Best Books of 2018
For me, 2018 has been an exceptional reading year. Each book on the forthcoming list is one that stood out in a year full of books that I really enjoyed. Not all of these books were written in 2018, but this is the year that I read them, so that makes them eligible for this list. Often, we get caught up in all of the new and shiny things that come out, but it’s great to remember that wonderful books have been written for a very long time. One of my goals for 2019 is to read some of the classics that I’ve had on my ‘to-be-read list’ for years - let’s do this Middlemarch! Here are my top ten favorite books of the year.
Nicole Chung’s memoir, All You Can Ever Know, provides a necessary perspective on the life of an adoptee whose biological parents are culturally and ethnically different from her adoptive parents. Chung is a Korean American woman who was adopted by white parents in the Pacific Northwest. She explains that the deep love she feels for her biological parents is underscored by her inability to feel 100% their daughter. As Chung gets older and becomes a mother herself, she begins to crave a connection of some kind with her biological family. Her account is both admirably vulnerable and beautifully written. I loved this book.
Quirky, dryly funny, and socially prescient, Convenience Store Woman is a slim but substantive novel. Keiko Furukura was considered a strange child and has grown into a strange adult. At eighteen, she begins working in a convenience store and finds that, for the first time, she fits in perfectly. Eighteen years later, Keiko is 36 and still working at the same convenience store. She has become a cog in a machine and she loves it. Her family and few friends, however, have begun to worry about her, to put pressure on her to get married and have a family. This is a Kafka-esque story about the relationship between our professional lives and personal lives. I loved every minute.
Négar Djavadi’s debut novel, Disoriental, is a sweeping family saga narrated by Kimîa Sadr, a young woman whose family moved from Iran to France during the Iranian Revolution. Kimîa’s narrative voice is fresh, funny, and heartbreaking. The history of her Iranian family is fascinating and nuanced, and her own journey of self-discovery and acceptance is sad and beautiful. I wanted to read Kimîa’s story forever. Disoriental’s place on the Shortlist for the National Book Award for Translation is much-deserved.
This year, one of my reading goals was to read a greater diversity of genres. My enjoyment of memoir has been one of the more surprising discoveries through that process. At first glance, I assumed I would not like Educated - but I loved it. Not only is Tara Westover’s story fascinating, if at times fantastical, it also speaks to that part of you that caves into societal pressures and expectations. Westover’s formal education is impressive, but the emotional education her story provides to everyone who has ever struggled to follow their own path is vital. Believe the hype, friends. This one really is that good.
This was maybe my favorite book of the entire year, and it snuck onto my list at the last minute. Rebecca Makkai’s work is tightly and beautifully constructed. Told with the same cast of characters in two different timelines, one beginning in 1985 Chicago, and the other in 2015 Paris, The Great Believers tackles the AIDS crisis head on. The fascinating third timeline, set in Paris after World War I beautifully encapsulates the lives of Yale, Fiona, Nico, Terrence, Richard, and all of the other characters that you can’t help but fall in love with. This is an incredible story of love, loss, motherhood, grave political missteps - to put it lightly - and the true value of a life well-lived.
When I finished Her Body and Other Parties I had the not often experienced feeling of having just read something that was unlike anything else I’d ever read. Carmen Maria Machado’s collection of short stories received much-deserved praise last year, including a spot on the shortlist for the National Book Award. These are haunting stories of female psychic pain made manifest. Women vanish into the seams of prom dresses; a contagion spreads over the United States and forces a lone survivor onto an island to watch as it inevitably approaches; a young mother puzzles over her new role through the haze of post-partum hormones and confusion. Machado’s gothic and horror inspirations are keenly felt, but her power to speak to, specifically, female pain is unmatched.
Tommy Orange’s debut novel, There There, is a triumph. Intersecting narratives of different Native people all making their way to a national pow-wow in Oakland, California converge violently. The shifting narratives are choppy and jarring and the actual violence that occurs in the moments leading up to and during the pow-wow are hard to read, but Orange’s purpose is well-served by these tough moments. After all, asking one person to speak for an entire culture is a violence in itself. This is not fun or light, but it is vital.
I absolutely loved They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us. I never wanted it to end. Hanif Abdurraqib’s essay collection is poetic, poignant, tender, nostalgic, funny, and deadly serious. This collection blends music criticism with social criticism in a new and fresh way. Reading about his experiences of growing up black in Cleveland and attending concerts mainly patronized by white people provided an important perspective on the space, both literally and figuratively, that each of us is privileged to take up, or not. I can’t say enough good things about this collection. And I’ve never wanted to listen to Carly Rae Jepsen more.
To Obama is an impressive project. During his two terms in office, President Obama read ten constituent letters a day. The people who worked in the mail room at the White House read every letter and email, and catalogued each one via subject matter, and pulled letters they felt were important for the President to see. President Obama often replied to these letters and allowed the unique perspectives he was receiving from his constituents to impact his approach to public policy. In To Obama, Jeanne Marie Laskas collects letters to the President and some of his responses to those letters. She interviews people that worked in the mailroom, people that wrote letters, and President Obama. The result is a portrait of a man - and his staff - who worked everyday to serve all of the people that live in the United States.