The best books of 2018

I read by my account one hundred and six books in 2018: biographies, novels, histories, short story collections. Below are five I recommend.

David W. Blight – Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom

With his consistent revisions of the narratives of his life, Frederick Douglass transformed himself into a symbol of the possibilities available to a runaway slave, freedman, counselor to presidents, and a useful figurehead for a political party that had abandoned its commitments. Douglass incarnated the hopes of millions of black men and women. Thanks to the author of the essential Race and Reunion The Civil War in American Memory, the indefatigable polymath sheds the symbolic import, becoming a man. The sweep of David W. Blight’s biography compensates for the occasional clunker, for example his Chernow-esque tendency to marr paragraphs with inapposite conclusions.

Amy Bloom – White Houses: A Novel

Like Blight’s Douglass, the Eleanor Roosevelt of Amy Bloom’s novel emerges as all too human, a lover of women who married the world’s most powerful man. The directness of Bloom’s prose allows for ambiguities; White Houses is a Jamesian portrait of a complex marriage.

Ottessa Moshfegh – My Year of Rest and Relaxation

She specializes in squalor, and this novel about a young woman who takes hard to her bed and her pills is often hilarious. How Ottessa Moshfegh sustains interest in what is essentially a comic’s monologue is part of her achievement.

Jenn Pelly – The Raincoats (33 1/3)

Rare is the band whose commitment to punk manifested itself as a lifetime attachment to bohemia. This exemplary account/re-appraisal of The Raincoats’ landmark debut and the circumstances surrounding its recording is meticulous and affectionate. “With its defiantly shy temperament, The Raincoats is introversion as punk—a celebration of the female interior life,” Pelly wrote in a draft published at Pitchfork last year.

Deborah Eisenberg – Your Duck Is My Duck

“Recalculating,” about a man realizing the complexity of his vanished uncle Tommy, is a masterpiece: a navigation through temporal and geographic spaces as only a master of the short story like Deborah Eisenberg can achieve. The title story and “Taj Mahal” rank just below “Recalculating.”

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