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Our favorite books of 2014

Last week, fellow reporter Matt Mencarini and I were talking about books. The conversation stemmed from a guilty pang I felt when I realized the number of books I’d actually read this year, start-to-finish, fell well below the number of months in a year.

That guilt subsided a bit when he admitted the same. The conversation went on from there, and the next thing I knew I was mass-emailing the newsroom to ask everyone for a mini-review of their favorite book of the year. Old book, new book, red book, blue book – didn’t matter; I just wanted to know.

Two work days, a smattering of responses, and a weekend later, the latest edition of SVM’s The List blog was born.

I’ll lead us off:

“Provence 1970,” Luke Barr (2013)

I like words and food, and this is a really long list of words about food. I’m also pretty into history, which makes this nonfiction work by Luke Barr, the former features editor of Travel + Leisure, pretty fitting. It’s an easy-to-digest book about the intersection of a group of famous foodies (the author’s great-aunt M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, Richard Olney, and more) and their relationship during the winter of 1970, when they all happened to be in Provence at the same time. It’s a telling of what they cooked, where they stayed, characters they met, and how they lived when American cuisine was just starting to really come into its own. I always say the best non-fiction reads like fiction, and this does just that.

“Unbroken,” Laura Hillenbrand (2010)

I read Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling biography of Louis Zamperini (1917-2014) earlier this year. It’s the most inspirational book I’ve read in years. I had not heard of Zamperini, even though he was a U.S. Olympic miler at the 1936 Berlin Games, a heroic bombardier during World War II, and an inspirational public speaker. What Zamperini endured as the survivor of a plane crash in the Pacific and, later, as a prisoner in Japanese POW camps would have broken many others. But he remained “Unbroken,” which is also the title of an upcoming movie, directed by Angelina Jolie, scheduled for release on Dec. 25. I look forward to it.

– Jim Dunn,
Opinion page editor

“The Bully Pulpit: Theodore

Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism,” Doris Kearns Goodwin (2013)

Historical non-fiction is my favorite leisure read. And how could a newspaper editor resist a combination of journalism and U.S. history, especially if those were the editor’s two concentrations of study in college? This 750-page (plus footnotes and photos) book by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin looks at the progressive era of the late 19th, early 20th century through the prism of the presidency and the press. Meticulous research provides a detail-rich telling of the relationship of Roosevelt and Taft, their significant achievements in social and political reform, and the role of the era’s “muckraking” press in encouraging an agenda of change. Although this is history, the elements of good fiction writing (plot, character development, conflict, etc.) make this an especially interesting read.

– Larry Lough,
executive editor

“The Martian,” Andy Weir (2013)

What would you do if you were an astronaut stranded on Mars, and didn’t know when, or if, NASA was sending someone to rescue you? Apparently, you would need a vast knowledge of engineering, chemistry, and botany. You also would need crazy survival instincts. Mark Watney has those skills and more, and I can’t think of a character in any other book I read this year that stuck with me the way he did. The book’s premise might suggest action and adventure. (Dust storm causes NASA crew to evacuate the Red Planet, leaving behind one of their crew they assume is dead, only to discover he is not. NASA, the U.S. government, and even the Chinese get involved in trying to rescue said astronaut.) But the book’s pace is slow, because, let’s face it, there’s not a lot to do on Mars. As the days, and pages, pass, you become so invested in Mark Watney’s survival that by the time the rescue is attempted, you feel like it is you who is stranded on Mars and waiting to be saved.

– Jeff Rogers,
managing editor

“All the King’s Men,” Robert Penn Warren (1946)

Fair warning, this is a long read, about 600 pages. But Warren drops you into the political world of Louisiana in the 1930s and all of its corrupt politicians and judges. Through the eyes of Jack Burden, a former reporter turned political operative, you see the rise (and fall?) of Willie Stark from local politician to governor. In the process, Stark goes from white knight to corrupt politician. The book is about actions and consequences. 

– Matt Mencarini, reporter

“Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success,” Phil Jackson (2013)

This is the story about Phil Jackson, aka the Zen Master. He is the most successful coach in NBA history. He guided the Chicago Bulls to six championships and the Los Angeles Lakers to another five rings. In the book, he talks about how he coached Michael Jordan, and he compared Jordan’s style of play to Kobe Bryant, who he coached with the Lakers. He also talks about working with Bryant as a young player and how he evolved into a championship-caliber player. He also gives us some insight into his playing days with the New York Knicks. The book is a little long – there are 11 championships to talk about – but it’s an easy read.

– Jermaine Pigee, reporter