My favorite books of 2014



I’ve always been kind of a homebody. But I have never wanted less to leave the house (and the couch) less  than when I was (still am……) pregnant.  In addition to buying tons of books, I also started commuting by car, which meant more time for audiobooks.

Because I was reading so much, I decided to make it my first year to do the Goodreads Challenge. Since I also luckily had a couple days off at the end of December, I was able to wrap up 52 books, a year’s worth of reading a week.  Here are my favorites of 2014 (not necessarily published this year,) in no particular order.



Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I listened to this as an audiobook when I started commuting to my new job in June, and the narrator’s voice really helped transport me to Nigeria. I was lucky enough to see Chimamanda live a couple years ago in DC, and she seemed just as gracious and interesting in person as she does in the book through her narrator, Ifemelu, who leaves behind Nigeria, and her first love, Obinze for the United States.

This book is more about what it’s like to be African (not African-American) in America and London than it is about either of the characters, I think. It’s a perspective I as a European white person could never have, so I was really interested in a lot of the observations she made, especially about African women’s hair, American academia, and politics. The other interesting part to me was the history of Nigeria, woven throughout the story.

Although, what was surprising to me was, that no matter how different of a background the author and I have had, we share a lot of the same outside views of America and Americans, leading me to believe that all immigrants to America are basically the same.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t identify at all with Ifemelu, the main character who decides to go to America after endless university strikes in Nigeria, leaving behind her one true love, Obinze She seemed cold to me at times and the life choices she made not predicated on anything but whims. But,  Chimamanda’s warm, playful voice flowed throughout, and Obinze was so real – he reminded me in a lot of ways of men I know in my own life.  A definite must-read if you’re looking to get a different perspective on America or start learning about Africa from what is, essentially, a series of blog posts.


Gulp by Mary Roach

I don’t read a lot of nonfiction because I find it tends to be dry, but this book is most definitely not.  I’d heard about how lively of a writer Mary Roach is before, and this proved to be true. I had no idea what an alimentary canal even was before I started, but Gulp really goes in depth into what happens when you chew, in a way that’s not disgusting at all. I love all the research she did, but mostly the way she packaged it as entertaining and engaging. A true nerd’s book, probably best not to be read before your doctor’s appointments.



The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman

If you have not already read The Magicians and The Magician King, this book will not make any sense.  Also, why have you not read these books yet? They are the greatest new fantasy books to come out since The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman. I feel very strongly about this.  If you have read them, it will be like returning to an old friend. Grossman has this way of writing certain passages that will imprint them in your memory. I’m still thinking about Mayakovsky and the whales.  By the way, you don’t need to love fantasy to love these books-just be interested in real, flawed people making choices.



Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

I used to have an economics professor from Singapore who was one of the hardest professors I’ve ever had, also one of the cheekiest and most fun. Aside from what she told us about the canings, I knew almost next to nothing about Singapore, or the rich people of Singapore, before I read this book. Don’t let the chick lit-y book cover fool you.  There is A LOT to learn within.

The plot involves a rich Singaporean dude who hides how rich he is, lives modestly in New York, and has to go back to his insanely rich, spoiled family for a wedding with his girlfriend, who is Asian-American, and knows nothing about his background or culture. It’s a really fun plot, and a really fun read. I hesitate to call it chick lit because it’s definitely not and delves into some serious issues about wealth, fitting into families, eccentricies and secrets, etc, but it’s that kind of flavor-light, gossipy, fluffy, with lots of brands bandied about, and a huge sense of humor. This one went very quickly.


The Orenda by Joseph Boyden

I bought this book in the Montreal airport coming back from a conference, because I’d heard that it was a huge deal in Canada and it was plastered over every book stall. It is an Enormous book, not in the page-count sense of the word, but what’s within, and it’s written by someone with enormous talent.  Written from the perspective of a Huron warrior, an Iroquois girl, and a French Jesuit priest kidnapped by the Huron tribe, it delves into both personal and enormous national history in the 1700s in Canada. The chapters give no indication of who is narrating at any given time, but that’s the book’s biggest skill – the writer is so good, you can tell who’s speaking within a matter of sentences.

