Salon’s What to Read Awards: Top critics choose the best books of 2014

To help sort through the year-end flood, we reached out to critics and tallied the totals for this definitive list


Michele Filgate
December 29, 2014 4:59PM (UTC)

We know you’re inundated with year-end best books of the year lists--hence our annual tradition in which we reach out to top critics to try to come to some kind of consensus on the best books of the year. We also incorporate lists from some other publications (like the New York Times, Washington Post, The Guardian, AV Club, Slate, and the Chicago Tribune) to come up with our final tally. Read on to find out about the top ten books of the year and to see what some of our favorite critics have to say:

Top Ten Books of 2014:

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1. “The Paying Guests,” by Sarah Waters
2. “Dept. of Speculation,” by Jenny Offill
3. “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” by Marlon James
4. “The Sixth Extinction,” by Elizabeth Kolbert
5. “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” by Roz Chast
6. “Citizen,” by Claudia Rankine
7. “The Empathy Exams,” by Leslie Jamison
8. “An Unnecessary Woman,” by Rabih Alameddine
9. “Euphoria,” by Lily King
10. “Thrown,” by Kerry Howley

~*~

Laura Miller, Salon

1. “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” by Marlon James
2. “The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking,” by Olivia Laing
3. “Euphoria,” by Lily King
4. “Getting Schooled: The Re-education of an American Teacher,” by Garret Keizer
5. “The Paying Guests,” by Sarah Waters
6. “The Invisible History of the Human Race: How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures,” by Christine Kenneally
7. “The Magician’s Land,” by Lev Grossman
8. “The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books,” by Azar Nafisi
9. “How to Be Both,” by Ali Smith
10. “Little Failure,” by Gary Shteyngart

1. Your number one book of the year: In a sentence or two, would you explain why it leads your list?

“A Brief History of Seven Killings” is about Jamaica in the 1970s, and constellates around the attempted assassination of Bob Marley. It’s got crime, politics, sex, spies, ghosts, pop stars, gangsters, history, intrigue, drugs and family: pretty much everything you could ask for in a novel, told by a rich cast of characters, each speaking in his or her own distinctive voice. Every part of it feels just right, from the cynical pissing contests of the CIA officers to the prickly relationship between two Jamaican sisters.

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2. What was the strongest debut book of 2014?

Strongest debut: “Stuff Matters” by Mark Miodownik, who writes much better than any materials scientist has a right to.

3. What book sits outside your list, but has either been overlooked or deserves more attention? Something you really liked deserving of an extra look?

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Lydia Millet’s “Mermaids in Paradise” is a comic masterpiece from a writer most often associated with serious fiction on environmental themes.

4. Was there one book, either on your list or off your list, fiction or non-fiction, which seems to best encapsulate America in 2014?

Thomas Pikkety’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” about the nature and threat of income inequality, is obviously the book of the year, even if I could not get past the first chapter without dozing off. It’s that unusual book that has its greatest effect through the voices, mostly journalists, that popularize it.

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5. What was the best essay you read this year? 

 

Heather Havrilesky’s “Mansplanation Nation,” about two decades of the nonfiction bestseller list, for Bookforum.

6. What is the book from 2014, either from your list or not, fiction or non-fiction, that is most likely to join the canon, or still be discussed 20 years from now?

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“Capital in the Twenty-First Century” by Thomas Pikkety which, like “The Sixth Extinction” by Elizabeth Kolbert, is about one of the two most pressing problems of our time: the increasingly unequal distribution of wealth and the degradation of the environment.

Laura Miller is Salon’s book critic.

Mark Athitakis

1.   “On Such a Full Sea,” by Chang-rae Lee. Dystopian novels are class novels by other means---whatever calamity has disrupted the earth has also disrupted society, so the narrative emphasis shifts toward who gets ahead and who gets shut out. Lee’s novel is as great a proof of that concept as I’ve read, a superbly woven vision of haves and have-nots in a broken, not-very-distant future.
2.    “Lila,” by Marilynne Robinson
3.     “On Immunity: An Inoculation,” by Eula Biss
4.      “Here,” by Richard McGuire
5.       “An Unnecessary Woman,” by Rabih Allamedine
6.       “An Untamed State,” by Roxane Gay
7.      “My Struggle, Book 3: Boyhood,” by Karl Ove Knausgaard
8.       “The Author and Me,” by Eric Chevillard
9.       “Mermaids in Paradise,” by Lydia Millet
10.   “The Betrayers,” by David Bezmozgis

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1. Your number one book of the year: In a sentence or two, would you explain why it leads your list?

