The Atlantic's editors and writers share their favorite titles—new, classic, or somewhere in between—from a year of reading.
The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War II by Charles Glass
High school seniors this year were in kindergarten when the Twin Towers fell on September 11, 2001. An entire generation of Americans has known nothing but America’s endless commitment to the war on terror, or terrorism, or whatever government officials are now calling our current fight against extremism. Patriotism, jingoism, the glorification of combat, is all these young people have ever known, and it is at a time like this in a nation’s history, especially this nation’s history, when counterviews are essential.
That’s precisely what Charles Glass delivers with his book about deserters in World War II. Glass’s work is a reminder—and it seems we always need one—that war is hell, that it wreaks havoc not just upon the bodies but upon the minds of young men, and that America has traditionally done a terrible job of addressing the psychic trauma of battle. Following three soldiers during World War II, Glass shows us a side of combat the military has tried to hide.
Some young men go to war and act heroically, and others do not. We make celebrities of the former and we sweep the latter under the rug. I have lost track of how many books I have read about World War II, but I had no idea how extensive the problem of desertion in the European theater was or what lengths American and British officials went to thwart it. Glass’s accounts of the battlefield courts-martial are particularly chilling, especially in an age when so many of us are engaged in a debate over the use of military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay. So are Glass’s narratives about the conditions of battle that cause some men to simply walk away from their comrades in arms, and the front lines. Deserters doesn’t glorify the men who stopped fighting the Germans, but it helps explain why they did what they did. And that’s a lesson today’s America would be wise to absorb.
—Andrew Cohen, contributing editor
Tenth of December by George Saunders
A funny thing happened when I read Tenth of December. Lots of funny things, if I'm being honest, although I hesitate to confess how often I laughed at the deadpan horrors concocted by George Saunders, certified genius. It's a kind of laughter I'm ashamed to admit, a nervous chuckle that lives somewhere between empathy and dread. It's the way I would laugh when I was little, if a friend tripped on the playground and scraped his elbows raw. Now I only laugh that way when I read—and it happens every time I read a story written by Saunders.
Tenth of December is peppered with these wicked bouts of comedy, which buttress the grim tales Saunders uses to define his anxieties about class, power, and gratification. "The Semplica Girl Diaries" proposes a culture where the wealthy purchase third-world immigrant girls as lawn decorations, bound together with fine wire pierced through their skulls. "Puppy" bumps a neurotic, well-to-do housewife against a poor mother who chains her mentally ill son to a tree. These stories are not happy. But that doesn't mean they are meant to discourage, either.
Why? Because Saunders excels at a kinder sort of satire. His wit is neither caustic nor cruel, and for all of his concerns about our society, he is no pessimist. He just prefers tough love. Tough as it may be, though, it shines like no other. The simple philosophy of it all appears in "Escape From Spiderhead," an alarming story about a pharmacological prison: "Every human, at birth, is, or at least has the potential to be, beloved of his/her mother/father," he writes. "Thus every human is worthy of love."
In other words: Love each other. Always.
—Chris Heller, associate editor
Don't Point That Thing at Me by Kyril Bonfiglioli
I can’t say with a straight face that this was the best book I read this year – I can’t, in fact, say much of anything with a straight face about this book– but it was the most unexpectedly delightful book I read, the greatest escape. A friend pressed it into my hands; he’d never heard of it before, either, he told me, but he'd devoured it and now I surely would, too. The title is, of course, bizarre, and it seems to tell you nothing, though it turns out to signal the sensibility coiled inside – brisk, superior, decadent (what sort of thing, exactly?), a kind of venomous hybrid of P.G. Wodehouse and Raymond Chandler, both of whom Bonfiglioli invokes. (The author died in 1985; this novel -- forgive me, those seeking a worthy book of 2014 -- was first published in 1972). The story? Well. Our narrator is Charlie Mortdecai, a successful London art dealer, a lover of fine clothes and professional wrestling, a snob about furnishings and sexual positions, a thief and a smuggler. The name Charlie, he suspects, was an act of vengeance by his mother against his father, but Mortdecai he likes: “a touch of ancientry, a hint of Jewry, a whiff of corruption – no collector can resist crossing swords with a dealer called Mortdecai, for God’s sake.” He cheats at Gin Rummy with his landlady, Mrs. Spon; he drinks a good deal; he has a mysteriously sophisticated knowledge of guns and ammunition. He describes his valet, Jock, as “a sort of anti-Jeeves: silent, resourceful, respectful even, when the mood takes him, but sort of drunk all the time, really, and fond of smashing people’s faces in. You can’t run a fine-arts business these days without a thug and Jock is one of the best in the trade.”
Mortdecai may or may not have stolen a Goya – OK, he did steal it – but a secret, sadistic, lawless branch of the British police is onto him, in the person of Martland, a cunning schoolmate of our anti-Bertie. Mortdecai’s plan is to con Martland into giving him a diplomatic passport so that he can ship the Goya, hidden in the roof liner of a restored Silver Ghost Rolls Royce, to a lunatic millionaire named Milton Krampf in the American West. Perfectly sensible, right? Nevertheless, it all works, at least until it doesn’t, and eventually things begin to fall apart, perhaps for Mortdecai -- you'll have to find out for yourself -- but certainly, toward the end, for me. No matter. The man wrote like this (I pick a passage almost at random):
"Mrs. Spon rounded on him and Told Him Off. I had heard of her talents in that direction but had never before been privileged to hear her unlock the word bag. It was a literary and emotional feast: Martland withered visibly. There is no one like your gently nurtured triple-divorcee for really putting the verbal leather in. ‘Wart on the tax-payer’s arse,’ ‘traffic-warden’s catamite,’ and ‘poor man’s Colonel Wigg’ are just a few of the good things she served up but there was more – much more. She swept out at last, in a cloud of ‘Ragazza’ and lovely epithets. She was wearing a suede knickerbocker suit but you’d have sworn she twitched a twelve-foot train of brocade away from Martland as she passed him.
