Far From Home: 2018 book list

“There are moments when history and memory seem like mist, as if what really happened matters less than what should have happened.” – Karen Joy Fowler, We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that many people have opinions about books, even (especially?) people who have strong negative opinions about those books. I, for one, always believed that there was a canon of literature I should have read earlier in my life and, given those previous failures, the best I could do now was to get cracking on that canon. So in 2017 I read books I “should have” read—that “should” sort of loosely defined to allow me to read outside Western lit, to read more women and more people of color. It was a good exercise, tackling those Should books, but by year’s end I was surprised at how much fantasy I’d managed to read—me, who loved Louise Erdrich and Margaret Atwood and lots of Very Serious Literary Writers.

When 2018 began, I was reading for the most part because I needed to fill time. To kill time, really, while I was enduring a commute often seemed tempted to kill me. The endless hours on the train were a good excuse to fill up my brain with books, whether I enjoyed those books or not. But then my life changed and I got a new job with a much shorter commute. Voilà—no more time to kill.

Still, I’m a writer and it’s my job to read carefully for craft. Faced with fewer hours for reading (what did I think I was going to do with all this free time no longer spent commuting?), I hunkered down with the classics. And I hated them. Me, who loved discovering Emma last year—I hated Persuasion. I found Wuthering Heights preposterous and immaterial. While I rediscovered Jacob’s Room and fell in love all over again with Virginia Woolf, I also discovered N. K. Jemisin (this could be a whole post about how much I love her work now) and devoured Louise Erdrich’s new book, a decidedly sci-fi departure from her usual fare. I still relished literary fiction like Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, but I let go of the pretense, the Shoulds. I read for joy. I still read for craft (read N. K. Jemisin!), but the more I read for pleasure (not fun—I was still, and am always, reading for craft), the more I found myself trying to carve out time—not to kill it, but to fill it with more life. In reading this way my heart was broken open by surprises, by the possibilities of fiction. Yes, I read essays and memoir and (exactly one book of) poetry this year, but the novels taught me about the perils of history, the foibles of memory, and the freedom afforded by slipping into someone else’s narrative. As Mary Chapin Carpenter wrote:

“And I don’t want to be a stranger,
And I don’t want to be alone.
But sometimes I just want to be somewhere else
Untethered and known
When I am far from home.”

You get a different perspective on the Shoulds and Can Never Bes when you get out of your comfort zone and find the place you were meant to be.

  1. All Men Are Liars, Alberto Manguel
  2. The Rules of Magic, Alice Hoffman *
  3. White Houses, Amy Bloom
  4. The Air We Breathe, Andrea Barrett *
  5. Commonwealth, Ann Patchett *
  6. Keep Smiling Through, Ann Rinaldi
  7. A Small Fortune, Audrey Braun
  8. Fences, August Wilson
  9. High Tide in Tucson, Barbara Kingsolver *
  10. Here We Go Again, Betty White
  11. In Good Company, Carol Burnett
  12. Romantic Outlaws, Charlotte Gordon
  13. The Underground Railroad, Coleson Whitehead
  14. The Book of Life, Deborah Harkness
  15. The Days When Birds Come Back, Deborah Reed
  16. From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, E. L. Konigsburg
  17. Starvation Mode, Elissa Washuta
  18. Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert
  19. Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte
  20. Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel
  21. Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie *
  22. The Promise of Failure, John McNally *
  23. The Crofter and the Laird, John McPhee *
  24. Cat Diary: Yon & Mu, Junji Ito
  25. We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler *
  26. Radium Girls, Kate Moore *
  27. A People’s History of Chicago, Kevin Coval
  28. A Man Without A Country, Kurt Vonnegut
  29. Nat Turner, Kyle Baker
  30. Anne of Green Gables, L. M. Montgomery
  31. Anne of Avonlea, L. M. Montgomery
  32. Future Home of the Living God, Louise Erdrich
  33. A Wind in the Door, Madeleine L’Engle
  34. A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Madeleine L’Engle
  35. Many Waters, Madeleine L’Engle
  36. The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood
  37. Upstream, Mary Oliver
  38. Daily Rituals, Mason Currey
  39. Letter to My Daughter, Maya Angelou *
  40. The Final Solution, Michael Chabon
  41. Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton
  42. Warlight, Michael Ondaatje
  43. Ghost Wife, Michelle Dicinowski
  44. The Fifth Season, N. K. Jemisin *
  45. The Obelisk Gate, N. K. Jemisin *
  46. A Lab of One’s Own, Patricia Fara
  47. An Unkindness of Ghosts, Rivers Solomon
  48. Motherhood, Sheila Heti
  49. America Again, Stephen Colbert
  50. Eats of Eden, Tabitha Blankenbiller *
  51. The Best We Could Do, Thi Bui *
  52. Assignment: Rescue, Varian Fry
  53. Jacob’s Room, Virginia Woolf *
  54. Pie and Whiskey

