10 Favorite Books of 2014 — I Couldn’t Resist Making a List

cvr9781476746586_9781476746586_lgThis is the time of year when every publication, print or online, feels obligated to publish a “Best Books” of the year list. Every year, hundreds of thousands of books are published in the United States, so it seems like an impossible task for anyone to pick 10 of the “best” books. The New York Times publishes a list of 100 notable books, and then a couple of weeks later, announces the 10 best. (I thought it was amusing that the Times initially gave All the Light We Cannot See, my favorite novel this year, a mediocre review back in May when it came out, but now has the book listed as one of its 10 Best).

These year-end lists seem to make more sense with movies. I don’t know how many movies are released each year, but I would guess that a critic could manage to see most of them. Even if a critic read a book a day, he or she would still have read a tiny fraction of the books published by major publishers each year. It’s disheartening to think about how many brilliant books are published each year that fail to receive critical acclaim or even much readership.

Authors seem to get grumpy about these lists. Ayelet Waldman, an author who is famous for airing her opinions on social media (her thoughts on the Kardashians: they are “vile scumbag pigs”), was disappointed that the New York Times didn’t include her well-reviewed novel, Love and Treasure, in its list of notable books. So she tweeted: “It’s just so f***ing demoralizing. You pour your heart into your work, you get awesome reviews, and then someone decides it’s not “notable.” I mean. Why do I bother? I could write a f***ing journal.” Charming . . .

Booksellers aren’t always crazy about ranking their favorite books. In a blog post titled Trying to Come Up With My Year’s Favorites, Daniel Goldin (Boswell and Company in Milwaukee) flatly states, “I hate making these sorts of lists.” Every year, the store publishes a year-end “Boswell Best” list, and Daniel says, “Every year, I am one of the last people to come up with my books, which sort of drives people crazy, but what can they do, as I always look very, very busy, and heck, I own the place.” Parnassus Books in Nashville (owned by author Ann Patchett) sidestepped the problem by asking 18 well-known authors what books they will be giving for the holidays this year (Writers to the Rescue: Your Favorite Authors Share Their Gift Lists.) I love that Héctor Tobar and Hampton Sides each recommend one another’s books, without knowing the other was being asked for a book recommendation.

Still, the urge to create a list of favorite books can be irresistible. For what it’s worth, here’s a list of the books I loved the most this year. What do they all have in common? To quote Maureen Corrigan of NPR, “All of the disparate books on my list contain characters, scenes or voices that linger long past the last page of their stories.”  I kept it to 10 (five nonfiction, five fiction) — unlike Corrigan, who included a dozen books on her list (Sometimes You Can’t Pick Just 10). Candidates for my list were books originally published in 2014, which eliminated some great books from 2013 (or earlier) that I read this year.

NONFICTION

9780385535373In the KIngdom of Ice by Hampton Sides
Like all the best narrative nonfiction books, In the Kingdom of Ice is much more than an enthralling account of a historical event. Sides paints a detailed picture of post-Civil War society, when many young men who missed the opportunity to fight in the war were looking for opportunities to become heroes. His engaging, and often very funny, portrayal of newspaper titan James Gordon Bennett, Jr. (backer of the voyage), shows us the increasing role of the press. He covers Native American culture in the Arctic . . . the state of scientific and geographic knowledge in the Victorian era . . . and most of all, the enormous human capacity for courage and endurance.

Deep Down Dark by Héctor Tobar
Ann Patchett’s favorite book of the year was just selected as the first book for NPR’s Morning Editions Book Club. In an NPR interview, Patchett says, “It’s a riveting story. It was riveting when we were watching it on the news, it’s riveting in the book . . .  Even though we already know they’re safe, there’s an enormous amount of suspense and tension.” The book also stands out, Patchett says, because of Tobar’s beautiful and thoughtful writing. “He’s taking on all of the big issues of life,” she says. “What is life worth? What is the value of one human life? What is faith? Who do we become in our darkest hour?”

9780062284068A Deadly Wandering: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention by Matt Richtel
A groundbreaking legal case and the latest scientific research on the brain and attention combine in this compulsively readable, multi-layered story about a devastating accident affecting several families and the perils of multitasking in today’s digital world. There are no villains in Pulitzer-Prize winning author Richtel’s moving account of a young man’s journey from what the New York Times describes as a “thoughtless, inadvertent killer to denier of his own culpability to one of the nation’s most powerful spokesmen on the dangers of texting while behind the wheel.” The book isn’t preachy by any means, but the message it delivers about distracted driving is lifesaving.

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs
Robert Peace, a 2002 graduate of Yale and a product of inner-city Newark, was murdered at age 30 in a drug-related shooting. Hobbs, who was Peace’s roommate in college and who remained a close friend after graduation, has written one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read in a long time. Why did Peace, a brilliant young man with a promising career in scientific research, succumb to the drug trade? Hobbs thoroughly and thoughtfully examines Peace’s life in all its complexity and contradictions, with the help of Peace’s family, friends, colleagues, and teachers.cover

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown
I’m not sure if this is a self-help or a business book — at Lake Forest Book Store, we shelve it in the business section. Either way, these are categories I rarely explore.  Essentialism really resonated with me; in fact, as soon as I finished it I ordered multiple copies for gifts. McKeown’s book shows us how to shape a life that is filled with meaningful activity. The book doesn’t advocate that we abandon our electronic devices, and it doesn’t provide tips for time management or organization.  It’s a philosophical guide to setting priorities in life.

