SAND Recommends: Best of 2018

2018 is coming to a close and we here at SAND were in a reflective mood collecting all the great books, short stories, poems, and essays (published by others) we read this year. The result is a reading list to help you through the holiday season or help you with those last-minute gift ideas. 

Ben Fergusson’s The Spring of Kasper Meyer
This noir novel is set in the rubble of postwar Berlin and packed with queer love, ingenious bartering deals, and guerilla justice. Written by Berlin-based Ben Fergusson and available from Little, Brown.

May-Lan Tan’s Things to Make and Break
A collection of tightly-crafted, incredibly-written short stories on subjects ranging from the casual to bizarre and even magical. Written by Berlin-based May-Lan Tan, the collection was shortlisted for The Guardian First Book Award and is available from Hodder & Stoughton.

Hananah Zaheer’s “Fish Tank”
In this brilliant and concise short story, Zaheer uses a frighteningly plausible collective narrator to demonstrate how discomfort at societal change can turn to radicalism. Read it online or in the print version of Alaska Quarterly Review (Winter/Spring 2018).

Kate McNaughton’s How I Lose You
This novel’s love story ends within the first several pages, but the real story continues as the protagonist uncovers new “truths.” By Berlin-based Kate McNaughton and available from Doubleday.

Manuel Gonzales’s The Regional Office Is Under Attack!
This novel is not only a load of fun, but it also bends genre and gender expectations with its mechanical arms, super-powered female assassins, and oracles in plastic swimming pools. A film adaptation is in the works.

Alicia P.Q. Wittmeyer’s “Overlooked No More: Annemarie Schwarzenbach, Author, Photographer and ‘Ravaged Angel’”
The New York Times’s series Overlooked tries to rectify a history dominated by obiturarious on white men. Much like Berlin’s own Dead Ladies Show, it celebrates remarkable people from the past. Annemarie Schwarzenbach’s is a fascinating tale of addiction, lesbianism, Nazis, and a road trip from Switzerland to Afghanistan in a Ford. 

Leonid Yuzefovich’s “The Mysterious Case of a Mongolian Murder That Might Have Been…” 
A fascinating longform piece, going into the nitty-gritty of the unconfirmed Jewish massacres in the Mongolian capital in 1921. It shows an obsessed historian at work with what ended up being a mere footnote in his 1993 book Autocrat of the Desert

Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart 
This is one of those rare short story collections to devour in one sitting. Each story focuses on a different family of first-generation Chinese immigrants living in New York, all told from the perspective of their adolescent daughters. It’s a frank, funny, and tragic depiction of the realities of migration, class, sexuality, and growing up with multiple cultural identities.

Jessica Pressler’s “How Anna Delvey Tricked New York” 
This New York Magazine long-read chronicles the unbelievable true story of Anna Delvey, who, for years, managed to trick the world into believing she was a billionaire heiress, one who bagged invites to exclusive events, racked up huge debts at fancy Manhattan hotels, and convinced investors to give her loans for fake business ventures. 

Max Porter’s Grief Is a Thing with Feathers 
Part play, part poem, and part novel, Grief Is a Thing with Feathers observes a Ted Hughes scholar and his two boys as they grieve the loss of their wife and mother with the assistance of a large talking crow, which allows them to grieve outside the confines of societal expectations; moving through waves of violence, melancholia, dark humor, and time displacement. 

Cookie Mueller’s Walking Through Clear Water In a Pool Painted Black 
This partly autobiographical odyssey of Mueller’s short existence conveys a true zest for life. From drug trips to grocery shopping, to sexual encounters and car journeys, the book traverses her outrageously honest life through wit, fear, humour and horror. Whilst exploring the barriers of the human body and psychological experiences of space and place, Mueller shares an insatiable hunger for finding herself in a world of good and bad. 

Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness
This gentle and fiery novel follows the life of Anjum, a third-gender hijra in India, through the metropolis of Old Delhi, up to Kashmir, and then back through the Indian forests. Through the patchwork of narratives it contains, this novel expresses the power of recovery, acceptance, and sacrifice after years of turmoil, pain, rejection and isolation. A truly remarkable and encapsulating piece of work on India’s political and nationalistic perspectives, of class and caste. Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2017.

Brontez Purnell’s Since I Laid My Burden Down
A beautiful journey of growing up gay in 1980s Alabama. De Shawn is forced to leave his life of comfort in San Francisco and return to his home state where he is hit with flashbacks of the men from his youth, his church, sex, and the discovery of love. This ridiculously well-written and honest book is a shoulder to lean on for anyone who’s ever (or never) experienced cross-culture living and a sense of dual identity. It’s also one of the best books the team member who nominated it has ever read.

Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems
This is a collection of three long poems of astonishing breadth, wit, emotion, and vocal range. Sullivan’s stylistic mastery and the immediate readability of these poems might leave readers in tears by the end. An astonishing new voice available from Faber & Faber.

Rachel Cusk’s Outline, Transit, and Kudos
Each book of this trilogy — none of which have to be read together or in any order — observes a myriad of characters that the female narrator encounters. The books are a study of human interactions by way of recorded conversations, all of which pose tantalizing questions that the narrator leaves the readers to interpret: How much do we know about other people? How much truth are we willing to share with our loved ones? Intelligent and daring, the trilogy challenges the way we write and read fiction.

Alexander Chee’s How To Write An Autobiographical Novel
The limits of both nonfiction and fiction expire within Chee’s powerful voice and storytelling: he does not shy away from claiming the shame and the eccentricities in this nonfiction narrative as his own. The essays show the author growing up as a gay Korean-American, learning writing from Annie Dillard, losing friends and lovers during the HIV epidemic, waiting tables to support his career, and all the while, falling in and out of love, disappointing people, teaching, learning, and writing.

Natalia Ginzburg’s The Little Virtues (translated by Dick Davis) and Family Lexicon (translated by Jenny McPhee)
After finishing this collection of essays, readers will puzzle over the anonymity of Ginzburg and question why she has been overlooked in a world too busy memorializing Ted Hughes and Allen Ginsberg. This Jewish-Italian writer wrote numerous essays throughout the 1950s and 1980s on family relationships, political affairs, religious beliefs, and city identities with the sharpness of Joan Didion and the humanity of John Berger. Her writing is bone-clean, yet still full, enhanced by the beautiful translation. 

Emilie Pine’s Notes to Self
This collection of essays on one Irish woman’s ordinary and extraordinary life might just be essential reading. Pine’s stark honesty about the deepest parts of her life draws her readers in, and her wry wit keeps them there. The team member who nominated the book calls it “hands-down” the best they’ve read all year.

Sally Rooney’s Normal People
With the release of her second novel on the complex lives of twenty-somethings, it’s clear that the fuss about Rooney is well-justified. Simply put, very few could write dialogue or the internal lives of her generation so well. A team member who would like to remain anonymous admitted that they once called in sick from work just to finish her first novel, Conversations with Friends. Longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize.

Gabriel Tallent’s My Absolute Darling
This is no ordinary coming-of-age tale, as the obstacles Turtle Alveston must deal with are far from straightforward. Tallent’s description of the Northern California locale in which the action takes place is so engrossing that readers could happily follow the flora and fauna of the Pacific Northwest for chapters.