The Best Books I Read In 2014

I read twenty books this year. I wish I could say I’d read more. There have been years when I read a book a week. Or at least one year: 1999, when I graduated from college and worked at the Harvard Book Store. I had time and easy access to an incredible variety of books and a lot of smart people to discuss them with. It would have been uncool of me not to read a book a week. I’m planning to read more books next year. Instead of naming a number, which suits my goal-oriented, analytical style, my reading goal for 2015 is to always have a book going. No lulls. I’m happier when I’m in the middle of a book, and I learn something about writing from every one I read. 

The great news is that I read some fantastic books this year, books that have really stuck with me. I started the year off right with Battleborn, a short story collection by Claire Vaye Watkins. I found it arresting from the first paragraph of the first story, “Ghost, Cowboys”: “The day my mom checked out, Razor Blade Baby moved in. At the end, I can’t stop thinking about beginnings.” The narrator of the story is named Claire, and she tells some of the story of her family’s past (her father ran with Charles Manson). She plays with the line between fiction and memoir. Much of the collection is set in or around Reno, and its history and desert setting figure prominently. Most of the stories are modern, but there’s a terrific novella about the gold rush nestled in the middle. Her language is impeccable, as is her storytelling. I love story collections but rarely experience them as page turners, usually putting them down for a while in between each story. I couldn’t put this one down.

In April I read Arcadia, by Lauren Groff. It’s the story of a commune in New York state, seen through the eyes of Bit, who is five at the beginning of the book. This is a difficult thing to pull off, but Bit’s observations seem utterly real to me. He sees everything. He can’t pull it all together into a complete understanding of what’s going on, but the reader can. Bit experiences the commune, Arcadia, as a magical place, but the seeds of its failure are there from the start. The book follows Bit from the 1970s through 2018. I didn’t expect this book to dip into the future when I started it, but I was happy it went there. I got this from the library but had to buy my own copy to keep. This is one I’m returning to as I try to figure out my own book. Groff is a lyrical writer, and I’m not, but I love what she did with Bit, revealing all the other characters through his eyes, and the way she handles jumps in time is also instructive to me. I’m planning to cover a similar span of time. 

In September I read Clever Girlby Tessa Hadley. (This book was actually published in 2014.) I ache a little when I think of this book, because of the intense awkwardness of some of the moments, told fearlessly. It’s a novel, but it doesn’t always behave like one. At the end of each chapter there’s a jump in time. The most dramatic events of the narrator’s life often occur in between chapters. It’s a book about growing up, about things not turning out as planned, about the long-lasting effects choices that are made hastily can have, and about the way people circle back into the narrator’s life in unexpected ways. Hadley finds drama in the small moments instead of in the overtly dramatic ones. I finished this book just before seeing Richard Linklater’s film, Boyhood, and was struck by their similarity, though one begins with a boy in Texas in 2002 and the other begins with a girl in Bristol, England in the 1960s. Clever Girl is a slow book of the best kind. Stella feels real. 

In October I read The Wife, by Meg Wolitzer. I’m cheating a little by putting this one in. Really I want to talk about The Interestingswhich I read last year. The Interestings is a big book, covering, I believe, forty or so years in the lives of several characters. When I read it I felt as if I’d found a kindred spirit. I found Wolitzer’s voice sly and clever and dead-on, her protagonist alive, and I was stunned by the way she handled time—not chronologically, but switching seamlessly between periods throughout the book. She takes on the emotion of envy in a way I found revelatory. This was another book to study. Happily, because I’d discovered Wolitzer a bit late, I could now read all of her previous books. Unlike The Interestings, The Wife is a slim novel that tells two stories. The present story begins on an airplane en route to an awards ceremony in Finland, where the narrator’s husband is to receive a literary award that is not quite the Nobel. It plays out over the next few days, during which the narrator, Joan, delivers the story of their marriage and the novelist’s rise. It’s funny, sharp, and contained—perfect in a way that’s harder to achieve in big fat novels. I do love those big fat novels, though. 

In December I read Demigods on Speedway (also published in 2014), by Aurelie Sheehan, a former professor of mine (and also, it happens, a great teacher and person). It’s a collection of short stories with some rewarding interplay. The stories are set in modern-day Tucson, but they’re based in Greek myths. Sometimes the references are very clear, as in a boy who performs a series of Herculean tasks, and sometimes the references are more oblique. Zeus becomes Zero, and a zero of a man he is. Hera becomes Hanna, his long-suffering but powerful wife. Growing up, I cherished my copy of D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths and went on to read the requisite Homer. I thought I’d want to map out all the references, but as it turned out, I was having too much fun reading Demigods on Speedway to nerd out much about the Greeks. It works either way. Sheehan captures Tucson in all its down-on-its-luck beauty and brutality. Her eye is sharp, and the stories are gritty and funny and sad and refreshingly unsweet. Writers are often advised to start stories in the middle of things. The Greeks receive credit for this idea, so it’s appropriate that Sheehan is a master of this trick. As I read this book, I often felt slightly off-balance in a way that propelled me forward. My short stories are often mired in backstory. The stories in this collection never are. They all feel immediate. It seems fitting that Demigods on Speedway was published by the University of Arizona Press, but I’m sorry it didn’t get a wider release. It’s well worth seeking out.  

I’m not sure if it’s worth mentioning that all four of the books I’ve discussed are by women. Is it? Of the twenty books I read this year, only three were by men. I’ve become more aware through VIDA’s work that there are some serious gender imbalances in publishing and reviewing. There was also a thing about 2014 being the year of reading women. A few times this year, I deliberately chose to read a woman instead of a man because I’ve become more aware of the importance of my choice, but mostly I followed my natural interests. I spent a lot of formative years reading lots and lots of men. Some of my favorite books are by men. William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow and William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice will forever remain in my pantheon. I am sure that if I keep making lists like this, men will be on them. However, in recent years, maybe since I became a mother, I’m more interested in reading the books women write. Maybe it’s because they’re writing about concerns I easily recognize. The week I read Clever Girl I was overcome by emotion as I washed dishes and stared out the window into my neighbor’s kitchen window for the third time that day. That certainly was melodramatic of me, but it was because Hadley’s storytelling took hold of me and made me see my life in a broader way. Seeing one’s life in a broader way can be awful, but I’ll take a moment of feeling too much while washing a pot over a lack of feeling. 

It’s New Year’s Day and I’ve read the first two essays in Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams. I can already tell she’s all she’s cracked up to be. Time to start a new list.