Liz’s 2018 Top 10
Liz's ten favorite reads from 2018 (not necessarily published in 2018) in alphabetical order by author.
by Anna Burns
I usually watch the Booker Prize unfold with nothing at stake. But this year I picked up Milkman: within ten pages I was in love, and when I saw it on the shortlist, I finally understood how my husband feels when his team makes the Final Four. I say “in love” because Milkman is told in a singular voice—a smart, funny middle-aged “middle sister” looking back on a few months during her eighteenth year. She has a large vocabulary (sometimes invented) and deploys it off-kilteredly (but not confoundingly). And while she eschews proper nouns, the other characters—“wee sisters,” “maybe boyfriend,” “real milkman,” etc.—are fully realized individuals too. The political situation however—also unnamed but obviously the Troubles in Northern Ireland in the 1970’s—is rendered eerily generic. It could be any situation in which violent tribalism reigns and one’s ability to see beyond the accepted wisdom is the only—but risky—way to escape. I just hope I can remain philosophical if the Booker judges make a mistake and pass over Milkman. “It is better to have loved and lost...” blah, blah, blah.
by John Horne Burns
The Gallery turned out to be a masterpiece of WWII literature I wasn’t expecting and didn’t know I needed. Burns alternates brief recollections of his travels in the military bureaucracy trailing the American forces with longer stories about a generation certainly no greater than any other. Set against the morally murky backdrops of Allied-occupied Casablanca, Algiers, and finally Naples—in the mess halls, censorship mills, a gay bar, and a VD clinic—these are portraits of Americans (and a few Italians), some better, some worse, but all whose selves are boiled down to their essence by war, except when they evaporate completely. Burns’s unsparing vision pierces hypocrisies, but he never misses moments of harmony. And with the sequencing of his unconnected vignettes, he artfully traces an arc bending toward, if not justice, at least the possibility of justice.
by Penelope Farmer
As far as time-travel goes, Charlotte takes a minimal leap—she only goes forty years into the past. But since she is living in 1958, today’s reader goes back a nice round century. Details about the Great War, the influenza epidemic, and women’s suffrage might surprise kids these days even more than they do Charlotte, but the book’s real focus is that perennial stumper, “Who am I, really?” Is Charlotte who she feels she is, or who people thinks she is? If I had found this book when I was ten I would have adored the old-fashioned setting and pondering the logistics of alternate history. Reading it now, I am most delighted by the writing. Farmer’s style is idiosyncratic enough to be noticeable but never overwhelms the story. When she evokes a boarding school in wartime by describing the soap as “glum and parsimonious," and the carpet under her bare feet as “unfriendly," we know Charlotte has a singular self—and that it can make itself known through language. In the right ten-year-old hands, this book could create a writer, or at least a life-long book-lover. (Fun Fact: Charlotte Sometimes inspired the Cure song of the same name.)
A Terrible Country
by Keith Gessen
I want to keep on top of our Russian situation but I also need to maintain my mental health. So instead of Masha Gessen’s documentary-type account of post-Soviet life, I picked up her little brother’s comic-novel treatment of the same topic. It’s the story of Andrew/Andrei, a hockey-loving post doc who moves to Moscow to care for his grandmother. Having emigrated to America when he was six and the USSR was still intact, Andrei isn’t “an idiot. But neither was [he] not an idiot” about the new Russia. In an unadorned dude-speak that I found funny and endearing, Andrei tells how he adapts to, as his grandma has always said, this “terrible country,” where might makes rich—and doesn’t care about right (or human rights). He loses his accent, but he can’t shake an essentially American trust in Justice—a dangerous liability under Putin’s regime. I think I’ll pick up big sister Masha’s book next.
