10 Best Fiction Books I Read in 2014

And again, I have to say that this was a very difficult, painful list to make. It seemed cruel, not to rank everything in the top 10 for this past year. But I have made my choices. And I stand by them.

1. The Stories of Paul Bowles

The Stories of Paul Bowles

How do you talk about something that left you consistently gasping for air? I was introduced to Paul Bowles in 2011 with his novel The Sheltering Sky (which ranked on my Top 10 list for that year). For all his brilliance, he is under-read and gravely underappreciated; when I found this copy of his stories at a local bookstore, I snatched it up and proceeded to devour it with unflagging fervor. It’s a thick, dazzling, astonishing collection of stories about human nature, particularly its darker and weirder representatives. Many stories involve Morocco, where Bowles lived for most of his adult life. Most, if not all, stories hinge on a complicated, compelling character, perfectly animated by Bowles’s vivid, incisive prose. And all of the stories will render you a bit breathless.

2. Alexis, Marguerite Yourcenar

Alexis

Marguerite Yourcenar is the heavy-hitter that hardly anyone talks about. She was a total genius (first woman to be inducted into the Académie française), and I think it’s criminal that we aren’t talking about her all of the time. This unbelievable little novel, for instance, was her first. She wrote it when she was a mere 24 years old, in 1928 (published in 1929). And this is Alexis: A confessional letter from a gay man to his ex-wife, about his childhood, internal struggles, hopes, and fraught ambitions. And it is so gorgeous and riveting. I can’t get over it. There are shades of Proust here too (the insightful inner examinations of a frequently ill, shy gay man who is extremely intelligent), but the short of it is that Alexis is incredible and worth every minute.

3. Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov

Pale Fire

This is the second time I’ve read Pale Fire, but it’s so good that it would be a crime not to rank it so highly in this roundup. I read it again for church book club (promoted to the list because of my gushing recommendation), and everyone hated it because the narrator was “creepy” and “unlikable.” I felt like all I could say was, “Well, naturally. But that’s entirely, utterly missing everything. Just everything.” (I didn’t say that, but I wanted to.) The novel is deliriously funny and wickedly sincere and plays tricks on you from the beginning to the end. Here we have a delusional professor (or is he?), a masterful poem, a fake Slavic kingdom, a murder mystery, an allusive treasure trove. You cannot ask for much more, but if you did, Nabokov would give it to you on a silver platter.

4. The Forsyte Saga, John Galsworthy

The Forsyte Saga

I decided to read the enormous Forsyte Saga because a visiting preacher raved about it, noting how underappreciated Galsworthy is, and structured his sermon around the novel’s story of grace and redemption.* John Galsworthy was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1932, primarily for this book. The Nobel committee usually gives the prize for a lifetime of work, but in their decision, they specifically noted that Galsworthy deserved the prize “for his distinguished art of narration which takes its highest form in The Forsyte Saga.”

Well said, committee, and I agree with your judgment. Accordingly, I’m fascinated by the fact that hardly anyone has read this book. Or by the fact that no one really talks about it. One factor could be the length (my edition topped out around 960 pages). Yes, it’s not as brilliant as Tolstoy, who can write 960 pages and never be accused of having taken excessive liberties, but The Forsyte Saga is brilliant by degrees and should be read much more than it is.

I love sprawling family dramas, and the Forsytes are an excellent subject. All of the familiar themes of the English upper class are here — money! Class! Preventing unsavory marriages! Gossip! Hating on the less fortunate! Art! Wit! — but Galsworthy presents them with a fresh, engaging, and sometimes unpredictable style.

As Galsworthy intended, Soames Forsyte is particularly fascinating. Soames is deeply unlikable to everyone who knows him, even (especially?) to his own family. As readers, we follow him quite closely and receive his inner monologues with regularity, and we have no good reason to like him either. So Soames is such an interesting and therefore perfect choice for a complex, distasteful protagonist.

All in all, this is a splendidly written novel. There are some moments of real beauty here. And enough interludes to make you pause, lift your head, and think deeply about your own extended family.

*Upon finishing the novel, I realized that the visiting preacher just watched the BBC miniseries version and didn’t actually read the book, because the miniseries deviates grossly from the text and fabricates an entirely new ending. Shock! Brief indignation! But. I’m still obviously very glad I read it. So, no harm done.

5. The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis

The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis

2014 is the year I discovered Lydia Davis and had my life subsequently changed by her. In my reading life, the mark of a very special book is one that forces me to slow down and savor every line. I’m usually speeding through books at a voracious (if often uncomprehending) pace, but not so with this collection, which includes all of the stories from Break It Down (1986) to her penultimate collection, Varieties of Disturbance (2007). As I’ve mentioned before, something about Lydia Davis sticks with me, long after I’ve read the last little story, and echoes in my mind throughout my day. She isn’t easily forgotten, and I love her for that. If you need someone to shake you by the shoulders and tell you to READ LYDIA DAVIS, give me a ring. I’ll come over.

