Before diving right into this list of the best books of 2018, I feel like I should disclose that two of the best books I read in 2018 were New Peopleby Danzy Senna, which was published in 2017, and Normal People by Sally Rooney, which will be published (in America) in 2019. Neither are on the following list, of course, because of the constrictions of time. And not just time in the sense of the boundaries of the calendar year 2018, but also in the sense of... I just didn't read every book that came out this year, including many that were surely worthy of consideration for, if not inclusion, on this list. Like, I still haven't read the late Denis Johnson's The Largesse of the Sea Maiden; nor have I read National Book Award winner The Friend by Sigrid Nuñez. Maybe next year.
Till then, here are the books that I alternately tore through and savored this year—the ones that came out this year. They include sweeping wartime epics; intimate looks into relationships between mother and daughter, father and son, and grandmother and grandson; and sharp, fierce looks into the worlds of teenage girls and 20-something women, oppressed by ennui. They share only one thing: They all delighted and distracted me from the world outside their pages, a very delightful distraction, indeed.
Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday (available here)
There is a class of readers who, from a young age, looked toward books to teach them how to live—what foods to eat, what clothes to wear, what music to listen to, what blocks to live on, what names to go by. I numbered myself among that group, though it'd been some time since I allowed the whims of an author to dictate my life choices. And then I read Lisa Halliday's exquisite debut novel and learned about Tiptree's Little Scarlet Strawberry Preserves, the favored jam of Ezra Blazer, Halliday's loosely disguised version of Philip Roth in the first, meta-fictional part of Asymmetry. (I tried the jam and liked it, though I know others find it far too sweet; but I found a small scoop of it perfect when paired with salted butter on sourdough toast.) The point is, this is the kind of book that seduces readers into wanting to be a part of its, at once, discreet and orderly and then utterly sprawling world. Halliday expertly makes cogent the wild incongruities of life, offering glimpses into worlds both wholly familiar and anything but. It is a lovely, bracing debut, filled with perfect sentences I've returned to over and over again throughout the year.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (available here)
With her latest novel, Tayari Jones has offered up a masterpiece—a tremendously powerful story about love, injustice, inequality, and strength. Centered around Celestial and Roy, a newlywed couple whose future looks brighter than the stars themselves, An American Marriage reveals how quickly dreams can be derailed due to systemic malignant forces all around us. This story isn't simply about lost love and sorrow and injustice, of course, it is also about rebuilding and redemption. It is a narrative of hope, though it never resorts to easy answers for the huge problems plaguing our society. It's a novel of vision and grace, and it will root itself in your consciousness with the determination of a lovingly planted hickory tree.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh (available here)
I must admit, I'm particularly predisposed to novels about young women that have as their central premise: What could possibly go wrong? Only to answer that question with a thoroughness that could fairly be called head-spinning. And with My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Ottessa Moshfegh does not disappoint, with a story set in the retroactively ominous time and place of New York City in the year 2000. What could possibly go wrong? It seems, at first, like nothing will go wrong for the narrator, who is young, successful, and attractive in a city which prizes those things above all else in its women, but quickly it becomes clear that things are wrong, if not externally, then internally, as she suffers through the kind of severe alienation which tends to follow those who know, deep down, that their dark insides don't match their glittery outsides. Moshfegh excels at writing this kind of paradoxical character, and her latest novel is a triumph of the kind of dark humor and probing insight for which she has become renowned.
Read more about my thoughts on this book, here.
That Was Something by Dan Callahan (available here)
For his first novel, Dan Callahan has written a compelling, propulsive look at obsession and desire and the ways in which it's sometimes easier not to mind when the two things become intertwined. Callahan, who has written extensively about cinema and its stars (including for NYLON), has set his narrative in late-'90s New York, a time that feels trapped in amber—dark and dangerous, full of blood and spit and all things viscous. The story follows Bobby Quinn, Ben Morrissey, and Monika Lilac (Callahan has a gift for names), as they navigate a dying nightlife scene and an era that was about to come to a close. It's a story about truth and lies, about what it means to be not a fake, but a real fake, and how we reconcile life's often absurd juxtapositions in an effort to make some sense of a deeply nonsensical world.
Read an interview with Callahan about his book, here.
The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling (available here)
A funny thing about motherhood is that it is a process by which a woman transforms herself into a home; suddenly, you are not just a person, but also you are a place, a sanctuary, a retreat, a destination. It can feel, sometimes, that you don't have as much room to be a person, anymore. Or at least not the person you once were. Motherhood and home are two of the themes with which Lydia Kiesling grapples in The Golden State, a lucid, lyrical look at the often alienating, disorienting experience of early motherhood, the way in which it frays at already unraveling nerves, and the way in which external realities contribute to that fraying, that fuzziness, when the fragility of the world around and within us becomes all too apparent. More than that, though, Kiesling beautifully explores not just the changed identity that comes with motherhood, but that which comes with partnership, aging, and the sudden realization that the parts of your identity you once thought were most immutable, are actually as ephemeral as that precious, fleeting golden hour of the day, when you stand, alone with yourself, sneaking a cigarette, wondering how you will keep living one minute to the next.
Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah (available here)
In his stunning debut collection of short stories, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah grapples with many of the most complicated, essential issues of today, from the evils of racism and capitalism to the ways in which violence and inequality are expected parts of life for so many people in America. Adjei-Brenyah's prose grabs you from the beginning and doesn't loosen its grip, as it takes you into the dark corners of the American experience, with a lyricism, dark wit, and palpable emotional weight rarely seen on the page.
Read my interview with Adjei-Brenyah, here.
