Top 10 books of 2018

Wednesday, January 9, 2019 - 11:31am

Ranging from graphic novels to memoirs to longform poetry, the Michigan Daily Book Review ranks their favorite titles published in 2018.

10. “What If This Were Enough?” by Heather Havrilesky

Looking back on it now, I think my 2018 reading list was mostly about answering the question: How did we get here? How did an era with so much going for it — advancements in technology and medicine, relatively widespread material wealth, unprecedented global interconnectivity and, let’s face it, amazing television — become so saturated with anxiety and inequality? With all that we have, why do things seem to fall so relentlessly apart? And, more importantly, how do we live with it?

No one has answered these questions as cogently and compassionately for me as Heather Havrilesky. Her 2018 essay collection “What If This Were Enough?” aims at untangling our shared cultural neuroses with equal measures of wit and wisdom. Drawing on her experience as a TV critic and advice columnist (her 2016 collection of advice letters, “How To Be a Person in the World,” is also highly recommended), Havrilesky unpacks our Disneyfied obsession with cheerfulness, our fascination with antihero narratives and the preoccupations of “foodie” culture, among other topics, as clues to what keeps our society bound to perfectionism, anxiety and dissatisfaction. Her recommendation: Turn away from distraction and comparison and cultivate greater presence, self-acceptance and gratitude, for our own sake but also for that of the world we live in. At once entertaining and deeply moving, this is required reading for anyone seeking greater clarity and connection in the new year.

Julia Moss, Daily Arts Writer

9. “Children of Blood and Bone” by Tomi Adeyemi

It would be easy to say that Tomi Adeyemi’s Young Adult debut takes its cues from familiar fantasy stories like “Harry Potter” and “The Hunger Games,” but truly, “Children of Blood and Bone” is without a predecessor. Mainstream fantasy has a long history of coating struggle in allegory, inventing magical and fictional races and creatures to be persecuted, but Tomi Adeyemi dispenses with the pretense, and instead confronts race and colonialism head on. It’s rare to find a novel with such a lived in world, filled with richly drawn out characters racing along in a tightly plotted ride. After years of popular YA being dominated by predictable stories in homogenous grey dystopian hellscapes, “Children of Blood and Bone” is a breath of fresh air.

Asif Becher, Daily Arts Writer

8. “The Pervert” by Remy Boydell and Michelle Perez

It’s easy to dismiss “The Pervert” as porn. Despite the innocent Sunday funny-esque grid, Remy Boydell’s beautifully sparse watercolor work and secondary characters resembling the likes of Snoopy, Jon Arbuckle and Clifford the Big Red Dog, “The Pervert” is ugly. In a series of interconnected vignettes, the graphic novel illustrates the somber life of a transgender girl navigating a world so fundamentally hostile to her existence, taking odd jobs while struggling to survive in a line of sex work.

It’s a sad reality that a lot of trans men and women have to turn to the sex industry to seek any semblance of a somewhat stable income as their families and the rest of society offers them no help on that front whatsoever. It’s an even sadder statistic that an all too high percentage of trans sex workers suffer from abuse and assault, with a constant threat of actually being murdered because of their identity looming over their heads and never quite going away. To be trans is to never again give someone the benefit of the doubt; blind trust could spell a literal death sentence in this ugly world.

It’s for this reason “The Pervert” bathes in ugliness and doesn’t give a single shit if you’re comfortable or not. The artwork excels in its unapologetically real depiction of transgender sex (in an interview writer Michelle Perez describes herself as “an incredibly simple person that is happy about explicit trans sex in a mainstream published comic book”) and transgender bodies. Do not let its status as a graphic novel fool you. It is one of the most vital books of the year in its reclamation of the ugliness that continues to be thrown at trans people every damn day. As Perez delightfully puts it, “if you’re a fucking idiot you’re gonna hate it.” Those repulsed by “The Pervert” should perhaps take a big, long look inward to see if its ugliness has been their doing all along.

— Cassandra Mansuetti, Senior Arts Editor

7. “Junk” by Tommy Pico

I used to go to a bunch of improv concerts last year where some of my crazy-talented friends would drag keys on cymbals next to their trumpet-blaring professors in a sparsely attended, dimly lit room on North Campus. For the most part, I had no idea what was going on. (Later, I would realize, neither did they.) It was a cacophony of noise I had zero vocabulary for, and was thus intimidated by. But every once in a while, one of the ensemble members would seem to locate a path in the sonic madness, find a beat or place to create one that would shoot the dissonant mess with some direction, a vector-like energy that would doubtlessly inspire the other ensemble members, and suddenly the entire group was grooving perfectly, live, in front of you, no script, no plan. Spontaneous harmony.