"'Golly,' he said when she’d gone."
Golly, indeed. You'll want to tell your friends, too.
—James Bennet, editor in chief
Songbook by Nick Hornby
Songbook is the essay collection most of us would secretly love to write: a set of musings about our favorite songs. But only a writer like Nick Hornby could pull it off without sounding totally pretentious. His goal isn’t to tell readers what they should think about Paul Westerberg or Ani DiFranco. In fact, the songs themselves are often beside the point. Each one evokes a certain experience or insight, and that’s what he’s writing about—often in the funniest and most self-deprecating way.
In one essay, he describes the challenge of having sex to Santana or Marvin Gaye without laughing. In another, about Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road,” he looks back at the “towns of losers” of his own youth: “Those towns, incidentally, were Cambridge—full of loser doctors and lawyers and academics—and London—full of loser successes of every description.”
But almost every essay has something poignant about it, whether it’s a grass-is-greener look at America or a reflection on mortality and parenthood. At one point, writing about a Rufus Wainwright song, he grapples with the essential mystery of music:
As a writer, I don’t normally have much patience for the ineffable—I ought to think that everything’s effing effable, otherwise what’s the point? But I’m not so sure there are words to describe what happens when two voices mesh .... All I can say is that I can hear things that aren’t there, see and feel things I can’t normally see and feel, and start to realize that, yes, there is such a thing as an immortal soul, or, at the very least, a unifying human consciousness, that our lives are short but have meaning.
Being Nick Hornby, he manages to write all this without sounding preachy. He still doesn’t really believe in God, he assures us, and music probably isn’t going to change that. “I’m not going to listen to stuff like this too often, though,” he adds, “just in case.”
—Jennie Rothenberg Gritz, senior editor
Skippy Dies by Paul Murray
This is a book about an Irish boarding school, I guess. It’s also a book about amateur drug dealing, the troubles with Catholic priesthood, and multidimensional string theory. And love and friendship and, obviously, loss. Skippy does die, after all.
But most of all, it’s a book about “the grim de-dreamification” of life, as author Paul Murray puts it. “Santa Claus was just the tip of the iceberg,” he writes, when it comes to harsh truths.
History teacher Howard the Coward, dissatisfied with his life’s lack of a “narrative arc” and flailing about for meaning in differently destructive ways, is our grown-up stand-in. But the colorful teens that populate the school are getting their first tastes of disappointment, too, their first inklings that they might not be able to mold their lives according to their desires. Self-proclaimed stud Mario’s lucky condom can’t be that lucky if it’s been in his wallet for three years. Or, more heartbreakingly, miserable, overweight genius Ruprecht can’t bring his best friend Skippy back to life. “In the end, you know, it’s our own expectations that crush us.” And how.
I’m making this book sound very sad. And it is, sometimes. But it’s also hilarious, rude, smart, heartwarming, etc., etc., etc. Throw your adjectives at it, and this book will knock them out of the park. It is one million times better than it has any right to be, if you just look at the numbers: a 650-page novel that spans just a couple of months, with chapters narrated by dozens of characters—it should be a rambling snore, or a complete mess. But thanks to Murray’s talent, it’s a kaleidoscope: You can turn it any number of different ways and see a new pattern each time.
—Julie Beck, associate editor
The Measure of Her Powers: An M.F.K. Fisher Reader, edited by Dominique Gioia
“When somebody tells me their favorite food writer is M.F.K. Fisher, I immediately know they are dead inside,” wrote Josh Ozersky at Esquire this summer. I’d amend that slightly: When someone tells me they think M.F.K. Fisher is a “food writer,” I immediately know they are both dead inside and, relatedly, probably haven’t read much M.F.K. Fisher.
Which isn’t to say I don’t get where they’re coming from. When my father gave me a copy of The Measure of Her Powers: An M.F.K. Fisher Reader one Christmas, it languished on the shelf for years, thanks to the soporific title (and the recollection of my father’s previous gift: a 600-page tome on modernism). Fisher’s fans and publishers, The Atlantic included, aren’t always her best advocates—perhaps because if they sold her work the usual way, i.e. by its lurid details, it would sound like a four-decade bi-continental orgy.
Fisher writes about a German who gets off on placing grapeskins on his naked lover’s catatonic body; about visiting a man-eating, STD-giving former schoolmate as a break from her marriage troubles, but finding the friend has turned into a 300-pound lesbian alcoholic who makes a pass at her in a cab; about losing the love of her life; about single motherhood; about despising American housewives’ “dip” craze (“Down, down to hell itself, I said, with dips. Life tasted sweeter.”); about a mountaineering club that seeks out sour-cream fantaisies made by an ancient lady in a far-off village, as if on a fairy-tale quest. And she does it so well you forget she’s been writing all this from the 1940s. Fifty dollars says if Elizabeth Gilbert and Cheryl Strayed got the time machine-assisted drop on Fisher in a dark alley, Fisher would send them away limping.
Reading Fisher is an ideological experience revealed in adjectival preferences (“honest wine”) and unusual obsessions: serving your guests what you damn well please, since it’ll be so good they won’t care—or the sanctity and sexiness of knowing how to order food for yourself, precisely and lavishly. As you puzzle over why an essay about soul mates should focus on fondue, or a story about curry on conviction, you’ll see what this collection shows better than others: The food is a metaphor.
—Heather Horn, senior associate editor
Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut
One far off day, when software and intelligent robots have usurped our jobs and we poor humans are left with little to do but stuff our faces while pondering life’s mysteries and miseries in front of the television, I like to imagine there will be at least one prominent cult dedicated Kurt Vonnegut and the divine revelations contained in his debut novel, Player Piano.
