Karen Abbott, author of “Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy” (Harper)
“Euphoria,” by Lily King (Atlantic Monthly Press)
I was wholly captivated by Lily King’s “Euphoria,” drawn from the life of Margaret Mead, specifically a few fraught months in 1933 when she worked with indigenous tribes in the jungles of New Guinea. King evocatively reimagines a love triangle between Mead and two colleagues (one her current, second husband and the other her eventual third) as they grapple with jealousy, greed, loneliness, fame, resentment, sexual tension, and an increasing sense of foreboding. It’s a vivid gem of a book, with a devastating denouement that haunted me long after I turned the final page.
Rabih Alameddine, author of “An Unnecessary Woman” (Grove Press)
“Citizen,” by Claudia Rankine (Graywolf Press)
Had you asked me before November, I would have said my favorite book was “Fourth of July Creek” by Smith Henderson. But then I read Claudia Rankine's “Citizen,” which I found to be moving, stunning, and formally innovative--in short, a masterwork.
Jeffery Renard Allen, author of “Song of the Shank” (Graywolf Press)
“Mount Terminus,” by David Grand (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
I am all the better for having read David Grand’s masterful novel “Mount Terminus,” which is a reimagining of the origins of Hollywood. The novel is the literary equivalent of “Citizen Kane” in the way that it evokes a time and place that is both real and imagined, familiar and strange, every day yet magical. And the book manages to achieve all that it does by putting the hardcore issues of felt life at its narrative center—namely, the universal longing for love, our desire to be, our need to belong.
Molly Antopol, author of “The UnAmericans” (W.W. Norton & Company)
“Faithful and Virtuous Night,” by Louise Glück (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
I always love Louise Glück’s poems, and her compassionate and heartbreaking new collection, “Faithful and Virtuous Night,” has stayed with me every day since I read it. Never in my life have I read such complex meditations on loss, love and mortality. Somehow, even the darkest poems in this collection left me feeling hopeful and less alone. A deeply beautiful book.
Chris Bohjalian, author of “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands” (Doubleday)
“The Zone of Interest,” by Martin Amis (Knopf)
I’m a big fan of Amis, especially such masterpieces as “Time’s Arrow” and “The Information,” and I found this one jaw-droppingly good — even by the very high bar I set for Amis. His return to Auschwitz is wrenching, a portrayal of hell that is haunting and human and, yes, absurd. It’s a devastating glimpse into vapidity and evil – and one very randy Nazi’s attempts to seduce the commandant’s wife.
Malcolm Brooks, author of “Painted Horses” (Grove Press)
“Of Sea and Cloud,” by Jon Keller (Tyrus Books)
“Of Sea and Cloud,” by Jon Keller. Hands down. Set on the frigid, rock studded lobster coast of northern Maine, Keller’s depiction of a three-way surf-and-turf war between stressed out, economically cornered independent fishermen and transnational seafood purveyors reads like one-part redneck soap opera, one-part literary murder mystery. Expertly balancing diesel-burnt dialogue with lyrical descriptions of an untamable seascape, Keller rips the carapace away from one of the great ironies of our time: the pure testosterone necessary to the dirty work of modern life is best kept in its own Mariana Trench, out of sight, out of mind, and half-drowned in debt.
Jessie Burton, author of “The Miniaturist” (Ecco)
“Life Drawing,” by Robin Black (Random House)
One of my favorite novels of this year was “Life Drawing” by Robin Black. Using scalpel precision to pare back the painful beauty of a long marriage, Black’s prose is frequently breathtaking. What comes next after infidelity? Youth and aging, responsibility and betrayal, tenderness, creativity and the unavoidable fact that we never stop changing, make this a compulsive, revelatory read. Black has a skill few possess, and I look forward to what she writes next.
Scott Cheshire, author of “High as the Horses’ Bridles” (Henry Holt & Co.)
“Dept. of Speculation” by Jenny Offill (Vintage Contemporaries)
Very early in 2014 a friend pressed Jenny Offill's “Dept. of Speculation” into my hand. She said you need to read this. She was right. The novel has everything I want a novel to have--an undeniably singular voice, an unabashed search for meaning amidst the detritus of daily life, and a paper-thin veil between that narrative voice and the reader (possibly even the writer). The book is daring, strange, and emotionally complex. And yet never at the expense of its heart. It has lots of heart. And lots of smart. All in less than 200 pages. I've read it twice. And I'll probably read it again, soon.
Rachel Cantor, author of “A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World” (Melville House)
“Forgiving the Angel: Four Stories for Franz Kafka,” by Jay Cantor (Knopf)
In this beautiful, fascinating book by Jay Cantor (no relation, though I would like to claim him), Kafka is a haunting ghost. In the first story, Kafka, dying from tuberculosis, tells Max Brod that he and his lover Dora Diamant intend to open a restaurant in Tel Aviv: he will wait tables and Dora will cook! A charming, hopeful image, but really the story is about death, and Kafka’s demand that Brod, as literary executor (“literary executioner,” Brod says), destroy his work when the time comes. The time comes soon enough and most of the book concerns Kafka’s half-life: his effect on two of the women he loved—Dora Diamant and Milena Jasenska, both brutalized by history. Engaging, heart-breaking, witty, and wise.
Meghan Daum, author of “The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
“Rainey Royal,” by Dylan Landis (Soho Press)
I urge you to read "Rainey Royal" by Dylan Landis. This novel (in stories, according to some, but it very much feels like a cohesive novel to me) so vividly captures its time and place – New York City in the 1970s -- that I could practically smell the patchouli and tea rose oil. (I also felt in moments like I was watching a John Cassavettes movie.) The heroine is the teenage Rainey, who lives with her jazz musician father in a proto-shabby chic townhouse in Greenwich Village. At once empowered and hobbled by her burgeoning sexuality, Rainey’s abandonment by her mother and constant creepy attention from her father’s acolytes has made her feral and angry, but most of all imbued with the kind of confusion that can easily be mistaken for confidence – the most dangerous kind. Landis’s genius is that in neither scolding Rainey nor letting her off the hook she shows us a soul that is both too old for its time but still unfinished and possessed of limitless possibilities. It’s also the funniest sad book I’ve read in quite some time.
