David L. Ulin’s best books of 2014

Los Angeles Times Book Critic

Lists are, by their nature, impressionistic: How could they be otherwise? Here then, alphabetically by title, are the most stirring of the books I wrote about this year, my 10 favorites of 2014.

“Can’t and Won’t: Stories” by Lydia Davis (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 290 pp., $26). Davis is a master of the miniature, a writer who finds meaning at the level of the word, the sentence, and this new collection is as sharp as anything she’s done. “A fire does not need to be called warm or red,” she writes. “Remove many more adjectives.”

“Citizen: An American Lyric” by Claudia Rankine (Graywolf: 170 pp., $20 paper). Blending poetry, narrative and visual imagery, this powerful — and timely — work challenges our preconceptions about form and genre as well as identity and race. “Words encod[e] the bodies they cover,” Rankine tells us. “And despite everything the body remains.”


“Gabriel: A Poem” by Edward Hirsch (Alfred A. Knopf: 78 pp., $26.95). A book-length poem elegizing the author’s son — who died at 22 after taking a club drug — this is one of the most relentless, heartbreaking books I’ve ever read. Hirsch strips language bare in a public act of mourning based on the idea that there is no such thing as reclamation, that grief is the country in which he now resides.

“The Interior Circuit: A Mexico City Chronicle” by Francisco Goldman (Grove Press: 338 pp., $26). Part city meditation, part reportage on the fallout of the drug wars, Goldman’s book occupies the delicate middle ground between the personal and the cultural to evoke Mexico City as a complex, multilayered experience, shifting from the individual to the collective with the fluid grace of circumstance.

“The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan” by Rick Perlstein (Simon & Schuster: 856 pp., $37.50). When Richard Nixon left the White House in 1974, the conservative movement in the United States appeared to be at a dead end. Six years later, Ronald Reagan was elected to the presidency. How did this happen? Perlstein’s comprehensive popular history connects the dots, framing, in the process, a nuanced portrait of contemporary American conservatism.

“Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel: A Graphic Novel” by Anya Ulinich (Penguin: 362 pp., $17 paper). Ulinich’s graphic novel tells the story of a thirtysomething writer at loose ends — newly divorced, with two adolescent children and a book she cannot complete. It’s the most mundane set of circumstances imaginable, which is both its genius and its charm. “Novels are so stupid!” Ulinich writes. “Why keep trying to do, badly, what Tolstoy already did well a hundred years ago?” Her answer (does it need to be said?) is this provocative and stirring book.

“Lila” by Marilynne Robinson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 262 pp., $26). The third novel in the cycle begun with “Gilead” and “Home,” Robinson’s new book returns to Iowa pastor John Ames and his wife, Lila, to trace the incomprehensible largeness of even the most constrained lives. “You can say to yourself,” she writes, “I’m just a body that thinks and talks and seems to want its life, one more day of it. … Well, nothing could ever change if your body didn’t just keep you there not even knowing what it is you’re waiting for.”

“The Next Tsunami: Living on a Restless Coast” by Bonnie Henderson (Oregon State University Press: 320 pp., $19.95 paper). Henderson offers a deeply researched look at the science of tsunamis, which becomes its own sort of geologic detective story, as scientists try to pin down the date of the last great Pacific Northwest earthquake. “It seems that the more ‘advanced’ a society becomes,” an oceanographer tells her, “the shorter its memory.”


“On Immunity: An Inoculation” by Eula Biss (Graywolf: 206 pp., $24). Biss is one of our most gifted essayists, although her new book is not a collection of essays, at least not in the traditional sense. Rather, it is a series of meditations on immunity and inoculation — as both policy and metaphor. For Biss, the way we think about these issues says a lot about our larger point of view. “The womb is sterile,” she writes, “and so birth is the original inoculation.”

“Suspended Sentences: Three Novellas” by Patrick Modiano (Yale University Press: 214 pp., $16 paper). Like a lot of readers, I wasn’t overly familiar with Modiano when he won the Nobel Prize for literature this fall. This book goes a long way toward remedying that — a collection of three novellas about the fallacy of memory, in which the past operates as something of a dreamscape, informing identity, love and longing, even as we can’t be sure that it was ever real.

And, a reservation:

My greatest reservation of 2014 has to do with the sanctimony of social media. Partly, it’s the speed of digital, the incessant necessity to respond. But throughout the year, on a variety of issues, I kept noticing a lockstep consensus, in which to disagree, or to dissent, was to invite the backlash of the crowd. It’s hard to be nuanced in 140 characters, and yet the whole point of reading and writing is to engage. As Karl Ove Knausgaard told the Paris Review recently: “This is the difference between ideology and reality, politics and literature. … I don’t write much on Facebook anymore because I know I can’t say what I really think.”