As part of our Best Books of 2014 coverage, our editors weigh in on some of their personal favorites from the list.
Journalist and novelist Joanna Rakoff perfectly captures the anxiety and uncertainty of young adulthood in a memoir about her experiences working at an odd, stodgy literary agency in the late 1990s. All the unfortunate trappings of your early 20s are here: the lame boyfriend, the money problems and the aching hope for something better.
We're in the last stretch of 2014 (no, we can't believe it either)—which means it's time to start our annual look back at the year's best books. The full list of 50 will debut in our December issue, available online on December 1—but here's a sneak peek at the second half. Agree with our choices? Let us know in the comments!
26. Under Magnolia by Frances Mayes
27. The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis
28. Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler
29. Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 by Francine Prose
30. All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld
31. The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez
32. The Vacationers by Emma Straub
33. Us by David Nicholls
34. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
35. Living with a Wild God by Barbara Ehrenreich
36. The Bees by Laline Paull
37. Frog Music by Emma Donoghue
38. The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
39. The Trip to Echo Spring by Olivia Laing
40. Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
41. What Is Visible by Kimberly Elkins
42. Blood Will Out by Walter Kirn
43. Evergreen by Rebecca Rasmussen
44. Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey
45. Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan
46. My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff
47. My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead
48. The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
49. The Wind Is Not a River by Brian Payton
50. Natchez Burning by Greg Iles
Much more coverage of the Best Books of 2014 to come!
So, Gone Girl (or The Goldfinch, or Wild) was a hit with your book club, and you're looking for more books like it. Our Read it Next posts are here to help! Click on the jacket of your latest great read to find suggestions that will make you a star at your next meeting:
Today marks the one-year anniversary of legendary singer, songwriter and guitarist Lou Reed's death. Victor Bockris, best known for his biographies of William S. Burroughs and—perhaps Reed's most influential patron and collaborator—Andy Warhol, has updated his 1995 biography, Transformer: The Complete Lou Reed Story with new interviews from Reed's innermost circle (most notably with his wife, Laurie Andersen) along with an array of previously unseen photographs.
Beginning with Reed's childhood in Long Island, New York, and the harrowing details of his electroshock therapy that was meant to "cure" him of his bisexuality, Bockris goes on to chronicle the artistic and personal milestones in his life. From The Velvet Underground's initial conception in the mid '60s and Warhol's enthusiastic mentorship to his thriving, multifaceted solo career—Bockris digs deep, past Reed's intentionally difficult public persona, and reveals the layers behind the incredibly complicated and deeply conflicted icon.
For the big-time music nerds, this is a must-read biography of "the godfather of punk," as very few musicians can be accredited with the deep and far-reaching influence that Reed's career inspired, and still continues to inspire today.
In the mood for a scary story, but want to keep it real this Halloween? You're in luck, because sometimes, reality is far more terrifying than fiction. Check out the most terrifying novels of the year here.
Walter Kirn used to have a friend. This friend, he slowly discovered over the course of their 15-year friendship, was a murderer. It's a fact that could float this bizarre, dark memoir, but Kirn goes deeper, drawing disturbing parallels between himself and the psychopathic charlatan who became his friend.
It's like an apocalypse novel about the destruction of humanity! Except it's real. Ackerman explores just what humans have done to this fair planet of ours and what it all means for our future.
This account of a doomed Arctic exploration is filled with icy suspense and dread, despite the fact that you already know how this tragic tale ends.
Want to be terrified of the direction humanity is heading? Read this book. At least you won't be looking at your phone!
What could be creepier than trusting someone, only to find out they are not remotely who you thought they were? This book details the life of CIA double agent Kim Philby, as well as the lives of his friends and colleagues. Those closest to Philby never quite recovered from the incredible shock of discovering his true identity.
Religion and the terrifying corrupting capabilities of power are explored in this detailed account of the strange life and brutal death of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church.
In 1961, 23-year-old Michael Rockefeller capsized his canoe in New Guinea. He was never heard from again. No one knows what happened to him, but Hoffman has a theory. And it involves cannibalism.
Did we miss any? Tell us in the comments!
For many writers, especially the authors of memoirs, it can be hard to predict where and how readers will make the strongest connection to their stories. For Richard Blanco, whose The Prince of los Cocuyos is one of our favorite memoirs of 2014, the part of his book that seems to be attracting the most attention is especially surprising: It involves a can of Easy Cheese.
