• What Did You Read This Year That You Loved?

    Freeman's Contributors Weigh In on Their Favorite Books of 2018

    One of the first questions I ask writers I’m working with is what they’re reading. At the end of 2018, a year which tried hard to make the world smaller, I thought it’d be interesting to hear what the writers from Freeman’s recently which they loved the most—regardless of when it came out. Here are their answers.

    John Freeman

    Perhaps the most extraordinary book I read this year is Philippe Sands’ East West Street. The book’s rather daunting subtitle is “On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity”, and Sands is, of course, an international lawyer working on human rights. But East West Street, while vitally illuminating about our contemporary understanding of international human rights, is by no means a legal textbook: part philosophy, part detective narrative, part memoir, the book follow the complicated paths that lead from the Ukrainian city of Lviv to the War Crimes Tribunal in Nuremberg and to Sands’ own birth. The result is utterly riveting, moving and important.

    –Claire Messud, author of The Burning Girl

    A Cruelty Special to Our SpeciesOne of the books that most gripped me this year was Emily Jungmin Yoon’s A Cruelty Special to Our Species, which bears brutal and unblinking witness to the devastations of history, and the deep psychic fissures we continue to carry. It’s a courageous, remarkable debut.

    –Tracy K Smith, author of Wade in the Water

    Leila Slimani, The Perfect NannyI don’t know about a favorite book but a novel that I read at the beginning of the year and that has really stayed with me is Leila Slimani’s Lullaby, (published in the US as The Perfect Nanny) which took no prisoners as it looked at the lives of the rich and poor in a Paris of profound inequity and the way societal imbalance can lead to a hatred and murderousness that’s almost indistinguishable from love.

    –Sunjeev Sahota, author of The Year of the Runaways

    This year I loved the Swedish writer Linnea Axelsson’s epic poetry book Aednan more than anything. Aednan is sami for land, and the book circles around resistance and love within the native community. I hope you get to read it in English one day.

    –Athena Farrokhzad, author of White Blight, translated by Jennifer Hayashida

    Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan is masterfully poised and evocative look at New York during the 1930s and 1940s. It fully brings to life Brooklyn’s wartime docklands, the subtle machinations between powerful gangsters and the state, and the drifting world of merchant mariners.

    –Nadifa Mohamed, author of The Orchard of Lost Souls

    The Bone HouseAustralian writer Beverley Farmer died in mid-April, while I was midway through her 2005 triptych of fragmentary essays, The Bone House. A surreal sense of loneliness, of phantom stair; to be encountering Farmer for the first time, a week or so shy of her death. And this work in particular, concerned as it is with loss and mourning, ritual and myth.

    I’ve written “fragmentary,” though this does not quite hold, as each passage feels individually, organically formed, sustained of its own history, its own air and light. No surprise to learn The Bone House was ten years in the writing, between Australia and Greece, composed of that which might endure a decade of the mind’s tumbling. A commonplace book, the author intended, modestly. Our first job, Farmer reminds, is noticing: “Low tide and a waveline of jellyfish like ice on the thaw, clearer than water, so clear even the sand is alight.”

    Much is deeply personal. As much again, gleaned, stored, housed: “The early photographers kept a cat in the studio to act as a light meter, going by the subtle swell and shrink of its changing eyes in the changing light. How did they keep it awake?”

    I read—I moved through—very slowly. Not a book to be polished off, churned through, devoured in a day or a night. It was there for mornings, the days drawing their shape from a half dozen pages. Or it was a place to come to at 4 am, unable to sleep, tilting the book toward the cheap lamp to ask, What lasts?

    –Josephine Rowe, author of A Loving, Faithful Animal

    chris-ofili-paradise-lostShot through chain-link fences around Port of Spain, Trinidad Christopher Ofili’s black and white photographs in Paradise Lost evoke with gem-like eerie calm the island’s unending struggle of possession and dispossession.

