My Favorite Novels of 2014

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 2014 was filled with wonderful novels and it was hard to pick my favorites among those I read, but here is a list of those that took me on journeys to other lands,  whose characters inspired a raft of emotions, thrilled and encouraged me, or were imaginative in fresh ways. I hope you’ll find something special here too!

All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr (Scribner 2014). Possibly my favorite book this year. Takes place beginning in the thirties and goes through WWII in France, partly in Paris and mostly in St. Malo. The French situation and the German situation are revealed through two very unique characters: a French blind girl, Marie-Laure, and Werner, a German orphan boy from a coal mining community who reluctantly becomes a soldier. Beautifully descriptive passages of natural settings, battle scenes, and the circumstances for people of occupied France. Threaded throughout the parallel stories of these two young people is a mysterious giant diamond sought by a German officer on a mission to collect cultural properties for the Fuhrer. Doerr’s use of the language is powerful, his metaphors wonderfully evocative. http://www.anthonydoerr.com/books/all-the-light-we-cannot-see/

Fugitive Pieces, Anne Michaels (Knopf 1997). I often have artists and writers I talk to tell me they wish their work could just stand on its own rather than perception being shaped through interviews and the knowledge we have of its creators. Canadian author Anne Michaels is a writer who staunchly avoids the spotlight. Reading Fugitive Pieces I could not recall the last time I grabbed a pen and underlined so many beautiful phrases. The book’s subject matter is dark, but Michaels’ astonishing ability to evoke the ghosts that haunt us throughout our lives, in language that could be called poetry, stunned me. Here’s a link to an interview with the author in 2009 that delves into her concerns about privacy and discusses the quality of her writing: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/may/02/interview-anne-michaels

The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert (Viking 2013). Although I read Eat, Pray, Love, it was not a top pick for me. But this one captured me completely. It’s amazing when someone can research so many topics so deeply as in this story about a young woman born in the 1700s who becomes an expert botanist. It spans her lifetime, her loves, her travels, the intellectual and political debates of the day, and the landscape of the 18th and early 19th centuries. I really enjoyed it. http://www.elizabethgilbert.com/books/the-signature-of-all-things/

Sparta, Roxana Robinson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2013). A powerful story about an idealistic young man who joins the Marines before 9/11 and his efforts to return to civilian life after tours in Iraq in the subsequent years. His struggles with fitting back into the world of his earlier life after what he’d seen and done in the name of war are poignant and, I believe, indicative of the challenges of this journey for many of our service men and women when they return from combat. His frustrations with the few helpful resources offered by the VA when he was becoming overwhelmed with PTSD made me feel deep shame that our government, who sends these people into war zones, should treat them so shabbily once they’ve finished with them. I’d love to know what veterans themselves think about this as, of course, I know nothing about the subject firsthand. http://roxanarobinson.com/index.html

The Invention of Wings, Sue Monk Kidd (Viking 2014). Kidd is such a vibrant storyteller. This historical novel, set in the deep slave-holding South in the first half of the 19th century, was well researched by the author and imagined around some real people and incidents. Two main characters define the story: Sarah, a white girl who longs for education and meaning in her life but who is thwarted by hidebound tradition; the other, Handful, a black slave girl given to Sarah as a gift on her 11th birthday. As they grow up, each is confined within a role given to her by society. But when Sarah says to Handful that they are alike, Handful flashes back (and this is not an exact quote), “If we are alike, then how come you the one that shit in the pot and I’m the one who empties it!” The book covers a pre–Civil War period in which abolitionist sentiment is rising and both blacks and whites are coming to terms with what side of the line they stand on. If you have enjoyed Kidd’s previous books, you’ll love this one too. http://suemonkkidd.com/

What Changes Everything, Masha Hamilton (Unbridled Books 2013). In Hamilton’s latest novel, she adeptly weaves together diverse threads of how war, any war, but most specifically in this case the war in Afghanistan, affects not only those on the battlefield but also those peripheral to the main action. A mother’s son comes home with no legs and she makes the decision to go to Afghanistan to see for herself what it’s like. Another mother’s son doesn’t come home and she’s unable to get to the truth of how he died. A brother of a young man killed in action haunts the streets of the city tagging public buildings with a visual history of his brother’s life. A US official in Kabul to help refugees is kidnapped and held for ransom while his family in the US argues about who to trust and who to believe to get him back. Hamilton is currently Director of Communications and Public Diplomacy at the US embassy in Kabul. She experiences events like these on a daily basis. Her opening line in this novel sets the scene and I loved it: “Destiny is a saddled Ass, my daughters,” with her closing line continuing the adage: “He goes where you lead him.” http://www.mashahamilton.com/

My Name is Mary Sutter, Robin Oliveira (Viking 2010). On the eve of the Civil War, a young midwife from Albany, NY, dreams of becoming a surgeon. She is rejected repeatedly by medical schools, which do not accept women. She turns desperately to a local doctor, begging him to let her apprentice, but he refuses. When the call for nurses comes from Washington as the north prepares for war, Mary Sutter answers the call—and her life takes unimaginable detours as she encounters the horror of wartime, the chaos of bureaucratic dysfunction, and the impossibly difficult pulls between love and loyalty. There is a lot of battle detail in this historical novel in case you like fiction as a means of absorbing history along with a compelling story. And a good story it is, highlighting the determination of one woman to achieve her dream in spite of society’s narrow views about what women should and should not do. Like Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain and Robert Hicks’s The Widow of the South (both of which I loved), My Name Is Mary Sutter powerfully evokes the atmosphere of the period. http://www.robinoliveira.com/my-name-is-mary-sutter/the-book.php

