We asked our volunteer readers to share some thoughts on the best thing they read last year. Although 2019 is almost a month old, we needed the time to decide! From Her Body and Other Parties to Convenience Store Woman, Falconer to The Great Believers. Read on below to find out a little more about the eclectic tastes of our readers.
Cole Meyer — For the first time, I kept a chronological list of all the novels, anthologies and short story collections I read for the year. I entered 2018 reading Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers and ended with Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh. When the year began, I had a 45-minute commute both ways by train for work, and so for about an hour and a half every day, I was left (mostly) alone with my music and a book. It was often the best part of my day. I was able to finally tackle some books which had been on my shelf for years, like Kafka’s Complete Stories, as well as new releases like Florida by Lauren Groff. But the best for me was Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado. The collection floats from fable to gothic horror to police procedural. Its opening story, “The Husband Stitch” is an adaptation of a classic horror story – many might remember a children’s version from In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories – but it sets the tone for the rest of the collection. The story opens with narration instructions: “(If you read this story out loud, please use the following voices: ME: as a child, high-pitched, forgettable; as a woman, the same… ALL OTHER WOMEN: interchangeable with my own.)” As former TMR anthology judge Kevin Brockmeier says, “Carmen Maria Machado is the way forward.”
Ross Feeler — John Cheever’s Falconer is a bizarre, dream-like story about a fratricidal heroin addict who, while locked inside novel’s namesake prison, shows readers a deeply fallen world that is nonetheless magical and worth inhabiting. I suggest pairing the novel with Blake Bailey’s excellent biography, which includes Cheever’s remarks upon receiving National Medal for Literature: “A page of good prose,” Cheever says, “seems to me the most serious dialogue that well-informed and intelligent men and women carry on today in their endeavor to make sure that the fires of this planet burn peaceably.” Every page of Falconer illustrates this literary ideal.
In addition to Falconer, I was also blown away by Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, Marilynne Robinson’s What Are We Doing Here, Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind, Joy Williams’ The Changeling, Nick Pyenson’s Spying on Whales, and Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays.
Terri Leker — Sam Allingham’s short story “The Intermediate Class” was as moving, funny, and thoughtful as any fiction I read in 2018. Set in an Adult Ed German class at a community center, the story explores communication, the limitations of language, and what is lost or perhaps gained in translation. At the beginning of each class, the instructor rings a bell to indicate the point from which only German is spoken, transporting Kiril and his fellow students into an unfamiliar and slightly helpless realm. The story’s stakes are not particularly high; tension arises in part from omission, such as the disappearance of a classmate, the limited vocabulary with which the students can describe themselves, and the mysterious “secret” language that is neither German nor English.
Lisa Folkmire — I think the best book I read in 2018 was The Stolen Bicycle by Wu Ming-Yi. The book is an exploration of South-East Asia’s history and culture as told through the eyes of a young man searching for his lost father’s bicycle. Sections are broken up by diagrams of bicycles and brief histories of each one. The book reads more or less like a travel log merged with a bicycle encyclopedia. Part war novel, part magical realism, part family history, the book leads hardly any detail out. And the details–of the world’s oldest elephant, a young woman who made art out of butterfly’s wings, a tree of soldiers, all make the story a standout.
Melissa Hinshaw — Fear & Trembling by Amélie Nothomb: I think this got published in the 90s but I checked it out this year when I was looking for books about boring office life. Hearing someone so simultaneously compliant and irreverent was refreshing to the point of giving me the perspective and energy boost I needed to up and change my whole career. Also a good cultural study: it was written in French about being in Japan.
Certain American States by Catherine Lacey: Someone called her the “female Don DeLillo” so of course I bit and I’m glad I did. A little bit more breakup-ey than Don DeLillo but spot on in terms of the way her narration feels domestic-ish and then all of a sudden changes your soul? Slay me. I miss that in writing.
Lynda Montgomery — Of all the books I read in 2018, the one I foist most often on others is Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. This beautiful novel has something for every reader. If you want the complex story of a love relationship, read it. If you want a parable about home and migration, read it. If you want to read amazing sentence after amazing sentence, read it. I loved it for all those reasons and more.
Jen Dupree — Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers is my favorite novel of 2018. Makkai spans two eras: Chicago in the 1980s, when a group of young men begin to receive diagnoses of AIDS; and the aftermath of those who survived in 2015. The chapters set in the 80s are of course heartbreaking (despite my crazy wish that Makkai would invent a cure and we could walk away unharmed), but they are also stunningly hopeful. The modern chapters focus on the repercussions of the disease through time, what becomes of the left behind, how do they cope when they’ve seen so many die? This was both a novel I read with compulsivity, and one I felt I needed to read.
Kim Henderson — Convenience Store Woman, by Sayaka Murata, will snap you out of your reading routine. The perspective, that of an oddball lifetime convenience store worker, makes commonplace social norms seem unfamiliar and even strange, and it brings to life mundanities most of us pay little attention to. I found it refreshing to read about a character who gained deep satisfaction and meaning from the everyday intricacies of working at a convenience store, who felt full and whole in her monotonous job and her simple routine life, without a husband or family or any of the things she was expected to strive for. To me this is both a love letter to a convenience store and a quietly bold social commentary on Japanese society.
Courtney Harler — In The Friend, Sigrid Nunez writes, “Am I talking to you, or to myself? I confess the line has gotten blurred.” Though I read many well-crafted books in 2018, many of which were also finalists for the National Book Award, it’s Nunez’s winner that keeps reverberating in my mind, keeps blurring the lines of thought and feeling. For a short, darkly funny novel that reads almost too quickly, Nunez manages to examine an extensive array of evocative topics: suicide and grief, the question of the self in relation to social mores, life’s cross-purposes and inherent loneliness. The content is hefty, but made accessible through Nunez’s chosen style, which is part love letter, part writer’s journal, part expository essay, part teacher’s lament. Others might call The Friend a “writerly” text, but it’s—in its intimacy and immediacy—more than “readerly,” too. Like many great novels, The Friend succeeds by authentically aligning the writer with the narrator and then the narrator with the reader. The reading in and of itself is fully immersive, both challenging and comforting. Nunez’s narrator surmises, “Maybe he [Apollo, her adopted dog] understands that, when I’m not feeling so great, losing myself in a book is the best thing I could do.” Honestly, losing myself in Nunez’s book was one of the best things I did last year.