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

“To overcome, to live, rise, and reign at last”: 2016 book list

As the world—both mine personally and more generally—shifted this year, I have been reminded of what it takes to make change and to maintain a peaceful, powerful center. In my reading I turned to the steadfast lessons of literature and, to my surprise, non-fiction. If any year called for how-to texts, this was it. I consumed books with the zeal of an elementary-school-aged bookworm: when I was running or driving I was listening to books, when I was waiting for or sitting on trains I was reading books, when I was procrastinating on bigger projects I was writing about reading, and when I was lying in bed I was thinking about my own book.

This year, I read like a writer—that is to say, slowly—savoring sentences and returning to my favorites despite the desire to read something new. I read a few books I should have read long ago (like Little Women), and as the year progressed I tried to focus on reading books by people of color or about working for justice in an uncertain world. Still, I read 45 books this year, and while 30 of them were written by women, only 6 were written by people of color. In 2017 I’ll strive to correct that imbalance, to be mindful of whose voices are published, and to continue reading books that have long been on my Read Sometime list.

It should be no surprise that what we read shapes how we think and act—how we respond to the world around us, but this was something I took to heart this year. As I write this, I’m more than halfway through a third or fourth reading of Jane Eyre, which I saw as a theatrical production at the beginning of the year, and I’m still nursing a pilgrim’s high after a visit this week to an exhibit about Charlotte Bronte’s life and work. In Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte writes, “The vehemence of emotion, stirred by grief and love within me, was claiming mastery, and struggling for full sway; and asserting a right to predominate: to overcome, to live, rise, and reign at last; yes—and to speak.”

I started the year trying to keep an open mind (Jodi Picoult wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought she’d be, she says, trying not to sounds catty) and ended it by seeking solace and surprise where I knew it would be (though I couldn’t remember where I’d gotten it in the first place, Paradise survived my pre-move bookshelf purge and then I knew I’d read it before the year was out).

  1. A Secure Base, John Bowlby (January)
  2. Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, Rhoda Janzen (January)
  3. Leaving Time, Jodi Picoult (January)
  4. Across Five Aprils, Irene Hunt (February)
  5. Over the River, Sharelle Byars Moranville (February)
  6. The Thrilling Adventures of Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage, Sydney Padua (March) *
  7. Little Women, Louisa May Alcott (March) *
  8. Nora Webster, Colm Toibin (March) *
  9. Beautiful Ruins, Jess Walter (April)
  10. Nine Parts of Desire, Heather Raffo (April)
  11. Astray, Emma Donoghue (April)
  12. The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman (May) *
  13. Not June Cleaver, Joanne Meyerowitz (May)
  14. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, JK Rowling (May)
  15. My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, Fredrik Backman (May)
  16. The Round House, Louise Erdrich (May) *
  17. Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll (June)
  18. Maddaddam, Margaret Atwood (June) *
  19. Squirrel Meets Chipmunk, David Sedaris (June)
  20. Living by Fiction, Annie Dillard (June) *
  21. More Than You Know, Beth Gutcheon (June)
  22. Q Road, Bonnie Jo Campbell (June) *
  23. Abe Lincoln Grows Up, Carl Sandburg (July)
  24. How to Build a Time Machine, Brian Clegg (July)
  25. Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen (July)
  26. Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood (August) *
  27. Between the World and Me, Ta-Nahisi Coates (August)
  28. Good Omens, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman (August)
  29. Brush Back, Sarah Paretsky (September)
  30. Clockwork, Philip Pullman (September)
  31. The Diezmo, Rick Bass (September)
  32. The Voyage of the Narwhal, Andrea Barrett (September) *
  33. The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood (September)
  34. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, JK Rowling (October)
  35. Passing, Nella Larsen (October)
  36. Southern Mail, Antoine de St. Exupery (October)
  37. A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry (October) *
  38. Waking Up White, Debby Irving (November)
  39. Yes Please, Amy Poehler (November) *
  40. But I Don’t See You as Asian, Bruce Reyes Chow (November)
  41. Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit (November)
  42. The Rise of the Rocket Girls, Nathalia Holt (November)
  43. Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson (November) *
  44. Packing for Mars, Mary Roach (December) *
  45. Paradise, Toni Morrison (December) *

 

* my favorites

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