the feeling a reader (at least this reader; at least when reading genre fiction) when you cannot figure out why, but you cannot stop reading? Nesbø is that rare writer, right now at the top rung worldwide, whose mastery of the form is so perfect that the strutwork disappears and the reader is left gasping from the combination of perfectly realized scenes, indelible characters, perfect depiction of place, and thematic importance. What makes one gasp is that each of these elements is revealed through the propulsive and accelerating engine of the narrative, the plot, the sheer storytelling power -- what happens next is the itch and the scratch of this kind of reading.

Certainly, it is made easier by Nesbø’s fluency as a writer, but he isn't showy, he's efficient. Which is not to say mechanical or heartless, I hasten to add, since he (and we) are always aware that he's working in a genre which is almost 80 years old, and to succeed, he must advance the form while maintaining its conventions. Which he does better than anyone writing now. He has provided me with many hours of reading pleasure through the Harry Hole series, and of course, the series that centers on a protagonist over time and many novels is itself a mainstay of the genre. Here, Nesbø introduces a new detective whose qualities seem, at least at first, to be a bit more conventional than Hole's. Until we find that, well, he's a compulsive gambler, rather than a drunk, and his backstory plays significantly in the unfolding of the plot. I don't do spoilers, but let me just say, the last ten pages of the novel not only wrapped up loose ends and plot points, but blew my mind in the process. Jo Nesbø, I think I love you.

The Devil in the White City Murder, Magic, Madness, at the Fair that Changed America by Eric Larson

Larson is a stem-winding storyteller whose medium of choice is historical fiction, in this case "true crime." I loved his telling of the saga of the Dodd family, US ambassador to Nazi Germany, a real suspense yarn with echoes a Bernie Gunther-style mystery. Here, Larson gives us the intertwined stories of the Chicago World's Fair at the end of the 19th Century and that city's first big-time serial killer, the pseudononymously named Dr. H. H. Holmes (that's right), a conman and pharmacist  with a truly byzantine method of securing and disposing of mostly female victims who came to the big city for the festivities. The Fair itself is dramatic enough, the case of ambitious city fathers trying to top the Paris Exposition (think: Eiffel Tower) with a gigantic and amazing city-within-a-city, unfortunately during a deepening recession. The city with big shoulders at the dawn of the American Century. The books starts out as a whodunit, but quickly, we readers get up close and personal with Mr. Holmes as his pathology quickens -- in part so that we can wonder at the sheer bravado of his actions. The denouement, involving a cross-country chase of the suspect and his extended family, is worthy of Sir Arthur, if not his revered sleuth.

Juliet, Naked, by Nick Hornby

Boy can this guy make me laugh, literally out loud, as his cast of painfully stunted characters stumble their way through the wake of a culture that gives us obscure rock music fuck-ups, their obsessive fans, and the women who love them. Set mostly in a small dreary seaside town in the north of England, Hornby's love triangle -- it's a stretch to really call it love -- tumbles from incident to incident, alternating voices between the fan, the girlfriend and the has-been rocker. It is these voices that will stick with me, as Hornby has a wonderful way of following the fear-driven logic to its logical conclusion that reveals much about the characters. His touch is imbued with affection, even while delivering a fairly savage satire.

The Plague of Doves, by Louise Erdrich

Contemporary life in and around the reservation unspools under the shadow of generations of secrets in this fascinating epic, I suspect one of those that has given Erdrich her reputation as a regional powerhouse. She has an exceptional ear for dialog, which stands out because these are people who don't always talk like the TV set. It's also a book that teaches culture, by sheer dint of telling stories of those whose voices are seldom heard. A real gem.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami

On the surface this is an oddly told story of a marital breakup in contemporary Tokyo. But Murakami's post-modern experiment shatters the bits of the foreground story, like shards of a broken mirror, bringing into the mix an elaborate back story about the Japanese-Russian conflict during WWII in Manchuria, political and psycho-social intrigue involving family members, politics and scandal, a slew of mysterious women who may or may not be figments of our protagonist's imagination, and some undisclosed spiritual or erotic practices in a house known for the suicide of its occupants. Did I leave anything out? Oh, yes, the neighbor girl who leaves town to work in a factory and throws epistolary interruptions into the mix. At one point in this lengthy book I was bouncing back between paper, Kindle, and Audible, which I think enhanced the fragmented narrative structure. The actual unrolling of his scenes is extremely accessible and very entertaining, even in the midst of the Kafkaesque narrative goings-on.

Ten Thousand Saints, by Eleanor Henderson

Kind of like in  "Family Ties", in which Michael J. Fox played a kid whose sitcom-stupid conservatism was a reaction to his parents' sitcom-stupid hippiedom and liberalism, TEN THOUSAND SAINTS is a multi-generational saga set in the late 1980s primarily in rural Vermont and in East Village Manhattan. Only here, some of the Hippies' offspring turn away from drugs to hardcore straightedge punk -- clean living, hard rocking. One is tempted to glibly describe Henderson's story and the perambulations of an enormous cast of characters as Dickensian, if only for the sprawl and grit, but that's too glib, mainly because of the intense sensitivity and interior life she gives virtually every character. I was drawn to both Jude and  Johnny, a bit puzzled by  Eliza, both repelled and forgiving of hapless, self-centered Les. Meaning: I cared about these folks who are trying to make a life on the waves of a turbulent cultural tsunami that includes not only sex, drugs and rock n roll (and their bedfellow AIDS), but a broader array of types of possible love which do not come with operating manuals. A very moving read, though I felt a bit deflated by the coda.

