These are the 10 books that I loved the most in 2014; the ones that made me feel things, think things, and that I’m most likely to thrust into the hands of random passers by. They weren’t necessarily published in 2014, though a few were, because I don’t often read new releases as I don’t like hardbacks. It includes 5 novels, 2 non-fiction, and 3 graphic novels (plus 4 sneaky honourable mentions I’ve added throughout). So, in no particular order:
This book is incredible and beautiful. It’s a re-working of Mrs Dalloway which tells the interwoven stories of three women who live in different time periods (including Virginia Woolf). I liked Mrs Dalloway, but I definitely enjoyed this more. Where Mrs Dalloway is subtext, this is text, if that makes sense, and it manages to pull off being both a reworking and an enhancement to Mrs Dalloway. It made me like Mrs Dalloway more and see more in it. Cunningham also writes female voices really well (I had assumed it was written by a woman while I was reading it) and his writing is beautiful and subtle. This book made me Feel All The Things. If you read it (and you should), I would say read Mrs Dalloway first, and then read this soon after while it’s still relatively fresh to get the most out of it.
(Trans. by Clarissa Botsford). I wish this book had a different title because whenever I recommend it to people they assume it’s pink and sparkly chick lit, which it really isn’t. ‘Sworn virgins’ are, in Albanian tradition, women who choose to become men but are not necessarily transgender/transsexual. It’s usually when there are no male heirs in the family, so a woman will take the role of the head of the household by adopting a male gender and taking a vow of celibacy. They are given the rights of men and treated as such. This book is about one sworn virgin, Hana, who becomes Mark to avoid an arranged marriage and run the household after her uncle dies. After living many years as Mark, he goes to join his cousin who has emigrated to America, and tries to figure out how to be Hana again. There is so much in this book. It’s about family and sacrifice and immigration and culture and growing up and gender roles/identity in society. So much. And a good story too. Sworn Virgin is a brilliantly written, fascinating book about culture, gender and family and I recommend you pick it up. Full review here.
This is a book about ignoring ‘must-read’ lists, about reading at whim, reading slowly, and reading responsively. It’s basically both a love letter to reading and a reading guide (that doesn’t lecture). It’s very easy to read and short, but there’s a lot to think about. If you love reading, or did once and want to know how to again, or want to read but lack the confidence because you don’t read the ‘right’ things, then definitely pick it up. Full review here.
Honourable mention: The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller. TYoRD is basically The Pleasures of Reading in action, and, although Pleasures just pipped it for me, I think a lot of people will prefer TYoRD so take a look at that one too because it’s also great.
This is a stunning, wordless, graphic novel. It’s about the immigrant experience, as a man leaves his wife and daughter to try and get work in a foreign city. The city is populated by strange creatures, unusual contraptions and a language of symbols that he doesn’t understand. He meets other immigrants, who welcome and help him. And we learn their stories about why they left their homes to make new ones in this city. I love that it’s wordless. The man can’t communicate with words so we experience the world as he does. It would be very easy to forgo subtlety when working in this way, but Tan’s skill as an artist means this isn’t the case. His artwork is incredible (check out my full review for some examples), and the whole book is basically poetry without words. You don’t need to be able to articulate it, you can just feel the meaning.
This is a book with 24 themed chapters, each with 10 numbered paragraphs of 120 words each. Each chapter tells the life of the narrator through its theme, like ‘cinema or what the centaur meant’, ‘money or brown sauce sandwiches’, and ‘language or death and cucumbers’. Each paragraph is one memory, one fragment of something from his life; the first paragraphs are earlier in his life and then they move towards his present. As you read, the broader stories become more apparent – about dealing with his parents’ death, writing, and growing up and finding himself and his sexuality. It’s quiet, and fragmented, but the feelings are whole and strong. It’s tender, melancholy and playful all at once. The writing is beautiful and understated, and I expect I’ll find new things in it whenever I re-read it. Full review here.
This is the story of the 1996 Everest disaster. Krakauer (who also wrote Into The Wild) was ironically there on a journalistic assignment to write about the commercialisation of Everest and the potential dangers this could create. I like that Krakauer acknowledges this is only his version of the story – the effects of high altitude messes with your perceptions and memory. But he also does his research, talking to the other survivors and people that knew the deceased to try and put together an accurate a picture as possible. It’s gripping and I really enjoyed reading it. The fact that people climb it despite all the dangers made me think of Notes From Underground, where the narrator says that sometimes people do things directly against their advantages simply to exert their free will. Or, as Mallory famously put it, “because it is there”.
In alternate chapters, this book tells the story of Nao and Ruth. Nao is a teenage girl living in Japan, but she grew up in America, and is struggling to fit into a culture that is both her own and completely alien. Ruth, a writer in America who finds Nao’s diary, is also American-Japanese and is struggling with a kind of open-space claustrophobia and a feeling of isolation. It’s about living and dying, searching and loss. It’s about Zen Buddhism and quantum physics, magic and the threads that extent between both family and strangers. Plus, all sorts of other things like the nature of time, the environment and the second world war. It’s incredibly rich and thought-provoking. But it’s not just these grand, unwieldy themes; it’s also the small moments and minor hurts and care between people – family and neighbours and friends. Full review here.
This is a Roald Dahl-esque fairy tale. On the island of Here, everything is perfectly ordered. The people are well-groomed, as are the trees, and even the island itself is a perfect oval. But beyond lies ‘There’ – chaos, fear and disorder. Dave, a data analyst who is bald apart from one stray hair, one day finds the data scrambled, forming shapes he has only seen in his nightmares of There. His face begins to burn, and a gigantic, ever-growing beard erupts from his chin. It’s about fear of the ‘other’ and what cannot be controlled, and what it means to be different. The artwork is gorgeous, all in greyscale. Check out my full review for examples of the art.
I’m not really into superheroes (especially the all-American, clean-cut type), but this is a classic for a very good reason. It’s about the people behind the masks, and whether the kind of person who’d put on a costume and fight crime is the sort of person you’d want doing that. It’s also about whether doing something for a good reason, and for a good outcome, is ok if what you’re doing is pretty horrible and definitely not ok. It’s dark and complex, and the idea of ‘who watches the watchmen’ is an important one.
This short novella is part of the Canongate Myths series; a re-telling of the myth of Iphis. Greek mythology and lesbianism were always supposed to go together. Her writing is, as always, beautiful (I am resisting quoting every other sentence here), but because it’s more plot-driven than some of her other work I think it would be an excellent place to start with her writing. It also has one of my favourite opening lines: ‘Let me tell you about when I was a girl, our grandfather says.‘
I absolutely love these books, and I hope there’s something on this list you might love too. I’m now going to cheat and add a couple more ‘honourable mentions’ that nearly-but-not-quite made the list:
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche (Novel) – I loved this, about race in America and Nigeria, and the different ways race is perceived and reacted to in those countries. It’s about the big and the small, and well worth a read.
Bitch Planet by Kelly Sue DeConnick & Valentine De Landro
(Comics – fiction) – It’s only on the first issue, so I’m sure this will be on my 2015 best-of list. It’s like Margaret Atwood had a comics baby with extra sass.
The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (Novel) – It’s about Oscar, an overweight, nerdy, and not at all macho Dominican who’s having a painful adolescence. It’s also about his family, the history of the Dominican Republic and its dictator, fukus and zafas (curses and good luck), culture, and expressions of ‘manliness’. There’s so much to think about in it, but it’s also just great to read. I loved it.