The best books we read in 2014
Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Published last year, Adichie's critically acclaimed novel follows Ifemlu, a young Nigerian woman who immigrates to the United States for college and ends up staying and writing a popular blog about race in America. It is a bildungsroman for our globalized world, as Ifemlu tries to assimilate to American culture while navigating racism and new relationships.
Indeed, at its core, Americanah is a love story between Ifemlu and Obinze, her teenage boyfriend — a story that spans continents and languages. Adichie gives us the messy bleeding guts of modern relationships, most strikingly when Ifemlu moves back to Nigeria, showing the hurt that we can inflict upon one another.
Adichie's novel is one that sticks, encompassing so many aspects of the human experience — a modern, realistic, beautiful, painful look at loving and living. --Kerensa Cadenas, writer
The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film, by Stanley Cavell
One of the more powerful books I read this year was The World Viewed, philosopher Stanley Cavell's study of the philosophy of film. The World Viewed isn't so much about films themselves, but a discussion of how to think about art and an examination of what our collective fascination with film says about us. It's also a deeply personal work, one that is unapologetic in its devotion to Cavell's experiences of watching movies. The World Viewed is about the way art acts upon us, changes us from within, a subject that is all the more relevant now that movies, especially, are more accessible than ever. --Eric Thurm, writer
Wolf in White Van, by John Darnielle
Those familiar with John Darnielle's work as a songwriter, as frontman for The Mountain Goats, already know that he has a way with words. His songs themselves are like microscopic novels, featuring broken characters, precarious situations, and, in some cases, autobiographical vignettes of his troubled teen years. So it's not surprising to see Darnielle translate his storytelling talents into an actual novel that combines all those elements.
But Wolf in White Van isn't just the best of a Mountain Goats song transferred to a literary medium. It's also a stunningly intense and personal story of a character whose outlook on life has been scarred — physically and emotionally — by a traumatic accident in his teens. What makes Wolf in White Van such an engrossing and stellar novel is Darnielle's visceral way with language, putting us inside the head of his protagonist, Sean Phillips, who connects with people through a mail-in role-playing game. Darnielle favors character development over plot, creating a narrative that's part stream-of-consciousness to allow the mystery of what happened to Sean unfold as we understand him better. --Matt Cohen, writer
All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr
There aren't too many books that leave me sobbing multiple times, but this one succeeded — in the good, cathartic way, of course. All the Light We Cannot See is, above all else, a coming-of-age tale; it just happens to be set during World War II. The story jumps between two characters. One is a blind French girl with a devoted, highly intelligent father who teaches her to be self-sufficient — a lesson that proves invaluable. The other is an orphaned German boy who finds he has a knack for fixing radios, a skill that leads him down an improbable, and eventually dangerous, path. I've heard people say, "I've read so much World War II literature; I really don't want to pick up another book like that." To say that this isn't like those other books feels insufficient, but still: this isn't like those other books. The characters are nuanced, the prose is beautiful, and while the title may feel heavy-handed, Anthony Doerr's lovely novel is anything but. --Sarah Eberspacher, associate editor
Dirty Love, by Andre Dubus III
I reviewed Andre Dubus III's Dirty Love last March, and the book has stuck with me. In the title novella and three short stories set in a cluster of coastal Massachusetts towns, Dubus tells interweaving stories of characters broken on the rocks of the sexual revolution. Not that he's nostalgic for the world prior to the pill and pre-marital sex. But unlike so many of us, he's willing to gaze truthfully at the distinctive forms of loneliness, sadness, cruelty, and abuse that have grown up alongside the sexual freedom that we now treat as our birthright. Dubus' characters struggle (and often fail) to find their emotional bearings, control their appetites, and salvage their dignity in the face of wrenching humiliations. It is a stunning book, filled with exquisite writing and bruised humanity. --Damon Linker, senior correspondent
Five Came Back, by Mark Harris
During World War II, Hollywood answered the call to service with a series of government-sponsored documentaries that served as both journalism and propaganda. This subject piqued the interest of Mark Harris, the author of the terrific Pictures at the Revolution, resulting in Five Came Back, a deft weaving of Hollywood gossip and military history. The "five" in his title refer to esteemed film directors, including John Ford and Frank Capra, who helped the war effort. (For example, Ford's Battle of Midway is arguably the first authentic portrayal of modern warfare.) In his meticulously researched account, Harris unearths fascinating character details while investigating a side of the war that is not often told, illuminating a collaboration between two worlds that seems inconceivable now. Five Came Back is a stirring mix of ego, bravery, and sacrifice. --Alan Zilberman, writer
Up, Up, and Away, by Jonah Keri
There is an anecdote I love in Up, Up, and Away, Jonah Keri's fascinating book about the life and death of the Montreal Expos, that says as much about the author's extensive research as it does about my juvenile sense of humor. It is about a player who believed he could toughen up his hands by urinating on them.
The book is rife with other wonderful tidbits, gleaned from dozens of interviews with everyone from team executives to all-stars. It tracks the expansion team's rise from a doormat stuck on a janky outdoor field to a pennant-winner stuck in a janky domed stadium. Today, the Expos are mostly remembered as a floundering franchise that sold off its players before it, too, got sent packing from Montreal. But Keri passionately exhumes the team's indelible characters and flirtations with glory — including the strike-shortened 1994 season that snuffed out Montreal's best shot at a World Series — revealing how, against all odds, a baseball team became a cherished institution in a hockey-mad city. --Jon Terbush, associate editor
The Boat, by Nam Le
The Boat is a debut collection of short stories published by Nam Le in 2008. Six years later I am still talking about it or re-reading it or thinking about it. Nam Le's seven-story collection roams across the entire planet: teenagers on an Aussie beach, a young assassin in Columbia, rich artists in Manhattan. Le is stalking the billion-footed beast, as Tom Wolfe preached authors should do decades ago. But unlike other would-be realists, Le's command of language is so painterly and graceful, it astonishes. It feels like a gift to read it.
