I had enough notable reads of 2018 that compiling this list has been a struggle. I’ve decided to organize them into categories which may or may not be useful. Below are 18 of the 58 books I read this year that most moved, engaged, delighted, or provoked me.
The Overstory, Richard Powers
This was my favorite book I read in 2018. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book that surprised and captured me as much as this one. Richard Powers has done something significant in The Overstory: It is at once vast and intimate, philosophical and thrilling.
The novel opens with a chapter that is startling in its approach: It quickly zooms out, like a telescope, through decades in only a handful of pages using the life of a single tree as its focal point, sketching in the lives of the Hoel family who planted the tree as a way of rooting the story. It thematically sets up what is to come: the lifespan of a tree is vaster than human experience can understand; tree have ancient wisdom, and they will remember long after we humans have forgotten.
Then Powers shifts. The chapters that follow delve into the lives of the characters we will follow for the rest of this dense five hundred page novel. We are introduced to them, again, somewhat telescopically, through their formative years, sometimes going back a generation or two as a way to set the stage. Each is introduced through a tree which signifies something important in their lives (and here’s where I appreciate that I read the digital version of this novel–each person’s chapter begins only with a black and white sketch of their tree, no words. So I came to think of each character as a reflection of their tree.)
Powers takes us to the moments when all of these characters’ lives will intersect–sometimes deeply and profoundly, sometimes only peripherally. The third and final part of the novel is this story: Their interweaving.
This part is about the relationships of humans and trees: How is it that we humans have allowed the vast destruction of lives that are so essential to the well-being of the planet? And what are we going to do about it? Powers does not give us simple answers, and nothing is easily wrapped up. The novel is often sad and troubling, and also equally uplifting and inspiring.
The biggest takeaway for me is that I have become much more aware of how much I take trees for granted, and I have slowly started noticing them more.
The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner
This novel, set in a variety of places, most prominently New York City and Italian subcultural and revolutionary scenes of the 1970s, feels both very strange and unfamiliar and also deeply resonant and relatable. This is the force of Kushner’s prose—to render slightly foreign worlds such as the Salt Flats racing scene or the work of a rubber harvester in Brazil familiar and profoundly interesting.
The novel is primarily narrated by a young woman nicknamed “Reno” for her place of origin. We never learn her name because she has yet to make one for herself, which is ultimately her goal. She desires to be an artist, photographing and filming these moments in time that transport the viewer—such as the aftermath of her motorcycle crash on the Salt Flats, but also mundanity—mafia chauffeurs awaiting their charges in the heat—and she falls in with an older, more recognized crew of artists living in New York City, and she falls in love with one of them, Sandro, the wayward son of a moneyed Italian motorcycle dynasty.
Kushner shows us all these people who are searching or damaged. Oftentimes they are funny; oftentimes they are maddening. A recurring archetype in the novel is the older man who deeply loves his own voice and wants nothing more than to endlessly hold forth. Sometimes those stories and views are outrageous, unbelievable; we, of course, are privy to these men’s stories as we listen in with Reno, and while these characters are often infuriating, their stories, sometimes given whole swaths of the novel, are fascinating, especially Ronnie, Sandro’s best friend whom Reno is slightly secretly in love with: He at one point tells a long and detailed story that may or may not be true about getting hit in the head as a boy and wandering dazed and memoryless until he is recruited to be a cabin boy on a sailboat with a wealthy couple whom he travels with for weeks until he suddenly remembers who he is.
This story of Ronnie’s is partly told as performance art. In fact, the novel is peopled with folks whose lives are, in the living, intended as a kind of art. Kushner has empathy for this way of being all the while showing how frustrating it can be to actually have an authentic and sincere relationship with people who take this as their ultimate mode of being.
Kushner’s writing is vivid and immediate. At one point in my reading, I realized how deeply enthralled I was and wanted to understand what she had done as an artist to bring me so fully in. The writing is unobtrusive but somehow perfect, and, mostly, I think she writes with such specific honesty that all characters become so interesting. At one point, the older art crew scoffs at a young woman who has shown up to an art exhibit in pants with a see-through butt because “it is so done.” Reno’s response is, “But it’s new to her, I should have said but didn’t. She’s on her timeline, Gloria, not yours or anyone else’s.” This is how the whole novel feels: New because it’s Kushner’s vision alone.
Ka Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr, John Crowley
Crowley absolutely and remarkably brought me into the world and mind of a crow. This alone–this feeling of a crow ethnography–shows its masterfulness, but it is also beautifully written with so many small passages that spoke to me on a philosophical level. I feel somehow subtly changed from reading this novel despite the fact that, at times, it felt slow and boring.
Outline/Transit/Kudos, Rachel Cusk
I’m including all three of these books here as one, since all three books, though they stand alone and can be read without the others, also all seem part of the same writing and storytelling experiment: A narrator (Faye) interacts with a variety of people; only through their words, their stories do we learn anything about Faye and her life. We get almost none of Faye’s point of view or subjectivity; instead those she interacts with are presented to us at face value with all their detail, nuance, and flaws.
In the first novel, Outline, Faye travels to Greece to teach a writing seminar, and her advice to her students is to pay attention to what they see as they move through their day. This advice seems to be the point of all three novels—in the paying attention is where all the stories lie.
