Sometimes You Can't Pick Just 10: Maureen Corrigan's Favorite Books Of 2014

Dec 15, 2014
Originally published on December 18, 2014 1:12 pm

For this year's Best Books of the Year list, I reject the tyranny of the decimal system. Some years it's simply more than 10. Here, then, are my top 12 books of 2014. All of the disparate books on my list contain characters, scenes or voices that linger long past the last page of their stories. In fact, The Empire of Necessity by Greg Grandin, which is my pick for Book of the Year, came out in January and I haven't stopped thinking about it since.

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This is FRESH AIR. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan has put together her list of the best books of the year. Here's the list.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: For this year's best books of the year list, I reject the tyranny of the decimal system. Some years, it's more than 10. Here, then, are my top 12 books of 2014. "The Dept. of Speculation" by Jenny Offill is a slim novel whose lingering after-effects belie its size. It follows a young woman as she haltingly moves through marriage and a motherhood rattled by colic, only to be slammed to a full stop by her husband's infidelity. Offill's departures from traditional form make this old story feel painfully fresh again. For instance, a chapter entitled "How Are You" is followed by these two words repeated by our betrayed heroine for page and a half - so scared, so scared, so scared.

Brian Morton also experiments with form in his witty and affecting short novel "Florence Gordon," about a 75-year-old icon of the second-wave women's movement who's cranky enough to walk out on her own surprise birthday party just because she wants to get back to writing her memoirs.

Humor is also a big selling point of Julie Schumacher's "Dear Committee Members." This epistolary novel is composed of a year's worth of recommendation letters written by a weary professor. The gem of a law school recommendation letter this professor writes for a cut-throat undergrad whom he's known for all of 11 minutes is alone worth the price of Schumacher's smart and ultimately moving book.

One more novel that upends conventional form is Ben Lerner's "10:04," a language drunk tale of a young writer in New York which he calls the sinking city. That's because "10:04" is book-ended by two historic hurricanes that threaten New York - Hurricane Irene and Hurricane Sandy.

Sandy also looms large in the four wry and melancholy stories in Richard Ford's "Let Me Be Frank With You," which marked the return of his New Jersey everyman hero, Frank Bascombe. Ron Rash's beautiful short story collection "Something Rich And Strange" focuses on everyman and everywoman figures in Appalachia. These stories roam from the Civil War through the Great Depression and into a present where moonshine stills have been replaced by home-grown meth labs.

Even though it takes place in France and Germany during the harsh rigors of World War II, Anthony Doerr's magical adventure novel "All The Light We Cannot See" is far, far away from the stripped-down realities of Rash's world. A blind French girl and her father become the hapless custodians of the Sea of Flames, a rare diamond that Hitler desires for his treasure trove. Doerr refers to the work of Jules Vern and Alexandre Dumas, and his own sweeping plot and sumptuous language place Doerr in the same category as those master storytellers.

Sarah Waters spins a pretty wild yarn herself in "The Paying Guests," an eerie tale of a genteel mother and daughter forced to take in lodgers after World War I. Eerie is also the word for Tana French's mystery "The Secret Place," the fifth in her superb Dublin murder squad series. "The Secret Place" pries opened the hermetically sealed world of a girls' prep school and lets readers peer into the toxic stew of hormones and homicidal rivalries roiling within.

Now onto nonfiction - Roz Chast's "Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?" is a brilliant graphic memoir of Chast's own adventures in caring for her two elderly parents. Chast captures the whole megillah of elder care, from the exhaustion and looniness of clearing out her parents Brooklyn apartment, stuffed with old bank books and toasters, to the final moments of their lives. Hector Tobar's triumph of a tale of extreme endurance "Deep Down Dark" recounts the ordeal of the 33 Chilean miners buried alive for 69 days under a mountain of fallen rock.

And finally, here's my nominee for book of the year. It's a work of nonfiction, even though I think this was a stronger year for fiction. Greg Grandin's "The Empire Of Necessity" describes the real-life slave revolt in 1805 on a ship called the Trial, anchored off the coast of Chile. That revolt inspired Herman Melville's 1855 floating Gothic masterpiece of a short novel "Benito Cereno." In Grandin's previous book, the much-acclaimed Fordlandia, he chronicled how Henry Ford tried to establish a utopian version of small-town America in the middle of the Brazilian rainforest. In "The Empire Of Necessity," Grandin takes readers on a tour of the hell of the slave trade in the Americas. I read the "Empire Of Necessity" way back in January, and it's haunted me ever since. In fact, all of these disparate books on my best of the year list contain characters, scenes or voices that linger long past the last page of their stories.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University and is the author of the new book "So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came To Be And Why It Endures." You'll find her best books of the year list, as well as 200 more book recommendations from NPR staff and critics, on our website, Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.