As you may have read, I have strong feelings about the value of a diversified reading list. In the interest of accountability, at the end of the year (see 2013 here) I look back and make sure that I didn’t only read novels by 27-year-old white women, for example, (though this year I did read White Girls, which is by a 54-year-old queer black man). Nothing wrong with white girl novels, but I think reading is basically the biggest empathy-building exercise there is, so I want to make sure I’m building empathy bridges with lots of different perspectives.
Also, while there is a particular magic to an author describing exactly how I feel, I generally already know how I feel so it’s often more interesting to read how someone else, someone with a totally different life experience, might interpret the world.
In short, this year I read even more books by women (tipped the scales heavily towards ladies, actually, from about 50/50 in 2013 to 62/38 in 2014… may need to scale that back), way more books by authors of color (from 24% last year to 37% this year) and even more non-fiction. The non-fiction thing is unrelated to diversity of experience, per se, but it’s just an interest marker of my changing tastes.
So what were my favorites? The very first book I read in 2014, Flamethrowers, is still one of the most fascinating and unique reads of my year. Jesmyn Ward’s memoir Men We Reaped was gorgeous and tragic and I cried the whole time. I also went back and read her Salvage the Bones and loved that even more if only because it was slightly less sad for being brutal fiction instead of brutal truth. The strangest collection of short stories I read this year, Karen Russell’s A Vampire in the Lemon Grove, included one in which American presidents are resurrected as horses and it was amazing. Most poetic prose goes to Kevin Powers for his spare, harsh, terrible war novel, The Yellow Birds. Eric Liu’s exploration of Chinese American identity and his own family history, A Chinaman’s Chance, has stuck with me and opened up whole areas of American history I knew nothing about. I would be remiss to not include Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State, but it comes with the biggest trigger warning ever. It was by far the hardest book I’ve ever read, and it’s a testament to the author’s skill with plot that I didn’t stop when the going got emotionally treacherous. For cleverest world-building in the sci-fi genre, I’ll recommend China Mieville’s The City and the City, which has added a dimension of whimsy to the way I navigate my own urban jungle.
And drumroll… It was written more than fifteen years ago, but my favorite book I read this year was hands down Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down about the Hmong community of Merced, California, and cross-cultural miscommunication in the most dire of circumstances.
What should I make sure not to miss in 2015?