Maureen Corrigan

Every December, our critics look back on the books, movies, music and TV they loved — and this year, we've gathered all of those Fresh Air recommendations for you in one place.

Many of the best of this year's books were graced with humor and distinguished by deep dives into American identity. 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 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.

The Great Internet Novel. Like the great white whale, it's rumored to be out there somewhere beyond the horizon. So far, the novelists who've been hailed as coming closest to writing it have done so in dystopian doorstoppers even longer than Herman Melville's Moby Dick; I'm thinking of The Circle, by Dave Eggers, and Book of Numbers, by Joshua Cohen, both of which tell sweeping cautionary tales about the wired life within Facebook-type cult compounds.

Take Meg Wolitzer's novel (now also a film) called The Wife, about a brazen case of literary ghostwriting, and cross it with Patricia Highsmith's classic Ripley stories, about a suave psychopath, and you've got something of the crooked charisma of John Boyne's new novel, A Ladder to the Sky.

"Let the people see what they did to my boy." Those were the words spoken by Emmett Till's mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, after viewing the brutalized body of her son.

During his night of torture near the Delta town of Money, Miss., 14-year-old Till's right eye had been dislodged from its socket, his tongue choked out of his mouth, the back of his skull crushed and his head penetrated by a bullet. At the insistence of his family, Till's body was shipped back home for burial in Chicago, and Till-Mobley specifically called for an open casket.

"Advice columnist" is not a role that is usually listed under Eleanor Roosevelt's long list of achievements, but for over 20 years she wrote a popular write-in column, first for Ladies Home Journal and then McCall's magazine.

Roosevelt wasn't especially witty or psychologically acute in the role; unlike many of today's inspirational "life coaches," Roosevelt didn't invite her readers to accompany her on extended journeys of introspection.

Esi Edugyan's new novel, Washington Black, opens on wretched terrain: The year is 1830; the location is a sugar plantation in Barbados. Our narrator, an enslaved 11-year-old boy named George Washington Black — "Wash" for short — tells us that the old master has recently died.

Wash is now standing to attention as a carriage carrying his new master arrives; he's a pale sinister-looking man named Erasmus Wilde. Looking at him, Wash comments, "He owned me, as he owned all those I lived among, not only our lives but also our deaths, and that pleased him too much."

Sarah Smarsh is a daughter of the white working class. Born in rural Kansas, Smarsh traces her lineage back through five generations of family farmers. She also traces herself back through generations of teenage pregnancies; Smarsh's mother was just 17 when she had her.

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

There's life in the old road trip saga yet. That's just one of the many things that Gary Shteyngart's spectacular, sprawling new novel, Lake Success, affirms.

Throughout his career, Shteyngart has proven himself a cheeky comic daredevil, but never more so than in this novel. More than "just" an artistic tour de force, Lake Success aims — and succeeds — in saying something big about America today.

There's a sentence at the beginning of Ling Ma's standout debut novel, Severance, that stopped me cold: "When you wake up in a fictitious world," one character tells another, "your only frame of reference is fiction."

I've been a fan of Kevin Wilson's writing since 2011, when I read his debut novel The Family Fang. That novel delved into the life of a husband and wife pair of performance artists who worked their young children into their pieces. Without being pat about it, Wilson drove home the realization that every family constitutes its own rag-tag troupe of performance artists and that children are mostly at the mercy of their parents' "acts."

R. O. Kwon's pensive debut novel, The Incendiaries, arrives just in time to stoke up "back-to-school" anxieties, especially those of entering college students and their nervous parents.

Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

It's a rusty old bucket of a plot contrivance: throw a bunch of strangers together on a boat and roil the waters with a big storm or a white whale. But, in her latest novel, The Last Cruise, Kate Christensen demonstrates there's life yet to be found in what may appear to be the creakiest of fictional premises.

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