As 2018 comes to a close, the Vox staff is sharing the most thought-provoking books we’ve read in the past 12 months. Some of them were published a long time ago, others just earlier this year. Some of them are all-around great books, some are our personal favorites, and some we have mixed feelings about. But they all have one thing in common: In a year with countless news stories, TV shows, movies, podcasts, and other books vying for our attention, these are all works we found worthy of discussion and attention.
How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence by Michael Pollan
You know Michael Pollan’s work. He wrote The Omnivore’s Dilemma, perhaps the most influential book about how we eat in the modern era. He’s the guy who told us, sensibly: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” His new book is called How To Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.
Over the past decade or so, the scientific community has reengaged with psychedelic substances, and done so to extraordinary effect: The studies Pollan describes in this discussion are remarkable, but so too are the insights into how our minds work, the ways in which they become overly ordered and efficient as we age, and the power that a dedicated dose of disorder can hold.
You don’t have to be interested in taking magic mushrooms to read this book. Much of it isn’t about psychedelics at all. Pollan is really using psychedelics to build a model of our minds, and an explanation for why our thinking ossifies as we age. It is, quite honestly, a trip.
—Ezra Klein, editor-at-large
Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy by James Williams
“While we weren’t watching, a next generation threat to human freedom materialized right in front of our noses,” writes James Williams in Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy. “We didn’t notice it because it came in forms that were already familiar to us. It came bearing gifts of information, historically a scarce and valuable resource, but delivered them in such abundance, and with such velocity, that these gifts became a mountain of burdens.”
Williams, a Google employee turned philosopher, is writing about the threat posed by the smartphones in our pockets, the screens glowing before our eyes. It’s a threat, he argues, that takes direct aim at perhaps the most important resource we have: our control over our own attention. This is a book making a radical claim, but one I increasingly believe is true: that “these new attentional adversaries threaten not only the success but even the integrity of the human will, at both individual and collective levels.”
—Ezra Klein, editor-at-large
The Fighters by C.J. Chivers
The United States is at war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Thousands of US troops are working and living in more than 100 countries. Despite this, it’s rare for Americans to partake in a national conversation about the country at war and the toll it takes on its men and women. That’s why C.J. Chivers’s The Fighters is worth your time.
The book provides an unflinching account of the lives and deaths of troops fighting on the front lines — the same front lines where politicians put them. Featuring a range of battle scenes, from clashes in remote valleys to daring helicopter flights, Chivers’s work reminds us to think about those fellow Americans in harm’s way — some of them needlessly — every day.
—Alex Ward, staff writer, international security and defense
The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World by Jeff Goodell
It’s one thing to see rising sea levels projected on maps, or to hear people talk about them in terms of inches and feet.
It’s something else entirely to have the ramifications of their rise spelled out for you, in cities all across the country. Jeff Goodell’s book The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World often reads like dystopian science fiction, but its subject matter is all too real.
He tackles New York City’s plans to try to protect the city from rising waters (and how the richest neighborhoods are the most likely to be saved), how Miami’s current real estate industry is priming the city for extra pain in the future, how long we have until the largest naval base in the world is underwater, and how the military is dealing with that reality.
It’s beautifully reported, beautifully written, and absolutely horrifying.
—Byrd Pinkerton, podcast producer
Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover
When I think about all the books I read in 2018, the one that stands out the most is Educated, a memoir by Tara Westover. The book tells the unforgettable true story of Westover’s life growing up in rural Idaho as a daughter of survivalists, who prepared for the end of the world and shunned official entities like the government, hospitals, and schools.
Westover has no real education all the way through her teenage years. But after an older brother becomes the first in her family to go to college, Westover is inspired to buy an ACT prep book and study for the test. When she eventually gets into college at Brigham Young University, she struggles to fit in with her peers, having grown up in a totally different lifestyle and missing a decade of formal education. Eventually, she earns her PhD in history from Cambridge and obtains a fellowship at Harvard, stunning achievements for someone who didn’t go to school until the age of 17.
But Westover’s embrace of education is seen as a rejection of her family’s way of life, and so she must now balance the new life her education has opened up for her with the old, close-knit world she grew up in. Westover’s gift for storytelling will make you feel like you’re right there with her in the tiny mountain community of Buck Peak, Idaho.
