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Books

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.

Barracoon, by Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston's Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo" is a deft use of history to reveal contemporary oppression. Uncovered in the Howard University archives, Barracoon tells the story of Oluale Kossola, also known as Cudjo Lewis. Kossola was one of the then remaining survivors of the Clotilda, the last ship carrying kidnapped Africans to the United States, nearly fifty years after the supposed abolishing of slavery. Hurston uses Kossola's narrative to write a scathing indictment of the slave narratives and histories fictionalizing slavery's force.

With linguistic accuracy, Hurston expertly allows Kossola to convey the emotional indignities caused by enslavement and its contribution to his long-lived melancholy. Hurston is strategic in her portrayal of an authentic African-American identity. Barracoon makes clear that remembering individuals as merely slaves is akin to preserving subjugation. By focusing on Kossola's life as a free-man, Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo" illustrates the trauma associated with bondage but emphasizes the revelations gained from emancipation. - Elisabeth Woronzoff

Read Elisabeth Woronzoff's full review here.

Drawn & Quarterly (Sep 2018)

Berlin, by Jason Lutes

Jason Lutes attracted countless fans with the first two volumes of his acclaimed series Berlin, which follows the lives of a group of working-class Berliners during the inter-war period, through the rise of the Nazis, a wrecked economy and a society undergoing radical change. The series, which has taken 20 years to complete, underwent an extended hiatus for the past decade, but this year Lutes finally finished it. Is it any coincidence that his decision to complete the series corresponds with a period of fascist resurgence around the globe?

Lutes' approach to history adopts multiple vantage points from everyday protagonists on the street, as opposed to depicting elites and their machinations for power. His primary sources are not the texts of the rich and powerful but everyday popular culture, which help him form a sense of what the period was like for those living through it. Rather than studying academic treatises on what life was like in Weimar Germany, or on the causes which led to the rise of the Nazis, Lutes immersed himself in the primary popular culture of the period. His aim was to produce a sense of what everyday life was like for the average German, and he succeeded beautifully. - Hans Rollmann

Read Hans Rollmann's full review here.

Bloomsbury Academic (Sep 2018)

Blanket, by Kara Thompson

Kara Thompson's Blanket benefits from the intimacy of its subject matter. Blankets comfort or smother. Michael Jackson dangled his son (named Blanket) out of a hotel balcony window, much to the horror of onlookers. Blankets protect and infect. Blankets express and suppress.

Whether the first thing that comes to mind about blankets is Peanuts comic strip icon Linus Van Pelt's blue security item, or the sublime meaning of the AIDS quilt and how it represents more than any political leaders would express in the '80s, blankets have more meaning than just their thread count or fabric content. In sum: Blanket virtually covers it all. - Christopher John Stephens

Read Christopher John Stephens' full review here.

Doubleday (Jan 2018)

The Boat People, by Sharon Bala

From trans writers to Indigenous struggles to anti-black racism, there's a lot to be excited about in terms of the themes tackled by Canada's emerging literary voices. One of the outstanding examples of this is Sharon Bala's novel, The Boat People. Loosely inspired by actual events, it follows the experience a boat-load of Tamil refugees who arrive in British Columbia after fleeing the horrific violence of Sri Lanka's civil war and Tamil genocide.

The book is unapologetic in its critique of Canada's immigration system, alternating between the perspectives of the Tamil refugees, the immigration officers who must handle their cases and judge their eligibility for refugee status (are they terrorists? or refugees?), and the lawyers who struggle to represent the refugees. Bala deftly explores the psychology of each group, and the pressures which induce well-meaning immigration officers to succumb to racist, politicized rhetoric. This engaging novel provides a gripping narrative, and represents a remarkable debut effort for the author. - Hans Rollmann

Read Hans Rollmann's full review here.

Born to be Posthumous, by Mark Dery

Mark Dery's Born to be Posthumous has the exactly the same enthusiasms for gothic fun as its subject. Although Gorey's work has justly gained international attention, the life of the man behind all the cross-hatched illustrations of very funny mayhem remains a shadowy figure to most readers. Dery's beautifully written book will change that forever. Based on years of research and numerous interviews, Dery allows us to meet the young New York boho artist walking about in floor length fur coats who became the ageing aesthete creating his own very Gorey world at his 19th century home on Cape Code.

