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Best New (to me) Authors of 2014

It’s always great to discover a fantastic new author whose books you just adoorrreeee. What’s better: discovering a fantastic old author with a hefty backlist that you can work your way through. Here are some (already popular and reasonably prolific) authors I was delighted to “discover” in 2014.

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Meg Wolitzer

The Interestings was possibly *the book* of the summer of 2013. Well, for me, Getting Married was *the book* of the summer of 2013, which is to say I was not particularly interested in muscling through a hefty (adult) book by a new author with a really-really long holds list. I got around to reading it this year and I was really taken by Wolitzer’s easy, intellectual language, and the kinds of stories and characters she portrayed. I listened to The Uncoupling and The Ten Year Nap on audio this year, both of which focused more narrowly on women characters and also had a little bit of a magical realism going on that I didn’t quite expect. I also picked up Wolitzer’s entree to YA – Belzhar – which was even more surreal, but just as good.

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Jonathan Tropper

So I really wanted to read This is Where I Leave You but I couldn’t get my hands on it. Even when I actively decided to read it this summer, my hold still did not come in on time. This is where logical people would you know, buy the book. And read it. Illogical people (who illogically pursue public service jobs in major cities and live in illogically small apartments) settle for back list. This illogical person was pretty pleased with her choice. I listened to both on audio, first Everything Changes and then The Book of Joe. They both kind of blur together for me, both books about dudes pushing middle age with Daddy issues, which is probably why neither made any of my more traditional best lists this year, but not every book needs to be a Best Book. Some books are just nice easy reading. Or listening. Perhaps I will avenge This is Where I Leave You 2015? (Or maybe just watch the movie? We’ll see how this next year pans out.)

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Ann Patchett

I started with This is the Story of a Happy Marriage: a chance read which I listened to while walking around New York City, and one that I liked quite a lot. Patchett references her novels many times throughout Happy Marriage, and listening to someone say “Bel Canto” and “State of Wonder” so many times sent shivers of shame down my spine. I didn’t have time to read much then, and I didn’t want to spoil either of the two books I’d heard so many praise by accidentally listening to a terrible audio recording. Plus they weren’t available on Overdrive. Patchett’s debut novel was. I listened to it. I liked it. I still didn’t want to listen to Bel Canto or State of Wonder. But Truth and Beauty? Sure. And it was just as wonderful as Happy Marriage – it was a really tough call which work of nonfiction would land on my list this year. I’m still going to save those Big Two for a good, old-fashioned ink on paper reading, but mayhaps Patchett has a few other backlist gems I can get my hands on in the meantime?

Best Book Covers of (the books I read in) 2014

Librarian Confession: I judge books by their covers. All the time. And I have to say that in the past few years I’ve seen a clear trend emerging – book covers are just getting better and better, across the board. I looked through the books I’ve read this year and plucked out the best of the best, in no particular order. Most of these ended up being 2014 titles with a few 2013 and 2015 titles in the mix. I also included publisher info so we can see which houses are hiring the coolest cover designers.  Please gaze upon their beauty (while I keep writing, madly madly, racing until Christmas to finish these posts!!)

Best Covers 1

 

Best covers 2

 

The Circle by Dave Eggers

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#6. The Circle by Dave Eggers

Longtime readers might recall my fraught relationship with the almighty Dystopia. I used to be in love, I did indeed.  But after the arrival of The Hunger Games,  the world caught onto my secret joy and turned the humble dystopian sub-genre into a sea of romantic trilogies. And that, my friends, is what I don’t like. Romantic trilogies.
Dystopias are actually okay. Sometimes. Consider Dave Eggers’s The Circle to be one of the good ones. It’s not really even a dystopia, necessarily – more like a prelude to a dystopia. Maybe that’s what I’m into these days – speculative fiction that touches on the same ideological issues as the average dystopia. In The Circle, protagonist Mae is a recent college grad tired of being underemployed and ready to start a career. A friend has the hook-up at a big tech company, and Mae starts her first Big Kid job at The Circle – picture Google and Facebook united in an unholy merger. From the first day, Mae is swept up by the cushy job perks and the competitive incentives at The Circle, even while she watches her company make a number of business moves that are… ahh… really creepy. As Mae rises the ranks at The Circle, the more she has invested in the company’s future – even if what her company does is starting to seem completely abhorrent?
Although this book is full of huge, allegorical plot developments and deliberately provocative ideas, Mae’s precarious moral position is the true focal point here. Once The Circle starts to make her uncomfortable, will she quit? Or stick around? This is a familiar dystopian dilemma, but after reading dozens of other dystopias, I am used to this being an easy question to answer. Of *course* the heroine will realize how damaging, unfair, and predatory her society is, and then she’ll start to fight back and the real story will begin. That’s just how these stories go. But Eggers writes Mae’s character in such a way that I really did not even know what Mae was going choose because I really didn’t know that much about Mae at all. Even though I was reading a story from her point of view. At some points in the story, Mae’s character seems flat, nearly a caricature, but then there’s a scene where you start to see the edges of her character developing – maybe it’s a ill-advised romantic tryst with a guy at work, or during a conversation with her lurking ex-boyfriend – and even if you don’t know that much more about Mae, well, you *want* to know more about her. It’s a big tease, yes, but in the best way. I was completely sucked in.
Reading The Circle left me delighted and intrigued, and then horrified for feeling delighted and intrigued. I loved reading a story that had interesting characters to draw me into the story, but wasn’t necessarily about the character. Mae’s not a hero, she doesn’t acquire some life skills that allow her to overthrow The evil Circle once and for all. Her story is more organic and more surprising, and puts an emphasis on the structure she’s overthrowing rather than her own moral character. It reminded me of reading Brave New World, or Feed. I know there are an infinite number of romantic dystopian trilogies out there to read, but really, I think I’m good. There are other breeds of speculative societal disaster fiction out there, and for those? I still feel that spark.

