2014 was, for me, the Year of Unapologetic, Obsessive, Ignore-the-World-and-Just-Carry-On-Reading Reading.
It was the year that I rediscovered the kindergartener in me, holing up on a chair, under the covers, even at the dinner table and devouring book after book. I rediscovered virtually hanging up on someone because they were boring me and I only had three chapters left. I rediscovered patiently shutting my book and waiting because the person I was reading along with hadn’t finished chapter 9 yet, and I promised I’d wait for him.
It was the year that I rediscovered the way that books can be a wormhole, a fishing net, a Bermuda triangle, capturing me and sucking me in, away from the damnable REALITY of reality.
2014 was a year of being broken open by grief and suffering and hate, and of subsequent healing with grief and suffering and renewal and love. I blogged very little, wrote some, and read, and read, and read as though books were oxygen.
I read to feel alive, I read to feel holy, I read to feel like I was going to survive. I read to feel. I read to live. I read because I knew somewhere deep in my core that the characters and memoirists and poets would be able to say something to the cracking places in my soul that would bind them back together again, like glue, or like chewing gum, depending on the book.
I rediscovered the little bouncing kid in me that wants to shout about all the books she’s just finished, out of an alarming and justified and probably less-than-holy mixture of pride, relief, wonder, grief, wisdom, hope, passive-aggression, and love.
Let me commend reading to you, friend. Whether it is an audiobook to read while driving, knitting, or playing Pokemon (librivox.com, audible.com), a library book to read while trying to save money (http://nces.ed.gov/surveys/libraries/librarysearch/), a fancy book you read to feel smarter, or a bad romance novel you will never, ever admit to reading, because it is just too smutty and no one needs to know that you read that (especially if you’re in my line of work….)
Reading is a form of healing. A form of communing with the divine. I believe that with all my heart. God is found in the Bible, yes, but if you don’t believe you can find God in a memoir, a novel, a poem, then we have some work to do. God loves words. God is Word. So let us devour them, voraciously, hungrily, like our lives depend on it.
So without further ado, I would like to give you my superlatives for the year of 2014. You can see a list of all the books I read (omitting the especially smutty ones, of course), as well as what I’m currently reading, on my Goodreads page, but here are my “Drop everything; read this immediately” choices:
Best Fiction (It’s a Tie!)
We are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
This book shocked me with its brilliance. If you haven’t heard of it, go buy it and don’t look at any synopses or plot spoilers. That’s what I did, and there’s a reveal about halfway through that made my jaw literally drop. A book about sisterhood, girlhood, growing up, activism, and a number of other things I’m avoiding saying because I don’t want to spoil the surprise for you, this is easily one of my top 5 books of the year.
Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle
This debut novel from the lead singer of The Mountain Goats is totally freaking insane. It is incredibly dark, incredibly human, and incredibly compelling. From my review on Goodreads: “I devoured this book in one sitting. A maze unto itself, it unfolds, redirects, and compels its reader forward, searching for an end you’re not sure exists. I loved the protagonist in the way that I love to love protagonists– not love/hate so much as love/disgusted, love/frustrated, love/identify. He is hard to look at, both his face and his soul. We are left with questions upon questions, leading me to want to mail in my own “next move” to the author, to reach some safe haven in the narrative, where all things are known and resolved. One of the best novels I’ve read in a year of disappointing debuts. Five stars.”
Best Memoir- Comedy
(It is with regret that I choose) Not that Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham
I so, so, so wanted this category to go to Amy Poehler, but unfortunately, I just didn’t love Yes, Please! I found Poehler’s writing apologetic, filled with reservations, and overwrought. I know it was trying really hard to be (and also not to be) Bossypants, and I think in all that effort, it lost its way. So, I am left with Lena. This was a good book. An honest, hard, funny, and tragic book. A solid choice, though not the one I wanted to make.
