The rancorous political climate has been good to publishing, as it has been to most forms of media, whether the books are devoted to bashing the Trump administration, like Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, or championing it, like Newt Gingrich’s Understanding Trump. In April, CNN observed that every top best-seller of the year to that point had been about Trump. Even Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, which broke sales records in the weeks after its publication, has been framed as a commentary on the administration, despite devoting only a handful of pages to the current president; Obama’s statement that she will never forgive Trump for support of birther conspiracy theories features prominently in coverage of the book. So while readers often tell me that they’re sick of the subject, their buying habits suggest otherwise.
Still, part of the appeal of a book is its aura of permanence, the feeling that what’s inside it will still be worth reading next year and 50 years from now. The books that made me feel that way this year were, to my surprise, often historical fiction, rather than portraits of the way we live now. I found myself craving continuity with the past, the sense that the problems people face haven’t changed entirely over the decades and centuries. Love, fear, suffering, struggle, and transcendence are constants, the essence of the human condition. They survived, and we can too.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara
Published posthumously with the help of fellow investigators and true crime writers as well as her husband, comedian Patton Oswalt, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark assembles McNamara’s account of her yearslong search for the man she dubbed the Golden State Killer. As a serial home invader and rapist, he terrorized Sacramento, California, in the late 1970s, before moving South to commit several rape-murders, often targeting couples. McNamara, who died in 2016, excelled at both assembling and analyzing evidence. But she also knew that all crime is a microcosm of the time and place where it occurs, so she lushly evokes a 1970s California in which suburbia and the counterculture mixed uneasily, where homes designed to turn their backs on the neighbors proved the ideal hunting ground for a predator. Investigators got nowhere for decades until, a few months after the publication of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, DNA databases enabled them to pinpoint and arrest a previously overlooked suspect, Joseph James DeAngelo, a former police officer. McNamara didn’t come any closer to identifying him than the rest, but this moody, intelligent true crime narrative is a testimony to why it was so important to catch him.
By Michelle McNamara. Harper.
Washington Black by Esi Edugyan
Edugyan is that rare historical novelist who can seamlessly integrate the sweeping and the intimate. Here she delivers a grand, Jules Verne–style 18th-century adventure yarn, ranging from the Arctic Circle to North Africa and taking in both the intellectual ferment of Enlightenment science and the horrors of Caribbean slavery. The title character, born on a Barbados sugar plantation where even the dignity of knowing his own mother’s identity is denied him, gets assigned to help the owner’s brother in his efforts to build an experimental hot air balloon. Working with “Titch” Wilde, 12-year-old Washington discovers his own latent talents as both a naturalist and an illustrator—Edugyan’s descriptions of the natural world seen through his eyes are gorgeous—but also the treachery of the heart. Is it possible to love freely in his situation? Maybe not, but it’s also impossible not to love at all.
Milkman by Anna Burns
The narrator of this novel, set in Northern Ireland during the 1970s, is a teenaged girl so fed up with the world around her that she walks the streets with her nose in a book, preferably a 19th-century novel because she hates the 20th century. When she attracts the unwanted attention of a local IRA leader twice her age, it becomes impossible to shut out her neighborhood or her family and their insistence on defining her, and controlling her, on their own terms. When Milkman won the 2018 Man Booker Prize, some critics described the book as stream-of-consciousness and difficult. It isn’t really either, just a blisteringly funny aria of late-adolescent female rage at having her identity, her entire life, dictated to her by other people, and at a suffocatingly self-righteous community made worse by the political oppression that it in turn inflicts on its own members.
The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner
Eschewing the stylistic and formal flourishes of her much-celebrated previous novels, Telex From Cuba and The Flamethrowers, Kushner has produced her most straightforward book yet, while also managing to avoid the familiar motifs of women-in-prison stories, from Caged Heat to Orange Is the New Black. Her narrator, Romy Hall, serving a life sentence for killing the man who was stalking her, recalls a life on the working-class fringes of San Francisco; the novel takes its title from the low-end (but pleasingly easygoing) strip club where she worked. Kushner is interested in prison as an exaggerated version of the ordinary daily lives of women like Romy: a place where practical constraints bring out their ingenuity—like making cheesecake out of nondairy creamer—and where the right alliances can spell the difference between life and death. Romy’s voice is noirish and fatalistic, but still, the novel is, in spirit, testimonial. “A lot of history is not known,” Romy says. “A lot of worlds have existed that you can’t look up online or in any book.” And yet, here’s this one in all its ragged beauty.
