Lucia Berlin in Oakland, California, 1975. Photo: Jeff Berlin (© 2018 Literary Estate of Lucia Berlin LP).
2018 has been a year of fragments, brief episodes, flashes. The seasons, at least here on the East Coast, fractured into kaleidoscopic hot and cold days, which alternated at random. The news was bad, then very bad, then bad, then worse. We were all watching, then no one was watching, then we lay under the covers, lit only by our screens. Was there a summer? Yes, but that’s its own novella, long ago. There was no single narrative.
It seems no surprise, then, that many of the books I loved this year are short-story collections. Lydia Millet’s Fight No More fulfilled the voyeur in me, the one who stares into incandescent ground-floor windows of Brooklyn brownstones. In these linked stories, Nina, a realtor, drifts in and out of the lives and homes of strange, estranged Angelenos. She reveals a web of strangers and, in that isolation, shows our shared humanity. In the stories of Some Trick, Helen DeWitt skewers the publishing world, the art world, mathematicians, and computer scientists with an outsider’s cutting wit reminiscent of Paul Beatty and Nell Zink. Reading Lucia Berlin’s Evening in Paradise (and the accompanying volume of memoir and letters, Welcome Home) is like sitting in the back seat of a car driven so fast over broken roads that your teeth rattle and the empty whiskey bottles clank together, while the driver sings the most heartbreakingly beautiful of songs (if that was a terrible metaphor, then please know I’ve written about these books using fewer metaphors here). Sabrina Orah Mark’s Wild Milk reinvents the fairy tale in a way I didn’t know could still be done. Her craft feels generous, fluid, inventive: she bends myths and archetypes like balloon animals. And yet for all that sense of play, what she reveals is not lightness but wildness. There is something elemental in her stories, as complicated and tangled as the roots of any ancient tree.
I read novels this year as well—Sight, by Jessie Greengrass, flew woefully under the radar, though it’s one of the sharpest, smartest books on motherhood I’ve read in a long time. Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman stuck with me far longer than I expected it to, especially for a book so intentionally flat and strange. The Transit of Venus, by Shirley Hazzard, was published in 1980, but anyone who knew me this year heard about it. It filled me with a sense of giddiness about the possibilities of literature that I haven’t felt since I was twenty. I followed it up with Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger, from 1988, which, though it didn’t siderate me with the same outrageous coup de foudre (but what could?), made the perfect companion to Hazzard. Both books capture a sense of lucid, quiet feminine fury at the world’s limited possibilities, of desire and intelligence bridled but by no means dulled. They felt, I must say, very appropriate to this year. —Nadja Spiegelman
Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis.
We all remember the famous first sentence of Joan Didion’s “The White Album”: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” One person who I imagine really had that art down pat is Machado de Assis. Trying to learn, I was happy to find his collected stories, translated this year by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson in a deckle-edged, door-stopping delight of a book. Machado knows like no one else how to freeze the frame, how to shape a lump of clay into something that looks meaningful, sensible. He makes you feel that if you could adopt his wry glance, you, too, would understand what is going on around you.
I always forget, though, how that famous quote has a shadow at the end of a long Didion paragraph: “We live entirely … by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” It became particularly clear this year that “the sermon in the suicide” is just a matter of cropping, and so I was grateful to spend some time with Machado’s century-later compatriot Clarice Lispector, whose complete stories, translated by Katrina Dodson, came out in a paperback that was small enough to carry around with me but spent more months in my bag than length warranted; I could take only a little bit at a time. There are few trappings, few concessions here; there is little to hold on to, and each story feels like a breath of pure oxygen, which is to say a hazard. Lispector resists the shaping, the molding, Machado’s arched eyebrow: she looks without blinking straight at the shifting phantasmagoria. It is hard to imagine a clearer eye—but you have to know when to close your own. —Hasan Altaf
Rachel Cusk. Photo: Siemon Scamell-Katz.
What better way to spend a terrible year than to read as much as possible? Rachel Cusk’s Kudos, the final volume in her trilogy of autofiction, and Kate Atkinson’s Transcription are two novels I reread immediately upon finishing them, determined on the one hand to figure out how they made such magic and, on the other, to live longer in those fictional worlds. Stephen Greenblatt’s Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics reminded me that the sordidness of our contemporary political moment—recounted in Bob Woodward’s Fear: Trump in the White House, Michael Isikoff and David Corn’s Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump, and Luke Harding’s Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win—can inspire writers to take the measure of their time and turn it into enduring works of literature. Meantime, I traveled in my imagination with the Argentine writer María Sonia Cristoff in her unclassifiable nonfiction book False Calm: A Journey through the Ghost Towns of Patagonia, translated by Katherine Silver, and discovered in Edward Carey’s novel about Madame Tussaud, Little, that superb storytelling can make all the difference.
