Americanah, book reviews, Boy Snow Bird, Eleven Days, Goldfinch, Marcelo in the Real World, State of Wonder, The Martian, Top 10, Walk Across the Sun, We Need New Names, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, When You Reach Me
It’s odd: I’ve hit my 100-books-read mark for the year. That isn’t the weird part. It’s awesome and I’m jumping around and patting myself on the back. No, what’s odd about it is that I am exactly on track for my reading total of 2013. And I do mean exactly: I finished May 2013 having read 106 books. I have read 105 books and am less than 50 pages from finishing another. Exactly on the mark. (File under: things that interest only me.)
Also like last year: now that I’ve hit my 100-book mark, it’s time to separate the great from the merely good. I present my Top 10 Reads of 2014 (So Far)!
Honorable Mention: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami. (Published 2008) Why I loved it: My two giant passions are reading and running. A memoir penned by one of the most interesting authors writing stories that focuses on how and why he became a runner? ABSOLUTELY YES. I loved the pro-tips I got on both sides of the aisle. I liked contemplating what I was losing and gaining by reading in translation. I loved everything about this. The stories might seem a little dry for some, but I found the stark writing gorgeous in its simplicity. There’s none of the fantasy that Murakami usually brings to the page, so you could enjoy these even if you don’t usually enjoy his writing. You’ll know for sure by the end of the first tale.
10. We Need New Names, by NoViolet Bulawayo. (Published 2013) This story was very reminiscent of Americanah. It’s a coming-of-age tale of Darling and her group of friends set first in Zinbabwe, in a shanty-town, called Paradise, and later in America as we follow Darling and her dreams to escape the misery and starvation to a place called Destroyedmichycan. I liked the way Bulawayo played with identity and dreams, and with perspective as Darling’s voice changed from that of a child to a young woman who realizes desperation can’t be outrun simply by changing location. The tropes are familiar – at times too much so – and I wish Bulawayo had offered more originality to her characters’ surroundings and insight with her gorgeous, cutting voice. In the end, that voice of hers is what carries the stories, whether or not it feels like a tale told more than once before.
9. A Walk Across the Sun, by Corban Addison. (Published 2012) Let me tell you straight off: the writing in this book will make you cringe. Not often, but occasionally. It also smacks from time to time of Male White Author Out To Save The World. Those biggest faults out of the way, let me tell you that the story of two teenaged sisters who lose everything – family, belongings, their entire life – in the tsunami and are sold as sex slaves, and the American lawyer on the brink of losing his wife and his career until he is reassigned to an international human rights organization is a story that kept me turning pages (despite the cringing) until its rather inevitable ending. Yes, you can predict much that happens. But you’re not going to care. Much.
8. When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead. (Published 2009) This was a fun Middle-School read I picked up during my #24in48 readathon. My sister had recommended it to me, and at first, I was leery. First, it’s science fiction/fantasy in nature, which isn’t really my cuppa. Secondly, it relies heavily on references to A Wrinkle in Time, which I hadn’t read yet (though it finally made me invest in reading AWiT). And thirdly, I didn’t like the tone or the characters until I got halfway through and realized I needed to know what happened. Yes, the mystery is that strong. Time travel, doors, the best kind of magical impossibility that you desperately want to be true. Folks, this is the good kind of fantasy, trust me. I was mad my sister wouldn’t let me keep the book. You’ll want to know what happens to 5th grader Miranda, her old friends, and whether her new friends can help her fix what may or may not even be broken. Fabulously nerdtastic spin on finding yourself while you’re trying to figure out the tricky business of navigating that leap into tweendom.
7. Eleven Days, by Lea Carpenter. (Published 2013) This was one of my first books of the year, and I’m surprised as how much I still like it. The story is simple: a mother is told her son has gone missing during a military mission in Iraq. Her story – and her son’s – is told alternately in flashbacks and in current time as she waits out the eleven days he is missing. The voice – my god it’s lyrical and heartbreaking and utterly anguished. I had to keep reminding myself as I was reading this that the story was fiction…even though I know there are so many stories like Carpenters that aren’t.
