2018 Year in Review — The Books I Read
Something to keep in mind: I don’t write my commentary on the books, movies, and plays I’ve seen until the day I post the lists. I forget a lot and sometimes — in the case of the Grace Paley book below — I don’t rememeber a single thing.
But as I finish each book, I give it a rating out of ten. Sometimes I’ll shift a rating based on things such as ‘not remembering a single thing about the book,’ but mostly I trust my past conclusions.
The comments attached are my impressions of why I did or did not like the piece, what I learned from it, or where I was in my life when I read it.
I’m sorry Ms. Paley but I am for real.
Here’s all the books I read in 2018, in the order I liked them, from least to most.
37. Travelling Mercies, a memoir by Anne Lamott — 3/10
Anne Lamott is every boring relative making TMI facebook posts prefaced with “I don’t usually post about these kinds of things but…”. She’s every new mother instagramming about how much she wants to kiss her brilliant, gifted son on the lips. She was a drug addict and now she’s Christian and she’s super honest about how flawed she is and her writing is whining personified.
36. Sweat, a play by Lynn Nottage — 3/10
It can be difficult to judge a play based on its script alone. Plays are meant to be seen. In 2017, Sweat won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. I haven’t seen the show, I’ve only read the play.
Politics has an important place in the Theatre and this piece is primarily political in its representation of a blue collar town and the relationships and troubles of its denizens. But there’s very little to Sweat that goes beyond its politics. It might be my socioeconomic-privilege showing when I say that I found the characters hard to relate to, but you also need to know your audience. A story about blue collar people and issues that takes the theatre as its medium has a responsibility to reveal the similiarities of The Other to its audience. Otherwise, what’s the point? Sweat doesn’t really have anything to offer beyond its tag as a political piece.
35. Leaning Forward, poetry by Grace Paley — 5/10
I thought I’d at least be able to glean something from the cover but, nope, it’s like I never even read it.
34. The Tightrope Dancer, poetry by Irving Layton — 5/10
33. Averno, poetry by Louise Gluck — 5/10
32. Ninety-Nine Stories of God by Joy Williams — 5.25/10
This is literally ninety-nine, mostly one page long, stories on the subject of just about anything. I think its arbitrariness is its intention.
31. Metaphysical Dog, poems by Frank Bidart — 5.25/10
30. Tom at the Farm, a play by Michel Marc Bouchard — 5.5/10
29. Hir, a play by Taylor Mac — 6/10
28. Gilead, a novel by Marilynne Robinson — 6.25/10
So, it’s the 1950s and this old pastor in a tiny town in Iowa is dying of a heart-condition. He’s got a seven year old son and he decides to write a letter to him telling the kid his life story. He’s a moral man and he’s got a lot to teach and he’s jealous and afraid that his wife will end up in a relationship with his best friend’s schemer of a son.
27. Find You in the Dark, a novel by Nathan Ripley — 6/10
My friend wrote this book. It turns the genre of airport-bookstore thrillers on its head, shifting cliches and subverting readers’ expectations. I don’t really read those kinds of books but I like that the detective-ish main character is a dad and still married and has this normal home life on the other side of digging up old graves and finding lost bodies.
26. I’ll be Gone in the Dark, nonfiction by Michelle McNamara — 6.25/10
I went into this one with a great deal of hype and found the book didn’t totally live up to its fanfare. Contextually, McNamara passed away before the book was completed, editors and friends worked doggedly to finish the text from her notes. The most interesting thing about the book is McNamara’s own story, her obsession with crime investigation and the memoir that fills in the gaps between the hunt for the Golden State Killer. Her widow, Patton Oswalt, completes the book with an afterword that made me cry on a city bus.
25. Great Tranquillity: Questions and Answers, poems by Yehuda Amichai — 6.5/10
Amichai was a new discovery to me, via Tony Hoagland’s book on poems that every high school should have in their curriculum and, while I didn’t love this particular book of his, I’m still in search of the right Amichai collection.
24. The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard — 6.5/10
For all its grandiosity, there are some amazing things to glean from Bachelard’s seminal treatise. He speaks more about poetics than he does about space, focussing on ‘The Image’ and how it requires no scholarship.
