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The best books we read in 2014

Here, Vox writers, editors, and designers share the best books they read in 2014. Some of these titles were published decades ago, others just earlier this year. They all have one thing in common: in a year with countless articles, news stories, TV shows, podcasts, and other books vying for our attention, these books captured our minds and our imaginations.

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    We're in the midst of the sixth great extinction of life in Earth's 4.5 billion-year history. By the end of the century, 20 to 50 percent of all living species might be extinct. And unlike the five previous extinctions, this one can be pinned entirely on one species: us.

    If this kind of book appeals to you, you're probably already familiar with these facts. But Elizabeth Kolbert's mix of detailed reporting, historical research, and insightful exposition will make you reconsider your relationship with the natural world on a fundamental level.

    It's not just that we're killing other species through well-known modern environmental catastrophes like climate change (though we are), but that we've been wiping out other species for at least 50,000 years or so, ever since we learned to hunt cooperatively and take down big game. It's not just obvious problems like pollution and habitat destruction that are causing extinctions (though they are), but also our newfound ability to travel from continent to continent within hours, unwittingly carrying invasive microbes and infectious diseases.

    All this leads the reader to one inescapable conclusion: human society is incompatible with a healthy, diverse ecosystem of other species.

    Yes, this is depressing. But the book's exploration of our planet's billion-year history will leave you with another realization that's strangely reassuring, if nihilistic too. Our species' existence is just a blip compared to the scale of Earth's geologic history, and soon enough, we'll probably go extinct too. Wait just a few million years after that, and biodiversity will once again flourish.

    — Joseph Stromberg, writer

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    What if many of the assumptions you make about eating are wrong? In this tour de force of reporting, investigative journalist Nina Teicholz demonstrates how much of the science behind the low-fat and even Mediterranean diet crazes is weak, flawed, or cherry picked. The popularity of these nutrition fads, she contends, was driven more by the personalities of star researchers and exotic, food-filled conferences subsidized by Big Olive Oil than actual compelling scientific evidence. She also shows how researchers who had contradictory findings (i.e. that a diet high in saturated fat could be healthy) were systematically stifled and ignored at the height of the low-fat fad. All this amounted, she argues, to a vast, uncontrolled science experiment on the whole population, which boosted the consumption of added sugars and drove obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. By the end, in a Michael Pollan-esque flourish, she sums up her diet corrective this way: "Eat butter; drink milk whole, and feed it to the whole family." But the book is about a lot more than how we should eat: it’s a case study in how science — especially nutrition science, with Big Food behind it and so much money at stake — can be made and unmade by very human actors, shaped by their conflicts and passions with disastrous consequences for our health.

    — Julia Belluz, writer

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    John Updike famously praised Nabokov for writing prose "the only way it should be written: ecstatically." In "On Writing," Stephen King humbly sets himself (as a "popular novelist") in a class apart from literary giants, but he also both embodies and lets us in on that unique ecstasy of crafting a great story. This book is a mix of memoir and loving ode to the art that has made him an international superstar.

    The tales of childhood shenanigans are amusing enough, but more important are the tales of King's early unsuccessful writing attempts. Perhaps the most indelible image is of a teenage King hanging his early rejection letters on a nail, which he eventually replaced with a spike when the letters became too numerous. It's true that writers talking about writing can be insufferable, something King acknowledges — in the foreword, he writes,"I didn't want to write a book...that would leave me feeling like either a literary gasbag or a transcendental asshole." On this count, he succeeds — his unpretentious love of writing is infectious.

    — Danielle Kurtzleben, writer

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    Earlier this year, Alison Bechdel was awarded a MacArthur "genius grant" for redefining the way stories are told.

    "Fun Home," published in 2006, is a graphic memoir about Bechdel's painful relationship with her closeted father — a funeral home director — and a somber, composed reflection on her own sexuality. Her father's secrets take a toll on the family, hollowing his wife into a shell of herself and muddling Bechdel's idea of identity and womanhood. It's also an exploration of grief and the guilty lack of it.

    The book's comic-book style allows Bechdel to display her cutting humor and lends round, full-bodied life to her sharp prose. The panels fiddle with the way we've traditionally read memoirs, sometimes forcing the reader to slow down in the parts that Bechdel doesn't want us to miss and other times revving up the pace to highlight Bechdel's pointed wit.

