2014: A Year in Reading

Words After War writers, readers, editors, friends, and supporters share their favorite books of the year.

“The funny thing about being in charge of a literary organization is that many of the books stacked on the tables and lining the shelves of my favorite bookstores are now authored by my friends. It’s a proud moment, for sure, and one that marks a significant moment in the journey of an entire generation of men and women who are all finally coming home from more than thirteen years of war. For this generation of veteran writers, the stories and novels and awards will be numerous for years to come, of this I have no doubt. We are a community of writers, editors, friends, and supporters that is growing and strengthening every day. I couldn’t be more humbled and honored to consider some of this generation’s greatest writers to be friends and colleagues of mine. Books have the power to change lives. I know this to be true because they changed mine.

I asked our Words After War community to pick their favorite books of the year. Some are new books, some are old; some are about war and conflict but many are not. And in no particular order, here’s to a great year of reading.” —Brandon Willitts, Executive Director and Co-founder, Words After War

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Lauren Cerand: “This year, my friend Wendi Kaufman died, and Stillhouse Press published her first book. It’s hard to imagine a new year in the world without her bold spirit and indomitable presence — she simply made things happen — and it’s a consolation to have Helen on 86th Street and Other Stories. While it’s a collection about every stage of life, relationships, the quiet space between intimacies, and what comes after loss, that easily stands on its own, I can’t help but flip it open and find her warm, witty, consoling touch on every page: “I imagine the blue-veined wonder of her heart, whole and unblemished, beating out a simple pattern in a steady hush-hush rhythm.” We’re still here. And this book is a wonder, too.” — Lauren Cerand is a literary publicist.

Elliot Ackerman: “Dinaw Mengestu’s All Our Names is a love story and coming of age tale split between the U.S. and an unnamed African revolution. A beautifully structured and spare novel. Merritt Tierce’s Love Me Back is the story of Marie, a young single mother and waitress, that goes for the throat. Tierce holds nothing back portraying the debauched Dallas luxury-restaurant scene. The novel is brutally good.” — Elliot Ackerman is the author of Green on Blue.

Lea Carpenter: “It’s a tie: One, Eliza Griswold and Seamus Murphy’s extraordinary I Am The Beggar of the World: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan, which includes this little mind-blower:

How much simpler can love be?/ Let’s get engaged. Text me.

And, two, Dan Chiasson’s beautifully cool Bicentennial, especially the title poem, and ‘Nowhere Fast’”:

Nowhere Fast
Give me your secret.
I can keep it.
I’ll become it.
The way ski racers
Lining up
Become the race:
Look what was put
Into the pot
And what came out!
The way each choice
That made itself
Make us unmade us;
Hid us, betrayed us.
O my compass
Your wilderness
Awaits reply:
Say you and I
Will find our way
Like see and saw
Or sea and sky

— Lea Carpenter is the author of Eleven Days.

“This Is How You Lose Her,” by Junot Díaz (Photo Credit: The Underground New York Public Library)

Adrien Bonenberger: “Artis Henderson’s Unremarried Widow is a visceral, emotionally honest memoir about what it means to be a military spouse — and how that meaning shifts when her husband, an Apache pilot, dies during a sandstorm while on a combat deployment to Iraq. Her road back to normal leads through friendships, relationships, and military bureaucracy, and while she never fully solves her grief, it’s an engrossing, wrenching take on how trauma works back on the home front.”—Adrien Bonenberger is the author of Afghan Post.

David Eisler: The Forever War, Joe Haldeman (1974). “I don’t know how I managed to miss this one for so long, but it has already become one of my favorite books of all time. Haldeman, building on his experiences in Vietnam, captures the cynicism of war and the challenges of returning home through the eyes of William Mandella, a physics student who is drafted to fight a questionable war against an alien species located across the galaxy. Haldeman masterfully uses the tools of science fiction to his advantage, allowing Mandella to age only a few subjective years while Earth ages decades and centuries. There likely isn’t a better allegory out there that explores so many essential truths about military service. It’s the science fiction version of Catch-22.”—David Eisler is a writer and board member of Words After War.

