What I'm Reading (No. 50): my favorite reads of 2018
Seems fitting that the 50th edition of this newsletter would recap my favorite reads of this first year of sending weekly book reviews. I had a really hard time narrowing things down, so what I did was pick my 1-2 favorites from each month. That was more manageable than picking 10 or 15 from 100+.
I tried to sort of focus on lesser-known books (with a couple exceptions), which are sometimes more enjoyable just because of the surprise factor. You don't expect greatness from something relatively unknown. But that happened a lot for me this year.
This is a longer newsletter than usual, but I hope you'll find it worth it.
Without further ado, and in order of when I finished them during the year:
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. When I read this back in January, it had been a long time since I'd been gripped by a work of fiction like that. There's better historical fiction, but this was a really good, emotionally engaging read. Our book club had some hot takes about it, but I still think it was marvelous. (This year's The Great Alone was not as great, IMO.)
The Accidental President by AJ Baime. This book about Truman was maybe the first time I'd been so fascinated by a presidential biography, and inspired me to read through the presidents. (I know you haven't heard much on that front; I've read a handful of semi-boring, history-nerd-only bios, so for the purposes of this newsletter I'm going to do the Founding Fathers all at once in a few months.)
O Pioneers! by Willa Cather. A short, wonderful Western/frontier novel from 1913. Before our daughter Willa was born, I wanted to read a Willa Cather book, and I was not disappointed. Such tight, powerful writing. I immediately went out and bought a bunch more of her books, which have sat on my shelf unread. Maybe in 2019.
Butcher's Crossing by John Williams. Far more well known for his novel Stoner (which I haven't read, but I hear is excellent), Butcher's Crossing was definitely the most underrated, under-listed Western I read for my Best Western Novels project. It's about a buffalo hunt in Colorado, and its writing and story has stayed with me.
Educated by Tara Westover. Universally praised this year for a reason. Not all books deserve their accolades; Educated does. Tara's backwoods upbringing certainly makes for a dramatic tale, but it's her writing and self-reflecting that sets the book apart from other memoirs.
The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers. I love Dave Eggers. So a new book by him about coffee was right up my alley. Yemen is a country currently ravaged by war and famine, but one San Fran guy named Mokhtar goes from doorman to coffee-preneur by importing beans from his ancestral homeland. Got me hooked on Yemeni coffee.
The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright. Read this while watching the Hulu series of the same name. A wonderful book that should almost be required reading for Americans. We are still living in the wake of 9/11, and this book captures the rise of Al-Qaede and Osama bin Laden. Won a Pulitzer after being published in 2006. Peter Bergen's Manhunt, which sort of picks up where Wright left off, was also amazing.
Rocket Men by Robert Kurson. The unbelievable story of Apollo 8, which was NASA's first mission to the moon. Before Apollo 8, no spacecraft had left Earth's orbit. Even Neil Armstrong thought this one was actually the riskier, more important mission. You don't know these 3 astronauts yet, but you'll come to love them after you read this book. His book Shadow Divers is equally gripping.
Star of the North by DB John. A thriller novel set in North Korea. I don't read a whole lot in this genre anymore, but John's book — informed by multiple trips to North Korea — was great. Twin sisters, CIA informants, Little Rocket Man — this book has it all.
Bad Blood by John Carreyrou. Another nearly universally acclaimed book from this year. Carreyrou details Elizabeth Holmes' and Theranos' meteoric rise and fall. Reads almost like fiction, and in fact you might not believe some of the truly unbelievable details if they were fiction. You may in fact write it off as too unlikely. Improbably, every word of this book is searingly true.
Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow. The book that kicked off my reading of presidential biographies. It's big, and not always easy reading, but boy does Chernow write a good bio. His insights into the nation's first President were eye-opening, and struck a great balance between criticism and praise.
Victoria: The Queen by Julia Baird. Queen Victoria, who ruled the English empire from 1837 to 1901, was one of the most powerful people in all of history. Baird susses out fact from fiction regarding Victoria's sometimes troubled life, and tells it more entertainingly than I've perhaps ever encountered in a 500+ page biography. Maybe the best bio I read all year.
Into the Raging Sea by Rachel Slade. The sinking of the El Faro in 2015 during Hurricane Joaquin didn't garner a whole lot of press (at least to my memory), but it's one of the more harrowing and unbelievable stories you'll hear. It's Perfect Storm-esque in that none of the 33 crew survived, but it's about way more than just a boat sinking in a bad storm.
The Hazards of Good Fortune by Seth Greenland. A modern novel about race, PC culture, identity, money, power — all with the backdrop of basketball. Protagonist Jay Gladstone owns an NBA team and aging star player Dag Maxwell is angling for a new contract. All sorts of struggles ensue. There's way more to the plot, but that's the one-sentence version. A very good and underrated novel from this year.
Churchill by Andrew Roberts. The biggest book I read this year, coming in at around 1,100 pages. This new bio about Winston Churchill has been reviewed as being probably the best single-volume bio of the enigmatic WWII leader. Roberts sorts through the controversy and the heroism to find one of the most unique and interesting men in all of history. I still have William Manchester's 3-volume bio on my list.
Waiting for Eden by Elliot Ackerman. A short, potent, imaginative novel about the Iraq War (and more accurately, its aftermath), written by a veteran. Main character Eden has suffered severe burns overseas, and is in San Antonio getting treatment. His long-suffering wife, Mary, is waiting for him to recover. Is a torturous existence even worth living?
The Pleasures of Reading by Alan Jacobs. A philosophy of books and reading that is sure to please ardent readers. He tackles a wide range of bookish topics, from book lists, to snobby critics, to reading at whim, and most importantly, reading for pleasure. Its ideas will stick with you.
The Giver Quartet by Lois Lowry. A middle grade series that has become a bit of a classic in the genre. The characters are as memorable as I've encountered and even though Lowry ends the books a little too quickly, the dystopian world she created provides a number of lessons about what makes life worth living.
Missoula by Jon Krakauer. I can't believe it took me this long to read Krakauer's latest (this one came out in 2015). I'm usually on his stuff as soon as it comes out. His reporting of rape and the justice system — through the case studies of a series of campus crimes at the U of Montana — is quite an indictment. I can't believe this book didn't get more attention in the midst of #MeToo. It should have.
Sourdough by Robin Sloan. Covered this one last week, and it was just so fun. It was sort of felt like a guilty pleasure read, but one that still had some insights on technology, foodie culture, work-life balance, and even hobbies. Lois was a character who was easy to root for, which doesn't necessarily happen in a lot of modern novels.
I had quite a year of reading, and I hope you did too. I'd love to hear what YOUR favorite reads of the year were!