Books

The 50 Best Books of 2018 So Far

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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.

Carnet de Voyage by Craig Thompson

Craig Thompson's Carnet de Voyage, a travel diary of his time spent in Europe and Morocco in 2004, is filled with sketches of the people and places he encountered along the way. Thompson makes it clear that this diary is composed of quick snapshots and sketches, without the use of photographs, and the looseness of the drawings comes through beautifully. Thompson is a gifted cartoonist, with an ability to tell long, complex stories while never sacrificing intricate details or the fluidity of his drawings. Here, his sketches still manage to convey those same skills, while retaining an on-the-fly quality that works especially well for the genre. - J.M. Suarez

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Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

Sayaka Murata's theme, rendered through the trappings of the contemporary moment -- cell phones, convenience stores, social media -- appears modern but actually taps into a deeper and eternal universality: the solitary individual's struggle to come to terms with a society that demands total, mindless conformity to its norms as the price for sharing in its fruits. It's a price that is paid more easily by some than by others, and Murata's brief, whimsical, deeply insightful and pleasantly thought-provoking novel reminds us what torture social life can be for those too honest and authentic to be deluded by its trappings. - Hans Rollmann

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Elements of Surprise: Our Mental Limits and the Satisfactions of Plot 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

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Eventide by Therese Bohman

Therese Bohman's works are grounded deep in the souls of the women she portrays. For a novel which largely explores the feelings and experiences of a single woman, there's nothing stilted or laborious about it; the prose is light and engaging and draws the reader in with a desire to understand its central character and to see how she engages with the unpredictable turns of her life. Eventide is a lovely and compelling depiction of a very complex, very real woman, and despite its brevity and uniformity of purpose, it's a highly rewarding read. - Hans Rollmann

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Everything Is Broken Up and Dances: The Crushing of the Middle Class by Edoardo Nesi, Guido Maria Brera

Edoardo Nesi and Guido Maria Brera are classic liberals. They believe the free market works, that minimal regulation is good, that ultimately penny-pinching efforts by governments to get out of debt can be a good thing. Brera is an investment manager; Nesi inherited a textile manufacturing company, which he was ultimately forced to sell, and more recently pursued a career as an award-winning author and politician. The fact that it comes from two stalwart believers in traditional liberal, socially-conscious capitalism makes their savage attack on its globalized, neoliberal offspring somehow all the more satisfying. Everything is Broken Up and Dances is almost poetic in its straightforward denunciation of the double-speak of contemporary bankers and politicians, of their bureaucratic insulation from the first-hand cruelty of the austerity politics they practice. - Hans Rollmann

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Figures in a Landscape: People and Places 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

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Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous by Christopher Bonanos

Christopher Bonanos' impeccably researched biography of Weegee is also a history of newspaper photography and of the growth of New York City through the middle years of the 20th century. Weegee was already making photographs and trying to figure out how to make photography his career when the first tabloid, the New York Daily News, began in 1919 with the intent of making its mark by visually representing the news. Bonanos offers a lively history of the early years of news photography, rich with anecdotes that create Weegee's persona. In these times of so-called "fake news", this biography of Weegee begs the question: If the truth of human nature is best demonstrated in a prearranged circumstance, does that make it any less true? - Linda Levitt

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Has the Gay Movement Failed? by Martin Duberman

Martin 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 Rollmann

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The Hatred of Literature by William Marx

Those who come to this book seeking validation of their negativity towards the written word will be sorely disappointed. Rather than examine a particular antipathy towards a specific form, William Marx examines how the fear of ideas inherent in all literary forms, be it Plato through C.P. Snow, has served only to build up a hatred of the form in general. We hate what we fear, and we reach that state of apprehension because it comfortably serves our immediate interests. Willful ignorance has always been a more comfortable and popular state than that of an academic, than the life of a pilgrim on a quest for the truth. We have always hated literature while at the same time we hold it at a safe distance. Confuse this hatred of literature with illiteracy and the picture gets hazy. - Christopher John Stephens

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The Heavens Might Crack: The Death and Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. by Jason Sokol

As we enter the third quarter of 2018, mid-term elections, an increasing sense of divisiveness through race, economic disparities, and the looming specter of war anywhere and everywhere as a means of distraction, Sokol's The Heavens Might Crack should serve as a critical reminder of what Americans are capable of. This work is an important addition to an already impressive library of civil rights narratives and Martin Luther King biographies. King was a monolith of a man in his time and remains so today, but he was also a rebel, a necessary disrupter, a thorn in the feet of all who stood in his way, and any reminder of that should help us deal with the dark times ahead. - Christopher John Stephens

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