Bustle Books Writers Pick Their Best Books of 2014, Because Rumor 'Round Here Is We Read a Lot
One of the terrible, unfortunate side effects of writing about books is that you have to read them. I know — our jobs are arduous, and we might as well quit now instead of spending our precious free time getting sucked into lush prose and vibrant worlds. Life. She is so hard.
...actually, reading is basically the greatest (obviously), and we're pretty damn lucky to have spent so much of 2014 with our noses buried in books. We've gotten to experience so many great narratives, been introduced to many new, brilliant authors, and have been reminded time and time again why we love literature so much.
One part of reading is being super-anti-social, yes — the ever-so-polite GO AWAY I AM READING DO YOU NOT SEE I AM READING CLOSE THE DOOR — but the other component is evangelizing for the titles with which you were completely and totally obsessed. That's where this post comes in.
The contributors of Bustle Books — people who've held down this fort all year — want you to know what's moved us (if you haven't heard us squawking about these books already). Read on for our picks, and see if any of your favorites ended up on our list:
In a year filled with airport trips, two job changes and two moves, I didn’t get to read as many books as I would have liked to this year — but what I was lucky enough to read were outstanding, blessed respites, and helped keep me grounded as a writer and bibliophile during personal upheaval. Also good news — many of these books were published by independent presses, which is a testament to the power and quality of these small operations.
Both of my favorites — Pity the Animal by Chelsea Hodson and Women by Chloe Caldwell —were released by such presses (Future Tense Books and SF/LD Books, respectively). Caldwell and Hodson are fierce, fearless voices that challenge the stereotypes of young writers and coming-of-age stories. Pity the Animal is a tiny tome, essentially a chapbook-style essay, which explores the themes of submission as the writer continually brushes up against her boundaries. Hodson’s mosaic-style of association is astounding to watch unfold. The novella Women is a straight girl’s discovery of her dormant bisexuality. The unnamed narrator in Caldwell’s Women is self-conscious but relentlessly in control as she dissects a stumbling, spiraling relationship. Though both books are brief, they have lingered in my heart for all these months since. Powerful and inimitable, I can’t wait to watch these voices evolve in the years ahead, where I’m sure these women will be a staple on these lists.
I've never quite encountered a book that had the ability to both horrify and enrapture like Roxane Gay's An Untamed State. The story describes what happens to Mireille Duval Jameson, a wealthy Haitian woman, after she is kidnapped and held for ransom. The novel takes the reader on an unflinching descent into horror and darkness told with heartbreakingly beautiful language and human empathy. It was one of those rare books that, as soon as I was done reading the last page, I immediately flipped back to the beginning to start again.
The book of essays Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit has opened my eyes. The collection of essays opens with her exposé on mansplaining, which turns out is everywhere. Since my having read this book in November, here are things men have explained to me: How being cold works, that there were two Roosevelt presidents, 9/11, how to hold in pee, Chuck Schumer, why porn is good, acting, the right way to put on a coat, that Democrats are liberal and Republicans are conservative, and radar guns. Mine are pretty good, but they don't come close to Solnit’s ultimate mansplain experience.
I should also mention a book I read that didn’t make me want to bang my head repeatedly into Beyoncé’s Feminist sign – Neverhome by Laird Hunt. It retells The Odyssey by setting it in the Civil War. Odysseus is a woman dressed as a man so that she can fight as a soldier against slavery. Hunt does a lovely job with the time period’s straightforward dialect as well as remapping the weaving paths of Odysseus’ journey home. Also, women soldiers are badass.
I stumbled upon Carry The Sky by Kate Gray putting together a list of the best books about high school. The beauty of Gray's language (she's an award-winning poet), and the detail with which she rendered her characters took my breath away. Like high school, the events of the novel are gut wrenching, and all-consuming. Gray explores bullying, loss, and grief, yet the novel nonetheless left me feeling uplifted, like an origami crane about to take flight.
