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.
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.
Okay, 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 Orange
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.
3. 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.”
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?
1. 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.