Growing up in Miami in a family of Cuban immigrants, little Ricky Blanco accompanied his cantankerous abuela (grandmother) to Winn-Dixie, a rare incursion onto the turf of los americanos. Blanco yearned to fit in with his American schoolmates, so he asked his abuela to buy a can of that uniquely American food, Easy Cheese. ("What? Queso en una lata? she questioned, unable to fathom the idea of cheese in a can. But I could tell from the tone of her voice that she was intrigued.") We won't spoil the story by telling you what happened next, but it's clear that the anecdote is making an impression on readers.
Blanco, the inaugural poet at President Obama's second inauguration in 2012, recently began a tour to promote The Prince of los Cocuyos. During one of his first stops, at Brookline Brooksmith in Massachusetts, a reader presented him with a very special gift—you guessed it: a can of Easy Cheese.
Will the gifts become a trend? No Easy Cheese was evident during Blanco's weekend appearance at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, but we have a feeling that Blanco might end up with a lifetime supply of canned cheese before his book tour is over.
To learn more about Blanco and his tender and keenly observed coming-of-age memoir, check out our Q&A with the author.
Is it me, or is 2014 the year of the essay? I've raved in previous posts over The Empathy Exams and Bad Feminist; On Immunity is another essay that moved me, entertained me and made me think. Biss, who teaches at Northwestern, won a Guggenheim Fellowship and used it to support her work on her third book, a combination of mythology, morality, medicine and mortality that is like nothing you've ever read before.
Blending personal experience with social history and myth, Biss takes on the thorny topic of immunization—moving from the story of Achilles, whose dip in the water was perhaps the first documented attempt of a parent to innoculate their child against harm, to modern-day anti-vacciners in a meditation on the concept of immunization and what it means on a personal level as well as a societal one.
Though this is a short book, it's not something to be read quickly. Biss' thoughful writing contains levels of meaning and plenty to ponder on every page.
When my son asks me about his belly button, I describe the near-mythological umbilical cord that once connected us. I point to my belly button and tell him that all of us were once contained within another body on which our lives depended. Even a three-year-old, who is still wholly dependent on me but already accustomed to thinking of himself as independent, finds this perplexing. Speaking from a moment just before the Enlightenment, Queen Elizabeth expressed a paradox that eludes us to this day—our bodies may belong to us, but we ourselves belong to a greater body composed of many bodies. We are, bodily, both independent and dependent.
What are you reading this week?
Today the final National Book Award category longlist was announced. For the authors involved, that means it's time for nervous hand-wringing to commence. For readers, well, it's time to dig into those lists and start reading, dissecting the judges' motives and/or rooting for your favorite . . . which is exactly what we're doing at BookPage! Read on for the behind-the-scenes action.
I’m pulling for young, experimental poet Maureen N. McLane—third er, collection’s the charm, right? The New York University English professor blends lush natural imagery with pointed, contemporary syntax in This Blue. At once playful and profoundly sobering, these poems examine mankind’s history and our tendency to exploit and abuse the beauty of our earth. Now is the perfect time to dive in if you missed this fantastic collection during National Poetry Month.
—Hilli Levin, Editorial Assistant
Looking at the NBA’s nonfiction longlist reminds me of the old “Sesame Street” song: One of these things is not like the others. Roz Chast’s hilarious and moving graphic memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, stands out from a crowd of traditional narrative history and biography. Could Chast emerge as the winner? It seems highly unlikely, but I’m thrilled to see her deeply personal look at the perils of aging among this year’s contenders.
—Lynn Green, Editor
One farm. One family. One hundred years. Jane Smiley is taking on a seriously ambitious literary project with her Last Hundred Years trilogy, so it doesn’t surprise me a bit that the first novel, Some Luck, grabbed a spot on the NBA longlist this year. This installment takes us through the life of the Langdons from 1920 to 1953, and if the next two books are anywhere near as marvelously executed, then don’t be surprised if the critical praise and award nominations continue to flow her way.
—Hilli Levin, Editorial Assistant
It might feel shocking to see John Darnielle, a man most famous for being the lead singer of The Mountain Goats, on the NBA longlist for his first novel, Wolf in White Van. But when you consider the fact that his lyrics might as well be poetry or short stories, it's really not that surprising. Blame it on my love of the underdog, but I'm hoping for a win for this musician-turned-novelist.
I'm also rooting for Molly Antopol and her quietly beautiful collection of short stories, The UnAmericans, because, well, wow. She's under 35 and this is her debut work of fiction. I'm under 35 and I just googled "how to handwash stuff" so I find this immensely impressive.
—Lily McLemore, Assistant Editor
As the fiction editor at BookPage, I'm starting to have a visceral reaction to the descriptor "post-apocalyptic fiction." But Canadian author Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven brings a breath of fresh air to the genre with her fourth novel, a beautiful and deeply felt story that uses its dystopian setting to explore our very human need for shared culture, art and stories. Here's hoping this original and insightful work moves on to the shortlist.