Bridgett M. Davis, author of “Into the Go-Slow” (The Feminist Press at CUNY)
“Give It to Me,” by Ana Castillo (The Feminist Press at CUNY)
Ana Castillo's “Give It to Me” is a joyous, frolicking romp. I don't think I've ever read a book that made me laugh and blush in equal measure. The story is about the sexual antics of a recently divorced 40-ish Latina, and the narrator is so funny, her paramours so vivid and outrageous and captivating -- and so many! -- it was like reading about a multicultural "Sex and the City," yet written for grown-ups. What a rare pleasure to read a story full of tender wit and unbridled sexuality told by a middle-aged woman of color. I'm getting both tickled and hot just thinking about it.
Stacey D’Erasmo, author of “Wonderland” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
“The Sea Inside,” by Philip Hoare (Melville House)
This sui generis book is at once a mesmerizing journey through the world's seas--from Southampton, England, to the Azores to Sri Lanka to Australia to the United States, and beyond--a wander through history and culture, a series of personal encounters with whales, ravens, dolphins and other creatures, and, subtly, a memoir written in wildlife. Accompanied by the authors' line drawings and various other photographs and illustrations, "The Sea Inside"is charming, deeply intimate, erudite, and unguardedly awestruck and awe-inspiring.
Jen Doll, author of “Save the Date: The Occasional Mortifications of a Serial Wedding Guest” (Riverhead)
“Everything Leads to You,” by Nina LaCour (Dutton Juvenile)
One of my favorite books this year was the Y.A. novel “Everything Leads to You” by Nina LaCour. Super-talented 18-year-old production designer Emi Price has been given her brother's L.A. apartment for the summer as a graduation gift. She just has to make something great happen there, he tells her. With her best friend by her side, as she recovers from heartbreak, she stumbles upon an old Hollywood mystery that leads her to new love. The writing is enchanting; plus, bonus points for a lesbian main character for whom coming out is not an issue; her sexuality is integrated into the plot just the way a heterosexual character's would be.
Geoff Dyer, author of “Another Great Day at Sea: Life Aboard the USS George H.W. Bush” (Pantheon)
“Redeployment,” by Phil Klay (Penguin Press)
I am sorry to report that a little thesis of mine has been shot down, is missing presumed injured. Back in 2010 I proved beyond reasonable doubt that since so much great reportage (David Finkel, Dexter Filkins et al.) had come out of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan there was no need to wait for fictional accounts. Ben Fountain’s great novel "Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk" dodged that bullet by being set almost entirely in the U.S. but Phil Klay’s collection of stories "Redeployment" turns out to be exactly the book I (didn’t know I) was waiting for.
Michel Faber, author of “The Book of Strange New Things” (Hogarth)
“Through the Woods,” by Emily Carroll (Margaret K. McElderry Books)
Emily Carroll's collection of graphic stories “Through the Woods” inspired me to volunteer a very rare cover blurb. I called it "beautiful, beguiling and thrillingly eerie." It is! She draws and paints like a dream -- a disturbing, vivid dream, at once Gothic, child-like and sophisticated, connecting Grimm's fairy tales, Edward Gorey and modern horror.
Julia Fierro, author of “Cutting Teeth” (St. Martin’s Press)
“Station Eleven,” by Emily St. John Mandel (Knopf)
There are two tests a book must pass before I know it is one of my favorites—one test involves my mother, the other my best friend. Emily St. John Mandel’s exquisite novel, “Station Eleven,” passed both.
I was alone in a woodsy cottage in upstate New York when I finished “Station Eleven,” and the surprising and inevitable ending (the best kind) left me breathless. The drone of the cicadas in the woods surrounding the cottage made me feel, for a few thrilling moments, as if I had joined the novel’s characters—a band of Shakespearean actors traveling across a ravaged dystopian land, risking their lives to preserve a dying culture.
I dialed my mother, wanting to hear another voice, to share my reader’s buzz, but also because the rich and complex emotions the novel had stirred made me feel as if I just had to say Mom, I love you. Test No. 1 passed.
Next, I texted my best friend (aka my literary kindred spirit), novelist Caeli Wolfson Widger. My message was: READ “Station Eleven” NOW! True to form, she read the novel and was as smitten as I was. Test No. 2 passed.
Emily St. John Mandel’s masterful genre-bender, which succeeds as both literary and dystopic, is that rare novel that inspires a range of emotion in a reader—despair, joy, terror, comfort, and, ultimately, redemptive hope.
Gina Frangello, author of “A Life in Men” (Algonquin Books)
“Gabriel: A Poem,” by Edward Hirsch (Knopf)
“Lord of Misadventure,” writes Hirsch of his dead son, “I’m scared of rounding him up/And turning him into a story.” Hirsch fervently hopes that his son “shines through,” and laments, “I keep scraping the canvas/And painting him over again/But he keeps slipping away.” What Hirsch undertakes in “Gabriel” is epic in more than genre. Tackling not only his son’s turbulent story, he chronicles—reminiscent of David Markson in “This Is Not a Novel”—the losses of creative thinkers through history, and the impact grief has on art and faith. While the first half of “Gabriel” grants occasional emotional respite through cool intellect, the book progressively scorches as it races towards its inevitable and devastating conclusion. Unforgettable.
Rivka Galchen, author of “American Innovations” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
"Piano Stories," by Felisberto Hernandez (New Directions)
Felisberto Hernandez is a Uruguayan writer who died in 1964. I had never heard of him before this year, but after reading the Luis Harss translation of his “Piano Stories” I find him as essential and singular as Kleist, or Kafka, or Emily Dickinson. He is a major minor, one of those writers whose "small" stories feel as rooted and full as a tome of Tolstoy or Mann.
