A fascinating, well-written, (and depressing) glimpse behind the North Korean shroud of secrecy, delusion, and oppression as told by a journalist who spent two semesters teaching English at an elite university in Pyongyang. It’s sometimes hard to fathom how an entire society can be kept so far in the dark about the realities and possibilities beyond their borders; with honest and compelling prose, author Suki Kim brings a certain humanity to an inhumane place and allows us to witness daily life in this restrictive atmosphere.
Despite my familiarity of only the most basic of Bible stories, I enjoyed this fictional imagining of Christ’s life, as told by his childhood pal Biff. In this irreverent take on AD 1-33, there’s plenty to laugh at and, to my surprise, ponder, as Joshua”s quest to understand his destiny takes him and Biff to China and India in search of the three wise men, before returning to gather the apostles. Moore cleverly weaves “fact” with fiction, spinning an entertaining adventure through Biblical times.
At last, I’ve compiled my list for 2014 and fourteen books made the cut, earning a place on my 22nd annual recommended reading list. So here, in no particular order, are my favorites from the books I read last year, with links to reviews on this website. Happy reading!
- Where’d You Go, Bernadette (2012) by Maria Semple
- Cleopatra: A Life (2010) by Stacy Schiff
- This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (2008) by Drew Gilpin Faust
- The Good Lord Bird (2013) by James McBride
- Island of the Blue Dolphins (1960) by Scott O’Dell
- The Commitments (1997) by Roddy Doyle
- American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House (2008) by Jon Meacham
- The Woman in Black (1983) by Susan Hill
- The Secrets of Mary Bowser (2012) by Lois Leveen
- Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory (2014) by Caitlin Doughty
- Swamplandia! (2011) by Karen Russell
- A Blaze of Glory (2012) by Jeff Shaara
- Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (2000) by Joseph J. Ellis
- The Round House (2012) by Louise Erdrich
Historian Joseph Ellis turns his lens on the fraternity of founding fathers to examine six turning points in early U.S. history: Washington’s farewell address; the famous duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr; power couple John and Abigail Adams; Thomas Jefferson’s secret dinner to negotiate the location of the nation’s capital; punting the issue of slavery to a future generation; and the resolution of one of the most famous fractured friendships in American lore (John Adams and Thomas Jefferson). I found his exploration of these events–some familiar, others less so–an interesting and often entertaining way to survey this period of history.
The humorous and thought-provoking memoir of a young woman following her morbid curiosity all the way to the crematory and a career as a mortician. Doughty lifts the veil on the undertaking profession, sharing her fascination with death and her experiences (practical, philosophical, and amusing) working at a California crematory, all told in her unique and candid voice. Educational, entertaining, and thought provoking.
Three summers of road tripping to Civil War battlefields has driven home the horror and carnage of 19th-century warfare. Death and dying was an omnipresent fact of life during the course of this dark chapter of U.S. history: A family member dying in a military hospital far from home, a generation of young men from one small town obliterated in a single battle, or a family farm caught in the cross-hairs of battle, their home turned into a makeshift hospital, the parlor an operating room, and the front yard a temporary cemetery.
How society viewed death and grappled with it in practice on such an unprecedented scale is a fascinating aspect American cultural history and the subject of this excellent book. At a time when ensuring a so-called “Good Death” was of utmost importance, to this life and the next, such a war, in which loved ones died alone and far from home, possibly buried in mass graves, and without any last words to or from their families, was a horror previously unimaginable. From this era came a rise in the industries of undertaking and embalming, improvements in cataloging and transporting the dead, and the formation of national and Confederate cemeteries. Gilpin Faust explores the practical, social, and spiritual aspects of a society forced to deal with death on a simultaneously massive and intimate scale, an interesting lens through which to view history.
A gripping coming-of-age story, part social commentary, part family drama, part murder mystery, altogether well-deserving of the National Book Award bestowed upon it in 2012.
Thirteen-year-old Joe lives with his parents on a reservation in North Dakota. After his mother’s attack, she retreats, unable to leave her house and unwilling to revisit the details of her assault with either the authorities or her family. As Joe witnesses his mother’s decline and his family’s collapse, he loses faith in the legal system his tribal judge father serves. With his friends’ help, Joe takes it upon himself to solve the crime and set things right.
With affecting prose, The Round House compels the reader with a heart-breaking and compelling narrative populated with genuine characters, their presence remaining long after the last page is turned.