Chris Blattman

My favorite novels of the year

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Yesterday I talked about my favorite book of the year. An autobiography. Here are the novels I liked best, excellent for holiday reading or last-minute stocking stuffers.

To the purists: Please keep in mind that I’m not one of these intellectuals who mysteriously have the time to only read and recommend books published in 2014. Or read all the seemingly best books. Frankly I’m still working on my 1985 catalog. So this is an incomplete, 2014-ish list. I left off anything before 2013. (Sort of. There’s some cheating.)

Books where I’m unabashedly enthusiastic:

  • Every Day Is for the Thief, by Teju Cole. More memoir than novel, by the author who wrote Open City. No exaggeration, this is one of the most interesting and important development books I’ve read. A Nigerian American returns home after a decade, and sees Nigeria’s culture and corruption through half-foreign eyes. Certainly the best account of the émigré experience you’ll find.
  • The Martian, by Andy Weir. Remember that sequence in Apollo 13 when the guys in the space capsule will die if the engineers don’t figure out crazy science solutions with no materials? Now imagine a whole book like that, except it’s one guy, and he’s on Mars. Sounds terrible. Somehow it really works. And I’m not even a science guy. I can imagine engineers having little orgasms as they read this book. (Best part: Kindle edition only $3, as this is actually a self-published book. Warms my heart.)
  • Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel. Like The Road by Cormac Mccarthy, this is a literary post-Apocalyptic novel, set before, during and after a flu outbreak that kills 99% of the population. At the same time, it’s a novel about an aging celebrity who dies naturally before the epidemic. Like most apocalyptic novels, this one gets my neurotic self planning for yet another unlikely contingency. And just when I’ve figured out the perfect thing to do in the event of a zombie pandemic. You think I’m joking.
  • Augustus, by John Williams. A classic, re-released by NYRB, relating the life of Ceasar Augustus through (fictional) letters by his contemporaries. Perfect if you have an appetite for history but you prefer a compelling narrative over true facts. I read it alongside Ides of March, by Thornton Wilder, which takes the same approach to the life of Julius Caesar.
  • The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber. Missionary to the stars. A minister is sent to preach the Good News to a flock of aliens near a mining colony. This has been on a lot of “best books” lists this year, probably because it really does not conform to any particular genre or stereotype, and is a genuinely interesting take on the premise. The same author wrote Under the Skin, which I also recommend.

Good, and will not disappoint:

  • The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell. The first thing everyone says about this book is “by the same guy who wrote Cloud Atlas“. This is your first clue that Cloud Atlas is a better book. This one is similar in its century-spanning, period-jumping, multi-character, genre-twisting way. Entertaining.
  • Subtle Bodies by Norman Rush. So I actually just liked but didn’t love this book. Bunch of unsympathetic rich pompous people in upstate new York. But reading it reminded me how much I loved Rush’s Mating and Whites, maybe the two best novels ever written on foreigners in Africa. I re-read them. Brilliant, satirical, and must-reads for the modern neocolonialist. I mean aid workers. Buy them.
  • All our Names, by Dinaw Mengistu. His third novel, which is very good. I liked it as much as his first, a book that established him as one of the best young writers in the US. This one is the story of two friends living through tumultuous times in Uganda, intermingled with the story of one of the friends, now resettled in Missouri, and his relationship with a white woman in the 1970s. File under “anguished immigrant narratives”. That is not a sneer, but rather the source of some of the best novels of the past 10 years in my view. See for instance Americanah, which was probably my favorite book of 2013, and Teju Cole above.
  • The Circle, by Dave Eggers. The Atlas Shrugged of the anti-NSA, pre-privacy/anonymity crowd. The premise: What happens when you take the Facebook- and Google-ization of life to it’s logical but insane extreme. A bit over-the-top but fun and makes you think.
  • The Golden Hour, by Todd Moss. A spy thriller wherein a professor who does statistical studies of conflict has to race against time to overturn an African coup and right all that is wrong US foreign policy. This is basically a linear combination of George Smiley, Indiana Jones, and me. In my mind at least. So of course I read and liked it.
  • I almost did not add this one, but: The Magicians Trilogy, the latest of which is The Magician’s Land, by Lev Grossman. Imagine if an R-rated, emotionally unstable Harry Potter went to Narnia. That adequately sums up this series. It is a bit campy, but probably satisfying if you have a weakness for Potter and Narnia.

Reader recommendations? I need to restock my Kindle.

24 Responses

  1. Fellow fan of immigrant narratives over here. I’m reading “The Book of Unknown Americans” this week—it’s fantastic so far, would recommend.

  2. oh, and of course my sister’s book! “The Empathy Exams”… on lots of book-of-the-year lists so not simply fraternal pride

  3. Finally got around to reading “Sunset Song” recently – not exactly 2013/2014 vintage but (a) he was pretty modern [aka scandalous] for his time; (b) modern authors have conspicuous trouble writing compellingly about early 20th-century scottish farming villages; (c) $3 on kindle; (d) there is a war so you’ll be happy; and (e) it’s really very good.

  4. I didn’t like Every Day is for the Thief that much… But I really liked Americanah that you recommended at some point.

  5. Three older nonfiction books relevant to this anniversary year: Iron Curtain by Applebaum on the changes in Eastern European satellite states during the 1950s, Stasiland by Anna Funder interviews a bunch of East Germans right after the fall of the wall, and Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman on the first month of World War I. All are fantastic.

    (And you mentioned Part I of My Struggle – the rare book that is a lock to be read 100 years from now. It is incredible.)

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