[We're basically Oprah]

To All the Books We Loved in 2018

Houstonia writers weigh in on their favorite reads of the year—from new releases to beloved classics.

Edited by Morgan Kinney December 26, 2018

Maybe you read 163 books this year, or maybe you just scrolled through Instagram.

Houstonia did its fair share of both—and we're here with eight picks that range from recent memoirs to classic children's stories to book-length poems ready to launch you into 2019.

You Think It, I’ll Say It

by Curtis Sittenfeld

I love everything Curtis Sittenfeld has ever written—Prep is a special favorite—so I was super-excited when she put out a book of short stories, You Think It, I’ll Say It, this year. And they didn’t disappoint. Two characters play a game with a similar name in the story called “The World Has Many Butterflies,” which, weirdly enough, is set in Houston (the author’s from Cincinnati). They are a man and a woman married to other people, and the first time they play the game, it’s at the River Oaks Country Club. “I’ll think it, you say it,” Graham says to Julie, and she obliges with a bitchily honest assessment of the other people in the room—whether a man’s “on the spectrum,” how great a woman looks stuffed into her Spanx, how much punch someone drank at another event.

That bitchy honesty is present throughout the collection, in the best possible way. Whether you like her characters is beside the point; Sittenfeld will always say it. She lets you in on her protagonists’ private worlds—their regrets, jealousies, attractions, and insecurities, all of which feel entirely authentic and, yes, familiar. Fittingly, the writing itself is frank, almost spare. The last lines of all these stories are perfection. Each ending feels abrupt at first, but then you realize that Sittenfeld stopped exactly when she was supposed to, without wasting a single word. —Cathy Matusow, editor-in-chief

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

by Betty Smith

You know that meme of Snoop Dogg holding up a piece of paper that says “this is the cutest shit I’ve ever seen?” That's precisely how I felt reading Betty Smith’s masterpiece, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

This book is 75 years old, and it’s simultaneously a product of its time and one of the freshest things I’ve read. I avoided the novel for a long time because it sounded, honestly, a little boring. A girl growing up in New York? Nearly anyone could write that. But nobody can quite do it like Ms. Smith, because here’s the thing: I would die for Francie Nolan. It’s not fair that Smith crafted something so timeless, so ingeniously composed, so deeply felt, and so beautifully real, but here we are.

I kick myself daily for not reading it sooner, and basically any time I think about this book for too long, I begin to cry, remembering its joys and its sorrows. It broke my brain, grew my heart three sizes, and destroyed my tear ducts, and I will never be the same. —Ryan Pait, contributor


by Xhenet Aliu

Xhenet Aliu’s darkly hilarious and piercing page-turner is the tale of Elsie and Lulu, a mother and daughter living in cruddy, working-class Westbury, Connecticut, whose dueling narratives reckon with all the good thematic stuff you want from a novel: the non-existence of the American Dream, the mundanities of surviving when you’re down and out, what it is to be loved (or not), and to want desperately to escape your place in life. Except, of course, Aliu—who, full disclosure, has been one of my very best friends since before she was Bread Loaf famous—tackles this existential fodder in such blisteringly funny and riveting fashion that you’ll devour the chapters.

From the moment the Fiero-driving Albanian diner cook, Bashkim, tells Elsie I swear to Allah, you are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen to the final chapters in which her daughter, Lulu’s, own cross country journey unravels in spectacular fashion (in Houston of all places!), you’ll be mesmerized, perhaps most of all by Aliu’s mastery of a double narrative, woven so adeptly I couldn’t help but think of the great Andre Dubus III’s House of Sand and Fog—a book I love almost as much as Brass—Gwendolyn Knapp, associate editor

Nature Poem

by Tommy Pico

Tommy Pico churns out about one book-length poem per year, with each entry untangling itself as a lyrical run-on sentence that sings off the page, invades your brain, and rips a smile across your face. As a queer indigenous poet, Pico embarked upon Nature Poem to eviscerate the "noble savage" stereotype and convey the peculiar realities of his literary alter ego, Teebs, navigating a life of microaggressions and anxieties torn between New York and his native Viejas Indian Reservation in California.

