Top 10 Recommendations: What I Read in 2018
2018 was a wild year. I lived in San Francisco and New York. I traveled a lot, between day job trips to Northern California, friends’ weddings, visits with my family, and a few wonderful vacations with Ian. I finished writing my novel, Pre. And through it all, I kept books in my suitcases, purses, and on various nightstands from Seattle to Salzburg.
Now I’d like to share my favorites with you, in the hope that you’ll find something you love too. And support some of the writers I’ve come to love or rediscover in 2018.
My criteria for including these books from the 30+ I read this year? I asked myself two questions:
How much did I enjoy reading it?
How much did it change me?
So here, without further commentary and in no particular order, are the top ten books I read in 2018. Suggestions from me to you.
The Story of a New Name (Elena Ferrante)
Just wow. The story of two young women growing up in Naples in the mid-20th century continues. I admit I didn’t love these books the first time I read My Brilliant Friend, but after watching a few episodes of the HBO series (no shame) I was hooked on the characters. Ferrante is a master when it comes to documenting the mind’s constant flitting (“do I love my friend? do I hate her? she’s doing this because she loves me/is jealous of me/doesn’t care either way about me”) and it makes for a very real account of female friendship.
I loved it because… as a bookish person coming from a middle-to-upper-middle-class background, from the suburbs to the big city, I really related to the bookish, biggish-bosomed, interiorly tempestuous Lenuccia. But you don’t have to be any of those things to connect with her uncertainty, her tenuous relationships with the people she grows up with — those struggles are universal. READ THIS.
Read it if… you’re fine not sleeping and bringing this everywhere. You want to see what an angry Jane Austen novel looks like. You’re okay getting any overly romantic notions of Italy swept out of your head.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation (Ottessa Moshfegh)
I absolutely tore through this one. A perfect example of an author creating a flawed protagonist who a reader can both gape at and slowly, maybe, care for a little too. The premise: a Columbia student decides to take an entire year off to take various prescription meds (prescribed by a quack doctor) and to sleep. She hardly leaves her apartment, other than to go to the bodega and get two large coffees and some other crap. Her main human interaction is with her sometimes-friend Reva, who she doesn’t seem to really like. Super internal. Fascinating. Hard to put down.
I loved it because… I’m a go-go-go person. And the idea of taking a year off to go into a self-induced sleep coma is both horrifying and interesting to watch play out.
Read it if… you’re in a judgy mood. You love a depressed protagonist.
The Book of Night Women (Marlon James)
James’ narrative is told from the perspective and in the dialect of a girl slave named Lilith, who’s born on an 18th century Caribbean plantation. Lilith, from the time of her infancy, is felt by the others to have strange powers. As she grows, she’s exposed to a sisterhood of elder women called the Night Women who are planning a large-scale rebellion of which Lilith will have to play a key role.
I loved it because… it gives an authentic voice to a type of character and person typically relegated to the shadows of novels: the teenaged girl, the slave. Everything about Lilith and her relationships with the people around her is mercilessly complex. And real.
Read it if… you love voice-driven stories. You enjoy Toni Morrison’s historical fiction. You want to understand more about the terrible, terrifying history of slavery in North America.
Koba the Dread (Martin Amis)
Martin Amis tackles one of the most insidious and interesting characters of his writing career (if you can believe that) in the person of Josef Stalin. Amis masterfully incorporates an appreciation for the absurd and compassion for Russians into his undressing of Stalin’s regime and personal history.
I loved it because… it gave me chills every ten pages. It taught me so much I didn’t know about a dark period in history.
Read it if… you’re looking for a history book starring a historical figure with personality traits closely mirroring a well-known orange buffoon currently occupying the White House.
Averno (Louise Glück)
This collection from the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet is a meditation on the point where our world and the underworld touch fingers. Averno, from which the book’s title stems, is a lake in Southern Italy, rumored by ancient Romans to be the entrance to Hades’ domain. The poems here are measured, restless, clever and never overly fraught in metaphors or connections.
I loved it because… of appearances by my favorite underworld heroine, Persephone. Its plain words used for megawatt meaning and impact. “The assignment was to fall in love/ The author was female/ The ego had to be called the soul.”
Read it if… You’re feeling the winter in your heart this year. You’re looking for something to softly jolt you.
And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready (Meaghan O’Connell)
I’m not a mom, but I feel like not-sugarcoated accounts of motherhood, and especially of becoming a mother, are rare. I’m sorry, but I don’t buy the pervasive cultural/literary narrative that it’s all smooth baby skin and cuddling and (lol!) no sleep-but-I-don’t-mind-because-I’m-OBSESSED stuff can possibly be right. So I’m thankful for O’Connell’s memoir about getting pregnant in her twenties, and her transparency about the fact that it was terrifying.
I loved it because… her brutal honesty about the inconvenience of pregnancy and motherhood (as well as its potential to create happiness) is super refreshing. And comforting to mere mortal women like me.
Read it if… you’re a new mom feeling like you’re not getting it right, or that EVERYTHING THEY TOLD YOU WAS A LIEEEE. Or you’re like me, and just feeling pre-anxious about the whole shenanigans.
Here in Berlin (Cristina García)
An anonymous narrator visits Berlin and interviews various residents about their history with the city. I’m a sucker for Berlin (having lived there for a very short time), and I loved soaking in the unbelievable range of voices and histories the author accesses and presents. My review is here.
I loved it because… of its diverse cast of characters and masterful no-plot storytelling techniques.
Read it if… you’re a Germanophile. Or a history nerd.
The Garden Party (Grace Dane Mazur)
You guys, I fucking loved this one. I don’t know why more people aren’t obsessed with Grace Dane Mazur, for real. This is like Virginia Woolf-level weaving of character, interiority, plot. All of it! The setting is, you guessed it, a garden party. A rehearsal dinner, in fact, where two families — one, intellectuals; one, captains of industry — meet before the wedding of their respective son and daughter.
I loved it because… of its exquisite power of suggestion, its way of setting every sense on fire, its romantic setting.
Read it if… just please read it, I can’t write sensibly about my love for this book.
Notes On A Foreign Country (Suzy Hansen)
The best nonfiction I’ve ever read about America. Suzy Hansen, an American journalist, moves from New York to Istanbul to get a deeper look at life in the region beyond the scaremongering headlines. She ruthlessly probes her own American biases about the Middle East throughout the course of the book, and left me absolutely open-eyed to my own.
I loved it because… of Hansen’s ability to clearly and thoughtfully deconstruct her own cultural programming and come out the other side holding gems of wisdom to share. Her lack of shame and her intelligence impress me.
Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back) (Jeff Tweedy)
There was zero chance that this book, by the frontman of my all-time favorite band, Wilco, wouldn’t make this list. He’s one of my idols.
I loved it because… Tweedy writes like he talks. Always a virtue in a memoir. Especially if you’re as funny and earnest as he is.
Read it if… you’re a midwesterner or a Wilco fan. Or, like me, both.
I hope you’ll find something you can’t put down among the books listed here. And please leave any suggestions on what you loved this year (or think I should read next year!) in the comments.
My top 3 picks will get posted on my Instagram stories on January 1st. Check them out there. :)