* books I loved

Time Passes

Time passes, and usually we change and grow as it does, but sometimes we don’t.

A couple of weeks ago, Facebook served me up a memory in the form of a post I’d made on that day in 2013.

Screen Shot 2018-03-03 at 1.41.12 PM

Here’s what I thought: My 2013 self sounds like an asshole.

Here’s what I also thought: It’s been just five years, but it felt like a lifetime had passed.

Here’s what I remember about my time working at an elementary school: every day I felt like I wasn’t using the skills I was supposed to be using—I wasn’t using any of the skills or tools I’d learned during the two-year graduate program I’d entered directly after college. Every day I felt acutely that I had never been trained for the work that I was doing—and that no one was going to hire me for the skills I’d acquired in school. Some days I resented the fact that I’d had to cobble together several part-time jobs to make ends meet. Most days I loved that I was being paid to have second graders holler “Teacher Hillary!” across the playground to get my attention so I could capture for Facebook or the school website whatever cool project they were doing. The days when I cleaned a cut or calmed a kid down, some part of me was aware that I was accessing the part of my personality that is drawn to caring for others. And the days when I managed to write a few words after work, to piece together a paragraph even, I marveled at the possibilities my future might hold.

So there were these disparate parts of me that knew I was learning an enormous amount, that knew the benefit of getting any kind of humanities degree—and, in fact, the thing that sets humanities degrees apart from the hard sciences, or more technical fields—was that those skills were transferrable. I was trained to read and research, to ask good questions, to empathize and to interrogate my assumptions, to understand how nonprofits work, and to value the past, whatever form it took (like meeting minutes!) so that it could inform future work.

But a significant part of me was mad. Mad that I’d graduated from an excellent school but had done so at time when the job market was basically nonexistent. Mad that I’d gotten a degree and then moved to a city where everyone applying for my job were basically equally qualified. Mad that I had innumerable but apparently useless skills. Mad that I couldn’t figure my way out. And mad that I had the audacity to be mad. I mean, I didn’t have the job I thought I wanted, but I had A job, with supportive bosses, and I had been in worse pickles.

Fast forward five years: I have spent nearly three years in a job in my field—in fact, both my fields—and now I’ve embarked again on a different kind of career path, away from my training but, in a different way, in the service of it. This new job will, I hope, make a difference in this newly charged political climate, will do some real good—though the recent school shootings have made me acutely aware, again, of just how important a school administration job is. And while this new job is not in the museum field, it’s not lost on me that my responsibilities include teaching small organizations how to use social media—which is exactly what my very first paid museum gig comprised.

So when Facebook offered me this memory from five years ago, I cringed: I like to think that I’ve changed in that short shift in time, that I’ve grown more humble, less angry, more generous with the time and talents I do have and less sensitive to what I don’t have. But in other ways I know I haven’t changed: I still love days that involve great variety, I still want to help people, and I still use my museum studies skills every single day.

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