Looking at the list of books I read this year, I can see now that it wasn’t a gangbuster year for reading. I hit a few hard slumps (late spring and early winter both had me spiraling), and a desire to reduce my belongings meant I read a lot of books for the purpose of moving them off my shelves. That, I suppose, is the risk of the unread shelves: some of what we’ve carted with us across home and apartments and stages of our lives may not have been worth the effort or space.
I want to be disappointed in the list, but I’m working to not be. I read, and that’s enough. I read for wisdom, and for comfort, and to pass time, and to wake myself up to the time I’m letting pass. I read mostly women; I read some of the books I was “saving” (for what? that’s the perpetual question; for what am I saving my books?); and as the year wound down, I felt myself falling deeper in love with my books.
So here we go, here’s a snapshot of the good, the bad, the really bad of 2018.
Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Gilbert’s treatise about and love letter to creativity, Big Magic was an important book in my 2018 diet. I read in the weeks after our move to Maryland, a strange, transitory period when I was trying to hook into the reasons we’d moved away. This book isn’t Eat, Pray, Love or what that monolith became, but a playful powerful book is about what’s sacred and what’s not in our artist lives. She brought a lightness and hope, not just to my work, but also to my sad, unbordered days. It was a quick, revelatory read, and now sits close to my writing desk, should I need it.
Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites: The story of the last Icelandic woman, Agnes Magnúsdóttir, to be executed by the state. Told in the months between her conviction and her execution, Burial Rites is a quiet novel about a a woman facing death, and the few people left in the world assigned to show her compassion. While there’s the tightness in the narrative of a thriller, this book drops all those pretenses as the book unfolds, becoming a haunting exploration of justice and the complexities of love.
Alice McDermott’s Child of My Heart: This was a beautifully worded novel written about very little. Or rather, it’s a beautiful worded novel that could have been about so much (grief, death, young sexuality, consent and and non-consent), if McDermott’s rendering hadn’t ripped out the story’s teeth. A young girl, a wealthy summer town’s favorite babysitter, spends her summer caring for the toddler of an elderly artist and his young wife, while her favorite cousin, Daisy, spends the summer visiting. It’s a novel of repressed wrongs: Daisy wakes up with strange bruises, the near-feral neighbor children aren’t being parented, a teenage girl finds herself drawn to the elderly father of the child she cares for. McDermott’s writing is lovely, but her story left me wanting more than just a beautiful girl, an old man, and an unspoken sadness.
Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places: I don’t read many thrillers, because I am almost always disappointed by them, but Dark Places was excellent. I’ve written more elsewhere, so I’ll leave it at this. Dark Places had everything I want in a thriller: a grisly murder, some creepy Satan implications, a satisfying conclusion, and a narrative that doesn’t turn female victims into the unfortunate collateral of a man’s emotional upbringing.
Mary Sharratt’s Daughters of the Witching Hill: Written about the two families accused of witchcraft in the 1612 Pendle witches trial, this was an intriguing, thoughtful book about friendship, power, and marginalized women. I read several books this year about women accused of (and punished for) awful things, and while there’s brutality in these stories, there’s also a perverse hope. Daughters of the Witching Hill is told entirely through the voices of the women who were fundamentally silenced 400 years ago. It’s a reclaiming act to write their voices back into their stories.
Felicia C. Sullivan’s Follow Me into the Dark: I read Sullivan’s excellent novel about broken women and the dark ways they seek healing in 2017 as well, and it’s the rare book that sharpens its pleasure in a second read. Sullivan is a complex writer who tears her stories apart to find their guts. Not enough people have read this novel, but more should. It’s one of the few on my heavy shelves that I will return to again, and again, and again.
Sue Miller’s The Good Mother: In this novel, Miller takes a traditionally feminine plot about a mother’s love for her child, and stripped it of its performance. This book is dated (the novel’s central crisis is both less titillating and more indefensible in 2018 than I think it would have been 1986), it was an unexpectedly complex take on motherhood and womanhood, and the ways the two sometimes contradict each other.
