Tom’s 2018 Top 12
Tom's twelve favorite reads from 2018 (not necessarily published in 2018, although in this case they were) in alphabetical order by author.
All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire
by Jonathan Abrams
"How did something this good actually get made?" That's the underlying question at the heart of this superb oral history, because The Wire still seems like a bit of a miracle: a slow-building series about poverty, crime, and institutional failure that survived its low ratings long enough to become a modern masterpiece. Abrams talked to everyone involved, and their voices, which all carry that still-surprised pride at what they accomplished, bring you through both the five seasons of the series and the behind-the-scenes collaboration and drama required to bring it to the screen. It's candy for any Wire fan.
The Fighters: Americans in Combat in Afghanistan and Iraq
by C.J. Chivers
How do you tell the story of America's decade and half at war (during a time when much of America hardly felt like it was at war at all)? Chivers, the Pulitzer-winning New York Times correspondent and former Marine, chooses a grunts'-eye view, focusing on the lives of six soldiers, from enlisted corpsman to fighter pilot, who have fought through surges and drawdowns in wars whose purposes and strategies have only become more elusive over time. He gives full weight to the idealism, professionalism, and heroism of his subjects, and to their frustrations, mistakes, and tragedies. It's both a soldier's book and one of the most damning indictments of the Iraqi and Afghan wars you can imagine.
Some Trick: Thirteen Stories
by Helen DeWitt
In the mathematical fable Flatland, the inhabitants of a two-dimensional world can only see three-dimensional visitors as a flat slice of their true being. That's sometimes how I think of Helen DeWitt, visiting our flat world and trying to translate her countless dimensions into a slice of fiction. Many of you know how ecstatically I adore DeWitt's first novel, The Last Samurai, so to say this book, her first collection of stories, can hold its own with that book is saying something. Her subject is often, again, the struggle of a restless intellect to translate itself into an indifferent world, and for all her brilliance, the most impressive thing (aside from how funny she is) is how fully she expresses her knowledge (and the drama of its burden) in fiction. She's a storyteller most of all.
by Aminatta Forna
Attila is a psychiatrist from Ghana who has made a career of assessing trauma in war zones. Jean is a divorced wildlife biologist from New England. It almost seems enough that Forna has imagined these two imperfect but wonderfully admirable and interesting people as thoroughly as she has, but when she allows chance to bring them together for a week in London, along with the networks of people, thought, and experience they carry with them, the result is magical—the sort of magic that, like a romance between people who have seen love and loss before, unfolds slowly and deeply. And only as the end of this beautiful book approaches will you understand how appropriate and well-earned its title is.
Land of Smoke
by Sara Gallardo
I've been reading these stories for months, off and on in between other books. I'm not sure I could have read them any other way: they read easily, but take some digesting, in the best way. Gallardo wrote from the '50s through the '70s and was a well-known figure in Argentina, but this is her first book translated into English, and it landed (on me at least) like stone tablets from another world. She's described as a "magical realist," because she's South American and because there are fantastic elements in her stories, but she stands apart from her apparent peers, Garcia Marquez and Borges. Some of these many stories are only a page long, some are twenty. There are monsters, suicides, priests, exiles, and many, many animals. But more than anything there is her voice: spoken with utterly confident authority, able and willing to turn a story on a dime at any moment.
The Largesse of the Sea Maiden: Stories
by Denis Johnson
When a writer's first collection of stories was Jesus' Son, quite possibly the best American book of the last few decades, it's natural to ask how his second collection, published 26 years later, compares. (When it is also his last book—Johnson died last spring at the age of 67—that question carries some further poignancy.) The quick answer is that no book can compare to Jesus' Son, but the better answer is that the five long stories in this new book carry the same spirit. No writer could shift so easily, so surprisingly, so believably, from despair to ecstasy and back, often in a single sentence, and these stories are alive with those shifts, and, almost prophetically, with the hovering presence of death within life.
The Mars Room
by Rachel Kushner
Romy Hall has a son, a past, and the impossible sentence of two life terms plus six years to serve in a remote central California prison, which she's just beginning when this novel opens. If this is a great novel, and I think it might be, it's both because of what it gives you—a hungrily detailed and generously observed look at American prisons and prisoners—and what it withholds: easy judgments in a place where judgments have already been made, emotional reconciliations in a place designed to prevent them. Romy is good company, but in prison with her, you'll feel a growing ache of absence and distance, one that feels thoroughly true to the life she is serving out.
Heavy: An American Memoir
by Kiese Laymon
Heavy is a book unsatisfied with itself, by a writer unsatisfied with himself, and with us. He begins by saying he "wanted to write a lie," a happier, less messy memoir, but he couldn't. Instead, he wrote an almost unbearably intimate book, framed as a letter to his mother, who has been his champion, his protector, his abuser. Reading it, you may at first focus on the pain he reveals, but what becomes even more overwhelming is the tenderness he feels toward even his tormentors. There is plenty of theory behind Laymon's thinking about living as a black person in Mississippi and in the United States—as he says, and as his professor mother made sure, he has read everything—but you will rarely read a book so fully weighted in a body and all its messy, destructive, tender desires, or one that argues so convincingly that bodies are where thinking—and change—must begin.
by Zachary Lazar
Despite the words "A Novel" on the cover, I found myself struggling to think of Vengeance as anything but true. In part, that's by design: the main character is a journalist named Zachary Lazar who meets an inmate at the notorious plantation-style Angola Prison in Louisiana and decides to look into his claims of innocence. But it's also a tribute to the humble, detailed brilliance of the novelist's work in portraying both his character and the lives of those he investigates. His true-or-not-true style becomes a way of reckoning with the difficult, ambivalent work of paying witness in a society organized around punishment and race. True or not, it's a quietly stunning work of fiction.
by Terese Marie Mailhot
Mailhot's memoir is short, but she doesn't let it go down easy. She knows how indigenous memoirs, like hers, are taken. "I tried to tell someone my story, but he thought it was a hustle," she writes on the first page; "I didn't know if what I felt was authenticity," she adds later, "or a disease that would overtake me." Blunt and artful at the same time, ruthlessly honest but restlessly uncertain about the truth of her life, she writes as if she's saving her life. Her book reminds me of some of the best ones I've read in recent years, by Vivian Gornick and Yiyun Li: fellow writers who look at the world with a kind of lonely intensity, who never seem satisfied with the words they write even as they hold on to them as if they are all they have.
by Chris Offutt
Country Dark is the first fiction Offutt, who in his youth was compared to Tobias Wolff and Raymond Carver, has published in twenty years, and it shows. Not because it's an encyclopedic novel packed with two decades of material, but the opposite: it's a tale that has been pared back by a master to only the most necessary and vivid words and moments. Beginning when Tucker returns, still young, from the Korean War to his home in the hollers of Kentucky, he finds his life overturned again and again by love and by threat and by his own often violent decisiveness. Call it "country noir" if you like; I call it a thrilling, thoughtful page-turner and one of the best books I've read this year.
The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America
by Timothy Snyder
Perhaps you read Snyder's bracing pamphlet, On Tyranny (or the Facebook post it was based on)—from its title, I had imagined this new, much larger book as an expansion of those ideas, but, while it's written in the same level-headed-but-urgent tone (which Snyder's voice for the audiobook perfectly represents), it's doing something related but different, focusing less on tyranny in the abstract than on the very specific case of Putin's Russia. And while there are many excellent books on that subject, what's most impressive, enlightening, and disturbing is the way he systematically traces the intellectual structure of Putin's regime and his foreign interventions, introducing concepts like "eternity politics" and "implausible deniability" that give some order to the disorder we're living through.