As the end of this year approached, we asked our authors—selfishly perhaps, looking for some unusual holiday reading and maybe a perverse gift idea—“What's the best, most exciting, most original book you read in 2014?” No rules, no caveats, no suggestions, no instructions. Predictably, consensus was avoided. And the definitive answer is...
Frank Bill, author of Crimes in Southern Indiana and Donnybrook
Post Office by Bukowski was great. The Scalped comic book series, that I'm not finished with yet cause it’s so damn good I wanna savor it, it’s 11 volumes. Fourth of July Creek is excellent. Cry Father was amazing and gritty, probably the best book I've read in a long while and A Shelter of Others and Praying Drunk were both great. Unfortunately my reading was less than normal because of all my writing—between books, comics, and short stories, I've been mind-boggled. Oh, and two screenplays. But next year I go back to nightshift in January, so look out!
Jace Clayton, author of a book on 21st century music and global digital culture (forthcoming)
In no particular order:
Rebecca West, Survivors in Mexico - Reading Rebecca West for the first time floored me. There's such active intelligence in her language, it's nearly overwhelming. This book was compiled posthumously from essay fragments, so quality varies accordingly, but there's more wisdom and elegance in a single paragraph of West contemplating Montezuma and Cortes then most books on the subject. Bow down.
Luis Zapata, El Vampiro de la Colonia Roma - El Vampiro is a picaresque gay Mexico City hustler novel from late 70s in the format of ‘told to tape recorder’ monologue, with speech pauses indicated by spaces on the page. A bath of slang and general hilarity, indebted to the Spanish novella The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes and of his Fortunes and Adversities, which came before Don Quixote and is also very funny.
Ágota Kristóf, The Notebook - First part of a trilogy (whole trilogy is great, each book does very different things). Told in first-person plural by limpid and disturbing young twins in a border village during wartime. Kristóf’s stark minimalism reads simply (the stylistic opposite of fellow Hungarian Krasznahorkai’s baroque apocalyptics) but after a few paragraphs the awe piles up and you realize how deep it all goes. A stone cold classic that’s impossible to discuss at a holiday party without alienating your peers!
Etel Adnan, Sitt Marie Rose - Experimental novella set (and written) during the Lebanese Civil War in which gendered violence might be the real civil war. It is also about the way cities tense up. Politics and religion and sentences as precise and glowing as Adnan’s abstracted landscape paintings. The title character is a teacher of deaf-mute children. Adnan's language shares those concerns through a great attention to sound, vibration, and silence.
Horacio Castellanos Moya, Senselessness - Senselessness is narrated by a drunk horny literary bigot working freelance for the Catholic Church in Central America. His job: to edit 1100 pages of indigenous survivors' testimony from the Guatemalan massacres. What's not to like? Seriously, it's dynamite—rambunctious on one level and masterfully subtle on another, no preaching to the choir, no creepy neo-con pull, no letting the reader off the hook. I think of the Hannah Arendt quote: “Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.”
Elias Canetti - Do people talk about how crazy Canetti is? His books are either too long or too short; his fiction reads like psychology and his sociology reads like fiction. The single flaw of his Marrakech book is its brevity. Crowds and Power is rewarding reading for all of us who gather in the streets because we still need to assert that #BlackLivesMatter.
Joshua Davis, author of Spare Parts
Earlier this year, I read Encounters with an Angry God, a fascinating memoir by the Carbeth Laird, the wife of the noted early 20th century linguist-ethnographer John Peabody Harrington. Harrington was mostly crazy, entirely brilliant, and impossible to live with. But Laird loved the work they did together so much, she stuck with him for a long time. Together, they documented the fading Native American cultures of California and the book provides enthralling glimpses of what the golden state was like before it was overrun by modern society.