Yes Please by Amy Poehler

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#7: Yes Please by Amy Poehler

When it comes to handing out awards for media, Generally Circulating Wisdom says the later a book is released, the more likely it will receive an award. While my experience is just one of many (and as I mentioned yesterday, the only criteria or standards I employ here comes from my gut), I have to say that the Generally Circulating Wisdom does not hold for me. Reviewing my own reading year almost always stirs up some strong feelings for books I read in January or February – or even December. My favorite book of 2012 was one I read on Christmas Day, for goodness sake.

Howeverrrrrrrrrr…. Yes Please was the last book I read before my arbitrary cut-off date this year, so maybe I’m not so unconventional after all. I chose this book on a whim, not because I am a huge fan of Amy Poehler. I mean, I don’t *dislike* Amy Poehler at all – I’m just not an overly enthusiastic fangirl or anything. I was in the mood for something fun and not super dense to listen to, and I must have logged into Overdrive at the exactly right time because this Brand New Super Popular Book (currently  340 holds on the physical book at my library!) was sitting and waiting for me. And wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles, it was really, really good.

Amy Poehler strikes just the right chord with her collection of personal essays. She’s self-deprecating without undercutting her buckets of talent and myriad accomplishments, irreverent without sacrificing her straightforward, intimate tone, and really just a great storyteller. The stories she selects from her childhood and teen years are uproarious and personal and give the impression that she still has a deep appreciation for her family life and upbringing, which is something I like read about. Her stories about coming up in comedy – the first taste, the rejections, the Big Break – capture a deep respect for her industry and how happy and lucky she feels, but also how relentlessly heartbreaking it can be to commit to a creative lifestyle. There’s a lot going on in this memoir – if you have the good fortune to listen to the audio version, there are a lot of guest stars, too! – but Poehler’s great narrative voice strings the stories together. Just a few stories in, I was ready to listen to anything Poehler had to say. For the rest of time.

And now excuse me, but I have some television to watch. You see, I’m finally getting around to watching Parks and Rec.

 

 

Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour

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#8 Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour

It’s been a few days since I mentioned this, so I think I will mention it again: this list, these reviews, anything I write on the Internet (anything anyone writes in a list/review/on the Internet) is based solely upon my own whim and whimsy. You, my dear readers, may infer authority based upon my credentials, or past opinions I’ve expressed that you might agree with, but that’s ultimately subjective. I’m not sure why you are reading this blog, actually. I’m guessing its because you like me, or you like to think about the same kinds of things that I like to think about, or that you like your book reccs with a side of everythingelseontheplanet. But if you’re looking for objective, well-reasoned criticism? This is not the right place. This is all just my marginally thought out, occasionally embarrassingly dumb as shit opinion.

This is another one of those set-ups where I try to infer that a book isn’t great before I tell you it’s great. I was a little more abstract about it than usual. I really need to find some new templates for “review” writing, eh? Anyway, that first paragraph is relevant because while reading Nina LaCour’s Everything Leads To You I became more aware than usual of my own reading proclivities and how this affects how I read and form opinions about books. Because I liked it so stinking much that I didn’t even want to figure out if it was a “good book” or not.

