These are the best books we read in 2018.
*Our best books list includes any book we read in 2018, regardless of release date*
This terrified me. So much so that after I heard this avuncular author deliver it on audio, I (as a rare occasion) bought the book. I wanted to mark the many passages that reverberated, after I’d been listening to this at night. Not the most propitious time to ponder the themes within, but certainly the most appropriate.
Barnes merges a 2008 memoir on how his family and friends handled, or fumbled, the Big Question of mortality with his own musings and meanderings on this dread topic. This hearkens back to Montaigne’s pioneering essays on philosophical themes, which blended his own study and meditation with the events of his life and those around him. A difference remains, however. Montaigne wrote when most of his audience still professed – if due to conformity, ignorance, conviction, or fear – a belief in a deity who would judge men and women, and reward or condemn them on their actions.
Barnes, as with many of his readers, dismisses or at best strongly doubts this attribute of faith. As an agnostic leaning towards a denial of God, Barnes expresses instead a litany of doubts. He separates the dread of dying itself from the possible terror after death, and this examination enlivens his consideration of two distinct difficulties too often elided.
Such careful contemplation of our inevitable end sobers this series of rambling, quirky, restlessly personal reflections. As with classic works which confront the imminence of our common demise, Barnes in Nothing to Be Frightened Of faces the curtain behind which nobody can glimpse, Hamlet’s undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler has returned. This harrowing, honest, and heartfelt journey, even if one-way, is worth taking. It confirms its suggestively titled conclusion. – John L. Murphy
When I first read historian John Fea’s Believe Me, I thought he made a smart case. After interviewing him, I saw more of his concern for his community (understood as you like, as it expands outward). As 2018 rolled on, ideas from the book kept coming to mind; a week rarely passed in which I didn’t connect something in the news to Fea’s work. While it seems to be an unlikely proposition, a historical work on the motives on one slice of the voting population has turned out to be an essential read for understanding contemporary US culture.
While the country faces its vitriolic political divides, the American church faces its own internal fights, and the political and religious battles are not unrelated. Fea puts the current evangelical crisis into an accessible historical framework, leading him to a few key discoveries about why white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. To quickly state some of the findings – largely the importance fear and nostalgia played in the election – misses the force of his work as well as his desire to think through what comes next. Fea’s scope and clarity provide immediate insight for own time, but they also serve as a personal encouragement for a more thoughtful approach to our religious and political era. Those thoughts may be targeted to a certain demographic, but they serve a much wider audience. – Justin Cober-Lake
The real world – the one that exists outside books that every reader has to, unfortunately, engage with from time to time – reached something of a nadir in 2018. Political discourse in the US was as rote and pointless as it has ever been (even the Bush family are now liberal heroes), genuine fascists were on the rise around the world and climate change – the single biggest issue humanity has faced since the last time fascists were on the rise – has accelerated yet again. In other words, 2018 was a year for fantasy books.
Among the hundreds of recent fantasy novels out there, Amberlough does not really stand out that much for level of imagination, quality of prose, lovability of characters or worldbuilding elements. It does all of those things sufficiently, but there are better-quality fantasy books out there, among them more books set in non-medieval-European worlds authored by women, which are two of the positive features of Lara Elena Donnelly’s Amberlough.
