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The 80 Best Books of 2018

The authors' whose works we share with you in PopMatters' 80 Best Books of 2018 -- from a couple of notable reissues to a number of excellent debuts -- poignantly capture how the political is deeply personal, and the personal is undeniably, and beautifully, universal.

It's been an incredibly difficult year for so many of us. Nearly everything we read in the news headlines we see happening to people we know or otherwise feel a connection to through basic human compassion.

In PopMatters' 80 best books of 2018, our contributors share with you that impulse to continue to learn, to expand one's thinking so that we might understand, to question and to create, in spite of the social-political forces that would have us succumb to, at best, inertia. Instead, we turned to artful fiction, and even more non-fiction, to help us make sense of the rapid and often violent changes around us, to understand our histories that led to this, and to keep us engaged with our time, as we must.

The authors' whose works we showcase here capture, in their own way, how the political is deeply personal -- and the personal is universal. They remind us of the possibilities, and responsibilities, that understanding entails.

Verso (Sep 2018)

Against Creativity, by Oli Mould

In his superb, thought-provoking study Against Creativity, human geographer Oli Mould takes aim at the contemporary cult of 'creativity'. It's not anything remotely 'creative' that's actually being celebrated, he warns, but rather an effort by neoliberal capitalism to harness the creative fields in pursuit of profit, and to fragment collective forms of creativity and replace them with atomized, alienated individuals (the easier to exploit).

Is there no way to be truly creative? No form of creativity that hasn't been co-opted? Mould offers hope: there is, but it consists of creating new ways to invent art and society that exist outside of the precaritizing, profit-seeking capitalist mold. It means producing art that is not in service to capitalist models of gentrification and profit-generation. It means re-thinking what is meant by the idea of a 'creative person' and recognizing the creativity inherent in so many bodies and ways-of-being-in the-world around us, enacted by people who are often ignored or marginalized. - Hans Rollmann

Read Hans Rollmann's full review here.

Amethyst Editions / Feminist Press (May 2018)

Against Memoir, by Michelle Tea

Michelle Tea doesn't yet have enough literary laurels to be recognized by the mainstream media, but she's clearly not resting on what laurels she does have. The newer parts of Against Memoir show how she pushes herself and explores different avenues in her work. There's a weird three pages on pigeons that reminds us she is still very much a poet.

This book is divided into three sections—art and music, love and queerness, writing and life—and yet obviously, everything Tea publishes is infused with these concepts. She knows herself. She reports on herself in a strangely accurate manner that should not necessarily fall easily into the category of memoir.

For her steadfastness, she will someday be rewarded. She'll have got there not by selling out, but by winning the war of attrition—because attitude is a renewable resource. Some day, Tea is going to step in and fill the void: that very lonely captain's chair on the constantly embattled and leaky mothership of queer feminism that one cannot sit in until all the badges have been collected. Against Memoir is one of those badges. - Megan Volpert

Read Megan Volpert's full review here.

Image by Nino Carè (CC0 Creative Commons / Pixabay)

NYU Press (Feb 2018)

Algorithms of Oppression, by Safiya Umoja Noble

There's nothing new about seeing danger and threat in new technologies, but never before have technologies advanced and proliferated so rapidly, nor has humanity's future ever seemed quite so close to the edge. The past year has seen a number of books offer warnings about the technological paths down which our world is moving. Meanwhile, the societal honeymoon that blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies have enjoyed for the past few years is beginning to slow, and public opinion is starting to level a more critical gaze at the negative sides of these technologies.

Safiya Umoja Noble's Algorithms of Oppression is probably the most important technology-related book to hit the shelves this year. Noble examines the racist biases of computer algorithms, the many ways they manifest online and the nefarious impacts they can have on everything from children's self-image to crushing small independent black-owned businesses. She also ably disposes of prevailing myths about the objectivity of computers and technology: they reflect and refract all the biases of their predominantly white male programmers. Algorithms of Oppression is an incredibly important book that will ensure you never look at your Google searches the same way again. - Hans Rollmann

Read Hans Rollmann's full review here.

Gallery 13 (May 2018)

All the Answers, by Michael Kupperberg

Most people are aware of Michael Kupperberg's fanciful and frequently tongue-in-cheek art by way of the illustrations he's done for everything from McSweeney's to the New York Times Book Review and his animations for Saturday Night Live. In this graphic memoir, the Eisner Award-winning Kupperman opens up about his surprising family history. He tells both the story of his father, a brilliant but distant man who was a child prodigy on a radio quiz show during the '40s, and his fraught attempts to get to know this highly reticent figure better.

Chiseling out details of his father's story, from the anti-Semitism he faced but also the belief that he was serving as a symbol of positivity during the dark years of World War II, Kupperman discovers a greater understanding of the deep childhood trauma that kept the two of them from having a closer relationship. All the Answers is beautifully empathetic and vividly rendered. - Chris Barsanti

Algonquin (Jan 2018)

An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones

Tayari Jones' An American Marriage is a contemplative character portrait revealing the destruction of an individual and his family. The novel illustrates the life of Roy, a young professional African American man wrongly convicted of rape. Celestial, a successful artist and his wife, professes her fidelity to Roy despite his incarceration. Eventually, she realizes she cannot live in stasis and issues divorce papers to Roy while he is incarcerated. Upon his release, Roy must learn to negotiate the anger caused by his wrongful imprisonment and the indignation resulting from the finality of his relationship with Celestial. Jones is careful with her character development as both characters are flawed and neither are victors.

