My Favorite (and not-so-favorite) Novels of 2014

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These are the best books I read this year. As with the movies, there aren’t necessarily books published this year (most were published in 2013), but books I read this year. At the bottom are books that I’d rather hang in an outhouse and use as toilet paper than ever read again.

10. Disquiet by Julia Leigh (2008)
This slim novella must be read in one sitting for maximum discomfort. It’s also a book written for writers or people prepared to peel apart the lines and actually look at what lies between.

9. To the Nines by Janet Evanovich (2004)
I read many Stephanie Plum novels this year. They’re like the Friends of novels. You can read/watch them in any order. They’re perfectly entertaining. Nothing ever changes. To the Nines is the perfect Plum, with an oddball plot that sends Stephanie, Lula, and Connie from Trenton to Vegas and back again.

8. The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker (2013)
A superbly crafted work of historical fantasy combines non-vampire/non-werewolf fantasy creatures with a turn-of-the-century New York City setting in a slow, but rich, exploration of both society and humanity through the eyes of the Other, which, in an age of immigrants, is everyone. Wecker’s protagonists are almost perfectly parallel, making this book a joy to reread and dig deeper into as well.

7. Mad About the Boy by Helen Fielding (2013)
Bridget Jones is my spirit animal, and her welcome return is markedly better than the disastrous Edge of Reason. Bridget shows us that as much as we grow, we also stay the same, and you know what? That’s okay.

6. The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult (2013)
No, you’re not looking at the wrong list. Yes, this is a Jodi Picoult book on my best list. Despite her formulaic nature, I’ve always admired Picoult’s wit and humor, an intelligent restrained by her successful formula. When I first heard about this book, I thought, oh no, Jodes does the Holocaust. But she handles it respectfully and beautiful, breaking her own formula in some noticeable ways, but ultimately adhering to it. Here, it works.

5. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (2013)
I read a lot of Kate Atkinson this year, and it was a tough call between Life After Life and One Good Turn, Atkinson’s second Jackson Brody novel. Her characters in Life After Life were much more enjoyable to spend time with, which is necessary since you see them again and again and again as Ursula dies and is reborn in a never-ending cycle of triumph, tragedy, and savory black comedy.

4. Amy Falls Down by Jincy Willett (2013)
In this unexpected sequel to Willett’s The Writing Class (The best book I read last year), Amy Gallup falls down and becomes famous. Funny how things like that happen. Willet’s biting wit shines, and I’m pretty sure one of the book’s supporting character is a thinly veiled caricature of Jodi Picoult. Like me, Amy also despises Jodi–er, Jenny’s formula, but ends up respecting her as a writer and a person.

3. The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling (2012)
The Casual Vacancy isn’t Harry Potter, and that’s a plus for me. A book that’s more Dickens than YA fantasy, with a large cast of characters and a close-up look at grim and gritty social justice issues, The Casual Vacancy isn’t an enjoyable book, but it’s an important one.

2. Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead (2012)
One of my favorite books this year was a book written for 10-year-olds. Stead’s novel tackles issues with more depth and elegance than many adult books about similar topics. Strange, suspenseful, witty, humorous, and entertaining for all ages.

Tampa1. Tampa by Alissa Nutting (2013)
Daring, dirty, and provocative, Nutting’s first novel tells the story of sociopathic schoolteacher Celeste Price and her uncontrollable desire for 14-year-old boys. (As I read on the internet this year, “If there’s grass on the field, play ball.”) Celeste is cold and calculating, and despite the graveness of the situations, Nutting fills them with laugh-out-loud dark-as-a-black-hole humor. Bonus points for having the most deliciously dirty book cover I’ve ever seen.

 

And now for my bottom five, books I’d be tempted to shred in a bookstore so as not to inflict them on anyone else.

5. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloane (2013)
A brainless book about a bookstore that has nothing to do with books. Feels like Google commissioned it and populated it with characters via algorithm, flat, soulless, boring.

4. I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb (1999)
Lamb’s bloated follow-up to She’s Come Undone is infinitely more offensive than his fat-girl-likes-whales debut. A novel set against a backdrop of white male oppression turns into one where the white male jackass ends up succeeding. The moral: oppression pays off.

3. Paper Towns by John Green (2009)
Gone Girl for Teens. Nice Guy meets Cool Girl, both are so insanely fake and borderline sociopathic that they truly deserve each other. Except in Gone Girl, this is framed as a horror story. Paper Towns frames it as romantic, which makes it so much scarier.

