I’ve never been more grateful for reading and the expansion it facilitates than I was this year! Here I add my voice to the chorus (cacophony?) with another top 10 list, the most impactful books I read in 2018.
Barbarian Days, A Surfing Life by William Finnegan: I picked up this memoir because I thought it would make a great beach read, totally unprepared to have my mind pitted, *so pitted* by its philosophical insight and elegance. It’s at once a travelogue adventure, a bildungsroman, an anthropological survey, and an ode to an obsession. A great joy of this book is how viscerally tactile it is- observations gurgle off the page like seafoam, locations are so vividly rendered they become aromatic. Finnegan’s prose has the mutability of the waves he so lovingly details: fellow surfers are profiled with tubular clarity, nostalgia smoothes nomadic tales like seaglass, endless surfing accounts crest in stirring meditations. I savored every page of this salted rhapsody.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee: “History has failed us, but no matter.” The first sentence of Pachinko serves as the thesis statement for a sweeping historical epic that doesn’t sacrifice intimacy for scope, the ambition of which is matched by the breadth of its compassion. Set in 20th century Japan, it follows four generations of a Korean family through a legacy of matrilineal suffering which is as inextricable from its specific moment as it is resonantly timeless.
Evicted by Matthew Desmond: Masterfully researched and articulated, this is a harrowing account of the burdens of poverty and the exploitative mechanisms that ensure its continued existence. The book follows eight families in Milwaukee for whom eviction is a constant threat and reality. Through their stories, we witness a normative standard of contemporary American life: being poor is unbelievably expensive, and poverty persists simply because it is highly profitable.
Autumn by Ali Smith: This book made my heart something molten. Set in a London reeling from Brexit, it is deeply engaged with needless boundaries. The central focus is the friendship between a precocious young girl and an elderly man, a relationship that is nimbly illustrated through an associative collage of frequent temporal jumps, historical asides, and tangential glimmers. Lexical play is endemic and puns freckle the entire work. In Autumn, puns are representative: words commingle and phase into one another like seasons, they reveal how brittle and bogus our borders are. This is a book with so much heart, its disparate elements coalesce with all the tenderness of an embrace.
The Passion According to G.H. by Clarice Lispector: Reading this felt like an intravenous administration, so much did its fractal mysticism perforate my being. This novel is almost entirely plotless- a woman accidentally kills a cockroach and gazes at a closet for hours amidst an ecstatic spiritual breakdown- and yet it traverses so much noetic territory, from the divine to the repulsive, it’s probably the most spiritually action-packed book I’ve ever encountered. Recommended for: anyone having an identity crisis who wants to feel sane by comparison; in the words of Passion’s narator, “I' is merely one of the world's instantaneous spasms.”
Conversations with Friends and Normal People by Sally Rooney: Crackling, insightful writing that masterfully synthesizes bristling psychological acuity and emotional generosity. Both novels forensically reckon with ways of loving and examine two very distinct stories of people magnetized so as to both intrinsically need and repel one another. The characters and the novels themselves are adamant in their convictions yet tirelessly inquisitive. The type of books that made me want to a cancel a full day of plans!
The Gentrification of the Mind by Sarah Schulman: Sarah Schulman is an incredible thinker, an advocate for radical awareness that preserves truth in all its messy complexity. This memoir delineates how the community destruction wrought by AIDS, on which urban gentrification capitalized, ushered in an age of homogenized urbanity and artistic stasis. “Gentrification replaces most people’s experiences with the perceptions of the privileged and calls that reality” is one of many searing sentences that unmask perceived normalcy for an abbreviated morality predicated on erasure. It made me confront my own assumptions and complicity time and time again, for which I’m profoundly grateful.
There There by Tommy Orange: In this novel, storytelling is a means of cauterization. Set in Oakland and formed by divergent tales that focus on the urban Native American experience, its characters are linked by a collective wound, a lesion kept open by the dominant culture’s maltreatment of their shared history. The propulsive polyphony is perfectly calibrated to create a singular vision that truly left me gasping.
The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner: This novel exists in 3D. It revs, scorches, and punctures through the page like the motorcycles its nameless protagonist rides. Set in the 1970s, it interrogates the flickering parallels between insurrections and intransigence from New York’s avant-garde art world to Italy’s Years of Lead to speed week races at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. Much of the novel’s panoptic brilliance is owed to our narrator’s ability to translate the anonymity imposed by her gender and youth into reportorial dexterity, which bodies forth a delightfully aberrant cast.
Portrait of a Lady by Henry James: This book was particularly significant to me this year because it echoed with and reanimated my approach to Barber’s Violin Concerto. It tells the story of Isabel Archer, a young woman whose commitment to independence is matched only by her thirst for adventure. I found within its descriptions of Isabel’s curiosity and cogitations an explicit sensibility that deepened my understanding of the inquiry and open passion at the heart of Barber, while the protracted beauty of James’ syntax unlocked complex intentions within the concerto’s stretched phrases. I’m already looking forward to what its luxurious language and psychological magnitude will divulge in future rereads!