Thursday, January 8, 2015

Stephanie's Top 10 of 2014

"As long as I can rad, nothing human is beyond my understanding, nothing is totally foreign to my nature... there are no limits to my being... I'm never alone."
-Linda Weltner

Well, friends, I faded and I faded fast. One measly blog post this year! But one is better than none... and it all really just leads up to this post: the Top 10!

This year has been full of wonderful things and lots of changes, but through it all, there are always books. I'm not great with change. I'm a creature of habit, for better or for worse. So when Traber and I moved into the city and merged two apartments (with storage space) into one (without storage space. And that's not hyperbole.) and we were living in a sea of boxes and trying to figure out how we were going to make space for our life here, one of the first things I did was make sure to get myself a library card. This comforted me when I didn't even know I needed comforting. And that library card (and my previous one) led to another wonderful (and diverse) year of reading.

Even though I've gotten horrible at updating this blog, I still make sure that I write this post for a number of reasons. First of all, I love to hear comments from people telling me that they can't believe I loved that book or that they decided to pick something up when they saw it on the list and loved it. I'm not a great conversationalist by any means, but talking about books is in my wheelhouse and this blog facilitates those conversations (at least throughout the week of the post!). Second, and probably most wonderfully of all, it's a chance for me to look at what I've read over the past year and remember. I have a funny relationship with books--I may not remember the plot of a book or a main character's name, but when I see titles, I often flash back to where I was when I was reading it or what was happening around that time or a conversation I had with someone about it. And this is my own way of keeping track of my own life which lately has seemed to go by so quickly that I can't even get a mediocre hold on it.

Anyway, that's just my way of saying thanks for taking a peek at my little list and my little space on the interwebs and thanks for always telling me about a great book you read or emailing to see if I have anything to recommend. Those are small things, but they are some of the beauties in my life.

Okay, time to get to it. This year, I read 47 books which is 3 less than last year (I don't like this trend!). I will give my usual caveat: the books on this list are ones that I completed reading between January 1, 2014 and December 31, 2014. These books were not necessarily published in 2014 (though most of them were published within the last three years) and anything that I have reread this year is not eligible for the Top 10. At the end of the top list, you'll find the list of all the books I have read this year. Also, the titles of the Top 10 books link to the book on Amazon (but go buy it in a bookstore).

And here it is, folks: 

Stephanie's Top 10 Books of 2014

10) The Best of Nora Ephron by Nora Ephron: At first, I almost didn't put this on my top 10 list, but I couldn't NOT. I have this thing for Nora Ephron--I love her. And not in like an "Oh! I totally love her stuff!" kind of way. No. Like in a how-do-you-so-get-to-the-core-of-life-and-I-wish-we-were-friends kind of way. After Nora Ephron died in 2012, this book was compiled of her best pieces of journalism, essay, fiction, and screenplay. Though this is certainly not comprehensive, it pulls much of her best work together and even includes the screenplay from "...When Harry Met Sally." The best (ever. of all things.) is the last chapters where she lists "What I Won't Miss" and "What I Will Miss" (which you can read here) which gets me every time with its simplicity and truth. This is a great one because you can pick it up and read it whenever since it's so very long but compiled of short essays and such. I'm not doing a great job of explaining my adoration for her or for why you should read this, but when it's fall out and the air smells a little different and all you want to do is buy the person you love a bouquet of sharpened pencils, pull this out.

9) Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan: I feel like I often say that I don't really like suspense or mysterious books, but I've said it so often recently about books I've enjoyed that I don't think I have pull to say it anymore. This little book is told from the perspective of Clay who recently lost his job and happens to find a position at Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore which, you can imagine, is open for 24 hours a day. Clay works the night shift and starts to realize that no one actually buys any books, but rather they check out strange books and come in at odd hours of the night. As he gets more and more intrigued by the strange behaviors of the clientele, he starts to investigate and is then roped into a world where codes, books, and mystery are paramount. I loved this for its unique story and its way of keeping me guessing and wanting to figure out the answers along with the characters. A fun, quick read. 