My top YA read of the year, and a new all-time favorite of mine, is E. Lockhart's We Were Liars. I was totally captivated from the first page, completely lost in the world of the Sinclairs and their beautiful, broken lives. Somehow Lockhart manages to pack in all the feelings and the suspense in one compulsively readable package — in fact, I read it cover-to-cover in one glorious, enraptured sitting.
I don't really even know how to classify it, so let's just say that Caitlin Moran's How to Build a Girl was one of my favorite books of the year. I think the fact that it's semi-autobiographical instead of a full-blown memoir or biography really freed Moran to delve deeply into the not-so-pretty and frankly painful parts of growing up and chasing a dream. The resulting coming-of-age "novel" feels totally honest and open, there's nothing held back or glossed over, and it makes for a really satisfying and touching read.
I loved reading Mike Sacks’ Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations With Today’s Top Comedy Writers. There are interviews with George Saunders and Mel Brooks, “Pure, Hard-Core Advice” from Diablo Cody, Patton Oswalt, and Amy Poehler, and chapters with “Ultraspecific Comedy Knowledge” (Bill Hader’s list “Two Hundred Essential Movies Every Comedy Writer Should See” is a good one). It’s a great read for anyone who loves humor writing.
Texas writer Merritt Tierce’s Love Me Back is beautifully written and she created such a complex, interesting, gritty female character. She also captured so many nuances about the culture of Texas, the people, and the place. I loved that about it, and I loved her voice.
Rainbow Rowell can do no wrong. Landline , Rowell’s 2014 adult novel, is no exception: No one writes the thorny, sticky, sometimes nauseating terrain of hardcore love better. Although in this novel Rowell explores the complications of marriage, it’s still infused with the heart-on-your-sleeve intensity of her YA love stories that we all love so much.
I’m calling it now: Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy is a future cult classic. Although it feels pretty under-the-radar at the moment, I’m a fully-fledged fangirl: I can’t get enough of Grossman’s dark, adult take on magic, which is so textured and unromantic and downright disturbing that I sometimes think Grossman is, in fact, a magician writing from personal experience. The Magician’s Land , the series’ final installment, delivers a mature work of literary fiction under the guise of a fantasy novel: it’s equal parts insightful and thrilling; heartbreakingly mundane and glitteringly paranormal.
When somebody is funny, smart, and an unapologetic feminist, I am smitten. Yes Please from Amy Poehler delivers all that you would expect and more, told with a maturity that doesn’t eclipse her wit, while offering an unabashed look at fame, motherhood, sex, and how to navigate the male-dominated world of comedy in Hollywood.
All My Puny Sorrows from my fellow Canadian Miriam Toews easily makes my best of 2014 list. The plot is simple and sparse: Elf and Yoli are sisters. Elf wants to die, and Yoli wants her to live. Only Toews could handle the story so deftly, with humor, empathy, and a simmering, beautiful sadness.
Tana French is my favorite author writing today, and her fifth entry in the Dublin Murder Squad Series, The Secret Place , did not disappoint. This supremely unsettling book tells the story of the murder of a popular boy on the grounds of an all-girls boarding school; the ensuing investigation reveals the potent potential for both danger and beauty that lies deep within relationships between young women. In The Secret Place, French dips her toe into the waters of magical realism for the first time, and whether or not that risk pays off depends entirely on your willingness to open your mind to greater possibilities... like the core group of friends at the heart of the novel.
No book in 2014 was as viscerally exciting as 26-year-old Pierce Brown's debut novel Red Rising . Though it falls under the YA label, don't let that fool you into thinking this is just another Hunger Games wannabe. Pierce's dystopian novel begins as a loving homage to the genre, culling from influences as far-ranging as J.K. Rowling, Orson Scott Card, William Golding, Homer, and Sophocles. But he sets up these expectations only to subvert them in spectacular fashion, crafting a vision of the future that is astonishingly unique, frightfully prescient, and never less than edge-of-your-seat suspenseful.