The poems in Tony Hoagland’s Priest Turned Therapist Treats Fear of God were a kind of balm when he passed away this fall, and William Trevor’s Last Stories was a voice calling from the grave, slyly instructing and delighting, in the same fashion as John Ashbery’s They Knew What They Wanted: Poems and Collages, a feast for the eye and ear that offers clues to how this late master remade the world. Clive James delivered another book-length poem from the abyss, The River in the Sky, defying death again while revealing himself to be one of the most vital poets writing in English. Lines from Henri Michaux’s A Certain Plume, published for the first time in English by NYRB this year, sum up my general state of mind: “Misfortune was kicking itself,” the Belgian writes. “Such is the situation at the present. Who’s going to get the upper hand? There is a scintilla of hope. In the eddy appears the head.” —Christopher Merrill
Porochista Khakpour. Photo: Sylvie Rosokoff.
My favorite reads of A.D. 2018 include three nonfiction titles: Kembrew McLeod’s The Downtown Pop Underground, an account of life south of Fourteenth Street that is as riveting as Herodotus’s Histories (and much better researched); Travis Jeppesen’s See You Again in Pyongyang, both a moving memoir of the first American to study at a university in North Korea and an eye-opening clarification of the U.S.’s role in Korean history; and Porochista Khakpour’s Sick, which, unlike the two aforementioned titles, isn’t about a world that feels intriguingly separate from my own, but one I am familiar with as a former “sick person.” Sick, a memoir on chronic Lyme disease, is one of the few recent books I’ve put off finishing simply because I was enjoying it.
Another highlight, Brad Phillips’s Essays and Fictions (which comes out next month), ingeniously erases the fact and fiction distinction with its title, leaving only psychological truths behind. The book is a masterpiece, the Last Exit to Brooklyn of the creative nonfiction era. I read Dan Callahan’s That Was Something and Evan Fallenberg’s The Parting Gift each in one sitting, and though they couldn’t be more different, both bring forth the best and worst aspects of desire—and how it can either revive or derail your whole life. Wayne Koestenbaum’s second “trance poetry” book, Camp Marmalade, delivers the playful philosophies of Gertrude Stein and Norman O. Brown packaged in the candy wrapper of darkly funny, dreamlike stanzas (a late-breaking favorite: “I smile gratuitously at four men a day, or wait for accidental elbow touch”).
Finally, though they’re not 2018 authors, my new literary obsessions of this and I think the next several years are Djuna Barnes and Dawn Powell, the latter of whom I would happily turn into if I could, if only so I could be the author of The Diaries of Dawn Powell and The Wicked Pavilion. —Ben Shields
Rainald Goetz. Photo: Lesekreis [CC0], from Wikimedia Commons.
2018 was the year I lost the plot. Or rather, it was the year I found myself drawn more often than not to novels that lacked a coherent storyline, though whether this was simply out of boredom or a logical reaction to the madness of the world around us, I don’t know. Nevertheless, many of the books I liked best—such as Flights, by Olga Tokarczuk (translated by Jennifer Croft), and Han Kang’s The White Book (translated by Deborah Smith)—use fragmentation to their advantage, crafting meditations on travel and grief that are as beautiful as they are formally innovative.
My favorite book that I read in 2018, though, is hands down Rainald Goetz’s Insane, translated by Adrian Nathan West. The novel, first published in 1983 in Germany, traces the eventual descent into madness of its protagonist—a promising young psychiatrist named Raspe who has a taste for punk—and questions the nature of sanity, West and East Germany’s political structures, and the postwar German literary scene. It’s a fervent, intense, teeth-chattering kind of novel: by the third and final act, Raspe’s narration dissolves into a voice that sounds suspiciously like Goetz himself. The question of authorial intrusion and the presence of the writer’s body seems to be something of a career-long theme for Goetz. Witness, for example, his infamous performance at the 1983 Ingeborg Bachmann Prize, where halfway through he slices open his forehead with a razor blade, finishing the reading with blood dripping down his face. Gimmicky? Sure—but when I watched this video on YouTube during the summer, halfway through finishing Insane, I recoiled, then watched it four more times. How often does a reading make you physically jump?
Other favorites: Rachel Cusk’s Kudos, which I swallowed whole while stranded in an airport in Iceland; Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s Sketchtasy, an evocative novel set in Boston’s early-nineties queer scene; Taeko Kōno’s disturbing short-story collection Toddler-Hunting and Other Stories; Alexander Chee’s beautiful essay collection, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel; and Simone de Beauvoir’s America, Day by Day, which was written in the late forties and yet captures an America eerily similar to our own. —Rhian Sasseen
Richard Holloway. Photo courtesy of Canongate.
