Well, this is a lot longer than I’d expected.
I’m going to echo a lot of my peers in noting that 2014 was a pretty fantastic year for books. Whether imaginative forays into altered landscapes or incisive takes on the state of America circa right now, there was plenty of work out there that knocked me off my feet. Here are some thoughts on some of the books that impressed me the most this year, done in hopefully-not-too-arbitrary pairings. At the bottom, I’ve included some quick notes on notable books from previous years that I encountered for the first time this year. Good reading, all.
Charles D’Ambrosio, Loitering
Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven
Charles D’Ambrosio’s essay collection and Emily St. John Mandel’s fourth novel were the books of the year for me: works that simultaneously made me appreciate art and literature more and were themselves fantastic works of literature.
Kerry Howley, Thrown
Siri Hustvedt, The Blazing World
Thrown is both a look inside the world of MMA fighting; The Blazing World is a novel examining questions of art and gender. They share a fondness for exploring questions of identity–those are at the heart of Hustvedt’s novel, while Howley’s nonfiction work raises questions of the authorial surrogate.
Atticus Lish, Preparation for the Next Life
Scott Cheshire, High as the Horses’ Bridles
For my money, the two big New York novels of the year each focus squarely on the borough of Queens. Lish’s novel grapples with wartime trauma, borders, and identity; for Cheshire’s, it’s more about faith, doubt, and generations.
Kyle Minor, Praying Drunk
Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric
Two of the year’s best books focused on legacies familial, cultural, and national, showing the ways that crimes of the past and crimes of the now weave together and continue to haunt us. That Rankine and Minor are both excellent writers means that they’re able to bring together words dynamically, even as the context devastates.
Helen Oyeyemi, Boy, Snow, Bird
Porochista Khakpour, The Last Illusion
If you’ve wondered how to update centuries-old stories for magnificent resonance, there’s a lot to be learned from Helen Oyeyemi and Porochista Khakpour. Each takes a folk tale that seems familiar, and each applies it to a plot that shows how its archetypes are still incredibly relevant today.
David Peace, Red or Dead
Luke B. Goebel, Fourteen Stories, None of Them Are Yours
David Peace’s lengthy meditation on the life of iconic Liverpool coach Bill Shankly and Luke B. Goebel’s fractured and sometimes metafictional novel both carry with them massive questions of loss. In Peace’s case, it’s the way that aspects of our lives can define us, and how we make do without them; in Goebel’s, it’s about when people critical to us are no longer present.
May-Lan Tan, Things to Make and Break
May-Lan Tan, Girly
If an American publisher does not release May-Lan Tan’s stunning collection Things to Make and Break soon, something is terribly wrong with the world. Her chapbook Girly provides a good overview of her abilities, both to wow the reader with structure and to tell an emotionally resonant story.
Evie Wyld, All the Birds, Singing
D. Foy, Made to Break
Isolation, estrangement, and bursts of startling violence: these are the hallmarks of Evie Wyld’s novel of a woman living in self-imposed exile in Britain and D. Foy’s novel of a group of friends trapped in a cabin and grappling with disastrous weather and, in one case, a horrific injury. But in both, Wyld and Foy note that memory’s ability to haunt can be as wrenching as any physical threat.
Nell Zink, The Wallcreeper
Jenny Offill, Dept of Speculation
These two novels distinctively deconstruct marriage–whether, as in Offill’s, they do so in the confines of a familiar city and milieu; or, as in Zink’s, they satirically explore expatriate life and dissatisfaction.
Juliet Escoria, Black Cloud
Roxane Gay, An Untamed State
Two of the year’s most visceral books were found in Roxane Gay’s novel of a kidnapped woman in Haiti and the explorations of love, betrayal, and addiction found in Juliet Escoria’s Black Cloud. These are books that put their characters through horrific experiences and examine the changes that result.
