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Best of the Best-Books-of-2018 lists

Are these the best books of 2018?

 

Earlier this year I had the idea for Booketlist, an app to help avid readers create and manage a lifetime reading plan—because so many books, so little time. To determine what classics should be included, I’m turning to books like Clifton Fadiman and John S. Major’s The New Lifetime Reading Plan and Michael Dirda’s Reading Classics for Pleasure for inspiration. But when it comes to contemporary literature, the task gets harder. Has enough time passed to know what the classics of the twenty-first century are? How best to keep the app up-to-date each year as more and more books are published?

To examine that question, I took a look at three of the recently published 2018 end-of-year lists from prominent English language (two American, one British) media organizations:

  1. NPR’s Book Concierge for 2018 (319 books)
  2. The New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2018 (as you might expect, this list encompasses the NYT’s 10 Best Books of 2018)
  3. The Financial Times Books of the Year 2018 (195 books)

Each list is a different beast that I’ll talk about in a separate post dedicated to making sense of these lists. For now, I’ll jump straight to the results of which books show up on all three lists. In alphabetical order by title, grouped by non-fiction and fiction, the nine books that are common between these three best-of lists are:

Non-Fiction

  1. Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup – John Carreyrou
  2. Educated – Tara Westover (This title made this list thanks to a reader nomination on the FT list. The FT is the only list of the three that includes a readers’ best books section.)
  3. How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence – Michael Pollan
  4. Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World – Anand Giridharadas

Fiction

  1. Asymmetry – Lisa Halliday
  2. Lake Success – Gary Shteyngart
  3. The Female Persuasion – Meg Wolitzer
  4. The Friend – Sigrid Nunez
  5. Washington Black – Esi Edugyan

What does this list of nine books tell us about 2018? Perhaps it’s the wrong question since they would have been written in the years before their publication. But do they contribute to some kind of thematically linked contemporary portrait? In non-fiction, we find a tale of misdeeds in Silicon Valley, a memoir of a woman who grew up with a survivalist father, a re-examination of LSD in an age of increasing legalization of drugs from the man who taught us about the ethics of food, and a critique of the elites’ ability to change the world for good—a nice link straight back to Bad Blood and the misdeeds of Silicon Valley.

In fiction, we find a novel comprised of two novellas, one about an affair between a younger and older person, the other about the detention of an Iraqi-American; a Wall Street bro on a road trip; a novel about feminism and women’s mentoring relationships; another about suicide and womanizing and power imbalance; and finally, one about slavery and adventure. A line from the synopsis of Halliday’s Asymmetry seems a neat summary of the group of all nine books as well, each of which in some way “explores the imbalances that spark and sustain many of our most dramatic human relations: inequities in age, power, talent, wealth, fame, geography, and justice.” While these imbalances are timeless themes, they have particularly contemporary resonance in our age of #metoo, BLM, refugee crises, wealth inequality, political strongmen, and the Kardashians, to name a few.

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I started this process by comparing The New York Times’s 100 to NPR’s list of 319 books. I assumed I’d find almost all the NYT books on the NPR list, but there were less than half—45 to be exact—in common. Here’s that list, also in alphabetical order by title, grouped by non-fiction and fiction.

Non-Fiction 

  1. American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey Into the Business of Punishment – Shane Bauer
  2. Arthur Ashe: A Life – Raymond Arsenault
  3. Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup – John Carreyrou
  4. Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, Its Chaotic Founding, Its Apocalyptic Weather, Its Purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Becoming a World-Class Metropolis – Sam Anderson
  5. Calypso – David Sedaris
  6. Educated – Tara Westover
  7. Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress– Steven Pinker
  8. Feel Free – Zadie Smith
  9. God Save Texas: A Journey Into the Soul of the Lone Star State – Lawrence Wright
  10. Heavy: An American Memoir – Kiese Laymon
  11. How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence – Michael Pollan
  12. In Pieces – Sally Field
  13. Into the Raging Sea: Thirty-Three Mariners, One Megastorm, and the Sinking of El Faro – Rachel Slade
  14. Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret – Craig Brown
  15. Small Fry – Lisa Brennan-Jobs
  16. The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War – Joanne B. Freeman
  17. The Fifth Risk – Michael Lewis
  18. The Library Book – Susan Orlean
  19. There Will Be No Miracles Here – Casey Gerald
  20. These Truths: A History of the United States – Jill Lepore
  21. Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World – Anand Giridharadas

Fiction – Here I noted if the book had been nominated for a National Book Award or the Man Booker Prize, as well as genre where the book is something other than a novel of literary fiction. The inclusion of four Man Booker nominees on the list highlights the omission of the winner, Northern Irish writer Anna Burns’s Milkman, and the folly of publishing best-of lists at the end of November: the novel’s US release date is December 4, 2018, and it was included in the British FT’s best-of list.