8) Cancel the Wedding by Carolyn T. Dingman: At first glance, I was skeptical of this book and its general aura of "chick lit" (which I don't disparage but have steered away from). But as I kept reading, I realized that it's deeper than it looks. The story is about a woman whose mother has passed away. Her mother wants her ashes to be scattered in her hometown which is a place she never talked about or visited. The daughter gets curious and partially to escape her life and partially out of curiosity, she goes to this rural southern town and learns more about her mother and her self than she bargained for. Yes, there's a love story, but deep down this is a story of family, understanding, and acceptance. It's simply written and I loved the language. I don't know if I was just ready for a love story when I read it, but I was hooked very early on.

7) Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: I loved this book because it made me think. A lot. The story follows Ifemelu, a Nigerian immigrant to America whose life goal was to make it to America and live there. As she struggles to understand American life, race relations, humanity, and her own expectations out of life, she points out the disparities, racism, and general lack of compassion she finds as an immigrant. Her rage becomes such that she begins a blog to vent her anger which becomes popular. The story also follows her Nigerian ex-boyfriend who immigrated to London and is there illegally, living a miserable life himself. The language was so sharp and the observations cut right through the skin. I loved the complete openness and sad honesty that the author brought to it. This is a long one, and people have told me that it takes time to get into it, but I recommend trying it.

6) This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett: Patchett writes a type of memoir in essay-sized snippets in this book. Each story is tied together by the fact that they are about Patchett's life and experiences, but they can all be read independently which makes this wonderfully woven book so interesting. All of the essays were compiled from writings throughout Patchett's career as well, which made for an interesting retrospective. Patchett talks about her first marriage (which took place when she was very young and ended quickly) and her current marriage (in which she seems very happy) as well as her decision to open an independent bookstore and her relationship with her father. It's really the story of how she became a writer and why she continues to do it. The essays were poignant without being sappy and read very genuinely. This was a fun one to read.

5) Lila by Marilynne Robinson: Have we talked about how much I love Robinson's book Gilead yet? I read it in high school for fun and then read it in college for class and go back to it every once in a while just to remember. Lila takes us back to the town of Gilead, Iowa where Gilead and Home take place. (It's not necessary to have read those to read Lila, but it does make it a bit more meaningful). This book tells the story of Lila who was kidnapped by a woman named Doll when she was a girl. They live the lives of gypsies basically and Lila grows up to have a very particular world-view. After happening upon the town of Gilead, she stays around for a while and ends up marrying the minister in the town who is more than twice her age. The story is beautifully and heartbreakingly told in words that make you want to read them out loud as you go.

4) Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson: I kept seeing this one on the shelves at the library and I finally picked it up and I'm so glad I did. I stayed up at night to read it! The story starts with Pete Snow who is a social worker in middle of nowhere Oklahoma. His own personal life is pretty messy but he cares about what he does. And when he comes across a basically feral boy who is found at the elementary school, he buys him clothes and food and tries to take him back to the boys parents. The boy leads Pete into the woods where he lives with he deranged, paranoid father who is attempting to take down the government and doesn't believe in the American dollar. Pete becomes more entwined with the family and things spin out of control to the point where the FBI is involved and a movement is begun. The backstory of this father is insanely fascinating and I just wanted to keep reading more. Parts of the end seemed far-fetched and a little much, but the storytelling outweighed that. Pete's story is interwoven with the story of his own daughter (whose mother takes her to New Mexico where she runs away and lives on the streets) and a boy who Pete sent to foster care (and whose story doesn't quite mesh or end in my opinion). Seriously. So good.

3) The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan: Here's another one where the storytelling was so good that it was hard to put down and stop thinking about. Amy Tan is no stranger to novels about mothers and daughters and this one follows that motif pretty closely. It starts out in early 1900s China where a white woman named Lulu is running the courtesan house in a prevalent town. Her daughter, Violet, is half American and half Chinese and is raised in the courtesan house. Tan does a fantastic job educating us (without our knowledge that we're learning something) about China at that time and particularly about the lifestyles of courtesans. The story focuses on the mother-daughter relationship of the two women and when Lulu goes to America but leaves her daughter behind, Violet must survive as the world seems to be ending around her. As she grows up, she has a daughter who is taken away from her--a story that she learns rings true for her own mother as she later learns. A gripping story of deceit, love, trust, heartbreak, and history, the poetic language and intricate details make this book one of those ones that made it hard to be at work during the day--I just wanted to keep going!

