Post originally published on 1/6/15
It’s officially 2015, and this past year has been a time of stunning debuts, incredible prose, poetry lines that make you believe poetry’s not dead, and daring works that challenge the status quo. We asked authors, readers, editors, publishers, publicists, and indie press peeps to tell us their favorite books of the past year. Get ready to add to your to-be-read pile, because we’ve got some gems here.
When I first started reading Eric Shonkwiler’s Above All Men back in January of last year, I remember being only a handful of pages in and already referring to it as my favorite book of 2014. Here I am, seventy-three books and twelve months later, and nothing I’ve read since has even come close. Eric’s novel offers a bleak peek into the beginning of the end of the world. Into the life of a family man who feels the weight of everyone’s worries on his shoulders. Into the mind of this man who, regardless of consequence, is determined to make sure everyone is all right, even if it means hurting the ones he cares about most. It’s a tale of survival as much as it is one of destruction, and Shonkwiler’s pacing — the slow, burning intensity of it — kept me on tenterhooks the entire time.
We cling to what we know, even when it’s destroying us. Even when we should know better. In this debut novel from Natalie S. Harnett, a young girl watches as an underground coal mine fire slowly consumes a small Pennsylvania town — and her family along with it. As the book begins, Brigid Howley’s family is moving in with her grandparents, having abandoned their own home as part of a tract rendered too toxic by fumes from the unseen blaze. There’s beauty in the ugliness: daffodils pop from the ground in the dead of winter, warmed by the fire beneath, and a newfound sense of community forms from the townsfolk trying to hold on to their homes and land. Brigid’s father has a big heart but can’t hold a job; her mother harbors a bitter grudge against her own upbringing (but isn’t doing much better); and her grandmother is the Atlas of this world, holding everything together even as her strength diminishes. There is a skeletal body found in a forgotten mine shaft, a mystery about who it is and how it got there, rumors of a long-ago curse against the family and its town, and dark Howley secrets that simultaneously change everything … and nothing. This is a devastatingly emotional journey through the heart of a blue-collar Irish-American family that just wants to continue down their path, damn the consequences, even if it means being damned themselves.
My favorite book of the year — in a year full of great debuts and new books from living masters — was Brian Hart’s The Bully of Order. Setting his story in the midst of the massive logging operation of the Pacific Northwest at the turn of the century, Hart achieves something magical. You taste the sawdust and mud and blood, while coming to understand the titanic scale of the endeavor to painfully deforest great swaths of American wilderness, a challenge on par with the construction of the pyramids. Nestled in this setting of teeming violence (Sailors knew better than to take shore leave in such logging towns.), is a story of astonishing hurt and heart, as the Ellstrom family tries, and all too often fails, to overcome the hardships inherent to this time and place.
You’ve probably run across the name Roxane Gay if you’ve ever spent any time reading on the Internet. She’s prolific, thoughtful, and wonderful. Her Twitter account, @rgay, is a daily staple for me. I was excited for Gay’s novel, An Untamed State, for this reason. It was my favorite book of 2014, but let me warn you, it’s not an easy read. The first sentence begins like a fairy tale and ends darkly, “Once upon a time, in a far-off land, I was kidnapped by a gang of fearless yet terrified young men with so much impossible hope beating inside their bodies it burned their very skin and strengthened their will right through their bones.” Unflinchingly, the novel tells of the kidnapping and repeated rape and torture of Mireille, a Haitian-American attorney. It occurs when Mireille visits her parents in Port-au-Prince with her husband and child. Gay challenges her readers with emotionally draining material. Because of Gay’s straightforward, powerful, and masterful narrative voice, she creates a vivid portrait of Mireille as a flawed and rich character that forces readers to view Mireille as a person with defining roles and experiences prior to the brutality of the attack on her.
Don’t Start Me Talkin’ is a smooth ride over some rough roads. Tom Williams’ novel deals with the complicated state of race in America through the lens of two traveling blues musicians — Brother Ben: inscrutable, indefatigable, canny, and Silent Sam: contemplative, ambitious, unsettled — on Ben’s final tour. From stage to stage, Ben and Sam encounter a public that is increasingly white, scholarly, and disassociated from the musical movement’s hardscrabble (and often hyperbolic) beginnings. Sam, the narrator, grapples with this distance while also grappling with the cipher that is Brother Ben, his captivating and frustrating mentor. Williams does a superb job of navigating complex issues without making the reader break a sweat, and the book is immensely enjoyable, read with a perpetual smile, in my case. You don’t need to be a fan of the blues to fall for this book, but those readers who are will find themselves constantly checking names, looking up songs, and appreciating the music more for the story Williams tells. Curbside Splendor did a hell of a job designing the book (It calls to mind an old EP, and even the chapters are listed as tracks.), and its overall aesthetic is one more reason to pick it up.
