My year in books – Part 3 of 3

Each year, I share a list with brief descriptions of the books I read that year. In 2014, the book I read and re-read the most was my novel Her Own Vietnam, as I prepared it for publication. But that still left time to read 45 other books – some of which might be just right for you.

Books are listed in alphabetical order by title. An asterisk (*) indicates a book I particularly enjoyed. I’ll post the list in three parts:

I hope you’ll find some good choices for your own reading in 2015. Feel free to share this list with other book-loving friends.


AWOL on the Appalachian Trail by David Miller

Enjoyable first-person account of a man who escapes the corporate cube farm and, with the support of his wife and children, strikes out to hike the full 2,168 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Although I would never undertake one, I am drawn to books about other people’s epic hikes. This one had all the standard elements: descriptions of the hike and its challenges; appreciation of nature and a life lived out of doors; colorful depictions of other hikers with their strange trail names (the author’s trail name is AWOL); a reflection years later on what the hike meant to him and his family – all well told, with solid, crisp writing.

*Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

A collection of smart, brave, incisive and pain-tinged essays about the flammable places where race, gender and popular culture meet. Like many essay collections, this powerful book is best digested in bite-sized pieces. It will stay with you.

*Home Fires by Don Katz

At first glance I thought: 640 pages that chronicle four decades in the life of a Jewish family in America? No thanks; I have a Jewish family of my own. But the book is riveting, and illuminated much about the decades of social and political upheaval everyone my age has lived through. An interesting note about the author (whom I know slightly): he is the founder of He had a distinguished career as a writer before he got the idea that people would buy audiobooks over the Internet.

*In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette by Hampton Sides

Riveting account of an American ship that in 1879 sailed beyond the known world in search of the North Pole, and found disaster and revelation in an Arctic land few humans had ever seen. The author does a fantastic job of creating a propulsive narrative about conquest and survival by weaving in details from the crew’s journals, letters from their family members, newspaper stories, and academic theories about what lay beyond the map. He also illustrates with devastating clarity how swiftly the incursion of Americans and Europeans into indigenous Arctic communities destroyed their cultures and the environments they relied upon.

*Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward

What does it mean to be poor and black, to be a man or a woman, in America? In this searing and thoughtful memoir, the author of the award-winning novel Salvage the Bones revisits her growing up amidst extended family in rural Mississippi. “You need to know how we’re living and dying here,” she wrote. In her young adulthood, five young men she loved died violently, including her younger brother. The book is about their deaths, but even more about their lives and the lives of the women who bore them, raised them, loved them and buried them – a whole community trying to eke out a life beneath the crushing weight of racism and poverty.

The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane

A British literature professor takes long walks – weeks and weeks long – across the ancient paths that traverse England, with a few side trips to Spain and the Himalayas. In precise and poetic language, Macfarlane’s thoughts wander with his feet, weaving in history, literature and personal stories that range from folklore to his own grandfather. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, particularly his descriptions of England’s chalk downs. But I could not help thinking of the wife he left behind to take care of their small children and all the responsibilities of family life while he took off on his rambling adventures.

*The Passage of Power by Robert Caro

Fascinating chronicle of Lyndon Johnson’s life during the tumultuous years 1958 through 1964, during which Johnson wielded enormous power in the Senate, reached for the Presidency with a baffling strategy guaranteed to fail, became Vice President, and gained the Presidency in a way he never expected. Oh, and he launched the War on Poverty and the most transformative civil rights policies since emancipation.

Rare and Commonplace Flowers: The Story of Elizabeth Bishop and Lota de Macedo Soares by Carmen Oliveira

A strange hybrid of a book – part novel, part biography, part undigested chunks of research about the almost 20-year romantic partnership between a Pulitzer Prize winning American poet and the brilliant, intense Brazilian aristocrat. I knew nothing about either woman or their relationship before reading the book, and now feel well versed in their chaotic history.

*The Soil will Save Us by Kristin Ohlson

I come from generations of apartment dwellers, and I don’t care about the soil. (Although I do like to eat – and breathe). But Kristin Ohlson’s sparkling writing and clear, persuasive case compelled me to care – and made me understand both the promise and the stakes of what she called “our great green hope.” Full disclosure: Kristin is a friend of mine. But I read and loved her first book, Stalking the Divine, long before I met her.

Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal? By Jeanette Winterson

Winterson’s well-written, powerful memoir of growing up in a cruel, twisted family that loved Jesus but hated everything about Jeanette that was special.


 Any suggestions?

Any ideas for great books to read next year? Suggestions welcome!

TBR 7-14

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