No, what makes Amberlough a great book for 2018 is how perfectly it blends into and subverts the current moment. It is set in a fantastical version of interwar Europe, with cabarets partying the night away and most characters pouring copious amounts of gin down their throats. Yet, the happy idyll of the characters is under threat by the rise of the Ospies, a Nazi-like party. The cast of characters include gay men, strippers, smugglers, spies and fascists as the plot centers on whether the Ospies can successfully manage a coup. There is something quite cathartic, as the world burns (literally!) with fascists in charge, in reading about a gay double agent battling fictional proto-Nazis in a fantasy world. – Ryne Clos
Picking up a book of odds and sods by a wildly famous writer can, almost by definition, result in a mixed bag. Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things definitely fits that category, given that many of the entries here—which include short stories, poems, a monologue to accompany a photo of a sock monkey and an imagined last book of the Bible—were previously published elsewhere. First released in 2006, the book’s motley structure doesn’t make these reprints any less fascinating, and without a discernable through line, it lends itself especially well to skipping around. Perhaps most interesting are Gaiman’s conversations with classic works. “The Problem of Susan” constructs a story about grief and trauma around the literary debate about C.S. Lewis’ arguably misogynistic treatment of the Susan character in the Narnia series. His poem “Locks” edits the “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” fairytale; “A Study in Emerald” combines elements of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with H.P. Lovecraft; “Goliath” is set in the Matrix universe. The most unique entry is “Strange Little Girls,” a series of 12 microfictions that were included with the sleeve of the Tori Amos CD of the same name, and the most unnerving is “Feeders and Eaters,” for which drew inspiration from one of his nightmares. – Josh Goller
This year the comics page saw an old face rebooted when, for the first time in the strip’s long history, the Nancy franchise was taken over by a female cartoonist. The revamped daily earned its share of new admirers, who could often be heard to remark that the strip was, at long last, funny. Which is unfair. The frizzy-haired imp is one of the world’s most recognizable characters, but over the years her reputation as a hopelessly old-fashioned gag factory is akin to moviegoers who resist black & white chestnuts. But there’s a clarity in black & white cinematography, as there is in the precise lines of original Nancy artist Ernie Bushmiller. In this thoroughly informative and wildly entertaining volume, two obsessive authors who are cartoonists themselves break down 44 aspects of a single three-panel strip first published on August 8, 1959. From sight-lines to word balloons to timing, How to Read Nancy is a crash course in visual communication that shows you how a piece of art that seems the definition of simplicity emerged from a long series of deliberate aesthetic choices that can make or break a joke. – Pat Padua
Published in 2006, three years before the author’s death, the final novel by English science fiction pioneer and doom merchant J.G. Ballard is justifiably not considered one of his best. But in the uniquely Ballardian hellscape that was 2018, Kingdom Come’s depiction of a right-wing uprising centered around a suburban shopping complex and stoked by a supercilious minor television star felt unnervingly prescient. Its appeal is helped by the impression that Ballard, for once, was having fun. Its central detective story of a London ad executive investigating the mysterious death of his father is delightfully pulpy, with the setting’s provincial Englishness even calling to mind elements of Edgar Wright’s 2007 cop film satire Hot Fuzz (never let it be said that Ballard wasn’t ahead of his time). The writer even makes room for what reads like trenchant self-parody: if Ballard himself hadn’t managed to write a portentous opening line like “The suburbs dream of violence,” then some aspiring literary spoof artist surely would have.
For all of its comic undertones, however, the message of Kingdom Come—namely, that only a razor-thin line separates 21st century consumer culture from fascism—is deadly serious. In a year when right-wing populist movements continued to feed on lowest-common-denominator fears and desires with the cynically stunted language of advertising, the dread at the heart of Kingdom Come feels as plausible as its surface dialogue and plot machinations are wooden and stilted. The fact that the book was written more than 10 years before Brexit, Trump and the alt-right makes its vision all the more chilling to behold. Ballard always was known for being able to envision the worst case scenario long before it actually happened; predicting our present mess, however, is one work of foresight I don’t envy. – Zachary Hoskins
Wisconsin was once known as a bastion of Midwestern progressivism. Boasting a remarkable university system, including U.W.-Madison (located in the capital city), as well as a spirit for innovation and industry, it long seemed to be on the cutting edge of America. A strange conservatism began to creep into the state’s politics and in recent years the once idyllic setting has become increasingly less so. Dan Kaufman, a son of Madison who has long championed democracy and the common man in his writings, examines the machinations that have led the state to lose her standing among progressives. There are those who are still engaged in the good fight, and the author chronicles their work in great detail, his breathtaking prose keeping the reader thoroughly engaged on first and subsequent reads. He is also a historian who makes figures central to Wisconsin’s political history come to life in these pages. Kaufman writes with a classic journalist’s sense for detail, with a voice that is patient and reasonable even as he unravels dark political turns and provides us an image of a state in peril. Wisconsin’s fate is far from sealed at this point. Only recently Republicans severely limited the power of their incoming Democratic counterparts, insuring, in their way, that Kaufman’s book is bound to remain relevant and prescient for some time to come. – Jedd Beaudoin
Having read Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead trilogy last year, I was already enamored with her work, but the author’s first novel, Housekeeping, absolutely floored me. Robinson’s debut is like magical realism with the externalized input of magic replaced by the internal desperation of faith, the fervent desire that some higher power will shake up the dead-end misery of one’s life. Though Robinson keys in on this state of spiritual despair in her young protagonists, the specificity of her observations and the general malaise of downtrodden youth vaguely mirrors the contemporary achievement of Elena Ferrante’s more socially oriented Neapolitan novels. Robinson’s Emersonian prose finds her working out of the gate with the kind of spare, precisely worded profundity that Cormac McCarthy had to build up to, placing her immediately in the realm of great philosophical narrativists. Able to balance the limited perspective of her confused, resentful narrator and a tone of cosmic objectivity, the author establishes adolescence not as becoming aware of the world but learning how to cope with the ugliness that was evident from the start. It’s one of the best, most vast books I’ve ever read, and staggering to think it was Robinson’s first. – Jake Cole
Reading Vandana Singh’s brilliant short story collection Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories had the unexpected effect of time travel. For sake of clarity, I don’t just mean time travel as a trope, though it does appear in the collection along with spaceships, nano-plagues, slaughterhouses and alien races. I’m talking about time travel of a more personal sort. You get acclimated to a baseline level of imagination when you read fantasy and science fiction over the span of decades, but you rarely encounter work that transports you back to the moment the genre hooked you. Singh’s stories are acts of relentless ingenuity and reports of human yearning that stand equal to the works of Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison when they were invigorating the genre with new potential.
