For me, there’s a beautiful moment at the beginning of each new year where I look forward to and fantasize about the many books that I’ll encounter over the next twelve months. Then, of course, there’s the realization that for every one book I will read, there’s surely five more that I wanted to get around to and didn’t.
But such is life. And, overall, 2018 was a pretty damn fine year for the written word, both fiction and nonfiction alike. In fact, looking back at my roundup from last year, I’m confident in saying that this year was markedly better as a whole in the publishing world.
My goal (as it is every year) is to read a book a week, but, also as usual, that didn’t happen. In 2017, I read 47 books. This year? Only 36. I did, however, mix in more nonfiction this year, so there’s that. I’m going to blame this overall diminished number on my 4th kid being born in early February. Thanks a bunch, Leo, for jamming me up on my reading time.
I’ll admit straightaway that there’s a number of books that you’ll probably find on other end of the year lists that I just simply didn’t get around to, but I’ve listed those below as well, in part to remind myself that I have to get to them at some point in 2019.
Anyway, let’s get to it shall we? As I always do when I do these lists, I’ll paraphrase the great Mark Twain in saying the person who does not read books has no advantage over the person who cannot read them. So read on, folks!
1.The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin
Published all the way back on January 9, 2018, Benjamin’s novel set the tone for the year in books. And, in looking back over everything I’ve read this year, nothing topped it.
Starting in the late 1960s, the book follows four siblings–Simon, Klara, Daniel and Varya Gold–over the course of their lives. The kicker, though, is that a psychic at the beginning of the book gives each child the exact date of their death. The set-up could come off as trite and saccharine in the wrong hands. Benjamin, though, uses that premise to explore questions about life (and death) that are universally relatable.
Over the course of the 51 weeks after this book was published, I simply didn’t read anything better this year.
2. The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
The Great Believers came the closest to knocking The Immortalists off its perch. The early press on Makkai’s book compared it with Hanya Yanagihara’s masterpiece A Little Life. That was enough to get my attention, as A Little Life is in the top three of books that I’ve ever read. Does Makkai’s book live up to that praise? Not quite, but it doesn’t need to. The Great Believers is pretty damn great in its own right.
Like A Little Life, Believers explores the AIDS crisis. Makkai, however, uses dual narrative strands, one taking place in 1980s Chicago and the other in present day Paris (mostly). The Chicago narrative is more engaging, and, by itself, could have been a phenomenal book. The Paris stuff is somewhat hit or miss but is still far above what most writers could pull off.
As the novel races towards its inevitable conclusion, with AIDS ravaging Chicago, the reader knows what the end result will be. That it is still completely devastating is a testament to Makkai’s writing.
3. November Road by Lou Berney
I’m a sucker for books set in the 1960s, and this book about the fictionalized fall out from the Kennedy assassination scratched that itch. In Berney’s 1960s, Kennedy’s assassination was set in motion by New Orleans mob boss Carlos Marcello (a real person, btw). As pawns in his scheme are eliminated one by one post-assassination, Frank Guidry realizes that he was one of the people that helped make this dark day possible.
What results is a road trip novel, a love story, and a shot at redemption. Dripping with atmosphere, characters that you can picture, and a plot that grips you by the throat, November Road is a book that I would recommend to literally anyone that likes to read a good yarn.
Best Mystery/Thriller/Crime Novel
1.The Chalk Man by C.J. Tudor
Writing like a young Stephen King circa “The Body.” Alternating between 1986 and 2016, the reader follows a group of boys that use a code, drawing chalk men in front of each other’s houses to communicate. But when one chalk man points the boys to a dead body, things quickly spiral out of control.
What results is a story about growing up, moving on, and this group of men finally figuring out what happened when they were but boys.
2. The Outsider by Stephen King
Speaking of Stephen King, with a great hook, King keeps his hot streak of killer recent novels alive by asking: How can a person be in two places at once? That’s what happens in The Outsider, as little league baseball coach Terry Maitland is arrested for raping, mutilating, and killing an 11-year-old boy. There’s eyewitnesses and DNA against him. He also has an airtight alibi.
