“So many worthy books, so little space.” I type those words so often. I send them to publicists who fill my inbox with plugs for one title after another on publishers’ lists. I send them to reviewers eager to offer their thoughts on this or that author’s latest effort. I send them to authors themselves—you might be surprised how many—who come right out and ask: Can they hope for any attention in the pages of the Atlantic? The phrase is sometimes a white lie, yet always the truth, too: On the non-digital side of things, we generally have room for only 30 or so book pieces a year in the Culture File. That means an awful lot of notable books go unnoticed by us.
In the holiday spirit, now is a moment to mention an array of 2014 books across the non-fiction and fiction spectrum I wish we hadn’t missed—and to ask their authors to pay it forward, and single out a few books themselves. What recent work has caught their expert eye? What book, however old, helped them write the one they’ve been busy promoting?
Dinaw Mengestu, who has expressed his interest in “adding to the complexity and levels of the immigrant narrative in America,” has done just that in All Our Names. The two voices that speak in his third novel raise haunting questions about identity, loyalty, and the mysteries of intimacy. A young Ethiopian arrives in Uganda for college as revolutionary unrest breaks out, and gets swept up by a fervent comrade in a bloody, bewildering cause. His harrowing tale alternates with its American postlude, narrated by the caseworker who helps him, a refugee, settle in a Midwestern town. Adrift and burned out herself, she knows nothing of his past, and they begin an affair that offers an anchor—as well as reminders of just how alien they are to each other. In the calmest of prose, Mengestu evokes profound displacement.
Dinaw Mengestu: There’s no particular category or genre for books that push against the conventional borders of what constitutes a novel, but I always find myself grateful and perhaps even a bit relieved to find books that resist easy categorization. This year, two particular favorites did just that: Teju Cole’s Everyday is for Thief, and Jenny Offill’s Department of Speculation. Both novels have a restraint that allows the authors to slip in these exquisitely rendered observations on life, love, art that leave you feeling richer and more attuned to your own reality once you’ve finished reading them.
As for my own writing, I’m not sure what All Our Names would have looked like had I not had Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North on my nightstand, in my bag, on my desk. I must have reread it a half dozen times over the past few years, and on each occasion, even if I read only a few pages, I found something like courage, or encouragement, to expand the political reality of my characters, to ask them to take on more than I might otherwise have been comfortable with in a novel.
Dinaw Mengestu teaches at Georgetown University and in the Brooklyn College MFA program.
Walter Isaacson’s The Innovators: How A Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution is a book perfectly matched to its subject. Isaacson briskly spins a wide web of biographies, tracing convergences among many restless minds. Those fruitful linkages helped fueled fast-paced progress. Did you know that “all the programmers who created the first general-purpose computer were women”? This is a book that tells about innovators like them, bonding and learning together in the 1940s, not just about wonky wonderboys past and present.
Walter Isaacson: Two books I enjoyed this year: Steve Johnson's How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World, which tied right into the work I was doing on The Innovators, because it showed that creativity has historically been a collaborative endeavor, and Doris Kearns Goodwin's The Bully Pulpit; Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism (out in paperback this year). Teddy Roosevelt's exuberant approach to the tectonic shifts in the economy and the concentrations of wealth a century ago helped me think about what we need in leaders today.
A formative book for me in writing The Innovators was The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. He was an inventor, innovator, and information networker. It made me realize that we know the history of our American Revolution and the values it spawned, but we know little about the leaders and heroes of the Digital Revolution that is the unfolding history of our generation.
Walter Isaacson is the president and CEO of the Aspen Institute.
Dana Goldstein’s The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession is the product of just what the teaching corps needs more of: open-minded, well-informed, sympathetic scrutiny that doesn’t shrink from exposing systemic problems and doesn’t peddle faddish solutions either. From the push for universal education two centuries ago to the current Race to the Top, Goldstein reveals that teachers have consistently been “both hated and idealized”—she doesn’t mean by their students, but by the rest of us. Any serious effort to improve their jobs, and their performance in them, entails a realistic sense of limits, and this book offers an invaluable guide. Goldstein’s history reminds us that, given our radically decentralized system, what counts isn’t sweeping federal calls for reform. How local schools understand and implement changes makes all the difference.
Dana Goldstein: One of the best books I read this year actually came out in 2013 during the hazy months when I was deep in the fog of finishing the first draft of my own book. Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces is a mash-up of history, policy, and polemic written by Radley Balko, a reporter for The Washington Post. Like my own book, Balko’s excavates the largely forgotten backstory of a profession onto which we, as a society, pin so many of our hopes. From the roots of police SWAT teams in Vietnam War counterinsurgency tactics to the federal incentives that drive the police militarization that shocked the public in the wake of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, this book has deepened my understanding of policing in America.