I kid. Mostly. A Vonnegut cult would be sort of amazing, aside from deeply ironic in a way I’m sure he’d appreciate. But the bigger point is that, for a book published in 1952, Player Piano does an eerily good job nailing the anxieties we feel about the future of technology and the economy today—which is why it’s become a go-to literary reference for us notoriously uncultured business and tech writers. Vonnegut imagines a dystopic United States where most jobs have, yes, been taken over by machines, and industry is ruled by an elite clique of over-educated managers and engineers. The economy is centrally planned by a powerful computer named EPICAC XIV. And if your test scores aren’t good enough to get you into college, you’re shuffled off to the army or a mostly useless public-works crew known as the Reeks and Wrecks.
Aside from the socialist overtones (in Vonnegut's world, the government passes a tax on machines to pay for public welfare programs, which is a concept I somehow doubt would make it through today’s Congress) it’s a future that at least a few economists think is frighteningly near.
Which is partly just a sign of how old these fears really are. We’ve been worrying about technology stealing our jobs since the Luddites started smashing looms. Vonnegut, for his part, wrote the book after seeing how General Electric had begun replacing its factory workers with punch-card operated machines. But I wouldn’t be recommending Player Piano if it were just a maybe-prescient piece of retro-futurism. The book is also a hilarious, thoughtful, and humane meditation on the meaning of work, petty office politics, inequality, class resentment, midlife crises, bad marriages, and college football. So go read it—you know, before we’re living it.
—Jordan Weissmann, senior associate editor
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling
It’s been more than 15 years since Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was first released in the U.S.—and for many young people, including me, Harry’s subsequent years’ worth of adventures blur inextricably with our own childhood memories. So this year, when I revisited Harry’s first year at Hogwarts, it was like revisiting an album of my own baby pictures: both sentimental and startling.
First, of course, I was delighted all over again by all the tiny, enchanting details that have eroded from my memories of Harry Potter over time—in the same way the “Dad, you wore that to the hospital when I was born? Nana anxiously munched through how many bags of peanut M&Ms in the waiting room?” kinds of minutiae fade out from oft-retold family stories. For instance: When Hagrid arrives at Harry’s home on his 11th birthday and changes his life forever, he brings Harry a “slightly squashed” chocolate cake with “Happy Birthday Harry” written in green frosting—and later, it seems, he ends up eating it himself. And when Albus Dumbledore first explains why wizards shouldn’t be afraid to utter Voldemort’s name, he does so distractedly, his attention focused instead on unsticking a pair of lemon drop candies.
But then, as is inevitable when you reflect as an adult on your own childhood, I found that suddenly the grown-ups in the story had a point of view—it’s like that moment you first recognize the barely veiled terror in your young parents’ eyes as they posed, smiling, outside their front door the day they first brought you home from the hospital. Even the most evil of the seemingly evil adults of Sorcerer’s Stone (like Professor Snape, or Petunia and Vernon Dursley), it turns out, aren’t wicked so much as frightened and protective, and rightly so: The wizarding world, like the real one, is a scarier place than the younger characters even realize. But all these years later, I discovered, Harry Potter's world is still worth returning to—not least to marvel at J.K. Rowling’s ability to tell a children’s story wise, earnest, and complex enough to grow up with its readers.
—Ashley Fetters, associate editor
The Brothers by Stephen Kinzer
If you want to understand America’s place in the world today—from Iran’s deep distrust of U.S. intentions, to Latin America’s brand of populist anti-Americanism, to the American public’s fatigue with military interventions overseas—you need to understand John Foster and Allen Dulles, arguably the two most powerful brothers our country has ever produced. And you can’t fully appreciate the Dulles brothers without reading Stephen Kinzer’s The Brothers, which chronicles how Foster and Allen—the heads of the State Department and CIA, respectively—waged an audacious anti-communist shadow war in countries ranging from Guatemala to Iran to Vietnam during the 1950s, a period in U.S. history that we tend to think of as relatively peaceful.
Maybe the only thing more remarkable than the fact that these siblings could, with a terse phone call or casual lunch meeting, wield so much influence over overt and covert foreign policy is the fact that the two men have been so utterly forgotten in the years since their larger-than-life exploits. (In one telling scene, Kinzer tells the story of tracking down a bust of Foster at Dulles International Airport in Virginia, only to find it stuffed in a storage room opposite Baggage Claim Carousel 3.)
The Brothers restores Foster and Allen to their rightful place in the pantheon of America’s most influential statesmen while making a larger point about the extent to which individuals, rather than faceless bureaucracies or grand strategies, shape the conduct of international affairs. Would the U.S. have toppled Guatemala’s president if Foster had taken a post on the Supreme Court in 1953 rather than staying on as Secretary of State? Would the CIA have engineered a coup in Iran that same year had the Dulles brothers, both longtime corporate lawyers, been less worked up about the threat nationalism in Tehran posed to American corporations? Kinzer’s book encourages readers to appreciate not just modern-day geopolitics, but also the outsized role the people who climb to the highest rungs of power have in molding it.
—Uri Friedman, senior associate editor
Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls by David Sedaris
Some readers were shocked to learn that essayist David Sedaris allegedly made up characters and scenarios in his best-selling memoirs, rendering his tales simply “realish.” But frankly, with Sedaris, we probably couldn’t handle the whole truth.
Unlike in his earlier novels, which largely focus on his misspent youth, Sedaris’s Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls heavily features anecdotes about his modern life, interspersed with obviously made-up rants written in the voices of outlandish characters. But if Sedaris didn’t make out his day-to-day existence to be more awkward than it likely is, we’d all be too jealous of it to enjoy his books. Who wouldn’t, after all, want to travel around Europe with their partner, living semi-lavishly while doing what appears to be very little work?