Roxane Gay, author of “Untamed State” (Grove Press) and “Bad Feminist” (Harper Perennial)
“Ugly Girls,” by Lindsay Hunter (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
The best book I read in 2014 was “Ugly Girls” by Lindsay Hunter. The novel is an unrelenting look at Perry and Baby Girl, two working class girls who are all too aware of what life holds for them. Hunter reveals a real maturation of her skill with this novel that takes on class, girlhood, friendship, vulnerability and hopelessness. There is no apology to be found. This is a bleak but gorgeous and necessary book.
Emily Gould, author of “Friendship” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
“The Paying Guests,” by Sarah Waters (Riverhead)
The best book I read in 2014 was “The Paying Guests” by Sarah Waters. I bet this is a popular answer and usually I try harder to be unpredictable, but this book is so crazy great it made it impossible to for me to pick anything else. Other books were maybe more formally inventive or more under the radar, but no book combined masterful storytelling, perfectly tuned plot, characters as complex and unknowable as real people and themes I care about quite like this one. I'm still thinking about the central dilemma of the book: by choosing to believe the woman she loves, is heroine Frances rising above her class prejudices and constrained life, or is she playing into the trap of a charming sociopath? It's rare that a book this long and this good will keep you flipping pages as though it was a thriller, but “The Paying Guests” manages to be at least three different kinds of book in one.
Samantha Harvey, author of “Dear Thief” (Atavist Books)
“Cold Blood: Adventures With Reptiles and Amphibians,” by Richard Kerridge (Chatto & Windus)
The best nonfiction books are love stories, whatever their subject. To me, “Cold Blood” is a love story between the author and the "strange and beautiful and savage" creatures he found while growing up in the city. He begins the story as a teenager longing for something dangerous. There’s a notable lack of lions, lynxes and warthogs in London, so instead he's driven to the undergrowth, and there they are: little colorful, elusive beasts of quiet drama – newts, toads, lizards, adders. This book is about them, and about the author - he describes their biology with exact, glowing prose and through it he sees - and seems at times to be surprised by - his own biography. There is something pure, sincere and lovely about this book.
Peter Heller, author of “The Painter” (Knopf)
“Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War,” by Helen Thorpe (Scribner)
Can I love a friend’s book—full disclosure, etc.? Helen Thorpe’s “Soldier Girls” is a titan. Not because we become invested in the twined stories and friendship of three women who serve in Afghanistan and Iraq. Not because we become as horrified as Michelle when we find out she is to be deployed—she joined the Indiana National Guard to go to college and never dreamed she’d go to war. But because “Soldier Girls” is one of the best book about class in America ever written. About the grinding, soul crushing desperation of our working poor, our majority. It shocked me—the biggest battle of all: to put gas in the car, work several jobs at once, get food on the table, to keep some human dream alive of college or a small business. Every day a war.
Smith Henderson, author of “Fourth of July Creek” (Ecco)
“The Bully of Order,” by Brian Hart (Harper)
My favorite book of the year—in a year full of great debuts and new books from living masters—was Brian Hart’s “The Bully of Order.” Setting his story in the midst of the massive logging operation of the Pacific Northwest at the turn of the century, Hart achieves something magical. You taste the sawdust and mud and blood, while coming to understand the titanic scale of the endeavor to painfully deforest great swaths of American wilderness, a challenge on par with the construction of the pyramids. Nestled in this setting of teeming violence (sailors knew better than take shore leave in such logging towns), is a story of astonishing hurt and heart, as the Ellstrom family tries and all too often fails to overcome the hardships inherent to this time and place.
Cristina Henriquez, author of “The Book of Unknown Americans” (Knopf)
“Love Me Back,” by Merritt Tierce (Doubleday)
Nothing I’ve read this year has stuck with me more than “Love Me Back” by Merritt Tierce. It’s a novel about a woman, a young mother, waiting tables in Dallas, Texas, but of course it’s about so much more. Readers have called it blunt, brilliant, magnetic, heart-cracking. To that I’d like to add: human. Indefatigably so. Marie is flawed at the same time that she’s searching, fumbling for a sense of meaning in her world. Her story is tough, the way many people’s are, but there’s beauty in it, too, the way that life mysteriously offers.
Jeff Hobbs, author of “The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League” (Scribner)
“All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid,” by Matt Bai (Knopf)
Not only does Matt Bai look at both sides of the central issue -- which in and of itself is rare enough in political journalism -- but he looks at every space in between. In doing so, he gives us a political drama that is both taut and empathetic. Gary Hart is a name that most Americans born after 1980 can't remember, and one that, had a few particular decisions been made differently, all of us might have known as our 41st president. Whether or not you agree with (or even care about) the overarching thesis, you can't help but come away with an uncomfortable understanding of just how precarious, and even randomized, the future of our nation is -- as precarious and randomized as a guy meeting a girl on a boat.
Laird Hunt, author of “Neverhome” (Little, Brown and Company)
“Collected Petrarch,” by Tim Atkins (Crater 27, London)
I saw the chief-of-staff/On the goose’s hind parts/& the beautiful/Blue of pills/Carrying a scratch/At Evening…
This 500-page-plus delight is the result of Atkins’ year’s long lyric engagement with the work of the great Renaissance poet (there is some actual Petrarch in here), but it is also, and more importantly, many other things. It is a rap on fatherhood, a busted plasma screen projection of life in 21st century England, a carnivalesque reappraisal of what poetry can and should mean, and a broke-line travelogue, by way of Barcelona, Boulder and San Francisco. I loved this book so much I wrote an introduction for it, but this barely matters in the context of such a huge englobing whole.