Dery's here concerns his finally etched use of queer theory to talk about Gorey's complex sexual identity. Free of the jargon that sometimes accompanies such an approach, he respectfully presents this very private man's full personality. I hope readers will not only see Gorey waving at them from the shadows but that this book will urge them to look into Dery's body of work, the marvelous essay collections that have been surgically examining American popular culture (and as he once put it, "not so popular culture") for decades. - W. Scott Poole

Bring the War Home, by Kathleen Belew

In Bring the War Home, Kathleen Belew, a history professor at the University of Chicago, offers a convincing case for the claim that the "lone wolf" domestic terrorist, an all-too-familiar figure in the United States, is instead a product of a well-organized, decades-old, right-wing social movement that brings together "a wide array of groups and activists previously at odds", including Klansmen, skinheads, neo-Nazis, militiamen, Christian identitarians, tax protesters, and white separatists. From the late '70s onward across the US, white extremists built a vast underground movement.

Collectively, Belew deems them the "white power movement" who, as a group, "believe in a racial nation that would be transnational in scope… based on the belief that white people are the chosen people." However, despite the pervasive belief among members that white men are constant victims in the post-civil rights United States, it's not just racism and white supremacy that unites these groups. Rather, the common thread that connects them, Belew argues, is disillusionment with the federal government in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. - Keira Williams

Read Keira Williams' full review here.

Circe, by Madeline Miller

Miller's Circe is not exactly the entire Odyssey retold through a new point of view. The novel is indeed a response to the myth of Odysseus because, through Circe, we see the hero very differently. This is definitely Circe's story — one that has had various conflicting versions over time — with the Odyssey as the backdrop, or the side-show. Mostly, she has been portrayed throughout art as a jealous, malignant witch who transforms others into monsters or animals through her potions.

Here, we get a somewhat different story of her growth into her powers as a witch or sorceress and her awareness of what they mean to her and others around her. As the plot advances, Circe's frame of reference evolves due to her experiences with visitors from both the worlds of the gods and the mortals, her complex relationships with them, and the stories they share casually. - Jenny Bhatt

Read Jenny Bhatt's full review here.

Viking (Oct 2018)

The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, by Thomas Ligotti

This reissue of Thomas Ligotti's most frightening work about the ultimate terror, human existence, might be just what you need in these times. Horror, for Ligotti, not only resides in the precisely crafted supernatural tales he's been writing for decades. Horror grows at the very heart of our existence, an existence marked by suffering and, with it, the awareness of death.

Readers will find themselves astonished at the extraordinary range of this book. Beginning by resurrecting an obscure Scandinavian philosopher, Peter Wessel Zapffe, Ligotti takes us on a tour of both philosophy and literature that manages to include Schopenhauer, Anne Radcliffe, Thomas De Quincy, H.P. Lovecraft, and Poe. This is no simple ornamental display of learning and range; Ligotti has insights into each of these figures that cut like a razor. He is absolutely unrelenting in his effort to push ideas to their logical conclusions. - W. Scott Poole

Read W. Scott Poole's full review here.

Hodder & Stoughton (Apr 2018)

Death in Ten Minutes, by Fern Riddell

Fern Riddell's work of narrative history, Death in Ten Minutes: Kitty Marion: Activist, Arsonist Suffragette, explores the bone-deep radicalism of the British suffrage movement by evoking events largely lost to collective memory. At a moment when Americans are debating whether it's ok to interrupt the dinner of fascists, Riddell has crafted a narrative of the Women's Social and Political Union that reminds us that the struggle for women's rights involved a violent and protracted campaign of arson and bombings.

Riddell places the struggle for suffrage against the backdrop of women who suffered sexual assault and economic deprivation that pushed them to seek liberation by any means necessary. While some readers might respond with head shaking and tongue clucking at the notion of violence in the service of social change, we'd do well to remember our selective memory about these things. On the American side of the pond, mobbing, tarring and feathering, and the destruction of properly have never been condemned in, say, the American Revolution. Readers intrigued by histories that historians seem to keep to themselves will learn something new on every page. - W. Scott Poole

BOOM! Studios (Mar 2018)

Destroyer, by Victor LaValle

Victor LaValle's comic series Destroyer appeared as a trade paperback in 2018. Although I first read the comics month to month, I'm jealous of readers who will get to experience the collection all at once. Lavalle is best known for his multi-award winning novel The Changeling, a book that takes horror and magical realism and makes them appear terrifyingly close, and completely intertwined, with the real political and personal struggles of everyday life.

The same dark alchemy brews in this graphic novel. LaValle makes Frankenstein's monster genuinely terrifying again, a creature whose long exile on the ice floes has turned his hatred against humanity into a cauldron of uncontrollable and utterly murderous rage.

Lavalle, as in his previous work, dusts off the idea that politics are intensely personal. The story of the original monster collides with the monsters of our moment a modern America that still hasn't concluded that black lives do indeed matter. The perfectly executed art of the great Dietrich Smith and Joana LaFuente completes this newest telling of a story two centuries old this year. - W. Scott Poole

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