As usual, this list is taken from the books I’ve read during 2018. Who cares what year a good book was published, really? I believe in buying lots of books and then letting them rise to the surface at the right time. I also believe in keeping this list to 10ish, so I’ve forced myself to be ruthless. What are the books I urged onto other people? The books that haunt me months later?
One difficulty with my list is that I try to keep it free of books written by my friends, which feels more honest to me, but I am lucky to have SO MANY accomplished and prolific writer friends! Also, in this age of social media, is someone I know from Facebook a “friend” or a friend? What if I met someone once at an event…are they my friend/“friend” and therefore excluded from my list? My imperfect solution is to keep a separate, unranked list of books I loved that I read this year that were written by my friends (below) and hope no one hates me. Also, I did let one book blur the “friend”/friend line to sneak onto the first list.
Presented in random order:
Another Brooklyn, Jacqueline Woodson: I read this in a single morning and ached all day for these young girls.
The Power, Naomi Alderman: Smart, dark, well-constructed…and a book you’ll want to discuss immediately with someone as you turn that last page. If you have a book club, this one should be required reading!
An American Marriage, Tayari Jones: This author is a dazzling reader/presenter of her work, so catch her if you can; this book is utterly absorbing, about a newlywed African-American man accused of a crime he didn’t commit and what happens to a fledgling marriage.
You Think It, I’ll Say It, Curtis Sittenfeld: What delightfully dark and modern humor. Each story felt complete yet I longed to read more, more, more. Spin each of these stories off into a novel, please.
Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto, Steve Almond: This non-fiction book made me queasy because the author totally—with verve and vigor—nailed each and every awful thing about the football industrial complex…yet I still find myself shouting, “Get him!” at my TV screen on Sunday afternoons this autumn. Thought-provoking in the best way.
Eleven Kind of Loneliness, Richard Yates: A reread of this classic story collection. I wrote in my book journal, “Like stepping into an Edward Hopper painting,” and I’m pretty sure saying more than that won't create a clearer picture of these bleak and human stories.
The Great Believers, Rebecca Makkai: About the AIDS crisis in Chicago in the 80s and a totally immersive book that will break your heart even as you can’t stop turning the pages. There’s a modern storyline interwoven, ensuring that we feel the ripple effects of this tragic epidemic.
Sharp Objects, Gillian Flynn: Creepy, complicated characters doing creepy, complicated things. I found the TV show to be addictive, but the book topped the show. Really, I suggest checking out both.
Calypso, David Sedaris: Deep and hard exploration of family and loss. Yes, he’s funny, of course. But he’s so much more, and that final revelation will mule-kick you in the gut. I’d read many of these pieces previously in The New Yorker but encountering them arranged with an arc in mind gave new resonance. Also, I didn't think much about the title until I did, doing some minor research, and there's more and deep resonance with this choice.
Educated, Tara Westover: A memoir about a girl who grew up in a fundamentalist Mormon family in Idaho, so beyond convention that the youngest kids never went to school. Yet the author manages to extricate herself from this insular world. Harrowing and relentless and brutal in its honesty: yet the author never neglects to treat even the villainous people with compassion and humanity. Extraordinary. If I had to select one book that was my favorite of the year, right this minute it would be this one. (Runners-up are The Great Believers and An American Marriage.)
The Perfect Nanny, Leila Slimani: I loved how the author of this novel captured the nuances of the uncomfortable relationship the domestic “employer” has with the domestic “employed,” the trickiness of outsourcing family labor traditionally done by women. There’s a dramatic and horrible opening…yet in my mind that almost isn’t even the point of this chilly and chilling book.
Descent, Tim Johnston: Depending on the kind of reader you are, you’ll pick this up for the literary cred and stay for the suspense, or vice versa. In any event, this book delivers both, multiplied by 1000, as a family deals with the abrupt disappearance of teenage daughter/sister. I defy you to close this book once you reach the last third! (This is the “friend” book that I fudged into this section because, well, just because I’m in charge here! And because I was reading it on an airplane and was GRATEFUL the plane had to circle for 20 extra minutes so I could finish reading it!)
BOOKS I READ BY MY FRIENDS AND “FRIENDS”
How to Sit, Tyrese Coleman: A hybrid mix of fact and fiction, these stories and essays left me breathless, and not just because the author was in one of my fiction workshops at Johns Hopkins, but because the writing is that assured. (A debut!)
Second Shift, essays, Susan Tekulve: Travel and food explored with a nuanced, observant eye, evoked in exquisite language.
Monsoon Mansion, Cinelle Barnes: A ravishingly assured debut memoir by one of our Converse MFA grads who grew up in dire circumstances in the Philippines and who found a way to survive to tell the tale, elegantly. (A debut!)
Sad Math, poems, Sarah Freligh: The type of poetry I love most of all, accessible yet resounding with heartfelt depth, like the continued quiver of a tuning fork.
The Second O of Sorrow, poems, Sean Thomas Dougherty: The Rust Belt gets so much clear-eyed, deeply honest love here that it’s impossible not to see beauty, not to feel an endless ache.
The Promise of Failure, John McNally: A smart and honest memoir/craft book about the author’s (and our) ongoing struggles with the writing life and how failure fits into that life (and any life, really).
The Incurables, Mark Brazaitis: Tough linked short stories about tough people trained to be stoic; the title story is especially incredible.
Crumb-Sized, poems, Marlena Chertock: Don’t let the science motif intimidate you; these poems are personal, revealing, and stunning. And a gold star for the lovely book design!
This Could Hurt, Jillian Medoff: I think the workplace is under-represented in literary fiction, especially when I see the riches available when one of the primary characters is a sharp-eyed female corporate boss lost in New York City’s rat race.
The Accidental Bride, Janice Harayda: When you want a totally light-hearted, amusing & charming but also SMART book about wedding woes!
First Comes Love, Marian Winik: A harrowing & deeply honest memoir about being in love with the wrong person who is also exactly the right person.
Carry Her Home, Caroline Bock: Linked stories about grief and family and a New York of the past. (I first met the author in one of my classes at Politics & Prose!)
The Balcony, Jane Delury: France, the French, and lots of food! For some that might be all you need to hear! For the rest, this novel-in-stories is an elegant evocation of a house in France and its complex history. (A debut!)