I had a lot of fun doing this thing a couple of years ago, so I thought I’d go ahead and give up the pretense of this being a tech blog and do it again. I don’t drink now so it wasn’t as fun as last time, but if I convince one person to read Suttree or The Little Friend (or to skip Lincoln on the Bardo) it’ll have been worth it.
I’ve included Amazon links for convenience but if you’re buying physical books please try your local bookstore first instead.
Suttree by Cormac McCarthy (1979)
This book is the answer to the question “How can I write a novel that’s half drunk people arguing and half overwrought descriptions of carinated domes or withy roods or whatever and not have it be annoying as fuck?” It’s impossible to describe or quote this book in a way that doesn’t make it sound like a chore, but somehow it’s one of the most beautiful and sad books you’ll ever read, even though it has no plot and isn’t about anything and parts of it come really close to feeling like parody and you’ll probably have to look up a bunch of words like “neap” and “flitch”.
The Little Friend by Donna Tartt (2002)
I enjoyed The Secret History when I read it in 2005 or 2006, and I bought The Goldfinch the day it was published in 2013, but somehow I don’t think I knew Tartt had written a novel between those two until this year. It’s a strange book. It’s almost as plot-free as Suttree. There’s a cobra (in Mississippi). There are some convincing and sympathetic depictions of meth use. I have no idea what the title means. A twelve-year-old girl spends most of the novel trying to kill someone. I think it’s my favorite Tartt novel so far.
The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst (2017)
This book is superficially a lot like The Stranger’s Child, except that it’s good. Not The Swimming-Pool Library good or The Line of Beauty good or The Folding Star good, more like The Spell good, but at least it’s good, and I can look forward to Hollinghurst novels again.
Milkman by Anna Burns (2018)
I highlighted a bunch of phrases in my Kindle copy of this book because I thought they were hilarious, but when I pulled them up in a browser after finishing the novel they were all things like “Then I realised this floor was good”.
The Which Way Tree by Elizabeth Crook (2018)
I picked up this book because of the historical context: it’s set in central Texas in the aftermath of the Civil War, and is in part about the conflicts between Confederate soldiers and German immigrants that killed my (German immigrant) great-great-great-grandfather. I didn’t expect or need it to be good, but it is. I don’t really know Western fiction as a genre, but the last few new westerns I’ve read—this one, Paulette Jiles’s News of the World, and Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End—have all been excellent, with this being maybe the most convincingly imagined of the three.
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles by Haruki Murakami (1997)
Last fall I read What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, but that’s the only Murakami book I’d read before this one. It felt like a good starting place, or at least I’m planning to read more Murakami in 2019.
Elmet by Fiona Mozley (2017)
Somehow I read a lot of novels this year about kids growing up in unusual environments where they’re orphaned or on drugs or living off the grid or whatever: History of Wolves, The Which Way Tree, Milkman, Marlena, The Great Alone, A Station on the Path […], to some degree Warlight, The Witch Elm, The Mars Room. This is probably the best of them.
History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (2017)
I read this book in one long morning in some mountains in Southern California and I found it so upsetting I had to drive down to the beach, but it didn’t help. It’s bleak and quietly horrifying and it’s almost as appalling that Lincoln in the Bardo won the 2017 Booker Prize with History of Wolves on the shortlist as it is that Lincoln in the Bardo won the 2017 Booker Prize with Elmet on the shortlist (I don’t like Lincoln in the Bardo).
The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner (2018)
Somehow when I started reading this book I thought it was a true story (maybe I’d confused it with Cherry?), and when I found out it wasn’t, the experience of reading it became weirdly uncomfortable. It’s a very funny book, but a lot of the pleasure of reading it (for me, at least) was of the “wow I’m glad my life isn’t that fucked up” kind. Maybe I’m just sensitive about portrayals of humanities grad school dropouts.
The Likeness by Tana French (2008)
The circumstances in this book are too unlikely to be even vaguely believable, but I didn’t really care. The representation of the life of the little circle of grad student housemates is one of the most charming and attractive things I’ve ever read. Otherwise The Witch Elm and maybe even In the Woods are far better.
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett (2001)
This is an intensely artificial book about an intensely artificial situation, but it works.
The Swimming-Pool Library by Alan Hollinghurst (1988)
After The Sparsholt Affair I went back through the Hollinghurst novels I’d never read before, and this was my favorite of them. I’m still not sure it’s as good as The Line of Beauty or The Folding Star, but it’s the best of the big multi-generational ones.
The Spell by Alan Hollinghurst (1998)
There are a lot of things to like about this novel, but I found the kindness and thoughtfulness of the representations of drug use especially remarkable.
Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer (2002)
Fun, but the movie was better.
Look to Windward by Iain M. Banks (2000)
I didn’t read much science fiction this year, and had thought I’d read all of the Culture novels long ago, but somehow I’d missed this one. It’s not my favorite, but it might be the saddest Banks novel I’ve read.
The Witch Elm by Tana French (2018)
This is the first novel I read by Tana French, and I thought it was a fairly decent mystery novel up until the bizarre fight in the garden near the end, when I decided it was a fairly excellent mystery novel.
In the Woods by Tana French (2007)
Tana French is remarkably good at drawing relationships that you want to live in—the housemates in The Likeness, the (young) cousins in The Witch Elm, the partners here—and then brutally fucking them up. There are things about this novel that are frustrating (e.g. it’s more predictable than it thinks it is), but many little parts of it are lovely.
The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah (2018)
Of all the novels I read this year about children trying to negotiate relationships with violent men, this is probably the most terrifying. The transition to feel-good novel felt a little forced to me, but it still feels good.
Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy (1968)
After re-reading the Border Trilogy this summer I decided I needed to go back through McCarthy’s earlier novels, most of which I’d never read before. I think I’d avoided them because the one pre-western McCarthy novel I had read (maybe a decade and a half ago) was Child of God, which I hated at the time (and hated just as much when I read it again this year). Suttree is the opposite of Child of God—instead of a polished little piece of nastiness it’s a big goofy baggy mess—while Outer Dark is like halfway between the two.
The Orchard Keeper by Cormac McCarthy (1965)
This book is confusing. If you say you’ve read this book and can summarize the plot I probably won’t believe you. There’s a synopsis on the Wikipedia page that seems fairly reasonable but who knows.
Transcription by Kate Atkinson (2018)
Like Warlight but better.
Warlight by Michael Ondaatje (2018)
I used to love novels like this, really self-serious ones with dramatic revelations and big love stories or whatever. I guess I’m glad Ondaatje is still churning them out a couple of times a decade but I don’t really care.
The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce (2017)
This is a kind book about kind people. It’s not perfect but it’s memorable and worth reading.
Marlena by Julie Buntin (2017)
To be honest I don’t remember much of the plot of this book, and I think in my head it’s mixed up with some true crime podcast I listened to around the same time. It’s a fairly conventional representation of drug abuse and teenagerhood, but it’s nicely told (and is the last book on this list that I’d recommend without qualification, so feel free to skip the rest).
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (2017)
This has my vote for most overrated book of the decade (so far, but it’d be hard to beat).
Fear by Dirk Kurbjuweit (2017)
I can’t remember the last time I read a contemporary German novel, and this one is about as humorless and colorless and preoccupied with serious questions in a serious way as you’d expect.
Lethal White by Robert Galbraith (2018)
I’d originally ranked this novel much lower but you know what, I had a lot of fun reading it, unlike the next few boring-ass critically-celebrated books on this list by boring-ass critically-celebrated men.
A Station on the Path to Somewhere Better by Benjamin Wood (2018)
The worst thing about the first-person narration in this novel is that it suggests pretty strongly that the narrator isn’t going to be one of the murder victims, which is disappointing because he’s just so incredibly annoying.
The Only Story by Julian Barnes (2018)
I always get Julian Barnes confused with Ian McEwan and probably two or three even less memorable British men. I don’t regret reading this book exactly but I’m already well on my way to forgetting everything about it.
Moving Kings by Joshua Cohen (2017)
I kind of appreciate how this novel doesn’t even try to make all these more-or-less horrible men it’s about sympathetic, but that’s the most I can say for it.
Faithful Place by Tana French (2010)
This was a let-down after The Likeness. I’ll probably read the rest of these books at some point, but first I’ll have to forget what a slog this one was.
The Reckoning by John Grisham (2018)
For some reason I really wanted to read a novel about farmers a couple of months ago, and this novel about farmers had just come out. It’s not terrible (except for the ending), but it feels disjointed and in need of some editorial attention. I should have re-read something by Smiley instead.
Artemis by Andy Weir (2017)
This is basically one of those Ian McDonald moon books but the politics are boring and the dialogue is bad. Even the science feels sloppy, unlike that Mars book, which is the only reason I gave Weir a chance.
The Outsider by Stephen King (2018)
I started writing this mini-review by saying that this novel is like something a neural network trained on King’s last few books would spit out, but it’s not, because that would probably be weird, or at least not 100% predictable.
Mrs. Osmond by John Banville (2017)
I can’t remember the last time I’ve been so angry that a book exists. If you’re going to pull shit like this it needs to be perfect, and this novel is barely mediocre.