“It is my endeavor to multiply all the dialectical shadings by which the imagination confers life upon the simplest images…”
Yet the book is so sufferingly scholastic that almost zero percent of my book club could finish, or even enjoy, a fraction of it. And these are people in a club for reading!
Because I pitched the book, I felt compelled to finish it and was rewarded with some seriously interesting ideas:
- “…in poetic reverie the soul keeps watch, with no tension, calmed and active.” A good poem achieves a trance like state, with its reader ready to receive on an unconscious level.
- “The values that belong to daydreaming mark humanity in its depths… (Daydreaming) derives direct pleasure from its own being.”
- “…real images are engravings.”
- “Great images have both a history and a prehistory; they are always a blend of memory and legend… every great image has an unfathomable oneiric depth to which the personal past adds special color.”
- “Everything comes alive when contradictions accumulate.”
- “There will always be more things in a closed, than in an open, box.”
- “For a painter, it is probably twice as interesting if, while painting a nest, he dreams of a cottage and, while painting a cottage, he dreams of a nest.”
- “The surest sign of wonder is exaggeration.”
- “…When we describe a daydream objectively this diminishes and interupts it… In the presence of an image that dreams, it must be taken as an invitation to continue the daydream that created it.”
- “Detail increases an object’s stature.” Bachelard speaks of the poet miniaturizing himself down to less than the size of a dandelion in order to describe it from below, its stamens as buckets, the detail of the leaves’ attachements to their stem.
- The immensity of elsewhere. When we daydream, we go someplace different than here and now. And in that opposite place, exists the potential for infinity. Daydreaming invites immensity into our lives.
- The world is round and “everything round invites a caress.”
But for all this, the book is an absolute pain in the ass to read.
It’s truths are hidden amid a labyrinth of heady adjectives and convoluted prose. Bachelard himself, in the intro, takes it for granted that every book should be read at least twice to even begin an approach to comprehension. Ahhhh ya, I don’t got time for that.
23. Source, poems by Mark Doty — 6.5/10
22. Dog Songs, poems by Mary Oliver — 6.75/10
A book of poetry about the dogs Mary Oliver knows.
21. White is for Witching, a novel by Helen Oyememi — 6.75/10
I find it hard to get scared while I’m reading but White is for Witching has some genuine frights. The book features multiple storytellers in its narrative and it gives you the license to figure out who’s speaking as you go. This produces some serious satisfaction as you discover that the storyteller is not always who you expect.
20. The Grip of It, a novel by Jac Jemc — 6.75/10
Keeping in the theme of haunted house stories, Jemc’s novel deteriorates along with its narrators. She explores the sweetness and allure of becoming obsessed, or even possessed, by malevolent supernatural presences. Me likey.
19. Love and Fame, poetry by John Berryman — 7/10
A surprisingly linear autobiography in verse, Berryman wrote Love and Fame a year before jumping off a bridge and ending his life. His evolution as a man and a poet is seen through his schooling in America; his schooling in Europe; his time falling in love; his time in an asylum; and his conversion to Christianity. The ‘Eleven Addresses to the Lord’ at the end of the book have particular poignance as the sincere prayers of a drunken, depressed father who is seeking something, anything, worth carrying on for.
18. A Thousand Mornings, poems by Mary Oliver — 7.25/10
Why I Wake Early is still my favourite Mary Oliver book.
17. A Canticle for Liebowitz, a novel by Walter M. Miller, Jr. — 7.25/10
The first ever post-apocalyptic novel starts off boring but quickly builds its world so believably that you’re whisked away into the simplicity of a monastery trying to move forward after a nuclear near-apocalypse. As the first of three sections draws to a close there is as satisfying a revelation as I’ve had reading in a long time. Moving technologically beyond where we’re currently at, the third section falls a bit flat.
16. Self-Help, short stories by Lorrie Moore — 7.25/10
15. Bluets, a poetic memoir by Maggie Nelson — 7.5/10
Written in epigrams, Nelson flits along the consciousness of a break-up, eventually building toward a heart-rending conclusion that gives way to releasing catharsis.
