Hello. These are the books I enjoyed most in 2018. Not all came out this year, though some did. My top book of the year (giant photo of the cover, above) is listed first, and after that the order is random. If you want to follow everything I read in real time, with ratings and occasional reviews, please follow me on Goodreads. Thanks.
Infinite Blacktop, by Sara Gran
My favorite book of this year begins like a conventional-ish thriller before quickly veering into beautifully strange psychic territory that Gran explores boldly and fearlessly. Gran’s detective, Claire DeWitt, is Nancy Drew all grown up and broken, and doing all kinds of crazy stuff, but still a truth-seeker. After reading Infinite Blacktop and loving it, I picked up an earlier Sara Gran book, the standalone Dope, an often-brilliant tour through the heroin-addled Manhattan circa William Burrough’s Junky. It had one or two more twists than I would prefer, but I loved the writing and the main character and the detail of the period. Then I moved on to Come Closer, a horror novel that uses demonic possession to explain a marriage that it disintegrating. I recommend both Dope and Come Closer, but I found Infinite Blacktop extraordinary.
The Far Away Brothers, by Lauren Markham
This nonfiction book tells, in granular and enthralling detail, the journey of two brothers from El Salvador to the United States and their struggle to build lives in America, while their parents back home are crushed by the debt they took on fund the trip. Though it’s clear where the author’s sympathies lie, the book manages not to be polemical on the topic of immigration—I could imagine people on both sides of the debate finding facts to support their arguments. For instance, I was amazed that the protagonists’ older brother, who had come to the U.S. earlier and was living here undocumented, could act as their sponsor in court when his younger brothers sought asylum. I think of this book every time I hear about caravans and MS-13 and other stories related to people fleeing the gang violence in Central America to come north. Markham’s take, which she reserves to the end, is that the way to lessen the flow of immigration is not to work with Central American governments to get rid of the horror from which so many are running.
The Red Parts, by Maggie Nelson
A request to all the poets out there: please write more non-fiction. In 2017 Patricia Lockwood’s Priestdaddy was my favorite book, and Maggie Nelson’s The Red Parts is up at that level. This book is a true crime story about a man who killed Nelson’s aunt, but the poet’s sensibility comes through in digressions that are both unexpected and spot-on, and make it the most human true crime book I’ve read (and I don’t read much in this genre, honestly. I came to The Red Parts through a recommendation on Powell’s, and I’m glad I did).
Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America, by John M. Barry
This history wins right away with an enthralling first section about how engineers attempted to tame the Mississippi River in the 1800s, and politicians and their egos ignored the recommendations of experts regarding the lower Mississippi. The most starting section of the book covers the local politics in Mississippi in the years leading up to the flood—and it was startling because of the extent to which the public rhetoric of the Klu Klux Klan back then so closely resembles political language heard in recent years. I picked up this book because I had seen it on a writer’s list someone’s three greatest history books ever. No argument here.
The Wife, by Alafair Burke
A smart thriller about a woman whose husband faces sexual misconduct allegations, which Burke somehow wrote before the #MeToo hashtag was in wide circulation. The heroine’s marriage became a mystery for her to solve.
Sunburn, by Laura Lippman
After reading so many thrillers in which the big surprise is that the main characters turn out to be more venal and calculating then they seemed, I liked how in Lippman’s story, her leads took a journey in the other direction.
The Long Haul: A Trucker’s Tales of Life on the Road, by Finn Murphy
Murphy dropped out of Colby College and became a trucker who specialized in long-distance moves. Murphy delivers both road-life minutae—it’s not good for movers that so many relocate south to Florida but few transition in the other direction—and big-picture observations and people and their possessions. His best chapter, about a move that goes horribly wrong for a family already under stress, could pass for a Raymond Carver story.
The Darkest Secret, by Alex Marwood
This thriller had me turning the pages more quickly than any book I read in 2018. Always appreciate a good yarn about the irresponsible rich.
The Gospel of Trees: A Memoir, by Apricot Irving
Irving spent a portion of her youth in Haiti, where her missionary father worked to teach the locals to use trees to fortify a landscape that has taken a beating ever since Christopher Columbus showed up five centuries ago. Irving weaves together several stories here—about family, history, and travel—and she does right by them all.
An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones
I was drawn along not just by the compelling soap opera of the husband and wife, but because their fates seemed to matter in a much broader sense—Jones nails both the “American” and the “Marriage.” That’s not an easy double-play to turn. (P.S. Sports Metaphors R Us).
The Real Lolita, by Sarah Weinman
I will never think about Nabakov’s book, or leering references to its subject matter, the same way after reading Weinman’s thoroughly researched account of the child abduction that helped inspire the Nabakov story. Bonus points awarded for the article Weinman wrote for Vulture about the disastrous attempt to make Lolita into a musical.