A Year in Reading: Emily Gould

December 3, 2014 | 10 books mentioned 40 6 min read

Because Ruth Curry and I are always looking for the next Emily Books pick, and are now reading unpublished manuscripts as well as published books in preparation for our plan to begin publishing a very select number of Emily Books originals, this Year in Reading was INTENSE for me.  I probably read more books in 2014 than I did even in the extremely uneventful summer between 6th and 7th grade, when I read literally every book in the YA section of the White Oak public library, plus almost all the books on my parents’ bookshelves. I read The Second Sex that summer because I was hoping there might be sex in it. Also The Prince, Our Bodies Ourselves, and several presidential biographies. In retrospect my parents should have sent me to summer camp.

Instead of a laundry list of the seriously hundreds of books I read this year, I thought I’d focus here on just a handful that made me excited about books again in a way I haven’t felt in years — both reading and writing them. These were books that I unequivocally loved, books that I’m certain will stay with me in the years to come.

coverThe Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob: I first heard Mira Jacob on my friend Jaime’s podcast, The Catapult, reading a scene where narrator Amina has a tense conversation with her mom, who has a hilarious, idiosyncratic take on English usage and is just in general a maddening, overbearing/lovable mom character to add to the pantheon of all-time great mom characters. “No wonder that dirty man shot himself — all that time without sun and this devil woman tearing her pantyhoses,” is her take on Kurt Cobain’s suicide. Jacob performed the dialogue like an actress and I was immediately hooked. The book traces a deep, painful, years-long family tragedy, but Jacob balances humor and heartache deftly, and Amina is wry and sad and totally real.

coverThe Paying Guests by Sarah Waters: God, this book. This BOOK! Since I devoured four Sarah Waters books in a row this year, I feel qualified to judge that this book represents a new level of excellence for Waters. Since her other books are all amazing too, that’s really saying something. I had kind of expected this book to blow up Goldfinch-style; it’s a gripping page-turner in addition to being perfectly written and it’s about something important and real. I wonder whether reviewers’ understandable reticence about revealing the plot twist that changes the book halfway through from masterful historical portraiture to something more like a thriller made it a harder sell than it ought to have been? Anyway, if you like interwar London, fraught lesbian secret affairs, and hot sex scenes, plus crime, punishment, and hard moral questions that keep you thinking long after the book is over — I mean, it’s just hard to imagine anyone not loving this book. I think it’s perfect.

After Birth by Elisa Albert: This book is kind of the opposite in terms of appeal-universality — I can imagine a reasonable person hating it. But I am helpless with love for Elisa Albert’s work. Something about her voice and her style, not to mention her subject matter, just does it for me in a way no one else’s books do, and I’ve been salivating for years for her to come out with another one (this one doesn’t actually get published til February). It’s about a malcontented woman who has a baby and moves to upstate New York, where she falls in intense friend-love with a charismatic fellow new mother. Albert is great on the darkness at the heart of all kinds of hallowed intimacies, and even when you’re gasping, appalled by the narrator’s pinched, cruel worldview, you’ll never stop reading.

coverAdam by Ariel Schrag: Ariel Schrag is one of the most talented human beings alive. Not only did she create comics that evoke high school perfectly while still in high school, she’s a screenwriter and teacher and now, the author of one of the funniest novels I’ve ever read. Adam is the weird, touching story of a high school senior who spends a summer with his cool older sister in NYC and uses the opportunity to try on a new identity. Schrag’s writing is sharp and stylish but also effortlessly graceful; you almost don’t notice how great her sentences are because they flow straight into your brain, situating themselves there like some better, funnier version of your own thoughts.

coverFlorence Gordon by Brian Morton: I am lucky enough to know Brian a little and so after I finished this book I wrote him an email saying that I loved everything about it except was he sure about the title? At the time I felt strongly that it should have been called Opportunities For Heroism In Everyday Life, which is the title of a book by the namesake protagonist. Now I realize that I was very wrong. This book is about Florence Gordon; it couldn’t and shouldn’t pretend it’s about anything else for one second. Florence would want it that way! She’s a very forceful character: a heroic feminist activist-author who’s beloved by many readers and acolytes, but somewhat feared and even hated by her intimates and her family, whose lives have been shaped/deformed in response to her uncompromising personality. The book is about the relationship her granddaughter doggedly forges with her, a description that makes it seem like the book might be sentimental. It’s not; Florence would never allow it to be. But you will still cry. (So much!!)

