It’s around this time of year that all sorts of publications are rounding up the best books of the previous year, so I thought I’d weigh in with ten of the books I read in 2018 that blew my mind, opened my heart, and made me maybe just a little bit smarter than I was before (as well as a few I’m looking forward to in 2019).
1. Red Clocks by Leni Zumas
From my Litreactor review: It’s a national bestseller, a New York Times Editor’s Choice, an Amazon Best Book of the Month, an Indie Next Pick, etc. and so forth, and yes, one of my faves of 2018. Like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Zumas’s Red Clocks is not so much the science fiction of a near future as it is speculative fiction of the world today, just in different places—which is to say, if you took El Salvador’s notoriously strict abortion laws (which have actually resulted in women being imprisoned for miscarrying) and transplanted them to the Oregon Coast, in an era marked by a retrograde swing to the right, this world is what you’d get. Set in a version of the contemporary US where a “Personhood Amendment” has been added to the constitution, Zumas explores the fine line between medicine and magic, a pregnancy at the right time and a pregnancy at the wrong one, as well as the many ways that patriarchy works to undermine a woman’s right to determine the course of her own life. Plus, there’s a witch in the woods. 😉
2. Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
A green ribbon worn by a woman at all times might be her privacy, her autonomy, her queerness, or all of the above—it also might just be part of a story that haunted the author’s childhood. The same goes for girls whose bodies are turning, inexorably, into dresses; for the dopplegangers who haunt alternate versions of Law & Order, forever seeking murdered girls; and for the women who, in undergoing bariatric surgery, find themselves haunted. These complex stories, conveyed in simple language, are as queer in their execution as they are in their subject matter, and they plumb the many ways that the female body is subject to violence, whether sexual, physical, or psychic. I found this collection absolutely haunting, and I’m thrilled to discover new short fiction for the top shelf of my bookcase (I actually do keep the best stuff up there, just like they do at the bar).
3. We Were Witches by Ariel Gore
Some books are game changers, in that they actually change the rules of the game. This hybrid novel/memoir thing by Ariel Gore not only does that for long-form prose, it might just do that for–well, the feminist imagination? Our ability talk about, see, smell, or taste patriarchy–which, after all, is nearly as ubiquitous (and often as invisible to us) as air? I could go on. (I have, in fact, at some length, over at LitReactor.) This book chronicles the protagonist’s struggles and triumphs as an unwed teenage mother (cuz if you want to get the ass end of patriarchy and capitalism, that’s definitely the way to do it) trying to go college, which is what society tells her she should do, despite the fact that society seems to have no interest whatsoever in actually helping her do it. From the welfare shamers to the bitchy neighbors to the court system, it’s one hell of a gauntlet young Ariel must run. Luckily, she’s met by fellow nonconformists—freaks and punks and feminists and such, as well as a bona fide witch—who offer her help, hope, and tactics. May we all be so blessed in the New Year.
4. Fight No More by Lydia Millet
Millet is one of my favorite authors, and she’s also a friend. The last time we met, she told me that the organizing principle behind her upcoming story collection was things that were once considered super transgressive but have now become cliche. That is not, I noted, the way the back-cover copy for this collection reads–that copy says that this book “explores what it means to be home.” And yes, there is a lonely real-estate broker who stands at the center of this web of stories connecting “fractured communities and families” (often through their houses). But here among these deeply satisfying linked stories, among this multitude of voices, both hilarious and crass, superficial and profound, you’ll also find the Marquis de Sade as bathroom reading, Syd Vicious as a stoned teenager’s hero, and the Third Reich as a subject of academic study–as if to say, “In our society, anything can be commodified, any horror made familiar.” Which in turn reflects the all-too-commonplace horror at the heart of this characteristically funny linked collection. There is no one else like Lydia Millet.
5. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
This “international literary sensation” may originally have been published in 2001, but it seems to be having a bit of a moment in the US right now. I stumbled upon a copy in a used bookstore in Asheville, NC, and devoured it within days. A few months later, I found it at Collected Works here in Santa Fe–but when I returned, days later, to purchase it as an Xmas present, all four copies were gone. That doesn’t surprise me, considering–this novel, set just after the Second World War in Barcelona, is as good, and as funny, at the level of the line as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and the story has the dramatic sweep of a telenovela. In the beginning, the protagonist’s father introduces him to a library of forgotten books, and it’s here he discovers a novel that will change in his life–in the usual sense, but also in the sense that his life will become inextricably entwined with that of its author, and with the dark history of Franco’s rise to power. The story is a hot romance and an engrossing mystery, and it’s also Gothic AF–it’s no wonder Stephen King is a fan!–but one that will ultimately leave you feeling like you’re floating a foot or so off the ground, levitated by the sheer beauty of art.
6. Arcadia by Lauren Groff
Speaking of which, this novel absolutely gobsmacked me–there were places where I had to force myself to read it slowly, to savor every moment, every scene. Of Arcadia, Richard Russo, Mr. Pulitzer Prize himself, said, “It’s not possible to write any better without showing off,” and I have to agree–this novel, set on a 70s-era commune in upstate New York, is a work of great beauty and power. Told from the POV of young Bit, this novel resonated deeply with me as a child of the counterculture (I grew up in an back-to-the-land community)–the beauty of growing up close to the land, the closeness of its kids, the sheer range of skills involved with making as much as possible of life’s necessities from scratch, not to mention the exuberance, the sense of play and inquiry associated with remaking the world, making it up as you go…I could go on. But this book also opened my eyes to the experiences of those who grew up on the further edge of the fringe, so to speak, from the one I knew, a world in which hardline ideals–and, in some cases, refusal to grow up–on the part of the adults resulted in privations and even horrors for its kids. When at last Arcadia falls, as we know it must, what struck me most was the adjustment that Bit is forced to make, to a world not of his parents making–and how it becomes necessary for him to make a world of his own. An extraordinary book.
7. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
Because I was so enamored with Arcadia–and because I’m working on a novel of my own set in an intentional community–I asked my friends for recommendations for “novels set in alternative communities.” Someone suggested this one by Ann Patchett, and while I’m not quite sure that it fits the bill, I’m so glad they did! The set up is simple: A wealthy Japanese businessman, the CEO of a large corporation, has been compelled to attend a party in his honor, in an unnamed Latin American country, hosted by the government of that country, in an attempt to convince him to build a factory there; he has been promised that his favorite opera singer will perform. The event, attended by various international dignitaries, winds up being taken hostage by a group of guerilla revolutionaries, and those in attendence (well, most of them, anyway) are held in the vice-president’s mansion for what turns out to be over a month. In the interim, barriers both linguistic and cultural are bridged, romances sparked, and, in a way, a sort of ideal world formed–one which, of course, must end, and badly. This is virtuoso fiction, told from multiple points of view, by a living master of the novel. Ann Patchett, you have my fealty.
8. The Overstory by Richard Powers
You know how sometimes you get so sucked under by a big, sprawling novel that no matter how long it is, it seems to end too soon? This book is like that, an tapestry of narratives organized around what seems at first an unlikely principle: people’s relationships to trees. An artist, a video game designer, a couple of community-theater actors, a high-powered executive, a college drop out, a Vietnam vet, a scientist–a veritable forest of characters, as befits a book on this subject–and as the roots and branches of these disparate stories touch and intertwine, extraordinary things are revealed: for example, the fact that forests communicate, collaborate, defend themselves, and even calm those who walk among them. Many of the characters come together to tree sit in Warner Creek, the historic standoff between activists and law-enforcement in Western Oregon in 1995, and go on establish a radical, top-secret organization that sets fire to a whole lot of earth-destroying infrastructure in the American West, and are ultimately apprehended by FBI officials bolstered by post-9/11 antiterrorism funds. If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because I wrote about the same group of people in my novel, Hot Season. I’d say “great minds think alike,” but my book is a snack, and Powers’s is a feast.
9. The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemison
I don’t read as much speculative fiction as I should, but after seeing Nora K. Jemison speak this year at the Spirit of Brooklyn Awards, invoking authors like Octavia Butler and Ursula K. Le Guin as her foremost influences, I knew I had to read her Fractured Earth cycle. The world building, the characters, the slantwise reflections on race and class dynamics, the craft–all of them are downright astounding in this series. (I’d likely be done with Book Two by now if my husband hadn’t gotten sucked under by Book One and subsequently commandeered the Kindle). The series is set in a world where plate techtonics are so iffy, the roiling heart of the earth so full of rage, that earthquakes and eruptions are common–as are “fifth seasons,” natural disasters of such magnitude that they alter the natural cycles for generations. Those who can both quell and command such quakes are orogones (or, if you want to be nasty about it, “roggas”), and the Sanzed empire commands the powers of this hated and feared underclass with brutal efficiency. But the systems of power in this world were not always arranged so, and the heroine of this series, slowly but surely, is dredging up vestiges of a deep past, which suggest a story very different than the one they’ve all been told.
10. The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border by Francisco Cantu
I don’t read a ton of nonfiction, and what I do tends to be goal-orienteed (i.e., craft or business books), but Francisco (Paco) Cantu is the son of an old friend of mine, and I was thrilled to get the blow-by-blow on his burgeoning literary career: Paco had won a Whiting, Paco was talking about his book on NPR, Paco’s book had been shortlisted for the Carnegie–and even that a few of Paco’s readings had been protested by those who thought a former member of the US Border Patrol had no right to be writing about immigration. Needless to say, I don’t agree, and I learned more from reading this book than I have from the news, about so many things: Who’s crossing the border illegally, and why; what the US Border Patrol actually does; what vigilante border patrol groups actually do; what “coyotes” actually do, and the harrowing journeys people take to get here; what the economics of the US’s undocumented workforce really are; and most importantly, the real human stories behind the forces that have converged at the southern border of the US. Cantu writes with empathy but without foregone conclusions–he seems to come to this work from a place of genuine inquiry, and this alone seems a feat, in this age of partisan politics. A book that should be required reading for every American.
Finally, here are a few books I’m looking forward to in 2019 (all of them are by friends/acquaintances, yes, but rest assured: all of these friends/acquaintances kick ass):
- Besotted by Melissa Duclos, “an absorbing, nuanced debut about belonging, desire, and the frustrations that surface in an atmosphere of isolation” revolving around American ex-pats living in Shanghai;
- All of Us with Wings by Michelle Ruiz Keil, “a post-punk San Francisco fairy tale about a seventeen-year-old Latinx governess, her tween genius charge, the girl’s rock star family, and a pair of ancient children bound to right the wrongs of her stolen childhood,” and
- I Am Yours by Reema Zaman, a memoir that spans the author’s life in Bangladesh, Thailand, New York, and Oregon, “through gorgeous prose as beautiful as it is biting, poetic as it is political.”
Here’s to more books, more bookish friends, and more conversations that matter in 2019. =)