2) The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd: Chances are that you've heard about this book or read it--it seems to be one of those ones I kept seeing other people reading this year! Kidd's novel is a retelling of the true story of the Grimke sisters--two sisters from a conservative, southern family in Charleston, South Carolina who eventually were exiled by their family for their views on abolition and women's rights in the 1830s. The story starts when Sarah Grimke is given the gift of her own slave girl on her 11th birthday. It's a gift she does not want and certainly didn't ask for. The slave girl is Handful, whom Sarah befriends (though the friendship is certainly not condoned nor fully realized) and teaches to read and write. The novel is told in alternating chapters by Sarah and Handful and you see this tension but love that this relationship holds. Sarah and her sister Angelina become staunch and vocal abolitionists and crusaders for women's rights and their views are often too much for even the truest abolitionist of the time. So wonderfully told, I loved the dichotomy of the two stories as the girls grow up together and how they made some difference in each others' lives. Though the Grimke sisters and Sarah Grimke's slave girl had been forgotten for so long by history, Kidd brings them back to vibrant life here.

1) The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt: One of the first books I read in 2014, it is the one I have talked about, recommended, and obsessed over more than any of the others. The story, the writing (though sometimes a little long-winded), the intrigue... I couldn't get over it. I've been perusing general reviews of this book recently and there are a lot of people who just couldn't get on board. But man, I was all in. The story starts out with Theo Decker and his mother who duck into the Metropolitan Museum of Art to escape the rain and to see the Dutch masterpiece called The Goldfinch when terrorists attack the building and Theo's mother is killed. The story follows Theo as he finds a home with a friend's family and mourns his mother and moves on with his life, all while keeping a very valuable and costly secret of where the painting ended up after the attack. There's a little bit of teen angst-y stuff in there, but Theo's vagrant lifestyle, his involvement with gangsters and drug dealers, and his overwhelming love for his mother and for the painting that entranced her moves the story along so that by the end, I couldn't stop. This is a very very long one, but it's so worth the time investment.

So there you have it. Perhaps it's a predictable list, but I hope there is something in there that you might want to pick up. Below is the list of all the books that I read this year. Any honorable mentions that could have made the list have an asterisk next to them:

  •  *S by JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst
  • *Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell
  • The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout
  • The Weight of a Human Heart  by Ryan O'Neill
  • The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
  • The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
  • Coincidence by J.W. Ironmonger
  • Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls by David Sedaris (was anyone else disappointed with this?)
  • *Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
  • *The Circle by Dave Eggers (read this with a book club!)
  • The Last Summer of the Camperdowns by Elizabeth Kelly
  • Detroit City is the Place to Be by Mark Binelli
  • The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
  • The Giver by Lois Lowry
  • A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
  • The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
  • We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo
  • One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories by B.J. Novak
  • Frog Music by Emma Donoghue
  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • Free for All: Oddballs, Geeks, adn Gangstas in the Public Library by Don Borchert
  • Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
  • Enon by Paul Harding (don't read this unless you want to be super depressed. Forever.)
  • First Love by James Patterson
  • This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett
  • Super Boys: The Amazing Adventures of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster by Brad Ricca
  • The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan
  • Run  by Ann Patchett
  • The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman
  • Cancel the Wedding by Carolyn T. Dingman
  • The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer
  • Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
  • Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead
  • The Most of Nora Ephron  by Nora Ephron
  • The Visionist  by Rachel Urquhart
  • Lila by Marilynne Robinson
  • We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas
  • *We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
  • *Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham
  • *Yes Please by Amy Poehler
  • Egg and Spoon by Gregory Maguire
  • Us by David Nicholls
  • Fourth of July Creek  by Smith Henderson
  • *Euphoria by Lily King
  • Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer (I hated this so much I didn't know what to do with myself by the end)
  • *The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde
  • *The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan
I've already got an AMAZING start on 2015 with All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr under my belt (Seriously. Breathtaking.) and I'm looking forward to sharing all of this year's picks with you a year from now (because if my track record proves anything, I won't be back here until then--I have a wedding to plan, people!).

Thanks for reading and for your recommendations throughout the year (you know who you are) and for always asking "So what are you reading now?" It's my favorite question to answer.

If you'd like to see my lists from years past, here they are: 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013

Wishing you the best reading in 2015,