Geoff’s Ten Favorites for 2014
I thought that this was pretty good year for both great stories and intellectual challenges, so this was not an easy list to put together.
1. Faithful and Virtuous Night by Louise Gluck: Much to my surprise, the book that moved me the most this year was this slender volume of poetry by Louise Gluck. Calm and reflective, Ms. Gluck’s language is an easy entrée into thoughts about both the deepest and the most transient aspects of life and family.
2. The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan: The powerful WWII story of a doctor from Australia who is the commanding officer of a group of Australian prisoners of war. His men are being forced by the Japanese Army to try to build a railroad through the jungle in Burma. It pulls no punches and is not a pretty or romantic story. However, there are many examples of courage and weakness displayed. The doctor, Dorrigo Evans, finds himself forced to be a better man than he had ever dreamed of being in order to set an example for his men. The book looks in depth at why people do great things and why other people engage in acts of what seems to be unspeakable cruelty. It is a powerhouse and was well deserving of the Booker Prize. (By the way, the title comes from a book by Basho, the legendary Japanese poet.)
3. The Burning Room by Michael Connelly: Bosch is back, working on another cold case, a man who finally dies from a bullet fired ten years earlier. It is politically sensitive and becomes even more so when tied to another cold case involving children killed in a fire. Bosch is assigned a new protégé, Lt. Lucia Soto, who turns out to be a survivor of that fire. As the story progresses, Bosch tries to pass along not only what he knows about crime-solving and why murderers must be brought to justice, but also how to avoid the pitfalls of politics and the press. Lt. Soto is an apt student, although every bit as headstrong as Bosch himself. As the twin cases progress, they each gain increasing trust and respect for each other. Hopefully, they will continue to get to work together in the future.
4. The Long Way Home by Louise Penny: Those who know how strongly I feel about Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache stories will appreciate how powerful I thought the first three books were to place them ahead of her latest. The Long Way Home is interesting for a lot of different reasons.To start with, it is not, at least at first, a murder story. It is the story of the usual gang’s search for the husband of Clara Morrow, the artist extraordinaire. Secondly, it does not take place in the wonderfully familiar and comfortable setting of the Village of Three Pines, but rather travels to the no man’s land at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River. But most of all, it is different because you can sense Ms. Penny feeling more confident and liberated as an author, willing to take chances and try new things. It will be fascinating to see where her next book goes. I can’t wait.
5. Redeployment by Phil Klay: Klay’s short stories about life as a soldier in Iraq and afterward are based on his personal experiences there. A review of some of the stories titles will let you know how deep and powerful they are going to be – Frago, After Action Report, Bodies, Money as a Weapons System, In Vietnam They Had Whores, Prayer in the Furnace, Psychological Operations, and Unless It’s a Sucking Chest Wound. The grim humor of men at war comes through in the story OIF, which pretty much consists of the acronyms that bureaucracies love. It starts “EOD handled the bombs. SSTP treated the wounds. PRP processed the bodies. The 08’s fired DPICM. The MAW provided the CAS. The 03’s patrolled the MSR’s. Me and PFC handled the money.”
6. In Paradise by Peter Mattheissen: Mattheissen’s last book is one of his best. It is the story of Clements Olin, a professor of twentieth century Slavic literature, with a special interest in survivor texts. Professor Olin, who is himself of Polish extraction joins a group of about a hundred people, from various countries, for a week-long “healing” at a German death camp. The use of these different peoples, including a spiritual leader, Ben Lama, and a cynic named Dr. Anders Stern, illustrates how hard to it is to understand the holocaust and assign responsibility for that. It is thought-provoking, as well as a good story.
7. Cold Storage by John Straley: Straley is one of our finest regional crime fiction writers. It is interesting to see that his cover blurbs come from the likes of James Sallis, Ken Bruen, Gary Snyder, and Sam Alden (graphic novelist). Cold Storage is the name of a small town in Alaska. Clive McCahon returns there after having served seven years in prison for drug offenses. He rebuilds an old town gathering place which he calls the Love Nest and serves beer and plays music on records during the week and delivers a sermon on Sunday. All of the town characters are in fact characters. When a Tlingit Indian named Lester is asked if everybody in town is a comedian, he responds, “No, actually most of the people in this town are drunks or depressives, but we have our funny moments.”
8. Soul of the Fire by Elliot Pattison: This is the seventh in a series of novels about a Chinese official, Shan Tao Yun, who was exiled to and imprisoned in Tibet for alleged political crimes. He was able to survive his imprisonment by embracing the instruction he received from other prisoners in the Tibetan religious practices and traditional way of life. Now he uses those beliefs and practices to ameliorate the evils being perpetrated by the Chinese rulers of Tibet. What these books are really about is the way in which the Chinese are seeking to extinguish everything that characterized the Tibetans. In addition to being an entertaining and different story, the serious message of these books is an important reminder that awful things are still being done in many parts of the world.
9. The Laws of Murder by Charles Finch: The latest in Finch’s Charles Lenox Victorian era mysteries has Lenox starting a private detective agency after resigning his seat in Parliament. At first, he is frustrated because bad press has prevented him from bringing in his share of the business. However, when the Scotland Yard detective who was allegedly the source of the bad press is killed, Scotland Yard again requests his help. I enjoy these books not only because they are good stories, but also because they always have some interesting tidbit of English history or etymology. For example, I now know where the name Charing Cross comes from.
10. The Elephant Man by Vicki Croke: The story of an Englishman who humanized the treatment of elephants in the lumber camps of Burma and so was able to put together a formidable and useful force of elephants to assist the British in their defense and retreats during WWII.
I should note that I have not had the time to read Marilynne Robinson’s new book, Lila, which I suspect would have made this list. I would also like to mention Solo, by Rana Dasgupta, the story of a 100 year old man in Sofia, Bulgaria, looking back on his life. It was the best book I read this year that was published before 2014.