We asked the staff of Farrar, Straus and Giroux to pick the best books published in 2014, name their favorite titles—new, old, or forthcoming—that they read this year, and to share which FSG books they will be giving during the holidays. Responses from FSGers working in editorial, publicity, foreign rights, production, sales, marketing, contracts, and operations flooded in.
Together, these are FSG’s Favorite Books of 2014.
What were the best books published in 2014?
FSG was a house divided this year. More than thirty-five books received at least one vote for “best book published in 2014.”
Ben Lerner’s 10:04 topped our list, with seven votes.
Lila, by the incomparable Marilynne Robinson, received five votes.
Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, from our friends at Graywolf Press, rounded out the top three with four votes.
What were your favorite books you read (or reread) this year?
Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation knocked me on my ass. It’s relentless in the best possible way. This beautiful little book simultaneously inhabits the layer just under your skin and the atmosphere right below the clouds. I was so wrapped up in it I found myself forgetting to breathe. Same goes for Juliet Escoria’s Black Cloud. She grasps at the relationship between euphoria and destruction, grips it with all her strength, and then slaps the reader in the face with it. It’s badass.
John Darnielle’s Wolf in White Van zipped me up in a body bag with a flashlight. I sat with a pencil forgotten in my hand for hours. This year also saw me reading a good deal of Nietzsche, of which I can heartily recommend The Gay Science, and heartily recommend you skip the poetry in the front of the book. As one who identified to uncommon extent with The Bell Jar, I had villainized Ted Hughes in my mind; what surprise then to experience the shocks of recognition his Collected Poems has on offer. And finally, although it’s not out yet, keep an eye out for The Sellout by Paul Beatty. It’s quite possibly the funniest book I’ve ever read.
I reread S. Yizhar’s small masterpiece, Khirbet Khizeh, for the fourth time this year. Published originally in 1949, in Hebrew, just months after the end of the 1948 war that followed the founding of modern Israel, this powerful novella is necessary reading for anyone who wants to understand the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It will challenge assumptions on both the left and the right, but more than that, this stunning work of fiction, based on the author’s experience as a soldier, is a profound work of art and difficult moral reckoning. I’m very excited that FSG will be publishing an English-language edition of Khirbet Khizeh this month (adopting a gorgeous translation that was originally commissioned by Ibis Editions).
Daniel del Valle
Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World by Donald Antrim—Published in 1992, and as relevant as ever, Antrim creates a realistic suburban world with intimate details of the everyday and mundane interspersed with shocking (and frequent) moments of brutality and weirdness. It’s about violence and what happens when civilized societies start to rupture, one community meeting at a time. Dark, unrelenting, and brilliant.
More Curious by Sean Wilsey—Wilsey’s attention to detail in his essays stands out. His subjects—which vary from the mysterious natural lights in Marfa, Texas, to Thrasher’s influence on skateboarding—are personal and tightly told. This collection taken from fifteen years of journalism is well worth reading.
The Brewer’s Tale by William Bostwick—Bostwick takes us through the history of beer from ancient Egypt to GMO fortified Budweiser. By recreating ancient beers in his kitchen, Bostwick does his best to hunt down rare ingredients in order to figure out the secret history behind beer. Most important, he follows the people behind the beers and their motivations for creating life out of barley, malt, and hops. The book takes us through why we love the beers we love, why we drink so much of it, and why it’s important to our—and our ancestors’—lives.
Turtleface and Beyond (February 2015) by Arthur Bradford—Bradford’s short stories create a vibrant world of outsiders, losers, and loners. His stories are surprising and unique without ever venturing into gimmick. One of the best short story collections I’ve read in a long time.
My favorite books I read (or reread): Citizen—Claudia Rankine, The Emerald Light in the Air—Donald Antrim, In Defense of Nothing: Selected Poems, 1987–2011—Peter Gizzi. And I thoroughly enjoyed rereading Moby-Dick over a week in Nantucket.
I discovered this year that short story collections are a great way to pleasure read around a heavy work-reading load—they can be paused and restarted so much more easily than novels.
My favorite collection published in 2014 was Internal Medicine, by the writer and physician Terrence Holt, which looks like it might be a medical memoir (the jacket even says “MEMOIR” on the back), but it is actually a collection of imagined case studies that raise troubling questions about all kinds of Terrence Holtian subjects—mortality, narrative, the limits of human knowledge. Perfect light beach reading.
