We asked the authors of our top 10 books of 2018 to share their favorite titles published this year.
Apostol’s Insurrecto (Soho) is a novel of staggering imagination about two women who write dueling film scripts about the Philippine-American War while on a road trip to the town of Balangiga, the site of a violent conflict between occupying American forces and Filipinos in 1901. Apostol picks a debut novel that follows a Filipino family through three generations.
Apostol’s Pick: America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo (Viking)
Do not start America Is Not the Heart when you’re in the middle of other things. I could not put it down. It’s addictive. I’m trying to figure out why. It’s like this Dickensian text about Filipino garage parties and lesbian coming-of-age moments in hair salons in Milpitas, Calif., instead of about Cheapside of London or the prison melodramas of Victorian Westminster courts. The novel genre once revolutionized English literature by its laser focus on quotidian lower-middle-class life. And the exquisite close scrutiny and loving detail that Castillo casts on the minutiae of immigrant community life in Milpitas occur to me as such a revolution. She commands us to invest in this Filipino community’s bonds, because the most ordinary aspects of its life—its pancit eating, garage-band stylings, home cooking—according to Castillo, are obdurately America. The immigrant life in America Is Not the Heart is America’s powerful story.
But also, for me, what distinguishes Castillo’s novel is its focus on love and communality—in my view, the heart of its ethical grace and its tonal power. Perhaps this strikes me because that is what I, too, most treasure about my Filipino life: the ways we survive because of the bonds that tie us, however messy those bonds are. This novel’s emotional tone is not primarily the angst of migration, the horror of family separation, or nostalgia for lost homelands—though it possesses all of the above. Most startlingly, the novel rests on love, especially love among people who’ve created family bonds not necessarily by blood but by need, by desire, and by a personal sense of justice.
There are two heroes in the novel, both women, both named Geronima—Hero, the rebel-immigrant who falls in love at the hair salon, and Roni, the Filipino-American child, a fiercely individual portrait—and both, in my view, are particular triumphs in this novel. Roni is pitch-perfect, sounded in an unsentimental, unconquered voice, confident of her centrality in her complex, American place.
There is nothing abstract about America Is Not the Heart—its most compelling narrative virtue. But in its ethical understanding of what true community is, the novel returns to us the ideals of this republic: life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, bound in pancit dinners and heroic, ordinary, familial love.
Halliday’s debut novel, Asymmetry (Simon & Schuster), boldly and brilliantly juxtaposes the dreamworld of Alice, a young book editor who embarks on a relationship with an older, prize-winning novelist in Manhattan, alongside the harsh reality of Amar, an Iraqi-American economist detained at Heathrow on the way to visit his family in Iraq. Halliday’s selection is an omnibus of George Orwell’s writing on democracy, propaganda, and more.
Halliday’s Pick: Orwell on Truth by George Orwell (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
We tend to regard historical perspective as useful, healthy, a balm for the heartache or anxiety of the present. Often perspective informs us that the present is not so different from the past, tempting us to conclude that if humanity survived earlier iterations of this mess, then we are likely to survive the current one, too. But of course, there are many possible scenarios between survival and nonsurvival, and arguably some are to be dreaded more than nonsurvival itself. History may repeat, but it’s not periodic in the same seemingly inexorable way that a planet orbits the sun. History repeats because we let it or because we want it to, or because we don’t want it to but we don’t know how to stop it. Perspective, then, becomes more important than a balm: it becomes imperative, the best means we have to predict consequences and avoid familiar mistakes.
I’ve been an Orwell acolyte ever since reading Down and Out in Paris and London, which contains a sublime line about the “grand turmoil” of supper at a Parisian hotel: “I wish I could be Zola for a little while, to describe that dinner hour.” What a revelation, this superefficient little sentence that manages to be homage, humility, and vivid incantation all at once. I didn’t know it was possible to write like that, I thought when I read it the first time—a confession echoed verbatim in Adam Hochschild’s introduction to the new anthology Orwell on Truth. A distillation of passages from Orwell’s writing on imperialism, nationalism, socialism, fascism, journalism, surveillance, democracy, propaganda, and “the power of the lie,” this unnervingly relevant omnibus should be on every reading stack, every syllabus, every desk from Washington to Silicon Valley and beyond. “It is an age of partisanship and not of detachment, an age in which it is especially difficult to see literary merit in a book whose conclusions you disagree with,” Orwell said in a speech entitled “Literature and Totalitarianism,” broadcast by the BBC in 1941. And: “The first thing that we ask of a writer is that he shan’t tell lies.”
