I read more this year than I ever have before and mostly it was because I encountered books like the ones on this list that reminded me why I love to read and what a good story can do for a person’s soul. These are my best 10 from the year. It might be a bit redundant for me to list them because I’ve already quoted many of these books or even written full reviews of them throughout this year on this blog. But they were all good enough that I want to make sure to recommend them again to all of my readers. If you need a good book to read over the holiday break or to start your new year off, all of these are worth checking out. One of my new year’s resolutions will be to read even more so that maybe next year’s list will be even more competitive. Not all of these books were published in 2014, they are just books that I happened to read in 2014. They are ones that if you haven’t yet, you should happen to read in 2015.
There is so much to love about this book. Most of all, Danticat’s incredible use of language and storytelling are such that they make me want to be a better writer while at the same time letting me get completely lost in the story as a reader. The brilliant way that she layers so many different convergent stories all centered around the innocence and optimism of one little girl, Claire. The setting that she creates in the fictional town feels so real, especially for someone from the Jacmel area, I could visualize every step the girl took. My absolute favorite part of this book, however, was a part where Claire sings a song about a hat falling into the ocean. About a week after reading the book, I was riding in the back of a tap tap and a group of teenage girls in the truck with me started sing the same song!
Set in a fictional village in Sierra Leonne that is trying to rebuild itself as refugees return to it after the war ends, paints a picture of conflict that is seldom seen. Although it’s fiction, Beah writes with such sensitivity and infuses his words with such a unique African style, that the entire story feels very real. And knowing Beah’s background from his own memoir, Long Way Gone, you can feel how personal each character is. As the community fights for dignity and the chance to be seen as more than disposable your empathy as a reader is pulled to the absolute limit. Beah leaves you as a reader wanting to find the radiance in tomorrow almost as badly as the characters in the book themselves. You keep thinking maybe on the next page, or the next chapter, the light will come, but you’re never given the real relief that you’re looking for, and it’s in that realization that you feel the pain of the characters and the truth of what it may be like for so many in the world who have to face such situations after being displaced by war.
This breathtaking story creates such a beautiful yet tragic atmosphere where poverty and wealth, politics and religion all collide through very relatable characters that are all trying to make life better for themselves in the slums of Mumbai, India. It’s hard to believe that the story is based on real events lived by very real characters because it is so well told and so extreme in its representation of the clashing forces that define this society. And yet it’s full of so many snippets of real life that can be applied to the struggles of people anywhere in the world. No book has made me root for the underdog and feel sympathy for seemingly sympathetic characters like this one.
As I mentioned in my blog post about this book, it was definitely the most quotable book that I read all year. If more people in the aid world thought like the author of this book and more people outside of the aid world realized even the tiniest drop of what he’s talking about, it would be possible for a new era of aid work to take hold in the world. It unashamedly calls for more professionalism in aid, honestly questions how long we can allow good intentions to be the basis for bad aid, and it also reveals that when aid is really done well, it ends up sucking the soul from those who do it. It removes the façade of fluffy good feelings about humanitarianism and asks us all to get real with ourselves.
I just finished this one. And although I’m not usually attracted to war stories, Angelina Jolie convinced me to give this one a try since she made it into a movie. It illuminated so many parts of World War II that I had no idea about and shared the harrowing and extraordinary story of Louis Zamperini. From childhood bad boy, to Olympic runner, to Air Force bombardier, to tortured POW, Zamperini survived it all and eventually came away full of forgiveness and a greater zeal for life than he’d ever had. So much courage and resilience and strength of the human spirit coming through this story. If any of your resolutions for 2015 include complaining less or having a more positive outlook, then this is a book that will help you accomplish those. I know that as soon as I finished it and put it down, I looked at my life and the world that it’s lived in a little differently.
Maybe “lost at sea” was a theme for my reading in 2014. This one, like Unbroken and even Claire of the Sea Light could fit into that theme literally where as some of the others more metaphorically could. But Savage Harvest is full of themes that drew me in: art, adventure, anthropology, and spirituality. They are all packed into the story of Michael Rockefeller and his search for “primitive” art among the Asmat people of New Guinea. The Asmat, known for cannibalistic rituals but also their beautiful and raw artistic expressions of their spiritual experiences, drew Rockefeller to them searching for items to take back to his father’s museum in New York. He mysteriously disappears on his voyage and the author of the book retraces his steps and weaves a very plausible and intriguing story of what might have happened to him.
I learned so much from reading this book about the journey that a transgender person goes through but even more than that, it’s simply a story for us all to have the courage to be real with ourselves. I had been attracted to the book because I was acquainted with Mock through some of her television appearances, but never knew her personal story. My favorite part of the book, however, was showing the cover to my roommates here in Haiti and hearing them all fawn over what a beautiful woman she was and then see the look on their faces when I told them that she was born with male anatomy. In the rural mountains of a country as LGBTQ-phobic as Haiti, of course they freaked out at first, but it also opened up some very interesting conversations with the guys and gave me a chance to share Mock’s story with them as well which let them see into the experience of a person that they would never take the time to think about otherwise.
On the back cover of this book it asks, “Have you ever been called too black or not black enough? Have you ever befriended or worked with a black person? Have you ever heard of black people? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then this book is for you.” I couldn’t agree more. Especially with all of the tragic, upsetting news around race relations in our country right now, a book like this can help us to understand each other while being very funny about it. It takes so many stereotypes and turns many of them on their heads, reveals the absurdity of others by placing them so in your face and embraces others as unavoidable but still harmless.
I bought this one after hearing of Maya Angelou’s death and realizing that I’ve never actually read anything of hers. I’m glad I did. I like to think that I’m a better person because of it. Although sometimes difficult to even read in it’s authenticity, still beautifully written and leaves the reader with a sense of redemption and wholeness. The hatred an pain that comes through the story, although set years ago, still resonates with what we as a society have to confront today. Ultimately though, it brings each reader to a point of acknowledging the strength that lies within themselves and gives them a reason to fight through their struggles.
This is a collection of stories by Howard Buffet sharing his experiences doing humanitarian work all over the world through his foundation that was built through his father, Warren Buffet’s, fortune. Much of the book is pretty typical humanitarian do-good feel-good help people kind of stories. But there’s a whole section where Buffet outlines some of the biggest failures that he’s encountered along the way and the mistakes that he’s made and learned from that I found particularly refreshing in its honesty. It’s kind of comforting to know that even someone with access to as many resources as Buffet does things wrong sometimes. But it also comes back to provide some substantial basis for how to do aid work better.
What were your favorite books this year? I’d love suggestions of ones I missed that I should add to my bookshelf for 2015.