But Sedaris’s neuroses and misadventures make his success seem relatable, and even unappealing at times. As someone who covers American healthcare and has experienced the no-frills European healthcare system, I particularly enjoyed his descriptions of French doctors. After Sedaris asks one physician why he’s so sure that an ominous-looking fatty tumor won’t grow much in size, he responds, “I don’t know. Why don’t trees touch the sky?” (American doctors are, I suppose, too wary of lawsuits to be so droll.)
Pushkin said, “The illusion which exalts us is dearer to us than ten thousand truths.” Sedaris’s hilarious yarns may be partially fake, but after reading several books full of them, they’re still dear to me.
—Olga Khazan, associate editor
Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails From Milan to Palermo by Tim Parks
In June, a friend and I took a trip to Italy. Well, to Rome, really, as we only managed to leave the city for two of our 21 days there. Not that we didn’t try to go other places—we spent the entirety of one day in Rome’s main train station, attempting to book tickets for a journey through Ferrara to Venice and back—but a tight budget and the idiosyncrasies of the Italian railway system, in collusion, make a powerful impediment.
This is a truth that Tim Parks understands well. For years, he mega-commuted from his home in Verona to a teaching gig in Milan, taking notes as he went. In Italian Ways, his memoir of those years spent “on and off the rails from Milan to Palermo,” Parks nimbly—and often hilariously—details the tangle of social absurdities that one encounters on the peninsula, especially when traveling by train. A man cuts a long line to the ticket booth, where dozens of early-morning travelers are waiting impatiently, and Parks sees what goes unsaid: “Nobody shouts. There is a slow, simmering resentment, as if the people who have behaved properly are grimly pleased to get confirmation that good citizenship is always futile, a kind of martyrdom ... It is a feeling that will justify some bad behavior at the appropriate moment.” Parks’s gift lies in his ability to give shape to this sort of unspoken truth—things you sensed, but could never pin down. Yet unlike many foreign observers of Italy, whenever he gripes about his quasi-compatriots and their Italian ways, he does so with an underlying respect for them.
I say “quasi-compatriots” because Parks often laments his inability to truly blend in, despite his having lived in Italy for 32 years. But his foreignness allows him the distance to see the complicated psyche of a country known for its contradictions. The book is an examination of his relationship with the railways—and through the railways, he finds the story of Italy itself.
—William Brennan, associate editor
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
"These days are perfect.
The clear untroubled light picks out
Each berry shimmering in a hedge.
Each leaf of tree,
The sun behind it,
Hangs like a golden pear.
Riding westward in high summer,
We have dipped in sylvan chases
And crested the downs,
Emerging into that high country where,
Even across two counties,
You can sense the shifting presence of the sea.
In this part of England
Our forefathers the giants
Left their earthworks,
Their barrows and standing stones.
We still have, every Englishman and woman,
Some drops of giant blood in our veins."
This would probably appear to be an astonishingly beautiful poem by a 17th-century author about riding a horse through the ancient English countryside—if it were a poem. But it's not a poem. It's just one random paragraph in Bring Up the Bodies that I copied and added line breaks. The book, which follows the rise of Thomas Cromwell in the 16th-century English court and the fall of Anne Boleyn, is adorned with passages like this one. Hilary Mantel is a perfect, shimmering, golden presence, and her book has giant blood in its veins.
—Derek Thompson, senior editor
The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo & Rose by Alice Munro
Surely Alice Munro is our most perfect writer.
Praise for her work often has a defensive cast: “Yes, she only writes short stories, but...” or “Yes, her stories are all about the private lives of isolated Canadian women, but...” None of this throat-clearing, which wrongly implies that Munro’s work is somehow good in spite of itself, is necessary. Nor do her stories have the timidity or inertia some of these descriptions suggest; they have a boldness and vigor as ostentatious as a diamond. Reading Munro, you have the thrilling sense of being in the hands of a master, something I first felt when I read Dubliners.
Having read a few newer Munro collections and a lot of her stories published in The New Yorker over the years—an experience that is frequently so shattering that I cannot read anything else for at least a day—I dug into the Munro back catalogue this year, picking up The Beggar Maid, published in 1978. (It is the fourth of Munro’s 14 collections.) The stories in this volume are an intertwined series of vignettes about a girl named Rose, from her isolated, impoverished childhood through her marriage, divorce, successful broadcasting career, and eventual homecoming. Though the plotting is not as artful as Munro’s mature work, there is a rawness to these early stories that is invigorating. Then as now, each delivers an electric and unsettling jolt of the human condition.
—Molly Ball, staff writer
The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
I’m about half a decade too late to the moral brawl over The Golden Compass. When it was made into a movie in 2007, religious and secular groups alike criticized the adaptation, citing concerns about censorship and a supposedly anti-Catholic message.
But when I re-read the book earlier this year, I found its little details much more compelling than any religious meta-narratives. On my first look, long ago, fourth-grader me didn’t notice the compelling metaphysical questions the world of the book raises. Several characters are “experimental theologians” who use “philosophical apparatuses” to gather data—about the essential nature of the universe. The main character, Lyra, wields a tricked-out compass to divine answers to any question she asks, as if all “truth” is a static thing that can be deciphered with a machine. The book’s main source of mystery, something called “dust,” is most curious of all: It’s the ambiguous embodiment of either good or evil (depending on whom you’re talking to), and it’s physical, measurable, concrete.
All of which makes the “real world” (if I dare use such a loaded term in a short, vaguely philosophical blurb) more fascinating by comparison. Lyra’s world seems both less and more “advanced” than ours—less, because of the scholarly fascination with measuring God, and more, because these people have calculated the essential nature of the universe. The Golden Compass is a twisting, splendid argument for the re-enchantment of the world: When science, magic, and metaphysics collide, only adventure can ensue.
—Emma Green, associate editor
The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
You don’t need to be a veteran of artsy sleep-away camps to appreciate Meg Wolitzer’s ninth novel, because the lesson of The Interestings isn’t that the treasured places of youth shape our formative years—it’s that the people around us do.