Singh moonlights as a physics professor and seeds her stories with the narrative fruits of her discipline. For example, as defined in the title story, an ambiguity machine is one that cannot and should not exist. They defy the laws of established science to blur and dissolve boundaries. Singh’s magic trick is her ability to ground such high concepts in human characters ruminating on love, loss and sacrifice. Her ambiguity machines grant dangerous wishes and that’s always the best kind of writing. It is the type of book that doesn’t just sit on the tomb of your bookcase once you’ve finished your first pass. It will leave a clear mark in the dust due to constant visitation. – Don Kelly
For a certain generation, Robin Williams’ death in 2014 felt like the loss of a beloved family member. So ubiquitous a presence had he been during the ‘80s and ‘90s that those who came of age in the decades leading up to the new millennium couldn’t help but feel as though they knew him personally. From Dead Poets Society to Mrs. Doubtfire to Aladdin to Hook, Williams felt like such a steady, permanent presence, a fixture of our formative years, that it was virtually impossible to imagine a world without him. And yet there we all were in August of 2014, suddenly faced with a void that could never be truly filled.
It’s an absurd notion that one should feel this way about a celebrity of any sort, but Williams, more so than most, felt like he was one of us. His ability to inhabit believable, flawed figures as well as off-the-wall comedic personas helped make the connection between performer and audience just that much more intimate. As Dave Itzkoff’s brilliantly rendered Robin makes clear, this perception of Williams wasn’t that far removed from the man behind the mask. Robin presents a warts-and-all look at Williams’ battles with mental illness, substance abuse and the trappings of fame.
Neither hagiographic or cruel smear campaign, Robin instead seeks to provide a look behind the curtain through a series of interviews with Williams himself and those who knew him best. The later chapters dealing with his final years facing Lewy body dementia are heartbreaking as the realization of what is in store for Williams’ future is laid bare. And while there’s never any way to fully understand a person’s decision to take their own life, the compounding factors lead by his decades’ long struggles with his own inner demons were exacerbated by the disease which led to his suicide.
Those who knew him best speculate he was not in his right mind when he did what he did, and Itzkoff’s affecting portrait of Williams makes a case for this argument. Robin provides those who felt they knew him through his films an unprecedented look at what his life was really like and, tellingly, it turns out he wasn’t all that different than his myriad onscreen roles. Robin works as a salve for the still-raw emotional wound and does its part to fill the void. – John Paul
Momentum propels John Yau’s Paradiso Diaspora, a poetry and prose collection that blends the forms and ponders vast dualistic existences. He narrates tales as a young daughter, roosters on a rooftop, varied natural occurrences and even cyborgs among other characters. Through these voices, he reflects how life and imagination are ever moving and perhaps conflicting by pairing images that are profound, playful and unfettered by convention. “Andalusia (4)” features gem-colored flora beneath an “oscillating sky,” only for “Carfax Abbey” to joke the sky convulses into a “great fart.”
Yau alludes to this sort of either/or phenomenon through recurring concepts. Past lives and future horoscopes may be written in the cards that fortune tellers use in divination. However, the prevalence of smoke rivulets, room-filling light and liquids such as ink of varied viscosities conjure a fluid sense of motion and an adaptive capacity.
Writing itself is also similarly symbolic, as Yau explores throughout this compilation. Sometimes he’s tentative, and in “Eleven Months Is Not a Year (for Kippy Stroud)” he unsure if he’s “confusing two different stories” pertaining to a statue of firefighters modeled after the famous Iwo Jima photo of American soldiers raising the flag. By the last piece “In the Kingdom of Poetry (after Carlos Drummond de Andrade),” he emphatically — and ironically — dictates not to write poems how they’ve always been done. Don’t write about yourself or expunge your pain and guilt by detailing your friends and family’s experiences; he demands and suggests “throw[ing] away your memories” that act as creative muses.