One of the joys of writing The Teacher Wars was excavating yesterday’s social science on education—and discovering that some of it remains relevant today.
One of those works was Isolation in the School, written in 1900 by Ella Flagg Young, the first woman to lead a major urban school system—Chicago’s. She was also one of the first American intellectuals to conceptualize what we today call the “achievement gap” between poor and middle-class kids. During an era when poor children’s low academic performance was assumed to be a function of their innately inferior IQs, Young understood that hunger, homelessness, large class sizes, and lack of parental assistance with homework were holding poor children back. Yet she never let teachers or schools off the hook—she expected them to strive diligently to help disadvantaged students learn. She argued that urban public schools shortchanged children by de-intellectualizing teaching. In place of rote dependence on textbooks and test prep, she urged teamwork among professionals meeting regularly to study research on how children learn and what curricular approaches work best. Young’s prescient vision for a collaborative, research-driven, creative teacher corps is deeply resonant—and largely unrealized—in 2014.
Dana Goldstein is a staff writer at The Marshall Project.
The last thing Wendy Lesser aims to do in Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books is to create “a museum of approved works.” As she thinks out loud—about character and plot, about novelty and authority, and more—she draws on an eclectic array of books that she loves not just for sentences she’s always eager to return to, but also because they have problems and raise doubts. She expects readers to disagree with her, and hopes they’ll go reconsider—or discover—writers as different as Dostoevsky and James, Alexander Herzen and Patricia Highsmith. “Nothing takes you out of yourself the way a good book does,” Lesser writes, “but at the same time nothing makes you more aware of yourself as a solitary creature, possessing your own particular tastes, memories, associations, belief.” Her own book is invigorating proof of just that.
Wendy Lesser: I’ve read three great new novels in 2014. The first of these was Yiyun Li’s Kinder Than Solitude, her second novel and her fourth work of fiction. This newcomer to English (she migrated here from China as a graduate student in epidemiology) writes better, more interesting prose than just about any of her American contemporaries; in this respect she reminds me of Conrad, who had to transcend his Polish and French to work out each English sentence from scratch, without relying on standard idioms or clichés. The result in both cases is writing that has to be read slowly and carefully, even as it simultaneously conveys movingly realistic human situations: prose that is both a windowpane and a stained-glass window.
Strangely enough, Zia Haider Rahman’s In the Light of What We Know also reminded me of Conrad, but for completely different reasons, having to do with the layers of narrators (there are two) and the contemplative weave of politics and fiction. This ambitious first novel seems to pack into it everything the author knows—mathematics, philosophy, the odd habits of the English, the hidden lives of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, modern economic history, carpentry (I could go on and on)—and yet is it never show-offy. The characters’ complicated lives, which are at the foreground of the book, persuasively justify everything.
The Italian writer Andrea Canobbio’s Three Light-Years is an intense, appealing, beautifully constructed novel about lives that took place before the narrator was born. I was so thrilled by this book that the minute I finished it, I ordered Canobbio’s older novel, The Natural Disorder of Things, which turned out to be equally good. These are the only two in English at the moment (both very ably translated by Anne Milano Appel), but I am hoping for more.
As for a work or works that inspired my own Why I Read: Those too are primarily novels, including the complete works of Charles Dickens, Henry James, Penelope Fitzgerald, Javier Marías, and Haruku Murakami, not to mention all the other authors whose achievements have penetrated my psyche over the years. I did reread E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel before I started writing, to make sure I wasn’t cribbing anything from him, but for the most part I don’t much like to read books about reading—which makes it all the odder that I should have written one myself.
Wendy Lesser is the founder and editor of The Threepenny Review.
Jordan Ellenberg’s How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking would make a great MOOC for the math-phobic among us, but then we’d miss out on his witty and crystal-clear prose. His promise: “Math is like an atomic-powered prosthesis that you attach to your common sense, vastly multiplying its reach and strength.” He shows us how that works, revealing the math at the heart of everyday issues—the obesity epidemic, playing the lottery, confusion about correlation and causation, and much more. Don’t take his title as a sign of smugness: Ellenberg exudes curiosity as he explores math’s power to guide choices, analyses, decisions, predictions—and to help clarify uncertainty. Not the least of math’s gifts is that it “gives us a way of being unsure in a principled way.”
