Ben's Top Ten Books of 2018

Asymmetry: A Novel Cover Image
ISBN: 9781501166761
Availability: UNAVAILABLE
Published: Simon & Schuster - February 6th, 2018

Can I make a confession? I wanted to hate this book. I want to hate a lot of literary “phenomena” (often a word drummed up by book marketers: I know how this game works). Halliday’s debut novel begins in familiar territory: an aging male writer befriends, in ways romantic and unattached and pernicious, a young woman in New York City. We’ve read this kind of book before, haven’t we? Turns out we haven’t. ASYMMETRY begins to rupture the expectations of this kind of story. Why are we getting no interiority from the young woman? Why does nobody seem to feel anything? Midway through the book, everything breaks, and an entire new story takes hold: one with nothing but interiority, nothing but feeling, told by a man and with international ramifications. The moves in this book are not plot-driven: they’re theme-driven, and entirely intuitive. I can’t remember when I last read an avant-garde novel that pays such close attention to people. Sure, I wanted to hate it. I think that’s part of Halliday’s method. Joke was on me, though: ASYMMETRY is the novel of 2018, and maybe the novel of 2019 and 2020 too, so long as power relationships remain on all of our minds.

Destroy All Monsters: The Last Rock Novel Cover Image
ISBN: 9780374537661
Availability: NOT ON OUR SHELVES. Usually Arrives in 4-7 Business Days
Published: FSG Originals - October 16th, 2018

“The Last Rock Novel,” Jackson’s book advertises. Maybe so. Rock and roll has a clear starting point (well, pretty clear, depending on your feelings on Elvis Presley vs. Chuck Berry); why wouldn’t the end point be equally clear? For Jackson, that end point is actual death: rock bands are being murdered on stage all over the country. What impact does this have on one band in particular, living in a small town, just about on the cusp of realizing their dreams? Will they go on with the show, or will they back down? Come on, you know the answer: there’s nothing rock and roll about fear. Jackson echoes the nihilistic fiction of Don DeLillo and the humanistic cultural observation of Joan Didion equally, and DESTROY ALL MONSTERS has a canny puzzle in its design: a “Side A” and “Side B” (you literally have to flip the book over), both ruminations on the same characters and situations. Apocalypse looms. Apocalypse was the sound of “Side B” of Bowie’s Low too, ambient and bleak, but wasn’t there just as much apocalypse in “Side A,” relatively conventional, albeit brittle and angular, rock? So what am I saying? DESTROY ALL MONSTERS is the Low of books. And Low is pretty damn great.

Gun Love: A Novel Cover Image
ISBN: 9781524761684
Availability: UNAVAILABLE
Published: Hogarth - March 6th, 2018

Florida, man: what’s with that place? Authors have been mining its weird, humid gold this past year, but Clement’s GUN LOVE tells a story about the state lit by especially garish light. God, it’s bright, and you can see everything, including things you don’t want to. Her characters live in a trailer park, but GUN LOVE avoids all cliches of the Poverty Narrative; instead, its young girl narrator, living with her mother in squalor, is straightforward and raw-of-language. Behind all of this, a question: Why does everyone have a gun? Why does murder always seem to lurk on the horizon? And what does somebody so young do when a loved one encounters tragedy? There are a lot of secrets in those swamps, turns out. Confession: I’ve never been to Florida. Why bother? I have the books. GUN LOVE is the best of them.

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden: Stories Cover Image
ISBN: 9780812988635
Availability: Unlikely to Be Available
Published: Random House - January 16th, 2018

I’ve read most everything by Johnson, and reread much of it last year after he passed away. But there was still this book, which I approached carefully, as though it were an animal that might spring at me if I got too close. After all, posthumous novels can already be bad enough, but posthumous short story collections? They can sometimes feel like leftovers, a cash grab. Not THE LARGESSE OF THE SEA MAIDEN. He finished it before he died, and it feels complete, a last gift from one of America’s great writers. There are only five stories, each of them long. In a way, it’s the exact opposite of Johnson’s classic collection JESUS’ SON: these stories are languid, concerned with aging rather than blistered youth. There are haunting references to his earlier work, but that’s not the only reason to read this masterpiece. Too bad so many of us ended here, but take heart: one could start here too.

Love Cover Image
By Hanne Orstavik, Martin Aitken (Translated by)
ISBN: 9780914671947
Availability: BACKORDERED
Published: Archipelago - February 13th, 2018

An Untouched House Cover Image
By Willem Frederik Hermans, David Colmer (Translated by), Cees Nooteboom (Afterword by)
ISBN: 9781939810069
Availability: Unlikely to Be Available
Published: Archipelago - October 23rd, 2018

Shortly after reading AN UNTOUCHED HOUSE, I taught a workshop. Following the last class, one of the people lingered, talked to me. Someone in her family runs a publishing house, she said. A small one. I wouldn’t have heard of it. Archipelago, it’s called. Of course I’ve heard of Archipelago (home of Knausgaard, after all), but somehow it always seems under the radar, eschewing flashiness for the sheer nobility of undiscovered voices. With these two books, they had a hell of a 2018. Both are short, claustrophobic novels, even though they occupy such wide spaces. LOVE is about a mother and a son, both separated and lost, literally and metaphorically, in a snowy landscape on a night that the carnival is in town (surrealist images ensue). In AN UNTOUCHED HOUSE, a man deserts the German army during World War II and takes up residence in an abandoned house, trying to keep the war at bay (surrealist images ensue: at one point, right under his nose, he finds an old man tending to a huge aquarium). Are these both one-sitting books? Sure, but savor them.

