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.


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.


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?





I Shall Be Near to You — Book Review

9780804137744But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the brightest day and in the darkest night—amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours—always, always; and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.
Letter from Major Sullivan Ballou (2nd Rhode Island Infantry Regiment) to his wife, Sarah. Ballou died in July 1861 of wounds sustained in the first Battle of Bull Run.

I first heard Ballou’s letter on the Ken Burns PBS documentary series The Civil War, and it brought me to tears. Erin Lindsay McCabe’s beautiful novel of undying love during the Civil War, I Shall Be Near to You, made my eyes water as well. (Don’t worry, I’m not going to ruin the story. But keep in mind that war stories rarely have fairy-tale endings.)

Sarah Ballou, like almost every wife of a soldier, waited at home for her husband. Rosetta Wakefield, the determined and courageous heroine of I Shall Be Near to You, follows her new husband, Jeremiah, into battle. Rosetta is partially motivated by her love for Jeremiah — who only joined the 97th New York State Volunteers to earn money so he and Rosetta could buy a farm in Nebraska — and partially by her desire to escape life in Flat Creek, New York, where she is tormented by her mother-in-law and a hostile neighbor.

Jeremiah slips away to enlist, leaving Rosetta a letter that explains his leave-taking:

I am writing this letter as your Husband, and that is something Good. It don’t mean a thing is different about my Feelings that I am setting off without you knowing, or seeing you one more time and telling you all my Thoughts. You will cry to Hear them said so that is why I am Going this way, so I can Make myself Leave without causing you any more Pain.

He also leaves a map of the United States and its territories: “Jeremiah has made a heart at Flat Creek and a star at Herkimer. But in the Nebraska Territory he has written, I shall always be near to you.”

Rosetta decides to take Jeremiah’s promise literally. She will enlist with him in the Union Army and “earn a soldier’s pay instead of just a nurse’s or a laundress’s and stay with Jeremiah for as long as this war drags on.” Her impulsive and brave (or foolhardy?) decision shows us that she is no ordinary 19th century woman:

Laying there on our bed is Jeremiah’s work shirt where I left it, the map unfolded beside it. And then like a hornets’ nest in the hot dust that you almost don’t see until it’s too late, but once you have, you can’t not see it for the buzzing in and out of the crack in the dirt crust, the idea of it just comes to me.

Rosetta’s character is based on a real woman, Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, who fought in the Civil War disguised as a man. Her family later shared her letters, which were published in a book called An Uncommon Soldier: The Civil War Letters of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman alias Pvt. Lyons Wakeman, 153rd New York State Volunteers, 1862-1864. According to McCabe, “the fictional Rosetta is greatly informed by the feisty and strong-willed voice that shines through Wakeman’s letters home”. (Apparently Wakeman was not as “uncommon” as you might think; historians believe there were hundreds of women who saw combat in the Civil War.)

That “feisty and “strong-willed voice” shines brilliantly through I Shall Be Near to You, bringing Rosetta Wakefield (a.k.a. “Ross Stone”) to life on the page. McCabe perfectly captures her youthful enthusiasm, stubbornness, and bravery — and her deep and abiding love for Jeremiah. She doesn’t make the mistake so many writers of historical fiction seem to make, which is placing characters with modern-day sensibilities in a decidedly “un-modern” context. Rosetta may be more independent-minded than other young women of her time, but she is still a product of the mid-19th century. Growing up with no brothers, Rosetta has been treated more like a son than a daughter.

McCabe pays careful attention to detail throughout the novel, describing not only how novice soldiers were trained in the art of war and how they fought on the battlefield, but also how they cooked, ate, slept, bathed, and amused themselves. She also does a masterful job portraying their emotional reactions to the horror and carnage of war. Historical fiction, by allowing the author to let her imagination go beyond recorded facts, can be a very powerful way of making history come alive. No one knows what the real Rosetta’s reaction to seeing a deserter being branded would have been, or how she would have felt visiting dying men in a hospital. McCabe’s storytelling removes the distance between the reader and the historical events, helping the reader empathize with the characters.

As regular readers of this blog probably know, my husband is a Civil War buff. (Yes, it’s called the Civil War. I was recently seated at a dinner next to a gentleman from Mississippi who referred to that conflict in our nation’s history as the “War of Northern Aggression”. Sorry, no.) Jeff has an unending appetite for Civil War books — detailed accounts of military campaigns, biographies of generals, nonfiction covering various aspects of the war (prison camps, spies, battlefield medicine, etc.). Occasionally, he will read historical fiction about the war — for example, he and I both loved E.L. Doctorow’s The March — but he’s more of a nonfiction reader. He loved I Shall Be Near to You as much as I did, which should tell you it’s a really good Civil War novel. (Just in case you don’t believe me.)

I highly recommend Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War, by Karen Abbott, a brand-new  nonfiction account of four women who served as spies during the Civil War (two for the Union, two for the Confederacy). One of the women, Rose O’Neal Greenhow, makes a cameo appearance in I Shall Be Near to You. Also recently published (and in my TBR stack) is Neverhome, by Laird Hunter, a novel about a woman who disguises herself as a man to fight for the Union, leaving her husband at home on the farm.

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