Best Books of 2014

Lee Polevoi

 

By now, most “Best Books of 2014” lists are available to readers. Here’s a list of some additional works of fiction and nonfiction published this year that deserve a second look.

 

On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee

 

One of the chief pleasures of On Such a Full Sea is the anxious, reflective, self-questioning and cautiously prideful “chorus of We” that tells the story of Fan, a 16-year-old fish-tank diver in a highly stratified, post-apocalyptic America. The collective voice emanates from B-Mor, “once known as Baltimore,” whose inhabitants are charged with raising fish and vegetables to feed the elite Charter villages, located across a vast, lawless territory called the “open counties.”

 

This novel amply demonstrates Chang-Rae Lee’s gift for creating suspenseful narratives and moments where acts of kindness transform into shocking savagery. Though the story’s forward momentum drops off markedly in the final third of the novel, On Such a Full Sea is an exceptional achievement, distinguished by strikingly elegant prose.  This is a novelist whose work demands our attention.

 

 

The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses by Kevin Birmingham

 

As Kevin Birmingham illustrates in his engagingly written “biography of a book,” James Joyce’s Ulysses changed both the way novels are written and the way novels are read. The story of how this challenging book overcame the restrictions of puritanical censorship is well worth telling, and Birmingham does so with the right degree of enthusiasm, respect and attention to the key players.

 

The Most Dangerous Book encompasses accounts of Joyce’s many devoted supporters, including Ezra Pound, the lawyer John Quinn, the editors of The Little Review and, perhaps most importantly, Sylvia Beach, owner of the Paris-based bookstore Shakespeare & Company, who published Ulysses in book form when no one else would. They emerge as heroes in the struggle to make this ground-breaking work available to readers everywhere. But it’s Joyce himself who emerges as a heroic figure, albeit a deeply flawed one.

 

 

Loitering: Essays by Charles D’Ambrosio

 

In the introduction to his new collection of essays, Charles D’Ambrosio does a better job than most in laying out what readers can expect. “… As much as I wrote and rewrote many of these pieces, often, in a contrary mood, the goal of those revisions was to get the thing to read like a rough draft,” he says of his writing process.

 

Whether  writing about Mary Kay Letourneau’s statutory rape trial, the plight of parentless children in a Russian orphanage or the heart-aching miseries of his own family life, D’Ambrosio succeeds to a remarkable degree in making these essays feel both like rough drafts and polished works of art. The carefully engineered rhythm and texture of his sentences quickly draw the reader in, especially in “This is Living,” a moving portrait of his father and criminal grandfather, and in the stunning title essay, “Loitering.”

 

In “Whaling Out West,” he describes a night spent camping out by the Pacific Ocean and the warring impulses that grow out of a tortured family history of mental illness and suicide:

 

“A wave washing around my ankles or perhaps a crease of white foam curling over in the sand will have to indicate a cautionary line where it’s wise to stop or maybe not, maybe not, maybe walk on into the ocean, trust that the handful of people I haven’t failed will remember me fondly, round things off right now and call it a life, make a biography out of this otherwise open aimless business.”

 

In that repeated phrase (“maybe not, maybe not”), Charles D’Ambrosio captures his personal struggle and the collectively  ingrained ambivalence of modern life. Loitering is a terrific book.

 

 

Andrew’s Brain by E.L. Doctorow

 

At 81, E.L. Doctorow might be expected to produce a somber, slow-moving meditative work looking back on a rich life of achievements. Instead, with Andrew’s Brain, he’s written a novel that’s spry, mischievous, fast-moving, elliptical and almost to the last page, surprising and delightful.

 

The book is framed as a prolonged conversation between Andrew, a cognitive neuroscientist and an unnamed person who may or may not be his psychotherapist. The story flits back and forth over time, encompassing memory, personal history, philosophical observations and cunningly crafted scenes ranging from summer homes to the West Wing of the White House. Andrew’s Brain defies categorization and is much the better for it.

 

 

Eyrie by Tim Winton

 

The latest novel by acclaimed Australian writer Tim Winton relates the troubled story of Tom Keely, a disgraced environmental activist living in a run-down apartment tower in Freemantle and continuing to make a spectacular mess of his life. A chance at redemption comes in the form of an old friend Gemma and her haunted grandson Kai, but not before Keeley endures a near-apocalyptic hangover.”

 

“In the bathroom, before a scalding block of sunlight, he tilted at the mirror to see how far the eyes had retreated from the battlefield of his face. Above the wildman beard he was all gullies and flaky shale. Badlands. His wine-blackened teeth the ruins of a scorched-earth retreat.”

 

A challenging novel, Eyrie nonetheless contains more propulsive narrative motion and unerringly acute dialogue than most other novels of 2014.

 

Author Bio:

Lee Polevoi, Highbrow Magazine’s chief book critic, is completing a new novel. 

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