Amy Thielen’s Give a Girl a Knife: Give a Minnesota girl a book about another Minnesota girl, and she’ll devour its pages. Former New York linecook and backcountry Minnesota farmer, the way Thielen writes about how food shapes us was a revelation to me. From the ice cream pail casseroles of her childhood potlucks (I recognize these) and the heirloom zucchinis in her forager-garden, to the neon sauces of her tasting menus and the way a chef’s mother whipped potatoes at a Michelin starred restaurant deep in the French countryside, she gives reverence to food like I’ve never experienced before. It wasn’t the best written or the most interesting book I read in 2018, but as a meditation on food and home, it stayed with me.
JK Rowling’s Harry Potter 1-7: Books are a salve, and I started this year’s re-read the first day we were alone in Maryland. Just like I did the year my grandmother died and I didn’t understand what that meant, just like I did when anxiety and depression were tearing my world apart at the seams, just like I did when I found myself mired in a life of growing hopelessness, I read these books for comfort and strength.
J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis: I think this book was of its moment, and by the time I got to it, its moment had passed. In the weeks before and after the 2016 election, Vance was positioned as the voice of the disenfranchised white working class who’d voted the Trump-Pence ticket (though he made it clear he voted third party). Despite its billing, this book isn’t a guide to understanding American class divides or the left-behind anger of a forgotten working class. It is a sad, arresting, darkly hopeful memoir about a family that has intersected neatly with multiple contemporary narratives, including rural poverty, intergenerational poverty, opoid addiction, education breakdown, and white working class fear. Read it as a memoir, not a blueprint to understand broken American.
Ruth Ware’s In a Dark, Dark Wood: One of several disappointing thrillers I read in 2018. Ultimately, I felt this novel, Ware’s first, demeaned its readers. Thrillers need hooks, yes, but she wrote this like an infomercial. Every paragraph, every chapter ended with an overwrought question mark. Suspense writers have to maintain a delicate balance between giving enough, without giving away, and Ware didn’t have it down here. Aside from pacing issues, I was also disappointed by the reveal. Without spoilers, I’ll say that when the cards were finally on the table, I just didn’t buy it. Too much risk, not enough reward, and not nearly enough character development to justify the red-handed motives.
Diane Guerrero’s In the Country We Love: My Family Divided: I began reading this book days before the news broke about the United States government separating refugee-seeking parents from their children, and it intensified this reading. Halfway through high school, Guerrero’s parents are deported, and she, an American child of immigrant parents, is left, quasi-orphaned to navigate her adolescence and early adulthood without a floor to stand on. Cards on the table, this book isn’t written well. She had a co-writer on this memoir, but the language is poppy and riddled with slang. But the point of this book isn’t the writing or her tenure on Orange is the New Black, but about the centuries old cruelty encoded in America’s immigration policies. Guerrero’s story reduces the politics and bureaucracy to the personal. A teenager came home, and her parents were gone.
Paula Hawkins’s Into the Water: If a woman’s going to be killed for a man’s emotional growth, let that injustice be the center of the story. I’m tired of novel that position women as the unfortunate collateral for a man’s inability to name a feeling. What I wanted out of this novel was a good murder mystery. What I got was a mess of narrators and half-revealed traumas, and a female writer who made her female victims the bad guys. (Didn’t help my rage that I read this during the Dr. Blasey Ford testimony).
Allen Esken’s The Life We Bury: I love reading Minnesota writers, because there’s always that shot of hope that maybe this Minnesota writer will see her name in print someday too. Esken’s debut thriller is about a college student who, to fulfill his writing gen-ed, interviews a recently pardoned, actively dying convicted killer. As the story unspools, he calls into question the original conviction, the system that cost one man his entire adult life, and the system that may have allowed a murderer to go free. I read it fast, and while I felt like some of the pieces fell too tidily together, it was a generally enjoyable, late-Autumn read.
Olivia Liang’s The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone: The best book I read this year, bar none. I read it on our summer trip, most of it, in New York. As much memoir as monograph, Liang provides readers with an unbroken look at loneliness, a state, she describes not as “a city, perhaps at dusk, when everyone turns homeward and the neon flickers to life.” She catalogs her own experience of paralyzing loneliness, and places into conversation with artists whose work provided her solace. It’s about the total body experience of loneliness and about loneliness as a social epidemic, and it’s about the atomizing effect of modern life, in particular, city life. It’s about New York City, and the AIDS epidemic, about outsider art (and insider art), and how technology is changing our ability to see and not be seen. It’s brilliant and elegiac, mourning the deep, almost intractable experience of loneliness, while still celebrating our ability (and art’s ability) to foraging for connection anyway. In its final breath, The Lonely City becomes a book of hope. Relentless in their attempts at connection, Liang and her artists reach out across time and space towards a common wholeness. “We’re in this together,” Liang writes, “this accumulation of scars, this world of objects, this physical and temporary heaven that so often takes on the countenance of hell.” Read this book. Read it again, and again.
Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol: Before our move, I read a lot of books to get them off my shelves. I like Dan Brown, and I like a story that makes me turn the page (I read both The DaVinci Code and Angels and Demons in a weekend). The Lost Symbol is another Langdon novel, and follows the same structure as the others; this time we’re in DC, and it’s the secrets of the Masons we’re concerned with. I found this novel less propulsive the others were, but it was enjoyable, and interesting, and gives me something to think about while we play live-in tourists of the district.
Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle Books 1-3: I read these books early in the year in a trance of language and exposition. The first half of Knausgaard’s six-volume autobiographical novel was dizzying in scope and intimacy. The first book, the tightest of the three, focuses on the fallout of his estranged father’s death and, to a lesser degree, the adolescence that drove the estrangement. Book two is sprawling, Knausgaard exploring his own fatherhood, his creative adulthood, and his marriage. I burned out on Boyhood after six weeks of Knausgaard, but until that point, I was captivated by these books. I’ve never read anything so intimate, raw to the point of aversion. I’m holding out on books 4-6, until I’m ready to devote several more months to this extraordinary piece of art.
Amanda Coplin’s The Orchardist: What a quiet, elegant novel. Haunted by the disappearance of his sister, orchardist Talmadge lives in isolation, until two girls, both pregnant and scared, arrive in his orchard. When Talmadge becomes the sole caregiver for Angeline, daughter born to one of the sisters, the parental love he takes on for both his adopted daughter and the woman who left her in his care becomes complete and consuming. He’ll chase the wind for them, and blind inside this ferocious love, Talmadge becomes obsessive in his attempts to reconcile their collection demons. This novel swells across 400 pages, a distillation of the endless, dangerous love of a parent for their child.
Garth Stein’s Raven Stole the Moon: A reread, about a mother whose son died in Alaska, and her attempt to reconcile with her grief, and bring his soul rest. Drawing on traditional Tlingit narratives, Stein brings ancient stories to rest alongside intimate, personal drama. I loved this novel for its dual ability to haunt and to heal. Jenna Rosen needs resolution after her son’s death, and in returning to the place that’s both her family home and her son’s grave, she’s forced to confront her heritage, her grief, and the future she hasn’t let herself enter.
Joseph O’Connor’s Star of the Sea: Technically, I didn’t finish this book, because I got so irritated with it that I gave up seven pages before the end. The short of it: a murderer is on board an Irish ocean liner bound for New York in the middle of the potato famine, and there’s unseen bonds between the murderer, the nanny, the American writer, the wealthy Lord, and his English wife. I stuck with this novel, because I’m sure the author had a strong vision for his story, but it was so badly executed. Don’t read it, but if you do, watch for the scene where he shoehorns Charles Dickens AND a not-yet-active Jack the Ripper into the same Whitechapel pub.
Anna Quindlen’s Still Life With Bread Crumbs: This was a disappointing novel by a writer I’d been looking forward to reading. Still Life with Bread Crumbs is about a renowned photographer moves to a small, East Coast village to save money and rekindle her faltering career. There, she meets a younger, woodsy man, photographs strange alters in the forest, and tries to reconcile the upper-crust life she’s lived with an uncertain financial future. I’ve read several other novels like this that all seem to fit into the “wrote on a deadline, for a middle aged female audience, without much concern for audience enjoyment.”
Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter: This publisher darling from 2016 was my favorite novel of the year (and I really didn’t want to like it as much as I did). Twenty-two year old Tess moves from nowhere to New York City to begin her life. She’s hired at a dated, elite restaurant in Union Square, and is swept so thoroughly up into this world of work and wine and cocaine and codependency that she can’t see the fall until she’s landed. While I was disappointed that the novel’s crisis point was about the love and lack of it from two men, I found this novel’s power elsewhere: in the heady, intimate portrait of a young person’s becoming. As fragile as it is fierce, I was rocked and reminded of all the moments in my own young becoming where life felt, all at once, like a feast I’d been barred from, and a room I’d been invited into, and an river I was drowning under.