The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink: This funny, profane, deeply weird book defies description. The author has been writing for years but, aside from a zine, never before for publication. When an email correspondence with Jonathan Franzen turned into a friendly rivalry, she set out to prove that she can write better than he can. Can she? Well, he thinks so and to be honest I do too. (And I love J. Franz. I am a known Franz-stan.)

Wish You Were Me by Myriam Gurba: Reasons to live: food, beautiful fall days, cats, being in the ocean and being lifted up by a perfect wave, and reading a new writer for the first time whose voice is different from any you’ve heard before and who you want to keep hearing forever.

coverThe Girls From Corona Del Mar by Rufi Thorpe: This novel got great reviews, came our around the same time as my novel Friendship, and is also about female best friends. If the author hadn’t contacted me out of the blue via Facebook and offered to send it to me, I would have been too jealous to read it. Luckily, she did! It’s very different from Friendship  — Rufi’s voice is nothing like mine, and her book’s scope is broader, in every way — but has a similar unsparing attitude, stripping away familiar pieties about love and goodness until all that’s left is the truth.

coverSisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld: I’m a Sittenfeld superfan and her latest book delighted me just as much as all her others have, maybe more so in some ways. She pulls off a trick in it that, in less masterful hands, often goes awry: she creates a world just like our own but with one crucial supernatural difference (here, it’s that one of a pair of twins is psychic). I read this back to back with Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra At The Wedding, another book about very dissimilar twins, and I recommend this! You can feel like you took a mini-seminar in twin lit, and they’re both fantastic books.

Notice by Heather Lewis: The hardest to read book I’ve ever read. Lewis was a phenomenal talent who died young and whose work never got the recognition it deserved. We republished this out of print book as an Emily Books ebook that includes corrections from the original manuscript, courtesy of Lewis’s literary executor Ann Rower, and a new Introduction by Dale Peck. It’s about a woman who enters an abusive relationship with an older couple whose daughter has died. I had to trap myself underground with it and ride the subway til I got to the last page, but I’m so glad I did. Ruth and I are incredibly proud that we were able to bring this book back to life.

coverLena Finkle’s Magic Barrel by Anya Ulinich: Ulinich’s brilliance and wryness are up against their most formidable opponent yet: online dating. Her heroine, Lena Finkle, finds herself single in her mid-30s with two teenage kids and embarks on the kind of romantic odyssey many people get out of the way in their early-20s, when Finkle was tethered to her then-babies. She eventually falls, hard, for a total cad, and the book documents what it’s like to be in love with someone terrible with painful realness.

More from A Year in Reading 2014

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

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is the co-owner, with Ruth Curry, of Emily Books and the author of Friendship and And The Heart Says Whatever.


  1. Did any men write books in 2014? Apparently not judging by this and the other female writers surveyed. People can read whatever they like, of course, but I feel like if any male writers put together a list of almost exclusively other male writers within five years of their age, someone would have noted it by now. So I’m noting it.

  2. Well, if Patrick is worried about the representation of male authors in recent lists, based on VIDAs numbers, he might look to some other indie-alternative media sources such as The New York Times Review of Books, The New York Review of Books, and The London Review of Books. I think he will be pleased to find plenty of men there, talking about manly books.

  3. So we’ll be seeing for the first year ever a YEAR IN READING without a single “WHY IS THIS GUY ONLY TALKING ABOUT BOOKS HE LOVED THAT ARE BY OTHER MEN!” or “WHY DON’T YOU PEOPLE LIKE GENRE BOOKS!” comment? Because I’m for that.