    "Fun Home" is a consuming experience that elevates the graphic novel and comic genre. It's also one of the bravest books I've ever read.

    — Alex Abad-Santos, writer

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    Here's a book that takes on the really big question about politics: why are some societies governed well and others governed poorly? It does not, unfortunately, offer a particularly simple or concise answer to that question. But that's why you should read the book!

    Once you wrestle with this question it's impossible to take the tired American debate about "big government" versus "small government" all that seriously. States that manage to be governed well (say, Denmark) are able to construct vast social welfare states without imperiling liberty or prosperity. States whose public officials treat their office as an opportunity for personal or familiar enrichment (say, Mexico) scarcely manage the basic law-and-order functions of libertarian paradise. Fukuyama offers history on a grand scale, but also zeros in on the dilemmas of the present day — the United States has historically been a leader in good government, but in recent years our institutions appear to be in a state of decay.

    — Matthew Yglesias, executive editor

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    My favorite single book I read this year was Emily St. John Mandel's "Station Eleven," which I wrote about a little here. But 2014 was also the year Lev Grossman concluded his Magicians trilogy, which I think is one of the signature literary achievements of the last few years.

    These books are thrilling page-turners, but they're also thoughtful coming-of-age novels that double as a sneaky story of a privileged dude slowly realizing just how much his privilege blinds him to the pain others feel. It's amazing how well Grossman captures the process of maturation, the way that we come to realize that other people's lives matter just as much as our own. The first book is almost claustrophobic, told from a single, limited point of view. The second lets in one other voice. And then the third explodes, as nearly everybody gets a chance to tell their story. It's a tricky, savvy feat of storytelling, and it underscores how well these books work both as great yarns and as beautiful character studies. And did I mention they take place in a world full of wizards? Because that's pretty cool too.

    — Todd VanDerWerff, culture editor

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    In a widely read commencement speech last year, American author George Saunders urged the class of 2013 to "err in the direction of kindness."

    "What I regret most in my life," he said, are "those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly."

    It's not easy, as Saunders admits, to keep ourselves wide open as a rule. But an easy place to start is reading "Tenth of December," a collection of short stories Saunders wrote over the past 20 years. You're going to want this one on your shelf, as an easy-access antidote for bouts of contempt and indifference. The stories combine sharp, imaginative satire with deep compassion for the sore spots in all of us.

    — Joss Fong, video producer

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    I was a comics geek as a kid, but "X-Factor" is one of those properties I never paid much attention to. I only had so much allowance, and I wasn’t going to spend it on a knock-off team with cut-rate characters. But then I downloaded Marvel Unlimited on my iPad, which gives you, for $70, full access to pretty much every comic the company published until six months ago (side note: living in the future is the jam). And I know now what I didn’t know as a kid. The good stuff is in the knock-off teams with the cut-rate characters. Those are the properties where Marvel let its writers and artists play. And so I started digging into the crates, and eventually came across Peter David’s "X-Factor." And I loved it.

    "X-Factor" is the type of comic you want to give to people who don’t understand why anyone likes comics — if, for no other reason than if they don’t like "X-Factor," then they’re really not going to like any other comics. The series is built around a team of mutant investigators, because of course it is. But at its heart, it's a love story — actually, a couple of love stories — that somehow balances some of the darkest elements of noir, fantasy and science-fiction. It builds one of the most indelible characters I’ve found in a comic book: Layla Miller, the girl who "knows stuff," and, well, the thing I want to say about her would be a spoiler, so I won’t say it. Knowing too much is, as Miller shows, a terrible curse.

    The problem with most comic runs is they never finish. Captain America has to keep Captaining America until the heat death of the universe. But David’s "X-Factor" run isn’t like that. It begins and, unusually for comics, it ends. Some of the characters, at the run’s close, are taken off the board. And that means, between the first issue and the last, they can have a real story. Terrible things can happen to them that, unlike in most comics, never get fixed. Loved ones can die, and dreams can shatter, and the triumphs, when they come, can mean something. Because the story has a beginning and an end, it can have stakes, and it can all lead to something. And in this case, unlike in most comics, it really does lead to something, and the something it leads to is worth it. At least it was for me.