Lindsay Hunter, author of “Ugly Girls” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
“Love Me Back,” by Merritt Tierce (Doubleday)
The best book I read this year that was published in 2014 was “Love Me Back,” by Merritt Tierce. 2014 was a year of amazing debuts (I'm looking at you, Roxane Gay, Catherine Lacey, John Darnielle and so many others), but “Love Me Back” hit me right in my gut. It is a litany of the ways in which a mother punishes herself for being a mother and for not being a mother, and the masterful way Tierce socks you with a tiny aside about the main character's child in the midst of a thick paragraph describing, say, a threesome, left me feeling like I'd been emptied out and filled with ache. I didn't want it to end.
Leslie Jamison, author of “The Empathy Exams” (Graywolf Press)
“Loitering,” by Charles D’Ambrosio (Tin House Books)
My favorite book of 2014 was Charles D’Ambrosio’s new essay collection, “Loitering.” It’s full of pieces about whale meat and orphans, haunted houses and brothers, about caves built for shelter in the snow and the toxic terms of moral certitude. Its pages feel saturated with the chill of Seattle rain and the deep ache of being alive, being alone, being uncertain. I feel sure no one could journey into the reaches of this collection and come out the same—without more questions, more splinters under the skin, more surprising sources of consolation.
Jac Jemc, author of “A Different Bed Every Time” (Dzanc Books)
“The Empathy Exams,” by Leslie Jamison (Graywolf Press)
A book willing to ask more questions than provide answers goes straight to the top of my list, and “The Empathy Exams” did just that. Jamison manages to grip the reader through a digressive exploration of the previously shoulder-shrug-worthy topic of empathy, poking and prodding at each of her biases and assumptions, and urging readers to do the same. That a book as contemplative as “The Empathy Exams” has made such a splash this year proves that the bestseller lists can surprise us yet.
Lacy M. Johnson, author of “The Other Side” (Tin House Books)
“Citizen,” by Claudia Rankine (Graywolf Press)
In a year that saw small presses publish books by some of the greatest writers of our age, the best I read were those that combined keen lyricism with social purpose and political urgency. Among these Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen” stands above the rest. I am still trying to reckon with this book, weeks after reading it, because it is a book that demands a reckoning: what are the ways — both public and interpersonal — racism affects and is the effect of us all? “Citizen” answers this question so sharply it cut me, often and deep.
Bret Anthony Johnston, author of “Remember Me Like This” (Random House)
“Blood Will Out,” by Walter Kirn (Liveright)
“Blood Will Out” by Walter Kirn is one of the most unsettling books I’ve ever read, and months after finishing it, I’m still haunted by the particular and particularly deep terror at its core. Sure, the sociopathic charmer behind the crimes is unbelievably disturbing, but what makes the book so memorable isn’t the deceiver but the deceived. Kirn is gullible and compassionate, and the ways Rockefeller (nee Gerhartsreiter) suckered him are panic-inducingly effective. I turned each page feeling deeply grateful that I never crossed paths with such a sinister man, and feeling equally and selfishly happy that Kirn did.
Saeed Jones, author of “Prelude to Bruise” (Coffee House Press)
Every time I read the opening lines of Jericho Brown’s new poetry collection, “The New Testament,” “I don’t remember how I hurt myself, / the pain mine / long enough for me / to lose the wound that invented it,” I also hear the echoes of protesters shouting “I can’t breathe.” This book — a progression of the blues-informed lyricism of Brown’s debut collection, “Please,” — is about black men in pain and love, often at the same time. To say this book is one of the best I read this year is to say, I’ve been clutching these poems against my chest as I find a way to breathe in this burning country.
Porochista Khakpour, author of “The Last Illusion” (Bloomsbury USA)
“American Innovations,” by Rivka Galchen (Fararr, Straus and Giroux)
Rivka Galchen’s “American Innovations” is one of the best short story collections I have ever read. I have declared many times that she is one of the only living writers whose work I always love—I found her other book, the debut novel “Atmospheric Disturbances” nearly flawless, and I love her nonfiction too. This book was no exception. Based on, inspired by, retellings of, or actual responses to some of the greatest hits of the canon by Thurber, Borges, Gogol, and more, Galchen always plays Galchen no matter what character she takes on—and this is a good thing. A radiant stylist, droll dark humorist, and wildly original thinker, Galchen always astounds.
Lily King, author of “Euphoria” (Atlantic Monthly Press)
“Clever Girl,” by Tessa Hadley (Harper)
Tessa Hadley’s seventh book, “Clever Girl,” tells the story of an Englishwoman named Stella from childhood in the 1950s through middle age with such visceral detail that when I think back on events of the novel, it feels like I am remembering my own past. Hadley plunges us into a chaotic, seemingly random life, yet nothing is random; nothing is haphazard here. Hadley is carving out this world with X-Acto knife precision. “Clever Girl” seizes and exposes life, its every strange configuration, jolt and drama, its great and unexpectedly spiral path that brings us back to people and places we thought we had long left behind but never do.
Karl Ove Knausgaard, author of “My Struggle: Book Three” (Archipelago)
”The Emerald Light in the Air,” by Donald Antrim, (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
If this marvelous collection of short stories had consisted of only one, "Another Manhattan," it would still have been my favorite book of the year. The story has everything: it’s funny, it’s touching, it’s beautiful, and in the end, tragic. The short story is a hard discipline, and mostly ends up feeling like a trick. Antrim's don't. They are the real thing.
Elizabeth Kolbert, author of “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History” (Henry Holt & Co.)
“Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming,” by McKenzie Funk (Penguin Press)
I love a good dark comedy, and McKenzie Funk’s “Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming” is particularly dark because it’s true. For most of the world, global warming will, almost certainly, prove disastrous, but the enterprising few will find a way to cash in on it. Funk, a keen observer, travels the world with those sniffing out the possibilities. The result is humorous and, of course, at the same time horrifying; as Funk writes, “the climate is changing faster than we are.”
