Saturday, January 3, 2015

Books of '14: Recommendations

 Having told you what not to read, I now share the highlights of a year in which I liked way more books than I disliked.

Best of the Year: History

Servants; A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times, Lucy Lethbridge, 2013

This book was likely published now by a mainstream publisher because of the popularity of Downton Abbey.  Absent that, it might be purely an academic book.  It's very carefully researched and well-written.  The careful research is impressive because of the paucity of source material about servant life.  Lethbridge knits together excerpts of journals and letters from servants and the people who employed them, journalistic coverage of changes in "service" and fictional accounts of servants and their employers.  She writes about service in both large country estates and in the growing middle class.  When my Competent Wife saw this book, she said "Oh boy.  I'm going to be hearing a lot about servants for the next few weeks."  She, as is so often the case, was completely correct.  I tried only to share the choicest morsels or to give an overview to how world events affected service.  In reading Servants, I learned about the stigma on the profession compared to the independence of, say, factory or office work.  The book confirmed something I might have vaguely guessed, which was that the servant class was dominated enormously by women, our images of the butler and valet notwithstanding.  The World Wars created both temporary and permanent changes to the arrangements of this kind of employment.  Although we think of servants in big Downton-like houses, the vast majority of service took the form of a single maid-of-all-work serving a middle class family in their home, either living in or working just for the day.  It's worth reading and quite interesting.  One note about the form: because Lethbridge is knitting together a larger story from scraps of primary material, the pattern of the writing can get a bit monotonous - setup of point, scrap or two of quoted text to support the point, on to the next point.  She quotes from the same sources in different places, but there are enough sources that there's no through line on any of the numerous narratives from which she plucks.  No doubt, this is a very accurate portrayal, but it made me long for the novelistic comprehensiveness of Downton or even a P.G. Wodehouse novel.

Best of the Year: Essays

How to Be Black, Baratunde Thurston, 2013

Although I had heard Baratunde Thurston on Fresh Air, it didn't register that he'd written a memoir in the form of a parody self-help book called How to Be Black.  I happened upon the book at the library on a "staff picks" shelf.  I'm really glad I picked it up.  Thurston, the online editor of The Onion, is very funny and brings social commentary in the most delightful way here.  In chapters like "How to be the Black Friend" and "How to be the Black Employee," he delves into the current and recent state of race relations in our country with acute observation, warmth and heaps of humor.  In addition to his own thoughts and experiences, he assembles a panel of black comedians, performers and writers (as well as Christian Lander of Stuff White People Like fame) to weigh in with their own insights.  An enjoyable read that made me think a lot and taught me some things about the black experience that I didn't know.  Reading this at the beginning of 2014 turned out to be significant timing.  The events of 2014 proved to be tragic for black men especially.  In 2014, I also took in Dear White People, which frankly was not as cogent or straightforward as How to Be Black.

Best of the Year: Fiction

A tie.

Transatlantic, Colum McCann, 2013

Despite my aversion to hype, I sometimes have to give it its props.  There was a lot of hype around Colum McCann's novel TransAtlantic.  I felt like I heard about it from every quarter for a while.  I believe the first time I requested it from the library, the wait was outlandish.  But since my library buys up tons of copies of bestsellers, no matter how hard it is to get this year's best seller, it's always quite easy to get last year's bestseller.  Having managed to get a copy in time for our beach week, I didn't read it at the beach.  I was finishing a book and a little more interested in another novel I'd brought along - my anti-hype stance kicking in, perhaps.  Thanks to a little summer insomnia and the amazing quality of McCann's writing, I read this book in a week at home.  I can't remember the last time I read a book start to finish in a week at home.  Having read Steph Cha's noir mystery Follow Her Home on vacation - a book in which Cha - as a math teacher would say - "shows her work" in every sentence, I appreciated McCann's reliance on simple language to provide thorough description.  I just opened the book at random and found the first paragraph my eyes settled upon.  Here it is:  "Lily did not know what to say.  She reached out and touched the framed edge of the painting.  Looking into it was like looking out another window.  Clouds.  Fast water.  Geese gunneling through the sky."  It feels like one of those writing exercises in which one is challenged to write with only single-syllable words.  Except the result is perfect.  They're not all one syllable words, obviously; having maintained the reader's attention with straightforward language through the whole paragraph, McCann opens up space to use the specific and rare verb "gunneling".  And the whole book feels that perfectly weighted.

What's it about?  Oh, yeah, three historical trips across the Atlantic form the backbone of the novel.  In the mid-nineteenth century, Frederick Douglass, being an ambiguously free escaped slave in the US traveled to Ireland for a speaking tour among those sympathetic to abolitionism and to buy his freedom.  Just after World War I, flight had advanced to the point that venture capitalists challenged pilots to fly across the Atlantic.  The novel embroiders what history tells us about one such attempt and what McCann thinks happened outside of the known history.  Finally, and most improbably, McCann includes a trip by George Mitchell (or rather three years of trips) to broker peace between Ireland and Northern Ireland in the 1990s.  It doesn't even sound like that good a setup for a novel, frankly.  In lesser hands, it would be hackneyed and tiresome.  In McCann's hands, it's page-turning bliss.

The Interestings, Meg Wollitzer, 2013

The Interestings is the most amazing novel I've read in a long time.  I raved to people all through the end of 2014 about it.  Although I'd heard Meg Wollitzer interviewed before and was aware of her Ten Year Nap, I'd never read anything by her before.  The Interestings tells the story of six teenagers who gather at an arts camp in the 70s.  They somewhat ironically dub themselves "The Interestings".  The novel then goes on to tell their stories and the paths they take after that summer all the way into middle age.  With all of them being artistic, creative types, the path to the future is not clear.  Who will follow their art and live it out?  Who will make different decisions?  Wollitzer writes in an understated fashion that lets the characters come through.  She deftly drops little foreshadowing bread crumbs that pull the reader along in a plot that does not disappoint.  Time, especially, early on in the novel follows an anything-but-linear path.  I read an interview after reading the book that cited the -Up movies (7-Up, 14-Up...) as a point of inspiration.  The comparison I made before reading that was to John Updike's Rabbit novels.  It's fascinating to follow these characters over such a long arc of time and life.  As the novel came to a close, I didn't want to finish it because I would mourn the chance to spend time with the characters and see what they were up to.  At over 450 pages, it's substantial.  Still, I read the last 12 pages in three sittings, delaying the inevitable.  I may be at the perfect age to read this book.  Two late thirties/forty-something friends and I had a conference call book club to discuss it.  In fact, I owe Catherine Christopher a great debt of gratitude for pointing me to this book in a facebook discussion in which she asked *me* for book recommendations.  She and Angelique Bamberg and I had a terrific conversation about it that only enhanced the reading experience. 

Also Recommended
These books were also good-to-wonderful but shouldn't share the spotlight with those above:

Where Nobody Knows your Name; Life in the Minor Leagues of Baseball, John Feinstein, 2014
Sutton, J.R. Moehringer, 2012
Ninety Percent of Everything; Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry that puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in your Car and Food on Your Plate, Rose George, 2013
Fire and Firget; Short Stories from a Long War, Roy Scranton and Matt Gallagher, Eds., 2013
Heart of a Samurai, Margi Preus, 2010
The Orphan Master's Son, Adam Johnson, 2012
I Never Met a Story I Didn't Like; Mostly True Tall Tales, Todd Snider, 2014

No comments: