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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.

Penguin (May 2018)

Last Stories, by William Trevor

The recurring themes of loneliness, death, betrayal, delusion, and loss might make them sound rather bleak but Trevo's spare prose and concise narratives avoid melodrama or repetition. All the main characters struggle with and never conquer their yearnings, which are challenged or thwarted through singular moments of quiet drama. And, despite there being no radical or titillating action, what lingers in the reader's mind long after reading feels like reverberations of aftershocks.

One particularity that animates several of these stories is how two unlikely characters come together: a middle-aged caretaker and strange European workmen; an amnesiac picture-restorer and a street prostitute; a widow and a widower from different social strata.

The lonely, older woman of the shabby, genteel kind is a recognizable Trevor archetype here. As ever, though, Trevor's unfailing compassion and understated humor serve as reliable anchors to prevent the pathos-filled narratives from sinking into sentimentality - Jenny Bhatt

Read Jenny Bhatt's full review here.

Henry Holt & Co. (Feb 2018)

Left Bank, by Agnes Poirier

Agnes Poirier's Left Bank: Art, Passion, and the Rebirth of Paris 1940-1950 is a riveting, rollicking read through the explosive intellectualism and labyrinthine love affairs of many of the key writers, philosophers and artists of this decade that came to define Paris and the Left Bank. The book is centred around Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, the couple whose transcendent partnership -- intellectual, romantic, political -- forms the fulcrum of this telling. Around them gathered an expansive array of fascinating, complex characters -- Picasso, Janet Flanner, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Juliette Greco, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Edith Thomas, to name just a few. Some were French; others were ex-pats from before the war; many were American GI's who fell in love with the city and returned under generous post-war educational programs.

This is, perhaps, what renders so many nostalgic for the Paris of the Left Bank: a lost era of intellectual passion against which the arms-length, evidence-based confabulations of contemporary intellectual thought are judged, and found wanting. - Hans Rollman

Read Hans Rollmann's full review here.

Graywolf (May 2018)

A Lucky Man, by Jamel Brinkley 

Jamel Brinkley's A Lucky Man is a story collection that shadowboxes with your heart, pulls out tender mercies at the close of some selections, and tricks you into embracing characters at the start only to shine a darker light on them at the end.

What does it take to make a family? How do Brinkley's characters see themselves in a world not at all meant for them? Brinkley's willingness to pace himself with these stories and set scenes strong enough to be expanded in deeper formats is generous and remarkable at the same time. These stories aren't just MFA workshop exercises in style. At their best they are fully realized distillations of multi-leveled scenarios that will only grow deeper with repeated readings.

Separately, these stories work as 11 planets thriving with sustainable life and dynamic cultures. Together, they're a galaxy whose treasures will prove immeasurable no matter how many visitors they receive.

Read Christopher John Stephens' full review here.

Madam and Eve, by Liz Rideal and Kathleen Soriano

"My womanhood is intrinsic to my work" (11) says artist Anne Truitt, whose quote sets the context for Madam and Eve: Women Portraying Women. Authored by artist Liz Rideal and curator Kathleen Soriano, the collection explores the female artistic gaze as it sets on other women. The collection showcases various mediums ranging from oil painting, sculpture, photography, fashion, glass, or performance, to name just a few. Each artist is limited to a single piece, thereby allowing the authors to present a wide scope of work. Rideal and Soriano include both popular and lesser known artists. Yet Madam and Eve is unified by the inclusion of artists who have taken risks whether it is social, personal, or aesthetic.

Rideal and Soriano curated a poignant examination of the impact feminist discourses have on contemporary art and the socio-cultural role of women artists. - Elisabeth Woronzoff

Read Elisabeth Woronzoff's full review here.

May We Forever Stand, by Imani Perry 

"Lift Every Voice and Sing" has been embedded in black America's DNA for more than 100 years. We've sung it every February ever since Black History Month was a thing, and every December since Kwanzaa was a thing. We have always known it was important: it was written that way, with those deep major chords, that major-to-minor downshift on the bridge, and those stentorian lyrics. It has grounded us, lifted us, strengthened us, every single step of the stony way we've trodden. It sings to black people's highest vision of ourselves, because that's what it was written to do.

Perry traces the song's curious path through the 20th Century. May We Forever Stand is not a making-of music biography, in the sense of Greil Marcus's dissection of Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone", or the titles in the 33 1/3 book series; she's a cultural historian, after all, not a musicologist. Instead, she shows how the song reflected shifts in black social life and activism, while never losing its central character and significance.

In that respect, the book becomes another prism to reflect upon the path towards, in James Johnson's words, "the place for which our fathers sighed". May We Forever Stand explains why it is an immortal song. - Mark Reynolds

Read Mark Reynolds' full review here.