    — Ezra Klein, editor-in-chief

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    Growing up, you believe you're invincible. You climb trees, fly off swing sets, jump headfirst down a slide and it doesn't matter how much parents and teachers moan "you're going to get hurt."

    Invincibility must be tested.

    Then one day you break. Maybe a dish or a bone, or maybe even your own heart.

    In Cheryl Strayed's autobiographical journey "Wild," we learn the day she breaks was the day her mother died. Her marriage soon ended and she hopscotched around trying to dull the pain until she finds a book about the Pacific Crest Trail. It's her way out. A cast for her heart. Unprepared, out of shape, with comically too much baggage, the author sets off to hike the more than one thousand-mile trail from the Mojave Desert to Washington State. She has a guide book and a will of heart.

    There's little forgiveness for error in the wild. You're up against an unknown, a step on ground that gives, or a turn in a canyon so large the weather changes. You're also fighting yourself.

    This book is as much about breaking as it is about the adventure of never staying broken. Each step is one less step forward and one more step behind. She pushes on as you turn the pages.

    While our hearts are not invincible, they are resilient. And with will, we often find our way.

    — Yuri Victor, senior UX designer

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    One of the few things that just about everyone in American politics believes is that there should be high upward mobility — it should be possible to end life in a higher socioeconomic station in society than you began it.

    Greg Clark's argument is that this entire idea is a giant sham. Social mobility, he claims, is very low. It's low everywhere, and there's very little governments can do to change that. The Communist takeover of China in 1949 didn't increase social mobility. Universal public education in Sweden didn't either. Quotas for people in lower castes in Bengal, India seem to have made some difference but that's about it.

    This claim — that people's positions in society are mostly set at birth and social policy can't do much to change them — is usually used to argue against the welfare state, but Clark comes to exactly the opposite conclusion. If his argument is right, then nobody deserves their place in society, and it's only fair to redistribute lots from the lucky few who wound up on top due to little effort of their own.

    I'm not sure I entirely believe Clark's data, and I'm certainly skeptical of a number of his interpretations of it. But it's one of those rare, invigorating arguments which, if correct, totally upends your understanding of the way the world works. Right or wrong, I've thought about it more than anything else I read in 2014.

    — Dylan Matthews, special projects editor

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    When Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize in Literature last year, my eye slunk straight to my crowded bookcase. There, "The Love of a Good Woman" sat, unread and unopen, its straight spine staring out at me. Munro is an author other writers love to recommend. They speak of her work only in the most reverential tones. For over four decades, Munro has written one collection of short stories after another, each one greeted with critical praise. And her reputation weighed that book down on my shelf.

    Why couldn't I read her? Munro's output is intimidating to approach. Where do you start? How do you begin? What book out of the many? What story out of the many? I bought "The Love of a Good Woman" figuring I should start somewhere, anywhere, and the prize pushed me to open the book up one rainy day.

    What I found was the opposite of intimidating. I slipped easily into the rivers of Munro’s character’s lives. Start on any story, and Munro peels back a curtain for you to peer through; she lets you watch the sadness and the secrets and the stories of lives unfold. This is not a book to read in a fury, racing through the pages, but one to pick up over the months on quiet evenings. I could skip from a Canadian beach party to a war widow’s womb to the basement bedroom of newlyweds, each story a universe to enter for a few hours, and to leave with a tinge of regret. I recently bought my second collection of Munro. Which one? It doesn’t matter. My hunch is they’re all just as delicious.

    — Melissa Bell, executive editor

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    Feminist as a word took center stage in 2014 — literally, in the form of Beyoncé at the VMAs and Emma Watson's speech about women's rights. But feminism as a concept is a messy belief system imbued with stigma, anger, and misunderstanding. Feminism, culture tells us, is something a woman can do right or wrong — another aspect of a woman's life for which she will be judged.

    This tension is central to Roxane Gay's excellent book of essays about being a woman, a writer, and a bad feminist. We already knew that Gay is a fabulous writer: her novels are perfectly structured and carry so much heart that they are sometimes difficult to read. In "Bad Feminist," she applies that narrative skill to essays — each about a moment in popular culture, the news, or her own life.

