Friday, January 2, 2015

Stef's Favorite Books of the Year 2014

It was an amazing year of books, wasn't it? (Though I think I thought that last year and the year before that and if I don't think that next year and every year, clearly something isn't working.) Some wacky novels, some super sad, some epic and all-encompassing, some as sharp and focused as a pinhole camera. I didn't read as much this year, because it turns out that parenting is tiring and makes your brain mushy. (Truthfully, in an effort to read more books, I unfollowed all of my friends on Facebook so that I would spend less time scrolling scrolling scrolling, but you, Twitter, you got the best of me. It's damn good reading for those parenting lulls when the brain is stuck in that sad valley between sleep and waking.) I'm sad for all those books I missed. (Like memoir for example-- I only read one memoir this year...shit, what did I miss? *Looks frantically around*) But what I did read was pretty damn good. Here are my favorites of the year:

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
This is such a wonderful, impressive, unforgettable novel. It brought me to such depths—absolute fear and terror, sinking feelings of dread and hopelessness for the characters and for our own world (Georgian Flu, the flu that kills most of the earth’s inhabitants, or the equivalent, seems bound to happen, doesn’t it??), but also touching, tender moments, powerful in their ability to remind us that people really are okay—good, even.

In true St. John Mandel form, everything linked up together by the end in a way that didn’t feel too convenient—it felt simply fated, meant to be. All of her novels are struck through with the notion of fate, of the actions we take setting us on courses that will change our lives. (And that’s life, isn’t it?) From beginning to end, there was not one false or inauthentic moment. Reading it was truly an experience.  

Euphoria by Lily King
Easily one of my favorites of the year so far. Lily King is a great writer--she is a master at dialogue, her characters just pop off the page, and her writing is just adorned enough. Not so much that she’s showing off. Just enough to make you pause and re-read her sentences with a measure of admiration and appreciation. King’s character Nell is based on anthropologist Margaret Mead in the 1930s. She and her husband Fen are living with a tribe in New Guinea when they are forced to move upstream to find another tribe to study. They meet another anthropologist, Bankson, and form an attachment with him. As you can imagine with three people in an isolated place, things get complicated. Well researched. Fascinating.

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
This is a fantastic psychological drama about a woman and her mother in 1922 London, who after the death of her father and the realization that they are nearly penniless, must take in lodgers to their large home to help pay the bills. The arrival of the lodgers, a young husband and wife, sets in motion events that will change all of their lives forever. Steamy romance, mixed with aching suspense, courtroom drama, and an interesting take on the sexual mores and taboos of the day make for a satisfying, rich, and thoroughly entertaining read. After reading this, I’m definitely going to read her earlier novels. This lady is good.

All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews
This book was an amazing read for a few reasons-- when I attempted to describe it to someone, I realized that it sounds oretty rough. It's about a woman who has rushed to her sister's bedside to be with her after she's tried to kill herself. And it wasn't the first attempt, and it wouldn't be the last. And Yolandi's life is kind of crap as well: she's sort of hopelessly carrying around the serious novel she's trying to write in a plastic shopping bag, she's on the verge of divorce, and she randomly sleeps with her car mechanic. Shit's weird for her. But, despite it all, the book has this strange joy to it. Yoli is trying to figure out how to help her sister, and that's awful and it's sad, but at the same time we see how they are together, their weird and funny memories of growing up in a small Mennonite community, their lovely, magnetic sisterhood. It's hard to explain. All of the characters are people you just want to hang around. The material feels like familiar ground for Toews--like maybe she has been there and has had time to ruminate on it and get it just right. It also had the effect of making me think about my own experiences with it, which is a good and powerful thing for a novel to be able to do, if you ask me. I just loved being in it. 

Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley
This is such a lovely book. Stella tells her story, from girlhood living with her mother in a small city bed-sit, to living in the suburbs with her mother and new stepfather, to her first young, wild love, and the baby that comes out of it, all the way through her life till she’s in her fifties, in quite different circumstances. We follow her struggles and her triumphs, her many heartbreaks, the joy her children bring her, her loves, achievements, and deep disappointments, her constant need to run away from it all and her equally strong need to always come back. The writing is sharp and crisp and glittering with clarity and wisdom about the human experience. It’s a story about one woman’s life, but it’s so much more than that. Just lovely.

Department of Speculation by Jenny Offill
This is one lovely little book. If you are a plot-driven story reader, just move along. This quirky gem is not for you, my friend. But if you read for a sweet turn of phrase, a clever image, or a well worded sentence, take a second look. This book is a love story, a wife and husband story, a story of growing up, growing apart, going crazy, becoming sane. Of having children, love affairs, disappointments, and moments of quiet joy. It’s a revelation. 

