Two of our favorite sons were the subjects of major biographies this year. William S. Burroughs and Tennessee Williams, both endlessly fascinating personalities and writers, were fleshed out in a couple of our favorite books of 2014.
Beyond the banks of the Mississippi were many other fine books, too. Tales of CIA agents, Japanese loners, nuclear and viral disasters, and even lasting love kept Post-Dispatch reviewers busy. For our annual list of our favorite books of the year, we also chose nonfiction, from personal memories of dying parents to the history of the bloody fields of World War I.
Here, our reviewers give their annual list of 25 favorite fiction and 25 favorite nonfiction books of the year.
“The Accident” by Chris Pavone (Crown) • A literary agent has the manuscript of a book that tells ugly secrets about a media mogul and the Central Intelligence Agency. In one day, across two continents, the agent must shake off the mogul’s hit men and the CIA’s agents in a tense, tightly told adventure.
“American Romantic” by Ward Just (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) • An American diplomat has deep relationships with two women — one a German medical technician in Vietnam in the ’60s and the other a Vermont woman who becomes his wife and leaves him a widower. That’s when the German woman reappears in this book, written in Just’s tradition as a novel of character, not of action.
“Ancillary Sword” by Ann Leckie (Orbit) • The second volume of Leckie’s “Ancillary” trio of space operas continues the story of Breq, an artificial intelligence who once controlled thousands of “ancillaries,” reanimated corpse soldiers. Leckie has a distinctive voice as an author and has created a distinctive universe; “Sword” proves that she’s not a one-hit wonder.
“Andrew’s Brain” by E.L. Doctorow (Random House) • In a dark farce that is as intellectually challenging as it is funny and emotionally jolting, Doctorow presents us with a “cognitive scientist” named Andrew who seems to carry bad luck with him wherever he goes. When he accidentally kills someone he loves, he goes half mad trying to figure out if he somehow willed the death. The key line to the book is the existential dilemma Andrew presents himself: “How can I think about my brain when it’s my brain doing the thinking?”
“Bark” by Lorrie Moore (Knopf) • As with all of Moore’s writing, humor balances out the rough edges in this collection of short stories. Just as “Self-Help” defined a generation of young readers in 1985, so should “Bark” be the guide book to middle age.
“The Blazing World” by Siri Hustvedt (Simon & Schuster) • The novelist paints a stinging portrait of the New York art world, one in which the cult of personality and the whims of popularity too often trump talent.
“Boy, Snow, Bird” by Helen Oyeyemi (Riverhead) • This brilliant but disturbing update of the Snow White story is far closer to its antecedents in the collected folk tales of the Brothers Grimm than to more cheery retellings; it goes its own way, exploring questions of race, gender and class. Oyeyemi, born in Nigeria and raised in London, achieves an authentically American voice.
“Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands” by Chris Bohjalian (Doubleday) • Sixteen-year-old Emily Shepard loses her home, her parents and her entire teenage support system when a nuclear accident strikes her corner of Vermont. She struggles with decisions no adult should have to make, much less a troubled young girl, and readers root for her success in a world where she’s struggling to find some reason to keep going.
“Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage” by Haruki Murakami; translated by Philip Gabriel (Knopf) • Tsukuru’s closest friends suddenly cut him off with no explanation. Murakami’s story (more compact than “1Q84”) is a piercing tale of friendship and loneliness.
“The Director” by David Ignatius (Norton) • The new director of the CIA has barely taken office when he gets word that his agency’s computers have been hacked. The author (a Washington newspaper columnist) uses his experience to write with insight about the movers and shakers who digest the intelligence that the CIA provides.
“Everything I Never Told You” by Celeste Ng (Penguin Press) • This debut novel provides an insightful look into a Chinese-American family in the Midwest that never feels quite Chinese or quite American. Told against the backdrop of the death of the family’s 16-year-old daughter, the mystery and the psychology play nicely against each other, woven together in a story that will keep you intrigued.
“Inappropriate Behavior” by Murray Farish (Milkweed Editions) • These short stories by a writing teacher at Webster University demonstrate a wide, impressive range of topics, characters and problems. Featuring men and women, first person and omniscient narrator, big city and small town, teens and adults, sadness and a little silliness, they include turns of phrase, depth of emotion and engaging plots that are all too rare, particularly in a first book.
“Let Me Be Frank With You” by Richard Ford (Ecco) • After a trilogy of Frank Bascombe novels spanning nearly 30 years, this latest book is four linked narratives. Now 68, Bascombe assesses his losses, including the Jersey Shore damage wrought by Hurricane Sandy.
“Lila” by Marilynne Robinson (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) • Another of Robinson’s Iowa novels — the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Gilead” and “Home” — this one continues to examine those on the fringes of society: prodigals, orphans and the homeless.
“Mean Business on North Ganson Street” by S. Craig Zahler (Thomas Dunne) • Two black detectives try to keep the peace in Victory, Mo., a community that sounds a lot like real-life St. Louis. In the book, somebody is killing cops — and the two detectives must set aside their dislike for each other to find the killers on some very mean streets.
