Saturday, January 3, 2015

My favorite books of 2014...

Those of you who know me—or even simply follow me sporadically on social media—know that I am a voracious reader. I have been reading for as long as I can remember, and my memories of certain events and trips in my life include what I was reading at that time. I watch very little television, not because it isn't good or because I'm an elitist, but more because I would much rather spend the small amount of time when I'm not working, working out, eating, or sleeping by reading, rather than doing anything else.

This year I read a record 135 books. These weren't short books, or graphic novels, or children's books. (And this total was achieved despite taking about three weeks off when my father died earlier this year.) I did a lot of traveling—flying home from Belgium this past spring I read three books between my three flights—and because I take the metro to work I can read on my 30-minute commute to and from the office. I read some absolutely fantastic books, some good ones, and only a few I really disliked.

As I've done the past few years, I've selected the best books I read this past year, plus a few more that just fell short of the very best but I still think they're too good to miss. I've linked to my original review of each so you can read more about each one. I'd love to hear your thoughts, and know which books you'd count among your favorites, even if you didn't read as much as I did!

In random order, the best of 2014 includes:

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel: This is a big, ambitious, emotional, gorgeously written book that I absolutely fell in love with. Let's just say it involves the world following a massive plague, a traveling group of Shakespearean actors and musicians, a series of comic books, and memories of a different world. This is a book about love, loss, friendship, connection, and the power of memory. It's bleak and beautiful, heartfelt and heartbreaking. Yes, it's about the end of the world as people knew it, but there are no zombies or rebellions or shadow governments or anything like that. Read my original review.

The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld by Justin Hocking: Justin Hocking's memoir about his obsession with surfing and Moby Dick, and his struggles to find direction in his life and overcome his addiction to being in relationships, made me feel much like I'd imagine one does after a good round of surfing—breathless and exhilarated, simultaneously. This is a meticulously researched, emotionally poignant, fascinating, and sometimes humorous book, populated with a tremendously memorable and endearing cast of characters. Considering I know nothing about surfing or skateboarding, and have only read Moby Dick once, I was surprised how utterly hooked I was by this book. Read my original review.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr: In the early 1940s, the world is on the brink of war. Marie-Laure is a 12-year-old blind girl living in Paris with her father, a locksmith at the Museum of Natural History. Young Werner Pfennig is growing up with his sister, Jutta, in an orphanage in a German mining town. As war closes in, Werner and Marie-Laure's lives will intersect in a profound way, both when they are at one of their weakest moments. And this encounter will have an indelible impact on the lives of many for years to come. This is an exquisite, wonderfully told story, with tremendously vivid characters which came to life. Would be a fantastic movie! Read my original review.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevinn: This book, a tribute to a love of books and reading, as well as a tribute to love, is so warm and wonderful, it almost feels like a big hug. A.J. Fikry is the cantankerous owner of Island Books on Massachusetts' Alice Island. Lonely since the sudden, tragic death of his wife a few months earlier, his business is struggling as much as he is. But then three incidents change the course of his life—a disastrous meeting with the new sales representative of a publisher; the disappearance of a rare copy of an Edgar Allan Poe book; and the unexpected discovery of a nearly two-year-old baby left in the store. An utterly compelling story that hooks you from the beginning. Read my original review.

The Heaven of Animals: Stories by David James Poissant: Do yourself a favor: pick up this story collection—you'll be moved, overwhelmed, touched, and blown away. The stories are about relationships—between parent and child, spouses or significant others, siblings, friends, strangers, even between a man and his wife's dog. (No, not like that.) In many cases these are people facing challenges—physical, emotional, financial—and they're struggling to right their own ships, so to speak. While story after story about people in some sort of crisis could be harrowing to read, in Poissant's hands the stories are certainly moving, but told so beautifully and skillfully that you feel empathy, and somehow transformed by the paths these characters follow. Read my original review.

I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson: Beautiful, breathtaking, bewildering, and a little bizarre, but I can't get it out of my head. Jude and Noah Sweetwine are twins, so close they often think of themselves as NoahandJude. They can read each other's thoughts and know each other's fears. At age 13, both are artistically creative and emotionally sensitive in their own ways, yet they're also quite different. Yet three years later, Noah and Jude are barely speaking, and everything has changed. This is a book about the half-truths we tell ourselves and our reluctance to see what is in front of us and say what we truly feel. It's a book about following your heart and accepting the truth, even if it leads you somewhere you're afraid of, and realizing you must live the life that ignites your passions. Read my original review.

