Best Books of 2018

Mamma mia here we go again.  I’ve read a grand total of 131 books so far this year which far and away exceeds any of my former records, and narrowing this list down to 10 was a little torturous.  But I will say, even though I read so many fantastic books this year, my reading year on the whole wasn’t as strong as the last couple of years have been.  Although I loved each and every one of these books, I’m not sure any of them would make my list of top 10 favorites of all time.  I also didn’t have a definitive #1 favorite, whereas last year East of Eden blew all of its competition out of the water.  I guess this just goes to show that quantity =/= quality.  Who’d have thought it?!

But enough rambling, let’s get into the books.

Honorable mentions, in no particular order, all of which I want to talk about but I feel like a 20+ favorites post would get boring for all of you: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid, Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang, In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne, Tin Man by Sarah Winman, On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan, The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman, When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy, How to be Both by Ali Smith, and My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh.

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10. Vita Nostra by Marina & Sergey Dyachenko, translated by Julia Hersey.  Look at me starting off my books of the year with fantasy!  Who am I!  But this spot was very well-earned, as Vita Nostra is one of the most singular and spectacular books I’ve read in my life.  It follows Sasha Samokhina, a young girl manipulated into attending a magical school filled with eccentric teachers and incomprehensible lessons.  I was expecting a rather run of the mill fantasy novel, but instead I got something esoteric and darkly horrifying that enchanted me from start to finish.  Full review here.

There are concepts that cannot be imagined but can be named. Having received a name, they change, flow into a different entity, and cease to correspond to the name, and then they can be given another, different name, and this process—the spellbinding process of creation—is infinite: this is the word that names it, and this is the word that signifies. A concept as an organism, and text as the universe.

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9. Dopesick by Beth Macy.  This book is a masterclass in how to fuse the personal and the professional in nonfiction.  Macy treats the subject of the opioid crisis and its innumerable victims with the compassion they deserve, but also remains factual and informative.  I learned so, so much from this book, and it was written in such a starkly compelling way that I didn’t want it to end.  I’d recommend this to absolutely everyone.  Full review here.

Opioids are now on pace to kill as many Americans in a decade as HIV/AIDS has since it began, with leveling-off projections tenuously predicted in a nebulous, far-off future: sometime after 2020.

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8. The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker.  It has been well documented that I am a pretty big fan of Greek mythology and the Iliad in particular, and that I live for a good retelling.  Pat Barker’s feminist spin on the Iliad proved to be everything I ever wanted and more.  It follows Briseis, a Trojan captive given to Achilles as a war prize, and does a spectacular job at giving voice to the female characters who litter the background of Homer’s epic.  Barker put her own unique stamp on this story while honoring the original to such an extent that I wanted to reread the Iliad (yet again) the second I finished.  Full review here.

Men carve meaning into women’s faces; messages addressed to other men.

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7. The Blood Miracles by Lisa McInerney.  The Glorious Heresies was one of my books of the year in 2017, so it’s with great pleasure that I can say that its sequel also earned a place on my end of year list.  In fact, I think I loved The Blood Miracles even more.  It narrows down the first book’s bird’s eye focus to just one of the main characters, and it happened to be the one character that I was the most invested in, so I was riveted by every single second of this bleak and tragic account of Irish drug deals and gang violence.  Lisa McInerney’s writing just thrills me.  Full review here.

This, like so many of Ryan Cusack’s fuck-ups, begins with ecstasy.

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6. The Pisces by Melissa Broder.  On the surface, this isn’t the kind of book I like.  If you look at how this is commonly shelved on Goodreads you see Romance, Fantasy, and Magical Realism – that should be strike one two and three right there.  But I gave it a try and my god was I glad that I did.  This book was everything I didn’t even know I needed.  Lucy is one of the most unnervingly realistic protagonists I have ever read about, and the thematic depths to which this mermaid erotica novel dove were… unexpected, to say the least.  And it has one of the most unforgettable endings I have EVER read.  This managed to be both hilarious and haunting.  Full review here.

I’d been wrong about death … There was no gentle escape. When I had taken those Ambien in Phoenix I thought there was a peaceful way to just kind of disappear. But death wasn’t gentle. It was a robber. It stole you out of yourself, and you became a husk.

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5. The Idiot by Elif Batuman.  I’m not Turkish-American and I didn’t go to Harvard.  But otherwise, I have never read a book where I’ve seen myself reflected on the page more starkly than in The Idiot.  The simultaneous disillusionment and fascination with academia that characterize Selin’s first year of college were so, so real to me, as was her obsession with the function of language.  This cerebral, plotless work is not something that I would recommend to most people, but I couldn’t help but to feel a very strong connection to it.  Full review here.

“Even though I had a deep conviction that I was good at writing, and that in some way I already was a writer, this conviction was completely independent of my having ever written anything, or being able to imagine ever writing anything, that I thought anyone would like to read.”

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4. Asking For It by Louise O’Neill.  This is hands down the best YA novel I have ever read.  It doesn’t patronize its reader or tread lightly with its harrowing subject matter.  In fact, it’s almost viscerally painful to read at times.  Louise O’Neill takes on the subject of rape culture through a criminally under-examined lens, and highlights the fact that victims of sexual assault aren’t always going to be very nice people, they aren’t always going to behave and respond to trauma in one particular way, but they are every bit as deserving of justice and compassion.  This book’s rawness and honesty really struck a chord and I’ve been unable to put it out of my mind since reading it early this year.  Full review here.

They are all innocent until proven guilty. But not me. I am a liar until I am proven honest.