Glenn Kurtz, author of “Three Minutes in Poland: Discovering a Lost World in a 1938 Family Film” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
“Forgiving the Angel: Four Stories for Franz Kafka,” by Jay Cantor (Knopf)
Jay Cantor’s story collection, “Forgiving the Angel: Four Stories for Franz Kafka,” takes on the 20th century’s greatest burdens through the eyes, and, far more, through the bodies, of Kafka’s friends and lovers. With concentrated grace, Cantor renders the profound interpenetration of the personal, the political, and the historical. The final two stories in particular—-focused on Ludwig Lask, husband of Kafka’s lover, Dora Diamant, and a victim of Stalin’s gulag; and Eva Muntzberg, who recalls Milena Jasenska at the Ravensbruck concentration camp—-deftly achieve what Cantor says he finds in Kafka: “an illumination of the intricacy of impossible predicaments.”
Olivia Laing, author of “The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking” (Picador)
“Love, Nina,” by Nina Stibbe (Little, Brown and Company)
I fell head over heels for Nina Stibbe's “Love, Nina.” In the 1980s, Stibbe was a nanny for the sons of Mary-Kay Wilmers, the editor of the London Review of Books. Her dry, wry and magnificently observant letters home provides a glimpse into the domestic lives of London's intelligentsia (Alan Bennett's tips on everything from coleslaw to fixing a washing machine are a particular joy). To be shelved alongside “The Pursuit of Love” and the collected Jeeves and Wooster, and taken on a rainy day with a mug of strong tea.
Chang-rae Lee, author of “On Such a Full Sea” (Riverhead)
“I Pity the Poor Immigrant,” by Zachary Lazar (Little, Brown and Company)
One of my favorite books of this past year is “I Pity the Poor Immigrant” by Zachary Lazar, who also wrote the mesmerizing “Sway.” “I Pity the Poor Immigrant” is one of the most formally daring and innovative fictions I've read in years. It's a multi-form 'novel' that defies categorization, simultaneously a crime story, a memoir, and ultimately a strange and poetic exegesis on what it means to be a Jew. A truly fascinating work.
Catherine Lacey, author of “Nobody Is Ever Missing” (FSG Originals)
“Ways of Going Home,” by Alejandro Zambra (translated by Megan McDowell) (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
To describe the plot of “Ways of Going Home,” which unpacks somewhat like a Matryoshka doll, might make it sound meta or cutesy, which it is not. But like much of Zambra's work it is concerned with how we turn our lives into fiction, memory or personal myth. “Ways of Going Home” also explores the lonelinesses of childhood and the dissolve we all make from child to adult, sometimes imperceptible and sometimes all too felt. Zambra has one of the most vivid and humane written voices I've ever encountered; the intimacy he creates on a page is as remarkable as it is mesmerizing.
Edan Lepucki, author of “California” (Little, Brown and Company)
“Off Course,” by Michelle Huneven (Sara Crichton Books)
“Off Course” by Michelle Huneven, my favorite book published in 2014, is a marvelous novel about Cressida Hartley, a PhD candidate who moves into her parents’ vacation cabin in the Sierras with the idea of finishing her dissertation--only to get distracted by love. Huneven can always be counted on to write with sharp-eyed grace about us faulty humans, but this novel is particularly deft and heartbreaking in its depiction of how deep a relationship can dig into you. It moved me to tears—and also made me want to hike. No other book this year cast such a spell on me.
Yiyun Li, author of “Kinder Than Solitude” (Random House)
“The Stories of Jane Gardam,” by Jane Gardam (Europa Editions)
William Trevor once called himself "a story writer who happens to write novels." There are not many writers who dedicate their lifelong careers to writing both stories and novels, and Jane Gardam happens to be one of them. The author of many novels, including the unforgettable Old Filth trilogy, she is also a master storyteller. In fact, she prefers short stories to novels! One of the books I enjoyed in 2014 is “The Stories of Jane Gardam.” “I must learn when to stop. That is what short stories teach you,” Gardam wrote in her introduction. One wishes a brilliant mind like Gardam would never stop: what curious lives she’s shown us in these stories.
Thomas McBee, author of “Man Alive: A True Story of Violence, Forgiveness and Becoming a Man” (City Lights Publishers)
“Bad Feminist,” by Roxane Gay (Harper Perennial)
Roxane Gay's introduction to her sharp and boldly funny essay collection, "Bad Feminist," is the best piece of writing I've read on gender and pop culture this year. It--and the book as whole--also showcases what I love about Roxane's writing broadly: the ability to shift seamlessly between macro questions and her own search to place herself within our ever-shifting culture, a stunning ability to communicate tricky, nuanced theoretical concepts in a language that feels effortlessly accessible, generous, and almost pointedly unacademic, and a raw, unflinching honesty about the world we all find ourselves in and how we're all responsible for making it. Roxane's ability to respond quickly, deftly, and bravely to pop culture and politics alike has been huge with online readers for years now. Her work, like the global brain trust that is the internet, insists through its mere existence on exposing and maintaining our connections--and reminds us that we have to be willing to make a study our most toxic constructions by first exposing our own flaws. "I am taking a stand as a bad feminist," she writes, embracing the book's central paradox movingly: it is through our failures that we, ever poignantly, learn who we are and how to be ever better feminists--and humans.
Eimear McBride, author of “A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing” (Coffee House Press)
“Dept. of Speculation,” by Jenny Offill (Vintage)
One of my best reads this year was Jenny Offill’s “Dept. of Speculation.” It’s the story of a writer who, despite her plan to live as a solitary "art monster," falls in love, gets married, has a baby and watches her work life go down the drain. It’s a wonderfully written, intelligent examination of the female writer’s experience of life on the other side of the pram in the hall and, as such, provides a tonic for any woman who, while loving her children, may not experience total fulfillment from spending 24 hours a day staring adoringly at them.