    "Bad Feminist" is a book that makes feminism approachable, realistic, and most importantly, difficult. Gay doesn't make feminism into a happy female commune of love and perfection because life isn't any of those things. "Bad Feminist" was the book I needed this year because it's honest about our culture, where equality sometimes seems unattainable.

    — Kelsey McKinney, writing fellow

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    "Age of Ambition" is a fascinating exploration of today's China from Evan Osnos, a journalist who spent eight years covering the country for the Chicago Tribune and the New Yorker. Osnos writes that the country's present state reminds him of the the US Gilded Age, another major time of transformation and new possibility. He focuses the crux of his narrative on the "strivers" looking to achieve or be a part of something interesting and different. He interviews CEOs, reporters, dissidents, and regular people, combining thorough reporting, sharp observation, and a keen literary sense.

    The book's first section focuses on the country's economic transformation — both the new opportunities and improved quality of life available to many, and the difficulties of turning dreams into reality. Second, he explores censorship and politics, with a focus on the internet and the omnipresence of government corruption. His final section, on "Faith," focuses on people engaging with larger ideas or traditions in a search for meaning — whether it's religion, ethics, or nationalism. The book is informative, enjoyable, and moving throughout, and richly deserved its recent National Book Award for nonfiction.

    — Andrew Prokop, writing fellow

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    This is a biography of Robert Moses, the bureaucrat whose road, bridge, park, and tunnel projects transformed New York City in the mid-20th century. It's worth reading even if you have no interest in New York City or infrastructure. This book will help you understand one of life's great mysteries: how do people become powerful?

    Moses was never elected mayor or governor (his 1934 run for governor was a complete disaster), yet for three decades he had more power over New York's manmade geography than the men who held those titles. Drawing on seven years of research, Caro tells a gripping story of how Moses gained, kept, and finally lost power. It tells about his intense loyalty to Governor (and failed presidential candidate) Al Smith, who aided his rise to power in the 1920s. It describes his bitter feud with Governor, and then President, Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s. It describes his long reign as the undisputed master of New York infrastructure projects in the 1940s and 1950s. And it describes his downfall at the hands of Governor Nelson Rockefeller in the 1960s.

    Most of the specific disputes Caro chronicles have long been forgotten. But the book's broader lessons about ambition, greed, and loyalty are timeless.

    — Timothy B. Lee, senior editor

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    This was one of the most powerful books I have ever read. A true story of determination and perseverance, it gripped me till the very end. I would have probably read the story just to learn about Louis Zamperini's life as a track star before going to fight in World War II (he was on pace to potentially break the four-minute mile). I'm very excited to see the movie, which came out this month, too!

    — Kyle Keller, analytics editor

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    "If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler" is deeply, wonderfully tricky. The first chapter begins with a description of "You" — much of the novel is written in second person — beginning to read "Italo Calvino’s new novel," a book called "If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler." And it only gets trickier from there.

    What you think is the novel’s opening story is interrupted after the second chapter, when "You," the reader, realizes that you’ve been given an incomplete book containing only its beginning. The third chapter is about "your" quest to find the rest of the novel you were reading, but what you discover is a completely different novel — whose first chapter makes up the actual book’s fourth. The rest of the novel alternates, by and large, between opening chapters from widly different novels and "your" quest to figure out why books keep turning up in fragmented form.

    Is this structure complicated, maybe even convoluted? Certainly. But Calvino is talented enough to make it work, and quite beautifully at that. The "novel within a novel" chapters vary wonderfully, seamlessly into a dizzying array of styles and tones. The overarching story — which evolves into both an odd love story and a conspiracy tale about literary fabulism assaulting the nature of truth itself — is a thought-provoking meditation on the acts of reading and writing. "If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler" is not an easy book, but it’s the richest and most unforgettable novel I’ve read this year.

    — Zack Beauchamp, writer

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    Most discussions about the origins of the US war on drugs focus on former President Richard Nixon’s declaration and Congress’s approval of the Controlled Substances Act in the 1970s. Kathleen Frydl’s "The Drug Wars in America, 1940-1973" instead centers on the lead-up to Nixon’s drug war and the policies that followed.