All Our Yesterdays
by Natalia Ginzburg
This one sneaked up on me. It’s the story of two bourgeois families, neighbors in a Northern Italian town, beginning with the deaths of both patriarchs and following the second generation as it comes of age and World War II comes to the country. Propelled by Ginzburg’s deceptively breezy style—plain language and charming humor—I doubted her young characters were substantial enough to bear the weight of unfolding history. Also, unlike Elena Ferrante’s melodrama, Ginzburg practices the opposite, relating traumatic events calmly and deploying single images or repeated phrases freighted with all the suppressed emotion. By the time the survivors were reunited in the old neighborhood, I was oddly surprised how their accrued layers of experience had given them density and war had aged them much more than the five years that had passed. I also realized I was in the presence of one of Italy’s best, a true literary lioness.
by Caitlin Macy
Every so often I feel like reading about rich people in New York. Not just any book—it needs to be a bit sociological (I don't want to ogle, ahem, but to analyze) and if it provides some schadenfreude, well, I won't complain. So when I heard that Caitlin Macy had written a new novel (18 years after her first) I knew it was the one. Not only is she well-attuned to pecuniary nuance, she can really tell a story! As in her earlier book, The Fundamentals of Play, which riffs on The Great Gatsby, she starts with a classic of class-consciousness: Mrs. is full of echoes of The House of Mirth—social-climbing, stock market shenanigans, addiction, blackmail. Her focus is a trio of women from different social strata but she also voices characters from a Wall Street trainee to a seven-year-old with hilarious and touching fluency, saving most of her snark for a Greek chorus of private pre-school mommies. After laughing and tearing up and thoroughly enjoying myself, I came to feel what I was least expecting: a kind of Go, Girl! compassion for Phillippa, Gwen, and Minnie.
The Gallows Pole
by Benjamin Myers
The Gallows Pole recounts the rise and fall of the Cragg Vale Coiners who, as the pastoral moorlands of their native Yorkshire were being transformed by the architecture of industry in the 1760s, so tirelessly counterfeited currency that the local economy almost crashed. In spite of a dim sense of social justice, they were less Robin Hood’s Merry Men and more The Sopranos, and demands for loyalty and the impossibility of trust, a neighborhood co-opted through intimidation and largesse, and reputations built on brutality and even more bravado all make for a tale as propulsive as—well—the best gangster stories. And like those, what elevates the familiar plot is the telling. Myers’s just-over-the-top style is the perfect pairing for the harsh yet otherworldly environment and its true-myth-in-the-making. And be sure to read aloud (in your head) the alternating chapters of King David Hartley’s phonetically rendered jail cell confession so you get every last pungent drop. This book is not for those with delicate ears or stomachs. Take that as either warning or added inducement.
The Women in Black
by Madeleine St. John
I’ve noticed more and more people coming into the bookstore asking for a type of fiction the Guardian has recently dubbed "Uplit." Not escapist fluff to help forget reality, but books to reassure them that reality doesn’t have to be this way. And the hilarious, heartening novel I just finished should be a classic of the genre. With her slightly out-of-the-way locutions, St. John sets a retro-Aussie scene and hits all her marks. She slyly nips at the innocent provincialism of midcentury Sydney, but also helps map the inner topographies of characters who don’t always know how to get where they want. The women who work in Ladies’ Frocks at F.G. Goode’s Department Store may not get a fairy-tale happily-ever-after, but they remind us that—even in the real world—hope is not always misplaced.
Full disclosure: I am usually wary of “happy” books, firmly believing that a pessimist is actually a realist who is occasionally pleasantly surprised. But it turns out that some of my favorites of the last year and half have been exactly that. And The Women in Black is so simply perfect that I doubt I’ll read anything better all year ... but then you never know.
by Adam Thorpe
I’ve become a bit obsessed with English villages. Not that I want to live in one—it just seems the most inviting microcosm through which to read about history happening. Whether over years (Reservoir 13), decades (Akenfield), or centuries, change is absorbed at a pace gradual enough that it becomes legible. In Ulverton, Thorpe traces the topographical, architectural, agricultural, and biographical transformations of a fictional village from the time of Oliver Cromwell to Margaret Thatcher. Even more amazingly, he tells each succeeding tale in a different resident’s voice—rendering a survey of nothing less than the evolution of Homo britannicus rusticum.* Some chapters are harder to penetrate than others, but for Anglophile history buffs the effort is worth the rewards. When I spotted a clue and gleaned a meaning I felt like a veritable archeologist.
*Not official Latin nomenclature. Or even really Latin.