The most effective book I read in 2014 was John Darnielle’s Wolf in White Van. I say effective because there may have been a couple I would say were as good as Darnielle’s debut, but none as effective. When I read a book, I’m trying to see it from all possible angles — language, plot, narrative flow, character development, etc. But I’m also keen on how the author sets me up as a reader. With this novel, Darnielle puts a lot of secrets on the page early on and then reveals them at just the right time. There’s always the undercurrent, no matter what else is going on, of the main character’s disfigurement. Then, as a second undercurrent, there’s the secrets surrounding the two gamers who took the game too far. The entire book is this magnificent sort of tease that ultimately makes good on the foreplay. Just an all-around knockout.
As far as debut novels go, Courtney Moreno set the bar high with In Case of Emergency. Following 28-year-old Piper Gallagher, a rookie EMT living in South Central L.A., the reader finds a real window into the life of a first responder and how the job can affect not only the responder, but the people in his life. When Piper starts dating Ayla, an Iraqi War veteran who struggles with PTSD, there is a beautiful yet gritty clash of trauma that is deeply felt. Out of the multitude of books I read all year, this one has stayed with me and will be a book I’ll be returning to multiple times.
Selected by Pat Siebel
Every 2014 booklist, for whatever reason(s) it promotes its existence, lacks Aaron Burch’s Backswing — and that is a fundamental problem that changes now. “Burch,” according to Adam Levin, “is the bard of the American dude.” And he’s right. Holding Backswing again, flipping back through its pages remembering “The Stain,” a story I literally picture-messaged every page of to a friend (He bought it afterward.), the gorgeous sentences lighting the wick on “Fire in the Sky,” and just the way each story, in its own way, made my heart beat hard, I was floored all over again. Backswing is what we do when no one watches, the repressed/concealed, the strange idiosyncrasies that become part of our strange identities. Someone, at some point, christened it “Suburban Surrealism,” and where I resisted at first, I later realized the designation was necessary: It’s a collection so refreshingly contemporary that it resists anything else. It’s youthful experimentation, quick glimpses of the uncanny, and coteries of pre-millennial skateboarders still rolling down neighborhood streets. It’s then, it’s now — and it’s just so goddamn good I’m reading it again.
So much of Kristina Marie Darling’s new book, Fortress, might seem to fit the tidy constructs of simple erasure or even palimpsest. Darling notes that the Preface and Epilogue of Fortress are formed as erasures of Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain. (The four Books at the center of the book are blank pages with sparse footnotes.) Seen in the context of Darling’s other recent work (Compendium/ Correspondence in particular), Fortress slides into a slim but vital category writers are still calling poetry right now that is something new in form and expression: not an ornament or lyric but something that requires, yet resists, the page. The Preface and Epilogue of Fortress serve as a commentary on the four Books that comprise the center of the work. Darling creates the erasures as an argument that any mechanism for making sense of something so fraught and fragmentary must be borrowed. Any available explanation cannot originate in the same voice as the Books. The structures of experience resist, and even borrow, language. And the Books at the heart of this work form themselves as absences, the blank pages that become the memory, the footnoted fragments that become the interstices through which we peer to reconstruct the bloom, then end, of marriage. Darling uses the language of structures and symbolic representation — castles, fortresses, roses, keys, fire — to plant a garden already in ashes, to lock us into a place from which we wonder if we were ever really free. This book forces, requires, and allows the reader to reconstruct what language can only suggest. Scenes and narratives that appear on the page come from the reader’s own memory and life experiences. The footnotes and annotations are not a ready-made tale, an entertainment, but a series of memory prompts. We could each write a response to Fortress, maybe create Instagram uploads to correspond to each footnote. It is an episodic story for which the reader provides the episodes, a series of flashbacks we suture to create a whole story. And Darling’s gift to us? The story we imagine and construct is our own remembered lost fortress.
Filled with intriguing details about a victim, her killer, and the investigators who attempted to find him, Murder in the Stacks is a highly intelligent, sensitive, and gripping account of a criminal investigation gone awry. With beautifully crafted sentences, David DeKok captures not only a place (State College, PA), but an era (the 1960s). Though I finished reading it months ago, I remain both disturbed and fascinated by the facts surrounding the investigation, particularly the types of activities that took place in the college library. Murder in the Stacks is one of those books I’ll keep on my shelf and continue to revisit for a long time to come.
