Thursday, January 1, 2015

Favorite Books of 2014

I read 103 books in 2014, and here are my 15 favorites (plus a few runner ups that nearly made the list). They’re posted here in no particular order. It’s a mixture of fiction, nonfiction, YA, and graphic novels. I’d love to hear some of your favorite reads from this year!

BIRD BY BIRD by Anne Lamott
Lamott’s poignant and practical book mixes memoir with advice for writers. The title comes from an anecdote about her brother who was assigned a school project about birds and waited until the night before it was due to start work. Her father’s advice to the panicked boy was to take it “bird by bird.” And that’s exactly how writers get things done. Rarely do you have a Jack Kerouac stream-of-consciousness days-long marathon with the end result being a complete book. It’s usually a long, daunting process to take the idea in your head and bring it into the world. Taking it step by step, word by word, bird by bird – that’s how you get there.

CALLING ME HOME by Julie Kibler
I was drawn to this book because of the tantalizing quote on its cover: “If Calling Me Home were a young woman, her grandmother would be To Kill A Mockingbird, her sister would be The Help, and her cousin would be The Notebook.” This is an assessment I found to be totally accurate. The story skips back and forth between present-day Texas, where an old woman asks her hair dresser to drive her to a funeral in Cincinnati, and 1930s Kentucky where a young white woman falls in love with the black son of her family’s housekeeper. Slowly as the book unfolds you see how the two stories intertwine, and it’s not necessarily in the way you’d suspect.

THE SCORPIO RACES by Maggie Stiefvater
Every November all the islanders of Thisby gather for the Scorpio Races – as men mount the powerful and deadly water horses for a contest that offers as its prize wealth and prestige… if you can survive to the finish line. Stiefvater’s spellbinding novel follows the perspectives of Sean Kendrick, returning champion from past races, and young Puck Connolly, the first girl ever to enter the race. Each is driven by compelling desperation – Puck’s parents are dead and she and her siblings need money to keep their house and put food on the table; Sean’s powerful and influential employer owns the one thing Sean cares about most in this world, the water horse Corr, and the money from this race combined with past years’ winnings would be enough to buy Corr and start a new life elsewhere. This is a beautiful mishmash of action, mythology, and romance. Unlike anything else I’ve read.

Written as a series of letters to the actor Richard Gere, this novel from the author of Silver Linings Playbook tells the story of 38-year-old Bartholomew Neil in the wake of his mother’s death. After finding a “Free Tibet” letter from Gere hidden in his mother’s underwear drawer, Bartholomew thinks this must be a sign. In her final days his mom often called him “Richard”—there must be some cosmic connection. Maybe the spirit of Richard Gere is meant to help him find his biological father? Over the course of these letters, we see Bartholomew’s attempts to find a new life and family. “Jung and the Dalai Lama, philosophy and faith, alien abduction and cat telepathy, the Catholic Church and the mystery of women are all explored in his soul-baring epistles.” (Thanks Amazon!) Joining him on this quest are a struggling priest, a “Girlbrarian,” and her feline-loving, foul-mouthed brother. Together they drive a rented Ford Focus to Canada to see the cat Parliament and find Bartholomew’s father… but along the way they discover so much more.

Vaidhyanathan, a professor of Media Studies at the University of Virginia, writes a thought-provoking book about one of the most powerful and influential companies of the internet age, its impact on society, and its attempts at global expansion. Despite the dire wording of the title, this isn’t a book about how “evil” Google is. (After all, Google’s self-proclaimed motto is “Don’t be evil.”) But it does ask important questions and raise some red flags, while encouraging readers to take responsibility for what we know and how we know it. Insightful, provocative, and important. I highly recommend it.

THROUGH THE WOODS by Emily Carroll
Nope, this has nothing to do with Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods or its film adaptation. Instead, this graphic novel tells five chilling tales of what happens to those who brave the path that leads…you guessed it… through the woods. Carroll’s stunning visuals perfectly merge with her spare, sinister prose to create stories that will swallow you whole, like a wolf’s sharp maw, like the twisted branches of some dark fairy-tale forest…

I’ve always loved Gilgamesh, the world’s first superhero, and Mitchell renders his story in the type of potent, poetic words that roll over your tongue like jewels.