Jordan Ellenberg: A whole generation of mathematicians was raised on Martin Gardner’s column “Mathematical Games,” which ran in Scientific American from the mid-1950s to 1981. Good news: Cambridge University Press has been issuing collections of Gardner’s columns, in handsome new editions including updates that recount mathematical developments in the decades since the pieces originally ran. This year’s book, Knots and Borromean Rings, Rep-Tiles, and Eight Queens, features excursions through plane geometry (how can you cut three squares into six pieces that can be rearranged into a single square? What shape should a drill bit be if you want it to drill a square hole?), number theory (How do you tell whether a number is divisible by 13?), and logical paradox, in the form of one of my all-time favorite Gardner puzzles, “The Unexpected Hanging.”
My mathematical childhood featured lots of Gardner, but the book I returned to the most was a contemporary one, Douglas Hofstadter’s 1979 Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, the first math book to win the Pulitzer Prize and probably the only one that ever will. GEB: EGB was the kind of book you could read again and again, and I did—at first, reading mostly the sections of dialogue between talking animals, but each time getting deeper and deeper into the technical material, until on the ninth or tenth go-round I’d finally grasped it all. And there was a lot to grasp. Hofstadter wasn’t just writing about math; he was writing about the way the mathematical ideas of recursion and encoding were present everywhere, helping make sense out of paintings, fugues, and our minds themselves.
Jordan Ellenberg is the Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor of Mathematics at the University of Wisconsin.
In Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind, Sarah Wildman isn’t only on a quest to discover the fate in Nazi Germany of a young and brilliant woman whose moving letters she finds among her beloved grandfather’s papers after his death—though that quest is fascinating and suspenseful. She also draws narrative drama from wrestling with the genre itself: As she knows, and as the many guides whom she gets help from remind her, the pursuit of family Holocaust “stories that have no ending” has become something of an American staple. Wildman’s prose bristles with ambition and ambivalence, as she challenges the myth of her grandfather’s triumphant odyssey, yet also can’t resist looking (in vain) for a “happy Holocaust story” in the girl left behind.
Sarah Wildman: Especially in light of the news of the last weeks of 2014, I can’t stop thinking about Jesmyn Ward’s The Men We Reaped: A Memoir (out in paperback this year). Ward’s unsparing story of her own childhood and early adulthood is woven into a series of essays on the short, tragic, often violent, trajectories of far too many young African American men in her life, men who disappear with infuriating frequency. Ward gives us the impact on her community, on her sense of self, on her place in the world, on her family. The book becomes a meditation on the value of her own life and the lives of the men themselves.
Midyear I was introduced to the marvelously dark The Girls From Corona Del Mar by Rufi Thorpe. The story tracks the tale of two girls, the choices they make around pregnancy, partnership, and education, and the ways in which the seeds of a childhood friendship produce vines that nearly choke each other out. Thorpe’s brutally honest writing sweeps you in and pulls you under; I read it without stop all night long.
The minute I picked up Molly Antopol’s The UnAmericans, I wanted to know this author of short stories about displaced Jews, in former Soviet States, in Israel, in this country. She has created a memorable collection of melancholic vignettes about identity, place, and coupling.
On a subject close to my own, in Three Minutes in Poland: Discovering a Lost World in a 1938 Family Film, Glenn Kurtz is propelled by the unlikely discovery of a snippet of film, a family vacation movie taken in 1938 by his grandfather: It is the only extant reminder of an extinguished town. Kurtz’s masterful detective work gives the world back a community, a world, that had vanished but for the memory of the very few former neighbors who survived the Nazi apocalypse.
My own multi-year journey in pursuit of the love my grandfather left behind in Nazi-occupied Vienna was inspired, in no small part, by a different war, and a different part of Europe. Years ago, on an plane out of Madrid, I read Javier Cercas’ Soldiers of Salamis, the (fictionalized) story of a journalist who goes in search of a single (true) story of the Spanish Civil War: the unlikely rescue of a high-ranking fascist prisoner in a Republican prison, at the hands of a Republican soldier. Soldiers of Salamis becomes a quest for what makes us human, for the very nature of civilization: for what allows a man (or woman) to see someone as a man, rather than an enemy, for how the past informs our present and our future. Cercas’s novel probes the way the decisions of those who came before us affect our identity today, even when their stories have been long buried, or purposefully suppressed. Cercas was the first in his generation to take head-on the “Pact of Forgetting” that descended upon Spain in 1975 when Franco died. I’m obsessed with this book. It has informed my sense of the place of history in the present ever since.
Sarah Wildman is a frequent contributor to Slate, The New York Times, and The New Yorker.