These poetry and prose selections sing with a lyricism readers might whisper along with to distinguish where one sentence ends, the other starts, and what they mean singularly or as a whole. Yau’s line breaks attribute a percussive rhythm to his poems, perhaps their only demarcation in structure from the smooth recitation of his prose, where sentences flourish across the page.
Paradiso Diaspora’s take on duality is a thorough, multifaceted joy to peruse, never languishing on any one topic or literary structure. Instead, he leaves a circumnavigating trail of breadcrumb thoughts for audiences to consider and interact with along the way. – Ashley Pabilonia
Upon finishing Madeline Miller’s Circe, I immediately returned to page one and started again. I don’t know that I’ve done that before, and I don’t know that I’ll ever do it again. But such is the spell that Circe and its titular heroine weave over the reader that the thought of leaving Miller’s classically recognizable yet ambitiously unique Ancient Greece is simply untenable.
While Miller’s 2012 Song of Achilles was at its heart a love story between Achilles and his beloved Patroclus, it was also a prequel and companion to Homer’s The Iliad. 2018’s Circe, a follow-up of sorts, is even bolder, serving as a millennia-spanning prequel, side-story and sequel to Homer’s The Odyssey. At its center is Circe, a witch (and immortal, as she is the daughter of the Titan Helios and the nymph Perse) who finds herself banished to the small island of Aiaia, where she eventually meets Odysseus and his wayward men. The genius of Miller’s Circe is that she doesn’t rewrite The Odyssey, but rather improves its central story by cluing us in on Circe’s motivation. She doesn’t turn Odysseus’ men into pigs out of spite; she has a very good reason. And though she loves Odysseus in a way, she is not left pining while he sets off in search of his true love, Penelope. She has far more depth than that.
In fact, despite Miller’s mind-boggling knowledge of Greek mythology, her crisp, elemental prose and her wry sense of humor, it is the deep, multi-faceted heroine that makes Circe so successful. While the witch is never predictable, she is a particularly human goddess, and her wants and whims drive the novel from its grand beginning to its intimate, astonishing end. – Mike McClelland
Ottessa Moshfegh came to most people’s attentions for her marvelously dark debut, Eileen, published in 2015. Like that startling first novel, her even more startling follow-up, wickedly and satirically titled My Year of Rest and Relaxation, concerns itself with a woman’s relationship with and exploration of her self, her understanding, her questioning and especially her experimentation.
The main premise has been widely reported and will not spoil too much for curious readers—set in early 2000s, pre-9/11 New York, the book tells the story of a young woman with a doctor who is all-too-willing to prescribe her anything she’d like, in particular anti-anxiety medication. In the wake of her parents’ death, she decides to put herself into a kind of coma, consuming so many of these medications that she enters a zombie-like state, until the line between consciousness and unconsciousness has blurred to a downright dangerous extent.
Moshfegh details her protagonist’s performance art-like stunt, which is ostensibly pursued for the sake of dulling herself to near-death before (the hope is) experiencing a rebirth that will allow her to experience life in a more authentic and/or appreciative manner. Readers will ultimately decide for themselves whether this takes place, and in what sense.
Though it is arguably true, as some have pointed out, that the book itself approaches a riskily suffocating style at times, as though mirroring its protagonist’s descent into catatonia. But whatever challenges it presents are well worth the experience, as it is one of 2018’s most audacious, dizzying reads. – Dylan Montanari
Michael Chabon spins literary gold out of a genre that many book snobs would never consider. In The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000), Chabon writes about two Jewish boys writing comic books during the Great Depression. If that sounds like fanboy fiction that will appeal only to the Comic Con crowd, think again. In Chabon’s sprawling, 600-page tome, the Wonder Boys author explores great notions such as love, brotherhood, war and magic. Not only that, but the writing itself is absolutely exquisite.
The book begins when Joe Kavalier has just escaped to New York from Prague, leaving behind his family in Nazi-controlled Czechoslovakia. After meeting his cousin Sammy Clay, the two set out together to create a hit comic book inspired by the DC heroes. Though Chabon peppers his novel with historical facts and comic book lore, it is never a slog. In fact, the ambitious novel reads like a page-turner while acting like a treatise about the myth of the American Dream. Not only is The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay a fun read, but Chabon imbues with an emotional honesty that packs a wallop when the book reaches its majestic close. – David Harris