Bibliophiles, I present to you my “Best Books of 2018” list, as always with the huge caveat that very few of the books were actually published in 2018; they’re simply my favorite books I read during the year. Unlike an escalator that is temporarily stairs, this list is out of order.
Sleeping Beauties by Stephen King & Owen King – Another year, another mammoth Stephen King book on my best books list. It’s like the man pays me to endorse his stuff. He of course doesn’t, because 1) my platform has a readership slightly greater than the population of that bunker in Lost, and 2) everything he releases instantly sells millions of copies; he doesn’t really need help. He earned my undying fanboy love long ago, but Sleeping Beauties most assuredly cracks the list based on merit. With it, Stephen and Owen, one of the writin’ King boys, spin the tale of the effects of a gnarly sickness that literally cocoons women in a state of deep sleep, waking them from which drives them to a bit of the old ultraviolence that would make Alex and his droogs blush. Men are divided on how to handle things, to say the least. Tempers flare and tension rises as the story builds to a showdown at a women’s prison, where those on the “let’s not burn all women alive, OK?” side of things are protecting an otherworldly emissary who is believed to be the key to curing the disease. While a bit overlong and stuffed out the ying-yang with characters, this is a satisfying return to old school King. Not to say that it’s on par with his megahits, but rather that it’s an irresistible, darkly fantastical concept with an exceedingly readable execution, complete with trademark Stephen King edge.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman – Neil Gaiman is a magic man. Not this type of magic man, but a magic man who seems to effortlessly infuse magic into real-world settings to create stories that are whimsical, poetic, and a little unsettling. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, the story of a seven-year-old boy who contends with a dark force with the help of his magical friend and her family, is all of those things, plus nostalgic and strangely comforting. I haven’t read a lot of Gaiman, but what I tend to like most about his books is the feel of them, and how they remind us that life is better with little (or a lot) of imagination.
Basketball (and Other Things) by Shea Serrano – Combining two of my favorite things, basketball and humor, this book was meant for me. Serrano addresses a different basketball-related questions in each of the book’s 33 chapters, ranging from serious stuff (or as serious as basketball gets), like determining the greatest player of all time and the best NBA Finals, to silly stuff, like a draft of fictional movie/TV basketball players and a breakdown of the most disrespectful dunks in NBA history. It is obvious the author loves and obsesses over his subject matter, which almost always makes for the best writing. The book is written in an informal, conversational style, and reading it is like talking hoops with a hilarious, insightful friend. Most of the humor just naturally flows from the writing, but Serrano works in a couple of zany comedic concepts, like exploring what would happen if Utah Jazz legend Karl Malone traded places with a bear, and an action movie script for Houston Rockets superstar flop artist James Harden. As much as I appreciate zaniness, those aren’t my favorite chapters, but they’re still largely entertaining. My favorites are the chapters on the dos and don’ts of pickup basketball and the aforementioned fictional player draft. Non-basketball fans will probably want to stay away, but if you have even a casual interest in the game, absolutely read this book. For you Twitter folk, Shea is one of the best follows out there.
Beartown by Fredrick Backman – I grew up playing inline hockey, so this book about a hockey town called to me. Spoiler alert: it’s not really about hockey. Sure, there’s a lot of talk of ice and pucks and skates and descriptions of hockey action, but that’s just the stuff that’s happening, not the stuff the book’s about. It’s about right and wrong, loyalty, passion, hope, forgiveness, vengeance, identity, and other Big Things. It’s heavy, which is a bit of a departure for Backman, but he tells the story beautifully and shapes characters in which you’ll find yourself fully emotionally investing. Backman likes to make broad, declarative statements about human nature and the human experience, which some may find annoying, but I ate it up, mostly because I couldn’t help but agree with him; the man gets it, and watch out, because he’s going to make you feel. Beartown was my favorite book I read this year, and I recommend it wholeheartedly. The sequel, Us Against You, is excellent as well.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles – Despite all the hype around and love for this book, I was a little wary when the library’s book club made it one of our selections this past year. A book about a count (something told me he wouldn’t be as fun as the one on Sesame Street) in early 1900s Russia being confined to lifelong house arrest in a hotel sounded like a stodgy bore to me, like a dull historical variation of The Terminal. Boy, was I wrong. A Gentleman in Moscow was a joy to read, largely due to its charming main character, Count Rostov. I chuckled at his wit. I marveled at his continued refinement in the face of confinement. I felt for him. The plot isn’t exactly high octane, but even during stretches when little seemed to be going on, I was happy just spending time with the Count. If that’s not the mark of a great character, I don’t know what is. Towles’ writing is stellar to boot, making the book a highly rewarding reading experience.
