It's been a great year of reading for me, as I've learned to balance my required reading for my MFA program and still choose to take the time for pleasure reading. Here are a few of my favorites from this year, read for pleasure.
A National Book Award finalist and a surprise NYT Number One Bestseller, this book had all the hype that often makes me avoid a novel: it can't possibly be as good as everyone says. And yet I couldn't resist the premise: a dual narrative of a blind Parisian girl and her father during WWII, balanced with a boy genius in the Hitler Youth. The language is gorgeous, the setting, impeccable, and the characters are compelling and empathetic. I can't recommend this book highly enough.
Recommended to me by a friend while at the Sewanee Writers Conference this summer in a conversation about war literature, this short story collection beat out All The Light We Cannot See as the National Book Award winner. Each story deals with the War On Terror, ranging from the ethics of fighting, the nature of religion, the difficulties of re entry into civilian life, and the pain of the helplessness felt by those driven by purpose, only to find that purpose hollow. It's a powerful book for anyone interested in learning more about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the veterans who are just beginning to taste the consequences of violence firsthand.
Originally released in 2012, this book is a gem. NPR's Maureen Corrigan says it best: "A literary miracle like Beautiful Ruins appears, and once again I'm a believer... a sweeping stunner of a narrative... the entire novel is a kaleidoscopic collection of 'beautiful ruins,' both architectural and human. This novel is a standout not just because of the inventiveness of its plot, but also because of its language." Set against the picturesque backdrop of Cinque Terre on the Italian coast, the novel moves seamlessly through time and through the lives of its characters. And as incredible dessert, the final chapter is one of the finest I've ever read.
I hate to admit it, but I'm having some trouble remembering what I read last year! I'm inspired to once again keep a reading log as I did several years ago, an undertaking I both enjoyed and appreciated. Why I have failed to do so in subsequent years is a question I can't answer, but for 2015, I'm committing to do so. As for 2014, the last book I completed begins my list. Going roughly backward, then:
The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert
How long ago was it that Ms. Gilbert came to Dallas and kept us captivated as she promoted this book? Yet it wasn't until just after Thanksgiving that I finally picked it up, and many happy hours at our retreat were spent relaxing into Alma's life story. I had a super-busy December, and it wasn't until after Christmas that I finally finished, mostly because I wasn't willing to take the novel in the little sips of time I had available; no, this deserved big gulps of time. The writing itself left me awestruck; Gilbert truly is an outstanding pen smith. The research she undertook for this also impressed (and left me not a little envious to boot--London! Tahiti! Amsterdam!), and I am quite sure this is a novel that will stick with me for a long time.
What Alice Forgot, by Liane Moriarty
This was a re-read, another I read as a potential comp, and I enjoyed it just as much as when I read it a few years ago. Plus, it led me to more of Moriarty's work, notably The Hypnotist's Love Story which I thought was terrific, and two others I bought which are in the stack on my nightstand awaiting their turn. Since they were already recommended by Pamela (Big Little Lies and The Husband's Secret), I have no doubt they will be as satisfying as Moriarty's other works. Like Pamela, I love finding a reliable author who I can read--and re-read.
The Amateur Marriage, by Anne Tyler
This was a re-read, as is anything by Anne Tyler, since I believe I've read every word she's published. I'll be totally honest: I'm not sure this is the one I read from her this year, but I read her every year (as I do Maeve Binchy), and it's always fresh, always enjoyable, and I always, always find something new. She (they) is (are), very simply, in my top five of all time. And always will be.
The Chaperone, by Laura Moriarty
I might have discovered this perusing the library for more of the Australian Moriarty's works, or maybe I was looking for her specifically having read a couple of her other novels in earlier years (both While I'm Falling and The Rest of Her Life were terrific), but between these two and my fandom of Sherlock, it was quite the Moriarty year. The Chaperone is an imagining of a woman accompanying Louise Brooks, a girl destined to be one of the most famous actresses of her silent film generation, to New York for a summer that changes both of them forever. Any time a book sends me to the internet to learn more, I know it's good. I was itching to Google by the end of the first chapter.
The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green
My daughter is a devotee of Mr. Green, both his novels and his YouTube channel , but I never let her forget I discovered him first. I read Paper Towns and Looking for Alaska several years ago, loved them, and while Stars was on my radar, somehow it wasn't until shortly before the movie came out that I picked it up. And cried (as I did at the movie of course).