An upcoming trip to Argentina has given me an excuse to revisit Borges. “The Garden of Forking Paths”—which resonates in interesting ways with FSG’s own Wolf in White Van, by John Darnielle—blew my mind in a satisfyingly Borgesian way.
The FSG author Sjón recommended I look into the underground horror writer Thomas Ligotti, and who am I to say no to Sjón? I found the story “Purity” from Ligotti’s collection Teatro Grottesco to be sublimely weird and very difficult to stop thinking about.
I spent a lot of time with Patricia Highsmith’s haunting, destabilizing Selected Stories, which are even stranger, even darker, and maybe even more beautifully crafted than her novels. I’ve reread “I Despise Your Life” and “Not in This Life, Maybe the Next” many times.
Nelly Reifler’s eerie, funny, and melancholy short story about a violent mushroom-trafficking underworld, “Supreme Cloud Ear,” had me in a trance during a selected shorts reading last spring. (It was originally published in the Fall 2013 issue of Lucky Peach).
The real discovery of the year for me though has been Joe Hill’s brilliant, surprisingly moving story collection, 20th Century Ghosts. You can read one of its best stories, “Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead,” on his website (for this Pittsburgher, it gets bonus points for being set in the Monroeville Mall). In fact, you should probably read it now.
Forty-one False Starts by Janet Malcolm—the most well-written essays I’ve read.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Capote—finally read this this year, and both happily and sadly I read it one sitting.
The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler—Chandler holds something back so you can’t figure it out yourself, and his phrases, like “The next hour was three hours long,” are so perfect.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson—first, because it’s a classic and second, because I bought it at the writer’s museum in Edinburgh and read it in the backseat driving through the Highlands.
I did, in fact, finally finish Moby-Dick this year! Every January I choose a classic that I somehow passed over in my literary education but feel I should have read, and this year I chose Moby-Dick. Parts of it were incredible, parts bored me to tears. Some things about it baffled me, some things I loved. In the end I was a little in awe of Melville. It’s not something I’ll read again, but I’m glad to have finally read it.
I loved Lev Grossman’s The Magician’s Land. It was a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy—and after I finished, I went back and reread all three books in order.
At Robin Sloan’s suggestion, I read The Westing Game for the first time (he said it’s one of his all-time favorite children’s books). At first I thought it was odd and cold, but by the end I loved it so much that I started over at the beginning.
I liked Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.
The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison—I parceled out these essays on pain and empathy and ethics, one per daily commute, so that they wouldn’t be over too soon. Thoughtful, powerful, and gorgeously written. I still think about them months later.
All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld—A psychological suspense novel that starts off with a dead sheep. Yes, you read that correctly. On the surface, the tension is built around who or what is killing a female sheep farmer’s flock, but really it’s about what Jake, the sheep farmer, has run away from, and whether truly terrible events can ever be outrun or even moved past. Set on a remote British island, the atmosphere is gorgeous and ominous—filled with the sights, sounds, and smells of a place that’s still half wild. The book is also filled with incredible, visceral descriptions of what it’s like to master a kind of physical labor. It’s sad and terrifying, and one of the best literary suspense novels I’ve read.
Submergence by J. M. Ledgard—This was published in 2013, but I read it early this year. Alternating between the perspectives of two lovers now both facing different kinds of confinements—he’s a spy held captive by terrorists in Somalia, she’s a deep-sea diver preparing to go on an expedition in a small submersible vessel—it’s a powerful look at what sustains us in moments of fear and isolation, and how intense connections between people can survive even the most extreme forms of isolation.
We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas—An incredibly satisfying family story, about several generations of an Irish immigrant family in Queens. No bells and whistles here, just solid old-fashioned storytelling.
On Immunity by Eula Biss—An incredible extended essay on vaccination, but also on community, responsibility, and the porous borders between our bodies and the world. Medicine meets poetry.
The Woman of Porto Pim by Antonio Tabucchi—A magician of histories and landscapes, Tabucchi lets them both fall into place in this fragmented but masterful little book about forbidden love and whaling in the Azores.
Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed by Paul Cronin—Whether you’re a fan, a skeptic, or among the uninitiated, it’s impossible to read this book and not start comparing Herzog to mythical creatures. He’s insane, but also uncannily brilliant; one of those rare people who seem to simply “know.”