Like Girls or Frances Ha, Friendship by Emily Gould focuses on relatively privileged New Yorkers. In the grand scheme of things, their problems are not that dire. Still, women in their late 20s/early 30s have their own issues, and Gould captures them in a painfully real way. I’m continually drawn to these kinds of stories because they focus on a time in our lives when it seems like we should have everything figured out. It’s especially embarrassing, then, when our lives don’t unfold as easily as we’d imagined.
Exodus by Deborah Feldman was captivating in a completely different way — though she’s also a twentysomething woman from New York. If you’re familiar with her first memoir, Unorthodox, know her story: she grew up in a strict Hasidic community, had an arranged marriage, and became a mother — all before she turned twenty. She rejects her upbringing and goes on to lead a secular life. Exodus, her follow-up memoir, doesn’t have the same drama, but I was nevertheless fascinated to see what happened to her. (The short answer: She’s figuring things out. It’s complicated.)
In a past life I was most definitely a Canadian baby boomer, so I spend a lot of my time daydreaming about the 1972 Toronto production of Godspell, which featured the likes of Victor Garber, Eugene Levy, and Gilda Radner; also in that legendary cast? Martin Short and Andrea Martin, whose 2014 memoirs — I Must Say: My Life As a Humble Comedy Legend and Lady Parts, respectively — top my best-of list this year. The comedians—who both started off on SCTV and are siblings-in-law, which, like, I CAN’T EVEN — are as affable and hilarious on the page as they seem on screen, and their memoirs offer charming personal anecdotes and follow their rise to fame (he as a comedic legend, she as a Broadway icon and prolific character actor). You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll want to dust off that old VHS copy of Father of the Bride and My Big Fat Greek Wedding and laugh some more.
I could have picked a novel that’s won an award or received literary acclaim, but a lot of the time I’m a sucker for sweet and sassy happily-ever-afters. There are few authors who can make me laugh out loud like Julie James. Although It Happened One Wedding’s romantic storyline isn’t completely revolutionary, James separates herself from the pack with her hilarious and snappy dialogue.
In a year where Russia has made headlines, Lenin Lives Next Door: Marriage, Martinis, and Mayhem in Moscow by Jennifer Eremeevais an especially relevant read. Eremeeva shares fascinating and humorous anecdotes based on the 20 years she’s spent living abroad, watching Russia transform from the Soviet Union to the country it is today. She paints a vivid picture of Moscow’s expat society and the characters it comprises, as well as of the city itself.
Merritt Tierce's Love Me Back is following me around everywhere I go. Tierce's prose is stark and poetic and ugly and it's impossible not to ache for Marie, a waitress and young mom in Texas.
Cristina Henríquez's The Book of Unknown Americans ... oof, man. This one is the ultimate parable of empathy for strangers. Henríquez's novel, about a family that immigrates to Delaware for their daughter's education, is one of the most powerful works of fiction I've read.
I continue to be spellbound by Kate Bernheimer’s How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales, which demonstrates the incredible range of fairy tales — uncanny, sorrowful, and true. With its spare scenes, deliberate sentences, and fabulist details, reading this story collection is like tumbling in a bewitched dryer, obscured by billows of pink cotton, where danger and elegance abound.
Often I find domestic realism boring, the same old conflicts hashed and rehashed. The narrator’s unapologetic wit in Lydia Millet’s Mermaids in Paradise reeled me into this darkly humorous story of honeymooning and survival — and never let go. I’m awed by the absurdly comic personalities, revealed sentence by sentence, and the depths to which Millet goes to probe our motives for existence.
It's not controversial, it's not original, and it's certainly not a dark horse, but Marilynne Robinson's Lila is undoubtedly my pick for the best work of fiction released this year. I've read Lila in my bed, on the train, on a plane, and even once in the shower because I just couldn't put it down (although I wouldn't recommend that particular venue to future readers). Robinson crafts one of the most complex female characters I've ever had the pleasure of encountering and shares her story with simple, soulful prose and a narrative structure that is both satisfyingly complex and infinitely compelling — if you only read one book this upcoming year (and I hope that you don't), let it be Lila.
