As the year approaches its end, it’s time to start thinking about the year in review- the best and worst books we’ve read in 2018. But looking back on my reading year, I realized that there’s another category I want to acknowledge: the Almost-Favorites. This year, I feel that I’ve really branched out my reading, and taken chances on books that I hoped would educate me as well as entertain. These probably won’t make it to my all-time favorites list, but with Thanksgiving celebrations tomorrow I wanted to take a moment to appreciate the books that have helped me learn and grow as a reader this year. Each of these titles changed my perspective or resonated with me personally in some way.
Without further ado, my 2018 Almost-Favorites (in the order that I read them):
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. This novel is probably about a character on the Autism spectrum, though the likelihood that Eleanor has undiagnosed Asperger’s is not discussed in the text. That’s why I loved this book. I had never read a character like Eleanor, and loved the way her perspective was portrayed fairly and casually- this is not a book that sensationalizes autism; instead, it introduces the reader to a new viewpoint that it endeavors to normalize. A bit more subtlety would have made this a true favorite for me, but even at 4 stars Eleanor and her dark past will stick with me.
Emma by Jane Austen. I’ve read 4 of Austen’s novels now, and loved every one. Though each of her stories are entertaining, Emma is the most impressive in terms of structure and dramatic irony. This book is heavy on dialogue that reveals so much of each character to the reader that the plot itself offers little surprise as the characters march toward their inevitable conclusions, but seeing them clash and change along the way makes the novel worth the read. I devoured this book the way I imagine one watches a ventriloquist show- with my eyes not on the characters, but on their master; Austen’s skill is obvious in Emma, and never wavers.
Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong. Here is a story about a grown woman whose life is in shambles, returning home to help her parents through worsening Alzheimer’s. This disease of memory runs in my own family, and though I haven’t personally seen a case as bad as the one in this story, it struck a chord with me. The plot is a bit far-fetched and predictable, but the way that Alzheimer’s affects this family feels real and impactful. It’s not only the forgetting that’s hard, but the change of personality and behavior that accompanies it. I felt for this family, and won’t forget them.
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. This book took me completely by surprise. I don’t pay much attention to real celebrities and didn’t expect to enjoy reading about a fictional one- but Evelyn Hugo won me over. This is not a book about a glamorous movie star, but about a woman who does whatever it takes to make a name for herself in an industry that doesn’t want to accept her. She faces discrimination based on her race, gender, and sexuality, but finds a way to become beloved by millions. She taught me a bit about how wrong assumptions can be. If I hadn’t guessed a few key plot points before reading them, this book might have found its way to my favorites list.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. I had never read a true crime book before this year, unless you count The Devil in the White City which is only partially focused on historical crimes. But this nonfiction narrative is a classic, the first of its genre, and for the most part it does read like a novel. Capote takes the reader through the Clutter family’s last day, the long and difficult investigation, and their killers’ trail. The writing is strong and memorable. I only wished it had focused more on the victims than the killers.
The Vegetarian by Han Kang. This story is a narrative work of genius. It is divided into three sections, each of which focuses on a character who affects or is affected by a Korean woman who turns vegetarian. The story actually has little to do with vegetarianism- it is about the way people react to someone whose life choices are very different from societal norms. Each of the three perspective characters imposes their own view onto the woman’s choice, and the ways that they take advantage of her or let her down are the true focus of the story. There are so many powerful messages wrapped up in here and Kang’s writing is brilliant and revelatory, but I also found it too uncomfortable and disturbing in places to say that I truly enjoyed it. Even so, this is one of the most intense and unforgettable novels that I’ve ever read.
On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan. Covering mainly a single evening on Chesil Beach, this short novel delves deeply into the failed relationship of a 1960’s newlywed couple. Despite their feelings for each other, their inability to talk about their sexual preferences may drive them apart. McEwan deftly weaves past and future events into the scope of that single eventful night, and turns it all into a portrait of identity and communication. For a story so rooted in time, the themes and tragedies explored still seem surprisingly relevant. I had never read about an asexual character before, and this book was a fantastic introduction to that perspective.
The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner. I don’t know why narratives about women’s prisons fascinate me the way they do. There’s something so gripping about injustices in that setting, and though it’s still fairly new to me this was not my first time reading a story of that sort. What impressed me most about this novel though, is that readers must decide for themselves which events are injustices, which are tragedies, and which are fair. Despite a few small sections of the book that felt completely unnecessary to the overall plot, this is a fascinating novel about the wrongs people do to each other, and how they pay for them. It blurs the line between the innocent and guilty, offering instead an all-encompassing moral gray area.
The Emigrants by Vilhelm Moberg. This is a Swedish classic about a family that emigrates to America. Though this volume is only the first chapter of a broader saga, it touches on a part of my own family history in a way that made this book a compelling read for me. Though the writing didn’t impress me on a sentence-by-sentence level, the scope and structure of the story pulled the narrative together. I have not yet read the rest of the series (I’m afraid the feeling of personal connection to these characters’ journey will fade after the actual emigration), I am looking forward to them. My experience with the first book taught me how important it is for all people from all places to be represented accurately in literature.
Normal People by Sally Rooney. I have read twelve (so far) of the thirteen Man Booker longlist titles this year, and I could’ve included most of those books on this list for one reason or another. But Normal People is the one I related to most, and I didn’t want it to be overlooked even though it won’t turn up on my list of 2018 favorites. This is a story about two distinct but ordinary people who begin a relationship as teens and can never quite let each other go afterwards. Though my own life has been very different from either of theirs, I was repeatedly struck by the similarity of their thoughts and feelings to my own. Though I found the plot slightly repetitive and sparse, I found the characters understandable and compelling, and I cannot wait to find out what else Sally Rooney has to say. Full review for this book coming soon.
Have you read any of these books? What are some Almost-Favorites you’re thankful to have read this year?
The Literary Elephant