Bigfoot Cop by Kevin Shamel is my favorite book of 2014. I think the reason so many people are interested in Bigfoot is that they are instinctively repulsed by technology and feel that there is a power, an Earth power (called Forest Magick in the novel), that is being disconnected as they are being plugged into the tech network. Shamel expresses this regression in the shape of proto-man — the Sasquatch or Bigfoot. The author’s modern personality is inserted into the creature who smokes a wooden bong, finds magic rocks, and loves root beer and pizza. But there is also this great underlying warmth in the Bigfoot character that creates a jealousy in modern humankind when thinking of our predecessors who were covered in hair. This mammalian warmth in Bigfoot Cop is very bright, very golden, and full of sunlight. When I read it, I felt returned to the 70s when people thought of the woods as a prime party spot. It is like classic rock. And like the Bigfoot who escapes the science of humanity by simply listening to the voice of the wild, Shamel considers the soul of the human being and makes me contemplate where it has hidden itself. I am guessing it is in a cedar grove, or else somewhere deep in the woods.
You know how sometimes you wait and wait for a book, and then it finally comes out, and all your mental hyping causes the book to feel anticlimactic? That didn’t happen with this book, despite the fact that I had been waiting roughly five years for it finally to be released. Having heard Fromm read from the manuscript of If Not for This several times, and the fact that there was an eleven-year gap between books (the last being As Cool as I Am, which was published in 2003), my anticipation was at an all-time high. And I am not a patient person, but If Not for This was worth the wait. It’s a gentle story, a love story about the unexpected tragedies life throws at people. I marvel at writers who so clearly care about their characters that you can tell they don’t want to make bad things happen to them, even when they do. Fromm does that expertly in this novel. If you’re ready to sit down with a book that will give you an immense case of the ‘feels,’ look no further.
There’s so much I can write about my favorite book of 2014, but I don’t want to spoil it for the readers, nor do I want to bore you with just my thoughts. If you have read and liked The Perks of Being a Wallflower, you are sure to adore Love Letters to the Dead. As an ardent lover of letters, these fictitious love letters had me hooked till the end. They’ll make you sad, they’ll make you laugh, and they are sure to leave you to question the impact of a ‘love letter.’ In the era of emails and text messages, we have forgotten how letters used to connect the people in the past. These letters written by a young girl for what was to be an assignment for an English class, will mesmerize you and make you understand grief through her eyes. People leave us, period. What remains are their memories and the time they spent with us.
It’s always refreshing when an author doesn’t waste time on self-justification or persuasion, but gets right to it. Because Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment, and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words opens without the usual cultural, social, or academic preliminaries, David Whyte’s latest offering is pure gift: the calmly stated musings of a philosopher-poet. In a few dense but accessible paragraphs per selection, Whyte offers us his personal definition of fifty-two words which represent various aspects of the human condition, words such as despair, shadow, genius, work. Whyte appears to be speaking to us as fellow-thinkers, companions on life’s road, without apology. And yet his non-dogmatic style and quiet pace offers a contemplative space in which to respond in kind, to agree or to reject, or to take the conversation in a new direction. What would you say if asked to define the word loneliness, or memory? Wouldn’t you like to try? Consolations honors the need for us to make sense of our lives, in language; because Whyte has opened the conversation, it offers a way to begin.
For me, one of the most compelling and surprising things about The Zone of Interest was that, in addition to all the other things it was about, it was also a novel about writing: about how we write ourselves and the world we find ourselves in, and how this can be an act of defiance in the face of adversity, a way to maintain a sense of self even during forced resignation and submission. I think maybe that is the story of Szmul, the Sonderkommando forced to assist in the mass killing of his own people, in the book. Maybe that is the story of everybody. The Zone of Interest is not my favorite novel by Martin Amis. That said, I did very much enjoy it, and it is my favorite novel of 2014. It made me remember why I like to read and why I like to write. And I think that might be the best thing I could possibly say about any piece of writing.
For me, the best nonfiction book of 2014 was Roxanne Gay’s Bad Feminist. Within its pages are insightful, realistic personal essays ranging from race, rape, reality TV to obesity, boyfriends, and Scrabble. Unafraid of honesty, Gay speaks straight to the heart of every woman who feels the struggle of identifying as a feminist in today’s society, partly because of the negative connotations of the word itself and the high caliber we hold each other to. The practical application of being a strident feminist is often easier said than done. She articulates the fear of failure, of yourself and the movement, when you find yourself singing along to extremely offensive rap music, or when you know you’re dating someone who doesn’t deserve you, explaining, “I’m dating an asshole because I’m lazy.” But Gay, like the majority of feminists, doesn’t hate men and makes a significant effort to explain this. While the book seems target-marketed toward women, anyone will find wisdom within its cover. She speaks openly about race and privilege and her experiences as being the child of immigrants. Her humor and wit carry many of the pieces, reminding us of the truth behind the phrase: It’s funny ’cause it’s true. Like any collection of essays, what carries the words is the voice, and Gay’s is strong and beautiful. Do yourself a favor and put it at the top of your must-read list, and once you’ve read it, tell all your friends.