Meg Wolitzer’s The Ten-Year Nap: Wolitzer’s 2008 novel is so of its time that it was like reading an anthropological study of a world just expired. Set in a wealthy New York City community and written through the lenses of five women and their mothers, this is a “women live lives of quiet desperation too” novel. Each of these mothers are navigating the space after the needy years of young parenting, and muddling their way into a second act. There’s plot here (one women becomes an accomplice in hiding a friend’s affair, another befriends a girl in South Dakota who wants to become an artist, a third struggles to accept her adopted daughter’s atypical development), but mostly, it’s a novel about a particular brand of wealthy motherhood anxiety. Who are we without our children, and who might we become as they need us less and less?
Philippa Gregory’s Three Sisters, Three Queens: You know how there are writers you read, because they shake your bones, and writers who you read, because they write about queens having sex and being devious? I started this after watching part of the royal wedding (a precursor to my truly impressive December House of Windsor documentary spree), and I gotta say, I think Gregory is losing her touch. Fifteen books on the Plantagenets may be too many.
Deirdre Madden’s Time Present and Time Past: I found this slim, neon green novel in the basement of the St. Paul Half Price Books when we went home for Thanksgiving, and I read all but two chapters of it on the plane home. Madden’s novel is set in pre-recession Dublin, and about a man in the middle year of his life who begins to experience strange, almost supernatural shifts in time and place. He goes to pick up his young daughter’s friend, and opens the door on a man who looks exactly like himself; sitting in a pub, he sees this daughter in her frustrated young adulthood; sitting in the office, his modern world evaporates, and for long moments, he’s his father, or maybe his grandfather. It was a strange, beautiful novel where time and memory are manipulated in order for the reader to meditate on ordinary, beautiful, frustrating way our lives move, endlessly, forward.
Frances Mayes’s: Under the Tuscan Sun, At Home in Italy: This was a delight of a memoir, that I was able to take such pleasure in, because I was a child when it was released, and didn’t have to actively live through the faux-Tuscany fever that it apparently kicked off. I’ve written more elsewhere about the beauty I found in Mayes’s poetry-tuned language, and in her meditations on home and belonging.
Frances Mayes’s: Bella Tuscany: The Sweet Life In Italy: See above.
Patricia Engel’s Vida: Top five books I read this year, and my favorite collection of short stories. I read Engel’s The Veins of the Ocean when it was published in 2016, and was impressed with her language, and the intimacy of her narratives. Published before Veins, Vida established Engel’s voice and and scope. These interconnected short stories are about everything: immigration in America and the dislocation of being from somewhere, boyfriends and men you want to be your boyfriend, the ragged sadness that exists in all of our towns and cities, the hard path we take to adulthood. It’s a gorgeous, gorgeous book that I’ve found myself pulling off the shelf again and again.
Liane Moriarty’s What Alice Forgot: I bought this book in an airport several years ago (why are the terminal booksellers so appealing in the odd between times of check-in and boarding), and was recommended it again and again. While I didn’t love this book, I read it in a particular moment when I hadn’t been reading and wasn’t writing at all, and it broke both slumps. A novel doesn’t need to pry open the bones to be worth reading. As a writer (who had a short story rejected again and again, because it was plot weak and language heavy), I needed to be reminded that plot is what keeps the reader turning the page. I read this novel, about a woman who wakes up from an exercise injury and can’t remember the last decade of her life, in a day or two. Hold on to the joy of getting lost in a story; it’s what brings us all to books in the first place.
Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: I’ve inadvertently read (or listened to) this book every year for the past four years. Strayed’s writing is powerful and poetic, and her story about healing all her broken pieces has remained timeless and relevant each time I’ve read it.
Ruth Ware’s The Woman in Cabin 10: Remember how down I was on Ware’s first novel earlier in this list? Her second, this one, was much, much better. Traveling on the maiden voyage of a luxury, boutique cruise ship, travel journalist Lo witnesses a woman thrown over the balcony of the cabin next to her own. As she tries to call attention to this horrific crime, it becomes clear she’s pulling at a thread that the wealthy cruise owner doesn’t want unraveled. An Agatha Christie-esque, locked-room mystery, this novel kept me reading late into the night.