Rebecca Makkai's The Great Believers -- a sweeping story about the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and its long aftermath — is my pick for novel of the year.
Lake Success, by Gary Shteyngart
There There, by Tommy Orange
Warlight, by Michael Ondaatje
Washington Black, by Esi Edugyan
Barracoon, by Zora Neale Hurston
The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, by Denis Johnson
I'll Be Gone in the Dark, by Michelle McNamara
Sharp, by Michelle Dean
Heartland, by Sarah Smarsh
For more reading recommendations, visit the NPR 2018 Book Concierge — more than 300 titles, hand-picked by NPR staff and book critics.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. It's that time of the year again when we ask our book critic Maureen Corrigan for her list of the year's best books. So here's Maureen with her top 10 list.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Many of the best of this year's books were graced with humor and distinguished by deep dives into American identity. Oddly, it was also a very good year for deceased authors, whose posthumously published books were so much more than mere postscripts to their careers. Rebecca Makkai's novel "The Great Believers" is my pick for novel of the year.
It's a sweeping story about the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and its long, numb aftermath. As one of the main characters says about the random cruelty of AIDS, this disease has magnified all our mistakes - some stupid thing you did when you were 19, the one time you weren't careful, and it turns out that was the most important day of your life. "The Great Believers" is filled with vivid characters, absorbing questions about art, belief and transcendence and, most improbably, lots of wit.
Speaking of wit, Gary Shteyngart's "Lake Success" dusts off our most hallowed literary trope, the on-the-road novel, and takes it for a satirical spin through an America on the verge of a Trump presidency. His antihero is Barry Cohen, a New York finance guy whose life has imploded, prompting Barry to board a Greyhound bus and light out for the territory.
The end of the road finds Barry in California, which is where Tommy Orange's inspired debut novel "There There" is set - Oakland, Calif., to be precise, the place about which Gertrude Stein once said, there is no there there. Orange's story, which focuses on a group of urban Native Americans, begins with an unforgettable 10-page prologue that riffs on some 500 years of native people's history presented mostly through the image of Indian heads.
Two other novels on my best-of-the-year list are set long ago and far away. "Warlight" by Michael Ondaatje is a memory tale about two children abandoned to the care of a stranger in the London of 1945. Need I even say at this point in Ondaatje's celebrated career that the writing here is gorgeous? Listen to this description of post-war London. There were parts of the city where you saw no one, only a few children walking solitary, listless as small ghosts. The city still felt wounded, uncertain of itself. It allowed one to be ruleless. Everything had already happened, hadn't it?
"Washington Black" by Esi Edugyan is also a historical novel narrated by a child. But there, the comparisons end. Opening on a sugar plantation in Barbados in 1830, the story is told by an enslaved 11-year-old boy known as Wash. Wash escapes from that plantation via hot air balloon, no less. And Edugyan herself breaks away from the confines of the conventional, transporting readers into the giddy realms of Romantic-era travelogue and scientific exploration.
A nonfiction book about slavery opened up more of that harrowing history for readers this year. Zora Neale Hurston's "Barracoon" was crafted out of interviews she did in Alabama in 1927 with Cudjo Lewis. Lewis, then 86, was the last known living person who could recount firsthand the experience of having been captured in Africa and taken on a slave ship to the United States. Hurston's manuscript was completed in 1931, but publishers back then weren't interested. "Barracoon" is a monumental little book that dramatizes two extraordinary voices in conversation.
Another posthumous book on my list is Denis Johnson's short story collection "The Largesse Of The Sea Maiden." When Johnson wrote at reckless full force, as he does in many of these stories about divorce, dying and Elvis impersonators, his words blasted barriers, discovering those odd places where, as one of his narrators here says, the mystery winks at you.
One mystery in particular obsessed the late Michelle McNamara, the cold case of a serial predator she dubbed the Golden State killer. McNamara was midway into writing an account of this monster's crimes when she died in her sleep at age 46. Colleagues drew on her research to complete the book called "I'll Be Gone In The Dark." It's not only a great true crime narrative but also a nuanced investigation into McNamara's own preoccupation with the Golden State killer. By the way, a suspect was arrested this spring a couple of months after McNamara's book came out.
The only violence in Michelle Dean's nonfiction book "Sharp" is the verbal kind. "Sharp" is an entertaining and erudite cultural history of 10 women who became critics and public intellectuals even though, as Dean says, they came up in a world that was not eager to hear women's opinions about anything. Dean's subjects include the aforementioned Zora Neale Hurston, Mary McCarthy, Pauline Kael and the immortal Dorothy Parker.
Sharp is a word I'd certainly apply to Sarah Smarsh, whose memoir "Heartland" wraps up this year's list. Smarsh hails from the white, rural, working-class. And she writes about politics, race, cooking with Crisco and class contempt with a lyrical boldness. I wish everyone this holiday season the gift of good books and plenty of time to read them.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, some great new roots and rockabilly Christmas songs performed in our studio by their composer JD McPherson and his band. Their new Christmas album is called "Socks." I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF JD MCPHERSON SONG, "ALL THE GIFTS I NEED")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL THE GIFTS I NEED")
JD MCPHERSON: (Singing) Happiness is automatic. There's music in the air. Grab the boxes from the attic and haul them down the stairs. Freezing weather's around the corner, and everybody knows. Whoa-ho-whoa-oh-ho (ph). Soon the tree will be all lit up, sparkling as it glows. Today's anything but the same old thing. I can almost hear those sleigh bells ring - singing all those happy songs while the little ones all dance along.
(Singing) I take a real quick look around, and suddenly I see. It's not even Christmas yet. I've got all the gifts I need - got caught hanging the mistletoe. Somebody stole a little kiss. I ain't tied a single bow, but I can already cross love off my list. I take a real quick look around, and suddenly I see. It's not even Christmas yet. I've got all the gifts I need. I take a real quick... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.