“The Paying Guests” by Sarah Waters (Riverhead) • Devotion and deceit, injustice, manipulation, hopelessness, bloodshed and self-sacrifice are all stuffed into this satisfying novel of London between the wars.
“Redeployment” by Phil Klay (Penguin Press) • In a dozen short stories, Klay — who served as a Marine in Iraq — tells what it was like to be there and then to come home to an uninterested public. He speaks for all of the veterans who deserve a salute from the rest of us. Winner of National Book Award for fiction.
“Road to Reckoning” by Robert Lautner (Touchstone) • Like “True Grit,” this novel stars a youngster who travels across the Wild West with a crusty adult. But this tale’s hero is a boy, and the author’s eye for detail and ear for dialogue show the large amount of research that a good novelist will undertake.
“Some Luck” by Jane Smiley (Knopf) • Smiley’s first book in a trilogy is a 100-year epic about the Langdon family. The Iowans grow up on a hard-working farm, but eventually spread out, fighting in World War II and keeping watch during the Cold War. The second and third books are due next year.
“Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel (Knopf) • A well-deserved finalist for a National Book Award, the novel is a trip into a dystopian future in which 99 percent of the world’s population is killed off by a vicious flu. Watch the survivors struggle to reform some version of society without the creature comforts of smartphones and microwaves, air travel and Internet, while trying to survive the bad element that always remains.
“To Rise Again at a Decent Hour” by Joshua Ferris (Little, Brown) • Dentist Paul O’Rourke, the book’s under-siege protagonist, feels himself the helpless victim of a cosmic joke when his online identity is stolen. As he tracks down the thief, the avowed atheist finds a religious sect and starts to question his own identity.
“Try to Kiss a Girl” by Kevin Killeen (Blank Slate Press) • Killeen takes readers back to 1969 and to the summer adventures, while on a family vacation in Michigan, of a Webster Groves kid named Patrick, 11. A friend challenges Patrick to kiss a girl — and that’s when the fun begins in this warm and entertainingly told tale.
“Under the Wide and Starry Sky” by Nancy Horan (Ballantine) • Frances “Fanny” Van de Grift Osbourne was an escaped wife with a free spirit and a colorful past who fell in love with a slender, sickly Scottish writer named Robert Louis Stevenson. In this novel based on the real history of real people, Horan sometimes seems to be trying to work in every last episode of the lives of two fascinating writers, but the story is well worth the occasional slow passage.
“What Is Visible” by Kimberly Elkins (Twelve) • Before there was Helen Keller, there was Laura Bridgman, who lost her sight, hearing and senses of smell and taste at the age of 2 from scarlet fever. The head of Boston’s Perkins Institute, Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, brought her to his school when she was 7, teaching her to learn and communicate through touch. She was a major celebrity in the 1840s; other celebrities appear in the course of this historical novel. Elkins’ first, it explores Bridgman’s life and importance without glossing over her faults.
“Zone of Interest” by Martin Amis (Knopf) • Amis has done what only a skilled novelist could do: Put the reader inside the thoughts of men who perpetuated the horrors at Auschwitz. It’s a chilling read, but worth the time, if for no other reason than the Holocaust remains almost unfathomable.
“America’s Deadliest Twister” by Geoff Partlow (Southern Illinois University Press) • On March 18, 1925, a monster tornado tore from southeastern Missouri to southwestern Indiana. The twister wreaked most its havoc on Southern Illinois’ “Little Egypt” — havoc that this book says continues to haunt the region even now.
“The Birth of the Pill” by Jonathan Eig (Norton) • The pill of the title is, of course, the birth control pill, developed more than half a century ago. This easy-to-read history tells about the people behind the pill — and some of the quirky steps those people took to put it on the market.
“Blood Aces: The Wild Ride of Benny Binion, the Texas Gangster Who Created Las Vegas Poker” by Doug J. Swanson (Viking) • Buddy Binion struck it rich in Vegas after fleeing the law in Dallas. Swanson doesn’t overplay his hand in presenting a well-researched portrait of Binion and mid-century Vegas.
“The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI” by Betty Medsger (Knopf) • The author, a Washington Post reporter at the time anti-Vietnam War protesters broke into a Pennsylvania office of the FBI, tells how that burglary of federal records exposed a massive, illegal operation against civilians.
“Call Me Burroughs: A Life” by Barry Miles (Twelve) • William Burroughs, the peripatetic patriarch of the Beat Generation, deserves a rich and deeply researched biography, both for his extraordinary life and for his groundbreaking literary works, and old friend Barry Miles has provided it. Miles follows Burroughs from his childhood home in St. Louis to Paris and Tangiers and Mexico City and New York. A superb and fearlessly frank biography.
“Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” by Roz Chast (Bloomsbury) • A New Yorker cartoonist since 1978, this is Chast’s first graphic memoir. In her signature ice-cream pastels and jittery lines vibrating with anxiety, Chast documents her parents’ old age, from elder lawyers to hospice volunteers. The book was on the National Book Award shortlist, the first by a cartoonist to be nominated.
“The Dead and Those About to Die” by John C. McManus (NAL Caliber) • Historian McManus has written three books about World War II in Normandy. This one digs into letters, diaries and journals written by GIs to peel away the air of triumph and lay open the dreadfulness of combat close up.