Julia Fierro: “Published in the 90s, the most affecting read I had this year was Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs.” — Julia Fierro is the author of Cutting Teeth and Founder of Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop.

“Disgrace,” by J. M. Coetzee. (Photo Credit: The Underground New York Public Library)

Benjamin Busch: Brian Turner, My Life as a Foreign Country: “A brilliant fever dream of war’s surreality, its lastingness, its place in families and in the fate of nations. Each sentence has been carefully measured, weighed with loss and vitality, the hard-earned language of a survivor who has seen the world destroyed and written it back to life. This is a profound and beautiful work of art.” Jennifer Percy, Demon Camp: “This wild journey alongside madness leads Percy to the place where myth is conceived and destroyed, our wars overseas brought home as nightmares. You will begin to wonder how much pain is dreamed and if fantasy might be the way to cure it. A unique, fascinating and always surprising book.” —Benjamin Busch is the author of the memoir Dust to Dust.

Matt Gallagher: Young Skins, Colin Barrett. “Winner of the 2014 Frank O’Connor Award, all seven stories in this collection burst with a sort of eloquent, rollicking energy. The writing is both of and separate from its time, a difficult task Barrett makes seem easy. Set in the same rural stretch of western Ireland that Clan Gallagher emanates from, Young Skins will be published in the States in March by Grove.” — Matt Gallagher is the author of Kaboom and the forthcoming novel, Young Blood.

Matthew Komatsu: “My MFA mentor, Sherry Simpson, gave me Paul Fussell’s Thank God For The Atomic Bomb and Other Essays before I deployed this summer, and it detonated my limited knowledge of contemporary war writing. I read “Postscript on Japanese Skulls” in the chow hall, pausing in between bites of reconstituted egg to shake off a WWII Life photo of a stateside sweetie thoughtfully posed next to a Japanese trophy skull. The book grabbed me by my hair and beat me about the head for a week straight. I loved every minute of it.” —Matthew Komatsu is currently enrolled in the Master of Fine Arts program in nonfiction writing at the University of Alaska.

Marguerite Fields: “My high school English teacher said that you should be able to find the outline of any good story on any given page you turn to. “Fluer” in Louise Erdrich’s The Red Convertible: Selected and New Stories 1978–2008 supports this theory quite well, with each page containing the entire story as a whole.”

The next time she fell in the lake, Fleur Pillager was twenty years old and no one touched her. She washed on shore, her skin a dull dead gray, but when George Many Women bent to look closer, he saw her chest move. Then her eyes spun open, sharp black agate, and she looked at him. “You’ll take my place,” she hissed.

—Marguerite Fields is an artist and real estate agent living in NYC. Her 20o8 essay — “Want To Be My Boyfriend? Please Define.” — was recently selected by The New York Times as one of “The 10 Best Modern Love Columns Ever.”

TM Gibbons-Neff: Rum Diary by Hunter S. Thompson. “Been a long time getting around to it but something about the book’s rawness and unrelenting rhythm grabs you and keeps you reading, long after you’ve come to oddly admire the phonies and perverts of San Juan.”—TM Gibbons-Neff is a contributor to The Washington Post and assistant editor of War on the Rocks.

Roxana Robinson: “Those Who leave and Those Who Stay, the third book in the Neapolitan series by Elena Ferrante. I only discovered Ferrante’s work a year ago, and now she is one of my favorite writers. These books are set in Naples, after WWII, and they are ferocious in their revelations of violence, friendship, sexuality and the powerful, twisted cords that bind families together. In this case, ‘family’ refers also to that darker blood-bond, the Mafia, or Camorra, as it’s known in Naples. Those charming Sopranos would hardly be recognized in Ferrante’s world, where the brutal and ruthless behavior of this mob destroys real families, sucks the blood from the economic community and the vitality from the neighborhood. These are brilliant, angry books, of extraordinary urgency and velocity. Read them! They’re like nothing else.” — Roxana Robinson is author of Sparta and and is the President of the Authors’ Guild.

“Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature’s 50 Greatest Hits,” by Jack Murnighan (Photo Credit: The Underground New York Public Library)

Kayla Williams: “My favorite new book of 2014 was Tigerman by Nick Harkaway. The slightly surreal plot was gripping, the writing witty and surprising, the characterizations of both people and communities incisive. I’ve rarely read a book that was so simultaneously funny and moving, full of action and willing to take its time exploring the inner workings of people. No really, you should read it right now.”—Kayla Williams is author of Love My Rifle More than You and Plenty of Time When We Get Home.

Maxwell Neely-Cohen: “Lacy M. Johnson’s memoir The Other Side is “haunting” and “harrowing” and “stunning” and “powerful” and all the other adjectives we use when we struggle to describe a brilliant work about horrible real-life things (in this instance: kidnapping, rape, and almost death). The Other Side simultaneously manages to be a literary masterpiece, a serious intellectual exploration of trauma, and a heroic act of all too true personal storytelling. I inhaled it in a single evening, and my brain is still, months later, trying to compute its totality.” — Maxwell Neely-Cohen is the author of Echo of the Boom.

Mike McGrath: “Ben Lerner’s 10:04 was the best novel I read in 2014. I didn’t want it to end and then as soon as it did I started it over again to try and figure out how he pulled it off.”—Mike McGrath is a writer and co-founder of Words After War.

“Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood,” by Marjane Satrapi. (Photo Credit: The Underground New York Public Library)

Kevin Powers: “The first volume of Javier Marias’ Your Face Tomorrow: Fever and Spear (Vol.1), opens this way:

One should never tell anyone anything or give information or pass on stories or make people remember beings who never existed or trodden the earth or traversed the world, or who, having done so, are now almost safe in uncertain, one eyed oblivion.

I’d call it a weird spy novel or an action packed meditation on storytelling, and it’d have to get my vote.” — Kevin Powers is the author of the novel, The Yellow Birds, as well as the poetry collection, Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting.

Justin Taylor: “Mitchell S. Jackson’s The Residue Years was one of the best books I read this year, and as far as debut novels go, probably the very best. It has richly torqued diction and is told through two perfectly juxtaposed voices: a mother and her son. Jackson’s prose has got the great Barry Hannah’s own spring in its step, and to read this book was to be continually exhilarated by its true alive beauty, even as the story itself broke and broke my heart.”—Justin Taylor is the author of Flings.

Emily Goldsher-Diamond: “Heidi Julavits’ essay at Harper’s, “Diagnose This: How to Be Your Own Best Doctor,” shined a light on diagnostics as a collaborative enactment with both medical and dramatic dimensions. I loved her use of the TV show “House M.D.” to illustrate circulating narratives of diagnosis that patients both internalize and bring into negotiations with medical practitioners. It was a quick and fun read that helped contextualize the tendency toward self-diagnosis that can arise parallel to the ease with which people can navigate Web MD and other digital health resources.”—Emily Goldsher-Diamond is a research fellow in the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University.

Peter W. Singer: “Fiction: I am writing a new book that is in the “techno/political thriller” space, looking at how a future war might play out. So, for inspiration, I went back and (re)read the books in that genre that I most enjoyed growing up. Top of the list was early Tom Clancy, which I recall reading in the back of my mom’s car on the way to the beach. What a joy then it was this summer to revisit my favorite, Red Storm Rising. Written in 1986, Clancy played out a feared World War III, moving from tank battles in the then West Germany to massive naval battles in the North Atlantic and, along the way, revealed how a crazy new technology called a “stealth plane” might be used in war. Fortunately, the Cold War never did turn hot, but Clancy was at the top of his game in building a fast-paced, fun read, layered over just the right dose of realism. Nonfiction: I know my US history, but Bunker Hill, A City, A Siege, A Revolution continually surprised me with stories and facts I hadn’t known before. It is not just meticulously researched, but well-written. What Philbeck perhaps does best is capture the powerful role that a surprisingly small number of key (and many now largely forgotten) personalities played in the early days of what was to become the American Revolution.” — Peter W. Singer is the co-author of the forthcoming novel, Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War, as well as the nonfiction books, Wired for War and Cybersecurity and Cyberwar.

