Reality unraveled at an even faster rate than usual throughout 2018, and its disintegration brought a corresponding uptick in anxiety, confusion, and general not-goodness. Luckily, books were here, doing what they always do: transforming chaos into meaning, helping humanity impose order on the universe through the exercise of words, words, words. I read sixty-four books and enjoyed most of them. Some of my reading preferences have changed (I’m getting more and more of a yen for nonfiction and enjoy less and less SF written before 1973) and some have stayed the same (I still cannot stand the let’s-focus-on-a-succession-of-trivial-details style of “Literary Fiction” storytelling — if you’re doing lit fic, every word better be beautiful or something weird better be happening (good job, Jesmyn Ward!)). At bottom is a full list of what I read in 2018, but following are some recommendations based on that list.
Top 5 Recommended Fiction Books
The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin
Always and forever, everyone should read this. An envoy of a galactic civilization undertakes first contact on a winter-locked world where gender does not exist. It perfectly melds mysticism, future history, clear prose, thriller tension, and sheer beauty. I am not overstating the matter when I say this book changed Science Fiction forever. The audiobook version is wonderful, read by George Guidall.
The Murderbot Diaries, Martha Wells (4-novella series)
I was surprised by this one. I bought the first entry, “All Systems Red,” because I couldn’t resist the title. I expected a fun book about a badass far-future killer robot, and that’s what I got, but I also got a tightly-written thriller about personal accountability and the dangers of the economics of exploitation, with an incredibly empathetic protagonist thrown in as a bonus. The Murderbot of the title calls itself that. It’s a SecUnit, a cyborg loaned out to space expeditions to protect humans. The protagonist hacks its “governor module” and gains the ability to do whatever it wants. Mostly, what it wants is to curl up in the corner, not interact with anyone, and watch massive amounts of illegally-downloaded space TV because, as it turns out, non-governor-moduled SecUnits have crippling social anxiety (no social skills + constant pressure to appear normal so as to avoid getting scrapped as defective). Problem is, the humans it is contracted to protect stumble into the middle of a lethal conspiracy, and Murderbot has to get to work. The mix of the SecUnit’s extreme competence melded with its crushing social anxiety builds a character that’s fun to watch as it kicks ass but easy to relate to as it complains about what it has to do.
The Odyssey, Homer/Emily Wilson
Along with The Iliad, the oldest story in the Western canon (Gilgamesh beats it out by a millennium, but it’s Sumerian). It fascinates me because Odysseus’ concerns are so close to our concerns (returning home, vengeance, atonement), and Homer’s narrative techniques are so close to what we use (metaphor, story-within-a-story, thrilling action scenes). I also love Odysseus, the clever bastard who lies with the ease of Huckleberry Finn, executes complex strategy more smoothly than Napoleon, and murders enemies as easily as the man with the hammer in a 19th-century Chicago slaughterhouse. It’s also just a real swashbuckler — Odysseus is basically a pirate, reaving his way around the Aegean, sneaking in and out of kingdoms under assumed identities, outsmarting enemies. It’s great stuff. I read Emily Wilson’s new translation, which I enjoyed. My go-to is Robert Fagles, but Wilson used more down-to-Earth, modernized language and a tripping rhythm. It also avoided euphemisms — all the people serving wine and drawing baths weren’t called “serving girls” — they were called slaves.
Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf
I barely remember what happened in this book because I was so deeply engaged with the people of this book. Joyce gets a lot of buzz for his stream of consciousness technique, but Woolf is the undisputed master. So smoothly, so effortlessly does she slip the reader inside a character that you don’t feel sad or happy or heartstring-tugged, external to the character. You are brought into their sensorium, you experience as they experience all the emotional complexity of humanity — a woman’s simultaneous dissatisfaction with and love of her life, a soldier’s slowly increasing PTSD, the soft regret of a wistful lover — you don’t watch these emotions, you are in them, entirely thanks to Virginia Woolf, one of the greatest talents of the 20th century.
Le Chien Jaune (The Yellow Dog), Georges Simenon
This book isn’t as must-read or upending/impressive as some of the others on this list, but I loved it because it was my first Simenon. Georges Simenon wrote dozens of detective novels starring Inspector Jules Maigret, a down-to-earth detective who waits and sees, who asks around, who lets the solution develop without any outlandish cerebrational tricks. The language is clear and direct, the pacing is good, the characterization exists in that perfect detective-novel style in which the author puts a splash of paint on each character, just enough to vividly identify them and give them clear motivations, and then sets them loose, light and free, into the plot.
