Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Favourite Books of 2014: Non Fiction

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

Finally read this one, and wow. A profoundly affecting "Indian" history of westward expansion. Yes, there are certain archaeological claims it makes that have since been called into question, but this book remains a painfully eye-opening account of the "Indian Wars' of 1860-1890. It inspired me to start looking into the history of western Canadian settlement, which I knew little about and had never thought to particularly question.

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief

Although Hubbard's name gets tossed around a lot in SF studies I'd never read an account of his rise to cult-leader status, let alone the disturbing aftermath as scientology transitioned into a "religion." Structured around the conversion & rejection of a prominent Hollywood scientologist, this book is worth reading on multiple levels: as a fascinating cultural history, as a profile of indoctrination, and of abusive personalities. Also, Tom Cruise.

Nothing to Envy: Everyday Lives in North Korea

A sometimes charming, mostly terrifying account of the lives of ordinary North Koreans who later defected to South Korea. I found myself rooting, retroactively, for the young starcrossed lovers to escape and the elderly Party loyalist to see the light and escape before her family starved to death. A fascinating - and horrifying - insight into life in a truly Orwellian society.

The Black Count

Born on Haiti, Alex Dumas, the mixed-race former slave, rose to become a French aristocrat and military hero before running foul of Napoleon. His adventurous life was later used by his son, Alexandre Dumas, as the inspiration for characters and events in THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO and THE THREE MUSKETEERS. An adventurous look at Romantic era race relations in Europe - a story American cinema and history tends to ignore.

The Emperor of all Maladies

I put off reading this book for a long time because, quite frankly, I thought this history of cancer and its treatment would strike too close to home. But Bannerjee's history of the evolution of cancer treatment is highly readable and provides a grim insight into the failures as well as successes of medical research. It also is clearly written and helped me get a better grasp on the language of 'precancer,' 'clinical trial' and 'chemotherapy' actually means.

Honorable Mention:

Capital in the Twenty First Century

Probably one of the most important books of the year, but - frankly - not the most readable, Pekkety's empiricist history of capitalism from the 18thC onward buries ''trickle  down' economics and provides a grim, number-driven picture of our century's rising inequality. The first and last chapters are the most important, so if you want to know what people are talking about, go read those.

Favourite Books of 2014: Fiction

This year I read 76 books for pleasure: non fiction and fiction with a generous helping of SF and New York literary-awards type books. Here are my favourites.

(Note: not all of these are new books; some of them are books I just got around to reading for the first time in 2014.)

FICTION

Station 11

I picked up this 'literary apocalypse' novel expecting another THE ROAD. What I got was something I'd never read before: a beautiful apocalypse. STATION 11 interrogates art, human connection, and the meaning of life in a matter-of-fact post apocalyptic setting. I can describe the plot in trite catchphrases (it's SLINGS AND ARROWS meets THE STAND!) -- but what's great about this book is hard to put into words. Let's just say it's about a famous Shakespearean actor who dies onstage, and a lethal flu epidemic, and a new generation using art to survive in a brave new world. If you're a writer, you should read this book.

The Paying Guests

Of all the "literary" books I read this year, this one was my favourite. It's a character study of a woman out of step with her times, who discovers she's not as brave or ethical as she believed herself to be. Also, it's a page-turner about illicit love and murder. And it's beautifully written.

Fool's Assassin

Robin Hobb's latest may win no grand literary awards, but it was one of the most enjoyable books I read this year. Hobb sets her novels in a high fantasy world, but it's the domestic details that grip the reader and anchor the plot. I don't know how she does it. Note: if you've never read Hobb's novels before *don't* start with this one. Go back and read ASSASSIN'S APPRENTICE, or even ROYAL ASSASSIN first.

Annihilation/Authority

I haven't read the last book in Vandermere's Southern Reach trilogy, otherwise I might have three titles heading this entry. An "environmental disaster" (or was it?) has produced a mysterious zone of biological weirdness called Area X. Governments send expeditions to investigate it. Things go horribly wrong. 

ANNIHILATION won my love for situating me inside the deteriorating consciousness of a biologist trying to preserve her sanity on a bizarrre jungle expedition. (Scientific explorers going mad! Love!) 

AUTHORITY transfers that creepiness into bureaucracy, plunging its pov character into a 'jungle' of a new workplace. (Uncanny workplaces! Love!) It also features one of the creepiest scenes I read in any book this year.

Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer

This is a clever puzzle box  of a novel -- perhaps too clever to be widely successful. Still, if you enjoy trying to outhink unreliable narrators, you should check it out. The plot: Charles Jessold was a brilliant young composer who killed two people and then himself. A music critic narrates the story of his own very peripheral relationship with the doomed genius. It's a dull tale - at first. Then we get another version. And another. And things get darker and more twisted every time.

The Secret History

Finally got around to reading this study in murder, intimate friendships, and what people will do to belong to a group. As with many books of this type the real character of interest is the narrator, a young man from a lower class background determined to fit in with an elite group of students at a private college. And it has a great opening line: "The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation."

Honorable Mention: 

Life after Life. A child is born, dies, restarts her life, is born, dies, restarts... This must have been a very hard novel to write. Atkinson doesn't completely pull it off, imo, but the result is a highly unusual and very readable novel.

Longest Night

One of my favourite photos from the Vancouver solstice festival. I've always loved the Sun Yat-Sen garden, and this was a spectacular way to view it: