2014 – A Year in Reading

Illustration by Charlotte Runcie

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language. And next year’s words await another voice. And to make an end is to make a beginning.”  

T.S. Eliot,  (from: Little Gidding)

While I am definitely thinking about all of the great reading ahead in 2015, I very much wanted to share with you my favourite reads from 2014.

 

Lists are always subjective…I recognize this, but I read some truly wonderful books last year and I wanted to record these stand-outs. Maybe this list will help you discover some new reads, or prompt some interesting conversations; I hope it will do both!

The 5-Star Reads:

Fiction:

All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews. I read this book back in March. It’s still sitting with me, burrowed into my being, taking up space in my heart. How Toews gets into the grit of family – and does it so beautifully and with such humour – is continually and amazingly impressive to me. This is my top fiction read for 2014.

The Wars, by Timothy Findley.  A work of classic (contemporary) Canadian fiction. Blew. My. Mind. This is a 200-page epic – how did Findley do that? The discussions in an online book group really added to the read for me too.

Sweetland, by Michael Crummey. I LOVE MICHAEL CRUMMEY! Crummey carries the better part of the second part of this novel with only one character. How?! Because he’s the master! That’s how.

Fifth Business, by Robertson Davies. Another contemporary classic Canadian book, this was an awesome reread. As with The Wars, mentioned above, this novel is fantastic, and benefited from some really wonderful discussions with an online book group.

* The Transcriptionist, by Amy Rowland. I found this debut novel to be fantastic. Rowland has done a tremendous job giving us fully realized worlds – both the inner and outer lives of main character, Lena. I also felt this new novel to be different – a bit of a new story, that reminded me of nothing else I have ever read. It’s very well-written and well imagined.

The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey. I just really like this novel. This was a reread for me – I loved it on first reading in 2013. At the beginning of 2014, I reread this novel because one of my book groups was reading it. The Snow Child held up wonderfully! This is a perfect winter read: it’s moody and lovely and a bit of a fairy tale for adults.

Winter Sport: Poems, by Priscila Uppal. I really enjoyed this collection. I mean… who knew you could create such compelling poems about winter events at the Olympics? Perhaps I really hadn’t actually thought about it – but I am so glad to have read this wonderful collection from Uppal.

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5-Star Nonfiction:

The Empathy Exams: Essays, by Leslie Jamison. I really loved the way Jamison wove some fairly different topics together through the theme of empathy. This book is my favourite nonfiction read of 2014.

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert. This is just a damn good book. Smart and interesting, it also allows the reader to be a bit of an armchair traveller as we go with Kolbert on her research missions.

Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened, by Allie Brosh. I loved this book right into my heart. I loved it hard. Brosh is so open about her depression, but she’s also – particularly if you are a dog-owner – laugh-out-loud funny.

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4-Star Reads, Worth Honourable Mentions:

Fiction:

* Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent. Overall, I found this to be a very impressive debut novel from Australian Hannah Kent (who has been mentored by Geraldine Brooks). It makes a lot of sense, this pairing. Both tell great historically-based tales and perform, it seems, fairly monumental research. There’s also an effective simplicity to their prose. Kent really brought Iceland to life in this novel too, something I really enjoyed.

* The Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton. This is another wonderful debut novel, and another work of enjoyable historical fiction. At the time of reading this book, I was in dire need of an excellent, escapist read – The Miniaturist completely fit the bill. Burton’s research appears to be solid, and gaining a fictional perspective on Amsterdam in the late-1600s was a true reading pleasure.

* We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler. This was such an interesting and different read. I loved the premise, and Fowler’s style. I have also realized that this should maybe be bumped up to a 5-star rating. The novel has sat with me for quite a while now, and I find myself thinking about it often.

* The Lobster Kings, by Alexi Zentner. This was an interesting and evocative read – at times I could feel and smell the cold, wet sea. This will be a great summer, or vacation, read for many people.

* Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Adichie’s writing is great – she’s evocative and engaging. Everything is quite vivid, and I could easily see, hear and feel the places she describes. If I had not read any of Adichie’s previous novels…this probably would have been a 5-star read for me. In Americanah, I found quite few similarities to her other books – similar characters, similar situations, similar challenges. So while the writing was great, I felt like she had recycled some stuff. If you have not read Adichie before, this is definitely the book I recommend I recommend as your starting point.