Top 5 Recommended Nonfiction Books
1491, Charles C. Mann
Amazing, life-changing. Everyone should read this book because it explores an American history that high school textbooks leave pretty fuzzy or outright misleading. Indian societies were larger, were more culturally complex, and had more of an effect on their environment than we’re taught. Most Europeans observed Indian settlements after what was basically a zombie apocalypse (some estimates of the indigenous death rate from European diseases is 90%+), so our conception of American Indians has about as much to do with their pre-contact society as The Walking Dead has with ours. It’s written in a clear, engaging style, and literally every single fact Mann offers up is fascinating. For example, ancient Indians in the Yucatan bio-engineered a type of prairie grass into maize, one of the most important crops in the history of Earth. It’s mind-blowing that anyone could achieve this without modern gene-splicing technology. This scientific achievement, to hear 1491 tell it, is just a few steps behind Victor Frankenstein’s.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot
Multilayered history of the most famous cell line in the history of science, HeLa. HeLa cells are immortal — the line will keep dividing and dividing, infinitely, and those identical cells can be used to test vaccines, cancer treatments, basically anything having to do with medicine’s effect on the human body. Problem is, the cells were harvested from Henrietta Lacks, a black woman living in Baltimore, at a time when the phrase “medical ethics” got, at best, an apologetic shrug from doctors. Lacks had terminal cervical cancer, and a scraping of her cells ended up being immortal and incredibly useful (and expensive, at $250 a vial) to science. Problem is, Henrietta’s descendants are still living in poverty in Baltimore. A beautifully interwoven tale of the scientific feats made possible by HeLa, the bioethical problems arising from them, and a biography of the Lacks family and their concerns. Both an exploration of towering scientific achievements and of the people whom Science™ marginalized to make it happen.
Born a Crime, Trevor Noah
A delightful autobiography, read delightfully by Trevor Noah himself. It seems half of audiobooks are recorded with this weird, half-breathless, simultaneously melodramatic but solemn style that just puts me to sleep. Trevor reads this lightly, with real humor and feeling, and his engagement with the text translates to our enjoyment of it. The subject matter is his childhood in South Africa, where he was born a crime — the son of a white man and a black woman, relations between whom were illegal under apartheid. It ranges from his Mom’s attempts to build a good life for him, to his time (briefly) in a private school, to his teenage career as an off-the-books DJ and black market CD seller. It is infused with love and humor, and while it is mostly the story of the lives of two people — Trevor Noah and his mother — you can’t tell the story of a person’s life without telling the story of the place they live, so it gives insight into South African society. More than anything else, this is a work dedicated to his mother, her determination, her quirks, and her love for him.
Pale Rider, Laura Spinney
A history of the Spanish Flu that reads almost like a thriller as the disease tears across the globe, devastating a pre-CDC world. The origin point of the Spanish Flu is not entirely clear (other than it didn’t start in Spain), but it was a global pandemic once it really got going, fueled by the demobilization of WWI soldiers. The book alternates between interesting factoids and visceral, atmospheric descriptions of what humans in the middle of outbreaks experienced — the most surreal were the excerpts from the journal of a young doctor in Rio de Janeiro as that vibrant city slowly went quiet, to the point that the government couldn’t keep up with the deaths and “[p]eople would prop the feet of the dead up on the window ledges so that public assistance agencies would come to take them away.” One important fact — the most common natural reservoirs of influenza are waterfowl, and a little shift in the protein coat (allowing the disease to attack humans instead of birds) of any given virus is all that’s needed to set off an outbreak. So stay the hell away from ducks. Or surround yourself with ducks and develop immunity before the next pandemic.
I Contain Multitudes, Ed Yong
A wonderful hard-science read. Yong, with a deft and clear pen, explores the science of what’s inside us, mostly our guts. In every person, human cells are outnumbered by microbes that achieve all manner of vital tasks, ranging from digestion to the regulation of brain chemistry. Humanity is not Yong’s sole focus — he takes us through the microbiome of multiple other species. Not a lot of forward momentum other than “Oh man that’s so cool to know!” but the facts used are so well-selected and -explained that the book develops a kind of propulsive intellectual excitement.