—Nisha Chittal, engagement editor
Richard Nixon: The Life by John A. Farrell
About the last thing I imagined when I picked up this new take on our most infamous president (endorsed by his posthumous visage on Twitter) was that the last line would move me nearly to tears. But that’s what happened. And I still feel a little weird about it.
John A. Farrell’s book is an impressive feat of reporting. The biographer is unflinching in describing Nixon’s amorality during Watergate, his self-destructive tendencies, his vile foreign record (not only the bombing campaign in Laos and Cambodia but his ineffectual response to the genocide in what was then East Pakistan). By the tale’s end, Nixon is ruthless and paranoid, an alcoholic shell of a man fighting fruitlessly to retain his illusions about himself. Farrell nearly skips the end of Nixon’s career, and it’s for the best, avoiding the mistakes of another moment where the press too often sanitizes the memory of a dead president.
Farrell’s most impressive achievement is how well he understands the effect that Nixon’s young life had on the man he grew up to be — and what America might have seen in him as he was rising through the political ranks. A strained childhood in relative poverty in rural California and vigorously religious parents filled Nixon with an irreconcilable sense of self-loathing and need to please. It’s become too easy to regard people in power as caricatures, acting outside of time. But they are real people, prone to error and misjudgments. They have been shaped by the world as much as they go on to shape it in turn.
Farrell doesn’t make us mourn Nixon, not exactly, but he does bring us to a certain understanding of why his life, for millions of others and for himself, was such a tragedy.
—Dylan Scott, policy reporter
Heal Your Headache by David Buchholz
I got my first migraine at age 7, after a friend’s birthday party in the Midwestern July heat where we consumed nothing but candy and lemonade. Since then, they’ve been a constant, debilitating struggle. By the time I found a great neurologist at age 25, I’d tried to kick my migraines a ton of different ways. When my neuro recommended the book Heal Your Headache by Dr. David Buchholz, I figured I had nothing to lose by reading it.
Buchholz outlines a three-step method for reducing migraines: 1) Stop reaching for painkillers, 2) reduce triggers through dietary restrictions and other methods, and 3) if needed, increase your migraine threshold — a.k.a. take preventive medication.
In the migraine community, his book is both revered and looked at with skepticism — just take a look at the Amazon reviews. Its tone is a little too self-assured, and some of the solutions are tough to swallow, like avoiding hormonal birth control or giving up MSG. (Everything has MSG!). While I didn’t see any real results from his diet, the book did help me wean myself off some migraine drugs and eliminate caffeine and alcohol.
My favorite parts of the book, though, are the sections where he describes migraine pain in great detail. It’s rare for someone else to express exactly what you feel so perfectly, and hearing how universal but terrible my symptoms are was relieving and depressing.
If you get migraines, I recommend seeing a neurologist. But reading the book might help too. It won’t heal you, but it could open your eyes to new treatment avenues and give you a sense of community.
—Bridgett Henwood, copy editor
Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence by Rachel Sherman
Rachel Sherman’s Uneasy Street is a vital look at how the rich see themselves. Sherman interviewed 50 wealthy New Yorkers — many of whom deny being rich in the first place, or prefer euphemisms like “comfortable” or “ultra-high net worth individual” — and found that many of them are wracked with anxiety.
Some of the people Sherman interviewed are afraid of being seen as out of touch by friends or family, particularly friends or family who don’t have as much money as they do. Others — especially those who inherited their fortunes — feel guilty and undeserving of their riches. One woman Sherman talked to even admitted to taking the label off the $6 loaf of bread she regularly buys because she didn’t want her nanny to see it and feel uncomfortable.
All of this may seem trivial in our time of growing inequality, but as Sherman shows, these examples point to a growing number of people who are uncomfortable with their wealth but not so uncomfortable that they’re willing to give it up. The question at the heart of Uneasy Street isn’t whether rich people are spending their money “correctly,” but whether they should have so much money in the first place. For Sherman, the answer is a resounding no.