Defense of Ardor by Adam Zagajewski—A collection of essays the Polish poet published about a decade ago that brims with sharp, passionate observations of and arguments for poetry, grace, and literary form.
Submergence by J. M. Ledgard—A powerful, lung-chopping story about a jihadist abduction in Somalia, a Christmas love affair in a hotel on the coast of France, and a descent into the darkest depths of the ocean off the tip of Greenland. If you took the world’s memory and squeezed it in vice grips for thousands of years you might get this book.
Cat Town by Sakutarō Hagiwara—Reading these poems is like getting drunk and howling at the moon on a cold winter night. They are raw, wild, and soulfully inventive on every level. New Directions also published a great collection of Hagiwara’s in their Poetry Pamphlet series this year called The Iceland.
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson—be still my heart.
There Goes Gravity: A Life in Rock and Roll by Lisa Robinson—I love rock ’n’ roll memoirs and Lisa Robinson has had such an amazing career as a rock journalist, from covering Led Zeppelin to the Rolling Stones to Michael Jackson to U2.
I read my first Stephen King in honor of Halloween this year—The Shining. I couldn’t get Jack Nicholson’s face out of my head, but I loved how different the ending was from the film.
I’m currently reading Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records, by Amanda Petrusich, which is just quirky, fascinating, and super informative.
Reflecting back on the year, particularly thinking about the year in books, leaves me with great anxiety. Especially this year, which, for some reason, can be summed up as the year of unfinished books (The Goldfinch still taunts me from the bedside table, the bookmark now yellowing to match the cover. Leaving Las Vegas is proving very trying). The anxiety deepens because I see it more as my failure (well, not in every case . . . ). Many in the stack beg to be finished. More so, as I read end-of-year best-of lists, I find myself wondering if I’ve just opted to open the wrong book. That said, I found a few themes to the year that reflected my reading and, perhaps, dare I say, a trend or two. I think we all need to admit that this was the year of Graywolf (Leslie Jamison, Eula Bliss, Jeffery Renard Allen, Claudia Rankine—which I’ve yet to read—and many others). All of these books, aside from being beautifully written, felt not only important, but necessary, urgent, and valuable.
What a phenomenal list. The other aspect of my reading focused on centenaries—well two of them, at least. FSG reissued The Dream Songs and released a new selected works of John Berryman. It’s time for the rebirth of Berryman, one of the most important American poets. It also happened to be the centenary of Tove Jansson, most notable for her Moomins. Not only was there the joy of revisiting the eight or so novels in the series, but I’m looking forward to spending some holiday time with Drawn & Quarterly’s stunning complete Moomin comics deluxe anniversary edition (it’s 50 percent off through December 7th!). NYRB also reissued some of her adult novels.
Simon Critchley’s Memory Theatre was a book that was pressed into my hands in Frankfurt by the UK publisher. It’s a slim volume that’s hard to categorize, but is deeply satisfying. I finally caught up to the craze that is The Fault in Our Stars. Whereas Eleanor & Park (unfinished pile) brilliantly brought on waves of nostalgia, The Fault in Our Stars feels of the “now” and is a moving, funny, heartbreaking book. The most important book published this year is Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. The most fun book of the year is What If, by Randall Munroe. Any year with a new book from Lorrie Moore is a good one. Bark is no exception to this rule. The novel that I seem to talk about most and press on most of my friends is John Darnielle’s Wolf in White Van.
Now I’m left with the anxiety that I’ve left something off, that we’ll decide to do this again next year. More pressing, will I finish the next book I open? Here’s looking at you Viv Albertine . . .
Reading The Children of Odin, by Padraic Colum, out loud at bedtime is serious fun, especially over a glass of mead. I wish I were rereading it (in which I would have been read it as a child), however this is my first time around. It’s enchanting—even my cat listens.
I’m in the middle of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (Graywolf, May 2015) and I’M LOVING IT, much as I loved her Bluets. It’s hard to describe the feeling I get from reading it—it may be the closest I ever come to flying? She’s such a fluid, passionate writer.
Citizen just feels essential right now, so relevant—but also seems timeless and exquisite.
