If you’ve already read all of PW‘s Best Books of 2014, don’t worry—we have a few more suggestions, this time the personal picks from our staffers. The books below are not necessarily published in 2014, just ones we read in 2014 and wanted to share.
Andrew Albanese, senior writer: Preparation for the Next Life, by Atticus Lish. I’ve known Giancarlo DiTrapano, publisher of Tyrant Books for many years, since before he started the press. And I’ve always been impressed with the work he’s published. (Marie Calloway’s What Purpose Did I Serve in Your Life still haunts me). But when he first gave me a copy of Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life, he upped the ante. “I think this book should win the Pulitzer, or National Book Award,” he said. I chalked that up to indie enthusiasm. But after a few months sitting on my desk (I read almost entirely nonfiction these days—occupational hazard) I finally cracked the book. And, he’s right. Preparation for the Next Life isn’t just the best novel I’ve read this year, it may be be the best novel I’ve read, ever. I’ve seen the book appearing on quite a few “best of” lists recently—well deserved. And I am now a believer: this book should be in the conversation for a national prize. Gian, I am sorry I ever doubted your appraisal—it won’t happen again.
Ivan Anderson, copy editor: This year I finished reading The Forty Days of Musa Dagh (1933), by Franz Werfel. The book, which is based on true events, is a fictionalized account of a group of Armenians who resisted the Turks for 40 days, under siege on a mountain, at the dawn of the Armenian Genocide in 1915. It’s nearly 900 pages, and it took me close to two years to finish.The book’s unflinching depiction of the genocide can be tough to get through, but Werfel also describes the banalities and misadventures of living on a mountain for 40 days, including the Armenians’ Rambo-like preparations for battle. At times the book reads like a good old-fashioned adventure story, and in the last 10 years Sylvester Stallone and Mel Gibson have each expressed interest in adapting it for film—but both projects were defeated by massive letter-writing campaigns opposed to the recognition of the Armenian Genocide (this sort of thing is a sad and frequent consequence of the Turkish government’s ongoing denial of its role in the massacres). In any case, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh is powerful whether or not you’ve ever heard of the Armenian Genocide. I happened to be riding the subway when I finished reading it, and a woman sitting across from me watched as I turned the very, very last page of the massive book in my hands. “That’s realness,” she said.
Peter Cannon, senior reviews editor: As a Martin Gardner fan, I greatly enjoyed Matt Parker’s Things to Make and Do in the Fourth Dimension: A Mathematician’s Journey Through Narcissistic Numbers, Optimal Dating Algorithms, at Least Two Types of Infinity, and More. Parker, a British mathematician and stand-up comic, writes with humor and enthusiasm about a subject that, as he ruefully notes, too many people consider boring. In the opening chapter (“The Zeroth Chapter”), he announces that his goal “is to show people all the fun bits of mathematics.” And in this he mainly succeeds, without getting overly technical. While much was familiar to me, a lot more wasn’t. My favorite discovery: “cannonball numbers.” In the 16th century, a formula was devised for calculating the number of cannonballs in a square-pyramid stack n cannonballs high. How many such cannonball stacks can be dismantled to form a flat square? Just one: a square-pyramid stack 24 cannonballs high. The 4,900 cannonballs in this stack can, of course, be arranged in a 70 x 70 square.
Annie Coreno, reviews editor: The book that stayed with me the longest is Will Boast’s memoir Epilogue. It’s a finely wrought and unsparing account of the loss of the author’s family—by the time he was 24 Boast had lost his mother, brother, and father all on separate occasions. It’s devastatingly sad and yet beautifully written with clarity, precision, and a truly affective structure (there’s a fictional chapter where the author attempts to extend his brother’s life). The first chapter alone is so powerful that I’ve read it aloud to friends. If you are a reader who can handle this type of grief, then this book is not to be missed.
