Archives for the month of: December, 2014

Here we are again at the end of December! I’ve been bookmarking 2014 best-of book lists for weeks now. I still love the sources that I mentioned last year, but you’ll also see some new ones amongst the links below.

NPR’s Book Concierge offers 250 titles that you can browse by genre. While great if you’re stumped for your next read, I find that number overwhelming. To make it bite size, I filter for the Staff Picks. That’s a nice list.

This year I loved Ron Charles’s piece “2014: A Good Year for Book Lovers” in the Washington Post. Instead of listing favorite titles (WP did that elsewhere), Charles gives a chronology of literary milestones for the year, from the award of the Newbery Medal to Kate DiCamillo on January 27 to Ursula LeGuin’s receipt of the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters on November 19 (not all of the news was about awards, though!).

I’ve also gathered lists from various genres this year. It seems some of the more controversial titles were nonfiction (Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, for example), but of course the most highly praised titles were fiction (although maybe it just seemed that way to me because I’m more plugged into the literary world). Titles I saw most often were The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (actually published in 2013), The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters, and of course, Redeployment by Phil Klay. Various lists are linked below, in no particular order.

Christopher Atamian, in the Huffington Post. Six Books of the Year for 2014

Brad Stulberg, in the Huffington Post. The 10 Best Health Books in 2014

Leigh Buchanan, in Inc. 10 Books That Will Make You Smarter in 2015

Maria Popova, Brain Pickings. The Definitive Reading List of the 14 Best Books of 2014 Overall

Tracy Sherlock, in the Vancouver Sun. Ten Great Novels of 2014

The Editors, Atlantic Monthly. The Best Book I Read This Year

the New York Times. The 10 Best Books of 2014

the New York Times. 100 Notable Books of 2014

the Guardian. Writers Pick the Best Books of 2014: Part One

the Guardian. Writers Pick the Best Books of 2014: Part Two

the Telegraph. The 45 best young adult books of 2014

School Library Journal. Best Books 2014: Young Adult

 

Via Twitter, I learned that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) is offering 150 children’s titles for $1.99! It’s to celebrate the company’s 150 years in children’s publishing. To take advantage of the offers, visit Amazon’s Kindle Daily Deals site on December 26.

Full disclosure: I have no affiliation with Amazon, but I am an employee of the educational division of HMH.boo

Sometimes I wonder why I enjoy memoir so much. Why should a stranger’s life–or some particular occurrence in it–be so compelling? It seems curious, even voyeuristic. But the memoirs I’ve liked most have a strong narrative arc, like fiction. It’s the narrative that’s compelling, regardless of whether it’s a true story or an imagined one. This memoir reinforced that realization for me.

David MacLean was a Fulbright scholar working in Hyderabad, India when he awoke on a train platform without any knowledge of where he was, why he was there, or even who he was. As he stood, not knowing where to begin, a kindly tourism officer offered assistance. As the officer helps him discover his identity and contact his parents, MacLean flits in and out of lucidity. The reader follows along through hallucination after hallucination, through cycles of waking and dreaming or maybe not even dreaming, maybe more hallucinating, and all the while the reader is thinking, “Whoa! This is CRAZY! What is going on??”

The memoir does a great job of showing readers what this confusing, traumatic experience must have been like. Through lucid moments and hallucinations, the readers piece things together in the order that MacLean must have done, though certainly with better cognition than he was experiencing. He is hospitalized, strapped down, and medicated, and aside from descriptions of visitors and doctors and the continuing hallucinations, we don’t learn much about why he’s in this state until his parents come to take him home.

The mystery of the story keeps readers going, at least in the early part of the book. In the beginning there are all the questions: who, and what, and where, and why. But as we journey further into the story, we’re asking how: how will he get his memory back? Will he get his memory back?

We travel with MacLean as he returns from India to Ohio, United States, to recover at his parents’ home. As he pieces together his identity and his past, we learn that the psychosis had been caused by an anti-malarial drug, that it has happened to others, and that doctors aren’t sure whether he’ll ever fully recover. For a time, David pretends a lot. He plays the role that it seems he should be playing, pretending to remember the people he sees in photos, hiding some of the aftereffects of the hallucinations. As memories begin to return, piecemeal, he struggles to put his life story together even as he returns to India to finish his Fulbright and then returns to graduate school to complete his studies.

I appreciate that MacLean has shared this terrifying experience, because its cause–the drug mefloquine (brand name Lariam)–is still in use today, and people need to be aware of its dangerous neuropsychiatric effects. (MacLean does mention that a doctor told him years after the incident in India that the cause was not Lariam, so maybe the jury is out on this point?) Information about this drug is woven into the narrative and a chart detailing its many adverse effects is included in the postlude. Disturbingly, MacLean reports that the drug was widely prescribed by the U.S. military for soldiers up until 2009 and was still used in “special situations” as late as 2012.

MacLean’s story is disturbing, painful even, because the trauma described is intense and his struggle is profound. But it’s also an encouraging account of human resilience and an exploration of enduring questions about identity and memory.

Challenge yourself this spring! Friends of TED in Austin, TX offers a great class for those who enjoy reading classics. It’s led by an English professor of UT-Austin, and he often invites guest speakers (scholars, most!) to speak about a particular aspect of the book, its historical context, or its author. The literature is always wonderful and the discussion is lively. I learn something new every time.

This spring the class will cover several titles by George Eliot. If you’re in the Austin, TX area, read up and come on out!

 

Happy coincidence: I discovered that there’s a Symposium for African Writers in my town this week, just when I’ve finished the first African novel I’ve read in a long while. I love when an accidental theme develops in life! I’ll be able to attend at least the first session.

If you’re in Austin, you should try to go! Follow the link below for details. https://africanwriters2014.wordpress.com/