Kristen Rouse: “This year my reading included a handful of essential books about Afghanistan that I highly recommend: Tamim Ansary’s Games Without Rules, The Sky is a Nest of Swallows: A Collection of Poems and Essays by Afghan Women Writers, Adrian Bonenberger’s Afghan Post, and Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s The Watch. Afghanistan is a familiar landscape, but each of these books illuminated the history, culture, and ongoing conflict there for me in profound new ways. Robert Gates’s Duty was another essential read in 2014 because he chronicles with sensitivity and introspection the years of war that I’ve been involved in, and that he personally led. But the book I’ve found myself recommending most this year was What Is Visible by Kimberly Elkins. My reason is that Elkins has created a world completely outside of my own — she’s created a beautiful, moving novel that meticulously reconstructs the life of Laura Bridgman, the first deaf-blind student to be taught by Samuel Gridley Howe at the Perkins School in the 1840s and 1850s, a generation before Helen Keller’s fame. It’s a historical novel, where Laura interacts with celebrities like Julia Ward Howe, Charles Dickens, Dorothea Dix, and Charles Sumner, but is even more so an incredibly compelling story that shows a young person of incredible intelligence struggling to establish a sense of self and spirit amid layered, smothering constraints. It’s a fast read, and it will broaden your world in surprising ways.” –Kristen Rouse is a writer and advocate living in NYC.

Brian Castner: “This year I loved Qais Akbar Omar’s A Fort of Nine Towers. It is a child’s war memoir and travelogue and daytime nightmare all wrapped into one. Even if you think you know recent Afghan history, he brings the stories of the mujahedeen and Taliban wars alive in such a human and fresh way, you can’t but look upon the country with fresh eyes.” Brian Castner is the author of The Long Walk.

Michael Pitre: “I’ll offer up The Free, by Willy Vlautin. This book is an ode to those gone from our sight, and a full-throated celebration of the nursing profession. Leroy Kervin, a 31-year-old Iraq War veteran permanently disabled by a traumatic brain injury, awakens momentarily in a group home before slipping back into a catatonic state.

Leroy Kervin opened his eyes to see a blue-and-white starred bikini, holding a pneumatic drill. He could see her blond hair and high heels and thin, long legs. For the first time in seven years, he could see her without blurred vision. He could see her clearly in the glow of a small colored nightlight.

Made suddenly and tragically aware of his true condition, the unconscious Leroy retreats into an imaginary world as the novel moves between his inner life, and the real world struggles of his caretakers. Read it immediately.”—Michael Pitre is the author of Fives and Twenty-Fives.

David Abrams: “These past twelve months were certainly dominated by war-related literature, and the books I read were among the finest of the year. But the one book which probably brought me the most pleasure was not about combat at all (unless you count the war of wills between the sexes). Bill Roorbach’s new novel took the prize for Book Which Most Bruised Strangers’ Palms After I Shoved It Into Their Hands. The Remedy for Love is definitely a “You must read this!” kind of book. What we have here is a flat-out funny, sexy, and poignant romantic thriller. The Remedy for Love is good medicine which most readers will want to swallow in one dose. I don’t, however, have a remedy for those bruises on your hands. Sorry about that.” — David Abrams is the author of Fobbit.

Brandon Friedman: “Four stood out for me this year: The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors. My agent and friend Jim Hornfischer wrote this book and I was supposed to have read it years ago. Anyway, I’m glad I finally did. There’s a reason is got great reviews. Just a riveting story of the Battle off Samar during World War II. It’s intense — the type of book that makes modern combat veterans feel like slugs. I wouldn’t argue with the publisher’s claim that this was “the U.S. Navy’s finest hour.”

