Best Books of 2014: Staff Picks

Post originally published on 12/15/14

Finishing all of the best books of 2014 is going to take me into 2015 or maybe even 2016, but here are my top five favorites of 2014. They all make great arguments for shutting down the ‘novel is dead’ or the ‘short stories don’t matter’ debates. (Do people really make those arguments, or is that just straw men?)

STATION ELEVEN:
Emily St. John Mandel

This novel takes place after a flu apocalypse kills the majority of people, and the survivors have to form new societies. It’s like Walking Dead without the zombies but with great writing. Emily has said she wrote the book as a “love letter” to the world. By showing us a world where everyone has lost the things we take for granted, like water, electricity, and global connectedness, she shows how much they should be loved. Extra credit, too, for showing the importance of art in holding on to what it means to be human.

FAT MAN AND LITTLE BOY:
Mike Meginnis

Thinking about how America personified the atom bombs dropped on Japan in World War II, Mike began working on this novel as an MFA student at New Mexico State. His novel completely personifies the two bombs and describes their lives beginning in the aftermath of their explosion. It’s incredibly poetic writing that, similar to Mandel’s requiem, explores opposites. Meginnis pairs the ugliness and inhumanness of war with something beautiful and humane.

WOLF IN WHITE VAN:
John Darnielle

Darnielle’s book has the perfect cover. It’s a blue and white maze that surrounds and forms the title, Wolf in White Van. The novel unfolds like a maze, as well. It simultaneously moves backward and forward through time while trapping and freeing its readers. The center of the maze is an event that disfigured the narrator when he was 17 and led him to create an imaginary world for strangers to play in via a mail-based role-playing game. The story involves his relationships with these other players who share a common need to escape into imagination. When I first finished it, I was a little disappointed by the ending, but as the weeks went on, I kept thinking about it and finding additional reasons to like it. I think it might be the kind of book that needs to be read twice. Extra credit here for pairing this read with Darnielle’s 2008 novella in the 33 1/3 series called Master of Reality. It’s not about the same teen, but it shares the same qualities.

EVERY KISS A WAR:
Leesa Cross-Smith

THE POOR MAN’S GUIDE TO AN AFFORDABLE, PAINLESS SUICIDE:
Schuler Benson

Here’s a perfect winter weekend idea: Stock up on your favorite drink, start a fire, and start the morning off with Every Kiss a War. It’s 27 stories packed with passion and honesty and nice lines, such as: “We go to bed at night in deep darkness and wake to these thin-as-a-communion-wafer mornings with their dirty white winter sunlight and hush.”

As the sun goes down, turn to Benson’s The Poor Man’s Guide, and be ready for another fresh southern voice — one filled with the same honesty but also a unique sense of grit, isolation, and violence.

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The following four were my favorite reads in 2014 of older books:

A FEAST OF SNAKES: Harry Crews. The bluntness reminded me of Cormac McCarthy, although it might even be darker than that.

1984: George Orwell. Somehow I made it through high school and college without reading any Orwell. I’m glad I finally picked up 1984, and it is as topical as ever.

THE FUN PARTS: Sam Lipsyte. I laughed out loud more through this short story collection than just about anything I can remember.

SAFE AS HOUSES: Marie-Helene Bertino. This short story collection won the Iowa Short Fiction Award a few years ago. It includes a story of a girl bringing Bob Dylan home from college for Thanksgiving dinner and tells it in a way that makes the reader feel yes, this is how the holidays were for me, too.