The Cost of Living by Rob Roberge: One hell of a read. Bud Barrett should know better than anyone what it's like to be a junkie. He's spent a good part of his adult life completely high, thinking about getting high, figuring out how long his high is going to last and how to maintain it, and recovering from being high. During a good amount of this time, Bud has been a well-known indie guitarist and singer, part of a band that achieved some renown, but the siren call of drugs has led him down an increasingly self-destructive path. This is a beautiful, almost poetic book which is brutally frank in its depiction of the daily struggles of a drug addict. Bud is such a vivid character and his persona is so well-drawn, that even as you're disgusted by him and pity him and think he might be better off dead, you can't help reading about him. Read my original review.

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell: For lack of a better word, this book is phantasmagorical, but so, so brilliant. I'll admit I didn't understand everything that happened, but Mitchell's storytelling was so breathtakingly good, so utterly captivating, that it didn't matter. I truly was surprised by two things—that a 650-page book could have such rapid pacing, and just how much heart this book had. I was fascinated by the characters and the situations they found themselves in, and I was sad when the book ended, because I wish I could have spent more time with them. This isn't a book for everyone, so you need to be comfortable with just letting the story flow, and suspending your disbelief. Read my original review.

Wasn't Tomorrow Wonderful? by Kenneth M. Walsh: Kenneth Walsh's kenneth in the (212) is one of my favorite blogs, one I visit frequently each day. While we don't agree on everything, his snarky, pop culture-savvy, humorous look at society and the things that interest him never fail to amuse, enlighten, and/or expand my literary, cinematic, or musical horizons. His memoir is warm, self-deprecating, laugh-out-loud funny in places, and surprisingly moving. Quite often while reading the book, I felt as if Walsh was speaking directly to me. Whether sharing his feelings about coming to terms with his sexuality in light of public attitudes in the 1970s and 1980s, and struggling with the bullying of some of his peers, I found myself nodding, completely identifying with what he was saying. This is a well-written, funny book with a lot of heart, and I enjoyed it even more than I thought I might. Read my original review.

Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer: I thought this book was pretty fantastic despite being implausible. Jamaica "Jam" Gallahue is reeling from the death of her boyfriend, English exchange student Reeve. Even though they were only together for 41 days, their feelings for each other were so intense, and Jam is unable to cope with her grief. Jam's parents send her to a boarding school in Vermont for "emotionally fragile" teenagers. Jam is enrolled in a special English class, which requires her and her four other classmates to write in their journals. Yet when they do this, they relive their memories just before the trauma they endured. This is a sensitive, thought provoking, beautifully written book about having to make the choice between reliving past memories forever and moving on, and about the power of reading and writing to help us cope with and express our feelings. Read my original review.

What I Had Before I Had You by Sarah Cornwell: This is a beautiful, poignant, and exquisitely written novel about the ripple effects mental illness causes on a family. It's the story of a woman raised by her dynamic and manic mother, who years later, returns to her hometown with her young son, recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder. This is a moving, emotional book that captures all too well the highs and lows, the challenges and surprises that mental illness brings to a family, and how even years later these issues still surface and shape the course of people's lives. It's also the story of the fragility of human relationships, the lies we tell each other and ourselves, and the randomness of memory. Read my original review.

Life Drawing by Robin Black: Owen and Augusta (Gus) have been together for a long time. He is a writer and she is an artist, and they've always lived a happy but slightly unorthodox, anti-establishment kind of life. But after their relationship nearly collapses following Gus' confession to a short-lived affair, they move to an isolated farmhouse in the country, where they try to concentrate on work and rebuilding the trust between them. When Alison moves in next door and befriends Gus, the dynamics shift a bit, but when Alison's young daughter, Nora, comes to visit, her presence, and what she brings along with her, threatens to shatter all of their relationships. This is a book about trying to keep your heart and your head aligned, about how you can simultaneously love and dislike someone, and about how the things you fear can often come back to haunt you. Read my original review.

The Gospel of Winter by Brendan Kiely: Powerful, emotionally moving, and fantastic. Sixteen-year-old Aidan Donovan has always existed on the fringes of things. He's more comfortable with Elena, their housekeeper, than his parents or friends his own age. He doesn't have any patience for the dishonesty or non-genuineness of the community where he lives. The only place Aidan truly feels comfortable is at his church, as Father Greg, the local priest, is the only person who seems to care about or listen to him. As Aidan starts to realize that Father Greg's affections are not just directed at him alone, and while he mourns the feeling that he is no longer special, he also grapples with the reality of what the priest has done. Although the subject matter is difficult, this was just such a beautiful, powerful, painful yet hopeful story. Read my original review.

Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler: This is a paean to life in small-town America, its virtues and its disadvantages. It's a book about trying to live your dreams and worrying about what to do if the dreams don't turn out the way you hoped. It's a book about how far the power of love can take you and how far the power of friendship can carry you. The story of four childhood friends in a small Wisconsin town, who are reunited 10 years later when life has changed drastically for many of them, you become truly invested in the characters' lives, and Butler's use of language is so evocative and mesmerizing, but yet still simple and appropriate for the story. Read my original review.

Coming Out to Play by Robbie Rogers with Eric Marcus: An honest, often emotional account of Rogers' struggle to accept himself and his sexuality, and reconcile it with what he believes will be the reactions of his ardently Catholic family, his professional soccer teammates, and the world. It is a book about how hard it is to keep your true self hidden from everyone around you, and how that pressure dampens your ability to enjoy even the things you love the most. Rogers may not have set out to be a role model, but he definitely is one, and we are fortunate that he is willing to share his journey and his feelings with us. Hopefully this book will change more than one mind, and make a difference in more than one life. Read my original review.

The UnAmericans by Molly Antopol: Every one of the eight stories in this collection packed a quiet power, richly drawn characters, and tremendously compelling explorations of human emotion in typical and unusual situations. The characters in Antopol's stories are Jewish people spanning the 1950s through the present—these are seemingly ordinary people facing challenges that test their strength and their heart. Antopol's use of language and imagery, as well as the emotional richness with which she imbues her characters, really makes this a tremendously strong collection. It doesn't matter that I couldn't identify with the situations most of these people found themselves in; I just wanted to keep reading about them. Read my original review.

A Sudden Light by Garth Stein: When you're growing up, you rarely give much thought to your family history or your ancestry. In some cases, you have no idea what your family history is, because of the myriad tensions and estrangements that characterize many families. That's the case for 14-year-old Trevor Riddell, who moves to the Pacific Northwest with his father. Trevor didn't even know the extent to which his father Jones still had a family, as Jones has been estranged from them for some time. What Trevor finds is far beyond dysfunction and resentment. Oh, and there are ghosts. This was a moving, beautifully written story about the powerful hold that family can have on us, and how we cannot let ourselves be destroyed by what happened in our past. Read my original review.

This Song Will Save Your Life by Leila Sales: If you've ever felt like you don't fit in, or that no one understands who you really are, this book is for you. Elise Dembowski has never quite gotten it right, socially speaking. She's never really had any friends, and she's been the butt of every joke. Ostracized in every way, she has always turned to music for comfort, feeling secure with her headphones on and music playing. Nearly at the end of her rope, one night she accidentally discovers Start, an underground dance party. No one there knows her, and, more importantly, the people she meets seem to like her. This story really resonated for me. The characters were clever and complex without being stereotypical teens, and they weren't too quirky—everything that happened was completely believable. Read my original review.

The Means by Douglas Brunt: If you're as fascinated by the political process, the media, and political campaigns as much as I am, definitely read this book. And even if you're utterly disinterested in the political system, you may still find this tremendously interesting. It's a great book and I think it could make an even better movie—perhaps a less somber Ides of March. It follows three characters over a four-year period—the scion of a political dynasty who has been training to be president his entire life; the defense attorney who becomes a rising GOP star; and the child actress-turned-lawyer, who leaves the law to pursue a journalism career. While those quite familiar with the political process and life on the campaign trail may find that some of the plot isn't 100 percent accurate, for someone who watches these things from a far, I found this utterly fascinating. Read my original review.

The Opposite of Loneliness: Essays and Stories by Marina Keegan: Marina Keegan was an aspiring writer who graduated magna cum laude from Yale in May 2012. She was a talented go-getter with a bright future ahead of her. Five days after her graduation, she was killed in a car accident while on her way to visit family. An essay called "The Opposite of Loneliness," which she wrote for the Yale Daily News, recounted the excitement she felt about graduating from college and heading into her future, yet it was also tinged with the melancholy of the simpler college days, when minor problems seemed so insurmountable. After her death, the essay went viral, and it led to the publication of this book by the same name. Marina Keegan was an exceptionally talented writer, one whose fiction was imbued with sensitivity and rich characters, and whose essays were insightful, sometimes humorous and sometimes quirky. Read my original review.

Five More You Shouldn't Miss:

The Wind is Not a River by Brian Payton

Redeployment by Phil Klay

The Other Language by Francesca Marciano

A Better World by Marcus Sakey

Noggin by John Corey Whaley

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