A Literary Omnivore’s Dilemma

The Best Books of 2018

While leading my poetry class in their final session last week, I declared James Merrill’s “Christmas Tree” perhaps my favorite poem we’d read all semester. About half of the class giggled. I looked around nervously: Did they think making such a claim about a Christmas tree-shaped poem was cheesy? Then, a student clarified things for me with a question: “How many favorite poems do you have?” It was pointed out that I’d made similar statements about Keats’s “To Autumn,” and Herbert’s “Love (III),” and Bishop’s “One Art”…

So yes, making a Best Books of 2018 list—I should say, winnowing down the list to just the titles below—has been a challenge for me. I don’t think that I’m indiscriminately enthusiastic. There were many books I started this year but didn’t finish; there were several that I thought decent but wildly overhyped. Say, rather, that I’m widely enthusiastic. Books gave me great pleasure in 2018, and those pleasures came in many different forms.  

I’ve decided to focus on books that I haven’t written on before. (Of those that I have reviewed, I’d single out for praise A. E. Stallings’s Like and Micheal O’Siadhail’s Five Quintets in poetry; R. O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries, Keith Gessen’s A Terrible Country, Kate Atkinson’s Transcription, Gina Apostol’s Insurrecto, and Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room in fiction; and Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel in nonfiction.)

This list comes with all the usual qualifications. My reading gaps are huge (sorry for not getting to Kudos yet, Rachel Cusk); I have preferences and prejudices (I love prose by poets; I don’t read enough books in translation); I spent a lot of time rereading this year (Langdon Hammer’s James Merrill: Life and Art was just as good the second time around).

Consider this, then, a selective sampling of the year’s many riches. Happy reading.

Samantha Harvey, The Western Wind, Grove Press

This was the most underrated novel of the year. Set in the English village of Oakham in 1491, The Western Wind is equal parts historical fiction, murder mystery (a body washes up in the river and we don’t know whodunnit), and church novel: the narrator is a priest named John Reve and the plot unfolds at the beginning of the Lenten season. Hardly a page goes by without a wondrous observation about the movement of light (“In the empty, white light their little fields looked like boats becalmed at sea”) or the movement of grace (“you don’t go upwards through air to find the Lord, trilling like a bluebird; you go down, through the pit of yourself”). Harvey regularly reminds me of Marilynne Robinson—the highest compliment I can pay any novelist.

Some boys were climbing the oak in the churchyard; I walked to the lychgate where I could see the road. The village games and processions. There was otherliness; the sun was stealing colour and the wind was stealing sound, and I thought I was seeing a hundred unearthly things kicking balls.

Gerald Murnane, Border Districts, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

2018 was the year I first encountered this Australian master, in part due to a brilliant and bonkers profile in the New York Times. Border Districts is difficult, if not impossible, to describe: plotless yet absolutely compelling, lucid but relentlessly self-reflexive, idiosyncratic and funny and epistemologically complicated. A perfect introduction to a weird writer I’ll be returning to. (Commonweal readers will particularly appreciate Murnane’s many digressions on stained glass windows and Protestantism.)

In this remote district, I am even less inclined than I was in the suburbs of the capital city to seek out some or another obscure fact; here, near the border, I am even more inclined than of old to accept as well-founded any supposition likely to complete a pattern in my mind and then to go on writing until I learn the meaning for me of such an image as that of the white patch which appeared just now against a black ground at the edge of my mind and will not easily be dislodged.

Tana French, The Witch Elm, Penguin

Ho hum, another year, another exquisite thriller from French. Unlike her previous novels, this one focuses not on the Dublin Murder Squad but on the victim of a break-in beating. The victim, a generally lucky and wildly unlikable young man named Toby, suffers brain damage and soon gets caught up in a police investigation when a skeleton is discovered in his family’s garden. The Witch Elm considers the stories we tell about ourselves (we’re decent; we’re well-meaning; we’re lucky) and what happens when these stories are undone.

