Our Year in Books: Mary-Catherine

Article by marycatherine

As I looked back at another year of reading, I was struck by how many of my favorite books were characterized by endings. Not subtle endings, like breakups, finished projects, or heartfelt goodbyes. No, we’re talking about the end of everything we know. My favorite books this year stood on a precipice between old worlds and new ones and asked: What comes next? What do we do with this new world where nothing is like it was, and I’m not who I was, and the things that held us up and together have fallen away? Who do I get to become now that I don’t have to be myself anymore--now that nobody even knows who I was?

Station Eleven Cover Image
ISBN: 9780385353304
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Knopf Publishing Group - September 9th, 2014

Let’s just start with a bang and talk about Emily St. John Mandel’s STATION ELEVEN. My full, day-after-I-finished-haze of a review is here, and keep in mind that I originally intended it to be one paragraph and just couldn’t. stop. gushing. This is one of the most obvious additions to the list, as it’s literally about the end of everything: electricity, the Internet, chocolate chip cookies, society as we know it. Perhaps the most special part of this book is how it celebrates today and the marvels of a world with refrigerators and global communication in the palm of our hand. It’s macro and micro and quite perfect. There’s something in it for everyone, so fair warning: I’ll probably try to make you read it. 

Glory O'Brien's History of the Future Cover Image
ISBN: 9780316222723
Availability: Hard to Find
Published: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers - October 14th, 2014

An entirely different take on an altered future comes in young adult legend A.S. King’s newest novel. In GLORY O’BRIEN’S HISTORY OF THE FUTURE, eighteen-year-old Glory graduates from high school with no friends--except for her next door neighbor/lifelong forced friend--and her homebound dad. Her mom, an accomplished photographer, committed suicide when Glory was four, and her relationship to that death--and the mental illness that led to it--defines her relationships to others and herself. When a weird--and weirdly plausible--night of drinking imbues her with the ability to see people’s pasts and futures, she discovers a purpose for not just her art, but her sheer existence. King beautifully weaves snippets of a future civil war defined by widespread oppression of women, with Glory’s struggle to understand why some friendships last, her mother’s legacy, and how to move forward. The latter is particularly poignant, as Glory seems to know exactly what she’s moving toward. 

The Book of Strange New Things Cover Image
ISBN: 9780553418842
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: Hogarth - October 28th, 2014

I didn’t expect to put THE BOOK OF STRANGE NEW THINGS on my list of favorites for the year, but oh man, I adored it. I took it on vacation and read all 500 pages in a matter of days. In this book, Peter is chosen as a Christian missionary to the distant planet Oasis, but must leave behind his wife, Bea. As he gets to know the alien community on Oasis, his limited communication with Bea reflects his increasing distance from the world he left. In turn, she is his--and our--only link to what’s happening on Earth. Faber crafts the text to expertly convey Peter’s alienation (pun intended) from Bea, his fellow settlers on Oasis, and humanity itself. I read this book and went on the journey with him. This book might have had the most raw and emotional writing I encountered this year. 

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Dear Committee Members Cover Image
ISBN: 9780385538138
Availability: Hard to Find
Published: Doubleday Books - August 19th, 2014

Julie Schumacher’s DEAR COMMITTEE MEMBERS was quite possibly my favorite book of the year. You may be thinking, “How does this fit with a list of books about the end of the world?” The short answer is, it does not. The longer answer is that it’s an even worse scenario: the end of academia and humanities education as we know it!!...at least, it is if you ask Dr. Jay Fitger, creative writing professor and the protagonist of our tale. Though it’s told entirely in letters of recommendation, the novel is not a slave to that form. In fact, I can’t imagine it written any other way! This hilarious critique of American academia is satisfying, insightful, and so so fun. My full review is here

Grasshopper Jungle Cover Image
ISBN: 9780525426035
Availability: Hard to Find
Published: Dutton Books - February 11th, 2014

Andrew Smith is one of the most exciting writers out there right now, because he’s not afraid to be bold. GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE tells the story of Austin Szerba, who is in love with his girlfriend and his best friend. While he figures out his feelings, a herd of radioactive, human-sized praying mantises are taking over his small Iowa town and, you know, the globe. The end of the human age juxtaposed with sexual confusion and a healthy dose of profanity: how could this not be great? Utterly original and unafraid, GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE will entertain and challenge you. And if you’re in a gift-giving frame of mind, you can cement your spot as the cool aunt and buy this for every seventeen-year-old boy you know. 

