Top Ten Books of 2018
The books we find ourselves reading are some of the greatest markers for where we are as people. They show us what information we’re ready to absorb, what empathy we are ready to feel, and which lives we are ready to lead by reading words from a page. As writers put their work out for the public to engage with, they can only hope their readers are listening. 2018 was a fantastic year for this intimate exchange between writer and reader (and the reader with herself).
Fools’ writing editors Elaine Irvine and Gabbie Meis show us what they consider the best literature of 2018 in two categories: books published in 2018 and books that had the most impact on them in 2018.
Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston
In Barracoon, Zora Neale Hurston interviews the last known African slave and living survivor of the Middle Passage in 1927, as she was writing the book. The book wasn’t published until the middle of 2018, almost 60 years after Hurston’s death.
Cudjo Lewis, 86-years-old at the time of his interviews with Hurston, was one of the millions of African people sold and transported to the United States. Lewis is able to remember with a tremendous amount of heart wrenching detail the attack on his home in Africa and the ship ride across the Atlantic Ocean. Hurston writes Lewis’ words phonetically, keeping his accent and his words exactly the way they sounded. She is honest about his storytelling and his relationship with Hurston, as he often had to stop telling his stories due to the pain it caused him, and wasn’t always willing to talk to Hurston for perhaps the same reason.
Though Barracoon unfortunately remained unpublished for so many long years due to the unwillingness of publishers to take it on, we are so fortunate to have Lewis’ words recorded on paper for us. I have no doubt that if it had been published in 1927, the book would have already been a classic for decades. Thankfully, now it can be one. - Elaine
Becoming by Michelle Obama
Michelle Obama’s memoir, published in November, is trisected into three parts: Becoming Me, Becoming Us, and Becoming More. Young Michelle Robinson, a South Side Chicagoan, graduated from Princeton University and Harvard Law School. In her memoir, she offers her readers an intimate view of her career, her relationship with former President Obama, and a glance of her family inside and out of the White House.
The Washington Post cites Becoming as the best-selling hardcover book of the year, and her sold-out books tours reinforce this popularity. Obama’s honesty and humor in light of Trump’s presidency makes you mourn the Obamas in office. When I picked up the memoir, I expected to find a critique of the Trump administration, but Obama’s narrative instead offered the reader a moral contrast in her and her husband’s values with Trump’s. More than anything, Michelle Obama let her readers get to know her. After I finished reading, I would’ve called the former First Lady a friend. Her memoir is a call to action for the 2020 presidential election. - Gabbie
Educated by Tara Westover
Tara Westover’s memoir, told in a collection of individually titled short stories, begins with an admission of its honesty: “My strongest memory is not a memory. It’s something I imagined, then came to remember as if it had happened.” Westover, raised in a rural, Mormon fundamentalist household in Idaho, explains her unimaginable upbringing bookmarked with domestic abuse, misogyny, and the restriction of her education.
Westover, a Cambridge-educated historian, fought her father’s paranoia of establishment to an undergraduate degree at Brigham Young University. Westover’s prose is bone-chilling, just as her story. She challenges her readers to reassess their education, while also critiquing her family’s values. Tara Westover’s memoir reinvents its author and her personal narrative. - Gabbie
Florida by Lauren Groff
Lauren Groff, a novelist and short story writer, released her newest collection of short stories, Florida, this past June. The collection centers on the people of Florida, both spatially and mentally. From a pair of young sisters abandoned on an island to mothers at home and abroad, Groff explores the dark sides of humanity.
A finalist for the National Book Award, Florida has been well-received by critics and fans of the New York Times bestselling author. Through her short stories, Groff dissects relationships and pries them apart to their roots. Groff leads her readers intricately through the swamp of aging and isolation that she puts her characters through. - Gabbie
If They Come for Us by Fatimah Asghar
Fatimah Asghar’s book of poetry, If They Come for Us, reinforces my firm belief that books of poetry should be distributed as history textbooks. Asghar is a Pakistani-Kashmiri Muslim poet who is able to perfectly encapsulate her childhood and adult life as a second generation immigrant.
Asghar’s poems made me cry, mourn and laugh, but most importantly it made me research the tragedies she sees still impacting her family, which I had never learned about in my world history classes. Specifically, she writes about the Partition of India into two countries (Pakistan and India) in 1947, which resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and assaults on Pakistani and Indian women. Seven poems in Asghar’s book are titled “Partition.”