—Gaby Del Valle, reporter, The Goods
Defending the Master Race: Conservation, Eugenics, and the Legacy of Madison Grant by Jonathan Peter Spiro
Madison Grant was an avowed white supremacist and one of the leaders of the American eugenics movement. He was also a well-connected and respected lobbyist: Born and raised in Manhattan, he spent his summers at his grandfather’s Long Island country house and was close friends with Theodore Roosevelt. He co-founded the Bronx Zoo, saved American bison from extinction, and used his money and connections to lobby for the creation of America’s national parks — despite never holding public office.
This may seem contradictory to those of us who associate environmentalism with the political left, but Jonathan Spiro’s excellent biography of Grant shows how prevalent white nationalism was in the early 20th century, and how easily it sat side by side with apparently contradictory ideas.
Spiro deftly balances big-picture discussions of Progressive-era nativism with anecdotes that give you a picture of Grant’s day-to-day life: part purveyor of monstrous ideas, part quirky outdoorsman. (He celebrated the successful opening of the Bronx Zoo by going on a moose hunt in the Adirondacks!) Given the subject matter, I wouldn’t exactly call Defending the Master Race a light read, but it was hard to put down.
—Gaby Del Valle, reporter, The Goods
Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou
When I started reading John Carreyrou’s book on the failed health startup Theranos, I wasn’t quite sure what I’d learn from it. As a health care journalist, I’d already been an avid follower of Carreyrou’s work — namely, his award-winning stories for the Wall Street Journal that revealed Theranos’s false claims that it could perform dozens of medical tests with a tiny blood sample.
But I am so glad I gave it a chance, because it turned out to be the best book I read in 2018, giving more depth and nuance to the story of the company’s demise as well as a behind-the-scenes look at Carreyrou’s reporting journey.
What I found most compelling about Bad Blood was Carreyrou’s portrait of why big health companies were so willing to believe the lies of Theranos’s young CEO, Elizabeth Holmes: They didn’t want to miss out on the next big thing. I found Carreyrou’s chapter on why Walgreens signed a major deal with Theranos especially revealing, as it showed how the pharmacy chain was mostly motivated by the desire not to lose out to CVS.
It was this type of revelation that made Bad Blood worthwhile. The book helped me understand how such a massive deception took place, and what questions I should be asking when I cover health care startups in the future.
—Sarah Kliff, senior policy correspondent
Like a Mother: A Feminist Journey Through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy by Angela Garbes
I came across Angela Garbes’s memoir of her experiences with pregnancy, breastfeeding, and early parenting at the exact right moment: early into my summer of parental leave, when I was struggling with all these issues. Looking out at the world, it seemed motherhood came easier to other women — but Garbes’s combination of evidence-based reporting and personal stories made me feel so much less alone.
I devoured her book during late-night nursing sessions, with my Kindle in one hand and my baby in the other. I teared up a bit at Garbes’s description of a labor that didn’t go as planned (similar to my own), and felt a bit wondrous learning a lot of wild facts about lactation and breast milk. This wasn’t a book that provided tips about how to be a new parent, getting babies to sleep, or getting back in shape after birth. Believe me, I had plenty of those books. Instead, it acknowledged that birth and motherhood are a fantastic experience but also frustrating and hard — and as a new mom, it was exactly what I needed.
—Sarah Kliff, senior policy correspondent
Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life by Kathleen Dalton
This story of a rich Manhattanite who, through a strange series of flukes, became president at a time of heightened political polarization despite the wishes of his party’s establishment naturally doesn’t mention Donald Trump at all, since it was published in 2002. But precisely because it doesn’t draw any analogies between its subject and a later president known for his uncanny ability to command media attention, fickleness on policy, profound commitment to macho posturing, and hardline views on immigration, it serves as a powerful lens through which to view our own time.
Trump, of course, is no Teddy Roosevelt, despite the genuinely considerable similarities. Roosevelt’s personal life and political views were both driven by a kind of righteous Protestant moralism that’s entirely alien to Trump. And in office, he proved to be a true disruptor who validated the establishment’s fears that he would upset apple carts and champion reform. Trump, by contrast, could end up simply discrediting the whole idea of an outsider presidency. But Roosevelt’s life and career are powerful reminders that the promise of something along the lines of a blustery guy who blows up the system isn’t necessarily a mirage.