Flags of Our Fathers. The strength — and purpose, really — of Flags of Our Fathers is not in the description of the battle for Iwo Jima or even the story of the flag-raising there. Rather, it’s the story of the five marines who raised the flag and how they dealt with the war afterward that makes the book so powerful. The second half of the book is superb. I couldn’t put it down. I literally carried it around with me for a couple of days.

The Drillmaster of Valley Forge: The Baron de Steuben and the Making of the American Army. A surprisingly good read from history professor Paul Lockhart. They should teach this book in professional military courses and include it on DoD reading lists. Lockhart basically tells Steuben’s life story while narrating the general’s work in transforming the Continental Army. In December 1777, a defeated, undisciplined, and rag-tag group of fighters trudged into Valley Forge. In June 1778, an Army marched out and fought toe-to-toe with British at Monmouth — an event most thought impossible. What I found most interesting is how so many of Steuben’s lessons are currently in use within the U.S. military (like “train-the-trainer,” etc.)

The Long Walk to Freedom: Runaway Slave Narratives. With so much discussion of race in the U.S. this year, I decided to read this. For whatever reason, I’m from the South, have a degree in history, and had still never read an actual slave narrative. After reading this, I’m proponent that everyone should. This is important stuff that people try to bury or avoid.” — Brandon Friedman is the author of The War I Always Wanted: The Illusion of Glory and the Reality of War.

Kevin Maurer: “My favorite nonfiction books of the year: In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides and Savage Harvest by Carl Hoffman. Both read like novels packed with great detail and characters. I read both with an eye toward improving my work and realizing my inability to match these masters. The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson: I read it in one sitting, and Roland Nair will stick in my mind forever. Shovel Ready by Adam Sternbergh: Great story, atmosphere and world building. Can’t wait for the next book. One of my favorite novels this year. The Valley by John Renehan (March 2015): I was lucky enough to get an advance copy of this novel. One of the best Afghan war novels I’ve read. Really engaging with authentic characters. A well told story.”—Kevin Maurer is journalist and co-author of No Easy Day.

Victoria Comella: “I have always had a fascination with the American Civil War, and having read everything from Foote to McPherson to Shaara (and Shaara Jr.) — I devoured Karen Abbott’s Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War seeing as how nothing I’d read to date mentioned anything about the women behind the men. Meet Belle Boyd, a teenage spy and messenger for Generals Jackson and Beauregard, Emma Edmonds who donned a uniform with shorn hair, Rose O’Neale Greenhow, a D.C. socialite who charmed politicians for information for the Confederacy, and wealthy abolitionist Elizabeth Van Lew who carefully orchestrated a Richmond spy ring. Abbott’s insight into these four real women who helped changed the course of the war each in their own small way makes for a fascinating and riveting read, and I found myself wanting to travel back to the 1860's to meet them.”—Victoria Comella is Publicity Director for Harper Collins 360.

Peter Meijer: “Anand Gopal’s No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes vividly bisects the conflict in Afghanistan as it was, is, and will be, positioning the west’s involvement within a context greater than our own self-reflection. Too often the stories of Iraq and Afghanistan are positioned from one side of concrete blast walls or the other, and Gopal’s narrative collapses parallel worlds into a picture that’s as close to sense as reality can get.”—Peter Meijer is a writer and board member of Student Veterans of America (SVA).

Nate Bethea: “Dinaw Mengestu’s All Our Names succeeds because it’s both complex and focused: it examines love, war, fidelity, friendship, dislocation and alienation, but it never loses sight of how its inescapable chain of events affects the three characters that matter most to its plot. It’s a thrilling read, but it also serves as an important reminder — that fiction, historical or otherwise, need not be hyper-dense to succeed; it absolutely must be human.” —Nate Bethea is currently a Fiction MFA candidate at Brooklyn College.

Catherine Parnell: My Struggle: Book 1 by Karl Ove Knausgaard:

“For, while previously I saw time as a stretch of terrain that had to be covered, with the future as a distant prospect, hopefully a bright one, and never boring at any rate, now it is interwoven with our life here 3and in a totally different way. Were I to portray this with a visual image it would have to be that of a boat in a lock: life is slowly and ineluctably raised by time seeping in from all sides.”

