Despite seeming to last forever, 2018 is now behind us. It was a year bookended by absurdities, beginning with the Tide Pod epidemic, and ending with the partial shutdown of the sclerotic US government (still ongoing, as of this writing). Somewhere in between I found time to read forty-one books, many of which were very good; some were great, even. A few, like my top two picks, struck me as truly exceptional. (See my longer reviews of each book if you want to know why).
Here are some thoughts on the best of what I read in 2018.
Best Fiction: The Sport of Kings, by C. E. Morgan
Ostensibly a literary epic about horse racing, The Sport of Kings is in fact a multi-family, multi-generational exploration of the afterlife of slavery in America, through the experiences of racism, violence, faith, and belonging. It follows the saga of the Forge family, a prominent Kentucky dynasty, as its scion Henry ruthlessly transforms the family’s corn plantation into a horse farm that might yield a Triple Crown champion. However, Henry’s fetishistic need to preserve purity of descent — in his thoroughbreds as much as in his own bloodline — will ultimately threaten to destroy the legacy the Forges bred into existence.
As a novelist, Morgan is unapologetic in both her erudition and her ambition, and The Sport of Kings seeks to seek out and push past the limits of the novel form. In this sense, it’s part of America’s long, rich literary tradition of extravagant maximalism, descended as much from the likes of DFW and Pynchon as from Melville and Faulkner, Thoreau and Ellison. To be sure, there are moments in this novel that fall short of achieving her ambition, but Morgan is unafraid to challenge her readers, even to risk, at times, overwhelming them. And, as Morgan herself observes elsewhere, this trait is common to all Great American Novels: “just as an over-rich meal can overwhelm or even sicken the stomach, so can these novels overwhelm even the most generous reader.”
Best Nonfiction: These Truths by Jill Lepore
These Truths is Jill Lepore’s ambitious attempt to distill five centuries of American history — from the arrival of Columbus to the ascent of Trump — into a single volume, told from the perspective of the country’s founding ideas. The “truths” to which the title refers are the three principles affirmed as “self-evident” in the Declaration of Independence: political equality; natural rights; and popular sovereignty, through suffrage. The question that frames and guides Lepore’s account is whether American history proves or disproves their truth. This question remains unanswered.
The story Lepore tells is not a new one (though, importantly, she does work to recover and amplify the voices and visions that have largely been relegated to the margins of our history, if not written out entirely). Neither are the observations she makes, nor the conclusions she draws, entirely original. What is unique here is Lepore’s profound talent as a writer: her prose throughout is filled with moments of arresting lyricism, the work of the historian carried out with the poet’s tragic sensibility. But what makes this 950-page tome absolutely essential reading, especially at this moment in our history, is the introductory lesson in American civics it provides. By studying the contradictions of one’s democratic institutions — their failures in practice to achieve their promised ends — one learns well how they were designed to function in the first place.
Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014)
The premise is a familiar one: A shadowy government agency has quarantined the site of an unknown but catastrophic environmental event, a large swath of wilderness designated as “Area X,” into which it sends the latest in a series of four-person research expeditions. But that’s about where the familiarity ends. Nothing in Area X is what it appears to be, in part because the environment itself can have a psychotropic effect on the cognition of the team members. Also, the ecosystem seems to have acquired language; words in flora bloom upon the walls of impossible structures, like concrete pages in books of ruins. (Where lies the strangling fruit….) Annihilation was one of the weirdest and genuinely creepiest books I’ve read in ages, and my favorite of VanderMeer’s Souther Reach trilogy. I have many thoughts about all three novels, which are remarkable for their many layers of intellectual density, but that’s for a future post.
George Saunders, Tenth of December: Stories (Random House, 2014)
I am very, very late to this party. Unfashionably late. I’m probably one of the few who read Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders’s long awaited debut novel, before any of his near-universally beloved short fiction. I think I have nothing meaningful to say about this collection that hasn’t been better expressed by others (Mary Karr calls Saunders “the best short-story writer in English — not ‘one of,’ not ‘arguably,’ but the Best,” and she’s obviously right). However, not all the stories collected here are equally great. My favorites were “Escape from Spiderhead” and the titular story, though I really loved “Victory Lap” and “The Semplica Girl Diaries” (once I figured out what was happening). By way of contrast, “Home” fell really flat for me, as did “Al Roosten,” and “Sticks” felt a bit like an exercise; though the title story alone more than balances things out. I’d strongly recommend listening to the audiobook, in addition to reading the text; Saunders’s narration is wonderful, because he sort of acts out the distinct voices of every character in each story, capturing the vernacular rhythms running throughout his prose.
Tim Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia,
Timothy Snyder emerged on most of our radars after with his timely pocket volume, On Tyranny, published in the early days of 2017. In many ways, this is his full-length follow-up: A rigorous intellectual history of the slow subversion of post-Cold War democracy, written with a graceful clarity that could be called “Orwellian” in the most complimentary sense possible. This book elucidates the dialectic between the “politics of eternity,” typified by Russia (and later expressed by Trump), and the “politics of inevitability,” exemplified (proudly) by Western liberal democratic society, especially in the Fukuyamaean “end of history” thesis. Snyder shows how eternity politics takes root in the cracks of Western liberalism; his insightful formulation of Trump’s “sadopopulism” makes this essential reading for our times.