* Curiosity, by Joan Thomas. Thomas did a great job evoking the time and the setting, and conveying the challenges Mary Anning faced. There is a line in the story that really stood out to me: “Oh, she’s a history and a mystery, our Mary.” While i know only a little bit about Anning, I hope that Thomas’ fictional portrayal is embraced and enjoyed by many readers. Anning did not receive the recognition she deserved in her lifetime, given the divide between men and women, as well as the class divide, and Anning’s lack of formal education and training. So, this book is definitely a tribute to a remarkable woman, and I am so glad I finally took the opportunity to read it!

* The Magician’s Assistant, by Ann Patchett. Sometimes you read the exact right book at the exact right time. That happened for me with The Magician’s Assistant. Patchett handles the themes of love, loss, grief, family dynamics, how the past defines a person, and improbable relationships so wonderfully. There is a grace to her writing that pulls me in and, at moments, stops me in my tracks as I admire her prose. The ending was a bit of a disappointment, so I couldn’t (didn’t) give this a full 5-stars.

* can’t and won’t: (stories), by Lydia Davis. All I can say about this collection is it is quirktastically wonderful. I had a lot of fun reading this book, and was pleased to find another short story author I enjoy. (I was already a fan of Davis’ translation work. Her edition of Madame Bovary is excellent!!)

* Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley. Such a fascinating read – and probably not what you think it’s going to be if you are only basing your opinion on film or stage adaptations. I had some issues with certain points in the story feeling like padding. Shelley is also a bit clunky with her writing – but she was so young when she wrote this novel. It’s quite an accomplishment for a 19yo’s first book – a story that has endured and been loved for such a long time. This specific edition the one I recommend. I enjoyed Elizabeth Kostova‘s introduction a lot. (Which I read it after I finished the novel itself, and it did add to my enjoyment of the story.)

* Mãn, by Kim Thúy. The partnership of author Kim Thúy and translator Shiela Fischman is truly a thing of beauty! They are both so wonderfully talented! Thúy’s prose is so rich and nuanced, and it often feels lyrical when I am reading her books. (I felt the same way about Ru.) I enjoy how Thúy plays with memory in her writing, and how she is able to generate visceral responses.

* The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride. This novel really grabbed my attention – I found it so interesting and creative, and it got me very curious about the real events upon which it is based. As well, the style of the story is hugely entertaining. McBride is a funny guy, I think. And while this novel is dealing with a serious subject, I loved the moments of levity included. I think this is a novel that can be appreciated by many readers.

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4-Star Nonfiction:

* The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese, by Michael Paterniti. What a great read! I enjoyed this book so much and loved that, while the story really is about a very special cheese, it’s a book about many different things in life – things we all wonder about, and struggle with: belonging, family, friendship, our path in life, our own truths, storytelling, love. Some big subjects, to be sure, but Paterniti does a great job.

* Saint-Exupéry, by Stacy Schiff. Schiff did a great job with this biography of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the man most well-know for writing The Little Prince. It was clear to me that extreme care was taken with the research for the book. Saint-Exupéry was an interesting and odd fellow. He was emotionally needy, and immature in many, many ways. But he was also, it seems, quite intelligent. This was a great look at his life.

* Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World, by Matthew Goodman. This was such an enjoyable story – and a perfect book to read during the summer. I really liked being an armchair traveler with Bly and Bisland on their around-the-world adventures. Goodman did a great job presenting the race, and I appreciated that he also included historical context and sidebars for what was going on in the world in 1889 and 1890. As well, Goodman provided brief looks at the women’s lives post-race.

* Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital, by Sheri Fink. An absolutely fascinating and challenging read. I am already quite interested in bioethics and, in particular, how ethics are used (or not) in hospital settings, so Fink’s book is a great complement to this field of study and research. There were so many infuriating moments during this read – not because of Fink or her writing, but rather because of what went on during Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. I tend to believe i am a fairly upbeat/optimistic person, and though I have curmudgeony moments, I also tend to believe the best about people. And yet…I was continually angered by the behaviours shown in Fink’s investigations. As Fink notes in the book, it is very hard for most of us to know how we would respond or act under the circumstances faced in New Orleans. It was a many layered disaster, but I hope people have learned, and continue to learn, from what was endured.

* Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune, by Bill Dedman. During the read, many worries surfaced over whether Huguette Clark’s caregivers and advisors were taking advantage of her financial generosity. I don’t want to give away too much and spoil it for those who may read it, but I will say that I liked how Bill Dedman presented the information. As a reader I went back and forth on the idea, as circumstances were developing, trying to decide what I truly believed. I kept feeling as though Huguette Clark would make for an awesome subject to fictionalize, the way Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald or The Paris Wife did, with the lives of Zelda Fitzgerald and Hadley Hemingway. I really loved Dedman’s biography of Clark, but there are many unknowables not addressed in the Empty Mansions, and I think it could be fun to fill in the spaces, imagining the whys and hows. Empty Mansions has been optioned for film rights – I think with the right team, this could make for a wonderful adaptation.

* The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky and Death, by Colson Whitehead. I may have curmudgeonly predispositions sometimes. I may have a literary crush on Colson Whitehead. Whatever. I enjoyed this. The last bit of the book wasn’t quite as strong as the rest, and it seemed abrupt at the end. But I had a lot of fun reading it. It’s a great summer read, or a bit of an escapist read for any time, really.

* Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, by Lawrence Wright. The narrative is compelling and utterly fascinating. And not just a little bit freaky. Scientology is a world that seems so out there, to me (which would probably please L. Ron Hubbard to no end). I stumble – wondering how seemingly intelligent people can end up so deeply involved in practices and beliefs that don’t make sense. Wright makes a lovely case for the fact that there is – of course – faith required in all religions, and all religions employ magic or unnatural events that can’t be explained…but with scientology, that faith seems mistakenly placed. And wright offers plenty of evidence to support this concern. Interesting to note that a documentary adaptation of this book is completed, and HBO has a team of 160 lawyers prepared and ready for the notoriously litigious ‘church’.

 

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My Year In Reading – Stats:

books read: 99
pages read: 34039
international: 30
canadian: 25
american: 44
in translation: 8 (boo!)
fiction: 76
nonfiction: 23
female author: 63
male author: 36
longest read: 826p. (New York)
shortest read: 122p. (Winter Sport: Poems)
average pages: 344p.
publication dates:
– 79 of the books <2000
– 3 in 1800s
– 3 between 1900 and 1940
– 14 between 1940s – 1990s

ratings
1-star: 3
2-star: 27
3-star: 28
4-star: 31
5-star: 10

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I am not a planner with my reading. I very much read by mood. Sometimes I wish I could create a reading plan and stick with it, but it just never works for me.

In 2014, I did pay attention to reading more women authors, as part of the Year of Reading Women, which was declared for 2014. And I also did focus, for a while, on reading the 2014 longlist for the Women’s Prize in Fiction. I have managed 10/20, so far!

One thing I did notice, in reviewing my year in reading, was an unintentional focus on empathy as a theme. I know many believe that reading helps develop and further one’s empathy, but I actually had many books dealing specifically with the idea of empathy. So that was very cool to notice.

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So there you have it – the best of my year in reading!! I am sorry this is such a long post – though my hope is you will discover some new reads of great interest.

Please let me know about your favourite reads in 2014 – I would love to hear your recommendations. (And I would also like to hear if you are a mood reader, or plan your reading. Heck, just talk to me about your reading – book talk is rarely bad talk!)

 

Happy New Year, and may 2015 be filled with lots of wonderful books!

 

Illustration: Jane Mount, My Ideal Bookshelf

 

The Transcriptionist, by Amy Rowland

New in bookstores today, The Transcriptionist, by Amy Rowland.

The TranscriptionistFrom the book’s description: No one can find it. That’s the first thing. The Recording Room is on the eleventh floor, at the end of a rat-hued hallway that some workers at the newspaper have never seen; they give up on the ancient elevator, which makes only local stops with loud creaks of protest. Like New Yorkers who refuse to venture above Fourteenth Street, there are newspaper workers who refuse to go above the fourth floor for fear of being lost forever if they leave the well-lit newsroom for dark floors unknown. In this room you’ll find Lena. She works as a transcriptionist for the Record, a behemoth New York City newspaper. There once were many transcriptionists at the Record, but new technology and the ease of communication has put most of them out of work, so now Lena sits alone in a room on the building’s eleventh floor, far away from the hum of the newsroom that is the heart of the paper. Still, it is an important job—vital, really—a vein that connects the organs of the paper, and Lena takes it very seriously. And then one day she encounters something that shatters the reverie that has become her life—an article in the paper about a woman mauled to death by lions in the city zoo. The woman was blind and remains unidentified, but there is a picture, and Lena recognizes her as someone whom a few days before she had met and talked to briefly while riding home on a midtown bus.

Amy Rowland

Amy Rowland

Obsessed with [understanding the woman’s death], Lena begins a campaign for truth that will ultimately destroy the Record’s complacency and shake the venerable institution to its very foundation. In the process she finds a new set of truths that gives her the strength to shed what she describes as her “secondhand life” and to embrace a future filled with promise, maybe even adventure. An exquisite novel that asks probing questions about journalism and ethics, about the decline of the newspaper and the failure of language. I am so happy to recommend this wonderful debut novel to you.  I had trouble putting it down as I was completely swept into Lena’s world. In our ever more technologically dependent world, human connection has become a more important issue – we are all plugged in all the time, but how much of our time is spent engaging with people in meaningful and important ways?  Rowland explores this theme beautifully in her book, as Lena attempts to solidify her presence in her own life, in an increasingly alienating world.

Amy Rowland wrote a great essay, sharing how the idea for The Transcriptionist came about.

A Few Recommendations…

Illustration: Jane Mount

So…sometimes life can be a numbskull. We’ve all been there, haven’t we – unexpected emergencies; personal challenges; sad news; and loss. So many things make up life’s rich pageant, and most of us carry our own “stuff”,  as we make our way in the world.  So far, 2014 has been…difficult. I have not been able to pay much attention to this blog, but that does not mean I have been away from reading. While the chaos of life did send me into a bit of a reading slump (do you grapple with those sometimes?), I have been plugging along lately, and have enjoyed some wonderful books.  I hope to create new reviews soon, but until then I did want to share a few suggestions with you.  I found these following six novels to be wonderful, and I am happy to recommend them to you.

1. The Magician’s Assistant, by Ann Patchett.  This is one of Patchett’s earlier novels. I loved it – the story pulled me right in. If you have ever experienced the loss of a loved one, and been mired in the murkiness of grief, you may find this story interesting, and maybe even a bit of a balm.

From the book’s description: “Sabine– twenty years a magician’s assistant to her handsome, charming husband– is suddenly a widow. In the wake of his death, she finds he has left a final trick; a false identity and a family allegedly lost in a tragic accident but now revealed as very much alive and well. Named as heirs in his will, they enter Sabine’s life and set her on an adventure of unraveling his secrets, from sunny Los Angeles to the windswept plains of Nebraska, that will work its own sort of magic on her.”

2. The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride.   I enjoyed this novel so much. It won the 2013 National Book Award; the voice, time and place McBride brings to life in his story are wonderful.

From the book’s description: “Henry Shackleford is a young slave living in the Kansas Territory in 1857, when the region is a battleground between anti- and pro-slavery forces. When John Brown, the legendary abolitionist, arrives in the area, an argument between Brown and Henry’s master quickly turns violent. Henry is forced to leave town—with Brown, who believes he’s a girl.

Over the ensuing months, Henry—whom Brown nicknames Little Onion—conceals his true identity as he struggles to stay alive. Eventually Little Onion finds himself with Brown at the historic raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859—one of the great catalysts for the Civil War.

An absorbing mixture of history and imagination, and told with McBride’s meticulous eye for detail and character, The Good Lord Bird is both a rousing adventure and a moving exploration of identity and survival.”

3. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin. This novel is utterly lovely and charming. If you sometimes just want to read a “nice” book – this is it! Plus — if you are any sort of card-carrying book lover with a heart, a novel that features: books, a bookstore, and publishing should really appeal. Zevin’s novel is like a book nerd’s most amazing dream.

From the book’s description: “Hanging over the porch of the tiny New England bookstore called Island Books is a faded sign with the motto “No Man Is an Island; Every Book Is a World.” A.J. Fikry, the irascible owner, is about to discover just what that truly means.

A.J. Fikry’s life is not at all what he expected it to be. His wife has died, his bookstore is experiencing the worst sales in its history, and now his prized possession, a rare collection of Poe poems, has been stolen. Even the books in his store have stopped holding pleasure for him. These days, A.J. can only see them as a sign of a world that is changing too rapidly.