  4. I wonder if VIDA will get its quota system for the arts this year? Under the Christmas tree? Since it’s obviously so needed. Duras would never have made it without such a system in place in France.

    Ok, seriosuly though. Female writers aren’t doing that bad. See Goodreads study. Both genders read the same gender 90% of the time but there are twice as many female readers, so the money is right. VIDA is about the glory, or rather, equal access to bourgeois literary world money for that class of writers of both genders that people generally don’t care to read (yeah, the Mid-Listers).

    So you want me to help you overthrow… what?

  5. Chelsea,

    Your reaction is so predictable it’s kind of depressing. My larger point is not about DWEM’s lack of canonical representation. It’s that whether you are a man or woman, if you’re a serious artist you read things by people who look different than you and don’t all live within a five block radius of your apartment. These lists, and others I’ve seen recently, speak to a certain unhealthy aesthetic insularity in the midlist lit market.

  6. And I don’t think, “Well, white guys were insular assholes for a thousand years, now it’s our turn” is necessarily the ideal position to take, although as a white guy, of course I’d think that.

  7. “Did any men write books in 2014?”

    Yes, Brian Morton for one. And he’s right on Gould’s list. He wrote about a woman, however…so that probably doesn’t count in Patrick’s mind.

  8. Thank you, Patrick. I was unaware that an older queer woman living in the UK, an Indian-American writer, a middle-aged white man living in the suburbs, a young queer woman, another queer woman who died in 2002, a Russian-American immigrant, and a Midwestern mom of three, a weirdo German expat and a Bay Area Chicana woman all live within a five block radius of my Brooklyn apartment, but now that I know they’re all so close by and so similar to me, I’ll have them all over for dinner.

  9. Come on, Emily. You know that diversity requires that white men must make up 51% of all lists!

  10. Emily,

    Your response elides the fact that your list is all women but one, with a median age of around 35, and almost all white. I would suggest undertaking the thought experiment of a man coming out with a similar list, and what the reaction might be, but then, no man smart enough to write a novel would be dumb enough to do so.

    Also, while I was obviously talking metaphorically about what I perceive to be a certain provinciality in your, and others, lists, at a glance half your list does, in fact, live/work within five blocks of you:

    Mira Jacob–lives in Brooklyn
    Elisa Albert–Columbia adjunct
    Ariel Schrag–lives in Brooklyn
    Brian Morton–has penis, NYU prof
    Heather Lewis–lived in NY
    Anya Ulinich–lives in Brooklyn

  11. I think you’re defining provinciality however it suits you, expanding the scope of your definition in whatever direction you need to in order to be “right.” What would it cost you to be wrong, here? What’s at stake for you, personally, when I say that I love these particular books? What’s so threatening about a list of beloved books that’s mostly by women? Whose books should I prefer to these, in your opinion? Would preferring the same books that you do make me more of a “serious artist”? Being a “serious artist” sounds boring and if I’m not one, by your estimation, I guess I’ll probably live. And probably keep writing and recommending books that I love. Sorry.

  12. To be clear, I don’t care that much, being wrong would cost me nothing, the internet is stupid, etc. I was originally just pointing out something I noticed on your and a few other’s recent year end lists. Even if this kind of discussion were possible, which it manifestly isn’t, this probably isn’t the place and I apologize for fouling up the comment section of a list of books that I’m sure are worthy.

    At the same time, Idk, what would it cost you to be aware of the possible narrowness of your taste? I have, in the past, noticed my own ongoing list skewing toward almost all men, and that bothered me. I am not, however, an influential publisher and tastemaker , so there’s really no harm done in my case, other than in terms of my own personal growth, if I only read Waugh, Amis, and Powell.

  13. Just a reminder: “Did any men write books in 2014?” was what you asked. No matter how you backtrack now, what you called for was more male writers, NOT more diversity, NOT a more nuanced evaluation of taste. Your mistake (in missing the male writer) and presumption (in missing the diversity of the other writers) was pointed out, and you’re now moving the goalposts. Be honest, and stop pretending that you wanted anything more than more male writers.