“On Such a Full Sea,” by Chang-rae Lee. Dystopian novels are class novels by other means---whatever calamity has disrupted the earth has also disrupted society, so the narrative emphasis shifts toward who gets ahead and who gets shut out. Lee’s novel is as great a proof of that concept as I’ve read, a superbly woven vision of haves and have-nots in a broken, not-very-distant future. 

2. What was the strongest debut book of 2014?

Phil Klay, “Redeployment.” It took American writers a few years to begin to fully reckon with our military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in books like “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” and “The Yellow Birds,” the war feels visceral but also a touch historical, like an event in our rearview mirror. The stories in “Redeployment” are as built to last as the wars that are now clearly long ones; the dark comedy and haunted soldiers that populate the book will be relevant for years to come.

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3. What book sits outside your list, but has either been overlooked or deserves more attention? Something you really liked deserving of an extra look?

I hope in time more people find their way to Amy Greene’s fine second novel, “Long Man.” Set in a Tennessee town about to be flooded for the sake of the TVA, Long Man’s tale of a missing child amid nearing devastation revives Faulkner’s tone and long view of history without mimicking his prose.

4. Was there one book, either on your list or off your list, fiction or non-fiction, which seems to best encapsulate America in 2014?

On the surface Eula Biss’s “On Immunity” covers a narrow topic---the way childhood vaccination has been misunderstood and politicized in America. But Biss is our great poet of national fear---a very big topic---and as she did in her previous book, “Notes From No-Man’s Land,” she is superb as showing how our choice of words, from intimate conversations to cable-pundit airhorns, reveal our anxieties about children, race, and community.

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5. What was the best essay that you read this year?

In 2003, Terry Castle wrote “My Heroin Christmas,” a smart and wildly funny essay about “Straight Life,” a 1979 memoir by jazz musician and omnivorous drug enthusiast Art Pepper. This year Lili Anolik revisited the book in Harper’s, writing “The Tale of the Tape” partly to explore the book’s curious origins but also (much like Castle) to deliver a mash note to it. On the evidence, “Straight Life” is a kind of a magic charm for essayists---read the book, and loose, smart, and witty prose spills out. To pick just one example, I love Anolik’s riff on the background of Pepper’s wife: “Laurie was born into the educated bohemian Jewish middle class. So by her reckoning, she’d flopped in utero.”

6. What is the book from 2014, either from your list or not, fiction or non-fiction, that is most likely to join the canon, or still be discussed 20 years from now?

I suspect that “Citizen," Claudia Rankine’s crushing book-length poem/essay/memoir on racism, will have a long life on college syllabi. But in which department? English, yes, for the ferocity of its language, for her emotional acuity at describing how bigotry arrives in offhand comments and in violence, and for her fluid shifts from declamation to abstraction. Psychology and sociology too, for its window into how prejudice is experienced and responded to (or avoided). And history, because it speaks to racism's long, stubborn persistence. “Citizen” was written before the deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner debunked “post-racial America” as the canard that it was. Rankine was ahead of the news; what would it take for this book not to be ahead of the news two decades from now? 

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Mark Athitakis is a writer, editor, critic and blogger who’s spent more than a dozen years in journalism. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Washington Post Book World, Chicago Sun-Times, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Washington City Paper and many more publications.

Daniel Levin Becker

1. “The Temple of Iconoclasts,” by Juan Rodolfo Wilcock (tr. Lawrence Venuti)
2. “All My Puny Sorrows,” by Miriam Toews
3. “Dept. of Speculation,” by Jenny Offill
4. “The Silent History,” by Eli Horowitz, Matthew Derby, & Kevin Moffett
5. “Dear Committee Members,” by Julie Shumacher
6. “Sun Bear,” by Matthew Zapruder
7. “The Wallcreeper,” by Nell Zink
8. “Dockwood,” by Jon McNaught
9. “An Amorous Discourse in the Suburbs of Hell,” by Deborah Levy
10. “Weather Derivatives,” by Rufo Quintavalle

1. Your number one book of the year: In a sentence or two, would you explain why it leads your list?

“The Temple of Iconoclasts” came out in Italian in 1972, then in English around 2000, then disappeared — which is fitting, in a way, for a collection of bio-sketches about inspired lunatics whose ideas have been justly or tragically consigned to the dustbin of fictional history — but it feels wholly fresh and vital alongside today’s disrupters and demagogues. Plus it's just routinely delightful; here’s the wraithlike utopian Armando Aprile: “It is most likely that I shall succeed in removing the water from the seas and leaving only what is necessary for irrigation, since they pose a great danger to the planet Earth. What if someone immersed gigantic blenders in the sea? We would all die in a wink."

