Our Favorite Books of 2014


Devoting yourself to a book, like a lover or Christopher Nolan movie, is an act of commitment. But which are worth the time and effort? Once again, we’ve done the dirty reading for you, separating the wheat from the chaff, the misplaced modifiers from the well-placed modifiers. Here are our favorites from 2014. Grab your glasses and a glass of something that tastes like whiskey and enjoy!

American Cornball: A Laffopedic Guide to the Formerly Funny by Christopher Miller
(Harper, 530 pages)
From this daft, delightful, utterly singular, bathroom-browsable reference work’s entry on “grawlixes,” those eruptions of punctuation marks as swear words in old comics: “The last symbol to gain admission to the standard repertoire was the pound sign or octothorpe, #, of which I’ve yet to find a specimen dating from earlier than 1940.” Miller’s survey proves wide-ranging in its examination of what spurred previous generations of Americans to LOL: “A middle initial tends to connote wealth and distinction, and outside of Marx Brothers movies, the most common function of the comedic middle initial is as part of a comically misleading misnomer for a character utterly lacking in wealth and distinction — a character like Alfred P. Neuman or his Brand-X counterpart in Cracked, Sylvester P. Smythe.” And here’s why old maids have such exaggerated profiles: “Like crossed eyes or BUCK TEETH, a big nose is an easy way for a less-than-masterly artist to suggest that a woman is unmarriageably ugly. It may also indicate horniness, or unladylike sexual aggression, given that NOSES are often equated with PENISES.” The words in majuscule all have their own fascinating entries elsewhere in the book, which also covers long-gone comedy staples like anvils, career girls, nincompoops, Babbits, efficiency experts, pie fights, get-rich-quick schemers, women drivers, and suggestion boxes, which date back to the ’40s. Miller breaks down an episode of Ozzie and Harriet before concluding, “There’s something farcical, in corporate settings, about the very idea of suggestion, about the idealized model of decision-making it implies, in which rational adults, ennobled by mutual respect and a common quest for excellence, swap ideas until a good one emerges, to be embraced by all.” –Alan Scherstuhl

An Untamed State by Roxane Gay
(Black Cat, 384 pages)
While both of Roxane Gay’s books published this year are required reading, the fiction, An Untamed State, is the one to proselytize for. The novel grabs you, drags you to its horrifying depths, and doesn’t let go till the last page. Gay writes about a kidnapping, and you will want to skim its harshest passages, to protect yourself from the violence perpetrated on her heroine, Mireille, but don’t; you owe it to her to read every awful, perfect word. You’ll have to, once you start, it’s so compelling and relentless. Just try to avoid reading it on the subway, unless you like crying in public. –Meave Gallagher

The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food by Dan Barber
(Penguin, 496 pages)
When it opened 14 years ago, Dan Barber’s West Village restaurant Blue Hill propelled him to a leadership role within the locavore movement; that role was expanded with his second restaurant, Blue Hill Stone Barns, which exists on and is supplied by a Hudson Valley farm. For the lifespan of each of his restaurants, he’s been exploring the relationship between land and cuisine, a quest that’s had some profound effects on his menus and outlook. This year, he shared that journey publicly: He released The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food, a book he says started as an exploration of how unique individual ingredients are grown, and morphed into a blueprint for a new American cuisine. He goes beyond our current farm-to-table paradigm, under which we still cherry-pick produce and other ingredients for our restaurants and plates, to champion a diet that considers the health of the land and a system of farming that will preserve our ecosystem for generations to come. The chef visits farms where he sees sustainable systems in play, and explores cultures that have a legacy of ecosystem preservation because of fierce protectionism of a cuisine. Chefs are ultimately responsible for creating this cuisine, he concludes, because they bring everything together — and their work feeds cultural touchstones that pervade our homes. It’s a provocative read filled with richly told stories, and it’s optimistic in answering one of the biggest questions of our time: How will we continue to feed people when we’ve set up a system that’s unsustainable? The answer is cuisine, proposes Barber, and we need to fix ours if we’re going to thrive. Luckily, there is a way to do that — and eat better food at the same time. –Laura Shunk

Mermaids in Paradise by Lydia Millet
(W.W. Norton, 304 pages)
The opening pages, in which a betrothed coastal couple consider honeymooning in “the heartland” to meet the mysterious people there, are the funniest of Millet’s very funny career, especially the business about the most Ironman of all Ironman races. (There’s good advice about how to keep an excitable partner from getting an in-the-moment tat.) Then comes the mad plot, some consummate hurly-burly involving an island resort, a Midwestern foot-fetishist, a world-shaking discovery underseas, a half-assed conspiracy, and, finally, a bleak/chipper catastro-finale that would do Vonnegut proud. Millet writes about the now with sharp elbows and a detached hilarity. Bonus points for a nice, liberal white protagonist who never realizes that she’s racist/sexist/homophobic. –Alan Scherstuhl

