Here at Word of Mouth, we have a tradition of looking for the books that everyone might not be talking about. Joining us to highlight the best of the under the radar books of 2014 is Michele Filgate. She’s written for Salon, Vulture, The Daily Beast, and other publications. Here’s her list, with commentary, and you can also listen to her conversation about the books with Virginia, below.
Praying Drunk by Kyle Minor | Sarabande Books
Kyle Minor’s short-story collection is darkly beautiful. Here’s what I said when I interviewed him for Buzzfeed Books: “Each word is a gift. Each word is a revelation. Whether he’s writing about life or death or religion or any other topic, he opens up a whole new way of looking at the world. His sentences give meaning to the complicated and chaotic world that we live in.”
Green Girl by Kate Zambreno |Harper Perennial
A young American woman tries to understand herself while living abroad in London and working a horrible retail job at a department store. Zambreno is one of my favorite writers. She doesn’t hold anything back. Even the cover of this novel is extraordinary; highlighting a woman’s eye and eyebrow from an extremely close perspective. The book does the same thing as the cover: zooming in on a woman’s complexities, in all of its intense realness.
The Ploughmen by Kim Zupan | Henry Holt
A young deputy forms a bond with a seasoned killer in this gorgeously meditative, landscape-driven novel set in Montana. Fans of Cormac McCarthy will find much to like in Zupan’s poetic descriptions of isolation. The law enforcer and criminal have more in common than one would think; they are both haunted by their own ghosts.
Dear Thief by Samantha Harvey | Atavist Books
This book ties with Catherine Lacey’s Nobody is Ever Missing for my favorite books that I’ve read this year. Harvey has been compared to Virginia Woolf and Marilynne Robinson, and I didn’t see much attention for her book in the US until James Wood wrote a glowing review for The New Yorker. Dear Thief is based on Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat,” and centers around the complexities of a female friendship and a love triangle. It’s a novel of the mind steeped in memory and time.
The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck | Translated by Susan Bernofsky | New Directions
Good news for those of you who devoured Life after Life by Kate Atkinson, a novel in which the main character lives her life over and over again. There’s an equally powerful book that deals with similar themes. Erpenbeck starts with a dead baby and a grieving mother. But each section in this book is broken up by an intermezzo in which the author wonders: what happens if this DIDN’T happen? How would that child’s fate unfold? As I said in my Boston Globe review: “…words and stories and memory are the vehicle by which the reader moves, intoxicatingly and fearlessly, through a dizzying but magnificent series of terrains….Erpenbeck explores the ways alternative paths shape the narrative of a life.”
Preparing the Ghost by Matthew Gavin Frank | Liveright
One of the more unusual nonfiction books of the year is part memoir, part history, and part mythology about the first man who photographed the giant squid. It’s also, in many ways, about the author’s own obsession with the fascinating creature.
The Sea Inside by Philip Hoare | Melville House
I seem to be going for the nautical theme with nonfiction books on this list. Hoare’s meditative book is for anyone who is astounded by the magnificence of oceans—so basically everyone. I like nonfiction books in which you learn something but also benefit from the author’s observations, and that’s exactly why The Sea Inside is so good.
Love Me Back by Merrit Tierce | Doubleday
One of the most original debuts of the year. A waitress and single mother tries to make it through her day-to-day existence despite everything in her life that holds her back—including herself. There’s a lot of rawness, a lot of sex, and an incredibly memorable main character.
Florence Gordon by Brian Morton | Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Morton is a master at writing about elderly people in a way that doesn’t condescend to them. His latest novel focuses on an aging feminist who is working on her memoirs—but that’s not her biggest challenge. Her son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter move back to NYC from the west coast, and her routine is interrupted. Florence is an intense, whip-smart, difficult woman—and one who I was happy to spend time with.
Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights by Katha Pollitt | Picador
The longtime Nation writer puts forth a necessary argument in this well-researched and informative book. Our country needs to be better about allowing easy access to abortions—and we need to stop being judgmental about a woman’s right to choose.
And one older book I mentioned that isn’t overlooked:
Independent People by Halldór Laxness
My friend hand sold this book to me by describing it as Moby-Dick but in Iceland and with sheep! She was right. Don’t finish the last chapter in public if you’re ashamed of crying in front of strangers.