The execution of this intriguing premise is pure King. Read this now before it’s made into the just-announced 10-part HBO series starring Ben Mendelsohn.
3. How It Happened by Michael Koryta
Koryta wrote one of my favorite books a few years back (The Prophet), so I was plenty excited for this one. Another intriguing premise here, as a town junkie confesses to a role in a double murder, only to have her confession disproven by evidence and a lack of bodies where she said they’d be.
Can anyone believe her? What actually happened? Does she know or did she make the whole thing up? Unraveling those questions proves to be a satisfying reading experience as Koryta turns out another winner.
Best Nonfiction Book
1.The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation For Failure by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt
I wrote a few weeks ago on Twitter that this was not just the best but the most important book I read in 2018. There’s simply no other choice for the top spot in my mind.
Lukianoff and Haidt look at rising anxiety levels of young adults and the connection to safe spaces, micro aggressions, and identity politics. Filtered through the lens of cognitive behavioral therapy, the authors make the case that students, children, and citizens are being done a disservice by not being challenged by ideas that encourage critical thought.
To illustrate this, they begin the book with an example that I (as a parent of a child with a severe peanut allergy) can relate to. A number of years ago, 660 children with a predisposition to peanut allergies were split into two equal groups. One group was protected from peanuts, essentially not exposed to them at all. The other group was given peanuts three times a week. At the end of the study, the group protected from peanuts was far more allergic than the group who’s bodies had to deal with peanuts three times a week. Haidt and Lukianoff use this as a metaphor for what is happening to the American mind. We stay away from information that we consider “dangerous,” but the impact is far more harmful than the ideas.
As they write, “If we protect children from various classes of potentially upsetting experiences, we make it far more likely that those children will be unable to cope with such events when they leave our protective umbrella.” Highest recommendation.
2. The Library Book by Susan Orlean
Orlean, of Orchid Thief fame (and the subsequent Nicholas Cage movie Adaptation), writes of the 1986 Los Angeles library fire that destroyed hundreds of thousands of books. Was it arson? Something else entirely? Orlean explores that, but, more importantly, she writes a much-needed love letter to libraries in general.
The result is beautiful, page turning, and expansive: “The publicness of the public library is an increasingly rare commodity. It becomes harder all the time to think of places that welcome everyone and don’t charge any money for that warm embrace.”
3. Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker
Need a gift for your friend who is convinced that the world has completely gone to shit? Here’s the winner: Enlightenment Now uses something called “science” and “facts” to systematically prove that the world is better now than it has ever been at any point in human history.
Starting in the 17th century with the rise of the Enlightenment, the world has continued to get better in nearly every conceivable category. And, yes, it continues to get better. Don’t believe me? Read this book and Pinker will prove it to you, unless you’re one of those dolts who shout “fake news” even in the face of facts.
My Favorite Book of 2018
Ohio by Stephen Markley
What would happen if we dropped in on the characters from the Friday Night Lights television show roughly 10 years after graduation? Well, if Markley was in charge as he is here, the characters would likely be mired in the misery of present-day America, with all of its opioids and post-war fever (somewhat ironic that this selection follows Enlightenment Now).
Set in rural podunk New Canaan, Ohio, the story follows four former classmates as they all return to the Rust Belt town on a fateful summer night. The way that Markley allows their storylines to overlap, intermingle, and play with both past and present is a thing of literary and lyrical beauty. At times hilarious, devastating, page-turning, and stunning, Ohio is easily my favorite book of the year. There are narrative contrivances that keep me from naming it the “best” book of the year, but that doesn’t stop me from loving it. For anyone that grew up in a town int he middle of nowhere, these characters will ring truer than perhaps you’d like them to. I knew a Dan, a Bill, a Stacey, and a Tina. I’m guessing that if you read this book, you probably will too.B
Books Still on My Nightstand:
These are the books that I wish I could have read this year and, sadly, just simply didn’t get around to. I’m sure they’re great and probably could have found their way onto one of these lists. They’re up next on my “to-read” list.
The Friend by Singrid Nunez
Warlight by Michael Ondaatje
A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne
Clock Dance by Anne Tyler
The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner
There There by Tommy Orange