I have been raving about Smith Henderson’s Fourth of July Creek since the novel was first released in June. It’s the sort of book that only comes along every once in a great while — a book with a story so raw, so compelling, and so engrossing, that it almost hurts. When I first wrote about Henderson’s novel, I described it as “my raging love affair.” I stayed up late, woke up early, and cancelled plans so I could keep reading. The story of Montana social worker Pete Snow and his obsession and entanglement with the dangerous survivalist Benjamin Pearl haunted my thoughts when I wasn’t reading and consumed me when I was. The story is epically American — Pete’s dysfunctional personal odyssey is set against a backdrop of questioning the other. His struggle to find meaning and purpose mirrors the anxiety and paranoia of the country. The characters are alive, the descriptions are stark, vivid, and gritty, and the language is sharp, lyrical, and needling. In short, it is everything a reader wants and everything a writer wants to be able to do. I fell in love six months ago, and though there have been many others, many literary flirtations, many close encounters, the torch is still going strong for Fourth of July Creek.
I began this tale of a stranded astronaut on Mars with no background information. Would he be attacked by angry Martians? Would he find love in a Men-Are-From-Mars-Women-Are-From-Venus sci-fi twist on the rom-com? Perhaps he would be haunted by alien ghosts or tormented by alien monsters. After about 70 pages of reading about the cultivation of bacteria in soil to grow Martian potatoes, I realized that this book would not fit easily into any genre. Its combination of humor, hard science, and (after the aforementioned 70 pages of potato farming) well-paced plot was unique. As a liberal artsy type, I am not prone to researching Mars probes on Wikipedia, or chatting about how sunlight travels on the surface of Mars, or how to make water out of thin air (literally). And so, in a sentence, this book was my favorite of 2014 because it brought me to unexpected places in my own mind, and told a story of survival in an engaging way that forced me out of my comfort zone.
SPOILER ALERT (not really): Coming in at almost 700 pages and with gunfire bursting forth on several of those pages, Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings is neither brief nor light on violent death. It is a story of Jamaica primarily in the 70s revolving around the true attempt on Bob Marley’s (the singer’s) life by rivaling Kingston political gangs. We’re talking here gangsters and outlaws who will do what they must to make a point or to score on a drug deal. Told by a wide array of fascinating characters, the body count rises as what should be a tropical paradise devolves into a vast killing wasteland. Not for the faint of heart, A Brief History of Seven Killings should be required reading for anyone who really wants to know what the old ads meant when they said “Come to Jamaica.” Read at your own risk, but by all means, read!
I spend an awful lot of time wondering what goes on inside author Tom Robbins’ head. The prose of his books is so richly saturated with surprising metaphors and fitfully hilarious descriptions, it’s worthwhile pondering what sort of verbal jungle he must have cooking in his cortex. Can anyone disagree with his famous description of tequila as “scorpion honey, harsh dew of the doglands, essence of Aztec, crema de cacti … oily and thermal like the sun in solution … liquid geometry of passion; Tequila, the buzzard god who copulates in midair with the ascending souls of dying virgins”? With the release of Tom Robbins’ autobiographical book, Tibetan Peach Pie, I finally had my window to the mind fueling his unique voice. Compared to the pace and grandiosity of his novels, I was surprised at the sit-down-and-pour-yourself-a-cup-of-iced-tea pace. I was not let down by the content. Robbins’ chronicling of his life from his mischievous boyhood to his present calm as an octogenarian gives the reader both insight into the composing of his masterfully creative novels and an honesty in his retelling the triumphs and tragedies of his life. As he wrote in his novel Fierce Invalids from Hot Climates, “Reality is contradictory. And it’s paradoxical.” In Tibetan Peach Pie, readers, writers, and fans can open a window into the mechanics of Robbins’ methods, which lead to the poetic madness of his prose.
IN THE SEASON OF BLOOD & GOLD:
Selected by Jackie James
As an avid country noir fan, I found the stories in Taylor Brown’s In the Season of Blood & Gold to be rich in the compelling elements of rural tension. He writes with a powerful economy of language while making good narrative choices that provide rounded characters bombarded with intense twists. This short story collection was my favorite of the year, especially “Bone Valley,” “Sin-Eaters,” and “The Tattooist’s Daughter.” Brown definitely belongs in the new school of gritty writers alongside Wiley Cash, Silas House, Mary Miller, and Steph Post. I can’t wait for his upcoming novel — awesome read!