Justin Taylor, Flings
Jac Jemc, A Different Bed Every Time
These two short story collections–Taylor’s second and Jemc’s first–were terrific examples of how to succeed on both the story level and the structural one; the individual stories work exceptionally well, but they also work as parts of a larger whole.
Samantha Harvey, Dear Thief
Catherine Lacey, Nobody Is Ever Missing
Dear Thief is an intricately-told story of intimate relationships and the legacies they leave behind; Lacey’s novel is one of escape, raising questions of emotional and physical collapse. Each does a masterful job of putting you inside the heads of their characters.
Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams
Chelsea Hodson, Pity the Animal
Whether observing the different ways that bodies can be pushed and reacted to, as in Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, or taking on a more personal view, as in Chelsea Hodson’s Pity the Animal, the best literature helps make us understand the lives of others. These two books do so exceptionally well.
Nick Harkaway, Tigerman
Chris Abani, The Secret History of Las Vegas
Both Nick Harkaway and Chris Abani take pulp riffs and push them into unexpected places with their 2014 novels. Tigerman is a kind of meditation on the idea of the superhero that involves some deeply affecting moments; Chris Abani’s The Secret History of Las Vegas is a kind of deconstructed procedural where the sins of two very different nations collide in the titular city.
J. David Osborne, Our Blood in Its Blind Circuit
Blake Butler, 300,000,000
Weird crimes? We can do that. J. David Osborne’s collection spanned surreal, ultra-violent crimes and the hilariously deconstructive “Gritty.” Blake Butler’s 300,000,000 involves cult leaders, at least one unreliable narrator, and everyone in the country murdering everyone else in the country. It’s like Dennis Cooper’s The Sluts reimagined as an apocalyptic detective novel.
Sean Madigan Hoen, Songs Only You Know
Amanda Petrusich, Do Not Sell At Any Price
Let’s talk for a second about music and obsession. In the case of Sean Madigan Hoen’s memoir, that takes its form in the cathartic music Hoen made as his family’s life collapsed; in the case of Petrusich’s examination of collectors obsessed with 78s, it’s a warm document of a particular subculture, and of Petrusich’s eventual participation in it.
Diane Cook, Man V. Nature
Dolan Morgan, That’s When the Knives Come Down
As a fan of writers like Steven Millhauser and Kelly Link, I’d be remiss if I didn’t nod in the direction of Cook and Morgan, who are doing fantastic things with structure, perspective, and expectations, I’d be remiss.
(Full disclosure: stories in Escoria and Osborne’s collections have been published on Vol.1 Brooklyn. Dolan Morgan has published a story of mine on Everyday Genius.)
From the Backlist
Cynthia Carr, Fire In the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz
Politically and artistically vital, this is a book that succeeded on virtually every level. Exhausting, educational, and moving.
John McPhee, Encounters With the Archdruid
A master class at how to turn political debates into gripping writing, with evocative language and settings to boot.
Kazuo Ishiguro, The Unconsoled
A dreamlike epic; I suspect that I’ll be trying to piece this one together for years to come.
Sofia Samatar, A Stranger in Olondria
Subtly familiar (but not) landscapes and cultures, ghosts, and an archetypal journey; a book that never lets you feel complacent.
James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
File under: books I should have read years ago, but am glad I checked out this year. Essential reading.
Geoff Dyer, The Search
I am a sucker for atmospheric novels that riff on pulp and add an element of the weird to the mix, so: this is the definition of “in my wheelhouse.”
Andre Dubus, Broken Vessels
Wrenchingly good (and haunting) essays.
Kirsten Bakis, Lives of the Monster Dogs
Plays out like a shadow history, both of the second half of the twentieth century and of 1990s New York City. Plus: giant talking dogs.
Alice Bag, Violence Girl: East L.A. Rage to Hollywood Stage, a Chicana Punk Story
Come for the inside details of the early LA punk scene, stay for the excellent sociopolitical observations.
Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time to Keep Silence
Fantastic notes on writing, meditativeness, and history.