Warren Ellis, author of Dead Pig Collector and Normal (forthcoming in 2015)
God, what a tough question. I’m going to go with The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth, a haunting and haunted novel of guerrilla war in England after the Norman invasion, richly strange, and written in what the author calls the "shadow tongue," Old English altered so as to be readable to us, but nonetheless a sound coming from deep time. An incredible piece of work.
John Freeman, author of How to Read a Novelist
The most original book I read in 2014 was Rabih Alameddine's The Unneccesary Woman (Grove), the tale of a 72-year-old woman named Aaliyah who has accidentally dyed her hair blue. A major disaster for a Lebanese woman, but Aaliyah is hardly a typical Lebanese woman. She lives in Beirut and spends her days in an apartment she clings to translating novels into Arabic which she never publishes. Zooming around in time, Aaliyah tells her life story, delivering miniature essays on Marias, Sebald, and Faulkner in between...none of which feel like an author speaking through his character. They are urgent, churlish, often hilarious riffs about literature that refract back on Aaliyah's complicated family, and the civil war in Beirut, which has marked everyone around her. I've never read a novel that so profoundly explores the ways literature lives inside us, how it can be home, lover, entertainment, more real than the real. Not much happens in the book, but Aaliyah's voice is so vivid and intimate that doesn't matter. It's a fabulous exploration of inner life, and a book that made me happy to be of her tribe, blue hair and all.
Amelia Gray, author of THREATS and Gutshot (forthcoming)
Oh man. Is it ok that it's Catherine Lacey’s? I immediately mailed her book to my friend as soon as I finished it and it vanished, like the world ate it up for essential nutrient, and then I bought another and mailed that one too, because I wanted her to see it that badly, because it laid so much bare.
Aleksandar Hemon, author of The Matters of Life and Death and More: Writing on Soccer
Yelena Akhtiorskaya’s Panic in a Suitcase is the most beautifully written book I've read this year. Every sentence is a gem.
Brent Hendricks, author of A Long Day at the End of the World
Duplex by Kathryn Davis. I love what seems impossible in writing—the striving toward the far edge of originality—and this book extravagantly achieves that both in thought and in language. I found myself just shaking my head at times, truly astonished at the operatic performance!
Eli Horowitz, co-author of The Silent History
Far From The Tree, Andrew Solomon
The First Bad Man, Miranda July
Lindsay Hunter, author of Don't Kiss Me
Love Me Back, Merritt Tierce. Gutted me as a mother and as a writer.
Black Cloud, Juliet Escoria. Simply riveting and raw.
Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story, Rick Bragg. The Killer is a beast dying to be an angel. This book lays it bare.
Find Me, Laura van den Berg. Heartbreaking and real. Full of life.
14 Stories, None of Them Are Yours, Luke Goebel. A truly modern “novel” that exudes addictive hysteria. Emotion, language, imagery.
Wayne Koestenbaum, author of My 1980s
Friederike Mayröcker, brütt, or The Sighing Gardens, translated from the German by Rosyln Theobald (Northwestern University Press).
Hervé Guibert, The Mausoleum of Lovers, trans. Nathanaël (Nightboat Books).
Toi Derricotte, The Black Notebooks (Norton).
Samuel Beckett, Molloy (Grove).
Dodie Bellamy, The TV Sutras (Ugly Duckling Presse).
Pierre Guyotat, In the Deep, translated by Noura Wedell (Semiotext
Bruce Hainley, Under the Sign of [sic]: Sturtevant's Volte-Face (Semiotext
Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer, Lee Lozano: Dropout Piece (AfterAll Books).
LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Blues People: Negro Music in White America (Harper Perennial).
Catherine Lacey, author of Nobody Is Ever Missing
Jenny Offill's The Department of Speculation was such a weird, thrilling experience. Its subtitles and revelations still give me chills.
Richard Lloyd Parry, author of People Who Eat Darkness
This was the year when I finally entered the dark, droll world of W. G. Sebald. In summary, his work sounds so unpromising as to be almost comic: quirky, quasi-autobiographical travelogues in the gloomier parts of central Europe and Britain, narrated by an Eeyore-like German academic of a nervous disposition, who died in his 50s. But beneath the neurotic exterior, these are thrilling representations of the way historic violence lives and festers in the present, related with bone dry humour. Austerlitz is the best of all.