The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, by Heather O’Neill (FSG), was the absolute best book I read this year. It’s centered around semifamous twins coming of age in the poor sections of Montreal, so I really had no business relating to these characters, yet I loved each one, from the headstrong protagonist Nouschka to the Pomeranian with “a face like a chewed-up toothbrush.” Cannot wait for O’Neill’s short stories coming out next fall.
Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, by Katha Pollitt (from Picador), is a crucial read for everyone on all sides of this debate. Actually just everyone in general. Everyone needs to read this book.
The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd, is an extensively researched novel about the Grimke sisters, two of the earliest American suffragettes, and their struggle to balance their Southern upbringing with their abolitionist beliefs. Told from the alternating points of view of Sarah Grimke and her family’s slave Handful, this is an incredibly engaging book that will undoubtedly lead you to hunt for nonfiction accounts of the Grimkes.
Look for John Boyne’s A History of Loneliness in February—the best 2015 book I’ve read so far!
Bad Feminist: Essays—Roxane Gay
Gotham Unbound—Ted Steinberg
And I reread What We Talk About When We Talk About Love: Stories—Raymond Carver
An Untamed State (brutal, gripping, read it in one sitting), Harry Potter (I’m finally reading the series from start to finish (long story) and I’ve gotten through the first five so far, but now I actually know what people are talking about when they make Harry Potter references!), Outlander (totally hooked on the book and the TV show), Rebecca (the perfect mystery to read on a dreary fall/winter day), and The Goldfinch (love her writing, now I only have to wait another ten years for her next book).
I have trouble describing Ben Lerner’s 10:04 and explaining why I love the novel so much without sounding like a dumber, less endearing caricature of its hypersensitive, overthinking narrator. So you’ll just have to trust me when I say it’s one of the smartest, funniest, most unexpectedly warmhearted things I’ve read in a long time.
Catherine Lacey’s Nobody Is Ever Missing totally absorbed me. She writes beautifully about the everydayness of rage and grief, as well as the bizarre miraculousness of love and empathy. I’d love to be able to burrow as deeply into people’s heads as she does in her writing.
I had to stop trying to read Saeed Jones’s debut, Prelude to Bruise, on the subway to avoid yelping with joy, weeping, or getting all hot and bothered in public. It’s a welcome reminder of just how powerful and exciting poetry can be.
So many memorable essay collections came out this year, but Charles D’Ambrosio’s Loitering may be the one I’ll return to most. He finds joy in the unfinished, uncertain quality of essay-writing: some pieces feel more like extended preambles or digressions than complete narratives, yet all of them seem to tell more stirring stories in ten or twenty pages than a full book could.
I finally found out why so many people in recent years have told me how much I’d love Dylan Thomas’s radio play Under Milk Wood. Part dream vision, part sea shanty, it’s one of the strangest and most entrancing things I’ve ever read—or maybe “heard” is the right verb, since it’s surprisingly hard to read silently.
A few years ago, I found myself standing on a subway platform with a man I wasn’t quite dating, trying to explain to him why I thought of my life in terms of narrative. The task was proving a more challenging one than I had anticipated. To a certain kind of person—a woman, usually—the old Didion chestnut, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” functions as a shibboleth: it explains a worldview; it does not itself require explanation. My subway platform companion was not, I was discovering, that kind of person. I wish now that I’d had Phyllis Rose’s Parallel Lives with me then. I could have read, for example, this passage from Rose’s brilliant introduction to her examination of five Victorian marriages: “I believe, first of all, that living is an act of creativity and that, at certain moments of our lives, our creative imaginations are more conspicuously demanded than at others.” Or perhaps: “There is a kind of arranging and telling and choosing of detail—of narration, in short—which we must do so that one day will prepare for the next day, one week prepare for the next week.” It wouldn’t have saved the relationship—nothing could have—but it would have expressed my own feelings on life, the living of, much more eloquently than I was able to at the time. And that’s just the introduction! The actual text of Rose’s book is brimming both with insights about marriage and with dishy details about the bedroom antics (or lack thereof—John Ruskin’s marriage to Effie Gray seems never to have been consummated, so horrified was Ruskin by the body of a mature human female, as revealed to him on their wedding night) of some of our most eminent Victorians. Parallel Lives was published in 1983, but Rose’s The Shelf was published just this year by none other than FSG; it’s at the top of my “To Read” list.