—Matthew Yglesias, senior correspondent
But What If We’re Wrong? Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past by Chuck Klosterman
In But What If We’re Wrong, author and cultural critic Chuck Klosterman doesn’t try to predict the future — not exactly. Instead, he attempts to extrapolate, from how we think about the past, which of our deeply held ideas from the present might maintain their importance, and which of them will seem totally absurd in a few hundred or thousand years.
In service of this aim, the book touches on subjects as varied as the history of rock ’n’ roll, the popularity of American football, the odds of humans developing a malevolent AI, and the soundness of our theory of gravity. Klosterman also consults with a wide range of experts and notables, like string theorist Brian Greene and director Richard Linklater, who once made a whole movie about a particularly vivid dream he had. The book leaps from place to place, not always convincing but consistently thought-provoking.
Klosterman stays true to the premise suggested in the title — that no matter how carefully considered the ideas he examines are, they will most likely still turn out to be wrong — so he avoids trying to draw any hard-and-fast conclusions. Still, the book will make you reconsider both the past and the present — and perhaps provide a bit of comfort in the possibility that the swirling vortex of controversies and chyrons that dominates the news now will one day not even be a blip on humanity’s radar.
—Tanya Pai, copy chief
Six By Ten: Stories From Solitary edited by Taylor Pendergrass and Mateo Hoke
I picked up this collection of intimate, firsthand accounts of people who had survived solitary confinement with more than a hint of foreboding. The subject matter is heavy — this is no stocking stuffer. I wasn’t sure I would be able to actually finish it. But I was quickly drawn in by the unique voices of the people profiled, and surprised to find that their stories left me with a sense of gratefulness and hope.
Six by Ten is composed of 14 concise, chapter-length narratives, which each shine a light on a different aspect of the US prison system’s darkest corners. The editors, Mateo Hoke and Taylor Pendergrass, interviewed a number of people over a period of years who had either spent time in solitary confinement or worked as corrections officers within the system, which provides for an interesting contrast of views. We meet a Fijian immigrant; a young mother who is accused of stabbing a child; a Muslim woman who is targeted for wearing a hijab; a trans woman who is put in solitary confinement in a men’s prison for, she is told, her own protection.
The prose is not artful — these are real stories told by real people, in their own raw words — but it is striking and sparse, and leaves you much more knowledgeable about a serious health crisis that fits the exact definition of torture. However, each person’s account includes a natural redemptive arc, even though some of the subjects are still behind bars — and it’s enough to keep you intensely engaged and in awe of humans’ ability to endure.
—Alexia Underwood, associate foreign editor
Uprooted by Naomi Novik
I don’t get to read many older books because it’s part of my job to stay on top of new releases. So when I clear out the time in my schedule for a book that came out three years ago and doesn’t have any anniversaries or special editions or adaptations or other news pegs attached to it, I want to make it count.
I made room for Uprooted this year, and I’m so glad I did. It’s a quest fantasy novel that’s deeply rooted in fairy tale tropes, and author Naomi Novik understands those tropes so well that they work on an almost primal, archetypal level.
There’s too much plot to summarize all of it here, but in brief: Agnieszka is a peasant girl in a fantasy kingdom loosely inspired by Eastern European folklore. She is claimed as tribute by the Dragon, a human wizard who takes her to his tower and tries to train her in magic. That sounds like a bit of a Beauty and the Beast setup, and that comparison isn’t wrong, but it’s also a story about different kinds of magic, and female friendship, and a quest to save the kingdom, and Agnieszka’s flowering into her own power.
Novik’s sentences are rich and lovely, inflected with fairy tale metaphors without ever getting precious. And the whole book is so satisfying to read that I devoured it all in one long gulp, over the course of two days. You will too.
—Constance Grady, staff writer, culture
The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer
My favorite kind of book is one that sprawls, telling the story of a person’s life over many decades through an exploration of all its facets: the familial, the professional, the romantic, the social. The Female Persuasion is a novel that does just this, immersing us in the world of Greer Kadetsky, a protagonist who also happens to be exactly my age. It’s not often a young woman is the subject of such an epic character study.
