By Jamie Trecker (Producer and Co-host of Eye 94 Radio)
“Year-end-best-of-list.” It sounds like a wind-up, doesn’t it? How could anyone possibly know what the “best” books in a single year were? Tens of thousands of titles are released in a single year, across all genres – and that doesn’t count the millions of other titles released worldwide in other languages. So, no, this is not a “best of” list in any real sense; what it is instead is a list of the books I happened to read, engage with, and enjoy the most this year. Most of them came out this year; some of them came with pictures. I enjoyed all of them despite having some reservations, of which you will read more below.
Charley’s War: Vols 1-3 W: Pat Mills A: Joe Colquhuon. (2000AD/Rebellion)
Let’s start with a “book” that originally came out in 1979. Charley’s War, written by Pat Mills and illustrated by the late Joe Colquhuon, was serialized for seven years in the pages of Battle Picture Weekly. That’s a comic book, mind you, and one ostensibly for children. And yet, even at a forty year remove, it is easy to see why this searing anti-war comic is considered one of the towering achievements in British comics. A grunt's-eye view of WWI, as told through the eyes of a teenage boy who lies about his age and is promptly sent to the front, this is a nasty, brutal, unsparing, and unsentimental view of the deadliest conflict in human history. The fact that this was placed in the pages of a militaristic comic (to teach children “valor” of course) makes it a bit of subversive genius.
Novel Explosives, Jim Gauer (Zerogram)
Whenever someone tells you a novel is “Pynchon-esque,” you are most often wise to run in the opposite direction. Not so for this peculiar but ultimately engrossing book. Gauer spins a yarn about four intersecting people – a venture capitalist, two hit men, and a man suffering from amnesia—who come together amidst Ciudad Juárez’s drug trade. Think of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 mashed up with Pynchon’s Inherent Vice and you’re sort of on the right track. Gauer – who himself is a venture capitalist – is eerily accurate when it comes to both firearms and high finance. While I might have found 100 pages to trim out of this one as well, this is an excellent and unjustly overlooked book.
Severance, Ling Ma (MacMillan)
Ling Ma’s debut was arguably the “it” novel of the summer. Another genre mashup, this one combined a sharp millennial satire of corporate office culture with the tried and true zombie staple. And it was better than it had any right to be. Ma’s spin on the zombie plague was also ingenious (her victims were trapped in their own memories) and she deserves full marks for what I interpreted as less than a happy ending. Bonus points also for Ma’s refreshingly candid interviews; she allowed that she was “bored as hell” talking about a book she had wrapped up in 2016.
The Great Believers, Rebecca Makkai (Penguin)
I recommend this one with some reservations. Makkai’s novel, set largely during the AIDS epidemic and its aftermath, makes to me what is a serious mistake by having two timelines intersect in the book. (Makkai offers her views on this and why she used the device in Episode 52 of Eye 94 Radio. Go check it out.) I feel strongly that the passages of the book that take place in the 1980s and 1990s contain some of the best writing of the year. I feel equally strongly that had Makkai abandoned the passages that take place in 2015 that she would have had a superior, shorter novel that would be remembered as a classic. She needed a strong editor. Nonetheless, the book contains genuinely affecting moments, and is well worth picking up.
My Struggle (Volume 6), Karl Ove Knausgaard (Archipeligo)
What kind of masochist signs up to read a 3,600 page novel, in six parts, in translation from the Swedish? This guy. OK, let’s state the obvious: Karl Ove can write, and yes he could have used an editor. This is after all the sixth volume of Knausgaard’s “autobiography,” which is less a memoir and more an exercise in modernist writing: it is a book about a writer writing this book. What makes volume six compelling is the nearly 400-page digression into his choice of title. He of course nicked it from Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, and Knausgaard digs into that book with a penetrating look at a title that became, and remains, the blueprint for hatred, anti-Semitism, and white supremacy. It is a tour-de-force. Is this the best volume in what is admittedly a bludgeoning series? No, that would likely be Volume 2. But this volume is worth it for the midsection alone. And by the way, if you want to see what all the fuss is about without making the commitment, read Knausgaard’s excellent contributions to the New York Review of Books and the New York Times Book Review. They’re available online.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Ottessa Mosfegh (Penguin)
Moshfegh has justly been feted as a towering talent; her debut Eileen was riveting; her stories, collected in Homesick for Another World, had a punch rare in this era of MFA programs and New Yorker collections. This book, about an unnamed narrator who uses illegal pharmaceuticals to sleep all the time, is far cleverer than the subject matter might suggest. (I’m convinced Netflix’s “Maniac” series ripped this book off, BTW.) Moshfegh surely knows her way around a sentence, and whole paragraphs draw blood. But, if there’s a flaw here it is that the whole thing feels very affectless; I never felt there were any stakes in play. Still, one of the books you should be checking out this year.
The Pilgrim Hawk, Glenway Wescott (NYRB Classics)
The Pilgrim Hawk, like my grandmother, is old and short. Published in 1940, this would be considered one of America’s great novellas, save for one thing: no one’s ever heard of it. The New York Review of Books Press has made a habit of rescuing undeservedly abandoned books, arguably hitting a high note with this slim, 125-page novel. Wescott is a master of concision: every single word carries weight, and the opening line – a bomb that will detonate about 3/4s of the way through – is a classic. And yes, there is a hawk.
Dopesick, Beth Macy (Little, Brown)
It’s about America’s opioid crisis, and it’s non-fiction. Vital. Just read it.
Sleepless, W: Sara Vaughn A: Leila del Duca (Image)
“Another comic book,” you say? What, weren’t there enough other good volumes this year? Sure there were. Scribe by Alyson Hagy is pretty good; the Leonora Carrington reissues are must-haves. But for emotional depth, this is, excuse the pun, a sleeper of a winner. Taking place in a far-away kingdom with depthless political machinations, this tale of a bastard princess and her servant protector is one of the cleverest comics of the year. A short read – Vaughn is known for wrapping up her stories in twelve issues – Sleepless nonetheless suggests a much larger, much stranger world. Del Duca’s scratchy artwork is wondrous.
Lateral Cooking, Niki Segnit (Bloomsbury)
So, a confession: I read this in serial, as the Times of London excerpted it as part of some hellish new-age book deal. That said, Segnit’s “cookbook,” and I use quotes for a reason, is inarguably the best of the season. That’s because this is not a book of recipes or techniques, per se. Rather, it is a thought experiment in how dishes fit together. To use one of Segnit’s examples, making a loaf of Irish soda bread is essentially the same as making a cobbler topping, or a scone. It’s the spaces between foods that interest Segnit, and in this mesmerizing volume, you learn how to use those spaces and connections to your advantage.
Worth noting: This is what the English call a bit of “log-rolling” (go look it up), but Eve Ewing’s Ghosts in the Schoolyard was a vital read. Nicole Van Cleve’s Crook County is also a gem of a book, about the other side of our school/prison system. And DC Comics is rolling out a host of wonderful reprint collections as part of their “Golden/Silver/Bronze Age” Omnibus line. For fans of capes and cowls, this is a goldmine.
© Jamie Trecker 2019
Originally published January 4, 2019