Ten Favorite Books Read in 2014

The only important thing in a book is the meaning that it has for you.
— W. Somerset Maugham

Um….there isn’t one male writer on this list. I didn’t do this intentionally. I read male authors this year. Apparently their books didn’t rock my reading world in 2014.
Not in any order, here are my favorites:
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Dickensian in it’s full world of characters coming of age through loss, love, grief and abandonment. The world Tartt creates for Theo Decker is epic (his different lives in Manhattan to Las Vegas to Amsterdam and back) and dreamlike at the same time. Boris, the Russian émigré, is one of the most richly written characters I’ve read in a long time. Tartt draws him with vivid, mesmerizing language. While the novel delves into love, identity, and fate, I think it was ultimately the meaning of art and its value to the human condition that Tartt wanted to address. At 771 pages it’s hard to hold up to read for hours on end but worth the wrist aches and blood drain from the hands.
Someone by Alice McDermott. Writing that slices to the moment. Breathtaking in its simple beauty. Wonderful. McDermott captures the shine in the physically flawed Irish immigrants of mid-century Brooklyn. Her unremarkable characters might make some readers’ eyes glaze over, but I loved the book more with each successive page. Read her work like you would study a small painting. For the shear genius of the understated. I was teary eyed at the end of the story.
How To Build A Better Girl by Caitlin Moran. There’s a lot to admire in Moran’s sad and funny novel. I loved the brash and ballsy attitude of the protagonist, Johanna Morrigan, who reinvents herself as Dolly Wilde, the “fast-talking, hard-drinking gothic hero and full-time Lady Sex Adventurer.” Dolly believes music can save your life (I agree) and builds herself into a badass female rock journalist in 1990s London in order to pull herself and her family out of poverty. Her adventurers are memorable. Her tale infectious.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. I resisted reading this one at first because of its dystopian setting. But what changed my mind was a review by someone that made me think of Melancholia, a movie about the end of the world. That movie has stayed with me like a disturbing dream you can’t shake. And so has Station Eleven. I’m not a science fiction fan. This novel doesn’t read like a futuristic idea but more like a present day tragedy, especially as Ebola became front-page news. The setting is the shoreline towns of western Michigan after a flu pandemic wipes out 99.9% of the earth’s population. It’s got survival, Shakespeare, music, and religion as major themes. Also, there is the idea of mankind starting anew again after giving the Earth time to heal from environmental damage. The only complaint, and I know it’s a big one, is I didn’t feel the characters—but maybe because they were too busy trying to stay alive and didn’t have time to wax philosophic on their deepest longings.
Thirty Girls by Susan Minot. I’ve already blogged about my girl-writer-crush in “My Love Affair With Susan Minot.” And in that blog I mentioned how much I loved Thirty Girls. This novel was timely in its depiction of the kidnapping of young girls in Africa as the BokoHaram was playing out the real world variety of terrorism. Minot wrote a piece on the 1996 abduction of young girls from a school by guerillas from the militant Lord’s Resistance Army, and she used this as the central conflict of Thirty Girls. Told by two different narrators, one a kidnapped girl and the other an American journalist covering the abductions, Minot has a way of writing about the interiors of women and girls like no other.
The Arsonist by Sue Miller. Another one of my favorite working writers and the subject of another girl-writer-crush blog (Summer People and The Arsonist). The Arsonist has all the familiar Miller-esque qualities, mainly the search for our true self in the person we present to other people and the self we feel rattling inside our bones. Her favorite subject matter, the family, is front and center with all their individual complications and rivalries. Frankie Rowley comes back to New Hampshire where her parents have retired and are now living in their summer home. Soon after her arrival someone starts setting fires to the houses of the summer people. Loved it.
Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham. I bought this book for my daughter for her 23rd birthday. She loved Dunham’s short film, Tiny Furniture, and is a fan of her HBO series, Girls. She read it and then gave it to me. After I finished it I texted my daughter:
Me: Just finished Not That Kind of Girl last night. Liked it.
Daughter: It was alright. Expected more.
Me: Really?
Daughter: See, in contrast to Girls and her movie, Tiny Furniture, I don’t know if I enjoyed her style of writing in the book very much. Very neurotic yes, but her writing could have played that up a bit more in my opinion. She writes very choppy, and a lot of the time it seemed like things were either being repeated without much context or hoping to have some sort of better notion of what was going on. Why is she writing this book? Why should we read this other than the fact that I’m a fan of her other work?
Me: Why do we read any book? To understand the human condition. To enter someone else’s world. She’s in her 20s. The world in your 20s is choppy and neurotic. I never saw Tiny Furniture. I think her writing is honest and fast—kind of like her own voice. In that respect she accomplished what the publisher paid her to do—give us a glimpse of the person behind the creator of Hannah—supposedly the voice of neurotic 20 something women from NYC—of which, apparently there are many!!
Department of Speculation by Jenny Offill. I liked the fragmented writing, the sometimes one-paragraph riffs on marriage, motherhood, music, and infidelity. It’s a lot of interior monologue that sparkles like shards of glass and reads like your best friend’s diary. Well written and different, the novel is about a lot of things but mainly the problems of a marriage and the trajectory of a family’s life to something resembling a new start.
Me Before You by Jo Jo Moyes. I resisted this one, too, because I thought Moyes was a Jodi Picoult-ish formula writer (sorry to any Picoult fans but her books read that way to me). But the novel was selected by a One Brainer and became one of our book club’s favorite. Moyes has that effortless writing style that is so very, very hard to pull off.
Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier. A classic that I’m embarrassed to admit I had never read before. I actually loved the idea (and I kept it through the whole book) that Rebecca wasn’t that evil and the no-name narrator had to listen to everyone else’s opinions on who the real Rebecca was. Fascinating. Then we watched the movie version and laughed hysterically at the over-the-top drama. The car scenes are Saturday Night Live sketch scene worthy.
I’m reading The Unspeakable by Meghan Daum right now and it would have to place in a tie for a Top Ten spot. She writes essays that scream the truth! I will run out and buy her first essay collection, My Misspent Youth, as soon as the Christmas crowds go away.
And I must have a special category of love for two author friends I had the pleasure of reading this year. The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by the hugely talented Jacqueline Kelly and Field Notes For the
Earthbound by John Mauk. Both fellow writers I workshopped writing with in Gettysburg two summers ago.
What books were your favorite reads this year?