By and large, this is a book about relationships (of all types) and ambition, and the compromises we make in their pursuit. This is also a book about corporate feminism, and the women who want to do good but get tangled up in a morally questionable system. This is a book so perfectly timed for 2018, it’s remarkable just how uncheesy it is in its topicality.
If these are not reasons enough to pick up The Female Persuasion, at least do so for Meg Wolitzer’s sharp, lucid prose. Wolitzer’s writing is the literary equivalent of Jenny Lewis’s voice: clear, confident, and deceptively simple. Her words are so pleasurable to read, you won’t realize you’ve blown through nearly 500 pages by the time you reach the story’s end.
—Julia Rubin, editor, The Goods
Motherhood: A Novel by Sheila Heti
What if we don’t all need to be mothers and we don’t all need to have reasons?
Sheila Heti’s Motherhood is such an authentically searching novel that it actually gets dull — forced to loop back on itself like a person’s never-ending train of thought about the shape of their life. It examines the question of motherhood from all sides, diving even into the body horror of mind-bending hormones and dedicating at least 30 pages to the unjustness of menstruation. Do we want babies because we fear death? Or maybe getting pregnant is just kind of sexy, you know? Loving someone could make you think it would be really hot to grow their kid in your belly, Heti’s narrator muses, wondering if society is demanding that she have a baby with her super-attractive boyfriend.
It faced a backlash in the new media and Twitter spheres, with critics pointing out that Heti is white and upper-middle-class, that it’s “privileged” to ask whether you have to have children, and that Toni Morrison was a mother who wrote her novels at 4 in the morning.
The way that Heti’s novel — and it is a novel! — was misrepresented and portrayed as, simply and incorrectly, a boring and annoying book about how a woman cannot be both an artist and a mother was both nauseating and kind of the point: You can be boring and annoying and still want a choice.
Motherhood is about whether a woman who does not need a child or think she is suited to raising one is still obligated to come up with some kind of excuse — like “I’m an artist” — and what becomes of that woman if she then fails to prove she deserved her exemption. It’s a rigorous attempt to answer the question of whether it is even possible for any individual woman to know if she actually wants to be a mother or has just been raised all her life to be, and it’s barely about art at all.
“I know a woman who refuses to mother, refuses to do the most important thing, and therefore becomes the least important woman,” Heti’s narrator writes. “Yet the mothers aren’t important either. None of us are important.”
—Kaitlyn Tiffany, reporter, The Goods
The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu
If I could buy a gadget that would let me forget this book, I would do it to be able to read it again for the first time.
The reason to read The Three-Body Problem isn’t that it’s a beautiful translation of one of the most popular science fiction books in China. It isn’t that President Obama and Mark Zuckerberg count it among their favorites. It isn’t even that the mind-boggling story revolves around the classic “three-body problem” in orbital mechanics, which is useful for impressing your uncle over Christmas dinner.
It’s that it’s so much fun. Every twist genuinely surprised me; every one of the characters’ moral decisions made me want to find someone willing to debate it (I also recommend the very opinionated Reddit threads on this book).
The story begins in 1967 in Beijing and sets up a trilogy that will end billions of years later and a universe away. The world grapples with new knowledge of an intelligent extraterrestrial civilization, and all the promise and terror that comes with that discovery. Scientists Ye Wenjie and Wang Miao make decisions on behalf of humanity — each choice worth at least a car ride of heated debate. And that’s all I can say without spoiling one of the best reads I’ve enjoyed this year.
—Cleo Abram, senior manager of development
The City & the City by China Miéville
I picked up this bizarre 2009 novel on a whim this year and was surprised when it rapidly weaseled its way into my 10 favorite books ever. It follows a detective in two fictional European city-states — Besźel and Ul Qoma — that are mingled together physically and geographically. Even though the cities share streets and sometimes buildings, the residents of one city aren’t allowed to interact with or observe things in the other city. Citizens have learned the odd psychological skill of “unseeing” architecture and people from the other city, while a shadowy, mythical group called Breach watches over both, brutally punishing any border-crossing infractions.