I also wholeheartedly recommend anything by Iris Murdoch—The Green Knight is a good place to start. Murdoch’s plots are hopelessly convoluted, filled with reversals and accidents and sudden marriages, and at least half of the characters in any book will turn out to be cheerful sociopaths, but her wit, her ability to imagine inner life, to introduce telekinesis and broken ankles and thwarted monks and umbrellas concealing knives into the plot, without ever making you laugh, except on purpose—these are all nothing short of miraculous. Reading a Murdoch novel is like having a brilliant conversation while wrapped in a snuggly blanket: stimulating and soothing all at once.
Speedboat, Renata Adler. I know, I know. Everyone read this last year but my reading is just so out of sync between looking at proposals and working on books a year before they’re on sale. Next year I’ll probably be running around the office saying, “Have you guys heard of this new thing? A Visit From the Goon Squad? This Jennifer Egan . . .”
Purity, Franzen. If I say anything about more about this, I might find that my security key no longer works and that my belongings are in a box on Seventeenth Street.
Madness, Rack, and Honey, Mary Ruefle. How is Mary Ruefle so good? I can’t explain it.
Villete, Charlotte Brontë. Villete is secretly the best book of 2014.
And the Band Played On, Randy Shilts. This book has aged beautifully. Some of the science is dated now but as a narrative history it’s gorgeously written. A painful and (still) necessary book.
My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante: These books are just as good as everyone says they are, and just as scarily accurate about how complex, wonderful, and sometimes terrible it is to have a best friend.
Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi: Oyeyemi is the best (IMO) of the fairy-tale magical realists, or whatever we’re calling them, writing right now. Although White is for Witching will always be my favorite of hers (you can’t go wrong with a main character who eats chalk instead of food and lives in a racist haunted house), Boy, Snow, Bird might be even better. Funny, smart, strange, wonderful.
The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich: I hadn’t read any Erdrich until this year, and that was really stupid of me, because she’s amazing. This book is so much darker, weirder, more diffuse, and more beautifully written than I could’ve hoped for. Currently buying everything she’s ever published.
Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion: I’ve been afraid to reread this book for a while now, because what if it wasn’t as transformative as it was the first time and I had to reevaluate my whole life? But I finally did, and it was just as good. Of course it was.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel: It’s probably breaking the rules to pick this book, since I haven’t actually finished reading it, but unless the last thirty pages are horrible it absolutely belongs on the list. No other book has ever made me so nostalgic for something I haven’t lost, and every one of its many characters is so flawed and so alive. Plus, it made me cry on the subway, which is an obvious sign of greatness.
On a recommendation from the FSG author Emily Gould, I started reading Chris Kraus. My two favorites—I Love Dick and Aliens & Anorexia—defy category and summary but are, loosely, about obsessions—namely the eponymous Dick, a fellow artist, and Simone Weil—and failure. I think they are two perfectly imperfect books.
On Immunity is brilliant, relevant, pointed. Eula Biss convinced me immunity is a public space and manages to be personal without being self-indulgent.
All of the heart-sickening news at the end of this year might make you, like me, want to turn away from certain stories or unplug from social media. You might think not again and I don’t want to hear any more. For too many Americans, though, logging off doesn’t free them from confronting profound injustice again and again. Claudia Rankine’s book of poetry—prose-poetry, actually—Citizen: An American Lyric, blew me away. The book starts with a sharp observation, a telling moment, a slip of the tongue, and then builds into something like a reckoning. As William Carlos Williams wrote, “It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”
This year I fell down a hole named Barbara Pym. This has happened to me with other writers, but not for a while. The trailhead began with Alan Hollinghurst’s comedy of manners, The Spell. I intuitively—i.e., based on nothing—wondered whether Pym was an influence, so I started with A Glass of Blessings—a natural segue since it features a domestic gay couple, quite daring for its time—and whizzed through the eight novels she published between 1950 and 1961, when her career stalled and publishers turned down her work until, famously, Philip Larkin and David Cecil claimed a place for her in English letters in the mid-1970s. The good news about Pym is, if you fall for her, there’s a lot to read. The bad news is, with similar settings and reappearing characters, the more you read the harder it becomes in retrospect to tell the novels apart.
