Monday, December 29, 2014

2014: ALL THE BOOKS.




As I've done for the last few years, I'm presenting a list of all the books I read this year, arranged alphabetically by title, with brief synopses/reviews and ratings out of 5 stars.  (If you're interested in my previous lists, you can find them here at these links:  20132012, 2011, and 2010.)

The opinions expressed here are mine alone; no one has paid me to say something nice about his or her book (I wish!).  My apologies if I disliked books you liked and liked books you disliked. 

The prevalence of 4- and 5-star books on my list means it was a great reading year, and I mostly managed to steer clear of duds.  (I did start one dud and quit part-way through:  I couldn't make it past about p. 50 of Wally Lamb's We Are Water, although I love his other books.)

Last year I created separate categories for Nonfiction and Biography & Memoir, but I found that many of the books I read didn't fit neatly into one box or the other.  So I've gone back to just Fiction and Nonfiction groupings.   Somewhat surprisingly, I read more than twice as much nonfiction as fiction this year.

FICTION:

Bel Canto (Ann Patchett) - This was the first book I read in 2014, and one of the best.  While an opera singer is performing at a party hosted by the Vice President of a South American country, terrorists enter and take the guests hostage.  Friendships and love affairs develop among captives and captors in the most surprising and lovely ways.  (Just in case the subject matter concerns you, be assured that the book is not violent or graphic.)  * * * * *

Crossing to Safety (Wallace Stegner) is about a friendship between two couples, lasting from the 1930's to the 1970's.  Stegner is wonderful at depicting the seemingly small events that shape the couples' relationship over the years.  There was one odd thing, though:  the couples would be going on some trip or outing and I'd think, "Uh, did the author forget that these people have small children? Or did the parents themselves forget?"  The kids were invisible!  But that inconsistency aside, this was a good book.  (Stegner won a Pulitzer Prize for Angle of Repose, but I haven't read that one yet.)   * * *

I Capture the Castle (Dodie Smith) - Seventeen-year-old Cassandra writes in her journal about her eccentric and penniless family's life in a crumbling old castle.  When two wealthy brothers move onto a nearby farm, and one shows an interest in Cassandra's beautiful older sister, the family's fortunes seem about to change.  This book, which was published in the 1940's, is just delightful, mainly because of its endearing, wise-beyond-her-years narrator who learns some important lessons about love and maturity.  * * * *

Lila (Marilynne Robinson) - This novel follows Robinson's books Gilead (in which dying Rev. John Ames tells his life story to his little son) and Home (about Ames' friend Rev. Robert Boughton, his daughter Glory, and his prodigal son Jack).  Lila is told from the point of view of Ames' young wife, an orphan who has lived a life of loneliness and destitution before wandering into Ames' church and hearing him preach.  She marries him, but learning to trust him -- and his God -- is a slow process.  This is a beautiful novel that reflects on themes of God's grace and the eternal destiny of those we love.  * * * * *

Road Ends (Mary Lawson) - This novel alternates between the perspectives of three members of the Cartwright family in small-town Ontario:  father Edward, trying to deal with both his past and his present; son Tom, grieving a friend's death; and daughter Megan, escaping the duties of home by moving to England.  This book was OK, but it didn't come close to Lawson's first book, Crow Lake.  I wish she had focused on one character rather than weaving three plots; the three weren't equally interesting and never came together as one.  And the timeline was confusing:  if you're going to have subplots that are less than a year apart, it might be better just to make them simultaneous.  (The Invention of Wings handled multiple narrators much more successfully.)  And I found the ending a flop.  * *

The Distant Hours (Kate Morton) - A young woman named Edie goes to Milderhurst Castle to meet the reclusive, elderly Blythe sisters and find out more about her mother's experience boarding there as a girl during World War II.  As Edie makes her discoveries, her relationship with her mother changes, and we see just how much more there is to the Blythes' story than even Edie realizes.  I absolutely loved this huge novel;  it was my companion through numerous sleepless nights and plane and train rides.  It has everything:  mystery, suspense, romance, and total "unputdownability."  * * * * * 