There’s a sense of surrealism buzzing at the edges of the story, but nothing actually surreal ever happens. Should you happen to share my very niche obsession with novels that fall into this hard-to-describe, Borgesian subgenre, then you will love The City & The City. (Other examples, I think, are Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist and Catie Disabato’s The Ghost Network.) It’s like a police procedural set in one of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, or a mashup of Tana French and Franz Kafka; it’s also an intricately plotted murder mystery with plenty of satisfying twists.
The book was adapted into a BBC miniseries this year as well, starring the Governor from The Walking Dead (sans eyepatch, alas). You should read it, probably!
—Trevor Barnes, copy editor
The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States: A Speculative Novel by Jeffrey Lewis
I’ve spent a lot of my time at Vox thinking and worrying about what a nuclear war between the United States and North Korea might look like. But thanks to prominent nuclear expert Jeffrey Lewis, I no longer have to imagine it. In his 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks, Lewis paints a believable — and frightening — picture of how both countries could enter one of the world’s worst wars during Trump’s presidency. It involves a downed plane, misunderstood signals, and even provocative tweets. The book is a work of fiction, but it feels all too real.
Luckily, both the US and North Korea are in the middle of negotiations and have mostly ended their threats that defined most of 2017. But Lewis’s book shows that it doesn’t take much for matters to spiral out of control. It’s a rare fiction book that has a lot to say about current policy, and it’s worth reading if you fear the worst.
—Alex Ward, staff writer, international security and defense
The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin
I started reading Ursula K. Le Guin novels after reading her obituaries. I really wish I had gotten to them sooner, as I’ve loved not just reading her work but thinking about it afterward. Le Guin is a master world-builder and uses her settings to explore what human society would look like if it matured under slightly different starting conditions.
The Dispossessed is set far away, on a foreign planet and its inhabited moon. The planet, Urras, is a lot like ours: beautiful, capitalistic, unequal, and filled with nations in continuous cold and hot wars. The moon, Anarres, is a barren anarchist utopia: It barely supports human life, but its inhabitants have found a way to survive in a sparse, un-authoritarian harmony.
The book follows the physicist Shevek as he works on a grand scientific theory of time and becomes the first person in more than a century to traverse both worlds.
His home Anarres, while a utopia in the eyes of many who cannot live there, stifles his intellectual freedom. Urras, on the other hand, lets him pursue the theory, but only because its greedy governments wish to claim it as their own property. (Completing the theory is the key to inventing a powerful device for instantaneous interstellar communication — a nifty prize.)
This is science fiction. But don’t let the science-y bits put you off. In Shevek, Le Guin creates a thoughtful, imperfect, and inquisitive guide to the two worlds and their textured citizens. Is there a perfect world for Shevek, a place to balance his love of freedom with his love of family and his uncompromising pursuit of the unknown? No. But he succeeds because he made a painful choice, and went searching.
—Brian Resnick, science reporter
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
An American Marriage is a moving novel about a marriage over time, but it’s also a timely story about race in America. The novel’s central relationship is between Celestial and Roy, an artist and an executive who together are the perfect image of a young, newlywed black American couple in love. But their idyllic life is interrupted when Roy is charged for a crime he didn’t commit and sentenced to 12 years in prison.
The couple attempts to maintain their marriage during Roy’s prison sentence, challenged by the separation and distance. They find it difficult to relate to each other and remember what they once had in common as their lives increasingly follow separate paths. Roy is released from prison early after serving five years, arriving home ready to pick things up right where they left off — but it isn’t as easy as he thinks it will be, as Celestial has grown and changed during the time they spent apart.
Jones will make you feel deeply for each of the novel’s richly developed characters as they grapple with a complex mix of love and guilt and duty and obligation and ultimately, figuring out what will make each of them happy.
—Nisha Chittal, engagement editor
Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls
2017 saw the release of two entirely distinct love stories about a woman and a fish creature. There’s no apparent connection, but clearly something’s in the water.
In Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, the pulpy premise was spun out into an Oscar-winning fairy tale. But in 1982, writer Rachel Ingalls was interested in what happens after the princess tries to settle down with the frog. Mrs. Caliban, reprinted last year, is the frank, matter-of-fact, and delightful result.