—Trisha Ping, Managing Editor
It’s no surprise to see Jacqueline Woodson’s memoir-in-verse, Brown Girl Dreaming, on this list, and you’ll likely see it on several more award lists before the end of the year. Her accessible and poignant story shares what it was like to grow up in the 1960s and ’70s in a country “caught / between Black and White” and how writing helped her find her voice.
Also, is there any living writer who better captures the hilarity, messiness (sexual, social and emotional) and adventure of being a teenage boy than Andrew Smith? Not likely. Although I thought Grasshopper Jungle was the better of his two books that came out this year, 100 Sideways Miles is another winner—and it’s about time Smith was publicly and widely recognized for his talent.
—Cat Acree, Associate Editor
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live in another era? Scientists have yet to create a time machine, but until then, we've got the next best thing: books! From medieval mysteries to WWII dramas, we've put together a list of books published this year that will let you escape to another time.
The life of Laura Bridgman, the first person to communicate using finger spelling, is explored in this compelling novel set in the mid-1800s. Without the ability to hear, see or taste, Bridgman was confined solely to the sense of touch, and both her inner life and her relationships were intensely complex. But despite being a celebrity during her lifetime, Bridgman has largely been forgotten by history. Thankfully, Elkins skillfully revives the memory of this pioneering woman and her singularly fascinating world.
The mind of Tom Robbins is a world in and of itself, and we're invited to journey through it in his memoir, Tibetan Peach Pie. Detailing his childhood during the Great Depression, his time as a soldier in Korea and his experiences during the LSD-fueled counterculture movement, the author of the classic Even Cowgirls Get the Blues guides the reader through his life with a sly, playful voice. You can't help but be taken along for the ride.
In 1527, 600 men set sail from Spain to explore the New World. By the end of the year, only four men remained alive. Among the survivors was a Moroccan slave named Mustafa, renamed Estebanico by his Spanish captors. The four men wandered the wilderness for eight years before finally reaching a Spanish settlement, yet Estebanico's account of their journey was never written down. In Lalami's meticulously researched novel, she imagines what the first black explorer of the New World might have to say about the years spent searching for civilization—and what he found when he finally reached it.
If you're looking for a fat, juicy tome to get lost in, this novel, set in 1794 England, might be it. Bent on marrying off their daughters to wealthy suitors, four oblivious high-society men hire a pianoforte instructor to teach the girls the art of the newest musical craze. Little do they know, the musician has an agenda of his own and is instructing their daughters in quite a bit more than pianoforte . . .
Take a relaxing trip to Walden Pond, literary oasis of Henry Thoreau. In his biography of the famous poet, Sims paints a lovely portrait of the delightfully zany father of nature writing. You might be inspired to leave the cumbersome modern world behind and retreat to your own Walden Pond . . . or at least go for a hike.
Furst's masterfully executed spy novel unfolds as the world is on the cusp of WWII, capturing the tumultuous, dangerous moment before all-out war enveloped Europe. Recruited to secretly fight the agents of fascism, a truly diverse crew carries out clandestine deeds across Nazi-infested Europe in this fast-paced, thrilling novel.
The 17th-century Medici court of Florence is the scene for this tale of a talented wax sculptor, Zummo, attempting to outrun his past. While completing a bizarre commission from the Grand Duke, Zummo finds love with a mysterious young woman. But of course, scandal is not far behind, and dangerous secrets lurk in the shadows of the beautiful city.
Reeling in the aftermath of WWI, Frances Wray and her mother decide to take on a young married couple, Leonard and Lillian Barber, as tenants in their South London apartment. The lonely Frances is delighted when she becomes fast friends with the affable Lillian, and Frances' confession that she is attracted to women feeds the flames of their relationship. But as their infatuation grows, things take a dark and deadly turn.
She's got (arguably) the most famous face on the planet. But who is the woman in da Vinci's Mona Lisa? Experts disagree, but many believe the painting depicts Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo, the Florentine wife of a wealthy merchant. Through public records and informed guesses, Hales is able to reconstruct a probable portrait of her life—a life perhaps just as fascinating as her portrait.
Inspired by a real unsolved murder, Frog Music is set in San Francisco during the muggy, disease-ridden summer of 1876. When her cross-dressing friend is murdered, Blanche delves into the shady underbelly of the city, determined to find the killer.
Fast-forward 60 years, and San Francisco is on the upswing. In the talented Lisa See's latest novel, three women of Asian descent with very different backgrounds form a seemingly unbreakable bond working as dancers at the Forbidden City nightclub. But as their fame grows and the world around them begins to change, their friendship is tested.
