As always, these are the books I read this year that stand out for me. Publication date is irrelevant. Order, except when noted, is not significant, either.
Wolf in White Van, by John Darnielle. The best, most provocative, and most beautiful
book I read in 2014.
Lila, by Marilynne Robinson. A great American novel.
For Rouenna, by Sigrid Nunez. What about Vietnam Veterans who were women? Also a great American novel. Slow, deliberate, and gorgeous.
The Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner. Some argued this was the great American novel. I wouldn’t quite say that, but I would say it’s maybe the best American coming of age novel ever. (That I happen to have read.)
Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie. The best science fiction I’ve read in a long time.
Fat Man and Little Boy, by Mike Meginnis. What if we thought of those early atomic bombs as people trying like the rest of us to make their way in the world? A challenging and rewarding book.
Eleven Days, by Lea Carpenter. A liberal intellectual mother tries to understand her son’s decision to become a Navy SEAL.
The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, by Shani Boianjiu. Another great coming of age novel, this is an account of three Israeli women in the IDF. A story we haven’t heard before; stylistically innovative.
The Patrick Melrose Novels, by Edward St. Aubyn. Also could be seen as a coming of age sequence. Searing.
Life Drawing, by Robin Black. What we all really want to know about adultery—whether a marriage can survive it.
I Curse the River of Time, by Per Petterson. We can thank Chairman Mao for that great title. I found this book even more compelling than Out Stealing Horses.
The Idiot, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Pick your translation. This was a reread. While I no longer think it’s the best book ever, which is what I thought when I was 17, it holds up all right…
Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill. This is on everyone else’s list, and here it is on mine.
The Southern Reach Trilogy, by Jeff VanderMeer. A beautifully written work of speclit offering much to think about, amid—or despite—much confusion.
The Ten-Year Nap, by Meg Wollitzer. This story of four women who chose to be at-home moms resonated for me.
The Kept, by James Scott. Sure, this could be a great American novel, too. Kind of a New England-y Blood Meridian, with a more refreshing point of view.
On Killing, by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman. Used as a text by at least one of the military colleges, this is a study of why killing other humans is so hard, and what the military has to do to overcome our natural resistance to doing it. Or, you could watch Full Metal Jacket.
Shooting Victoria, by Paul Murphy. Paul is a friend and former colleague, but that didn’t stop me from becoming engrossed in this book, which recounts seven attempts on Queen Victoria’s life and how they shaped her relationship with the people. Along the way you learn a lot about the development of case law in the UK and in America, especially as it applies to the insanity defense.
Pueblo Peoples on the Pajarito Plateau, by David E. Stuart. Not to be confused, it seems, with the David Stuart who writes about the Mayans. This smoothly written book might seem like it has a narrow audience—those interested in the ancestral Pueblo peoples, formerly known as the Anasazi, and/or those who have been to Bandelier National Monument. But it’s also a case study of adaptive responses to climate change.
Thin Places, by Ann Armbrecht. A repurposed anthropology thesis, this book suffers a bit from Armbrecht’s scholarly tone, but the personal narrative is compelling. I love how she framed the liminality of motherhood as one of those spiritually powerful “thin places,” in a book about the ritual dimensions of a tribal culture in Nepal. It’s also about the tensions between what we hope to do and how that looks on the ground, as in the desire of global environmentalists to create protected eco-tourism preserves in the Himalaya, displacing a people who have lived gently on the land for millennia.
Neanderthal Man, by Svante Paäbo. Pretty exciting explication of the process of sequencing the Neanderthal genome. We’re them; they’re us.
Wave, by Sonali Deraniyagala. Grief makes you crazy. Some readers had a hard time with this fact, but I was grateful for Deraniyagala’s blow-by-blow account of having to go on living after losing her parents, her husband, and both of her children to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
The Golden Spruce, by John Vaillant. A couple of years ago I praised Vaillant’s The Tiger. This one is almost as good. It’s about a rare tree. About the culture of the Haida, an indigenous people. About logging and loggers. About the history and impact of resource extraction in the Pacific Northwest. About mental illness. Somehow, he weaves all this together into a unified narrative.
The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan 2001-2014, by Carlotta Gall. I urge you to read this book. Gall was the New York Times Bureau Chief in Afghanistan throughout most of our military involvement there. She’s able to provide what is probably the clearest ground-level account of that conflict, its players, and also the role of Pakistan, who in her view is the right enemy.
Hard Choices, by Hillary Rodham Clinton. Read it because you should. Even if you just pick a chapter at random to read, you’ll know more about the world than you did before.
Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats, by Kristen Iversen. A personal account of the impact of a nuclear weapons plant on the environment and on a community.
A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination, by Phillip Shenon. Not sure this was the author’s intention, but what emerges is a good account of how conspiracy “theories” wind up being projected on shocking events.
The Extraordinary Tide: New Poetry by American Women, edited by Erin Belieu and Susan Aizenberg. Though it’s over a decade old, this collection reads fresh. And heartfelt.
Selected Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, edited by Bob Blaisdell. So, you could pretty much pick any Hopkins anthology and it would be great.
Citizen, An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine. About the experience of being black in America. Always timely, but right now, especially welcomed.