The 10 Best Books We Read in 2018

Revelatory short stories, genre-bending prose, and more of our favorite writing from 2018.

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Nov 14 2018, 8:44pm

2018: My year of reads and revelations; or, the year I stopped reading cis white men and never looked back; or, the year I learned that sometimes the only antidote for a world on fire is fiction. 2018 gave us new takes from dependably tenacious voices: Kiese Laymon, Rachel Kushner, and Ottossa Moshfegh. And it gave us new voices, pioneering new collections on injustice, that ranged from racism to ableism, and on resistance, from women's erotica to empowering accounts of abortion. Here are my favorite ten books that 2018 gave us.

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Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires

It’s rare to find a short story collection so engrossing that it demands to be read in one sitting, cover to cover. This requires a thoughtful and compelling arc—one that spirals outward while pairing stories together, building resonance despite settings, characters, and plots shifting. It is even rarer that such a collection reflects the precision and devotion to language and craft that we see in Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ Heads of the Colored People. The book, which came out in April, centers the dark truth that America has never properly contended with institutional racism. But radiating from that central theme, we get slices of light: original, nuanced characters that are members of the rarely represented Black middle class. Although 2018 offered us many books that dealt with oppression, none other than Thompson-Spires did so with cutting sarcasm. In one laugh-out-loud story, two mothers achieve new depths of ridicule as they fight over their daughters’ schooling via notes passed between backpacks. In another, Thompson-Spires drops us into the blue-contact-lens-and-bleached-hair-filled world of “blerds” (black nerds) at a cosplay convention in Los Angeles. Thompson-Spires achieves a masterful, darkly funny, evocative collection about our America. Heads of the Colored People is the best book published in 2018; read it, as I did, in one long afternoon, grinning and grimacing.

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The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon

Genre-bending books have always intrigued me in ways that traditional novels fail to; authors brave enough to play with form are able to elevate both the lyricism of poetry and the steadfast narrative of prose. A small section of my bookshelf is devoted to this kind of hybrid book; We the Animals by Justin Torres (2011), Dept of Speculation by Jenny Ofill (2014), Claudia Rankine’s Citizen (2014), Maggie Nelson’s Argonauts (2015). Since 2015, I have anxiously awaited a new hybrid text to fall in love with. Thankfully R.O. Kwon’s debut The Incendiaries arrived this past July. In it, Kwon employs a poetic voice, uplifting dazzling, detailed language to advance a layered, complex plot. Phoebe Lin, a college student adrift after the loss of her mother, first falls in love, and then falls further. Searching for anything or anyone to anchor her, she joins a cult. What follows are a brilliant series of fragmented attempts to unite grief, belonging, and intimacy with personal accountability and agency.

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The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

Rachel Kushner’s third novel is brave and incisive, as well as denser and deeper than her first two, The Flamethrowers and Telex From Cuba. The Mars Room tackles life as an inmate with a life sentence. Though Romy Hall’s existence is entirely contained by the barren prison walls and the dehumanizing prison system, Kushner narrates unrestricted glimpses into her past life. Through them, we learn that she is a devoted mother and a former stripper who grew up in the oceanside outskirts of San Francisco. We meet teenage Romy as she navigates a tense relationship with her own mother while trying to get clean and watches her city rapidly gentrify—poor people, like her, who grew up on its outskirts are further made into outliers. Kushner’s place-based narrative provides an other-worldly perspective of the Bay Area, cast in Silicon Valley’s evil shadow. It prompts readers to consider choice, survival, and social conditioning.

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My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

I spent most of 2018 ignoring the literary lists that urged me to read Moshfegh’s new novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation. A novel about a woman who decides to sleep for an entire year? I was not compelled. Yet when I finally picked it up, I found myself utterly fascinated, deeply disturbed, troubled, and provoked. The unnamed protagonist induces a heavily-medicated year of rest because she wishes to, simply, not participate in her life. An orphan, the only people in her life are her sole friend (who she hates) and her ex-boyfriend. Though she is extremely particular, she has no ambition, interests, or dreams. She sees her year as the hibernation that could rebirth her into the world. With the aid of excessive amounts of narcotics, she comes completely undone. The ensuing events are hilarious, strange, and disgusting. In this novel, Moshfegh has rendered the question of “liking” a protagonist inconsequential; readers will not like this character, but we will find ourselves aligning with her and embodying a deep sensitivity for her metamorphosis.

