The Year of the Overdue Library Book–What I Read in 2018

I ended up returning a lot of books to the library unread this year, which always makes me rueful as the digital scanner checks them back in with that cheery ding.

Honestly, it wasn’t a good year, period. I lost my low-paying job, I got another low-paying job, I ended up sick for more than a month over the summer, then the cat got sick, then again, then again. I also had a plethora of 8 a.m. classes, which doesn’t lend itself to a reading and writing life. One of my goals for 2019 is to get my financial life under control (which was my hope in 2018, so you see the futility). But waking up at 3 a.m. worrying about bills is not how I want to live.Pat on Back

So perhaps given the year I had, I should consider it “job well-done” that I read 44 books so far in 2018. I’ll probably end up with 45 or 46, depending. And when I look over my list at Goodreads I feel a rather full sense of kinship with many of the books that I read. So good work, Lynn (See Fig. 1).

Without further ado, my top five books of 2018 in reverse order:

5. Tie: THERE THERE by Tommy Orange and THE DOG STARS by Peter Heller.

Dog StarsOkay, so I’m already starting off with a technicality. But no one was more surprised than me to realize that I was still thinking of Peter Heller’s THE DOG STARS at the end of the year. A former MFAer recommended it to me, noting my penchant for apocalyptic scenarios. I love them. Oh, yes, yes I do.

Still, when I read the book, I didn’t think it had much of an impact on me. Fast forward to now, and I’m surprised at how fond I am of this story and its characters: Hig and Jasper and the stars and the way this world ends, our world. Also I haven’t cried so hard while reading in, frankly, at least a decade. Maybe more. The book is likely to have a bit of a niche audience–there’s lyrical prose that might drive some people batty, and if you’re tired of end-of-the-world reads, this one is going to exhaust you. But overall I recommend it. There are books that you know have made their mark on you when you turn the last page and then books that sorta build on you long after. For a myriad of reasons, THE DOG STARS was the latter for me.

THERE THERE by Tommy OrangeThere There

So much has already been said about this book that I hardly feel the need to add much more. (See here for a review on The Guardian. Or read here for an excerpt from The New Yorker.) The book, in some ways, is more like a collection of shorts than a novel, but don’t let that stop you. Read it for the fabulous character building. If you’re a writer, you’ll be jealous from the first page.

4. CONVENIENCE STORE WOMAN by Sayaka Murata

I loved this book. It’s quirky. It’s original. And it’s ODD, in a beautifully satisfying way. Our heroine, Keiko Furakura, is thirty six years old and still working at a Japanese convenience store, long after family and friends believe the job appropriate. She’s under enormous pressure to get a better job and a husband. You end up falling in love with Furakura as she attempts to live life on her own terms. Hopefully, the book’s success will lead to more Murata translations in the future.

Plus, I really want to visit a Japanese convenience store now.

Days of Abandonment3. THE DAYS OF ABANDONMENT by Elena Ferrante

Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels (all four–weighing in at a hefty 1,700 pages) get a lot of attention these days, especially now that there is a new HBO series called “My Brilliant Friend” opening her work to new audiences. But her earlier novel, THE DAYS OF ABANDONMENT, has all the Ferrante genius you crave, in a much shorter package.

Ostensibly, the book is about a woman unraveling after the end of her marriage, but when you reach the final pages, and the character begins to re-evaluate her life–what it means to be with and without someone–the book takes on even greater meaning. The ending itself? Perhaps perhaps a little too tidy, but no matter. The pages do themselves justice:

“The whole future—I thought—will be that way, life lives together with the damp odor of the land of the dead, attention with inattention, passionate leaps of the heart along with abrupt losses of meaning. But it won’t be worse than the past.”The Wall

2. THE WALL by Marlen Haushofer

I came across this book after Debbie Urbanski, a writer whose work I’ve admired for a while now, tweeted about it. I fell deeply, hopelessly under Haushofer’s written spell. Published in 1999, the book is another apocalyptic scenario. An unnamed main character is the last woman on Earth after she wakes to find everyone gone one morning. A wall has descended on the world, killing everyone in some kind of freak accident. (Think Stephen King’s UNDER THE DOME and you’ll understand the plot.) The woman is middle aged, average. There are no fancy heroine maneuvers. Just an attempt at life after the impossible occurs. What greater metaphor for living could you find?

Voices from Chernobyl1. VOICES FROM CHERNOBYL by Svetlana Alexievich

I remember when Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize in Literature; I couldn’t believe a nonfiction book had won. Foolish me. Alexievich, if she hadn’t been such a damn fine journalist, should have been a poet. This book reads like poetry, and you find yourself marveling again and again at the horrifying realities of modern life. I learned so much about Chernobyl, and as a writer, this book made me want to write like nothing else I read this year. You’ll be horrified. You’ll be furious. You’ll be inspired.

 

Honorable mentions: The Literary Conference by Cesar Aira, Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Hurrera, Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal (everyone’s read that, right?), Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado, and Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash–I still can’t get that damn kid’s voice out of my head.

How to Rebuild a Life: Making Goals

At 41, I’m unemployed, feeling single*, and feeling stuck. These are things I’m not really all that happy to admit.**

When I moved to Albuquerque to get my MFA at the University of New Mexico in 2013, I had a lot of hopes for a new beginning. Years before, I had moved home to Wisconsin for what I thought was a short stay after living on the East Coast for about seven years. I’d been feeling tired and homesick so thought I would rest up at my mom’s house and leave in a few months. But it turned out, I was sick. A brief rest turned into weeks on the couch where I actually couldn’t get up. I was pretty miserable and because I had quit my job, I didn’t have health insurance. I would eventually discover I had a common autoimmune disease, but the discovery didn’t mean I could suddenly fling myself off the couch and back into my life. It took a while. I’d been sick for a long time and the body needs time to heal. (Plus, I went through all of my savings for travel.) And, in the meantime, my plans for love and life just went on hold.

