Sally's book list – best of 2014
The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion (AF). What a great way to start the new year. This book was delightful, and I read it nearly non-stop. Main character, Don Tillman, is one of those sweet, clueless guys that you fall in love with – even though you’d probably not like him much without being privy to his interior life. He’s a college professor in genetics, an undiagnosed Aspie, and a guy who’s gotten used to loneliness. When he embarks on the “Wife Project”, starting with a questionnaire, and with the help of his only friends – one a psychologist – you get to follow him on a journey toward love. Very sweet and appealing story.
Mouse Guard: Legends of the Guard, Volume 2 (series creator David Petersen) I picked this up, intrigued by the illustrations, and ended up reading the entire thing. I’d totally buy this for grandkids – if I had any. This is a graphic novel for kids; starts as a bunch of mice sitting around a tavern telling stories. And each story is illustrated by a different cartoonist. Intricate details and “I’d like to live there” settings. Great characters exhibiting different aspects of courage, compassion, family loyalty. Whoa!
Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain (AF). Read this one for book club, and I’m so glad I did. It’s the original coming-of-age account, but really, it’s an amazing look at American racism written 20 years after the end of the Civil War. Huck, a young boy, and Jim, an adult male, travel down the Mississippi River on a raft, and the realities of Jim’s life emerge time and time again. I read this, as did most Americans, when I was a teenager, and to read it again as an adult, in 2014 is very illuminating. Jim’s fear is legitimate, as the dangers he faces include death, torture, and imprisonment. So Huck, and later Tom, are able to involve him in their “adventures”, and he has no recourse except to go along with them. This is also a very funny book – loved the Duke and King’s garbled Shakespeare – and a good adventure. Very thought-provoking, and it’s clear why this is a classic.
Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman (AF). Picked this up on a whim as it was returned to the Moscow library with a comment. It’s pure Gaiman. Great language and dialogue, appealing characters (the main character is especially wonderful, the sweet innocent young man thrust into a world that he literally doesn’t recognize.), and the story pulls you along as Richard Mayhew, acting on a humanitarian impulse, falls into the underworld of London, where danger and confusion rule the day. A good fantasy read.
Tatiana, by Martin Cruz Smith (AF). When I’m in the mood for a good story, with great characters, suspense, and a sense of place (Russia) I can always count on Martin Cruz Smith. Number 10 in the Arkady Renko series, this is one of his best. The main character this time is a journalist, Tatiana, whose courage in unearthing corporate and governmental corruption is legendary, and who involves not only Renko, but his adopted son, Zhenya, three homeless kids on the coast of the Black Sea, and, of course, his colleague, Victor. A good read.
Summertime, All the Cats are Bored, by Philippe Georget (AF). Described as a perfect beach read, this French mystery is also perfect to read when it’s snowing outside and the thought of summer heat is appealing. I do like police procedurals, and especially liked this one, as it included delicious glimpses of a home life that involved good eating, love-making between husband and wife, and family life. (I have no idea what the title means, however!)
Lost Memory of Skin, by Russell Banks (AF). Mixed feelings about this one. I’ve read other Russell Banks books, and they’re always a bit grueling. This one centers on a young man who is a registered sex offender. Not a pleasant topic. And in this social environment, sex offenders are generally pariahs. But as this story unfolds it becomes clear that this guy is a victim. Neglected by his single mom, he discovers internet porn at an early age, and it ends up destroying his life – first by getting him kicked out of the army (he gathers 20 porn dvds for his fellow soldiers, then gets busted for trafficking them), then by following someone on a chat site who turns out to be a 14-year-old girl. After a year long prison term, he becomes homeless, as he is forbidden to live within a few feet from any place where kids congregate. This book is less an indictment of the porn industry and more an indictment of our society - in which we are able to just throw away any citizen who is not deemed worthy – either by virtue of their poverty, or, as we define it, their character. Huge, complex, this book is not for everyone, but it tells an important story about us – American society – through the lens of a character we know throughout only as “The Kid”.
Cinder, by Marissa Meyer (YAF). Wow. What good fluff! I read this nearly non-stop. I love retold fairy tales, and this Cinderella story, with Cinder as an Asian cyborg who works as a mechanic, was compelling throughout. Apparently, for readers who are manga fans, this was not new territory, but it was for me. Good strong female character!
The Guts, by Roddy Doyle (AF). Wow! Beautiful, funny, sad – this book written nearly all in dialogue and the inner thoughts of the main character, Jimmy Rabbinette – is a follow-up to the Commitments, 30 years later. Jimmy is 47, married with 4 kids, and a recent diagnosis of cancer. It could be maudlin, but instead is fierce, funny, and hugely loving. Here’s a bit from a Sunday Times review: “The characters are all so warm and funny and irritable, so brimming with rude life that this novel about illness and death never manages to become morbid…Reading The Guts is like catching up with old friends.” Can you tell I loved this book?
