My 5 Favorite Books of 2018: Part 1: Contemporary Literature

If you wonder why I haven’t, you know, been writing a lot, it’s because I’ve been reading–a lot (115 books so far). Also I’ve been taking a break to realign my critical gears but I digress.

This article is part 1 of 2. Last year I wrote a longish article about my favorite and least favorite books that I had read in 2017. Because I have come to regret some of my negative judgments (such as Lincoln in the Bardo and The Idiot), I will only discuss the books released in 2018 I truly enjoyed and learned from this year.

The second part of this article will be released when I get some free time next week and will cover the other books I enjoyed this year that were not released in 2018.

[Editor’s Note: I plan on reading Friday Black, How to Change Your Mind and Asymmetry in the next few weeks. If one of them (or all of them) and end up becoming my favorites I will add them to the list.]

There There by Tommy Orange

What makes Tommy Orange’s debut novel great is what it lacks: needless exposition and forced connections. The web-like migration story to a powwow (almost the exact style used in As I Lay Dying) may appear contrived for some, but it’s an excellent way to learn about each character’s past through their present journey. Each character sounds like themselves and not like a mouthpiece for an idea. Every character has fucked up at least once in their life (some have done it too many times to count) but the characters shine in spite of their flaws.

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden: Stories by Denis Johnson

Denis Johnson, whom I will discuss more in the second part of this article, was a master. There are very few authors whose books I’ve read in one sitting. The three Denis Johnson books I’ve read this year forced me to sit down and read until I saw the page about the typeface. The Largesse of the Sea Maiden: Stories is a reminder that life is something that happens, and it not something that is passively experienced. People die. People become obsessed with little things that ruin their otherwise amazing lives. And most of all, people can end up happy. It’s a sin to attempt to describe the power of Johnson’s prose. So I’ll just leave you with this: buy the book, clear your calendar, tell everyone that you’re going to be unresponsive for a few hours, and read the first line. You’ll thank me when you finish it.

Sabrina by Nick Drnaso

This isn’t a happy graphic novel. According to a story I heard from a Book Riot podcast, Drnaso wanted to retract the book and edit it, and then got very depressed while editing it. I’ll check out the validity of this later, but I can’t imagine the emotional juggernaut he must have run through to be able to draw and write this book. The story is of a girl or an idea of a girl and what can happen in 2018 when conspiracy theorists and the dark and musty corners of the Internet meet reality. Some fall for them but all become infected. Much like Beverly, Drnaso’s first graphic novel and a great book if you can find it, there is little hope for anyone condemned to be a character in his books. He’s not Dante, but he isn’t a benevolent Creator.

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors

While I was reading Nors’ Mirror, Shoulder, Signal I kept thinking, GET OVER IT. COME ON YOU CAN’T BE THIS MESSED UP. LOOK AT THE SKY. But then something clicked. I was reading it as a diagnosis but what I should have been doing was reading it as a pilgrimage. What could be called superficial in other novels is full of depth in Mirror, Shoulder, Signal. Weekly masseuse visits, driving lessons, and conflicting thoughts about the narrator’s past in the country are all that are given to us but my oh my are they interesting. And also the prose is sparse (an overused word in book reviews, but in this case it’s true) Another fair warning: this novel isn’t about anything. Don’t try searching for an explicit meaning. It isn’t there.

Love by Hanne Orstravik

I believe this was the first book I ever reviewed. Wow that feels nice to say. Love has stuck with me because the experience of thinking about it after finishing it is better than the experience of reading it. You might think the mother is negligent at first, but then you might realize she really does care, but then again you might think she is the worst mother in existence. Every judgment you make about this book can easily be counteracted by another judgment. When I was reviewing it I’d find something new in the same sentence every time I read it. It’s been almost a year and there have been over a hundred books, articles, and essays that I’ve read in between and it’s still at the top of the pile.

Honorable Mentions:

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez

Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Doblin

Pearls on a Branch: Oral Tales by Nadja Khoury