6. Boy, Snow, Bird, by Helen Oyeyemi. (Published 2014) I picked this book up not long after it was released because all of the book communities couldn’t stop raving about it. BSB is a story of beauty, vanity, identity, and blended families – it fact, it’s billed as a Snow White fairytale turned on its head. It’s very smartly written, an instant book club smash hit, and very easy to read. It didn’t hurt that as I read it I discovered it’s set in my not-well-known hometown in good ol’ Massachusetts – a nice surprise! Read it and make your smartest friends read it – this is a book you’ll want to unpack out loud.
5. Marcelo in the Real World, by Francisco X. Stork. (Published 2009) Fans of Sheldon from Big Bang Theory – you need to read this book! A delightful and insightful story of a boy with very strict rules and an unwavering sense of self as he navigates the “real world” that is seemingly meant for everyone but him. There are a few plot twists that seemed wonky, but Marcelo earned a spot on my favorite characters of all time. How this book escaped my notice until now, I have no idea. I’m making it mandatory reading for my girlies – and their junior high classrooms, because everyone could use a lesson in empathy and realizing the word “normal” is very subjective (and sometimes cruel).
4. State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett. (Published 2011) You guys, I love Ann Patchett’s voice. I love her fiction writing, I love her non-fiction writing, I love her personal essays, I love her characterizations and her narration of the world around us. So even though State of Wonder sounded like a retelling of Kira Salak’s The White Mary, except without the intense personal reflections and deft maneuvering between points of view, I was captivated from word one. I love strong female protagonists. I like characters going off into remote locations and forced to examine themselves. I wasn’t too keen on how under-developed some minor characters were, but meh. The lyricism of Patchett’s voice eased me through those few rough spots. And the ending – oof. There are surprises and there are twists and I wasn’t sure how I felt about some of them. I love squishiness like that when it’s done right.
3. The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. (Published 2013) I wasn’t going to read this. It wasn’t on my radar. I read The Secret History and like it okay, but wasn’t much impressed with Tartt’s dry voice. The problem was that everyone else seems to love her. And raved about this book. And then the bookstore went and put it on a crazy ridiculous (I’m talking $6) sale right at Christmas…and so I caved. I bought it. I started it soon after the year turned over…and couldn’t put it down. It’s the rather Dickensian story of a boy who is orphaned after a terrorist attack on a museum kills his mother. He “accidentally” steals a painting titled – wait for it – The Goldfinch and all kinds of drama and odd coincidences and happenings unfold from there. I enjoyed all of The Bizarre and was able to suspend belief; I know others who felt differently (and rather strongly). And the story could have been shortened quite a bit. But I was rather delighted that Goldfinch won the Pulitzer because how often does the right story win?!
2. The Martian, by Andy Weir. (Published 2014) Are we sure this is his debut? I mean, really sure? Because this was awfully good. In a I’ve-made-all-my-friends-read-it kind of way. I loved the sarcastic voice. The pitch-perfect flow of events. I loved how one thing after another kept happening to our hero – who is stranded on Mars, by the way – and I loved that…well, I can’t tell you that. Just go! Go read this! I’ve already re-read it. And cast the movie. It’s going to be the blockbuster of the summer (the book this year and the movie whenever they hurry up and make it).
1. Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I immediately had to go out and buy this book because I wasn’t satisfied making notes in my ebook. I knew I was going to need forever marginalia because this is a book I could talk to death. The politics of hair. Of race and identity. Of skin politics and the white beauty aesthetic. Of poverty and how easy (or not) it is to move between classes. Ex-pat communities. Ex-cultural communities. Can you even be “ex-cultural”? DO YOU SEE WHAT I MEAN?! When you read a book and want to go back and re-create your kickass post-soul college group to talk about a book, even though you haven’t seen some of those people in 20 years, you have a winner. When you know you’re going to re-read a book 20 times and find something new every single time? You have a winner. And when you know you’ve read the best book you’re going to read all year in January? That’s absolutely a winner.