Sunday, January 4, 2015

Best of 2014: Books

Books in August

Like everything else in 2014, my reading was influenced by all the upheaval in our life. We learned about the possibility of moving in February, and didn’t have the final offer until June.  It feels like we spent a year preparing a house to sell, packing, finding a rental, unpacking, searching for a house, packing, unpacking again. And painting. Lots of painting.

My precious reading time was mostly spent on and researching. I also reread some old favorites, as I have a tendency to do during times of stress. Thanks to my Moab book club, Lara’s Book Bingo, and GoodReads, I still discovered some new favorites.

Favorite  Nonfiction Reads of 2014:

1. Paradise in Plain Sight by Karen Maezen Miller

Miller’s books have topped my list in the past, but this book still managed to exceed my expectations. She's funny. What a rare gift, especially in writing about personal responsibility, Buddhism, freedom, death and letting go. She writes about all of those and more, in the context of looking at what is right in front of you---in her case, the 100+ year old Zen garden that happens to be her backyard.

"The nature of life is impermanence. One day it'll get your attention. Reality might dawn in a single blow or accumulate in a thousand cuts, but one way or another you'll see that things change. Nothing is solid. Everything disappears. In a million, billion ways the world will fail you. How can you bear it?"

and almost in answer to that very question, several chapters later, there's this:

"Nothing is beneath or beyond you. You can do the smallest things. You carry peace wherever you go and share it with everyone, mindful that we're all doing our best, and headed in the same direction."

2. The Nesting Place: It Doesn't Have to Be Perfect to Be Beautiful by Myquillyn Smith

I love Myquillyn's style, but I love her voice and encouraging spirit even more. I felt guilty buying this book for myself in August, while we were in temporary housing and after the movers had made more than a few comments about all our boxes of books. Best indulgence ever. Until writing up this list, I hadn’t realized that, while their faith and spiritual practices are different, Miller and Smith have so much in common. Both encourage us to see the beauty in the imperfect, the gifts right in front of us.

“I’ve finally figured out that almost no one is living in their dream house. And I don’t know anyone whose life has gone exactly like they would have planned. You make the best choices you can at the time with the information you have, and then you deal with the consequences, and that’s the part where your life happens.”

3. Bread and Wine: A Love Letter to Life Around the Table with Recipes by Shauna Niequist

I’ve been reading Karen Maezen Miller and Myquillyn Smith for years, and love that their books were as good or better than their online writing. Shauna Niequist was 2014 discovery for me, even though her earlier books, Cold Tangerines and Bittersweet, have been on my To Read list for years.

Bread & Wine is my favorite kind of book, a mash-up of cookbook and memoir. I devoured this book in one weekend, while struggling with a novel that had taken me all summer to read. I was cooking daily in our rental, but not entertaining, not experimenting beyond our tried & true. So Niequist’s words brought what I was missing most---that sense of community that is best celebrated around a table.

Other nonfiction reads I highly recommend: Notes from a Blue Bike by Tsh Oxenreider; Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly, my perennial favorite,  A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander and others, and The Diet Fix by Yoni Freedhoff, which is the type of book I’d normally be too embarrassed to share but I’m compelled to because the last half of it is brilliant.

Oh, and I almost forgot---two humor books that I loved: Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh and Amy Poehler’s Yes Please. The chapter titled “Sorry, Sorry, Sorry” was one of the best things I’ve read in a long time.

Favorite Fiction of 2014:

1. Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple


Read on the beach in Mexico last February, it will always remind me of that magical time.

Even well-aimed satire can get old fast. While the emails were funny, I loved the heart and soul I found in Bernadette, who reminded me of Brene Brown's warning that unused creativity is not benign---"It turns into grief, rage, judgment, sorrow, shame." That was certainly true of Bernadette. As I was reading this, Nolan's sandcastle, which he had spent all day building, was washed away by the incoming tide and he was devastated. I told him the story of the 12-Mile house and he was more than empathetic to the idea that could send one over the edge.

2. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

So many of my favorite topics woven into this narrative: language, siblings, childhood secrets, the power/dilemma of retelling, and the question, “am I my brother’s keeper?”

“The happening and telling are very different things. This doesn’t mean that the story isn’t true, only that I honestly don’t know anymore if I really remember it or only remember how to tell it. Language does this to our memories, simplifies, solidifies, codifies, mummifies. An off-told story is like a photograph in a family album. Eventually it replaces the moment it was meant to capture.”


3. Another Marvelous Thing by Laurie Colwin

My friend Lori introduced me to Colwin a few years back, and I’ve been slowly making my way through all her work. I started this and was put off, though now I can’t remember why. The adultery? The fashioning of related short stories rather than a full novel? Don’t know, but I’m glad I picked it up again. I loved Frank and Billy, and especially Billy’s sense of humor and her way with words. Frank had his moments too:

One day he said, looking at her brother's old sweater and a skirt that might once have been olive green: "You're the one girl, Billy, whom you dread to hear say: I'm going to slip into something more comfortable."


Other notables: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon and Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Favorite books I read with our boys:

1. Wonder by P. J. Palacio

Tied with Paradise in Plain Sight for the book I loved most last year. Sean and I read this together, laughed and cried together. I'm in awe of what Palacio accomplished here, especially as the book could easily have turned sentimental or too clever or too didactic. There were some close calls, but what saved the story every time was the authentic voice of Auggie, and the other narrators. The perspective of his sister Via was my favorite part.



2. Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling

Nolan had been impatiently waiting to read the Harry Potter series since he was oh…two? Gotta love having older brothers.  On his sixth birthday in March, we gave him his own copy of the first book and dove in. We raced through the first four books, even though we took breaks and read other books in between each. I’m imposing a longer break now because the last two are so much darker.  It was my third reading, and I find myself more in awe of, and more grateful to, J.K. Rowling with each reading. Her work has been the backdrop to so many of the best conversations I’ve had with my sons, and provided us with a common language and narrative that runs through their entire childhood now.

3. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Obviously my affection for YA and JV fiction is influenced by the conversations it leads to in our home. I finished TFIOS on an airplane (do NOT attempt this unless you are more comfortable with public weeping than I am!), and Aidan ran out of reading material on the same trip.I ended up handing him TFIOS. He loved the sardonic wit of these teens, and I loved the conversations it led us to have about life, death, sex, and books. I recommend that any parent read John Green’s work before handing it to their tween---they are definitely intended for an older teen.

We also love his video series, Crash Course at:



I joined in the summer of 2007, so it looks like a little more than 30 books a year is my running post-kids average. I’m hoping for 40 in 2014, with at least 15 of them being novels.

Here’s to a new year filled with great reads!


  1. I loved reading every word of this post!! I'm with you... I struggle to make 30 every year (but I hit 31 by hook or by crook and with a few questionable shorties on the list, but whatevs). Working on my book post to appear later this week!

  2. Great list ;D The Nesting Place is on my 2015 hopeful list. I've followed her blog. Love, love Bread and Wine, doing it for February book club, and found Bernadette so intriguing I was sorry to see it end. Excited about the books here I haven't read. Thanks for sharing!


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