Best Books of 2014: Chosen by local authors, Berkeleyside

Photo via Creative Commons
Berkeleyside asked Berkeley-based writers for their pick of their favorite two books of the year. Photo: Creative Commons

Every year Berkeleyside puts together a list of the best books the editors have read. We generally ask local authors and literary-minded folk to contribute their picks. This year we decided to mimic the format used by The Guardian newspaper in Britain, and that meant asking everyone to limit their selections to two books apiece – a difficult task, we found. Here, then, is our selection of the Best Books of 2014.

Elizabeth Rosner: “Two books leap ahead of the herd”

Elizabeth Rosner
Elizabeth Rosner

Berkeley author Elizabeth Rosner published two books in 2014, including Electric City (named a Best Book of 2014 by NPR) and Gravity, a book of poems.

Two books leap ahead of the herd when I think about outstanding reading experiences this year.

The first is Karen Joy Fowler’s acclaimed novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, with its astonishingly original approach to the subject of familial love. Months after finishing the book, I can still recall the sensation of holding my breath while I turned the pages, hopeful and terrified and amused and devastated. This story broke my heart and blew my mind. In a very different but equally momentous way, I found myself profoundly affected by cover designer Peter Mendelsund’s book What We See When We Read. He offers an inspired “phenomenological” study of something that we readers both do and do not quite know about what is happening inside our brains, using examples from many of my favorite writers (Woolf, Tolstoy, Joyce, Kafka, and plenty of others). It’s a thrillingly visual and imaginative window into the mysterious and rapturous activity we call reading.


Angie Chau: “This book is going to change the way I see the world”

Angie Chau
Angie Chau

Angie Chau is the author of Quiet As They Come, which was a finalist in First Fiction for The California Book Award and a finalist in Fiction for the Northern California Independent Booksellers’ Award.

After reading the first two chapters of Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers I turned to my husband and said, “This book is going to change how I see the world.” My prediction was true. This is investigative journalism and narrative non fiction at it’s best. Set in a make-shift slum beside Mumbai’s airport, Boo parachutes us into the lives of a fixer, a garbage collector, a one-legged trouble maker, and captures them with incisive reportage at once harrowing and heart breaking. The language is exquisite, insightful, filled with anguish and humor as she exposes the corruption and abject poverty of the quickly modernizing 21st century India.

In Akhil Sharma’s autobiographically inspired novel, Family Life an Indian family attempts to make sense of their new lives in America while simultaneously struggling to take care of a son who has been rendered profoundly brain dead as a result of a swimming pool accident. Much like the swimming pool, the book mirrors a fluid quality in the language, the sense of grief that drowns one day into the next, in the unstoppable quality of the pages, quietly relentless through the pain and the respites of joy…not unlike our own lives as we know it.

Jeff Scott: “Stories that stay with me… rise to the top of my favorite list”

Jeff Scott
Jeff Scott

Jeff Scott is the new director of services for the Berkeley Public Library.

It has always been difficult for me to pick a favorite book. My annual reading goal is to read approximately one hundred books a year, but the stories that stay with me long afterward rise to the top of my favorite list. It is in small conversations that I realize a book has influenced me, changed my perspective, and brought new awareness to a topic. One quote that I remember often is from a short story collection of Vonnegut’s Armageddon in Retrospect, in the story, “From The Commandant’s Desk.”

“And the world becomes a little duller for us all for there being fewer treasures, bourgeois treasures. But for those that can’t afford beautiful things love the idea of there being such things somewhere.”

This leads me to one of my favorite books of the year, Station Eleven by Emily St. Mandel.

The prevailing theme in Mandel’s book is art. Art becomes the light in the darkness; the sign of a return to civilization, and as The Traveling Symphony states, “…survival is insufficient.”

The real gem of the book is the passing down of art and creation. In the pre-plague time, a young woman is working on a post-apocalyptic comic book called Station Eleven. The work is something she writes for herself, without a real goal of selling it or mass producing it. It reminds me a great deal of Margaret Atwood’s take on art. For whom is the artist creating it? While it is a passion for the artist, it also becomes a spark for future generations who have lost most of what they have. Art is the piece that connects all the characters together. Art is the thing that is never snuffed out.

I first read Charles M. Blow in an op-ed piece in the New York Times about Ferguson. He pointed out the sharp contrast between officers perched in sniper positions, using force and tear gas against protestors peaceably assembled. It reminded me of several books that I have read over the years, such as The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, The Residue Years by Mitchell Jackson, and Jessmyn West’s Men We Reaped. Afterward, Blow’s memoir Fire Shut Up in My Bones is a must read.

