When we weren’t busy watching sports contests, we did some reading. Here are the best things we read this year.
I do not read much science fiction, but a year in which the real world felt increasingly dystopian seemed like a good time to start. I’m very glad I did, and that I chose Liu Cixin’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy—more often referred to simply by the name of the first book, The Three-Body Problem—to do so. It feels like an understatement to say that the scope of the novels is astounding. The ways in which their scope is astounding is itself astounding: the time and physical space that the books span, the creativity of their essential concepts, literally the dimensions in which the story takes place. It’s all fundamentally more interesting than straightforward fictional world-building. It’s theory-building, in many different forms, to the point where it’s really building the foundation of a universe. And it’s so damn cool.
I found myself disagreeing with some of the core principles introduced in the latter half of the trilogy, and the third book had gender politics that particularly frustrated me. But the series as a whole is so tremendously thought-provoking—describing humanity’s place and fate in the universe in such exacting and creative detail, forcing me to consider it all through lenses scientific and philosophical and religious alike—that I couldn’t stop thinking about it for weeks. It’s escapist, which is kind of required to be true of any fiction that starts with extraterrestrial communication and ends millennia in the future light-years away, but it’s also very intimately not, in that it’s so concerned with such basic questions about where we are in the universe and how and why and what’s next. I was genuinely sad to finish them and have to put them down, which is my favorite way to feel about a book and something I hadn’t encountered quite like this in a while. - Emma Baccellieri
The most meaningful relationship I had in 2018 might’ve been with a woman I went on two mostly boring dates with, because she works at a publisher and tipped me off that Philip Pullman had completed the sequel trilogy to His Dark Materials. So I went back and re-read the original books, which I’d read as a tween-to-teen when they came out. Against my expectations, they held up perfectly, lifted by immaculate world-building, character arcs alternately satisfying and achingly sad, and a central message about the abuses of authority (that gets mistaken for an anti-Christian message, when religion is just the best vehicle to relay that conceit). The cosmology and theology blew my mind as a kid, but just plain good writing made it worth coming back to it 20 years later. This is the young-adult series Harry Potter wishes it could be. - Barry Petchesky
Homegoing is the debut novel by Yaa Gyasi, which begins with two half sisters in 18th-century Ghana and tracks their family lines through their tribal homes to slavery to the Jim Crow south to Harlem in the 1960s to modern day America and then back to Ghana. It was published last year, and as many reviews have said, it lacks subtlety. But the story’s attention to historical detail and its deft narrative linking outweigh the occasional blunt prose. I can’t wait to read what Gyasi writes next. - Laura Wagner
In Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann tells the true story of the Osage Murders, a reign of terror that hit the Osage Indian tribe in Oklahoma in the 1920s and resulted in the deaths of an untold number of Osage tribespeople.
It’s the kind of story Grann was born to tell, and he unspools a truly unbelievable but entirely true tale that includes serial murder, vast conspiracies, and labyrinthian mystery. Fans of even the most fantastical detective novels will not be disappointed by this story, as Grann uses his herculean research efforts to deliver all the familiar twists and shocking reveals.
The conspiracy is eventually revealed, and the mystery is solved. But what stuck with me about this book, what terrified me, was not the cinematic evil of the villain or the real-life death toll, but how neatly the story fits into the tapestry of American history. Once all the facts are revealed and the circumstances of the crimes are laid bare, what’s crushing isn’t that such a terrible thing happened in America, but that its happening was inevitable. Nurtured, even. This book is a page-turning mystery, but it’s also just a short chapter in the great volumes of American plunder. - Tom Ley
The sheer volume of seemingly damning yet incomprehensible evidence against the Trump family is so exhausting to keep up with that naked hucksters like Eric Garland have carved out their own niche as interpreters of the flood of information. Nothing of consequence ever happens and nobody significant ever gets punished for any crimes, but the level of noise is constant. It seems that every week there’s a new story about how, say, Donald Trump Jr. emailed “LET’S DO CRIMES” to firstname.lastname@example.org, and every week it feels like anything less than a smoking gun doesn’t matter. Everything is so stupid now that the stories never lead to anything, which leaves one feeling all the more resigned and hopeless.
