OUR FAV ENGLISH PROFESSOR RECOMMENDS HER BEST BOOKS OF 2018
These are the best books I read this year. Not that came out this year, but books I read this year. Most of them are violent because I have specific tastes. ACTUALLY ALL OF THEM ARE VIOLENT, OOPS! I guess if you don’t like violence, you should woman up and read these anyway!
FRIDAY BLACK by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
This book is the best book I’ve read not just this year, but in a long time. I have an MFA (ask me about that torture) and the short story form was ruined for me by that experience. In the years since I’ve graduated, I have rarely bonded with a short story, because I can see the wires and the trapdoors and the doves up its sleeve. The magic was sucked out of it. But then along came this collection. Adjei-Brenyah studied at Syracuse under George Saunders, and you can see some of that influence here, but let me tell you, this guy is one to watch. I have never in my whole life finished a book and then started reading it again, immediately, but that’s exactly what I did with this one. His short stories often have some sci-fi elements (which I enjoy) but they are so fresh and brutal that I can’t stop thinking about them and telling everyone I care about to go read this right now. (That includes you, Dear Reader!) The first story is probably the most violent of the bunch, but it soars like an eagle. I’ve never read a writer so adroit at weaving our contemporary concerns into a short story like this. Adjei-Brenyah worked in retail for years, and he delivers that experience in a trio of stories set in the same department store. The title story is set there, and features Black Friday shoppers recast as capitalist zombies. A story that is closer to my heart (“Things My Mother Said”) had such a profound effect on me that I’m probably going to have to talk about it with my therapist. Please read this book.
THE VIRGIN SUICIDES by Jeffrey Eugenides
Obviously, this was a re-read for me. This book is 25 years old! Can you believe it? I read this when it came out because Sassy Magazine recommended it to me. I was fourteen years old! (How precocious!) This book is brilliant. That plural first person narrator is *chef’s kiss**. The movie is also good, and of course I couldn’t help but picture Josh Hartnett as Trip Fontaine. Of course this book is sad and about decay but it is so beautiful. Returning to it, I could see the middle aged narrators more clearly this time as they look back on the Lisbon Sisters and offer up their collection of artifacts. You should read this one, too.
TYRANT: SHAKESPEARE ON POLITICS by Stephen Greenblatt
I have weird, obsessive tendencies sometimes, and this year I caught a bad case of Shakespeare-mania. Brought on in part by Slate’s wonderful podcast, Lend Me Your Ears, I just got really, really into the Bard. This book is definitely a reaction to the Trump regime, and you can see Greenblatt offering up all these terrible rulers from Shakespeare, trying to find the Orange One’s match. Somehow, he comes off worse than these guys. He’s like a Frankenstein monster made out of Cornelius and Jack Cade and Richard III and all of them. There is so much outrage spilling off these pages, but there is comfort, too, in knowing that these things pass, as well. Read this one.
COMPANY OF LIARS: A NOVEL by Karen Maitland
Remember, up there, when I said that I obsess about weird stuff? Well, before Shakespeare this year I got really interested in the Black Plague. The problem with it is that I couldn’t find a definitive non-fiction book about it (apparently, they all have their flaws.) So instead, I read this historical novel about a group of travelers running from the Plague in England. Is this a good book? Nope. Is it entertaining? Yes. Is there a witch? I’ll never tell (yes.) This book is weird, for sure, but it was probably weird when half the population was dying all over the place. Read this one to put your own life into perspective.
THE JUNIPER TREE by Barbara Comyns
This one modernizes the Grimms’ “The Juniper Tree” from the point of view of the stepmother. We all know that stepmothers are evil (as a stepmother myself, I know the truth) but this one does a great job with dramatizing the horrible pressure of that role. It also has a bit of du Maurier's Rebecca in it. Bottom line: avoid widowers. Gurl, you just can’t compete! This book is daffy and charming, which is a surprise when you consider the source material. Also bad things happen in it! It’s weird, but weird like your weirdest friend who went to clown school but also is super dark. Read it!
HIS DARK MATERIALS SERIES by Philip Pullman
Few and far between is the YA series that features the actual mercy killing of God. This one has it all: animal companions that are part of your soul, Nicole Kidman, charmingly bratty children, armored polar bears, tons of child murder. This was another re-read, and I did appreciate more this time around. This book is about growing up and how much it sucks. Also, about how our most beloved pets are a part of us. I’m crying right now just thinking about something that happens in this book. Read it with your animal close by.
PARABLE OF THE SOWER by Octavia Butler
This is my second favorite on this list, after Friday Black. It’s also 25 years old, but man, did she have a crystal ball or what? Set in 2025, which is a total mess, the novel follows a young visionary as she flees her home and travels north, trying to build a new religion. Basically, a religious but Trump-y type is in charge, everyone is a climate refugee as California burns, mob rule is the only rule, and everything is terrible. I’m not kidding: the president in this is Making America Great Again. This book is great, though, for the way it stresses empathy as the cure to our ills. Read it and feel the pangs of terrible recognition.