The greatest thing about giving up TV these last three years has been falling back in love with books. Ditching TV was no sacrifice, more like ridding the house of wasps. Still, I’d forgotten the restorative power of luxurious hours of reading.
Recommending books is fraught with peril because people read as differently as they eat and love. To help you decide whether to heed my suggestions, I’ll start with what I like in a book:
Physical beauty. I don’t read on “me machines,” as the protagonist of “To Rise Again at a Decent Hour” calls electronic devices. I like hardcover books with sewn bindings, heavy paper and gorgeous jackets. It’s like eating from a plate rather than a to-go box.
Wordplay. Plot and structure are expendable to me. I don’t care where we end up if you entertain me with sparkly language and arresting images along the way.
Characters. Nothing causes me to abandon a book quicker than one-dimensional or dull characters. I crave protagonists who will live on in my memory like fun people encountered on vacation.
Here, then, are my favorite books of 2014. All are novels unless otherwise noted.
“Expo 58” by Jonathan Coe. Sly British humor at its most refined.
“Dear Committee Members” by Julie Schumacher. Laugh-out-loud epistolary tale set in academia.
“Man at the Helm” by Nina Stibbe. You know you’re in good hands when the very first sentence ends with “… life was humdrum and comfortable until an evening in 1970 when our mother listened in to our father’s phone call and ended up blowing her nose on a tea towel — a thing she’d only have done in an absolute emergency.”
“Lila” by Marilynne Robinson. Robinson writes like Meryl Streep acts, effortlessly inhabiting her characters.
“Can’t and Won’t” by Lydia Davis (short stories). Some of Davis’ stories, just sentences long, are like outlines in a coloring book for the reader to fill in. An example:
He could be my husband.
But he is not my husband.
He is her husband.
And so he takes her picture (not mine) as she stands in her flowered beach outfit in front of the old fortress.
“The Narrow Road to the Deep North” by Richard Flanagan. A haunting, harrowing Man Booker Prize winner based on the true story of Australian prisoners in a Japanese labor camp in Burma.
“Grandma Gatewood’s Walk” by Ben Montgomery (narrative nonfiction). Inspiring, page-turning account of a 67-year-old great-grandmother who ran away from her Ohio farm home to walk the 2,000-mile Appalachian trail alone.
“Redeployment” by Phil Klay (short stories). Jaw-dropping scenes from the Iraq War told with astonishing grace.
“All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr. World War II novel about a blind girl and her father set in Paris and the seaside town of Saint-Malo.
“My Salinger Year” by Joanna Rakoff. A charming coming-of-age-in-Manhattan tale that has very little to do with the famously reclusive author.
“To Rise Again at a Decent Hour” by Joshua Ferris. Laugh-out-loud inappropriate antics of a successful, manic-depressive Park Avenue dentist.
One of these titles should be just the ticket for hours of decadent stress relief during the holidays for a lot less than the price of a spa visit.
Look for The Star’s top 100 books of 2014 in the A+E section on Dec. 14.