My "Best of 2018"

Oh, my, that was hard! In 2018, I read 95 books, which was 11 more than my goal of 84, or seven per month. But that wasn't the hard part. 

What was really, really hard was coming up with a list of the best from that group, because, in fact, most of the books I read this year were good. There were very few stinkers. So, I had to set parameters to narrow the field.

I had several rereads, or in some cases first reads, of classics; books like The Great Gatsby, 1984, Oryx and Crake, As I Lay Dying, and Heart of Darkness, and soon-to-be classics like Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones. I enjoyed them all but immediately eliminated them from consideration, deciding to include only recent publications of this or the last year.

The next cut was really a no-brainer: I would include only those books that I had rated at five-stars. That should narrow things down, right? 

Well...

Actually, that left me with 24 books to be considered, an unwieldy number. Surely I could shrink that list a bit more to the "Very Best of the Best."

But no, I couldn't. Each of these 24 was exceptional in its own way and comparing them would have been like comparing apples to oranges. One is not better than the other; it just depends on one's taste at any given time. Honestly, how do those Pulitzer or Man Booker juries ever make up their minds?

So, here, without apology and in no particular order, is my unwieldy list of the 24 best books of 2018, along with links to my reviews of them.

The Written Word: How Literature Shaped Civilization by Martin Puchner - Puchner discusses the foundational texts of civilization and the philosophical, political and religious ideas that sprang from those texts.

Circe by Madeline Miller - Miller retells the Greek myth of Circe as a kind of autobiography in which Circe is a feminist heroine battling against the constraints that bind her.

The Overstory by Richard Powers - This is the story of trees as sentient beings that shape our world; beings on which we and all life ultimately depend. But, of course, since we are such narcissistic creatures, the trees' stories are told through their interfaces with human beings. 

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner - Kushner gives us a portrait of life in a women's prison where the mind-numbing sameness of the days seems designed to extinguish any spark left in an inmate's soul. But sometimes it has the opposite effect.

Kudos by Rachel Kusk - This is the third in Kusk's trilogy, a subtle theme of which is the way that the work of women writers is judged differently from men writers. The main character, Faye, and her stories and experiences deal with ageism and sexism. 

Calypso by David Sedaris - David Sedaris is a very funny fellow with lots of weird and wonderful family and friends. He proves all that again with this book. Highly recommended as an audio book for long road trips! 

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones - This is the story of a middle class black couple who did everything right but still got caught in America's racial prejudice trap, resulting in the man being falsely accused of rape and sent to prison. The struggle to preserve the marriage is the focus of the novel.

Less by Andrew Sean Greer - The 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner is the story of Arthur Less, a mediocre writer of moderate success. It is also one of the funniest, most enjoyable books I read this year.

The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer - Wolitzer's novel is full of wit and insight for everyone for whom, to paraphrase the words of Barack Obama, men have been getting on their nerves lately.  

Clock Dance by Anne Tyler - What can I say? I'm a sucker for Anne Tyler but I did love and identify with her Willa Drake. 

There There by Tommy Orange - Orange's tale of a group of "urban Indians" whose lives converge at the Big Oakland Powwow made just about everybody's "best of" list this year. 

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens - If I were absolutely forced to name my favorite book of 2018, it might just be this one. Owens' story of an abandoned child learning to make her way in the world alone in the marshes of the North Carolina coast spoke to me on many levels.  

The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life by David Quammen - One of just a handful of non-fiction books that I read this year (I do tend to stick to fiction), this was a fascinating, I could even say mind-blowing, history of the discovery of a "third domain" of life on Earth, something distinctly different from plants and animals.

Presidio by Randy Kennedy - This was one of the many first novels by writers that I read this year and this Texas noir tale about a professional car thief was a winner!

Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart - This story of a frankly unlikable character and his road trip across America against the background of the 2016 presidential election was one that I found mesmerizing and hard to put down.

Lethal White by Robert Galbraith - The fourth in the Cormoran Strike/Robin Ellacott mystery series is the best one yet, in my opinion.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh - A narcissistic (size 2, she wants to be sure we know) woman in New York City decides to spend a year on retreat from the world with the help of pharmaceuticals. Her year culminates just before the attacks on the Twin Towers on September 11, 2011. It makes for a strange and captivating novel.

Transcription by Kate Atkinson - A rousing good tale of espionage as practiced in World War II and its later consequences. Nothing and no one here is exactly what appearances suggest.

The Witch Elm by Tana French - I'll read anything this woman writes! Her mysteries just get better and better.

Melmoth by Sarah Perry - This story of an undead observer who bears silent witness to the cruelty and violence of which humankind is capable took a while for me to get into, but once I did, the momentum of the unusual story pulled me along right to the bang-up ending.

Shell Game by Sara Paretsky - If there is anyone who writes better, more literate and humane mysteries than Paretsky, I haven't met him/her. Her protagonist V.I. Warshawski never lets me down.

Godsend by John Wray - No ordinary coming-of-age story, Godsend tells the tale of an idealistic young woman from Santa Rosa, California, who travels to Peshawar, Pakistan, where she will pass as a man in order to study the Qu'ran at a madrasa. She becomes radicalized and finds herself behind enemy lines on 09/11/01.

Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver - Another book set with the background of the 2016 presidential election and another book with a house as one of the main characters. (And isn't it interesting that both Kingsolver and Anne Tyler have main characters named Willa in this year's books?)

Florida by Lauren Groff - The Sunshine State is not all fun in the sun. Some of its stories are pretty dark but all are absorbing. 

2018 has been a thoroughly depressing year on most fronts, but when it comes to literature, it has been a winner. There are a lot of good books being written these days and I've been privileged to read many of them this year. I can't wait to get started on 2019. The best may be yet to come!

Comments

  1. So many great books on your list! I agree that this year was exceptional in terms of quality books being published. Happy New Year 2019! And happy reading! :-)

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    Replies
    1. And happy reading to you, too, Carmen. I look forward to your 2019 reviews.

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  2. I like your list! I too enjoyed Circe. Thanks for suggesting the audio book of Calypso. The only way my family "reads" David Sedaris is in his voice! We love him!

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    Replies
    1. That's the way we enjoy him, too. His voice is half the pleasure.

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  3. I can never get my favorites list down to ten either. I will be making and posting my list tomorrow. Congrats on besting your predicted total books read. Thanks for all the reviews in 2018. Here's to more great reading in the new year. What ever would we do without books?

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