Thursday, December 11, 2014

Favorite Reads, 2014

I’ve read fifty-seven books this year, one more than last year which seems strange to me because it certainly felt like I read much more. I blame the fact that I tackled a few longish books—The Historian and Wolf Hall among them—and I struggled with some, especially those two. Oh, how I struggled. In the end, I find that my list of favorites is long and impossible to shorten, so I apologize in advance. Just when I think of striking one from the list, all of its merits come flooding back. It was a very, very good year of reading. In fact, I’d say two of these novels are in contention for my personal Best of All Time list, which, of course, needs time and space to solidify. But without further rambling, here are my top thirteen, and a special three-book addendum.

The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope (2013) by Rhonda Riley

The plot: When Evelyn Roe’s great-aunt dies, she is put in charge of the North Carolina farm left behind. Evelyn is the eldest of the family and the only one who’s ever shown an interest in working the land. So at seventeen years of age, she finds herself living alone for the first time in her life. During a turbulent storm, she discovers what she believes to be an injured and disfigured solider, almost completely buried in patch of mud. She nurses the stranger back to life and thus begins the love story of her time on earth. Of everything I read this year, my mind returns to this one most often. Definitely etched as a favorite for all time. Here’s the rest of what I wrote about it.

The Orchardist (2013) by Amanda Coplin

Ms. Coplin’s publisher boldly claims “At once intimate and epic, The Orchardist is historical fiction at its best, in the grand literary tradition of William Faulkner, Marilynne Robinson, Michael Ondaatje, Annie Proulx, and Toni Morrison.” I don’t know about all that, but it is very, very good. A story set in the American West about what happens when a solitary orchardist takes in two troubled young teens. Touching and sweeping, a fabulous read.

Burial Rites (2014) by Hannah Kent

My book club loved this novel about a condemned Icelandic woman in the early 1800s. Kent evokes a starkly vivid world, creates unforgettable characters, and manages a taut suspense throughout. Your book club will love it too, I promise.

Lila (2014) by Marilynne Robinson

I spent the first few pages of this book wondering if readers who were new to Robinson’s series would enjoy it as much as I was. Lila, the main character, is the same one who appears in Gilead and Home (two novels on my previously mentioned Best of All Time list), and this new novel focuses on her version of the story we already know from those novels. And then I forgot all about this question, as I became captivated by Robinson’s wonderful writing. Unsurprisingly, I loved it.

Where I’m Calling From (1989) by Raymond Carver

I’ve read some of these stories in other settings, and there’s a reason why Carver’s considered a master of the short story. Because he’s a master of the short story. This collection should be required reading for anyone considering the form. His characters are familiar and flawed, and they find themselves in situations that seem normal but often are tragic. An unflinching spotlight on the human condition.

The Golem & The Jinni (2013) by Helene Wecker

One of the few books I decided to read based, primarily, on its cover (the hardcover version is a work of art). The story follows two immigrants recently arrived to America at the tail end of the 19th century. One is a golem, a woman fashioned from clay by a rabbi in Danzig; the other is a jinni from the Syrian desert, recently freed from a copper flask. This mystical and touching saga traces the paths of both until they finally merge. Entertaining throughout, with much to chew on afterwards.

Coincidence (2014) by J.W. Ironmonger

On Midsummer’s Day, 1982, three-year-old Azalea is found, wandering alone, at an English fairground. She has blazing red hair and a small scar on her face. Ten years later, to the day, her adoptive parents are killed in Uganda while she survives. Feeling that her life has been framed by a series of coincidences, she seeks out an expert in debunking them. The novel slowly adds clues, both to Azalea’s past and present, as it weaves its story from her beginnings, to her time in Africa with her missionary adoptive parents, to her present day. The result is an intelligent, suspenseful love story of sorts.

HHhH (2013) by Laurent Binet

One of the more original things I read this year. A historical novel that traces the fatal attack on the Nazi Heydrich by two hired assassins, yet also the personal journey of its author, Laurent Binet, as he follows the historical clues. Tense, inventive and extremely smart, this book will make you rethink history and how it’s remembered and retold. A brilliant novel that engages on every level.

A Monster Calls (2013) by Patrick Ness (author) and Jim Kay (illustrator)

Thirteen-year-old Conor wakes to find a monster outside his bedroom window. It seems to want something and the story follows Conor's attempts to find out what it is. This book was the result of a collaboration between the author, an illustrator, and the woman whose idea inspired the story. The result is a perfect book, one that moved me tremendously, and one that I don’t want to say too much about because you should experience it yourself.

Can’t and Won’t (2014) by Lydia Davis

Another stellar collection of stories from a writer who’s had a big effect on me and countless other writers. I don’t mean to keep telling you what to do, but if you’re a writer, you should give her a read.

We are All Completely Besides Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (2014)

Another book that I don’t want to say too much about. It’s the story of an atypical family (aren’t they all?) and the tragic events that divert their course. It’s also about memory and humanity’s relationship to the animal world, and about love in surprising and stubborn forms. An inventive, endlessly intelligent novel.

Things We Set on Fire (2014) by Deborah Reed

Three generations of women are pulled together through a tragic event, and the past begins to unravel. Vivvie’s daughter Kate is hospitalized and she is called to help with her two granddaughters. There are implications about the death of Vivvie’s husband many years before, there are buried secrets and resentments, and there is the implosion that occurs when the family comes together. An evocative and beautifully written book about family and ultimately, forgiveness.  

With a Zero at its Heart (2014) by Charles Lambert

A collection of short “stories,” each ten paragraphs long, with each paragraph containing 120 words. If this seems gimmicky to you, don’t worry. It’s an engrossing reading experience, and you won’t be thinking about the framework once you start. In spare, tender vignettes, the author tells the story of a boy growing to be a man—the experiences and heartbreaks, the sensory, the emotional. The benefit of the form, I think, is that the forced brevity crystallizes the prose to almost poetry. Each snapshot adds to a collage of life that is both touching and affecting. A book to savor and ponder.

And finally, a special three-book addendum, featuring three works I loved by author Ron Rash:

Burning Bright (2010)

Peopled with unforgettable characters living in Appalachia, this collection of stories spans from the Civil War to present day. There is an assured calmness about his writing, and usually some sort of subtle heart-wrenching that sneaks up on you. This was my first introduction to Rash, and I was hooked.

One Foot in Eden (2002)

The second thing I read by Rash, and quite possibly my favorite book of the year. Also the second contender for that All Time list, and another book I consider near perfect. The story centers around the death of a local thug and the sheriff’s journey as he tries to discover what happened. It’s a little bit gothic, a little bit suspense, and a whole lot of human folly and the tragedy that often follows. This book made me think that maybe working my way through Rash’s books will go some distance toward filling part of the Kent-Haruf-shaped hole in my heart. LOVED this novel.

Nothing Gold Can Stay (2013)

Another stellar collection of stories. If I had to identify a common strain, it’d be the flawed but lovable characters, all trying to make their way. And always that little hook, like shining a light on something you’d forgotten about within yourself.

1 comment:

  1. thanks for the rich serving ...
    I think I'll look out for Ron Rash next year.

    A little moan, I'm not necessarily signed into my google account when I visit here. It drives me mad that blogspot makes my comments disappear during the signing in process.


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