Over the course of four decades and 480 pages—save this book for a long, empty weekend—six teenagers who meet at a gifted-youth camp in 1974 grow up to be much more than Breakfast Club-esque archetypes: The handsome, charismatic Goodman and his aspiring-actress sister Ash brim with potential. Cathy’s dance career is threatened by her developing curves, while the quiet, closeted musician Jonah is haunted by his folk-singer mother’s poisonous entourage. Most curious of the bunch are Ethan, the “unusually ugly” animator who later strikes it rich, and Jules, the plain protagonist who enters their orbit the night they christen themselves “The Interestings.”
Together, the gang witnesses the Watergate scandal, the AIDS crisis, and 9/11. The friends fall in and out of touch, and in and out of love; some achieve greatness, while others fail miserably. The Interestings touches on how these relationships survive, but it spends more time exploring the forces that threaten to pull them apart: envy, class differences, illness, sexual assault. Jumping back and forth in time and perspective, Wolitzer holds an unforgiving magnifying glass up to their cruelest thoughts and their oh-so-human bodies—seriously, this book offers anatomical descriptions that are hilarious, cringe-worthy, unforgettable, and totally apt all at once. Grief, trauma, and longing are plentiful here, but Wolitzer manages to uncover simple yet revelatory truths about what it means to live a fulfilling—and, yes, interesting—life.
—Nolan Feeney, editorial fellow
Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York, edited by Sari Botton
In 1968, Joan Didion wrote Slouching Towards Bethelem—a collection of essays including the now seminal “Goodbye to All That.” That essay’s premise: Young writer falls madly in love with New York City. Young writer falls madly out of love with New York City, moves to the West Coast and pretends that was the plan all along. The classic quarter-life crisis.
In 2013, I, too, left New York City. And perhaps in an effort to justify a choice I never imagined making, I indulged hard and fast in the flood of trendy “why I left New York” essays. Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York, which takes its title from the original Didion, was just the ticket. Edited by The Rumpus columnist Sari Botton, GTAT consists of 28 funny and poignant essays by 28 female one-time New Yorkers. Each one angles in on the distinct yet ever-so typical expectations of New York's young creative class and the specific heartbreak that comes with realizing you’ve had your fill of the drafty walkups, dangerously overcrowded subway platforms, $18 cocktails, and Brooklyn-phobic taxi drivers. There are only so many times one can cut an agonizingly exorbitant rent check to a guy in orange-tinted aviators and a Members Only jacket before Pittsburgh starts looking like the next Williamsburg.
From the practical (Meghan Daum’s 1999 New Yorker essay on the manic urban debtor), to the dreamy (Roxane Gay’s reflections on that unattainable Manhattan-literati glamour), to the comically macabre (Cheryl Strayed on casual daytime stabbings in the West Village), the writers Botton has brought together capture this oppressive, sacred fatigue with stylish humor. And yet, even if you’ve never lived it, you might find yourself missing “all that.” Just a little.
—Jake Flanagin, editorial fellow
Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss
Salt Sugar Fat brings to mind watching something catastrophic happening in slow motion: It’s frightening and there’s nothing you can do to stop it, but in its own odd, grotesque way, it’s compelling.
Most recent books on the food industry and the state of the American diet share in the grotesqueness; unfortunately, they tend more toward the boring than the riveting. Fortunately, Moss does an excellent job of edifying (and perhaps disgusting) his readers while not boring them to death. He presents a thoroughly researched account of the food industry, encompassing both the politics and the science that factor in. Of particular note is his discussion of how the processed food industry of today emulates the tobacco industry of the mid-20th century: by profiting from the strategies of some of the same executives and the desires of heavy users.
Salt Sugar Fat also could have been yet another manifesto against the evils of “big food.” But instead, Moss takes a far more unique look at the science behind what makes processed food so alluring, going into great detail on experiments conducted by food researchers to optimize the desirability of food. Commonly mentioned is the “bliss point,” borrowed from economics and applied to food to denote the ideal quantities of sugar, salt, and fat needed to make a product as irresistible as possible.
In the view of society that Moss reveals, food is distant from health, nutrition, and humans. It is a product, like a mobile phone or a pair of shoe—studied, engineered, mass produced, and sold for profit.
—Marie Sbrocca, product fellow
The Passage to Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert Caro
Robert Caro expects to publish his fifth and final volume on the life of Lyndon Johnson in 2015 or 2016, some four decades after he began his research on the legendary Senate leader and 36th president. Caro’s first book on LBJ, The Path to Power, covered Johnson’s childhood in Texas Hill Country through his failed bid for a Senate seat in 1941, when he was 33 years old. The Passage of Power, the fourth volume, covers 1958 to 1963. To me, it’s the most engrossing so far because it shows Johnson both at his lowest and at his most commanding.
This volume opens with LBJ waffling over whether to run for president in 1960. He talks privately to friends and aides as if he will announce his candidacy, but he can’t commit. By the time he declares in July 1960, it’s too late. John F. Kennedy is nominated and LBJ, in a deal aimed at sewing up the South, is named his running mate, a decision that infuriates Robert Kennedy, who tries to get LBJ to withdraw. After chronicling the general election in which Kennedy-Johnson defeats Nixon-Lodge, Caro divides the rest of the book into two broad storylines: the Kennedy team heaping indignities on Vice President Johnson (they deny him any substantive role and dismiss him as a whiny hillbilly whom they nickname “Rufus Cornpone”); and Johnson’s assumption of the White House in the weeks after Dallas, in late 1963, with a display of leadership and confidence that makes it hard to recognize the shattered man of just a few months earlier.
When the newly sworn-in Johnson is advised not to use the political capital he’d acquired after the assassination on a hopeless cause like civil rights, Johnson bridles: “Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?” History tells us how LBJ answered that question, but to be safe, we should wait for Caro’s version. Bring on Volume Five.
