Ask me to list the books I loved best in 2014 and watch me dither. For a beloved book is unto itself, its very singularity what makes it so memorably wonderful to begin with. Having to rank the books I hold dear, in 2014 or at any other time, is inevitably a Sophie’s Choice. Better to ask me the books I hated, with their bewildering word choices, poorly constructed sentences, and unlikely storylines.
What makes a great book, anyway, meriting it a spot on a Best-Of list? Is it a winning character? An engrossing plot? Exquisite prose? A unique concatenation of place and space landing a particular book in your hands precisely when you most require it? For some books magically appear this way, answering your call. These books become lifelong companions, read and reread, their bindings softening until the pages sigh, parting company from their fellows. More’s the pity if the book itself has attained talismanic status, rendering it irreplaceable. Slipping the loose pages back into place, you stack the whole business like a ream of printer paper.
The best books of 2014 do all of the above while diverting, edifying and consoling a populace set reeling by world events. There were pandemics, a missing airline, war, and ongoing violence in the Middle East. And we lost many treasured writers in 2014, such as Gabriel García Márquez, Maya Angelou, Kent Haruf, Mark Strand, Maxine Kumin, Peter Mathiessen and P. D. James.
Throughout, we read. For we are readers, and reading is how we make sense of an increasingly senseless world. When asked to share their favorite books of 2014, PopMatters writers responded with alacrity. The range of their responses is heartening, indicative of literature’s thriving health. Be it via the glow of an electronic device or from the printed page, people are reading. Here then, in alphabetical order by title, are the books we read and loved thus far that were published in 2014 (first editions, reprints and translations included). Diane Leach
The Answer to Everything
In today’s ongoing global financial uncertainty, it’s easy to be swayed by those promising easy answers to tough situations. This is where Canadian author Elyse Friedman comes in with her latest novel, The Answer to Everything. A hilarious yet moving send up of a cult gone wrong (though its members wouldn’t call it a cult), this book is a quick, snappy read. However, The Answer to Everything is more than just a deep meditation on the human condition; it’s also a richly pleasurable read. The novel moves at a breakneck pace, and the chapters are short and digestible. Friedman’s writing has an easy fluidity that is brisk and refreshing. All in all, The Answer to Everything is an outstanding novel, one that reveals real emotion and poignancy in the lives of its all too believable and flawed characters. Friedman has penned a marvelous tome about the truth that lies in every one of us, and the falsehoods we’re willing to believe to mitigate just how painful facing reality on an everyday basis can really be. Zachary Houle
The Beggar and the Hare
The best tales are always deceptively simple. They seem to be about one thing when, really, they’re about another entirely. A few characters, some simple props. One, two, three seemingly inconsequential events. Maybe four at a push. Like the finest vacuum cleaners, they suck you in before you know it. They have you churning and spinning, both frightened and excited at the same time. You may think you know where you are going. In truth, you don’t. And neither do you, in all honesty, care. The Beggar and the Hare is one such novel. It’s a fable, but unlike Aesop, it doesn’t preach. This is simple story about Vatanescu, a working class Romanian construction worker, who wants, according to the publisher, “a future for himself and a pair of footballs for his son.” That’s all there is to it. At least, on the surface. With Vatanescu as its central character, The Beggar and the Hare succeeds admirably. Ambitious, caring, a little naïve, a touch melancholy, he engages you in the way he always puts his son and his sons wishes and wants right before his own. Jonathan Muirhead
The Blazing World
After a stream of too many fun, feel-good memoirs based on nothing much in particular, too many novels with little plot and even thinner characters, The Blazing World is a welcome jolt. This book places demands on the reader, forcing you think in the best possible way. Much of Hustvedt’s fiction is about art and artists: 2003’s What I Loved enfolds art, artists, family life and loss into a tour de force. Even 2008’s The Sorrows of an American, far more about the death of Hustvedt’s father, philosophy professor Lloyd Hustvedt, features an artist, the deranged Jeffrey Lane. And once more in The Blazing World, we are immersed in the art world. This novel was longlisted for the 2014 the Booker Prize, and deservedly so. It is unquestionably one of the year’s finest novels, a serious examination of what female artists continue to endure. Diane Leach
The Book of Strange New Things
This curiously resonant novel about a gentle Christian missionary on a distant planet takes its title from what the passive, curious aliens there call the Bible. Peter, the missionary, is a former junkie who has left his wife behind on an Earth that’s on the verge of environmental collapse. While Peter tries to discern the true meaning for why he and his fellow humans are so far from home and serves his new alien flock as best he can (he can barely look at their to-him hideous features, and is forever mystified by their opaque customs), his wife’s missives from home take on ever-more panicked tones of abandonment and fury. Unlike most mainstream novelists who have taken on science-fiction themes of late, Faber treats the genre aspects of his world with utter seriousness. More importantly, The Book of Strange New Things’ precise, potent explorations of Peter’s soulful searchings for meaning are buttressed by both a rich emotional understanding and a theological precision. Chris Barsanti
Saadat Hasan Manto
One of the great risks in reviewing a translated work is the tendency to believe that one is reading the author in his or her original language. I forget too often how much is lost in translation and if what I’m reading is the author’s voice or the translator’s (or both). This, however, is not an issue with Bombay Stories, the translated collection of Urdu short stories by the late Saadat Hasan Manto. Both translators, Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmad, are renowned for their knowledge of Hindi and Urdu, respectively. The result is a mesmerizing collection of writing from a South Asian writer, dead for almost 60 years, whose works have never really reached a wide audience – until now. Bombay Stories consists of 14 of Manto’s works. I can only imagine that the process of choosing which stories to include was daunting, because Manto was one of the most prolific writers of his generation. Before his premature death in 1955 at the age of 42, he had penned hundreds of stories in Urdu, as well as essays, screenplays and radio dramas. Bombay Stories is an incredible book and a compelling argument to Saadat Hasan Manto’s credibility as a giant in Indian/Pakistani literature. While his own life was consumed by depression and ended through slow, alcoholic suicide, he was an iconoclast and light years ahead of his time. Shyam K. Sriram
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