2014 Books Read

2014 was a good reading year. I re-read a lot of favorites, including Rebecca West’s 1200 page Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. There was a fun mix of re-reads and new stuff, of fiction and non-fiction. My year of being unable to read (2009) was so upsetting that I am still so happy that I am even able to read. The novelty hasn’t worn off.

2014 Books Read

1. Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, by Lawrence Wright. Nothing like starting off a new year with an in-depth examination of a cult I have been obsessed with and trying to infiltrate for over a decade now. It’s a very good book. There are sections when I think he soft-pedals too much, but the potential damage done by such a book cannot be overstated. Guess my infiltration days may be coming to an end.

2. The Richard Burton Diaries. Phenomenal. One of the reads of the year. Not to be missed.

3. I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined), by Chuck Klosterman. Ben and Siobhan both read this and adored it. It is SO entertaining. His essay on The Eagles is a classic. But there is a lot of great and thought-provoking stuff here.

4. The Double, by Fyodor Dostoevsky. A re-read. A favorite.

5. In Sunlight and in Shadow, by Mark Helprin. The author of Winter’s Tale, one of my favorite books of all time. This is his latest, and it’s just as huge as Winter’s Tale. Over 900 pages. Another New York story, so detailed in terms of its neighborhoods that you could construct a map of New York from its pages. I love his writing and there is the sweeping romanticism that is familiar to me in his style. Normally I don’t go for New Agey stuff. For him, I make an exception. However, the female heroine of the book is such a perfect example of “male gaze” stuff (and honestly, I don’t have a huge problem with the “male gaze” – as long as it’s not the only gaze out there, then have at it, men, show me what you see, I’m down!). But Helprin is so in love with his heroine, and clearly is so attracted to her, that at one point, when she is by herself, going about her morning routine, he describes her as “perpetually attractive.” Dude. Get a room.

6. Cassavetes Directs: John Cassavetes and the Making of Love Streams, by Michael Ventura. A re-read in preparation for my Criterion assignment. Invaluable. And Ventura did the commentary track for the Criterion release of Love Streams.

7. The Complete Essays of Mark Twain. Another re-read. I went through it slowly, reading an essay a day, and it took me months. I re-read it as I was doing selected excerpts from the book.

8. The Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner. Normally I am suspicious of any book that is hyped as much as this one was, that is universally hailed as this one was. The buzz was so deafening I resisted, and finally succumbed, because my curiosity got the better of me. The way people were talking about her writing … I had to experience it for myself. All I can say is: Believe the freakin’ hype. She really is that good. And it’s somewhat sui generis. She blows away all the big-shot-fiction-BOYS writing right now, I’ll tell you that. It’s so good that I am now a fan for life. Reading her writing is reminiscent of discovering the writing of Annie Proulx for the first time, or Katherine Dunn: equally gutsy and muscular and singular writers. I had a very rare feeling reading The Flamethrowers: that I was encountering a new kind of voice. That was the vibe I got from the reviews I had read, and didn’t quite know what to make of it until I read it myself. Yup. There it is. Something new. An exhilarating and confident book.

9. A Story Lately Told: Coming of Age in Ireland, London, and New York, by Anjelica Huston. Marvelous, detailed, so Irish. What a fascinating story she has. She has a second volume out now and I look forward to reading it.

10. 1984, by George Orwell. Felt a hankering. I read it every couple of years, and always find it bracing, always find something new to discover.

11. Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, by Kay Redfield Jamison. Doctor-ordered reading material. I had read her memoir years ago, before my own diagnosis, interestingly enough. Touched With Fire has helped me tremendously. It’s also pretty sobering. But, you know, one has to be strong and face the reality. Highly recommended, even if you are not afflicted with the cray. Fascinating portraits of many many artists.

12. In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote. Re-visiting a lot of perpetual favorites this year.

13. Vanessa: The Life of Vanessa Redgrave, by Dan Callahan. Dan is a friend, and also one of the best writers on actors/acting process/acting today. His fascination with Vanessa Redgrave’s work breathes passion into every page. I interviewed Dan about the book for Rogerebert.com.

14. Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War, Max Hastings. Could not put it down. It’s so good that I yearn for him to do the same thing for every year of WWI. Please, Mr. Hastings? I fell asleep once while reading it, the pages opened to some terrifying map and could barely sleep due to my anxiety about an upcoming battle in a small village for which the French were CLEARLY unprepared. I fell asleep worrying, thinking obsessively, What are you going to do about all of those bridges, Frenchies? Just leave them open and undefended?? Do I have to think of EVERYTHING around here?

15. The Secret Sharer, by Joseph Conrad. Another story about a “double,” this one even more disturbing than the Dostoevsky because you are just … not … sure. The captain of a ship in the Indian Ocean takes a castaway on board, out of a clear and flat sea, and hides the castaway in his cabin. It strikes the captain that this person seems … very much like himself … although he can’t quite put his finger on it. The world starts to destabilize, sanity starts to shatter. It’s such a short little story, but huge in scope.

16. A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 1), by George R.R. Martin. So far I have only read the first in the series. I enjoyed it tremendously.

17. The Giver, by Lois Lowry. A re-read in preparation for the film, which I did not admire at all. Love the book, though. The ambiguity of that last line!

18. Essays of E. B. White. The collection has been in my library for what feels like forever. It is a collection I dip into repeatedly, for the comfort and humor of his writing, its plain-spoken often very funny humanity, his thoughtfulness, his observations. I re-read it this year as I was going along sharing excerpts of it for my ongoing Let Me Post an Excerpt From Every Book In My Vast Library that I started in 2006. It was really fun to re-read these essays again. I love him.

19. No Exit and Three Other Plays, by Jean-Paul Sartre. A re-read in preparation for one of my Supernatural re-caps.

20. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, by Rebecca West. I was so enthusiastic about this book that my mother is reading it now! I mean, you hesitate to say to someone: “Here is a 1200-page book about Yugoslavia in 1938. Have fun!” But Mum is reading it and adoring it. In its own strange way, it is a total page-turner. One of the great books of the 20th century. It was just Rebecca West’s birthday. If anything, I enjoyed my second read of the book more, since I relaxed into it from the first page. It took me five months to get through it. And I didn’t want it to end. I will read it again.

21. Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn. A re-read, in preparation for the film. I tore through it in two days. It’s loopy ridiculous vicious fun.

22. Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music: Fifth Edition, by Greil Marcus. Essential reading. I reference this book all the time. I’ve read it maybe 10 times. Musical profiles of Robert Johnson, Harmonica Frank, Randy Newman, The Band, Sly & the Family Stone, and a gigantic sweepingly important essay on Elvis Presley called “Presliad.”

23. Inherent Vice: A Novel, by Thomas Pynchon. A re-read in preparation for the film, which is on my Top 10 of the year. I laughed so loud reading the book that my cat hid behind the radiator, in fear for her life because of my helpless guffawing on the bed. I can count on one hand the books that are so funny I have to put them down and WEEP with laughter. We went and saw Inherent Vice yesterday, me for the second time, him for the first, and it was just as good as I remembered. Even better, since I was able to relax into it from the start. Inherent Vice is a great great read. You read it and think, “How on earth could this maze EVER be adaptable?” Oh me of little faith.

24. Missing Reels, by Farran Smith Nehme. Farran is a friend and this is her first novel. I tore through it at the speed of light, resenting the time I had to put the book down and go to sleep. It takes place in the ancient times of 1980s New York, when there were revival houses showing old movies all over the city. If you were an obsessive in those days, you did not have the Internet. You had to seek out your tribe, doggedly, persistently, out in the real world. People who love old movies and love silent films are a passionate eclectic bunch. Best of all, though, it is a screwball comedy with a good old-fashioned mystery at the heart of it, with a cast of wacko characters charging in and out of the action, all obsessives to some degree. There were lines that made me laugh out loud. It’s a celebration of film, and a celebration of loving what you love as much as you want to love it, dammit. The romance in the book is prickly and filled with ambiguity, calling up the screwball romances of 1930s film. It works on every level, the plot level, the character level, and the mood that Farran is able to create. The book honestly feels like a screwball, with cars careening down blocks and people leaping out of them like maniacs, wisecracking dames and over-it New York cops, nerdy weirdo professors and an elegant yet fierce old lady, the heart of the mystery our heroine uncovers. It is a deeply honest book and I found it tremendously moving. (My good friend Ted reviewed Missing Reels on his site.)

