As is tradition for, well, all book blogs ever, we compiled a list of the best books we each read in 2018.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
Ottessa Moshfegh has one of the strongest, most unique voices of any author writing today. On its face, a book about a beautiful 20-something white girl living in New York City and trying to sleep for a year should be conventional at best, offensively boring at worst. But Moshfegh manages to make this non-plot feel not only exciting, but essential. Every word drips with acid, and every sentence vibrates with simmering alienation and despair. I have mixed feelings about the ending, as well as the pre-9/11 setting, which in this political climate feels a little bit like a cop-out. But Moshfegh’s venomously masterful prose will not be ignored.
The Mothers by Brit Bennett
The Mothers is a striking debut novel, which unravels the far-reaching consequences of a teenage girl’s abortion within an insular black community. Bennett alternates clear, matter-of-fact prose with more lyrical sections that are collectively narrated by the community’s busybody church mothers, evoking a proud and painful legacy of black womanhood on every page. “Like most girls,” she writes of the protagonist, Nadia, “she had learned that pretty exposes you and pretty hides you and like most girls, she hadn’t yet learned to navigate the difference.” On the “magic” of pregnancy, she writes, “Magic you wanted was a miracle, magic you didn’t want was a haunting.” As the book goes on, the plot takes a few more conventional turns, but the sensitive, refined language never fails to carry the reader through.
Blood and Guts in High School by Kathy Acker
Confession: Blood and Guts is the only book I’ve read with a protagonist who shares my name, spelled the same way. So I might be a little biased. But there’s no denying that this is a radical cult classic, the kind of book you read and think, “Where has this book been all my life?” Told from the perspective of a ten-year-old who is in the middle of a messy breakup with her “Father” (who is, depending on your reading, her actual sexually abusive father and/or a placeholder for the patriarchy), Blood and Guts manages to be a searing indictment of the intersection between rape culture and capitalism and a revolutionarily sex-positive reclamation of the female body. The more obviously experimental aspects of the book–including sections in script format, drawings, dream maps, a meta-book report about The Scarlet Letter, and a run-in with Jean Genet–would seem messy in anyone else’s hands, but are perfectly precise and meaningful in Acker’s. Parts of it don’t age well, particularly when it comes to her treatment of race. But if you’re looking for something radically different in your reading, this one is a potential life-changer.
There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce by Morgan Parker
Parker’s new poetry collection is full of crystal clear gut-punches. In the first poem, “All They Want Is My Money My Pussy My Blood” she starts an old joke and ends it with a quietly devastating commentary on being black in America: “Okay so I’m Black in America right and I walk into a bar… / I do whatever I want because I could die any minute. / I don’t mean YOLO I mean they are hunting me.” Both her poems and her narrators subvert expectations and defy categorization at every turn. In her formally experimental list poem, “13 Ways of Looking at a Black Girl,” she rewrites the classic Wallace Stevens poem as a full-throated indictment of misogynoir. As you might have guessed from the title, pop culture plays a large role in the collection, but Parker is not “just” a millennial poet, any more than Beyonce is “just” Beyonce. She uses pop culture, politics, her own deeply personal anxieties, and a deep well of literary and musical references to paint a full and complex portrait of black womanhood in this particular time and place.
The Babysitter at Rest by Jen George
If you haven’t started reading books published by The Dorothy Project yet, you should. Every book they publish is radical and visionary in a way that very few books from the big houses dare to be. This collection of short stories by Jen George (who made Granta’s list of Best Young Novelists before publishing an actual novel, which I didn’t even know was possible) is nothing if not a work borne out of vision: each of the five stories in the collection present a version of our world that feels both unsettlingly uncanny and painfully real, highlighting the absurdity in the predetermined structures of society and all of the roles we play as human beings. The title story, which follows a babysitter “between the ages of 17 and 21” who stops aging just as she enters a relationship with an older married man, is the highlight, but all of the stories are funny, weird, and wonderful.
Alphabet by Inger Christensen
Alphabet is the textbook definition of constrained writing: a poem divided into fourteen sections, in which each section has a predetermined number of lines based on the Fibonacci sequence. And if that weren’t enough, each section is tied to a letter of the alphabet, and primarily uses words that begin with that letter (even in translation, a ridiculously impressive feat). But in spite of all these restrictions–or because of them–Alphabet does nothing but expand outwards. The poem starts with the beautiful, affirmative “apricot trees exist, apricot trees exist,” and continues to list natural and conceptual phenomena (“cicadas exist; chicory, chromium… doves exist, dreamers and dolls”) until the otherwise-prosaic word “exists” becomes borderline ecstatic. And then darkness is slowly introduced into the poem, first through “killers” in the “D” section, then through references to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and then through a depiction of a terrifying future nuclear wasteland woven through the natural imagery that we would have lost. And it all ends, not with “z,” but with the uniquely mathematical “n,” so even at the poem’s bleakest moments, it still contains unlimited possibilities.
Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
In her first novel, Gillian Flynn faithfully checks all of the “crime thriller” boxes one by one: the burnout protagonist, the red herring prime suspect, the community gossip, the fake-out ending, and the climactic twist. But the “burnout protagonist” is a woman, a rare fleshed-out female antihero whose obsessive repetition of the words cut into her body becomes an almost postmodernist flair. The “community gossip” isn’t just a portrait of small-town hypocrisy, but an indictment of simmering misogyny and rape culture. The “surprise” culprit becomes relatively easy to guess about halfway through, but it hardly matters, because the world Flynn creates is so specific and bracingly nasty. Gone Girl may be the most compulsively readable of Flynn’s novels, but Sharp Objects is the most elegant and politically charged.
Honorable Mentions: Dark Spring by Unica Zirn, We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, Virgin by Analicia Sotelo, If They Come for Us by Fatima Asghar
Asymmetry – Lisa Halliday
Janes gave me Asymmetry for my birthday this year, and it was absolutely memorable and original. It is a quiet yet incredibly ambitious novel that’s about fiction, but not in the sort of annoyingly meta way in which novels about fiction tend to examine the topic. The first half depicts the relationship (drawn, according to rumor, from life) between a young editor and an aging writer who shares an awful lot of similarities with Philip Roth. (The second half, I will let remain a surprise.) If you don’t pay a lot of attention to literary gossip, which presumably describes most people in the world, you’ll miss out on one or two sharply funny jokes at Philip Roth’s expense–but you don’t need to understand those jokes to understand how perceptive, intelligent, and honest this book is.
The Three-Body Problem trilogy – Cixin Liu
I read this first-contact series about two years after all of my tech friends had already read it, including Keets (who wrote about it here far more eloquently). It blew me away–it’s incredibly smart, detailed, and suspenseful, with ideas about space and infinity that will keep you up at night. I’ll never look up in the night sky and see the moon in quite the same way I used to; space feels real to me now in a way that Battlestar Galactica and other sci-fi never affected me. Though much of the writing is more oriented towards storytelling than feats of literary technique (fittingly, since there’s a lot of story to get through and those books are long already) there are also some turns of phrase and metaphors that were shockingly beautiful and well-observed.
Fingersmith – Sarah Waters
I read this book, a queer literary thriller set in Victorian England, immediately after reading another more recent historical novel with queer themes that shall go unnamed and which I hated, and it provided a wonderful contrast. The temptation when writing historical fiction is often to go too twee: avoid contractions and use the formality and stiltedness of language to remind us that This Is In The Past. Reading Sarah Waters’ fluid, gorgeous, funny, slangy prose, I instead felt that the past was the present–that Victorian England, which like every society in the world had plenty of sex and crime and excitement to go around, was all around me. Plus, the two heroines–one a mysterious, sheltered heiress, the other a mischievous petty criminal–are both flawed, surprising, and incredibly fun to spend five hundred pages with.
The Last Samurai – Helen DeWitt
A cranky, brilliant woman attempts to raise a tiny, fatherless boy who is maybe a genius or maybe just had the advantage of his mother teaching him ancient Greek at the tender age of three, and once he’s grown, the boy goes in search of a better father than the one who actually fathered him. This doesn’t sound like a good book, and when I tell you that the pair spend a vast amount of time watching Seven Samurai, reviewing Japanese phonetics, and riding the subway to nowhere, it won’t sound any better. But I actually saw it as a ridiculously funny, sweet and biting love story between a very flawed mother and the son who owes everything to her.
An American Marriage – Tayari Jones
Every woman on the F train has been reading this lately, including me. It’s a harrowing story of what happens to a marriage when a man goes to prison after being falsely accused of raping a white woman. The main characters are drawn so carefully and precisely that they live and breathe, the writing is achingly beautiful, and the story hurts your heart. I also felt like it was a portrait of the power and beauty of black love and black culture–the title is so perfect, because the book seems to me to be both about the universal experience of marriage and how complicated and difficult it is, and very specifically about the black experience, and in its title it lays claim to a universal Americanness in a way that often white storytellers think they have the sole right to.
Other books I couldn’t stand not to mention:
The Sky Is Yours – Chandler Klang Smith
Criminally underread, this satirical book takes place in a futuristic burned-out New York stalked by dragons–but its main pleasure is in its biting sense of humor and the amusing characters, including my favorite, a baroness who’s read a few too many romance novels.
Exit West – Mohsin Hahmid
Like An American Marriage, this is an intimate, romantic portrait of the love between two people as it’s tested by circumstances much bigger than them; it’s also a magical realism novel about refugees, and it’s so necessary for our time.
The Jungle – Upton Sinclair
I had never read this before, somehow. But any book that managed to single-handedly spark the formation of the FDA against the power of the meat industry, would have to be powerful–and this one was. The inhumanity faced by the immigrants in Sinclair’s story, which was supposed to be a story about the evils of capitalism but tragically failed to get anyone interested in socialism, is brutal and memorable.
The Blindfold – Siri Hustvedt
Siri Hustvedt’s a genius. That’s all I can say! This novel is about a young graduate student who experiences a gradual psychological erosion as she encounters various sinister characters around New York, but really it’s about sex and sadism and art and self, and it’s funny, smart, and enthralling.
The Seventh Cross – Anna Seghers
Impossible to put down, this thriller follows a man around Germany who has escaped from a concentration camp. Written during the war, before the true extent of the horrors there was known, it’s still a startlingly perceptive portrait of what it was like to live in the grip of, or on the run from, totalitarianism.