This story is about Emi when she’s eighteen years old. It’s the summer before college, and Emi knows what she wants to do with the rest of her life and she has a job doing it. I’d never seen this particular point of view in a Last Summer YA story, and it was refreshing to meet a protagonist who was so clearly… competent. Emi’s growing professional maturity is the crux for many conflicts in this story, actually, since she is still, at the end of the day, a teenager swimming in a sea of adults. She questions her maybe hasty career choices. She makes mistakes and gets reprimanded for it. She’s doing remarkably well for an 18 year old, yes, but she’s still vulnerable.

Oh, did I mention what this job is? It’s production design for movies. Emi lives in Los Angeles, and she spends her days lurking at estate sales to find the perfect couch for her first big scene. It’s the interior design job of my dreams. So many drool-worthy descriptions, which is strange because lengthy description of, well, anything in fiction rarely turns my crank. I make a subconscious exception home decorations, apparently.

Emi is also biracial and dates girls. A chance purchase at an estate sale leads Emi on a bit of a Hollywood mystery that leads her to a girl named Ava, who is beautiful, enchanting, and who needs Emi’s help. It’s a little romantic, it’s a little Hollywood glam, it’s a little mystery.

And I ate it all up. I don’t know what exactly it was about the story that I found so refreshing compared to whatever else I had been reading, but I found it quite refreshing. This is also just a gorgeous thing to hold in your hands – the cover image was downright arresting, and the cover and jacket came in different shades of purple and the fonts! Oh, the fonts!

I was reading a beautiful story about beautiful rooms and holding a beautiful book, and it made me really happy. That’s all I want to tell you about this book.

 

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

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#9 Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

I have a lot of shameful stories about books I should have read at a time in my life, but for some inane reason I did not. I mean, I guess I have a lot of not-so-shameful stories about not reading books, too. Ask me about the time I didn’t read War and Peace - yeah, I would probably be a better, more literate person if I’d muscled through my assigned reading back in undergrad, but I’m not ashamed about skirting that required reading. In fact, I’m kind of smarmy about it.

Ages ago, when I was still a Little Jessica, my darling, mountain-climbing-book reading mother bought me a copy of Into Thin Air for Christmas. I was probably in high school. I had probably never read a nonfiction book that I could get into. Mostly I didn’t want to read it because it was a…. mass market paperback. Ick.

I didn’t read my first Jon Krakauer until I was in my early twenties. It was Under the Banner of Heaven. I was in love. I think I found it on my mother-in-law’s book shelves while I was in the middle of my Mormon Fascination. I was primed for this book – it was exactly up my alley. But while I read (or, more likely, devoured) this book, I was aware of being taken in not just by the subject matter but by the narrative voice. It’s hard for me to describe Krakauer’s particular, singular narrative skill. He writes with an impartial journalistic eye, but he turns the camera around to examine his own life often enough that you get a feel for him as a character. Then he shifts from journalist to narrator, guiding the reader through information and into new environments with a steady hand. Reading a Krakauer book is like talking to your most fascinating friend – the one who tells the best stories – and she’s launching into a really good one.

Have a fawned over the author enough? Well I suppose I could also tell you a little bit about the book, in case you’ve been encased in carbonite for a few decades and missed this bestseller. Seriously. Sorry, Mom. I really should have read it! Into Thin Air is a story about high-altitude mountain climbing – in particular, it’s about Krakauer’s first attempt to peak Mt. Everest, which became one of the deadliest Everest expeditions in years. I will never climb a mountain. I have never been interested in climbing mountains. I don’t really understand why people would even want to risk their health and safety to climb mountains. But Krakauer writes in a way that pulled me into just those moral questions.  Why do humans – repeatedly and throughout time – take their lives into their own hands in order to pursue the unknown? Or to chase a pleasant moment or memory? What toll does it take on the environment, or indigenous cultures? What – or who – is sacrificed to make mountain climbing possible? Who holds the blame when disaster strikes? The story he tells is brutal and detailed and devastating – you really get to know all of the climbers, and Krakauer paced the book in a way that I’d forgotten just how awful the ending was going to be. This is pretty much everything I want when I open up a nonfiction book. I recommend you not wait ten years from now to pick this one up.

This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki

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#10 This One Summer by Jillian and Mariko Tamaki

Boy, am I a sucker for a good Summer Read. Seriously. Throw the word “summer” in a book title and I’m in. I blame Sarah Dessen, Summer Sisters, and my parents for letting me go to summer camp.

I picked up Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s This One Summer a few weeks after I returned from my week at the beach, and it was like I’d stepped back into Summer Vacation Land. This graphic novel opens with a series of gorgeous spreads depicting Rose’s arrival to her family’s vacation home – a cottage at Awago Beach where Rose has spent most of her childhood summers. Rose is our protagonist – a gangly tween who wants little to do with her hippie-ish parents who are struggling with something they don’t speak about. Maybe she wants nothing to do with her slightly younger summer friend, Windy, either. Rose’s posture speaks volumes – she’s all loose jointed and indifferent, her eyes often looking just away from the other characters in a frame, like she’s hoping something better might come along.