25. Sword of Honor, by Evelyn Waugh. How does one write a sort of screwball comedy about England’s preparation for and fighting in WWII? I have no idea, but read Sword of Honor and that’s what you’ll find. I was sorry when this one ended.

26. Once More Around the Park: A Baseball Reader, by Roger Angell. The book has been in my collection forever and includes some of my favorite pieces of Angell’s writing. I re-read it as I was doing excerpts from the book for my site. Reading Roger Angell’s prose is always an immense pleasure.

27. Amongst Women, by John McGahern, one of my favorite writers. I read Amongst Women only once, and my father and I had many beautiful and intense talks about the book (as well as John McGahern’s other books). I have been unable to pick up Amongst Women again for years. It’s about an Irish family, and the father’s relationship with his three daughters. I come from a family with three daughters. So it’s intense, too close. I decided to give it a try again, resolving to put it down if it was too upsetting. There were moments when I almost put it down, but I stuck it out, being gentle with it, reading it in the morning, instead of at night. If I read it at night, I feared it would impact my sleep. The book is a marvel of emotion and character development. There is an anguish in it. He is as good as it gets.

28. Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, by Michael Lewis. A re-read. I think after Amongst Women I needed to relax. I love the book.

29. It Came From Memphis, by Robert Gordon. So glad I read this one! It made me yearn to go back to Memphis! Written by a Memphis resident, a writer and film-maker, it tells the story of the Memphis he knows, its characters, its music scene (removing Elvis and the other giants from the picture). What else was going on? Who else was a playah? Amazing portraits of individuals, from wrestlers to coffee shop owners to sculptors to Furry Lewis to Alex Chilton. I adore this book.

30. Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad. What a book. My God. A re-read.

31. The Ionian Mission , by Patrick O’Brian. Volume 8 in the Aubrey/Maturin series. I had started this series and fell swiftly in love. Read volumes one through seven. Turned my dad onto them. He read the entire series in a two month period (maybe shorter). It was the last thing he could really read. He read like he knew that. So I have been unable to pick up the series again since then. It’s too sad for me. But I decided to give it a shot, and did so in a spirit of wanting to feel close to my dad. I love the books so much, and actually am now glad that I have so many more to look forward to.

32. Miss Julie, by August Strindberg. A re-read, in preparation for the Liv Ullmann-directed film. Reviewed Miss Julie the film here. What a chaotic crazy utterly MODERN play.

33. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand. I could not put down Seabiscuit, and had heard from many that Unbroken was of the same caliber. I finally re-read it, wanting to read the book before I saw Angelina Jolie’s film (which I really liked, a couple of quibbles, but in general, really liked it). The story is incredible. It makes me think of Cary Grant’s exclamation in the middle of Bringing Up Baby, “How can so many things happen to one person?”

34. Opened Ground: Selected Poems, 1966-1996, by Seamus Heaney. I have been reading a couple of Seamus Heaney poems every morning for the entirety of the year. It’s become a wonderful meditative practice. Dad gave me Opened Ground, an enormous and beautiful volume. It’s been so wonderful re-reading these poems, one by one by one. I have my favorites, and have often opened the book to find this or that specific poem, but it was great to re-read them all.

35. Death of a Naturalist, by Seamus Heaney. Continuing with the Heaney theme, since I enjoyed the ritual so much, I picked up his first volume of poetry and read through it, a couple of poems a day. I’m in the groove with it now.

36. Door into the Dark, by Seamus Heaney. The second volume of his poetry, published in 1969.

37. Washington Square, by Henry James. Inspired by a recent viewing of The Heiress as well as this conversation between Jessa Crispin and Gary Amdahl about three different film adaptations of James’ novel. I’ve read the book before, felt compelled to read it again. I had many new thoughts in this recent re-read about what a disservice it was to women to keep them helpless and under their father’s thumbs. A disservice to the entire society. Catherine IS prey. Her father senses it. He has helped to create that situation. That last line. The “as it were.” Brutal.