Richard Holloway, a former bishop of Edinburgh, has a seasoned, measured way of addressing difficult matters. Waiting for the Last Bus, his reflections on mortality, quietened me as I read it. Understanding the reasoning behind the decisions of Holloway’s life and career is hugely affecting—this is particularly true of those passages that concern his internal conflicts with, and ultimate separation from, his church and faith. He is a vulnerable human and one of deep experience. I’ve returned to this book more often than any other this year. —Robin Jones
Sigrid Nunez. Photo: Marion Ettinger.
Solitary women populated my reading this year. The small UK press And Other Stories dedicated the past twelve months to publishing only women writers, and I began 2018 with the inaugural title in this quest, The Unmapped Country, a compendium of unpublished short fiction and story fragments by the midcentury avant-garde writer Ann Quin. Her sharp, staccato sentences pulse with raw feeling on the page, with lust and anger. The reappearance last year of Anna Kavan’s Ice perhaps paved the way for Quin, who was in many ways a peer—And Other Stories will reissue Quin’s novel Berg in 2019.
Another reissue, this one from Wave Books, captivated me midyear: Danielle Dutton’s Sprawl, first published in 2010, is a stream-of-consciousness collage of domesticity and intimacy, the unwavering assertion of a suburban woman’s individuality and selfhood that never loses its sense of humor. Dutton’s almost entirely interior narrative is a contrast to the consciously exterior concerns of another favorite of mine, Kudos, the brilliant conclusion to Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy. My plan was to read all three books in succession, over a solitary weekend if possible, as a way of fully immersing myself in the totality of Cusk’s signature narratorial erasure. My experiment was never realized, a failure I like to think Cusk’s heroine, Faye, would sympathize with.
Finally, in the fall I was given Sigrid Nunez’s National Book Award–winning The Friend. Immediately after I read it during a day spent unable to think about anything else, I went out and bought three copies, all to give to three very different people in my life; the book reflects light when viewed from different angles. Of this list, Nunez’s book comes the closest to traditional realism—it has a plot easily summarized during cocktail-party small talk—but the novel shakes itself free from formal conventions in a deftly subtle way. Nunez weaves quotes from books and people tightly into the psychologically and emotionally rich landscape of her narrator as she grieves the loss of a close friend and mentor, crafting a piece of literary criticism as much as a novelistic examination of memory and grief. You know what they say about misery—whether I was simmering alongside the intensity of Quin, coasting passively through monologues with Cusk’s Faye, or navigating sprawling suburban malaise, the lonely women of these novels kept me company during the loneliest moments of my year. —Lauren Kane
Francisco Cantú. Photo: Keith Marroquin.
Despite sharing a border with Mexico, the California in which I live (in the rural north of the state) is geographically many worlds away from the harsh deserts of the border country to the south. Nonetheless, the current discussions of that border are unceasing and have served to underscore divisions less geographical in nature: of ethics, moralities, understandings of nationhood, citizenship, legality. Both Francisco Cantú’s The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border and Lauren Markham’s The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life beautifully and personally address the myriad dramas the border country lays bare. Cantú, a former border patrol agent, speaks to the work of security and enforcement but also turns to the dehumanizing that same work promotes, where people become “illegal” by dint of their position to an arbitrary political line in the (literal) sand. An apt companion, Markham’s book chronicles the story of twin El Salvadoran brothers who flee the threat of violence to seek asylum in California. Finally, in times when my heart is breaking, I often turn to poetry. This year, it’s been Marcelo Hernandez Castillo’s Cenzontle, a book that centers itself in conversation with both the external border and the border of the self. The writing is powerfully personal, and so it is powerfully political, a rapture of honesty and terror and love. —Christian Kiefer
Ling Ma. Photo: Liliane Calfee.