Both the dialog and the intricate and evocative art work contribute to just bafflingly good character development in this graphic novel. Sometimes I feel like even graphic novels that don’t star superheroes tend toward trauma, violence, and Big Stories. This could be the nature of the graphic novel format – it’s easier to tell visual stores that involve characters who… oh, you know… move around. But so many of my favorite novels are the interior stories, the books that could never be made into movies. Finally, the Tamakis have captured my favorite breed of quiet, introspective coming of age stories with words and text in this excellent graphic novel. The characters in This One Summer are just as nuanced and distinct as any coming of age novel I’ve read, and Rose’s journey from the last dregs of childhood to the very beginning of adolescence is just as complex.

During one summer, Rose confronts many scenes that put her face to face with the way that adults really live. The guy at the video store maybe knocked a local girl up. Her mother has another miscarriage. She’s confused about becoming an adult, and afraid about it, but she’s also beginning to emulate it. This impacts her relationship with Windy immensely; Windy is younger, on the the other side of the divide between child and teen, and shows no interest in the kind of things that Rose seems fixated on. Rose pushes Windy around a bit, but Windy has a remarkably – and believably – strong sense of her own character. It’s a classic complicated friendship, but I want to say I’ve never seen a novel handle the nuances of a relationship between older and younger friends quite so adeptly.

What I am trying to say is: this is a graphic novel that is doing things I never dreamed graphic novels could do. It’s an entirely different tone than what I’ve grown used to. The only comparison I can draw is to Craig Thompson’s Blankets… which, from me, is a HIGH compliment – his latest was my #1 in 2012 - and alsooooooo…

I might like This One Summer better. Shh.

I would really not be surprised whatsoever if this showed up on the Printz list in January.

Best Young Adult Reads of 2014

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Since You’ve Been Gone by Morgan Matson

Okay. So I’m a librarian, trained in the art of providing library services to children and young adults. One of the biggest tools that Readers Advisors possess is the almighty Readalike. If you liked this, you’ll like this. If you like that and this, then try this. But when you have a deep, personal connection with a certain author’s work – especially when the author is very well-known – then the readalike game can be tricky. Is there really another series that can live up to a diehard Harry Potter fan’s expectations? Well, I feel that way about Sarah Dessen. If a work of contemporary realism for young adults has a first person female narrator and any hint of romance, then it’s probably going to appeal to Sarah Dessen fans. Well, not this one. I actually don’t read books with the SD readalike claims because I know that she’s the best for a reason: if a book were to be as good as a Sarah Dessen book, then you wouldn’t be invoking her name. The book would stand on its own. Maybe I’m exaggerating a bit, but I feel that many Readalikers (especially those attempting to market new books and authors) mistake content with execution. As a Dessen fan, I don’t crave romantic stories about teen girls in the South – I crave the deft storytelling, appealing characters, and unique slices of teen-girlhood that Dessen so expertly serves up.

I’ve said this before, but I think Morgan Matson might be the only writer I’ve encountered who can stand up to the Dessen comparisons. Since You’ve Been Gone is a summer story about a teen girl – Emily – whose best friend takes off unexpectedly. There’s a gimmick – Emily’s friend left behind a list of daring deeds to accomplish – but it kind of fades behind Emily’s story after a certain point. What’s left is a solid bit of girl-centric YA realism that should keep you satisfied until the next Sarah Dessen comes out. (In May of 2015. Not that I am counting down the days or anything)

A Corner of White by Jaclyn Moriarty

Confession: I have a bit of a problem with Australian YA. I don’t always… get it. And because I don’t get it, I don’t always like it. It’s an affliction. It almost feels ethnocentric or something.  I don’t know why, but most of time when I finish reading an Australian YA book I’m left feeling like I missed a big part of the picture. If you meet me IRL, ask me about the time I ate a publisher’s dinner with the editor of Jellicoe Road. Oof.

So you know how I write “reviews” that start with a paragraph explaining why I thought I wouldn’t like a book and then I segue into how and why I was surprised to like it? Consider this your segue. I like Jaclyn Moriarty! It’s possible that I only have issues with Australian dramas. I find comedies much more agreeable, especially those written the style and wit that drips off of Moriarty’s stories. In this book, homeschooled Madeleine unwittingly discovers a portal to another dimension. Actually, Madeleine has no idea that she’s even made the discovery – the reader knows because her chapters alternate with a boy who’s living in the other dimension. These two stories aren’t necessarily woven together, but they move steadily toward one another.

