2014 has been an exceptional reading year for me. By the end of the year, I’m set to have read more than 50 books, a feat that I haven’t been able to accomplish since I was in college. Recent years have pegged me at about 35 books read on average, and last year I only managed to read 22 books. I don’t believe that there is a minimum number of books that one must finish in order to be considered a “real reader” but I do make a conscious commitment to do it because I have a tendency to be distractible. Reading means a lot to my self-identity but without some overt effort on my part, I would have probably spent all of 2014 scrolling through corgi photosets on Tumblr.
With the exception of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, I haven’t really written about any of the books I read this year. This blog is less a running update of books I’ve read in real time and more a challenge to myself to write reflective notes about books after some time has passed between the reading and the evaluation. As it stands, I have more than a year of backlog (reaching back to 2012) in my “reviewing” slate and I don’t really have any pressure to catch up except whenever I feel like berating myself about procrastination. I’m gonna highlight several books that have ended up being real gems from my 2014 reads.
As pure, crackerjack entertainment, no book has managed to surpass True Grit, a novel which I read very early in January. Told solely from the point of view by a young woman bent on revenge named Mattie Ross, it pairs beautiful, blunt writing, wry humor, and nail-biting action. It’s also a loving but unflinching depiction of frontier life with all sexist, racist, and generally profane baggage that went along with that milieu.
2. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales by Oliver Sacks
I moderated the discussion of this book in October for The Filipino Group on Goodreads, a wonderful book club that has been my source of great book-related camaraderie for years. During our meeting, we tackled some particularly heady aspects of neuropsychology and philosophy. The book is a series of diagnostic sketches about unusual neurological conditions such as face-blindness, auditory hallucinations, phantom limbs and more.
Our book club meeting also generated an interesting debate on the responsibilities and values of non-fiction when it comes to accuracy, ethics, and other concerns, something that I’ve continued to mull over since. Not to mention a lot of raging for my brain-hurting questions. :P
3. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein
I’ve really made an effort to beef up my non-fiction reading this year, but although the large bulk of my choices consist of lighthearted pop journalism and memoiristic writing, this book by Naomi Klein is about as authoritative, incendiary, and devastating as you can get. It is a critique of the neoliberal ideology as embodied by the economist Milton Friedman and how the “free markets” in history came with the prize of systemic oppression, torture and violence.
I found this book completely heartbreaking to read but also completely necessary, especially as a person who has only the barest understanding of recent Latin American history and the shady things that the CIA has done over the years.
4. Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb
I read the first two books in Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy this year and loved them, but I think I’ll have to take a very, very long break from her books in order to recuperate from the heartbreak. Assassin’s Apprentice is the first book that chronicles the life of Fitzchivalry Farseer, a young boy who must deal with the burden of his birthright as the bastard son of a king-in-waiting.
I loved the bildungsroman aspect of the very first book, and it was a lovely illustration of what the high fantasy genre can do. I haven’t explored many high fantasies, and this good experience has spurred me to try more epic multivolume narratives in the future.
5. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Something about the way this novel tackled the issues of love, race, immigration and identity moved me in a way that I still can’t articulate. I suspect it has something to do with Adichie’s way of creating breathing, tangible characters whose inner lives reflect something of my own. What she achieves is a nuanced conversation about what it is to thinking and feeling human person in a world that through carelessness or outright malice constant makes you dehumanized or other.
6. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz
I’ve been very slow on catching the YA bandwagon, mostly because I can’t help but be wary of the sometimes obnoxious marketing that goes with it. But I do have faith that there are titles there that are right up my alley. The setting and characters created by Benjamin Alire Saenz are so suffused with light that you can’t help feel the warmth yourself. The reading itself was a slow burn in the beginning, but by the final sequence I found myself unwilling to leave their world.
7. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
Been there, done that, made a blog post. (Maybe five.)
8. Flawless: Inside the Largest Diamond Heist in History by Scott Andrew Selby and Greg Campbell
I’m definitely excited to read more heist-y non-fiction books like this next year, because it was a trip. This book was a journalistic investigation on the 2003 theft of diamonds worth a hundred million dollars. The most fascinating part of narrative for me, however, was the historical overview of the diamond industry, particularly the insane structure and protocol that exists in the city-within-a-city that is the Antwerp World Diamond Centre.
9. My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk
I still think about this book a lot. This novel is at once a murder mystery, a postmodern lark, and a rumination on the intersection of commerce, empire, art and religion. It made me want to know more about the Ottoman Empire, an area of history of which I am sadly ignorant. I’m looking forward to reading more of Pamuk’s work, although I don’t think his other novels have quite as elaborate a style as this does.
10. Bolivar: American Liberator by Marie Arana
This dramatic, detailed, and majestic ocean liner of a biography definitely helped a lot in teaching me about about Latin America. Simon Bolivar was at the helm of the movement that succeeded in driving the Spanish Empire out of Latin America and his legacy has pushed him into the status of the myth. He lived the biggest, most Romantic life one could possibly live, and it is a shame that few people outside of south America honors him for what he has done.
11. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
I’m still reeling from this book, which succeeded in lowering all of my defenses when it comes to Western writing about Japan (or ~The Orient~ in general). This book shows that when an author looks at Orientalism head on, and acknowledges both the ugly and the inevitable aspects of desire and avarice, you can create a deft adventure story the rises above the racist fray.
These aren’t all the five-star books I’ve read this year (The City and the City, The Devotion of Suspect X, Something About You, The Sparrow, All Through The Night, Angelmaker, Through The Woods). I might have to write another post talking more about other insights I’ve gleaned from my reading this year. I don’t quite know if I’ll manage the same kind of rigor in 2015, but I’m going to reach for more discipline, I guess? More soon.