FICTION

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
It didn’t win the National Book Award, but can we hope for the Pulitzer? This is the only book I’ve ever jumped the gun on and reviewed on the blog before it was published, which I don’t think I’m supposed to do. It’s such an extraordinary book, I just couldn’t wait.

9781410468895The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
A widowed bookseller has lost his zest for life — but his life changes when two things happen: he finds a baby on his doorstep and he falls in love with his sales rep. This wonderful book is a love letter to the book business, and to reading. I loved this book so much that as soon as I finished it I reread it. I don’t think I’ve ever done that before! It lives in a stack on my nightstand along with a few other very special books.

The Headmaster’s Wife by Thomas Christopher Greene
The Headmaster’s Wife is a page-turner with very surprising plot twists, but much more than that —  it’s a beautifully written exploration of marriage, friendship, grief, and mental illness. What do we owe to those we love? What actions are unforgivable? What is the breaking point from which a person can’t recover? Greene said the questions he asked himself when writing the book were, “What happens if you don’t hold it together? What happens if life just completely falls apart?”

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas
I think this debut novel, the story of more than 50 years in the life of Eileen Tumulty Leary and her family, is a masterpiece. I read the book months ago, and I still can’t stop thinking about it. As I was reading it, I was reminded of Alice McDermott. The New York Times reviewer remarked on the connection between the two authors: “Mr. Thomas’s narrow scope (despite a highly eventful story) and bull’s-eye instincts into his Irish characters’ fear, courage and bluster bring to mind the much more compressed style of Alice McDermott. (According to this book’s acknowledgments, she has been one of his teachers. If he wasn’t an A student then, he is now.)”9780804137744

I Shall Be Near to You by Erin Lindsay McCabe
A headstrong young woman disguises herself as a man, enlists in the Union Army, and follows her new husband into battle in this beautiful story of love and war. Based on letters written by Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, this is historical fiction at its best. My husband (a Civil War buff) enjoyed I Shall Be Near to You as much as I did, and his usual taste in Civil War books runs to long, detailed biographies of Civil War generals.

What books are in your top 10?

 

 

 

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Essentialism: What Really Matters

coverBeware the barrenness of a busy life.
Socrates

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?
Mary Oliver

I’ve always been wary of books that claim they will “change your life”. Books certainly can change your life, but in my experience the books that have an enormous impact are books that sneak up on you. They aren’t commercially packaged to change your life, but somehow they do. They make you understand other people in a way you never did before. In her brilliant collection of essays, The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison says, “Empathy isn’t just something that happens to us . . . it’s also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves.” Reading is one way we leave ourselves behind and consider life from another person’s point of view.

I believe that one of the main reasons to read — aside from pure enjoyment and escape — is to develop empathy — “to get inside another person’s state of heart or mind”, as Jamison says. And when we understand others, we understand ourselves better too. Books whose purpose is to help us understand and improve ourselves have always seemed a little simple-minded and self-indulgent to me.

So when I picked up Greg McKeown’s Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, I had low expectations. I imagined I’d scan it, as a courtesy to the publicist who sent it to me, and set it aside. Instead, I read it in one sitting, underlining and turning down pages as I read. The book resonated with me in a way that no business book ever has. (The book is categorized as “business & economics/personal success; it’s a toss-up whether to shelve it under Business or Self-Help.)

McKeown’s book shows us how to shape a life that is filled with meaningful activity. The book doesn’t advocate that we abandon our electronic devices, and it doesn’t provide tips for time management or organization.  It’s a philosophical guide to setting priorities in life. McKeown asks:

What if we stopped celebrating being busy as a measurement of importance? What if instead we celebrated how much time we had spent listening, pondering, meditating, and enjoying time with the most important people in our lives?

Appropriately for its topic, Essentialism is a short, concise book. It contains 20 brief chapters, each the length of a magazine article. Every chapter opens with a quotation that epitomizes the chapter; for example, the quote at the beginning of the chapter entitled “Escape: The Perks of Being Unavailable”, by Pablo Picasso, states “Without great solitude no serious work is possible.”

McKeown refers to the “Way of the Essentialist”, a phrase that grates on me because it sounds  New-Agey and pseudo-spiritual. But I do like his description of what the path to Essentialism is:

The way of the Essentialist is the relentless pursuit of less but better . . . it isn’t about setting New Year’s resolutions to say “no” more, or about pruning your in-box, or about mastering some new strategy in time management. It is about pausing constantly to ask, “Am I investing in the right activities?” There are far more activities and opportunities in the world than we have time and resources to invest in. And although many of them may be good, or even very good, the fact is that most are trivial and few are vital. The way of the Essentialist involves learning to tell the difference; learning to filter through all those options and selecting only those that are truly essential.