Besides Moriarty’s talent with the clever phrase, what stood out to me in this book was the playful world building. The Kingdom of Cello is lively, weird, and endangered by… uh… storms of color? I guess you could call it that. Whatever. Many of the fantasy novels I’ve read feature alternate worlds where things are desolate, scary, and somehow broken. The Kingdom of Cello isn’t a Happy-Cheery-Princessland, but the details Moriarty chooses cast Cello into an entirely unique light. I haven’t yet read the sequel, The Cracks in the Kingdom, but I’ve heard that it’s better than the first!

 

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Hmmm… did I just step back in time? Is it 2012 again? Have you heard of this book called Code Name Verity? No? Hmm. How strange. Well it’s amazing!

Seriously – I am literally the last person to jump on this bandwagon, and I’m sure that you’ve all read this amazing piece of historical fiction. This is really an impossible book to summarize because so much of the plot twists and turns throughout the story, but I’ll tell you that it’s about a pair of unlikely female friends in Europe during WWII. They are involved with the flying of planes. They are trying to pursue dreams and survive a war. They are brave and daring and smart and their voices soar right off the page. I found this book a bit difficult to get into, but after the halfway mark some truly shocking story developments had me completely rapt. A companion – Rose Under Fire - came out last year. I’ll probably read it sometime in 2017, but I’m guessing I will feel just as dumb for putting it off as I feel now.

 

Life by Committee by Corey Ann Haydu

Tab lives in a small town in Vermont where her hip (ish) young parents run a coffee shop, the guy she’s dating is someone else’s boyfriend, and her friends think she’s slutty ever since she grew boobs. Life is not so great. When she finds a mysterious url written inside a used book, Tab discovers an anonymous online community of anonymous devoted to challenging one another to taking bold action in the face of their problems. Sometimes disturbingly bold. Considering the kind of 90’s and 00’s YA that I grew up with, Tab, to me, is a classic YA heroine – she’s smart, self-deprecating, and confused as to why the world has to suck so bad when all she wants is the same thing everyone else wants. And I loved the small town Vermont setting – Haydu creates this appealing little nook of the world; I’d even go as far as to call it a little Stars Hallows-y. And like Stars Hallow, Tab’s world is populated with colorful, well-developed side characters. Sasha Cotton, in particular, deserves her own spin-off book for sure. There’s no flashy plot and the ending was a little over the top for my tastes, but I had to include this book on my end of year list because it reminded me of everything I love about YA – how a story can be quiet without being boring, a heroine can be right and wrong at the same time, and how satisfying it can be simply to sit and watch a fictional life unfold for a few hours. I muscled through this in less than a day, and enjoyed every minute of it.

 

Reality Boy by A. S. King

Somehow I managed to skate through life for a number of years without reading any A. S. King. You might recall that last year, King earned two (prestigious, highly sought after) spots in my top ten – Ask the Passengers was #10 and Please Ignore Vera Dietz was #8. So now I am an A. S. King fan, and that’s good news because she seems to keep these appealing, slightly off-center books coming with some regularity. I read Reality Boy early in the year, but Gerald’s character has really stuck with me: his voice and perspective is so distinct and individual. The hook is that Gerald is suffering from the aftermath of starring on a reality television show as a child – a Supernanny type show that focused on Gerald’s poor behavior as a child. Now that Gerald is a teenager, he’s no longer the misbehaving kid that earned him the nickname “The Crapper,” but he’s still stuck with the dysfunctional family that landed him on the reality show in the first place. The family dynamic here is incredibly uncomfortable – a situation that borders on abusive without ever crossing the line – but watching Gerald slowly  deal with his anger and find his footing with a job, a new friend, and a sense of control over his life was nerve-wracking and heartwarming and everything else that I find so special about a close first-person coming of age story. If I *had* to rank the King titles I’ve read so far, I think that Ask the Passengers and Please Ignore Vera Dietz would come ahead of dear Gerald… but I would also say that this third book was the one that tipped the scales for me – if Reality Boy is a “third best” book, then I’m officially on the A. S. King train.

 

The Strange and Beautiful Life of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton

I mentioned earlier that I am a fan of the Big Fat Family Drama. I went into Leslye Walton’s debut novel pretty blind – I don’t tend to read flap copy or reviews very often anymore – so the first thing that I noticed about The Strange and Beautiful Life of Ava Lavender was how familiar it felt. This is a Big Fat Family Drama… but not so big, or fat. Also, magical realism. Also, also, it’s a YA book. So basically, the exact book for me.