—Catherine Parnell is the senior associate editor at CONSEQUENCE Magazine.

Tony Schwalm: “The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession by Dana Goldstein is a great US history book by way of showing how we as the richest nation that ever existed has not done so great a job of making the next generation smarter than the last. Well written, well researched, not without bias, but bias not without merit. I give it five stars.”—Tony Schwalm is the author of The Guerrilla Factory: The Making of Special Forces Officers, the Green Berets.

Bill Cave: “Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 is a superbly referenced analysis of the national security actions of several administrations offering keen insight on the challenges we faced post 9/11. The Golden Hour by Todd Moss: Action packed national security thriller about a coup in Mali. Moss’ first novel — -drawing upon his Government and think tank experiences to craft a thriller. Redeployment by Phil Kay: Nothing more needs to be said than National Book Award WINNER! All Fisherman are Liars by John Gierach: Another year of fishing stories make it to print by one of the best fly fishing story tellers in the business.”—Bill Cave is a national security executive and board member of Words After War.

Mariette Kalinowski: “An oldie, but a goodie! A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. We’re about ten years from the centennial of the book’s publication, which drove me to revisit Woolf’s theory about women, education, and fiction: that knowledge is a human right, that fiction as a genre is the true form of womens’ expression (poetry and play has been done and done, again and again, and only fiction gives enough space for the truth of reality to be expressed), and that a woman needs to be given space besides her domestic “obligations” in order to pursue her writing. At the end of her lecture, Woolf predicts that in a century’s time women will exist in a sphere closely equal, if not completely equal, to men. This begs the question of whether or not women have achieved this. But that, of course, is a debate for another time.”—Mariette Kalinowski holds an MFA in fiction from Hunter College and is a contributor to Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War.

Pete Molin: “I read a lot of books besides war novels, and a highlight of this year has been rereading James Joyce’s Ulysses as part of an Internet reading group. It was a year-long endeavor, because it’s a long book that rewards going slow and taking time to talk about it as you go, but totally worth the experience. After spending 12 months with Stephen, Bloom, and Molly, I feel like they are as real as many other new friends and acquaintances I’ve gotten to know this year. I’ve read Ulysses before, but feel I really know it a lot better, not just in terms of knowing what happens to Stephen, Bloom, and Molly, but in terms of understanding what Joyce is doing with language and and the rhetoric of story-telling. For all that, it’s not exactly quotable in two or three sentence chunks, or maybe there’s just too much to quote, so I’ll simply offer the opening lines:

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressing gown, unriddled, was sustained gently behind him by the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned:
—Introibo ad altare Dei.
Halted, he peered down the dark winding stairs and called up coarsely:
—Come up, Kinch. Come up you fearful jesuit.

Kinch is Stephen Dedalus and Buck Mulligan is his friendly nemesis, or “frenemy” as we might say today. The lines are as simple to comprehend as anything that follows in Ulysses, and Buck Mulligan’s mock benediction is an apt beginning for the reading experience to come.”—Pete Molin teaches in the English department at West Point and is the editor of the Time Now blog.

Ryan Weemer: “Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes is a novel about a young man at war. Written over 30-years after the Vietnam war, this piece is a powerful work of literature that must be read by our generation. Marlantes brilliantly captures the struggle of good and evil and morality in war. However lengthly, his use of language and deeper meaning leave the pages turning themselves. The only thing that binds this work is the cover itself.”—Ryan Weemer is Co-founder and CEO of The War Writers’ Campaign.

Ross Ritchell: “This is a list of some of my favorite books read in 2014. Only one was written in 2014, but all were favorites of the year and I highly recommend them all, among many others. Enjoy and thanks for reading!