Some people are afraid of planes, or spiders, or in the case of a former roommate of mine the word "moist," but me, well, I'm afraid of my mother's aging — I'm afraid of the slow slippage of mind and body, the subtle dislocation of reality from fantasy, the physical pain, the psychological torture, and the very long goodbye. For anyone who shares even the slightest whiff of those worries, or who simply enjoys a funny, brazen, honest look at family, life, and the later years, Roz Chast's Can't We Talk About Something A Little More Pleasant is simply not to be missed. This daring graphic novel challenges the structure and content familiar to lovers of the genre and tackles difficult subject matter with grace and humor.
Women in Clothes by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton is a wholly original compilation of a diverse group of women’s thoughts and experiences around how clothes relate to their family, identity and sexuality. It belongs on every woman’s bookshelf whether she follows fashion or not: This book is provides humanizing insights into the vastly different ways in which women develop their sense of self, with touches of universality woven in that bind the women featured, and in turn the women reading, together.
My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff is an uncannily familiar record of a young writer’s life in New York. Rakoff’s story should be required reading for any person struggling to assemble her creative voice and maintain a feeling purpose as she comes of age in what can be such an unforgiving line of work (and city).
It’s impossible to describe Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You the Sun without using Big and Sweeping words, because this is a Big and Sweeping novel in every sense, from the largeness of its title to the beautiful shock of its cover to the vividness of its remarkable, achingly realistic characters. The writing is wonderful, the pace exhilarating, and the plot — teenage twins dealing with a traumatic event, three years apart — is absolutely unforgettable.
My two favorite books of the year couldn’t be more different; We Are Not Ourselves is as intimate as Sun is sweeping. Matthew Thomas’ family saga may span decades, but its laser-sharp focus captures the everyday intricacies of an Irish-American family’s life in devastating detail. This is a sad, brave book that lingers, often uncomfortably but always brilliantly, on what shames and scares us the most.
As someone who has always felt a bit like an “other,” Haruki Murakami’s novels have resonated with me for years. It’s been a while since I read one of his newer releases, but I am so glad I stumbled onto Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage . I know, I know. Yet another tale of a delineated, rejected protagonist — but no. Tsukuru has four best friends, all of whom are named in some way after a color. He isn’t, of course — a fact that leads to his isolation, abandonment and personal, psychological journey. The novel shows how quick we are to leave people behind for flawed, irrational reasons, and in turn, the fragility of human interaction.
My love and respect for Margaret Atwood isn’t something I could ever really express, and I think a lot of people probably feel the same! Though she’s renowned for her novels like Handmaid’s Tale, her short fiction, to me, seems to enter the realms of dark comedy even more intensely. Stone Mattress: Nine Tales was definitely an example of this. From an elderly woman with Charles Bonnet Syndrome who hallucinates tiny people, to a woman mistaken for a vampire, her protagonists are vivid and hyperbolic and funny and enchanting.
I’ve adored every book in the Lynburn Legacy trilogy, but with this no-holds-barred, emotional roller coaster of a conclusion Sarah Rees Brennan has outdone herself. The Lynburn Legacy series features an array of whip-smart, hilarious, fully realized and sympathetic characters and a star-crossed romance you can actually root for, and with Unmade, Brennan mines so much insight and genuine feeling out of both the supernatural and the everyday. Recommended for YA fans, and fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Veronica Mars.
Inspiring, insightful, and thought-proving, Roxane Gay's Bad Feminist is one of the best books of 2014 and best books on feminism, period. Gay is wildly intelligent and talented; having her book on-hand is like having access to the feminist fairy godmother you’ve always wanted.
Any year that sees a new release by Christopher Moore is a good one, as far as I'm concerned. In 2014, Moore gave us The Serpent of Venice, which continued the adventures of the rascally court jester Pocket, the hero of his 2009 take on King Lear, Fool. As a literary junkie with a preference for irreverence, Serpent is a delight. It's the unholy child of Shakespeare and Poe, in which Moore takes classic works like The Merchant of Venice, Othello and The Cask of Amontillado, mashes them together, turns them on their heads, and throws in lots of sex and poop jokes for good measure. Shakespeare would be proud.
