My Top 10 Books of 2018 (and a Few I’m Looking Forward to in 2019)

Susan DeFUncategorizedLeave a Comment

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):

  1. 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;
  2. 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
  3. 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. =)

Big News in the New Year!

Susan DeFUncategorizedLeave a Comment

The tail end of 2018 was full of changes on my end–not the least of which was moving across the country to Santa Fe, New Mexico. (Don’t worry, though, Oregon friends–I’m retaining my dual citizenship!)

In the midst of it all, there’s been some news I’ve been sitting on that I’m SORT OF REALLY EXCITED to share, now that it’s officially 2019. =)

News item number one is that I’ve been selected as the Spring 2019 Writer-in-Residence at Fishtrap. Fishtrap is an organization based in Joseph, Oregon, with a mission to promote “clear thinking and good writing in and about the West.” It’s best known for its weeklong conference of the same name each summer, but the organization also offers workshops and youth programming throughout the year.

As Fishtrap’s writer-in-residence this spring, I’ll spend six weeks in Joseph, with free rent at a writer’s studio and a weekly stipend that should allow me to finish my next novel (knock on wood). I’ll also spend up to eight hours a week working with kids in the Wallowa County school system, which I’m really looking forward to.

News item number two is that I have an anthology project under development in collaboration with the Portland-based university publisher Ooligan Press. The project is a collection of short fiction entitled Dispatches from Anarres: Portland Authors in Tribute to the Vision of Ursula K. Le Guin.

In my proposal for the project, I noted the following:

With the passing this year of Le Guin, a longtime resident of Portland, many local authors have come forward to share just how much her work meant to them. As a fan of Le Guin, it occurred to me that in the age of Trump, Portland, in many ways, is like Anarres, the anarchist capital of The Dispossessed—a “rebel moon” of the Left Coast, home to activists, artists, and yes, anarchists. As a person with broad connections in the local literary community, I was struck by the idea for an anthology of Portland authors, both speculative and literary, paying tribute to Le Guin’s vision in short fiction.

As well as this:

Le Guin is a giant of American letters, but her place in the canon will only be assured if we insist upon it. Le Guin herself noted in an interview that the “denigration, omission, and exception” the female writer faces during her lifetime “are preparations for her disappearance after her death.” I believe Dispatches from Anarres could be a timely, marketable anthology, and one that would help to cement the legacy of Le Guin—not only as a giant of American letters but as one of the most important writers of the Pacific Northwest.

Writers, stay tuned for the official call for submissions, which will go out around the middle of January. The deadline to submit will be April 2. =)

The Story Behind the Story: The Library of the Lost

Susan DeFUncategorizedLeave a Comment

“In the library of ancient books housed within the 16th century Spanish monastery of El Escorial, there exists a book of unknown origin—handmade, like all the rest, exquisite, like all the rest, but which, unlike the rest, is written in an unknown script.”

That’s the opening of my latest short story, “The Library of the Lost,” which was inspired by my recent trip to Spain, and to the library of ancient books housed in an ornate old monastery just outside Madrid. This library (pictured above) contains an astounding 42,000 handwritten books in various languages, representing all human knowledge (as known to the Western world) circa 1775. 

Nearly all of these books are illuminated with artwork, much of it in eye-popping cobalt blue and gilt, though the writing itself is just as astounding. For anyone who loves calligraphy, and for anyone who loves book arts, it’s an unparalleled experience to walk among shelves full of hand-bound, tooled leather books, with their edge-gilted pages turned out on the stacks, to minimize atmospheric damage to their bindings–to see Latin, Arabic, Sanskrit, and ancient Greek (and Spanish, of course) rendered in calligraphy so exquisite it could only have been the product of a lifetime of study and practice.

Here you’ll find the Ottonian Golden Gospels of Henry III (1045–46), and the only known copy of the Kitab al-I’tibar, a 12th-century Syrian autobiography, among 2,700 manuscripts dating from the 5th through the 18th century (including an illuminated 11th-century commentary on the the Book of Revelations, penned in the eighth century by the Spanish monk and theologian Beatus of Liébana).

About the frescoes that grace the ceiling of the library pictured above, the website of the historic site has this to say:

The vault is occupied by personifications of the Liberal Arts and Sciences, painted di sotto in sù and surrounded by giants. In the lunettes are representations of individuals, from antiquity onwards, who had cultivated these disciplines. Scenes on the friezes refer to the trivium [Grammar, Rhetoric, Dialectics] and quadrivium [Arithmetic, Music, Geometry, Astronomy, together representing the seven subjects of the Liberal Arts].  