There can be great beauty in truth-telling, in finding an aesthetic solution that is both honest and elegant, curious and explicit, discerning and deferential to all that is unknowable. Orwell’s language is a balm; the perspective he provides is worrying. That probably means we should heed it all the more.
Heavy: An American Memoir (Scribner) is Laymon’s powerful examination of his experience of being black in America, including his lifelong struggles with weight and gambling, and his relationships with his grandmother and mother (to whom the book is addressed). For his pick, Laymon selects an anthology of essays about rape, assault, and harassment.
Laymon’s Pick: Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture, edited by Roxane Gay (Harper Perennial)
Not That Bad was the rare anthology that came right on time. Not a little late, not a little too soon. Right on time. One could argue that a thorough, rigorous collection of essays exploring our survival of, and brutal dependence on, rape culture is always timely. And one might be right. But reading these authors courageously curated by Gay, I got the sense that the authors, more than being inspired by the current movement to confront sexual violence, have wanted and needed to craft these essays for years. Now, for better and worse, the nation finally seems ready to wholly invest in the various shapes, consequences, and whys of the sexual violence epidemic in this country and its normalcy.
This book will last, and it will also establish many of the writers as artists we long for when the nation obsessively chooses sanctioning violence over sanctioning structural, communal, and interpersonal liberation. At least 10 times in the book, I shook my head, because I have neither the skill nor the will to artfully render experience and imagination the way these authors did. Gay’s brilliantly textured work in fiction, nonfiction, comics, film, TV, and Twitter will outlast all of our children and grandchildren, but her commitment to step to power while generously making paths for other hungry, incisive writers is what truly distinguishes her from the greatest writers and curators of our generation.
In Perry’s stellar gothic novel Melmoth (Custom House), translator Helen Franklin lives in Prague and attempts to atone for a wrong she committed decades earlier. Helen reads about Melmoth—the specter of a woman who denied the sight of the risen Christ and was cursed to wander the Earth, haunting culpable individuals throughout history—and soon finds herself being followed. Perry’s selection is a reimagining of King Lear in contemporary India.
Perry’s Pick: We That Are Young by Preti Taneja (Knopf)
I read several excellent new novels this year, but Preti Taneja’s We That Are Young was perhaps the most vivid, ambitious, and memorable. It transplants Shakespeare’s King Lear to contemporary India, and so much of the fun lies in finding the cunning ways in which Taneja references the play (and yes: the squeamish should be alert for the scene in which eyes are put out). Taneja envisions Lear as Devraj, a powerful and capricious man at the head of the Corporation, an immense company that reaches from India’s moneyed classes to those still at the mercy of what remains of the caste system. When Devraj resigns on a whim, he divides the Corporation’s assets between his two elder daughters, while the youngest—a recognizably pious iteration of Cordelia—runs away.
There are a good many successful novels that have a kind of Orientalist feel for India—mangoes and hotels and overcrowded trains, and so on—but ones that with minute care and attention evoke a realist depiction of contemporary Indian culture are harder to come by. One of the novel’s great joys is the particularity of its material details: mobile phones, designer brands, embroidered saris, cars, food, and architecture are so richly and precisely described the effect is like that of reading Dickens on London. And if the plot is appropriately melodramatic at times, there is psychological realism, too: each of the daughters is given her own perspective, and each is entirely convincing.
That a debut novelist would attempt such a task is admirable—to pull it off so magnificently is awe-inspiring, frankly.
Reagan: An American Journey (Penguin Press) is Spitz’s captivating biography of Reagan from his Midwest youth to the Oval Office, complete with numerous interviews with a wide array of Reagan cohorts. Spitz selects a novel that relieved the “brain drain” of working on a presidential biography.
Spitz’s Pick: Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart (Random House)
Working on a presidential biography requires endless years of poring through dense political tracts, memoirs, and miles of government files. To relieve the brain drain, I depend on the magic of novels to help transport me into lives and worlds far away from the reality of Washington’s intrigues. The gems turn me inside out and occasionally make me reevaluate my own place in the universe, which is how I felt after reading Shteyngart’s Lake Success.
