No year is a bad year for books.
Literary fiction, genre fiction nonfiction, poetry, comics — someone, somewhere, is doing work that will inspire and entertain. It’s hard to look at 2018 and not think this was a stellar year.
A (very, very) few personal highlights:
In fiction, it was a year of exceptional debuts (“There There,” Tommy Orange’s wrenching look at contemporary Native American life in Oakland, Calif., which is our Austin360 Book Club pick for January); and brilliant works from leading lights (Rachel Kushner’s shattering “The Mars Room,” about a woman serving consecutive life sentences). There was gripping multiversal science-fiction (Lavie Tidhar’s “Unholy Land”); and striking memoirs in comics form (Michael Kupperman’s “All The Answers,” about his former-quiz-kid father).
In nonfiction, a history of innovation was chronicled (Mimi Swartz’s “Ticker” told the very Texas story of the grail-like quest for an artificial heart); immigration was examined with an unsparing eye by a former Border Patrol agent (“The Line Becomes a River” by Francisco Cantú) and an undocumented journalist (“Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen” by Jose Antonio Vargas); while the opiate crisis was given close inspection (“Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America” by Beth Macy) and Austinite Lawrence Wright tried to explain the Lone Star state in "God Save Texas."
I'm looking forward to the public getting its hands on two books in the coming months: Marlon James’ epic semi-fantasy “Black Leopard, Red Wolf” and the graphic novel collection of Tom King and Mitch Gerard’s stunning “Mister Miracle.”
The former, by the Booker Prize-winning author of "A Brief History of Seven Killings" has already generated serious buzz. The latter was serialized in single issues and is an often-wrenching story of depression, the everyday heroics of new parenthood, intergalactic warfare and the importance of a decent veggie tray. Both arrive in February.
As the year draws to a (much-desired) close, we asked several Austin authors about their favorite books released or at least read in 2018.
"I was totally amazed by Ahmed Bouanani’s 'The Hospital' this year. It is one of the most hauntingly beautiful pieces of writing I have ever read. Funny, dark, heartbreaking, but most of all profoundly beautiful. I shall never forget it. I also adored the magical imagination and wise weirdness of Sabrina Orah Mark’s 'Wild Milk,' and right now I’m reading Anna Burns’ 'Milkman,' which is alarming, funny and astounding.”
Carey’s novel "Little” was published in October.
"It may seem like a shameless plug, but my favorite book of 2018 by far was 'How to Love the Empty Air,' a collection of poetry written by my amazing wife, Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz, a fellow Austin writer and best-selling author. These poems are about the loss of her mother, and they comprise one of the most honest and moving expressions of grief I've ever read. I've been recommending this book to everyone I know who has experienced the loss of a loved one, because I know it will bring them comfort. (And I'd still be doing this even if I wasn't married to the author.)”
Steven Spielberg's movie “Ready Player One,” based on Cline’s 2012 novel of the same name, was released in March.
"I've been buried in research, and the most gripping book was ‘Murder and Mayhem: The War of Reconstruction in Texas' (which was published in 2003). It tells the fascinating story of the Lee-Peacock Feud, which started when Bob Lee, a Confederate veteran, refused to release his slaves after the war and federal officials tried to enforce the law. Lee fled to the Wildcat Thicket and during the following months assembled a violent gang that ventured out to commit murders and gruesome crimes against freed slaves, religious leaders and law enforcement — anyone trying to uphold reconstruction. His match was Lewis Peacock, a devout Unionist. Both men were murdered by the other's supporters — Peacock shot dead in his front yard on his way to the woodpile in his red longjohns."
The paperback of Crook’s 2018 novel “The Which Way Tree” arrives in stores in February.
“'Stephen Florida' by Gabe Habash (published in 2017) is one of the funniest and most moving books I've read in years. Following a year in the life of a North Dakota wrestler — deranged, among other things, by all-consuming ambition — the voice in this novel is authentic, idiosyncratic and utterly undeniable."
DuBois’ third novel, “The Spectators,” will be published in April.
“So many great books out this year! Sarah Bird’s novel 'Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen' is brilliant. I devoured and underlined the hell out of W. Scott Poole’s 'Wasteland: The Great War and the Origins of Modern Horror.' The book I’m most excited about is my own dad’s latest novel! John Egerton’s medical thriller 'Clinical Syndrome' is a wild ride through modern fears — epidemic viruses, murderous maniacs and lethal lawnmowers. Plenty of twists, scares and romance, all with sunny Austin as an ideal backdrop.”
Egerton’s movie “Blood Fest” was released in August. The paperback of his 2017 novel “Hollow” was published in December.
"After the passage of the Personhood Amendment in Leni Zumas' feminist dystopia, Red Clocks,' abortion is outlawed in the United States and a 'Pink Wall' stretches across the Canadian border to prevent abortion-seekers from escaping. It's a timely, provocative and gorgeously written 360-degree exploration of pregnancy, reproductive rights and gender roles in a near-future America that feels alarmingly close to home.”
Fortmeyer’s young adult novel “Hole in the Middle” was published in September.
