My Two Favorite Books of 2018
by Jude Joseph Lovell
It’s the end of the year, when lists crop up everywhere: the 10 Best of this, the Top 25 of that. As someone whose great passion is books, I feel compelled to ring in. But I’m going to eschew a full list and instead offer my single favorite fiction and nonfiction books of 2018, with a few thoughts about why each book is worth reading.
Fiction: Manhattan Beach, Jennifer Egan (Scribner)
Jennifer Egan is a gifted storyteller whom I would not hesitate to call an American treasure. She is best known for experimental novels in which she crosses borders between genres and sometimes fuses them altogether, such as Look at Me (a National Book Award Finalist), The Keep, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit From the Goon Squad. She writes powerfully and beautifully, with keen social insight and a sharply focused intellect.
In Egan’s writing you feel not just her passion to entertain, but a kind of pulsating awareness. She seems to know not just who we are, but also where we might be going. It didn’t seem like an accident, for example, that Look at Me—which features an Islamic terrorist plotting acts inside America—was published only one week after the September 11, 2001 attacks. She also once released a futuristic spy tale called “Black Box” in a series of tweets on Twitter.
In Manhattan Beach, however, Egan dispenses with stylistic wizardry in favor of a straight-up tale set in New York in the heart of the twentieth century. It tells the story of Anna Kerrigan, an energetic young woman we first meet as an 11-year-old, the daughter of a man who works for a Depression-era crime boss named Dexter Styles.
Then the story leaps to the 1940s. Now a young adult, Anna uses her moxie and determination to become one of the first female divers at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. She meets again and becomes entangled with Styles, who may or not be responsible for her father’s disappearance. The novel alternates between Anna’s work on battleships, her increasingly complicated involvement with Styles’s criminal organization, and her efforts to untangle the secrets of her family history.
Egan has the writerly chops, backed by exhaustive research, to bring mid-century New York to vivid life. The scenes at the Navy Yard deftly intertwine the technical details of the massive work conducted there with early gender-equality dynamics. There is also a white-knuckle sea adventure, thousands of miles away, as details of Anna’s father’s wartime experiences are gradually revealed.
What really shines through all of this, though, is Egan’s great love for New York. This novel is a labor of love in the best sense, and the reader quickly gets caught up in Egan’s obvious passion. When the city last summer initiated its first-ever city-wide book club, called “One Book, One New York,” Manhattan Beach beat out four other distinguished novels to become the inaugural winner.
Non-Fiction: A New Map of Wonders, (University of Chicago Press)
This fascinating and handsome book is a treasure for inquisitive minds—the sort of experience that will have readers looking both within and without with new eyes. Subtitled “A Journey in Search of Modern Marvels,” Henderson’s sometimes challenging but beautiful examination aims high and leads with a full heart.
From ancient history to cutting-edge science, this book explores ideas that have challenged mankind across the centuries. It is organized into sections that each tackle a fundamental subject—Light, Heart, Brain, Self, World, etc. The final segment peers into the future, discussing technology and the way we as a species are using, or maybe abusing, our capabilities to chart a course into the unknown.
Some readers have dismissed this book as “pop science,” but I think those readers are missing the point. The key to this narrative is not how comprehensive it is. The book examines many things, such as creativity and the impulse to express oneself in works of art, for which the discipline of science “offers little guidance,” in Henderson’s words. No, the key is found in the title—the word “wonder.”
To help explain his approach to the reader, Henderson relates a famous anecdote in which the legendary German filmmaker Werner Herzog advises young directors to always carry a pair of bolt cutters. Wonder, Henderson points out, is the “psychological equivalent” of those bolt cutters. He then proceeds to explore the questions he raises with the kind of strength and even the subversion required to pull those cutters out and put them to rigorous use.
Jude Joseph Lovell writes on books and popular culture for Silver Sage and is the author of four novels, three short story collections, and four works of nonfiction. His newest book is Door In The Air: New and Selected Stories, 1999-2020. He lives with his wife and four growing children in the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. For more information visit his website at judejosephlovell.com.