My nonfiction reading this year was heavy on specialized works of Chinese history, which were useful to me but not easy to recommend to others, so I’m putting fiction first this time. It’s more fun. As with previous lists, these are just my favorites of books I read in 2018, not limited to books released in 2018.
- Varlam Shalamov, Kolyma Stories. Unquestionably the best thing I read all year, utterly compelling. If there is any justice, the publication of this new translation will reorder the established hierarchy of twentieth-century Russian and world literature.
- Keith Gessen, A Terrible Country. A charming and moving account of a young American’s complicated relationship with Russia.
- Madeline Miller, Circe. The witch who entrapped Odysseus and his sailors tells her side of the story; a vivid reimagining that retains the weirdness and force of myth.
- Caitriona Lally, Eggshells. A mentally disturbed woman rides the bus in Dublin. Often hilarious, sometimes infuriating, with wonderful wordplay throughout.
- Eric Ambler, The Light of Day. A top-notch thriller from 1962 whose focus on people stuck in between national borders feels very contemporary. Check out Ethan Iverson’s guide to all 18 of Ambler’s novels.
- Jim Harrison, Legends of the Fall. In this collection of three novellas, the title piece and “Revenge” are both brilliant, “Westerns” in the widest and best sense of the term (you can skip the middle one though).
- Frank N. Pieke, Knowing China: A Twenty-First Century Guide. One of the clearest and most original summaries of how to think about the Chinese political economy that I have yet encountered.
- Tom Wright & Bradley Hope, Billion Dollar Whale: The Man Who Fooled Hollywood, Wall Street, and the World. A stunningly detailed account of one of the biggest corruption scams in world history. (Here’s my post on the book.)
- Timothy Snyder, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. A fascinating reinterpretation of the Holocaust. and a meditation on violence and the role of the state. (Here’s my post summarizing the book’s conclusion).
- Donald Hall, A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety. The former poet laureate writes perfect prose, reporting from the front lines of old age in this follow-up to his Essays After Eighty. Hall died this year, not long after this book was published.
- Gareth Stedman Jones, Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion. My social-science education mostly skipped Marx, and this intellectual biography helped me fill in the gaps. German idealism comes across as a giant intellectual dead end, and Marx’s political instincts were terrible, but Stedman Jones makes a case for the value of his pioneering economic history.
- Cas Mudde & Cristobal Rovira Kaltwasser, Populism: A Very Short Introduction. A very useful guide to the political phenomenon of the moment, notable for its great conceptual clarity.