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot
It's always a pain when my kids ask me what I want for a gift, but I remembered this book has been on my wish-list for a long time, and my son gave it to me for my birthday. Still, it was months before I got around to reading it, and it was so worth the wait. So worth it, how ridiculous is it that it took me years to read it? I don't read a lot of non-fiction, though when I do, I wonder why not? This was a great read tied with an amazing and sometimes shameful story, a story that literally impacts every person on our planet. Some of my favorite reading hours this year were spent with this book.
Courage for Beginners, by Karen Harrington
Once again, Harrington nailed the voice. I attended her book signing and bought copies for myself and my daughter and for my niece. As with her middle-grade debut Sure Signs of Crazy, Karen had me completely believing I was inside the head of a twelve-year-old. It's exciting to watch a writer find her niche, and I feel privileged to see Karen's career blossom from across town.
Wonder, by R.J. Palacio
This middle grade book was, well, a wonder. The story of a boy with both extreme facial deformity and enormity of heart was in a word, beautiful. This is another one that got voice perfectly, this tale from multiple points of view, all of them authentic.
The Nineteenth Wife, by David Ebersoff
I love a story that goes back and forth in time. I was shopping at Costco with my mother-in-law, started chatting up a stranger in the book aisle who soon thrust a copy of this novel in our hands (probably to get me to leave her alone). This story, the fact-based tale of one of early Mormon leader Brigham Young's many wives woven together with the fictional story of a modern day religious sect, is another that set me Googling.
Eleanor and Park, by Rainbow Rowell
I'm pretty sure I read this was my first read of last year. Julie recommended it at our 2013 retreat, and I was happy to believe her, already a fan of Ms. Rowell having read Attachments (at the suggestion of my librarian) a year or two earlier. I was not disappointed. This high school story set in 1986 was spot-on (as an '85 grad I feel qualified to judge), and had me aching with the singular memory of how high school love feels and acts.
My 2014 reading was, shamefully, as sketchy and scattered as everything else I did last year. (Did I mention the moving and selling and buying of houses? I believe I did!) I didn't keep a list for the first time in forever. And I suspect my total number was dismally low. I typically read late at night, and last year I did a lot of crashing into bed and falling asleep in five minutes. But a few titles did float to the top as I glanced through my eBook collection -- because I'm not sure I managed to read a single print book other than a few for research that were only available that way. I've already read one in print this year and am going to focus on doing a lot more of it as I really enjoyed it. I'm honestly not even sure what year these were published in several cases, but I read them in 2014!
I'm still in disbelief that this gripping, beautifully crafter debut novel was written by an author in her mid-twenties. Don't expect to come away from it feeling sunny or hopeful. After all, it's set in Iceland in the winter and it's about a young woman awaiting her execution for murder. But do expect to come away with a crash education in 19th century Icelandic geography and culture, and the experience of reading something unlike anything you've read before. I have recommended this one many times at book clubs I've attended in the last year. It was so dark, but it was so good.
Little Mercies, by Heather Gudenkauf
This is just the kind of twisty, emotional, "ripped from the headlines" family drama I almost always enjoy -- though enjoy is never quite the right word for a story that guts you. Yet, this one does end on an uplifting note. I had always intended to read something by this author, but hadn't for some reason. I'm glad I did, and will likely read more. The story focuses on the ironic premise of a child welfare worker who unintentionally neglects her own child with horrifying repercussions.
The Story of Beautiful Girl, by Rachel Simon
I really liked this story about a woman with a developmental disability and a deaf man who fall in love in an "institution for the feeble-minded," as it was called during the historical period in which the novel is set. Not only that, but it was also about interracial love, so it had obvious appeal for me because of my own novel, Calling Me Home. Now that I am mostly past the terror writers experience in the early stages of publication about whether someone else has published, or is about to, a "competing" novel, I find I've returned to really enjoying stories with similar themes. After all, I wouldn't have written this type of novel if I didn't enjoy reading it myself. Another great one for book clubs.
Finally, I would be lying if I didn't admit I read Eleanor & Park (by Rainbow Rowell, already mentioned by Elizabeth above!) AGAIN and loved it as much or more the second time! And let me tell you, I don't re-read books. This has truly become my go-to feel-good story (though it is full of heartbreak, too), and I have actually stood near it in bookstores and waited for teenagers to approach and placed it in their hands and said, "READ THIS ONE." :) I have her other novels waiting in my TBR pile. What am I waiting for? Oh, yeah. Time.