This is my definitive Top Ten list for 2018. The books are in order, with #1 being my favorite book of 2018.
1. Le Rouge et le noir (The Red and the Black) by Stendhal
Julien Sorel is a character you either love or hate. I found his turbulent desires very relatable. He has become one of my favorite protagonists in fiction. The colors mentioned in the title symbolize the identities that Julien find the most attractive: soldier (red) and priest (black). Unfortunately, Julien doesn’t have what it takes to be a “great” man, so he turns to love as a means to social mobility. Julien’s messy romance with Mme de Rênal and his quest for greatness double as a social satire on post-Restoration France. If you like Balzac’s Father Goriot, you should definitely give The Red and the Black a try.
2. The Half-Drowned King by Linnea Hartsuyker
The #2 spot goes to the first book in a historical fiction trilogy (The Golden Wolf Saga). The second book (The Sea Queen) came out this past August, and the last book will probably be released next year. The Half-Drowned King is set in 9th-century Norway and follows a brother and a sister in search of justice and honor. Ragnvald Eysteinsson and his sister Svanhild are growing up with their stepfather Olaf, who has taken the throne of Ragnvald’s father. At the start of the novel, Ragnvald is attacked by a shipmate named Solvi, whose father Ragnvald suspects has formed an alliance with Olaf. Now, Ragnvald wants revenge and a chance to win the throne from Olaf. This series has everything: a rich world, beautiful writing, compelling women, morally-complex characters, and great action scenes. If you like A Game of Thrones, I expect you will love this series. I have never been able to get past the first episode of A Game of Thrones (because I thought it was quite sexist), but I sped through the first two books of Hartsuyker’s trilogy. Leave it to a woman to write female characters well.
3. Réparer les vivants (Repair the Living, or The Heart) by Maylis de Kerangal
Repair the Living is about a heart transplant. Simon Limbres, an avid surfer, dies in a car accident at the start of the novel. But his death is nothing like in the movies. His heart is still beating although his brain has stopped functioning. When Simon’s mother sees her son in the hospital, she thinks that he will soon revive from his coma. But he won’t. Simon is clinically dead. Modern medicine insists that the brain, not the heart, is the true locus of life. In France, unlike in the United States, a person is automatically considered an organ donor unless they officially opt out. Thus, Doctors Pierre Révol and Thomas Rémige have already identified Simon as an organ donor before they even meet with his surviving relatives. Repair the Living offers a kaleidoscopic perspective on life, death, grief, and, of course, the heart.
4. The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
I already knew I would like this book when I first heard about it on Booktube. Self-help is not usually a genre I reach for, but I am a huge believer in habit. I have broken some major habits in my life, but forming new habits has been much more challenging. I resist discipline because it takes too much effort. Duhigg demystifies habit through a number of case studies. It’s amazing how many things we do on a daily basis that are nothing more than ingrained habits. Understanding habit formation is particularly important today businesses (such as grocery stores) exploit research on human behavior to sell more product. They know, for example, that customers turn habitually to the right when they enter a store. Some organizations use this information more constructively. Starbucks trains its employees to adopt good habits so that they can be self-motivated and disciplined workers. And of course, there’s Alcoholics Anonymous; the 12-step program has helped thousands of people break habits of addiction. This is a fascinating book with implications for every aspect of business and life.
5. Les Lettres persanes (The Persian Letters) by Montesquieu
This 1721 epistolary novel tells the story of two fictional travelers, Usbek and Rica, who leave Persia in search of enlightenment. Usbek is the older of the two, with five wives and a household of slaves. He is critical of the justice system in Persia, but he doesn’t necessarily find France to be any better. Usbek makes some incisive remarks about French society. But unlike other travel narratives and social satires of the 18th century, The Persian Letters is filled with morally-complex characters. Usbek and Rica are not merely observers and commentators, but social actors as well.
6. The Unseen World by Liz Moore
The hype is well-deserved. The Unseen World by Liz Moore manages to be both thought-provoking and exhilarating – a combination scarcely found in fiction. Ada is a child prodigy whose father, David, heads a computer science lab. He has always been somewhat of an outsider, but in recent months he has started to forget things. Once, he goes missing an entire day. David had been diagnosed years ago with early-onset Alzheimer’s, but he had never told his daughter. Now that David can no longer care for himself, he must be admitted to a nursing home. But who is David? Ada meets a man at the nursing home who claims that her father isn’t who he claims to be. Unfortunately, David’s memory has so deteriorated that she can’t simply ask him to learn the truth. Instead, she has to decode a message her father left her on a floppy disk. I read this 452-page book in two days!
7. La Place (The Place) by Annie Ernaux
This autobiography is more like a series of reflections about Annie Ernaux’s upbringing in a working-class French family. The death of Ernaux’s father at the start of the work elicits a series of reflections about social class and writing. She insists on writing about her father in plain, straightforward language, rather than the flowery style we are so accustomed to encountering in memoirs. Unlike the author’s father, who quit school early in order to work for his father and later owned his own grocery, Annie went to college, obtained her CAPES de lettres (Le certificat d’aptitude au professorat de l’enseignement du second degré), and became a teacher and writer. La Place gives the reader an insight into why Ernaux prefers a “flat” writing style over the “literary”.
8. The Children of Húrin by J.R.R. Tolkien
Every year it seems, the Tolkien estate publishes another of the author’s unfinished writings. Some are interesting, while others are a waste of time. The Children of Húrin is one of Tolkien’s most complete posthumous writings, and definitely the most engaging. I want this book to become a movie or a mini-series so badly. The world-building and character development are impressive. It is also the most psychological and the most violent of Tolkien’s works. Early in the history of Middle-Earth, the evil Morgoth escapes establishes a fortress in the North and from there, encourages a war between elves. At the start of the novel, Túrin’s father Húrin is captured by Morgoth during the Battle of Unnumbered Tears. Consequently, Túrin is adopted by King Thingol of Doriath, an elf. But Túrin makes some unpleasant choices, which alienates him from the elves. The Children of Húrin is about the consequences of these choices on his family and friends.
9. Le Traité sur la tolérance (The Treatise on Tolerance) by Voltaire
Thankfully, I don’t know anyone who supports the execution of religious dissidents, but well into the 18th century, people were tortured and killed for refusing to submit to the national religion. Voltaire’s Treatise on Tolerance is a plea for religious tolerance on the occasion of the death of Jean Calas, an Huguenot executed on spurious grounds. This essay is particularly relevant today, in an age of increasing intolerance. Voltaire was clearly up-to-date with the Biblical scholarship of his day.
10. Native Son by Richard Wright
I am not entirely sure how I feel about Native Son. On the one hand, I flew through this work and was compelled by Bigger Thomas’s story. On the other hand, I felt like the novel was dismissive of the suffering of the female characters. But I have to include this work on the list because I was moved by the story and the author’s insights on race and class. Native Son is about the role systemic racism played in the lives of black men growing up in the Jim Crow era. But it’s message remains relevant today. Racism in the American criminal justice system is just as present today as it was before 1965. Except for the last 25 pages, this book was a page-turner. It honestly read like a thriller. The prose was also magnificent. Consequently, I look forward to reading Richard Wright’s autobiography, Black Boy, in the near future.