  1. An American Marriage – Tayari Jones (National Book Award finalist)
  2. Asymmetry – Lisa Halliday
  3. Crudo – Olivia Laing
  4. Freshwater – Akwaeke Emezi
  5. Lake Success – Gary Shteyngart
  6. My Year of Rest and Relaxation – Ottessa Moshfegh
  7. Only to Sleep: A Philip Marlowe Novel – Lawrence Osborne (thriller)
  8. Sabrina – Nick Drnaso (graphic novel)
  9. Severance – Ling Ma
  10. Spinning Silver – Naomi Novik
  11. The Female Persuasion – Meg Wolitzer
  12. The Friend – Sigrid Nunez (National Book Award winner)
  13. The Great Believers – Rebecca Makkai (National Book Award finalist)
  14. The House of Broken Angels – Luis Alberto Urrea
  15. The Largesse of the Sea Maiden – Denis Johnson
  16. The Mars Room – Rachel Kushner (Man Booker Prize shortlist)
  17. The Overstory – Richard Powers (Man Booker Prize shortlist)
  18. The Perfect Nanny – Leila Slimani
  19. The Sparsholt Affair – Alan Hollinghurst
  20. The Witch Elm – Tana French (thriller)
  21. There There – Tommy Orange (National Book Award finalist)
  22. Warlight – Michael Ondaatje (Man Booker Prize longlist)
  23. Washington Black – Esi Edugyan (Man Booker Prize shortlist)
  24. Your Duck Is My Duck – Deborah Eisenberg (stories)

A final note: I built these lists mostly with Excel and eyeballing titles rather than by dumping the data into a database and systematically querying it, ie there may be mistakes. Please let me know if you notice any.

Books California Christmas Letters

2017: My Year in Books

I’m not sure if I’ll muster the will to write a Christmas letter this year, mostly because my will has been sapped by much of 2017 on both the personal and political fronts. As the saying goes, if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say it at all.

There is, however, one thing about which I have only nice things to say, and that’s all the lovely books I’ve read this year. Sure, I’ve read far less in 2017 than 2016, a fact I attribute directly to the draining of my attention and energy by the personage currently occupying our White House. But I’m grateful to my bones for the knowledge and enjoyment provided by every single one of those I did manage to get through, so I’ll turn my festive cheer their way.

Let’s keep up the positive vibe with a shout out for Nina Stibbe’s Paradise Lodge. I first read Stibbe’s charming collection of letters, Love, Nina, about her time as nanny to the editor of the London Review of Books, and it turns out she’s a terrific novelist too. Paradise Lodge is the second novel in a series about the Vogel family, but you needn’t have read the first—I didn’t—to enjoy this one. The protagonist, teenager Lizzie Vogel, who works at a decaying but somehow still charming nursing home while trying to finish school, is so deftly drawn that I loved every minute I spent with her. Also, I don’t think it spoils things to say it has a happy ending. I suspect people might need one of those just about now. (I’m not sure why the cheery yellow cover of Paradise Lodge doesn’t appear in the photo above, but I hope it’s because I gave my copy to someone else to enjoy.)

Now that I’ve sweetened you up, I’m going to go ahead and hit you with Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold Fame Citrus, a post-apocalyptic—by which I mean a totally believable, especially after this year’s fire season, twenty-first century version of the dust bowl—novel about a couple fleeing California with a neglected baby they’ve kidnapped, who ends up an unlikely messiah figure. The writing is stunning and cinematic, and someone better make a film out of it so I can bluster about how the book was better.

Two other novels I enjoyed this year were Rachel Cusk’s Transit, mostly because I’m deeply drawn to her detached protagonist Faye, and Robin Sloan’s Sourdough, which has a much more conventional (read: likable) protagonist in the form of Lois. If you work in tech and like food, I think you’ll like Sloan’s story, which includes gentle send-ups of both those cultures. I also got to see him read at Mrs. Dalloway’s  (more on this special store below) after I read the book, and it was fun to hear him talk about writing it. I like that he’s a developer and a writer.

My favorite novel of the year was Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. I bought this a few years back at a literature festival in England (not sure why it was there since McCullers is long dead), and randomly picked it up to read earlier this year. I subsequently gathered she’s famous in some corners of the literary world, but why McCullers is not as well-known as Harper Lee is beyond me. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is the nihilist version of To Kill a Mockingbird, and it’s brilliant. The novel is populated by an ensemble cast, but the young female character of Mick Kelly slayed me. I once worked with a guy who had named his daughter Scout after Atticus Finch’s daughter in To Kill a Mockingbird. I don’t have kids, which means the highest honor I can bestow a character in a book is to name a pet after him or her. Let’s just say there’s a cat called Mick Kelly in my future and leave it at that.