38. Treason’s Harbour, by Patrick O’Brian. Stephen Maturin takes center stage in this one, his life as an intelligence agent making up the majority of the story. I must mention that in the first chapter, Jack Aubrey sits at an outdoor cafe, and he is wearing a hat with a diamond mechanized thingamajig on it, that whirls and spins when you push a button, making Jack Aubrey into, basically, a Christmas ornament. O’Brian’s description of the hat, of the hilarious reactions of the people at the table, made me put the book down and have a nice healthy FIT of laughter. There’s also one section when Aubrey falls into a well and has to claw himself out of it. He’s a character out of a screwball in Treason’s Harbour. Onto the next book in the series in 2015!

39. Wintering Out, by Seamus Heaney. Heaney’s third volume of poetry, published in 1972. Bad bleak times for Northern Ireland and you can feel the outer world and its politics and bombs and checkpoints start to infiltrate his verse.

40. North, by Seamus Heaney. Heaney’s fourth volume of poetry, published in 1975. The title says it all. Powerful stuff. I will continue on through all of his volumes in 2015, I have most of them. I’ve really been enjoying re-discovering his stuff. I have had to stay away from it for a while, because of Dad. Just too connected to him. It feels okay now. It’s okay to connect myself to Dad through literature. It was one of our ways of bonding on this plane of existence.

41. District and Circle: Poems, by Seamus Heaney. Dad gave this collection to me. It’s a later collection, published in 2006 (Heaney’s second to last volume of poetry). Beautiful stuff.

2013 books read
2012 books read
2011 books read
2010 books read
2009 books read
2008 books read
2007 books read
2006 books read
2005 books read

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9 Responses to 2014 Books Read

  1. Jim Cappio says:

    Double Amen on THE FLAMETHROWERS. I felt exactly the same about the hype, but decided to give it a try after hearing Kushner on the Skylight Books podcast and found it every bit as awesome as you did.

    • sheila says:

      Jim – so glad to hear you say that. I was, frankly, awed by the whole thing. I don’t even know how to talk about it. Her writing feels like speech – she doesn’t seem to care about conventions – the ENDING. The politics. the big-ness surrounding the book. That lead character. Phenomenal novel!

  2. Jim Cappio says:

    Also, I don’t remember any reviewers mentioning that it’s *bloody hilarious*. Especially in the New York sections, I found something to laugh out loud about on almost every page.

  3. Dg says:

    I went through a spell of memorizing a lot of Seamus Heaney poems a year or so ago. Just memorizing a few lines a day til you recite the poem cold. I found while I was doing it something very comforting akin to saying prayers like I used to. Somewhere along the way I got P.O.’d at the church and questioned everything into full agnosticism. Now I guess I pray to St. Seamus…. And St. Frost, St. Hughes etc.
    Do you get that vibe in your morning readings or am I just off my rocker?

    • sheila says:

      Dg – I am really touched to hear you say you memorized Heaney poems – I know just what you are talking about, and I agree that memorization like that, and recitation, feels like prayer. Could even BE prayer, depending on your definition.

      I have the same experience as you do.

  4. Barb says:

    A lovely, eclectic list! I read “I Wear the Black Hat” last year, too, and I liked the analogies Klosterman made between Luke Skywalker/Han Solo/Darth Vadar and the varying stages of adulthood.

    Noticing, too, the re-reads for your reviews–do you find your professional life intermingles with your personal pursuits? I honestly can’t go into a bookstore or read a list like this without a mental checklist starting in my head, enumerating what’s in the library collection, and what I might need to look at. (Just added Missing Reels to my list, btw–thanks!)

  5. Anne says:

    On the World War I book – have you seen any episodes of *Who Do You Think You Are*?I watched a bunch of them recently and noticed many of them seemed to involve some story like “my poor grandfather was in the reserves on a ditch-digging platoon and didn’t even have a proper working rifle, and suddenly he found himself in the direct path of the German army.” JK Rowling’s episode, in particular, was like this. Somehow it makes it even more terrifying and real, to think of the entire ferocious German army bearing down on this one ill-equipped and untrained person, who thought his unit would be well behind the lines!

    • sheila says:

      Anne – Wow! No, I have not seen those – I will definitely check them out!!

      There were so many stories like that in the book – nobody was prepared to deal with the force of that army, and it really was defending the land ditch-to-ditch-to-ditch. Crazy.

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