Wednesday, December 12, 2018

My 10 Favorite Books of 2018

I know I probably say this ever year, but this year has been an especially great year in books. I read a little less this year than I did in the past few years, but I think enjoyed these 10 books as much if not more than any previous list. Here they are, not necessarily the best books of 2018, but my favorites.

10. An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones — I loved this book for Jones' brave choices and the difficult questions she asks us to consider. A morally complex tale about a woman whose husband goes to jail for a crime he didn't commit, this novel really makes you think about what marriage is, what stresses it can survive, or maybe what stresses marriage should not survive.

9. Asymmetry, by Lisa Halliday — This is unlike anything I've ever read, and I'm still floored that this is a debut novel. The novel is two distinct 100-page stories, and then a third much shorter one that acts as a coda. The fun, beyond reading Halliday's smooth, clever, fiercely smart writing, is eventually figuring out how the first two stories are connected. One's about a young editor's affair with an aging writer. The other is about an Iraqi-American being interrogated at London Heathrow. The coda is the aging writer being interviewed on a radio show. It's really inventive. And, if you're a Philip Roth fan, and I'm a huge one, the first story is so much fun. So many little Rothian inside jokes.

8. The House of Broken Angels, by Luis Alberto Urrea — Here we have a representative from my favorite "genre" — the dysfunctional family story. And while this does have its funny moments, it has a ton of heart too. It's about a huge Hispanic family that gathers in San Diego to celebrate the last birthday of their dying patriarch. There's much drama and old disagreements are rekindled, but overall, it's just a touching story about being proud of how you've lived as you look back.

7. Florida, by Lauren Groff — You may know this about me already, but Groff is one of those writers whose grocery list would probably get five stars from me. But this, her first intentional short story collection (as opposed Delicate Edible Birds, which was just a bunch of stories that had shown up in various publications), is just as good as any of her novels. Thematically linked by storms and snakes, motherhood, Mother Nature, and general malaise, these stories are elegant, emotionally resonant, and totally engrossing.

6. Educated, by Tara Westover — This is THE dysfunctional family story of the year, and it happens to be real! Westover's memoir is about growing up with an increasingly crazy survivalist religious father in Idaho. With the help of one of her brothers (and at the attempted-hindrance of another) she gets a sufficient ACT score to enroll at BYU, even though she's never set foot in a classroom. From there, her world expands, but still, she can't quit her family. And this tension is often maddening, but incredibly fascinating. As is this quote, especially cogent for our times: “I had come to believe that the ability to evaluate many ideas, many histories, many points of view, was at the heart of what it means to self-create.”

5. A Terrible Country, by Keith Gessen — This story of a mid-30s failing academic named Andrei who travels to Moscow in 2008 to care for his ailing grandmother surprised me for how much I liked it. It's often really funny, but really interesting too in that it's a deep but very entertaining dive into Russian life — specifically, how everything is such a terrible hassle. Andrei gets involved with politics and has to decide just how deeply held his convictions are. Or, does he always have his "American-ness" as a fallback, which means he'll never be able to be as intensely involved as his new Russian friends.

4. The Great Believers, by Rebecca Makkai — Probably the one book from my list you'll see on just about everyone else's list, as well, this was one of the more sobering, difficult, but utterly brilliant novels I've read in a long time. It's about the AIDS crisis in Chicago, and its lasting effects on the families and friends of both survivors and victims. This is the one novel this year that truly felt to me like a work of art.

3. Let Your Mind Run, by Deena Kastor — This isn't just one of the better running books I read this year, it's one of my favorites period. Kastor's memoir is inspiring, sure — but it's the advice she gives along the way about getting your head right that's really helpful. It's a really personal, courageous book — and you can tell Kastor wrote it herself. I got to meet her in September and gush about how much I loved it and she was super gracious. This a must read for any runner or athlete.

2. A Ladder To The Sky, by John Boyne — So having never read him before last year, this is now the second year in a row a Boyne novel lands in my favorite 10. This one is an extremely different type of novel compared to my favorite book of 2017, The Heart's Invisible Furies. But I enjoyed it nearly as much. Boyne is so cleverly funny, his dialogue is as witty and crisp as you'll find in fiction these days, and his story here is so deliciously evil. Maurice Swift is a character you won't soon forget. And what's more, there are a lot of great little Easter eggs and inside jokes about the reading and writing life. So much fun here.

1. The Overstory, by Richard Powers — Yes, it's about trees. And yes, it's that freakin' good. My favorite novel of the year, though, really is about a bunch of characters — activists and scientists, computer geeks and artists — and their relationship to nature as a microcosm of ALL of our relationship to nature. One of the more profound, artful, non-preachy novels I've ever read. And this quote wins forever: "This is not our world with trees in it. It's a world of trees where humans have just arrived."