—Bob Cohn, editor, The Atlantic digital
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain
The literature of war is memorable for what it shows about the battlefield, but also for what it reveals about the connections and disconnections between combat and civilian life. For me, for instance, the most moving part of All Quiet on the Western Front is when the soldier victim-protagonist, Paul, receives a brief furlough to his home village and realizes he no longer has anything in common with people not exposed to the slaughterhouse of trench warfare. Other obvious examples: Cold Mountain, with its Confederate deserter finding his way through the war-battered South; or Catch-22, in which brutal combat alternates with shameless hucksterism; or the scenes from Apocalypse Now in which a helicopter load of Playboy Playmates is taken into the boondocks to entertain the troops.
In tone, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which came out in 2012, is both comic (like Catch-22) and surreal (like the upcountry scenes in Apocalypse Now). And to me, it stands as the best-yet literary representation not of the combat side of the Iraq War but of the “Chickenhawk Nation” America that sent a tiny fraction of its people off to war and congratulated itself on saying “Thank you for your service.” (By the way: David Finkel’s book of that name is also very good.) Ben Fountain’s novel turns on a halftime ceremony on a Thanksgiving Day Dallas Cowboys game, honoring a group of soldiers who survived an Iraq firefight caught on a Fox News video. It’s short, funny, and piercing—and I predict that years from now, people will read it to understand our times.
—James Fallows, national correspondent
The Stench of Honolulu: A Tropical Adventure by Jack Handey
Jack Handey finally wrote a novel this year. It's called The Stench of Honolulu, and it's amazing.
Handey has written Shouts & Murmurs for The New Yorker for years, but perhaps most famously, he did Deep Thoughts on SNL in the 1990s (and also created the characters Toonces the Driving Cat and Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer). In The Stench of Honolulu he takes "the Deep Thoughts character"—who never had a real name, and was often incorrectly taken to be Handey himself, but had a clear, simple, borderline psychopathic perspective—and wrote him into an absurd longform narrative wherein he unwittingly destroys the city of Honolulu. That conceit could easily have gotten old after a few pages, but never does; Handey is uniquely able to take non-topical, apolitical, timeless absurdism in simple sentences of unadorned language, and put me in tears. I read it out loud with my girlfriend this summer, passing it back and forth when we couldn't read through the laughing.
The things Handey was writing in the 1990s would be loved on Twitter today, but he doesn't even tweet. He opted out of much press touring this summer because he said he doesn't enjoy New York in the summer. Even through the eyes of the Deep Thoughts character, you can tell Handey sees the world in that beautiful, "I'm not trying to to impress you, I just like making jokes, and I'd be writing this to amuse myself even if you weren't reading" kind of way.
—James Hamblin, senior editor
Smarter Than You Think by Clive Thompson
What does it mean to be smart? The answer will vary according not just to who's doing the answering, but also to where—and when—they're doing it. What human intelligence looks like today is different, slightly, from what human intelligence looked like in the 20th century. Or the 19th. Or the ninth. And that's in part because of technology: Part of what it means to live in a world mediated by tools—which is to say, part of what it means to be human—is to participate in a kind of transactional relationship between mind and machine. As our tools change, so do we.
Smarter Than You Think, the first book from the (very, very smart) journalist Clive Thompson, explores that idea with a focus on the digital technologies that are, in ways both obvious and subtle, augmenting our intellect. The book is, on the one hand, an answer to the anxieties (neuroplasticity! amateurism! population-wide ADD!) that tend to accompany those new tools: It offers a sweeping survey of human innovation whose upshot is, essentially, it has always been thus. "For eons," Thompson writes, "people have fought back against the fabrications of memory by using external aids." On the other hand, though, Smarter Than You Think is speculative nonfiction—a map of "our cognitive future" that tracks where our new tools might be taking us. What do products of networked intelligence like Wikipedia mean for the way we codify knowledge? How should the development of the ultimate outsourced brain, the searchable Internet, change the way we approach formal education? How will our newfound ability to measure ourselves—the steps we take, the calories we burn, the number and variety of interactions we have with friends and family—change the way we relate to the world?
Thompson, being a journalist rather than a futurist, doesn't offer prescription or prediction. Instead, he takes the data he's assembled in his extensive research and reporting, ranging from the musings of Socrates to the doings of Watson to the revelations of the "Cute Cat Theory of the Internet," and offers a compelling case for optimism. We're not getting dumber. We're getting smarter. Or, at least, we're getting smarter than we think.
—Megan Garber, staff writer
S. by J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst
S. is a turducken of a book: The baseline text is a made-up 1948 novel by a mysterious author named V.M. Straka, whose writing is footnoted by a made-up editor named F.X. Caldeira—both of whose writings are being scrutinized by two made-up college students writing (and getting to know each other) in the margins. (In other words, every layer of S. is fictionalized.) What's more, slotted between the book’s pages are the physical traces of the college students’ quest to uncover Straka’s true identity: postcards, yellowed old xeroxes, a scribbled-on napkin.
I’ll be honest: I’ve only read 50 of S.’s 500 pages, and that’s all I needed to declare it my favorite book this year. But to be more precise, I’ve read 10 percent of the pages and one fake newspaper clipping, one handwritten note, and a whole lot of marginalia. I’ll concede that the book’s concept is a little over-the-top, but as a recovering Lost fan (R.I.P. logical continuity, circa Season 4), I had to give J.J. Abrams another shot. Now, I’m having so much fun that I’m taking a slow-cooker approach, permitting myself to pick it up for a few minutes whenever I feel like it, with plans to finish it over a couple of months. At a time when print’s obsolescence is more or less agreed-upon, it’s refreshing to pick up something that makes good use of the technology known as paper. With all of the pleasant tchotchkes it contains, S. is more tactile than a touch screen—and, might I add, doesn't receive any push notifications.