The Fault in Our Stars (John Green) - Hazel, who has terminal lung cancer, and Augustus, who lost a leg to cancer, meet at a teens' cancer support group  and fall in love.  This is a touching and funny young-adult novel about love, death, and the kind of legacy we leave to the world.   (The movie version, which came out this summer, was very good as well.  This is the kind of book that has "movie" written all over it.)    * * *

The House at Riverton (Kate Morton) - This is the first novel by the author of The Distant Hours, and I really enjoyed it.  Morton has such a talent for taking us into her characters' minds and allowing us to discover events along with them.  In this book, a girl named Grace goes to work as a housemaid for the Hartfords at Riverton estate (as her mother did before her) and becomes involved in the lives of the young Hartford sisters, Hannah and Emmeline.  Fans of Downton Abbey will enjoy this book because it is set in the same time period and has a strong upstairs-downstairs element.  * * * *

The Invention of Wings (Sue Monk Kidd) is based on the real-life story of Sarah Grimke, a wealthy girl in Charleston, South Carolina in the early 1800's (who later became an abolitionist), and her maid/slave Handful.  The story alternates between the two girls' perspectives; Kidd conveys their voices so convincingly that she makes us care about both of them even though their social situations and experiences are so different.  I love Kidd's writing, and here it's at its best.  * * * * *

The Rosie Project (Graeme Simsion) - Oddball Don Tillman (who is probably on the autism spectrum) is looking for a life partner, so he develops a detailed questionnaire that he hopes will lead him to the perfect match.  But then free-spirited Rosie shows up and disrupts his orderly life.  A funny novel about an likeable guy who just wants to belong in a world that often makes no sense to him.   * * * *

NONFICTION:

A Beautiful Disaster:  Finding Hope in the Midst of Brokenness (Marlena Graves) - Graves, who grew up in an unstable home with poverty and alcoholism, discusses how God uses the desert times of our lives to shape us and draw us closer to Him.  She speaks with a combination of gentleness and authority that is very appealing.  * * * *

A Grace Disguised:  How the Soul Grows Through Loss (Jerry Sittser) - I found this powerful little book in our church library.  In 1991, a car accident caused the deaths of Sittser's wife, mother, and four-year-old daughter.  This is an honest, wise, cliché-free exploration of how suffering can be processed and ultimately lead to growth.    (I'm also interested in checking out Sittser's new book, A Grace Revealed:  How God Redeems the Story of Your Life.)  * * * * *

A Hidden Wholeness:  The Journey Toward an Undivided Life (Parker Palmer) discusses how "circles of trust" -- intentional communities or relationships that focus on creating safe spaces for the soul -- can help us listen to our "inner teacher" and gain wisdom and wholeness.  The circle-of-trust model itself didn't resonate with me that much, but I found his broader reflections on  the divided self, community, silence, etc. helpful.  Palmer, author of the insightful book Let Your Life Speak, is always worth reading.   * * *

A Year of Biblical Womanhood (Rachel Held Evans) recounts Evans' one-year project to explore the concept of "biblical womanhood."  She tried a wide variety of experiments, from sleeping in a tent during her period, to calling her husband Master, to holding a vigil in honour of forgotten Biblical women, to staying silent in church, and many more.  She describes her project, and the lessons she learned from it, with hilarity and humility.  * * * *

Call the Midwife (Jennifer Worth) - Memoir about Worth's time as a nurse-midwife working with Anglican nuns in East London in the 1950's.  She describes, in fascinating and often heartbreaking detail, the realities of childbirth, prostitution, poverty, and religious life in that period.  I've been enjoying the BBC TV series of the same name, and the book fills out the real-life backgrounds of many of the people and events depicted in the show.  Apparently Worth wrote three volumes of memoir; I look forward to reading the other two.  * * *

