The Best Books I Read in 2014

It’ll probably be along about June before I finish my end-of-year blog posts. That’s cool, right? Oh, good! Now for an old favorite–the best books post. It’s a varied line-up this year, and I mostly have my book club to thank for that. They are always choosing fascinating books, and I basically want to be just like them when I grow up: remarkably well-read, highly intelligent, and surrounded by cool art. Three cheers for the most fortuitous random meeting at Peet’s! (That’s how I met the woman who invited me to join, through a conversation about War and Peace while waiting in line for beans. Life is so beautiful.) Ok, here we go! These are in the order I read them.

von-bremzen-coverMastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, by Anya von Bremzen. I was already familiar with this writer, and I do so love to take walks down the memory lane of my former field of study. This one was particularly pleasing because my research was on the 19th century, so the Soviet period is of eternal interest for me. A beautifully written tale of life during and after the Soviet period, it is also a fascinating look at food culture and its official place in the Soviet system. The memoir achieves that rare and perfect blend of research and personal story, with recipes to boot. I could not put this book down, and I have such fond memories of curling up with it on the chaise lounge at our B&B in Carlsbad while about 5 months pregnant. Micah kicked his approval from the womb.

9780374102418_custom-ee9a42e2ad4808c0d3b65458a4adad25b91fb217-s6-c30The Unwinding, by George Packer. My book club chose this book as a follow-up to John dos Passos’ America Trilogy, which I, sadly, did not read because I was so sick during my first trimester. I was also familiar with Packer because he had a bit of a spat with a former professor of mine in the Letters to the Editor of the New York Times Book Review (I must concede that Packer came away with the victory, since my professor was being extraordinarily antagonistic, and Packer took the high road.) I don’t read as much non-fiction as I do fiction, but this book was truly fabulous. It follows several individuals from the decades of excess through the recent recession, and it is so compellingly written. I devoured it on our babymoon in Hawaii and then had a lot of good conversations with Eric about politics and the mortgage crisis and a lot of the other problems our country faces. This book made me sad and angry, but in the best possible way. Highly recommended.

The Paris Wifex-inset-communityThe Paris Wife, by Paula McLain. Hoo boy, this was one that stayed with me, as the anguish of the hopelessly wounded fumbling their way through love is so beautifully expressed. The love story of Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, it could not but end sadly, but nonetheless offered moments of such luminous joy.

527141df7cd2b-preview-300The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. This one was on everyone’s nightstand last year, and for good reason. Nothing makes me click my heels with more glee than a seriously long novel (I am a Tolstoyevsky girl at heart, and I like to make myself at home in the wide expanse of fiction), and this one is so terribly compelling. Equal parts unbelievable and perfectly natural, it left me reeling. It was not my favorite book of the year, but it was surely up there.

i.1.dave-eggers-the-circle-bookThe Circle, by Dave Eggers. I read an excerpt of this novel in the New York Times Magazine and was intrigued. I’ve not read a lot of Eggers, but I did love this satire that hit frighteningly close to home. It subtly asks where our technological age is leading us, and concluded in such an unexpected way that it took my breath away.

Wanderlust-frontcover-ead36951d79129b0acefcabb1d8758b6Wanderlust, by Rebecca Solnit. I have loved Solnit ever since I saw her incredible maps of San Francisco at SFMoma. This book is a history of walking, from the early days of our species through nineteenth-century ramblers’ clubs, through Baudelaire and our modern urban experience. It’s a strange book in the most wonderful way, and though it starts slowly, I was quickly hooked. Another five-star pick from my book club.

18142414Sous Chef, by Micahel Gibney. Given the amount of Top Chef I watched while pregnant and in those early newborn days (um…all of it), I was more than excited to read this insider’s walk through 24 hours in a fine dining restaurant. I read it in bits and pieces when Micah was tiny, and I looked forward to it every morning.

61bw173FLKL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman, by Friedrich Christian Delius. Another book club pick, this novel tells the story, in one long and lyrical sentence, of a pregnant German woman walking to a concert at a church in Rome during WWII. Her husband is stationed in Africa, and she turns in his direction at every vista as she ponders her childhood in Germany, how her deep faith clashes with the beliefs of the Nazi party, and the new life inside her. It’s a tiny little novel, but so very worth the read.

And that’s it! I read 44 books last year–not bad for being almost entirely out of commission for the first few months. Usually there are at least 10 top picks (2012, 2013), but I attribute this year’s shorter list as evidence of pulpy stuff read while sleep-deprived in Micah’s early days. Still, it was a wonderful year in reading. I hope yours was too!

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