At the risk of shooting myself in the foot and having you not read another sentence, I’m just going to lay this one out there: Year-end “best of” lists are dumb. Especially when it comes to books. It’s very, very difficult to read everything worth reading in the realms of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and comic books that come out over the course of the year. Generally speaking, reading is a more time-intensive activity than, say, movies or video games, so you kind of have to pick and choose how you want to spend your leisure hours. What I’m saying is, there’s no such thing as a definitive top books list — just a list of the best books someone has had the time to read. With that in mind, here is the definitive, absolute last word in top books list you need to read in 2014.
The Emerald Light in the Air by Donald Antrim
In his slim 1993 novel, Elect Mr. Robinson For a Better World, Donald Antrim created the model for what Jeffrey Eugenides would call “pedantic, syntactically well-behaved, semi-insane middle-aged men” that appear in each of Antrim’s three novels. This archetype is pervasive in Antrim’s new story collection, The Emerald Light in the Air. “An Actor Prepares” is one of the best, in which a drama professor named Reg puts on a rather odd performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which he casts himself — a self-described “skinny, balding, unmarried, childless 46-year-old Lysander” — as one of Shakespeare’s teenaged lovers, alongside his younger and less-engaged students. Not all the stories are as madly comic; in the book’s title story a depressed, possibly suicidal guy named Billy French gets in a car accident and, rather than calling AAA or abandoning the vehicle, ends up in a strange situation that gives him new perspective on his troubles. One thing is for certain, though — Antrim’s heroes are not made men.
Nobody is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey
Lacey’s debut was hailed on Twitter by no less an eminence than director Joss Whedon, who exclaimed: “I have no words. @_catherinelacey took all the words & put them in here & now I feel less & more alone. Awe.” Now I’m not sure what Whedon’s qualifications are as a literary critic are, but the guy sure makes some kick-ass movies. There are no vampires or space smugglers in Lacey’s book, but her story of a young woman haunted by the death of her adopted sister and by her unraveling marriage and fleeing to New Zealand certainly has the makings of a great film.
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
Bob Marley died young, but he almost died much younger — in a hail of bullets instead of in a hospital bed. In Marlon James’s latest, A Brief History of Seven Killings, the incredibly talented author uses an ensemble cast of voices to tell the story of lawless Jamaica in the 1970s, and an attempted assassination of Bob Marley. There are CIA operatives, competing gangs in Trenchtown and Copenhagen City (important geographical note: not located in Denmark), corrupt police, and, hovering above it all, “The Singer” who casts a huge, dreadlocked shadow over the entire country.
In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman
This might be my favorite debut of the year. Rahman’s incredible novel centers around two estranged friends whose once-promising lives are coming apart at the seams. One is a Pakistani-American Wall Street trader, in a loveless marriage, who is taking the fall for peddling bad mortgage-backed securities and nearly causing the downfall of capitalist society. The other is Zafar, a lawyer born in rural Bangladesh who is more comfortable around abstract mathematical concepts like Godel’s Incompleteness Theorum than he is the trappings of polite society. Rahman’s book has rightly been compared to the likes of W.G Sebald; it’s a quiet thing (albeit with an explosive ending), sprawling and full of ideas on a wide range of far-flung topics.
The Divide by Matt Taibbi
In case you’re unfamiliar with his work, Taibbi is a bomb-throwing journalist who’s special ire is saved for those on Wall Street who criminally profited at the expense of tax-paying Americans and then walked away from the wreckage without a scratch. In The Divide, the once-and-future Rolling Stone gadfly compares the disproportionate amount of poor people in America who are arrested and imprisoned for trifling offenses with the utter lack of prosecutions for brazen and widespread white collar crime in the upper, oily regions of global finance. Taibbi’s thesis is especially compelling in light of record stock prices and the recent events and Ferguson and New York City.
The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert
Kolbert, a staff writer for the New Yorker, here examines the Earth’s sixth great extinction era, the Anthropocene. This epoch is characterized by the rise of humanity and the resulting, and often devastating, effects on the rest of Earth’s denizens. While an asteroid strike or virulent plague may be sexier, humanity’s inexorable march across the planet has effectively wiped out a huge percentage of plant and animal species in a very short time — the likes of which we will never see again. Kolbert talks extensively with experts and we’re left with this troubling thought: As we destroy natural habitats, acidify the oceans, and pump carbon into the atmosphere, the extincition process will only accelerate until one day soon, we’ll have no species to destroy but our own.
Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
I’ve spent a lot —a lot — of time poring over My Struggle, the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard’s sprawling family opus. Knausgaard’s unvarnished, artfully mundane accounts of growing up and raising a family powerfully resonates with men of a certain age (i.e. me). Where he has written thousands of pages, Jenny Offill, in a fraction of the space, wrestles with many of the same issues. Her protagonist is a writer in Brooklyn. She meets a man. They have a baby. Happy ending, right? Wrong. The reality is far more complex.
Every Day is For the Thief by Teju Cole
I’m comfortable saying that Open City, Cole’s 2011 debut, is one of the best novels ever written “about” New York City. His novella, Every Day Is For the Thief, was actually written before that book, but only this year was made available to English-speaking audiences. Like Julius from Open City (and Cole himself), the narrator of Every Day is a thoughtful Nigerian immigrant. He has returned to Nigeria to visit family, but, as a man without a country, views many of his home country’s mores with an outsider’s eye (and is, in turn, viewed as an outsider himself).