And then a mysterious package appears at the bookstore. It’s a small package, but large in weight. It’s that unexpected arrival that gives A.J. the opportunity to make his life over, the ability to see everything anew. It doesn’t take long for the locals to notice the change overcoming him or for a determined sales rep named Amelia to see her curmudgeonly client in a new light. The wisdom of all those books again become the lifeblood of A.J.’s world and everything twists into a version of his life that he didn’t see coming.

As surprising as it is moving, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is an unforgettable tale of transformation and second chances, an irresistible affirmation of why we read and why we love.”

4. Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent. This is a fantastic debut novel, from a young Australian writer. Kent has done a great job creating an evocative story. You may very well feel this one right to your bones.

From the book’s description: “A brilliant literary debut, inspired by a true story: the final days of a young woman accused of murder in Iceland in 1829.

Set against Iceland’s stark landscape, Hannah Kent brings to vivid life the story of Agnes, who, charged with the brutal murder of her former master, is sent to an isolated farm to await execution.

Horrified at the prospect of housing a convicted murderer, the family at first avoids Agnes. Only Tóti, a priest Agnes has mysteriously chosen to be her spiritual guardian, seeks to understand her. But as Agnes’s death looms, the farmer’s wife and their daughters learn there is another side to the sensational story they’ve heard.

Riveting and rich with lyricism, BURIAL RITES evokes a dramatic existence in a distant time and place, and asks the question, how can one woman hope to endure when her life depends upon the stories told by others?

5. Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Adichie examines the ideas of race, identity and belonging. It’s edgy and it’s essential.

From the book’s description: “Ifemelu–beautiful, self-assured–left Nigeria 15 years ago, and now studies in Princeton as a Graduate Fellow. She seems to have fulfilled every immigrant’s dream: Ivy League education; success as a writer of a wildly popular political blog; money for the things she needs. But what came before is more like a nightmare: wrenching departure from family; humiliating jobs under a false name. She feels for the first time the weight of something she didn’t think about back home: race.

Obinze–handsome and kind-hearted–was Ifemelu’s teenage love; he’d hoped to join her in America, but post 9/11 America wouldn’t let him in. Obinze’s journey leads him to back alleys of illegal employment in London; to a fake marriage for the sake of a work card, and finally, to a set of handcuffs as he is exposed and deported.

Years later, when they reunite in Nigeria, neither is the same person who left home. Obinze is the kind of successful “Big Man” he’d scorned in his youth, and Ifemelu has become an “Americanah”–a different version of her former self, one with a new accent and attitude. As they revisit their shared passion–for their homeland and for each other–they must face the largest challenges of their lives.

Spanning three continents, entering the lives of a richly drawn cast of characters across numerous divides, Americanah is a riveting story of love and expectation set in today’s globalized world.

6. The Transcriptionist, by Amy Rowland. Another wonderful debut novel, from a very engaging writer. Rowland has a great way of shining a light on many absurdities of modern life.

From the book’s description: Lena, the transcriptionist, sits alone in a room far away from the hum of the newsroom that is the heart of the Record, the New York City newspaper for which she works. For years, she has been the ever-present link for reporters calling in stories from around the world. Turning spoken words to print, Lena is the vein that connects the organs of the paper. She is loyal, she is unquestioning, yet technology is dictating that her days there are numbered.

When she reads a shocking piece in the paper about a Jane Doe mauled to death by a lion, she recognizes the woman in the picture. They had met on a bus just a few days before. Obsessed with understanding what caused the woman to deliberately climb into the lion’s den, Lena begins a campaign for truth that will destroy the Record’s complacency and shake the venerable institution to its very foundation.

An exquisite novel that asks probing questions about journalism and ethics, about the decline of the newspaper and the failure of language, it is also the story of a woman’s effort to establish her place in an increasingly alien and alienating world.”

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I hope you will find some books of interest on this list. I think each of these novels will appeal to many readers, and that within these stories are characters and situations to which we can all relate. There is also much to be learned within each of these books. I always love gaining new perspectives and new knowledge while reading, and while many of these stories may have you looking within, they will also have you looking out, to the world beyond your own personal sphere. And that is never a bad thing.

If you have read something wonderful lately, I would love to hear about it. Please feel free to leave a comment, below this post.

Happy reading!