Jennifer McMahon

Best of 2014

Happy New Year, coming to you live from gate B-11 at Charlotte Douglas International Airport (en route from Pittsburgh to Denver).

Tis the season for arbitrary year-end best-of lists. Even the New York Times, with its battalion of bookworms, can’t cover and judge all new titles. I read more than 50 books this year, more than 30 of which were new releases. From this tiny sample, how can I present a definitive list of best books of the year? 

What I can do is highlight the finest books that reached my nightstand or my Nook. So here, in no particular ranking, are my top reads of 2014.

Spectacular Science Writing

The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things FunnyThe Humor Code

Joel Warner and Peter McGraw

“We’re here to explore the dark side of humor, how comedy can divide and degrade,” write Warner and McGraw. “Here,” in this case, is Denmark, but also Japan, Palestine, Peru and beyond. For more than two years, this odd couple of comedy—Warner a journalist (Westword, Wired, Slate) and McGraw a humor researcher/marketing instructor (at the University of Colorado at Boulder)—traveled the world to learn what incites nasal milk projectiles in other cultures.

Specifically, the intrepid twosome tested whether McGraw’s Benign-Violation Theory (BVT) of humor applied to an international audience.

For that, Warner and McGraw visit a humor science library in Japan; deliver clown therapy to a Peruvian barrio alongside Patch Adams; interview notorious Danish cartoonists; participate in laughter yoga (yes, that’s a thing); attend comedy festivals; and McGraw even gives stand-up comedy a try in Denver’s toughest room.

That’s a lot to fit into a single book, but you’ll want to read every word. The Humor Code is an engaging blend of science writing, travel writing and narrative nonfiction. This is one of the best books you will read this year, and it is deserving of major awards.

The Tale of the Dueling NeurosurgeonsThe Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons

Sam Kean

The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons is a brisk and engrossing read, and Sam Kean’s most impressive yet. He digs deep into the archives of psychology to discover little-known and sometimes forgotten gems that have had a great impact on modern science. You will laugh. You will learn. At times you will pick your jaw off the floor and ask yourself, “That happened?”

If you’ve never read Sam Kean, start now. You will devour all three of his books in a week. If you’re a longtime fan, prepare to be wowed once again.

And if you’re a judge for any of the big literary prizes, in the name of all that is just and good, start etching Sam’s name into the trophy.

Faith and Wisdom in Science

Tom McLeishfaith and wisdom in science

McLeish explores the history of both scientific discovery and biblical narrative, finding commonalities in the ways humans in each arena are awestruck and inspired by the natural world. There is room, he argues, for the sublime in science. The earliest scientific studies were not the cold, heavily controlled research we have today, he writes, but passionate probes of the natural world. There has since developed a rift between the science and humanities. Science got custody of the brain in the divorce, and humanities, the heart.

If you still feel the sublimity of mountain peaks, marvel at existence at the subatomic level or can be moved to tears by a sunrise, you’ll enjoy Faith and Wisdom in Science.

 

Dystopian Literature

Justice, Inc.

Dale Bridgesjustice-inc-cover

In the introduction to his short story collection, Justice, Inc., Bridges prepares us for the satirical rapture he is about to unleash: God, discouraged by his failed attempts to kill off the human race, comes to the realization that “…when left to their own devices, they appeared to do a fair job of exterminating themselves.”

And thus the chain catches on the death-coaster, drags it to the summit and lets that fucker drop.

Hang on.

These are masterful tales of human obsolescence, cruel absurdities and species self-deliverance. In Bridges’ world, justice is self-imposed, whether or not his characters realize it. You want the convenience and savings of a Wal-Mart? Fine, but you have no one else to blame when you wake up in a world controlled by Wal-Marts. Punishment fits the crime.

Justice, Inc. manages to be both observational and engaging, philosophical yet lyrical at the same time. You’ll find yourself caring as much for the characters and their plights as for the underlying philosophy within each tale.

Bridges writes not with a pen but a skewer, piercing the absurdity of our cosmic sitcom with clarity and humor. Justice, Inc. is philosophical satire in the vein of Vonnegut and George Saunders—fellow madmen who have stared into the abyss and come away laughing.

