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The Best Books of 2018

Wednesday, Jan 02

Where oh where did 2018 go? It seems like only yesterday we were cracking open our literary-themed planners of choice and writing down our list of 2018 resolutions — at the top of which, in big bolded letters, was the phrase “Read more!”

However (as we bookworms know), the best laid plans of mice and men do often go awry. You may have only read a couple of the books on the bestseller lists this year… if even that many.

Luckily, though the year may have drawn to a close, you have the rest of your life to read the amazing books that came out of it! With that in mind, we’ve put together this list of the very best books of 2018, with plentiful choices to delight each and every reader.

1. The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn

This taut psychological thriller — praised by Stephen King as “unputdownable” — follows Anna Fox, a former psychologist and agoraphobe who whiles away her days drinking wine, popping pills, and watching classic films like Rear Window (so meta). Her life is relatively uneventful, occupied by her own erratic substance abuse and wild imagination… until one day she sees something monstrous unfold through her own window. Or at least she thinks she does.

With a narrator so obviously unreliable, who can say what the truth really is? Needless to say, The Woman in the Window fully lives up to King’s description, and will leave you thunderstruck long after you’ve turned the final page.

2. The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

Beginning in 1960s New York with a psychic prediction about the four Gold children, this novel then branches out into each of their richly fascinating mini-biographies. The youngest, Simon, is driven to San Francisco on a quest for true love. Klara works as a Vegas stage magician; Daniel, an army doctor. And the oldest, Varya, becomes a researcher dedicated to extending the human lifespan. However, despite Varya’s fixation, they are all the titular immortalists — struggling to make something of themselves before their prophesied deaths, even as they try to dismiss what the psychic said so many years ago.

3. The Wife Between Us by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen

Most of us mystery-thriller fans already know to assume nothing and remain constantly vigilant while reading, but The Wife Between Us takes those rules to a whole new level. We’re swiftly introduced to Vanessa and Nellie, two women leading very different lives, except for one crucial thing — they’re both in love with the same man. And as the details of their relationships to him unfold, we begin to understand the truth of their relationship to each other as well.

4. The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson

Denis Johnson completed this collection just before passing away in 2017, and it’s exceptional in a way that only a lifelong master’s final work could be. Pulsating with his signature dark and pithy style, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden spins tales of disillusionment, mortality, and the ultimate inescapability of life’s worst aspects.

But Johnson’s narrators do not shy away from these things. Instead, they confront them head-on, their grim perceptions laid entirely bare for the reader. This collection is a particular achievement in light of the author’s circumstances — how difficult it must be to write about dying characters when looking death in the face yourself.

5. Feel Free by Zadie Smith

Smith’s most recent essay collection matches its title perfectly. Whereas some of her past works were composed of dense and tightly coiled prose, this one loosens its tie and sets its feet up on the counter, chattering amiably. Feel Free does delve into more “esteemed” subjects like the political implications of Brexit and the talents of Ella Fitzgerald, but only alongside treatises on social media and Justin Bieber. Remarkable in its range and introspection, this collection will delight Zadie Smith fans old and new.

6. The Friend by Sigrid Nunez

Winner of the 2018 National Book Award, The Friend is a short yet incredibly insightful novel. The narrator is mourning the suicide of a close friend and fellow writer when she suddenly receives a close link back to him. True, it's not in the form she would prefer — custody of his slobbery, arthritic Great Dane. But while at first she has no idea what do with him, over time the dog becomes her trusted companion, and indeed is one of the few who can truly empathize with her grief. A lovely rumination (despite its dark catalyst) on the nature of life and literature, this book is a pure, honest joy to behold.

7. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

From the first page of An American Marriage, you feel as though you’re reading about people you’ve known for years. But Jones’ gently descriptive writing style is a red herring for the book’s horrific premise: two newlyweds have their lives torn apart when the husband, Roy, is convicted of rape and sentenced to 12 years in prison. Though he and his wife Celestial both know he’s innocent, that doesn’t stop him from falling victim to the system as a black man in America. However, systemic inequality is only the backdrop to this intimate account of two people trying to survive under extraordinary duress, relying on the love that’s always kept them together — and finding, tragically, that it’s not enough.

8. Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

Ada is a young woman who’s never been entirely self-possessed. Her entire life, Ada has shared her body with a set of malevolent spirits called the ogbanje, which have caused her nothing but torment in their quest for complete control. When Ada moves from the Nigeria to the US for college, a traumatic experience causes her to recede into herself and the ogbanje to fully usurp her consciousness. Her grip on reality fades, as the ogbanje force her to do things the real Ada never would.

This gorgeously narrated, nuanced take on mental illness takes us deep into the sensations and consequences of being haunted — whether by one’s own internal demons, external trauma, or the fatal combination of both.

9. Educated by Tara Westover

To say that Tara Westover had a nontraditional upbringing would be the understatement of the century... a century her father never thought we’d live to see. Born into a family of survivalists in rural Idaho, her world was filled with fruitless preparations for events like Y2K, but ironically devoid of vital resources like medical care and a legitimate education.

After putting up her father’s delusions for years, Westover was finally able to break away from her family and enroll in college, eventually becoming a PhD candidate at Cambridge. Provocative and tantalizing, but most of all inspiring, this story of one woman clawing her way up the academic (and societal) ladder from the lowest possible rung will make readers feel that they, too, can accomplish anything.

10. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara

Another exceptional and sadly posthumous addition to this list is Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, the true crime sensation of 2018. Over the course of 350 pages, McNamara meticulously tracks the movements of the so-called “Golden State Killer” — a man who committed an estimated 13 murders and more than 50 rapes during the 1970s and 80s.

Though many of her leads are tenuous and even cops who worked the case for years urge her give up, McNamara doggedly pursues the killer’s identity, her painstaking research springing to life in the pages of this book. Her poetic language twins eerily with the shocking crime scenes and victims’ descriptions, coming to a head in the shiver-inducing epilogue:

“You’ll be silent forever, and I’ll be gone in the dark,” you threatened a victim once.

Open the door. Show us your face.

Walk into the light.

11. The Overstory by Richard Powers

Hailed as the ”Great American Eco-Novel,” The Overstory’s two-pronged title refers to both: 1) the topmost layer of trees in a forest as well as 2) the overarching nature (no pun intended) of stories in this book. Richard Powers layers narrative upon narrative, just like the rings of a tree, to compose this complex yet elegant masterpiece: beginning with the history of trees in America and ending with the threat of their imminent destruction. Nine otherwise unrelated individuals soon bond together by their need to protect the trees — coming to realize that all of us, trees included, share many of the same essential roots (sorry, couldn't resist).

12. The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer

Its title may sound academic, but this book actually tackles feminism from a highly personal perspective. College freshman Greer Kadetsky believes she has it all, and doesn’t know why she still feels like she doesn’t — until she meets second-wave feminist extraordinaire Faith Frank, who opens Greer’s eyes to everything she’s been missing. Suddenly her life no longer seems destined for marriage and motherhood, but for ambition, work, and more.

But with all dramatic life changes come unforeseen consequences, and Greer’s struggle to assimilate into feminism, as it were, is one of many roadblocks — many stemming from Faith herself.

13. Circe by Madeline Miller

Reminiscent of other resplendent retellings such as Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent, Madeline Miller’s Circe is a full-bodied rendering of an ancient Greek myth. Circe may be the daughter of the sun god Helios, but she’s never felt at home on Olympus, especially in the company of her dismissive mother and cruel siblings. After meeting Prometheus and hearing his tales of mortals, Circe is enchanted by their world. She soon realizes that she does possess power among them, if not the gods. But her revelation is a peril to Zeus, who exiles her to a desert island… where Circe discovers who she truly is, and where her loyalties lie.

