If you’re looking for a last-minute holiday gift or a compelling winter-break read, you’re in luck: 2018 was another great year for good books. From a compassionate, moving novel to a fascinating memoir, hard-hitting uncover exposé, and even a fascinating how-to manual about death and dying, there’s something for everyone on this list.
A heart-rending novel about the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and early 1990s, and its aftermath many years later. In 1985 Chicago, Yale Tishman watches as his friends all fall ill and die. Eventually, his friend Nico’s little sister Fiona is the only person Yale can still count as a friend. Years later, Fiona is in Paris looking for her daughter. While staying with an old friend, and looking through photos, Fiona is hard-hit with the trauma she endured during that time. Makkai effectively captures the fear and sorrow that many felt at that time, and uses the present-day narrative for added reflection and exposition. Make sure you’ve got tissues nearby while you’re reading.
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize this year, “Washington Black” is the story of a tweenage Barbadian slave with a gift for drawing. Washington catches the eye of his master’s brother, Titch, who is building a hot-air balloon and needs a young apprentice to help him out. Through somewhat improbable plot twists, the pair wind up escaping Barbados in the balloon and alighting first in Virgina, then on to the Arctic Circle in search of Titch’s father. Scenes of intense cruelty on the plantation juxtapose the friendship that blossoms between Titch and Washington, and their father-son dynamic propels most of the plot after they leave the island (even when Titch manages to shake free from Washington). Edugyan infuses so much emotion, humanity, and historical realism into this book that it is hard to put down.
Our nameless narrator, recently orphaned and living off her inheritance in Manhattan, has decided to spend a year withdrawn from the outside world. With the assistance of a preposterously bad psychiatrist who freely prescribes all manner of pharmaceuticals, the young woman drifts in and out of consciousness and memory, and detaches herself from her jerk boyfriend and friend Reva, who she doesn’t actually like. Moshfegh’s humor keeps this book from just being a list of drugs she takes and the movies she watches.
Tara Isabella Burton
At first, the tagline for the book — “A ‘Talented Mr. Ripley’ for the digital age” — feels like a careless spoiler. But, once fully engrossed in the novel, “Social Creature” is so much more than a poor-friend-impersonates-her-dead-rich-friend story. Lavinia is a New York City socialite, flitting from party to party with little consequence, who believes that being well-read in philosophy somehow makes her unique and interesting. She hires Louise — who works multiple jobs, lives in Brooklyn, is decidedly not glamorous — to tutor her little sister (in reality, Lavinia is just looking for a babysitter). In short order, Louise has been swept up in Lavinia’s magical lifestyle, but Burton does an excellent job keeping tension just below the surface. We know almost immediately that Lavinia will be dead soon; we watch as Louise neglects her jobs because keeping up with Lavinia is a full-time job unto itself. But everything is disposable in Lavinia’s world, and Louise would not have been the exception. What sets this thriller apart is how Louise uses social media to protect her ruse. Makes you wonder whether your friend whose posts you like on Instagram is really the one posting them…
Newlyweds Celestial and Roy are young, successful, and happy — until Roy is convicted of a crime he didn’t commit and sentenced to 12 years in prison. While “An American Marriage” is not fast-paced, it is an incredibly important and timely novel about the criminal justice system’s unfair treatment of black Americans. We watch as Roy and Celestial’s relationship becomes intertwined in the prison industrial complex, as their marriage suffers through no fault of their own, and we really feel their perspectives. Jones has done a magnificent job of inhabiting each character’s voice and motivations.
It seems improbable that anyone could truly be “off the grid” anymore, but that’s exactly how Tara grew up. Raised by fundamentalist Mormons who didn’t trust public schools, Tara was “home schooled” (but basically just taught how to read Bible passages). Tara, hungry to learn, gets herself into college and on to grad school. As Tara’s story unfolds, as she herself comes to understand her past, she reveals to the reader what her remote Idaho upbringing was really like. “Educated” is a compelling read both because it is so well written and because it is such a bonkers story. [As with any highly successful memoir, the veracity of “Educated” has been questioned. Friends of relatives have voiced their support for the book, for whatever that’s worth.]
As a journalist working for Mother Jones, Shane Bauer decided to go undercover as a corrections officer in the biggest for-profit prison system in the U.S. The Mother Jones exposé was published to great acclaim, and Bauer was, fortunately, given a book deal to share all he witnessed during his four months as CO. The for-profit prison system never seemed like a great model, but Bauer reveals unsafe conditions for both prison and staff, and shocking levels of apathy and dehumanization. Bauer also includes informative asides about the history of the American correctional system, and how it has supported institutionalized racism for generations.
A nonfiction book about death hardly seems … worth the read. However, Tisdale not only spent a long career as a palliative nurse, but she is also an excellent (and award-winning) writer. Her experience at the bedside of those near death combined with her florid prose make this the how-to book about death that you didn’t know you needed to read. Tisdale’s advice for dealing with the death of a loved one (how to deal with doctors and funeral homes, for example) is practical, and her Buddhism and writing style will make you feel warm and fuzzy inside. Outside of a book about how to file your own taxes, this is probably the most universally necessary topic — after all, we’ll all die eventually (or deal with a loved one who is dying).
More from Make It Better:
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Danielle McLimore is a Chicago-based writer and editor who has worked in book publishing since 2009. She lives with her husband, two sons, and a very misbehaved dog. She proudly supports the Center for Reproductive Rights.