2. What was the strongest debut book of 2014?

I’m going to go with The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink, using “strongest” in the sense of “most pungent."
3. What book sits outside your list, but has either been overlooked or deserves more attention? Something you really liked deserving of an extra look?

Provisional endorsement for two appealingly palimpsestico-choral books I haven’t finished yet: “300,000,000” by Blake Butler and “The Ghost Apple” by Aaron Thier.

4. Was there one book, either on your list or off your list, fiction or non-fiction, which seems to best encapsulate America in 2014?

“The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil” by Stephen Collins.

5. What was the best essay that you read this year? (Published in 2014)

I feel remiss not picking one of the many much sadder pieces I loved this year — on elephant hunting in Botswana, bank-robbin’ in Brooklyn, endless racist fuckwittery throughout the country — but I got the most joy per square inch from Dan Piepenbring’s "Power Tools."

6. What is the book from 2014, either from your list or not, fiction or non-fiction, that is most likely to join the canon, or still be discussed 20 years from now?

Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. We’ll know why when we get there.

Daniel Levin Becker is reviews editor of The Believer.

Tobias Carroll

1. “Loitering,” by Charles D’Ambrosio
2. “Station Eleven,” by Emily St. John Mandel
3. “Boy, Snow, Bird,” by Helen Oyeyemi
4. “Red or Dead,” by David Peace
5. “Citizen: An American Lyric,” by Claudia Rankine
6. “Nobody Is Ever Missing,” by Catherine Lacey
7. “Thrown,” by Kerry Howley
8. “The Empathy Exams,” by Leslie Jamison
9. “Praying Drunk,” by Kyle Minor
10. “Black Cloud,” by Juliet Escoria,  (full disclosure: I originally published one of the stories collected in here as an editor.)

1. Your number one book of the year: In a sentence or two, would you explain why it leads your list?

I've been waiting for Charles D'Ambrosio's “Loitering” for a while now–I'm in awe of both his fiction and his nonfiction, and these essays encompass histories personal and cultural, and did an amazing job of making me better understand the world and the lives of others.

2. What was the strongest debut book of 2014?

Catherine Lacey, “Nobody Is Ever Missing.”

3. What book sits outside your list, but has either been overlooked or deserves more attention? Something you really liked deserving of an extra look?

Chelsea Hodson, “Pity the Animal,” as there's more wrenching emotion and dynamic prose to be found in this short chapbook than there are in plenty of works ten times its size.

4. Was there one book, either on your list or off your list, fiction or non-fiction, which seems to best encapsulate America in 2014?

Claudia Rankine's “Citizen: An American Lyric.”

5. What was the best essay that you read this year?

Perhaps it's due to being fresh in my mind, but: Kiese Laymon's "My Vassar College Faculty ID Makes Everything OK."

6. What is the book from 2014, either from your list or not, fiction or non-fiction, that is most likely to join the canon, or still be discussed 20 years from now?

Helen Oyeyemi's “Boy, Snow, Bird,” which both channels folk and fairy tales and finds new ways to apply them to recent events. (See also: Porochista Khakpour's “The Last Illusion.”)
Tobias Carroll is the managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn, and his work has recently appeared in Tin House, Midnight Breakfast, The Collapsar, The Collagist, Joyland, Necessary Fiction, and Underwater New York. He recently completed a short novel, and is at work on another.

Maureen Corrigan

1. “The Empire of Necessity,” by Greg Grandin
2. “All the Light We Cannot See,” by Anthony Doerr
3. “Florence Gordon,” by Brian Morton
4. “Something Rich and Strange,” by Ron Rash
5. “Deep Down Dark,” by Hector Tobar
6. “Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” by Roz Chast
7. “The Paying Guests,” by Sarah Waters
8. “10:04,” by Ben Lerner
9. “Dear Committee Members,” by Julie Schumacher
10. “The Department of Speculation,” by Jenny Offill

1. Your number one book of the year: In a sentence or two, would you explain why it leads your list?

“The Empire of Necessity” by Greg Grandin.  I haven't stopped thinking about Grandin's book since I read it in January. Grandin's atmospheric narrative history describes the events of real-life slave revolt in 1805 that inspired Herman Melville's floating Gothic masterpiece, “Benito Cereno,” and widens out to consider the explosion of the slave trade in the Americas.

