The Books That I Read in 2014

December 29, 2014 | By | COMMENTS

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking by Anya von Bremzen. History has never been my strong suit. In high school, I took A.P. European History and hated having to memorize kings and popes and battles and lines of succession. It felt like rote memorization. So when a book comes along that hides its history lessons like a mom hiding medicine in a bowlful of Jello, I’m a happy camper. This book, which tracks Von Bremen’s childhood in Russia and her eventual migration to America, allowed me to confront a huge swath of 20th century history all through the prism of my all-time favorite subject: food. Though it’s been almost 12 months since I read this book, the scenes of deprivation under Stalin–women sharing a kitchen in a communist apartment building putting locks on their pots of meat, so no one would steal anything out of them–stay with me, as does the tale of young von Bremzen going to an American supermarket for the first time, viscerally overwhelmed by the experience (so much choice! And yet the strawberries smelled like nothing). I wasn’t brave enough to make any of the recipes in these pages, though perhaps one day I’ll muster up the courage to tackle kulebiaka.

The Circle by David Eggers. When I gave my Google talk two years ago (not linking to it because I’m so embarrassed that I wore a bowtie), I found myself in total awe of the Google campus. It really did feel like some kind of Utopia (I had a similar feeling on Pixar’s campus too, recently). Dave Eggers takes that notion and runs with it here. The book starts out as some kind of 21st century, techno-fantasy: Mae Holland gets a job at a Google-like company, called–appropriately enough–The Circle and she feels like she’s in paradise. Very gradually, and Eggers takes his time here, things get more and more sinister, until what starts out as a satire (a very funny one at that) becomes more and more of a thriller. It’s a book that feels very of-the-moment, and it certainly had me concerned about my overstimulated brain, but I can’t say that it moved me very much on a human level. Still, it’s a book that needed to be written and probably one that needs to be read. I’m glad I did.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt. A cold intelligence permeates this book about a group of erudite college students in a New Hampshire town who carry out a grisly murder. What makes the book so compelling (and such a classic) is the careful and deliberate way that the story is told; it’s not so much about the crime as it is about the seductive way Tartt’s protagonist, Richard Papen, falls into the crime. We’re right there with him, each step of the way. The other brilliant part is how Tartt balances the high and the low, the lofty Greek lessons the students study in their carefully curated group, and then the ghastly way they interpret those lessons. It’s a work clearly written by a master storyteller (her Goldfinch is next on my Donna Tartt reading list).

Delancey by Molly Wizenberg. [See my post about it here.]

My Berlin Kitchen by Luisa Weiss. Knowing I was going to Berlin this June, I stashed away two Berlin books in my bag to read before getting there. The first, written by my friend Luisa Weiss (of The Wednesday Chef), portrayed a Berlin that I hardly knew existed, a delicate sort-of Berlin–a stark contrast to the Berlin that existed in my head. Luisa’s tale is one of falling in love, yes with her future husband Max, but more importantly with the city of her birth; the place that she once and then once again called home. Much like Amanda Hesser’s Cooking For Mr. Latte and Molly Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life, the book seamlessly weaves recipes with storytelling and packs a solid emotional punch. It also paints a vivid picture of German cuisine–heavy on the sweet stuff–that sets the stage for Berlin as a culinary destination, as much as a cultural one.

* Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood. Cabaret has long been my favorite musical and yet I’d never read the book it was based on, until I was taking a train from Paris to Strasbourg and I thought, “What better place to crack this open?” The musical Cabaret begins on a train, of course, and as I opened these pages, the first story–a novella of sorts–“Mr. Norris Changes Trains” couldn’t have been more fitting. In fact, the tale Isherwood tells of his unexpected friendship with the strange Mr. Norris who he meets in a train car may be my favorite thing that I read this year (hence the * next to the book title). It’s a doozy of a tale, beginning in harmless fashion (an unlikely friendship, quirky characters, secrets shared) and ending with the dawn of the Nazis, the death of a major character, and a sense that light-hearted fun in serious times can have deadly consequences.

