We’ve asked the authors of PW’s Top 10 Books of 2014 to each share a favorite title published this year. Their picks are as diverse as you’d expect from a group that includes two genre-bending nonfiction writers, an Italian recluse, an Iraqi exile, and a Jamaican novelist who has written an epic of his native island. This year, our authors fell hard for memoirs, essay collections, Graywolf Press, and international gems that are not yet available in English. Being creative types, they didn’t follow all our rules, but we’re pleased at their responses.
Biss’s On Immunity uses history, research, mythology, and her own experience as the mother of a young son to delve into a complex issue: immunization. Biss’s pick, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, similarly takes inspiration from many sources as it tackles another weighted topic: race.
Biss’s pick: Citizen: An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine (Graywolf)
“I’ve read Rankine’s new book, Citizen, twice and will read it again soon. The book defies summary, and there is little I can say about it that it doesn’t say for itself much better. It’s about, among other things, ‘the anger built up through experience and the quotidian struggles against dehumanization every brown or black person lives simply because of skin color.’ Citizen does not allow us to dismiss this anger and does not allow us to read rage as insanity. ‘You begin to think, maybe erroneously,’ Rankine writes, ‘that this… anger is really a type of knowledge: the type that both clarifies and disappoints.’ When I read Citizen for the first time, I had the distinct sense that this was a book I had been waiting for someone to write. (Shortly after, I saw Claudia Rankine read at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago and I tried to tell her this, but in a Freudian slip I told her that Citizen was a book I had been waiting to write. Writing this book as Rankine has written it would be impossible for me, but the fixations and questions of the book are all concerns that I would call my own. I too, after all, am a citizen.) Reading Citizen for the second time, I reconsidered my own rage. I remembered a moment in which I had raged over a small injustice suffered by my son. Even as I raged, I had to step outside myself long enough to ask if there was any way I would survive the rage of raising a child who was not routinely treated the way white children can expect to be treated. Would I have any choice? If rage is not the most reasonable response to injustice, Citizen asks, then what is?”
Wright is not only on 2014’s top-10 list—he wrote Going Clear, one of our top 10 books of 2013. This year, we fell hard for Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David, a painstaking and riveting account of the 1978 Camp David Accords. Though it might seem impossible that Wright still has time to read after publishing two new books in two years, he does. His favorite of the year is All the Truth Is Out, a thoughtful piece of reportage by Matt Bai, which chronicles Gary Hart’s failed presidential campaign.
Wright’s pick: All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid, by Matt Bai (Knopf)
“The decline of fairness, impartiality, and respect for privacy in the American press has many causes, but they all seemed to collide in the sinking of Gary Hart’s presidential campaign in 1987. In his bracing book All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid, Bai persuasively argues that the rumors surrounding Senator Hart’s marital infidelities, ignited by the 24-hour news cycle and the diversification of media platforms, permanently transformed the ethos of the political media. Within a few days, the press brought down the leading figure for the Democratic nomination. After that, the hunger for such trophies turned private lives into public commodities whenever they wandered onto the political stage, and entertainment value trumped the ethical considerations that had once allowed reporters and public figures to deal with each other as something other than predator and quarry. Bai’s book should prompt reflection on what we have lost in the process.”
The Dog is Joseph O’Neill’s story of an American man alienated by his native country who ends up in Dubai, where he must make decisions that challenge his identity. O’Neill’s choice is a story collection by the MacArthur-winning Donald Antrim that, like The Dog, parses what it means to be lost in modern society.
O’Neill’s pick: The Emerald Light in the Air, by Donald Antrim (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
“These Antrim stories—brilliant, antic, emotional—are tremendously funny and moving. I read them with that dreadful exhilaration that only the best writers can elicit.”
In 2010, 33 miners spent 69 days trapped in a Chilean copper mine while the world held its breath. Pulitzer-winning journalist Tobar dives deep into their story of survival in Deep Down Dark. His top read of 2014 is a memoir that hinges not on a newsworthy event but on one writer’s love of a city, surfing, and Moby-Dick.