2. What was the strongest debut book of 2014?

I think “Panic in a Suitcase” by Yelena Akhtiorskaya--a modern day tale of a Russian Jewish family of immigrants in Brooklyn who pledge allegiance to ambivalence.

3. What book sits outside your list, but has either been overlooked or deserves more attention? Something you really liked deserving of an extra look?

I loved Richard Ford's “Let Me Be Frank With You”--four stories that extend the life of his hero, Frank Bascombe into early old age against the backdrop of post-Hurricane Sandy New Jersey.  Were it not for the arbitrary ten book cut off, that collection would be on my list too.

4. Was there one book, either on your list or off your list, fiction or non-fiction, which seems to best encapsulate America in 2014?

I'd vote for Roz Chast's “Can't We Please Talk About Something More Pleasant?”  All across America, baby-boomers are coping with the financial, physical, and emotional ordeal of caring for aged parents without much help from our inadequate health care system.  Chast's brilliant book illuminates what that overwhelming experience is like from the inside.

5. What was the best essay you read this year? 

Jason Zengerle's “The New Racism” in The New Republic--about persistent structural racism in Alabama.

6. What is the book from 2014, either from your list or not, fiction or non-fiction, that is most likely to join the canon, or still be discussed 20 years from now?

I think it's a tie: Ron Rash's stories about Appalachia, many of them collected in “Something Rich and Strange,” are profound commentaries on class in America and beautifully written;  Greg Grandin's “Empire of Necessity” should become a staple in college courses about the slave trade and Herman Melville, respectively.

Maureen Corrigan is book critic for NPR’s Fresh Air and the author of “So We Read On” and “Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading!”

Roxane Gay

1. “Ugly Girls,” by Lindsay Hunter
2. “Love Me Back,” by Merritt Tierce
3. “Cinderland,” by Amy Jo Burns
4. “Brown Girl Dreaming,” by Jacqueline Woodson
5. “Man vs Nature,” by Diane Cook
6. “Red Rising,” by Pierce Brown
7. “Once I Was Cool,” by Megan Stielstra
8. “Queen Sugar,” by Natalie Baszile
9. “Shovel Ready,” by Adam Sternbergh
10. “Bedrock Faith,” by Eric Charles May

1. Your number one book of the year: In a sentence or two, would you explain why it leads your list?
“Ugly Girls” is masterfully dark and unrelenting and honest.

2. What was the strongest debut book of 2014?
“Love Me Back” by Merritt Tierce.

3. What book sits outside your list, but has either been overlooked or deserves more attention? Something you really liked deserving of an extra look?

“Love You, Be Safe” by Cara Hoffman.

4. Was there one book, either on your list or off your list, fiction or non-fiction, which seems to best encapsulate America in 2014?

“Brown Girl Dreaming”
5. What was the best essay that you read this year? (Published in 2014)

When The Monster Saves You” by Ashley Ford and then everything else she wrote this year including her Tumblr.

6. What is the book from 2014, either from your list or not, fiction or non-fiction, that is most likely to join the canon, or still be discussed 20 years from now?

“Brown Girl Dreaming.”

Roxane Gay’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Best American Mystery Stories 2014, Best American Short Stories 2012, Best Sex Writing 2012, A Public Space, McSweeney’s, Tin House, Oxford American, American Short Fiction, West Branch, Virginia Quarterly Review, NOON, The New York Times Book Review, Bookforum, Time, The Los Angeles Times, The Nation, The Rumpus, Salon, and many others. She is the co-editor of PANK. She is also the author of the books Ayiti, An Untamed State, Bad Feminist, and Hunger, forthcoming from Harper in 2016.

Rigoberto González

1. “Citizen,” by Claudia Rankine
2. “An Unnecessary Woman,” by Rabih Alameddine
3. “All Our Names,” by Dinaw Mengestu
4. “The Moor’s Account,” by Laila Lalami
5. “A Cup of Water Under My Bed,” by Daisy Hernández
6. “In the Go-Slow,” by Bridgett M. Davis
7. “Give It To Me,” by Ana Castillo
8. “Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free,” by Héctor Tobar
9. “Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program That Brought Nazi Scientists to America,” by Annie Jacobsen
10. “Literachoor Is My Beat: A Life of James Laughlin, Publisher of New Directions,” by Ian S. MacNiven

1. Your number one book of the year: In a sentence or two, would you explain why it leads your list?

Rankine’s book of prose poems is a piercing look into the everyday moments that escalate quickly into powerful political statements about race relations in the U.S. We have seen such encounters unfold in communities like Ferguson, Missouri, which like Rankine’s words unearth a troubled history and unsettle our expectations for a peaceful future if we don’t begin to recognize the problem of racism in America.