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3. Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney.  I think Sally Rooney is one of the most perceptive writers working today.  The little observations she makes about human nature are subtle and searing.  Rooney’s character work in both Conversations with Friends and Normal People is just outstanding – she writes about real, ordinary, flawed individuals who I somehow desperately want to read about, despite how real and ordinary and flawed they are, or maybe because of that.  Full review here.

Gradually the waiting began to feel less like waiting and more like this was simply what life was: the distracting tasks undertaken while the thing you are waiting for continues not to happen.

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2. Self-Portrait with Boy by Rachel Lyon.  This is one of the first books I read in 2018, and it has haunted me all year long.  This is probably the best book about art and artists that I’ve ever read, which asks of its protagonist in a startlingly harsh way how much she’s willing to sacrifice to achieve her ambitions.  I just loved everything about this.  The antiheroine is one of the best I’ve ever read, the atmosphere of a Brooklyn neighborhood that I’m quite familiar with was rendered perfectly, there’s this one scene where the protagonist is trying on a dress that was so vivid I will never, ever forget it, and the final sentence made me cry.  Just, read this book.  Full review here.

The very act of recall is like trying to photograph the sky. The infinite and ever-shifting colors of memory, its rippling light, cannot really be captured. Show someone who has never seen the sky a picture of the sky and you show them a picture of nothing.

Still I have to try.

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1. Milkman by Anna Burns.  I mean… it has to be my book of the year, doesn’t it.  I gave it 4 stars and then I changed it to 5 stars; I was sure it was too niche to make the Booker shortlist and then I gradually became convinced that it was going to win.  I would say that this book crept up on me, but that implies past tense and I’m not positive that this book is done with me.  I still think about it constantly, and I think it is one of the most masterful things I have ever read.  This is a stylistic and thematic feat. Full review here.

“The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died. He had been shot by one of the state hit squads and I did not care about the shooting of this man. Others did care though, and some were those who, in the parlance, ‘knew me to see but not to speak to’ and I was being talked about because there was a rumour started by them, or more likely by first brother-in-law, that I had been having an affair with this milkman and that I was eighteen and he was forty-one.” 

What was your favorite book of 2018?  Comment and let me know!

book review: The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

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THE SILENCE OF THE GIRLS by Pat Barker
★★★★★
Doubleday Books, September 11, 2018

 

It’s so hard to divorce my love of the Iliad from my experience reading The Silence of the Girls, but I think that’s partially what makes this such a fantastic retelling. Told primarily from the perspective of Briseis, a Trojan captive given to Achilles as a war prize, Pat Barker’s novel endeavors to tell the unsung story of the female characters who litter the background of the Ancient Greek epic. And she does a pretty brilliant job.

The pleasure I derive from reading retellings, and especially retellings of Homer, is twofold: I want to see the author’s unique slant on the narrative and feel that they’re contributing something new to the story, otherwise what’s the point, but I also want to be reminded of my love of the original. On both fronts, The Silence of the Girls is a resounding success. Pat Barker captured the grandiosity of these characters and events in a way that really struck a chord with me; I felt constantly on the verge of tears reading parts of this novel because Homer’s musings on fate and free will and grief and glory – in short, what makes the Iliad so epic and timeless – are all echoed in Briseis’ narrative. But Barker also manages it all from the sidelines, zeroing in on the experiences of a war slave who has no choice but to watch events unfold around her with no personal agency. Briseis is fully aware that she is not the hero of her own story, that she’s narrating these events as a spectator to her own life. You could argue that at times she almost has a bit too much awareness of this fact, but as she’s narrating these events from years later, the time and perspective have clearly allowed her to form the big picture.

I also felt these were some of the best depictions I’ve ever read of these characters, notably Achilles and Patroclus. I find that certain writers have a difficult time reconciling Achilles’ brutality with his heroism, and likewise Patroclus’ ruthless streak with his kindness. But Barker frankly addresses that, in times of war especially, these characteristics can easily coexist. I really felt that these characters had walked straight out of the pages of the Iliadinto Barker’s story, in a way that I haven’t seen achieved by any other retelling I’ve read (except maybe Ransom by David Malouf, which until now has been my go-to recommendation for modern Iliad retellings). Briseis is a very minor character in the original, and as such, Barker had a lot more leeway with her protagonist, but I was also satisfied with the result; I was immediately invested in Briseis and I thought she added a much-needed and underrepresented perspective to the story.

My biggest issue with this novel the unwieldy execution of the point of view shifts. Though this retelling focuses on Briseis, so much of the backdrop and what drives the characters’ motivations hinges on the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, and for Briseis to narrate that to us any more than she already does would verge too heavily into ‘telling rather than showing’ territory, so I really didn’t mind the occasional inclusion of the male perspectives. But the first person/third person switch feels arbitrary and messy, especially since Briseis herself spends so much time observing and narrating Achilles’s actions. I felt like Barker could have played with this a bit more; played up the uncertainty that maybe we aren’t reading Achilles’s thoughts, but rather, Briseis’ interpretation of Achilles’s thoughts…. but nothing is really made of this opportunity, as it’s clear that we’re supposed to be in Achilles’ head, but rather unclear why we’ve switched over to his thoughts at any given moment.

But aside from that, this book was pretty much everything I wanted it to be. It’s subversive yet subtle; affecting yet understated. It captures the epic scale of the Iliad and the quiet moments of beauty in the story and everything in between. It’s definitely a subtler feminist retelling than the likes of Circe and The Penelopiad, but I have to say I much, much preferred The Silence of the Girls – though I would readily recommend it to anyone who enjoyed the aforementioned novels. But for all my talk of retellings and Greek classics, I really don’t think you need prior knowledge of any of that before starting Barker’s novel – it’s a stunning story that should stand on its own just fine.

Thank you to Netgalley, Doubleday Books, and Pat Barker for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.