2. Insurgent by Veronica Roth (2012)
500 Pages of Nothing.

1. The Dog Stars by Peter Heller (2012)
Speaking of Nice Guys, The Dog Stars should be called Nice Guys of the Post-Apocalypse. Dude that makes Angel from Buffy look chipper broods around brooding and being broody. He writes pretentious free verse poetry (i.e. this book) When his dog dies, he finds an even better replacement, a chick he can give his bone to. Triple barf.

To end the year on a positive note, I’m compiling a list of my favorite short stories and essays of the year. Not a stinker in the bunch! Will hopefully have that up tomorrow or Jan. 1 2015.

I’m an Author!

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At least, I am according to Amazon. This is funny because the only things I’ve had published have been in my own college literary journals, and those aren’t for sale on Amazon. But they still think I’m an author. Here’s how I know this.

I post a lot of my shorter reviews, mostly book reviews, to Amazon. My House of Holes review disappeared. I’ve talked about House of Holes here before. I just assumed that it went poof because of the content, although I was as clean as a person can possibly be when talking about a book called HOUSE OF HOLES, a book where a disembodied arm feels up a girl IN THE FIRST CHAPTER.

Anyway, it was an outlier. One of the only positive reviews for that book. So I was miffed my opinion was eradicated.

Then, my Ender’s Game review disappeared. My Ender’s Game review was not positive. I hate Ender’s Game.

Here’s the review from my Goodreads, which is basically what I copied to Amazon.

Ender's Game (Ender's Saga, #1)Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Ender’s Game is basically Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War but in space. Kids are mean! They beat each other up! The plot is virtually non-existent. Ender and co. bounce around in zero gravity for at least sixty pages, training in a banal combat game that doesn’t provide its participants with any useful skills (nor the reader with anything resembling entertainment) to fight the buggers, the stupidly named alien race that almost wiped out humanity decades ago and might wipe us out again. Or something. The majority of the bugger plot, the only remotely interesting plot point in the entire 324-page book, is crammed into the last two chapters.

Card’s writing style is dull and boring. He clumsily shifts between third- and first-person perspective for no good reason. He fails basic Writing 101: show the reader, don’t just tell. Valentine and Peter create online aliases for themselves: Locke and Desmosthenes. The two have lively Interweb discussions. Or at least Card says they do. Not a single article, post, or debate is actually written, so we have to take Card’s poorly written word for it. “They began composing debates for their characters. Valentine would prepare an opening statement, and Peter would invent a throwaway name to answer her. His answer would be intelligent, and the debate would be lively, lots of clever invective and political rhetoric. Valentine had a knack for alliteration that made her phrases memorable.” Perhaps if Card had the same knack for alliteration some of his phrases would be memorable. They’re not. The dialog is bad, the jokes aren’t funny, and the kids sometimes slip into a weird pidgin English when insulting each other. It doesn’t make sense.

Also, all the adults are Bad. “There is no teacher but the enemy,” one of Ender’s mentors tells him. Anti-authoritarianism can make great drama when it has purpose. This just sounds like the long-winded, non-sensical rebuttal of a bratty student who did poorly in school. Probably in his writing classes.

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My 1-star review was fairly divisive, with about 30 people saying it was “helpful” and slightly more saying it wasn’t. This review got the most feedback from any review I’ve posted on Amazon, besides my mostly positive Buffy Season 9 comic book review that prompted someone to post a review titled, “Chance Lee Is an Idiot”, which got deleted.

So, Ender’s Game. That review was deleted last month sometime. Now, this review had been up for almost two years. Wha’ happen? I e-mail Amazon and get this response:

We do not allow reviews on behalf of a person or company with a financial interest in the product or a directly competing product. This includes authors, artists, publishers, manufacturers, or third-party merchants selling the product. As a result, we’ve removed your reviews for this title.

Umm, how do I have a financial interest in this book? Even if I was a published author, it wouldn’t be in the whiny juvenile sub-genre of sci-fi bullshit. I asked for clarification, and received the exact same response, word for word, from their copy/paste customer service checklist, along with this addendum:

We will not be able to go into further detail about our research.

I understand that you are upset, and I regret that we have not been able to address your concerns to your satisfaction. However, we will not be able to offer any additional insight or action on this matter.

My one review doesn’t matter, and I doubt it affected sales of this book in any way. I just find its deletion weird, and wonder that if this is the actual reason, why are any of my reviews still up? 98% of them are for books. Will they eventually disappear? And how many other outlying reviews is Amazon deleting? Again, who cares? I’m just curious.

Golden Oldie: Don’t Forget the Oatmeal! A Word Book, 1980

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Tie a string around your finger and get ready to go grocery shopping with this weekend’s Golden Oldie review of a not-actually-a-Golden-book book from the Sesame Street book club.