    –Ishion Hutchinson, author of House of Lords and Commons

    Claudia Dey, Heartbreaker (Random House)

    Claudia Dey’s Heartbreaker is one of the strangest magical and original books of the year. It takes place in a cult in the north of Canada where time stopped in 1984. Hear the voice of female anguish from the mouth of a dog. So many layers of yearning and beauty: a poetic exploration of the alienated mother and lots of other things.

    –Heather O’Neill, author of The Lonely Hearts Hotel

    The Polyglot Lovers by Lina Wolff (trans. from Swedish by Saskia Vogel—forthcoming in English in spring 2019) Fabulously quirky characters, strange and surprising turns of events, and an ill-fated book manuscript at the heart of it all. What’s wonderful about Lina Wolff’s The Polyglot Lovers is the way that it stretches the bounds of the novel form itself.

    –Fatin Abbas, author of The Interventionists, forthcoming in 2019 from W.W. Norton


    I had many best books of 2018, but Florida by Lauren Groff and The Third Hotel by Laura Van Den Berg were the ones I kept coming back to, for the invigorating prose and the off-kilter female protagonists—odd, brainy introverts with secrets. Just my type.

    –Tania James, author of The Tusk that Did the Damage

    I finally got to Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry this year. I’m in awe of pretty much everything Lerner does and this book is no exception. It’s a short book, or rather a long essay and the uncompromising clarity and intelligence with which he burrows into the crevices between our thoughts, memories, the words we do say and those we would like to if only we could had me hooked. Notable in particular was the section on Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, where he mused on the fantasy that poetry and ultimately, language is universal and what language each of us really has access to depends heavily our respective histories. Although the premise of this book appears straight forward, Lerner of course takes it somewhere else and (at least as I understood it) essentially addresses the impossible desire to articulate meaning.

    –Michael Salu, writer, artist

    The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New MillenniumThis year I have greatly admired Martin Gurri’s The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium (Stripe Press)—a prescient and troubling book, which seeks to answer the question: ‘What exactly is this current hell?’

    –Joanna Kavenna, author of A Field Guide to Reality

    Off to the SideI don’t read much when I write, and I write all the time—it is, after all, my bread and butter—so I only read in every now and then, and when I do, I typically pick up something off my shelf, something I should have read eons ago—Gargantua or War and Peace or a volume from Proust’s formidable opus. After having completed my opus a couple of months ago after a five-and-a-half year slog, however, I passed on the classics for Jim Harrison’s memoir, Off to the Side. I realized I only knew Harrison because I mostly slept through the adaptation of one of his novels—Legends of the Fall. Although he has nothing to do with me – I am a contemporary, Karachi-based novelist while Harrison, the progeny of Scandinavian immigrants who tilled the land in some hardscrabble swath of middle America between the wars—he speaks to me like a friend, brother, kindred spirit. Organized thematically not chronologically, Off to the Side contends, in part, with Harrison’s Seven Obsessions: Alcohol, Stripping, Hunting, Fishing (and Dogs), Private Religion, A Short Tour de France, The Road, Nature and Natives. He could, I imagine, hold forth on anything and I would listen raptly—he’s always cogent, charming, compelling. It is, all in all, one hell of a read. It takes the load off.

    –H.M. Naqvi, author of The Selected Works of Abdullah the Cossack, forthcoming from Grove in 2019

    one-day-in-the-life-of-ivan-denisovichThis year I finally read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. It’s a shocking, uncompromising book, a harrowing account of life in a Soviet prison camp. Despite the attention to the horrors of the camp, Solzhenitsyn manages to make his characters deeply human, even tender. It’s a short, brutal, unforgettable read.

    –Tahmima Anam, author of The Bones of Grace

    Amateur by Thomas Page McBee Amateur by Thomas Page McBee is timely and absolutely beautifully written meditation on masculinity. McBee, a trans male writer who started hormone therapy in his late thirties, notes the immediate respect he garners at work when his voice deepens, the way other men navigate his orbit at the boxing gym while he trains for a charity match. Sensitively told, his writing is a clear, personal voice amid the noise of gender politics.

