It's a New Year's tradition to hand over the blog to my husband, Norman, for his annual list!
Thanks, Susan, for once again letting me tell your readers about the books I’ve enjoyed this past year. My favorite fiction books were, in no particular order, Redeployment, by Phil Klay; Family Life, by Akhil Sharma; Euphoria, by Lily King; All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr; and Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill. My top nonfiction books were Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson, and Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, by Roz Chast.
After winning the 2014 National Book Award for Fiction, Phil Klay told the Guardian, “If I was going to write about war I had to be as rigorous and as honest as possible because that’s the only way I could justify it.” The twelve short stories in Klay’s phenomenal Redeployment are about as searing and honest as I can imagine in describing the toll that war takes on the men and women who serve in the military and on the people on whose soil they fight. In my 2012 year-end roundup, Kevin Powers’ novel, The Yellow Birds, made the top of my list, and now I’m glad to spread the word about another book that will become a classic in modern-day war literature.
Family Life concerns a mother, father, and two young sons, who move from India to Queens; they have begun to build a new life when one of the boys suffers severe brain damage in a swimming-pool accident. This novel skillfully examines how everyone’s life changes after a tragedy, but, beyond that, the author does a superb job of showing how the family interacts with and is perceived by the local Indian community after the accident. Euphoria is a must-read novel set in the 1930s and inspired by the life of anthropologist Margaret Mead. I must confess that (1) I know next to nothing about Margaret Mead, (2) I never heard of the other anthropologists fictionalized in the book (Reo Fortune and Gregory Bateson), and (3) I don’t know much about New Guinea or tribal people, but this work drew me in from the beginning and was difficult to put down until the very end. What more could one ask for in a book!
In All the Light We Cannot See, the combination of well-drawn characters, strong writing, and fine pacing makes Doerr’s WWII-era book, about a blind French girl and a German boy, a great read. Dept. of Speculation is a small and amazing novel about a wife, mother, and writer (all one person) in the throes of a troubled marriage. Ms. Offill’s novel was a standout in large part because of her unique and quirky storytelling.
Susan raved to me about Brown Girl Dreaming and for good reason. This winner of the 2014 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature should be required reading for everyone from tweens on up. Through a series of poems, Ms. Woodson shares her experiences as an African American girl growing up in South Carolina and Brooklyn in the sixties and seventies. Some of the most poignant sections are about her roots as an artist; the Horn Book said, “…[W]e trace her development as a nascent writer, from her early, overarching love of stories through her struggles to learn to read through the thrill of her first blank composition book to her realization that ‘words are [her] brilliance.’”
The other nonfiction books I really liked was the cartoonist Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? I found Ms. Chast’s graphic memoir to be many things–sad, funny, painful to read, and honest–in depicting both our willingness (or lack thereof) to face the reality of aging parents and our complex feelings about the folks who raised us.
Two good titles that fall into the category of laugh-out-loud funny are Spoiled Brats: Stories, by Simon Rich, and To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, by Joshua Ferris. I am a big fan of David Sedaris, and I’d put most of Rich’s stories right up there with Sedaris’s essays in terms of humor and cleverness. To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is filled with sharp lines and perceptions as the main character, a Manhattan dentist, grapples with identity theft, girlfriends and co-workers, religion, and loneliness.
I can’t end my annual roundup without mentioning some titles that are too good not to pass along. Both Nora Webster, by Colm Tóibín, and The Liar’s Wife: Four Novellas, by Mary Gordon, showcase how exquisite writing can elevate a simple story; Dinaw Mengestu’s All Our Names stands out for its take on the immigrant experience. Jennifer Clement’s Prayers for the Stolen and Susan Minot’s Thirty Girls, set in Mexico and Uganda, respectively, are important, rich stories about kidnapping and survival.
Finally, A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, by Ben Macintyre, is a most-readable, true story about espionage and deceit.
As always, I wish everyone happy reading in the new year.