As 2014 comes to an end, I've come up with a list of some favorite reading experiences from the past 12 months. Happy New Year to you all!
This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett. I’ve had a crush on Ms. Patchett ever since a book club I used to belong to read The Magician’s Assistant in 2002. The next year we read her opus, Bel Canto, a story about a political mass-kidnapping that ends with all the tragic beauty and irony of an opera, and some of the lines from that book still shimmer in my mind.
What a pleasure, then, to get a glimpse inside the life of one of my literary idols. In this book of previously published essays, she writes, among other things, about her dog, a nun, the bookstore she started with another woman, and the South Carolina college that got itself into hot water when it selected her book Truth and Beauty as required summer reading.
My favorite piece was about the grueling physical tests required for admission to the Los Angeles Police Academy. I especially loved reading about how she trained for the tests herself, and in the process, learned to scale a six-foot wall. As the daughter of a retired LAPD detective, Ms. Patchett manages to tell us something about the bond she shares with her father without going overboard.
For me, that’s the greatest strength of this nonfiction collection. Whether she’s writing about her family, her husband or her late beloved friend, Lucy Grealy, Ms. Patchett’s aim is never to simply pluck our heart strings. She’s a master of elegant language, and her emotional revelations are mixed with a humor, intelligence and restraint that say much more than pages of damp confessions ever could. That’s why it means so much when she writes, “…[W]hen love calls out, ‘How far would you go for me?’ you can look it in the eye and say truthfully, ‘Farther than you would ever have thought possible.’”
Lila by Marilynne Robinson. Part of a trilogy of novels (along with Gilead and Home), Lila is the story about a homeless woman and an aging preacher. Against all odds, they’re married, and for the first time in her life, Lila is warm and safe in the preacher’s plain, clean house in Iowa. Where she once traveled from town to town, finding shelter wherever she could, Lila now has an abundant garden, a caring husband and a child growing inside of her. But the past, with its violence and cruelty and love is always with her too, making her wonder if she can truly feel at home in this new, protected world.
Roots of Style by Isabel Toledo; illustrations by Ruben Toledo. This book is a passionate paean to personal style by Ms. Toledo, the Cuban-American woman who designed Michelle Obama’s 2009 inauguration suit. Her detailed description of the first lady’s ensemble left me a little breathless. For example, although some fashion experts thought the matching dress and coat were sewn with sequins, in reality that sparkle was the effect of sunlight on the layers of wool lace and silk, which its designer combined for warmth as well as beauty. Ms. Toledo may not use the polished written prose of Ann Patchett, but she communicates her love of fabric and movement and self-expression in a way that makes us admire her literary ability as well as her artistry as a designer.
Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson. An evil uncle, a shipwreck and a life-and-death hide-and-seek through the heather-covered Scottish highlands. Combine this with a complex bro-mance (between our foolish but well-intentioned teen hero and his friend, a Scottish rebel on the run) with Stevenson’s ability to capture the old Scots language on the page, and hoot man, you have a recipe for fun.
Christina Rossetti: A Divided Life by Georgina Battiscombe. An exploration of the life and mind of the author of the bizarre and compelling poem “Goblin Market.” Battiscombe’s thesis is that there’s a “doubleness” about Rossetti, who was a dark beauty with a temper and penchant for sumptuous language, but who also adhered to her religious beliefs with a determination that bordered on fanaticism.
The Penderwicks at Point Mouette by Jeanne Birdsall. In this third Penderwick tale, three of the sisters are on vacation in Maine with their Aunt Claire, who promptly sprains her ankle, leaving the girls somewhat free to pursue their own adventures. Complications cheerfully follow. Jane makes an idiot of herself over a boy named Dominic, and Skye, the cranky, soccer-loving sister is terrified of her new responsibilities as the OAP (Oldest Available Penderwick). Meanwhile, the sisters’ beloved friend Jeffrey meets a man who shares his love of music and also bears a decided physical resemblance to him. Ms. Birdsall’s characters are fresh and modern, while reminding us of fictional friends from other eras, like Betsy and Tacy, Henry Huggins and even Laurie and Jo. Oh, how I wish the Penderwicks would take me along on their next vacation.
The Plover by Brian Doyle. Can you pick a favorite book that you read this year? As my son says, that might be like picking a favorite kind of pie. But if I absolutely had to narrow it down to one, I’d choose Mr. Doyle’s novel. As much as I loved his Mink River, The Plover moved me even more, as I sailed along with the ultimate loner, Declan O’Donnell, who sets off on a solitary voyage only to gradually collect a boatload of passengers, including – to name just a few – two rats, a politician, a singer, a pirate and an injured girl who can only speak to birds. Mr. Doyle’s poetic prose kept me turning the pages as much as the high seas adventure did. But this book is more than lyrical images, likable characters and a compelling premise. Underneath it all is the idea that we’re connected to everything and everybody, from the fish in the sea to a murderous villain to an 18th century philosophical writer. Perhaps Mr. Doyle is saying that the inhabitants and landscape of our world are like the drops of water that make up the ocean. Combined, they may drown us, or, one by one, they may be drawn up to the sky by the light of the sun.