    –Jess Rulifsson, author of Invisible Wounds, forthcoming in 2019 from Fantagraphics.

    The Barber of DamascusReading Robert Walser’s fiction in Arabic—the translation of The Walk by Nabil al-Haffar—had me experience a new relationship to this language in which I was born, in which I write. He’s simply a sorcerer; he made Arabic jump in all directions. To have more of his work available for readers in this language, I’d say, exaggeratedly or not, was one of the most beautiful things that happen to Arabic in 2018.

    The other book I want to mention is The Barber of Damascus, by Dana Sajdi (Abu Dhabi: Kalema, 2018/Stanford University Press, 2013), translated from English into Arabic by Sari Khreis. This is a brilliant retelling of the story of Ibn Budeir al-Hallaq (the barber), who as a barber, documented the history of the city of Damascus during the 18th century, for 21 years, as he daily documented stories of the city and life in it, he heard from costumers he cut their hair in his shop. Normally we hear the depressing phrase that history is written by the winners and probably the powerful. Al-Hallaq as a historian gives a new possibility for history; it can be written similarly by the weak, the marginal and the non-educated.

    –Adania Shibli, author of Touch, translated by Paula Haydar.

    TheHunter1999NovelThis year I stumbled across Julia Leigh’s unsettling 1999 novel The Hunter, which follows an obsessive man through the Tasmanian wilderness in search of the last remaining thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger. The narrative voice is spare and unwavering, and the story is surprising in its indifference to what a reader might want. There is no coddling here, particularly when it comes to Leigh’s sobering (and timely) treatment of loss and extinction. Timely and unforgettable.

    I also came across Washington Irving’s A Tour on the Prairies, a slim collection of Irving’s journal entries from an 1832 trek across what is now Oklahoma. Irving is an entertaining tour guide, not only because of his keen observations, but because he’s so clearly out of his depth, and his reticence about certain activities (brutal roundups of wild horses) echoes the reader’s own. What strikes me most about the book—although it is not Irving’s main subject—is the abundance of wildlife. One doesn’t think of Oklahoma as overrun with bison, bear, and howling timber wolves, but Irving’s journals give us a glimpse of the edenic quality of the United States when it still belonged to Native Americans.

    –Amanda Rea’s work has appeared in Harper’s, Electric Literature, and elsewhere.

    The Trauma CleanerThe best book of 2018 for me is The Trauma Cleaner. A trauma cleaner is the person who shows up after, say, a murder or, worse, a suicide that isn’t discovered for a couple of weeks. (Everything you think a dead body might do to a sofa after ten or fifteen days is true but even more so.) However, there’s a twist in this story that I won’t reveal except to say I read the book six months ago and have thought about it every day since. It will always be on my Top Ten List of Most Extraordinary Non-Fiction Books Ever.

    –David Kirby, author of Get Up, Please: Poems

    in extremisI got Lindsay Hilsum’s In Extremis: The Life and Death of the War Correspondent Marie Colvin as a gift and couldn’t put it down. It’s a rip-roaring biography of a great American by her close friend, another woman war reporter. Sourced in Colvin’s wonderful diaries and in dispatches from our present forever wars, In Extremis is immersive, vivid and compulsive reading. You get not only the woman but her voice.

    –Honor Moore, author of The Bishop’s Daughter

    The Gospel According to Wild IndigoThere is nothing more pleasurable than reading a new book by a poetry veteran, someone with a sure, tender hand on the page, but someone who is not jaded, either, who has maintained intensity. Cyrus Cassells’ The Gospel According to Wild Indigo has everything I dig, including African American cultural references slicing through luminosity. Cassells’ poetry has been my jam since Soul Make a Path Through Shouting, and he is the man. Trust. The wonder still there.

