It already feels like 2018 was a loooong time ago, but here it is: the list of books I read in 2018. Fiction comes first, followed by nonfiction.
Hope you find some good reading choices here. And send me your recommendations!
All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews
Nothing is better than feeling so stunned by a novel’s power and originality that you linger over the last page, reluctant to leave the world the book has created. This is such a novel. Elfrieda and Yolandi are two sisters who grew up in a Mennonite community in the plains of Manitoba, Canada. They and their mother are far too lively for the conservative community; the elders think they read too many books, and are horrified when it becomes clear that Elfrieda is a piano prodigy. The girls grow up, move to the city and embark on their adult lives: Elfie as a world-class concert pianist, and Yoli as a writer and mother. They live in the modern world but come from a death-haunted history with suicides on all branches of the family tree. Despite her talent, success and loving family, the one thing Elfrieda yearns for is to die. And she wants Yoli to help her, although Yoli is desperate to keep her sister alive. The thing is, this novel is hilarious even as it shreds your heart. From the sisters to the mother to the aunts, this is one of the most lively and unique fictional families I’ve encountered. The language is extraordinary; you could study it for a long time before figuring out how Toews manages to be so funny and so searing at the same time.
Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson
Gorgeous, poetic novel about four young African American girls who grow up, grow close, and grow apart in the Brooklyn of the 1970s. The novel begins as two of the girls – now grown women – run into each other on the subway, after years of separation. One of the women, August, rises, and although she knows her old friend expects her to come over and “hug the years away,” instead she gets off the train. The scene both startles and puts the reader on notice to expect a wallop from this brief book that deals with memory, grief, racism, white flight, male violence, and the power of women’s friendships, with language so sharply honed you almost don’t feel it pierce your soul.
The Atlas of Forgotten Places by Jenny D. Williams
Sabine is a middle-aged German woman, grieving from the recent loss of her sister and wearied from a lifetime as an aid worker in numerous African countries. She finds herself called to the continent again when her sister’s daughter goes missing in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country whose sorrows, dangers and beauty Sabine knows all too well. It is the smaller characters, not Sabine, who really stand out in this fast-moving novel that interrogates our obligations to the people from our past, and what it really means to “help.”
The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch
Strange and funny comedy of manners having to do with love, sex, murder and manuscripts.
Exposure by Helen Dunmore
A gripping and atmospheric novel about secrets, deception and loyalty in 1960s London. The Cold War has its grip on every character. Lilly Callington is a Jew who escaped Germany as a child and emigrated to England, but whose touch of an accent often sparks suspicion among her British neighbors. She is raising two small children with her husband Simon, a low-level government spy. One of his higher-up colleagues takes home a top-secret file and then has an accident that prevents him from returning it to the office. He asks Simon, a man he has reason to trust, to get the file and return it to the office, but things spiral out of control in ways that reveal truths about all of the characters that shock even themselves. Dunmore creates a palpable atmosphere of dread that lingers after you close the book.
Flood: A Novel by Melissa Scholes Young
Laura Brooks is the one who made good or the one who blew it, depending on your point of view. She left her hometown of Hannibal, Missouri – also the hometown Mark Twain, his famous characters Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, and the author – to become a nurse, only to return now, 10 years later, to friends and family who consider her a little too fancy after her sojourn to the outside world. Now Laura renews the ties to her family, her closest and most reckless friend, the man who broke her heart and her faith – and to the Mississippi River, whose power control them all. The novel is both a fresh, feminist take on the town’s most famous friendship, with Laura and her friend Rose supplanting Tom and Huck, and a powerful exploration of class, privilege, and the notion of home.
Gateway to the Moon by Mary Morrison
The novel tells intersecting stories of the Spanish (Sephardic) Jews who, beginning in 1492, were massacred, tortured, and forced to either flee or convert to Catholicism on pain of death. Many converted in name only, practicing their Jewish traditions in secret. When they fled Spain and the terror of its Inquisition that reached all of Spain’s spreading colonial empire, these “crypto-Jews” took their traditions and their secrets with them. One strand of the novel follows a family through generation after generation of oppression, as they flee to the New World and the rocky land of what will become New Mexico. Another strand begins in the present day, in a small New Mexican town where no one eats pork, everyone lights candles on Friday nights, and on one can remember why. Although the plot moves swiftly, it remains on a surface level, telling a good story but leaving us with few characters to remember.