“Eliot Ness” by Douglas Perry (Viking) • Thanks to “The Untouchables” at theaters and on television screens, most of us know something about G-Man Eliot Ness, the nemesis of mobster Al Capone. But this book focuses on Ness’ later years — and darker side — as the man who cleaned up Cleveland’s police force but ruined his own life.
“Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder and the Battle for Modern New Orleans” by Gary Krist (Crown) • New Orleans at the turn of the 20th century was a place like no other. Krist’s engaging book hits all the right notes.
“Little Failure” by Gary Shteyngart (Random House) • Novelist Shteyngart elevates the genre of memoir with “Little Failure,” his story of living in the USSR until age 7, then emigrating to New York with his parents and grandmother. The book is balanced and fresh, equal parts hilarious and heartbreaking.
“Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence” by Karen Armstrong (Knopf) • One of the greatest canards ever is the commonplace smear that religion is at the root of most wars. Now comes religion writer Karen Armstrong (“A Brief History of God”) to tell us that it ain’t necessarily so — and why. (Try human greed and the lust for power trumping the teachings of everyone from the Buddha to Jesus and more.)
“For Love of Country” by Howard Schultz and Rajiv Chandrasekaran (Knopf) • The authors spell out their theme with their subtitle: “What Our Veterans Can Teach Us About Citizenship, Heroism, and Sacrifice.” The book ranges from Iraq and Afghanistan to homecoming to America — and how some vets have banded together to do good things.
“41: A Portrait of My Father” by George W. Bush (Crown) • The former president gives readers a biography of George H.W. Bush, our 41st president. Although the book reveals no insider secrets, it offers readers a heartfelt look at a president described as a man of integrity and honor, even in the face of setbacks.
“The Making of an Icon” by Jim Merkel (Reedy Press) • The icon is St. Louis’ Gateway Arch, and this book looks at its history in brief, briskly written and photo-packed chapters. The tone is as bright as the Arch’s exterior.
“Mission at Nuremberg” by Tim Townsend (William Morrow) • When Henry Gerecke decided to leave his Lutheran ministry in St. Louis and enlist as a chaplain in the Army at the height of World War II, he had no idea he would end up giving spiritual counsel to Nazis standing trial for crimes against humanity. Townsend, a former religion writer for the Post-Dispatch, combines meticulously detailed research with religious and historical context to provide new understanding of an unprecedented situation.
“The Searchers” by Glenn Frankel (Bloomsbury) • “The Searchers,” an epic Western directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne, was little noticed when first released in 1956, but by 2008 the American Film Institute had named it the best Western ever filmed. The hero’s racism and bloodlust in his long pursuit of a niece kidnapped by Indians were key to the deeper reading of the film, and Frankel ties the dark themes into the bloody history of the time.
“The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace” by Jeff Hobbs (Scribner) • A young man makes the difficult journey from the slums of Newark to the wealth and privilege of Yale, and he struggles to keep a foot in two diverse worlds. Hobbs offers an authoritative look at both worlds for readers. As the title indicates, there’s no happy ending, but this book tells an important story about America.
“The Sixth Extinction” by Elizabeth Kolbert (Henry Holt) • Kolbert’s revelatory book about the rapid and radical changes man is wreaking on Earth is one of those works of explanatory journalism that achieves the highest and best use of the form: After you read it, your view of the world will be fundamentally changed.
“Tennessee Williams” by John Lahr (Norton) • Biographer and drama critic Lahr shows how most of the playwright’s work contained autobiographical elements. Besides his St. Louis upbringing, Williams contended with “the war inside himself between self-destruction and creativity.”
“Thirteen Days in September” by Lawrence Wright (Knopf) • Those September days fell in 1978, at Camp David, Md., where President Jimmy Carter persuaded Israel’s Menachem Begin and Egypt’s Anwar Sadat to make peace. This book focuses on the tactics and personalities of the three leaders — and contains lots of surprising insights.
“Train” by Tom Zoellner (Viking) • Any shopper whose guest list includes a train buff can head straight to the bookstore for this informative and entertaining history of railroading. The book takes readers across time from 1852 to today and across space from Siberia to the American Southwest.
“Why Football Matters: My Education in the Game” by Mark Edmundson (Penguin) • Edmundson has written a first-rate memoir, with football the binding agent. As a player, Edmundson described himself as “soft.” His thinking and writing are not.
“Women in Clothes” by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, Leanne Shapton, and 639 others (Blue Rider Press) • A luxurious, intimate book spilling over with photographs, interviews, conversations, poems, maps and memories concerning women and what they wear.
“World War I: The Definitive Visual History” by R.G. Grant (DK) • The word “definitive” fits this richly illustrated and carefully researched account of the war that changed the world. Americans tend to think of WWI vaguely, if at all — but in this centennial year of the war’s beginning, this book could help to put a crucial event in sharper focus.
“The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book” by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée (Pantheon) • The authors present an intriguing account of the Cold War battle between Russia and the CIA over the novel “Dr. Zhivago” and its author, Boris Pasternak.