The 10 Best Books of 2014
The year’s best books, selected by the editors of The New York Times Book Review.
By Anthony Doerr
With brisk chapters and sumptuous language, Doerr’s second novel follows two characters whose paths will intersect in the waning days of World War II: an orphaned engineering prodigy recruited into the Nazi ranks, and a blind French girl who joins the Resistance. Tackling questions of survival, endurance and moral obligations during wartime, the book is as precise and artful and ingenious as the puzzle boxes the heroine’s locksmith father builds for her. Impressively, it is also a vastly entertaining feat of storytelling.
By Jenny Offill
Alfred A. Knopf, $22.95.
Offill’s slender and cannily paced novel, her second, assembles fragments, observations, meditations and different points of view to chart the course of a troubled marriage. Wry and devastating in equal measure, the novel is a cracked mirror that throws light in every direction — on music and literature; science and philosophy; marriage and motherhood and infidelity; and especially love and the grueling rigors of domestic life. Part elegy and part primal scream, it’s a profound and unexpectedly buoyant performance.
By Lily King
Atlantic Monthly Press, $25.
In 1933, the anthropologist Margaret Mead took a field trip to the Sepik River in New Guinea with her second husband; they met and collaborated with the man who would become her third. King has taken the known details of that actual event and created this exquisite novel, her fourth, about the rewards and disappointments of intellectual ambition and physical desire. The result is an intelligent, sensual tale told with a suitable mix of precision and heat.
By Akhil Sharma
W. W. Norton & Company, $23.95.
Sharma’s austere but moving novel tells the semi-autobiographical story of a family that immigrates from India to Queens, and has just begun to build a new life when the elder son suffers severe brain damage in a swimming pool accident. Deeply unnerving and gorgeously tender, the book chronicles how grief renders the parents unable to cherish and raise their other son; love, it suggests, becomes warped and jagged and even seemingly vanishes in the midst of mourning.
By Phil Klay
The Penguin Press, $26.95.
In this brilliant debut story collection, Klay — a former Marine who served in Iraq — shows what happens when young, heavily armed Americans collide with a fractured and deeply foreign country few of them even remotely understand. Iraq comes across not merely as a theater of war but as a laboratory for the human condition in extremis. The collection is hilarious, biting, whipsawing and sad: the best thing written so far on what the war did to people’s souls.
By Roz Chast
Cartoons, it turns out, are tailor-made for the absurdities of old age, illness and dementia. In Chast’s devastating and sublime graphic memoir, the odd dramas and repetitive minutiae find perfect expression in her signature antic drawings as she describes helping her parents navigate their final years — from packing up their cluttered Brooklyn apartment to getting a seat at the “right” table in the nursing home. No one has perfect parents, and no one can write a perfect book about them. But Chast has come close.
By Eula Biss
Graywolf Press, $24.
In this spellbinding blend of memoir, science journalism and literary criticism, Biss unpacks what the fear of vaccines tells us about larger anxieties involving purity, contamination and interdependency. Deeply researched and anchored in Biss’s own experiences as a new mother, this ferociously intelligent book is itself an inoculation against bad science and superstition, and a reminder that we owe one another our lives.
By Hermione Lee
Alfred A. Knopf, $35.
The life and times of that elusive, original miracle worker, the English novelist and biographer Penelope Fitzgerald, have been brilliantly captured by Lee, previously the author of masterly portraits of Virginia Woolf, Willa Cather and Edith Wharton. Growing up steeped in literature but sidetracked by the vicissitudes of life, Fitzgerald published her first book at 58 and did not become famous until she was 80. But her fiction, when it finally emerged, had a tamped-down force and intense compression, as if the decades-long wait had worked its own clarifying, crystallizing magic.
By Elizabeth Kolbert
Henry Holt & Company, $28.
Kolbert reports from the front lines of the violent collision between civilization and our planet’s ecosystem — from the Great Barrier Reef to her own backyard — in this, her third, book. Traveling to some of the world’s remotest corners, she examines how man-made climate change threatens to eliminate 20 to 50 percent of all living species on earth within this century. This is environmental writing at its most rigorous and richly detailed — and as riveting as any thriller.
By Lawrence Wright
Alfred A. Knopf, $27.95.
In 1978, over 13 days at Camp David, Anwar Sadat, Menachem Begin and Jimmy Carter hammered out a peace agreement between Israel and Egypt that remains the most profound diplomatic achievement to emerge from the Mideast conflict. In a fascinating account of the talks, Wright combines history, politics and, most of all, a gripping drama of three clashing personalities into a tale of constant plot twists and dark humor. He reminds us that Carter’s visionary idealism and doggedness represented an act of surpassing political courage.