I am a bit shocked to realize 2014 was the year I loved everything I read. I review books with some frequency and this year I don’t think I gave a single book a negative review — and not because I was feeling particularly giddy about art or life — I simply had the strange fortune of liking what I read. Most all of the books I reviewed this year were books I requested to review and none really disappointed. My highest recommendation out of that group goes to Helen Oyeyemi’s startling and exquisite Boy, Snow, Bird (which will also always hold a special place in my heart for getting both of us on the cover of the NYTBR.) I can also recommend Chang-rae Lee’s stunningly mystifying On Such a Full Sea; Darcey Steinke’s charming, gorgeous Sister Golden Hair; William T. Vollmann’s relentlessly haunting Last Stories. These were books I was paid to read, but frankly would have read anyway.
Out of the all the books I read for pleasure, the standout was Will Chancellor’s debut. He had the misfortune of becoming my friend or else I would have certainly tried to review A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall. This is what we writers call a BIG BOOK — the ambition here is matched by the talent and Chancellor’s storytelling abilities place him with the best. You’ve go water polo, academia, art world, and myth playing out in locations that span across the globe from Palo Alto to Iceland. And, well, I’m a sucker for father-son epics and novels that at least partially and unabashedly deal in ideas.
Speaking of ideas, two more, books that were unlike anything else: one came from a writer I know well and love wildly, the Chinese avant garde writer Can Xue and her second English-translated novel The Last Lover. I don’t know what to say — it is as ever very hard to piece and probe and dissect and even just arrange in a line, but the pleasure for me of reading her is reading something truly surreal in our time, an era where so many books feel painfully, embarrassingly, appallingly safe. On the other side is someone I’d never read before: T.J. Clark. I’m lucky to know a lot of excellent art historians and a visit to a venerable Midwest art department resulted in my picking up and falling in love with this art historian’s work. His The Sight of Death: An Experiment in Art Writing came out in 2006 and is simply a collection of personal, political, and philosophical musings and meditations on two Nicolas Poussin painting that were hanging in a room in the Getty in 2000. For several hundred pages, this diary where seemingly nothing happens cast a very strong spell over me, and I still don’t know how he did it.
Maybe to some “Novel of Ideas” or “Books of Ideas” sound like critical and commercial death sentences, but they have always been my page-turners, and especially in 2014 and undoubtedly onward. May we not fear concepts, philosophies, themes in a time (all times?) when it feels like our survival depends on it.
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