Life Drawing by Robin Black
This is a truly masterful novel. It builds slowly and quietly, much like the slow and quiet life that married couple artist Gus and writer Owen share in the country, to a truly explosive, though entirely deserved, ending. I was shocked and devastated by what happened, while also realizing that all the pieces had come together perfectly and in the only way they could have. Black’s characters are fully human, flawed and difficult, aware of the sacrifices, disappointments, and secrets all marriages require. I sympathized with, rooted for, hated and loved all of them. A finely written first novel that explores the joy and pain of self discovery and the power of secrets and betrayal with grace and wisdom.
2 AM at the Cat's Pajamas by Marie Helene Bertino
Meet Madeleine Altimari: she's a super tough, smart-mouthed, hilarious 9 year old who tip-toes around her grieving father, smokes the occasional cigarette, steals crayons from her diabetic classmate, and who just wants to sing in front of everyone. The novel takes place in one day and as the minutes tick by, we wonder-- will the Cats Pajamas club be saved? Will Madeleine's teacher Sarina make a connection with the high school crush who broke her heart at prom? And will Madeleine get to sing her dang song? It has a glorious, joyful finish. This is a novel with a great big beating heart-- sweet, hopeful, and funny as hell.

The Girls from Corona del Mar by Rufi Thorpe
Wow, this gorgeous novel of friendship and growing up just took my breath away and broke my heart. Mia and Lorrie Ann are best friends, opposites from the start. Lorrie Ann has the perfect life and family; Mia is stuck with a harried mother and two neglected young half brothers. Lorrie Ann has blonde hair and a golden life-- all the luck as far as Mia is concerned. As they grow up though, their roles reverse. Lorrie Ann experiences tragedy after tragedy. Mia seems to skate through life unscathed. Will they be able to reconnect after everything that has happened? Wonderful, evocative writing and truly kinetic characters that won't let go. I can't wait for more from Rufi Thorpe.

You by Caroline Kepnes
Looking for something incredibly creepy, a little campy, and impossible to put down? This is that book. Hopefully you also don’t mind that it’s pretty dirty and just a touch violent and like 100% twisted and perverted. Told in the second person (“you”), Kepnes’ story of bookstore clerk Joe burrows right into you, until you almost (almost) feel like you’re living the story. (Except not really, because it’s really that twisted! You would never do anything like this, trust me!) This story is fast-paced and often quite funny. If you’re from around here, you’ll appreciate the bit at the end where the characters read aloud to each other from a certain bestselling author’s most famous book. It killed me.

Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer
I'm still working through this trilogy, but so far, it's unsettling, unusual, and surprising. It's a page turner but I wouldn't call it action packed by any estimation-- it's the slow burn, the sinking realizations, the feeling like there is someone arching their neck to peer at the page over your shoulder. Each discovery you feel like you come to just provokes a new question-- how did Area X get closed off? Who thought it was a good idea to go back in? How did they choose the expedition members, and how do they get back over the border? What's with the lighthouse? It feels a little like the best parts of the TV show Lost--everything is so complex, and yet there is so much we still don't know or understand. It's compelling and unusual and I just love the heck out of it.
Wives of Los Alamos by Tarashea Nesbit
Here's a novel that takes a subject most people know from the perspective of the men involved, in this case the making of the atomic bomb, and shows us what life was like for the women surrounding them. Nesbit writes in a most unique way, using first person plural ("we") to show how though this group of women experienced life collectively (they lived in nearly identical houses, gossiped together about who was sleeping with who, and all lost running water at the same time), living in the shadow of the atomic bomb was a lonely life for all of them. The writing is just exquisite and the topic is one we shouldn't soon forget.

Casebook by Mona Simpson
I think either you love Mona Simpson or you don't. I personally love her. She isn't the easiest writer to read, her prose is quirky for sure, but there is still something breezy and light about this novel. It's the story of Miles Adler, a young boy dying of curiosity to find out what is going on in his family after his father leaves his mother. He acts like an amateur sleuth with his friend Hector, bugging his mom's phone and eventually hiring a private detective with his allowance money. It's about lost innocence, friendship, family, and growing up. It's just lovely.

A Life in Men by Gina Frangello
This is a beautiful story of the roller coaster that a long friendship can be, especially a friendship that starts in youth--in this case, one that is cut short too soon. This is a novel about traveling, about meeting new people and meeting yourself, over and over again. It’s about the bonds we make as kids, but mostly it’s about forgiveness. It’s about accepting what’s happened as part of your story.  It’s about the next chapter.

