Books to read in 2014

Here’s my to-read list for 2014. It’s incomplete, always changing, and I’m sure I won’t get to all of these, not by a long shot, but it’s a convenient list when I’m choosing my next book. You may see a few of them featured on Books Can Save a Life. I’ve included titles that will be published in 2014, so you won’t find all of them on the shelves yet.

If you have enticing choices on your list, please share them in the comments!

Watch for my book giveaway in February to celebrate the second anniversary of Books Can Save a Life.


The Snow Queen book cover

The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey    “If All of Rochester Read the Same Book,” 2014

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

Someone, by Alice McDermott

Carthage, by Joyce Carol Oates

Arctic Summer, by Damon Galgut

The Unknowns, by Gabriel Roth

The Circle, by David Eggers

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, by Haruki Murakami

The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti

The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters

And Then We Came to the End; The Unnamed; To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, by Joshua Ferris

Orfeo, by Richard Powers

Never Go Back, by Lee Child

The Language of Flowers, by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

The Snow Queen, by Michael Cunningham

The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell

The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer

The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton

Lila, by Marilynne Robinson

By Blood, Ellen Ullman

Canada, by Richard Ford

In Sunlight and in Shadow; and Winter’s Tale, by Mark Helprin

The Cuckoo’s Calling, by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling) and Untitled (2014)

The Woman Who Lost Her Soul, by Bob Shacochis

Off Course, by Michelle Huneven

Gone Girl; Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn (movies in 2014)

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel (Best book of the 21st century, according to Elizabeth Gilbert)



My Struggle, Books 1, 2, 3 by Karl Ove Knausgaard (Norwegian)

Treasure Hunt; The Dance of the Seagull by Andrea Camilleri (Sicilian)

Story of a New Name, by Elena Ferrante (Italian)


Son book cover

The Giver Quartet Series (including Son), by Lois Lowry

Divergent Series, by Veronica Roth

Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins

The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green



Wave book cover

Men We Reaped, by Jessamyn Ward

Still Writing, by Dani Shapiro

This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, by Ann Patchett

Wave, by  Sonali Deraniyagala

Intensive Care: A Doctor’s Journey; and Medicine in Translation: Journeys with My Patients, by Danielle Ofri



Five Days at Memorial book cover

Big Data: A Revolution that Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think, by Victor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier

Who Owns the Future? by Jaron Lanier

The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI, by Betty Medsger

Thank You for Your Service, by David Finkel

Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital, by Sheri Fink

What Doctors Feel: How Emotions Affect the Practice of Medicine, by Danielle Ofri

Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson, by Jeff Guinn

The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, by George Packer

Margaret Fuller: A New American Life, by Megan Marshall

The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking, by Brendan I. Koerner

The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems

Stalking the Divine, by Kristin Ohlson

Sons of Madness: Growing Up and Older with a Mentally Ill Parent, by Susan Nathiel

Is There No Place on Earth for Me? by Susan Sheehan

Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom, by Leonard S. Marcus

Catching Fire, the movie

Catching Fire book coverI liked the movie version of the first book in the The Hunger Games trilogy, (unlike many viewers) and I liked Catching Fire, the movie version of book #2, even more.

When a book or movie is wildly popular, I’m curious to know the reasons. I want to know how the creator birthed a story that inspires passion in so many people. The Hunger Games is epic, powerful, and true to our times, and in capable artistic hands it speaks to us whether the medium is the page or the screen. The Hunger Games books and the movies have become fused in my memory, and it is difficult for me to separate the two – it’s the story itself that stays with me.

Suzanne Collins’ trilogy is based, in part, on the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, which she read when she was eight years old. According to Wikipedia, in one version of the myth, the king of Crete demanded that every nine years seven Athenian girls and seven Athenian boys be sacrificed to the half-man, half-bull Minotaur. Theseus volunteers to go in place of one of them and slays the Minotaur. (In The Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers to go in place of her younger sister, Prim, and Peeta volunteers to replace Haymitch.)

In interviews, Suzanne has said she was intrigued by reality TV shows that feature ordinary people viewers can relate to trying to prevail in impossible situations; she has also noticed our voyeuristic desire to watch others in their most private, vulnerable, and humiliating moments. Flipping through TV channels one evening, Suzanne was struck by news footage from the Iraq war on one channel and “Survivor” competitors on another channel. A former writer of children’s television programming, Collins has spoken in interviews about how viewers become desensitized to real-world violence if they are continuously exposed to the entertainment violence of modern media.

Probably most formative of Suzanne’s artistic vision was the fact that when she was six years old, her father served as a military advisor in Vietnam. News footage on TV of the death and destruction in Vietnam confused and frightened her. After the war, when her family was living in Europe, Suzanne’s father often took them on tours of famous World War I and World War II battlefields, where he taught them about military strategy and history.

