Favorite novels of 2014

I read more fiction than nonfiction this year so discussion of my favorite books is going to be limited to novels. In putting the list together I discovered something interesting: three of the five are about war. Not only that, they don’t share conflicts. One is set in World War I, another in World War II and the third in Iraq. I’m not sure what this fortuity might indicate about my reading habits this year but it does seem unusual.

That doesn’t mean I was ignoring what else was out there. For the first time in recent memory, I read half of the 10 novels appearing most often on 10 reputable best of lists. Two appear below (only one about war). So, in alphabetical order, here’s my favorite novels published in 2014:

Fear: A Novel of World War I, Gabriel Chevalier — Because of the attention focused on the centenary of World War I, I read several novels about it this year. Chevalier’s book was the best of them. Originally published in 1930, this is the first time it’s appeared in the U.S. The autobiographical novel is narrated by Jean Dartemont, a 19-year-old French infantryman. It takes us from the frenzy of support when the war breaks out to the limited training soldiers received to the trenches to a hospital and then back to the trenches. Its graphic descriptions illuminate the fear, chaos and horror created by war.

Fives and Twenty-Fives, Michael Pitre — Pitre’s debut novel joinis the increasing number of excellent works of fiction about the Iraq war. Pitre served two tours with the Marines in Iraq. His book centers around a raod repair crew tasked with repairing potholes — all caused by IEDs and likely to have another one in it or nearby. The storyline traces the current lives of three alternating narrators — the young lieutenant in charge of the repair crew, its medic and its Iraqi interpreter — although the critical core is told in memories and flashbacks. This gives Pitre the ability to examine the war and its effects from three different standpoints and their interactions in common and individual experiences. (Phil Klay’s Redeployment, a collection of short stories by another Marine Iraq war veteran that won the National Book Award deserves an honorable mention. For me, Pitre just presents a more unified story.)

Love Songs of the Revolution, Bronwyn Mauldin — Without a doubt this was the most creative book of the year.
Although the story starts with Lithuanian painter Martynas Kudirka coming home to discover his wife stabbed to death, it immerses the reader in the freedom movements in Eastern Europe in 1989. If, as I almost did, you stop at the end of the story and don’t pursue the “Extras” that follow, this would probably be a three star book. Thankfully, I didn’t because the “Extras” have a singular, even baffling, impact. If you’re slow like me, it might even take a bit for astonishment to set in. (WARNING: DO NOT jump ahead to the Extras at any point. To truly appreciate the book’s innovation you must read it sequentially.)

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan — Not only did this novel about prisoners of war building the Thailand-Burma railway in World War II (which is the setting for The Bridge on the River Kwai) hit almost every best of list, it won the Man Booker Prize. Of course, when someone can tell that story as part of a half century love story, you deserve kudos. Being Australian, it isn’t surprising the story is told from the standpoint of Australian prisoners of war. The main character, Dorrigo Evans, is an Australian doctor who is the ranking officer of the Australian prisoners. While the love story revolves around him, he also is one of several prisoners providing an at times stomach-turning view of the brutality and horrendous living conditions in the prison camp.

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, Joshua Ferris — This is the book on the list that unquestionably isn’t for everyone. It’s the story of an atheist Manhattan dentist plunged into an existential and theological crisis when someone assumes his identity on social media. Although one of the first two American novels shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the book’s philosophical explorations and humor will resound best with certain mindsets and likely offend others. Since it’s appearing on my list, it isn’t hard to tell which group I’m in.

Literature is the most agreeable way of ignoring life.

Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

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