Seattle Times arts writers weigh in with their favorite books that came out in 2018 — and the titles that we just happened to get to this year.
When it comes to year-end roundups of the best books, why should authors published in 2018 have all the fun? Even the most dedicated book critics read outside the publishers’ catalogs. Here, Seattle Times arts writers weigh in with their favorite books that came out in 2018 — and the wild cards we just happened to get to this year. Because it’s never too late to pick up a new (to you) favorite.
“Life in the Garden” by Penelope Lively
A Booker Prize winner for her fiction, Penelope Lively has produced a thought-provoking and utterly charming set of garden-related meditations — “Life in the Garden” (Viking, 2018), which weaves in history, literature, geography, horticulture and personal memoir. Dame Penelope is 85, and I want to be like her when I grow up. — Melinda Bargreen
“Red Clocks” by Leni Zumas
“The Psychopath Test” by Jon Ronson
I loved Leni Zumas’ economical, resonant, fully alive 2018 novel “Red Clocks” (Little, Brown, 2018), which imagines a hardly-distant dystopia in which abortion is illegal, and growing reproductive-health-care restrictions are about to extend to treatments like IVF and single-parent adoption. Through archetypal characters including a witchlike healer, an unmarried teacher trying to have a kid on her own before it’s against the law and a polar explorer, Zumas does justice to the complexity of living in a body with the capacity to get pregnant — and the many ways that all of us, regardless of whether we have biological children of our own, mother each other and are mothered.
I also finally, finally got around to reading Jon Ronson’s study of criminal behavior and brain science, “The Psychopath Test” (Riverhead, 2012), which had been on my to-read list for years. I loved Ronson’s investigation of mental health and what he calls the “madness industry,” and the ultimately very humanizing message that we’re all pretty close to the line when it comes to being categorized as mentally ill — a lesson in compassion that’s (maybe especially) important for neurotypical people to understand. — Megan Burbank
“The Library Book” by Susan Orlean
“The Great Believers” by Rebecca Makkai
“Fashion Climbing” by Bill Cunningham
“Pachinko” by Min Jin Lee
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In “The Library Book” by Susan Orlean (Simon & Schuster, 2018), three things I can’t resist — libraries, true crime and Orlean’s delicious way with literary nonfiction — blended for what was probably my favorite reading experience this year. If you were lucky enough to grow up with a neighborhood public library, this book will bring back poignant memories of what it felt like to discover a place where reading was all that mattered. Orlean, a longtime New Yorker writer, crafts her book as both love letter to libraries everywhere and specific paean to the Los Angeles Public Library’s main branch, which suffered a catastrophic fire in 1986 — the origins of which remain mysterious. A true joy to read — and a gift for all who love libraries.
Set via alternating chapters in 1985 Chicago and 2015 Paris, “The Great Believers” by Rebecca Makkai (Viking, 2018) takes us back to a time many would like to forget: the early years of the AIDS epidemic, and a group of young man facing the ravages — and the hellish randomness — of the disease, never knowing who next would be taken. It’s gripping reading, full of beautifully differentiated characters and tiny worlds created. Fiona, one of few characters to span both narratives, expresses heartbreaking anger over how those days seem now forgotten. “How could she explain that this city was a graveyard? That they were walking every day through streets where there had been a holocaust, a mass murder of neglect and antipathy, that when they stepped through a pocket of cold air, didn’t they understand it was a ghost, it was a boy the world had spat out?”
Bill Cunningham, the beloved photographer of street and society fashion for The New York Times for decades, died in 2016. But he left behind, in tidy typescript, a manuscript found by his relatives and published this year. “Fashion Climbing” by Bill Cunningham (Penguin, 2018) is the saga of his early broke years in midcentury New York as a fledgling hat designer, and it’s written with a gee-whiz wonder that’s utterly irresistible. (Unable to afford much food in those days, Cunningham writes that he would “go out looking in store windows and feed myself on beautiful things.”) Those who love fashion will devour it, but its reach is deeper: “Fashion Climbing” is the story of a young man becoming himself, and an older man looking back on his past with poignant, evident pleasure.
Time does seem to be flying; I actually thought “Pachinko” by Min Jin Lee (Grand Central Publishing, 2017), the century-spanning tale of several generations of a family in Japanese-occupied Korea, came out this year. But no, it’s an acclaimed 2017 title that I only just got around to this past summer — and it was worth the wait, right from its opening sentence: “History has failed us, but no matter.” “Pachinko” is one of those family sagas that you get lost in, forgetting the passage of time, disappearing into places far away — a poor fisherman’s cramped lodging house; a fragrant restaurant kitchen where kimchee is crafted; a noisy pachinko parlor; a hospital room where generations become linked. “Sweeping” and “epic” are words that are always applied to books like this, but they fit; you leave “Pachinko” feeling changed, as if your world got a little bigger. — Moira Macdonald
“The Maze at Windermere” by Gregory Blake Smith
“The Great Believers” by Rebecca Makkai
For me, the best of the year came early in the year. Gregory Blake Smith’s “The Maze at Windermere” (Viking, 2018), published in January, is historical fiction unlike any I’ve read. Set in Newport, Rhode Island, it portrays the city in five different eras, from the 1690s (as seen through the eyes of a young orphaned Quaker woman uncertain what to do with the female slave she has inherited) through its picturesque present-day incarnation (where a washed-up golf pro falls for a quirky heiress suffering from cerebral palsy). Stops along the way include the British occupation of the Revolutionary War, where an English aristocrat attempts to seduce a local Jewish merchant’s daughter for malevolent reasons; the Civil War-era family retreat of a young Henry James, who’s reluctant to return the affections of a woman who fascinates him; and a Gilded Age playground for the rich, where a cash-short gay dandy is trying to marry for money. Each narrative voice Smith invents is pitch-perfect, and the book offers huge formal pleasures as he peels back successions of communities like archaeological layers, connecting them in ways their inhabitants don’t necessarily register.