Ominous Realities

Eds. Anthony Rivera and Sharon LawsonOminous Realities

Once again, Grey Matter Press has delivered the anthology goods. Take “On the Threshold,” an eerie, Lovecraftian tale of science and madness from William Meikle. Keeping up the intensity is “Doyoshota,” by Ken Altabef, a haunting intersection of conspiracy and cacophony that makes tinnitus sound like a Beethoven sonata.

Eric Del Carlo’s “We Are Hale, We Are Whole” is deserving of any “best-of” anthology, a smart, thoughtful piece of writing that should be a must-read for anyone attempting to world-build within the confines of a short story. It also takes a philosophical bent about quality of life, aging, health care and sacrifice.

 

Best Biography

Happy Clouds, Happy Trees: The Bob Ross Phenomenon Happy Cloud, Happy Trees

Kristin G. Congdon, Doug Blandy and Danny Coeyman

Beloved painter Bob Ross is all the more mysterious for the minimal amount of unauthorized or paratextual materials surrounding him. Mostly, what we know of Ross comes from his TV program. The mystique of the painter’s life has fueled his cultish following, and the authors do a wonderful job of exploring the man, his devotees and that ineffable thrill of creation. Bob had a word for it.

He called it joy.

An Infuriating American: The Incendiary Arts of H.L. Mencken

Hal CrowtherAn Infuriating American

The tone of this extended essay is established up front by a quote from the subject himself, H.L. Mencken:

“To the extent that I am genuinely educated, I am suspicious of all the things that the average citizen believes and the average pedagogue teaches.”

Mencken, one of America’s finest journalists, was also a world-class iconoclast, and the tone and spirit of his work is captured wonderfully in this short study by Hal Crowther, himself an esteemed author (and 1992 recipient of the H.L. Mencken Award). Mencken should be required reading for everyone (particularly prospective journalists), and An Infuriating American is as good an introduction to the writer as you’ll find.

The Mad Sculptor: The Maniac, The Model, and the Murder that Shook the Nation

Harold SchechterThe Mad Sculptor

“You can certainly learn as much about a society by which crimes people are obsessed with at a particular time,” says Schechter. “I think, in a general way, the crimes that become national obsessions, that strike a deep communal chord, symbolize the particular cultural anxieties of the moment.”

In the 1920s it was poisoners; in the ’70s Charles Manson personified the worst fears of the counterculture; the ’80s had phantom Satanists and the ’90s belonged to the serial killer; and today we have the rampage shooter.

But in the 1930s, it was the sexual deviant that haunted and titillated the public.

Enter Robert George Irwin, the subject of Schechter’s new book.

Irwin was a troubled and talented artist whose stunted psychosexual development (and religious obsession) fueled romantic fixations, violent outbursts, numerous hospitalizations and an attempted self-castration. It climaxed with a vicious triple murder in 1937, made all the more newsworthy because one of the victims, Veronica Gedeon, was a pulp magazine cover girl.

 

Notable Nonfiction

Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League

Ian PlenderleithRock n Roll Soccer

The groundwork for today’s soccer popularity was laid by the North American Soccer League, the subject of Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer. Plenderleith documents the folly, effrontery and ultimate failure of the NASL—an impressively thorough tome that benefits from solid research and a witty outsider’s perspective (though now living in America, Plenderleith is British and brings a European’s passion and insight to football writing).

Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer is an excellent work of sports journalism and, regardless of whether you follow football or futbol (or both), it is worthy of any fans’ bookshelf.

The Perfect KillThe Perfect Kill: 21 Laws for Assassins

Robert Baer

It was not hard to get me to pick up The Perfect Kill. Advice on how to pull off a flawless assassination? From a CIA insider? Sign me up. But before you begin stockpiling your arsenal, don’t think of this as a modern-day Anarchist Cookbook, but rather an engaging work of military history—an insider’s view of the Middle East through the eyes of an assassin.

While the subject matter alone is interesting, Baer’s writing makes this a thrilling read from start to finish. He has a narrative voice that is concise, informative and though he occasionally drifts toward the conspiratorial (which isn’t a bad thing), he tempers it by clearly defining what is fact and what is conjecture.