Hurtling down the highway with a gun on the passenger seat, Charles Blow is intent on murder and self-destruction. Blow seeks revenge on the person who upended his life and caused him to question his identity. It is this moment that leads to an epiphany. This memoir is an unpacking of that moment.

There is sometimes a need to unearth our own story. A need to probe our depths to make sense of our own past, even though we aren’t sure where it leads or what it means. Charles Blow’s memoir Fire Shut up in my Bones is that kind of memoir. Told in short snippets, he pieces together his childhood in Gibsland, Louisiana. This memoir is powerful, as the reader can feel the raw emotion and the searching narrative. While the story focuses on the aftermath of abuse, he also has poignant observations about race. He covers everything from growing up and learning about race, to the difference in how race is portrayed in the 70s vs. the 80s on television. Shows went from Good Times to Different Strokes, “…they were surrounded by all-white casts, like bubble wrap, I assumed to cushion the impact of their presence.”

Anyone can relate to Charles Blow, growing up, feeling different. He discovers more about himself and reveals that to the reader. It is a visceral narrative for anyone dealing with a history of abuse.

Deirdre English: Choices for 2014 — Solnit and Gopnik

Deirdre English
Deirdre English

Deirdre English is the director of the Felker Magazine Center at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She is also the former editor of Mother Jones and author of  For Her Own Good: Two Centuries of the Experts’ Advice to Women, which she co-authored with Barbara Ehrenreich.

Men Explain Things To Me, by Rebecca Solnit (Haymarket Books): The title essay is based on a wickedly funny feature that went viral after Solnit posted it on TomDispatch.com (a cutting edge site for essays on hot topics in the news). Solnit recounts infuriating encounters with Very Important Men who pontificate on subjects she knows much about — while they, demonstrably, don’t. Solnit serves her revenge cold, and in the rest of the book’s essays she unmasks other, still more serious ways that women are silenced, or — even when they do speak up — are not heard.

Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln and Modern Life, by Adam Gopnik (Knopf): What I love about this book is that it is about Darwin and Lincoln as writers, and how their command of language was essential to their success in science, and in political and military leadership, but also to the elevation of persuasive discourse itself. Love of articulation, clarity, freedom from cant, passion for truth, knowledge of rhetorical strategies, devotion to detail, mastery of logic — all these mattered and spoke in themselves of superior arguments stemming from highly cultivated minds. As Gopnik writes, “Lincoln and Darwin… remind us that literary style, eloquence, isn’t just an ornament or frosting on an achievement created by other means; it is part of that achievement.”

T.J. Stiles: “Two is such an arbitrary number”

T.J Stiles
T.J. Stiles

T.J. Stiles is the author of The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 2010 and the National Book Award in 2009. An avid non-fiction reader, there were many books he enjoyed in 2014, he said. When forced to select two, Stiles mentioned the arbitrariness of the number and emphasized that these were not the “best” but just two, out of many, that he particularly liked. So as a grudging concession to the difficulty of the task at hand, we allowed Stiles three recommendations.

Book recommendations! I commend to you a few books I found particularly noteworthy this year. I was frantically busy this year finishing the writing of my next book, which means I didn’t get much time for leisure reading.

Alex Beam, American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon ChurchThose who know Beam from his contrarian and funny columns in the Boston Globe may be surprised by his change of pace in his books. Once again he has produced an elegant, well-researched book that captures the vivid characters involved in the birth of the LDS Church. Respectful of the Mormon faith but offering his independent judgment based on the evidence, Beam gives us a crackling account of the consequential final years of the Mormon prophet’s life.

Jonathan Eig, The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a RevolutionThe biographer of Al Capone, Eig knows how to tell a good story. Here he has an important one as well. Eig captures the larger-than-life personalities, buccaneering scientific breakthroughs, social movements and debates, all in a well-paced, fascinating narrative about the handful of women and men who changed our world forever.

Ben Tarnoff, The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American LiteratureTarnoff’s marvelous group portrait of the Bohemians, a group of influential nineteenth-century San Francisco writers, provides insight into the remaking of American letters at the dawn of the modern age. Young, imbued with the wide-open culture of San Francisco—a city at once prosperous, cosmopolitan, and a remote outpost far from any other major American city—they brought new irreverence, wit, and priorities to literary culture. Come for Twain; stay for the banquet of personalities Tarnoff serves up.

Mal Warwick: Grits his teeth and singles out two

Mal Warwick is the co-author with Paul Polak of The Business Solution to Poverty: Designing Products and Services for Three Billion New Customers, which won a Gold Award in the 2014 Axiom Business Book Awards. Mal is also an impact investor and a partner in the One World Futbol Project, a social enterprise he helped establish in Berkeley.