You'll yell at the essential truth of lines such as "I literally hate all men bc literally men are animals" before a thought twists back to some combination of Beyoncé, drag queen karaoke, and a crystalized punchline of unexpected poignance. Altogether, it's a work of landscape, wit, and remarkable urgency—the kind of single-sitting read that punctuates itself with the knowing exhalation that you've just experienced something special. —Morgan Kinney, associate editor


by Mimi Swartz

I wasn’t expecting to enjoy Ticker as much as I did. Although the subject—the history of the quest to create an artificial heart, set right here, in the Texas Medical Center—interested me, I probably wouldn’t have picked up the book if not for my interview with the author, Houstonian Mimi Swartz. She hooked me immediately, regaling us with tales about Drs. DeBakey, Cooley, and O.H. “Bud” Frazier’s race to save lives and replicate nature.

Although I grew up in the area, I only knew the basics: That they were famous heart surgeons from Houston. Ticker educated me on the trio's lives and accomplishments, in addition to enlightening me on the many breakthroughs in heart research from the past 60 years. It’s a fast-paced, fascinating read, and any Houstonian even mildly interested in this city’s history would enjoy it. —Nicki Koetting, digital editor

The Goodnight Train

by June Sobel

Confession: I read nothing for myself this year. My favorite book I read to my 2-year-old daughter, however, is a 40-page thriller called The Goodnight Train—June Sobel’s rhyming narrative about a harrowing train ride to Dreamland.

At first, some of the verbiage (“the porter sighs,” “roll the corner, rock the curve”) felt a little forced, and while Laura Huliska-Beith’s illustrations are fun and vivid, the railroad track itself looked pretty unrealistic and incredibly dangerous. Yet after my 50th rendition, I noticed how much my daughter loved the story. Sucking her thumb, she’d be transfixed by the visuals while pointing out a whole bunch of things (a mermaid, cookies, a puppy). It soothed her, despite the train's rickety track.

Most of all, though, it was the book that helped define the Year of Choo-Choo. Trains are my daughter’s first obsession, which made our move to Houston this summer astoundingly on-brand. She’s pointed out every train she’s seen, from the wooden plaything at Petrol Station to the home run express at Minute Maid Park. Trains have calmed and excited her, giving me a chance to see how a young mind chugs along. I’m glad The Goodnight Train has given her a chance to think, be happy, and—just about every damn night this year—visit Dreamland. —Timothy Malcolm, dining editor


by Michelle Obama

First ladies always write memoirs upon leaving the White House, but most of those works don’t really, well, say much. However, Michelle Obama's Becoming is the exception to the rule. As she recounts her life, we get a remarkably candid take on how the Michelle Robinson who grew up in a cramped apartment on the South Side of Chicago became the poised, confident, and charismatic first lady so many of us grew to admire when she and Barack burst onto the national political scene more than a decade ago.

It’s a story that we all know, of course, but Obama infuses her own tale with hope, contending that with hard work it’s possible to do almost anything. A lot of good books have come out this year, but this was the one that I couldn’t put down, and now that she’s added Houston to her book tour, I’ll have a solid reason to read it again—and I am so very fine with that. —Dianna Wray, managing editor


by Tara Westover

Think you have any lingering childhood trauma? Tara Westover's memoir is an exercise in perspective. The author unflinchingly chronicles her extraordinary upbringing in a tiny Idaho farm town with a survivalist Mormon family who, out of deep-seated fear of the federal government, denounced technology, medicine, and, most of all, education. Though she learned to read from an older brother, Westover grew up unaware of major world events—including the Holocaust and, lacking a birth certificate, even her own birthday.

There are harrowing tales of gruesome accidents at her father's junkyard, of physical (and psychological) trauma left untreated, and deep skepticism for the modern world. Through it all, Westover possessed an innate curiosity and remarkable tenacity, a combination that proved unstoppable as she redefined the meaning of "self-taught" to eventually earn a PhD in intellectual history and political thought from Cambridge University. It came at a price, namely familial estrangement, but Westover's story of beating unconscionable odds is ultimately moving and uplifting. There's no trace of ego, smugness, or self-pity in her prose, a feat in itself once you consider all she's endured and achieved. It makes her story that much more compelling, and one that I devoured in about a day. You'll never take your circumstances for granted again. —Abby Ledoux, lifestyle editor

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