The year started off weak. Admittedly, I ended with a terrific ‘bang’ last year, as I eagerly devoured the last few pages of George Saunders’s brilliant Tenth of December only minutes before the ball dropped. This year I was preoccupied with planning my wedding and accidentally led myself astray by haphazardly downloading a bunch of random novels onto my Kindle just before boarding a 10-hour flight to Hawaii. In what I will term a ‘First World Tragedy’, none of the books I had downloaded were captivating and I was stuck with sub-par reading material for ten excruciating hours.
After I returned from my honeymoon I became choosier with my reading selections, and it paid off. From August to December I went on a fantastic run of books that hit my literary sweet spot. Many of those books are mentioned below, and my sole purpose in rambling on about them is so that you'll read them. Because, you know, sharing is caring. And no one wants to get caught on an airplane without a good book. (Some that didn’t make the ‘Top Five’ cut but are also definitely worth your while include Unspeakable by Meghan Daum, Life Itself by Roger Ebert and Salt, Sugar, Fat by Michael Moss.)
In compiling this list I attempted to stick to books that were released in 2014, but as you will see I ended up deviating from that format a bit. Why? I don’t generally stick to new releases published in any one year, and 2014 was no exception. I don’t claim to have read even a broad sampling of the books published this year, but I strongly feel that the five following books deserve to be applauded and enjoyed for a cornucopia of reasons.
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Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel is structured much like Jennifer Egan’s fantastic A Visit From the Goon Squad. The plot leaps around in time, following a tangentially related cast of characters that includes a jaded paparazzo, an aging film star, and a scrappy, knife-wielding girl in a traveling theater. The central conceit of the story is that society has collapsed following the outbreak of a particularly deadly virus called the ‘Georgia Flu’. As Mandel weaves the tapestry of her world, her tone is playful but sincere. She generously peppers her story with pop-culture references, grounding her characters in a fragile world on the verge of collapse. The non-linear form of the story spans over approximately forty years in time, from twenty years prior to the ‘Georgia Flu’, to twenty years after the outbreak. If nothing else, the book is worth reading for nostalgic passages focusing on a ‘Museum of Civilization’, a showcase for relics of the world that we as readers currently know and enjoy. Mandel asks the poignant question of what’s left in this world without technology, and doesn’t presume to present us with an answer.
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The Martian by Andy Weir is a novel that centers on one man and his fight for survival after being left for dead on Mars. According to Wikipedia, some have called it a mash up between ‘Apollo 13’ and ‘Cast Away’, and I feel that this is an apt categorization. Given that description, it’s no coincidence that the novel has been fast tracked for a feature film, but the more amazing story may be how it was published at all. Weir self published his book in 2011 as a serial online. Shortly after the novel was published in its entirety his readers requested that he publish it in Kindle format, so he did, setting the price at the lowest denomination, 99 cents. Over time the book became a self-publishing behemoth, and finally got its due as a properly published novel in early 2014. (For more on this amazing underdog story, heres a link to a recent article from Entertainment Weekly).
I couldn’t put this book down. Weir writes his main character, astronaut and botanist Mark Watney as if he is the funniest, most intelligent and level headed guy you know. As Watney documents his struggle to survive in the inhospitable Martian climate, I found myself smiling, laughing and almost talking back to the book at times. And as an extra bonus, I have it on good authority that the astoundingly complex science in the book is totally on point. I cannot wait for the movie, and whatever offerings Weir sends out into the universe in the near future.
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Yes Please is comedienne Amy Poehler’s publishing debut. On the day the book was released, I was geeking out so hard that I woke up a few hours early just to wait for the UPS lady. Once I heard the knock on the door, I grabbed the cardboard packaging and shuffled over to the couch, digging in before I went to work. (Did I mention I work at night? Did I also mention that maaaaaybe I was a little late to work that day because I couldn’t put the thing down?) Poehler’s honest, slightly self-deprecating preface hooked me right away, as she openly ruminates on what it is to write and be a writer. Subsequent chapters that focus on her experience as an extremely prego lady at SNL, her dogged devotion to comedy, and her obligatory childhood stories are indelibly entertaining, revealing and have a humorous and familiar light touch. If Poehler’s aim was to write a book that makes the reader want to be her BFF, she’s succeeded with flying colors.
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The Goldfinch by Donna Tart wasn’t technically released in 2014, but it did earn the distinction of being the Pulitzer Prize winner for Fiction in 2014, so I’m kind of still within my aforementioned 2014 parameters. I knew very little about this book when I picked it up, save for the fact that it is written from the perspective of a young boy who has recently lost his mother. I’m reluctant to tell you anything more as I feel my lack of information heightened my experience with this particular work. I will say that Tart’s prose is so gorgeous it will actually have you thinking about the world in a richer, more refined way. The story itself is captivating, heart breaking, mysterious, and compelling. I have heard that some people do think the book is overlong and labored, but I emphatically beg to differ. I truly enjoyed and savored every sublime sentence. The Goldfinch has won its way into my heart and mind and has a permanent spot on my list of favorite books of all time.
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The Stand by Stephen King is where my selection goes completely rogue. First off, I had read this book before. Secondly, this book was published nowhere near this decade, or even this millennium. Yet, oddly enough, almost 40 years after it was originally published, The Stand is still captivating and relevant and certainly belongs on this list. If you haven’t read it, go get it. Now.
Yes, right now. I’ll wait.
I’m not kidding.
Did you get it? Hint: The Amazon link is embedded above.
Good. Let’s move on.
The Stand is the granddaddy of all American apocalypse novels. Hints of King’s influence live on in the generous pop-culture references sprinkled throughout the aforementioned Station Eleven, and also in oodles of other novels and television shows, such as The Walking Dead.
The plot of The Stand focuses on a world ravaged by a killer disease called ‘Captain Trips’ which makes quick work of 99.4% of the population (yes I know I have a ‘thing’ for this genre, but I can’t help it if the stories are so damn fascinating!). Led by supernatural dreams, the survivors pool into two camps, and good is eventually pitted against evil. I picked this tome back up in 2014 because there’s a series of films in the works, to be helmed by one of the ultimate Stephen King fan-boys - director Josh Boone of The Fault In Our Stars fame. Boone recently spoke to Kevin Smith about his vision for the films, and ZOMG am I excited. I have a more detailed post in the works about my everlasting love for this novel because it is one of the best books I have ever read, and certainly one that touched my mind and heart. Now go read it. You did get it, right? Right?!