The Plover, by Brian Doyle (AF). God, the language. Poetry so good I read part of it for a poetry reading at the UU raft trip.
Flight Behavior, by Barbara Kingsolver (AF). Loved this one! A novel about climate change and love. And particularly enjoyed the advice about red state/blue state communication, using vivid characters.
The Hundred-Foot Journey, by Richard C Morais (AF). Lovely book! I picked it up because of Anthony Bourdain’s comment: “Easily the best novel ever set in the world of cooking.” Food porn, great characters, travel. And now it’s a movie, starring Helen Mirran.
Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (AF). A book to savor. Beautifully written novel about Nigerian immigrants, so wise and brave you just want to stay with them forever. Full of insights about race, relationships, first love, and the special challenges that immigrants face.
The gone-away World, by Nick Harkaway (AF). What a trip! This book was about the end of the world (well, most of it, anyway), ninjas, true love, coming of age…… The author is the son of John le Carre, so he grew up with story; he knows how to write. Most of the joy of this book is the language; most of the frustrations of this book are the many, lengthy digressions. It took me until halfway through this book to get into it, and I stayed with it because of the really appealing characters. From the Guardian: “Hits exactly a note of dazed and comic awesomeness.” Carve out some time for this one!
Tigerman, by Nick Harkaway (AF). Another one by my current favorite author. This is his latest, and as he ages (and became a dad as well), his topics deepen and darken. This one encapsulated so much of what we routinely talk about at the peace vigils – what do do when things go completely to shit. In this case, it's the aftermath of an environmental catastrophe, and the beginning of a violent response – all thwarted by one man's brave, creative, crazy action. It's a love response, and that's really all that can give us hope.
The Secret Place, by Tana French (AF). This is nearly a perfect book. A continuation of French's Dublin murder squad series, this police procedural starts with a murder in a posh girls' school, and then involves a great police pairing – the angry, smart (well, all of French's characters are smart), caustic female, and the sensitive young man who becomes her partner – his Watson to her Sherlock, bringing in his considerable people skills. The story shifts back and forth from pre-murder to post, the language is extraordinary. Altogether a very satisfying read.
If not for This, by Pete Fromm (AF). Amazingly beautiful book. Love story, family saga. Fromm wrote almost the entire book from the perspective of the female character, and only once did something not ring true. But the marriage at the center of this story is one of the best I've read. Heartbreaking at the end - in a good way.
How to Build a Girl, by Caitlin Moran (AF). To quote Lena Dunham, “I have so much love for Caitlin Moran”. Moran's first novel (apparently the first of three!), we first meet main character, Johanna, lying in bed masturbating next to her sleeping 10-year-old brother. Johanna is 14, fat and funny-looking, lives in poverty in England with her parents and siblings and is desperate to get out. So she reinvents herself as Dolly Wilde, gets a job in London reviewing music for a magazine, and embarks on what she sees as adult behavior – lots of drugs, cigs, and sex. Funny and wise, this novel of self-discovery is just what you'd expect from the author of How to be a Woman. Can't wait for the further adventures!
Elizabeth is Missing, by Emma Healey (AF). Narrator is an elderly woman with Alzheimers and the story moves forward and back to a time when Maud and her sister Sukey lived near each other in post-war England. There's a mystery at the center that is complicated by Maud's spotty memory. An amazing tale, told by a young author.
Walking it off, by Doug Peacock (ANF). This book is essentially a collection of essays (memoir, actually) spanning the time from the 1970’s Vietnam war to the present. Peacock devotes a lot of his attention to stories about his friend, Edward Abbey, and their shared love of wilderness and anger at the destruction of same. He also describes his PTSD following some really harrowing experiences in Vietnam, and the fact that it took him most of his life to, as he said, walk away from the war. “…twenty-five years of war-related rage is too much. It takes a toll. The war lasted too long.”. Well worth a read for so many reasons. Peacock is a worthy heir to Abbey.
Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw, by Will Ferguson (ANF). Read this one because I so enjoyed his novel 419. Ferguson is well-known in Canada as a travel writer and humorist, and this book is very funny in places and a very appealing look at Canada, as he travels from Vancouver Island to the eastern coast of Newfoundland. Ferguson’s home base is Calgary, but he has lived and traveled throughout the country and makes the places come alive. I especially want to go to the east coast; the towns and villages sound like Ireland, with similar accents and attitudes. Great writing!
They were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars – the Untold Story, by Ann Jones (ANF). This is a short book – but packed with substance – stories and facts about America’s “warriors”. Written by a 70-plus-year-old woman, whose father was a war veteran and victim of 60 years of PTSD – Jones follows the arc from death – and those who take care of the mangled bodies – to injury – a grueling look at some of the most horrifying injuries caused by bombs – to the psychic injuries that afflict our returning soldiers. The stories are what make this book work. Read it. Find out what we’re doing when we send our boys and girls overseas to “protect us”. And weep.
