5 Notable Books from 2018


Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, author of Friday Black.

Fiction

Cherry by Nico Walker

Nico Walker is never on solid ground. His autobiographical novel chases its unnamed narrator from college doldrums to the maelstrom of the Iraq War to a hidden opioid addiction to, finally, the freewheeling life of a disinterested bank robber. Walker’s blasé bildungsroman about his own life ends there; he will finish his 11-year prison sentence for lifting 40,000 dollars in late 2020. He has used the time, though: the novel was written while he was incarcerated, and Walker’s editors at Alfred A. Knopf labored over page upon typewritten page with him during the brief phone calls he was regularly allowed. Prohibited from having anything but the phone, he’d then have to memorize their edits one by one. What emerged from this struggle is a story that hunts for meaning within two American tragedies of the decade, PTSD among veterans and the heroin epidemic, with the searchlight of Walker’s witty, forthright and hopeful voice.

Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

“Ravenous humans howl” from the gate of Adjei-Brenyah’s short story collection all the way to the bitter end. His many vignettes often deal in consumerism and racism, Adjei-Brenyah himself the son of immigrants from Ghana, and are frequently set under the harsh white lights of glossy mall storefronts -- particularly during the titular shopping ritual extravaganza. A hysterical satirist, Adjei-Brenyah’s fictional Americans do not simply fight each other on Black Friday for sweaters and gadgets as we would expect, they brutalize, and sometimes kill, each other; a black character does not simply code-switch to survive, he magically morphs into different, numerically-ranked permutations of his own Blackness. Indeed, in order to indict a string of American frauds and facades throughout, Adjei-Brenyah is able to update the traditional Dystopia and Magical Realism genres so seamlessly that his reader perceives the unnatural as, all of a sudden, perfectly realistic.

Severance by Ling Ma

Severance is a novel about losing one’s job – to zombies. Severance’s tortuous plot follows the white-collar regimen of Candace, a publisher of Bibles, from within her prim New York City offices – but instead of lunch breaks, the action intermittently shifts to Candace’s morbid future in a post-apocalyptic cult. In a trek across a hollowed-out Midwest wasteland, where suburban citizens have contracted a paralyzing China-imported plague, one might expect the problems of Candace’s professional life to have evaporated entirely. Yet the survivalist cult she now finds herself in quickly develops its own impenetrable bureaucracy and start-up culture-esque lingo, a kind of totalitarian LinkedIn; and the viral “Shen Fever” doesn’t leave its victims conventionally zombified, but rather turns them into hyper-mundane dead-eyed office drones. A satire on boredom and bad managers, Ling Ma’s novel also manages to weave in the paradoxes of being a Chinese immigrant, the horrors of NYC’s snarled transit system, as well as the topsy-turvy symptoms of globalization.

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

Warlight is set in London in the wake of the Second World War, before the dust of the Blitz and many more remembered traumas have started to subside. The dust, for Michael Ondaatje, the mind behind the acclaimed novel turned film The English Patient, is not only literal destruction but metaphorical mystery: Warlight’s plot stalks Nathaniel and Rachel, two children whose parents abandon them for what is purported to be a business venture in the far east, yet is in actuality one of many strands of a vast, soot-covered intelligence community-wide conspiracy. Smoke-filled back rooms populated with romanticized, fast-talking spies and built with the walls of the narrator’s own memory abound in the novel; Nathaniel and Rachel are put in the care of two gentlemen of ill-repute, known only as “The Moth” and “The Pimlico Darter,” and the pair of siblings are pulled into increasingly hard-boiled schemes up and down the Thames. Told in a nonlinear, corkscrew fashion, written from the point of view of a fully-grown Nathaniel, this tall tale is yet another meticulously encoded meditation on storytelling and remembrance from the Sri Lanka-born Canadian writer.

Nonfiction

Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston, literary icon and author of Their Eyes Were Watching God, the Harlem Renaissance opus on the Jim Crow south, passed away in 1960; her since-unpublished nonfiction work Barracoon was just released this spring. Hurston, originally trained as an anthropologist, brings her academic and literary talents to bear on the case of Cudjo Lewis, who, back in 1927, was the last survivor of the horrific Middle Passage still alive. Written in part in Lewis’ vernacular, and composed long before Hurston entered the Pantheon of American literature, this (very short) book is youthful and curious and observant and personal in its probing of Lewis’ harrowing life story of enslavement, and his presently charming old age.

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