“Junk,” Tommy Pico’s third installment in his “Teebs” trilogy, reads like a poetic improv concert. Its 70 pages follow a single series of couplets, although the term “couplets” seems to offer it too much structure. The book is more like a 70 page series of random detail and meandering thought — cranial junk — that just so happens to be organized in abrupt two-line chunks. It’s a mad, guttural volume of effort, a churning sort of poetry that just stabs and stabs until it nicks a heart. And although necessarily neurotic and grasping, Pico succeeds in hitting these euphoric plateaus of expression, lines like “Is it possible to / manifest desire I mean to consider yrself fly as fuck without / another’s recognition,” coasting clarity wrought from the mad maelstrom of vodka crans and one night stands and feta-stuffed olives surrounding. Pico’s spontaneous harmonies exist because of such cacophony, moments of thoroughly queer and distinctly modern illumination openly dependent on their context of madness. Tommy Pico has given us the entire process, and it’s exciting poetry. Like “Howl” and “Song of Myself,” it’s the type that you can only read in one sitting, and that you shout aloud when you find yourself alone in the apartment because the noises are so goddamn smart it’s empowering to merely recycle them.

Verity Sturm, Book Review Editor

6. “Sabrina” by Nick Drnaso

Graphic novels are very much having a moment right now, and Drnaso’s work is especially singular. While the form is popularly used to illustrate personal anecdote or history in greater complexity, Drnaso creates disturbingly bare contemporary fictions with a reductive comic style. His characters are notably lacking in detail and personality — colorless, sexless pawns that robotically move through similarly colorless, sexless suburbs. Like anything new and strange, this style has been catching flak. I read a particularly acidic Goodreads review that ripped Drnaso’s “lacking” artwork, complaining about “empty” frames and “indistinguishable” characters. Carol from Goodreads: yes. Drnaso captures the lifelessness of the whitewashed American suburb, drawing comics just bare enough to reveal the creepy passivity settling over their condos and lawns like a thick, translucent fog.

Drnaso’s first novel “Beverly” establishes his flat suburban gaze in a series of unsettling vignette-like shorts (it’s excellent). “Sabrina” is his second, a full-length story bringing the salient specter of media to this eerie landscape. Drnaso chronicles the disappearance of a young woman in terms of its digital wave pattern: breakage, leakage, conspiracy and, eventually, disinterest. The first graphic novel nominated for the Man Booker longlist, “Sabrina” is particularly chilling to a readership burned out by sensationalism and fake news, the sort of story that could very well take place tomorrow (if it hasn’t already).

Verity Sturm, Book Review Editor

5. “She Would Be King” by Wayétu Moore

She Would Be King, author Wayétu Moore’s debut novel, is a retelling of the founding of Liberia with both historical and magical elements. The story is told from three different points of view. There is Gbessa, the girl who was born on a cursed day and outcast by her tribe on the suspicion that she is a witch; June Dey, a man born on a plantation in the American South; Norman Aragon, the son of a British colonizer and a Maroon slave. The three protagonists have magical abilities that aid them throughout their journeys: Gbessa cannot die, Norman can become invisible and June Dey’s skin cannot be broken. While they start out on different corners of the world, fate brings Gbessa, Norman and June Dey together in Liberia as tensions build between the settlers who named the land “Liberia” and the indigenous tribes already living there. Gbessa, whose loyalties are split between the two groups, is forced to make decisions that highlight her strength and intelligence, which one of the final lines of the novel further emphasizes: “If she were not a woman ... she would be king.”

