“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.