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

On Reading Widely: 2017 book list

At the end of 2016 I read a lot of year-end lists from people who’d only read books by women or books by people of color or queer writers. These were justice-minded readers, whose goals were to support expanded diversity in the literary community. I wanted to be that kind of reader, and I wanted to read all of the (hundreds of) books on all of these lists. But I already had dozens of unread books on my bookshelves, books I wanted to read, many of them by writers who would have easily fit on any one of these lists.

So I began 2017 with a single criterion for my reading list for the year: I would spend the year reading books I should have read a long time ago. This left a lot of room for possibilities, because there were a lot of individual books and plenty of genres I had dismissed without much thought, or had never had time enough to read. But 2017 was the year I spent hundreds of hours on the train, back and forth to a job in another state, and there were days when all I wanted was to get back on the train so I could finish a chapter. I found solace in books.

In the last twelve months, I read widely. I read more books of poetry (seven), more graphic novels (nine), and more fantasy than I ever had before, and I formed very definite opinions about certain writers who’ve garnered a lot of acclaim for their work but who left me feeling unsatisfied. I picked up some books and nearly put them down again, and because of that impulse I committed to reading against type. I read so many essays. I returned to short stories and, finally, learned to love them—and, by consequence, I actually finished writing two long-languishing stories, because it’s true that you have to steep yourself in the kind of writing you want to write. I asked people what they were reading and recorded their recommendations (I learned, in the process, to record who recommended each book, so that I could ask for more suggestions), and I read some of them, and now I have a book list that will last me years (decades, probably).

This was the year I had three or four books going at once, the year I found unexpected connections between the work I was reading and the work I was producing. Reading this year became a different kind of MFA program: I read for pleasure, yes, but I was always reading like a writer. I devoured good sentences, delighted in discovering new authors, read widely and with particular craft questions in mind. It was the year I realized every piece of media consumed makes up a writer’s toolkit, and that every published word makes up a writer’s canon.

Here’s the most important thing I learned: Read outside your comfort zone. Pick up a book even if you feel in your bones that you’ll likely put it down fifty pages in. Put the book down if you want. Keep reading. There are so many books. And if you really hate the book that won the Man Booker Prize, fine. Have your reasons and cultivate your own tastes. (I learned this attitude from one of the books I read this year, The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving a Fuck.)

I read 90 books this year, including 60 books written by women, and 23 by people (mostly women) of color. Compiling this list, I was surprised at the number of Mary Roach books I read this year (four) and the number of Margaret Atwood books (zero). Of the 20 books written by white men, 6 were by C. S. Lewis, 2 by Neil Gaiman, and two by Art Spiegelman. Next year maybe I’ll plan to read fantasy series written by women of color–suggestions welcome!

