Monthly Archives: December 2014

In 2014, too many disappointments

And now comes the time of year when I review the books I’ve read this year and write my annual best-of blog. This varies from my best-of lists for various newspapers, because I include all books, not just ones released in 2014. But by all measures this year was a thinner one, at 32, than last year, when I read 48 books, print and audio. The blame for this year’s scanty total can be laid firmly at the feet of one Karl Ove Knausgaard. I spent the entire summer plowing through My Struggle, his marvelous memoir cycle (or at least the three that have been translated into English), more than a thousand pages all told. When I finally came up for air in September, it was hard to muster much enthusiasm for the books I was asked to review – predictably plotted novels, most of them, with narrators who seemed either too familiar or too archly hip to grab my attention.
Indeed, this was the year of the Books I Didn’t Finish. It all started with Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch in the New Year. A Christmas gift, this beautifully printed tome – which has perched on the best-seller list all year – left me cold. You would think the story of a boy whose mother is blown up in a terrorist attack at the Met would grip you from page one. But the novel is told in a sort of plodding, opaque way, and I could not muster any enthusiasm for it. Finally, around page 77, I left it on the coffee table and didn’t pick it up again. Everywhere I went, people expressed opinions about The Goldfinch, pro and con. Some agreed with me and said they, too, had given up on it, or had soldiered ahead but wished they hadn’t. Others, including my friend Tara, whose literary taste is impeccable, praised the book to the skies. I felt vaguely disappointed that I couldn’t plug into whatever she found in it.
Following The Goldfinch were at least a half-dozen books I was asked to review but could not get through. Some, like Carolyn Chute’s new novel, Treat Us Like Dogs and We Will Become Wolves, were just too quirky – multiple narrators and tones that made the suspension of disbelief impossible. Other novels featured protagonists who were difficult to care about. A hero or heroine doesn’t have to be likeable, but they need to inspire some sort of attachment in the reader. Their predicament must be dire enough for me to want to read on, to worry me toward the conclusion. In some of these novels I just couldn’t get a handle on what the story was or why I should care about it.
All of which casts the few good books I read into a sort of relief, and makes me want to shine a spotlight on them. The first of these is The Hollow Ground by Natalie Harnett, which made the No. 1 spot in my 2014 lists. Told from the point of view of 12-year-old Brigid Howley, this story of a poor family in Pennsylvania coal country in the 1960s burns with intensity, mystery, and a vivid sense of place. Brigid’s voice is distinctive, her problems multi-layered and daunting, and her attempts to resolve them both brave and poignant. The book unspools so smoothly that it makes you wonder why this first-time novelist can tell such a great story but other, more experienced writers seem mired in their own pretensions.
And, for the second year in a row, I sing the praises of British novelist Sarah Waters. After discovering her last year in the audio version of the haunting The Little Stranger, this year I read The Night Watch, from her backlist, and her new novel, The Paying Guests (which, had I not just finished it, would have made my top five lists). Both take place in London – the former, during World War II, and the latter, in the post-World War I years.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what it is that Waters does so well. Her books feature particular historical detail, and she can turn an original phrase; yet there is something conventional about the telling as well. She is not afraid to play with narrative; The Night Watch is told backwards, a difficult device to pull off well, and she succeeds at it brilliantly. But her other novels, including the latest, are told straight, or in one long flashback. The only thing I can confidently say about her work is the effect it has: I read The Paying Guests, which clocks in at 564 pages, in three days. Enthralling, suspenseful, richly layered – these are novels in the best old-fashioned sense.
In 2015, let’s hope for more of those, and fewer disappointments.

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