Carry On, Warrior (Glennon Melton) - Melton's blog/website, Momastery, is devoted to her desire to live life in an authentic and "unarmed" way and to encourage other women.  She has described her central message as "Rest: life is brutal.  Wake up: life is beautiful.  Be brave: you're a child of God.  Be kind: so is everyone else."  This book is a collection of essays and blog posts about her addictive (or as she puts it, "festive") past and her struggles with parenting, marriage, and faith.  Kind of manic, but funny and endearing, with a lot of wisdom beneath the craziness.  * * * *

Creative You (David B. Goldstein and Otto Kroeger) explores creativity in relation to the Myers-Briggs Temperament Indicator.  This (sometimes overly) detailed book encourages each of us to see ourselves as creative and discusses the many different ways creativity can be expressed depending on our MBTI type. * * *

Daring Greatly and The Gifts of Imperfection (Brene Brown) - Brown is a scholar who researches shame; in both of these books she discusses the things that keep us from living wholeheartedly, such as feelings of shame, fear, scarcity, and unworthiness.  Daring Greatly, the more recent book, focuses particularly on how practicing vulnerability can help us live more courageous, authentic lives.  Although Brown's books are not  from an overtly Christian perspective, they have a strong spiritual element.  Encouraging and practical.  * * * *

Evolving in Monkey Town:  How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask the Questions (Rachel Held Evans) - Memoir of Evans' upbringing in conservative Dayton, Tennessee.  When doubts threatened her airtight Christian worldview, she realized her faith had to change and grow.  (This book has been re-released under a new title, Faith Unraveled.)   
 * * * * 

Five Days at Memorial (Sheri Fink) This book details how a New Orleans hospital coped during Hurricane Katrina; it focuses particularly on the controversy surrounding patients who died under questionable circumstances.  Besides being a great narrative about the disaster, the book is also a very interesting discussion of important issues like disaster response, health care rationing, euthanasia, and societal values in general.  * * * *

Found:  A Story of Questions, Grace, and Everyday Prayer (Micha Boyett).  I've followed Boyett's blog for some time, so I was eager to read her book, which came out this year.  In it she reveals her struggles over whether she is doing/being enough for God as a mother, and how, through her exploration of Benedictine spirituality, she discovers joy -- hers and God's -- in her ordinary life.  The book is structured according to the divine hours, which helps emphasize that faith is not a once-and-for-all achievement but a daily practice.  Boyett's writing is so vulnerable and real.  This is a great book for anyone who's ever wondered if their small life matters.  * * * *

Home:  A Memoir of My Early Years (Julie Andrews) tells of the actress's challenging childhood, her introduction to music and theatre, and her first marriage.  I enjoyed this book, but I hope there will be another installment; it seemed strange to end so abruptly and so early in her life (before even getting to The Sound of Music!). * * *

If Only:  Letting Go of Regret (Michelle Van Loon) is a wise and helpful discussion of the regrets we all have in our lives.   She shows that regret, rather than being something either to ignore or to become trapped by, can be a sign of our need for God's healing and redemption -- and by His grace God provides far more than just a do-over.   Questions at the end of each chapter make this a great book for personal reflection or group study.  * * * *

Parting Gifts:  Notes on Life, Love, and Loss (Ann Hines) - Canadian writer/humorist Hines reflects on many of her life experiences -- divorce, depression, aging, having a transgender child -- and how these events, while characterized by loss, also have hidden gifts.  * * * *

Pastrix:  The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint (Nadia Bolz-Weber) - In her youth, Bolz-Weber rejected her fundamentalist faith, becoming an alcoholic and stand-up comedian; then God interrupted her life.  When a fellow AA member died, her status as the only religious person in the group made her the default choice to conduct the funeral -- and she soon felt called to be "a pastor to her people."  She now leads a church called House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado.  I was very moved by this memoir.  I expected it to be snarky and edgy (and it is somewhat, as well as having a fair amount of foul language, so be warned), but it's mostly just a down-to-earth account of a woman's faith journey, her humbling struggles in community, and the way God continues to surprise her with love and grace.   * * * * *