Sophie Wazlowski, Daily Arts Writer

4. “Florida” by Lauren Groff

“Florida,” Lauren Groff’s most recent collection of short stories, is a menagerie of things made wild by their environs. The setting of these stories — Florida, of course — is a broken incubator for the extremes of weather, emotion and beauty. Her characters (wives, mothers, sisters, children) grapple with the intrusive presence of their home state, an ambient specter that is both gorgeous and grotesque. Groff currently lives in Gainesville, Fla., and her intimate knowledge of the state’s peculiarities is evident. In “Florida,” pain and violence are inextricable from the quietly fantastic landscape. As in her first short story collection and two previous novels, Groff’s interrogation of her preoccupations is rolled out in delicious language that vacillates between delicacy and bluntness. “Our host, Omar Varones, had made a bonfire out of the couch upon which his wife had cuckolded him,” Groff writes in “Snake Stories.” “It was a vintage mid century modern, and he could have sold it for thousands, but it’s equally true that the flames were a stunning and unexpected soft green.” Groff is a master of language, but also of silence. She leaves just enough unsaid. “Florida” is almost Hitchcockian, allowing fear to fester unchecked because the worst things often happen off-screen. Many of the stories occupy the liminal space between dreams and reality in a way that cleverly destabilizes the very existence of such a boundary. “Florida” calls upon the kind of magical realism we all live with — the unsteadiness of life; the terrible, mysterious synchronicity of fate. A woman is raped in a bush, and a man is appointed to protect the environment yet does the opposite. Groff doesn’t quite say that these things are related, but she also seems to ask: How could they not be?

Miriam Francisco, Copy Chief & Daily Arts Writer

3. “Heavy: An American Memoir” by Kiese Laymon

I read, was knocked to the ground by and wrote about “Heavy” back in November, but have been ruminating on it since. It’s the type of book that sinks into your bones, adding some requisite weight to every step thereafter, a reckoning I haven’t experienced so viscerally since Ta Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me.” While Coates addresses his book to his son, Laymon writes to his mother, allowing room for more complicated conversation on the Black body and the (physical, verbal, psychological) violence it endures. In particular, Laymon writes to identify the violence deeply ingrained in his own family: where it began, how it became codified and what it does to the bodies that give and receive it.

Turning the pen towards oneself is an arduous project, and the text is dense with Laymon’s moving effort and care. Although difficult, “Heavy” is a beautiful read. Laymon’s prose runs with tasteful repetition and an eye for detail, allowing the music of some moments and dashing imperative severity to others. The movement of Laymon’s language lends his book a sense of physical activity — one feels like they’ve covered some distance at the end, and the body is phantom-tired. “Heavy” is exhausting, but necessarily so, as if creating the circumstances necessary for recovery.

Verity Sturm, Books Review Editor

2. “The Recovering” by Leslie Jamison

Leslie Jamison’s latest combines all the things I’ve loved about her since her 2014 release “The Empathy Exams” — a careful, insistent prose style, a way with words that skips past pretense and narrative tricks and a uniquely keen insight into the human heart. “The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath” is an urgent, insistent read, an examination not just of her own alcoholism, but also of the nature of addiction itself. She weaves a personal narrative through a tapestry of a larger interrogation of what it means to want, to be out of control. Jamison’s writing has a way of working itself directly into the heart and brain of her readers, rendering the space between the words she's using and the feeling she’s describing negligible. Reading Jamison’s work feels not like an education but more like an expansion — an expansion of empathy, understanding, of capacity for hope. I trust her writing to take me anywhere.

Asif Becher, Daily Arts Writer

1. “The Great Believers” by Rebecca Makkai

Rebecca Makkai’s novel “The Great Believers” is a slick, harrowing novel. Alternating between Chicago in the 1980s and Paris in 2015, the book revolves around a large cast of friends and family members, all of whose lives have been devastated by the AIDS crisis. In the 1980s, a group of gay friends is slowly winnowed as the disease performs its heinous magic trick; over and over, the healthy become sick and the sick become dead. In 2015, the now-middle-aged sister of one of these men travels to Paris to find her missing daughter. Tests and treatments arrive too late for these characters, and their lives are shattered, ended and emptied by the disease. As the two stories unfold, it becomes clear that each focus is the collateral damage of the other: one in actuality, the other in memory. Makkai is particularly interested in the micro- and macro-legacy of AIDS. The disease ravages her characters’ interior lives as well as their bodies, and even those who survive it are left with wasteland of untethered, unconfirmable memory.

Sidestepping simplicity, Makkai deftly maneuvers the crossed wires of desire and fear, infidelity and devotion. The book is frequently heartrending but never sentimental. Near the end of the book, when one character tests positive for AIDS, he lists all the things he’ll miss when he dies. In another writer’s less skillful hands, this could have been mawkish, but as is her signature, Makkai lets it be tenderly simple. “The brutal wind on the El platform. Fifty people huddled under the heating lamp. Pigeons crowding their feet,” she writes. “The man at Wax Trax! Records with the beautiful eyelashes. The man who sat every Saturday at Nookies, reading The Economist and eating eggs, his ears always strangely red. The ways his own life might have intersected with theirs, given enough time, enough energy, a better universe.”

Miriam Francisco, Copy Chief & Daily Arts Writer