Elizabeth McCracken, author of “Thunderstruck & Other Stories” (The Dial Press)
“Citizen,” by Claudia Rankine (Graywolf Press)
In terrible times, only poetry will do. Various poems for various effects: the news has been terrible lately, and for me poetry is a pinhole camera that allows you to see clearly that which will otherwise damage you. I read a lot of great poetry this year (much of it published by Graywolf Press, which this year gave us D. A Powell’s essential first three books—“Tea, Lunch, & Cocktails”—published together as “Repast” and Matthea Harvey’s gorgeous and peculiar “If the Tabloids Are True What Are You,” illustrated with Harvey’s own artwork. But like many people, I read Claudia Rankine’s brilliant, inspiring, disquieting, heartbreaking “Citizen” cover to cover, and then again.
Lydia Millet, author of “Mermaids in Paradise” (W.W. Norton & Company)
“Talkativeness,” by Michael Earl Craig (Wave Books)
Earl Craig’s “Talkativeness” was not only the funniest book of poetry I read this year, it was the funniest book of anything. And it’s beautiful — these poems are arresting and philosophical as well as hilarious. Craig is a “journeyman farrier,” a/k/a blacksmith, in Montana, with three previous books of poetry, and to me his poems were a blessed relief from word-salad academic poetry at the one pole and trite magazine poetry at the other. This is a book for non-poets as well as poets — yay, even for non-readers of poetry. This thing is grace and laughter for all kinds.
Kyle Minor, author of “Praying Drunk” (Sarabande Books)
“Wynne's War,” by Aaron Gwyn (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
The most overlooked good book of the year -- and probably my favorite -- is “Wynne's War,” by Aaron Gwyn. It is a tale of friendship and horsemanship and the moral crises that rise from competing loyalties among the members of an elite Special Forces unit tasked with a secret mission in eastern Afghanistan. Gwyn's prose puts one in mind of Daniel Woodrell and Tom Franklin, and his preoccupations concern beauty as much as they do darkness.
Bradford Morrow, author of “The Forgers” (Mysterious Press)
“The Wilds,” by Julia Elliott (Tin House Books)
In a year of many “best books,” I found Julia Elliott’s debut collection, “The Wilds,” to be singularly exhilarating—by turns deeply moving and disturbing. These eleven stories escort readers into opulently imagined worlds where some people live in trees and others in futuristic nursing homes overseen by a medical-industrial complex run amok; some people float while others interface with the robotic. Oh, and watch out for the feral dogs. At once sci-fi and speculative, dystopian and fabular, “The Wilds” is also somehow weirdly realist. It addresses the intricacies of being human and surviving in a world that is often cold and unforgiving, and never loses sight of our shared fragilities, failures, and occasional triumphs.
Antonya Nelson, author of “Funny Once” (Bloomsbury USA)
“Fourth of July Creek,” by Smith Henderson (Ecco)
Smith Henderson's “Fourth of July Creek” arrived at my house in galleys. I read it, loved it, and immediately wanted to share it with my students. The publisher sent more galleys. We all read and adored (and were jealous of, let's be honest, we're writers) the book for its humor, psychological smarts, deft thriller-type plot moves, tremendously well-rendered western landscape, and perhaps most of all, its flawed hero and his foibles. What I'm saying is: I was ready to gift everybody with that book before it was even available for sale. Guess what everyone's getting from me this Christmas?
Amanda Palmer, author of “The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help” (Grand Central Publishing)
“Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution,” by Laurie Penny (Bloomsbury USA)
It's rare that a book jolts me hard enough to race the Internet, mid-chapter, to rush-order 20 copies for every friend and student in earshot. Laurie is a give-no-fucks UK journalist who writes in personal blood and raw grime about what women (read: all of us) are grappling with. Key moment: “I call myself a feminist to fuck with people…because it's a great way to weed out the creeps in bars, but feminism isn't an identity. Feminism is a process. Call yourself what you like. The important thing is what you fight for. Begin it now.” THANK YOU LAURIE. We needed this.
Katha Pollitt, author of “Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights” (Picador)
“The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan,” by Jenny Nordberg (Crown)
A curious, empathetic Swedish journalist who is also a fantastic writer takes a deep look at the bacha posh – girls presented to the world as boys by their son-hungry Afghan families. Poor, war-torn, patriarchal, Afghanistan has been called the worst place on earth to be a woman. Nordstrom vividly shows how true this is.
“Without You, There is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite,” by Suki Kim (Crown)
This touching, beautifully written memoir of teaching in an all-male college run by Christian evangelicals is a rare, intimate portrait of life in the world’s least-known country: grinding poverty for the masses, bland tedium for the ruling class, no fun, no freedom, and fear for all.
Joanna Rakoff, author of “My Salinger Year” (Knopf)
“Visible City,” by Tova Mirvis (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
This year abounded with fantastic domestic novels—Robin Black’s “Life Drawing,” Julia Fierro’s “Cutting Teeth”—but none hit me as hard as Tova Mirvis’ “Visible City,” an utterly perfect, deeply moving evocation of contemporary Manhattan, which reminded me of Paula Fox and Laurie Colwin, and also those master chroniclers of the privileged classes, Wharton and Fitzgerald. Mirvis writes with a rare combination of urgency, elegance, and humor—sentences so gorgeous and refined they don’t call attention to themselves—unabashedly probing her characters’ psychological and emotional depths, all the while examining the larger social, economic, and cultural forces at play in their lives. Brilliant.
Lisa See, author of “China Dolls” (Random House)
“A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal,” by Ben Macinteyre (Crown)
Much has been written about Kim Philby, perhaps the greatest spy in history, but Ben Macintyre has focused on the manipulation and deception of Philby’s two closest friends over the course of two decades. It's all brilliant and very dark, but what's fascinating from a writer's perspective is that every author of espionage -- from Ian Fleming and John Le Carré, who both knew Philby, to Alan Furst, Daniel Silva, and so many others -- has been influenced by the deeds and misdeeds of this flawed, charming, and straight-up dastardly traitor. Beyond the betrayal of his friends and country, Philby (and his fellow double agents) also left behind a trail of wives. Those women weren’t in on “the game,” but they knew something was desperately wrong, even if they couldn’t put their fingers on it. Philby and his ilk left heartbreaking tragedy and death in their wakes. “A Spy Among Friends” reads like a spellbinding thriller, but it’s all true.
