The Fathom book editor Collin Huber has read what seems like every word printed this year. Out of his love for books there is a love for critique, review, and high praise. Below are ten of his favorites from 2018.
No. 1: Educated by Tara Westover
Tara Westover grew up in a family of Mormon survivalists in Idaho. Obsessed with apocalyptic prophecies, her father lived on high alert hoarding dry goods, wary of the government, and determined to keep his family unstained by the world. Her mother contributed to the family through herbal remedies and “shifting” human energy to heal maladies. Tara never visited a doctor or attended public school. Instead, she helped her father and brothers in their scrap yard and read religious texts for education. In this riveting memoir, Westover describes how she gained admission to BYU and eventually ended up at Cambridge University where the reality of the world tested the convictions of her upbringing. Her writing is sensory and vivid, documenting the years of theological, verbal, and physical abuse she faced, especially from her father, never knowing any better. Educated is the incredible story of one woman’s journey from poverty to a PhD and a startling reminder of how our convictions impact those around us.
No. 2: Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro
Maggie has been married to her husband, Thomas, for almost two decades. However, the two wed more out of necessity than enduring love for one another, a fact that has begun to show over the course of the years. After initiating a correspondence with a poet named James, Maggie’s relationship with the artist begins to grow beyond ink and paper and results in a passionate affair that challenges her devotion to her family and her moral convictions. Quatro writes with a depth and care that transcends the surface-level tropes in so much of contemporary writing. With Fire Sermon, she has crafted a profound contemplation on marriage, desire, and faith.
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No. 3: Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras
During the 1980s and early ‘90s, Pablo Escobar ruled Columbia earning the country the title of “murder capital of the world.” While he never once appears in Ingrid Rojas-Contreras’s debut novel, his presence asserts itself like that of a main character. Escobar energized a culture of violence, one felt from the slums to gated communities. Fruit of the Drunken Tree examines the effects of such a culture through the lens of two young girls: Chula, a seven-year-old in a moderately wealthy family, and Petrona, a teenager from the slums who has become the de facto provider for her household. When Chula’s mother hires Petrona as the family maid, their two worlds collide. Based in part on the author’s real-life upbringing, the story is a stirring account of desperation and the decisions it demands.
No. 4: There There by Tommy Orange
At its best, American history has always had a tenuous relationship with Native Americans. When it comes to their urban experience, the literary landscape is silent. With his celebrated debut, Tommy Orange, an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, delivers an incisive contribution to Native life. The novel weaves together twelve characters, all of whom are connected in some way to the upcoming Big Oakland Powwow. Through each individual story, Orange surfaces a complex community burdened by its history and seeking a place of its own, alongside two narratival interruptions in which the author shrewdly surveys America’s influence on such difficulties. It’s a remarkable debut that signals the start of a promising career.
No. 5: On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books by Karen Swallow Prior
Increasingly, researchers are registering concerns about the modern state of reading. Whether the focus starts with the influence of technology or that of information access, studies continue to surface the decline in cognitive capacity and comprehension skills among contemporary readers. But where plenty of works examine these cognitive effects, Dr. Karen Swallow Prior homes in on the inner life, specifically that of the virtuous life. Gleaning from her long career as a professor of English, Prior devotes each chapter to a specific virtue, which she illustrates through a notable literary work, including selections ranging from Flannery O’Connor to George Saunders. Her book is both a sage warning and a call to action for reading will only return what a reader is willing to invest.
No. 6: Florida by Lauren Groff
Groff has yet to publish a work that receives minimal praise and Florida, her brand-new short story collection, is no exception. Each of the eleven stories anchors itself to the state of Florida, even those told from international settings. The humid atmosphere of the Everglades clings to vacationers in France and Brazil, causing the state to feel less like a fixed place than a part of one’s genetic code. While the tales and characters linger long after they end, it’s Groff’s sentences that leave the most lasting impression. Spare and rugged, she wastes not a single word as she shares her spellbinding imagination. Florida is one of the most unique collections out there and will surely add to what is already an illustrious literary career.
No. 7: The Line That Held Us by David Joy
Reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy and Flannery O’Connor, David Joy’s latest sets off with a fury. During an unauthorized hunting trip on his neighbor’s property, Darl Moody shoots and kills of a local man, mistaking him for wildlife. But it’s not just any man—it’s one of the notorious Brewer brothers. Enlisting the help of his best friend, Darl attempts to cover up the killing for fear of repercussions, especially from Dwayne Brewer, the dead man’s brother. Gritty and brutal, The Line That Held Us is full of backwoods violence and a God-haunted atmosphere that pervades the entire plot.
No. 8: Virgil Wander by Leif Enger
The small town of Greenstone, Minnesota is like an artifact from a bygone era. Its leaky roofs and rusted awnings beam with wonder for those willing to see. After miraculously surviving a near-death plunge into Lake Superior with his car, local movie theater owner, Virgil Wander, wakes with gaps in his memory and the chance to reacquaint himself anew with his home. Along the way, a quirky cast of characters emerge, including a flash-in-the-pan minor league baseball star, an eccentric old man with a knack for flying kites, and a pet raccoon named Genghis. It’s a charming tale of second chances and a heartwarming answer for why anyone would choose to stay in a place that everyone is trying to leave.
No. 9: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
Roy and Celestial are newlyweds. Each has a promising career and a hope-filled future for their life together until Roy is arrested and sentenced to twelve years in prison on unfounded charges. Celestial does her best to maintain their relationship, but as the years tick by her love for Roy begins to wane and she find herself comforted by Roy’s best friend, Andre. As she struggles with how to handle her new relational dynamic, Roy’s conviction is overturned and he is released from prison. Expecting to return home and restart life, no one can say for sure what awaits him—not even his wife.
No. 10: Feel Free by Zadie Smith
In an ideal world, four words would convince prospective readers to pick up this book: “Zadie Smith wrote it.” While she is best known for her fiction, Smith’s essays provide an easy entrance into her world of writing. Feel Free is her first published collection since 2009 and it does not disappoint. The topics within include everything from Brexit and the 2016 election to profiles of Jay-Z and Key & Peele, all of which brim with astounding insight. Being the fiercely private individual that she is, her essays are often the only opportunity to peek behind the veil and hear from her on a more personal level. As both a literary and intellectual giant, any new addition to Smith’s growing corpus demands immediate attention.
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