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BEST OF 2014: NON-FICTION
Each year, we
force ask our staff to contribute a few favorites to a list of the “best” non fiction, music, poetry, film, television, and fiction of the year (with a few cheaters from years past). We’re kicking it off today with our non fiction picks. Check back in tomorrow for our picks for album of the year.
Last month at Electric Literature, Jason Diamond pronounced 2014 “The Year of the Essay.” Whether 2014 was a watershed, just a lucky year, or the beginning of a resurgence of the genre (fingers crossed), it was a pleasure to read the essay this year. For our staff, there was a certain book that came up in conversation after conversation:
Rob Spillman (Editor, Tin House Magazine): It was a great year for the essay, and Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams stood out for me. Assured yet questioning, Jamison shows us what intellectual engagement can be. As Jamison writes: “I wanted the abyss, not the verdict.” Bring on the abyss, please.
Sophia Archibald (Editorial Intern): I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that The Empathy Exams was the most powerful collection of non-fiction to come out this year. Beautifully weaving personal anecdotes and raw confessions with academic research and fresh insights, her essays scratch the reader’s soul with passion and vigor.
While we’re on the subject, Tin House Books was honored to contribute to the essay groundswell with an expanded edition of a cult classic collection by hometown hero of the Pacific Northwest, Charles D’Ambrosio. Handily, our man Cheston Knapp knows when our own horn needs tooting:
Cheston Knapp (Managing Editor, Tin House Magazine): Is it too much like wearing a shirt of the band you’re going to see if I put Loitering down here? I mean, I, too, was excited by new voice essayists like Leslie Jamison and Michelle Orange, read both of their books with glee and respect, but Charlie, well, his work feels as rigorous and unapologetically smart and sensitive and warm and giving and plain edifying as anything out there. His sentences are real gems and as rare.
Of course, non fiction doesn’t end at the essay. Here are a couple picks from our Wisconsin contingent:
Michelle Wildgen (Executive Editor, Tin House Magazine): I was totally absorbed in Helen Thorpe’s Soldier Girls, which follows several women through their lives and careers in the military. I don’t know a great deal about military life, but the book does a stellar job of showing how these women chose it, the lives they would have had without it, the careers they had within it, and the lives they tried to build around it. In some ways it was heartbreaking: one woman is a single parent who could make a reasonable living as a soldier instead of sub-poverty level at home, but who then had to scramble to find care for her children every time she was deployed. At least one son seemed not to quite recover, either from those upheavals or from other factors, but the asides in which his story is glimpsed, from childhood to crimes and incarceration, stayed with me. If the purpose of nonfiction, or one of them, is to lay out the breadth and detail of a life, and to demystify it for the people outside the life in its pages, then this book succeeds.
Runner up is a memoir that is not new but was new to me in 2014, Mary Allen’s The Rooms of Heaven, which tells the story of a precipitous love affair and engagement, an addiction, a suicide, and a dive into grief and even madness. As I write this it sounds like a potboiler, but the book is compressed and faceted, artfully made and delivered, and deeply affecting. I read this on a plane on a cloudy gray winter day and emerged thinking, “Well, fuck it, all is grief.” And yet I mean that as a compliment. (I later recovered.)
And then there are the wild cards. Like the graphic memoir:
Emma Komlos-Hrobsky (Assistant Editor, Tin House Magazine): At risk of diagnosing myself as prematurely neurotic, I have to confess that I’ve been a Roz Chast groupie since elementary school. I love her wit and self-deprecation and acuity; I love the antsy quality of her line, a kind of perfect visual translation of emotionally fraught handwringing; I love her fezzes and lumpy ponies and charts. All of this is to say that I was always going to be excited about a book-length Chast project, but I had no clue that Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? was going to hit as hard as it did. Chast talks about taking care of dying parents with honesty even when that honesty flatters neither her nor them. Her humor never avoids or deflates but instead brought me back to the particular painful weirdness of having a parent lose their memory or sorting through their hoardings. Maybe most incredible of all the pages in the book are the ones Chast has made of her mother at the time of her death, where Chast’s illustrative style warps into something darker, more realistic but also not of this world. It’s hard to believe she could draw at all in such a moment, but the pictures are proof of what’s always been great about her work: the empathy and perceptivity beneath her antic-ness, a willingness to show us the dicey stuff, big and small.
. . . or the bilingual illustrated papercut proverb:
Heather Hartley (Paris Editor, Tin House Magazine): Although The Expressionist Bestiary by Benoît Jacques dates to 2012, this spirited, bilingual French and English tiny tome of proverbs is definitely worth the read this December (and well beyond). Illustrated with Jacques’s paper cutouts, his artwork has its own visual spin on some of the more common sayings, including the playful paper cutout of a lone wolf really grooving out on being dressed up in sheep’s clothing. Among other menageries, Jacques lets you know that if you’re eagle-eyed in English, you’ll be lynx-eyed in French. As François Jacqmin says in the forward, Jacques makes animals “leap over the language border . . . whether his translation looks like a paraphrase, a literal rendering or any linguistic whatnot.”
Of course, the best thing about a “best of” list is what’s not on it . . . yet. What great non fiction did we miss this year? Fill us in in the comments!