The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
This novel about the devastation of AIDS is one of the best books I read in 2018. It plunges us into the world of Yale Tishman, a young, white, gay man in Chicago in the early 1980s – so given to monogamy that his friends accuse him of being a lesbian – as everyone around him begins to die. One of his closest friends is Fiona, a straight woman who is the younger sister of one of the first men in this groups of friends to die. One by one, she inherits each of her brother’s friends, armed with their power of attorney to oversee their final days with the fierceness and compassion none of them can trust their parents to muster. Threading through this section of the novel is a fascinating story about an invaluable collection of early 20thcentury art – or are they forgeries? – that Fiona’s aunt wants to leave to the gallery where Yale works. The second facet of the novel finds a middle-aged Fiona in Paris in the present day, searching for her estranged daughter and the granddaughter she’s never met. While this storyline didn’t wow me as much as the first, many moments of it glitter, such as the daughter’s scorn for her mother, “St. Fiona of Boys’ Town,” and the way the long shadow of the plague years continues to haunt Fiona today. I lived in Chicago as a lesbian in the early 1980s, and Makkai’s account reminded me of many details I had forgotten.
Happiness by Aminatta Forna
Take an American woman living in London to research the growing fox population, have her cross paths with a psychiatrist from Ghana who is in London for a conference and as a break from his work with trauma victims in war zones around the world, and you get an unusual novel that brings two mature people, each with their own griefs, furies and obsessions, to the brink of love. I enjoyed the street-level view of London from the perspective of the street cleaners and doormen who serve who serve as the researcher’s fox-sighting army and then as the couple’s friends and allies as they search for a lost boy.
Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger
This is my second time reading this novel (for my book group) and it continued to delight. A sort of hybrid gothic novel that takes place in present-day London, this book is intriguing and in some ways profoundly spooky. A woman in her 40s dies and leaves her considerable estate to the twin daughters of her own twin sister. She and her sister had a mysterious falling out, and she has never met the 21-year old nieces, who grew up in a Chicago suburb. Her will stipulates that they only inherit if they live together in her London apartment for a year. Along with the huge apartment, they inherit a few wonderfully drawn neighbors and a key to Highgate Cemetery, which is itself a major character in the book. The novel explores twinship, friendship, and the afterlife. The secondary characters in particular are extremely robust and appealing, and I enjoyed the dry British wit many of the characters shared. If you read Tracy Chevalier’s suffrage novel, Falling Angels, you’ll recognize the vast cemetery in this book.
The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin
Four young siblings in a New York City family go to a fortune-teller they have been told can predict the date people will die. Each sibling meets with the strange woman alone, and emerges shaken, with the year and date of their own death, which they don’t share with one another. This knowledge – or is it just a scam? – shapes all of their lives, as we follow each sibling’s story. I was particularly moved by the story of the youngest brother, a gay man who lived in San Francisco in the dawn of the AIDS crisis, before the disease even had a name.
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
In this novel Egan moves away from the experimental pastiche of A Visit from the Goon Squadand offers the reader an old-fashioned, absorbing narrative about a young woman who becomes, during WWII, the first woman to serve as a deep-water diver in New York Harbor.
The Mars Room: A Novel by Rachel Kushner
I’m one of the few people on earth who didn’t love Kushner’s previous novel, The Flame Throwers. I rectified this error with The Mars Room, a searing novel about a young white woman, mother of a small child, who is serving two life sentences for killing a man who stalked and menaced her. Unlike Orange is the New Black, Romy is no middle-class tour guide to life in a women’s prison in central California; she grew up struggling in San Francisco’s gritty neighborhoods, and made her living as a lap dancer in a strip club called the Mars Room. This distinctive portrait of San Francisco’s lesser-known districts is one of the book’s many strong points. Equally striking is Kushner’s portrayal of the prison, an absurd hell for poor people.
