Best fiction of 2018

This year produced a strong set of top entries, though with little depth past these favorites.  Note that sometimes my review lies behind the link:

Varlam Shalamov, Kolyma Stories.

Gaël Faye, Small Country.  Think Burundi, spillover from genocide, descent into madness, and “the eyes of a child caught in the maelstrom of history.”

Madeline Miller, Circe.

Karl Ove Knausgaard, volume six, My Struggle.  Or should it be listed in the non-fiction section?

Can Xue, Love in the New Millennium.

Anna Burns, Milkman, Booker Prize winner, Northern Ireland, troubles, here is a good and accurate review.

Homer’s Odyssey, translated by Emily Wilson.

Uwe Johnson, From a Year in the Life of Gessine Cresspahl.  I haven’t read this one yet, I did some browse, and I am fairly confident it belongs on this list.  1760 pp.

Which are your picks?


Knausgaard's Min Kamp is definitely fiction. Knausgaard tells us as much, he doesn't actually recall conversations from 10-20 years ago, he is making them up, i.e. "writing fiction". Volume 6 admittedly is less fiction and more reflection than the previous 5 but it should be seen as a set.

Interesting that Tyler has picked 5 translations of older works. In some cases works that have been around for decades (The Kolyma Stories) and in some cases many millennia. Apparently not much exciting fiction is being produced in the English speaking world.

I only count three translations of works that are old.

The Knausgard novel was published in Norwegian in 2011, and has been available since 2016 in German. The Can Xue novel is from 2013.

Yes, I was going to say the same thing as Peter Akuleyev, these works are old, Kolyma Stories I read 30 years ago, and Homer's Odyssey I thought was translated a few years ago (the new translation). As a Greek speaker, I could claim to have read Homer in the original (but it would be a false claim, you actually have to go to school to read ancient Greek, as it's about as distant from modern Greek as Beowulf's English is from modern English, or more).

I read less fiction books every year as I find that online fiction is getting better see for poll results for best online books. I am reading "a practical guide to evil" by erraticerrata and "Metaworld chronicles" from the list , there is something for everyone on that list. I would say web fiction is disrupting paper fiction and the next generation will just read on their phones like I do.

While on the topic of web fiction, "Worm" by Wildbow is pretty amazing.

While I think highly of Practical Guide to Evil, 'Worth The Candle', by the current flag bearer of all things rational fiction, Alexander Wales, is truly something special. I'm yet to see a better depiction of believable characters in genre fiction and the work is full of creativity and pathos.

Reeeeeeeeeeeeeeally you've put a book up you haven't read? I worry that perhaps fiction isn't for you if you can't take the time to enjoy it but will offer endorsements based on whatever other things that are surely irrelevant or secondary to having actually read it.

Are you serious? Tyler has read, like, infinity books this year. But how dare he not read another 1760 page one before offering some potentially useful information to readers!

A lot of "best of" lists like this probably include plenty of skimmed books, anyway, but the authors of the lists don't actually admit it.

I understand Tyler and these new-style readers can do this with non-fiction where they may already know the stuff and so can really scan over it quickly, I appreciate that Tyler says he does that: it makes sense.

But the point of fiction isn't that you are trying just to learn or assemble facts, it is a form of enjoyment/transcendence/education that is active with the author, is is not? If you haven't enjoyed/understood/read it then how can you meaningfully recommend it to someone else to enjoy/understand/read?

If you can't tell whether a book is going to be enjoyable before you have read the entire thing, you are going to waste most of your fiction-reading time.

(Aside: I hope we agree speed reading is bullshit!)

I just don't think I agree. Of recent reads (and these are obviously completely personal)
- Brothers Karamazov was very enjoyable to read up until 2/3 at which point I stopped thinking that and found the final part very dense, was I to stop there at 2/3? Maybe? I wouldn't to save 'reading time' because I would rather finish it. Though thats not a practice I stand by.
- Lord Jim is probably one of my favourite novels but because of Conrad's style I found it pretty tough and dull to read until I'd have moments of clarity (or, though more often not, the writing is very nice, its often too dense for modern reader). It was only after finishing it and going back to thinking about it, reading about it, talking about it, that I realised how much i was to enjoy it after having actually read it as things began to align.
- Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, not the sort of book I'd normally read at all, I just picked it up in an airport and although it was nothing that spectacular literary wise I couldn't put it down at all. I cried and I cheered. It's writing is just not that special though.

I am trying to suggest the ways in which fiction can be enjoyed are vast and varied and would encourage less circle-jerking and less endorsing what appears to be good (especially when you've not actually found out for yourself and its biased by what you hear about the book) and more meaningful engagement for yourself so you aren't wasting your 'fiction reading time'!

Richard Powers - "The Overstory" Powers is an intriguing writer whose works are always topically timely and dense with meaning. His early works hold up well and "The Goldbug Variations" will likely be canonical in another fifty years.

+1. Too bad he didn't know how to end it.

Circe is just ok.