Asghar reminds me of what poetry can do. More than just bringing to my attention a horrific historical event my ancestors never could have dreamed of, she shows the reader how colonialism still bears its teeth generations later. It is the perfect blending of flowing, honest prose with history’s way of lingering and repeating, and Asghar’s personal narrative. - Elaine
Books That Had the Most Impact on Us in 2018:
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
I have a special place in my heart for books that follow generations of families (One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, and so on). Pachinko by Min Jin Lee follows a Korean woman, Sunja, as she falls in love with a wealthy Japanese mobster, but marries a sick minister instead, moving with him to Japan. The two begin a family together, and the story continues for three generations.
I also recommended this book to others more than any other this year. Especially since the numerous travel bans and resentment toward immigrants in the United States this year, I feel like reading the stories, even fictional, of immigrants is vital to expressing and learning empathy if a reader previously doesn’t have it. Though Sunja’s family doesn’t move to the United States, readers learn so much about the risk, work, and sacrifice immigrant families put forth for a different life. Lee does a stunning job of describing their emotions, feeling like two people; not quite Korean, but unaccepted as Japanese.
I read this book very early on in 2018, and it has been the one to stick with me. Something about Sunja’s dedication to her family while not having an independent life of her own, the drastically different personalities of her sons, and the beautiful descriptions of setting, time and landscape followed me around as I read other books of fiction. It set the bar high for the year, and quickly became one of my all time favorites. - Elaine
The Power by Naomi Alderman
I picked up The Power at the library this year after seeing a blurb from Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale: "Electrifying! Shocking! Will knock your socks off! Then you'll think twice, about everything." Alderman lived up to every expectation Atwood described. In the science fiction novel, Alderman imagines a world in which women are given physical power over men through an electric sleeve about their bodies. The story soon takes a dark turn after women realize the damage they are capable of, and it becomes almost too-close to our own reality for comfort.
Published in October of 2016, almost a year before the #MeToo campaign, Alderman added her voice to the conversation, while offering a critique of misogyny and the structure of our society. Alderman delicately escalates her conflict until it’s too late. Her story made me cringe, weep, and laugh through her main characters. This book stunned me and made me think twice about what our future might look like. - Gabbie
South and West: From a Notebook by Joan Didion
Joan Didion, 84-years-old and still publishing her work, gave her readers a time capsule this year. South and West: From a Notebook is a compiled collection of notes Didion took in her notebook from 1970 during a road trip across Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi and in 1976 while she was in California. At the time, Didion was attempting to write one piece about life in the South and another about the Patty Hearst trial. She never published either of them. Instead, in 2018, Didion teaches us about the lives Americans are continuing to live today.
I swear, Didion can see into the future. She tells tales of children playing in hotel pools in the unbearable heat, of conservative authorities and their wives around a dinner table, of waitresses in highway-side diners. The tells the ultimate tale of the “heartland of America,” what that meant in the 1970s, and what it means now. This year, especially during this presidential term, I don’t see a giant difference. South and West takes us one step closer to an understanding. - Elaine
Sula by Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison’s second novel, following The Bluest Eye, was published in November of 1973. Sula traces the growth and friendship of two young black women, Nel Wright and Sula Peace, in a small town in Ohio. While Nel stays in town to become a wife and mother, Sula moves on to the city and a college education. Upon her return, Sula is ostracized by her town and her longtime friend. Despite the novel’s namesake, Nel takes on the role of primary protagonist. The novel illustrates the bonds forged in woman friendship and what being a woman means to different people.
A new reader of Morrison, I was shocked by the intention she gives to every word of her stories. Her prose is lyrical and drives each sentence forward. Morrison is a master of narrator blending and raising the emotional stakes. This novel was heart wrenching and guttural, and I would read it over and over again. - Gabbie
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before Trilogy by Jenny Han
I admit it: I watched To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before on Netflix at least a couple times before I even bought the first of the three books by Jenny Han. I am very grateful to the film, but mostly because it brought me to the original stories. Never have I read a book, specifically young adult fiction, like this trilogy. I read them all in a week and a half.
Han writes the most realistic teenage girl I have ever seen. There is no end to the relatability of the main character, Lara Jean Song Covey, as she navigates her first taste of love with Peter Kavinsky. The two decide they should pretend to date, as Lara Jean’s love letter are sent out when they were never meant to be, threatening her relationship with her older sister and one of her longest friends.
What made me fall in love with this book is the full-roundedness of the story. It wasn’t A Romance Novel, though it centered around romance. Lara Jean has a life outside of this boy, and other things to navigate: her sister moving out of the country for college, her mother’s death, her father trying to keep her mother’s Korean culture alive in the family in her mother’s absence. Lara Jean as a person who is struggling with stability is more authentic to teenage girlhood than I’ve ever read before. This is the series I wish I’d had in middle or high school, and I’m so glad it finally exists for me now. - Elaine