Even though it’s demonstrably nonsense—the skull had already been tucked away in its cranny for years by that point, after all, and I think it’s pretty clear that it would have resurfaced that summer regardless—I can’t help believing, at some level deeper than logic, that none of this would ever have happened without that night.

I’m widely enthusiastic. Books gave me great pleasure in 2018, and those pleasures came in many different forms.

Lisa Halliday, Asymmetry, Simon & Schuster

I will admit it, I was initially interested in Halliday’s debut novel primarily for gossipy reasons. One of the book’s major sections traces the relationship between a young female writer and a much, much older and very, very famous male writer—clearly based on Halliday’s own May-December relationship with Philip Roth. But what Halliday does with this story, and with the novel’s other, asymmetrical parts, is extraordinary. There’s sharpness, there’s wit, there’s formal daring, and there’s care—for the perfectly cadenced sentences and for the richly imagined characters.

His doorman greeted her chummily now. He called the writer down and saluted them off as they set out for a walk. Swinging a bag of plums from Zingone’s, the writer asked whether Alice had heard about the city’s plan to rename some of its luxury residences after major-league baseball players: The Posada, The Rivera, The Soriano. “The Garciaparra,” said Alice. “No no,” he said, stopping her importantly. “Only Yankees.” They entered the little park behind the natural history museum, where, biting into one of his plums, Alice pretended to chisel his name under Joseph Stiglitz’s on the monument to American Nobel Laureates.

Naomi Novik, Spinning Silver, Del Rey

I neglected to put Novik’s Uprooted on my list a few years ago—a mistake that I’ve tried to rectify by including her follow-up, Spinning Silver, here. The novel cross-pollinates traditional fairy tale (Rumpelstiltskin provides the narrative bones) with Eastern European history (more specifically, the history of Polish Jews in the twentieth century). The result is superb.

The real story isn’t half as pretty as the one you’ve heard. The real story is, the miller’s daughter with her long golden hair wants to catch a lord, a prince, a rich man’s son, so she goes to the moneylender and borrows for a ring and a necklace and decks herself out for the festival. And she’s beautiful enough, so the lord, the prince, the rich man’s son notices her, and dances with her, and tumbles her in a quiet hayloft when the dancing is over, and afterwards he goes home and marries the rich woman his family has picked out for him. Then the miller’s despoiled daughter tells everyone that the moneylender’s in league with the devil, and the village runs him out or maybe even stones him, so at least she gets to keep the jewels for a dowry, and the blacksmith marries her before that firstborn child comes along a little early.

Patricia Lockwood, Priestdaddy, Riverhead

Sure, this technically came out in 2017. But the paperback appeared in 2018, and I’ll take any chance to write on the best memoir I’ve read in years. Athletes are often praised for having fast-twitch muscles. Lockwood has a fast-twitch soul, her mind moving quicker than yours or mine or just about anyone else’s. Her sentences stop on a dime, reverse direction, and then jump into the ether. Every time I’ve read this book—and the count is at three now—I can’t believe how funny its lines are or how perfect its pitch is. Most of all, I’m struck by Lockwood’s surprising, moving, and knotty depiction of her father—a guitar-riff-loving, action-movie-watching Catholic priest.

Most of my poems were about mermaids losing their virginity to Jesus (metaphor), and most of his poems were about the majesty of canyons, arroyos, and mesas. The West had infected him with some sort of landscape mania—these were essentially poems a cartoon roadrunner would write, after retiring from a career of anarchy.

John McPhee, The Patch, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

A few years ago, I contracted what my friend, a bookseller, described as McPheever. The condition has been consistent ever since. The Patch doesn’t quite reach the heights of Annals of the Former World; few books do. But its second half, a quilt-like assemblage of sections from previously published but as-yet uncollected pieces, displays the McPhee trademarks: curiosity bordering on obsession and perfectly lucid prose. It also contains some unexpected treasures: who knew that McPhee was as good a celebrity profiler—see his piece on Cary Grant—as he is an explicator of geology?

