A Selection of Recommended Books of 2014

Wolf in White Van - John Darnielle Dear Committee Members - Julie Schumacher The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future - Naomi Oreskes, Erik M. Conway Never Have I Ever - Katie Heaney It Never Happened Again: Two Stories - Sam Alden

It's true, I can't say I'm not happy to see 2014 end. After the past year, I am definitely looking forward to something different. However, aside from everything else, one thing I can say for 2014 is the variety of awesome books published this year, and I managed to read a fair number of them. 

This year, I read 40 books published in 2014, which is, I think, considerably more books than I have read in the past published in the current year (if that makes sense). All of this was due, for the most part, to requesting books early from the library and reading them in quick succession to return them for the next person on the reading list. Definitely a good way to boost my reading challenge, which, according to Goodreads, I managed to surpass the 150 books goal.    


Here are five of my favorites that I have not yet written about yet, in no particular order.


Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle


Perhaps my favorite this year, "Wolf in White Van" is a beautiful, mysterious, complex, and compelling novel. I have been thinking of it, going over in my mind it's chapters, it's labyrinthine cover and and it's labyrinthine pages, since completing it, and soon I will, I have to, read it over again. John Darnielle, of the Mountain Goats, tells the story of Sean, a man disfigured in a terrible teenage accident, who spends his time piecing together intricate worlds for other people to explore. Through the post-apocalyptic Trace Italian, among other old fashioned play be mail fantasy games, he shares his vision and imagination with others only to have, once again, tragedy strike as a pair of kids try to bring Seans' world into their real lives.


The Trace Italian, with its vision of a devastated future America with a promise, however impossible, of a perfect world hidden in its interior strikes me as particularly apt, a vision of the world many of us live in. An extremely introspective novel, Sean is an unreliable narrator as he considers how the choices he made has effected his life and the lives of others; like a "Choose Your Own Adventure Book" or a roleplaying game, every choice we make can have dire, wonderful, unimagined consequences; what would happen if things went a different way? Wolf in White Van is packed with wonder, pain, and sadness, intricate details which will reward another reading, I feel.

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher


Dear Committee Members is a sharp, biting, and delightfully prickly epistolary novel of academic and professional ennui, a wry and bleakly comic account of one curmudgeonly chauvinistic creative writing professor’s rather unfortunate semester. A fast paced and elegant novel, Julie Schumacher uses the sarcastic and exasperated correspondence of Professor Jason Fitger to paint a vivid picture of his deteriorating life and the collapsing environment of the institution surrounding him. Schumacher writes with a deft pen, granting the egotistic professor with a pathos that makes him feel sympathetic, even when he is a complete asshole. I could definitely relate to his environment, if not his sarcastic personality, though his wit and venom certainly led to some laugh out loud funny moments.


Told through a collection of sarcastic letters of recommendation, interdepartmental memos, and other correspondence penned by an embittered English Professor of the “second rate” Midwestern liberal arts college Payne University, we are treated to his passive aggressive barbs aimed at his students, his colleagues, and his former friends and lovers. Fitger rarely passes up an opportunity for editorializing, ranting, and self aggrandizement, particularly in letters to former flames and ex-wives. In spite of this, there is a pathos here that laments the current state of academia in addition to one man’s feeling of personal failure. Whether it is lecturing the wretched grammar of the job descriptions/poor service of the soul draining corporations and catering companies his desperate BAs are forced to apply to after graduation, to taking on the commodification of education itself. 


The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway


“The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future” is a short, quickly digested, thought provoking, worrying, but ultimately hopeful piece of creative fiction. I found it particularly, and frighteningly, topical reading during a 52 degree December night in Minnesota, as drought and now flooding beset California and we are gearing up for an even warmer year in 2015. Written as a introduction to the Penumbral Age (1988-2093) by scholars in the Second People’s Republic of China, circa 2393, it reads like something that could be assigned to first year students in a low level world history course, an easily understandable summary of the elements that resulted in the collapse of world population a few centuries previously (including a particularly amusing glossary of “archaic terms” like “environment,” “positivism,” and “capitalism.”)


The book ends with some very interesting and thoughtful comments by the authors on their use of science fiction to comment on the current responses and ideas of climate change. Will this year, as the article linked earlier in this review suggests, become a turning point that will, in some way, nudge us away from the future presented here?


Never Have I Ever by Katie Heaney


As another (formerly, sigh) 20-something Minnesotan, raised in the suburbs of the Twin Cities, who went through life unsure about how this whole “relationship” thing works, where most people seemed to have it figured out, there was so much that I totally identified with in Katie Heaney’s breezy memoir. as she sketches out her experiences with love and not dating from grade school to college to grad school, she also writes with a self-depreciating honesty that never loses its sense of humor. This chronological structure really suited the fun subject matter as Heaney reminiscences about the defining moments (of a sort) that shaped her attitudes towards friendships and relationships. I particularly enjoyed her use of nostalgia; D.A.R.E. was a big influence in my early life as well (after all, ours was the suburb well known as “Most Of Us Need Drugs,” so one had to be careful) and the Sims have always been really bad role models for relationships.

Much of what Heaney writes resonated very much with me, I found myself in much the same position as her over my first 25-years. It is not like I tried to remain single for my first quarter decade, but perhaps that is the problem and Heaney is great at expressing and dissecting these tendencies for self-sabotage, obliviousness to flirting, just plain awkwardness, feelings of panic when it is found that someone really does like you, and so on. Good to know I wasn't the only one who leapt up and paced around the house after receiving an OkCupid message. It is a great comfort to know that one is not alone in this, and it is great to see a positive, funny personal tale of singleness and I also really like seeing how, gender-aside, so many concerns in common


It Never Happened Again: Two Stories by Sam Alden


After reading "It Never Happened Again," by Sam Alden, an artist I had not previously heard of, I will definitely look for more of his work. The two short stories included in this interesting graphic novel, “Hawaii, 1997” and “Anime,” are both emotion rich and heartfelt depictions of life and how we try to fit into it. Sam Alden’s sketchy, almost crude style, filled with rough pencil strokes on white backgrounds, highlights the feelings of alienation and loneliness of the characters. Its minimalism really fits the themes here.

In both stories, young characters find themselves wandering around trying to figure out their lives in relation to others. It reminds me of childhood memories that you recall vaguely as being something important, but you cannot put your finger on how. The first, "Hawaii, 1997" is an autobiographical account of Alden's trip to Hawaii as a preteen and his short friendship with a girl from New Jersey, while "Anime" follows the 20-year old Japanophile Janet (aka, Kiki), as she struggles with feelings of alienation in her Oregon home town and looks forward to her trip to Japan (but will this travel be as changing as she believes it will be?) Both stories skirt the line between melancholy and hope, like so much memory


Happy New Years and happy reading!