Fast forward to today: I’ve completed an MFA and another book, but I’m still not doing the things I want to do. The book went nowhere and sometimes getting the MFA feels like the worst mistake I ever made. I ended up teaching as an adjunct after graduation and if you’ve followed the news at all lately, you’ll know adjuncts don’t make a great deal of money. There are perks though, like a flexible work schedule, and you’re essentially your own boss, which, I’ve come to realize, is important to me. But the job, even before I was cut from the program this fall, was not enough. As an adjunct, you generally teach the classes that require the most: The most grading, the most interaction, the most time. It can be extremely rewarding work, and so many of my students have been seriously awesome people, but after teaching the same classes for a while now, I feel less motivated, less intellectually challenged. It’s time for a change.

So while it feels trite to say this, I’m making goals in 2019. (Ugh. Even I’m rolling my eyes at that. I gave up New Year’s Resolutions years ago with the idea that we should be living each day with intention. But I think this year I need to roll out ye ol’ goals.) And while much of this is inner-focused work, I don’t want this to be a selfish trip. I’ve been making a list of things that matter to me and some of those things include–hey, get this–OTHER people AND the environment.

Too often, when women embark on self-healing, or journeys of discovery, we get pushed into corners that focus on romantic love. But what if the good life really is about learning just to love … the world? To wit, I’m reading bell hooks’ book All About Love: New Visions. It’s rather enjoyable, in spite of the fact that I don’t necessarily agree with a fair amount of it. What I do agree with: That American capitalistic endeavors are based on lovelessness and that to love people is to resist, to be radical.

Socrates and Xanthippe
Socrates & his wife Xanthippe: While Socrates is known for his dogged examination of what living a good life means, that apparently did not include a good relationship with his wife. Cautionary note for all ye philosophizers.

In order to begin this journey of the good life, I plan to read more nonfiction in 2019. I’ve always loved the idea of the polymath, someone who has a wide range of knowledge, and books are good place to start.

I need to make decisions about how I want to live. And while there’s a part of me that wonders if this is even possible–read about Determinism or, here, watch a “CrashCourse” on it and never feel fully in control again–I know I have to try.

Resolution #1 for 2019: Read more nonfiction books.

Let’s aim for at least twenty books, shall we? I’d like to make it more, but with job searching, my regular fiction reading habits, and the like, I don’t know how high I can go. Plus, this is seventeen more than my 2018 totals.

 

 

*You probably noticed, if anyone is still reading this, that I said: Feeling single. Most of my life has been one of singledom, happily. But this last year, I’ve been feeling alone. There’s a huge difference. Solitude allows me the room to think, to breathe. Loneliness is smothering. I’ve been a pretty independent person all of my life; I never really wanted marriage or kids. But I did think at some point I would find a partner. Someone to travel with. Someone to mull books over. Someone to laugh with. I did not find this person. And I miss this person, whoever they were supposed to be.

**Being a single woman at 41, people are quick to make judgements about my life. Admit you’d like to meet someone and all of the sudden you’re smacked with the label “desperate.” I’m not. If I don’t end up meeting someone, I will be more than content with my life. Perhaps even more so if I don’t. Who knows?

 

 

The Huntress

Homesick for Another WorldI’m reading Ottessa Moshfegh’s collection of short stories “Homesick for Another World.” While I had some trouble settling into the stories in the beginning, I’m glad I stumbled across the book at my library. I love it when women write dark, troubled, non-sexy characters–and this book? Yeah. It fits that build.

And then some.

“Homesick” is not a rewarding read in the traditional sense where a story is finished and the reader feels a sense of accomplishment, of closure. Nope. If anything Moshfegh’s strength is leaving you more unsettled, more worried than before. She really is a great writer–even if she is a tough writer to love because her characters are so tough to love.

(Incidentally, I happen to agree with Roxane Gay’s review of this book on Goodreads–the way fat characters are described gets to be too much. Sadistic. Phobic. I also thought the story “Mr. Wu” was problematic.)

I came across this passage, however, in the story “The Surrogate.” And it stopped me as all good passages that touch on our lives in intimate ways do.

“Gigi said, ‘Don’t worry about finding a husband. When the woman is the hunter, she can only see the weak men. All strong men disappear. So you don’t need to hunt, Stephanie Reilly. You can live on a higher level. Just float around and you will find someone. That is how I found Lao Ting. It was as if there were a spotlight on him and he walked on air about two feet off the ground. I saw him from a mile away.'”

Well, I’m here to say, no, Stephanie Reilly, that is terrible advice, as my current single life can attest.

I’m pretty sure I have been floating around for a long time now. Hoping things just somehow work out.

Which is why when a friend of mine suggested that I start dating like a *man in 2019, I thought, yeah, this is good advice. I need to hunt. I need to seek what I want. We all do. Because floating ain’t getting me anything but dark clouds.

Photograph-of-Vivien-Leigh- 1207732_hr
Sure, she’s a fairy, but she looks pretty certain of what she wants.

It’s not that I don’t know that feeling of meeting someone that Gigi describes. That slow-frame pause on a moment. I can still remember the feel of my first love’s handshake when we met. The way he held on, the papery warmth of his palm, his strength, his closeness, his scent. Everything stopped. Everything focused in on him. He didn’t want to let go of me, he told me later.

But first loves are first loves. Most pass. And believe me when I say this: Thank God for that. There have been other moments since then. But none for a long time.

So, Gigi, I’m going hunting.

 

 

*I recognize the stereotype, but if you’ve spent ANY time with online dating, then you will see the stereotype still mostly rings true. Men do a lot of messaging to usually younger women.