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Books Read 2014 – Fiction (part one)


Animal DreamsMy very short nonfiction list was published earlier: Books Read 2014 – Nonfiction. I have no doubt the anticipation has been building for a book-by-book rundown of the 36 novels I managed to read last year, and I aim to deliver. Here is the first of two posts covering, in the order read, the fiction I finished in 2014.

As I did last year I have indicated the books that show up on my self-compiled “Great Books of the 20th Century” lists. Placements on my  Great Novels ,  Great Sci-fi and Fantasy Novels  and  Great Crime Novels  lists, lovingly color-coded, are given where applicable.

Without further ado …
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  • Doris LessingThe Grass Is Singing
    I read this because I did not have a copy of her The Golden Notebook (#25 on my Great Novels list). Loved it. Years ago I read and did not enjoy her The Cleft. Now I know why she is so well regarded. This is a powerful story of a very unhappy woman and the sad, brutal racism of African colonists. A remarkable debut novel.
     
  • Gabriel Garcia MarquezLove in the Time of Cholera
    See Gabriel García Márquez where I overreacted a bit to his penchant for portraying–a bit too enthusiastically for my taste–the sexual abuse of young teenaged girls by old men. Yet, his gifts as a storyteller and prose stylist are undeniable.
     
  • Per Wahloo and Maj SjowallThe Terrorists
    With this novel, I complete the cycle of ten “Martin Beck” mysteries written by the Swedish husband-and-wife team. These novels, published from 1965 (Roseanna) through this last novel in 1975 (the year of Wahloo’s death), are set against the backdrop of the Cold War with a strong undercurrent of pro-socialist political philosophy. I am more than a little bit sad to have finished with these. It feels like a death. I will reread at least one–The Laughing Policeman is #43 on my 46 Great 20th Century Crime Novels–and probably a few others: Roseanna, The Man on the Balcony and The Abominable Man at least. (I have also at least two more of the “Eric Winter” novels of Ake Edwardson to fall back on. In my mind Eric Winter is the next-generation Martin Beck, and I have to believe Edwardson has been profoundly influenced by Sjowall and Wahloo.)
     
  • Of Human Bondage 92   W Somerset MaughamOf Human Bondage
    This is Maugham’s semi-autobiographical novel and usually said to be his masterpiece. Hard to read without wanting to dope-slap Philip, the main character, who nearly destroys his own life because of his morbid attraction to a poisonous woman. Things end happily enough for him, but he winds up a woman who will be more of a nurse to him than a wife.
     
  • Barbara KingsolverPigs in Heaven
    A worthy sequel to Kingsolver’s wonderful The Bean Trees. In addition to a charming story, this book manages to include a lot of Native American history–specifically the Cherokee “Trail of Tears” forced march. Genocide is another word for what this country did to these people. Shameful. Kingsolver is a talented writer with a sense of social justice I admire. I look forward to reading more from her.
     
  • Patricia HighsmithDeep Water
    Another of Highsmith’s man-kills-wife or man-wants-to-kill-wife novels. She was a very odd duck, that is for sure. Better at least than the disappointment of The Tremor of Forgery (a 2013 read), but not as good as the best of her work.
     
  • W Somerset MaughamThe Razor’s Edge
    My third Maugham novel in a year (on The Moon and Sixpence, see Accidental Maugham; on Of Human Bondage see above) and my favorite of the three. This one was written in 1944 almost 30 years after the others. The main character, Larry Darrell, is almost a Christ figure. Maybe Buddha would be a better comparison. He is almost supernaturally stoic and good. The woman who loves him almost as much as she does material comforts does him no favors.
     
  • Dune 2   Frank HerbertDune
    I remember this book being a popular sensation when I was a teenager (though it was published almost 10 years before I entered high school). I wasn’t a big reader of science fiction then and did not read it myself, nor did I see the 1984 David Lynch film. This novel is apparently the biggest-selling science fiction novel ever and ranks behind only Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four on my compilation of the Great 20th Century SciFi/Fantasy Novels. I would not rate it quite that highly myself. I did enjoy it, but unlike the novels of Ursula Le Guin and Philip K Dick, it did not inspire me to seek out more from its author. I did just recently see the film. Leaves out a lot. Dusty. Must have been a spectacle in ’84.
     