Alex Crowley, reviews editor: I read four books this year that I think stood out above even their most accomplished peers and three of them were nonfiction: Eula Biss’s On Immunity, Lawrence Wright’s Thirteen Days, and Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge. But I’m picking a poetry title, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, as my favorite book I read this year. It’s a difficult read, though not because of unusual vocabulary or strange syntax. It’s difficult because of its heightened intimacy and the unapologetic, direct way it handles how interpersonal relations, particularly the mundane and the everyday, are governed by race. Rankine, during a reading in November at NYU, made clear that intimacy was a driving principle behind the work, which hybridizes poetry, essay, and visual art (some of which are collaborations with her husband, John Lucas). This examination of temporally brief, yet existentially powerful moments between friends, acquaintances, neighbors, and coworkers provides perspective on what it’s like to be a person of color in America (the situations Rankine uses as subject material are all real people’s stories, though some are composites) just as it offers a way to see how systematized racism is. In a year when racism has made headlines for all the overt ways it is expressed, here is a reminder of how subtle and subconscious it can be. There’s so much shock, anguish, confusion, anger, and pain in this book. And yet from all this well-documented terror, Rankine has produced something that reflects back at us everything we’re capable of doing to one another. It’s beautiful and devastatingly human.
Paige Crutcher, contributing editor: Leila Sales’s This Song Will Save Your Life. This book has been on my to-read list for the past year, and when I finally sat down with it, I could not stop reading. From the first page to the last, I was utterly captivated. Elise Dembowski is one of the most sympathetic protagonists I’ve read to date. Sixteen and chronically unpopular, she is also precocious and laugh-out-loud funny. I read a lot of YA, and what I love about this book is it’s not just a story about firsts (first love, first passion, first self-discovery), though it does a brilliant job of covering them all. Elise knows what it means to be the wrong kind of girl, the one who doesn’t fit in and who never does anything right. Until she ends up at the underground club Start and follows her passion for music into the DJ booth. Following her heart, Elise discovers people who like her exactly as she is, and believe in her talent. This Song Will Save Your Life is a book about acceptance, about good music and DJs, and most of all it’s about the right kind of wrong.
Rachel Deahl, news director: I didn't expect Eula Biss's slender book about inoculation to emerge as my favorite of the year. It's not that the subject matter doesn't interest me—I am fascinated, and petrified, by the rising tide of voices declaring vaccination a danger—but, let's be honest, how interesting can a book about a medical act be... right? Wrong. Though on its surface On Immunity is a critique of the anti-vaccine wave sweeping this country (and others), it's ultimately an examination of cultural fear and how we think of ourselves in relation to other people. Biss offers plenty of interesting details about the history of vaccination itself, but she's interested in much more here. By touching on topics ranging from language to literature to the nature of gossip, Biss reveals uncomfortable truths about how susceptible we are to certain idea—often concocted by organizations with agendas--that play to our insecurities. I'm always drawn to works that explore why we think the things we do, and Biss's book is an exceptional one in this category.
Natasha Gilmore, associate children's book editor: Valeria Luiselli's Sidewalks is a beautiful, meandering collection of essays full of filaments of brilliance on everything from literature, philosophy, traveling in graveyards, to untranslatable words. The book is full of deep insights yet remains unpretentious throughout. Sidewalks demands to be reread and underlined, and her voice is so original and whip-smart, in her debut collection, Luiselli presents herself as a writer to watch out for; she is the kind of essayist you want to ride your bike to a bar and have a beer with.
Gabe Habash, deputy reviews editor: Jim Harrison has written about 40 books over his 50 year career, but Letters to Yesenin is probably his best—and one of the most heartbreaking books I've ever read. Written in the early '70s when Harrison was depressed and suicidal and "couldn't maintain my sanity," it's composed as a series of 30 letters addressed to Sergei Yesenin, a Russian poet who hanged himself at 30 after writing a last poem in blood. Why is it so good? Well, it's not really complicated. You get page after page, line after line of language that just knocks you out. Instead of trying to describe it, there's not enough room, I'll just point to one of my favorite letters here. Letters to Yesenin is one of those rare books with the capability of changing the life of its reader.
Everett Jones, reviews editor: I mean it only in the nicest possible way when I say that American Cornball: A Laffopedic Guide to the Formerly Funny by Christopher Miller is, in one sense, one of the least funny books that I read or that was published this year. To be sure, Miller’s prose is, in of itself, effortlessly, suavely funny. It’s his book’s contents, rather, that are so impressively, even astoundingly mirth-free. His book is an encyclopedic litany of subjects that Americans once found funny (but hopefully no longer do): unmarried women; chewing gum; reading newspapers at breakfast; domestic homicide; studly icemen; the Irish. Alphabetically arranged entries, mostly focused on the first few decades of the 20th century, take you into a world inhabited by deadline-cursed cartoonists and joke books with titles like Captain Billy's Whiz Bang; a witless mirror image of the great tradition of American wits like Perelman, Thurber, and Dorothy Parker. More than just an exercise in moral superiority to the prejudices, blind spots, and sheer bad taste of the American past, Miller’s book is a sustained question: which of the attitudes of the American present will have dated just as badly by 2114? This is a demonstration of unlikely erudition to rank next to Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women and—despite what I said above—one of the funniest books of 2014.