This book has received a lot of praise this year for rich, evocative language and unique storytelling. But what I most admired about Ava Lavender was how masterfully Walton tethers a multi-generational story together cohesively, and in a way that narrows in on the adolescent experience throughout. The book begins with Ava’s great-grandmother, an immigrant whose siblings suffer bizarre, somewhat magical fates when she is still a teen herself. The story follows the family down the matrilineal line, from Manhattan to Seattle, where Ava is born and emerges as the story’s primary protagonist. Ava is born under the weight of her troubled family heritage – she shares a home with a mother and grandmother who are capable but self-isolated, and a brother with an unexplainable disability – and a budding mystical condition of her own. Ava’s challenge is to come to terms with her family and forge her own way in the world; familiar YA territory, but with the backdrop of this complicated and richly realized family (not to mention the gorgeous, historical Seattle details) this debut really shines.

Up next… THE TOP TEN!

Best Adult Nonfiction Reads

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Hyperbole & a Half by Allie Brosh

I am a red-blooded twenty-something human on the Internet, so naturally I am an Allie Brosh fan. Her web series – also titled Hyperbole & a Half - picked up traction while I was in grad school – a time when my friends and I were especially primed for Brosh’s deadpan remarks on the unglamorous bits of adulthood.

This is pretty off topic, but one of my favorite grad school friend moments went a little like this –

Lady Friend: [something I can’t remember]… ALL THE THINGS!

Guy Redditor Friend: That is not how that meme goes!

Lady Friend: It’s from Hyperbole & a Half.

Guy Redditor Friend: I don’t know what that is, but you are wrong. It’s a meme. From the hallowed halls of Reddit.

Lady Friend: I apparently cannot express to you how wrong you are, so I give up.

Anywaaaaaaayyy… I used to be a casual Allie Brosh fan, but after reading her first full-length book I am a full-fledged, raging Allie Brosh fan. Don’t let the deliberately childlike illustrations fool you – Brosh is brimming with the effortless, invisible kind of talent you wish you had. Her narrative voice is distinct, dry, and authoritative. She zeroes in on weird, evocative stories from her childhood that are both informative to the kind of adult Brosh grew up to be and a bit unsettling. Brosh is a storyteller supreme, and I hope she keeps at it for a long time.

 

Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham

Speaking of ladies who may be a voice of of a generation… here’s Lena Dunham; it seems I was quite the fan of millennial lady writers this year. I am, in general, a fan of Dunham’s work. GIRLS is one of the handful of television shows I keep up with, and while I find the characters occasionally infuriating I am still quite interested in how they will manage to pull their lives together at the end of the episode/season/series. Dunham’s book is similar in that way – her stories are rarely neat and tidy, the kind of womanly life advice that celebrity memoirs tend toward. No, these are stories about being a weird kid, having a slightly bizarre (and affluent) upbringing, about bad boyfriends and complicated friendships. As a fan of the show, it was kind of fun to see how Dunham takes strands from her life and weaves them into characters and events on the show, but I don’t think liking GIRLS is a prerequisite for liking this book. What really resonated with me was how Dunham talks about the particular preteen and teen culture of the mid-nineties that I grew up with – I can’t say I’ve ever read a personal essay about what happens when 11-year-olds discover the Internet Chat Room, but I have certainly lived through that strange moment in technological history. I also admired how Dunham portrays herself as a younger person – plainly, with a sense of humor, and without a whiff of nostalgia, as though she’s not looking back on someone that she was but at the person she still is. I’d argue that it’s this perspective that sets Dunham apart from other young artists. I do wish GIRLS plenty more success – if the show were to get cancelled before I find out what in the world happens to Shoshanna Shapiro, I would flip – but I also hope that Dunham keeps writing books as well.

 

Labor Day: True Birth Stories by Today’s Best Women Writers, ed. by Eleanor Henderson and Anna Solomon

If you thought Lena Dunham was polarizing, well, how about a bunch of birth stories? Is it possible to be neutral about birth stories? I feel like either you like reading them or you would never poke one with a ten foot pole. Well, I like birth stories. A lot. They are personal, filled with all sorts of tension. Reading birth stories makes me feel connected to the rest of woman-culture, all of those ladies alive and gestating now, just like they’ve gestated since the dawn of time. If even looking at the word “gestating” makes you queasy then by all means look elsewhere for a good read. Otherwise, this was a really great collection of contemporary birth stories written by writers who actually know how to write. No offense to all of you birth-bloggers out there – I still love reading your stories as well – but before I picked up Labor Day it never occurred to me that there was such thing as the “literary” birth story. And you guys know how impossibly snooty I am about “literary-ness.” That was a joke. I think. Either way, this book rose to the top for me because not only was it directly up my particular alley, it also introduced me to quite a few new women writers – I’m excited to explore their non-birth-related prose. I mean, I’d read more birth-related prose, too, but you know, there are only so many babies that one group of women can produce. If only the Duggars were talented writers… Okay. Officially ending this review NOW.

