My Books of 2014

I’ve read a lot of books that came out this year, for the first time in ages. Though, of course, there are still lots more I want to read. Amongst others, I wish I’d got around to Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood, Boy Snow Bird by Helen Oyeyemi and Matt Haig’s The Humans. But, without further delay, here are my favourite books published in 2014:

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald – Perhaps because it is fresh in my memory, or perhaps because it is excellent, I think this is my favourite book of the year. I just loved it.

Do No Harm by Henry Marsh – Continuing with non-fiction and top of my personal Guardian First Book Award list, I think this was heartfelt and intelligent. I love learning about the brain and to inform through memoir made this very readable.

How to be Both by Ali Smith – Ali Smith is wonderful. This is still in my head, having finished it about a month ago. It was sensitive and playful and awesome. I admire Smith because she experiments but she never seems to forget that people still want to just read a book when they’re reading a book.

The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane – When I finished this I was so annoyed at the ending that I went off it. But the interplay between the two main characters still comes back to me months after I read it. I love the way the reader isn’t sure what is happening; are we taken into the mind of a dementia sufferer or are tricks being played on the protagonist? Definitely one of the best of the year.

Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami – Having read a few Murakami novels, this felt familiar (an outsider, secrets and weird sex…). But I got through it very quickly. I like Murakami’s realistic but dreamy worlds.

Things to Make and Break by May-Lan Tan – The only book of short stories on here, even though I read a lot of short stories this year. The imagery is wonderful and the stories are sensitively told from a variety of persepectives, young and old.

Some books I thought would fare better are not listed here, obviously. I felt disappointed by some big names; and I read a lot of debut books. After years of doing a literature degree perhaps I was expecting too much of some of the debut books I read. Writing a book means doing an awful lot of things well.

Also, I read some wonderful books this year that were published prior to 2014. Some of these were Trumpet by Jackie Kay, Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche and Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart. But I’m just doing 2014 today, apparently.

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Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

My boyfriend is a rabid Gary Shteyngart fan and I finally wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Super Sad True Love Story is in a similar vein to 1984: it’s set in a nightmarish but slightly recognisable America a few years in the future. In Shteyngart’s world everybody is glued to their äppäräts, their electronic playthings; people seem to disappear if they don’t have one on them at all times. Books are frowned upon, our hero Lenny Abramov loves them but is thought odd for doing so. He is prone to crying a lot, an openly emotional person in an uncaring and artificial world.

Lenny falls in love with Eunice Park, a woman much younger than him, and although she sometimes says she loves him, she just seems to like having a dependable man be nice to her. Lenny can’t really see this, and this was one of the things I found most interesting about the book. Lenny’s diary entries take up more space than Eunice’s online chats with her friends and family, but we see two sides of their story. I find it fascinating to see how people misinterpret each other. Towards the end of the book Eunice says that Lenny just wants a Korean girlfriend, any girl as long as she’s Korean. I appreciated this because Lenny doesn’t realise that he is drawn to Korean women specifically. I liked how it slightly undermined his telling of the story. For me, though, this undermined the love story itself: much of it was only in Lenny’s mind. It seems less Super Sad because of this.

I read somewhere that Shteyngart said that 1984 was a better book than Brave New World, simply because of 1984’s love story. I can have problems with a lot of dystopia because characters often seem quite lacking and robotic; the characters can sometimes be more representative of ideas than real people. I haven’t read 1984 for a long time but perhaps the reason it remains so popular is Winston’s humanity. Shteyngart also injects humour into his dystopia, which oddly enough makes it easier for me to accept this world as being realistic. The characters in this novel all have recognisable wants and needs: they want to live longer, they want to be happy, they want to be safe. Eunice wants her family to escape her abusive father, but she often wonders if she is in the wrong when he gets angry. Lenny wants Eunice to love him; the rich people he works for want to live forever, or, rather, be young forever. A lot of it feels reminiscent of today’s world, only more pressurised.

I enjoyed this book. I’m interested in reading more of Shteyngart; I think I might enjoy his autobiography, Little Failure.