2. What was the strongest debut book of 2014?

Meline Toumani’s “There Was and There Was Not: A Journey Through Hate and Possibility in Turkey, Armenia, and Beyond.” Toumani explores with extraordinary clarity the complicated reasons the Armenian genocide of 1915 continues to affect hostility against anything Turkish in her New Jersey community. She works hard to understand a century of distrust and strife, while still making her journey to the source, to Istanbul, a personal one filled with revelation and surprising beauty. 

3. What book sits outside your list, but has either been overlooked or deserves more attention? Something you really liked deserving of an extra look?

Francisco Goldman’s “The Interior Circuit: A Mexico City Chronicle.” This is a book about coping with the grief of losing a partner, but it is also a fascinating exploration of the place that continues to keep them connected. Of special note is the chapter on the history of social protest by the student movements of Mexico, which casts a eye-opening light on recent tragic events of the country, like the disappearance of the 43 students from the college of Ayotzinapa.

4. Was there one book, either on your list or off your list, fiction or non-fiction, which seems to best encapsulate America in 2014?

Again, Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen.”

5. What was the best essay that you read this year? (Published in 2014)

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations,” published in The Atlantic this summer. This powerful essay ignited an old debate, or rather, gave historical perspective to the reasons political, economic, and social levels of participation will remain at a disadvantage for black communities. Though he does make a case for reparations, I suspect the true goal of Coates’ essay was to offer a larger context to the institutional racism and discriminatory policies that will keep this country from ever reaching the so-called “post-racial” era.

6. What is the book from 2014, either from your list or not, fiction or non-fiction, that is most likely to join the canon, or still be discussed 20 years from now?

Roxane Gay’s “Bad Feminist.” I absolutely love when a book energizes a conversation, in this case, about feminism today. Today’s feminist is complex, flawed, and embraces contradictions as a form of empowerment and not an expression of weakness. I want this book to remain popular, to be read a decade from now by my nieces—and nephews—who will have much to learn from Gay’s insightful, articulate and spot-on observations about culture, race, class, and gender.

Rigoberto González is the author of fourteen books of poetry and prose. He is contributing editor for Poets & Writers Magazine and on the executive board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle.

Lev Grossman

1. “Thrown,” by Kerry Howley
2. “Zone of Interest,” by Martin Amis
3. “The Secret Place,” by Tana French
4. “Soldier Girls,” by Helen Thorpe
5. “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” by David Shafer
6. “Redeployment,” by Phil Klay
7. “Little Failure,” by Gary Shteyngart
8. “The Sixth Extinction,” by Elizabeth Kolbert
9. “The Trip to Echo Spring,” by Olivia Laing
10. “In the Kingdom of Ice,” by Hampton Sides

1. Your number one book of the year: In a sentence or two, would you explain why it leads your list?

Kerry Howley, “Thrown.” Nothing else felt as strong and smart and fresh and honest this year—nothing else whipped my head around the way something great and truly new does.

2. What was the strongest debut book of 2014?

“Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot,” by David Shafer. What a huge, powerful, funny, smart voice—this book really gets at the heart of our exact sociotechnological predicament at this exact moment in time. I can’t wait to see what he says with it next.

3. What book sits outside your list, but has either been overlooked or deserves more attention? Something you really liked deserving of an extra look?

“What If?” By Randall Munroe. Possibly the most flat-out page-for-page interesting book of the year. It won’t win a Pulitzer, because it has too many stick figure cartoons in it, but everybody should buy it anyway.
Oh, and “Sous Chef” by Michael Gibney. Top-notch, blow-torch writing about a day and a night in a restaurant kitchen, in the Anthony Bourdain tradition.

4. Was there one book, either on your list or off your list, fiction or non-fiction, which seems to best encapsulate America in 2014?

Helen Thorpe, “Soldier Girls.” Nothing else I read said to me so clearly: this is what is happening in our country right now. This is how people live.

5. What was the best essay that you read this year?

Two very different pieces come to mind. One is Roger Angell’s “This Old Man,” about what it’s like to be in your 90s. The other is “Everything Is Broken,” an essay published on Medium by Quinn Norton, about how grave and endemic computer security issues are, and why. Oh, and also, Deadspin published a great, smart, weird profile of Lebron James by Benjamin Markovits that had been killed by another magazine.

6. What is the book from 2014, either from your list or not, fiction or non-fiction, that is most likely to join the canon, or still be discussed 20 years from now?

None. It wasn’t really that kind of year.

Lev Grossman is the book critic for Time magazine and the author of five novels, including the international bestseller Codex and the New York Times  bestselling Magicians trilogy.

Laurie Hertzel

1. “Fourth of July Creek,” by Smith Henderson
2. “The Empathy Exams,” by Leslie Jamison
3. “Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” by Roz Chast
4. “Nora Webster,” by Colm Toibin
5. “In the Kingdom of Ice,” by Hampton Sides
6. “Pioneer Girl," by Laura Ingalls Wilder, edited by Pamela Smith Hill
7. "Underground,” poetry by Jim Moore
8. “The Narrow Road to the Deep North,” by Richard Flanagan
9. “A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing,” by Eimear McBride
10. “When Paris Went Dark,” by Ronald Rosbottom

1. Your number one book of the year: In a sentence or two, would you explain why it leads your list?

Smith Henderson’s novel was one of many stunning debuts of 2014 (my No. 1. choice in nonfiction, Leslie Jamison’s “The Empathy Exams,” was also a debut). It tells the story of a deeply flawed protagonist named Pete Snow, a social worker who is trying to help all these poverty-stricken and broken-down families in Montana during the Reagan years, but his own life is a huge mess as well—his wife is leaving him, his daughter has run off, he drinks too much. And then he finds this semi-feral child and takes him back to his father, who turns out to be this mad prophet who lives deep in the wilderness, and that sets the plot in motion. The story is superb—the book is one I had to keep putting down because I knew it was going to break my heart—and Henderson’s characters are true to life. It’s a book that just consumed me. In a good way. But a heartbreaking way.

1. What was the strongest debut book of 2014?

Well, you know, it was probably “Redeployment,” the story collection by Phil Klay, but I have to confess that’s one I have not yet had time to read. (Like James McBride’s “A Good Lord Bird,” I fear I’ll end up reading it a year too late and then lamenting that it didn’t make my list.) There were a lot of great debut books this year; it’s astounding. “A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing” has won accolades all over the place; “Snow in May” is a delightful collection of stories by a first-time writer; “Fourth of July Creek,” mentioned above, is a strong contender. But “Redeployment,” won the National Book Award for fiction so I’ll boldly go with that.

3. What book sits outside your list, but has either been overlooked or deserves more attention? Something you really liked deserving of an extra look?

Alice Munro’s collection, “Family Furnishings,” which I didn’t put on my list because it’s selected stories, all previously published—she is 83 and has announced that she is retired from writing, something you can do after you win the International Man Booker and the Nobel Prize. But it’s a really gorgeous book, not just great stories (of course) but beautifully designed, with a lovely cover. It would make a fine gift.

4. Was there one book, either on your list or off your list, fiction or non-fiction, which seems to best encapsulate America in 2014?

I think Leslie Jamison’s “The Empathy Exams,” her stunning collection of essays about people in pain and how we respond to that pain. It’s about much more than that, of course, but that’s the common thread that runs through these pieces. She writes about an ultramarathoner who is serving time for some kind of possibly ginned-up reason, and her question is how it feels to be someone who so loves to move, to run, and yet to be confined. And she writes about people who have a curious malady in which they believe there are foreign objects imbedded under their skin. And she writes about three teenagers who have been perhaps wrongfully imprisoned for murder. It seems that in these very difficult times—and I know we always think times are tough, but my gosh they are now, so grim—there can be no timelier topic than this one.

5. What was the best essay that you read this year? (Published in 2014)

Devil’s Bait,” by Leslie Jamison, from “The Empathy Exams,” her piece about people who suffer from the very curious aliment known as Morgellons Syndrome, which might be a physical thing and might be a mental thing. She is curious, but never voyeuristic, and at one point she begins to worry that she too, might be coming down with this: “Then it starts happening, as I knew it would,” she writes. “After a shower, I notice small blue strands curled like tiny worms across my clavicle. I find what appear to be minuscule spines, little quills, tucked into the crevice of a fortune line on my palm. … It actually gives me an odd thrill. Maybe some part of me wants to find something.” Her curiosity and her empathy are so intense she nearly becomes the people she writes about. It’s a wonderful piece.

6. What is the book from 2014, either from your list or not, fiction or non-fiction, that is most likely to join the canon, or still be discussed 20 years from now?

“All The Light We Cannot See,” which has been lauded everywhere, including in the Star Tribune, for its exquisite prose and its heartbreaking story and its great truths. And which is not on my top ten list because its’ another book that I won’t get around to reading until 2015. This job, I tell you, it can drive a person crazy.