So that’s it. Ten books I read last year that I think everyone should read, and that I hope everyone will enjoy. Books that expanded my emotional landscape, that scratched my itch for adventure, that tickled my intellectual fancy, that filled me with facts that are good to know, that made my world more complete, less shattered by the constant informational onslaught from the global trashfire that was 2018.
If you care to skim the sixty-four books I read last year, my finishing a book at all is a soft recommendation. So go for it.
List of Every Book I Read in 2018
|To the Lighthouse — Virginia Woolf|
|Murder on the Orient Express — Agatha Christie|
|All Systems Red — Martha Wells|
|Night Watch — Terry Pratchett|
|Le Petit Prince — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry|
|The Dream-Quest of Vellit Boe — Kij Johnson|
|Kalpa Imperial — Angélica Gorodischer|
|The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks — Rebecca Skloot (nonfiction)|
|Six Wakes — Mur Lafferty|
|The Traitor Baru Cormorant — Seth Dickinson|
|I Contain Multitudes — Ed Yong (nonfiction)|
|Les Misérables Tome 3 – Marius — Victor Hugo|
|Lords and Ladies — Terry Pratchett|
|Sing, Unburied, Sing — Jesmyn Ward|
|Life, the Universe, and Everything — Douglas Adams|
|The Collapsing Empire — John Scalzi|
|The King of Elfland’s Daughter — Lord Dunsany|
|Artificial Condition — Martha Wells|
|War on Peace — Ronan Farrow (nonfiction)|
|Rocannons World — Ursula K. Le Guin|
|Planet of Exile — Ursula K. Le Guin|
|City of Illusions — Ursula K. Le Guin|
|The Metamorphoses — Ovid|
|No Time to Spare — Ursula K. Le Guin (nonfiction)|
|Diplomatic Immunity — Lois McMaster Bujold|
|Le scaphandre et le papillon — Jean-Dominique Bauby (nonfiction)|
|The Hidden Life of Trees — Peter Wohlleben (nonfiction)|
|Proven Guilty — Jim Butcher|
|Fear — Bob Woodward|
|Trail of Lightning — Rebecca Roanhorse|
|Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance — Lois McMaster Bujold|
|Emma — Jane Austen|
|Exit Strategy — Martha Wells|
|Monstress vol. 1 — Marjorie Liu, Sana Takeda|
|Grant — Ron Chernow (nonfiction)|
|Lud-in-the-Mist — Hope Mirrlees|
|A Darker Shade of Magic — V.E. Schwab|
|A Gathering of Shadows — V.E. Schwab|
|A Conjuring of Light — V.E. Schwab|
|Monstress vol. 2 — Marjorie Liu, Sana Takeda|
|The Communist Manifesto — Karl Marx (nonfiction)|
|The Conquest of Bread — Peter Kropotkin (nonfiction)|
|Hunger — Roxane Gay (nonfiction)|
|The Illustrated Man — Ray Bradbury|
|Born a Crime — Trevor Noah|
|Thief of Time — Terry Pratchett|
|The Genius of Birds — Jennifer Ackerman (nonfiction)|
|The Odyssey — Homer, Emily Wilson|
|Exit Strategy — Martha Wells|
|Pale Rider — Laura Spinney (nonfiction)|
|Frankenstein — Mary Shelley|
|The Snowman —Jo Nesbø|
|Mrs. Dalloway — Virginia Woolf|
|Roughing It — Mark Twain (nonfiction? ish?)|
|1491 — Charles C. Mann (nonfiction)|
|The Left Hand of Darkness — Ursula K. Le Guin|
|Carpe Jugulum — Terry Pratchett|
|A Study in Scarlet — Arthur Conan Doyle|
|The Maltese Falcon — Dashiell Hammett|
|The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn — Mark Twain|
|The Consuming Fire — John Scalzi|
|Astrophysics for People in a Hurry — Neil deGrasse Tyson (nonfiction)|
|How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? — N.K. Jemisin|
|Three Men in a Boat — Jerome K. Jerome|
|Le Chien Jaune — Georges Simenon|
|The Wizard and the Prophet — Charles C. Mann (nonfiction)|