With scathing wit and savage imagination, Ling Ma’s apocalyptic office novel Severance invites readers to recognize both the humor and dangers of America’s decadent consumerism. In her disconcertingly plausible world, Ma is able to atomize the absurdity of everyday life into something digestible, even downright funny. Her reason is simple: “When you wake up in a fictional world, your only frame of reference is fiction.” Perhaps Ma’s companion in brutal honesty this year is none other than Tom McAllister, whose infinitely perceptive novel How to Be Safe captures the cataclysmic aftermath of a small-town school shooting. Though it’s been months since I devoured (and underlined and dog-eared) McAllister’s book, what sticks with me most is a passage when readers are sunk into the consciousness of the shooter during his last meal: “He bites into the pizza again … he grinds it with his teeth and feels it sliding down his throat, it goes to the place in him that craves garbage and is insatiable in its pursuit of grease and sugar and fat.” Like Ma, McAllister is gifted not only in evoking a visceral disgust at the glut and violence of humans but also in exposing the various ways people cope with tragedy when their illusion of security is shattered. Read both of these books at your own risk—you won’t regret it. —Madeline Day
“They tell me: choose silence or dream. But I agree with my wide-open eyes toward—going toward, never to vacillate from—this zone of voracious light that devours the eyes. You want to go, it’s a must. Little phantom trip … We suffer and crawl, dance, we drag ourselves.” So read a few lines from “And What to Think of Silence,” the poem that opens The Galloping Hour, a slender yet nonetheless alluring compendium by the late Argentine poet Alejandra Pizarnik. (NB: Two poems from the book appeared in the Spring 2018 issue.) Translated from the French by Patricio Ferrari and Forrest Gander, the collection oscillates from prose poetry to verse to facsimiles of the poet’s papers (with scribbles denoting her revisions), and it is the most coveted addition to my bookshelf this year. Inside is a mélange of delight and despair: a portrait of a soul in torment, eclipsed by sorrow and unease—and yet her artistry endures. “Language is my priestess,” she writes. Throughout, in poems ranging from two lines to multiple paragraphs, she speaks of the black sack that will hold her head, of nights that subsume her and lilacs that have left her lost. Hers is an anguish that reverberates with the most palpable clarity and exquisite whimsy. Perhaps it’s not the cheeriest read (Pizarnik took her own life in 1972), but The Galloping Hour is still one of the most stunning of 2018, conjuring tears, nightmares even, all while reveling in what plagues us all: love, lonesomeness, lust. —Caitlin Youngquist
Sally Rooney. Photo: © Jonny L. Davies.
For decades, I’ve been reading the backlist. While working at 192 Books, Paula Cooper and Jack Macrae’s perfect Chelsea bookshop, this was fine, even encouraged. And so I caught up on Middlemarch and am still sounding Forster, James, M. F. K. Fisher, Duras, Joseph Roth, Dorothy Baker, and Dorothy West. Cherry-picking the best of the past three hundred years of fiction can make me skeptical of the new girls. My reading reflects this skepticism. But I enjoyed Alan Hollinghurst’s sprawling The Sparsholt Affair; Sally Rooney’s fluent Normal People, out now in the UK and in April in the U.S.; José Olivarez’s Citizen Illegal, which seems to suture a hell of a lot of pain with a hell of a good collection of poetry; and Royal Bodies, an essay collection on royalty from the London Review of Books, whose title essay is a dissection as only Hilary Mantel can manage.
But I wouldn’t have made it through 2018 without D’Angelo’s Voodoo (2000); Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cello Suites (ca. 1720) played without accompaniment by Yo-Yo Ma (1983); my period-tracker, Clue (2013); and Transit of Venus (1980), by Shirley Hazzard, which is such a favorite in the office that it’s lovingly abbreviated “TOV” in its increasingly frequent mentions. And if it had been written in 2018 rather than enjoying a replaced spotlight, If Beale Street Could Talk would be the talk of the town. The blurbs of my colleagues would compete to laud different aspects, and the New York Times Book Review would forecast a forest of imitators—if only. The book is astounding (as I’ve written before). This lucid, beautiful love story was published in 1974, but we are still standing in its light. —Julia Berick
Deborah Eisenberg. © John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Used with permission.
It’s so hard making these lists. In the end, I guess you can just make a minilist of the things you remember, the things you keep going back to from a year’s vast pile of reading, and for me, that would be two books of stories: one super contemporary, Deborah Eisenberg’s Your Duck Is My Duck, and one more grandly historical, The Collected Stories of Machado de Assis, translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson. I love the way Deborah Eisenberg stretches out the normal length of a short story so that it includes backtracks, long vistas, nostalgia, sudden futures, the absolute contemporary. Each story is a little exercise in giant composition. As for Machado de Assis, I’d always adored his novels, especially his late ones, with their bored bourgeois characters and the savage honesty of their interiors—and the savage playfulness with which Machado made each novel an open, exposed object, too. To discover the same astringency and wit in his stories—and the tonal switchbacks and ironies preserved so brilliantly in translation—was a cool discovery. So: short forms, I guess, have marked me most this year.