Tobar’s pick: The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld: A Memoir, by Justin Hocking (Graywolf)
“Hocking’s memoir is a love poem to two quintessential creations of American culture—surfing and Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. As the book opens, Hocking, an avid skateboarder, arrives in New York City from Colorado to reboot his writing career. He ends up in Brooklyn, just as the hipster boom is gaining steam, and takes up with assorted skateboarding soulmates. Hocking is an enormously talented wordsmith, and this account of a cash-poor but culturally rich New York life is funny, self-effacing, and unfailingly erudite. He is a writer’s writer, a master of drop-dead gorgeous similes and metaphors. Like his hero Melville, Hocking finds himself drawn to the sea. He falls in with a community of misfit surfers at Rockaway Beach. (Surfing in New York City? Who knew?) The ghost of the long-dead Manhattanite Melville is ever present during Hocking’s repeated encounters with the city’s unexpected natural and human wonders. Life eventually turned harsh for Melville in Manhattan, Hocking tells us, as he tracks the great writer’s sad biography while recounting his own literary failures. The Great Floodgates is as original a New York writer’s memoir as you’re likely to read. Rarely has modern-day New York been captured so viscerally and sensually.”
The third of Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, continues the epic story of two friends in Naples whose lives intersect and diverge throughout the years. Ferrante’s top pick is Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, about two brothers and the woman they share, with a setting that moves from India to the U.S.
Ferrante’s pick: The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri (Knopf)
“When I’m writing, I read very little. The only book that I read this year in English is The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri. Lahiri conveys the collision of two worlds to excellent effect. But what makes the book memorable is Gauri [the female protagonist]. In Italy the novel was titled La moglie (The Wife). It’s one of those extremely rare cases where the publisher’s nonliterary rationale indicates to the reader a great literary accomplishment.”
Carrère doesn’t recede into the background in his biographical portrait Limonov. Instead, the author interacts with the story, interrogating his own relationship to Limonov as closely as he studies the facts of the Russian dissident’s life. This year, he recommends a French bestseller by Maylis de Kerangal, To Repair the Living (FSG has acquired U.S. rights). The novel follows a heart as it moves, literally, from one body to another.
Carrère’s pick: To Repair the Living, by Maylis de Kerangal
“To Repair the Living is a splendid title and a splendid book. The title comes from Chekov; the book tells of the heart. The heart in question belongs to a young man who dies in a car accident after a surfing session on the French coast of Brittany. First comes the announcement to the mother, then the mother breaking the news to the father, and then finally the doctor, at the hospital where the corpse of the young man lies, asks the parents if they will agree to donate their son’s organs—particularly his heart. The parents are in shock, of course. They need time to think. But there is no time. A heart transplant must be performed in the 24 hours following death, or not at all. This novel is about what happens during these 24 hours. Between the moment when a 20-year-old dies and the moment his heart finds a home in the body of a 50-year-old woman. Maylis de Kerangal describes with frantic energy and wonderful tenderness all the people, all the individual stories, all the griefs and hopes that are involved in this process. She writes about performing both mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and heart surgery. Before this fifth novel, she was considered one of the most promising French novelists. Réparer les vivants is more than a promise; in France it was an immediate bestseller, and has remained so from the beginning to the end of 2014 and reconciled the most demanding literary critics with the largest audience. It will be published next year in the U.S.—don’t miss it.”
Iraqi exile Blasim’s The Corpse Exhibition tackles the Iraq War from an Iraqi perspective. He has been compared to Gogol and Borges, and Blasim’s stories, like theirs, are both comic and horrifying, filled with haunting images. Blasim chose Frankenstein in Baghdad by Iraqi author Ahmed Saadawi, winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2014, a dynamic novel (soon to be translated into English) that takes as its subject the violence in Iraq in the aftermath of the American occupation.