Mal Warwick
Mal Warwick

If I’m forced to single out just two books of the scores I’ve read this year, well, I guess I’ll just have to grit my teeth and do it.

In the area of nonfiction, I can’t avoid The Age of the Unthinkable: Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us and What We Can Do About It, by Joshua Cooper Ramo. This is a brilliant and disturbing analysis of the complex dilemmas facing policy-makers on the world stage today by a protegé of Henry Kissinger (and, no, I don’t like that man any more than you do). Ramo argues for a thoroughgoing reorientation of US foreign and military policy.

In fiction, I was most deeply moved by The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver. This is a fascinating historical novel of Revolutionary Mexico and the US from the 1920s to the McCarthy years, with close-up portraits of Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and Leon Trotsky. Intensely political. One of Kingsolver’s very best.

Lance Knobel: Dreyfus Affair, Bangladesh genocide, a dash of poetry

Lance Knobel
Lance Knobel

Lance Knobel is the co-founder and publisher of Berkeleyside.

The novel that stuck with me this year was Robert Harris’ An Officer and a Spy, a fictionalized account of the Dreyfus Affair. I knew the outlines of the despicable framing of Captain Alfred Dreyfus and the virulent anti-Semitism it unleashed in France. Harris vividly depicts the history, with the pace of the very best thrillers.

It’s hard to choose my favorite non-fiction work this year. Evan Osnos’ Age of Ambition on contemporary China is a worthy National Book Award winner, but it was pipped at the post for me by Gary Bass’ The Blood Telegram. Bass unpicks the appalling role the U.S. played in Pakistan’s genocide in Bangladesh. That Henry Kissinger is still lauded in some circles is nauseating.

I don’t read enough poetry, but Alice Oswald’s Dart was thrilling.

Frances Dinkelspiel: Competitive ballet dancing, world of modern art

Frances Dinkelspiel
Frances Dinkelspiel

Frances Dinkelspiel is co-founder and executive editor of Berkeleyside. She is also the author of Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California. The San Francisco Chronicle named it one of the year’s best reads in 2008.

One of my favorite novels this year was Maggie Shipstead’s Astonish Me, which provides a peek into the competitive world of ballet dancing. It tells the story of Joan, who had a fleeting career as a professional ballerina but who was best known for her love affair with a great Russian dancer, Arlan Ruskov, and her assistance in helping him defect from the Soviet Union. She becomes pregnant and flees into the arms of an old boyfriend, seemingly content to teach ballet in a strip mall and raise her son. When her son becomes a ballet prodigy, Joan’s carefully constructed life falls apart. I loved Shipstead’s writing, her portrayal of the passion it takes to be a professional dancer, and the cost of that dedication.

My favorite non-fiction book of the year was Gabrielle Selz’s Unstill Life: A Daughter’s Memoir of Art and Love in the Age of Abstraction. Selz is the daughter of Peter Selz, the founding director of the Berkeley Art Museum (who is still going strong in his 90s). But before that happened, Peter Selz,who fled the Nazis, was a curator at the Museum of Modern Art. He  and he and his first wife, Thea, were friends with many of the most important artists of the day. So Selz grew up with Mark Rothko at her dinner table and fabulous art on her walls. After her parents’ split, she divided her time between New York and Berkeley. Long after I finished this book I was thinking about Selz’s description of Westbeth, an experimental artists’ residence Greenwich Village, and the scenes she writes about Diane Arbus’ suicide.

Please share your favorite books of the year in the Comments section.

Recommended books: Try to buy them at your local bookshop!

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
What We See When We Read 
by Peter Mendelsund
Behind the Beautiful Forevers 
by Katherine Boo
Family Life 
by Akhil Sharma
Station Eleven
by Emily St. Mandel
Fire Shut Up in My Bones 
by Charles M. Blow
Men Explain Things To Me
 by Rebecca Solnit
Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln and Modern Life
 by Adam Gopnik
American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church 
by Alex Beam
The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution 
by Jonathan Eig
The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature 
by Ben Tarnoff
The Age of the Unthinkable: Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us and What We Can Do About It 
by Joshua Cooper Ramo
The Lacuna,
by Barbara Kingsolver
An Officer and a Spy 
by Robert Harris
The Blood Telegram 
by Gary Bass
Dart 
by Alice Oswald
Astonish Me 
by Maggie Shipstead

Related:
5 local cookbooks that will make great holiday gifts (12.02.14)
The Best Books of 2013 (12.17.13)
The Best Books of 2012 (12.21.12)
The Best Books of 2010 (12.16.10)

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