Honorable mentions:
Lucky Us by Amy Bloom
The Fever by Megan Abbot
The Book of Strange New Things by Michael Faber
Wallflowers by Eliza Robertson
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
The Free by Willy Vlautin
The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

Best audio book:
Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler
Read by a cast of actors who perfectly embodied their characters, this audiobook was a delight to listen to and really stayed with me.

Best Non-fiction/clearly I read practically no non-fiction:
Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast
Roz Chast is just the BEST. (Also, to brag, I heard her speak once and she is tiny and delightful and as neurotic and funny as you would expect.) This memoir is about her experience with her parents, after she moved to the suburbs and they still lived in the apartment in New York she grew up in. It’s about the day she realized that they were old, no longer healthy, that their apartment was filthy--they could no longer take care of themselves. It’s about all those conversations that need to happen and decisions that need to be made. It’s a tough book, one that makes you think about your own situations, but she is just so funny and so real and honest. I ended up thinking, Okay, this is going to be hard. But not impossible.

All Joy and No Fun
by Jennifer Senior
Though this is maybe not the best book to read with a newborn baby keeping you up all night (which is what I did), I still found this parenting book impossible to put down. Rather than discussing how parents affect their children, as many parenting books do, Senior looks at the effect children have on their parents. Like the title says, parenting is a lot of hard work, and the reward isn't always "fun." The joy is in the long term, and in the memory we have of raising our kids. She looks at parenting from infants to teenagers, showing through scientific and sociological studies what's really happening, from lack of sleep to a renewed sense of purpose. It's really fascinating.

In the Kingdom of Ice
by Hampton Sides
Meticulously researched; moving narrative; terrifying.

Best YA
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
Oh man, this book is really, really good. Made-me-stay-up-way-too-late-good, then creeped me out so bad I had to watch a cleansing, calming episode of Friday Night Lights (Go Panthers!) in order to go to bed without scaring myself too much. And it’s not even scary-scary, it’s just creepy enough that if you have an over-active imagination, you will be in trouble. But it’s worth it, trust me. I’m not going to say much more about it than that it’s the story of four friends and the soul-sucking power of money and privilege. It has an awesome ending that I did not see coming. Good stuff.

Evil Librarian by Michelle Knudsen
This one has been a little tricky to describe to people: A girl's best friend falls in love with the school librarian, who happens to be a demon? And he puts her under a spell, and plans to suck the souls from all the students in their school before stealing her away to a life of perdition in the underworld? It sounds a little, just a touch, ridiculous and silly. And it is silly, but it works because Knudsen doesn't spend all this time setting it up, making it believable. She just puts it out there and you just go with it. Add to that an adorable Sixteen Candles-style romance between a quiet, shy girl and the school heartthrob, and also add to that the fact that said quiet, shy girl is a total badass who goes to the underworld to save her best friend. I busted up laughing reading this book, and I also wanted those demons to go down. Big time.

I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson
If you don’t really like joyful living or expressing yourself with exuberant hyperbole, then maybe you might not be crazy about this book. If you have never thought that your head or your heart actually *might* just explode—because things are so crazy, or so wonderful—then this may not be the book for you. Because, let me tell you. These characters are ALIVE. Big time. They do not mess around. Jude and Noah are twins, sister and brother. They’ve got a complicated back story, in which they have at times been thick as thieves and other times at each other's throats. They both vie for the attention and approval of their mom, and they both have artistic, yearning souls. Add their own, individual love lives, a messy family life, and the roller coaster ride that is being a teenager, and you have one amazing story. The writing is electric and alive. I just adored it.
Other beautiful, lovely books I could not resist this year:
Whitman Illuminated: Songs of Myself by Walt Whitman and Allen Crawford 
Women in Clothes by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton
My Favorite Things by Maira Kalman
Fictitious Dishes by Dinah Fried 

And finally, an incomplete list of books I piled up and furiously started to read so I could finish them before the end of the year but didn't finish (and that are so far really good, of course):
Sister Golden Hair by Darcey Steinke
The Wilds by Julia Elliott (Okay, I'm about half way through this-- it's really remarkable.)
The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck
Loitering: New and Collected Essays by Charles D'Ambrosio
Lila by Marilynne Robinson
How to Be by Ali Snith
This Is Not an Accident: Stories by April Wilder
California by Edan Lepucki 
Young God by Katherine Faw Morris
Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson
Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer
Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish
Nobody is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey
The Unspeakable by Meghan Daum

TK: Books I'm looking forward to pubbing in 2015. I feel like I could keep reading amazing 2014 books for the next 6 months, but it's time to move on.

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