Everything in Dorothy’s life is vestigial, most oppressively the title Mrs. Caliban, after the sudden deaths of her two children. Dorothy’s only vague pleasures are the vicarious thrills of her libertine friend Estelle and Estelle’s soap opera love affairs.
Swift change arrives at her front door in the form of a 6-foot-7 frog man, an escapee from a research lab, whom Dorothy simply dubs “Larry.” Their passion develops quickly, though Dorothy’s husband Fred is so uninterested, they hardly need to sneak around; Larry just moves in upstairs.
At first, their challenges are practical. What does he eat? (He is quite fond of avocados, it turns out.) Later, they realize there are more difficult questions at hand. He wants violent revolution, she wants a more domestic one.
Neither possibility ever seems likely. Is Larry truly present, or simply giving voice to the desires Dorothy has repressed? Dorothy is left to face the world she lives in, knowing the possibilities it could hold instead.
—Tim Williams, copy editor
Such Good Friends by Lois Gould
Ever since I heard that Gore Vidal rediscovered the out-of-print Dawn Powell, I have dreamed of going into a bookstore and coming out with a really good but long-forgotten find. I think I might be onto something with Such Good Friends by Lois Gould, a novel I discovered (or rediscovered?) in the course of researching my recent Jewish American princess story.
Such Good Friends was published in 1970 and tells the tale of Julie Messinger, a woman who learns that her husband was cheating before he fell into a mysterious coma. The plot unfolds mostly in the hospital waiting room as Julie comes to learn that their various friends were not completely unaware of his liaisons. With whom was he cheating? Will he survive? These questions are unpacked with jazzy and disaffected flair, reminiscent of Eve Babitz, Patricia Lockwood, and Lorrie Moore — but bitchier. The plot is dated in a really fun way, but the voiciness feels thoroughly current.
Such Good Friends was a best-seller in its own time, so copies are widely and cheaply available on AbeBooks (which is where I bought mine). The book was also made into a movie, which I haven’t yet watched but have heard is very raunchy! (Joan Didion and her husband John Gregory Dunne made uncredited contributions to the script.) Gould wrote a handful of other books too, including a progressive children’s book about raising a genderless baby. That book resells for upward of $65. If you have a copy, please send it to me. I am trying to read the rest of her work.
—Jamie Lauren Keiles, reporter, The Goods
Less by Andrew Sean Greer
Less is a novel about Arthur Less, a gay man of a certain age who takes a trip around the world to avoid attending the wedding of an ex-boyfriend. The writing is crisp and funny, as Less navigates a comedic gauntlet of awkward, international social situations like unknowingly and relentlessly butchering a foreign language.
But the best thing about this book is how it can feel so familiar — it captures the way that vibrant trinkets and souvenirs we buy while traveling lose their magic when we take them home, or the way we pack up exercise bands before we leave while lying to ourselves that we’ll work out while on vacation this time.
It also has a beautiful understanding of the pleasures of getting older; the way we build our friendships; the way we imagine what our friends’ lives looked like before we stepped into them, based on the stories they’ve told us; and the way we will always remember meeting our best friends and forever loves for the first time.
Less won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and the honor is well-deserved. My copy is currently on loan to a friend, but I can’t wait to get it back and read it again. Though if the borrower loves it as much as I do, I should probably resign myself to it never being returned.
—Alex Abad-Santos, senior culture correspondent
Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala
Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala, who wrote Beasts of No Nation, is the kind of novel you fall into.
I zipped through most of the book in an afternoon; it’s a quick, beautiful account of a first-generation Nigerian-American boy — Niru — coming of age. He’s gay and closeted, 18 years old, and pulled between his conservative and religious immigrant parents and his privileged American life as a Harvard-bound private school kid growing up in the affluent suburbs of Washington DC. He navigates the dating scene secretly, through his best friend and classmate Meredith, who puts aside her own romantic feelings for Niru to sign him up on the dating apps Tinder and Grindr.
Then Niru’s father finds out and the story unravels. A forced trip to Nigeria to find God and the sins in homosexuality. A drunken night to forget it all. A first sexual experience. A growing distance between high school friends. It ends with a shock to the system — one that I won’t dare spoil.