Shoplifter by Michael Cho
(Pantheon, 96 pages)
Cho’s debut graphic novel is a short read, but beautifully realized. With each detailed frame, he crafts Corinna Park, an amazingly complex protagonist for such a compact story. Like Daniel Clowes and Adrian Tomine before him, Cho’s subject matter is the disillusionment of young women in a society run, often amok, by capitalism. In the first scenes, Park is asked to brainstorm copy for a new brand of perfume marketed to nine-year-old girls at the ad agency where she begrudgingly works post-English degree. It’s the catalyst for a round of small-time shoplifting (she only steals magazines from convenience stores) and a total life upheaval. By choosing to focus on one small but crucial moment of enlightenment, Cho’s tale is like a glimmer of hope for millennials, a quiet suggestion that if you’re brave enough, you might be able to avoid selling people crap for a living. –Heather Baysa

California by Edan Lepucki
(Little, Brown and Company, 400 pages)
Cal and Frida, the heroes of Edan Lepucki’s post-apocalypse novel California, survive alone in a cabin the wilderness, and in their isolation they share a sort of utopian idyll — unglamorous, perhaps, but there’s enough to enjoy and sustain. It’s when Frida finds herself pregnant, however, that Lepucki tips her hand: This is an allegory. Cal and Frida could be any couple, indulging in the self-contained pleasures afforded to new romance. But then domesticity appears. California, at heart, is about the young growing up, and about lovers settling down. No apocalypse could seem quite so scary. –Calum Marsh

How to Be Both by Ali Smith
(Pantheon, 384 pages)
Another gently challenging formalist triumph from Ali, How to Be Both offers two lives in two halves that form a novelistic whole whose shape depends on which half you read first — and print editions of the book have those halves in varying order. Both are richly appointed human headspaces, both moving, allusive, and gorgeous. One is that of a Cambridge teen today, mourning the death of her mother, studying pornography, making up biology-specific lyrics to “Wrecking Ball” to cram for a test, spilling to a school therapist that the deceased was under surveillance by the government. The other is of the little-known Italian Renaissance painter whom that mother loved — and whose life nudges against that of our modern-day teen. Past and present, art and life, history and our perception of it: Smith, in clear direct address, pairs up the biggest of concerns with the most intimate, offering revelations on every page. –Alan Scherstuhl

Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work, by Melissa Gira Grant
(Verso, 144 pages)
One can’t truly advocate for women’s equality without respecting the rights of women who sell sex. So says Melissa Gira Grant, in this important book that will hopefully challenge people who wish to “save” sex workers to ask themselves about their own motivations. Grant argues that respecting sex work as such requires acknowledging a human’s right to define her own boundaries rather than being treated as an object, political pawn, or victim. In this thoroughly researched, eminently readable piece, Gira Grant only briefly speaks of her work in the sex industry. Quickly, she shifts the conversation back toward the striking similarities between anti-sex conservatives and anti-sex-work feminists. Keeping the focus on ideas instead of autobiography has an impressively unsettling effect, as we’re forced to acknowledge the writer’s boundaries, and our own voyeurism. –Katie Toth

The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 240 pages)
Denis Johnson may be exploring new locales, but his territory is the same. Here, it’s West Africa and the Congo, where his boozy, double-crossing NATO asset/precious-metal-hustling protagonist Roland Nair returns to the continent to spy on/engage in counterfeit uranium trade with an old friend, the charismatic Michael Adriko. Along with one of Johnson’s perfunctory ingenues — here manifested as Adriko’s American fiancée, Davidia St. Claire — the duo work their way from hotel bar to hotel bar, ostensibly drowning their respective missions, both surface and covert, in a sea of strong, unregulated African spirits. While the plot veers a bit more mainstream than Johnson’s classic work, his fuck-up of a James Bond is enlivened by several handfuls of expertly crafted sentences that punctuate the short novel. The dreamy African landscape, as well as the characters’ persistent drinking, lend the whole thing a hazy quality that should be familiar to fans of Johnson’s cult-circulated Jesus’ Son or masterful Angels. –Heather Baysa

The Fever by Megan Abbott
(Little, Brown, 320 pages)
We venerate teenage girls and we are afraid of them. We tell them they’re perfect, and then we teach them to fear and despise every beautiful thing about themselves. In the dreamy, gripping Fever, Megan Abbott gives them voice. Inspired by true events, the novel concerns a high school girl who manifests symptoms of a mysterious sickness; soon, other girls fall ill, sending the small town into a panic. What made her sick? Was it sex? Was it drugs? Was she bad? But how will they make sense of the answers, if they can ever find them? –Meave Gallagher

The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis
(Knopf, 320 pages)
“Writers, as they age,” observed Martin Amis, “lose energy but gain in craft.” He wrote that just before the publication of The Pregnant Widow and, a year later, Lionel Asbo: State of England, his two most dispirited novels, when it had begun to seem, as he put it, that “age waters the writer down.” But now we have The Zone of Interest: a reinvigoration. Returning to the Holocaust — the subject of Time’s Arrow, still among his best books — Amis seems greatly energized, addressing the most serious theme with rigor, sophistication, and, most astonishingly, wit. –-Calum Marsh

See also: Our favorite books of 2013 and our favorite books of 2012.