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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.

Dreamers, by Snigdha Poonam

This book is a richly-detailed portrait of young India today, particularly millennials. Journalist Snigdha Poonam talks to seven young people (mostly men) about their dreams, their ambitions, and how they see their futures evolving in a country that's both splintering and taking new shapes at the same time. But this is no rose-tinted view of an aspirational India. Poonam shows us how the politics of identity continues to be complex and divisive and how the powerful know just how to manipulate impressionable and aspirational young people like the ones here.

By 2020, more than 60 percent of India's population will be below the age of 30. And the serious lack of skills and shortage of jobs continues to get worse even as these men and women grasp hungrily for money, fame, recognition, and more. In the absence of supporting socio-economic mechanisms to help them achieve their goals, they do whatever they must — scam, cheat, lie, fight, and more. Poonam's journalistic narrative is sharp, vivid, and well-paced and leaves us both better-informed and more than slightly worried about the tensions and conflicts that trouble the world's largest democracy. - Jenny Bhatt

The Electric Woman, by Tessa Fontaine

Things that are difficult to imagine: the deathwatch vigil for your own mother, whose tenacious will to live defies odds and expectations. A crash course in fire eating. Joining a circus sideshow shortly thereafter. Most difficult to imagine: doing these things simultaneously.

Who wouldn't be awestruck by Tessa Fontaine, even before considering the extraordinary beauty of her prose? These stories wind together and circle around each other, not unlike the boa constrictor that she learned to love.

This book is an invitation to join Fontaine as she finds out about life and death through the most direct confrontations she can muster, in light of the one for which she has no choice.

Read Linda Levitt's full review here.

Elements of Surprise, by Vera Tobin

In our daily lives, many of us are not too keen, even circumspect, about the sudden surprises we encounter. Yet, with the fictions we read/watch, as Vera Tobin points out in her recent book Elements of Surprise, we take pleasure in and gain satisfaction from narrative surprises.

Though the O. Henry style twist endings are no longer as popular as during his time, readers/audiences today still prefer narratives that adhere to the paradox of being inevitable (that is, a consequence of all that has gone on before) and yet unpredictable. Not cheap, formulaic plot tricks, mind you, but the "well-made" surprise.

With this book, Tobin takes a scientific approach to exploring this kind of surprise in fiction (of all genres.) Specifically, she looks at our cognitive limits and quirks that not only help make such surprises work effectively but also elicit a certain kind of pleasure and satisfaction when revealed, recognized, understood, and acknowledged. - Jenny Bhatt

Read Jenny Bhatt's full review here.

The Field of Blood by Joanne B. Freeman

Yale historian Joanne B. Freeman's book is an eye-opening, tragic, and often funny account of the culture of threats and outright fighting in the U.S. Congress, especially the House of Representatives, during the second third of the 19th century. While most scholars of the antebellum era highlight the caning of abolitionist Republican Senator Charles Sumner by a disgruntled South Carolina representative, in 1856, as a key moment in the sectional crisis preceding the Civil War, Freeman shows that the era of congressional violence started much earlier. It is, she argues, an essential, if mostly forgotten, aspect of the story of the Union's unraveling.

Much of the book's narrative focuses on New Hampshire's Benjamin Brown French, whose appointments to various government posts in Washington gave him a unique vantage point from which to observe the taunts, insults, shoving, pistol-waving, and punching in Congress that were far from unusual as tensions between the North and the South escalated. French's extensive diary details altercations that pitted hot-blooded southerners, intent on defending slavery at any cost, against mostly "noncombatant" northerners, who, over time, shed their reluctance to meet the abuses of the "Slave Power" with force.

Adding a fascinating new layer to our understanding of the coming of the Civil War, Freeman connects congressmen's combative behavior to politically motivated bloodletting in places like Kansas and Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in the 1850s. Congressional violence both reflected and anticipated the increasing inability of northerners and southerners to bridge the chasm that existed over the issue of slavery. The Field of Blood is a wonderful, lively book, and in the context of our own era of intense political polarization, a sobering one. - Zachary Lechner

Figures in a Landscape, by Paul Theroux

Figures in a Landscape is Paul Theroux's third collection of essays that have already appeared, from 2001-2016, in slightly different forms in various publications (The Washington Post, Harper's Bazaar, The Guardian, The Smithsonian, New York Times Magazine, etc.) or as book introductions. With travel pieces, literary critiques, people profiles, and personal essays, the 30 pieces here cover a wide range of subjects and are, together, his most polished collection yet.

They give us everything we have come to expect from Theroux in his nonfiction: the attentive traveler's sharp eye and canny ear for everything that goes on around him and, to a certain extent, what goes on in his mind as he engages fully with life and everything that comes at him.

Whether he's being seriously earnest or ironically satirical, Theroux's prose manages to hit just the right notes so that, at the end of any particular essay, even if we might not be in agreement, we want him to continue on. - Jenny Bhatt

Read Jenny Bhatt's full review here.

