My 2018 in Books

Doing the Work When My Brain Wouldn’t

2018 found me aphasic, trying to read, write, and pretend I was fine while my language skills unraveled. This was a side effect of the drug, Topamax, prescribed to me for migraines and epilepsy. I lost nouns, verbs, and names. Not great for a critic. I spent most of the year stymied and confused. Aphasia is a beautiful word, isn’t it? It’s also called Dysnomia; the language of losing language is cruelly euphonic. It was a long, unsure time. Thankfully, a second opinion changed my diagnosis and allowed me to quit the drug. But for most of this year, reading was abnormal and laborious.

The number of books I’ll finish in 2018 is only in the 30s. These were hard-fought reads, hours when I stared at pages and couldn’t retain ideas. So many times I cried in front of my computer because I couldn’t keep a thought long enough to write it. There are many rote aspects of being a critic, such as how I organize my time or how I like to approach the process of starting a review. But there’s a bit of magic, too, something that even I don’t fully understand. It involves my ability to quarter feelings, hunches, and ideas in my mind until they emerge as sentences. On Topamax, that magic evaporated, and until it returned it was hard to sustain a reading life.

Early in 2018, Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep helped me figure out that I needed to prioritize my health. Another book that contributed to my peace was Leslie Jamison’s addiction and recovery memoir, The Recovering. My feelings about the book are complicated, but it stuck with me. I couldn’t stop thinking about the author’s aversion to AA, or more generally, with groups that come together to use ceremony and repetition to help process individual challenges. This was probably because I recognized in it something of my own pride. That bit of sand stuck in my shell and transformed: a month after I read it, I found my way back to church. I’d been feeling lonely, purposeless, and disconnected from the problems in my city. My life has improved as a member of a progressive, loving faith community committed to social justice, and in an odd way, I owe that to The Recovering.

I reviewed many great books this year, and so many of them seem to be underscored by urgency. Leni Zumas’ sharp apocalyptic novel, Red Clocks, Curtis Sittenfeld’s short story collection, You Think It, I’ll Say It, and Jonathan Lethem’s The Feral Detective demonstrate how the uncertainty of our time informs art. As a critic, I read books that I never would have chosen for myself: I liked Tatjana Soli’s novel about General Custer and his wife, The Removes, Suzanne Matson’s generational tale, Ultraviolet, Blair Hurley’s novel about obsession, The Devoted, and the bizarre but charming Famous Adopted People by Alice Stephens. I savored Diane Setterfield’s Once Upon a River, which cloaks itself in the language of fantasy but is grounded in 19th-century scientific discoveries.

This year my favorite read was Charles Portis’ 1968 western, True Grit. My 15-year-old daughter recommended it, and it doubled my enjoyment to share its keen language and singular protagonist with her. I read two books that drew on classic literary material: Katherine J. Chen’s take on Lizzy Bennet’s plain sister, Mary B., and the book that bowled me over, The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley. Beowulf is my jam, and this sly, gossipy and suburban retelling ticked every box of my wish list. Since it was a hard year, I searched out comfort reading: Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered, and Lethal White by Robert Galbraith, aka J.K. Rowling. Her Cormoran Strike series is decidedly entertaining without a hint of pretentiousness. I enjoyed it so much that I immediately went back to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, which I haven’t read since the early aughts. Megan Stielestra’s The Wrong Way to Save Your Life made me feel better about being a person. In Calypso, I wanted David Sedaris to write less about lipomas, but damned if he doesn’t make me laugh.

My favorite new book was There There, the much-lauded debut novel by Tommy Orange, which I followed up with the unnerving memoir, Heart Berries, by Terese Marie Mailhot. I marveled at Lydia Kiesling’s ability in The Golden State to accurately write the simultaneous dread and joy of motherhood. Jon Meacham soothed my panicky news-feed-scrolling id with his book, The Soul of America, and David Ulin’s reissue of The Lost Art of Reading reminded me that reading is an act of resistance in a world that wants us to stay illiterate and dumb.

This year will really be about one colossal read, though: Laurence Sterne’s 18th-century novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. I like to say that Tristram Shandy ate my summer since the 700-page tome was pretty much the only thing I read for two sunny months in my hammock. Sterne’s work was an exercise in concentration, both a microcosm of my struggles tracking stories and an ever-moving focal point. Shandy was ahead of its time — it’s bawdy and smart and filled with weird, almost postmodern observation. Sterne folds digression into digression like a pastry chef layering butter. Though the text purports to be about Shandy, himself, it is about nearly every possible other thing. I followed slowly, but willingly, wherever the author wanted to take me, delighting in the notion that narrative is worth twisting and rejecting, even as I labored to retain a through line in my own life.

Reading isn’t always easy, or pleasant. That doesn’t make it any less rewarding. 2018 was about the work.