* Act One by Moss Hart. Another * because this is my favorite overall book that I read this year. Granted, a lot of my enjoyment of it had to do with the fact that I was writing a play while reading it. (Sidetone: that play didn’t work out, but it led me to write something that may have launched a whole new career. More in 2015.) This is a book for writers, specifically writers who want to learn how to get from Point A (nobody/striver/bottom of the heap) to Point B (legend/master/icon). Hart walks you through the process step by step, from those early days of going to the theater with his aunt–the most emotional part of the book for me–to his gradual collaboration with George S. Kaufman, the most instructive part of the book. “Dying is easy, comedy is hard,” the saying goes and the collaboration sequences here totally dramatize that fact—Kaufman and Hart painstakingly go over and over their material, refining it, rewriting it, testing it before audiences, refining it and rewriting it again. For me, that was the main takeaway of the book; it’s the same lesson I took away from Whiplash: yes, if you’re good at something, it should come easy to you, but then you’ve got to work at it and work at it and work at it until your fingers are bleeding, and your eyes are bloodshot, and you don’t think you can do anymore and then you keep working at it until you have something extraordinary.

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer. Most creative people can pinpoint a time in their lives when they finally met a group of likeminded friends, kindred spirits, with whom they thought they’d conquer the world. For me, that happened in college; for Jules Jacobsen, the protagonist of Meg Wolitzer’s book, that happens at a camp called Spirit-In-The-Woods. And then everyone sets off towards adulthood and all of these people who you cherish, who you’re convinced will become the next Gilda Radner, the next Christopher Durang, just become regular adults with spouses and kids and everyday responsibilities. This book takes a cold, hard look at that–at the challenges behind being a creative person (an “Interesting”) in the face of practical reality–and how that reality changes people. While I profoundly connected to most of the characters in this book (Jules in particular), strangely the gay character–Jonah Bay–left me totally cold. In trying to subvert gay stereotypes (that light-in-the-loafers, promiscuous gay character we’ve all come to know) she ended up creating a neutered, flat, gay man whose main points of interest are his mother and his boyfriend. That said, I enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone who feels compelled to read it.

These Things Happen by Richard Kramer. [See my post about it here.]

* Tenth of December by George Saunders. We toss around the word “genius” pretty easily these days–we even call guys working at the Apple store “Geniuses”–but when true genius appears, it’s an undeniable sort of thing. Such is the case with George Saunders and his writing. I’ve loved him since his first few books (Pastoralia, Civilwarland in Bad Decline) but it’s his most recent one, the wildly heralded Tenth of December, that sealed the deal. These stories walk an incredible tightrope between hilarity and tragedy; you’ll laugh–laugh hard–but then, by the end of a particular tale, you might feel yourself overcome with emotion. Really, what sets Saunders apart is the totally offhanded way that he approaches his narratives; you start reading one of his stories and you’re like, “Where is this going?” (The first story in the collection is like that.) Then you keep reading and reading and suddenly you figure out what’s happening and you’re like, “Holy shit. How is he writing about this? This is so grisly and awful.” My favorite of the stories, by far, was “The Semplica Girl Diaries” and the less you know about it, the better. All I’ll say is that the way that information is revealed in that story is nothing short of masterful. In fact, if I ever teach a class on short story writing (hey, stranger things have happened) I’d make everyone read that first. It’s hard to think of a better one.

Where’d You Go Bernadette? by Maria Semple. It took me a little while to warm up to this Seattle satire, even though I’ve spent much time in this book’s target city, but once the gears of the narrative really kicked in (specifically: a sequence involving a fundraiser for a private school) I was hooked. The book really nails wealthy, liberal cultural–people with lots of money who fancy themselves humanitarians–and the hypocrisies therein. It’s also a great character portrait, as Bernadette’s character gets revealed piece by piece. The final sequence was a bit plot-heavy for my tastes, but it worked, and offered a satisfying ending. It’s a well-made book.

Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh. I’m halfway through this book now, so can’t fully review it, but I’m enjoying it more than Waugh’s better-known book, Brideshead Revisited. That book was so heavy-handed; this one is light on its feet, a free-wheeling, topsy-turvy satire of Britain’s Bright Young Things. (In case you didn’t notice, these last couple of books have all been humor-heavy; that’s because I’m doing my own humor writing these days. More in 2015…I promise.)

Previous Year-End Book Reviews:
The Books That I Read in 2013
The Books That I Read in 2012
The Books That I Read in 2011
The Books That I Read in 2010

Categories: Books