Top Ten Books of 2014 (Part One)

Making top book lists is always so hard for me. I read a lot, and it seems like almost every time I finish a book, I feel like it was the best book I’d read in a long time (not every time, just almost). But, these ten are the ones that stood out to me the most, the ones that stood up in my mind and yelled, “pick me” when I sat down to make my list. They weren’t all written in 2014, but that’s when I read them. So, anyway… Here goes the first five. I’ll post the last five tomorrow.

Note: The summaries contain some minor plot information about the stories but do not give away the endings or any major plot points. Still, if you’re the type who doesn’t even like to read the back of a book before you dive in, they might be considered spoilers.

My Top Ten Books of 2014 (Part One)

I am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe

1. I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe (2004)

An innocent and starry-eyed Charlotte Simmons earns a scholarship to Dupont, a prestigious college hours away from her small, sheltered hometown. When the semester begins, she quickly realizes that she’s a long way from the home she wanted so badly to escape, but it doesn’t take long for her to begin questioning those feelings.

She doesn’t have anything in common with her schoolmates. Her roommate, Beverly, is a rich snob who stays drunk all the time. Adam, who is much closer to Charlotte’s intellectual level, pursues her to the point of coming on too strong. She makes an impression on Jojo, the school basketball star. Finally, in a callow effort to climb the social ladder, she becomes involved with Hoyt, a frat boy who only wants one thing.

This novel is about a naive girl who begins college with a passion for advancing her intellect and being successful, but she winds up with an entirely different agenda. Her previous passions go by the wayside as her focus shifts to gaining the popularity she’s willing to sacrifice her identity to obtain.

The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner

2. The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner (2013)

I’m gonna just go ahead and say that I just now realized how much this book has in common with I Am Charlotte Simmons. The protagonist, Reno, is a naive artist from, you guessed it, Reno. She has big hopes and dreams of moving to New York and making it big with her art, but when she arrives, things aren’t what she expected. She doesn’t fit in.

Eventually, she becomes romantically involved with a guy named Sandro Valera and falls in with his group of friends. After she returns from a trip to the Salt Flats to try her hand at capturing speed on film, it begins to seem like things have changed. She accompanies Sandro to visit his family in Italy, and things become a bit more clear soon after that.

I think what I liked so much about this book was the writing style. I have this habit of reading with a highlighter nearby. Every time I come across a line that makes me think, “God, I wish I had written that. That was clever,” I highlight it. Let’s just say, my copy of The Flamethrowers is heavily highlighted. It’s no wonder it was a National Book Award Finalist.

The Round House by Louise Erdrich

3. The Round House by Louise Erdrich (2012)

Louise Erdrich is known for writing books about Native Americans and life on Indian reservations. The Round House is about a boy named Joe who’s a member of the Ojibwe tribe. A brutal assault on his mother hits Joe and his family hard, and he is forced to grow up quickly.

All attempts to prosecute the man who hurt Joe’s mom end in failure due to confusion about whether the assault happened on reservation land or outside the limits. This uncertainty makes it impossible to prosecute the man who they suspect hurt her. Joe is forced to take matters into his own hands. Erdrich laces her novels with social commentary on the injustice of these outdated laws that allow hundreds of perpetrators to escape justice every year for crimes committed on Indian reservations.

Erdrich won the National Book Award for Fiction with this novel, and it’s easy to see why. The coming of age tale is heart-wrenching, funny, suspenseful, and beautifully written. The cast of characters is so complex and interesting, I found it hard to put the book down.

Where'd you go Bernadette by Maria Semple

4. Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple (2013)

Bernadette is an ex-architect who’s become an agoraphobic recluse but still manages to remain a delightfully entertaining mom. Her daughter, Bee, is very intelligent and wise beyond her years. As a reward for doing well on her report card, Bee asks to take a trip to Antarctica with her mom and her Microsoft-genius father, and that’s when the hilarity ensues.

Bernadette, who can’t stand the other moms from Bee’s school, gets herself into a little trouble when an act of revenge gets out of hand. At the same time, she realizes the virtual assistant she’s hired over the internet isn’t what he seems. When things start to go south, Bernadette runs out of options.

The entire book is constructed of emails, newsletters, text messages… a literal paper trail that follows Bernadette’s trajectory. When she comes up missing, all of these pieces of evidence are gathered in an effort to track her down.

I really related to this novel. What I loved most was the humor. It was genuinely funny, but at the same time, I could completely relate to the anxiety I saw in Bernadette’s character.

Maus by Art Spiegelman

5. Maus – Parts One and Two by Art Spiegelman (1986, 1992)

This choice is quite a bit different from the rest of the novels on my list. It began as an assignment for my Contemporary Literature class–one of the two graphic novels we read. It was actually the first graphic novel I’d ever read, and while it took a little while to get used to the format and to learn to pay attention to the pictures as well as read the text, the story was a truly fascinating one. In fact, Maus won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 along with several other awards over the years, and The Museum of Modern Art featured an exhibition on the making of the graphic novel in 1991-92.

Maus is an interpretation of the real-life experiences of Art’s father, Vladek, who narrowly survived the Holocaust. In a stroke of genius, Spiegelman portrayed the Jews in his graphic masterpiece as mice and the Germans as cats.

The non-traditional format and the unique portrayal of the characters does nothing to mute the gut-wrenching emotional experience of the Spiegelman story. In fact, you quickly realize it wasn’t just Vladek’s experience. Millions of people went through that hell, and this novel is a respectful and tasteful dedication to the lives lost as well as the one’s who survived.

Check out Part Two if this list HERE


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