David Shafer, author of “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” (Mulholland Books)
“Station Eleven,” by Emily St. John Mandel (Knopf)
I thought I was done with Terrible Future fiction, and then I met “Station Eleven.” It tells the story of a troupe of traveling thespians, but it’s set twenty years after a voracious flu wiped out most of humanity. From that strange and eerie setup, Mandel has built a novel that is less about the viral apocalypse and more about what could survive such a thing. The prose is fluid and beautiful, and Mandel has a wonderful way with the rhythm of Before and After, with the ratio of plausible to mysterious. I was gripped the whole way through.
Hampton Sides, author of “In the King of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette” (Doubleday)
“Deep Down Dark,” by Hector Tobar (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
I'm always on the lookout for great narrative non-fiction and recently had an opportunity to read “Deep Down Dark,” a riveting new book by Hector Tobar. It's about the 2010 Chilean mine collapse that trapped 33 men for 69 days 700 meters down inside a gold and copper mine. Enjoying unfettered access to his subject, Tobar conducted more than 300 hours of interviews with survivors to construct a masterpiece of non-fiction that reads like an epic folk tale. Because I'm a bit of a claustrophobe, some of these pages made for anxious reading. (Thanks to Tobar, I'm not sure I'll ever go inside a cave—or even a dark closet—again.) But this is a suspenseful, poignant, and fully-realized work that's destined to be a classic of survival literature.
Darcey Steinke, author of “Sister Golden Hair” (Tin House Books)
“The Last Illusion,” by Porochista Khakpour (Bloomsbury USA)
The wait was long but now we have the very best 9/11 novel in Khakpour’s “The Last Illusion.” In beautiful. emotionally charged and funny prose, Khakpour blends Iranian folk tale with New York end-of-the-world narrative. Her project, not unlike Rushdie’s, is to unify and illuminate the known world.
Bryan Stevenson, author of “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption” (Spiegel & Grau)
“Lila,” by Marilynne Robinson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
This book contains more depth, moral insight and compassion than anything I’ve read in years and affirms that Ms. Robinson is one of the two or three finest American novelists of the last half-century. “Lila” returns to the characters of her Pulitzer-Prize winning novel “Gilead” which was a stunning achievement. “Gilead,” “Home” and “Lila” make reading fiction a meditative, reflective, existential experience that is unforgettable and uniquely moving. Lila is a more worldly protagonist than earlier characters. Her struggle for redemption is all the more beautiful because of the hardships she’s endured. Extraordinary!
Astra Taylor, author of “The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age” (Metropolitan Books)
“The Coming Swarm,” by Molly Sauter (Bloomsbury Academic)
“[A]s familiar and widely accepted activist tools—petitions, fundraisers, mass letter writing, call-in campaigns and others—find equivalent practices in the online space, is there also room for the tactics of disruption and civil disobedience that are equally familiar from the realm of street marches, occupations, and sit-ins?,” asks Molly Sauter in “The Coming Swarm: DDOS actions, Hacktivism and Civil Disobedience.” It’s a question with special resonance today: Occupy Wall Street, the climate justice movement, the feminist resurgence, and the astonishing demonstrations against police brutality and racism sparked in Ferguson, MO all combine offline protests with savvy use of digital tools, including hashtags, livestreaming, and, occasionally more controversial tactics like doxxing and DDOS. While Sauter’s primary focus is her claim that DDOS actions, which involve flooding an Internet server with traffic, are legitimate expressions of political discontent, her argument has wide implications. “The Coming Swarm” is a thought-provoking little bomb of a book that raises issues activists in 2014 can’t afford to ignore: virtual space is overwhelmingly privatized and corporatized and our right to protest is being unfairly impinged upon and criminalized online, with potentially devastating consequences for democracy.
Justin Taylor, author of “Flings: Stories” (Harper)
“Loitering,” by Charles D’Ambrosio (Tin House Books)
This was the year I discovered Charles D’Ambrosio. I read “The Dead Fish Museum” over the summer and found it captivating, so when the great Tin House Books announced a collection of his essays, my hopes were perhaps unreasonably high. More’s the pleasure then to share that all expectations were not only met, but exceeded. “Loitering” is shatteringly honest, acutely observed, deeply learned, admirably contentious, and always a pleasure. D’Ambrosio, with his capacious intelligence and profound moral imagination, strikes me as a kind of wisdom writer. I read many excellent books this year, but none other that struck me so fully with the force of revelation.
Matthew Thomas, author of “We Are Not Ourselves” (Simon & Schuster)
“High As the Horses’ Bridles,” (Henry Holt & Co)
The marriage of artful prose and big ideas in Scott Cheshire's “High As The Horses' Bridles” left a lasting impression on me. With a keen ear for living speech, Cheshire reconstructs the idioms of the previous generation and captures the vernacular rhythms of the present one. He builds on Faulkner and McCarthy to carve out an oracular register perfectly suited to that uniquely American theatrical mode, preaching. He takes on big themes: the complexities of filial responsibility, the anguish of the loss of faith, the difficulty and reward in loving others. And he delivers a thoroughly convincing portrait of the great plurality of Queens, the heartening meeting of ethnicities, religions and classes that is that borough’s—and by extension the City’s, even the country’s—lifeblood. This is a book that stays on the mind and lives in the heart.
Merritt Tierce, author of “Love Me Back” (Doubleday)
“Men Explain Things to Me,” by Rebecca Solnit (Haymarket Books)
“Feminism,” writes Rebecca Solnit in her essay “Pandora’s Box and the Voluntary Police Force,” “is an endeavor to change something very old, widespread, and deeply rooted in many, perhaps most, cultures around the world, innumerable institutions, and most households on Earth—and in our minds, where it all begins and ends.” This collection of seven essays—most previously published only online—maps some of Solnit’s prolific, dedicated, and hopeful work on what begins and ends in the mind. Her deft, clear language gathers up violence against women, global wealth inequity, rape culture, and everyday sexism and tells us frankly what they are and how we must continue working to dismantle the systems that harm us.