The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri

The Lowland walks the fine line between epic drama and melodrama and comes out on the side of the epic sweep, largely because of the political backdrop within which this multi-generational, multi-continental story has sprung. But the melodrama flag, flown so high in the author's previous novel THE NAMESAKE, isn't too far, as in: heightened turns of events that elicit intense emotions in the lives of fairly ordinary people. There is a degree of moral complexity produced the central episode -- the murder of one of two brothers who is part of a radical political movement in Calcutta -- is told and retold from various perspectives over time and which produces quite a load of guilt, that gets passed from brother to wife to child and back. Lahiri is a superb narrative technician, and so the story barrels along, the language makes the reader stop and reread from time to time. At the end: a sense of melancholy and regret.

Ubik, by Philip K. Dick

His language and dialog are crisp and the scenes move along with the touch of the master. As to the story itself, well, you are entering a future where lives can be prolonged in a kind of permanent bardo, and there's a power struggle between soul snatchers and psi on detectors. Oh, yes, and we've colonized the moon by the 90's.The cosmology is preposterous but consistent, all unfurling in a lovely whodunit container.

Supreme Courtship, by Christopher Buckley 

Maybe it was my aversion to the family (Daddy was William F.), but I'd never read anything by the Christopher of the tribe, despite being aware that he wrote the novel upon which was based Jason Reitman’s delicious debut film, 'Thank you for Smoking.” On a lark I picked up three audio versions of Buckley's novels, and have thoroughly enjoyed them -- perfect auto audio -- with laugh-out-loud one-liners and diabolical skewerings of all manner of pompous and preposterous character types. Based upon these three, the Buckley model emerges: he takes a significant public policy topic (Supreme Court and constitutional government in 'Supreme Courtship'; Social Security and the battle between Boomers and their offspring in 'Boomsday'; the making of foreign policy by the military-industrial-lobbyist triad in 'They Eat Puppies Don't They.' Then: layer on a cast of wacky characters to act out a "what-if" scenario -- like appointing a TV judge to the Supreme Court; or saving Social Security by creating a tax incentive for Boomer suicide; or conspiring to off the Dalai Lama as a way to create a new Chinese Red Scare in order to get a new weapons contract. Finally, and crucially, pushing the narrative and the characters just a bit over the line, but not too far so as to be impossible. Buckley's characters are based upon near clichés (often real people, thinly veiled), but he manages to give them lives of their own which emerge as they confront one preposterous obstacle after another. None of this is going to win the Nobel Prize, but if you are at all interested in politics, or lived in DC, or just enjoy savage satire, Buckley is the man to see. One caution, I don't recommend binge-listening as I did, as the writing varies little, as do many similes and metaphors. Subtle, he's not.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

Skloot is a skilled and fearless journalist whose pursuit of the remarkable story of the central, if unwitting central figure in the history of cell science, and hence, much of the science of the 20th century is remarkable. She tells the story of how the cells of a poor black woman with cancer in Baltimore, her identity hidden for decades, drive a vast industry of DNA and pharmacological innovation. But the story goes much deeper as the author becomes part of the story when she meets the family whose lives were upended by the world-historic adoption of the so-called HeLa cells as the cornerstone of science and many lucrative empires. I knew nothing about the core science, so that was revelatory. And I admired the way Skloot handled Lack's sprawling family, at the bottom of the socio-economic scale, and yet fiercely seeking dignity for themselves, and especially for Henrietta.

The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert

This is the grand story of one Alma Whitaker, born at the dawn of the 19th century to self-made botanical tycoon Henry Whitaker on his estate in Philadelphia where she lives until her father's death, when she journeys to Tahiti to uncover the truth of her failed marriage to an aesthete and botanical illustrator. Blessed with wealth and her father's favorite, Alma's native intelligence is cultivated, just like the many specimens in Henry's greenhouse, and eventually the ecology of mosses to which she devotes herself. This is also the story of the century’s dramatic expansion of science, leading up to the publication of Darwin's revolutionary The Origin of the Species. Alma's story is (perhaps a bit unconvincingly) intertwined with the science of evolution, providing the eventual denouement.

The creation of Alma is a wonderful achievement -- a plain woman who discovers both intellectual and carnal passions, and who has the resources and nerve to pursue understanding and knowledge, perhaps above all else. This is not a book for fundamentalists of any sort. Gilbert has a gift for setting and delivering scenes, which tumble, one after the other. My only complaint is the first-person narration, which is often used to bridge these wonderful scenes with tedious questions that do in no way represent the interior monologue of human beings. "Did I overstep my bounds? I thought. No, I could have done no differently. On the other hand, a new thought coming into my mind, perhaps he did not notice..." yada yada. This nearly drove me crazy, even as the truly brilliant narrator of the audio book, actress Juliet Stevenson, tried mightily to make this filler sound real.

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