Roy essentially loses 12 years of his life due to society's inability to consider, nay, trust a black man's truthfulness and testimony. His incarceration is a piercing critique of the prison-industrial complex and its part in shattering the African-American community. More so, Roy and Celestial's personal and professional success is not enough to avoid systematic violence and racialized oppression. An American Marriage complicates their individual identities and relationship then deconstructs the characteristics of a modern marriage. Using first-person narrative developed through intimate letters exchanged between Roy and Celestial, Jones questions how intimacy and love can survive in a society determined to dehumanize. - Elisabeth Woronzoff

The Anguish of Thought, by Evelyne Grossman 

If you're a writer of literature with a basic working understanding of French theory—like, you can put together three coherent sentences about the main arguments of Derrida and Lacan—then definitely read Evelyne Grossman's The Anguish of Thought. Finally translated into English (by Matthew Cripsey) a decade after its original publication, this book does what French scholars do infinitely better than we ever did it—and in the most challenging way possible. Here we have Derrida, Levinas, Lacan and Foucault applied by this renowned scholar of Artaud to Beckett and Blanchot with such shocking clarity that probably two or three dozen Ph.D. candidates across America should just lay down their pencils now before they embarrass themselves. - Megan Volpert

Read Megan Volpert's full review here.

Mad Creek / Ohio State University Press (Jan 2018)

Apocalypse Darling, by Barrie Jean Borich

There's a sweeping, gorgeous sense of urgency in these pages as Jean Borich reflects on the physical and psychic deterioration of lands and their people. We are the same. Rather than being hopeless and bitter, though, which this could have easily become, Apocalypse, Darling, is a stunning testament to the power of prayer and testimony to tell the tale and move on. There is no linear complacency here, no standard beginning, middle, and end, but it's not replaced by chaos for the sake of art.

By the time it's over, Apocalypse, Darling proves an admirable balance of doom and grace in a world where darkness seems eternal if we stop reading, stop searching, stop believing.

Read Christopher John Stephens' full review here.

Vanderbilt University Press / Country Music Foundation Press (Jun 2018)

A&R Pioneers, by Brian Ward

Well before artists were their own entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs became rock stars, A&R (Artists and Repertoire) pros improvised a blueprint for the workings of the modern music industry. They could have been Managers, Directors, Vice-Presidents or Glorified Interns of it, but that part of their title was irrelevant. A&R said it all, even if it meant different things at different labels. One could deride them as gatekeepers, but they were often also facilitators, recognizing artists who, with the right help, could make some pretty good music. For many years, they were the ones responsible for turning that music into records, and those records into revenue.

Ward and Huber went deep into the historical weeds for A&R Pioneers, but the book doesn't read that way at all -- especially if you're a music history nerd. The hundreds of performers cycling through this book, including many even music history nerds might not know much about, get credit for being something more than lowbrow savants who somehow managed to luck up and make history. They went after an opportunity, dealt with whatever was handed them (or not), and made it work. But somebody had to give them a shot in the first place, which is why this book fills a glaring gap in our appreciation of American pop music. - Mark Reynolds

Read Mark Reynolds' full review here.

Viking (Apr 2018)

The Art of the Wasted Day, by Patricia Hampl

Patricia Hampl's The Art of the Wasted Day is a remarkable memoir of loss and renewal. Hampl understands from the start that being human, perpetuating humanity, comes with an obligation. In her prelude she introduces Montaigne, the "father" of the personal essay as we know it, even in those distant days sometime around 1535.

Montaigne mused and contemplated and wrote and played sweet music, but he confessed to a sluggishness that might have torn down a less stable man: "No one, he says, 'could tear me from my sloth, not even to make me play.' "For Hampl, Montaigne was less a skeptic than he was "the first modern daydreamer", and she makes a good case for the importance of falling slowly into that waking space of dreams and consciousness. - Christopher John Stephens

Read Christopher John Stephens' full review here.

Penguin (Mar 2018)

Astral Weeks, by Ryan H. Walsh

In Ryan H. Walsh's remarkable Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968, Van Morrison is just one part in an enormous, challenging tapestry of characters and locations that changed the lives of those involved and those who followed. Walsh brilliantly and effectively balances every character in this narrative, and in less confident hands the results might have given the reader whiplash. Walsh understands there are many characters to consider but he maintains (to take another Van Morrison title) a "beautiful vision" from beginning to end.

This was the era of great academics like Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn putting their careers on the line for the sake of protest. It was a swirling vortex of anger, class struggle, racial divisions, and ecstasy found through LSD, spiritual communes, the occult, and something in the music.

This book is a masterful end result of research, patience, and love for a time and sensibility sorely missing today. - Christopher John Stephens

Read Christopher John Stephens' full review here.

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