Books that opened me in 2014

These six novels opened my heart, soul,
mind, eyes, ears, and world.

This time a year ago, I vowed to open myself up to a wider range of contemporary fiction. It turns out that the best of the books actually opened me up. Here are the six books that most touched me during the year. Note that not all of them were published in 2014, but I read them in 2014:

William Kent Krueger’s “Ordinary Grace” opened my heart. Right from the get-go, the opening sentence makes it clear what you’re in for:

“All the dying that summer began with the death of a child.”

But all the dying is surrounded by what the title has already promised us: ordinary grace, in the many senses that ambiguous phrase can embody. Truth is, I’m kind of curmudgeon, but there must have been a half-dozen times each day that I was reading “Ordinary Grace” when I clutched the book to my chest and actually experienced ordinary grace.

“Gilead,” from Marilynne Robinson, opened my soul. Robinson’s “Lila,” is a current release on the bestseller charts, but it’s the third of her novels set in the fictional Iowa town of Gilead. I decided to start at the beginning, the story of three generations of prairie preachers from the Civil War to the mid-20th Century. It’s a slender book, but a slow read because you keep stumbling over passages that reveal more every time you re-read them. For example, here the scion of the three generations, a Civil War veteran, dares speak the truth at a Fourth of July ceremony years after the war:

“Your young men will have visions and your old men will dream dreams. And now all those young men are old men, if they’re alive at all, and their visions are no more than dreams, and the old days are forgotten. We fly forgotten as a dream, as it says in the old hymn, and our dreams are forgotten long before we are”

“The Signature of All Things,” by Elizabeth Gilbert, opened my mind. It’s one part historical novel, one part science novel and all about evolution as you’ve never understood it before. Fictional Alma Whittaker, botanist, is catching on to the notion of survival of the fittest at the same time as Darwin. But for Alma the discoveries lie in mystical experience as much as in empirical proof, for she is introduced to Jacob Boehme, 16th century mystic who had articulated the notion of a signature of all things:

… that God had hidden clues for humanity’s betterment inside the design of every flower, leaf, fruit, and tree on earth. All the natural world was a divine code.

Daniel Woodrell’s “The Death of Sweet Mister” opened my eyes. Shug, a boy all of 14, lives a drug-and-booze infested backwoods life, and though knowingly complicit in the tawdry goings on, he speaks in sweetly offbeat snapshots of his world. For instance:

His attitude stayed at simmer or scorch on all subjects that I know of.
Off yonder came a soft mumble of a creek dreaming a good one.

And my favorite:

This road had once been the main highway to somewhere and now was nothing much except the slow back way to still get there.

Richard Powers’ “Orfeo” opened my ears. “Orfeo” is a writer’s master class on so non-verbal a subject as listening to classical music written in the 20th and 21st centuries — all wrapped in a story of a retired music professor/bio-hacker sought be the authorities as a bio-terrorist for attempting to encode musical notation into a genome so that theme-and-variation could itself evolve through the biosphere. Got that? Now stitch through that Powers’ own interpretation of some landmark 20th Century works complete with a discography of those works at the back of the book. With the assistance of Spotify, you can listen along while you read Powers’ virtuoso analysis.

In “The Goldfinch,” Donna Tartt opened my world. Tartt took me beyond Disney princess, follow-your-heart clichés and painted a penetratingly contemporary portrait of high and low, rich and poor, virtue and larceny, and even fiction and nonfiction: The plot centers on the theft of a real painting from a fictional art show at a real museum during a fictional terrorist attack. At the end of the book, I found an oath I readily swore, though I hadn’t quite articulated it previously:

I add my own love to the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them, and pulled them from the fire, and sought them when they were lost, and tried to preserve them and save them while passing them along literally from hand to hand, singing out brilliantly from the wreck of time to the next generation of lovers, and the next.