I also read and re-read my two of my favourite novels of the past couple of years: Hawthorn & Child by Keith Ridgway and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad, both of which achieve the feat of being boldly innovative and completely accessible.
Geoff Manaugh, author of The Burglar's Guide to the City (forthcoming fall 2015)
I’d say the best book I read this year was Lawrence in Arabia by Scott Anderson (2013, Anchor Books). Despite my initial reaction to the subject matter—who on Earth wants to read another book about Lawrence of Arabia?—its geopolitical setting is awesomely well timed for today’s regional conflicts, it is cinematically orchestrated, only occasionally rushed to include voluminous historical detail in a short span, and always difficult to put down.
Two novels, both published by FSG, arrived with an air of wounded and almost dreamlike vulnerability: Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle (2014, FSG) and Marshlands by Matthew Olshan (2014, FSG). The former is, in effect, a true crime story told through a haze of repressed memories and emotional trauma, as narrative details and slips of unexpected honesty reveal the violence of a deeper story swirling beneath the surface like a riptide. The latter is wonderfully and darkly resonant in this time of misguided occupations and torture reports, with the cleansed precision and density of a well-staged play.
Finally, amidst many other books worth mentioning, including Deep Down Dark by Héctor Tobar (2014, FSG) and the Lovecraftian oddity of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy (2014, FSG Originals), I came across Authors of the Impossible by Jeffrey J. Kripal (2010, University of Chicago Press). Ostensibly a series of short biographies about men who dedicated their lives to occult or paranormal studies, it quickly becomes a much more delicate, philosophical exploration of how humans can truly know anything at all, why mysteries both cosmic and mundane have a seemingly eternal (and often deranging) pull, and why it’s unlikely any of these questions will ever be satisfactorily answered. Central to Kripal’s analysis is the act of writing: the strange thrill of symbolic communication, when telling stories to fellow humans can take on the feel of the divine.
Mary Mann, author of Yawn: A History of Boredom Without the Boring Bits (forthcoming)
There are so many new books I loved this year—Empathy Exams, Americanah, Flamethrowers, Ugly Girls—but the one that sticks in my head is not particularly new: Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack and Honey. I read it slowly during this past winter's endless February, and for a week it was like this tiny sun I got to come home to at the end of every dark and slushy day.
Brian McGreevy, author of Hemlock Grove
Fourth of July Creek is the book my inner eighth grader who refused to stand for the pledge of allegiance to protest the paradox of paying mandatory tribute to a symbol of freedom has been waiting for all this time. If you have a barn, make sure you have fire insurance.
Kevin Moffett, co-author of The Silent History
The most surprising book I read this year is an oldish one: Lucia Berlin’s Home Sick. Lydia Davis recommended it during a reading--comparing her to Grace Paley. The stories also bear a resemblance to Isaac Babel’s or Leonard Michaels’: distilled, volatile, unpredictable. Unfalse, I’d say, if that was a word.
Michelle Orange, author of This Is Running for Your Life
The Devil Finds Work by James Baldwin. Essentially a long, terrifically challenging essay that teases from Baldwin's reflections on his earliest experiences of movies and theater a sense of how culture shapes personal identity, and expresses social ills. In Baldwin's examination of race and racism in American film, aesthetics and politics share a basic concern with representation: “It is said that the camera cannot lie, but rarely do we allow it to do anything else, since the camera sees what you point it at: the camera sees what you want it to see. The language of cinema is the language of our dreams.”
Shelly Oria, author of New York 1, Tel Aviv 0
Jenny Offill's Department of Speculation is the best, most exciting, most original book I've read in a long time. I guarantee: if you care about language, you will fall in love with the voice, with the poetic prose, immediately. If you care about love, you will get your heart broken in the best way. And if you care about narrative, you will be blown away by what sentences can do to each other, with each other, how they can sneak up on you and come together to form a shape you did not know existed. Read this book, yesterday.