Random question. I may be a Philistine, but: does anyone wonder about the "efficiency" of these recommendations? That is, My Struggle is 3,600 pages long. If I sign up to read this, it crowds out other works. I have to assume my lifetime is finite and my free time is also finite, so this is a real concern. If I read My Struggle do I die without reading the Odyssey? (Okay, that is maybe an extreme way to put it.) But has anyone ever seen a list like this "adjusted" for page count? E.g. "If you only can read a few hours per week, read these 5 books this year?" (And since I am asking the question, I am going to rule out answers such as "Well just read the first 100 pages of X." My personal preference is to complete the book, a practice which I know TC does not always follow. And no Reader's Digest condensations!)

Why do you think The Odyssey is fiction?

The cyclops and the sirens kind of give the game away.

I purchased a tiny hardcover book for 50 cents from the used book shop, because I liked its size - as a bedtime-only reader who has five or ten minutes before sleep overwhelms, a hand-sized, easily-opening book is lovely - and the bookplate denoting its provenance: the legal library of a prominent local citizen. It amused me that once upon a time, a lawyer included novels among his law books. It was "Orley Farm," and as is generally the case, I read it linearly about halfway through, and - pleasure initially keen, waning - skipped to the third to last chapter, doubled back, hopped forward, hopped back, before reading the final chapter. I gather it was felt, by lawyers at the time, a poor representation of legal procedure. Most memorable to me, was the passage - not sure if meant to express Trollope's own view - in which the idealistic young law student, offers up an alternate conception of a courtroom as a place in which all parties purpose to reveal the truth.

So that was the entirety of my fiction-reading for 1861/2018. It has some "Christmas feels" too, but I think y'all can safely skip it.

By the by, if you want a delightful Christmas Eve read-aloud, I suggest "Scruts" from "A Christmas Garland".

Circe was tremendous. One of my favorite books of all time.

Alan Goldhammer got to it before me, but "The Overstory" by Richard Powers was the best new novel I read this year. It's also the kind of novel I believe Tyler might well enjoy. You learn a lot about trees! I second the recommendation of "The Gold Bug Variations" and "The Echo Maker" also is particularly good. I like "Orfeo" too, but that's really more for people who particularly like classical music, particularly modern classical.

Uwe Johnson's book is indeed fantastic. I have read the four volumes in German multiple times. It is, in my opinion, the best literary portrait of the 1930s and 1940s in Germany. Better than Grass and Boell. Thanks for alerting me to the new edition in English.

Concur on Kolyma Tales and thanks for that recommendation. Rivalled by, maybe surpassed by the new edition of Solzhenitsyn's In The First Circle.

The new translation by Neil McArthur of The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis did not disappoint and was a great excuse to reread this great classic.

I believe that the Northwestern World Classic kindle edition of The Athenaeum: A Novel by Raul Pompeia translated by Renata Wasserman came out in kindle format this year but if not the hardcover was published in 2015 so close enough and another great classic that deserves a much wider reading audience.

Canaan by Graça Aranha, translated by Mariano Joaquin Lorente made it to kindle courtesy of HardPress. One of the greatest works of literature from the Americas that no one seems to have heard of.

And Miranda Richmond Mouillot's translation of The Kites by Romain Gary stands out as well.

Death to long-form fiction. (The European novel may persist for a spell, but the American novel is at least as dead as David Foster Wallace, academic assurances to the contrary.)

Death to the academic captivity of American letters.

Death to American publishers' preferences for choking readers with print and paper just because novels' unit costs help contain production costs and lift profits at least marginally (although seldom as much as merchandise tie-ins and "translation" into video or animation formats).

Death to academic tastes for "depth" and "complexity" in fictional narration: skimming novels of poor or worthless prose is one thing, inability to process poetry and verse because of their concise, compact complexity is another.

Death to Amazon, too. (Jeff Bezos is contemplating it, but who else needs his invitation?)

Poets: attack!

--or, to put words into the mouth of Han-shan:

awww, poor poor scholars--
"hunger" and "cold" are not mere words!
otherwise unemployed, writing verse
line by tenuous line the substance of pulse.
--but no one collects unemployed verse:
self-lacerations must yield blood, not ink.
may as well print them on dog biscuits,
which discerning mutts won't even lick.

There might still be some good fiction upcoming in December.

I look forward to these posts and often return to them for new books to read. Thank you. The best 2018 novel I read was the first 1/3 of the new Murakami. Beyond that, I was very impressed by the first of Knausgaard's Struggle books.

I really enjoyed Murakami's book as well. I wish it had gotten a little play around here... It may not be 1Q84 or even Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, but it was consistently fun.

For me 2018 was a good year for fiction. Laird Hunt- The House in the Dark of the Woods, Sarah Perry- Melmoth, Sarah Moss- Ghost Wall, David Joy- The Line That Held Us, Pat Barker- The Silence of the Girls, Anthony Joseph- Kitch, Michael Ondaatje- Warlight, Daniel Kehlmann- You Should Have Left. All left me pretty satisfied and I finally got around to rereading Frankenstein.

List is incomplete without Shteyngart’s masterful Lake Success.

A Terrible Country was my favorite this year. Super fun read and I finished the book feeling that I understood contemporary Russia way better than when I started.

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