The Bees, Laline Paull (HarperCollins 2014). Who would have thought that a novel about insects could keep a reader spellbound? Paull has created an imaginative story about a lowly sanitation-worker bee who is an anomaly from birth within her kin. Flora is bigger and stronger, can speak, and tends to question authority—in an environment where accept, obey, and serve are the watchwords of the hive. But this is not an animated, jolly tale—it’s a story of survival, intrigue, a mother’s love, and the inner workings of a bee’s life—along the way the reader is greatly educated about these tiny creatures upon whom many lives depend. A NYT review: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/25/books/review/the-bees-by-laline-paull.html

The Last Runaway, Tracy Chevalier, (Dutton 2013). I always enjoy Chevalier’s books. She combines history with a good story and this one is no exception. In 1850, two young Quaker women depart England for Ohio. Grace is to marry a young man who went there from their village earlier and Honor, her sister, fleeing personal disappointment, decides to go with her for a fresh start in another community. Both tragedy and immense adjustments in this strange new land are part of the journey. In her new home, Honor discovers that principles count for little, even within a religious community famed for championing human equality. Drawn into helping runaway slaves escape to freedom causes her nothing but disapproval from family and neighbors. Eventually her personal beliefs and her ability to act upon them collide and the reckoning takes some shocking turns. Throughout the story, a thread (no pun intended) about quilting adds historic interest. For more: http://www.tchevalier.com/

Stars Go Blue, Laura Pritchett (Counterpoint 2014). This is a relatively short book, but it fills a tall order—an eloquent examination of the complexity of family, loss, and love. Renny and Ben Cross are an elderly couple living on a small farm on the plains of Colorado. The last years have been especially hard as they’ve wrestled with profound grief over their daughter’s murder. Then Ben is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and each in his or her own way prepare for what lies ahead. Any book that deals with such topics might turn a reader away; these are life events of the greatest magnitude—we fear them and pray to avoid them and often just don’t want to think about them. But Pritchett, in beautifully written prose, carries us to an awareness that even in the most difficult circumstances human beings share deep moments of love, laughter, beauty, and redemption. I was particularly moved by the book’s final chapter—reminded of how those we lose live on in daily moments, how living intentionally reminds us to appreciate the Now. As Ben puts it, “We don’t have memories, they have us.” For more: http://www.laurapritchett.com/

An Unnecessary Woman, Ribah Alameddine (Grove 2014). This is a lovely literary celebration of the power of words presented in the form of an introverted woman in Beirut who makes a life out of translating classics–not to publish, but simply for the pleasure of performing the task. It is filled with literary references that will be a joy for those who find beauty in the works of historically acclaimed writers. This is a book to read slowly, to savor. It has deservedly been chosen as a National Book Award finalist: http://rabihalameddine.com/

The Painter, Peter Heller (Knopf 2014). Heller just gets better and better. I enjoyed Kook and The Dog Stars a lot, but this story of an aging, extremely talented painter and his struggles with outrage and guilt is the best of the lot. Does murder necessarily make a person unredeemable—do extenuating circumstances matter? When does a good heart outweigh antisocial action? How do you go on with your life when burdened with unchangeable tragedy in your past? Heller delves into these questions with far superior literary skill than in his past work and, at the same time, packs this compelling story with suspense that carries you through to the closing pages. The Painter is getting a lot of promotional play—and it’s well deserved. http://www.peterheller.net/the-painter/

Lila, Marilynne Robinson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2014). Robinson continues her stories about the residents of the small town of Gilead that began with her novel titled Gilead, one of my favorite reads about an elderly reverend who begins journaling by writing a letter to his young son, his unexpected child with a much younger wife. John Ames knows he will not live to see his son grow up and wants to share what he knows of life, his dreams and thoughts about everything from love to faith. Robinson’s following novel Home centers on Ames’s close friend and this one, Lila, tells the story of Ames’s young wife, a poverty stricken orphan raised by homeless people during the dust bowl era. She comes to Gilead with nothing but a few ragged clothes, a tablet and pencil, an old knife with a history of its own—and a certainty that no one in the world can be trusted, ever. How she meets and ultimately marries John Ames and what it means for both their worlds is a lovely meditation on life and one I very much enjoyed. This is not action-packed, it is quiet and thoughtful, filled with the big questions and the small pleasures that fill the lives of ordinary people. An interview with the author in the NYT: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/05/magazine/the-revelations-of-marilynne-robinson.html?_r=0

We Are Not Ourselves, Matthew Thomas (Simon & Schuster 2014). An amazing debut novel. We have our dreams and then we have our destiny—sometimes not the same thing at all. This is a multigenerational family story. Eileen Tumulty spend her childhood taking care of her hard-drinking, deeply flawed Irish parents, growing up in a neighborhood predominantly Irish to begin with but becoming multicultural as the years go by. She dreams of a career and of escaping the neighborhood to live a more beautiful life. When she marries Ed Leary, a brilliant scientist, she feels she’s on her way. But Ed is not materially ambitious—he simply wants to do his research at a small college and motivate his students to move far beyond what they think they can do. The Leary’s have a son and then, as the years pass, Ed becomes stranger and stranger. Eileen’s ambition and longing for an upper class life grows, but her chances of getting there seem to diminish along with her husband’s odd behavior. When the source of his oddness becomes clear, this book delves deeply and honestly with how destiny can whip our butts and force us to pay attention. http://www.matthewthomasauthor.com/

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