I will say that at its core, Speak No Evil is a story about love and violence. There’s a certain love between Niru and his father, a love and respect for a home and family that’s uniquely different from the families Niru is growing up around. There is the violence of a father who’s intolerant of his son’s sexuality, and the inherent violence of being made an outsider in the community he was raised in. There’s love and violence in Niru’s first sexual experience, and most poignantly in his friendship with Meredith.
A warning: I left the final pages of this book for my morning commute — a bus ride with a muted crowd of working young professionals through the same streets of DC that are featured in Niru’s story. I got off the bus sobbing.
—Tara Golshan, congressional reporter
Chemistry by Weike Wang
Chemistry — much like its namesake — is a raw examination of how the pain, joy, and anger tied to a past set of experiences dictates how we engage with new ones.
At its most basic level, the title refers to the protagonist’s existential struggle with her graduate degree, a PhD in (what else) chemistry, which she’s increasingly uncertain in pursuing.
Quickly, however, it takes on a different meaning in Weike Wang’s sharp and inventive dive into the chemistry of people and how we become who we are.
The book’s unnamed narrator is a daughter of Asian immigrants who is in her late 20s, trying to reconcile how her relationship with her family influences how she views her career, and her willingness to take the next step in a serious relationship.
In this character, I felt seen in a way I hadn’t by any novel before. By the end, it taught me how to see so many other parts of my life in a whole new light.
—Li Zhou, congressional reporter
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
You know what’s a good book? Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.
This sounds facetious, I know. Of course it’s a good book. It’s one of a handful of contenders for “Great American Novel” that basically everybody agrees on. But in rereading it this summer, bit by bit, over about two months, I found myself enveloped in its incredibly detailed world of young men slicing through the waves in their giant ship, toward a big white whale and certain doom. It’s one of those books that still manages to feel momentous even when you know everything about it.
I had first read Moby-Dick as a teen who, impatient with all the “whaling stuff,” just blurred through the smaller, quieter moments on my way to the more exciting ones. And even as a roughly 300-page story about a young man who loses, then finds, then loses himself again on a whaling voyage, Moby-Dick would be a great book.
But this time around, all the “whaling stuff” seemed to me to double as a portrayal of something like PTSD. Here is Ishmael, lovingly recreating the ship and the industry he knows will lead to the deaths of so many. Here he is trying to understand everything about the beast that will kill his friends (and maybe even his lover). Here he is trying to burrow down so deep in the universe that he can finally understand the source of his pain and perhaps reverse it.
But guess what? He can’t. Neither can you, and neither can I. Moby-Dick is a great book, one worth wrestling with and finally finishing, even if its full depths will never be completely explored.
—Todd VanDerWerff, critic-at-large
The Wayward Children series by Seanan McGuire
In between other, heavier reads this year, I gobbled up Seanan McGuire’s wonderfully clever Wayward Children series. There are three books so far — 2016’s Every Heart a Doorway, 2017’s Down Among the Sticks and Bones, and 2018’s Beneath a Sugar Sky — and it was all I could do to stop myself from reading all three in one sitting. (A fourth book, In An Absent Dream, comes out in January, and there are several more planned after that.)
The Wayward Children series occupies a liminal space in literary classification systems. The books’ teen and even child protagonists mark them as what we might call YA lit, and there are few teens I wouldn’t press them upon. But the voice of their omniscient narrator, who will occasionally pull back from the action to make larger comments about our ideas of morality and “doing good,” is much more mature and mournful, marked by regret. (I’m convinced McGuire is building to some sort of late-in-series reveal about just who this narrator is.) They’re books teens will love that, on some level, can most be appreciated by adults.
They have their flaws — that omniscient narrator occasionally adopts a tone that’s too preachy, and McGuire’s point-of-view characters are too frequently passengers in their own stories — but the central premise of the series (a hidden school in our world, meant to help heal and care for kids who’ve slipped into some other world, Narnia or Wonderland style) is so irresistible and the characters so well-drawn that these flaws become quibbles.
Plus, each book is only around 180 pages long, so you can read it in an afternoon. What are you waiting for?
—Todd VanDerWerff, critic-at-large