Shteyngart is a tantalizing talent with imagination to burn. Few writers have the sureness of touch and the subtlety of style necessary to deliver a dark, wickedly funny story that, in lesser hands, might read like burlesque. Barry Cohen, the protagonist—or is he the villain?—is a soulless one-percenter on the lam from a federal subpoena, a failed marriage, and an autistic son whose demands elude Barry’s idea of fatherhood. The upshot is an ill-conceived cross-country Greyhound bus trip, ostensibly to connect with real Americans, but the specter of disaster hangs over it like a guillotine blade. There is real pain in this bittersweet tale of unsurpassable wit and intelligence that deeds Shteyngart the literary terrain left by Philip Roth.
Juan Gabriel Vásquez
Vásquez is author, narrator, and protagonist of The Shape of the Ruins (Riverhead), an ingenious novel in which he is pulled into a web of potential conspiracy in Colombia by a radio host who claims to have proof of links between the assassinations of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán (in 1948) and General Rafael Uribe Uribe (in 1914). Vásquez selects a study of the impact of fear in the current political climate.
Vásquez’s Pick: The Monarchy of Fear: A Philosopher Looks at Our Political Crisis by Martha Nussbaum (Simon & Schuster)
Nussbaum has spent much of her intellectual life exploring the role of emotions in our political discourse. Several times, before the publication of this book, I caught myself thinking how she would make sense of the present situation, where emotions have run amok. After all, that is what post-truth is: a narrative of our experience in which verifiable truths have been replaced by emotional falsifications.
The Monarchy of Fear is the book that I was expecting her to write: a learned and urgent meditation on the one emotion that seems to be informing or contaminating public conversation in America as well as (much to our dismay) in the rest of the world. Nussbaum is very good at establishing the links between fear and tributary emotions such as anger and envy; but my favorite pages are the ones that discuss sexism and misogyny, their overlooked differences, their unholy alliance in Trumpland.
In the book, fear is a monarchical emotion in that it is by nature antidemocratic: it corrodes democratic impulses such as equality and tolerance, it closes down curiosity about others, it feeds off and reinforces narcissism. I read The Monarchy of Fear with a sense of unreality, as the 45th president—a racist, misogynistic narcissist, all traits discussed at length in the book—carried out an unprecedented campaign of fear that seemed designed to confirm Nussbaum’s worst-case scenarios. In that sense, the book is not only prescient: it is a user’s manual for the present day.
In She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity (Dutton), Zimmer presents a comprehensive, magisterial examination of virtually all aspects of the study of heredity, including eugenics and the emerging science of epigenetics. Zimmer’s choice is about the intersection of neuroscience, psychology, and genetics.
Zimmer’s Pick: Innate: How the Wiring of Our Brains Shapes Who We Are by Kevin J. Mitchell (Princeton Univ.)
We inherit a vast tangle of DNA from our parents. It contains about 20,000 protein-coding genes, along with millions of molecular on-off switches that control them. As we develop from fertilized eggs onward, our multiplying cells use those genes for, among other things, building our brains.
These days, scientists are peering into this awesome unfolding and discovering all manner of mysteries. In the 1990s, it cost researchers about $3 billion to sequence a single human genome sequence. Now it costs about $1,000, and the cost is dropping fast. As scientists sequence the genomes of millions of people, they can also see how DNA behaves inside living cells. And they can observe those cells in action, whether they’re self-organizing into a brain or communicating signals to one another.
Yet, despite all this new knowledge, genes, brains, and behavior remain the subjects of bitter cultural battles. Some people claim that genetic differences explain why some people succeed and others don’t, while others claim that the very notion of intelligence is a social fiction with no biological meaning. Others claim that the new science of epigenetics means that genes don’t matter a whit. At Google and elsewhere, a growing chorus invokes biology to explain away some of the disparities in technology and other fields between men and women.
A lot of these bold assertions are wrong. In recent years, Mitchell, a neuroscientist at Trinity College Dublin, has been setting the record straight, either on his blog, Wiring the Brain, or on his Twitter account, @wiringthebrain. Now, Mitchell has moved beyond those tight confines to write a book.
Innate is the best guide to the intersection of neuroscience, psychology, and genetics that I’ve found in recent years. Genetic variants really do matter to how our brains work, Mitchell explains, but it’s not as if our brains are the reliable product of some simple blueprint encoded in our DNA. To a surprising extent, our brains turn out the way they do thanks simply to chance. If there’s any question you have about how our brains make us who we are, chances are you’ll find an enlightening answer in Innate.