And then there’s the mythical piss tape. A video (HYPOTHETICALLY) showing Donald Trump (THEORETICALLY) getting pissed on in a Moscow hotel room by sex workers would be easily understood by the entire public, and while I’m sure nobody would actually lose their job because of it, it would be inarguably embarrassing. It feels like the only looming of item consequence, which, given the hell world we live in today, probably means it doesn’t exist. But who cares! The night that Buzzfeed reported on its existence was exhilarating, and I hope Ashley Feinberg finds it soon. - Patrick Redford
In tragedy, the rush by reporters is to talk about the dead. How they lived. How they laughed. How they loved. How they died. The instinct makes sense; death is the one punishment that cannot be reversed. But too rarely do reporters talk about those left behind. Audra D.S. Burch, in The New York Times, does the opposite of that basic journalistic instinct, bringing us the important story of Sunayana Dumala, the widow of Srinivas Kuchibhotla, killed in an anti-immigrant attack in a Kansas bar. It’s a heartbreaking story because of the way it reminds readers that there is no “isolated incident,” that every death ripples through a community, through a family, through a suddenly ended marriage. Burch is a masterful writer and reporter (I was in awe of her work at the Miami Herald, and still consider her the gold standard), and she captures every moment of heartbreak so thoroughly and painfully you’ll immediately start to wonder what you can do to try and stop the next senseless murder like that of Kuchibhotla. - Diana Moskovitz
Six years ago I finished Infinite Jest and, emboldened, believed I could easily tackle another famously difficult novel—this time Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 tome about the Nazi rocket program at the end of World War II. That decision proved to be a life lesson in misplaced bravado, as I repeatedly false-started my attempts to complete even the first 100 pages. For years. I finally got a good amount of the book under my belt while hanging out in Juan Valdez coffee shops in Bogotá, where I had nothing else to do anyway. I cannot recommend this book, and indeed upon finishing it do not even believe that it was that good. It is the best thing I read this year because it is the only thing I read this year. - Tim Burke
There is a junk store near my apartment that has recently lost its lease; it will almost certainly be closed for good by the time you read this. It is notionally a thrift store, and a decent percentage of the stuff that’s in there would fit nicely into any other thrift store—dinosaur media platforms, weirdly large men’s shirts, lots of paperback novels by Nadine Gordimer—but much of what’s there could more strictly be called junk. In the back, behind a stuffed carousel of enormous threadbare women’s coats, is a selection of books that turns over with surprising regularity, at least relative to the sprawling half-life of the average Banana Republic dress shirts for sale nearby. I go there every week and read the first pages of various novels; if it’s good, I invest a dollar in finding out whether the second page is better.
That was how I found this book, a short and strange novel that was published in 2011. It begins with an act of political violence—an assassination, it looks like, carried out by people that don’t seem afraid of reprisal—in a grim and secretive city ruled by an anxious and overbearing authoritarian state. The writing on that first page is pointed and unshowy and commanding, and definitely good enough to warrant a dollar bet on its behalf. I was not prepared for how much better the book would get, or how Ball would take apart and then rebuild the narrative. The book dwindles and changes and turns itself inside out, formally and otherwise, in ways that startled and astounded me. I couldn’t give it away if I wanted to. I did a much better job reading good things this year than I did watching or listening to them, but I didn’t read anything that surprised me more, with its brilliance and also with the force and fury of its empathy, than this book did. - David Roth
Giving a profile’s subject enough rope to hang themselves takes patience, care, and talent, and it doesn’t work in every instance, but when it all comes together, man is it satisfying. Molly Fischer’s hangout with Instagram poet Rupi Kaur unearthed some gems. I aspire to accomplish something as brutal but understated one day. This particular part was richer than the finest Swiss chocolate:
On a cart at the Strand, Milk and Honey sits alongside Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit, and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehesi Coates. Kaur read half of Between the World and Me. “I had to take notes,” she says — it was “more academic” than her typical reading. Recently she got Notorious RBG, and she’s been enjoying that.
“This guy is the best,” she says, noticing an edition of Kafka’s complete stories; she’s referring to Peter Mendelsund, the book’s designer. “The dream is to have him design my next book.” His work, she points out, translates well across media — to different sizes, to posters, to digital.
- Samer Kalaf
Unlike last year, I actually did a decent amount of book reading this year, and were it not for the fact that I’ve fallen into a black hole of immersing myself in North Carolina history, the combined Infinity Gauntlet series I picked up would be the easy answer. But, instead, I spent my time boning up on my home state’s most infamous son: Jesse Helms.
The biography, written after Helms’s death by former UNC and current Florida professor Bill Link, is wonderfully honest and detailed in its rendition of Helms’s rise. Link’s bibliography is a wonderful archive, one that pulls from Helms’s time as the state’s most popular conservative TV mouthpiece—imagine Fox News but even more impactful because rural communities only got about eight available channels—and plunges you into the heart of the devastating, defining 1984 race between Helms and Jim Hunt. But more so than the list of facts I can now rattle off about Helms, this book excelled in a similar way to Robert Caro’s third book on LBJ, Master of the Senate—it showed you how a person (well, a white male) can manipulate and navigate our political system using all available tools at his disposal; in the case of Helms, unlike LBJ, it’s a portrait in how a whip-smart, far-right ideologue can anchor himself to a time and culture of segregation and successfully slow down our society’s march toward racial equality.
It’s also a reminder that evil is a relative term, beholden to who’s issuing the claim—back home, Helms is still a hero in some parts, his fingerprints all over the modern NCGOP. An anti-federal-government, racist, frustratingly intelligent political force that held one of the state’s two Senate seats for three decades, Helms is either devil or savior, depending on who you are and where you’re from; what’s not up for debate is the question of whether Helms was successful in turning his Viewpoints sessions into real, raw political power. - Nick Martin
This is a book about quarterhorse racing, a sport I had literally never heard of until I read this. It’s a special kind of horseracing where the horsies run in a straight sprint. HORSE DRAG RACING. Did I mention the sport is hilariously crooked? Did I mention that vicious Mexican drug cartels are deeply entrenched in it? FACT: Any sports book is wildly improved if it includes accounts of vicious drug cartels. I haven’t read Seabiscuit, but I know there are no cartels in it, hence this is the superior book by far. - Drew Magary