The Best Books of 2018

By Kurt Wenzel

“Pogrom”
by Steven J. Zipperstein

There were worse pogroms, but this was the first to truly shock the world. In 1903, Russian residents of Kishinev terrorized their town’s Jewish community for a harrowing three days, killing 49 and raping or wounding hundreds more. Steven J. Zipperstein is less focused on the lurid details of Kishinev, which have already been extensively recorded. Rather, he records the event’s fallout, which was worldwide horror and condemnation (mostly), marking the name Kishinev as synonymous with Jewish persecution, and presaging the dreadful period to come. (Liveright, $27.95)

“Dopesick” 
by Beth Macy

It’s our national crisis and our shame, a generation lost to opioid addiction, entire towns, regions, ravaged. Beth Macy identifies the problem as a confluence of cultural and economic forces: a beleaguered American middle class seeking to dull the pain of hopelessness, preyed on by pharmaceutical companies and nefarious doctors, not to mention politicians, who are lobbied into submission even as the body count rises. 

Ms. Macy’s portrayal is no less impressive for the human stories she tells, the real lives devastated as if by a war waged from inside our own country. (Little, Brown, $28)

“Venice Stories” 
Jonathan Keates, Editor

Another installment in the Everyman’s Library Pocket Classic Series, which collects writings on the world’s best cities. This is the most exquisite in the bunch, with highlights including an excerpt from Henry James’s “The Wings of the Dove,” set in a palazzo on the Grand Canal, Marcel Proust on visiting the city as a young man in 1900, and Daphne du Maurier’s “Don’t Look Now,” which somehow finds menace in the city’s twisting alleyways and canals. Also included is a dispatch from the memoirs of Giacomo Casanova, who was either the biggest liar in literary history or had more fun than any man ever should. (Everyman’s Library, $16)

“The Overstory”
by Richard Powers 

Quietly, the reclusive Richard Powers has become one of the world’s most essential fiction writers. In “The Overstory,” the author finds new metaphors for mankind’s ravaging of the natural world, in this case comparing it to nothing less than a war. To say this is a novel about trees would be both accurate and poor salesmanship. It is also an ambitious and deeply felt novel about human beings, and another triumph by a writer who is taken too much for granted. (W.W. Norton, $27.95)

“The Largesse of the Sea Maiden”
by Denis Johnson

Denis Johnson, a possible American genius whose work has grown uneven in recent years, seemed to find new urgency with these stories. And with good reason: He was dying of cancer. As ever with Mr. Johnson — who also wrote the classic “Jesus’ Son” — there is an oddball poetry to his prose, and his characters are both painfully and humorously flawed. Lust, greed, and self-abuse abound, but the author is full of forgiveness. A fitting cap to what has been a memorable and unique career in American fiction. (Random House, $27)

“Indianapolis” 
by Lynn Vincent and Sara Vladic

Remember Robert Shaw in “Jaws,” telling the story of the Indianapolis? During World War II the destroyer was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. As the ship went down, 900 men went into the water, with only 316 surviving. Many of them were eaten by sharks. 

Lynn Vincent and Sara Vladic, however, put a wide-view lens to the disaster, relating not only the grisly horrors, but also the events and personalities that made nearly everything about the Indianapolis a fascinating World War II overview. This includes the story of Charles McVay, the captain of the ship, and his struggle to be exonerated for the sinking. (Simon & Schuster, $28)

“Babylon” 
by Yasmina Reza

A sensible bourgeois Parisian couple host a dinner party, after which things go terribly wrong. A neighbor knocks on the door to announce that he has killed his wife. Will the hostess help him stuff his victim into a suitcase so that he can get rid of the body? Yes, is the astonishing reply.

Yasmina Reza, who is primarily known as a playwright (“Art,” “God of Carnage”), ostensibly sets up her novel as a policier, but it is really the stultifying effects of bourgeois life that are under investigation. There are no guns or car chases, but instead the author’s razor-sharp perceptions about sex, marriage, and middle age. (Seven Stories, $23.95)

“American Prison” 
by Shane Bauer

Ready for more bad news? Our nation’s prison system is a for-profit corporation compromising lawmakers, police, and judges in a hell-bent effort to create as many clients as possible. Knew that already? Shane Bauer’s first-person account of day-to-day prison life will shock even the most hardened reader.

The author worked for four months as a prison guard, and he delivers an unblinking look at an American tragedy. “Highlights” include the author’s admission of becoming increasingly cruel toward inmates during his four-month stint — a chilling testimony to a broken system. (Penguin, $28)

“There There” 
by Tommy Orange

Employing a vast set of characters, Tommy Orange examines the Native American experience in Oakland, Calif. “There There” also transcends race, the author striking universal truths about outsiders and giving us a portrait of a city rarely dramatized in contemporary fiction. 

Like many a first novel, sometimes you feel like Mr. Orange is flying by the seat of his pants and barely holding on — but flying he is, intoxicated with his talent, like a child with a new toy. Widely hailed as the debut novel of the year. (Knopf, $25.95)

“All for Nothing” 
by Walter Kempowski

First published in German in 2006 and now available for the first time in English, Walter Kempowski’s novel traces a family holed up in a manor house in Eastern Prussia, 1945. The Germans are in retreat and the Russians are on their way. For much of the war, the von Globigs have been able to insulate themselves from the war, but no longer. As the Russians approach, the family receives a number of visitors — a baron, a classical violinist, a Jewish refugee — and the dread of the inevitable increases.

Like Heinrich Boll and Gunter Grass before him, Mr. Kempowski has written another in the series of German novels that try to reckon with the country’s troubling past. (New York Review Books Classics, $16.95)


Kurt Wenzel is a novelist and regular book reviewer for The Star. He lives in Springs.