Every year, going back to my pre-LGM days, I’ve made lists of my favorite books I read in a given year. (Last year’s list, my first for LGM, is here.)
This year’s list follows.
A few notes:
- I had a little less time to read this year between finishing my own book, doing an interstate move, starting a new job, etc. I prioritized books that I’d been hearing a lot about, which makes this year’s list probably skewed much heavier toward books released recently and toward books that got a fair amount of press. Fewer deep cuts than usual, I’m afraid.
- Because in my job as a historian, I have to read a lot of historical monographs, I’ve generally confined these lists to fiction only. That actually strikes me in hindsight as a little arbitrary, though. I read a lot of extraordinary nonfiction this year, and I think it’s worth recognizing some of those works. So basically what I’ve decided to do here is to say that nonfiction work can appear on these year-end lists, so long as I didn’t read it explicitly because I thought it was part of my job to do so. And while I ended up assigning pieces of Hanif Abdurraqib’s book to students this year and while I’m going to assign Eve Ewing’s book to students next year, I did not come to them initially because I thought I needed to read them as a matter of professional responsibility.
- I cut it to ten this year. Last year’s dozen seemed like a strange number. Three non-fiction and seven fiction.
- These are not ranked. They’re all great. I did cluster the non-fiction first and then move on to fiction.
Kiese Laymon, Heavy (2018)
Framed as a book-length note to his mother, Kiese Laymon’s Heavy is gorgeous, painful, honest, important, and, above all else, loving. Capturing all of what it does is impossible in so short a space, but the essence of the book lies in thinking about human relationships and social structures, and what growing up Black in America can do to a Black body. Laymon is one of this country’s absolute best writers.
Hanif Abdurraqib, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us (2017)
This essay collection from one of America’s finest cultural critics is ostensibly a collection about music. And while the music writing is beautiful, the essays are also some of the sharpest and most gorgeous explorations of race and belonging in America that I read this year. Over and over again, Abdurraqib takes a song or an album or a concert and finds the road within them that allows him to pursue deeper questions about this country. I ended up teaching several of these essays this fall at my university, and the students loved them.
Native Chicagoan Ewing—a sociologist, writer, poet, artist and activist—accomplished a helluva lot in 2018. She started writing the Ironheart comic book for Marvel, finished work on a forthcoming poetry collection reflecting on Chicago’s brutal 1919 race riot, and also published this powerful, elegiac examination of the political choices behind Chicago’s waves of school closings, the racism inherent in those choices, and the community and personal impacts of the closings. Ewing—who is a former Chicago Public Schools teacher herself (she now teaches at the University of Chicago)—offers a moving, condemnatory, and deeply personal (at both the individual and community level) accounting of what happens when far-removed politicians and technocrats gut the community schools that lay at a neighborhood’s heart.
Mohsin Hamid, Exit West (2017)
A refugee story for an age of refugees. Hamid never names the country in which Exit West is mostly set, but the parameters are familiar: war-torn, violent, and citizens desperate to escape a raging civil war. The two prime characters are Saaed and Nadia, two young people who meet at a university class and who eventually fall in love. As people around them die, they look for ways out. With the novel interweaving aspects of magic realism, those ways out take shape in the form of literal doors that appear around the city that might transport people in an instant into a new setting. What that new setting might hold, however, remains a mystery. This book is brave, intimate, sad, and beautiful. A true must-read for the current moment.
Tayari Jones, An American Marriage (2018)
This book is—wow, this book. An American Marriage revolves around Celestial and Roy—two young and Black newlyweds in Atlanta whose life is upended when Roy is wrongfully incarcerated for sexually assaulting a white woman. Celestial knows that Roy didn’t do it, but he is nonetheless sent to prison for twelve years. Outward from there spins an epic tale of modern America—about family, love, and pain. At its heart, however, the novel is also an important and intimate examination of the personal costs of racism and incarceration in America.
Rabih Alameddine, An Unnecessary Woman (2014)
I first encountered Alameddine several years ago when my favorite Chicago bookstore recommended his incredible novel The Hakawati. An Unnecessary Woman centers around a single septuagenarian woman named Aaliyah living in her apartment in Beirut, alone but for her piles and piles of books. The Lebanese Civil War hangs in memory in the novel’s backdrop, as do various traumas from Aaliyah’s past and present. Filled with a dizzying array of literary references, the novel is an uncannily effective way of showing how the study of one life reveals much about our world more broadly.
Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give (2017)
Before it was made into a movie in 2018, The Hate U Give was a breathtaking young adult novel that follows sixteen-year-old Starr Carter through Black Lives Matter-era America. Starr is identified as a “gifted” student and is thus taken out of her majority-Black neighborhood school and sent to a prep school in the suburbs that’s mostly white. In the midst of navigating these dueling worlds, Starr bears witness to the policing killing of one of her best friends—an unarmed Black boy. The novel stems outward from there, examining how Starr and the community around her are transformed by the killing. In the process, Thomas brilliantly raises questions of identity, race, community, violence, and protest.
Zadie Smith, White Teeth (2000)
Look, I know. I should have read this a long time ago. I know that now. White Teeth, Smith’s 2000 debut, is an extraordinary tale set in London, and spans the waning days of World War II into the modern age. At its center are Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal, who served together in the war and who now, in 1970s London, are two friends from very different backgrounds who are both starting new lives and families. Smith follows them along their intertwined paths as they both marry and have children and struggle to figure out how to properly raise those children. The novel ends up doing a dizzying amount of things within the framework of that storyline, exploring issues of faith, science, politics, identity, belonging, and family. Funny, poignant, and powerful, it’s no wonder White Teeth has become a staple of the canon.
Celeste Ng, Little Fires Everywhere (2017)
Little Fires Everywhere, like most of the fiction on this and many of my previous years’ lists, is consumed with questions of race, identity, and power. The setting is Shaker Heights, Ohio, outside of Cleveland, and the central actors are Mia Warren, her daughter Pearl, and the Richardson family—most consequentially, the matriarch, Elena. When Mia and Pearl move to Shaker Heights, their social lives become increasingly intertwined with those of the Richardsons, but the relationship between Mia and Elena especially is fraught and suspicious. When close family friends of the white Richardsons adopt a Chinese -American baby, community opinion (and opinions within the Warren and Richardson households) split badly. Ng is an absolutely incredible writer, and while I’m not ranking things, this was easily one of my favorites of the year.
Adam Johnson, The Orphan Master’s Son (2012)
Given that The Orphan Master’s Son won the Pulitzer, this too is not an especially original entry. Nevertheless, I loved this novel, which is a breathtaking feat of storytelling that follows a North Korean man and “model citizen” of the DPRK named Pak Jun Do as he navigates life as an agent of the totalitarian regime. It’s hard to discuss plot devices without giving too much away, but suffice to say that this is a truly remarkable book about totalitarianism, propaganda, love, and resistance. Also suffice to say that it was wild to be reading it at the same time that the Trump-Kim summit nonsense was unfolding earlier this year.
Currently reading: Nathan Hill’s The Nix and Jesmyn Ward’s Where the Line Bleeds