A Terrible Country by Keith Gessen (available here)
Is there anyone you know who isn't struggling, in ways both big and small, with the concept of place? With answering the questions not only of the importance of home and origin and family and what we owe to them, but also the questions of our importance to them, and what they owe to us? Though it's easy enough to ascribe those feelings to being an American at this point in time, that would be missing the degree to which struggles with identity and with belonging are, of course, ever relevant, ever necessary, and never exclusive to the modern American experience. And yet, Keith Gessen's dark, brilliant, drily hilarious new novel A Terrible Country, is about the experience of a modern American—an expat, to be sure, but is there anything more modern and American than that?
Andrei Kaplan has left America—New York, to be precise, where life wasn't exactly living up to his expectations—to go to Moscow and take care of his elderly, ailing grandmother. Once there, Andrei finds himself taking stock of the society around him, filled with political injustices, expensive coffee, an anachronistic health care system, passionate young dissidents, and a vibrant hockey scene. It is up to Andrei to navigate this country's specific terribleness; or, rather, it is up to Gessen to guide Andrei through the mundane tumult of his life—and Gessen does so with a clarity and grace (and no small amount of humor) that makes for the kind of book that lodges inside your consciousness long after you've finished it, so compelling and provocative are its ideas, so unforgettable its characters.
Census by Jesse Ball (available here)
There's nothing like a road trip novel which, admittedly, can go very badly in the wrong hands. But when done right, it serves as a profound evocation of the passage of our lives, of the way we move across once-unfathomable distances more easily than we'd thought possible, of the way in which the destination is never the goal, and sometimes isn't even a goal.
Jesse Ball has written a beautiful road trip novel, yes, but it is also so much more. It is, as Ball explains in the introduction to this book, a tribute of sorts to his brother, Abram, who died many years ago and had Down Syndrome. Abram is not precisely present in this book; rather, as Ball explains, he lives in the book's blank spaces. But what is in the book is a love story between a dying father and the adult son for whom he cares, much as Ball once thought he would care for his brother one day. The novel's father and son have set off together on a strange road trip, in which they're visiting towns in ascending alphabetical order, working for an enigmatic government agency, taking a census. There's a rhyme to it all, but what is the reason? This is a question not only about the mission upon which the father and son find themselves but also about, well, everything. What there's no question about is Ball's alternately fierce and tender portrayal of parental love, of how we grieve for the things we haven't yet lost, and of how we are responsible for understanding our roles in perpetuating the destruction happening all around us. This is a book that will give you an expanded sense of what it means to have compassion, and what it means to love.
Read my interview with Ball, here.
If You Leave Me by Crystal Hana Kim (available here)
This compelling, gorgeous debut novel takes place in wartime Korea, and does something that far too few war stories do: It shares the perspective of a young woman, precisely the kind of person whose experience is too often silenced, whose story is never told. Haemi is but a 16-year-old when she must flee her home with her widowed mother and younger brother to a refugee camp. In an effort to secure a brighter future for herself and her family, Haemi marries the wealthy cousin of her childhood love. This epic story offers a clear look at the ways in which women's autonomy is so often compromised, as they struggle to survive in a world that finds them disposable. Crystal Hana Kim's novel, with its striking portrayal of the complexities of being a woman and of being marginalized, is one of the most beautiful and moving love stories you'll read this year, set as it is against the backdrop of finding a way through a callous world, of finding a way to preserve love in a time of war.
Read my interview with Kim, here.
Eden by Andrea Kleine (available here)
Two sisters—Hope and Eden—who were kidnapped as teenagers, have grown up to live two very different—and separate—lives, and Andrea Kleine brings readers to the time 20 years after their abduction, when the man responsible is up for parole. In part driven by a desire to keep this man in prison, and in part driven by despair at the ways in which her life is falling apart around her (her girlfriend has left her, her career is stalling, she's lost her apartment, her mother has died), Hope sets out to search for her estranged sister, Eden. What follows is a devastating, revelatory examination of trauma, memory, creation, and the ways in which we define ourselves according to the events of our past, even the ones we struggle most to resist. More than that, though, through Hope's winding road trip to find Eden, Kleine reveals the ways in which, as much as we feel isolated within our lived experiences, we are not alone, and we must turn to others for help and guidance, even if they can't always offer what we need or want.
Inappropriation by Lexi Freiman (available here)
Have you ever read a book and felt it crackle? Like, you start to worry that it's going to start emitting smoke and then flames because so much is going on and there's a visceral charge to each word you're reading? Same! But if you haven't experienced that, you should probably make it a point to read Lexi Freiman's Inappropriation, which skewers just about every societal and literary convention you can think of, making it one of the most subversive coming-of-age stories out there. The novel centers around 15-year-old Ziggy Klein, whose struggle with identity issues leads her to embrace her school's radical feminist contingent, as well as the seminal book The Cyborg Manifesto. Ziggy uses these things as the jumping-off point to explore issues of gender, sexuality, and identity, and, yes, this does involve coming up with an elaborate revenge plot, but... you know what? Just go along for the ride with Ziggy, it'll be worth the fiery journey.
Read my interview with Freiman, here.
The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon (available here)
This lyrical, haunting novel is a remarkable debut from Kwon, in which she shows with real lucidity the tangled ways in which passion slips into fanaticism, love into desperation, and faith into folly. At the center of this novel are three people: Will, a former evangelical Christian; Phoebe, whose implacable exterior hides the grief and responsibility she feels over her mother's death; and John, a charismatic cult leader, who seduces Phoebe away from Will and into a complex, violent world of political actions. Though this is, in many ways, a classic page-turner, as we go along with Will on his journey to find out how culpable Phoebe is in John's extremist acts, what truly stands out is Kwon's ability to portray the intimate ways in which we deal with issues of fractured identity and feelings of displacement, and how quickly the personal becomes political, and then personal all over again.
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