Speaking of which, as well as stories, I’ve been avidly rereading two new books of photography, both published by Mack: The Map and the Territory, an overview of Luigi Ghirri’s work, edited by James Lingwood; and Per Strada, by Guido Guidi, a collection of photos from 1980 to 1994, all taken along the Via Emilia, connecting Milan to the Adriatic Sea. Everything in these two photographers is so deadpan, so precise, so intellectually agile. —Adam Thirlwell
Nick Drnaso, self-portrait.
About halfway through Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina, the best graphic novel I’ve read since Maus, the main character opens his laptop and tumbles down an internet rabbit hole. Against his better judgment, Calvin googles the name of a man who’s seized headlines for murdering a woman on camera and sending the tape to news outlets throughout the country. He learns about the killer’s weight loss (“possibly up to forty pounds”), his message boards of choice (men’s rights and organic farming), the victim (twenty-seven-year-old Chicago native), and the bloodlust in the comments section (“I NEED to see this”). Unsettled, aimless, Calvin keeps clicking. He ends up on an article titled “Teen surprises mom and toddler with good deed at mall.” Alone in his dark bedroom, broken by this dissonance, he wails. Until I read Sabrina, I’d never seen a book properly represent how the rapid ups and downs of the internet can break our brains—the dangers of oscillating between schmaltzy clickbait and wide-eyed conspiracy, snuff films, and actual evil. It’s far and away the best book I read that came out this year. Also notable are Border Districts, which introduced me to Gerald Murnane’s careful, militantly observant prose, and Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Stories, a brick of gray misery that, page after page, illuminates the depths of human cruelty.
It would be a shame if I didn’t mention the new friends I made along the way, though, even if they didn’t produce new work in 2018. Leonora Carrington’s The Complete Stories is a near perfect book, two hundred or so pages of surreal stories and sketches that follow a logic all their own. If you could eat the food in a Renaissance painting, I imagine it would taste like this reads: sumptuous, sweet, and warm. Denis Johnson’s collection The Largesse of the Sea Maiden came out in January, but I just got around to Jesus’ Son, which captures loneliness in a way that speaks directly to my depressed, Midwestern, night-wandering brain. No one has written better about the way people fade in and out of your life, how they glint in the light and die, years later, barely known to you. I’m glad I set aside my distrust of the novel and dived into Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing. Her writing keens like wind through stands of Mississippi trees. And I would be lost without Anne Carson, whose Sappho translations sung me to sleep each night. Like 2018, the fragments of Sappho pass quickly, almost imperceptibly, but something else stirs in the white space. You feel the loss lurking behind each word. You blink and miss it. —Brian Ransom
Joshua Wheeler. Photo: Madi Rae Cronin.
This was a strange year in reading for me. As you might imagine, I spent a lot of time getting up to speed on all things Paris Review. I read every single interview with women writers in our Writers at Work series (resulting in this) and most of those with international authors (stay tuned). I reread Sam Lipsyte’s earliest stories and previewed his forthcoming novel Hark, which is out next month, and then I filled some holes in my Pat Barker reading. Between The Paris Review and The Southern Review, I read about fifteen hundred stories this year, only twenty or so of which have appeared or are forthcoming in those two publications. I know this is supposed to be about books, but please go read Lydia Peelle’s “Nashville” in the summer issue of The Southern Review, Rachel Khong’s “The Freshening” in our Fall issue, and Kelli Jo Ford’s “Hybrid Vigor” in the new Winter issue—those stories will blow your hair back, in the best way.
But I did also manage to read some fantastic new books. I’m not the first to tell you that Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend is tremendous. Nunez’s touch is a light one: the narrator’s commentary, her observations and asides, sometimes run only a few paragraphs before she shifts gears, but those conversations and scenes and literary contextualizations are masterfully braided into a narrative about grief, love, writing, and the impossibly generous affection of woman’s best friend. Acid West, Joshua Wheeler’s debut essay collection, is another favorite of 2018, and not because, full disclosure, Josh and I spent some time at what he describes in his acknowledgements as a “dive where [he] wrote and moped but mostly reveled in sloppy fellowship”—though we did, and I remember it fondly. His writing is like McPhee on mushrooms, lyrical and funny and astute, often hitting all three in one of Josh’s ideally rambling sentences. I’ve read a lot of baseball literature, and “The Light of God,” Josh’s essay about minor-league baseball and drone warfare, has made my all-time best-of list.
Other books I loved this year include Crystal Hana Kim’s If You Leave Me, Jamel Brinkley’s A Lucky Man, Kiese Laymon’s Heavy, and Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad. And as soon as I turn in my novel revisions (like moving across the country and starting a new job wasn’t enough to keep a gal busy), I’m reading Asymmetry, the new Lucia Berlin, There There, and another thousand stories, the best of which I look forward to sharing with you in 2019. —Emily Nemens
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