Favorites Books Read in 2014

I normally don’t post a Best Books of the Year list because I so rarely read books that come out during a particular year.  I’m not much on reading whatever the big hyped book of the moment is (in fact, all the hype usually turns me against a book).  This year I read dozens of books and out of them only a handful were released this year.  But despite all of that I wanted to talk briefly about the books I loved reading this year…three of which were actually published in 2014…and also about the books that weren’t published this year but that I really loved reading. 

Favorite reads of the year that were published in 2014:

All the Light We Cannot See-Anthony Doerr.  So many trusted friends of mine loved this book so much that I caved in and picked it up, too.  I was quickly swallowed up by the world of WWII era occupied France and came to care deeply for all of the characters, but especially the main two:  Werner, a young German boy who gets swept up in the tide of Nazism and loses all of his dreams while sacrificing everything for a leader he doesn’t understand, and the lovely, strong, and defiant Marie-Laure, a young blind French girl who has to flee Paris with her beloved father to go a doomed walled city on the Brittany coast of France.  I don’t want to say too much for fear of giving away the intricate and masterful plot but I will say that this is one of the best books I’ve ever read.  I could not put it down.  Nor could I find one false note in the entire epic.

Long Man.  Amy Greene’s debut, Bloodroot, in 2011, ushered in a stark new talent in Southern literature, and her second novel is even better.  This is a novel with prose so lovely it threatens to rise up and take flight from the page.  Add to that a suspense-fueled plot people by characters you come to love and a vivid sense of place that allows you to luxuriate in the hills of East Tennessee.  This is the best Appalachian and Southern book of the year, to my mind, and definitely one of the best American novels of the year, too.

Lila.  Marilynne Robinson is one of my five favorite writers (along with Hardy, Lawrence, Cather, and Hurston) and I love each of her books (Housekeeping, Gilead, Home) in a deep way but I think that Lila may have touched me deeper—and more unexpectedly—than any of the others.  I found this novel very hard to get into.  It was slow-going for the first 75 pages or so, but then suddenly it bloomed in my hands and I began to see what Robinson was doing.  Told from the point of view of a young woman who has been through incredibly hard times, this novel is about the beauty found in not judging others, in the way our country thinks it understands poverty but does not at all.  Lila is about many, many things but most of all it is about a way of life that is gone forever and about maintaining dignity no matter what.  I thought it might never start but then I realized that I was in the middle of a meditative prayer.  I’m also adding this to my Favorites of All Time list.

Favorite reads of books that weren’t published this year but were read by me this year (parentheses denote when books were first published):

Ron Hansen is my new favorite writer.  He's probably best known for his novel The Assassination of Jessee James, which became a Brad Pitt film.  I read his books Exiles (2008) and Marietta in Ecstasy (1991) this year, although I have been hearing about them for ages.  Exiles is a novel about one of my favorite poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and centers on when he wrote one of his most famous poems, about a shipwreck that killed several nuns.  The novel also gives us insight into the nuns' lives.  Phenomenal. Mariette in Ecstasy is about an American nun who starts to experience stigmata in the early 1900s.  It is like a long poem.  Some of the most beautiful language I've ever read, and a plot that will keep you up into the wee hours, turning the pages.  

The Daylight Gate (2013).  Jeanette Winterson is one of the most inventive and wonderful writers I know of.  Her book Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? is my all-time favorite memoir and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is a modern classic.  Only Winterson could take the story of a witchhunt in the 1600s and make it so original, sensual, and completely readable. This novel was a big hit in England but never gained traction here, probably because its historical basis is so widely known there, but not here.  At any rate, a very fine and short read. 

I devoured Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life (2013), one of the most readable and beautiful novels I’ve ever read.  Completely original and inventive and moving and powerful.  READ IT.  I was so taken by that novel that I read two more of hers:  Case Histories (2004) and One Good Turn (2006).  Both of those are mysteries and thus very different from the more literary bent of Life After Life.  They didn’t touch me the way Life After Life did but they were hugely entertaining and very well-written page-turners.  I’m an Atkinson fan for life and can’t wait until the 2015 release of the companion novel to Life After Life, which is called A God in Ruin.

I am a slow reader and sometimes avoid long novels because of that.  I had toyed with the idea of reading Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna (2009) ever since I got it when it was first published but something finally came over me to start it earlier this year.  From the first page on I never looked back and now would list it as my favorite book of hers.  She manages to seamlessly take us to Washington DC, the mountains of western North Carolina, and Mexico and making all of those locales vivid and knowable.  She also has created a completely memorable lead character and uses language more beautifully than she ever has before.  I think it’s a modern masterpiece. 

I had read, and loved, many of William Trevor’s short stories before but had not read any of his novels until this year, when I read Love and Summer.  I’ve continued to think about it ever since.  He is a master at creating a mood so that each time I opened the novel I fell under the spell of him, his characters, and the complete world of the small Irish village he created in the book.  I loved every word.

Honorable Mention:  The Good Lord Bird (2013) by James McBride was compulsively readable.  I structured my day around when I was going to be able to spend time with it.  The story of a young slave—disguised as a little girl—who is taken under the wing of the abolitionist John Brown is storytelling along the lines of Mark Twain, mixed with real historical events that keep you guessing even though you know the real outcomes.  The problem is that I think it fails in the third act where it becomes too tied to the historical details of the raid on Harper’s Ferry.  And I didn’t think it rang true that none of the ruffians encountered along the way tried to mess with the boy-disguised-as-a-girl except for a very handsy Frederick Douglass.  Despite those problems I still think it’s a real feat of storytelling.

There are many others I read this year (including the very enjoyable and light mysteries of Ann Cleeves, most of which are not published in America yet, but are the basis for the great British TV show “Vera,” which you can watch on Netflix;  the mysteries of Agatha Christie are never a disappointment; and I read every biography of Willa Cather I could get my hands on this year, as well as re-reading My Antonia, O Pioneers!, and many others of Cather’s) but these are the ones that stuck with me the most, in one way or another.  There’s so much great literature out there, just waiting for us. 


Heather said…
I love hearing your thoughts on books. I have many 2014 favorites in common with you; Amy Greene is one of my all-time favorites and of course Robinson. I loved All the Light We Cannot See. Another favorite for me this past year is Euphoria by Lily King.
Silas House said…
Hi Heather, Thanks for your kind words. I've been hearing great things about EUPHORIA and need to check it out.
L.D. Bowers said…
I have placed "Life after Life" at the top of my list. Thank you for the numerous recommendations as your suggestions are always spot on.
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Mary said…
I would put several of your choices on my favorites of 2014 also. The Good Lord Bird was a great romp of a read. All The Light We Cannot See was my top book for the year. Still reading The Long Man. I chose all three for my ten senior book clubs to read.

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