The first half of 2018 has seen dozens of notable releases: Rachel Kushner’s follow-up to The Flamethrowers, Stephen King’s “It for the Trump era,” a much-buzzed-about debut from Tommy Orange; essay collections from heavyweights like Marilynne Robinson and Zadie Smith; short story collections from favorites John Edgar Wideman, Helen DeWitt, and Lauren Groff; and memoirs from H. Jon Benjamin, Porochista Khakpour, and none other than David Lynch, to name just a few. As ever, the to-read list lengthens daily, and we’re barely keeping up. Maybe we aren’t keeping up at all. With 2018 halfway over, these aren’t the best books of the year so far, rather favorites from a handful of staff members and contributors. Consider this a place to start to catch up on what you might have missed, some suggestions for your own ever-growing list.
Though many have tried, no other writer sounds quite like Denis Johnson. No one has his ear for the kind of condensed, sticky, surprising language that makes reading, and rereading, him so enjoyable. When Johnson died last year, the literary world lost the best kind of prose stylist—the writer who makes his language new and vital without falling prey to affectation. His indelible voice is perhaps on no better display than in his short stories: first, in his classic 1992 collection, Jesus’ Son, and in January’s posthumously released The Largesse Of The Sea Maiden. Those acquainted with Johnson through Jesus’ Son’s strung-out narrator Fuckhead will find familiar characters here: a man writing increasingly manic letters from a drying-out facility, a motley crew of inmates in a county jail. But Largesse is not a mere revisiting of old haunts. The collection extends beyond the drugs and alcohol and violence to meditate more deeply on life and death. These long short stories—five total—often meander, spanning years, bending and winding seemingly without intention, until their endings pull taut the narrative’s loose strings, arriving at strange moments of transcendence, the kind people have and will continue to read Johnson for. [Laura Adamczyk]
Part memoir, part writing how-to, Alexander Chee’s essay collection, How To Write An Autobiographical Novel, proves that the two-time novelist ranks not only as one of our most important writers but also among our greatest souls. Tracing the thread of the writerly life from his teenage compositions to finding mentors, surviving MFA workshops, and navigating the itinerant teaching circuit, Chee details how he composed his autobiographical novel, Edinburgh. Along the way, he takes up tarot, tends a rose garden, toils as an AIDS activist, and caters dinner parties for William F. and Pat Buckley. These essays offer much more than an inspirational template to becoming an artist, but propose a blueprint for living a beautiful life. “Sometimes music is needed,” Chee writes in the first line of the listicle-as-essay “100 Things About Writing A Novel.” “Sometimes silence,” follows tip two. That’s sound advice for just about anything. [Rien Fertel]
There’s a curious feeling you get when reading Sloane Crosley: Whenever she mentions a friend, you get jealous. Crosley is so funny, so charming, and has such a great eye for detail that someone getting to spend more time in her company than you do feels unfair. You want her to be your friend as well. Her latest collection, a return to nonfiction after the enjoyable novel The Clasp, may well be her best. Her first books had loose themes of childhood, work, and dating; Look Alive Out There grapples with ideas that are more mature and complicated. One essay is about a neighbor who dies, an abrupt reminder of mortality. Another is about aging, as she wages a one-sided battle with a noisy young neighbor she despises and is kind of jealous of. She debates freezing her eggs, obsessing over what she wants out of life and how to separate that from what society says women should want. In maybe the collection’s best, she visits a relative who’s a porn star, “the most famous stunt cock ever,” and who had countless sexual partners but never got the loving romance he entered the business to find. They’re all gems, which leads to Crosley’s biggest problem: You devour her work, and then she unfairly makes you wait years for the next one. [Ryan Vlastelica]
Time travel is a classic science fiction plot element, but it’s rarely used so well as in Tom Sweterlitsch’s The Gone World. Set in a world where the U.S. Navy has spent decades secretly making jaunts into deep space and the future, the novel follows a Naval Criminal Investigative Service agent who in classic noir fashion starts off investigating a murder and winds up unraveling a much more dramatic mystery. Moving back and forth between 1997 and 2015, her interference in the timeline affects both the lives of the individuals around her and the date of a looming apocalyptic event. Hard science fiction with the pacing of a thriller, the book is filled with visceral descriptions of horrors both alien and manmade, but also delves into much more intimate examinations about how people cope with the knowledge that their future and past are mutable. Proof that superb world building isn’t only the domain of extensive series, The Gone World is a neatly self-contained and breezy read. [Samantha Nelson]
A new David Sedaris book is always going to be worth reading; he can be relied on to bring his signature dry humor and dispassionate observations to whatever he publishes. But in Calypso, Sedaris shows growth and change after a long career, offering a more personal side of himself than he has before. Alongside absurdly amusing stories of a clandestine tumor removal and his relationship with a disfigured turtle, Sedaris offers his reaction to his sister’s suicide, and the moment he read that the Supreme Court ruled that gay marriage was legal nationwide. Calypso is unusually moving for a Sedaris book, but lucky for us, it’s also usual in what we’ve come to expect from the humorist. [Caitlin PenzeyMoog]
Mary Shelley published a masterpiece in 1818, but Victorian readers didn’t see it that way. Many read Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus as a sacrilegious and unnatural story of a man going against God. So Shelley, in an attempt to sell more copies, made several edits to her manuscript and republished Frankenstein with an emphasis on the scientist’s perversion against God and nature. On the book’s 200th anniversary, Penguin republished the original 1818 text, the one Shelley wrote when she was 18 years old. It’s been available, of course, but this version comes with an illuminating introduction by Charlotte Gordon. If you’ve only seen adaptations of the book, haven’t picked it up in a while, or just never read it yet, this version is well worth a read. [Caitlin PenzeyMoog]