Claire Kirch, midwest correspondent: The Magician's Lie begins in 1905 at the height of the Golden Age of Vaudeville: a mutilated corpse has been discovered underneath the stage after a magic act performed by the female magician, "The Amazing Arden," who is famed throughout the land for being one of the few female magicians on the traveling vaudeville show circuit and for sawing a man in half during her shows. As Officer Holt, a rookie policeman with his own personal problems, interrogates Arden in the middle of the night to determine if she committed a crime and should be placed under arrest, her story is told in a series of flashback. Arden tells Holt of all the twists and turns in her life, leading all the way back to her childhood, that have culminated in her being chained to a chair with multiple sets of handcuffs in a police station in small-town Iowa. As Arden spins a fantastical tale of love, betrayal, and obsession, the reader begins to question what is real and what is merely an illusion. What really happened; who is the man whose body was discovered underneath the stage? Is Arden a victim or the villain? You'll have to read The Magician's Lie to find out. Be prepared to be transported back to a fascinating era in U.S. history through the magic of reading this page-turner from this debut novelist.
Heidi MacDonald, comics editor: My favorite book this year was a debut graphic novel, The Amateurs by Conor Stechschulte. I loved the unexpected nature of the story—weaving together two seemingly unrelated mysteries into a seamless whole. The story opens with late 19th-century school girls find a talking head on a river bank warning them to go back. The tale then switches to two amiable butchers who have forgotten how to do their jobs, blossoming into a gruesome, black humored slapstick sequence. Some are doomed to remember, some to forget, and the intersection of these options produces a totally new reading experience. While I appreciated the pleasures of the book itself—Stechschulte’s robust art and deft handling of place and time—what made it so exciting for me is the sudden appearance of such a well-rounded talent, and the health of an industry that can support such a work. For a long time comics labored between promoting singular but niche auteurs and massive but played-out superhero brands, and young cartoonists often seemed caught at an anxious crossroads of hopeless choices. The Amateurs is only one of the exciting debuts and early works by young cartoonists from around the world that I read in 2014, but the variety and confidence of these works leaves me eager to keep reading.
Evan Phail, book reviews intern: Stephen King’s second published novel Salem’s Lot invokes horror that I had never read before. Scenes have stuck with me for months, such as Hubert Marsten opening his eyes while lynched from the ceiling in the ominous Marsten house, or one of the Glick boys hovering outside the second floor window asking to be let in, or the vampire Barlow overpowering the symbol of the Cross. (“The Catholic Church is not the oldest of my opponents. I was old when it was young […] I was strong when this simpering club of bread-eaters and wine-drinkers who venerate the sheep-savior was weak. My rites were old when the rites of your church were unconceived.”) What is fascinating is how King spreads terror throughout the book as darkness slowly consumes the town yet no one seems to notice until it is too late. Salem’s Lot is the best vampire novel I have read (Bram Stoker’s Dracula at number two), where the biters are evil to the core (“Perhaps they also know […] love? […] No, I suspect that love is beyond them.”) and the only solution is to run and hide.
Sonia Jaffe Robbins, contributing editor: A Hole in the Heart by Christopher Marquis. This haunting novel by the late New York Times reporter is a story about life, love, and death, and how we cope. Bean is a 20-something from San Francisco living in Alaska; she met her husband, Mick, in Alaska, and we're a quarter of the way into the book before we learn he's recently died while a guide on a climbing expedition up Mt. McKinley. Both Bean and Mick are from dysfunctional families, so when Mick's mother appears—to find out what happened? to console Bean? to work out her own emotional issues—nothing works out the way either woman hopes or expects. Yet a relationship develops. Maybe it's because I've lost my mother, father, and sister in the past four years, but many of Marquis's sentences sank into my heart: "This is life, Bean thought. Hours of boredom punctuated by moments of terror." "Now Bean was custodian of it all, the sole proprietor of her lost love, and of whatever happened next. Had someone really loved her? Or had she imagined it? Had she loved, too? History was hers to distort, rewrite, or forget." There are more thoughts and sentences like these, lovely and heartwrenching, yet full of what keeps the rest of us going on.