The opening story may seem indulgent at first blush, 26 pages about a writer named Nam who is trying to figure out whether he should draw on his extraordinary experiences as a child refugee from Vietnam. It feels too meta, veering on a polemic about a very specialized genre of "ethnic lit" or "immigrant lit." And then it just rips your guts out. --Michael Brendan Dougherty, senior correspondent
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, by Haruki Murakami
My love-hate relationship with Haruki Murakami had settled firmly into hate by the time I was finished with 2011's 1Q84, a meandering, 1000-page mess of a novel I spent two months carrying around like an albatross. But just as I was about to write off Murakami for his many self-indulgences, I decided to take a crack at his latest: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.
The title may be unwieldy, but the book itself certainly isn't. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki manages to be both elusive and emotionally gripping as it tells the story of the title character, who is dealt a life-altering blow in his early twenties when his four closest friends suddenly and inexplicably announce that they never want to see him or speak with him again. As an adult, Tsukuru Tazaki decides to confront his erstwhile friends about the incident that changed the course of his life, only to discover deeper, stranger mysteries.
Murakami has trafficked in both stark realism (Norwegian Wood) and dizzying surrealism (Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World). But Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is his purest and most effective marriage of the two styles, resulting in an intricately woven story about the decisions we make, and the unexpected ripple effects that can result. (And yes, there are still plenty of references to jazz and trains.) Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki doesn't have an answer for every question it raises, but it never feels like Murakami is being deliberately coy or lazy. He's simply acknowledging that life will always present new mysteries — and that peace will come in accepting that the answers, when they arrive at all, will be in the hands of others. --Scott Meslow, entertainment editor and film and television critic
The Rich Don't Always Win, by Sam Pizzigatti
Sam Pizzigatti's book The Rich Don't Always Win is actually from 2012, but it provides something essential for lefties in 2014 reeling from electoral defeat and the seemingly unstoppable resurgence of Wall Street: hope. Pizzigatti, in a riveting and often hilarious history, tells the story of how two generations of progressive activists built the American middle class. It was through grinding political effort that the masses achieved a measure of security, from the meteoric rise and fall of the American Socialist Party, to the institution of confiscatory wartime taxation on the rich, to the Great Depression and FDR's New Deal. And for a time, from about 1945 to 1975, the egalitarian tax, transfer, finance, and labor policies that safeguarded this situation were politically untouchable.
All those things are gone now, of course. The bedrock of America's middle class has been crumbling for decades under the forces of globalization and an energized reactionary assault. America is now more unequal than at any time since the 1920s. But Pizzigatti shows that we've been here before — in the 1920s, like today, both parties were owned wholesale by the rich. Then as now, the rich made a complete dog's breakfast of economic policy. Then as now, there is simply no alternative but serious political mobilization against plutocracy. --Ryan Cooper, national correspondent
Family Life, by Akhil Sharma
This beautifully concise, heartbreaking novel charts the grief of the Mishra family — who recently emigrated from India to New York City — after their oldest son falls into a pool and suffers severe brain damage. The story is based on the events of Sharma's own life, which partly explains why this work took the author 12 years to complete. Sharma has said that he wrote the novel from the perspective of each family member — father, mother, and youngest son, Ajay — trying to find the one that worked best. He ultimately stuck with Ajay, who, being young and hemmed in by familial expectations, is the ideal narrator to guide us, sometimes painfully honestly, through the tragedy's aftermath. Despite years working and reworking the book, Sharma's prose is so elegantly simple that it seems seamless. His book shows, through the lens of this smart and complicated boy, the fine balance between life's grim and darkly humorous realities. --Lauren Hansen, multimedia editor
"A Sketch of the Past," by Virginia Woolf
In response to the success of Karl Ove Knausgaard's autobiographical novel My Struggle, there were grumbles that only a male author could have been so lavishly praised for doing little more than sharing the ordinary details of his life. "I don't think we would be able to tolerate, let alone celebrate, this sort of domestic diarylike profusion from a woman," wrote Katie Roiphe at Slate.
But this isn't really fair to female writers or to readers of either sex, particularly those who have had the pleasure of reading Virginia Woolf's proto-Knausgaardian project "A Sketch of the Past." Like My Struggle, it runs away from any attempt at structure — "[a]nd thus as I dribble on, purposely letting my mind flow" — to go straight to the nitty gritty of existence. Readers will be treated to her first impressions as an infant at her family's summer home at St Ives; memories of her beautiful and beloved mother Julia Stephen; and "an incongruous miscellaneous catalogue" of events and observations, which act as "little corks that mark a sunken net." Most famously, she dwells on what she calls "moments of being," sublime encounters with reality that reveal a pattern "hidden behind the cotton wool of everyday life." It is a slight book, and an unfinished one at that (Woolf would commit suicide four months after the last entry), but it was the closest thing to life that I read this year. --Ryu Spaeth, deputy editor