Best books I read in 2014

As a writer, I learn something from every book I read. These are the ten best books I read in 2014. Please check the links to the blog archive for a fuller discussion of each book.

1. The Empty Family, by Colm Tóibín

Tóibín has long been one of my favorite authors. This collection of short stories only confirms my appreciation of his work. There are silences at the heart of many of the stories in this collection. I think about what is not said, what core of emotional truth becomes the secret spring for a story. By the end I felt as though I’d lived an additional nine lives.

2. The Rings of Saturn, by W.G. Sebald

I’d been meaning to read this book for some time. It’s ostensibly a travel memoir, a record of a walking tour of Suffolk, on the east coast of England that Sebald took in August, 1992, yet he moves through history, literature, and philosophy. He infuses his stories of what has been lost or forgotten with plenty of drama. This is a book I will long treasure and return to.

3. Andrew Wyeth, Looking Out, Looking In

I loved this exhibit at the National Gallery, but I also loved the essays in this catalogue by Nancy K. Anderson and Charles Brock. I’ve longed been fascinated by thresholds and other liminal spaces, but had never really thought about windows before. These essays deepened my thinking and pushed it in new directions.

4. The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, by Rainer Maria Rilke

This novel by one of my favorite poets plunges the reader deep into the mind of a troubled young man, seducing us with poetic prose that draws us in ever deeper. Twenty-eight-year-old Malte leads a solitary life in Paris at the beginning of the 20th century. He walks the streets, dismayed by the poverty and despair of the people he sees. Death is all around him: a man dying near him in a cafe, a young girl dying in front of his eyes on a trolley. He says, “I have no roof over me, and it is raining into my eyes.”

5. The Stone Carvers, by Jane Urquhart

Urquhart is one of my favorite writers, and this is one of her best books. I find it hard to summarize because of its complexity, though it reads like a dream. It’s about people with big dreams: to build a huge stone church with a bell in remote pioneer settlement in Ontario, to build a huge monument to the Canadian dead at Vimy Ridge. It’s about people with small dreams: to marry and create a home, to find the next meal, to preserve the names of the dead.

6. World Within World, by Stephen Spender

This autobiography by the well-known British poet has been called “the best autobiography in English written in the twentieth century.” The appeal of this book lies in his openness. Spender gives us simultaneously the story of his emotional, intellectual, political and poetic journeys during the years 1928-1939. He brings out the inner and outer conflicts of his time, as he pursues his goals first of trying to discover his real self and then to find a right relation to the world.

7. Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times, by Jennifer Worth

I’ve greatly enjoyed this series on PBS, but this book (the first of three) is even better than the show. In the early 1950s Worth, then Jennifer Lee, having trained as a nurse, was placed at an Anglican community of nuns to learn midwifery. Together with the nuns and two other young midwives-in-training, Worth serves the vibrant but shockingly poor Cockney East-Enders, as a midwife but also on occasion as a district nurse. Her stories of her fellow midwives and the characters she meets are funny and sad and enchanting.

8. A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, by Yiyun Li

Yiyun Li’s short stories bring to life a world of people far removed from the headlines and stereotypes. Some are set in China and some in the U.S., but most include or reference the tension of sons, daughters, or fiancés who have gone to the U.S. to study and may or may not return. All are told in the voice of a storyteller, one who gives us an entrée into the lives of ordinary people with astonishing stories to tell. I love the way Li uses subtle turns of phrase, as well as proverbs, aphorisms, and references to mythology to convey the flavor of Chinese dialogue.

9. The Weight of a Human Heart, by Ryan O’Neill

Nearly all of the stories in this collection have some kind of experimental format: one is a series of figures; another a list of rules for writing a short story; yet another an examination paper. Some, such as the one told by labeling the components of a short story, probably appeal most to other writers. However, they are clever and surprisingly effective.

10. Myth of the Welfare Queen, by David Zucchino

Zucchino is a journalist who in this extremely well written book sets out to explode the stereotype of the welfare queen by introducing us to two remarkable women. Although the story takes place 15 years after I went off of welfare, there is much that I recognise. The truly sad part of the book is that Zucchino's portrait of the two women is just before Clinton signed the welfare reform act in 1996 that effectively removed the safety net. So as hard as the lives are of those portrayed in this book, we know they are about to get a lot harder.

What were the best books you read last year?

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