“A few poetry collections that knocked my socks off this year:
"Tony Hoagland's 'Priest Turned Therapist Treats Fear of God': Tony died in October. I've been reading his body of work lately and feel so strongly that anyone with an interest or attraction to poetry should read him. He was a true talent, a lover of poetry, a native to language. He was funny, irreverent and provocative. Tony was alive and awake in the world, and I hope people continue to discover him and love him.
"Also: Ada Limón's ‘The Carrying’ and Chen Chen's ‘When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities.’”
Fountain’s novel “I'm Not Missing” was published in July. Her most recent poetry collection, “Instant Winner,” appeared in 2014.
"I have a huge stack of this year’s books still to read, but I did make it through a lot of crime fiction, and there were three that knocked me sideways.
"1. 'The Perfect Nanny' by Leila Slimani, which won the Prix Goncourt. Packaged and retitled as a domestic thriller for the States, it’s really more of an existential (read: FRENCH) look at class relations in the domestic realm. The crime occurs on the first page, and it’s a particularly hard one to read about as the parent of a young child, but the rest of the book is grim in a different way: a slow, deliberate, yet somehow urgent foray into ordinary pettiness and sorrow.
"2. 'The Infinite Blacktop' by Sara Gran. This is the year I discovered Gran’s Claire DeWitt series, and it really changed my whole concept of what detective fiction can do. Taking place in an off-kilter, noirish reality that is both absurdist and frankly spiritual, the books (this one is the third) have drawn comparisons to Haruki Murakami, 'Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency' and David Lynch. But few have noted how rare it is to see a woman writing this kind of gonzo narrative around a female detective. Gran, who’s written across genres, has hit her stride with Claire DeWitt — she’s funny, ruthless and heartbreaking by turns — and readers would be wise to binge on the first three before the next one comes along. So far each has topped the last — 'Infinite Blacktop' gutted me — and I have no idea what she’ll do next.
"3. Finally, the big unsurprise: Tana French’s 'The Witch Elm.' As a die-hard fan of French’s 'Dublin Murder Squad' series, I was a little nervous about her first stand-alone. (Which just shows how much she has me drinking the Kool-Aid, because I supposedly hate police procedurals.) 'The Witch Elm' is nothing short of masterful. French breaks every rule — I counted no less than three beginnings and three endings, which accounts for the sky-high page count — but you just want it to go on and on. It ticks all the French boxes, including a nostalgic mood that is achingly immersive, but also smuggles in a sly take on white male upper-class privilege that feels both empathetic and damning. And then it wraps up with a finale that is like an existential sucker-punch."
Gentry’s “Tori Amos’s Boys for Pele,” a book in the "33 1/3" series, was published in the fall. Her next novel, “Last Woman Standing,” will be published in January.
“There's a moment in ‘Heavy,’ the new memoir from Kiese Laymon, where Laymon is talking to an older, respected black man who begins lecturing him about how being rich and black isn't the same as being rich and white. Wealthy black people have relatives and institutions to support, but ‘White Roger might be the poorest person in his family making three hundred thousand.’
"A lot of books about race would nod at this statement and expect the reader to say, ‘Ah, yes.’ But this memoir is different. ‘I already read "Black Power,"’ Laymon responds. ‘I know this.’"
“‘Heavy’ is a memoir that cuts across the expectations of the usual stories about race, weight, poverty, abuse and education. It's not interested in teaching white people or preaching to black people. It rests on the assumption that anyone who has been paying attention already knows how institutional racism works. If you haven't and don't, then there are other books for that. This book goes deeper, digging into the particulars of being a brilliant black boy raised in Mississippi by a brilliant black mother who, despite being a university professor, must shop at the discount grocery store and run from bounced checks. As Laymon puts it, ‘I wanted to write a lie. You wanted to read a lie. I wrote this instead.’"
Noll’s book “The Writer's Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction” was published in February.
Cynthia Leitich Smith
“Dawn Quigley’s debut contemporary YA novel, ‘Apple in the Middle,’ is centered on an upper-middle-class Native American girl. Following the death of her Ojibwe mother, Apple has been raised by her affluent, white dad and stepmom. Over the course of the story, the charmingly goofy young teen comes 'home' to her tribal community, uncovers secrets about her mom, and ultimately connects to her Native heritage and extended family.”
Smith’s contemporary YA novel “Hearts Unbroken” was published in October.
“I read Hieu Minh Nguyen's poetry collection ‘Not Here’ on a plane to New York earlier this year and haven't stopped thinking about. The second poem, ‘Lesson,’ left me gasping loudly, rubbing the goose bumps on my arms, in my aisle seat. In it, Nguyen writes of his mother’s regret and anger, the force of family violence:
‘but still, I am surprised / when she turns to me & says, in a language I do not remember / being this soft, Because your lover is white, you are forgiven.’
"There's so much in these three simple lines. The way Nguyen writes the intersection of racism and trauma within his life as a queer person of color and son of Vietnamese immigrants is haunting, but somehow tender. Each poem is unafraid to call out ugliness, but that courage is deeply rooted in love and longing and hope, which is something I think we all needed in 2018.”
Sylvester’s “Everyone Knows You Go Home” was published in March and won a Latino Book Award.