Now for the non-fiction portion of my reading list, starting with three books of author’s diaries: Alan Bennett’s Keeping On Keeping On, David Sedaris’s Theft By Finding, and Joan Didion’s South and West. I wrote an essay about them here, so I won’t say more except that if you like these authors I also think you’ll like these books. Robert Moor’s On Trails: An Exploration is a terrific book that reminded me I like science and is a great example of how to riff on a theme in non-fiction. This book is so much more than a story about someone who hiked the Appalachian Trail. Finally, Will Schwalbe’s Books for Living is a lovely book for anyone who adores books, with the bonus that each essay is the perfect length for a bath. If you’re still looking for a gift for someone, you could do worse than this book packaged up with a nice bottle of bubble bath.

A few of the books I read this year don’t show up in the pictures in this post because I checked them out from the library. I’ve spent much of 2017 in Berkeley, and one of the benefits has been access to two remarkable libraries—the downtown Deco and Craftsman extravaganza just a block from my office and the mock-Tudor Claremont branch, complete with a gas fireplace and comfortable chairs. Three cheers for libraries and all their card-carrying members.

The other delight of Berkeley is its terrific independent bookstores, including Moe’s Books on Telegraph; Revolution Books, where I made a point of shopping after alt-right bullies decided to intimidate the staff; Pegasus Books, from whom I buy the Weekend FT (mostly for its terrific Books section) each Saturday, plus whatever else they tempt me with, whether a cute greeting card or a little tin of “impeachmints”; Issues on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland, quite possibly the most wonderful newsstand left in America; and best of all, the gem of my neighborhood, Mrs. Dalloway’s. This is a beautiful bookstore with a helpful staff and a sparkling roster of author events, and I thank them for making the neighborhood feel, well, like a neighborhood.

For all my trepidation and uncertainty about 2018, one consolation remains: it will come with more great books. Happy reading!

Bought but not read in 2017. Something to look forward to in the year ahead!

Books

Top 10 Books of 2015

Better English language bookstores in Berlin than my California hometown mean I actually read a few real live paper books in 2015

Weekend newspapers and the literary internet have been brimming with best books of 2015 lists, which got me thinking about my favorite reads of the year. I’m not one of those people (who are those people?) who can keep up with the flood of good stuff being written so not all of these were published in 2015, even if that’s the year I got around to reading them.

1. The First Bad Man by Miranda July was my favorite book of the year: fresh, startling, gross, and very very funny. I didn’t think I’d find a more original female protagonist than Tiffany in Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper, then I made the acquaintance of Cheryl, star of The First Bad Man. Goodreads review here.

2. The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink is a lightning-paced whirl of a flawed but addictive novel from a writer championed into prominence by the much-maligned Jonathan Franzen. Just read it. Or, if you must know more, read my longer Goodreads review here.

3. Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys by Viv Albertine is a memoir by the first lady of punk you’ve never heard of. She hung with Sid Vicious and received fashion advice from Vivienne Westwood, but if that’s not enough to get you interested it turns out this is a rather moving tome on living a creative life. I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic right after I read this—which I also enjoyed—and was struck by how much Albertine’s memoir is a gritty, real-life demonstration of the principles Gilbert espouses. Goodreads review here.

4. Love, Nina: Despatches from Family Life by Nina Stibbe is admittedly a niche read, but if you happen to be an Anglophile who’s a fan of Alan Bennett and London Review of Books (nevermind that the one time you actually read LRB a piece by Will Self made you want to stab your eyes out with pencils) and generally impressed by some vague concept of north London intellectuals, you won’t be able to resist Nina’s Stibbe’s real-life letters to her sister during her time as a nanny for LRB editor Mary-Kay Wilmers. A Nick Hornby-penned adaptation is coming to BBC One TV screens in 2016.

Books 5., 6., and 7. are The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks, A Place In My Country by Ian Walthew, and The Snow Geese by William Fiennes, which I guess means I have a thing for British male writers waxing lyrical about nature and the concept of home. Rebanks and Walthew also offer local insight into two iconic British landscapes, the Lake District and the Cotswolds, respectively, that most of us only know as visitors. Goodreads reviews here and here.

8. Outline by Rachel Cusk proves I also have a thing for solitary woman protagonists. Evocative of Joan Didion’s best fiction. Goodreads review here.

9. Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit is a book of feminist essays described by a Twitter friend as a gateway drug for Solnit. She must have been right because I’m now reading Wanderlust.

10. Redeployment by Phil Klay, the lauded book of short stories by an Iraq war veteran and required reading for Americans. Goodreads review here.

Since it’s a Top 10 list I’ll stop here with a quick mention of two other books I enjoyed: Sarah Hepola’s drinking memoir, Blackout, and a collection of essays by writers without children, Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed, edited by Meghan Daum. Oh and We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver, who also happens to have an essay in the previously mentioned collection from Meghan Daum.

Here’s to a 2016 full of good books— may your nightstand runneth over.