Although she’s been criticized for depicting children killing children, Suzanne is not an advocate of violence or war. Katniss, Peeta, and many of the others in The Hunger Games clearly suffer the post-traumatic effects of war, oppression and deprivation. In my mind, they echo the child soldiers and the children who are victims of bombings and other atrocities we see often in the news.  Several stories about The Hunger Games in the media have highlighted the irony of the fact that Suzanne lives in Sandy Hook, Connecticut. I wonder if that experience will result in another powerful and timely story.

For me, iconic images from Catching Fire include the silhouettes at sunset of Katniss, Peeta, and a dying tribute who has just sacrificed her life for Peeta; the citizens of Rue’s District 11 giving the three-fingered salute; and, in one of the closing scenes, a riveting shot of Katniss that embodies the essence of sacrifice.

I’ve been especially moved by these characters: Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) and how he takes a stand with his art; Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and his flawed strength; Eppie (Elizabeth Banks) and her transformation; the growing strength of Prim (Willow Shields); the fire and directness of Johanna Mason (Jena Malone); and the depth of feeling and loyalty of the deceptively shallow Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin).

Year of the Jungle book coverRecently, Suzanne Collins published Year of the Jungle, a picture book about a child whose father goes off to war.

Have you seen Catching Fire? What do you think of the movie and/or or the book? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Don’t tell Joel Stein I like The Hunger Games

I was taken aback when I read Joel Stein’s essay in The New York Times, “Adults Should Read Adult Books.” He writes that the only thing more embarrassing than seeing an adult looking at pornography on his computer is catching him reading The Hunger Games.

How dare a grown-up read a “children’s book” in public! The least he can do is read it in the privacy of his own home!

Not that Stein has actually read The Hunger Games, mind you. This Stanford-educated guy doesn’t read “children’s books,” and he’s making no exception in this case, at least not until he’s read his way through the 3,000 years of fiction written for adults.

Let’s hope that will keep him so busy he won’t have time to write more inane essays.

It’s not clear to me if Stein actually believes what he’s written or if he’s trying to be provocative. It’s also not clear to me why an essay of this sort deserves to be in The New York Times unless, like many newspapers, they’re desperate for readers and looking to generate plenty of buzz.

I see nothing insightful about Stein’s comments, no fine sensibility or subtlety of thought, though Stein expects as much from adult literature. “Children’s books,” just aren’t up to the challenge of satisfying discriminating grown-up readers. (Stein appears to be unaware of the genre of Young Adult literature, or perhaps discounts it as bogus.)

Stein’s viewpoint (if it is genuine) surprises me because it demands that literature adhere to strictly defined boundaries when, in fact, its boundaries are shifting dramatically in terms of physical form, delivery, and content. That is something to be celebrated.

Hundreds of readers did, indeed, respond to Stein’s viewpoint, most of them defending the value of children’s and YA literature for everyone, young and old.  The other essays in “The Power of Young Adult Fiction,” written by a teen blogger, a librarian, a book reviewer, and three authors, are worth reading.

It seems as though extreme or obnoxious or edgy, in the manner of Stein’s essay, is now the way to rise above the crowd and be heard. Which brings me to the movie, The Hunger Games.

As violent and dramatic as the plot is, I found the style and tone of the movie to be understated. That, in my view, made it all the more powerful. One critic found Jennifer Lawrence (Katniss) to be detached, but I felt that, without carrying on or becoming hysterical, Lawrence radiated terror, courage, and determination. Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), and President Snow (Donald Sutherland) delivered equally strong performances without going over the top.

The blood and gore were mostly offstage, which disappointed some, but I thought it kept the focus on the psychological terror (and made the movie palatable for younger audiences).

John Garder said that in great fiction the writer creates the illusion of a dream world. The reader enters that dream, but with just one false or inauthentic moment the dream vanishes and the connection to the reader is lost. I easily entered The Hunger Games dream and didn’t leave until (reluctantly) the closing credits.

Joel Stein doesn’t know what he’s missing.

Let’s Talk about Hunger Games, the movie

“So what happens when we go back?”

“We try to forget.”

“I don’t want to forget.”

I read a review of The Hunger Games last night after I got home from the theater.

Sometimes I wonder if the critics and I are watching the same movie.

I’d rather hear what you think.

Let’s talk about The Hunger Games movie. Leave your comments below. Who wants to go first?

Intrepid girl detectives and student nurses: Nancy Drew & the gang

When I asked about books that made a strong impression when you were growing up, many of you mentioned the Nancy Drew Mystery Series.

The Hidden StaircaseI was a Nancy Drew reader, too. I bought the first dozen or so books one by one and tried to read them in order, but soon gave up because my reading habits outpaced my cash flow. So I borrowed them from the library and a friend and fellow Nancy Drew fan.

That same friend tells me she is now collecting Nancy Drew dust jacket covers, which are quite valuable.

Another friend and blog reader told me about a slew of girl detective series I’d never heard of: Trixie Belden, Kay Tracey, Judy Bolton, Melody Lane, and Connie Blair, among others. Vicki Barr, airline stewardess and amateur detective, investigated all manner of criminal activity in her travels.

I must have encountered some of these heroines on library shelves, but I remained loyal to Nancy.