Tattoos on the Heart:  The Power of Boundless Compassion (Fr. Gregory Boyle) - Boyle shares stories of the L.A. gang members he has worked and lived with for over 20 years, weaving those stories with reflections on the need to love and be loved, to receive God's compassion, and to realize that every life matters.  This is one of the best books about faith (about anything, in fact) that I've ever read.  "I laughed, I cried" may be a cliché, but it truly applies to the experience of reading this beautiful book.   
 * * * * * +

The Book of Forgiving:  The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World (Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu) explores what the Tutus call the Fourfold Path of Forgiveness:  telling the story, naming the hurt, granting forgiveness, and renewing or releasing the relationship.  This small book is simply written yet profound, with examples from South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission and elsewhere.  Questions and exercises for personal work appear at the end of each chapter.  * * *

The Spark:  A Mother's Story of Nurturing Genius (Kristine Barnett) - When Barnett's son Jake was diagnosed with autism, she was told to put away his letter flashcards because he would never read.  Barnett took Jake out of school and began her own program based on "muchness":  letting him pursue what he loved and ensuring he had a normal childhood.  Today Jake is a happy teenager who also happens to be a genius mathematician, physicist, and astronomer.  Amazing story of an amazing boy and mom.  (And don't worry:  Barnett is not a loon like Jenny McCarthy, just an energetic, passionate mother committed to helping her child reach his potential.) * * * *

The Thorny Grace of It (Brian Doyle) - I've read many of Doyle's short pieces in journals like The Sun and Ruminate.  The essays in this book touch on his Catholic upbringing, fellow parishioners and family members, and other subjects.  Doyle is great at infusing ordinary people, moments, and events with significance and doing so in a warm and funny way.  Loved this book.  
 * * * * *

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage (Ann Patchett) - This book consists of essays about Patchett's upbringing as a child of divorce; her Catholic schooling; her life as a writer; and her relationships with her grandmother, husband, dog, etc.  Patchett has led a fascinating and unusual life, yet she comes across as a very ordinary person.   * * * *

To Know as We Are Known:  A Spirituality of Education (Parker Palmer) focuses on how education has become impersonal and objectified and on the need for the classroom to be a safe place to explore truth in community.  Too abstract and (ironically) impersonal for my taste at times, but thought-provoking; a good book for discussion. * *

What Matters in Jane Austen?  Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved (John Mullan) - The title's a little misleading; these aren't really puzzles but short essays on interesting themes in Jane Austen's books, such as "Which Important Characters Never Speak in the Novels?"   This book can be read for sheer enjoyment or for a deeper exploration of Austen's writing techniques.   
 * * * *

Why We Write (Meredith Maran, ed.) - Interviews with 20 successful writers (including Ann Patchett, Jodi Picoult, and Mary Karr) about their writing techniques, habits, failures, and triumphs.  Informative and inspiring.  * * *

I'd love to hear if you've read any of these books and what you thought of them -- or if you've read other good ones in 2014 that you'd recommend!


(I'm also linking up this post with Modern Mrs. Darcy's "My Favourite Books of 2014" post.)

19 comments:

  1. What a wonderful variety of books you've shared. I'm adding The Distant Hours to my list at your recommendation. I too enjoyed Bel Canto and Happy Marriage by Patchett! Her book State of Wonder is very different from Bel Canto but is very good as well. Happy reading in 2015!

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    1. Thanks, Gretchen - I'd heard mixed things about State of Wonder so haven't tried it yet, but I should! I hope you like The Distant Hours. Thanks for coming by.

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  2. This is an amazing list, Jeannie! I was also disappointed that Andrews's memoir stops before The Sound of Music. Heck, she didn't even really talk about Mary Poppins much. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. Hi Anne - thanks for dropping in. I hope there will be another Julie Andrews memoir to bring things up-to-date.