They nearly all involve Church of England clergymen and spinsters, and anthropologists feature in several. Excellent Women is undoubtedly the best. A Glass of Blessings, An Unsuitable Attachment, Jane and Prudence, Some Tame Gazelle, Less Than Angels. . . if forced to, I’d list them in this order of preference. And there are more. In nearly every book, the reader becomes familiar with a cast of characters who then delight by acting just as one has come to expect, to hilarious effect. On several occasions I was made to read behind closed doors—“too noisy!”—and twice I lost it completely: when the parishioners in Excellent Women plan a church bazaar and during the African bishop’s magic lantern show about his ministry in Some Tame Gazelle. What choice did I have but to join the Barbara Pym Society? I’m counting these as one book . . .
Daniel Kehlman’s strange F. Both Eugenides and Franzen are fans, and I can see why.
A book FSG will publish early in 2015 that came out in the UK this past summer: Chasing Lost Time: The Life of C. K. Scott Moncreiff, Soldier Spy, and Translator, by Jean Findlay. Have you ever finished a book and felt sad at not being able to meet the subject or writer? This book—and the man himself—is pure delight.
I was in an airport and so was it, and because I cried: John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. How can a publisher resist a book whose characters fall in love over a novel?
And may we pause in tribute to ‘Pansy’ Bradshaw who died a few weeks ago? I reread a wondrous artifact of a place and a moment in both gay and publishing history: Betty and Pansy’s Severe Queer Review of San Francisco.
I reread The Testament of Yves Gundron, Emily Barton (FSG). This book surprised me—I didn’t think it would be for me at all, and I fell completely in love. It remains one of my favorites of all time.
This seems to have been my catch-up reading year:
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins—this is a book I’ve always meant to read but never had. It was suggested in our book group and though we didn’t pick it to read, I took it as a sign that I should read it on my own. It’s considered an early example of detective fiction and was initially published in serial form in 1859–60 in Charles Dickens’s magazine All the Year Round. What a treat.
The Round House—I had never read anything by Louise Erdrich and thought it was time. A beautiful, wrenching book.
And then there’s a new book: The Lost Child by Caryl Phillips—this is an FSG book being published in March 2015. I read it several months ago and it has stayed with me. Beautiful writing and haunting images fill the braided stories of Wuthering Heights’s Heathcliff, the Brontës, and the story of a single mother and her sons living in council housing in northern England.
One of the best books I read this year was Submergence, by J. M. Ledgard. It gave me the feeling in my stomach that I’ve only ever gotten before when I’ve thought about dying and forever and what it means to be dead forever. That’s my pitch. I think it’s the hard-earned effect of a narrative that navigates between extremes: the chilling isolation of one character held hostage in Somalia and another exploring the bottom of the ocean, and the lush flashbacks to their tryst in a French hotel. It was astonishing.
Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son (I know, I know: I’m late to the party) was so good that it came dangerously close to ruining short stories for me forever. Clouds like great grey brains! Anyone else who loves it should read Arthur Bradford’s Turtleface and Beyond, which comes out in February and has its share of lost souls, but is also bighearted and high-fueled and magic.
I especially treasured two FSG books that were published this year: Ben Lerner’s 10:04, which concocts an entire novel from the queasy experience of not being quite identical to yourself, or to anything else, and Emmanuel Carrère’s Limonov, which enfolds everything from Russian soldiers converting to Buddhism in 1920s Mongolia to the first album by the Cars. I was also greatly impressed by Meline Toumani’s There Was and There Was Not (Metropolitan), a marvelously written memoir by an Armenian-American who moved to Turkey and found that collective enmity is something funnier, sadder, and deeper than even the most experienced traveler or historian could suppose.
This year, I finally read two classics that did not disappoint: Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March, which perfectly balances sentimental nostalgia with acid irony and makes both orientations to the past seem essential, and Louis MacNeice’s sequence of poems “Autumn Journal.” Writing in 1938, in the shadow of the great depression, MacNeice anticipated today’s talk of the 1 percent rather precisely: “An utterly lost and daft / System that gives a few at fancy prices / Their fancy lives / While ninety-nine in the hundred who never attend the banquet / Must wash the grease of ages off the knives.”
I’m a little bias but one of my favorite books in 2014 was Sweet Jazz, by Ursula Renée. I also enjoyed Coal Black Asphalt Tomb, by David Handler. He is a great mystery writer. And, I enjoyed Roslyn Hardy Holcomb’s Superstar.