6. Can’t and Won’t, Lydia Davis

Can't and Won't: Stories

I wasn’t kidding. 2014 was the Year of Lydia Davis. This is her most recent collection, and it’s highly recommended to anyone who has eyes capable of interpreting text.

Here is the titular story, in is entirety:

I was recently denied a writing prize because, they said, I was lazy. What they meant by lazy was that I used too many contractions: for instance, I would not write out in full the words cannot and will not, but instead contracted them to can’t and won’t.

7. Henderson the Rain King, Saul Bellow

Henderson the Rain King

“Hell, we’ll never get away from rhythm, Romilayu. I wish my dead days would quit bothering me and leave me alone. The bad stuff keeps coming back, and it’s the worst rhythm there is. The repetition of a man’s bad self, that’s the worst suffering that’s ever been known.”

I wasn’t sure about Saul Bellow, but Henderson convinced me completely of his brilliance.

Henderson is the perfect narrator: flawed, humorous, fascinating. His continual refrain — “I want, I want, I want” — rings throughout the book and echoes a bit in all of us as we read his story. It’s a quest, an archetypal journey of rebirth, and at the same time, a journey into the darkest part of the self: the hidden psychosis that lurks beneath the surface.

8. Light Years, James Salter

Light Years

What can you do with prose like this except bow down?

The book was in her lap; she had read no further. The power to change one’s life comes from a paragraph, a lone remark. The lines that penetrate us are slender, like the flukes that live in river water and enter the bodies of swimmers. She was excited, filled with strength. The polished sentences had arrived, it seemed, like so many other things, at just the right time. How can we imagine what our lives should be without the illumination of the lives of others?

This is a novel about a dreamily disintegrating marriage. It sounds odd to say that a marriage could fall apart in a “dreamy” way, but this is an odd novel, and I think that’s exactly what happened here. Viri and Nedra live in the countryside outside of New York City with their daughters, Franca and Danny, and they might all love each other. Or they might not. Salter’s style is lush and impressionistic and everyone seems very beautiful and very confused but not quite devastated. There are no dramatic scenes; everything happens quietly. There is a pony in the grass at dawn; light reflected off wine goblets; half-finished art projects on the kitchen table; loose conversations with quasi-intellectuals at night; oblique moments of love-making. I was completely entranced by this book, mainly because of Salter’s gorgeous prose, but even now, I’m not entirely sure what to say about it. Except that it was lovely and strange.

9. Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah

Three-quarters through Americanah, a character says, “You can’t write an honest novel about race in this country.”

And yet I think that is what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has accomplished with this book. This is a large, beautiful novel with engaging, complex characters. Adichie is constantly reminding the reader of the promises and pitfalls embedded in the American cultural landscape — pitfalls especially if you happen to be black.

Ifemelu moves from Nigeria to the United States to pursue a university education and hopefully, better job prospects. The novel moves back and forth between Ifemelu’s past (girlhood in Nigeria to young adulthood in the United States) and present, as she prepares to return home to Nigeria — for good.

Even though I am a white, non-immigrant, US-born citizen, I never felt boxed out or uninvited to the conversation that is going on in Americanah. The characters are accessible, complicated, delightfully human; they held my rapt attention throughout this large and yet swift-moving novel.

Through the medium of Ifemelu’s blog about being a non-American black in America, Adichie expresses cogent, relevant arguments about the complexities of racism in America, exposing just how little progress we’ve made, even when we pat ourselves on the back for our sense of having overcome, for achieving civil rights, for electing a black man president, for parroting the line that white conservatives enjoy, that “racism is over.” It’s far, far from over. Americanah is that strong — and readable and compelling — reminder: Racism, unfortunately, is alive and well in America. So, round of applause for Adichie, for teaching us something about ourselves that we are always unwilling to learn.

10. The Orphan Master’s Son, Adam Johnson

The Orphan Master's Son

It is rare to find a book like this: a thriller — an adventure novel, in a sense — that also happens to be extremely well written. It’s a story of murder and intrigue — salted with delicious dark humor — in North Korea, where Adam Johnson actually spent some time working and doing research for this novel, which was awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Prize. Recommended for its energy, precision, and probing action.

Honorable Mentions

  1. Lila, Marilynne Robinson
  2. Crossing to Safety, Wallace Stegner
  3. Cloudsplitter, Russell Banks
  4. Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, David Foster Wallace
  5. A Haunted House and Other Short Stories, Virginia Woolf
  6. The Patrick Melrose Novels, Edward St. Aubyn
  7. The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel
  8. What We Talk about When We Talk about Anne Frank, Nathan Englander
  9. Go Down, Moses, William Faulkner
  10. Fools, Joan Silber
  11. Battleborn, Claire Vaye Watkins
  12. Transparent Things, Vladimir Nabokov
  13. Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen
  14. The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt
  15. Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel
  16. Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel
  17. Out, Natsuo Kirino
  18. Jesus’ Son, Denis Johnson

What were your favorite novels you read in 2014?

