I’m making a resolution this year to record all the books I read, even the fluffier ones. After working my way through the entire Agatha Christie oeuvre, I moved on to Ngaio Marsh last year and quite enjoyed her writing. I also read through the remaining P.D. James mysteries before and after her death.\
Mysteries don’t comprise the majority of my reading, however. I did read more nonfiction books in 2014 than I usually do, but I have to confess that while I can’t stop myself from devouring a novel, reading nonfiction (unless it is told as a story, such as a memoir) takes me far more time and effort.
But now, with no further ado, here’s my countdown of the best books I read in 2014. (I should also say that while the top few were clearcut winners, there were a number of other books that could have made the list for sure.)
10 – My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead. Almost everyone has a favourite book, one to which they return again and again throughout their lives. What’s fascinating is that often the book can seem to change: we notice different aspects of the book at different times in our lives and it speaks to us differently. For New Yorker writer Rebecca Mead, the seminal book of her life is George Eliot’s Middlemarch. This book is a hybrid of memoir, biography and explication of the plot and themes of Middlemarch, with parallels being drawn by Mead between her own life and that of both Eliot and her characters. Mead writes beautifully and intelligently. She shifts well between herself, Eliot’s story and the book so that while the stories do not stay chronological, they are relatively easy to follow and offer quiet insights very much reminiscent of Eliot’s own writing. The strongest element of the three levels of narrative is likely Eliot’s own life and Mead’s attempts to track down places that mattered in Eliot’s life. Mead is careful in what she reveals about herself: this is not a self-indulgent memoir. Rather, it is a pleasure for a bookish type to gain insight both into Eliot’s life and writing and to consider how the books we love read us as much as we read them.
9 – The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd – I almost forgot about this book when it came to rounding up the year but this was an important book and a beautiful one. I gave it to my thirteen-year old daughter when I finished it, because I thought it would be good for her to read the fictionalized but true story of early nineteenth century abolitionist and suffragette Sarah Grimke and the paralleled story of her family’s slave Handful. This story in some ways reminded me of The Book of Negroes but extended out in different ways. Sue Monk Kidd is one of the writers I’d like to be when I grow up.
8 – The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon. I once judged a middle school poetry contest and had a challenging time deciding between a good poem and a mediocre poem with one image that flashed with brilliance. In the end, I went with the flash of brilliance. This book is something like that: while it is flawed and does not entirely realize its ambitious premise, I include it here because it utterly fascinated me. The book is a literary-technological thriller told by two narrators, both of whom work at the fictional North American Dictionary of the English Language. It begins as the chief editor disappears—both from his life and from the dictionary he was in the process of editing. One of the narrators is his daughter and assistant who is sometimes called Alice. The book is clearly intended for logophiles—people who love language and thinking about it—and we are intended to be alerted by the name Alice that we and our narrators are about to go down the rabbit hole. The Word Exchange forces the reader to examine what humans voluntarily give away to technology and what the consequences might be. The epidemic that sweeps throughout the book is word flu: what one character calls “communicable incommunication.”
7 – State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. During the first extreme cold snap of last winter’s polar vortex, my family and I went away to stay for several nights at a yurt on Lake Huron. We skated and hiked but also spent a lot of time indoors, eating, playing games and reading. State of Wonder was the book I brought with me, and it had the remarkable ability to transport me to a steamy South American jungle even as I huddled in my sleeping bag and listened to Arctic winds ripping at the canvas walls of the yurt. This is a book that is both beautiful and compelling, with lushness and tough moral questions. It is not a brand new book – it was published in 2011 and was shortlisted for the 2012 Orange Prize—but it is not one to be overlooked.
6 – Girl Runner by Carrie Snyder. Full disclosure: I know Carrie a little. Some of our children go to school together and she lives a few blocks away from me. But this is not a case of a prophet in her own hometown not being recognized. At the same time, Carrie is being recognized more widely, as Girl Runner will be in publication in a wide variety of languages and countries around the world. And deservedly so. This book follows fictional 1928 Olympian Aganetha Smart throughout her life until her present-day nursing home experience at the age of 104. This was not the book I thought it would be, but it had me at the very first page and rarely let me go. Probably the highest praise I can give to this book is that I believed it—I believed it utterly and completely, as if it were a factual story being told to me. After I read it, I found myself recalling a number of scenes that were clear as my own memories.