Annihilation grabbed my attention immediately with its bold title, cover art that seemed stolen from Darwin’s nightmares, and the promise of Lovecraftian horror done right. It not only didn’t disappoint—it didn’t disappoint me over the course of three books. (And I hate trilogies.) If you have any interest in horror or sci-fi, answer the call: enter Area X.
Iain Sinclair writes like nobody—nobody—else. Best known for his free-associative, dream-haunted treks around London’s artistic and economic fault lines, Sinclair finally gives America the same treatment in his newest book, American Smoke, in which he chases the ghosts of the Beat Generation. The result is one of the most poetically charged works of (non-?)fiction written since Sebald stalked the beaches of Suffolk.
Donald Antrim’s The Emerald Light in the Air is one of those rare short story collections without a single story that I wanted to pass over. Hell, I’d say it doesn’t have a story that isn’t essential reading. Although Telita has stories of greater feeling and finesse, “An Actor Prepares,” the first story in the collection, has a special place in my heart. It is possibly the single funniest short story that I have ever read.
Nearly a year after buying a copy, I finally got around to reading Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge. (Such is the publishing life.) Like Inherent Vice, diehards probably consider BE to be Pynchon-lite; but if, like me, you’re still shell-shocked from assaying Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon-lite is just about perfect. BE is also the first Pynchon novel to take place after the 1980s, and it was uncanny to witness Pynchon’s freewheeling imagination finally brought to bear on the ephemera of my childhood (Pokemon! Friends! Dragon Ball Z!).
I happened to find James Salter’s memoir, Burning the Days, in the furthest corner of a used bookstore in Sunnyvale, California. I was traveling to my home state for an old friend’s wedding, and Salter’s elegy for the triumphs and losses of a lifetime proved to be the perfect unexpected travel companion.
What FSG book(s) are you looking forward to giving this year?
I’ll be giving Meghan Daum’s The Unspeakable to everyone I know who has a complicated relationship with their mother . . . so, to everyone.
— Emily Bell
Ways of Curating by Hans Ulrich Obrist. Do you have friends in art school? Good. Present done. Washing hands of thought now. But really, a brilliant catalogue of thought and theory from an extraordinary person.
— Ian Bonaparte
My gift book: Paul Celan’s Breathturn into Timestead: The Collected Later Poetry. It’s for a certain kind of friend.
— Eric Chinski
The Unsubstantial Air (Grandfather)
Friendship and Ugly Girls (Sister)
Lila and Faithful and Virtuous Night (Grandmother)
Outline and The Unspeakable (Mother)
The Laughing Monsters and Bad Paper (Father)
The Dream Songs (Myself)
— Laird Gallagher
I’m giving Spare Parts to a friend who is a high school teacher in the South Bronx. Her students have a lot in common with the boys in the book and I hope she’ll find it an inspiring story to share with them.
I’m giving Doctored to a friend whose husband is a doctor and has experienced some of the same disillusion that Jauhar writes about.
— Debra Helfand
The stunning Area X omnibus, by Jeff VanderMeer, is going to my boyfriend, who has read only book one but is totally hooked. Meghan Daum’s The Unspeakable will go to one of my best friends, who I’m positive will enjoy it as much as I did. And Lila to a couple of family members who, like me, are Robinson fans.
— Amber Hoover
I think I’ll give my stepfather Héctor Tobar’s Deep Down Dark because he’ll love the drama of it, and no one could tell it like Tobar. I’ll also probably throw in Wolf in White Van because he likes to feel hip. Mom will be flush with Louise Glück and I think I may also give her Christian Wiman’s Once in the West as those are such honest poems written with remarkable control. And I suppose my little sister should be reading Berryman’s Dream Songs—she’d probably like Mr. Bones. Also planning to gift Andrés Neuman’s Talking to Ourselves, as well as Sarah Ruhl’s 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write and Michael Hofmann’s Where Have You Been—both terrific collections.
— John Knight
I will be gifting the new Seamus Heaney Selected Poems collections to my mom this Christmas. A big part of my family is still in Northern Ireland and we all worship him.
— Katie Kurtzman
Area X, obviously, for everyone. The publicist coined the phrase “We wish you an Area X-mas!” and I can’t get it out my head—so I will submit, with pride. Also, for the nonreaders, it’s gorgeous decoration (almost holiday-themed!), and for the visually impaired, it just feels really good in the hand. As for what’s inside, I’m too biased to be trusted.