THE ART OF ASKING by Amanda Palmer
Amanda Palmer is a polarizing figure. You either hate her, love her, or don’t know who she is. I fall in the middle category. But even if you’re one of the first or last, this book is worth a read. It raises questions about art and commerce that are extremely timely given the nature of the digital age and the rise of crowdfunding. But her central premise, the idea of asking (as opposed to begging or demanding), is not just about art but about people: relationships with friends, family, lovers, and even strangers. Palmer bares her soul and asks big questions, and I enjoyed the intimate look into her life and thought process. Whatever you feel about her, I think this book is important and I’m glad it exists.

This was one of the densest and most challenging books I read this year, but also probably the best. Dozens of short stories—some of them not very short, but all of them truly astounding. From the book’s description on Amazon: “A Bohemian farmer’s dead wife returns to him, and their love endures, but at a gruesome price. A geisha prolongs her life by turning into a cherry tree. A journalist, haunted by the half-forgotten killing of a Bosnian couple, watches their story, and his own wartime tragedy, slip away from him. A dying American romances the ghost of his high school sweetheart while a homeless salaryman in Tokyo animates paper cutouts of ancient heroes… Are ghosts memories, fantasies, or monsters? Is there life in death? Vollmann has always operated in the shadowy borderland between categories, and these eerie tales, however far-flung their settings, all focus on the attempts of the living to avoid, control, or even seduce death. Vollmann’s stories will transport readers to a fantastical world where love and lust make anything possible.”

Newman is a screenwriter for many television shows (“That 70’s Show,” “How I Met Your Mother,” and “Chuck” are among her credits), and she brings her trademark comedic tone to this account that’s part memoir, part travelogue. Over the course of her twenties, thirties, and forties, friends kept getting married and having children. Instead of joining their ranks, Newman bought plane tickets, engaged in numerous international escapades, made friends, and fell in and out of love with men all around the globe. “I say that plane tickets replacing cats might be the best evidence of women’s progress as a gender,” she writes, in reference to the cat-lady stereotype. I thoroughly enjoyed hearing of her adventures, and felt inspired to have some of my own.

 MIDWINTERBLOOD by Marcus Sedgwick
I struggled to come up with a summary that fully encapsulates this strange and haunting book, but Amazon managed just fine. So here’s their take on it: “Seven stories of passion and love separated by centuries but mysteriously intertwined—this is a tale of horror and beauty, tenderness and sacrifice. An archaeologist who unearths a mysterious artifact, an airman who finds himself far from home, a painter, a ghost, a vampire, and a Viking: the seven stories in this compelling novel all take place on the remote Scandinavian island of Blessed where a curiously powerful plant that resembles a dragon grows. What binds these stories together? What secrets lurk beneath the surface of this idyllic countryside? And what might be powerful enough to break the cycle of midwinterblood?” I cannot recommend this book highly enough.


Internet phenomenon Allie Brosh translates her blog posts and accompanying illustrations from the screen to the page. It’s cliché to say, “I laughed! I cried!” but the truth is, I did both. Brosh’s silly visual style goes well with hilarious stories about dogs and weird revelations about her childhood, but it also works to startling effect when illustrating the everyday realities of her struggle with depression (“Adventures in Depression” and “Depression Part Two”) and helping us understand in one fell swoop both the heights of glory and the depths of shame (“The God of Cake”). Definitely worth a read, whether in book form or online.

 MR. FOX by Helen Oyeyemi
Oyeyemi is a modern mythmaker. In this form-bending novel, Mr. Fox is a celebrated writer with a tendency to kill off all his heroines – that is, until Mary, his fictional muse, comes to life and transforms him from author to subject. Suddenly it is a battle of tale-tellers, with the two narrators alternating stories and using each other as characters with a vast array of interesting settings and literary tricks and twists. Meanwhile, Daphne, Mr. Fox’s wife, becomes convinced he is having an affair and finds her way into their little game. You’ll have to read to figure out who you think loses, but it’s the reader who comes away the winner—with Oyeyemi’s delightful prose and unforgettable stories as the prize.