A professional writer, by definition, is a person clothed in self-denial who each and almost every day will plead with eloquent lamentation that he has a brutal burden on his mind and soul, will summon deep reserves of “discipline” as seriatim antidotes to any domestic chore, and, drawing the long sad face of the pale poet, will rise above his dread of his dreaded working chamber, excuse himself from the idle crowd, go into his writing sanctum, shut the door, shoot the bolt, and in lonely sacrifice turn on the Mets game.

Terrance Hayes, To Float in the Space Between, Wave Books

Hayes wrote one of my favorite books of poetry this year, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin. This work of prose is just as good, with the subtitle, “A Life and Work in Conversation with the Life and Work of Etheridge Knight,” indicating what a shifty, slippery thing it is.

Partly, this is a critical biography of the black poet Etheridge Knight: how he came to be the poet and man he was, who did he influence and who was he influenced by. But it’s also a critical biography of Hayes himself. As he puts it, “A poet looking upon the poetry of another poet sees something of himself reflected in the pane.” In looking at Knight, Hayes looks at himself. In looking at Hayes looking at Knight, we see both figures, and the history of black poetics, more clearly. (Visitors of this website will be amused by Hayes’s self-described “bewildering adolescent crush on Flannery O’Connor” and a scene-stealing cameo by Mary Karr.)

Marilynne Robinson describes God as “a sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere,” and it seems equally suitable to discuss influence in this way. You sense its presence, but can't exactly say where it begins or ends.

Anne Boyer, A Handbook of Disappointed Fate, Ugly Duckling Presse

Another poet’s prose book, another gem. The opening is fantastic: “History is full of people who just didn’t. They said no thank you, turned away, escaped to the desert, lived in barrels, burned down their own houses, killed their rapists, pushed away dinner, meditated into the light.” From this declaration of refusal, Boyer goes on to write polemically and agilely on Mary J. Blige, Langston Hughes, capitalism, revolution, cancer, and poetry itself: “And a law that exceeds the bounds of law, or mistakes law’s self-presentation as law’s true aim, what is that law but poetry?”

The old behave like the young, and the young are too worried to move.

Kevin Young, Brown, Knopf

Young is one of our most versatile writers: a first-rate scholar of race and American culture, the director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and poetry editor of the New Yorker. His latest collection displays his versatility at every turn. He can work in traditional forms, as in a crown of sonnets called “De La Soul Is Dead,” and he can work in freer forms. He’s a great celebrator of pop music (Prince and James Brown make appearances here), and he’s a great celebrator of baseball (see “An Open Letter to Hank Aaron”). This collection is deeply personal and expansively political, the best of his distinguished career.

we exit

        into the brightness

   beyond the doors.

Forrest Gander, Be With, New Directions

Gander was married to the poet C. D. Wright until her unexpected death in 2016. Written in the wake of this loss, Be With breaks form to render Gander’s own brokenness, leaving gaps in the middle of lines and channeling St. John of the Cross. Gander explores his own dark night of the soul—and, as a poet particularly concerned with ecology, the dark night of our natural world.

            The voice singing in the kitchen                isn’t your voice

            There is                      no voice singing in the kitchen

Catherine Barnett, Human Hours, Graywolf

To channel Emily Dickinson, I felt physically as if the top of my head were taken off by this collection. I loved everything about it: the wit (a poem shifts between the Irish writer Samuel Beckett and the former Red Sox starting pitcher Josh Beckett), the philosophical bent (Locke, Rorty, and others aren’t just namechecked but engaged with), the beauty of it all.

            We slid the dictionaries from the shelves

            and opened them to apocalypse,

 

            the word on everyone’s lips.

            O lips!—

 

            As if we could ever bid these joys farewell.

Katie Ford, If You Have to Go, Graywolf

With Stallings’s Like, my personal favorite of 2018 (also a favorite of Katherine Lucky, who wrote about it for Commonweal). Listen to the Commonweal Podcast to hear Ford read from this remarkable book.

            I make my bed every morning.

            I don’t know where to start

            so I start with the bed.

            Then I fall to my knees against it.

Anthony Domestico is Associate Professor of Literature at Purchase College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal. His book Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period is available from Johns Hopkins University Press.

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