Julie’s Top 5 Reads of 2014

Julie is BookPeople’s Publicist. She adores Nate the Bunny, White Cat the white cat, Sam the orange cat, and also short stories. She is a Long Island native who knows when it is appropriate to say y’all. She is also the co-author of the forthcoming book, Vegan Survival Guide to Austin.

An Untamed State by Roxane Gay

This powerful novel about a woman kidnapped for ransom in Haiti grabbed me from the first sentence and held me, riveted and breathless, to the very last page. Gay is unflinching as she conveys the emotional, psychological and physical devastation of Mirielle Jameson during and following her captivity. Mirielle’s strength is the real backbone of this novel and held me fast as I worked through the difficult scenes of brutal treatment at the hands of her captors. This novel has me thinking about freedom, what it affords me and what it really means to be free, what I take for granted, and how a presumption of freedom defines my sense of self. There’s plenty more to dig into in this book, as well: economic disparity and dangerous assumptions on the part of both the rich and the poor; the cultural gulf between parents and children raised in different countries; and the power and responsibilities of love. Just a phenomenal, unforgettable read.

F. by Daniel Kehlmann

I loved this novel. This has been one of my top summer reads. Philosophical, funny and absorbing, this story of three brothers (an artist, a priest and a stockbroker) groping through adulthood in the long shadow of their unpredictable father (a bestselling author), reminded me that my favorite novels are the ones that make me think beyond the story, that challenge my presumptions about the characters, and that just make me laugh. And then they gave it an awesome cover!

The Unlikely Settler by Lipika Pelham

Holy pajamas was I pulled into this book! Lipika Pelham’s experience as the Bangladeshi wife of a Jewish Englishman living with their family in Jerusalem offers a fresh, objective, and very human perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The history of both cultures is well represented, as are the ramifications of the political decisions that shifted entire populations. Her writing is vivid and her storytelling as straightforward as you’d expect from someone who wrote for the BBC. This book will appeal to anyone interested in gaining more understanding of the tense situation in the Middle East, and will particularly appeal to parents faced with raising their children in a culture that is not their own. Five stars!

The Cold Song by Linn Ulmann

Listen to these sentences: “She was just a girl in a red dress standing by the white-clothed trestle table with her mouth full of chicken.” “What he wanted was to be able to destroy everything and still endure.” This story of a missing young woman, a failed writer and a family coming apart at the seams is riveting, absorbing, and full of sentences that will stop you in your tracks. Every time I picked up this book I read fifty pages without cease. Ullmann won me over within the first page. Read this book.

Between Wrecks by George Singleton

I laughed so hard reading this book it doubled as a work out. Singleton imagines absurd situations played out by characters who tie their luck in knots: a student in an online southern culture course looks for truth in a scrapbooking club; an uncle makes a killing selling parachutes on the off chance of sinkholes; a woman funnels her husband’s scratch ticket winnings into never-ending home remodeling. These characters manage their fates with peculiar, hilarious, sometimes heart-wringing methods. Fans of George Saunders and Kurt Vonnegut will find a lot to love here. This is the most fun I’ve had reading a collection of stories in a long time.

Lucky Us by Amy Bloom

I read this book in under 48 hours, stopping only to go to work. Amy Bloom spins a non-stop tale of the lives of two sisters as they move from Detroit to Hollywood to New York. Old Hollywood, World War II, love and lust and family and forgiveness – Amy Bloom is a natural, masterful storyteller who will move you, make you laugh, and pin you to your seat until you’re done.

EDITED: 

I was far too hasty when I hit the button to publish this post. 2014 was a remarkable year in reading for me. Memory did not serve me when I first typed up this list. I’m not done here. Oh, no.

The Last Days of California by Mary Miller

This was my first favorite book of 2014. The Last Days of California is a road trip novel told from the perspective of fourteen year old Jess. It follows a family of four as their father drives them towards California for the Second Coming. Here are adolescence and America told with some grit, in a teenager’s voice that is neither precocious nor absurdly naive.

Misadventure by Nicholas Grider

This is the second book from Austin-based small press A Strange Object (whose first book, Kelly Luce’s Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail, was one of my favorite story collections of 2013). Grider is fearless and precise in his storytelling. His predominantly male characters confront issues of power and identity, sex and violence and bondage, in prose that does not quiver, does not shy away from its subject matter. Story structure varies, from an alphabetized catalog of ex-boyfriends cast against a man’s illness, to a narrative presented as a quiz. Inventive and addictive, Publisher’s Weeklycalled this collection “vital”.

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

I wasn’t going to be one of those people who put both Roxane Gay books into her favorites of 2014, but screw it. I loved this book and since I clearly decided to break the boundaries of that whole “5 Top Reads” rule I made up, I’m including it. From Scrabble tournaments to Sweet Valley High to the power of privilege, Roxane Gay’s essays tear open our modern world and demand we dig deeper into our cultural experience. She lays bare her own contradictions and conflicting opinions, her passions and her personal experience as an African American woman in essays that will have you laughing on one page and furious to change the world on the next. The essays in this book cover much more than feminism; they examine a range of pop culture phenomenon and the stereotypes and facades we hide behind. And they don’t let you walk away with easy answers. On top of that – the Scrabble essay is absolutely hilarious. I promise, you will laugh out loud just as often as you’ll you think long and hard about where we are, where we’re going and what your responsibility is to get us there. Read this book.

Twilight of the Superheroes by Deborah Eisenberg

I’ll go ahead and include one book on this list that was not actually published in 2014. A few friends and fellow booksellers attempted a short-lived short fiction book club this year. Our second (and final) selection was Twilight of the Superheroes. It’s the first time I’d read any Eisenberg. Be still my heart. I am now a disciple. She is the only – ONLY – writer who has managed to write fiction about September 11th that hasn’t made me throw the book across the room (and I read Falling Man). This is one of the best story collections I’ve ever read. I borrowed a copy from a friend but never gave it back. It sits on my nightstand with my copy of the collected stories of Amy Hempel. Enough said.

Okay, I’m done now, I promise.

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