Don’t Forget The Oatmeal!: A Word Book by B.G. Ford

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was my favorite Sesame Street book as a kid. I was very excited to find it at a used-book store for $2 a few years ago.
Identifying all the stuff at the grocery store was always a lot of fun. Cookie Monster’s cookies always looked really yummy too, even if I had no idea what the heck a macaroon was as a five-year-old. (I’ll admit it: I don’t think I knew what a macaroon was until I was 20.) I did always feel bad for the grocery store people who had to clean up after Cookie Monster’s mess.
Anyway, the pages without a lot of items to identify aren’t as fun, but it’s still an entertaining story. The end upset me often though, because every time I re-read it, I hoped and hoped and hoped that they wouldn’t forget the oatmeal. But (SPOILER ALERT) they always forgot it.

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Golden Oldie: Ernie Gets Lost, 1985

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My first Golden Oldie review is for an actual Golden book from 1985.

Ernie Gets LostErnie Gets Lost by Liza Alexander
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book traumatized me as a child, because I thought getting lost was a fate worse than death. Once you were lost, that’s it. You’ll never find your home again.

I got over it eventually, and maybe it was with Ernie’s help. I’m glad he found he way back to Maria and wasn’t lost at the department store forever. If he was, then Bert wouldn’t have received that badass Pigeon Land board game for his birthday. Man, I always wanted to play Pigeon Land so bad.

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A Swift Kick in the Gator Tots

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Don't judge a book by its cover.

Our book club recently finished Swamplandia! by Karen Russell. The marketing surrounding this book is very misleading. Blurbs by Entertainment Weekly and Carl Hiaasen lead you to believe that you’re in for a wacky, fun-filled ride. This is true, but you’re also destined for a total kick in the nards of your soul.

Avast! Here be spoilers!

A few of us found that Ava’s loss of the Red Seth to be one of the saddest moments of the novel. (As a sidenote, I don’t know if red alligators actually exist. This is important.) The Red Seth is, at its core, a symbol of innocence. At first, it seems like it might be representative of blossoming sexuality. It is red, after all. Plus, it’s “A tiny, fiery Seth.” (59), and the discovery of it is thrilling. The whole budding sexuality thing is more of a theme in the short story “Ava Wrestles the Alligator.” In Swamplandia! the red Seth ultimately symbolizes a child-like innocence. This is apparent when Ava throws it at the Bird Man in order to escape after she’s been raped by him.

Doing a google image search for "red alligator" only brings up pictures of hideous handbags and shoes.

The Seth is then lost forever. There’s no way for it to survive in the wild. As Ava says when she first discovers it, “I felt very certain that she was going to die. That nothing born this color could live for long in the open air.” (60)

That’s sad enough, but the meaning of the red Seth goes deeper than this. With the red Seth, Karen Russell suggests that innocence shouldn’t even exist. “The red on her skin seemed like a disease I could contract through my fingertips or a spell I could break, a color so pure and unreal that I thought it might rub off.” (59) It’s so fragile, there’s no place for it in the world.

Innocence’s ignorant bedfellow is hope. The two go hand in hand. “This alligator could save our park!” (60) Ava believes when she discovers the tiny red Seth hatching from an egg. She’s too young and ignorant to knwow any better. Nothing will save Swamplandia! from its fate. And as her mom suggests while in the hospital, it’s pointless to hope. “Hopes were wallflowers. Hopes hugged the perimeter of a dance floor in your brain, tuging at their party lace, all perfume and hems and doomed expectation.” (106) What do your hopes get you? Cancer and death.

Hi, I'm Karen Russell. And I hate children. Also, I despise rainbows, sunshine, and unicorns.

Eventually innocence is lost. It’s not just lost, you have to throw it away to defend yourself. And ultimately, after a while, you completely forget what innocence was even like: “When I’m awake, I can’t seem to draw a stable picture of the red Seth in my mind’s eye anymore–it feels like trying to light a candle on a rainy night, your hands cupped and your cheeks puffed and the whole we world conspiring to snatch the flame away from you. But in a dream I might get to see the part of the swamp where her body washed up, bloated and rippling, or where she escaped to, if the dream was beautiful.” (396)

Because of the Red Seth, I found Swamplandia! a deeply cynical novel. This isn’t a criticism. I’m a cynical person. Maybe it’s just my general mood lately, but I’ve been ruminating on this aspect of Swamplandia for a while, and I have to say I agree with it. And that makes me immensely sad.

All The World’s an Orifice

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Alternate title: What the hell is Nicholson Baker trying to say in House of Holes?

