Book Reviews

What to Read

David L. Ulin's best books of 2014

Lists are, by their nature, impressionistic: How could they be otherwise? Here then, alphabetically by title, are the most stirring of the books I wrote about this year, my 10 favorites of 2014.

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  • 'God'll Cut You Down' misses the mark in Southern murder case
    'God'll Cut You Down' misses the mark in Southern murder case

    John Safran is a Jewish Australian prankster-documentarian who delves into racism and tribalism not by prodding its history and the depths of its pathos but by exposing the absurd places it leads people. He works in the vein of Sacha Baron Cohen, with the demeanor of David Sedaris.

  • Val McDermid's new whodunit rattles with recent Balkans history
    Val McDermid's new whodunit rattles with recent Balkans history

    The skeleton at issue in Val McDermid's new stand-alone mystery, "The Skeleton Road," is discovered by an acrophobic demolition surveyor atop a Victorian Gothic school in Edinburgh, Scotland. The road from the skeleton takes us across Scotland to Oxford, the Hague and ultimately to the region...

  • 'The Convert's Song' is a skillfully layered thriller
    'The Convert's Song' is a skillfully layered thriller

    At the center of "The Convert's Song" — Sebastian Rotella's riveting follow-up to his 2011 debut novel, "Triple Crossing" — are two childhood friends thrown together after 10 years of mutual silence, when their paths in life have clearly diverged. It's an affecting drama of human...

  • Gary Ferguson shoulders grief's burden in 'The Carry Home'
    Gary Ferguson shoulders grief's burden in 'The Carry Home'

    The new book by celebrated nature writer Gary Ferguson, "The Carry Home: Lessons From the American Wilderness," is a big-hearted, soul-searching memoir about grief and ritual and identity, about a man looking to nature for answers after the death of his beloved wife.

  • Faith and magic get a 'Revival' in new Stephen King novel
    Faith and magic get a 'Revival' in new Stephen King novel

    There's a video on YouTube in which Stephen King describes his first encounter with Stanley Kubrick. "I actually think stories of the supernatural are always optimistic, don't you?" King remembers Kubrick insisting over the phone from England; when asked to elaborate, the director continued,...

  • 'Massacre' a sobering chronicle of the Paris Commune
    'Massacre' a sobering chronicle of the Paris Commune

    The Paris Commune was a defining moment for the European left: the first self-consciously socialist uprising — as opposed to the liberal nationalist revolutions of 1830 and 1848 — that aimed to put working-class people in control of industry and government.

  • A life-affirming romp through death in 'All My Puny Sorrows'
    A life-affirming romp through death in 'All My Puny Sorrows'

    "All My Puny Sorrows" is a novel about suicide, a 320-page contemplation of the point of human existence that asks why we bother slogging through our inevitable suffering when we have the choice to end it all. The book contains little plot, an abundance of obscure poetry and the untimely...

  • Richard McGuire's 'Here' takes on a larger life as graphic novel
    Richard McGuire's 'Here' takes on a larger life as graphic novel

    Richard McGuire has been making art in one form or another for close to 40 years. He recorded classic underground records with the band Liquid Liquid, produced PBS animations, directed French films, illustrated New Yorker covers and designed kids books and toys. He also created a one-off...

  • Punk, punk, memoir, memoir: Viv Albertine takes center stage
    Punk, punk, memoir, memoir: Viv Albertine takes center stage

    Clothes, music and boys are indeed explored throughout "Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys.," Viv Albertine's memoir of a life spent at the center of the British punk rock movement. But mounds of fabric, vinyl and flesh are hardly what makes "Clothes, Clothes,...

  • 'There Was and There Was Not' crosses Turkish-Armenian divide
    'There Was and There Was Not' crosses Turkish-Armenian divide

    At the Armenian American camp Meline Toumani attended each summer in Massachusetts, she and her fellow campers knew exactly what bonded them as a people. And no, it wasn't just their adult-sized noses, at least one of which elicited the nickname "Gonzo" back at school.

  • Ali Smith has double vision in 'How to Be Both'
    Ali Smith has double vision in 'How to Be Both'

    Ali Smith's sixth novel, "How to Be Both," is a book of doubles, featuring twin narratives paired back to back and published in separate editions. In one, the first part evokes the 15th century Italian painter Francesco del Cossa and the second the contemporary saga of a British teenager...

  • New works by poets Jennifer Moxley, Judy Halebsky, Saeed Jones
    New works by poets Jennifer Moxley, Judy Halebsky, Saeed Jones

    Jennifer Moxley's earnest and introspective new poems feel almost like personal essays: They take up questions that vex her in daily life, then try to explain why they won't go away. Why do "life and death insights / in the classroom / vanish / when pedaling home / with thoughts of food"? Why...

  • 'American Grotesque' resurrects William Mortensen's photos
    'American Grotesque' resurrects William Mortensen's photos

    It's hard to imagine two 20th century American photographers more diametrically opposed than the macabre visionary William Mortensen and Ansel Adams, poster boy for so-called straight photography. Google Ansel Adams and you get a Sierra Club Calendar-ready black-and-white photo of the Grand...

  • The reality behind Laura Ingalls Wilder's 'Little House' books
    The reality behind Laura Ingalls Wilder's 'Little House' books

    In summer 1930, Rose Wilder Lane, daughter of the then-unknown Laura Ingalls Wilder, wrote in her diary: "Working on my mothers [sic] story — stupidly, for will it come to anything?"

  • Patrick Modiano's 'Suspended Sentences': Mysteries of existential sort
    Patrick Modiano's 'Suspended Sentences': Mysteries of existential sort

    When Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Prize for literature in October, a lot of readers (myself included) were taken by surprise. Until now, he has been relatively unknown in the U.S., although he is a bestseller in his native France and winner of the Prix Goncourt who has published steadily since...

  • 'Case for Sustainable Meat' takes on many sacred cows
    'Case for Sustainable Meat' takes on many sacred cows

    When food guru Michael Pollan recently tweeted in support of Nicolette Hahn Niman's new book, "Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production," the protest that followed made it perfectly obvious why such a book is necessary. "A Cattle Rancher wrote a book about how free range,...

  • 'Three Minutes in Poland' offers glimpse of world lost to Holocaust
    'Three Minutes in Poland' offers glimpse of world lost to Holocaust

    Nearly 70 years after the Holocaust, is it possible to discover new information about the lives of those who perished? According to Glenn Kurtz's haunting new book, "Three Minutes in Poland: Discovering a Lost World in a 1938 Family Film," the answer is "Yes … but hurry."

  • '33 Artists' paints behind-the-scene picture of the art world
    '33 Artists' paints behind-the-scene picture of the art world

    If there was ever a subset of humanity ripe for anthropologizing, it's the art world. This caravan of artists, critics, curators, collectors, dealers and assorted hangers-on are united by a purported interest in art and a language called "artspeak." (In this incomprehensible tongue, a...

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