Best reads of 2018: Two reporters pick their favorite books
It's a tale of two readers. One defined the year in reading as "just OK" but found five books — none published this year — to recommend. The other had a bang-up year of reading — exclamation points! — and looked at a list of seven of her five-star picks, plus two that are bedside but unfinished, and proclaimed it The Best Year In Books Ever.
How is it even possible that these two reporters are pulling from the same library shelves?
Most of my reading in 2018 turned out to be just OK, but these rose to the top. None was published in 2018.
"The Emperor of All Maladies"
Author: Siddhartha Mukherjee
Mukherjee's exploration of the history of treating cancer was the book of the year for me, even if its year was 2010. "Emperor" is filled with pertinent anecdotes, biographical sketches of key figures and poignant stories from Mukherjee's own practice as a cancer doc. It also offers many wonderful sentences like: "Scurrying about in its cage in the vivarium atop Harvard Medical School, Philip Leder's OncoMouse bore large implications on small haunches."
"The First Muslim"
Author: Lesley Hazleton
Given that Muhammad founded a religion that now has something in the neighborhood of 1.5 billion adherents, it seems worth knowing something about his life. As it happens, Muhammad lived a fascinating life. Hazleton tells the story in an engaging and respectful manner.
"The Guns of August"
Author: Barbara W. Tuchman
Tuchman's history of the start of World War I was responsible for her first Pulitzer Prize. It's her best-remembered book for good reason. August 1914 was arguably the pivot point upon which the 20th century turned, and Tuchman does its momentous events justice. Lest it become too heavy, the narrative is leavened with snarky comments, such as this about King Albert of Belgium's upbringing: "He was left to grow up in a corner of the palace with a Swiss tutor of more than ordinary mediocrity."
"Packing for Mars"
Author: Mary Roach
I had an author crush on Mary Roach this year, reading three of her books. Roach opened up a new field in medical science journalism, asking questions no one else had the audacity to ask and unblushingly sharing the answers. In "Packing for Mars," we learn, among other things, what it's like to vomit inside a spacesuit and why it's nearly impossible for a Muslim astronaut to face Mecca while weightless in space.
"The Long Divorce"
Author: Edmund Crispin
Edmund Crispin was the pseudonym of Robert Bruce Montgomery, a British composer who also wrote quirky little mystery novels starring Oxford don Gervase Fen. This one involves a quaint village, a suicide, a murder, threatening letters, a rebellious teenager and an oddly behaving cat. (Can anyone tell when a cat is behaving oddly?) If anyone reading this is also a Gervase Fen fan, we ought to get together for a cuppa tea. We seem to be a rare breed.
A friend in need of a new book texted me this week to see if my 5-star ratings on Goodreads, a social network for readers, could be trusted. There has been a spate of great this past year — so much so that I could make this a list of the Top 15 books read in 2018. I mean, I don't even mention "The Third Hotel," by Laura Van Den Berg, "Purple Hibiscus" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, or Caitlin Doughty's "From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death." Plus, "Severance" by Ling Ma is, so far, totally a contender but I'm not halfway through it as of this writing. Sigh.
"My Sister the Serial Killer"
Author: Oyinkan Braithwaite
Korede is a fixer, whether it's keeping others on task at the hospital, or discarding of one of her sister's dead boyfriends. Ayoola is gorgeous, flirty, marriageable by her mother's standards, and hugely accurate with the storied family knife. And so it goes in Braithwaite's first novel, set in Lagos, a straight-faced, quick-paced, darkly funny story that thinks like "American Psycho," but avoids the severed head visuals. Delicious.
"The Feral Detective"
Author: Jonathan Lethem
Phoebe quits her job at the New York Times to track her best friend's daughter, Arabella, who is probably on some sort of Leonard Cohen-themed pilgrimage. It's a good time for Phoebe to opt out, anyway: Trump has just been elected, and now there he is in a meeting with all the NYT biggies. She jets out west and takes up with The Feral Detective, a curiously-haired and quiet human who knows all the ditches and deserts where young runaways convene or commune holdouts have set up anti-society societies. Phoebe gets dropped into a world where no one is talking about the Women's March on Washington, but there is much chatter about an upcoming battle to the death within a group of Bears. Phoebe, with her traumatic Trump syndrome, is a great character whose witty banter is lost on humans who aren't engaged in the game. And there is a likeable level of hokey to Lethem's slightly askew detective-slash-counterculture novel.
"My Year of Rest and Relaxation"
Author: Ottessa Moshfegh
If you've ever revelled in the art of the nap: drape yourself in fleece and crack this. The unnamed and hard-to-love protagonist at the center of this novel just wants to sleep. She's got the cash to sustain her, a friend primed for alienation and no other human commitments, and a therapist with an itchy prescription finger. So, in the late summer of 2000 in New York City, she forges a plan that will divorce her from the day-to-day for a long, long time. This story is wicked, it's funny, it's smart and it's fun to read.
"The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath"
Author: Leslie Jamison
With "The Recovering," essayist Leslie Jamison takes the capital-L literary addiction memoir in an innovative direction. It includes her own oh-you've-got-cocaine-on-your-lip moments, but it also considers the writing life — specifically her time in Iowa — and the drugs-drinking patterns of the writers who came before her like Denis Johnson and Raymond Carver. It's a really smart book, with stories carefully told and sobriety carefully considered.
Author: Mohsin Hamid
Nadia and Saeed meet and fall in love at a time when their unnamed, wartorn town has become unsafe. Saeed's own mother dies tragically while in the middle of the most mundane of tasks. The couple, edgy in their unmarried status, decide to leave together through secret doors that drop people in other spots — Greece, London, the United States. The story covers living, temporarily, in spaces, the politics of sharing resources, and the effects on a close relationship — both good and bad. This novel is everything, definitely on a Top Ten of all time.