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Read All About It

A selection of the best books of 2014

In 2013 the low branches of a majority of holiday trees hid a copy of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch as that book dominated talk and sales. This year’s trees are likely to harbor a much greater diversity of reading choices, as there isn’t that one big title everyone is hearing about and wanting to read. Instead of a dominant buzz, the book world in 2014 has been filled with a lot of excited humming, much of it emanating out the doors of independent bookstores, which specialize in bringing the new, the exciting, the undervalued and the overlooked to the attention of readers everywhere.

A brief overview, then, before we list a few titles Talking Leaves staffers found particularly exciting, compelling, essential—with apologies to all the books, writers and publishers whose work I couldn’t fit in.

From Family Furnishings: Selected Stories (Knopf) by 2013 Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro through newcomer Phil Klay’s Redeployment (Viking), winner of this year’s National Book Award, it’s been an especially good year for fiction and short stories. Acknowledged masters with new books include Richard Ford, Let Me Be Frank with You (Ecco), Marilynn Robinson, Lila (Farrar Straus & Giroux), two time Man-Booker Award winner Hilary Mantel, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher and Other Stories (Holt), and Denis Johnson, Laughing Monsters (Nan Talese).

Mid-career favorites include Lily King, Euphoria (Atlantic), David Mitchell, Bone Clocks (Random House), Tasmanian Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Knopf)—winner of this year’s Man-Booker Prize and Yiyun Li, Kinder Than Solitude (Random House).

Fictioneers just starting out include Laird Hunt, Neverhome (Little Brown), Eimear McBride, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (Coffee House), Cynthia Bond, Ruby (Hogarth), Matthew Thomas, We are not Ourselves (Simon and Schuster).

Well known nonfiction authors with new work include Walter Isaacson, The Innovators (Simon & Schuster), Atul Gawande, Being Mortal (Metropolitan), Greil Marcus, A History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs (Yale), Katha Pollitt, Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights (Picador), Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything (Simon & Schuster) and Rebecca Solnit, Men Explain Things to Me (Haymarket).

French economist Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-first Century (Harvard), was probably the most talked about book of the year and long time New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast’s graphic novel/memoir Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (Bloomsbury) is probably the book on the most top ten and awards lists around the country.

Film, pop culture, music, history, graphic novels, children’s books—we love you too---but I can’t neglect the poets and the local writing scene before moving on to staff choices. Diane DiPrima turned 80 this year and released The Poetry Deal (City Lights) her first collection in decades. Buffalo native Rachel Tzvia Back translated major Israeli poet Tuvia Ruebner (In the Illuminated Dark, Hebrew Union College Press), and poet Pierre Joris released his much-anticipated translation of the later poetry of Paul Celan (Breathturn into Timestead, Farrar Straus & Giroux). Former poet laureate Mark Strand saw the release of his Collected Poems (Knopf) just before he passed away this fall. Claudia Rankine’s amazing Citizen (Graywolf), lost out to her former teacher Louise Gluck’s Faithful and Virtuous Night (Farrar Straus & Giroux) for the National Book Award.

Buffalo poet Carl Dennis released Another Reason (Penguin). Two Buffalo connected nonfiction writers garnered national attention—Matt Higgins for Bird Dreams: Adventures at the Extremes of Human Flight (Penguin Press), and Jake Halpern for Bad Paper: Chasing Debt from Wall Street to the Underworld (Farrar Straus & Giroux), with Buffalo and some Buffalonians at the center of his story. Buffalo State faculty members Ed Taylor and Lou Rera each had a novel published this year by a British publisher (Theo, Old Street Publishing, and Sign, Netherworld Books, respectively). Coffeetown Press in Seattle brought out Buffalo poet Sue Nusbaum’s first book, What We Take with Us. Area presses BlazeVox, Starcherone, and White Pine continued their fine work.

Onward to staff choices, favorites (at least at this moment) from a year of reading and talking:

Alicia Michielli, assistant manager, Talking Leaves Elmwood:

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi (Riverhead)—Adult Fiction

This contemporary imagining of the Snow White tale is a beautifully disturbing, darkly poetic story of family, love, and deception set in 1950’s small-town Massachussetts.

Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley (Harlequin Teen)—Young Adult

This novel of the first integrated high school in 1959 is a vivid reminder of the incredible bravery of the first black students at formerly white schools. This heartbreaking, intense story is told in the alternating voices of Sarah, a Black student struggling for survival at a new school that treats her horribly, and Linda, the privileged, white daughter of a powerful bigot.

Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell (Simon & Schuster)—Middle Grade

The most beautiful middle-grade story of the year! A baby girl, found floating in a cello case after a shipwreck, is raised by Charles, a lovingly eccentric guardian with very unconventional ideas about education. As Sophie grows older, her desire to find her missing mother brings her into contact with the Rooftoppers, a gang of London urchins who show her a whole new world. Set in 19th century England, this book is filled with magic of the best kind.

Tim Denesha, bookseller, Main Street store:

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, Roz Chast (Bloomsbury)

Chast is jarringly honest about herself and her parents during their last years. Occasional sparks of the New Yorker cartoonist’s quirky humor lighten this unique, unsentimental memoir of and quasi-guidebook to the final stage of life.

Lucy Kogler, manager, Talking Leaves Elmwood:

Euphoria, Lily King (Atlantic)

Beautifully written novel imagining (re-imagining) the lives of famous anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson doing fieldwork in New Guinea.

Zone of Interest, Martin Amis (Knopf)

Wonderful and brilliant dissection of a difficult subject, straight to the heart of the Holocaust.

Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, Katha Pollitt (Picador)

An essential book for our time, from the always eloquent Nation columnist.

Jonathon Welch, co-founder Talking Leaves...Books:

Us Conductors, Sean Michaels (Tin House)

Debut novelist comes up with a stunning, and stunningly imagined life of the real life inventor of the Theremin, one of the first electronic instruments—a novel of music, art, love, murder, surveillance, subterfuge, dancing, and more, knit together with graceful and beautiful prose.

The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even, Chris Westbury (Counterpoint)

The title comes from a Marcel Duchamp sculpture, the object of obsessive interest of the two main characters, obsessive compulsive, over-anxious, germophobic friends Isaac and Greg. The novel recounts their road trip in a rented, disinfected Winnebago from Boston to Philadelphia to visit the museum where the sculpture is displayed. Comic, but deeply serious at its core.

An Unnecessary Woman, Rabih Alameddine (Grove Press)

Shortlisted for the National Book Award, narrated by a book-loving 72 year old woman with a past shaped by the Lebanese Civil War, who spends her days translating books from other languages, stashing them in her bathroom where they are never seen or read by anyone. A charming meditation on many things, from aging and politics to loneliness, grief and love—and especially on the transformative power of books and reading.

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