Springfield Confidential by Mike Reiss – If the unrelenting shoehorning of Simpsons references into this space over the years wasn’t enough to tip you off, let me state unequivocally for the record that I love The Simpsons with the intense, obnoxious passion of a thousand burning tire fires. As a writer, producer, and showrunner for the show, Mike Reiss is essentially a deity to me. His book provides the type of behind-the-scenes looks at the show’s history and iconic moments that hardcore Simpsons nerds will Homer-style drool over. Mixed in with the “Springfield confidential” stuff are stories about Reiss’s life and experiences in comedy writing, plus a puzzling number of shots at Tim Allen. Some may wish for less Reiss and more info on the show, but to me, Reiss succeeds in amusing throughout. Simpsons fans should yoink* this book from their library, posthaste.
Poking a Dead Frog by Mike Sacks – As you may have surmised from my jokey joke maker stylings, I have an interest in comedy writing. Poking a Dead Frog collects interviews with and short essay-style advice from a bunch of people who have actually succeeded in the field, including writers from comedy institutions like Saturday Night Live, Monty Python, and the Onion. Some of the chapters offer very specific advice (they’re literally titled “Pure, Hardcore Advice” and “Ultraspecific Comedic Knowledge”), like how to hire an agent. While a handful of these chapters are gold, particularly the one that contains the actual sketches and other material that a writer submitted and got hired with on a late night show, many of them left me wanting; they’re simply too short in most cases. Most of the value of the book is in the interview chapters, in which readers get greater insight into successful comedy writers’ journey, process, mindset, triumphs, and failures. Reading about these writers’ experience is often simultaneously inspirational (other people have done it, so can you!) and discouraging (writing is really hard, and a lot of talented, funny people never make it), but it (almost) never fails to fascinate. Recommended for those who take their comedy a least a little seriously.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman – Too often in life, we tell people we’re fine. Sometimes, it’s simply a meaningless rote response to a greeting. Others, it’s to uphold the status quo and present what people expect. Yet another possibility is that we truly believe we’re fine, but haven’t stopped to really consider otherwise long enough to realize we’re actually not. It’s this latter scenario that so interested me about Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, another library book club selection. Eleanor is what most would call a quirky young woman with limited social skills who, aside from going to work, spends her life alone. She has a deeply troubled past, but she’ll tell you she’s fine, and it seems she really does believe that. Only after some new people unexpectedly come into and impact her life does she even consider to look past her physical needs to her emotional needs. It all makes for a read that is at times heavy, often funny, and, best of all, provoking of consideration of the subtly tricky issue of fineness.
An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green – Long a fan of Hank’s brother, John, I felt I had no choice but to check out Hank’s debut to see if the ability to craft witty, relatable writing is genetic. Based on this totally scientific sample of one, I can confidently say yes, it is. In addition to kinda looking like his brother, Hank kinda writes like him to. The characters in An Absolutely Remarkable Thing are all nerdy-cool young people who communicate in snappy, made-for-TV (but good TV) dialogue. These particular young people discover a bizarre, mysterious…something that may just be a sculpture, but may be much more. The plot goes pretty sci-fi, with focus on potential alien life and dream puzzle solving, which certainly makes for an entertaining story, but my enjoyment of the book was mostly derived from its more familiar (and especially timely) earthly themes, namely the “everybody look at me (but more importantly, like me)” game of social media and the value of approaching the novel/unknown with open-mindedness and love as opposed to distrust and hate. Hank has a fun writing style and keeps things hopeful and at least somewhat light in the face of seriousness. I look forward to reading more of his stuff.
The Untethered Soul by Michael Singer – This one was recommended by *extremely Borat voice* my wife, who is more of a serious-minded reader. I don’t normally go in for spiritual books, but I was assured this one is accessible and extremely helpful. That turned out to be very true; the book is easy to read and delivers a deceptively simple message: let go of stuff. I further simplified it a bit, but that’s essentially it. The author obviously goes into more depth and explains things with more eloquence, so I suggest reading his words if my CliffsNotes for Dummies summary isn’t sufficient. Like pretty much everything, the book’s advice is easier said/read than done, but it’s certainly worth reading if you’re at all interested in mindfulness and improving your ability to live in the present moment.
*Well, check it out, don’t steal it