HarperCollins (Oct 2018)

Melmoth, by Sarah Perry

Sarah Perry, author of the justly celebrated, Essex Serpent, has fully revived the gothic "terror novel" in Melmoth. Perry draws on the little known work by Charles R. Maturin who wrote Melmoth the Wanderer in 1820. Perry places her story in modern Prague, a nest of haunted memory and history, where we meet an old man who dies producing a document that drives a mild-mannered scholar to madness and takes us into the darkness of a terribly nasty folktale that just might be entirely true.

A bit of a jaded horror fan, I can tell you Perry's work leaves you with a chill that much more explicit spooky novels fail to achieve. Readers will love the narrative voice that occasionally draws back a curtain for us, a voice that manages to sound a bit like a postmodern Anne Radcliffe (or maybe Maturin himself) by way of Shirley Jackson and Richard Matheson. - W. Scott Poole

Graywolf Press (Dec 2018)

Milkman, by Anna Burns

Anna Burns' Milkman, winner of the 2018 Man Booker Prize, is not an easy read. There are few chapter breaks. Within the chapters, there are entire sections with no paragraph breaks. And within the paragraphs, there are sentences that can span many lines with little or no punctuation. With the exception of a dog and Somebody McSomebody, no characters have names. Burns identifies them instead by descriptions: "maybe-boyfriend", "real milkman", and, of course, the Milkman.

This work is about what happens when we multiply the traumas of sexual harassment, stalking, and sexual assault by simultaneously conditioning victims to remain silent, punishing them when they don't, and speaking for them by filling in imagined and cruel details about who they are, what they do, and why—all of which enhances men's abuses of power and facilitates the harrowing historical cycle that teaches that is perhaps best, safer, even more dignified not to speak at all.

While Burns' indeterminate, stream-of-consciousness style in the tradition of Faulkner and Joyce has clearly turned some reviewers off and puzzled others, this coming-of-age tale is original, timely, and ultimately rewarding.

Read Kiera Williams' full review here.

Other (May 2018)

A Million Drops, by Víctor del Árbol

A Million Drops is a mystery-thriller in the best tradition of the genre, one which offers an intricately-researched historical tale while also trying to say something appreciably profound about human nature. It's reminiscent on some levels to the work of Stieg Larsson, who also embedded stories within stories, interwove historical moments with their contemporary consequences, and was deeply concerned with misogyny and child abuse (both themes integral to Víctor del Árboll's novel as well).

Larsson was more 'woke', let us say (he had a deeper and more well-structured analysis of misogyny and oppression) and Árbol's tale is much darker in both the telling and the resolution, but there is a shared sensibility that may attract readers of one to the other. Larsson resisted the male gaze -- a constant menace in crime fiction -- more arduously in his work; it peeks out occasionally in Árbol's but one senses his effort to rise above. - Hans Rollmann

Read Hans Rollmann's full review here.

Verso (May 2018)

Mistaken Identity, by Asad Haider

In Asad Haider's brief yet compelling Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump, the message is clear. Haider argues that we have gone too deep into the convenient comforts of identity and lost perspective of the bigger picture. "I don't accept the Holy Trinity of 'race, gender, and class' as identity categories. This idea of the Holy Spirit of Identity, which takes three consubstantial divine forms, has no place in materialist analysis."

"Our world is in dire need of a new insurgent universality," he writes. "What we lack is program, strategy, and tactics." Haider doesn't offer any conclusive solutions to our current state of identity politics, and Mistaken Identity barely covers the routinely vulgar identity politics Donald Trump and his minions brought to power and apparently plan to maintain. Instead, Haider has written a brief and informed survey and critique of the inherent flaws in Identity Politics. It convinces the reader through a measured calm, not polemics, and that's a refreshing change in these troubled times. - Christopher John Stephen

Read Christopher John Stephen's full review here.

Miyazaki World, by Susan Napier 

Japanese Studies scholar Susan Napier's Miyazakiworld reveals an animation auteur with an urgent message to convey about our future -- and ourselves. Napier's overarching argument is that Miyazaki's films are more than merely enjoyable masterpieces of animation. She argues that Miyazaki is an auteur—"a director whose personal and artistic vision is so strong that each film consistently contains trademarks that make his or her entire work a distinctive cinematic experience." As a scholar, she says, she faces skepticism at the idea that an animator can be an auteur, and her book is largely an attempt to demonstrate that they can (hence, its effort to balance biography with cinematic analysis).

'Miyazakiworld' is an "immersive animated realm that varies delightfully from film to film but is always marked by the director's unique imagination… a realm where hope triumphs over despair." A realm, in other words, that our society is sorely in need of, on many levels. Napier's excellent volume combines biography with cinematic analysis in a manner that is as accessible to the general reader as it is satisfying for the more engaged scholar, and offers a valuable addition to English-language scholarship on the world's most loved animator.

Read Hans Rollmann's full review here.

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