Best Memoir- Other
A Fighting Chance by Elizabeth Warren
I am a pretty unapologetic Warren fan, and have been ever since she, in the name of feminism and glasses, defeated stupid Scott Brown in his stupid Massachusetts stupid Senate race. I was alone in my house watching the poll results come in and I had only heard about Warren peripherally, but watching her acceptance speech, the look of sheer pride, bewildered and confident, I cried. And did you know she’s United Methodist?! Her memoir is honest, tough, and taught me a hell of a lot about bankruptcy law, something I would have previously thought I could neither stomach nor understand. Go read this book, no matter your political leanings.
Best Memoir- Spiritual
Pastrix by Nadia Bolz-Weber
I know, I know, this is no surprise to you. I loved this book and wouldn’t shut up about it. But seriously, go read it.
Honorable Mention: The Story of a Soul by St. Therese of Lisieux
I call this one an honorable mention because it did not come out anywhere near 2014…. But this year was the first time I read it and I was blown away. Made me want to be a little flower, on a little path, toward a little Jesus. Definitely read this book at some point in your life.
Being Mortal by Atul Gawande
This is the sort of book that you don’t want to pick up because you know it’s going to be depressing. And it is pretty depressing. But it’s also incredibly hopeful, forward-thinking, and optimistic. Focusing on geriatric care and what it means to be an aging body in a world where aging bodies exist in numbers unprecedented in the whole history of humanity, Gawande invites readers to a new understanding of aging, dying, hospice, end-of-life, and grief. READ THIS BOOK, PASTORS AND DOCTORS.
The Book of the Hours by Ranier Maria Rilke
I had never read and Rilke before.
I loved it with all my heart.
You will, too.
End of review.
Best Science Fiction
The Martian by Andy Weir
Holy moly, was this book stressful! So suspenseful, intense, and compelling. It’s sciencey, but take it from the OPPOSITE of a sciencey person, it’s more than manageable. I think I even learned some stuff. This book was fantastic. In the top 5 of the year, easy.
Darling by Richard Rodriguez
This was a dark horse book for me. I heard Rodriguez interviewed on NPR’s On Being and fell in love with him and his conception of YHWH as “The God of the Desert.” I bought this on a whim that very day and can’t believe what a treasure it is. I guess it rightfully belongs in the Spiritual Memoir category, but it deserves its own win, its own category, its own place of prominence. Because it’s seriously the BEST.
God in Search of Man by Abraham Joshua Heschel
Not a recent publish, but it can’t be helped. When I started this book, I just wanted to learn a little something-something about Jewish theology. By the second page, I knew that I was learning everything-everything about my own theology, my own relationship to God and humanity and everything. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Best book I read all year, probably all decade.
Best Thriller (It’s a Tie!)
Cuckoos’ Calling by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)
A controversial choice, I know. But I really enjoyed both this and its sequel, The Silkworm, although the latter is stomach-churningly gory. Rowling’s foray into crime thrillers, especially the character of Cormoran Strike, is a home run with me.
The Son by Jo Nesbø
I got very into the Swedish-authored Dragon Tattoo series, and thought I’d give another Scandinavian author a shot with Norwegian Nesbø. I was not disappointed. The Son has heart, thrill, interest, and a great, twisting, wrenching plot.
And, for good measure, I also present:
The Worst Books of the Year (Two Books Everyone Recommended that I Just Couldn’t Deal With):
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr– Everyone absolutely adored this book and it won more awards than you can count, but I found it tedious and boring. Also, hard to categorize. Was it historical fiction? Historical fantasy? It just didn’t move me.
This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper– I HATED this book. HATED it. Every character felt incredibly one-dimensional and, apart from a funny scene in the first 20 pages, I was not engaged in the rest of the book at all. I and several other reviewers commented that it felt like a cheap bid to a movie studio. “Look, I wrote a book that already feels like a movie, so I guess we have to make a movie about it! Is Tina Fey available?” I saw the movie recently, a spite-watch, and it was indeed better. Almost word-for-word from the book, because the book was THAT one-dimensional.
Happy reading in 2015, friends! Go on Goodreads and make yourself a Reading Challenge (the 2015 one will be available Jan 1). Share with me what you’re reading so we can heal and be whole together.