The comedy gods continued to smile upon us this year when they gave us the latest memoir/essay collection from one of our favorite funny ladies, Amy Poehler. Yes Please was as humorous, warm, wise and charming as its author, and full of fun backstage stories from Saturday Night Live and Parks and Recreation, as well as sage advice on everything from careers to sex.
When I finished Jenny Offill's Dept. of Speculation, a volume that's only 192 pages, I wasn't sure what to do with myself. It's the kind of book that moves you so much, you're not really sure how to process anything for a while — let alone approach your own work again if you're a writer (yes, really). The elegance of Offill's prose and her command of language is unrivaled by anything I've seen this year.
After I finished reading Catherine Lacey's Nobody Is Ever Missing , I had a hard time talking about it — verbalizing what about it was so impactful, exactly. I was actually frustrated. I've had a few months to digest it, though, and I've realized why this book is so special — and that's because it hit me on a cognitive level in a way very few books ever have. It's come to mind over and over again when I think about the way characters process; interact with others; reflect on themselves; and influence the narrative trajectory of their own memories. And the prose... Catherine, thank you for teaching me so much about writing through your own.
Rufi Thorpe's debut is as beautiful as it is harrowing and hypnotically somber. A story about friendship, fate, and motherhood, The Girls from Corona del Mar outlines the lives of two friends, Mia and Lorrie Ann. As a child, Mia is rough and flawed, while Lorrie Ann's ethereal existence is enviable. But as the girls grow older, their lives take unexpected paths. Told with unapologetic, raw narration, Thorpe truly shows her readers what sadness is, and how our lives are orchestrated by small tremors that eventually become earth-shattering quakes. This is one of the most evocative books I've ever read, and it reminded me so much of the small beach town in which I spent my own teenhood.
After reading Lindsay Hunter's short story collection, Don't Kiss Me , I knew I wanted more grit from damaged, wonderfully unlikable characters. Ugly Girls masterfully unfolds the story of two teenage girls and their troublesome families, the poverty in which they live, and a stalker that proves more dangerous than misspelled text and Facebook messages. This books felt so "now" and pertinent to our lives which seem so haphazardly dependent on technology —most of the time just to avoid loneliness. Ugly Girls is gorgeous in its own, dusty kind of way, and Hunter masterfully never breaks character. And these girls are definitely remarkable characters.
Shades of Cheever meet rehabilitated 21st century Updike for an explosive last supper in Ted Thompson's The Land of Steady Habits, a debut novel set among the fractured, well-heeled homesteads clustered around a Connecticut commuter rail line. Starring the surly and newly sixty Anders Hill, this nuanced novel about the redemptive power of the suburban midlife crisis proves once and for all that yes, Virginia, there really are second acts in American life.
I don’t think I could possibly say more things about how much I loved E. Lockhart’s YA novel We Were Liars . It was absolutely everything I was looking for in a story this summer — suspense, mystery, beautiful characters, and a pitch-perfect beachside setting. And the whole novel came together under Lockhart’s gorgeous, lyrical prose that seared right into you and left a lingering haunting feeling to the story. I tell everyone I know to read it to the point where everyone is getting tired of me talking about it.
On the adult fiction side, it’s been several months since it has been published, but Lorrie Moore’s Bark — her very, very welcome return to short story collections — was my favorite traveling companion this year. Bark was the type of novel I threw in my tote and took wherever I went, taking time to read a story as I waited for appointments or sat in traffic on a bus. It lasted many months this way, which was just how I liked it. Moore has been on my radar since I read Self-Help admittedly far too late in life in college, and Bark hit all the notes I want from her: laugh-out-loud hilarity spinning out of heartbreaking and oh-too-resonant stories of loss and life. I could quote several lines (and my pen nearly ran dry underlining) but one from the story “Subject to Search” has really stuck: “’Unless you live a life of great importance,’ she said, ‘regrets are stupid, crumpled-up tickets to a circus that has already left town.’”