    Michael A. Gomez’s African Dominion: A New History of Empire in Early and Medieval West Africa is a dense read, sure enough. I will not lie, but you should expect dense, as Gomez is a master researcher and scholar.  (If you want more lyricism in your scholarly quests, check out Gomez’s beautifully rendered Exchanging Our Country Marks.) For those who are interested in West African cultural survivals on this side of the water, “African Dominion” is a big, exquisitely documented history of empires—Gao, Ghana, Mali, and Songhay—before the Transatlantic Slave Trade and its sinister hold on the Motherland. After reading this book, my mind is still in smithereens.

    Finally, I loan out a lot of books, but never Zora Neale Hurston’s The Complete Stories. Of course, you’ve read Their Eyes Were Watching God—and maybe, you’ve even read Jonah’s Gourd Vine and Moses, Man of the Mountain. (If you haven’t read Seraph on the Suwanee, well, I forgive you, though I am aware that I blaspheme.) But Hurston’s short stories represent the rich, literary ancestry of such black women fiction writers like Gayl Jones, J. California Cooper, Alice Walker, and Crystal Wilkinson. Submit to Hurston’s unabashed emotional logic and her gut bucket, vernacular counsel. You will thank me.

    –Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, author of The Glory Gets

    shell gameTwo favorite books of poems of mine this year are Jordan Davis’s Shell Game and Catherine Barnett’s Human Hours—we’re lucky to have them. Shell Game is exhilarating on every level of language. Davis is in the line of great New York City-poets’-poets—his poems are formally and intellectually dazzling, seriously comic, and emotionally serious. His unique and formidable talent takes us in “Shell Game” into poetic spaces we’ve never been in before. Catherine Barnett’s Human Hours burns with beautifully formed, fiercely intelligent, pitch perfect poems of the deepest human truths. It’s emotional intensity is palpable, its range and ambition remarkable. It’s a book not only of our time but of time itself, by one of our most skilled practitioners of the art.

    –Lawrence Joseph, author of So Where Are We?

    Teicher’s The Trembling AnswersThe more I read, the more I see that the truly wise among us are willing to inhabit the unrelenting truth of paradox. That praise comes from pain, wonder from acute heartache, morality from self-loathing. Craig Teicher’s The Trembling Answers is an astonishment of this kind, a book I read nearly holding my breath, awaiting the arrival of an impossible poem with every page I turned. And there it was: another poem I felt simply could not have occurred, yet did. These poems, and likely Teicher himself, don’t realize what wonders they are. All the more reason to praise them.

    Katie Ford, author of If You Have to Go

    Öræfi: The WastelandORAEFI (The Wasteland) by my Icelandic friend Ofeigur Sigurdsson, English translation by Lytton Smith, published this year by Deep Vellum Publishing in Dallas.  It’s a brilliant, ecstatic, hallucinatory arabesque consisting of nested tales of decreasing reliability and increasing self-awarenessall centering upon this blasted Icelandic emptiness where having or knowing anything seems only barely possible, where one glimpses the struggle to verify the contents of the world in bleakest terms.

    –David Searcy, author of Shame and Wonder

     Sergei Dovlatov, RetiroAbout my favorite read this year, well I managed to get two books translated into Spanish from the Russian writer Sergei Dovlatov, Retiro and La Maleta (Pushkin Hills and The Suitcase). Since I read somewhere a comment from Joseph Brodsky (“The decisive thing is his tone (…): the individual who won’t let himself be cast in the role of a victim, who is not obsessed with what makes him different”) I was eager to read Dovlatov and I wasn’t disappointed at all. Both books are full of bitter humor and sweet sadness and let us understand how was living in a zone—not a country—once called USSR.

    –Andres Felipe Solano, author of Los Hermanos Cuervo

    Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows

    In Praise of Shadows by Junichiro Tanizaki: Tanizaki wrote a testament to the house of the soul. This essay on aesthetics is built on a foundation of philosophical poetics. It distills beauty in shadow. Validates the spiritual solace in clean lines. Tanizaki captures what is covetable and even vital, in age or grime, he brings in science and the ancient and shows them both of on alter lit by candlelight. There is love, wit, and humanity within these lines.