14. You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld

Known for intimately capturing the human (and especially female) condition, Sittenfeld sticks to her roots in this dazzling new short story collection. From the story of a professor left unmoored by her husband’s recent betrayal to a suburban mother tortured by an old friend’s success, these tales tackle relationships, sexism, emotional trauma, and the many ways people can surprise you.

Sittenfeld’s painfully incisive social commentary, wrapped up in smooth language with an irresistible edge, reminds one of a Biblical serpent. She’ll have you eating right out of her hands, desperate to know what her characters will do — even if you’re also sort of dreading it.

15. There There by Tommy Orange

Though its title is deceptively comforting, this debut novel by Cheyenne and Arapho writer Tommy Orange is anything but sugar-coated. There There follows twelve different Native American characters, including teenagers grappling with their cultural identity (“Mostly I just feel like I'm from Oakland,” says one) and families torn apart by substance abuse. Of course, the beating heart of this novel is the great injustices that Native Americans have always faced, and continue to face, in the US.

There There is a wake-up call to all those who have never given Native American history and culture a second thought, and a resonant, much-needed piece of representation for the people themselves.

16. The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai

Commended as one of the first novels to document the AIDS epidemic up to the present day, The Great Believers begins in 1985, with Chicago gallery director Yale Tishman attending his friend Nico’s wake. Yale doesn’t have AIDS himself, but he’s faced with constant and horrific reminders: hushed whispers on the street, acquaintances falling off the map, and now the death of one of his closest friends.

To cope with the trauma, Yale throws himself into his work — trying to acquire a collection of rare 1920s photographs. Themes of loss, recovery, and love echo in the book’s parallel section, which details the search of Nico’s sister, Fiona, for her own daughter. Makkai’s fluent writing brings these parts together in a seamless dance, depicting one continuously flowing story over three decades.

17. My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

The unnamed narrator of this razor-sharp novel has a single (and singular) aspiration for her year: to sleep through as much of it as possible. And though you probably shouldn’t base your 2019 resolution on hers, it does make for a pretty compelling story.

While at first she gets by on a cocktail of fairly standard prescription drugs and cold medicine, she soon realizes that between social obligations with her clingy friend Reva and her increasing tolerance for the medicines, it’s going to take some heavy stuff — both chemically and emotionally — to put her into proper “hibernation.” Stoic and seemingly detached, yet very deftly told, this book boasts one of year’s most unique premises and narrative achievements. In other words, it’s definitely not one to sleep on.

18. Normal People by Sally Rooney

Though it’s not yet out in the US, Sally Rooney’s second novel has been making waves in the UK ever since August. Normal People tracks the relationship between Irish teenagers Marianne and Connell, who have grown up in the same town and attend the same Dublin college. While they may not seem a natural couple, their internal similarities come to reveal themselves as they get to know one another, and as the reader gets to know them.

Rooney’s characterization is stunningly thorough, her prose lovely and lilting, and her narrative unexpected in all the right places. It’s a quick but highly affecting read, and very deserving of its across-the-pond acclaim.

19. All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung

Another powerful literary debut, this memoir details Chung’s upbringing as a Korean-American child adopted into a white family, and her eventual search for her biological parents. Though her adoptive parents always told her she was a “gift from God,” Chung (who reclaimed her Korean surname in her twenties) realized as she grew older that no stork had dropped her on their doorstep. In the book, she’s filled with burning curiosity that compels her to unearth her biological parents… and when she does find them, the results are both surprising and incredibly moving.

20. The Library Book by Susan Orlean

In 1986, there was a fire at the Los Angeles Public Library that destroyed hundreds of thousands of books. Decades later, Susan Orlean — already a celebrated author and accomplished journalist — moved to Los Angeles herself, and quickly became fascinated by the case. Citing her lifelong love of libraries as motivation, she began crafting this beautifully intertwined tale of both the LAPL’s particular tragedy and the history of libraries as a whole.

Through her signature personal investment and scrupulous style, Orlean brings the story of libraries themselves to life and reminds us their immense value — even and especially in our modern age. It's a very fitting end to this list, and inspiration for us all to try and read as much as we possibly can in 2019. 📖

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