    Frydl reveals that Washington, DC, was the testing ground for many of the drug policies that would eventually become law nationwide: mandatory minimum sentences, no-knock raids, and asset seizures, to name a few. Racist legislators characterized majority-black DC as a lawless haven of violence — even when the nation’s capital had historically low crime rates. Despite the protests of DC locals, Congress was able to go on with its interventions in local policy due to DC’s status as a federal jurisdiction.

    The book provides important historical context for drug policies that remain to this day. Nearly seven in 10 DC voters voted to legalize marijuana in November, but Congress attempted to block the initiative in a spending deal in December. Frydl shows the outrageous act of congressional intervention has decades of precedent — for better or worse.

    — German Lopez, writing fellow

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    This book popped up in my Amazon recommendations because intense nosiness about other people’s lives — the more unusual, the better — means I adore a good memoir. I couldn’t put it down. It’s Patchett’s story of her heartbreaking, 20-year friendship with Lucy Grealy, who famously chronicled her own story of losing most of her jaw to a disfiguring childhood cancer and undergoing endless reconstructive surgeries, in "Autobiography of a Face." I’m going to cheat and recommend both books, which offer starkly different perspectives on Grealy and the way she managed her struggles (warning: they’ll make you question whether anyone sees you the way you see yourself). Read together, the pair of offer a beautifully written story of loyalty, relationships, and the complicated emotional lives of two very different, but extremely talented writers.

    — Jenée Desmond-Harris, writer

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    My favorite authors — Jane Austen, William Faulkner, Edith Wharton — are masters of describing small worlds. Their books rest on the belief that individual lives matter: that it's worth devoting an entire book to watching two sisters decide whom to marry, or chronicling a family's attempt to bury one of its own, or exploring if a man will leave his wife. Of course, these books aren't just about the personal lives of their characters: these lives are canvases on which to address class, race, gender dynamics, and a whole host of other social issues.

    "The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P." follows this tradition. It's a 300-page book that focuses on whether a self-absorbed 30-something man living in Brooklyn will ever commit to his girlfriend. Like its predecessors, though, the novel is about much more than one man's romantic entanglements. It's about class, art, elitism — and whether or not we're raising a generation of people to look for love in all the wrong ways.

    — Eleanor Barkhorn, features editor

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    The best book I read in 2014 was Katherine Boo’s "Behind the Beautiful Forevers." I’m hardly the first person to come to that conclusion — it won the National Book Award in 2012, along with a string of other prizes — but I when traveled to India for work this year, it was the book I kept returning to over and over again.

    The book follows the lives of the residents of Annawadi, a slum nestled behind the Mumbai airport, only a few hundred meters from five-star luxury hotels. When the story opens, several families have identified paths that they hope will lead them to middle-class stability. But then tragedy strikes, and the book shifts to follow one family’s desperate attempts to avoid being imprisoned for a terrible crime they did not commit.

    It’s a fascinating story, but also an extraordinary work of journalism. Boo spent three years in Annawadi following the lives of the people who became characters in her book, and it shows. The people in her book seem like real people, not stock characters or what she has called "the representative poor person." Every time I re-read it, I feel lucky to reap the benefits of her efforts.

    — Amanda Taub, writer

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    Yes, I recommended this book for our other feature, "Books to Read to Understand the World." But yes, I'm recommending it a second time here, because Randy Shilts' 1987 telling of the early AIDS epidemic is hands-down the best book I read in 2014. This book was so compelling that, after getting the print edition, I bought the audiobook too so I could keep listening when I was walking.

    Shilts masterfully tells the story of how the United States moved much too slowly to respond to the AIDS epidemic, allowing the disease to spread rapidly across the country. His narrative moves from the scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta trying to figure out what the disease is, to legislators in Washington battling over funding to the gay communities of San Francisco and New York ravaged by the new, mysterious plague. I've never read a book that so skillfully weaves together narrative upon narrative, that all add up to a larger, layered story.

    Shilts' story helped me understand how disease outbreaks get bad — a perspective that helped me cover this year's Ebola crisis, and understand public health threats in a completely new way.

