It’s only halfway through November, but I’m already done reading books published in 2018. I’m exhausted. Plus, I’m already diving into 2019 publications.
Narrowing my favorite books to ten works of fiction with an additional ten non-fiction books was hard. Normally, I cop out and just list a few dozen books in alphabetical order. This year, I attempted to rate the books in some semblance of an order. I considered books I fawned over during my initial read, ones I recommended the most since reading, and the ones I looped back to the most to find a breathtaking passage or standout line.FICTION:
- The Pisces by Melisssa Broder
- The House of Impossible Beauties by Joseph Cassara
- Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
- A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley
- The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
- There There by Tommy Orange
- The Third Hotel by Laren van den Berg
- The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon
- Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires
- Sweet and Low by Nick White
- How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee
- God Save Texas by Lawrence Wright
- Heavy by Kiese Laymon
- Amateur by Thomas Page McBee
- There Will Be No Miracles Here by Casey Gerald
- Captive Audience by Lucas Mann
- Look Alive Out There by Sloane Crosley
- Boom Town by Sam Anderson
- Dopesick by Beth Macy
- Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston
The Pisces by Melissa Broder is unlike anything I have ever read. Usually, I stay in a very dry, realistic lane filled with melodrama and pain. Broder’s fiction debut (she’s a poet, essayist, and runs the hilarious twitter account @sosadtoday) portrays depression and anxiety in a darkly hysterically and satirical way. My quick pitch in the bookstore is “It’s a story about a woman having a breakdown who has sex with a merman(?).” If that doesn’t catch your attention, I’m sorry. For a similarly peculiar and visceral novel about a woman in a trying time, you would also be keen to read The Third Hotel by Laura Van Den Berg.
I’m only going to highlight a few books here and shy away from some of the ones that have gotten a lot of love in other places.
On the other hand, Joseph Cassara’s The House of Impossible Beauties is precisely everything I want from a book. It’s sweeping, but cozy. It’s a period piece that tackles queer issues. It even uses the drag world as a backdrop. It’s emotional, but never overly so (which some may fault). There is slight controversy regarding the fact that the author used historical figured but changed their stories. Cassara began the book with an author’s note proclaiming he was only trying to capture their essence and create his own world. That’s something I can easily look past.
While Cassara used historical figures’ essence, Alexander Chee uses his actual experiences in his essay collection How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. His prose is shifty and unexpected with each personal story. His deep examination of seminal moments in his life is so refreshing in a tweet-a-minute world. Standout narratives are “1989,” “Girl,” and“After Peter” – all of which happen to appear back-to-back-to-back.
Though Cassara and Chee’s books are vastly different, they can be read in the same vein. Both shine a light on the shifting worlds we live in and how we are never stagnant.
If anything, I happen to notice that a lot of my favorites this year have a kindred spirit. Books about queer identity, racial tensions, memoirs of overcoming stereotypes, existential crises.
Two such books, Lawrence Wright’s God Save Texas and Boom Town by Sam Anderson, both explore southern towns and states. Wright’s was a meditation on his home state while Anderson’s attempts to narrow down how Oklahoma City’s history create its modern status. These non-fiction dives into Texas and Oklahoma taught me how to peel back something we know as a fact and find the layers of history and mystery that became the foundation for that small truth.
The final two books I want to highlight here are two story collections by black men. Jamel Brinkley wrote a very cohesive collection called A Lucky Man mostly about men who are seeking a way to fill a missing piece in their lives. The men commonly come from a similar background, mirroring Brinkley’s own upbringing. It is a debut for a potentially exciting career just like Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s Friday Black. Brinkley’s collection was grounded in realness, while Friday Black uses unique settings and realities to tackle the rawness of our actual world. The best way I can describe this book, especially the first story “The Finkelstein 5” – is that you should be expected to feel like you were punched in the throat. Even if you tense up, you still won’t expect what Adjei-Brenyah delivers.
In addition to these books, I will have a future post of about 50 titles that I also loved this year or were recommended by trusted friends and colleagues that I still need to check out once I get through the exhaustion of the holidays.