I was hugely drawn into the world of Huron culture – the research done was meticulous. The most amazing part was that I came away with the book not being able to hate either side, in spite of the atrocities done to each other.


The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

I resisted this book just because it’s been hyped so much in the press, and I’ve already been let down by The Goldfinch and a couple of other blockbusters, but Lahiri delivers. It is so powerful. I wanted to cry in several places. She knows exactly how to write to elicit responses from the reader that make you think, “This is how I feel about my family, too,” especially if you’re an immigrant.

The first half of the book, about the Naxalite movement, which I didn’t even know existed until I read Lowland, was riveting. The second half, about living in America in the aftermath of decisions made decades ago, was a bit more static and seemed to lose steam at the end, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pick it up. There is a lot in here to take away, about how we make life choices and compromises, about what’s important to us, about what family means, and about death. All the makings of a Lifetime special, if Lifetime weren’t stupid.



Swamplandia by Karen Russell

I loved Russell’s short story collection, and I loved this book too. It is just so weird and creepy and quirky and shining, like a small jewel. Russell’s word choice is nothing short of amazing, and the way she manages to make the swamps of southern Florida a magical place where reality blends with otherwordly elements is to be savored. The characters are sympathetic and it’s easy to identify with them. It’s not quite magical realism, and it’s not quite not.



The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg

Another book I held off on because it’s just gotten too much praise. I need to stop doing that. It was good. It’s about a Jewish woman, Edie, who is nearing 60 and just can’t stop eating to save her life. Everyone calls this a Jewish book but I really think it’s more about American suburbia, how it impacts people, and families in general, how they react to certain things, how different family members view disturbances in the family and deal with them. It’s not quite funny in the way reviews say it is, but it is very heartfelt.


The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris

This is definitely a Jewish Book. Written about the Hassidic/Orthodox community in London, it takes the reader inside a world they would otherwise not be allowed to enter. I’ve been to this world in other books, such as Shalom Auslander’s, but the author here is not cruel or gawping, just kind and introspective. It’s written from several perspectives -that of a new bride about to get married, the groom, the rabbi’s wife, the rabbi’s son, and others knitting their way in and out. The characters make you feel sorry for them and frustrated with their life choices, but at the same time, you are rooting for all of them to come out ok.


What It is Like to Go To War by Karl Marlantes

A must-read for getting behind the headlines of Afghanistan and Iraq, to the individual psychology of the soldier. Marlantes, who served in Vietnam, is not saying every soldier feels this way, but that the system is designed to make most soldiers act a certain way. He also goes into great detail why we need to take better care of our soldiers once they come home. Reads almost like fiction, but, unfortunately, is the truth.

Previous years: 


If you love books, leave Amazon alone


I grew up in a small town in the middle of nowhere, near a small library that always smelled of old book pages and cookies. The main entertainment in the town was going to the mall on Friday night to gawk at other people going to the mall on Friday night, and the main reading demographic was people who liked butter sculptures and Quaker Steak and Lube.

I liked being melodramatic and learning Italian.  My weird didn’t mesh with the normal for my area.

As a result, I spent hours in that library, both as a reader, and later as a volunteer shelver,  and it is responsible for introducing me to the series of books that has remained in the top five books I have read in my lifetime: His Dark Materials, as well as hundreds of other books that I can’t remember.

When I started trasitioning from the children’s to the adult section, though, I realized I was starting to come up on the limits of my little backwater-town library.  The adult section had hundreds of copies of Danielle Steele, Jan Karon, and anyone else who had either flowers or women’s half-obscured faces on the cover, catering to the audience who wanted most of the books.

But, there were zero copies of books I really wanted, books I had heard about somewhere and wanted to see for myself. I saw T.H. White’s The Once and Future King on a suggested reading list and wanted to check it out, but the only copy was always either lost or on reserve. It was impossible to get the latest Isabelle Allende, and you could definitely get whatever was on the NY Times Bestseller list, as long as you were willing to wait at least eight weeks. Eight weeks for a book. Agony!