Browsing around the Internet for more girl heroines, I came across the nurses. Remember them? Cherry Ames and Sue Barton? Cherry Ames, Student Nurse. Sue Barton, Senior Nurse. Visiting Nurse. Rural Nurse. Neighborhood Nurse. Superintendent of Nurses. I remember months of intensely reading the Sue Barton books during my wanting-to-be-a-nurse phase, after I’d ratcheted down from my original ambition to be a brain surgeon. Sue Barton

Feminist and literary scholars have written about Nancy Drew and other heroines as developing and changing female prototypes. According to some, Nancy evolved from a feisty, independent, fearless young woman in the early years of the series, around 1930, to a more conventional, passive one in the 1960s, when she was often portrayed as a potential victim of harm. Her boyfriend, Ned Nickerson, began to play a more prominent role, whereas in earlier books Nancy usually worked alone or with her female chums, George and Bess.

The way I remember her, Nancy could do anything, perfectly. She was strong,  supremely confident, and competent. At sixteen, she had her own car (a blue roadster). Her father let her go anywhere and do just about anything.

Laura Bush, Barbara Walters, Beverly Sills, three female Supreme Court justices, and other prominent female figures have said Nancy Drew was a role model.

What impressed me most, I think, was Nancy’s freedom and independence as she made her way out in the world.

I took for granted I would have the same sort of life someday.


Nancy Drew is alive and well. The unofficial website has everything  you’d want to know about the series. There is even an annual Nancy Drew convention.

Did you have a favorite series? Tell us about it.


Best Short Animated Film: The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore

If you haven’t seen it yet, take fifteen minutes to watch this year’s Oscar winner for best animated short.

It’s an affecting tribute to books and the curative powers of story, with a beautiful musical score.

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore is available as an app from iTunes.

Reading in another dimension

I remember the book, which I think of as my Hunger Games book, and I remember the reading of it. Where I was (in my bedroom, my favorite place to read), how old I was (ten), and how I started reading as soon as I got home from school and didn’t stop until I reached the end sometime after dark.

A wrinkle in timeIn A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, Meg Murry wore glasses like me (she had a habit of pushing them up on her nose, just like me) and braces, (me too) and her hair never looked quite right (me too, again). She was a social misfit in danger of being held back a grade in school. I could slip easily into Meg’s skin; even though I had plenty of friends and good grades, I felt I could lose my tenuous social standing in a flash if anyone found out about my strange mother who, around that time, had succumbed to mental illness.

It was as if the book had been written just for me. As if, somehow, L’Engle had looked into my soul and put all of its good parts and bad parts right there on the page. I felt recognized for what I was.  Understood. Authenticated.

Meg’s family was like no other family I’d ever heard of. Her mother, Katherine Murry, was the mother I wanted: a beautiful, brilliant scientist who ran experiments in the kitchen pantry. There weren’t many scientist moms in 1965 Cleveland, Ohio, and Mrs. Murry’s brand of strangeness was the kind I could live with. (She won the Nobel Prize in a later book by L’Engle, but always had home-made cookies waiting for Meg and her younger, genius brother, Charles Wallace, when they came home from school.) Meg’s Princeton educated father worked at Cape Canaveral and had been away for a long time on a secret mission. The gossip was that he’d abandoned his family.

Meg’s friend, Calvin O’Keefe, was a revelation to me, too. He made it clear you could be from an unhappy family and still be your own strong, separate self. He was kind, popular in school, and a talented basketball player (yes, way too good to be believable) even though his mother had missing teeth, wispy, gray hair, and paddled her children with wooden spoons.

Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin are swept away to another dimension to search for Meg’s father and fight a great evil. I was swept away with them. This was new territory for me. I didn’t typically read fantasy or science fiction and I’d never encountered such odd, mesmerizing characters. L’Engle based the sci-fi elements of her story on Einstein’s theory of relativity, and I had always been fascinated by outer space and its mysteries. Yet, for all of its science, A Wrinkle in Time is infused with spirituality, too, and though I couldn’t have verbalized it back then, that fusion of science and spirituality rang true for me.  And while L’Engle invoked Christian themes I could relate to, she gave equal time to the Buddha, Gandhi, and the great artists. This was a viewpoint I hadn’t considered before.

A Wrinkle in Time, for me, was an escape from unhappiness, a preview, in Katherine Murry, of what a strong woman could be, and a glimpse of a different, more complex world than my own familiar one.

Many years later, I met Madeleine L’Engle when she spoke at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City, where she was the librarian and writer in residence. We shared a neighborhood, those blocks clustered around the massive Episcopal cathedral. As she spoke about her life and her beliefs, I recognized the themes I’d encountered in her fiction: a passionate spirituality inseparable from a reverence and respect for the laws and mysteries of the cosmos.

When I was doing research for this post, I discovered that this year is the 50th anniversary of A Wrinkle in Time. When it was published half a century ago, it won the Newbery Medal. Yet, because it combines fantasy with an inclusive spirituality, (rather than an exclusively Christian one) A Wrinkle in Time is often on banned book lists in schools across the country.


Did you have a Hunger Games book when you were growing up? If so, tell us in the comments below.