Robin Sloan, author of Ajax Penumbra 1969
The most exciting, most original books I encountered in 2014 were all written by computers.
You probably know about NaNoWriMo, short for National Novel Writing Month: the long-running, loosely-organized event in which participants write a novel of 50,000 words in the month of November.
Since last year, it’s had a sibling, or a shadow: National Novel GENERATION Month. Also November. Also 50,000 words. The difference is that during NaNoGenMo, participants do not write those words directly; they write programs to generate them automatically. At the end of the month, they share their novels AND the source code from whence they came.
You can see the results here. There’s a gorgeous Voynich-esque manuscript by Liza Daly. There’s an algorithmic comic book by Greg Borenstein. There’s a novel titled I Waded in Clear Water built from a database of dreams by Allison Parrish.
What’s exciting to me about NaNoGenMo is less the output and more the community. These programmer-authors are being drawn together, encouraged, and, to a degree, trained. They are honing their techniques, and inventing new ones, too. Who knows? These early NaNoGenMos might be the dawning days of a new Oulipo—that band of jester-poets who have long experimented with constrained, algorithmic writing.
Imagine: Italo Calvino with a data center.
I am CERTAIN that a novel with roots in these techniques, this community, will be published by FSG in the decades to come. For that sense of distant but massive promise, the unreadable novels of NaNoGenMo were the most exciting books I encountered this year.
John Jeremiah Sullivan, author of Pulphead
1) Cosmigraphics, Michael Benson, Abrams: Over the past dozen or so years Michael Benson has been steadily transforming the coffee-table book into a high art form. His volumes, mainly about outer space, are sumptuously designed to blow your mind. His newest is like a conversation between Carl Sagan and Anthony Grafton. It concerns the changing ways our species has imagined and pictured "outer space" through history. The pictures can be gazed on. The essays bear re-reading.
2) Hilton Als, White Girls, McSweeney’s: Every bit as disorienting and beautifully done as Benson's book, but rather than looking up and out, it looks around and inward, at how race and sex and gender inform and deform American identities, our perceptions of one another. Als can dance between the cerebral and the personal in a way I find hypnotic.
3) The Sage of Waterloo, Leona Francombe, Norton: Francombe (says the jacket copy) is a classical pianist. Lives in Belgium. Relatively late in her life she turns to fiction. She writes a novel about the Battle of Waterloo, but told from the point of view of a rabbit that lives under the farm where the battle took place. I haven't read more than 20 pages--my father-in-law took it with him back to Greensboro (and professes to love it). It hasn't even been published yet. But you asked for most original.
4) The Emerald Light in the Air, Donald Antrim, FSG: For reasons I tried to make plain in the thing I wrote about him and it for the Times Mag. The stories have continued to mess with me.
Laura van den Berg, author of The Isle of Youth
Some critics have called Miriam Toews most recent novel, All My Puny Sorrows, something of a hardsell, but seeing that it’s about sisters and suicide and Canada, it was pretty much the easiest sell ever for me (Do you hear me, publishing? I want to read all your books about sisters and suicide and Canada!). Utterly unafraid of its darkness, All My Puny Sorrows is also a glittering comic masterpiece—and, above all, a ferocious examination of the mystery of why some of us long to stay in the world and some of us long to leave it.
Jeff VanderMeer, author of Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy (Annihilation, Authority, Acceptance)
I was fascinated by what I'd call “covert experimentation” in three 2014 novels, an approach I find more compelling these days than formal experimentation. In all three cases, the writers could have allowed reader expectations of a particular category of fiction to influence their decisions. Instead, they chose to give readers unique experiences that mimicked more traditional approaches.