Some books, I was able to buy at the new Barnes and Noble  that opened at the mall when I was in high school with allowance or birthday money. Some books, I found by accident at the wonderful used bookstore near my house that has since long shuttered.  But I couldn’t buy all the books, and I couldn’t find all the books when I wanted them, and by the time I did find them, I’d forgotten about them.

By the time I started my professional life and started reading seriously about books and literature on the internet at places like The Paris Review, The Morning News, The Millions, The New York Book Review, HTMLGiant, I felt  I was missing a huge part of my Western literary education.

Part of this is because all of these websites are snobs.

But part of it is because, if you live in the outer ring of popular culture in the United States, you are just not going to have access to the same kinds of books and knowledge about books that people in huge cities do.

Clay Shirky writes about this in a great essay:

After devoting half a paragraph to the central fact of Amazon’s history — they are better at making books available to readers than anyone else in the world — Packer drops that line of thought. If more people having access to more books is a good idea, it becomes harder to argue on behalf of Little, Brown. The readers in Podunk towns get a cameo and are then banished from the conversation. (As usual.)

Access to books was poor for anyone who lived in Podunk, because in the twentieth century (and the sixteenth, for that matter), keeping books in stock presented the same problem as keeping shoes or pots in stock. They had to be created in advance of demand and delivered someplace for sale. The limitations imposed by physicality and geography are so normal that people rarely mention them, but they create persistent barriers to access for anyone other than well-off urbanites.

This is not entirely the fault of my tiny town library, which provided a lot for the budget it was given to work with, I’m sure. It is the fault of my local Barnes and Noble, which stocks much the same things that my library does: whatever appeals to the middle majority in the suburbs of Philadelphia (lots of books with cursive titles and blurry pictures of women in bikinis on the cover.) That’s what sells.

It is also the fault of people who are trying to sway public opinion by  saying, and have been saying loudly for the past couple years, that Amazon is killing the book, and against people who say Amazon is unfair to readers.  All of these people live in big cities, where it is impossible not to find good books. I am always amazed when I go to The Strand, or Kinokuniya or Powell’s,  just how much literature and news about literature is available to people in huge cities. In Philly, we have the Joseph Fox bookshop, which is good, but tiny-tiny, and I’m always half-afraid it will close.

If you want access to good books, it used to be that you had to hear about them from some list and wait for them to come to your library or backorder to your store. Now, all you have to do is be able to find it on Amazon. I have never had as much access to literature, for as low of a price,  as I have with Amazon, and I am in love with this experience, and these people are trying to diminish that for me.

I’ve been able to buy a used, obscure copy of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon for $4 from someone who was clearly done with it for years. Instead of waiting for months while The Magician’s Land bestseller circulated through my local library, I had it on pre-order. It came on my birthday. I read it that day, and Mr. B picked it up two days later.

Being connected to literature, to physical books, and to people who talk about books is one of the greatest joys in my life, and Amazon has given it to me. I am happily (Mr. B, less so) drowning in books at my house right now.

If you love books, publishers are not your friend. They are gatekeepers, and they make money by being so.  Amazon is no angel. It also makes money from squeezing the hell out of economies of scale, low distribution costs, and all that stuff they teach you in MBA classes.


But.  Just as books serve as a portal to a different world, Amazon currently serves as a portal to books. Publishers and bookstores can afford to cull the books they offer, thereby limiting what’s available to the public. Amazon can’t, because its whole business model is that it’s everything to everyone.

As a result, Amazon has created a broader, richer experience for readers who live outside of New York City, this one included.