“Look up at those great clouds while […] I fuck the planet earth.”

House of Holes Cover Published in 2011, House of Holes is described on the back as “a modern-day Hieronymus Boschian bacchanal set in a pleasure resort where rules don’t apply.”

I don’t know what some of those words mean. I’d describe it as a filthy, fun, sci-fi porno enriched by Baker’s wonderful gift for language, but fails to hold my undivided interest for the entire thing. In that sense, it’s almost exactly like a porno. I’ll go back to it occasionally, but not to re-read the whole thing. I’ll just flip to the money shots.

Like these: “You mean I’m supposed to wank while Crackers does a lap dance?” (97) Even in context, I find this line LOLable.

Or this dry exchange: “Thank you,” said Kazumi. “I will let you feel my breasts now.” “Okay, great. Thanks.” Wade felt her breasts. (117)

Anything that isn’t completely out there and/or repugnant (like a woman being shrunk to a half-inch in size and stuck in a man’s penis, forcing him to masturbate her out.) is given nary any page space. “Mindy cooked him a three egg omelet and he ate it.” (228) And then back to the bangin’!

Holes is a collection of loosely related stories with recurring characters. Each one has a setup usually involving two strangers who have absolutely no qualms about discussing their most private and kinky sexual fantasies with each other. Then they do them. And anything is possible in the strange sci-fi world of the House of Holes, especially when it starts off with a girl named Shandee finding a disembodied arm that then feels up her roommate (causing Shandee to get fo’ realz jealous), that then transports them to a magical sex carnival.

Nicholson Baker

This man has the filthiest imagination ever. Image from the Post-Gazette. Click for an interesting article titled "Is House of Holes necessary?"

The set-up, brief exposition, XXX action, and money shot would get tiring if it wasn’t so incredibly out there and imaginative.

Still, after almost 200 pages of this, I started to wonder: Why?

It’s not until page 167 until any of his characters seem to show any form of human emotion, but in a very robotic fashion.

“And what after all is a soul mate?” “A soul mate is when you really think someone is great. You really like her a lot. You like when she explains things to you. You love her. That’s a soul mate.” “Oh,” said Trix. “Will you take me to the groanrooms?” Then they go to a pitch-black room and moan at each other. It’s like an aural orgy.

Later, there’s a very interesting chapter about Ned, who has his head detached (don’t worry, he’s fine), which leaves his body to have sex all by itself and the woman named Reece who rents out his body in the Headless Bedroom. She kind of has to teach the body what to do, sexwise, and grapple with her own feelings about casual sex. What’s more casual than having sex with a body that can’t think, speak, or respond?

If the tables were turned, and the woman was headless, it would come across as quite sexist at the least. But Baker never makes his women objects. They have their own desires and drives, and they always get what they want too. Even though all the sex is exclusively hetero, it’s a very inclusive book, spanning many different fetishes.

Holes has a surprisingly wholesome message: Two consenting adults can and should be able to do whatever the heck they want without any judgment. Your imagination is the only thing holding you back.

Baker occasionally makes other points beyond just “ngghghghghgh.” When magically removing a client’s tattoos Hax says, “[Tattoos are] something that hides you. It is a way of not being naked while being naked” (110). And when magically growing back Jessica’s pubic hair, Hax says about shaving, “That, too, is a way of hiding. No hair means you are dressed in hairlessness. You are finding a way to be clothed when you aren’t clothed. Hair is your true nakedness. Do you want your nakedness back?” (110) I hate living in such a shaved and plucked society. Hair is a statement. Hairlessness is the cowardly way out, and Baker put into words something I didn’t even know I had been thinking for a long, long time.

The book has what seems to be an almost backwards ending. A small couple made out of silver living in an egg (ignore the silver skin and egg part if you must) discover their own private parts, that they give them pleasure, and that they’re attracted to one another. On the last day the House of Holes is open for business, the egg hatches and the couple copulates in front of a cheering crowd of hundred.

Yes, this kinky book ends with a couple in love having vanilla sex with one other. Of course it’s voyeuristic, but every book taps into that voyeuristic desire to see and analyze someone’s private life. Back to the point, this couple is cheered and celebrated in its innocence.

So what do we learn, along with the residents of the House of Holes? Despite your kinkiest desires (and may they bring you the greatest of pleasure when you act them out safely and responsibility), loving sex of any kind, no matter how plain, is to be celebrated and revered.

I also recently finished Baker’s The Mezzanine, which, as far as Holes go, is startlingly clean. But it has the same wide-eyed appreciation for seemingly mundane aspects of life that I really connect with. I’ll write about that book soon.