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett

Boy, did I read a lot of essay collections this year! Of the bunch, this is probably close to being my favorite. I am the only person on the planet who has not yet read and loved Bel Canto, so this was my first introduction to Ann Patchett. I was hooked. So hooked that this embarrassing scene happened: I began listening to the audio version of this book because it was on my TBR list and it was available when I needed a book. I listened to the first few minutes, the introduction, where Patchett gives that mandatory overview of what is to come in the book. She mentioned all of these fascinating articles she’d written, and I was so intrigued that I actually stopped listening and started searching the Interwebs to see if I could find one of these articles to read. I missed the bit where this was an INTRODUCTION and that all of the articles she was teasing would… ah… comprise the rest of the book. Anyway, this was my first exposure to Patchett, and I was completely taken in. The essays range from stories about growing up, stories about being a writer, stories about training to join the police academy, stories about her marriage, her dog. Patchett is the kind of essay writer that would inspire me to read her grocery lists, and I really loved listening to her read her own work on the audio version.

Delancey by Molly Wizenberg

Is it obvious from this list how much I enjoy memoirs? Well. It’s a scientific fact. I do love me a good memoir. I also love Molly Wizenberg – Orangette – an awful lot. I read A Homemade Life waaaaay back in the day, so I was pretty excited for this follow up. I was definitely not disappointed. From what I recall (many, many years and many, many books ago), A Homemade Life was a kind of encompassing, snippets from an entire life kind of memoir that ends around the time she meets the man she wants to marry. Delancey picks up with Molly’s marriage to her husband, Brandon. As a young married lady myself, this is juuuuust the kind of memoir that turns all my cranks. It’s a memoir about getting what you want out of your life, but then what? For Molly and Brandon, the “then what” ends up being a restaurant. The restaurant – Delancey, a pizza restaurant in Seattle – takes over their married life, in good ways and in bad. Wizenberg writes as a chronicler of the fascinating (and occasionally horrifying) work required to get a restaurant up and running, but also a chronicler of the ways this major project affected her relationship. It’s an honest, personal story about a particular couple, but it’s also a story about discovering your passions and pursuing big dreams with another person by your side.

And did I mention the recipes? The recipes. Oh my word. There are only a dozen, but it would be worth the price of the book to have them even if you don’t read it. There’s a sriracha shrimp recipe that was so good that I can’t even explain it. I made it again… and again… and again… and now that you mention it, I might make it again tonight

An Age of License by Lucy Knisley

I was not as blown away by Lucy Knisley’s 2013 graphic memoir – Relish - as was the general public. I enjoyed it – and I do think that her chocolate chip cookie recipe IS, in fact, the best chocolate chip recipe in existence – but it as just a little more nostalgic that I like to see in a memoir (especially those written by under-30s). But an Age of License? Yes, yes please. I was a big fan of Knisley’s first graphic travelogue – French Milk - and this follow-up travelogue really reminded me of how much I enjoy Knisley’s perspective of her own life, and also her lovely drawing style. An Age of License covers Knisley’s first mostly solo trip around Europe, where she attends a comics convention as a presenter, travels about France with her mother, and meets up with a sexy vegan Swede. This is a fun – and gorgeous – account of Knisley’s trip, sprinkled with brief meditations on the transformative nature of travel – and the transformative nature of your late twenties.

Up next… Books for the Young Adults

Best Adult Fiction Reads of 2014

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The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

I like to consider myself a reader with broad tastes, but when it comes to choosing my Very Favorites there are a few types of books that always bubble to the top. I like big, fat family dramas. I like stories that follow children or teen characters on into their adulthood. I like stories where young people meet each other in isolated settings, forge quick and complicated social bonds, and then grow up together. I like stories that narrow in on the lives of women younger than 40. The Interestings does all this… AND it’s a summer camp story. Swoon.

But at the end of the day, this is a Big Fat Family Drama – so big and fat and dense that it took me a few check outs to actually read the thing. And it wasn’t a particularly easy task! Jules’s story wasn’t

The Interestings is certainly a Big Fat Book rife with family drama – so big and fat and dense on the page that it took me a few check outs to get around to reading it. And it wasn’t a particularly quick read, either; I didn’t fall into the story as much as slide. I ingratiated myself into the pack of characters Wolitzer introduces, all young men and women who met at an artsy summer camp as children. I didn’t find many of the characters charming or charismatic or anything like friends I would choose for myself, but Wolitzer writes their lives in such a way that I was very… ah… interested in where they would end up. Beyond the pleasure of exploring their idiosyncratic relationships, The Interestings also provides an exploration of what it means to be an artist. I found the whole book quite thought-provoking and engaging, and will likely re-read it someday.

