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.