  14. Also: There are several lists in previous years where writers mention, at most, one female writer. And whats more: You know it.

  15. Bro,

    When you adopt a pose of titanic, self-righteous and all-consuming indignation for a few years people are going to get tired of it and call you out on any inconsistencies, bro. Last time I checked, bro, VIDA hasn’t called for better quality in writing either, bro, just gender parity for the upper middle class. Bro, how can you expect me to get behind that?


    PS Bro: What I want to know is, where are all the self-published authors and books on these lists? That’s the real 500 LBS Gorilla here, bro.

  16. >> I feel like if any male writers put together a list of almost exclusively other male writers within five years of their age, someone would have noted it by now. So I’m noting it. <<

    That's true, Patrick, and you know why? Because statistically men have more bylines in major magazines (source: VIDA), the NY Times reviews more books by men than women (again VIDA), more than 70% of Op-Eds are written by men (source: Op Ed project), and 90% of films are written by men (source: Women's Media Center). The Women's Media Center study also found that "male sources are quoted three times as frequently as female ones in front-page stories in the New York Times."

    Your criticism of Emily for posting a list that celebrates the work of many women authors shows you to be deeply ignorant of the scale of gender disparity in media.

  17. Great list. That Myriam Gurba book is extraordinary, and it’s nice that the list includes books that were published more than a few months ago.

    Also, I am glad that women are “over-represented” here. It’s not, like, confusing.

  18. CIB,

    I’m not backtracking. I think there’s something deeply suspect about a list that has one person of one sex (I didn’t miss whats-his-name, incidentally, just didn’t mention it, exception proving the rule, etc) and fifteen of another. I would feel the same way about a man’s list with fifteen men and one woman. I would probably feel less that way about a man’s list with fifteen women and one man, although I’m not sure that’s fair.

    Leigh Stein,

    I’m resistant to the idea that the cure for gender disparity in media is a different kind of gender disparity in media, although I understand the impulse.

  19. You know what, I’m sorry I said anything. Internet commenting/arguing is so dumb. I will read one of these books as penance–Nell Zink’s looks interesting…

  20. “at a glance half [Emily’s] list does, in fact, live/work within five blocks of [her]:
    Mira Jacob–lives in Brooklyn
    Elisa Albert–Columbia adjunct
    Ariel Schrag–lives in Brooklyn
    Brian Morton–has penis, NYU prof
    Heather Lewis–lived in NY
    Anya Ulinich–lives in Brooklyn”


    But seriously – I noticed the “lack of diversity” on this list too (all female protagonists of close age). But whatever! I don’t have a problem with people reading whatever they want and then writing honestly and well about the books they read, as Emily does here… as long as, if the situation was reversed, they wouldn’t call misogyny. And Emily Gould would never. Ever. Do that.

  21. Stephen Dodson’s list only mentions male authors (five of them). Of the ten author posts so far, two men have chosen to list only a man or men and two women have chosen to list only a woman or women. Overall, I think the lists are pretty diverse. However, if you want to pick a fight or find something to be offended about, I’m sure you’ll find a way.

  22. …interesting how these comment sections always devolve into some lowly, highly emotionally charged, pseudo-sociological debate. i wouldn’t have minded some debate about the books. E.g. is Water’s book anything like Tartt’s in style…because the anemic, transparent plotting (e.g. Bunny has it coming…. ah, yes, he gets killed) of the latter and her dislike of writing a single beautiful sentence put me to bed.

  23. Hey Patrick!

    Chris Lehman thinks you’re the Devil because you didn’t roll over and enjoy Gould’s list like a good doggy.


    Bookforum obviously existing in 2013 still… BTW I’d like to give a big thank you to The Millions for actually allowing commentary on this website, unlike a few others I could name…

  24. @themba mabona You make an excellent point, perhaps a bit of both? Devolution is just so tempting sometimes.

    [Re: “Thank you, Patrick. I was unaware that an older queer woman living in the UK, an Indian-American writer, a middle-aged white man living in the suburbs, a young queer woman, another queer woman who died in 2002, a Russian-American immigrant, and a Midwestern mom of three, a weirdo German expat and a Bay Area Chicana woman all live within a five block radius of my Brooklyn apartment, but now that I know they’re all so close by and so similar to me, I’ll have them all over for dinner.”]

    YES! Epic remark!

    Oh PN, PN. I can hear your Great Gawping Haruumph all the way from here.

    Moe Murph
    (Asserts for list purposes that Brian is a Giant Among Men and worth at least 10 females, plus several camels and one very well-embroidered rug. :) )

  25. Patrick’s mistake in this exchange was taking up the debate about whether Emily Gould’s list of books was actually provincial or narrow or whatever. It doesn’t seem that way to me, at least not egregiously so. I’m a Southerner and I tend to read more Southern lit than I’m sure your average person from Oregon does, and I don’t think that’s problematic.

    His first point, before he took issue with the actual content of Gould’s list, has some merit, however. If a man posted a similar list with almost exclusively male writers he would likely take some flak over this.

    Policing people’s literary preferences is stupid and can only result in the sort of inane bean counting we see in this thread and everywhere else that this subject comes up. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Gould reading mostly women just as there is absolutely nothing wrong with a male author reading mostly male authors. Some people are going to incorporate more books written by and about people from different backgrounds than others. Good for them. But that doesn’t mean we need to castigate the people who tend to prefer books they can more easily relate to.

    Is the goal to encourage the “right” kind of reading or is the goal to encourage reading full stop?

  26. Ross G,

    Patrick’s comment on a man posting a similar list does not, in my opinion, have merit because there are such lists included in this very series of “Year in Reading” posts. For example, Matthew Thomas names 8 male authors and 1 female. Stephen Dodson lists 5 males and zero females. Not only is no one raising a fuss, no one, based on the comments here, seems to have even noticed. And yes, I am “bean counting” because I am trying to make a fact-based point rather than simply lob half-baked insults and accusations.

    I agree with your other points. People have different preferences based on many factors. Though I aim for diversity in my reading, I do read more female authors than male and most of my favorites this year (which is what these lists are about) are written by females.

  27. Natasha-
    None of those other writers has made a career out of manufacturing outrage on this one point. The hypocrisy is the thing. Also, I found it somewhat ironic that Gould’s crusher, upon fact checking, crumbled.

    But the pointed criticism breaking through on this article and on BB’s next door is certainly about more than just these writers. It’s the sign of a larger shift.

    As one inmate said to another “It’s bigger than the cereal.”

    Clarification: The only writers I read are dead ones because those are, at the moment, the only good ones.

  28. Natasha:

    Point taken with Dodson and Thomas’ lists. I shouldn’t have put my point in such absolute terms.


    If you think there are no good living writers, the problem lies with you, not the writers.

  29. I have decided to spend 2015 focusing on reading undead (zombie) writers, who are criminally underrepresented on these lists!

    Moe Murph
    Rapidly Devolving Into Total Silliness

  30. Josef,

    That’s fine, but the argument you’re saying he made is not the argument he made. He indicated more than once that if a male author published a similar list, he’d be condemned for it. Since that was the basis of his argument, I felt compelled to point out that male authors have made similar lists and they were not condemned for it. It seems like a fair point to make.

    Anyway, I don’t want to belabor a point. Or pick on Patrick. I know there’s resentment from both sides of the gender disparity issue. I don’t follow it closely because it seems nearly impossible to have a conversation about it that doesn’t devolve into insults and snide comments. And, I’m relatively new to this site, so there’s probably history here that I’m not aware of. Here’s to happy reading for everyone!

  31. Hi Natasha!

    Points taken. Welcome to TM, bestest lit website out there. Everyone here actually gets along pretty well, believe it or not.

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