Thursday, December 6, 2018

Favorite Reads, 2018

It’s that time of the year again, the end (or near the end), when we readers revisit the books that impacted us, the stories that made us laugh and cry, shake our heads in wonder or bow down in respect. For me, the year’s best were the ones that managed to break through and shake me up. It was a tough year personally, lots of loss, turmoil and change. I spent the first few months of 2018 on a lifeboat, concentrating on breathing and keeping a firm grasp as the waves bucked around me. There were long stretches during which I didn’t read at all. When I finally put my feet on dry land, I realized that although many foundations had been ripped from under me, reading was one I had taken from myself. Because of course books are often the ballast keeping me upright. So my list this year will have a chronological aspect, as I tell you how and why each of these books was like a foothold in a storm.

I finished only 29 books this year. I used to average about a book a week but for the past few tumultuous years, that number has dwindled. This year was particularly low, unsurprisingly. I read 21 novels, 7 short story collections and one memoir. Of note: three of the books were YA novels, research for a project I’m perpetually almost starting; also, two books that didn’t make the best list, Isadora by Amelia Gray and The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, have historical inspirations. One book defies all genres perhaps. But here they are, my top five books for 2018, resonating lifesavers one and all.
 In January, I excitedly tore into Deborah Reed’s newest novel, The Days When Birds Come Back (2018). Ms. Reed has been on my end of year list before, in 2014 (and wow, what a year of books that was, now that I’m looking back), and she’s always been a writer whose particular style and sensibilities hit me right in the heart. This novel is my favorite she’s written. It’s the story of June Byrne and Jamison Winters, two protagonists in a holding pattern caused by grief and guilt. This is the story of their meeting, on the Oregon coast where June has hired Jamison to renovate her grandparents’ bungalow. Here’s a bit from my initial review, because I like this part: “She shines a warm light on the profoundness of everyday existence, what the late writer Kent Haruf called ‘the precious ordinary.’ As we follow these characters getting through their days as we all do, we learn more about what they’ve lived through as we experience their coming together at the perfect time, in the perfect place. It seems a sort of miracle, like life itself.” Because I had been in a long state of grief when this novel arrived, and also because Ms. Reed writes like an angel, it moved me profoundly. This book will always hold a dear place in my heart, like a childhood friend.

In March, I attended the Master’s Workshop held at the Tucson Festival of Books every year. I hadn’t been reading (or writing) much, but the days amongst writers, talking about writing, were like a shot in the arm. I took home a couple of books written by one of the workshop leaders, Kevin Canty, and in May, I finally read one. His story collection, Where the Money Went (2009), is a contemplation on love and the loss of it. His characters are heavy with testosterone but also hope, and I think what struck me to the core was the stubborn tendency they all had to pursue tenderness and connection, even when it seemed it would most likely lead to pain and more emptiness. Reviewers have compared Canty’s writing to O’Connor, to Carver, to Banks, and I think the comparisons are quite justified. These are masterful stories.
In July, I cracked open another eagerly-anticipated novel, Kudos (2018), the third in Rachel Cusk’s trilogy. The second, Transit, was my very favorite read of 2017, and the first, Outline, was an honorable mention in 2016. Those of us who worship Cusk’s trilogy—mostly writers I know—have a hard time putting into words just what it is that vibrates us so. As for form, the story is told through the protagonist’s interactions with other people. She is merely an outline; we come to know her as she moves through life. So there’s much to say about form and how it excites us writers because of the newness and possibilities of what Cusk has done. But what makes Kudos and the entire trilogy stand head and shoulders above so many other books, for me, is probably because it traces the journey of a woman who is forging a new reality and identity after loss. It’s about a woman building a new life after a divorce, a mother trying to do right by her children, a person trying to rediscover that lost, innate part of herself that ultimately, can fully embrace life. Yeah. So it was personal for me, unsettling and deeply comforting at the same time. Amazing books.

I think Cusk’s writing cracked me open, reminding me of the foundational joy that I wasn't getting enough of throughout the end of my marriage and loss of my mom—READING, duh!, and in this spirit, I started my Summer of Chabon. I wanted to read immersive novels, to be transported for some good chunks of time, as good novels can do. And my first read, Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys (1995), did not disappoint. Many people have read (and loved) this book, or maybe you saw the movie, so I won’t go on and on here. Revisit my ravings here, if you’d like. Wonder Boys was also a July read.

My Summer of Chabon had some rocky moments, so I took a breather with Jamel Brinkley’s story collection, A Lucky Man (2018). Like Canty’s stories, the characters in this debut have a decidedly male perspective, for whatever that’s worth. But the writing is crisp, purposeful and wise, never letting go for a moment. Brinkley writes about characters growing up and navigating a world as boys and men of color, dealing with race but mostly, with relationships and the longing and performance they require. Brinkley’s vivid writing in these timely stories stayed with me a long time; it’s a true sign of greatness when a writer can bring you to experiences far outside your own and leave you with a feeling of understanding. If anything, in this #Metoo time, these stories remind us that manhood is a condition to be explored as well, particularly when boys are left adrift.

I’m happy to report that my reading pace has picked up, and I hope to have a longer list to share in 2019. As always, I take notice when people tell me about their very favorite reads of the year, so please feel free to do just that below. And happy reading in the new year!
"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka