I felt the need to go back and revisit some of the books on this list I’ve been compiling since January 1st to see how these titles stood up since I spent the first six months of 2014 reading for work, and the second-half mostly for pleasure. What I came away with was the realization that I couldn’t think of another year where new literature brought me so much joy as much as 2014 did. Sure, I was reading a lot of it for work, but books really filled me with tons of joy in an otherwise grim year.
Here’s hoping books keep bringing me that much happiness and the bad news slows down in 2015 and beyond.
1. Boy, Snow, Bird, Helen Oyeyemi
I spent most of 2014 repeating the mantra that “Helen Oyeyemi is pure magic,” and also wondering if any title would knock this from the #1 spot it has owned since I finished reading this. I guess not.
2. Lila, Marilynne Robinson
I feel about Robinson the way some people do about Beyoncé or Taylor Swift.
3. The Wallcreeper, Nell Zink
This book reminded me of when I’d hear cool kids in high school talk about this amazing punk band with only one 7″ record out like it was some members only sort of thing. All of these people I really like and respect kept mentioning it, but I swear I didn’t see it on any 2014 book previews, or I just wasn’t paying close enough attention. Please read this. Read all of the books on this list, but really read this one.
4. Praying Drunk, Kyle Minor
I’ve written about this so many times that I’m not sure what’s left to say other than I think Kyle Minor is one of the most important contemporary writers I can think of.
5. The Last Illusion, Porochista Khakpour
I don’t think any book kicked me in my ass as hard as Khakpour’s second novel did. Again, I’ve written about it a few times before, but it’s worth mentioning again that she’s given us a fabulist novel that is haunting, magical, beautiful, and at some points totally crushing.
6. Every Day is for the Thief, Teju Cole
I am constantly telling people that Cole’s Open City is one of the most important novels of the last decade. Now I’m telling them that they have to read this book immediately after they finish it, or re-read Open City and then read this.
7. Adam, Ariel Schrag
I’d like Ariel Schrag to teach a class on how you can be funny while dealing with a premise that might sound a little bizarre to some people. In this case, it’s a her story about a teenage boy letting people think he’s a transgender person so he can get the girl of his young dreams that I think most people would totally screw up, but Schrag pulls off in one of the funniest and best books of the year.
8. Prelude to Bruise, Saeed Jones
Because poetry should be beautiful but also uncompromising. Jones accomplished both with this collection that will shake you.
9. High as the Horses’ Bridles, Scott Cheshire
2014’s great epic. It’s tough to believe this was a debut novel.
10. An Untamed State, Roxane Gay
I think I’ve maybe said this a thousand times before, but what shines through for me no matter what it is Roxane Gay writes is her compassion. That compassion and caring is what shines through in this harrowing novel that I think a lot of other writers would have had a difficult time trying to pull off.
11. Dept. of Speculation, Jenny Offill
Marriage can be tough, but writing about how marriage can be tough can be even harder. Offill didn’t have any problem with that, and that’s why this novel full of little philosophical tidbits that you make you want to read even closer from the start was worth reading twice.
12. The UnAmericans, Molly Antopol
To steal a Yiddish phrase, I needed another book full of Jewish stories like a hole in my head. Then I read Antopol’s magnificent collection, and suddenly I realized how badly I really did need that hole.
13. Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay
This has been one hell of a year for Roxane Gay, but what I think is most impressive and important to note is that in a year filled with incredible essay collections, I’m pretty sure this one had the most impact. Yet what was maybe most incredible to me was that although I’d read versions of some of the essays in Bad Feminist on the internet, they have an even stronger impact when read together.
14. Friendship, Emily Gould
Most people shouldn’t touch writing about contemporary 30-somethings in New York and their relationships, but I’m really Gould did. Her ability to pull off the sweet and the sour at just the right moments made this work so well. It’s one of the best novels of New York circa-now that I’ve read.
15. The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison
Jamison kicked off the year of the essay collection in a big way with this one that just about everybody loved. I had to read it all in one sitting.
16. Land of Love and Drowning, Tiphanie Yanique
As I put it in my review of the book, it’s like Gabriel García Márquez, William Faulkner transported to the Caribbean, and Zadie Smith’s grasp on a place’s dialect and ability. I can’t imagine that not appealing to a lot of people.
17. Loitering, Charles D’Ambrosio
It’s stunning how great of a writer D’Ambrosio is. I don’t think he needed to do anything else to prove that, but this collection shows he’s one of our best.
18. Pity the Animal, Chelsea Hodson
I think everybody that picked up this chapbook put out by Future Tense pretty much felt the same thing: Chelsea Hodson needs to give us a full book.
19. Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals, Patricia Lockwood
Pretty much anything Lockwood writes will end up on a list like this.
20. Sidewalks, Valeria Luiselli
Valeria’s novel Faces in the Crowd was also wonderful, but this collection of short essays made me want to get out the door and just wander around for hours.
21. Who is Martha?, Arjana Gaponenko
It was maybe because there was so much talk of Wes Anderson owing a huge debt to Stefan Zweig for The Grand Budapest, but damn if I didn’t feel a good amount of Zweig haunting this heartbreakingly lovely book about a dandy 96-year-old ornithologist trying to live out his last days after being diagnosed with cancer.
22. Flings, Justin Taylor
I really like that Justin Taylor put out an amazing debut collection of stories, then a novel, and then this even better collection of short stories so he could remind of us of not only how great a writer he is, but how great writers can improve from one book to the next.
23. The Unspeakable and Other Subjects of Discussion, Meghan Daum
This would be my pick for best essay collection of the year any other year but 2014.
24. Ugly Girls, Lindsay Hunter
People are weird, the Internet is weird, the time we’re living in is weird. Everything is weird. The thing is (and I touched upon this in my interview with her) Hunter adds an unexpected noir twist to the whole thing and the result is a fantastic and gritty debut novel.
25. The Restless Supermarket, Ivan Vladislavic
Like a post-apartheid Archie Bunker, Vladislavic’s novel that takes place in the days leading up to Nelson Mandela’s election is funny only because it’s so sad to watch a person so stuck in their ways who are unable to accept change.
26. How to Build a Girl, Caitlin Moran
Were you a weirdo kid that grew up in the 1990s? You’ll probably love this book.
27. Once I was Cool, Megan Stielstra
There’s an interesting push and pull with this collection: Stielstra isn’t afraid to admit some of the things she’s thought and done in her life, but she writes of her triumphs and mistakes with such a warmth that you just sorta want to reach through the page and hug her.
28. Love Me Back, Merritt Tierce
Tierce’s protagonist is looking to fill a void in her soul by ay means necessary, but the interesting thing that makes this a book that is perfectly suited for this time, is the never ending cycle of one thankless service industry job after another. This is a book about the traps we set for ourselves, but also the ones society set up as well.
29. Inside Madeline, Paula Bomer
Bomer’s collection runs the entire spectrum from hilarious to heartbreaking, challenging to downright raw. Yet the one most important constant is that she never stops being brilliant throughout the entire thing.
30. Shovel Ready, Adam Sternbergh
It seems like we can’t get enough of dystopian novels. This one, set in a bombed out New York that feels eerily like it isn’t set too far off in the future, was the best of the year.