King Richard II is nervous—and with good reason. Whisperings of a dangerous book are floating around 14th-century London. Within this book are the accurately predicted deaths of every king of England—including him. Rulers, deceit, prophecies and every English major's best friend, Chaucer, all make an appearance in this satisfying medieval mystery. Holsinger, a renowned medieval scholar, lends his formidable knowledge to the novel, giving it a well-deserved air of authenticity.
Perhaps you would like to revel in these last sweltering days before fall. If that's the case, this evocative memoir will take you back to midcentury Georgia as travel writer Mayes unspools memories of her early life, filled with the chaos and love of a dysfunctional family. Highlighting the beauty and pain of her Southern childhood—not to mention the steamy afternoons—Mayes has written the perfect companion book to a tall glass of iced tea.
Spanning decades, this novel inspects the evolution of love and evil within a group of friends. Paris in the 1920s was about as fabulously decadent as you can get, and within the city's glittering night life, a group of misfits and strange geniuses finds acceptance and encouragement. But as the world takes a truly horrific turn, the stunning characters within this novel must turn with it, leading them to unexpected and devastating choices.
The Golden Age of Amsterdam comes to life in this wonderfully imaginative debut. When country girl Nella marries a much-older merchant and moves to Amsterdam, she's disappointed to find that life in her new household is incredibly dull and austere. Her husband seems to take no interest in her, and his severe sister runs the household with an iron fist. So Nella is surprised when her husband orders an expensive cabinet-sized replica of their home as a gift. She commissions a miniaturist to furnish her little home, but soon the miniaturist's work reveals dark secrets about the odd family she has married into.
If you think it's hard to get a book published these days, try publishing in Cold War Russia. The Zhivago Affair details the travails author Boris Pasternak, had to endure in order to get his now-classic novel, Dr. Zhivago, published. It's a fascinating tale of intrigue, the CIA (yes, really) and how one phenomenal book helped sow seeds of dissension in Soviet Russia.
Set in a North Carolina coastal town as the Revolutionary War draws to a close, Smith's debut follows three generations of a troubled family as they struggle to cope with loss. The memory of the well-loved, deceased Helen haunts the family she left behind, affecting each family member in complex ways. This novel eloquently conveys how intrinsically connected love and grief truly are.
If you like your historical novels with a bit of a biting edge, this novel drips with dark Gothic mystery. When Charlotte's brother goes missing within the elite world of Victorian society, she is determined to find him. But she soon discovers that there is something supernaturally sinister afoot, and that high society might be more than a little connected to the underground.
Need an escape from the late-summer heat? Picking up a book with "Ice" in the title might be a good route. In his gripping nonfiction account of the ill-advised 1879 expedition to the North Pole, Sides follows the shipwrecked crew of the USS Jeannette as they struggle to survive the Arctic tundra. This vivid nonfiction thriller is guaranteed to leave you chilled—in more ways than one.
Do you see any books that make you want to hop in a time machine? Let us know in the comments!
Sunday, August 24 will mark the 200th anniversary of the night British troops set fire to the White House, the only time other than 9/11 when the U.S. capital city sustained a direct attack. First Lady Dolley Madison had fled the building just hours before the redcoats arrived, famously exclaiming "Save that painting!" and ordering that a precious Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington be removed from the wall and carted off to safety, along with the red velvet curtains from the White House drawing room.
British journalist Peter Snow gives a stirring account of that fateful night, as well as the days before and after, in When Britain Burned the White House: The 1814 Invasion of Washington. The book was published in the U.K. last year to glowing reviews and was released this week in the U.S. by Thomas Dunne Books.
Snow keeps the action moving and adds immediacy by citing the letters, diaries and other accounts of those who witnessed (or participated in) the attack. As the British advanced, Americans on horseback sounded the alarm to the fearful residents of Washington, D.C. "Fly, fly! The ruffians are at hand. If you cannot get away yourselves, for God's sake send off your wives and daughters, for the ruffians are at hand." Under the command of Admiral George Cockburn and Major General Robert Ross, British invaders set fire not only to the White House, but to the U.S. Capitol building as well. "Never shall I forget my tortured feelings," one resident recalled, "when I beheld that noble edifice wrapt in flames, which . . . filled all the saddened night with a dismal gloom."
If you've always been a bit hazy about what led to the War of 1812 (and why it was still going on two years later), Snow's excellent account of these crucial events in U.S. history will sharpen your understanding—and make you surprised and grateful that the U.S. today counts Britain among its staunchest allies.