—Joe Pinsker, editorial fellow
The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee
Most books are "not for everyone." You know: “This one” won’t do if you love dense plots and lavish sentences, and “that one” must be skipped if you aren’t in the Jane Austen Book Club. But an allegory is an exceptionally unfriendly kind of story. It says, I am only for a very few people. The people who can understand why so-and-so is called what’s-his-name, who can decipher what the pregnant dialogue in Chapter One is really talking about.
I’m sure there are (a few) people who have read J.M. Coetzee’s latest novel in this way, and would recommend it to you on many merits that I can only fuzzily begin to discuss. But you don’t have to read The Childhood of Jesus this way—because it is an unusually friendly allegory. It is the story of a boy named David (not Jesus!), who has arrived in Spain with no real parents, no real memory of his past, and no particular claim on the future except the strength of his very precocious mind.
Much of David’s life is strange, in the style of utopian fiction (cue the allegory experts). With the help of his guardian Simon, he identifies a perfect stranger as his “one and only mother,” and quickly becomes inseparable from her, her enormous German Shepherd, and the various shady men that come in and out of her life. And yet much of David’s saga is perfectly modern. He becomes a perennial troublemaker in his first-grade classroom, and the school’s psychologist intervenes. Her pedagogy is written right alongside the weighty political and religious philosophy that occupies much of the book, but it sounds as if it has been lifted from a contemporary parenting book: David might be dyslexic, she concludes, and at the very least is suffering from a dislocation that causes him to “retreat into a fantasy world where he feels more in control.”
What bridges these two tonal registers is David himself. His character is both uniquely and universally profound. In one moment, he is like no child to have ever existed. In the next moment, he captures perfectly the essence of all children, everywhere. His is a story, in short, that will confuse you constantly, even as it resonates deeply. I highly recommend the combination.
—Clare Sestanovich, editorial fellow
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt is not a perfect book. Its pacing is off at several points—I found myself wanting to skip past pages of exposition so I could finally find out what happens next. The ending is not quite satisfying; it almost feels unfinished, as it leaves one of the central questions of the story unanswered.
But the novel's vivid, absorbing world makes up for its deficiencies. The characters and places Tartt creates are beautifully, poignantly real. The book opens in uptown Manhattan, where a boy named Theo and his mother are spending the morning at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I could picture their every move in my mind: hailing a taxi at their apartment, getting out near Central Park, running into the museum to escape the rain, wandering through the galleries. I grew up in New York, so at first I thought Tartt's descriptions seemed so rich simply because I know the city so well myself. But later, Tartt takes Theo to Las Vegas and then to Amsterdam—places with which I'm much less familiar—and again I felt transported. If you set me down in Nevada today, I could pick out the house where Theo and his dad live after Theo's mom dies.
The characters, too, are wonderfully alive: the grieving Theo, his manipulative father, his charming best friend, the beautiful girl of his dreams. The Goldfinch succeeds where so many books fail: in making the reader feel that she's living the story right along with the characters.
—Eleanor Barkhorn, senior associate editor
The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad
One way to think about Jamil Ahmad’s The Wandering Falcon is as Pakistan’s version of The Kite Runner, but way better. Both books by first-time authors, and like Khaled Hosseini’s breakout hit, this is a rare glimpse of a faraway land most readers won’t ever get close to. Despite its growing global importance (think drone strikes and Abbottabad), Pakistan remains obscure. Unlike Iraq and Afghanistan, tens of thousands of American troops and workers and journalists haven’t passed through in the last decade, keeping it out of sight. That’s especially true of the remote Federally Administered Tribal Areas, stronghold of the Pakistani Taliban.
Octogenarian Ahmad spent nearly half a century as a government bureaucrat in the FATA before publishing this book, a collection of interrelated short stories-cum-novel. The culture Ahmad depicts is just as brutally violent, both emotionally and physically, as one might expect. But it’s not a religiously motivated Islamist brutality—it’s more primordial, more visceral.
The Wandering Falcon is more like a Western than anything else: The title character, a mysterious man with a hidden past, moves quietly but consequentially through forbidding, stark, halfway-lawless landscapes. This is a place where tribalism and force seem to govern. But Ahmad’s stories are about how human beings deal with impossible situations; tribalism and force are just a background. What makes The Wandering Falcon powerful is an unadorned style that avoids saccharine sentimentality on one hand and the risk of subsuming its characters into faceless, centuries-old Orientalist archetypes on the other. Instead, Ahmad—like his protagonist—manages to stay on the narrow of path of being humane.
—David A. Graham, senior associate editor
Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas by Natasha Dow Schüll
Two books stand out among everything I read this year. The first you know: Thomas Pynchon's Bleeding Edge. The second, you probably don't: Natasha Dow Schüll's Addiction by Design. Since you can read a definitive review of Pynchon's novel by David Auerbach in The American Reader, I'll focus my comments here on Addiction by Design.
Schüll is an anthropologist at MIT, and she studies people in extreme artificial environments—namely, Las Vegas casinos. She looks at how the gambling companies engineer behaviors as they simultaneously create and satisfy human desires. The core of her critique is that "giving people what they want" is never as simple as it seems. And the new tools of the digital age (machines, data, algorithms, interfaces) make a level of emotional precision possible that just did not exist in the analog era.
Her work shows that "what people want" out of a slot machine is not the payout, but the experience of receiving feedback. Players call the altered mental state that the slot machines induce The Zone, where everything but the machine disappears. And companies have gotten much, much better that delivering people there faster and holding them there longer.
Though her book is nominally about the development of digital slots, the implications of her work reach into every interaction we have with an engineered artificially intelligent system like Facebook or Netflix or (soon) your car or home. These systems train humans with imperfect, fast payouts that leave us wanting more. They can create what I call "coercive loops," that begin with an intent (see a friend's baby pictures) outside the machine's world, but quickly begin to operate on the machine's logic (click more pictures!).