My Sister, the Serial Killer: A Novel Cover Image
ISBN: 9780385544238
Availability: UNAVAILABLE
Published: Doubleday - November 20th, 2018

I don’t think it’s a secret to any serious lovers of horror that the genre isn’t usually JUST about killers or demons or aliens: rather, those things tell a story that gets to something deeper, something in quotation marks. Rosemary’s Baby is about the Devil, sure, but it’s also about the ambivalence of motherhood. (Ditto The Babadook and Hereditary.) The Exorcist is about possession, yes, but it’s also about grief and the loss of faith. MY SISTER, THE SERIAL KILLER, a late-year stunner, isn’t conventional horror (isn’t horror at all, really, despite the fact it concerns a serial killer), but operates the same way. It’s about a beautiful woman who murders her male partners, but more than that, it’s about her sister and the rivalry between them. It’s funny as hell, horror tropes becoming satire. Family is killer. Sorry, I mean “killer.”

The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath Cover Image
ISBN: 9780316259613
Availability: UNAVAILABLE
Published: Little, Brown and Company - April 3rd, 2018

I’ve never read a better memoir about addiction. Okay, wait...Mary Karr’s LIT? David Carr’s THE NIGHT OF THE GUN? There are many great ones, yes, but still, THE RECOVERING feels like the greatest. There’s something in that title: “The Recovering.” It feels like the title of a horror movie, or the subtitle of a Hollywood sequel that promises to be BIGGER than the original. In a way, addiction always feels like a sequel. There’s a good joke in the movie Sideways when the main character, an alcoholic, says that the title of his work-in-progress novel is “The Day After Yesterday.” “” another character asks. The joke? Every day is a sequel to yesterday’s drinking. If it sounds like my mind’s wandering, that’s okay: Jamison’s mind seems to wander too. That’s what makes this book so great: it’s not only a memoir of her own addiction and recovery, it’s also a compendium of alcoholism in literature. Take Raymond Carver, for instance. Jamison, while drinking, imagined him as a great literary hero, standing on the table after a night of drinking and raising hell. Fair enough. Later in the book, when sober, she imagines the vomit, the incontinence, the inability to work: Carver lost many years to alcohol before he quit and did arguably his best work. I taught creative writing for several years and always found students (in fairness, usually young men) who believed writing was not a craft, rather a drunken wild lifestyle. Jamison has written the ultimate rebuke to that line of thinking.

Ticker: The Quest to Create an Artificial Heart Cover Image
ISBN: 9780804138000
Availability: UNAVAILABLE
Published: Crown - August 7th, 2018

Here’s the thing about TICKER, a work of journalistic nonfiction that tells the story of the quest to create the artificial heart (and, not accidentally, becomes one of the great histories of Houston in the process): there’s a scene where Denton Cooley, at the time Houston’s hot young doctor, is faced with a patient whose heart has failed. He asks for another heart, but there are no human ones nearby. What is there? A sheep’s heart. Good enough for Cooley. He decides to see how it might work. Maybe it will buy the patient just a bit of time? This is the brilliant, chaotic, and dangerous (read: BAT SHIT CRAZY) terrain of this book, written by Mimi Swartz, Houston’s best nonfiction writer (her pieces on Beto O’Rourke this past election season always felt indispensable). The main character in TICKER, O.H. “Bud” Frazier, is the Houston heart surgeon who has worked to develop artificial heart technology the longest. In the book (and in real life), he regularly tells the story of when he one time massaged by hand a patient’s heart and watched the blood flow through his (the patient’s) body. In the interest of full disclosure, Bud Frazier is also a customer at Brazos Bookstore. One time he bought a fountain pen from me. The ink wasn’t coming, so he opened up the pen and massaged the ink into the nib, right before my eyes. I thought, Those hands!

Staff Pick Badge
Virgin: Poems Cover Image
ISBN: 9781571315007
Availability: NOT ON OUR SHELVES. Usually Arrives in 4-7 Business Days
Published: Milkweed Editions - February 20th, 2018

“I’m a Mexican-American fascinator,” Sotelo writes in the first poem of VIRGIN, and it’s the line that gets quoted most often from this book, so much so that I wonder if Sotelo is sick of it. She’s more than that, after all. She’s a historian of Mexican-American culture, she’s a great poet of the heart, she’s the kind of writer who finds ways to draw a line from the ancient world to the present moment. She’s also funny as hell and loves good food. (There’s a surprisingly large amount of food in this book.) VIRGIN is playful and serious, the best poetry collection I read this year, evoking the feeling of a large family gathering. Who’s Sotelo then? The one off to the side, taking it all in and forming lots of opinions before she rolls up her sleeves and digs into whatever crazy thing is happening (again, probably something having to do with food). I’d give this book to anyone who claims to hate poetry. Hell, I’d give this book to anyone who loves it and thinks they know everything about it, for that matter. There are enchanting new worlds to be found here.

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