 

Illuminating Lit

Beautiful You

Chuck PalahniukBeautiful You

Palahniuk took on male malaise with Fight Club and mocked cultural over-consumption with Choke. Snuff (ostensibly a novel about pornography) lampooned self-destructive excess and exploitation in a manner that could very well have served as a hyper-sexualized predictor of the impending financial crisis of 2008.

In Beautiful You, he wanted to write what he calls gonzo erotica, and in the process has penned an anthem for an overstimulated, multi-tasking, computer-coma society.

Penny Harrigan is a nice Nebraskan girl working in New York City when she catches the eye of the world’s richest man, C. Linus Maxwell. Next thing you know, Penny is the talk of the tabloids and the envy of her coworkers.

Behind closed doors, however, is where Penny is truly transformed. Maxwell introduces her to a world of unimagined, if clinical pleasure. Penny has her reasons to question Maxwell’s motives (especially after a bizarre bathroom tryst with his bitter ex-lover), but is too enraptured with her new-found fame and sexuality.

Oozing with plot twists only Palahniuk’s sardonic tone could make palatable, Beautiful You aspires to remarkable levels of absurdity, but is it any more absurd than the daily inundation of product and marketing? Many reviewers have criticized the gratuitous satire in this novel, but is the idea of world domination via dildo really that far-fetched in a culture that has financially sustained multiple cable shopping channels for three decades?

We are a culture of instant gratification. We are a culture of distraction. We are the lab rats hammering away at the pleasure bar for a taste of sweet, sweet oblivion.

And much like Maxwell, Palahniuk is there wearing a lab coat, taking copious notes and holding up a funhouse mirror to our cage, so that we might catch a distorted glimpse of what we’ve become.

The Children ActThe Children Act

Ian McEwan

Fiona Maye is an experienced judge on the cusp of old age who is questioning her lifetime of restraint (as well as her decision not to reproduce). We enter her story mid-conversation to discover Fiona reeling from her husband’s proposed (and possibly in-progress) infidelity, just as she’s preparing for a high-profile case with a child’s life in the balance.

Cut to the courtroom, where a precocious teenager is refusing a blood transfusion on the grounds of being a Jehovah’s Witness. Invoking the Children Act of 1989, Fiona gives her ruling, the consequences of which ultimately lead to a spontaneous, classically McEwan mistake, one that risks undoing her marriage, her career and a lifetime of calculated decision-making.

The Children Act is a short, but dense novel, as is usually the case with McEwan. The man is a master of reflection and interiority. The opening chapter encompasses but a moment in a 30-year marriage, but lays bare its successes, failings and a lifetime of insecurities and second-guessing. The tragedies unfold in slow motion and a lifetime of torment is distilled into a bitter, lingering moment.

 

Quality Quickies

We Should All Be Feminists

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichiechimamanda-ngozi-adichie-we-should-all-be-feminists

This brief and brilliant essay (it comes in around 20 pages) from the celebrated author of Half of a Yellow Sun, is one of the most interesting pieces I’ve read all year. “Feminist” is a word long-since stripped of its original meaning: politicized, glorified, demonized. It’s got more ill-fitting baggage than an overhead compartment. Adichie cuts through the connotations to get at the core value of feminism and how it celebrates and benefits both men women.

It’s a call to arms to imagine a generation of children raised without the biases that, consciously and unconsciously, perpetuate gender norms. It’s a call to rethink masculinity so that the next crop of men grow up healthier than the last. It’s a call for all of us to “do better.”

The essay may be short, but the conversation it generates is long and important.

Legion: Skin Deep

Brandon SandersonLegion

StephenLeeds is afflicted with a mental disturbance wherein he has imaginary friends who enable him to solve crimes. His mental manifestations, which he calls “aspects,” have names, back-stories and seemingly a life of their own, though they are bound by the limits of Leeds’ finite knowledge and experience.

In Skin Deep, the second novella in the series, Leeds is coerced into locating the corpse of a tech worker who was in possession of dangerous information—while at the same time outwitting a devious businessman and avoiding the strike of a first-rate assassin.

What makes the Legion books so amazing is not so much the outer conflicts, but the inner ones. Who are we? How do we define who we are? Would we all be better served to, ahem, use our illusions? These are the deeper strings Sanderson plucks in the Legion series.

May there be many, many more.