  • 6   Jack KerouacOn the Road
    I am not well-read in “beat generation” writers. Should have read Kerouac as a much younger man. Not that I did not enjoy this–I did–but I am sure I would have found it profound as a teenager. Probably with unfortunate consequences. It features lots of humor, of course, though I’m not certain that this, the funniest sentence in the book, was meant to be so:

    “So I rushed past the pretty girls, and the prettiest girls in the world live in Des Moines.”

  • *  HG WellsThe Invisible Man
    I recently added six novels of Jules Verne and HG Wells to my self-inflicted science-fiction reading assignments. I am such a n00b sci-fi-wise that I felt I should go back and read or re-read the fathers of the genre. The Invisible Man is a fun one. The silly explanation of the protagonist’s discovery of a way to change a body’s “refractive index” to render it invisible can be understood as perfectly plausible to an 1897 readership. And, maybe not as absolutely far-fetched as we may think: scientists today are working on invisibility cloaks.
     
  • Philip RothEveryman
    This 2006 novel by Roth portrays a man, on the day of his own funeral, looking back over his life. I don’t just now remember exactly how this is framed. Is he a disembodied spirit looking down on the events of the day? At any rate, it is narrated in the first person. The man dies after an illness which provides him time to reflect on his unsatisfactory life and the “unfairness” of his situation. His older, richer and happier brother is the picture of health and destined, surely, for a long life. Obviously, the situation has some resonances with my own. But unlike the narrator, I am not (yet?) embittered, and though I have of course made my share of mistakes I would not change anything. Okay, I would not change much.
     
  • The Death of Ivan IlyichLeo TolstoyThe Death of Ivan Ilyich
    I re-read Tolstoy’s novella as a companion piece of sorts to Philip Roth’s Everyman (see immediately above). This is another story of a man dying prematurely of an illness which provides him time to reflect on how he has lived his life. Again, the protagonist is unhappy and unreconciled to his fate. This is, though, a tale of how love from an unexpected source intervenes to provide a nudge towards an eleventh-hour peace that fills his heart and mind. Hopeful, but sobering.
     
  • *  HG WellsThe Island of Doctor Moreau
    Another pioneering work of science fiction by HG Wells. Chimeras, oh my! As it is with the science of The Invisible Man (see above), the idea of chimeras is not entirely far-fetched. It should be a good long time before genetic engineers create half men/half pigs, but we know that it is more of a terrifying prospect than an impossible one.
     
  • Barbara KingsolverAnimal Dreams
    This novel features a Native American heroine as do The Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven. But though this book was published after Trees and before Pigs, it is not a part of that two-book tale. This one tells the story of modern descendants of the Hopi tribe and their fight against yet another threat to their homeland.
     
  • Carl HiaasonNature Girl
    Another of Hiaasen’s humorous, Florida-based environmental action novels. It is a odd but popular subgenre he has staked out all to himself. These are formulaic but reasonably fun. I am sure there are lots of sunblock-stained copies of his books available in Miami used bookstores. I’ve bounced around a bit through his catalog, reading his early Tourist Season and Skin Tight (1986 and 1989) before skipping forward to this 2006 offering. Not much has changed.
     
  • 31   Robert A. HeinleinStarship Troopers
    Heinlein is an author I was almost wholly unfamiliar with prior to my compilation of a list of great science fiction novels. He places four on it. If that was not enough to pique my curiosity, an episode devoted to him on the Science Channel’s series Prophets of Science Fiction did the job. In this episode Heinlein was credited with originating the idea of powered body armor, which has only recently been under development by the United States’ military and others. Powered armor was described in this book, where it is employed in a war against the Arachnids of the planet Klendathu. Prophet though he may have been, we have not yet faced war with intergalactic bug people. Which is a very good thing: they are fierce fighters. Starship Troopers was published in 1959 and won the Hugo Award (Heinlein’s third of five).
     
  • George RR MartinA Storm of Swords
    He is no Tolkien, but who is? The medieval fantasy world of George RR Martin is no more real than any world where fire-breathing dragons exist. But it certainly feels authentic. Brutal, but without quite the level of gratuitous and often violent sex that characterizes the HBO adaptation Game of Thrones. This volume is number three of five novels published to date in Martin’s epic fantasy cycle A Song of Ice and Fire. At least two more volumes are anticipated. Chances aren’t great I will live to see it completed.
     
  • 24   Dashiell HammettThe Glass Key
    See Hard-boiled Hammett.
     

See also:

Books Read 2014 – Nonfiction
Books Read 2014 – Fiction (part two)
 
113 Great 20th Century Novels
46 Great 20th Century Crime Novels
45 Great 20th Century SciFi/Fantasy Novels

 

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