To celebrate the year in books, our editors compiled a list of favorite titles we reviewed in 2014. Of course, this only represents a tiny slice of all the wonderful releases this year. Cheers to the books of 2014! Here is a look back at our highlights.
Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle
This is why I love novels. You get a chance to be inside someone’s head, to understand their mistakes, even when you can’t condone them. Wolf is dark dark dark—it revolves around a wrongful death suit filed against our narrator, the survivor of a botched suicide. But Sean’s fertile imagination and resilience remind us of the beauty that can grow in the darkest places. I’ve already bought copies of this for other people; it’s one of those.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux; October
Loitering by Charles D’Ambrosio
I bet Charles D’Ambrosio is terrific at Scrabble. I mean, I don’t know if he’s quick to the corners or bingoing with power tiles, but I had to keep a dictionary handy while reading Loitering, an updated collection of his nonfiction output. There’s a lot of big guns here, ten-dollar words that had me questioning the net worth of my diploma. Then I investigated these mystery words and realized they are PERFECT CHOICES. And it happens sentence-after-achingly-well-crafted-sentence. He is so precise, so articulate, that every clause seems to achieve maximum expression. I’m looking forward to rereading this the first chance I get.
Tin House Books, November
Thrown by Kerry Howley
Hands down, this literary nonfiction book is the one that I’ve wrestled with most in the past year. And although “wrestle” feels pun-tastic given the mixed martial arts subject matter, I have spent an embarrassing amount of time debating this one in my head and with friends. Howley’s use of Kit, a fictional narrator, to profile two MMA athletes called into question, well, everything about the NF category: If Kit’s fake, how fake? Is she a complete fiction? Why do I equate fake with nonfiction but not with fiction? It had me questioning my views on entire floors of the library. Did I mention it’s also the sweatiest, bloodiest, most gut-wrenching book I’ve read in years? It is, and now I’m a believer. Damn you, Kit. Thank you, Kerry.
American Fun: Four Centuries of Joyous Revolt by John Beckman
Beckman’s history chronicles the fun bits of the last four hundred years, from the Boston Tea Party and the trickster Br’er Rabbit to drug culture and underground music clubs. The author posits that participants in provocative fun are active and their actions spontaneous, which provides the rebellious and sometimes destructive nature of joyous revolt absent from the homogenous and corporate versions (PT Barnum, Playstation, Broadway, etc.) hoping to make a dollar off of you. The lines are a bit blurry on what it means that “fun” can sometimes lead to evil or murderous acts. And how from there, it’s only a small leap to the debased humor of modern day lulz-seekers. But he never did say that fun has to be innocent. It’s also a thrill to know that there were early colonists who pulled pranks on the Puritans. Thomas Morton is now my spirit animal.
In Case of Emergency by Courtney Moreno: One of the best messy love stories I’ve read, fleshed out with family drama, accurate (and fascinating) EMT action, and the science of the body. Plus, a bisexual protagonist that doesn’t fall into the common traps and tropes!
Wallflowers by Eliza Robertson: Such an impressive debut short story collection. Eliza Robertson’s work is inventive, imaginative, and incredibly emotive, with a sure sense of place and character. I couldn’t put it down.
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay: I know I’m in very good company when I say that this was one of the best books of 2014. Roxane Gay writes incisive cultural critique, ranging from the definition of feminism to the George Zimmerman trial — a viewpoint that is sorely needed and that I’m delighted is getting widespread attention.
Harper Perennial, August
Our Secret Life in the Movies by Michael McGriff and JM Tyree– I have never read anything quite like Our Secret Life in the Movies. Michael McGriff and JM Tyree set out to watch every movie in the Criterion Collection and then wrote short stories based on the movies. The result is a gorgeous collection of flash fiction about growing up in the 80s. It is such an interesting multi-media project and yet the stories stay at the heart of the collection. Spot-on perfect.
A Strange Object, November
The Apartment by Greg Baxter – This novel takes place over a single day exposing a complicated personal history as told through the narrator’s stream of consciousness. Themes of art, culture, politics, war, and violence subtly unfold in this somber and restrained novel. This book is not typically my cup of tea, but I just loved it. A perfect winter read.
Grand Central Publishing, January
Praying Drunk by Kyle Minor – This book of stories begins with the note: “These stories are meant to be read in order. This is a book, not just a collection. DON’T SKIP AROUND.” Praying Drunk mixes science fiction with memoir, examining form and function and really taking risks. In one chapter, the author interviews himself. There is so much to appreciate in this novel/collection hybrid. A great gift for the writer or short-story reader in your life.
The Wilds by Julia Elliott – Julia Elliott’s gritty and often grotesque collection of short stories examines the natural world through a unique lens. Her characters shed skin, walk on robotic legs, run with wild dogs, and levitate. Highly imaginative and yet, so very real. Like a strange science text book. Easily a 2014 favorite.
Tin House, October
By Light We Knew Our Names by Anne Valente
By Light We Knew Our Names is a luminous debut. The second story in the collection, “Dear Amelia,” is from the point of view of a group of girls who are morphing into Maine black bears, and it’s addressed to Amelia Earhart. It’s one of my favorite stories not just of the year, but ever. But my summary doesn’t really do it justice. All thirteen stories in this collection are intimate and palpable. Trust me. These stories resonate.
Beside Myself by Ashley Farmer
When you open up Ashley Farmer’s debut collection Beside Myself, you are entering a world where language rules. These pieces celebrate the palpable presence of the imagination with efficient and beautiful prose. In these stories, a couple transports a dying bat and raindrops turn into naked women falling from the sky. Reading Beside Myself is an entirely unique experience, and an excellent introduction to Farmer’s stunning prose.
Tiny Hardcore Press, March
Sleep Donation by Karen Russell
In this e-novella by the incredible Karen Russell, insomnia is an incurable epidemic, and it’s spreading. Healthy sleepers are asked to donate their dreams by the hour. Narrator Trish describes this world exactly and clinically, down to the scent of the donors’ sleep as it drains from them. Russell introduces us to a thoroughly imagined, eerie reality. This one is not to be missed.
Atavist Books, March
Naked Me by Christian Winn
Naked Me is a debut collection with attitude. Two boys hang out on a giant fake hamburger while troubles unfold in their homes; a woman mourns celebrity deaths; sisters share a boyfriend. But, despite the unusual premises of these stories, their characters feel genuine. Winn manages to touch on universal emotions through unique characters.
Dock Street Press, August
How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales by Kate Bernheimer
Each story in Kate Bernheimer’s new collection is based on an old “source tale.” The nine new stories will astound you. In them, a sea urchin promised to bring good luck when it blooms delivers death instead; a boy grows up lonely in a camouflage house built as protection; a girl has a cruel talking shadow. These tales are infused with modern texture, and prove that fairy tales are not synonymous with happy endings.
Coffee House Press, August