Throughout the book, McKeown uses concrete examples that illustrate how companies and individuals have successfully applied Essentialist principles:

  • Making trade-offs: Southwest Airlines cutting what were once considered essential services
  • Adhering to a mission statement: Johnson & Johnson reacting to the Tylenol tampering emergency
  • Depending on a routine: Michael Phelps’s training schedule
  • Discerning what really matters in a situation: Nora Ephron’s approach to journalism

If I’m starting to sound like an evangelist for Essentialism . . . well, maybe I am. I just bought five copies to give to my children and their significant others. Usually, I try very hard not to foist books on my family!

One of my favorite mantras in the book, which has  already been helpful to me in quite a few situations, is: “If it’s not a clear yes, it’s a clear no.” How many times have I said “yes” to something that I wasn’t completely enthusiastic about, and then regretted it later? Another little kernel of wisdom is: “If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.” That might seem obvious, but sometimes we need to be reminded of simple truths.

 

 

 

 

 

A Cautionary Tale

IMG_0318When I was a brand new bookseller, a customer asked me how many books she should bring on her upcoming five-day vacation. I told her I would bring five books. She looked aghast, so I quickly told her that I knew I wouldn’t actually read that many books. Several of my books are insurance — what if the flight is delayed, finally boards, then sits on the runway for an hour waiting to take off, and then, when it arrives at its destination, sits on the tarmac for an hour waiting for a gate? What if the flight circles the airport forever and finally is diverted to another airport, from which I have to take a bus to my home airport? What if one of the books is a huge disappointment? My mother was once waiting for a connection in an airport and started reading a book that turned out to be so awful she left it at the gate. It was a hardcover book, and she couldn’t bear to throw it out, even though it was unreadable.

After the customer left the store (with a bag of four books), Sue, who was trying to train me in the art of bookselling, told me that most people probably wouldn’t bring one book for every day of a trip. I explained to her my ideas about insurance, and also mentioned that I thought the customer’s question was rather odd. She was a complete stranger to me; how could I possibly know how voracious a reader she was? This was just the first of many unusual questions from customers I’ve tried to answer. The trick, as I now know, is to answer the question with a question: “How many books did you bring on your last trip? How did that work for you?”

Flash forward almost 16 years. Sue sold Lake Forest Book Store and moved to Glen Arbor, Michigan, where she’s now the owner of the Cottage Book Shop. After surviving her first winter in the Snow Belt, she went with her daughter to visit friends in sunny Arizona. I was on vacation at the same time and Sue and I exchanged a few texts about what we were reading. (She highly recommends Herman Koch’s upcoming book, Summer House with Swimming Pool.) Then I received this text: “I’ve read all my physical books. Should have brought more.” She didn’t bring any insurance. Sue had anticipated more activity and less reading time on this trip.

cvr9781451621389_9781451621389_lgSue downloaded some books from Edelweiss on her IPad. (Edelweiss is a service that allows booksellers, reviewers, librarians, etc. to download free advance readers’ copies.) But, she told me, she doesn’t read on her IPad out of the house. She wants to present a good example to the reading public. So Sue ended up buying a book at full retail price at the airport bookstore. The book was Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, by Susannah Cahalan, and Sue says it was well worth the price. Still, maybe next time she will bring an extra book (or two) . . . just in case.

You would think that, with the advent of e-books, I wouldn’t feel the need to pack extra books. I am perfectly willing to read my IPad in public, although I confess to walking down the aisle of the airplane and taking a quick poll of how many people are reading real books. (According to a recent Pew research study, last year 70% of American adults read at least one physical book and 28% read an e-book, compared with 66% and 23% in 2012.) I will always prefer turning the pages of a book. And I can’t rely on my IPad . .  what if it malfunctions, or the battery dies and there’s nowhere to recharge it? So I keep stuffing one more book in my carry-on, because you never know what could happen.

ImageThank goodness for airport bookstores! I always like to pick up a magazine or two before a flight. Recently, however, I visited the most inhospitable airport convenience store ever. This one couldn’t possibly be called a bookstore, because it had only a few dusty paperbacks and a very limited selection of magazines. Posted over the sad little magazine and book display was a sign that said, ” PLEASE NO READING”. I found this amusing, and snapped a photo — only to be escorted out of the store by the very unamused manager. What if I had run out of reading material and really needed to buy some? What would I have done then?

9781250037756In case you’re wondering what else Sue read (besides Summer House with Swimming Pool and Brain on Fire), she finished Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan (“quirky”) and Essentialism by Greg McKeown (“read it straight through”), and started The Steady Running of the Hour by Justin Go. I read Essentialism as well, and can’t wait to tell you more about it in a couple of weeks — the publication date is April 15.

For more of my thoughts on bringing extra books on trips, check out an earlier post: Leaving on a Jet Plane. Maybe I’ve exhausted this topic, but I just hate to think of a reader stranded without a good book.

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