My family’s roots extend into South America, and as a fan of the great Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges, I could not help but think of his short story “The Library of Babel.” In this story, Borges–who, in addition to writing fiction, served as the director of the National Library in Buenos Aries–posits a library that is vast but not infinite, and which contains books that contain every possible arrangement of twenty-nine characters: the twenty-seven letters of the alphabet, the comma, and the period.

Here at El Escorial, I’d found a library meant to encompass all of human knowledge. And, as my husband pointed out, in the countryside just beyond El Escorial lay the Valle de Caldos, the Valley of the Fallen, which plays a part in Dan Brown’s novel Origin. I thought of my grandmother Priscilla (who was, incidentally, a big fan of The Da Vinci Code), and the family rumor that she’d copied out a banned book by hand when she was a young mother in Guyana. I thought of my cousin–who lives in Madrid, and who’d taken a group of us to see El Escorial–a software architect and Dungeons & Dragons fan, who happened to have a copy of Borges’s Ficciones in his own library at home.

I thought of languages, both natural and machine; I thought of James Gleick’s book Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, which ties together, in one astounding knot, cryptography, computer programming, and DNA sequencing. I thought of my lifelong fascination with codes, and (if I’m willing to admit it) conspiracies.

I thought too of all the great libraries whose contents have been lost to us–chief among them, the library of the Maya at Chichen Itza, about which Wikipedia has this to say:

There were many books in existence at the time of the Spanish conquest of Yucatán in the 16th century; most were destroyed by the Catholic priests.[4] Many in Yucatán were ordered destroyed by Bishop Diego de Landa in July 1562.[5] In his conviction of the superiority and absolute truth of Christianity, De Landa wrote: 

We found a large number of books in these characters and, as they contained nothing in which were not to be seen as superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which…[the Mayans] regretted to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction.

To which, as an American, I have this to say: no shit, dude. 

Put all of these wild ideas together in one writer’s head, and what do you get? My fresh new short story, “The Library of the Lost,” which I’m sharing this month with my Patreon subscribers.

My Patreon subscribers are my tribe, the people who have come together to support my voice and vision in the world. Join them and receive “The Library of the Lost” in your inbox on December 31st. =)

The Story behind the Story: The Ghost Lovers Club

Susan DeFUncategorizedLeave a Comment

“Dating anywhere is difficult, but dating in a city full of seasonally affected passive-aggressive depressives like yourself is worse, especially when the gloom of the Northwest winter looms long and you are thirty-two and recently unexpectedly single and more comfortable, generally speaking, in a bookstore than you are in a bar.” So begins my latest short story, “The Ghost Lovers Club,” an epistolary romance set at Powell’s City of Books.
In grad school, I remember a teacher I was assisting tell a student that it was a mistake to start a story based on an aesthetic conception (as I recall, he was inspired by the cover of Herb Alpert’s Whipped Cream and Other Delights). She implied that the right way to start a story was with character.
It’s a standard bit of CW in CW (see what I did there?), and instinctively, I felt myself rebel. Surely the vast, various, Baroque enterprise of fiction could not be reduced to so simple a maxim. Years later, I still think so.
Years later, I’ve embraced my own starting points, which are inevitably aesthetic. In outlining my collection-in-progress, Dream Studies, I made a list of things that I like to find in my fiction, and they’re almost all aesthetic elements: games, puzzles, and secret messages. Old theaters, hand-built homes, punk flop houses. Circuses, parades, and secret societies. Mirrors, reflections, and dreams.
Epistolary romances? Definitely. And bookstores, of course.
The process of writing the story, for me, reveals whose story it is. A coherent backstory for the protagonist emerges, and what I discover about character often changes what I’ve conceived of as occurring. But for me, aesthetic comes first. I write first and foremost to inhabit a place of particular possibility, a particular moment in time.
In “The Ghost Lovers Club,” the protagonist, Ella, has recently gone through a breakup. Between the pages of a book at Powell’s, she finds a note. This note was most likely included with the book as a gift, once upon a time, but on a whim, she takes it, writes back, encloses it between the covers of the book, and puts it back on the shelf.
So begins a flirtation that may be real or may be supernatural, or may in fact be a rather odd case of catfishing. =)
I’m releasing this new story to my Patreon subscribers Oct. 31st. Want to read it? Join them!