5 – Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities and Other Inscrutable Geographies by Alastair Bonnett. I read this book during a few days at a cottage in the Laurentians where we were surrounded by dynamite blasting of a new road directly behind our cottage and neighbours who were 98% Hasidic Jews from New Jersey who did not make eye contact with us. It was itself a sort of unruly place. I didn’t think I was enjoying the book as I read it—it was most definitely not the book I thought it would be when I read the premise which suggested that the reader would enjoy fun armchair journeys to enchanted places. But this book has had remarkable staying power for me—it has transformed the way I see spaces and I have referred to it on a number of occasions. It is a book that can be dipped into at any point, and is written by a professor of social geography who is the former editor of “an avant-garde psycho-geographical magazine.” While Unruly Places is divided into sections—such as Dead Cities and Floating Islands—each chapter is quite short, introducing the reader to a likely-unknown-to-them place in the world that is either unmapped or hidden in plain sight. Most of the places are quite fascinating, demonstrating the vast socio-geographic diversity of our world—and showing that even in an era of Google mapping and GPS, there are still unknown spaces all around us.
4 – Hardwiring Happiness by Rick Hanson. I almost never read self-help books (although every time I do, I find them surprisingly insightful) but I heard Dr. Hanson interviewed on the radio and thought his book sounded very worthwhile. And it was. Hanson’s basic premise is that we tend to ruminate over negative events in our lives and gloss over the good stuff, but that the deliberate cultivation of attention on good things can actually change our brains and our experience of the world. He suggests a wide variety of specific techniques for doing this, all of which I have found personally helpful. This is definitely a book to seek out.
3 – What Necessity Knows by Lily Dougall. Ever since I was in university, I’ve been a huge fan of early Canadian female writers, such as Susanna Moodie, Sara Jeannette Duncan, and Catharine Parr Traill. One of my university roommates went on to study the writings of 19th century writer Lily Dougall, who wrote both theological books and fiction but somehow despite my love of this era, I never tried Lily Dougall until I came across her early novel What Necessity Knows at a used book sale where I could fill a box. Recognizing the name, I added the book to my pile and then one day when I had nothing else to read, I picked it up—and was hooked. Unlike many early Canadian female writers who emigrated from Britain, Dougall was born in Montreal to a family connected with Redpath Sugar. What Necessity Knows is set in an area of Quebec I love and while it has melodramatic elements to it, its psychological insights can stand well with George Eliot’s. This is the only book of Dougall’s to be reissued, which is a shame. Scanned versions of other Dougall novels can be downloaded but the quality is less than perfect.
2 – Count Me In by Emily White. Count Me In technically shouldn’t be considered a 2014 book because it was only published at the beginning of January 2015, but I read an advanced reading copy in December 2014 and I really hope this book finds a wide readership so I’m including it on this year’s list. What made this book so particularly good for me was that before I read it, I didn’t know anyone else who shared my interest and concern with the subject matter of the book. White showed me that she and I were not even the only two—that there are whole schools of study concerned with the subject, which is belonging. The previous author of Lonely: Learning to Live with Solitude, White writes Count Me In after the end of a relationship and moving back to Toronto. Although she has a circle of longstanding close friends and strong social ties to acquaintances, White found herself struggling with a sense of belonging in a wider community and place. She writes: “we’d lost a good deal of public life and had been left with lives that were strictly private. But we were never designed for strictly private lives…friends and family reinforce parts of who we are…but we need bigger and less personal worlds to reveal everything we might be.” White undertakes an 18-month experiment to develop “a specific and practical plan that would help me restore a larger, more public sense of connection and make it a reality in the here and now.” The book is the result of this experimentation, a combination of theory and practice, trial and error, memoir and story. While there were elements of the experiment I would never, ever try myself, the book gave me a road map and permission to explore these questions in my own life. I highly recommend it to you.
1 – All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. I wish I could simply tell you that the first Anthony Doerr novel has at last been published and that you, like me, would swoon at the thought, but although Anthony Doerr has been my Literary Boyfriend (unknown to him) for several years now (starting when I read his fabulous short story collection, Memory Wall), 2014 was the year that everyone else discovered him, with the publication of All the Light We Cannot See. This book was number one or two on many lists in 2014. The book is a complex one, alternating between the stories of two young people before, during and after the Second World War—Marie Laure, the blind daughter of a French museum lock master, and Werner, a German orphan who is fascinated by radios. He spent ten years writing this book and his passion and labour are rewarded in this novel. Doerr’s great gifts are language and world building, but also extraordinary curiosity and kindness. My own kindness is to share my Literary Boyfriend and his brilliant book with you.