Interview with the only person on the planet who hated The Goldfinch


Interviewer:So. Vicki. You hated The Goldfinch.
Vicki: That’s correct.
Interviewer: Do you also murder small household pets?
Vicki: What?
Interviewer: You must hate humanity.
Vicki: No, I just…did not like this book at all.
Interviewer: Are you a secret Nazi?
Vicki: What? No! This interview became inflammatory very quickly.
Interviewer: I just find it hard to believe that someone doesn’t like one of the most-well-regarded books of 2014 so far. Donna Tartt took ten years to write this thing (probably wearing pantsuits the whole time), she sweated, she labored over Theo, just so you could have this thing to read. Do you have a soul?
Vicki: I gave it a real try, honest. I read over 600 of the 700+ pages!
Interviewer: You didn’t try hard enough. Donna Tartt died so you could have this book.
Vicki: I’m pretty sure she’s still alive and doing VERY well off her book sales.
Interviewer: The book is on Amazon’s bestseller list. It was hailed as a “The Goldfinch is a rarity that comes along perhaps half a dozen times per decade” by Stephen King. “With a Dutch master’s attention to detail” by the Washington Post.  And a “stunning success, one of the most striking novels I’ve read in years” by some dude on Amazon.
Vicki: I know, I know, I know. I tried to get into it! I liked some of the characters! I liked Boris, the creepy Eastern European dude, and Popper, the dog. But I had to slog through every single page. But there is no feeling, nothing interesting, in ANY of the characters. I didn’t care that Theo’s mother died or that he was trying to get back to the East Coast, or about that stupid Goldfinch painting. I was just BORED. I was waiting for someone to die in a horrible fiery death again. Only if I didn’t have to read about Kitsey. KITSEY. STOP TALKING. SHUT UP KITSEY. I HATE YOU. I ALSO HATE EVERYTHING ABOUT FURNITURE, I DON’T CARE ABOUT FURNITURE AND I DON’T CARE ABOUT HOW DRUNK THEO GETS EVERY FIVE MINUTES.
Interviewer: You have no taste and you’re never allowed to blog again.
Vicki: But I LOVED her Secret History! I stayed up late at night reading it! I had high hopes!
Interviewer: You don’t know how to read English.
Vicki:  I’m not alone! I can’t be! PLEASE SOMEONE OUT THERE WHO HATED THIS BOOK.
Interviewer: The English-speaking Society for Classy Guys and Gals Who Read Pretentious Books on the Train hereby outsts you. Hand in your badge and your condescending smirk.
Vicki: I love that smirk. It’s how I know I’m better than  Danielle Steele.
Interviewer: You’re done.
Vicki: Am I allowed to read The Luminaries? Or my Yiddish book?
Interviewer: You can’t handle allegories, allusions, or explanations of art and society. You can’t empathize with characters, and you don’t understand the pains of real Authors. I hereby only allow you to read Dan Brown from now on.
Vicki: *quietly sobs in the corner*


Russian Jewish Romance


My internet friend Alina (and frequent commenter here) wrote a short story for a romance anthology (which you can buy now, here).  (Disclaimer: I got a copy to read for free). Here’s the press release:

They say “write what you know.”  And that’s just what author Alina Adams (born Alina Sivorinovsky in Odessa, USSR) did when asked to contribute a short story for the anthology “The Mammoth Book of ER Romance” (Running Press September 2013).

Instead of sticking to traditional, all-American characters like she had for her previous “New York Times” best-selling books, including “Oakdale Confidential” and “Jonathan’s Story,” Adams created possibly the first-ever romance featuring a Russian Jewish heroine, whose decisions – in life and in love – stem directly from her non-traditional background and upbringing.

Adams explains, “I wanted to do something different with my story, “To Look For You,” and feature a character unique to romantic fiction.  Like me, Alyssa Gordon was born in the USSR, grew up in America, and never felt like she belonged completely to either place.  Throw in being Jewish on top of that, and I’d never encountered a similar type of character while reading romance.  I figured I might as well be the first to create one and explore how being a Russian Jew in the States affects who you fall in love with.”

I personally will never admit that I read romance novels, but this story is at the intersection of Russian Jews, hypochondria, perfectionism, war, and men who are really, really clean, which is probably why Alina thought of me.  There were a couple of things I was always really curious about with regards to romance writing, so I asked her:



What I’ve been reading lately

Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell

I’ve heard a lot about Vowell and listened to an interview with her on this really great podcast a couple weeks ago, and decided to pick up Unfamiliar Fishes as a result. It’s basically the history book I would write if I had more time to research. She is witty (sometimes too witty) and nerdy about history. This one is about the annexation of Hawaii, which is a great book to read in the summer. I’m not done with it yet, but loving it a lot.