Five best books read in 2014

Disclaimers: these are all fiction and only one was published in 2014.

Scenes from Village Life Scenes from Village Life, by Amos Oz

Published in 2011. Translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas De Lange

This is, no contest, the best book I read in 2014. It is a collection of linked short stores set in the fictional village of Tel Ilan, a short drive away from Tel Aviv. The stories are poignant, haunting and absorbing. They are translated seamlessly by Nicholas De Lange—you are never aware that you are reading a translation. Characters featured in one story appear in others, perhaps only very briefly, but helping to create a whole, nuanced world.

My favourite story was Digging. Pesach Kedem, an aged former member of Knesset, lives with his widowed daughter, Rachel, and their lodger, a young Arab student. Each in turn hears digging under their house in the middle of the night and consequently becomes obsessed and suspicious. There is no physical explanation for what they hear—the house is close to a cemetery, but surely they don’t dig at night?—so we are left with the sense that in a small Israeli village suspicion and the fear of the unknown pulse constantly just below the surface.

Tenth of DecemberTenth of December, by George Saunders

Published in 2013

These are short stories with a bite—a brilliant, disturbing collection. The dystopian world of Escape from Spiderhead was hard to read but impossible to look away from. Jeff is participating in some dubious behavioural experiments as a way of getting out of doing time in jail. Abnesti and Verlaine are conducting the experiments and are able to keep their emotions at arms’ length because they are just doing their jobs. It is clever and chilling.

In Puppy, Callie is trying to take care of her damaged son, Bo, placate husband Jimmy, and pass on an unwanted puppy to a nice family who will take care of him. But the nice family is horrified at Callie’s environment and the result of their visit will be disastrous for more than the puppy.

A Tale for the Time BeingA Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki

Published in 2013

This is a big book full of ideas: Buddhism, mysticism, philosophy, and aspects of Japanese culture both old and very current. The chapters alternate between a period in the life of Ruth and her husband Oliver on Cortes Island in the Pacific Northwest, narrated by Ruth, and the life of Nao and her family living in Japan, told through Nao’s diary entries. Ruth and Nao have a connection only partly explained by Ruth’s having acquired Nao’s diary. It’s a lavish, sprawling sort of book: as you get deeper into the story, Ozeki crams more and more interesting stuff into it and because I am a certain kind of reader I wanted it to be shorter, a little more contained and less self-indulgent. But there were a lot of threads to follow elsewhere (this book generated a lot of online searching and conversations with others) and the ending was neither left hanging nor wrapped up too neatly.

All my Puny SorrowsAll My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews

Published in 2014

It’s hard to imagine how a story about a suicidal sister could hold such a lot of humour, but Toews has the ability to combine comedy and tragedy in the way that we sometimes laugh at funerals—not keeping death at bay, exactly, but accepting that life and death are all mixed up together.

Yolanda (Yoli) and Elfrieda (Elf) are sisters whose early lives are dominated by the disapproving elders of their Mennonite community. Elf is a talented pianist but the elders are opposed to her having a piano.

Our little Mennonite town was against overt symbols of hope and individual signature pieces. Our church pastor once accused Elf of luxuriating in the afflictions of her own wanton emotions to which she responded, bowing low with an extravagant sweep of her arm, mea culpa, m’lord. Back then Elf was always starting campaigns. She conducted a door-to-door survey to see how many people in town would be interested in changing the name of it from East Village to Shangri-La and managed to get over a hundred signatures by telling people the name was from the Bible and meant a place of no pride.

As an adult, Yoli is trying to prevent Elf from killing herself while struggling with the paradox that loving Elf might mean the ultimate sacrifice of helping her to end the life that she finds intolerable. Although Yoli’s life as a single parent is chaotic, she has a strong core of character and determination. Elf is a much-in-demand concert pianist with a loving husband and what others might see as an enviable life but she doesn’t want to live.

There are other characters in this novel—their parents, Elf’s husband, her manager, hospital staff, Yoli’s children—but they recede into the background and the relationship between the two sisters is the main event.

In the WoodsIn the Woods by Tana French

Published in 2008

Irish author Tana French was a welcome discovery in 2014. She writes an unexpected kind of crime book: a police procedural that equally qualifies as literary fiction; crime fiction where you don’t necessarily get answers to questions; a story with more shadows than light, where you can’t trust anyone.

At the very beginning, Detective Rob Ryan tells us

What I warn you to remember is that I am a detective. Our relationship with truth is fundamental but cracked, refracting confusingly like fragmented glass … What I am telling you, before you begin my story, is this—two things: I crave truth. And I lie.

Ryan’s early childhood and his life as a detective merge when he is assigned with his partner Cassie Maddox to a crime whose location brings back unsettling childhood memories. Of course, he should find a way to excuse himself from the case—and of course, he doesn’t. But that is the last predictable moment in the story.