 

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

Speaking of dense, gigantic books, here is a book so large that I did not even try to bring it onto public transportation! After the Game of Thrones binge that was 2013, I decided to lay off Westeros a bit this year, maybe branch out, try another brand of epic fantasy for a minute. Recommendations led me to Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicle, which I nobly added to my Summer Reading List and read for pretty much the entire month of August. Because I couldn’t take it on the train without fear of breaking my wrists or perhaps accidentally dropping it onto someone’s head. This is a much different kind of story than Game of Thrones – smaller, more magical, and tightly focused on our fairly standard hero, Kvothe – an orphan who works his way off the streets and into a college for skilled magicians. Luckily, I found Kvothe an endearing, sympathetic guy to hang out with for half a bazillion pages, and Rothfuss’s world-building superb. (Did I just describe world-building? At all? Oh, Fantasy-hating Jessica, what has happened to you?)

 

Last Light by M. Pierce

So, a few months ago, I was kinda reading swamped. I can’t remember the particulars, but it’s book review season so I’m guessing I just had way too many books to read and not enough time within which to read them. Then my copy of Last Light (my October book) showed up in my mailbox. And it was shiny, with a nice soft cover, and then… well… you can see where this is going. This is the second book in at trilogy, and I read Night Owl way-back last year. I probably didn’t mention it here because it’s decidedly NOT a children’s book. In fact, it’s a bit of a dirty book. But I had to give a shout out Last Light this year because A) it seduced me into blowing off all sorts of good intentions B) when was the last time you read a bitofadirtybook and instead of skimming through the plot to get to the good stuff, you find yourself skimming the good stuff so you can get back to the plot? C) when was the last time you read a sequel that exceeded your expectations? So there you have it. Adults, if you like a good contemporary romance but you also like capable writing, surprising characters, and maybe even a little metafictive narrative playfulness, then this is the series for you! Last installment will be released in March!

 

The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara

Yesterday, while reading this lengthy article about the real-life inspiration behind Nabokov’s Lolita, I thought a bit about Humbert Humbert and his enduring grip on generations of readers. I read Lolita after college – I picked it up because I’d heard it was a classic but was also somewhat salacious. Also, my younger sister had a copy, and I saw it laying about the house from time to time. It was a ubiquitous kind of book, with characters that have stayed with me – especially Humbert Humbert. What a character. And then I thought about The People in the Trees, because I’m not sure there are many other characters in literature that can come closer to a Humbert Humbert than Yanagihara’s Norton Perina. Perina begins as a medical student who tagging along with an anthropologist on a trip to a remote island in Micronesia. His encounters with the natives lead his career back and back again to the island of Ivu’ivu, where some inhabitants may have found the secret to eternal life. Perina is self-obsessed. He’s callous. He’s a little power-hungry. He’s a doctor, devoted to science. He’s a benefactor to the islanders that he studies.

And boy, he’s slimy. Dripping in it. Yanagihara crafts a fascinating story – which, like Lolita, is based in reality – about the gray areas of science and ethics in the mid-twentieth century, and sticks a weird, complex, shifty man right smack in the middle. Not for the faint of heart, that’s for sure, but this book was riveting and horrifying and not one I will soon forget.

 

Landline by Rainbow Rowell

It wouldn’t be an end of the year list without a Rainbow Rowell title, eh? I debated about including this one. Like Attachments, this is another romance for adults, but this time its a romance about married people. Georgie is a hardworking TV writer. Her husband stays home with their two daughters and runs the household. They suffer under the pressures of modern coupledom (and just regular coupledom). Georgie finds a phone that lets her talk to her husband when they were first dating, which leads her to relive a lot of their early relationship.

This didn’t blow the rest of Rowell’s oeuvre out of the water or anything. I appreciated reading a romance starring married folks – Rowell is quite skilled at finding new angles from which to look at familiar stories – but nothing really stuck out at me as super-exemplary, especially looking back months later.

And then I remembered the ending, so I had to be the 900th person to recommend this book. The ending. Oh. Objectively, it’s probably not that good of an ending. I have no idea. All I know is that Rowell has yet again grabbed bits of my psyche and whipping them into story form. The ending made me realize that I’d just read a book about every biggest relationship problem that I’ve ever had, and that this ending – Georgie’s ending – was always what I’ve deeply dreamed of, in every relationship I’ve ever been in.

How do you do it, Rainbow? How, how, how?

Up next… Real-life books for grown-ups!