Another favorite: “The Great Believers” by Rebecca Makkai (Viking, 2018), which also plays revelatory tricks with time as she contrasts a shrinking circle of friends in Chicago during the 1980s ravages of AIDS with a handful of survivors who face a different kind of threat in Paris in 2015. — Michael Upchurch
“How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids” by Jancee Dunn
“Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro
I love my husband but I also really loved Jancee Dunn’s provocatively titled “How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids” (Little, Brown; published in hardcover in 2017, paperback in 2018). In the book, part self-help, part memoir, the former Rolling Stone writer investigates the “molten rage” she felt toward her husband after adding a child “exploded” their marriage, to paraphrase Nora Ephron. The book is steeped in sociological and scientific research on how men’s and women’s roles have changed (and not) in family life, and it’s also hilarious. As Dunn and her husband take a bumpy ride through therapy, research and in-home experiments in an effort to make their family life equitable and peaceful again, you’ll learn a little, and laugh a lot.
Shoutout to Seattle Public Library’s Peak Picks programs: I would never have picked up Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go” (Knopf, 2005) but for its prominent placement on the Lake City Library’s Peak Picks table last summer. Gripping from page one, the 2005 novel seems to be about a set of students going to a strange boarding school in England, but it soon becomes surreal. A central, dystopian mystery is slowly revealed about the nature of their lives that will make you think for months about what it means to be human. — Elisa Murray
“Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter” by Ben Goldfarb
“The Birds of Heaven: Travels with Cranes” by Peter Matthiessen
The best books I read this year were Ben Goldfarb’s “Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter” (Chelsea Green, 2018) and Peter Matthiessen’s “The Birds of Heaven: Travels with Cranes” (North Point Press, 2001). Both naturalists travel far and wide to research their chosen topics. Since I love travel, I liked following Goldfarb around North America as he reveals why these seemingly pesky rodents ought to be revered and restored; and Matthiessen takes readers on a worldwide journey of beauty, alerting us about much-needed conservation even more urgent now almost 20 years later. — Irene Wanner
“Florida” by Lauren Groff
“Humiliation” by Wayne Koestenbaum
Book published this year: The short stories in Lauren Groff’s “Florida” (Riverhead, 2018) aren’t always set in Florida, but use that state and its perils (sinkholes, “Lear”-level storms that trigger existential crises, poisonous snakes, drug deals gone wrong, tragic households, deep suspicion among neighbors) as their disturbing, unstable center of gravity. To be totally honest, I was skeptical at first. I’ve come to expect people with pedigrees like Groff’s (undergrad at Amherst! MFA in fiction from UW-Madison! Published in the New Yorker! Whoopee!) to gaze sanctimoniously at the swampish parts of the South, typing with one hand while holding their collective nose with the other. But Groff is great. She writes crisply and lets the eccentric, eerie humanity of her characters speak for itself: an odd kid, who understands math better than people, merrily digging for periwinkles on the beach; a disaffected suburban mother who can’t get along with living people, but has fallen in love with an 18th-century naturalist; the jolt of racism that takes everyone by surprise when one character’s relative disembarks a plane in France and surprises the greeting party by being black. (“I grew up and everything got darker,” she tells her astonished, white hosts who remember her as a pale baby. “It happens sometimes. No big deal.”) You could cut the awkwardness with a chain saw, but none of the characters are exactly able to say why. Groff’s way of writing around the edges of unspoken tension is exquisite. Like the state, “Florida” is full of surprises — if you care to look.
Book from the past: We’re living in an age of top-notch humiliation, a golden era of shaming in the public square: Facebook, the White House, your co-worker’s Twitter account, reality TV, “winners” and “losers” everywhere you look. Which might explain why this year sent me back to Wayne Koestenbaum’s weird little book “Humiliation” (Picador, 2011), a collection of aphorisms and short essays about scarlet-letter moments, and how we think about them: Freud, the Marquis de Sade, Michael Jackson, Jean Genet, Richard Nixon, noted homophobe Anita Bryant getting a pie shoved in her face on national TV in 1977, “American Idol,” the horrifying photos from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Koestenbaum describes humiliation as a triangle: “(1) the victim, (2) the abuser, and (3) the witness … The scene’s horror — its energy, its electricity — involves the presence of three. An infernal waltz.” Some people want to be humiliated, some people want to humiliate, but most people just like to watch. If you want an eerily sympathetic but entertaining guide to explain why you feel mildly queasy every time you jump onto the internet, Koestenbaum’s your guy. — Brendan Kiley