My Year in Reading

I’ve been reading the “Year in Reading” feature over at The Millions and really enjoying it, so I thought I would make my own. Here are my five favorite books that I read in 2014, in the order I read them:

  1. We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo. This 2013 novel tells the story of Darling, a girl who grows up in Zimbabwe under the Mugabe regime, then moves to the United States as a teenager. I love stories with child narrators, and Darling is one of the best, finding humor even in bleak situations. This novel takes on serious subject matter—AIDS, sexual abuse, poverty, political violence—in an understated tone that makes its impact all the stronger. I read this book shortly after reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, another book about a young African immigrant in the US (Nigerian rather than Zimbabwean in Adichie’s case). Americanah got a lot of critical attention—deservedly so—but I wish We Need New Names had gotten equal billing. Where Adichie’s novel is realist and expansive in scope, Bulawayo’s is episodic and stylized. As a student of modernism, I loved We Need New Names’s aesthetic, and as someone who knows less than she should about postcolonial Africa, I learned from it.
  2. Great House by Nicole Krauss. I could say that this novel is about a writing desk and the different people who own it over the years, but that wouldn’t really capture it at all. I could borrow a phrase from my friend Donika and say this book has a lot of feelings; that would be closer. Or I could borrow the language of the Netflix genre and say that if you like critically acclaimed period pieces full of longing looks and quiet tragedy, this book is for you. (Also, if only that were a real Netflix category!)
  3. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. This book was a National Book Award finalist this year and it’s making all of the “best of 2014” lists, so I won’t say much about it except that it’s a slow burn, the prose is beautifully clear, and I learned a lot of things about radio in the 1940s, which I look forward to bringing up in casual conversation as often as possible.
  4. Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, ZZ Packer. I love short stories and I’m really excited to teach two from this collection next spring, “Brownies” and “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere.” “Brownies” features another wonderful child narrator, a girl in an all-black Brownie troop who witnesses prejudice from two different angles and learns, in a quiet epiphany that rivals or surpasses those of Joyce, there is “something mean” that takes root inside people. “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere” is a funny and sad coming-of-age story set at Yale, about a self-identified “misanthrope” trying to come to terms with her sexual orientation, and I think it’s a perfect mind-opening story for college students to read.
  5. Stone Mattress, Margaret Atwood. I just finished this collection of what Atwood calls “tales” yesterday, so it’s possible that it makes this list by virtue of “my favorite book is the last book I read” syndrome. But I suspect that its appeal will be more enduring than that. Meg Wolitzer called this book “wicked,” and I can’t think of a better descriptor. There are a lot of young internet writers brandishing the tongue-in-cheek label of “misandrist” these days, but Atwood is the Queen of the Misandrists. In these modern fairy tales, a lot of terrible men get their comeuppance in delightfully wicked ways. An aged rapist gets clocked in the head with a fossil; a womanizing poet is cursed with impotence and the realization that his spurned ex-lover, a fantasy novelist, is more commercially and critically successful than he is; and in perhaps my favorite tale, “I Dream of Zenia With the Bright Red Teeth,” the feckless Billy from The Robber Bride is punished by an avenging angel in the form of a dog named Ouida. Atwood’s still got it.

Some other books I read and liked this year were Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi, The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel, Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald, and The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes.

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