Previously…
Top 10 Poetry Books I Read in 2014
Top 10 Nonfiction Books I Read in 2014

Tuesday Snax

What's better than an Aussie puppy?
Huck, Jodi and Michael's latest addition. Me? Not jealous at all...

It’s been way too busy around here lately. But I got to meet Huck, the Aussie, on Sunday, and he was a dream. A fuzzy, razor-sharp-toothed dream. (I’d forgotten how much puppies, like babies, want to put everything in their mouths.) He belongs to Jodi and Michael, who brought him home just a week ago. When I stood up to reluctantly leave, he laid down on top of my boots and looked up at me. KILLING ME, PUPPY. KILLING ME. It took all my willpower not to pick him up, stuff him in my purse, and make a run for it.

Belated snax:

Best Photos of the Year 2011. So powerful. Warning: Some are violent/graphic/upsetting. But they’re all incredible. Especially #46! If you don’t see any other photo, at least get to #46. (Reuters)

“Pale Fire,” The Poem: Does It Stand Alone As a Masterpiece? It’s nice to have other people suss out the answers for you. Something I’ve been wondering since I read Pale Fire… (The New Yorker)

Unremembered Celebrity Couples. This is pretty interesting. Who knew that Brad Pitt and Thandie Newton were a thing? Ashton Kutcher and January Jones?? (Retronaut)

Hate Actually. Snarky critic makes some good points about why “Love Actually” isn’t such a great film after all. (The Hairpin)

Printable Holiday Gift Tags: All Free! Get on this. This is what I’ve been using for all of my presents this year. (How About Orange)

Inside the Sketchbooks of the World’s Greatest Type Designers. In another life, this would have been my vocation. (The Atlantic)

Come Together. All I’m thinking is: Why didn’t we have this brilliant idea for our Christmas card? (Awkward Family Photos)

Top 10 Books of 2010: #4

Pale Fire

#4: PALE FIRE, by Vladimir Nabokov

For the next few weeks, I’ll be thinking back through the books I read in 2010 and ranking my favorites in a top 10 list. Today, I’ll be talking about #4, Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire.

It should be rather evident by now that I am a Nabokov fan. (His Ada was, after all, my 10th favorite book I read all year). I picked up Pale Fire a few months after I had read Lolita and was dazzled… and confused. This is one of the most ambitious and strange novels I’ve read and yet I do not think Nabokov would want me to call it a novel.

So what is it exactly? Pale Fire is many things. It is the title of a 1,000 line poem by the fictional poet John Shade. It is a murder mystery. It is the long-form annotated guide to the aforementioned poem. And it is quite elaborate and beautiful and confusing.

After a foreword, the book begins with “Pale Fire,” the long poem by John Shade (which, of course, Nabokov wrote himself). I don’t know very much about poetry, despite being married to one who makes it, but I think it’s a pretty decent and interesting poem. Particularly considering that English was the third language of its author. The New York Times book review from 1962–when Pale Fire was published–puts the issue of Shade’s poem quite well:

[“Pale Fire,” the poem] is about on a level with the work of Alfred Austin, Tennyson’s successor as Poet Laureate, who also had a bent for conversational verse: not bad, but also not good, not, in the strict sense, a poem at all. The reader, having plowed through it with mild interest, is likely to be afflicted by the disproportion between its merit and the apparatus that surrounds it. For the author has to keep up a pretense that Shade was a great man, and the poem a great poem. Yet it is also part of the joke that he does not believe this for a moment. He is carefully building a farce, assuming the mask of pedantry in order to point a grimace at his readers.

Behind this farce we meet the person of Charles Kinbote, an obsessive literature professor from the imaginary country of Zembla (Nabokov has a thing for fictional nations). Kinbote is the author of the annotated guide to the poem, which we are now reading and which consumes the rest of the novel. It is fair to say that Kinbote worships Shade. He regards “Pale Fire” as the greatest poem ever written and managed to get the rights to the poem and to publishing this annotated guide after Shade’s mysterious death.

In the hands of the witty and sly Nabokov, Kinbote’s fanaticism is a wonderful and frightening thing to behold. His love of Shade borders on pathological, once he moves in next door to Shade so he can watch him all day long. He is deeply envious of the poet’s purported talent, for as Kinbote says of himself:

I do not consider myself a true artist, save in one matter: I can do what only a true artist can do—pounce upon the forgotten butterfly of revelation*, wean myself abruptly from the habit of things, see the web of the world, and the warp and the weft of that web.

Kinbote’s warping of the web–the fabulous series of artifices that Nabokov has created–captivates utterly. Pale Fire was certainly the most interesting and thought-provoking book I read in 2010. I do not know if it was the best, but it was deliciously strange. As Kinbote–or is it just Nabokov himself?–says in the end:

I trust the reader appreciates the strangeness of this, because if he does not, there is no sense in writing poems, or notes to poems, or anything at all.

(*Side note: Just in time for this review: The New York Times reveals that Nabokov’s theory on butterfly evolution has been proven. Lovely!)