— Sean McDonald
I’m giving the Seamus Heaney reissues to my poor mum, who is still in mourning. And I’m giving Limonov to my best friend, who just became a diplomat, and will hopefully grow up to be quite the renegade globetrotter himself.
— Naoise McGee
The Seamus Heaney Selected Poems paperbacks that just came out in November will be going to anyone I know who even remotely likes Heaney/poetry/Ireland/books because it is the most beautiful duo ever.
— Jill McLaughlin
Wolf in White Van to my friend who’s a big fan of John Darnielle, Infinitesimal to my friend who’s a math geek, and Doctored to my dad, because he’s a doctor and I bet he’d be able to relate to this book.
— Nnenna Odeluga
As Elif Batuman said at the Brooklyn Book Festival, I’m pretty overwhelmed by gratitude for Ben Lerner’s existence. I’ll try to express that by giving 10:04 to everyone I know.
I’m also giving many friends and relatives Jeff VanderMeer’s Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy—a thrilling, unabashedly weird, and beautifully designed book, as are the three colorful paperback volumes of Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance.
Plus the reissued John Berryman collections and Eileen Simpson’s memoir Poets in Their Youth. I’m so glad I finally read the entire Dream Songs this year, and now I’m convinced we all need more Berryman in our lives.
— Steven Pfau
I’m planning on gifting copies of Poets in Their Youth to every sentimental, bookish girl of my acquaintance—so, basically, everyone of my acquaintance. And my parents will both be getting Faithful and Virtuous Night. It seems only fair, as I called them both, in a flurry of drunken excitement, after Louise Glück won the National Book Award.
— Miranda Popkey
If I had a hot-tub time machine, I’d flash forward to 2015 and get everyone copies of Michael Cunningham’s A Wild Swan: And Other Tales. Between the writing and Yuko Shimizu’s illustrations, that book is going to be so gorgeous that I worry it will be considered illegal in some counties.
— Chris Richards
I’ll be giving Poets in Their Youth—Eileen Simpson’s poignant, sharply written memoir of her marriage to John Berryman and their circle of poet-friends—to anyone foolish enough to ignore my frequent recommendations so far this year. The memoir was reissued alongside much of Berryman’s poetry, including The Dream Songs and a new collection, The Heart is Strange, to celebrate his centennial this year. I’ll be tying the whole stack up with string for anyone who needs an introduction to Berryman and his alter-ego antihero named Henry.
I earned lots of points by sneaking my Mountain Goats–loving boyfriend a galley of Wolf in White Van earlier this year. I’ll be handing out copies of John Darnielle’s strange and fantastic debut novel to all my favorite guys come Christmas.
— Sarah Scire
Deep Down Dark by Hector Tobar—perfect for everyone—from the full-on to occasional reader, especially anyone who liked Krakauer’s Into Thin Air or Hillenbrand’s Unbroken. I’m giving this to my brother and nephew.
My Struggle: Book One by Karl Ove Knausgaard—time to get started on this amazing series! I’m giving this to people who love to read. My husband couldn’t put Book One down and is deep into Book Two.
100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write by Sarah Ruhl—an obvious one for my parents and theatre fan friends, but I love the way Sarah thinks so much that I’m giving it to others as well.
The Fame Lunches by Daphne Merkin—one of my favorite essayists. If Daphne chooses to write about something, even something I don’t think I’m interested in, I’m going to read it and be glad I did. I’ll give this to my sisters and mother.
— Lottchen Shivers
I’ve already given the pre-holiday gift of John Darnielle’s exquisite Wolf in White Van to my grandmother (it was a bold choice) and she said she liked it “but it reminded [her] of Proust.” ALAS.
— Taylor Sperry
My girlfriend’s parents are journalists, so Hack Attack, Nick Davies’s meticulous account of the News of the World phone-hacking scandal, is the obvious choice of stocking-stuffer. Hack Attack maps the unholy intersection of Fleet Street and Downing Street and is full of stranger-than-fiction grotesques, sleazy journos, and spineless bureaucrats that could have wandered in from the pages of Evelyn Waugh or Martin Amis. It’s the most entertaining account of horrifying corruption and privacy invasion that you’ll read all year!
— Will Wolfslau
Sarah Scire works at FSG. You can find her online @skeery.