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Wild Milk by Sabrina Orah Mark

In Sabrina Orah Mark’s short story collection Wild Milk, milk is less a proxy for motherhood and birth than it is a source from which estranged situations flow: ruptured relationships between lovers, families that have been strained and separated, and fairy tales, retold through a dystopian lens. Mark’s milk is always wild: soured, fermenting, a necessary convenience that is scooped up on someone’s way home and then abandoned. These stories include a satire starring Louis C.K. as the speaker’s husband (she inquires after “the funny part”), a series of “Are You My Mother?” anecdotes where the speaker asks famous people to parent her (Hilary Clinton, Diana Ross, John Berryman), and a daycare that requires a mother to bring “better breast milk” for her child. Published by the independent and innovative Dorothy Project, each one of these stories will leave you startled, puzzled, delighted.

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Heavy by Kiese Laymon

Kiese Laymon begins his memoir, Heavy, with : “wondering if there was a real word for stories filled with people who started off happy and then got sad… ‘happysad,’ no space and no hyphen.” But Heavy starts sad and stays sad. Laymon experiences happiness, and narrates those fleeting moments, but, when dealing with the weight—both literal and figurative—of sexual trauma, violence, and debilitatingly unhealthy coping mechanisms, the joy fails to penetrate such heaviness. In Heavy, Laymon reveals himself to be a Southern writer through and through; his voice is conversational, lyrical, truth-telling, and real, almost as if we are sitting with him, on “the porch that Grandmama built,” to which the book is dedicated. He employs the second-person to write a book to his mother about the insufferable hardship—and episodic joy—he has experienced in their relationship. Profoundly honest and confrontational, Laymon’s Heaavy successfully conquers the memoir’s confessional project.

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Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love

Jessica Love’s Julian is a Mermaid is a picture book whose text does not convey much beyond that title; Julian, a brown-skinned boy who lives in New York City, sees himself as a mermaid. I learned everything I needed from the title, and yet, I found myself gasping while turning the pages of this gorgeous tale of liberatory gender expression. We watch as Julian arranges accessories from his abuela’s home into his outfit, a wraparound skirt with a necklace and headdress. When he reveals his true form to his abuela, she naturally brings him to see the other mermaids of Brooklyn, a glittery, joyful drag parade. The illustrations submerged me in a world where words were no longer necessary; a colorful, underwater enchantment. As an adult, I was most compelled by this picture book for how little narrative Jessica Love employs to convey familial acceptance, and how, through vivid illustration, she surrounds us with the tenderness and truth of a child’s imagination and self-expression.

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Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Sanarasinha

Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Sanarasinha’s Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice is a collection profoundly necessary at this moment. Disability justice is “a political movement and many interlocking communities where disability is not defined in white terms, or male terms, or straight terms, one that centers sick and disabled people of color, queer, and trans disabled folks of color, and everyone who is marginalized in mainstream disability organizing.” The essays share a fundamental hypothesis: to achieve social justice, ableism must be destroyed. Personal narratives and accounts of organizing are voiced from Black and brown and queer disabled people, radically reimagining the ways our society is structured, uplifting visions and models for care webs that create collective access. Reading these accounts, you may be deeply troubled when finally confronted with how fractured communities truly have become; Dreaming Disability Justice, however, will give you hope for ways that we can restructure and reorient ourselves to truly provide care and support for all people.

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All We Know of Pleasure: Poetic Erotica by Women by Enid Shomer

The #MeToo Movement has shown up in books throughout 2018, deepening discourses on feminism, from Rebecca Treister’s Good and Mad to Soraya Chemaly’s Rage Becomes Her, to Donna Freitas’ Consent on Campus to June Eric-Udorie’s Can We All Be Feminists? I know we need women’s anger at this moment. But we need other emotions that bring us beyond anger, too. In All We Know of Pleasure, editor Enid Shomer has shown us that we may be thirsting for accounts of women’s desire. This collection, spanning the last 75 years of poetry, weaves together the words of Nikki Giovanni, Louse Gluck, Jane Hirshfield, Audre Lorde, Sharon Olds, and Adrienne Rich; and fuses together moments of eroticism at its orgasmic pinnacle to daily habits of arousal.

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Shout Your Abortion by Amelia Bonow and Emily Nokes

Shout Your Abortion is a timely, revelatory collection of personal essays expressing the intimate details of having an abortion—not necessarily the procedure itself, but the all-encompassing events, feelings, and moment. The multi-media project, first started as a series of zines, includes a narrative around the cultural project itself (how it began, media images of zines, trajectory of hashtags). The glossy book is organized into sections—Formation, Shouts, Providers, and Reverberation—all beautifully illustrated with graphics, photos, and comics. The project is one of ownership and authority, expressing how narrating our experiences, even via social media hashtags, gives us access to truth, community, and liberation.