Laurie Hertzel is books editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune and author of “News to Me: Adventures of an Accidental Journalist.”

Marjorie Kehe

1. “Unremarried Widow,” by Artis Henderson – a slender but beautiful memoir that gave all those casualty figures from Iraq and Afghanistan a terrible new poignancy
2. “An Unnecessary Woman,” by Rabih Alameddine – all of us who have lived our lives largely through books simply have to love this one
3. “Savage Harvest,” by Carl Hoffman – a terrible true story, but a remarkable piece of reporting and also a book full of insight about the dangers of failing to truly understand others
4. “The Underground Girls of Kabul,” by Jenny Nordberg – another remarkable piece of reporting, bringing to light a cultural practice that is longstanding but rarely discussed openly
5. “Soldier Girls,” by Helen Thorpe – again, really good reporting and a very compassionate, informative look at the woman in our military today
6. “The Everything Store,” by Brad Stone – you can't work in the book world today and not be impacted by Amazon. This biography of both Jeff Bezos and Amazon itself was eye-opening. Also, the story of Stone breaking the news to Bezos's biological father that his son was one of the wealthiest men in the world is unforgettable!
7. “Kinder than Solitude,” by Yiyun Li – I love her writing. I also love that she can write a book that is (a) about the impact of a government on a people and yet (b) at the same time, tell a story that resonates for all human beings.
8. “Mission at Nuremberg,” by Tim Townsend – who knew that in their final days the Nazi leadership had a spiritual counselor who was an idealistic Midwestern pastor? The minister is a fascinating, touching character and his story is a quiet gem of recovered history
9. “My Salinger Year,” by Joanna Rakoff – another wonderful memoir, graced with sly humor, poignant characters, and a literary superstar
10. “My Two Italies,” by Joseph Luzzi – anyone who studied abroad in Italy will ache a bit on reading this heart-felt memoir.

Other questions:

1. Your number one book of the year: In a sentence or two, would you explain why it leads your list?

For years now we've been hearing those horrible military casualty numbers from Iraq and Afghanistan. In her slender, beautifully written memoir "Unremarried Widow," Artis Henderson made me ache over those numbers in a way that I had never done before.

2. What was the strongest debut book of 2014?

I'm going to go with "Unremarried Widow."

3. What book sits outside your list, but has either been overlooked or deserves more attention? Something you really liked deserving of an extra look?

I had so much fun reading "The New York Nobody Knows." A CUNY professor, William B. Helmreich, walked every single block of NYC, all five boroughs, and wrote about his observations. I was sharing factoids and anecdotes from this for weeks.

4. Was there one book, either on your list or off your list, fiction or non-fiction, which seems to best encapsulate America in 2014?

In a strange way, I would say "The Everything Store" by Brad Stone. Like it or not, Amazon is hugely influential. For me this book was an eye-opener as to what succeeds in the US today and why or why not.

5. What was the best essay that you read this year? (Published in 2014)

Oh, for me that honor would have to go to Ann Patchett this year. I loved the whole of "This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage." I guess if I had to pick a favorite I would go with the title essay although many are gems and the two about her dog Rose will stay with me forever as well.

6. What is the book from 2014, either from your list or not, fiction or non-fiction, that is most likely to join the canon, or still be discussed 20 years from now?

I think that students of history and politics will be reading "13 Days of September" by Lawrence Wright for many years to come.

Marjorie Kehe is the Christian Science Monitor’s Books editor.

Lydia Kiesling

Unlike my esteemed colleagues, I usually spend the year catching up on books from the preceding year; my overall field of 2014 books read was so small I feel fraudulent making up a “Top 10.”  Five seems more reasonable given my paltry reading list.

  1. “Thrown,” by Kerry Howley
  2. “Dept. of Speculation,” by Jenny Offill
  3. “An Unnecessary Woman,” by Rabih Alameddine
  4. “The Unspeakable,” by Meghan Daum
  5. “The UnAmericans,” by Molly Antopol

1.Your number one book of the year: In a sentence or two, would you explain why it leads your list? 2. What was the strongest debut book of 2014?

My number one book for the year was also my favorite debut.  The term “creative nonfiction” encompasses so much writing as to be essentially meaningless, and Kerry Howley drove another nail into the coffin with “Thrown,” a book on mixed martial arts fighting that is both narrative experiment (“extravagantly semi-fictional non-fiction?”) and gripping account of a bloody art form.