Liar’s Poker, by Michael Lewis (ANF). Loved this book. Am haunted by this book. In it, Lewis describes the extent of the greed that flourishes in an unregulated economy. Written in the mid-80’s Lewis gives an account of his work at Salomon Brothers when he was hired to be a trader in his mid 20’s. He describes his lack of training or experience, but showed how he was able to make good money for himself (and for his company) by dint of intelligence and a willingness to gamble with other people’s money. I think the most startling moments occurred in the book when he described how these gamblers started to play around with other people’s mortgages. And we all know how that turned out! Anyway, a great history of the years leading up to the crash of 2008. Anyone still think Reagan was a great president????
Kitchen Counter Cooking School, by Kathleen Flinn (ANF). So there’s this chef who notices that women no longer know how to cook. So she organizes a series of classes for essentially beginner cooks, starting with home visits in which she explores their food pantries and asks each one of them to fix her a meal. This is a fun read. As someone who grew up cooking, then got talked into thinking that it was a chore and too difficult, I can relate to the anxieties of these women who learn how to take produce and meat and turn them into meals. Very empowering and illuminating as they discover how really easy cooking is and how much better everything tastes when you do it yourself using raw ingredients.
Elsewhere: A Memoir, by Richard Russo (ANF). One of my favorite novelists tackles the memoir, an exploration of his life with his mom. Russo, born in 1949 in a small town in upstate NY, was raised by a single mom, who early on became dependent on her only child. She followed him to college in Arizona, and for the rest of her life she and her son were locked in a cycle of her dependency and his (as he only came to realize after her death) co-dependent behaviors. This book was often infuriating, as mom became entwined with Russo, his wife and daughters, so extremely needy that it’s hard to imagine how their marriage survived. Anyway, wonderfully written and so compassionate.
Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis, by Timothy Egan (ANF). Egan’s a wonderful writer, and this book (which I read for a book club) tells a great story. Curtis was driven to record the vanishing life of America’s natives, and he worked like a demon for 30 years, essentially giving up everything else in his quest. He left behind a treasure trove of photographs and recordings western of native Americans that are invaluable. Should be required reading for all Americans – maybe especially as we ponder immigration.
The Divide, by Matt Taibbi (ANF). Taibbi’s work for the last few years has been to ask why banksters who commit crimes are too big to jail. Then he noticed that crime statistics have been falling, poverty rates have been rising, and prison rates have been going through the roof. Doesn’t make sense. This book is about the divide between rich and poor in our legal system – poor people being jailed for minor offenses (riding a bike on the sidewalk, obstructing pedestrian traffic on a deserted street, etc), while rich people can commit massive fraud with no penalty at all. In fact, oftentimes bonuses. This book should be required reading for all of us – especially our legislators. As important a work as Nickel and Dimed was 10 years ago!
I Promise not to Suffer, by Gail Storey (ANF). “Wild” with more heart. Husband and wife on a trek through the Pacific Crest Trail.
Never look a polar bear in the eye, by Zac Unger (ANF). This book was disturbing. I've always thought I was flexible enough to be willing to have my point of view changed, but it turns out that Unger is even more so! He started out as a committed environmentalist, and his concerns took him and his family to Churchill, Manitoba to spend time with polar bears. While there, he spoke with a number of scientists, fellow enviro-tourists, and the citizens of the town, and found that, while there certainly is, in the scientific community, a strong consensus that global warming is real, there are differences in approach and conclusions about some of the details of the changes. Like, are polar bears really going to be extinct soon? Is the study of bears hurting or harming them? And do eco-tourists make things better or worse with their travels? Altogether a satisfying read. Unger is an amiable host, and I especially loved his account of his 4-year-old son's energy and enthusiasm for "the polars".
#newsfail, by Jamie Kilstein and Allison Kilkenny (ANF). Smart, funny, audacious, and relentlessly left-wing. These two young people, who started Citizen Radio from a tiny apartment, and moved on to interviewing all the most intriguing and courageous journalists have written a brilliant expose of the state of American media.
A Deadly Wandering, by Matt Richtel (ANF). The story within this book is of 19 year old Reggie Shaw, who while texting and driving, killed 2 people in a head-on collision. The book explores the legal battle that ensued, and perhaps more importantly, looks at the neurology of multi-tasking. Wonderfully written, this book should be read by all of us.
Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson (ANF). Desmond Tutu calls Stevenson, “...American's young Nelson Mandela”, as he tackles horrendous injustice in Alabama. This book would be unbearably sad if not for the tone and hope of its author. Stevenson works for condemned prisoners, and relates case after case of people – mostly black men- on death row or jailed as juveniles who get stuck in the penal system. The author was recently interviewed on the Daily Show, so this book and these issues are very likely to get attention and result in changes for the people suffering under a medieval system in the American south. Alabama – worse than Texas.....