    — Sarah Kliff, senior editor

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    I don't read fantasy, as a rule. I barely even read fiction anymore. But I'm a sucker for the Craft Sequence novels of Max Gladstone — which basically ask the question, "What if the 21st-century global economy ran on magic, and what if capitalism really were a religion?" "Full Fathom Five" is the third book in the sequence, and if you want to start from the beginning I won't stop you, but the novel stands on its own. It takes a hard look at the criminal justice system's promise to rehabilitate prisoners, and at what happens to a community that loses its main industry and tries to make money from tourism instead.

    As a journalist, I enjoy reading Gladstone's books to piece together how systems work in his world. As someone who follows the news, I get a kick out of the references to our own world Gladstone slips in. When I caught a brief parody of The Economist in Full Fathom Five, I laughed so hard I accidentally closed my Kindle app. If that appeals to you, seriously, don't get caught up on the genre thing.

    —Dara Lind, writer

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    This book, a beautifully composed, melancholy ode to five young men in Jesmyn Ward’s life who died too soon, seems as much a tool to help her grapple with their senseless deaths as it is a venue to share her Mississippi family’s story with the world.

    And it’s quite a story. The hopelessness is woven through the tales of her dead friends and relatives, all young black men, like a brightly colored thread against a dull background. In writing about her life and her loved ones, she’s telling a story about poverty and prospects and pain that is felt in poor black communities across the country — far outside the confines of her hometown in the rural South. I read this in February, months before the death of Michael Brown put a spotlight on the subject of young black men and their place in this country. For so many people, people like Ward’s loved ones, these questions are a matter of life and death — not a news story.

    — Lauren Williams, managing editor

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    On moving day, Sloane Crosley locks herself out of both her old and new apartments. As a young, single woman living in New York City, she endures a horrible first job, suffers through bridesmaid chaos, and tries to decipher who left a turd on her bathroom floor — all chronicled in this excellent book of essays.

    Each essay reads as if your best friend is sitting right next to you recounting her day. It’s true that one could have much worse problems than Crosley’s, but there’s a certain comfort in the fact that bizarre and awkward situations happen to everyone.

    — Lauren Katz, social media manager

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    This is a volume of poetry for anyone who has ever loved, hated, or seen a Barbie. That means everyone. These poems are as exceptionally accessible as they are carefully crafted, imagining Barbie experiencing the full breadth of American life, much of which would never meet with Mattel’s approval. It’s our culture, satirized through Barbie’s unblinking eyes.

    There’s Apocalyptic Barbie, Beatnik Barbie, Antichrist Barbie, Barbie’s molester, Barbie in therapy (several times), and — in the poem that’s the title of the book — Barbie and Ken switching heads for kicks and wishing that they had genitalia.

    The Barbies of Duhamel’s poems are sentient, but usually trapped in their stiff plastic bodies with frozen smiles, the realness of their inner lives contrasting with the aching limitations of their physical existence. They make for poems both funny and haunting. Here’s one of Duhamel’s shorter ones:

    CODEPENDENT RELATIONSHIP

    "Barbie says to Ken:

    You know what chlorine does to my hair.

    But if you insist we go swimming

    at least have the courtesy

    to help me take my head off first."

    — Susannah Locke, writer

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    Phillip Lopate's "To Show and To Tell" is the best book on writing I read this year. The title of this essay collection comes from an old writing rule: "Show, don’t tell," writing teachers lecture their students, warning them against over-writing. Why tell your readers that a character is sad if you can show them that she’s sad? Lopate doesn’t refute this idea, but he does challenge it, reminding his readers that good essayists actually do both — show and tell.

    "To Show" reads like a classroom lecture, which makes sense because Lopate has been a college professor for decades. His collection is full of anecdotes recalling some of the more memorable teachable moments he’s shared with students over the years. Each anecdote, like Lopate’s writing in general, is characterized by charity and compassion for his subject, which, at the end of the day, is the essay form that he so loves.

    Lopate cautions against certain essayists that don’t turn against themselves, against their presuppositions. He’s obviously talking about first-person writers, but I think the caution applies to all who write. And think. In an age when thoughts have to be condensed to an authoritative 140 characters, lest they risk not being seriously considered, Lopate’s point — that writing is best when it’s undertaken in humility — is an important one.

    — Brandon Ambrosino, writing fellow

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