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  3. Hi Jeannie, Well, I think I should just save this blog post and read from it for a while! Great list. I've read a few of them - Bel Canto, Crossing to Safety, I Capture the Castle, and The Invention of Wings - all excellent. I received Lila for Christmas, so I'm looking forward to that one. Your non-fiction list is most impressive. I've only read a couple of those - A Year of Biblical Womanhood and If Only - I enjoyed them both. And I watched Call the Midwife on TV:) I've been keeping a list of books read for several years, otherwise I'd forget what I've read. We used to make fun of my Mom, because she would get halfway through a book and say to herself, "Hmmm...I think I've read this." Thanks for a wonderful reading list! Judy

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    1. I know what you mean about forgetting: I have a little book where I record everything I've read because I'd forget, too. Thanks for stopping by today, Judy.

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  4. You have read a lot of interesting books! This is a treasure trove for my reading list... :)
    Agree about Lila - and I love the way you've put it into words here. I tried writing about Lila in Quick lit, and I just didn't have the words to describe it briefly...

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    1. Hi Tuija - yes, I know, Lila isn't a book you can easily describe esp to someone who hasn't read Gilead or Home. No exciting plot twists to keep the reader turning pages, but so beautifully written.

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  5. Well, I'd written a comment but I think the internet ate it! It's also not letting me say who I am. (Laura Droege.) I also enjoyed Bel Canto, too, and Kate Morton's books are deliciously fun to read. I haven't read these two, but The Secret Keeper is a twisty-turny-fun-agonizing ride through several different times and places, all woven together in a manner that I enjoy and want to learn how to use in my own books. I'll add several of these books to my list. Somehow, I arrive at the public library, knowing that there are novels I want to read, and unable to recall either title or author; sometimes I can picture the cover image, but that's not exactly helpful! So I keep a list of recommended/want-to-read books handy.

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    1. Good grief, the computer kept telling me that I was anonymous and now it knows my name. Goodness. I think it started partying for the new year's a little early.

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    2. Thanks for commenting (x2) Laura. I keep a list of recommended books too -- and it is long!!! I will definitely try The Secret Keeper next of Morton's books. The Forgotten Garden was the first of hers I ever read.

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  6. These are some great suggestions! I also really enjoyed Bel Canto and the Invention of Wings. If you like Ann Patchett, I would suggest Truth and Beauty. It is about her friendship with the American poet Lucy Grealy. It I a lovely book about friendship.

    I just finished Road Ends over the holidays. Or as I call it, The Book that never Ends. I was very disappointed in the whole depressing story.

    My favourite books of 2014 were Adult Onset by Ann Marie McDonald and All my Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews.

    Thanks for the suggestions! Happy Reading in 2015

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    1. Thanks for your suggestions too, Alice Ann (and thanks for visiting!). I have read Truth and Beauty, actually -- I read it before I read any of Ann Patchett's novels. It was really good, but very sad too.

      I'm glad you agree about Road Ends. I was so let down when it came full circle and ... so what was THAT about, anyway?

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  7. Wow, Jeannie! You are an inspiration for me! I always want to read more, but the last year made a bit more time. I'm going to aim higher this year! Thanks for taking the time to write a synopsis on each book for the rest of us.

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    1. You're welcome, Betsy. I have a little spiral bound book where I keep track of what I've read - I usually write a tiny blurb there and put the # of stars, and then at end of year I have all my notes there. So it's a pretty easy process to do the year-end writeup.

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  8. I love your list, Jeannie! We have many similar favorites and books read. I liked your glowing review of The Distant Hours, which will probably make it my next Morton book (before the new one!) The Invention of Wings is on my must list for this year, too.

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    1. Thanks, Dawn! And I hope you'll be posting in "Quick Lit" about how you liked them. Happy reading!

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  9. I'm impressed with the number of books you've read. I couldn't keep up,that's for sure!

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    1. It even surprises me, Sarah, when I check my reading notebook at the end of each year.

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Please leave a comment. I love to hear from readers, and I always reply!