  1. Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shatterly (nonfiction) *
  2. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte (novel) *
  3. Grunt, Mary Roach (nonfiction)
  4. Vivid and Continuous, John McNally (craft)
  5. Some Change, June Jordan (poetry)
  6. Emma, Jane Austen (novel)
  7. American Gods, Neil Gaiman (novel)
  8. The Magician’s Nephew, C. S. Lewis (novel)
  9. The Horse and His Boy, S. Lewis (novel)
  10. Gulp, Mary Roach (nonfiction)
  11. Prince Caspian, C. S. Lewis (novel)
  12. Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary, Susan Morrison (essays)
  13. In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan (nonfiction)
  14. Kindred, Octavia Butler (novel)
  15. White Teeth, Zadie Smith (novel)
  16. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C. S. Lewis (novel)
  17. The Color Purple, Alice Walker (novel) *
  18. Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, Chimimanda Ngozie Adichie (essay)
  19. How Reading Changed My Life, Anna Quindlen (craft)
  20. The Rediscovery of North America, Barry Lopez (essays)
  21. Women and Writing, Virginia Woolf (craft)
  22. Thrice Told Tales, Catherine Lewis (craft)
  23. The Silver Chair, C. S. Lewis (novel)
  24. Lying, Sissela Bok (nonfiction)
  25. The Last Battle, C.S. Lewis (novel)
  26. On the Bus with Rosa Parks, Rita Dove (poetry)
  27. The Virginia Woolf Writers’ Workshop, Danell Jones (craft) *
  28. Steering the Craft, Ursula Le Guin (craft)
  29. A Year Down Yonder, Richard Peck (novel)
  30. The Door of No Return, Dionne Brand (poetry)
  31. Modern Critical Interpretations of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Harold Bloom (craft)
  32. When I Was A Child I Read Books, Marilynne Robinson (essays)
  33. Citizen, Claudia Rankine (poetry) *
  34. March: Book One, John Lewis (graphic novel)
  35. Relish, Lucy Knisely (graphic novel)
  36. March: Book Two, John Lewis (graphic novel)
  37. March: Book Three, John Lewis (graphic novel)
  38. Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, Mildred Taylor (novel) *
  39. A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle (novel)
  40. Normandy, Wayne Vansant (graphic novel)
  41. Wishful Drinking, Carrie Fisher (memoir)
  42. Bonkers, Jennifer Saunders (memoir) *
  43. The Art of Community, Charles Vogl (nonfiction)
  44. Sent by Earth, Alice Walker (poetry)
  45. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman (novel) *
  46. Blue-Tail Fly, Vievee Francis (poetry)
  47. Maus 1, Art Speigelman (graphic novel)
  48. The Taste of River Water, Cate Kennedy (poetry) *
  49. Maus 2, Art Speigelman (graphic novel)
  50. Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Carlo Rovelli (nonfiction)
  51. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen (novel) *
  52. Stiff, Mary Roach (nonfiction)
  53. Whistling Vivaldi, Claude M. Steele (nonfiction)
  54. Lumberjanes: Beware the Kitten Holy, Stevenson, Ellis, Watters, Allen (graphic novel)
  55. Spook, Mary Roach (nonfiction)
  56. Rose Under Fire, Elizabeth Wein (novel) *
  57. Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders (novel)
  58. The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo (nonfiction) *
  59. Deep South, Paul Theroux (nonfiction)
  60. The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving A Fuck, Sarah Knight (nonfiction) *
  61. The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas (novel) *
  62. Practical Magic, Alice Hoffman (novel) *
  63. State of Wonder, Ann Patchett (novel) *
  64. The Buddha in the Attic, Julie Otsuka (novel) *
  65. The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger (novel)
  66. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J. K. Rowling (novel)
  67. God Help the Child, Toni Morrison (novel)
  68. Einstein’s Dreams, Alan Lightman (novel)
  69. A Discovery of Witches, Deborah Harkness (novel)
  70. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, Mindy Kaling (memoir)
  71. Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, Roz Chast (graphic novel)
  72. Prodigal Summer, Barbara Kingsolver (novel) *
  73. The Elements of Style, Strunk and White (craft)
  74. Archangel, Andrea Barrett (short stories) *
  75. The True Story of Hansel and Gretel, Louise Murphy (novel)
  76. Writing A Woman’s Life, Carolyn G. Heilbrun (craft) *
  77. Shadow of Night, Deborah Harkness (novel)
  78. Little House in the Big Woods, Laura Ingalls Wilder (novel)
  79. One Came Home, Amy Timberlake (novel)
  80. Why I’m Not a Feminist, Jessa Crispin (nonfiction)
  81. Playing in the Dark, Toni Morrison (nonfiction)
  82. A Man Called Ove, Fredrik Bakman (novel) *
  83. Writing Beyond Race: Living Theory and Practice, bell hooks (nonfiction)
  84. Dark Roots, Cate Kennedy (short stories) *
  85. Flesh and Blood, Stephen McGann (memoir)
  86. Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit (essays)
  87. Separate Kingdoms, Valerie Laken (short stories) *
  88. Pippi Longstocking, Astrid Lindgren (novel)
  89. The Mother of All Questions, Rebecca Solnit (essays)
  90. Fried Walleye and Cherry Pie: Midwestern Writers on Food, Peggy Wolff (essays)

* books I loved

 

 

 

 

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