3. What book sits outside your list, but has either been overlooked or deserves more attention? Something you really liked deserving of an extra look?

I left off “California” and “Station Eleven,” novels by Edan Lepucki and Emily St. John Mandel, because they are my friends and colleagues at The Millions and it seems icky to stick them on my best-of list for that reason.  But both of these novels were wonderful.  For me, Will Chancellor’s “A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall” somewhat collapsed under its own weight, but I thought it was a stirring debut nonetheless.  Richard Ford’s “Let Me Be Frank With You” is by Richard Ford, and thus can’t be anything other than wonderful as far as I’m concerned.

4. Was there one book, either on your list or off your list, fiction or non-fiction, which seems to best encapsulate America in 2014?

Not to keep talking about “Thrown,” but it is pretty illustrative of some major social differences in America.  Again, I don’t think I read enough new books this year to properly answer this question.

5. What was the best essay that you read this year? (Published in 2014)

This is so hard—there were phenomenally good essays all over the place.  Going against my moratorium on putting friends/colleagues on the list, Mark O’Connell’s essay on Parenthood and Pessimism is a must-read, as is anything by Mark O’Connell.  Leslie Jamison’s essay on Morgellons disease, “The Devil’s Bait,” is truly remarkable.  This piece on outsize love of one’s cat by Tim Kreider is unmissable.  And finally, Matt Seidel on the “Two Kinds of Novelists” was one of the funniest book-related things I read this year.

6. What is the book from 2014, either from your list or not, fiction or non-fiction, that is most likely to join the canon, or still be discussed 20 years from now?

You’re killing me with these questions.  I can’t even begin to imagine what a “canon” would look like decades down the line, but I think “Dept. of Speculation” will stick with people as an encapsulation of a number of things that the reading public is thinking about in the present day—issues of women and work, art and home life, money and cultural capital, children and career, bedbugs, etc.

Lydia Kiesling is a staff writer for The Millions and the creator of the Modern Library Revue. She lives in San Francisco and tweets sporadically at @lydiakiesling. You can read more of her writing at www.lydiakiesling.com.

Laurie Muchnick

“The Paying Guests,” Sarah Waters
2.“Florence Gordon,” Brian Morton
3.“Euphoria,” by Lily King
4.“Mermaids in Paradise,” by Lydia Millet
5."An Untamed State,” by Roxane Gay
6.“The Remedy for Love,” by Bill Roorbach
7.“Panic in a Suitcase,” by Yelena Akhtiorskaya
8.“All I Love and Know,” by Judith Frank
9.“All Our Names,” by Dinaw Mengestu
10. “My Salinger Year,” by Joanna Rakoff

1. Your number one book of the year: In a sentence or two, would you explain why it leads your list?

“The Paying Guests” is the book I’ve been telling people to read all year: It has deep characters; a subtle exploration of the British class system (maybe not everyone’s favorite thing, but I can’t resist); an exquisitely tense build-up to a couple of actually surprising surprises; and plenty of sex.

2. What was the strongest debut book of 2014? AND 4.Was there one book, either on your list or off your list, fiction or non-fiction, which seems to best encapsulate America in 2014?

The strongest debut and the book that most encapsulates our time are the same for me: Roxane Gay’s “An Untamed State” feels like a necessary novel for 2014.

3. What book sits outside your list, but has either been overlooked or deserves more attention? Something you really liked deserving of an extra look?

One book that I would like to have seen get more attention is “Alphabet” by Kathy Page, from the small Canadian press Biblioasis. It’s a sort of “Clockwork Orange” update: A man convicted of murdering his girlfriend volunteers for a special program designed to reprogram criminals by making them face their crimes head-on, but he’s not prepared for the humiliation involved.

5.What was the best essay that you read this year?

I was glad Meghan Daum published “The Unspeakable” last month so I can stop re-reading “Music Is My Bag” all the time and find some new favorite essays.

6. What is the book from 2014, either from your list or not, fiction or non-fiction, that is most likely to join the canon, or still be discussed 20 years from now?

It’s not a perfect book, but I think David Mitchell’s “The Bone Clocks” has a good chance of sticking around for 20 years as a representative of our current genre-bending literary culture.

Laurie Muchnick is the fiction editor of Kirkus Reviews and the president of the National Book Critics Circle.


Michele Filgate

Michele Filgate's work has appeared in The Daily Beast, Vulture, Capital New York, Time Out New York, The Star Tribune, O: The Oprah Magazine, Bookslut, The Quarterly Conversation and other publications

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