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Books

The 50 Best Books of 2018 So Far

(Photo: Pixabay)

This is no list of frivolous "beach reads". These books meet our high criteria of quality art, of relevant works in these times of cultural and political turmoil. We offer them to you, good reader, so that you might indulge your voracious summer reading appetite with pleasure.

At PopMatters we take art seriously and at our best we engage with it fully mindful of the cultural/political circumstances in which it was born and nurtured. We take great pleasure in art and expect it to meet us at our level. Thus, we've collected the best works of fiction, graphic fiction, history, memoir and cultural criticism published in 2018 that we've read thus far -- some quite serious, some more delightfully "arty" or just delightful -- all deliciously engaging and intellectually (or at the very least, playfully) indulging, for you.

Against Memoir: Complaints, Confessions & Criticisms 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. She keeps one finger on the same few threads, no matter the individual style or substance of any single piece of writing. Indeed, she's aging well, and for her steadfastness in these matters 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

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Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism by Safiya Umoja Noble

There's been a growing swell of concern in the academic community about the stranglehold that commercial (for-profit) search engines have over access to information in our world. Safiya Umoja Noble builds on this body of work in Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism to demonstrate that search engines, and in particular Google, are not simply imperfect machines, but systems designed by humans in ways that replicate the power structures of the western countries where they are built, complete with all the sexism and racism that are built into those structures. - Hans Rollmann

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Apocalypse, Darling by Barrie Jean Borich

There's a sweeping, gorgeous sense of urgency in these pages as Barrie 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. - Christopher John Stephens

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​The Art of the Wasted Day by Patricia Hampl

The Art of the Wasted Day shimmers and glows as it takes the reader through countries, time zones, centuries, almost like the title heroine of Virginia Woolf's Orlando, a superhuman who changes genders and wanders through centuries, meeting the best and the brightest minds of various times and taking a little here, a little there, always living on her own terms. Where Orlando intermingled with these characters, Patricia Hampl maintains the graceful nature of a solitude that keeps her in the world but never of it. Hampl has given birth here to a beautiful, stunning, intense look at the graceful and sublime responsibilities of a writer who understands the difference between romanticizing loneliness and elevating the literary obligation to craft, solitude, and truth in our allotted time between birth and death. - Christopher John Stephens

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Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968 by Ryan H. Walsh

Ryan H. Walsh's Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968 is a brilliant, beautiful tribute to a long-lost era of free-form radio, communal living, underground newspapers, burgeoning musical scenes in their pristine form before being captured by the "star making machinery", and the birth of a visionary album by a 22-year-old Irish singer/songwriter that remains terrifying in its untouched beauty. 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 book is a masterful end result of research, patience, and love for a time and sensibility sorely missing today. - Christopher John Stephens

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Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country by Steve Almond

Steve Almond has written a handful of books about things like music or sports. All of them are pretty funny and surprisingly touching. He comes off as a mensch every time. Wading into the swamp of our contemporary political discourse to sift through the muck of the American mythos, he has emerged with Bad Stories to guide us all toward a more useful approach to the national nightmares we face when we turn on the television these days. Almond reminds us that storytelling itself is a necessarily redemptive enterprise, and urges us to consider that our moral progress as a nation is still completely possible, even if it's inconvenient. - Megan Volpert

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Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump by John Fea

Believe Me is a highly readable and convincing "story of why so many American evangelicals believe in Donald Trump". The book tracks through recent developments in US religion and politics, but does so in the context of longer historical developments and patterns. Fea talks about the rise of the Moral Majority with as much ease as he does Jeffersonian America, all developing a single line that greatly expands understanding of our current political moment. His own faith may lend an urgency to his work, but it won't turn off secular readers. He tackles the topic "not as a political scientist, pollster, or pundit, but as a historian who identifies as a Christian". - Justin Cober-Lake

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Bright Signals by Susan Murray

Considering that television became commonplace in US households after WWII, it's difficult to imagine that the first public demonstration of color television occurred way back in 1925. Developing color television, from this side of history, seems like an inevitability, yet in Bright Signals, Susan Murray shows that it was anything but. At the heart of Murray's study is the consideration of color far beyond simply a mechanical or technological event that happened in the consumption of everyday media. -- Linda Levitt

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Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America 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." - Keira Williams

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Calypso by David Sedaris

Calypso has arrived at the perfect moment as a literary equivalent of the recent wave of prestige comedies—shows like Transparent, BoJack Horseman, You're the Worst, Barry, Louie—that are comedies in name only, because the star actors are those we associate with comedy, and the format fits into the half-hour television slot, we sort them into the category of comedy. The essays in Calypso follow a similar model. They're comedic because they're in that familiar essayistic format by noted humorist David Sedaris, but at their core they're as melancholy as anything he's ever written. The sharpness and exaggerated pettiness of his earliest books are all but gone, replaced with a gentler sort of wryness that, one assumes, comes with the wisdom of middle age and experience. When a David Sedaris story made you feel wistful, it used to be the exception; in Calypso, it's the rule. - Deborah Krieger

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