This international best-seller is often described as a European “Forrest-Gump”-style tale, and I understand that label. We do indeed get to experience major moments in history (and meet highly regarded figures from the last century) through the life of the titular hundred-year-old man, and it has a similar heartfelt, whimsical tone. Not content to stay and celebrate his hundredth year in the quiet of his nursing home, our hero takes off on an adventure that involves inadvertently stealing a suitcase full of cash from a mobster, enlisting the aid of a friendly though lackadaisical lumberjack, and taking shelter with a woman and her pet elephant. Sprinkled throughout these present-day happenings are stories of the man’s past, in which he crosses paths with Winston Churchill, Harry S. Truman, and Albert Einstein’s brother, among others. An irreverent, funny, pleasant read.

ONE PLUS ONE by Jojo Moyes
The person who recommended this to me said, “It’s kind of like the film Little Miss Sunshine, but kind of not.” And I totally get what they mean. It’s the story of a financially-struggling mother Jess desperate to get her bullied teen stepson and math whiz daughter across the country for a competition that could be her daughter’s ticket to a scholarship and a better life. When their car breaks down, it is Ed who steps in as unexpected savior—geeky Ed, a tech millionaire whose house Jess happens to clean. Ed is plagued with the worries of an about-to-break scandal, and driving this dysfunctional family to a Math Olympiad seems like the first decent thing he’s done in ages… maybe ever. But things don’t turn out as expected for anyone involved. Sometimes one plus one doesn’t end up as two, but something altogether bigger.

Runner Ups:

B.J. Novak, actor and writer probably best known for his work on the American version of The Office, has written a wonderful, witty, and wise collection of stories that manages to be moving, surprising, and laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes all at once. (I also highly recommend his children’s book, The Book With No Pictures.) I listened to the audiobook version of this and really enjoyed it, as Novak and a talented cast of his friends made for excellent narrators.

A STORM OF SWORDS by George R.R. Martin
I keep shunting Martin’s books to the runner up spots on my lists, but I really do love them. Arya is my favorite character, though her arc is this book was not as strong as the last installment. Still, I loved so many things Martin did with characters this time around. Jon Snow and the war on the wall, Jaime’s reluctant friendship with Brienne, and much more. Note to self: if weddings are anything like this in real life, I’m never getting married!

 THE DREAM THIEVES by Maggie Stiefvater
Two reasons this is a runner-up: (1) I already had a Stiefvater title on the list, and (2) this is a second installment in a series. So really you should probably read The Raven Boys, the first book in the series, to understand the context and get to know the characters. But this is one of the best YA books I have read. Period. It’s not just the plot – which mixes mythology with present-day high school drama, plus the tantalizing idea of being able to bring items physically out of your dreams! –but the characters. Ronan Lynch is one of my favorite YA leading men (technically he’s not the main character of the series – I would argue that’s Blue or Gansey – but as the titular “dream thief” he really steals the show) and Stiefvater gives us not one but TWO brilliant antagonists in this book. Is it bad that I often find a story only as interesting as its villains? But “villain” is the wrong word for The Gray Man and Kavinsky. Both go through transformations over the course of the story that are unpredictable and yet undeniably authentic. This book has me itching to read the third installment!

THE TRAP by John Smelcer

A short, powerful story about a teenage boy and his grandfather in the Alaskan wilderness. Albert Least-Weasel has been checking his traplines alone for the past sixty years without anything going amiss. But one day when Albert doesn’t come back, and with the temperatures steadily plummeting, his grandson Johnny sets out on the snowmobile to see what may have happened. In alternating chapters we learn the parallel stories of Johnny and Albert, and see a glimpse of the hardships of life in the north.

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