1) The Great War for Civilisation, by Robert Fisk. This 1,000 page work is a compilation of journalist Fisk’s tireless, and courageous, work throughout the Middle East and Africa for better than 30 years. Spanning the Algerian Civil War of the 1990s to the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s and the American wars in Iraq to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this work is as comprehensive a look at the causes of so much unrest in the region as I’ve seen. The writing is beautiful, the subject matter horrifying, and the work an overall incredible view on the state of the contentious nature of the region and the West’s role in it — both past and immediately present. I could not put the book down, loved its fighting spirit for decency and culpability, and would recommend it hands-down to anyone who wants to even broach the issue of conflicts in the Middle East in the slightest bit.

2) There Are No Children Here, by Alex Kotlowitz. I first read this book nearly ten years ago, and it still affects me as much in 2014 as it did then. This story is Kotlowitz’ journey through one of Chicago’s roughest neighborhoods as told through the lens of the Rivers brothers. The brothers, Lafayette and Pharoah are 10 and 7 respectively at the beginning of the work and Kotlowitz follows them through the warzone of Chicago’s Henry Horner Homes for a few years of their “youth”. That youth is as far from one of innocence and ease as could be believed — they might as well be growing up in a warzone in the Middle East. Gang wars, random shootings, random and specific death, drugs — this book will break your heart. No child should “grow-up” in an area so devoid of the innocence of youth. They can’t grow up because they’re already adults as children.

3) Acid Test, by Tom Shroder. This work focuses on the psychologically therapeutic capabilities of hallucinogenic drugs. A tireless work of the origins of LSD, Ecstasy, and other naturally and chemically-derived hallucinogens, this book is written in the hopes of exploring the drugs’ well-documented, and incredibly impressive resume for treating PTSD. A contentious issue within the U.S. Government, this book makes me wonder if our society is truly doing everything it can to ensure the mental health of its veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Full disclosure: my publisher, Blue Rider Press, produced this work but I stand by it as an author and avid reader. It’s the kind of work that makes me proud to be represented by this publisher.

4) Because They Wanted To, by Mary Gaitskill. Mary Gaitskill can do anything with the written word. For writers and readers attempting to navigate the opportunities and obstacles of the craft, Gaitskill is a shining light of badassery. Yep made that one up, but its true. This collection of short stories will make you squirm, laugh, check over your shoulder to make sure no one sees what you’re reading, and stay with you long after you put it down. Prepare to be uncomfortable, and then enjoy every second of it.

5) The Yacoubian Building, by Alaa Al Aswany. This book by Egyptian author Aswany is a novel about modern-life in Egypt and boasts a breadth of unique characters. Think a Middle-Eastern version of the movie “Crash”. It’s written in outstanding prose and sometimes you just need to read something that isn’t written in, or for, your native tongue. If books are mirrors into the lives and souls of others, this one is a must.” —Ross Ritchell is the author of the forthcoming novel, The Knife.

Michael Carson: “While there are no shortage of books on America’s liberation of Italy, none to my knowledge detail with loving precision dalliances between American GIs and Neapolitan dwarves, undead Italian soldiers in blood-spattered British uniforms and embryonic Mussolinis that berate the narrator. Not for the faint of heart, Curzio Malaparte’s sublimely sardonic The Skin blends fiction and non-fiction to show how the biggest losers at war are often those who think they have won.”—Michael Carson is a writer and teaches high school English in Houston, TX.

Katey Schultz: “Man Alive! by Mary Kay Zuravleff. This book was one of the more surprising that I read in 2014 if for no other reason than the fact that Zuravleff takes characters with seemingly first world, upper middle class “problems” I might not typically care about, and intimately weave lives together into a relatable, down-to-earth, convincing story of one family’s struggle to understand what identity, love, and position really mean. To top it off, Zuravleff’s style, puns, and mathbrain-21st-Century-urban prose made me laugh out loud, with at least one stop-your-heart sentence in every chapter that made me think, Wow, I wish I’d written that!” — Katey Schultz is the author of Flashes of War.

Hugh Martin: “I really liked The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison. The book is one of the most perceptive and smart takes on the nuances of empathy and emotions that I’ve read in quite some time. Her investigative work really explores some truths about human nature. It’s one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in a couple years.”—Hugh Martin is a poet and currently the Emerging Writer Lecturer at Gettysburg College.