My Last Continent: A Novel by Midge Raymond
A novel for people who love reading about cold places. The protagonist is a penguin researcher who spends a few weeks each year serving as a nature guide for wealthy passengers on expeditions to Antarctica – because these ships are the only way for her to get to the remote beaches where she stays behind to do her penguin counts and observations. She meets and falls in love with another researcher, a man who keeps his life a mystery from her except for the intense weeks they spend together in Antarctica year after year. A shipwreck changes everything, and keeps the reader holding her breath.
My Oxford Year by Julia Whelan
An enjoyable novel about a young American woman who gets offered opportunities to do post-grad work in literature at Oxford and to accept a key job for a woman’s promising presidential campaign – and takes them both. While in Oxford, she falls in love and gets an entirely different kind of education than she ever expected. I listened to this as an audiobook, narrated by the author, who happens to be a professional narrator.
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Evelyn Hugo is a vintage Hollywood superstar with a marrying habit. Still glamorous at age 79, she tells her tumultuous life story to a young journalist with troubles of her own, and the plot hurtles from the 1950s to today. But the book isn’t only about the lives of glittering celebrities; it’s about identity – racial identity, sexual identity, the way famous people construct a public persona to shield their private selves, and what they lose in the process. It’s about the dangers of coming out in the pre- and post-Stonewall eras, and the cost of remaining closeted. Mostly it’s about what constitutes a family. This is not a heavyweight novel, but it’s deeper than its subject matter would suggest.
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Powerful, strange and beautiful novel about an African American family living in rural poverty in Mississippi, the legacy of violence, the undying grip of racism, and the thinning wall between this world and the next. Winner of the National Book Award and many other accolades.
Straying by Molly McCloskey
Gorgeous novel about a rootless young American woman who drifts to Ireland, falls in love, marries, and then purposely sabotages her marriage by having an affair. Years later, her soul abraded by having lived and worked in war zones across the globe, she returns to Ireland and sees herself and her past anew.
Whatever Happened to Interracial Love by Kathleen Collins
This is the rare book whose backstory is almost as interesting as the wide-ranging short stories collected within. Kathleen Collins was a writer, playwright, filmmaker and political activist who died in 1988, at age 46. Her fiction was virtually unpublished; her film – she was the first African American woman to produce a feature-length movie – was never released in theaters. She had created art like someone possessed, but most of her work resided only in a large trunk that her daughter, Nina Lorenz Collins, moved from apartment to apartment for years before she felt ready to explore the contents. The treasures she found included the 16 short stories that comprise this book. The stories vary in quality from immersive to unforgettable, and her subject matter is equally protean. In these pages we meet the African American intelligentsia and activists of the 1960s and 1970s, the classical musicians and rule-breaking artists, the white freedom riders willing to risk beatings in Southern jails and the bourgeois black fathers who don’t want their daughters anywhere near them, the women and men who yearn for love but recoil from its costs. The social and political upheavals of her generation crackle through this collection, in constant conflict with the unmoving weight of racism and colorism.
White Houses by Amy Bloom
You pretty much can’t go wrong with any book by Amy Bloom. This is a rollicking story, based on history, about the years-long love affair between Eleanor Roosevelt and the journalist Elena Hickock, or Hick. I loved the behind-the-scenes view of the Roosevelt administration and Eleanor’s life afterwards, the skillful way Bloom establishes and evolves characters, and the dry humor and mature wisdom that threads throughout the novel.
Wolf Season by Helen Benedict
Rin is a profoundly damaged Iraq War veteran who has built an isolated life for herself and her young, blind daughter, in rural upstate New York. Their closest interaction is with a group of wolves that Rin cares for, until catastrophe brings other people into their lives: an Iraqi doctor at the local hospital and her son, who becomes the first real friend Rin’s daughter has ever known. A devastating depiction of the way a foreign war twists a small American town thousands of miles away.