Blasim’s pick: Frankenstein in Baghdad, by Ahmed Saadawi
“Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad courageously confronts the bizarre events set in motion by the violence after the American occupation of Iraq. In an enjoyable and intelligent style, Saadawi tells the story of Hadi, a peddler in a poor part of Baghdad who collects and repairs body parts from people who have been ripped apart in explosions. A spirit breathes life into the assembled parts to produce a creature that Hadi calls the Whatsitsname, while the authorities call it Criminal X. The creature exacts revenge on all those who helped kill the people to whom the body parts belonged. It’s a painful and powerful story that goes beyond the limits of reality, in an attempt to reach the essence of the cruelty of wars that disfigure the human spirit and society, as fire disfigures skin. In vain, Saadawi’s novel seeks justice in the labyrinthine chaos of violence in Iraq. His lively style is reminiscent of horror movies and detective stories, with touches of black comedy. The novel will soon be translated into English, and I hope that will be a step toward recognition of the new Iraqi literature that has emerged from under the rubble of constant wars, which I like to call the literature of nightmarish realism.”
James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings is a sweeping epic that chronicles three decades of violence and unrest in Jamaica, centered on the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in 1976. Like Eula Biss, James picked Claudia Rankine’s Citizen as his top book of the year.
James’s pick: Citizen: An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine (Graywolf)
“Courageous. Painful. Necessary. Words that we use to describe capital-I important books. It’s also the kind of language that guarantees that people will not read them. But Citizen is too big a work for such reductive paraphrasing. In fact, it anticipates this language in the stunning second section, which pivots between Serena Williams’s ‘stubbornness and grudge,’ and Arthur Ashe’s dignity and courage, to expose the polite racism behind what is deemed acceptable black behavior. The question isn’t asked so much as unmasked: is America still so in love with the concept of the good black because it makes for great art and sports, or because it provides a racial template safe to categorize and eventually ignore? What about the inverse, America’s equal fear and fascination for the angry black woman and the black male sex machine gone berserk? And yet, even at its most boldly confrontational, Citizen grabbed me with its huge heart and disarming openness. Rankine is far more interested in revelation than confession. It’s the pre-Ferguson book that feels post-, not just because of how it confronts race and identity but because it already feels like an ageless and peerless work of art. Several times I found myself walking into a conversation already happening, in which Rankine simply scooted over, never breaking thought, but making space for me to listen, and to eventually speak.”
Jamison’s The Empathy Exams is a collection of essays that explore pain, femininity, art, love affairs, and yes, empathy, in language that’s daring and compassionate. For her, this year’s standout is another essay collection: Charles D’Ambrosio’s Loitering.
Jamison’s pick: Loitering: New and Collected Essays, by Charles D’Ambrosio (Tin House)
“Loitering is a book I will keep returning to for years. I love its fidelity to the complexities of life. I’m excited by the surge and charge of its thought. You get to watch a mind moving through the world with insight and sensitivity and something like the opposite of perceptual laziness. A doctor once told me I had an extra electrical node in my heart—sending out extra signals saying, ‘Beat, beat’—and this collection is like another runaway node, making my heart beat faster with its synthesis of ferocious nuance and unapologetic feeling. Its essays are about a rundown utopia and a Christian haunted house, a Russian orphanage and a woman on trial, a brother’s suicide and another brother’s survival. They make the boundaries between the personal and the exploratory—the journalistic or the critical—feel not just permeable but somehow beside the point: why polarize these modes of encounter and awareness? Another Charles (Baudelaire) once protested the segregation of thought and feeling in writing, insisting that ‘passion... raises reason to new heights,’ and there is an emotive force to D’Ambrosio’s intelligence that never fails to take my breath away. These essays are smart without being overserious: they resist easy answers and treat rigorous thinking as an ethical imperative rather than a chance to showcase intelligence. They are generous to the world. I’m so glad they are in it.”
Julie Buntin is a freelance writer and the programs director at the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses.