Holiday shopping is upon us, so these are organized as gift suggestions, but this list is intended also as an enthusiastic round-up of some books I am most excited about right now. With apologies to my Jewish friends, as this comes a bit late for Hanukkah this year. The reality is, if Christmas weren’t an awfully secular holiday that falls on the same day every year, it would probably sneak up on me too. (As you may imagine, I find Easter somewhat mysterious.)
For readers who love YA, adult literary fiction, experimental fiction:
Blood Water Paint, by Joy McCullough is a YA novel about the teenage Artemisia Gentileschi and it is fantastic. (Brief aside: The author deals with the issue of the sexual assault that Gentileschi experienced in a manner appropriate for teen girls. That being said, I will probably wait a few years before I give this one to my 10-year-old niece.) The novel is gorgeously written and formally inventive, alternating between prose and poetry, and includes some really interesting shifts in POV. I highly recommend this novel for adult fans of literary fiction as well, not to mention for any fans of Gentileschi’s work, or who are interested in experimental fiction. You can read my Goodreads review here, , where I go into a bit more detail about why I love this book so much. Probably my favorite book of the year.
For readers who love literary fiction, mainstream fiction, and multiple-POV novels:
I was super stoked to see Tommy Orange’s There There listed by the NYT as one of the best books of 2018. The novel follows multiple characters, all of whom plan to attend a Pow Wow in the Oakland Coliseum, in the days leading up to the event. I didn’t keep careful notes when I read this book, but what I do remember is that it sucked me right in and that I read it fairly quickly. You can read Colm Toibin’s NYT review of the novel here for more details.
For the Greek tragedians among you:
Speaking of Colm Toibin, House of Names, which revolves around the story of Clytemnestra and her children. The prose is chilling and translucent and the novel worked on me like a page turner, in part because I wanted to know what happened next, in part because I wanted to know what word came next. I also thought a lot about women’s anger when I read this, both the kind that shows up on the surface and the kind that gets suppressed. You can read the Washington Post review here to find out more.
For those who love retellings, literary fiction, feminist fiction, Beowulf, etc.:
Speaking of women’s anger…Maria Dhavana Headley’s retelling of the Beowulf epic, The Mere Wife, is set in the suburbs, confronts shifting versions of what we behold to be monstrous via an exploration of white responses to brown bodies, and includes an unrelenting chorus of wives who demonstrate with Plathian perfectitude the failure of mothers to help their daughters break free from the trappings of patriarchy. The novel follows both the titular mere wife, a homeless veteran, and the Wealhtheow character, a wealthy suburbanite. You can read my review at Anomaly here for my more detailed take on it.
For anyone who likes mainstream fiction, literary fiction, mystery, or suspense:
Tana French’s The Witch Elm grabbed my attention from the get-go and took me places I don’t usually expect to be taken when I read a crime novel. The prose is lucid and compelling, the characters and situations intriguing, but I’m not going to say much more than that. Instead I’ll let Steven King do the talking, as he does here in his NYT review of the book. (For those who see the name Steven King and think horror: I can’t read horror. This book is not that. The book revolves around a murder and the main character suffers a physical assault right at the beginning of the book that has long-lasting consequences on his life. There is some violence later on as well.)
For Zadie Smith fans, general readership, and those who love essays:
Feel Free, Smith’s second essay collection, manages to come across as both learned and conversational, and the author’s unique, idiosyncratic voice is present throughout, regardless of the subject she happens to be addressing. They are essays in the truest sense, at least in my understanding of what an essay should be, in that they detail the history of a thought process, and in lucid, highly readable prose at that. (I doubt anyone who has ever read Zadie Smith would expect anything less.) You can read a review here.
For poetry lovers:
American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, by Terrence Hayes is one of the rare English-language poetry titles that I found simply by browsing at my favorite bookstore in Bonn. My memory of reading this book is that I got sucked into it on the train ride from Bonn to home in Dortmund. You can read a poem from the book here, selected by Rita Dove and published in the NYT.
Virgin, by Analicia Sotelo was a favorite read of mine in 2018 and is one of the books reviewed in the NYT column here. I especially admired the richness of the language and the depth with which the poet addressed her subject matter. I remember spending a very engrossed weekend morning on the couch with this title.
Eye Level, by Jenny Xie was pretty stunning and therefore I wasn’t surprised that the book was a 2018 National Book Award Finalist. You can read blurbs and excerpts from various reviews at the poet’s website here.
The Undressing, by Li-Young Lee was a breathtaking read. One of my favorite reads of 2018. You can read about the book in The New Yorker here.
I’m pretty sure that most of these books came out in 2018, or pretty close to it, which was one of the parameters I gave myself as I decided what to include here.
Some titles I’ve read this year that are a bit older, but which I highly recommend checking out if you haven’t already.
What We Lose, Zinzi Clemmons
Americanah, Chimamande Ngozi Adichie
The Round House, Louise Erdrich (I’ve come into a few of her novels since I’ve moved to Germany, and whoever buys English-language books at Dortmund’s main library is clearly a fan, so I am currently making my way through her work and really enjoying it.)
Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado
Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward
The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry
And poets, if you haven’t already, consider purchasing the books of the three poets plagiarized by AO. Rachel McKibbens, blud, which is currently out of stock at all the best places, but which is being reprinted. Brenna Twohy, Forgive Me My Salt. Sarah Eliza Johnson, Bone Map. Just because.