Lynne Tillman, author of “What Would Lynne Tillman Do?” (Red Lemonade)
Dorothy, a publishing project
Inventive, idealistic publishers are as important, and praiseworthy, as their writers, because they support and promote the art of writing. My choice for best book of 2014 is Dorothy, a publishing project. It pubs two books a year; this year the novels “The Wallcreeper” (Nell Zink) and “Dan” (Joanna Ruocco). And, it's "named for head librarian, author, gardener, animal- and art lover, bookmobile-driver, and great-aunt Dorothy Traver, who on every birthday gave a book with an owl bookplate." Its logo is that owl-plate. Brava, Dorothy!
Hector Tobar, author of “Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
“The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld,” by Justin Hocking (Graywolf Press)
Justin Hocking is a writer who pushes himself to the edge in the name of art and adventure. His memoir “The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld” tells a story with a familiar theme (young man arrives in New York City trying to be a writer) in a completely original way, as Hocking works his way from publishing house serfdom in Manhattan, to the glories of skateboarding in Brooklyn and surfing in Rockaway Beach. Hocking’s literary aesthetic can best be described as David Foster Wallace meets Jack Kerouac meets Herman Melville. In other words, erudite, seafaring, lyrical--and a little crazy.
Sarah Waters, author of “The Paying Guests” (Riverhead)
“Arctic Summer,” by Damon Galgut (Europa Editions)
Galgut is the master of loneliness. Nobody else writes so delicately, yet so compellingly, about the subtleties of yearning, about the thrills of intimacy and the ache of desires unfulfilled. I have loved his other novels and I loved “Arctic Summer” too. A fictionalized biography of E.M. Forster, it's a sustained imaginative leap into the troubled author's experiences in England, Egypt and colonial India in which every historical detail, and every emotion, rings absolutely true.
Josh Weil, author of “The Great Glass Sea” (Grove Press)
“In the Course of Human Events,” by Mike Harvkey (Soft Skull Press)
Of everything I read this year, Mike Harvkey’s “In the Course of Human Events” is the book I just can’t shake. I keep seeing Jay Smalls’ snaggletooth grin, hearing Kenny Don’s manic musings, feeling for Clyde Twitty, a deeply human man at the heart of this story about his indoctrination into anti-government extremism. It’s a bold, brilliant novel, that looks hard at corners of this county often left alone, an important book as challenging as it is engaging, scary as it is sensitive, as powerful in each moment, page by page as it remains in my memory many months later.
Andy Weir, author of “The Martian” (Broadway Books)
“What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions,” by Randall Munroe (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
My favorite book of 2014 is “What If?” by Randall Munroe. Munroe is the genius behind the popular geeky webcomic “XKCD”, so it’s little surprise that “What If?” is a scientific tour-de-force. Inside the book are dozens of hypotheticals like “If everyone on Earth shined a laser pointer at the Moon, would it change color?” and “How long could a nuclear submarine last in orbit?” Munroe provides answers, backing up his conclusions with solid math and physics (of course). Then he’ll take the question further into delightful absurdities. If you’re a nerd, I guarantee you will enjoy this book.
Meg Wolitzer, author of “Belzhar” (Dutton Juvenile)
“Stone Mattress: Nine Tales,” by Margaret Atwood (Nan A. Talese)
I have long been a fan of Margaret Atwood, so when I snapped up her new collection of stories, I was not surprised by its deftness, piquancy, darkness and wit. But I was pleased to find that a few of the stories overlap cleverly and in surprising ways; and that big themes of death and aging color much of the book, giving it a thematic resonance and weight. That said, despite the chill of mortality or the exploration of dark impulses, there remains a seemingly-effortless humor at work here, bubbling paradoxically and pleasurably along, from the title story, a murder tale set on an Arctic cruise, to the final, brilliant entry, “Torching the Dusties,” in which the protagonist is an elderly woman living in an old-age community, who finds herself confronted with surreal end-of-life issues. These are smart, swift-reading stories that are both tightly-written and tough; as always, Atwood is a master of the form.
Gabrielle Zevin, author of “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” (Algonquin Books)
“American Innovations,” by Rivka Galchen (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
I’ve often thought there should be a one-year waiting period before deeming a book “favorite.” On a shorter timeline, a favorite for me is a book with a handful of images or bits of language that truly stick. The stickiest book I read in 2014 is the short story collection, “American Innovations” by Rivka Galchen. In the title story, a woman sprouts a third breast, and the revelation is delightfully casual: “You look sideways pregnant.” “Once an Empire” features a disturbing description of a sofa, an ironing board, a fork and the accumulated junk of a life walking out on their owner. In “The Lost Order, “ the narrator says towards the end of a marital argument, “I language along.” It’s a perfect turn of phrase: a Raymond Carver story in three words.
Nell Zink, author of “The Wallcreeper” (Dorothy, a publishing project)
“The Wallcreeper,” by Nell Zink (Dorothy, a publishing project)
The best new book I read this year was definitely “The Wallcreeper” by Nell Zink. Its intellectual level and sense of humor are exquisitely attuned to mine, and I have no trouble filling in the gaps left by its dishonest narrators. The ending delights and surprises me every time, since it was a last-minute decision. I think I read only six other books published this year in English, and I only liked three of them: “Boy, Snow, Bird” by Helen Oyeyemi, John Clute’s essay collection “Stay,” and “Guide to Troubled Birds,” a novelty item based on a series of refrigerator magnets. That’s what happens when you’re broke and paying for books yourself, I guess. I bought a few paperbacks I thought were new, but I checked and they’re all from last year. Now I have money to buy books, plus in 2015 I’m hoping I’ll turn into one of those newbie sucker micro-celeb authors people expect would be grateful for a blurbing opportunity (I would be grateful!), so this time next year I may have a less self-infatuated answer.