Richard House’s The Kills approximates the general idea of a thriller but the structure of four interlocking short novels makes the reader work to put the story together. (in a good way) The fact that one of the four novels is primarily thematically linked to the other three creates a unique kind of connectivity, and a situation where the entire shape of the story only locks into place on the very last page of the book. It's not that The Kills just subverts genre tropes-—it's not actually operating via those tropes, even in how characters enter and leave the narrative, and yet the ghostly outline of thriller expectations still do intercede on the reader's behalf. The exquisite tension caused by this ghostly outline, brought to the text by the reader, held me transfixed and admiring as The Kills keeps becoming something different, and something different again.
Smith Henderson’s Fourth of July Creek doesn't experiment structurally, but uses the cover of its central plot--the dissolution of the life of a social worker--to create a series of experimental effects at the paragraph and scene level. These include switches from past-tense to present, from third person to second-person, reconstructing events in an almost omniscient point-of-view, and using the familiar form of social worker field reports in an unfamiliar way: to comment on the main character's relationship with his daughter. Some readers might find these "effects" unnecessary, but they all serve to illuminate the life of the protagonist. It's a kind of tactical covert experimentation, and it's highly readable because the novel's structure seems like something more familiar. These unusual effects also humanize characters who aren't particularly "likeable", which mitigates the risk Henderson takes that the reader will be thrown out of the story.
Catherine Lacey’s Nobody is Ever Missing takes the form of a road trip novel with confessional elements. I found it daring and different because the idiosyncratic main character's world view and obsessiveness allow the author to experiment with language. There are a lot of long, spiraling sentences and paragraphs of spiraling sentences put together that more or less rewire the reader's brain. Again, it's not formal experimentation per se, but on a secondary level, Lacey's setting free little whirlpools of prose-poems within the body of her text that take on their own life and momentum. It's a brave novel in several other ways, a very sly and knowing book, but this aspect to the use of language particularly stuck with me.
Joshua Wheeler, author of Acid West (forthcoming)
Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era by Beatrice Preziado. This was a year full of ingenious nonfiction: Jen Percy reported on PTSD as if she were in a Stephen King novel (Demon Camp) and Kerry Howley reported on MMA as if she were forging a PhD student's philosophy thesis (Thrown) and Ben Lerner just went ahead and wrote another novel about himself (10:04). But the book I was loudest about at all the parties this year was Beatriz Preziado's Testo Junkie (finally translated into English by Bruce Benderson at the end of 2013). Testo Junkie is a haunting romance and a strange performance piece of addiction and a manifesto of anarchy and a history of oppression and a drug fueled techno-orgy of such dystopic proportions that you'll wish it was science fiction. But Testo Junkie is not science fiction, which makes it all the more beautiful and smart and absolutely vital (which is what you'll yell at all the parties).
And from the peanut gallery...
Emily Bell, Editor, FSG Originals
Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation knocked me on my ass. It’s relentless in the best possible way. 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. I also loved love loved Jim Gavin’s debut collection, Middle Men. Dude knows California. I'll take wraparound Oakleys, discarded Del Taco bags, and a handgun in a fanny pack in my fiction any day.
Sean McDonald, Publisher, FSG Originals
My year of exciting, original reading began with JM Ledgard’s Submergence, which is so much of both those things that it wasn't even seriously challenged by dazzling contenders from favorite genre-busters David Mitchell and William Gibson. Beyond that, I'm a sucker for books about giant, pulsing cities—and both Francisco Goldman’s Interior Circuit (Mexico City) and Teju Cole’s Every Day is for the Thief (Lagos—and sporting one of my favorite covers of the year, by FSG's own Alex Merto) proved world class. Yet still, the book of the year (original—I’m still not sure if I should refer to it as poetry or essays—and otherwise) for me was Claudia Rankine's Citizen, which felt blazingly urgent and beautiful when it came out in October, and was only made to feel more relevant, more necessary with each day of heartbreaking and infuriating news this fall.
Bring on 2015!