Verso (Jul 2018)

For a Left Populism, by Chantal Mouffe

Chantal Mouffe's Toward a Left Populism is written in the sort of dense, circuitous, theory-laden prose that would have Foucault himself reaching for a dictionary in confusion. That said, for the intellectuals who struggle through it, it just might be the most important intervention of the year in response to the rise of right-wing populism around the world (and it's been a year with no shortage of interventions on the subject).

Mouffe challenges readers to reflect honestly and seriously about what's good and what's bad when it comes to populism. She concludes that it's not all bad. Indeed, isn't populism what democracy is all about? Her argument is that populism is simply a tool; a means to an end, and whether it's virtuous or villainous depends on how it's being used and toward what end.

Populism is a mass reaction against neoliberalism, and right now it's being exploited by the right. If the left wants to put an end to that, it will require a rejection of neoliberalism and the development of a radical democratic agenda.

Mouffe explores what it might mean to start building a left populism, in order to save – and transform – democracy. If you can struggle through the convoluted and theory-heavy text, it's a rewarding and thought-provoking journey. - Hans Rollmann

Read Hans Rollmann's full review here.

Public Affairs (Oct 2018)

Freak Kingdom by Timothy Denevi 

In Freak Kingdom, Timothy Denevi gives a charmingly sensational account of Hunter S. Thompson's life in order to prove his point that Thompson actually conducted himself as quite a serious anti-fascist. Denevi's argument is Thompson became the gonzo character he was because it served his work—and actually, his work was not journalism, it was fighting fascism.

Journalism was a means to the end, as was the bad boy character he constructed for himself that gave him greater access to sources for his journalism. Without the bad boy, there's no Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga. Without the Hell's Angels book, there's no steady Rolling Stone gig. Without the magazine footing the bill and enabling the antics, we wouldn't have the Nixon chronicles.

Even those who want to credit Thompson with proper journalistic sensibility generally don't make it past the beauty and glory of his bottomless efforts to dislodge Nixon, because it can be hard to locate the fascism that presidents have in common with biker gangs or with genteel crowds at the Kentucky Derby. Thompson, however, could see the similarities.

Read Megan Volpert's full review here.

Friday Black, by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

This is one of the sharpest debut short story collections of the year. Dealing with themes such as racism, capitalism, consumerism, and a lot more, Adjei-Brenyah takes us to the edges of darkly reflective pools where we can see our worlds starkly and uncompromisingly.

Each story here is uniquely told — whether it's social realism or absurd surrealism or speculative fiction. And each one fine-tunes our usual perceptions of justice, love, apathy, spirituality, truth, and more. The many voices and characters show his immense range and the promise of so much more to look forward to. This is what a debut should do. The opening story is the most unforgettable, both for its violent realities — as if taken straight from present-day headlines — and for the stunning ending. - Jenny Bhatt

Picador (Oct 2018)

Ghosts of the Tsunami, by Richard Lloyd Parry

When it comes to outstanding journalistic narrative, Richard Lloyd Parry has few rivals. His In the Time of Madness (2005) presented a remarkable portrayal of political and social change in Indonesia at the end of the Suharto era, and his People Who Eat Darkness (2011) presented the more focused exploration of a heinous murder in Japan. Ghosts of the Tsunami is his latest offering, and it's one of the most absorbing English-language books on the tragic 2011 earthquake and tsunami to appear yet.

Parry's narrative focuses on ferreting out what happened in the case of Okawa Elementary School, where a bungled evacuation resulted in the deaths of most of the students and teachers, but the text offers much more. From unbelievable first-person accounts of surviving the tsunami to the more complex, and fascinating, efforts of individuals and communities to deal with the trauma of the experience (through methods ranging from erecting monuments to exorcism), Parry's account is sensitive, rigorous, and absolutely impossible to put down. - Hans Rollmann

Read Hans Rollmann's full review here.

Has the Gay Movement Failed?by Martin Duberman

Martin Duberman's book is an urgent and much-needed clarion call for the 'gay movement' to reinvent itself for the 21st century. He covers enormous ground for a relatively short and broadly accessible book. Most urgent, perhaps, is his warning of what might happen if the 'gay movement' fails to revitalize itself, and instead allows the elitist complacency of its national organizations to hold sway.

Duberman's argument is not so much that the gay movement has failed, as that it needs to re-focus and set its sights on a more radical agenda, particularly one that attends to the needs of poor and marginalized queer folk, which is to say the majority. Insofar as the most visible national LGBTQ organizations have pursued an almost desperately centrist agenda (even to the point of backing Republican candidates in recent elections), some might consider this a call to return to the movement's roots, but Duberman is quite sober in his analysis of the ways that societal attitudes have changed since the '60s, and that a re-radicalization of the movement cannot simply aim to replicate the activism of those decades. - Hans Rollmannh

Read Hans Rollmann's full review here.

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