As Yakko Warner stated before spinning the satirical Wheel of Morality at the end of many an Animaniacs episode, “It’s that time again.” The earth has concluded yet another trip around the sun, and I’m back to run through a few of my favorite books of the year. 2018 has been a whirlwind for me with several mountaintop highs (including the arrival of my first son, who has already doubled in weight since my most recent blog post) and a few deep, dark valleys—some of which I am still in the process of recovering from even as the year draws to a close. It has been a long year, my friends, and a busy one. Nevertheless, Goodreads tells me I completed 58 books (my goal was 50, which will be my goal for 2019). As always, here are a few of my favorites, listed by genre.
BEST HUMOR: The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones
An accomplished fantasist herself (most famous for Howl’s Moving Castle), Jones knew her way around the fantasy genre. In The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, written in the form of a travel guide, she provides readers with a tongue-in-cheek rundown of the genre’s most hoary tropes—equipment and armor, character archetypes, types of quests, sources of food, weather patterns, locations, magic systems, etc. Her loving parody—sharp but never cynical—highlights clichés without denigrating the stories that made them so popular. Whether one is a fan of Lord of the Rings or Skyrim, readers will find plenty of witty insight on the all-too-familiar elements of these types of stories.
BEST LITERARY FICTION: One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
As an artifact and product of the early-sixties counterculture that birthed it, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest serves as the ultimate power-to-the-people underdog story. Rallied by the gumption and charisma of a self-proclaimed con man, the oppressed inmates of a mental asylum break free, not from their insanity, but from the bindings of a system designed to hold them as prisoners. The book is a bit crass, plagued by the sexism and profanity one expects to find in literary novels of its era, but the interactions between the mental patients are always a hoot, and the novel itself is loaded with interesting imagery, a fascinatingly flawed hero, an ironically mute narrator, and, in Nurse Ratched, a villain whose cultural significance has taken her far beyond the pages of this book.
BEST CHILDREN’S BOOK: The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Sweet. Innocent. As profound as it is simple. This fantasy fable of the prince from a tiny planet and of the rose he loves serves as a great reminder to live in the moment, to learn from those around us, and to invest our time and energy into the things that matter most—relationships with those we love. I would have liked this book as a kid, but I think it meant more to me reading it as an adult.
BEST FANTASY: Boy’s Life by Robert McCammon
This is actually a contender for my favorite book of the year—which I’ll come to at the end of this list. It’s certainly the best novel I read in 2018. Perhaps it’s because of my own background, but I’m a sucker for novels set in the rural South, for luscious prose, and for tales that speak to a longing for what is often perceived as a simpler time. This is just such a novel—a coming of age story interspersed with jolts of magical realism including a sentient bicycle, a hot-rod driving ghost, a sea monster in the local river, a kid who can throw a baseball out of the earth’s gravitational pull, a retired old-west gunfighter, and a dinosaur in a traveling circus act, to name a few things. At the novel’s core is a murder mystery, but the focus is the story of a boy’s relationships with his father and his friends and the community around him. The fantastical elements peppered throughout serve to highlight the wonder of childhood, an age where magic and mystery seem to lurk around every corner before the mundanity of adult responsibilities dulls our sensibilities. McCammon was obviously influenced by Ray Bradbury (one of my all time favorite authors) while writing this, and it’s a fitting tribute, not only to Bradbury’s writing style but to childhood itself.
BEST HORROR: Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin
I saw the movie based on this story as a kid (although I knew my parents wouldn’t have approved), and it was pretty freaky. As an adult and as a writer of macabre sensibilities myself, I see the layers of irony and humor in the story; there’s something delightfully bizarre and blackly comic about the cute elderly couple next door who are the agents of ultimate evil. This novel that works on multiple levels: as a rollicking horror tale that digs beyond satanic panic, trapping its heroine in a mass conspiracy, as a feminist satire (to be held alongside Levin’s other famous work, The Stepford Wives), and as an exploration of the anxiety that accompanies pregnancy and becoming a new parent. Most interesting, though, from a literary standpoint, (and a great lesson for any author) is to look at this book as a masterwork of foreshadowing. Every significant plot point that occurs is broadcast earlier in the novel, and Levin displays nothing short of genius in his ability to set-em-up and knock-em-down, providing readers with one satisfying payoff after another.
BEST UNCATAGORIZABLE: The Supper of the Lamb by Robert Farrar Capon
My favorite book of 2018 is also the hardest to define. Subtitled “A Culinary Reflection,” The Supper of the Lamb is part memoir, part cook book (complete with recipes), and part theological treatise. Written by an Episcopal priest who clearly loves food, the book uses the topic of eating as a jumping-off point to explore topics as diverse as God’s extravagant goodness and grace, the joy of creativity, the meaning and value of hospitality, and the beauty that can be found in the ordinary stuff of life. It’s also loaded with practical cooking tips (I am a better chef simply by employing bits of Capon’s advice), and seasoned throughout with gentle humor reminiscent of the best of C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton. Absolutely delightful.
And with that, another year’s book rundown draws to a close. As always, feel free to let me know what books you enjoyed in the past year. Happy New Year, friends.