14. School for the Arts, poems by Mark Doty — 7.5/10
13. Tumble Home— 7.75/10
12. At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom — 8/10
11. Reasons to Live — 8.25/10, short stories by Amy Hempel
Sitting in a car, on tour with a children’s theatre show, driving back from the Laxgalt’stap reserve in Northern BC, Tumble Home authentically moved me. Moore’s short stories are elusive and difficult to pin down. But the poetry, the impact of her images, hit hard and without padding.
10. By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, a novel of prose poetry by Elizabeth Smart— 8.25/10
Smart uses language phenomenally, she bends syntax and prose for her own ends and in ways no way ever had before.
9. Sweet Machine, poems by Mark Doty — 8.5/10
My favourite collection so far of Mark Doty’s poems, he writes from his own place of experience, he doesn’t dazzle you with anything too difficult to understand, he simply percieves — originally and authentically — what it is to be alive in the way that he is alive: with the memories of a lover taken by the AIDS crisis; the perspective of moving onto a new life partner; the attention paid to the places he lives and the items he loves.
8. Life is Short, Art is Shorter, a short story anthology by David Shields and Elizabeth Cooperman — 8.5/10
Complete with chapter by chapter analytical breakdowns from Shields and Cooperman, this anthology emphasizes brevity and abstraction — the magic trick of hiding authentic confession within as few direct lines as possible. Every story is worth reading, a statement not many anthologies are worthy of.
7. American Tabloid, a novel by James Ellroy — 8.5/10
A creative accounting of espionage and intrigue that led to the assassination of JFK, Ellroy makes characters that you hate but that you identify with and care about and love in a very real way. I don’t know how much of American Tabloid is real but Ellroy’s attention to detail, his addiction to cause and effect, make the entire story seemingly real. It’s an interesting time to read it, with the world’s obsession with conspiracy theories and the opposite phenomenon of ‘Fake News.’
6. Dog Years, a memoir by Mark Doty — 8.75/10
Read above on Sweet Machine but add to the end: “…and the dogs he’s owned” (or rather the dogs he’s lived with or, even better, the dogs who’ve owned him.)
5. The Beauty of the Husband, a fictional essay in 29 tangos by Anne Carson — 8.75/10
I don’t really know what to write about this except that I related in all the wrong ways — which is even more crushing. To see yourself in the antagonist can be so much more powerful than aligning with the storyteller.
4. My Best Friend’s Exorcism, a novel by Grady Hendrix — 8.75/10
A young-adult novel featuring the coming of age of a young girl, coupled with the possession of her best friend. Hendrix’ novel is surprising at every turn. I couldn’t put it down. I laughed out loud. I was truly scared. The Stranger Things nostalgia-porn of it all can be heavy-handed but eventually you realize Hendrix is aware of it, he’s just having too much fun to stop.
3. The Cartel, a novel by Don Winslow — 9/10
In the same vein as American Tabloid, Winslow’s story is an alternate legend of El Chapo’s rise and fall, an extended explanation for the War on Drugs and its anti-heroes and villains. Enormously entertaining, edge of your seat, and educational all rolled into one. Anybody could read this book. Everybody should.
2. For the Time Being, an extended lyric essay by Annie Dillard — 9.25/10
Annie Dillard simply tells you the facts of the world; geographical, historical, ontological. She uses ten headings per chapter (birth, sand, china, clouds, numbers, Israel, encounters, “thinker,” evil, and “now.”) and ties these disparate things together acutely and with genius articulation. She takes the facts behind sand — how it accumlates in all low places where the wind has swept — and relates them to her own discovery of a photographic book of birth defects. What? I know. Just check it out.
- Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, a lyric essay by Mark Doty — 10/10
I find the books I like most are the ones that give me ammunition for conversation. Doty’s essay is also a memoir that surrounds itself in meditation on the wonder and purpose of still-life paintings. I never liked still-lives until I read this book and discovered what they’re really about: a tangible world, the materials we anchor ourselves in, the act of items in use frozen without context or character. Like the the best poetry, hanging resplendent before you, all the things in life that make it worth living, the oyster, the half eaten cake, the sliced lemon — these things exist in time, just like us. They decompose, but caught in the painting, they last forever, or at least as long as the chemical compounds of the paint — the strangeness and singularity of things and selves.
Books, man. They’re good.