If books can be tools, Addiction by Design is one of the foundational artifacts for understanding the digital age—a lever, perhaps, to pry ourselves from the grasp of the coercive loops that now surround us.
—Alexis C. Madrigal, senior editor
The Unwinding by George Packer
Of all the excellent books I’ve read about the Iraq War, George Packer’s The Assassin’s Gate, with its portraits of Iraqis affected by the crisis, lingered with me the most. But in this year’s magnificent The Unwinding, Packer trains his eye on subjects far closer to home—here, in the present-day United States.
The Unwinding concerns how the central bargain that once underpinned American life—that people who worked hard and played by the rules would get ahead—has unraveled over the past four decades. But rather than offer an explanation, Packer instead tells his story through the narratives of real Americans.
Who are the people who best epitomize our new, uncertain nation? There’s Tammy Thomas, a laid-off factory worker from Youngstown, Ohio, who finds new purpose as a community organizer. There’s Dean Price, a serial entrepreneur who embraces biofuels—and Obama—only to be disappointed. There’s Peter Thiel, an IT billionaire disillusioned with his field’s vacuousness. There’s Jeff Connaughton, a career-long aide to Joseph Biden who grows to resent Wall Street’s dominance over politics. Then there’s a character that isn’t a person at all: the city of Tampa, where the foreclosure crisis was most acute.
Packer weaves together stories of these five characters throughout the book, interspersing their narrative with news headlines from the last 30 years and biographical sketches of familiar figures like Oprah Winfrey, Sam Walton, and Alice Waters. And while some have criticized Packer’s book for not pairing these narratives with detached analysis, Packer wisely chose to let his characters speak for him. Their stories, after all, are ours too.
—Matt Schiavenza, associate editor
The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman
In M. L. Stedman's The Light Between Oceans—set in western Australia in the aftermath of the First World War—emotionally shell-shocked veteran Tom Sherbourne finds peace (or at least some calm) working as a lighthouse keeper. After living through four years of war, Tom is relieved to have order, rules, and purpose returned to his life. But on his way to his new post at Janus Rock, a lighthouse on an island miles from shore, his plans for a solitary existence are disrupted when he meets the spirited and impetuous Isabel Graysmark. Isabel, who also experienced the brutality of the war when her two brothers died, sees Tom, to his surprise, as her chance for love and new life—she promptly proposes and moves to his lighthouse post.
If the world were a kinder and more just place, Tom and Isabel would live their life together as happily as they did in the first months of their marriage, but Isabel's hopes for a family are replaced with grief as she repeatedly miscarries. When one day a boat drifts ashore with a dead man and a wailing baby inside, Isabel convinces Tom that they should not report the boat and should claim the baby as their own—a decision that returns Tom to the moral murkiness of the war, and leads eventually to dreadful consequences. I started to read this tragic, beautifully written book one morning and didn't put it down until I had finished it late that night.
—Eleanor Smith, senior associate editor
Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin by Jill Lepore
In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf invented a bold and poetically brilliant sister for Shakespeare, and then spun out her grim fate: Judith escaped home at 17, only to commit suicide upon finding herself pregnant after being seduced by an actor. In this year’s Book of Ages, Jill Lepore tells a true story to top that tragic parable of gender-skewed destinies: Jane Franklin, who thought of her big brother Ben as her “Second Self,” married a ne’er-do-well at 15. Stuck in the same dark house where she’d grown up, she proceeded to watch child after child (she had 12 in all) die, or go astray, or sicken. But Jane also went on to write letter after letter to the soul mate of her childhood, who had been her fond tutor before he ran away from home at 17. Off making his heroic, independent way in the world, Ben Franklin always—or almost always—wrote her back.
Jane kept his letters, guarding them with care. Many of her letters were lost, and Lepore has to scrounge for facts that shed light on a life as obscure as Benjamin’s was renowned. The result is a one-of-a-kind biography, which also offers an upstairs-downstairs vision of colonial turmoil, along with astute insights into the challenges of writing history—all without losing sight of Jane. “I think there was hardly Ever so unfourtunate a Famely,” she wrote her brother of her travails. At the same time, Lepore’s bracingly vigorous account reveals a Jane who never ceased to consider herself an unusually lucky sister. Don’t be “too Difident,” Benjamin had urged her early on. She took the counsel to heart, venturing ever bolder opinions the older she got, and trying to read everything he wrote. Or almost everything: Lepore can’t say for sure that Jane, who outlived her brother by four years, ever saw the version of Franklin’s memoirs that began circulating shortly after his death in 1790. If she did, she wouldn’t have found herself anywhere in it.
—Ann Hulbert, senior editor, books and culture
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
It’s hard to describe The Night Circus without using words like dazzling, mesmerizing, or enchanting. I read it after a long fantasy-novel dry spell, so I might have been especially susceptible to the book’s precious Victorian imagery. There’s an incredible description of a giant black-and-white clock with clouds and stars that drift across its morphing face. A game of chess is played out in one corner. A princess paces in another. At the center, is a juggler that slings one extra ball every hour. The clock is so elaborate that it’s easy to forget it has a specific function, and that’s kind of what this book is like as a whole.
The plot is tied loosely to The Tempest and features a large cast of characters whose individual stories add color when they don’t bog down the main narrative. And the most evocative setting, a highbrow circus with mysteriously convincing acts, is painstakingly depicted. Some reviewers found Erin Morgenstern’s glut of details to be florid and heavy-handed (and weird phrases like “a wonderful coalescence” sometimes make it hard to disagree). But even when certain relationships were given too much face time and others not enough, the peek inside such a well-conceived world propelled me along.
—Judith Ohikuare, editorial fellow
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