Drucilla Schultz, book reviews intern: All the Truth That's In Me by Julie Berry. I read a lot of YA and it's rare that I come across a book with such a unique main character. I'd become so used to a female protagonist who was pretty or "normal" that Judith's mutilation was a pleasant surprise, relatively speaking. What's so special about the book is that Judith's injury isn't just for shock value. Berry uses Judith's inability to speak to write the book in second person and, again, I was surprised to find how much I liked it. I actually can't remember the last time I read anything in second person; another unique aspect of this book. All the Truth That's In Me definitely deserved the many stars it got.
Jonathan Segura, executive editor: You know how dudes sometimes get really unfortunate phrase tattoos? Like "That which doesn't kill me only makes me stronger" in old English script across the chest. Were I ever to lose a bet and have to get one, mine would be get Gore Vidal's classic, "Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies." And yet, my friend and former coworker Mike Harvkey's book, In the Course of Human Events is the best book I read this year. I'll not go into the years-long emotional waterboarding it was for him to write it and get it sold to a publisher (oh, the joy I took in his misery; I reveled in it), but, goddamn, it is a wonderful novel. It's got balls and, unlike way too many first novels, doesn't expect you to pick it up and congratulate it for merely existing. (Trust me. I wanted nothing more than to despise it.) It's not exactly a cheery book—copious white-trash racism, a frighteningly believable domestic terrorism scheme—but, if you want uplift, watch some puppy vids. If you want a great book, pick up my friend Mike's novel. But buy it used, so he doesn't make any money.
Craig Teicher, director of digital operations: White Girls by Hilton Als. A list of the themes in this strange and capacious work of nonfiction would stretch to the horizon, but, basically, this is a book about identity, how it can be found in the tension between opposities. The book's implicit title is "Black Boys": in it, Als, the theater critic for The New Yorker, mixes memoir, traditional criticism, dramatic monologues, and a healthy bit of truth-stretching to meditate on race, twinship, gay identity and culture, great writers like Flannery O'Connor, great comics like Richard Pryor, and the light sides of all the dark sides, the dark sides of the light sides. The prose gallops forcefully, but manages to incredible feats of subtlety. I'm making this book sound crazy, but really it's not: it's a straightforward collection of essays which, when taken together, are unlike anything else.
Patrick Turner, v-p, operations: Hands down the biography Tennesee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh by John Lahr. Never thought I'd read a biography that was a real page turner—plus everybody and their brother is in it.
Wendy Werris, contributing editor: It took me a couple of years to crack my copy of Susan Sherman's The Little Russian (Counterpoint, 2012), my favorite book of 2014, and when I finally read it this summer I kicked myself for delaying such a wonderful reading experience. This is a little gem of an historical novel.The story begins in Russia around the turn of the last century, when Jews were so terribly persecuted and murdered during the pograms. It follows the fascinating journey of Berta Alshonsky as she and her young family struggle to survive, until finally—and with tremendous chutzpah—they are able to escape from Russia and start a new life for themselves in America. The Little Russian is beautifully and impeccably told; Sherman infuses the book with poetic observations of that era and authentic characterizations in a story that pulled me along in a most moving trajectory. Because of her stellar research, I gained a deep understanding of the lives of my Russian grandparents and how lucky they were to escape the pogroms and enter America through Ellis Island in 1913. This was a life-changer of a book for me, and I hope you don't wait two years to read it as I foolishly did.
Matthew White, layout and production assistant: Console Wars by Blake Harris. Having spent much of my adolescence immersed in video games, I already had a basic outline of the infamous Nintendo vs. Sega rivalry of the 1990s, but only as a consumer looking in. Thanks to Harris's detailed recounting though, I was given the opportunity to be relive it from the perspective of the producer and revel in all its minutia. For instance, now the Sonic the Hedgehog balloon in the Thanksgiving Day Parade wasn't just super cool, but also a tremendous publicity coup achieved with ingenuity and dogged determination. By constructing a narrative culled from interviews with the (surprisingly few) people involved, Harris injects an endearing human element to what is usually a story all about gadgets and pixels, and captures the then Wild West atmosphere of video game marketing. There's gamesmanship aplenty, but at its heart Console Wars is a story about dedicated people doing all they can to legitimize an industry that had yet to achieve the ubiquity it enjoys today. I doubt the book could hold the interest of non-gamers, but for anyone nostalgic for their NES, SNES, or Genesis, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it.