The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin
This book is worth the hype and awards it’s garnered: It’s complex with solid world-building and interesting, multi-faceted characters. Sometimes it’s hard–the abuse and horrors are daunting–but it feels worth it, and it’s not without flaws (hard to talk about without spoiling certain aspects of the plot, but I’ll say simply that the three point-of-view characters could have been better intertwined.) Regardless, I’m excited to read the next books in the series. (Months later I still haven’t…)
Half a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Sprawling, expansive, vivid, and exhausting: Half a Yellow Sun explores the Nigerian Civil war–or Biafran war–through an intimate look at three different point-of-view characters, an educated and wealthy young woman, her house servant, and her twin sister’s British-born lover. The novel paints a complex portrait of these three and their intertwined lives and also details the horrors of the Biafran experience fighting for independence against the Nigerian government. Adichie never talks down to us by giving simplistic exposition, which I admired about the book. And I also felt exhausted by it since I have so little context about this particular moment in history. This is fine–“exhausting” here isn’t a negative quality of the book exactly. Instead it’s a book that demands attention, openness, and a willingness to be led through a great deal of horror and misery. It offers little that is uplifting, which, truly, is also not a negative quality of the book; rather it’s a simple fact: This was a brutal time in history, and Adichie is a strong enough writer to know that anything simple or pat would be off-putting. Still…it’s a hard book to say I loved given this despite its obvious mastery and engaging story-telling.
Vida, Marge Piercy
I was very easily enmeshed in this book: The nuance and detail made it feel intimate, and the subject matter–a woman living underground to escape a heavy jail sentence from her revolutionary activities–made it exciting. I didn’t always like Vida or agree with her positions, but even these moments where I was frustrated with her came from the fact that I was reading a finely written novel–here was someone, after all, who could annoy me or make me want to argue, you know, like real life people I love. I have minor complaints about missteps or details I couldn’t believe, which felt glaring given how precise and finely-wrought everything else was.
The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas
I mostly read this book because so many of my students were, but it ended up being a top read for me this year. Starr is a bright and observant high school student living in two different worlds, the Black neighborhood where she was born and raised and the mostly white private school she attends outside the city. When her childhood friend is shot and killed by a police officer in front of her, the differences between her worlds become starker, and her struggles to decide the right course of action come to the fore.
This is a novel that deals with timely issues in a complicated and smart way and should be required reading for all young white people.
I am not without minor quibbles: Some of the conflict feels overly contrived or not quite coherent, but this all feels fairly insignificant in the light of what is a well-written, smart, and moving book.
Home, Marilynne Robinson
This is one of the those books where nothing much happens, and yet the gravity of the characters’ lives feels enough that it doesn’t matter that there is so little plot. It is subtle and sad and moving.
The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt
This was my last completed book of the year, and I can’t say what exactly about it drew me in, but I felt captivated for nearly the entire 770 pages. I think I’m attracted to books that help create a world so outside my own, and this did that; though it’s set in our present time and country (mostly), it details lifestyles and milieus so far removed from my own experiences—the world of a teenager living in Las Vegas strung out on drugs and alcohol, the world of furniture restoration, art dealers, shady underworld criminals. What connects all these disparate threads is a small inadvertently stolen painting by a Dutch master and the young man whose world has been turned upside down by a single act of terrorism. The novel has nothing startling or new in its writing; it’s just a thoroughly engaging story.
Danny the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl
This is a book that is often overlooked in the Dahl oeuvre, and I can’t figure out why. In my opinion, it is his best. Unlike his other books, this gives us nothing fantastical, and yet it is magical and fantastic in its believability. It has none of the mean-spiritedness of some of his other books. Instead it is a story of a boy who thinks he has the best father in the world, and he is likely right. His father, however, has a secret, which it is best to not know too much about as you begin reading.
American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes
Every sonnet in this collection has the same title: “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin.” Written after the election of 2016, these sonnets mourn the state of our country and present the grief, fear, and anger of being a Black man in America at this moment in time. Hayes is often funny, and his playing with sounds such as assonance and puns is clever and heartrending. The American sonnet form is the ghost of the more formal Petrarchan or Shakespearean sonnet, and the looseness feels fresh and easy while at the same time being carefully crafted.
Here’s a favorite for its mixture of humor, pathos, and resonance:
I’m not sure how to hold my face when I dance:
In an expression of determination or euphoria?
And how should I look at my partner: in her eyes
Or at her body? Should I mirror the rhythm of her hips,
Or should I take the lead? I hear Jimi Hendrix
Was also unsure in dance despite being beautiful
And especially attuned. Most black men know this
About him. He understood the rhythm of a delta
Farmer on guitar in a juke joint circa 1933, as well
As the rhythm of your standard Negro bohemian on guitar
In a New York apartment amid daydreams of jumping
Through windows, ballads of footwork, Monk orchestras,
Miles with strings. Whatever. I’m just saying,
I don’t know how to hold myself when I dance. Do you?
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond
Damning, depressing, and inflaming: This is a seriously researched ethnography which indicts the private rental market and its inherent function of making money off of America’s poor in perpetuating poverty. Desmond’s thesis is that eviction is not a result of a poverty; rather evictions cause poverty by creating instability in multiple regards.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Prescient, scary, enraging. I read this ages ago when I was in high school or early college and have, like so many, been watching the show more recently. The book is coolly and poetically written and worth a read.
Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
Best to not know much about this one going into it, so, loosely: a tale of grifters in Victorian England trying to get rich or get free. Twisty and turny, fun and engaging.
Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
McCann’s jumping off point is the day in August 1974 when Philip Petit tightrope-walked the World Trade Center. This audacious and bold act redefined public space and showed us how connected we are. Here is a series of intertwining stories about lives connected around that event.