The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck
A different kind of WWII novel, about a German woman who was a Nazi resister. Her husband was one of a group of men who tried, but failed, to assassinate Hitler, and were hanged as traitors. When the war ended this woman searched among the rivers of refugees to find the other widows of war resisters, and bring them and their children to safety living in her family’s decrepit castle. The novel provided an unusual look at what it was like to live in shattered post-War Germany, among neighbors you knew had been Nazis and others whose history you couldn’t know beyond the fact that everyone still alive, yourself included, had faced and sometimes crossed moral lines in order to survive.
Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston
In 1927, writer and cultural anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston began to interview a man named Oluale Kossula but called Cudjo Lewis for most of his life. He was a Nigerian who, in 1860, had been kidnapped by fierce women warriors from the kingdom of Dahomey and sold into slavery in Alabama. When Hurston met him, Kossula was one of, if not the, last living person to have been seized in Africa and enslaved in America. In Barracoon, two remarkable stories intertwine: the saga of Kossula’s life, and the tale of how Hurston came to know him so well. The book wasn’t released until 58 years after her death. See if you can resist this opening: “… [T]he only man on earth who has in his heart the memory of his African home; the horrors of a slave raid; … and who has sixty-seven years of freedom in a foreign land behind him… How does one sleep with such memories beneath the pillow?… I was sent to ask.”
Educated by Tara Westover
Fascinating memoir by a woman who grew up in isolated rural Idaho in a family of Mormon fundamentalists and survivalists. Tara never went to school, nor was she home-schooled; her parents believed that public education – like just about anything else the government had a hand in – was intended to shape obedient disciples of the devil (or worse, socialism). She and her many siblings grew up with no birth certificate, no fixed birthdate (her parents couldn’t even remember the year), few books beyond the bible, little access to radio, TV, computers or the outside world. After a childhood working in her father’s dangerous junkyard, where expedience was more important than safety, teenaged Tara realizes she wants a different life. Having never set foot in a classroom, she pursues a college education, and ends up with a PhD from Cambridge.
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay
With unnerving candor, Gay tells the story of how she was gang-raped at 12, and how she set out to protect herself by growing larger and larger until her body became a cage she couldn’t escape. The trauma of her youth, which infuses much of her fiction, is here examined in depth, as Gay reveals how it shifts shape and reaches into her adult life, squeezing and scrambling shame, pleasure, strength and identity in its unrelenting grip.
The Language of Kindness: A Nurse’s Story by Christie Watson
Watson is a British novelist who spent 20 years as a nurse in the National Health Service. Although it is a calling that requires extensive medical knowledge and math skills, a deep well of compassion, personal fortitude and excellent judgment, nursing is, as Watson puts it, “the least valued of all the professions.” This is a lyrical memoir of her nursing career, from a terrified student who faints at the sight of blood to a seasoned professional who has seen every human behavior at every step of life, and too much death. “There is an atmosphere in the room after a person has died,” she writes, “which you can sense if you have felt it before, like an argument – something hanging in the air.” A lovely and heart-breaking book.
One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying Our Democracy by Carol Anderson
Like her previous book, White Rage, this compelling exploration of how racism has eviscerated our electoral system and hollowed out our democracy should be required reading, especially for white people with any interest in our country’s civic life.
Where the Jews Aren’t by Masha Gessen
In the 1930s, Russia established an “autonomous Jewish region” called Birobidzhan in the rugged Far East, where Jews from across the vast USSR could settle and govern themselves, free from the anti-Semitic violence and oppression that was endemic elsewhere. Although it was bug-infested in summer and brutal during the long winters, the promise of this land drew thousands of Jewish communists, intellectuals, and people trying to save the fading Yiddish language and literature. The Jews of Birobidzhan were deemed heroic one moment and seditious the next, as the USSR’s political perspectives heaved and shifted. Their fate was so tragic as to be almost comic, as told by the journalist Masha Gessen, who herself was forced to leave Russia twice: once as a child, because she was Jewish; and once as an adult because she was a lesbian.