The Witch Elm by Tana French
French’s extraordinary crime fiction always turns on the fallibility of her first-person narrators. Now, taking a detour from her Dublin Murder Squad series, she presents a stand-alone novel narrated not by a detective but by a suspect. Toby Hennessy, a young Dublin professional, thinks he’s golden, with a good job, a terrific girlfriend, and a native gift for talking himself out of any scrape. But when intruders in his apartment beat him within an inch of his life, the experience leaves him spooked and for the first time unsure of his station in the world. Then, the discovery of a skeleton hidden inside a hollow tree in the old, rambling family house where Toby and his friends liked to hang out as kids triggers a series of other disclosures, laying bare the underbelly of power, injustice, and cruelty that lucky Toby was conveniently able to ignore in his youth. Toby begins to wonder if he even knows himself. A merciless dissection of how privilege can blind us, The Witch Elm demonstrates that French’s gift for boldly reconfiguring the mystery genre shows no sign of flagging.
Transcription by Kate Atkinson
Imagine a spy novel as written by more naïve Miss Moneypenny who never met a man remotely like James Bond and ended up getting into the game herself. At 18, Atkinson’s heroine, Juliet Armstrong, gets recruited by MI5 and assigned to transcribe the secretly recorded conversations of British fascists seeking to aid the Nazi war effort. The novel alternates between her wartime experiences and the 1950s, when she has seemingly settled down to a quiet job making children’s programming for the BBC. But the war and its betrayals can’t easily be left behind, and when the latter-day Juliet receives an anonymous note reading, “You will pay for what you did,” she has to think hard about which person from her past might be seeking vengeance. Always ready to poke her needlelike wit into pockets of overinflated self-importance, Atkinson satirizes the spy novel’s masculine pretensions—no man is a hero to his secretary—while producing a twisty corker of a yarn in its own right.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
The bard of bad attitudes, Moshfegh presents a heroine who would prefer not to—not to remain conscious, that is. In this mordant take on contemporary Manhattan life, Moshfegh’s narrator gets sacked for napping in the storeroom at her job in a Chelsea art gallery. With the inheritance she receives following the deaths of her parents, this misanthropic young woman figures she can turn her occasional hobby into a full-time pursuit, at least for a while. She arranges to “hibernate” for six months, medicating herself into sleeping ’round the clock, waking only every three days to eat. She’s aided by a magnificently dotty psychiatrist who practices prescribing as a creative, and necessarily impressionistic, art—and videotapes of her heroine, Whoopi Goldberg, who, the narrator believes, excels at proving that everything around her is “a parody of itself, gauche and ridiculous.” Moshfegh is pretty damn good at that herself.
How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan
When Timothy Leary went off the reservation at Harvard in the early 1960s, abandoning the scientific protocols being used to test the possible therapeutic uses of LSD, he did an immense amount of damage, according to Pollan, best known for his writings on the food industry. Not because Leary’s admonition to “turn on, tune in, and drop out” led to abuse of the drug, but because the association between psychedelics and the counterculture prevented researchers from continuing responsible studies of the substances for decades. That’s changed in recent years, and Pollan—not himself a habitual user of recreational drugs—investigates the untapped potential of LSD, psilocybin, and mescaline in treating everything from addiction to the grief brought on by terminal diagnoses. A trove of fascinating information and, yes, accounts of first-person experiences with the drugs, How to Change Your Mind is Pollan at his best: curious, inspired, rigorous, and fun.
The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst
No one writes English sentences more beautiful than Hollinghurst’s, and while I’d never suggest a reader attempt a novel for that reason alone, in his case it’s almost worth it. Fortunately, there’s no need to sacrifice plot and character to enjoy Hollinghurst’s graceful, simile-averse prose. The Sparsholt Affair, titled after a fictional scandal from the 1960s involving a real estate developer and a “rent boy,” traces the effect of homophobic repression on two generations of Sparsholts, the developer and his artist son. Although the novel ends on a note of exhilarated freedom, Hollinghurst—so canny and adept at registering the subtlest notes in any interaction—nevertheless looks back with melancholy appreciation on the elaborate social coding of 20th-century gay life: a secret world of passion and adventure, revealed to the initiated in countless exquisite gestures. For this reason, for Hollinghurst, homosexuality is a lot like class, the great theme of British literature, and the smaller world The Sparsholt Affair examines is the mirror of the larger society that contains it.
Daemon Voices by Philip Pullman
It’s been a rough couple of years, a time when the world seems to be circling the drain. Inspiration can be hard to come by, but on the pages of this essay collection, you can find it in long, deep, refreshing draughts. The author of the beloved series of children’s novels His Dark Materials, Pullman once worked as a teacher, and his enthusiasm and respect for his young readers never flags. And while he sometimes waxes stern when it comes to religious zealots and the proponents of standardized testing, he has faith in the rest of us as well. The essays in Daemon Voices brim with joy and curiosity—about literature, storytelling, music, science, the universe, and humanity itself. If someone were to ask me for the book that most gave me hope in 2018, without a doubt, it’s this one.
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