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The Crane Wife Cover Image
ISBN: 9781594205477
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: Penguin Press - January 23rd, 2014

There’s a good chance I’ve sold you a copy of THE CRANE WIFE at some point since it came out this spring. Patrick Ness is a favorite of mine, and this book has everything I’ve come to expect from him: whimsy, but anchored by deep longing and emotional resonance. Part fable, part midlife crisis story, this book is about the end of George’s boring, mediocre existence running a London copy shop. When he meets Kumiko, a mysterious artist, they become muses for each other and discover new depths to their creativity. I closed this book and wanted to make art! I felt inspired from some deep, mythological place within to create things, and consequently, I started writing phrases like “deep, mythological place within.” 

The Last Days of California Cover Image
ISBN: 9780871405883
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Liveright Publishing Corporation - January 20th, 2014

Mary Miller’s debut, THE LAST DAYS OF CALIFORNIA, was so damn good. Just thinking about it now, I’m all wrapped up in it again and can’t seem to use my words. The story takes place over a four-day road trip that takes fifteen-year-old Jess and her family across the country just ahead of the rapture that her father believes is right around the corner. The rest of the family exists in various stages of doubt, which Miller treats with elegant, moving attention. I loved the closeness of the writing; you feel the claustrophobia of the road trip, the sterility of hotel bathrooms, the fragile family tension. Like THE BOOK OF STRANGE NEWS THINGS, this novel isn’t afraid to grapple with faith on a day-to-day, ups-and-downs, personal level. It doesn’t give you answers, but you feel like it will be there for you while you search for them yourself. 

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On Such a Full Sea Cover Image
ISBN: 9781594486104
Availability: Special Order - Subject to Availability
Published: Riverhead Books - January 7th, 2014

We read ON SUCH A FULL SEA by Chang-Rae Lee as part of an impromptu book club among the booksellers in the store--and we all loved it! It’s a weird, whimsical, and very literary take on a dystopian novel, a combination that’s so refreshing in this mega-popular genre. Lee frames the story of Fan, a young runaway from the B-Mor settlement, with the legends of her escape and what’s remembered in the town’s whispers as a heroic journey. This device subtly suggests that the young girl’s exodus was the end of blind obedience in the strict, regulated colony and sparked a revolution in the minds of her neighbors and friends. Subtlety is the showpiece here and sets this work apart. Lee’s writing is like a watercolor painting; the world building is infused with geopolitical and multicultural streams that bring unexpected richness and depth to the story. I’m so excited for Chang-Rae Lee’s Brazos visit on January 14th and hope to see you there! 

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender Cover Image
ISBN: 9780763665661
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Candlewick Press (MA) - March 25th, 2014

THE STRANGE AND BEAUTIFUL SORROWS OF AVA LAVENDER is on this list because it marks the end of your excuses not to read young adult fiction. This book has beautifully restrained magical realism, a multi-generational family saga, very real stakes, and a great cover. The emotional heft of this book is not watered down or sanitized for teenage consumption: it’s raw and beautiful and not always easy to read. 

We Were Liars Cover Image
ISBN: 9780385741262
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Delacorte Press - May 13th, 2014

What better way to close out my recap than with the first book I read this year: WE WERE LIARS, by E. Lockhart. There are a lot of ends in this book. I won’t tell you about them, though--you have to read it for yourself. After that, you’ll need a friend to talk about it with, and I’ll be here. Waiting. Waiting for that moment when you burst through the Brazos door, exclaiming “How? What? I didn’t--! She didn’t--! How could--? I...we...they...agh this book!” Then I’ll pat you on the shoulder and make you a cup of hot cocoa and we’ll work our way through this emotional journey together. For plot hints, check out my review here.

It’s been a great year! I can’t wait to see what new beginnings 2015 holds.

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