    –Jenni Fagan, author of There’s a Witch in the Word Machine

    The Shepherd's Hut

    The Shepherd’s Hut, by Tim Winton, a novel that reminds us what fiction can do. Here is a voice that digs into your viscera and changes you from the inside.

    –Ross Raisin, author of A Natural

    Eric Vuillard, The Order of the Day, translated by Mark Polizzotti2018 was a year of war and death and other inevitabilities; and the literature I read was too.

    Eric Vuillard, in his masterpiece The Order of the Day about World War II, illuminates in glorious and ugly precision how the concentration of wealth and power, a cult of personality, political corruption, bigotry, and narcissism are the necessary but sometimes ignored steps that lead to catastrophe.

    An Untouched House by Willem Frederik Hermans is a tiny understated novel about a Partisan soldier who finds an empty but upscale house in the flagging days of World War II and camps out in it until the Germans retake the town and commandeer the house, too. The unnamed characters, the silence of the abandoned town, the “untouched” house, the isolation of the soldier conveys the bleakness of the war and how it corrupted the people who fought it.

    Reissued by Grove Press, Martha Gellhorn’s collection of war correspondence, The Face of War, is exquisite and precise, brave and generous all while conveying war in a way that indicates she is decidedly anti-war and proves she is the best journalist—I mean STORYTELLER—of her generation.

    I never read a book by Philip Roth until he died. I chose Patrimony, a memoirish portrait about his father who is diagnosed with a brain tumor. Roth writes about change, humiliation, about how to be a son or a daughter when your elderly parent’s death is nigh, but it’s ultimately a book about life and how it carries on even if you don’t want it to.

    In Hanne Ørstavik’s slim novel, Love, well, love changes everything. The actions of a mother and her son, over the course of a single night, mirror how love can exist even if there are completely separate understandings of that love. It is in this slim space between where vulnerability amasses, where they miss one another’s intentions and needs just as they miss each other driving by in separate cars on a lonesome road.

    –Kerri Arsenault, What Remains forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press

    The Hatred of Music" by Pascal QuignardMy favorite book this year was The Hatred of Music by Pascal Quignard. It’s a riveting treatise on the reverse of sensuality. Pascal Quignard writes likes a maelstrom of sharpness  and originality, and suddenly everything you thought you knew about your senses is an ocean in the dark.

    –Pola Oloixorac, author of Dark Constellations, forthcoming from Soho Press in 2019

    Amok is a novella by Stefan Zweig I read this year. The title says it all, in Malay origin: Zweig’s book is a strange and maddening blaze, touching and disturbing, a feeling of helplessness that leaves a long echo in the mind. It’s not because of where the story is set—in the Dutch East Indies, my country’s former name—it is because Zweig successfully and completely exposes humanity’s wickedness and weakness.

    –Eka Kurniawan, author of Beauty is a Wound.

    Torn from the WorldThe book that most shocked me this year for its literary quality is called Tzompaxtle, although in English it has another title, Torn from the World. The author is John Gibler, a real outlaw.

    –Diego Enrique Osorno, author of El Cártel de Sinaloa

    The preceding is from the Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which features excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The latest issue of Freeman’s, a special edition gathered around the theme of power, featuring work by Margaret Atwood, Elif Shafak, Eula Biss, Aleksandar Hemon and Aminatta Forna, among others, is available now.

    John Freeman
    John Freeman
    John Freeman is the editor of Freeman’s, a literary annual of new writing, and executive editor of Literary Hub. His books include How to Read a Novelist and Dictionary of the Undoing, as well as a trilogy of anthologies about inequality, including Tales of Two Americas, about inequity in the US at large, and Tales of Two Planets, which features storytellers from around the globe on the climate crisis. Maps, his debut collection of poems, was published in 2017, followed by The Park in 2020. His work has been translated into more than twenty languages and has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and The New York Times. He is the former editor of Granta and teaches writing at NYU.

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