 

Horrific Hits

The Winter People

Jennifer McMahonWinter People

What is it about New England that inspires isolated, small-town horror tales in which the blood runs as cold as the weather? I’m not sure what it is exactly, but having spent many a wintry a night in Maine, I am familiar with that feeling. And I can’t get enough of it.

Jennifer McMahon captures that frostbite feeling perfectly in this heartbreaker of haunted legends and legacies, curses and karma, and, more than anything, unendurable loss.

The Winter People is well-written and bursting with heart. There are mysteries at every turn, and reminders that grief can be deadly. Or worse. Like a modern retelling of “The Monkey’s Paw,” there are consequences for disrupting the dead, and The Winter People reminds that despair can drive even the most sensible among us to dangerous depths.

Ten Short Tales About Ghosts

K.C. Parton10 Short Tales About Ghosts

Typically, the hallmark of a great ghost story is that it unsettles the reader. When reading K.C. Parton’s collection of English ghost stories, however, one is filled not with dread, but comfort. These 10 tales are reminiscent of the kind my father would tell me over campfires—and those, of course, will always be my favorites.

Parton’s stories have that same appeal. These are not tales of terror, but subtle chillers made all the more spooky for their familiarity. Stories that make you think twice before cutting through the graveyard, not to avoid falling prey to a Saw-like killer, but for that abstract fear that tickles as much as it terrifies.

A big draw for me is that most of the stories have an industrial setting. Growing up in the Rust Belt, I was exposed to the real-life horror of the steel mills, and I found much ghostly inspiration in the rusted machinery, secluded warehouses and the imaginative possibilities of the graveyard shift. Parton’s stories fit that mold, which shouldn’t be surprising, as he came of age in England’s post-war factories.

These stories tap into that primal need for campfire tales—the kind that give goosebumps, sure, but leave you smiling in the end.

The Cutting Room

Ellen Datlow, editorThe Cutting Room

“With no dreams left to search for, I have only nightmares to anticipate.”

This is one of the most haunting lines from the tremendous opening story, “The Cutter,” by Edward Bryant. It sets the tone for all the delicious horror in Ellen Datlow’s latest anthology. Disturbing images and the blurring of reality is a common theme in this collection. Stephen Graham Jones’ chilling “Tenderizer,” for example, David Morrell’s “Dead Image” and the wonderfully titled “Filming the Making of the Film of the Making of Fitzcarraldo” by Garry Kilworth.

Anticipate many nightmares within these pages.

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Review: The Winter People

The Winter People

Jennifer McMahon

What is it about New England that inspires isolated, small-town horror tales in which the Winter Peopleblood runs as cold as the weather? I’m not sure what it is exactly, but having spent many a wintry a night in Maine, I am familiar with that feeling.

And I can’t get enough of it.

Jennifer McMahon captures that frostbite feeling perfectly in The Winter People, a heartbreaker of haunted legends and legacies, curses and karma, and, more than anything, unendurable loss.

The Winter People has a dual narrative—a modern-day mystery in which a teenager, Ruthie, is forced to take charge of her little sis when their mother goes missing. While searching for her mother, she stumbles upon the diary of Sara Harrison Shea, who lived in the house in 1908.

The diary does not have a happy ending. Both Sara and her daughter died in 1908, but the journal entries suggest that death is not exactly the end of the story.

The Winter People is well-written and bursting with heart. There are mysteries at every turn, and reminders that grief can be deadly. Or worse. In one of the book’s most haunting devices, Ruthie discovers that her mother has nailed shut her closet from the outside. For what purpose? Let your imagination go wild with that one.

The soul of the book, though, is the “sleepers.” Ruthie learns of a spell that will raise the dead for seven days’ duration, after which they are gone forever. It’s a universal temptation. Wouldn’t it be great to say a proper goodbye to a loved one who died suddenly? To hold a lover’s hand just a little longer? To actually say the things we think to say only after it’s too late?

Or would it be a daily torment, watching the minutes and hours crumble to dust?

But there is always a price. Like a modern retelling of “The Monkey’s Paw,” there are consequences for disrupting the dead, and The Winter People reminds that despair can drive even the most sensible among us to dangerous depths.

That’s what makes this novel so endearing. And so heartbreaking.