It is still WAY too early for me to be posting my Top Ten reading list for 2014. There are 2 weeks of reading left, and you never know what might happen: I could finish 3 of my Top Ten books in the next 14 days. It’s unlikely, but I’m open to the possibility. Luckily, today’s Month of Favorites post doesn’t necessarily have to be a Top 10 of the year. In fact, only two books on the list I’ve put together today may make my 2014 Top Ten list. Instead, I’m taking “blew my mind” to heart here and highlighting 10 books that defied expectations for me. These are books that kept me thinking long after I closed the cover, books that made me question what I think I know about myself as a reader, and/or books that changed dramatically for me after I discussed them with other readers.
I don’t know anybody who writes or thinks like Aimee Bender, and that’s probably a good thing. It’s hard to know how to categorize the stories in Willful Creatures. They’re surreal and bizarre and lots of very uncomfortable and weird and sometimes icky things happen. The sentence-level writing is often banal. And yet. I read this book in January and I’m still thinking of some of the images in December. Stories about potato children and families of pumpkin heads probably shouldn’t resonate emotionally, but somehow they do. Even as we were alternately baffled, repulsed, and mesmerized by it, this book was universally beloved in my Contemporary Literature class last spring. Everyone wanted to read more Aimee Bender.
I hate books with talking animals, twangy Southern accents (one of the talking animals is named J’miah. Just stop right now.), and intrusive narrators who constantly interrupt the story to buddy-buddy up to the reader. Get on with the story already! And stop your drawling! (A note to my gentle readers: no need to defend the South. I am Southern and even use the word y’all later in this post.) So I should have loathed everything about Kathi Appelt’s True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp. But I didn’t. I loved this book so much. Appelt has crammed everything but the kitchen sink into this novel: there’s a swamp man creature and a mystical dead grandpa and an alligator wrestler and lots of pie and marauding feral hogs. Yes, you read that right: marauding feral hogs. Oh, just go read it.
The premise of Beauty Queens deeply demoralized me: Survivor + Lord of the Flies + beauty pageant contestants? No thank you. I’ve also started and abandoned Bray’s Printz winner, Going Bovine, at least a dozen times, so I didn’t know if I’d be able to stick with this novel. But I have to say, it’s absolutely brilliant–a laugh-out-loud satire of everything that is stupid and wrong about the world we live in. Deeply feminist and deeply awesome. Bray herself narrates the audiobook version, which I highly recommend.
What a weird and wonderful picture book Sam & Dave Dig a Hole is! What happens at the end? Who knows? Who cares? My favorite spread is definitely the one where the dog looks directly into the reader’s eyes and we’re both left marveling over the inept digging skills of Sam and Dave.
Before I read Jinx, I thought I didn’t like fantasy and magic stories. I made one exception to that general rule: Megan Whalen Turner’s wonderful series that begins with The Thief. Those books I reread just about annually. But it never occurred to me that my love for those books might translate into loving OTHER books with magic and adventure. And then came Jinx. I read it in a day and a half, and when I finished it, I seriously thought about turning back to page one and starting all over again. And now I can freely admit that middle-grade fantasy is one of my favorite genres. (And I loved the sequel, Jinx’s Magic, even more!)
I designed my spring Contemporary Literature course around the short story largely because I wanted to make other people read Junot Diaz’s This Is How You Lose Her, one of my favorite reads of 2013. But I had no idea what we were going to talk about during our discussion. When I really really love a book, I struggle to put my thoughts into any kind of coherent form. Mostly I want to wave the book around in the air and grunt and clutch my heart and hope that other readers are feeling it as much as I am. As I was rereading it, I worried that maybe I’d miscalculated in assigning it. What if it’s a book that just isn’t very teachable? But our discussion turned into one of those talks where we need a classroom lined with white boards to capture all of our thinking because this book is about everything that matters in life and in literature, and even if I couldn’t articulate any of it, my students certainly could.
Roz Chast’s graphic novel memoir of caring for her aging parents, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, is one of the funniest and one of the bleakest books I’ve ever read. I laughed, I cried, I recoiled, and I wanted to curl up in a fetal position and moan for awhile when I finished it.
John Corey Whaley’s Noggin has a hell of a premise: terminal cancer patient decides to donate his head to science, gets cryogenically frozen, and wakes up five years after he died, attached to a new body, thanks to some pretty miraculous medical advances. To Travis, it feels like he’s barely been gone, but for his friends and parents, five long years have passed. This book is actually a surprisingly moving and meaningful exploration of what it means to grow up and figure out who we are. I’m not sure if I would have realized just how deep it is if the other members of my YA Book Club hadn’t had such thoughtful responses to it. This is definitely a book that changed dramatically for me after I listened to other readers’ responses.
Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle is the craziest book I read this year. What a ride! I think I will let the cat meme that shows up (as one of the first images!) when you do a Google search for the book title express my feelings for me:
OMG, y’all. Have you read Millions of Cats lately? I remember LOVING this book when I was a child. Did I just black out the scene when ALL THE CATS DIED? I seriously had absolutely no memory of the scene of carnage and bloodbath where all the cats fight TO THE DEATH to prove who’s the prettiest cat of all. Millions of cat, yes, but also millions of cat SLAUGHTERED. All aglow with happy childhood memories of a favorite book, I picked this up to read aloud to my son. He is now traumatized for life. As am I. Thanks, Wanda Gag!