Posted by: Matt Compton | December 18, 2014

My Favorite Books of 2014

One quick note: Next year, I want to talk about books a little more frequently. To that end, I’m creating an email list to help share some recommendations a bit more often. If you’d like to get the occasional book update from me, go here to sign up:

WE ARE NOT OURSELVES by Matthew Thomas is a novel about an Irish-American family through the course of six decades. It’s not an epic—there’s no violence, no political machinations, no tumultuous affair—but it has a staggering amount to say about life in America. It’s mostly oriented around a woman named Eileen Tumulty, and she’s one of the great characters in literature of the past decade. She’s generous and petty, confident about her abilities to improve her life and anxious about where she’s going. In other words, she’s incredibly real, a person with competing agendas and motivations that change over time. And because it’s a novel about life, it’s also a story about loss—the details of which are so honestly and credibly presented that it left me in tears.

STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel is a novel about a post apocalypse that spends as much time in the past as it does in the future. It’s about whether culture can endure even if civilization does not. And it’s a gorgeous piece of writing. The particular flavor of this disaster is a global pandemic—the Georgian flu. Twenty years after humanity is nearly wiped out, we follow a group of survivors—members of the Traveling Symphony, who perform Shakespeare to scattered communities of those scraping by. As we explore the bonds between them, we cut back and forth from the time before the plague to what comes after, all the while exploring whether survival itself is sufficient.

ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE by Anthony Doerr is a big, intricate novel set before, during, and after the Second World War. Marie Laure is a blind 14-year-old French girl, whose father is the master locksmith for the Museum of Natural History. Werner is a young German soldier, recruited to military service because of his genius with gadgets. Chapter by chapter, their lives unfold, gradually moving closer until an intersection that feels inevitable—but is never less than welcome.

THE FACTORY MAN by Beth Macy is a powerhouse piece of reporting with more drama and genuine human emotion than most of the novels I read this year. It’s about the working class of the American South—specifically those who make their living in the region’s factories. It’s about globalization and offshoring. It’s about a landmark legal battle. And it’s the epic, at-time-almost-Shakespearian story of John Bassett III and his family, who carve out an empire making furniture—then spend almost as much time feuding with each other as they do fighting to keep it. Tom Hanks has apparently already begun working with HBO to turn this book into a miniseries—and no wonder.

BROWN GIRL DREAMING by Jacqueline Robinson is a memoir of childhood, a book about growing up during the Civil Rights movement, and an examination of the way that the need to write imprints itself on a person. It’s about the search for home from her father’s people in Ohio to her mother’s people in South Carolina, to life on her own in New York. It’s about the connection between family, and it’s an exploration of memory. It’s a winner of the 2014 National Book Award—and it’s rightfully been celebrated far and wide. Because somehow, Robinson manages to do justice to all these varied themes while writing in exquisite, little free verse poems that each last a chapter.

SHOTGUN LOVESONGS by Nickolas Butler is the story of a group of friends from a small town in Wisconsin. One of them hits it big and grows up to become an indie rock star—touring the world, dating a beautiful actress. His friends stay closer to home. While the others fantasize about his life and the escape he made, he pines for the sense of place that comes from knowing where you belong. It’s a great piece of writing with a lot to say about friendship between adults and the value of community.

AN UNTAMED STATE by Roxane Gay is the most gripping, unsettling, and challenging piece of writing I read in 2014. Mireille Duval Jameson is jerked from a car outside her family compound in Haiti. For 13 days, she’s held, then tortured, as her father refuses to negotiate for ransom. When she’s finally released, the book is just getting started. This is a story that’s concerned with privilege, resentment, redemption, and humanity—and it holds back nothing.

THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir is a high-flying piece of science fiction, that never fails to feel grounded in reality. On the second manned mission to Mars, things go terribly wrong. A sudden dust storm forces the crew to abort and leave one of their missions specialists behind. But Mark Watney survives, and then goes to work staying alive until Earth figures out a way to bring him home. He relies on ingenuity, good humor, and the contents of a planned-for Thanksgiving dinner to carry him forward.

THE INVISIBLE BRIDGE by Rick Perlstein is about the invention of modern rightwing political culture in the United States, but first and foremost, it’s an excellent biography of Ronald Reagan. And as far as accomplishments go, that’s not a small one. Reagan is a notoriously difficult person to pin down in print, but Perlstein manages to cut through the hagiography of his supporters and the opaque nature of the man himself to give us some sense of who our fortieth president actually was—what motivated him and propelled him to the forefront of a movement that still defines our politics.

THE BONE CLOCKS by David Mitchell is genre-jumping, voice-shifting, narrative-twisting whirligig of a novel. The plot stretches out across decades. The story spins around Holly Sykes, a teenager in 1980s England when we first meet her. Each subsequent section features another character whose life will intersect with Sykes, and we move forward until we’re gradually pulled into an epic of good versus evil. It’s deeply ambitious, clever, and an interesting piece of showmanship. But there’s a beating heart in the middle of all the pyrotechnics. Plus it’s a lot of fun.



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