the books of 2018

When my children were little, I would very publicly “give up” something for a whole year. It was mostly a way to show them that they could control their appetites, but it was also a challenge to myself. One year I gave up pizza, which was grievous to them since that meant fewer deliveries to the door. (Don’t worry, they got all the pizza they wanted.) One year it was chocolate, which is harder to do than you might think since it is an ingredient in so many things. One year I gave up beer, which led to a slightly embarrassing misunderstanding. My daughter, who is always paying attention, wrote in a school assignment about her dad being “off” beer, and her teacher then wrote encouragingly in the margin about the happiness of “recovery.”

And one year I vowed to read an average of one book a week. Some might take longer than a week, some less time, but the goal was, on average, one a week. I managed to do it — reading 61 books that year — but it was an obsessive chore. I was literally racing through the last pages of a book at around 11:00 p.m. on New Year’s Eve to get one more to add to my count. My next vow: never make that vow again.

I’ve begun seeing posts in blogs I visit about the books read in 2018. Like this one. I remember writing a post once that listed the highlights of the books I had read one year, but I don’t think I’ve ever given a comprehensive list. So at the risk of further embarrassing misunderstandings (or some prosecuting attorney someday presenting this list and saying “This explains everything, Your Honor!”) here are the books I read in 2018:

  • How to Look at a Painting by Francoise Barbe-Gall – Nonfiction from the library. I thought it might help with the development of a story I still haven’t begun.
  • The Storied Life of A.J. Firky by Gabrielle Zevin – I see this book everywhere, but I didn’t see what the fuss is about. Set more or less in a bookstore, and in this case books and reading really do have an important role in the story.
  • Everyman by Philip Roth – My second time through. Roth was well into his “angry old man” subject by this novel. I thought it might give me some insight for a character of mine who is not angry but is old.
  • The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine – I never wanted this (long) novel to end. A kind of retelling of the Arabian Nights with lots of contemporary international doings as well as a fractious father/son relationship.
  • Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls – I grabbed this one because it is pretty much the same story as the movie The Shape of Water, though it predates that movie by decades. Some have called this the best novel ever written. It had its points, but no such high praise from me.
  • Fishbowl by Bradley Somer – It looked interesting at the used bookstore. Pretty much the series of things happening/culminating simultaneously in a high-rise apartment building during the time it takes a goldfish to fall from an upper floor to the pavement far below. I won’t tell you whether or not the goldfish survives.
  • F. A Novel by Daniel Kehlmann – Three related stories that discuss art, obligation, and, of course, fatherhood. Picked almost randomly from the shelves at my local library.
  • Kate Vaiden by Reynolds Price – Old-school fiction by a master that I haven’t read enuf. Also from the library, so I was evidently feeling virtuous at the time.
  • The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick – Another one I see everywhere, and it had its charms, but the premise just got too incredible to accept as the story progressed.
  • H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald – Another rare work of nonfiction for me. Everyone praised this, and I can see why, but it never grabbed me.
  • House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday – Long on my list of must-be-read books, but I found it confusing and maybe a little dated even. Checked off the list, but I don’t think I’ll ever return to it.
  • Dangling Man by Saul Bellow – Another one from my list of must-be-read (and from the library) that was underwhelming in the end. I think my Bellow period ended some years ago.
  • Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf – My second time through with this one, and I really enjoyed it. Woolf can be challenging, but there is so much treasure here.
  • Stray City by Chelsey Johnson – I actually wrote about this here.
  • Dirty Kids by Chris Urquhart – More library nonfiction, about a subculture of modern vagabonds and how they cope. Some are gypsy-types, some are druggies, some are larking college kids, some are flat-out homeless people. And they’re all dirty.
  • I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson – A he said/he said young adult novel about two brothers, but it didn’t resonate for me. Not sure how I got this one wrong. It’s actually about a twin brother and sister and a he said/she said telling of the tale.
  • Lean on Pete by Willy Vlautin – My introduction to “grit lit” and a place I plan to spend a lot of time in. In a way, it’s Huckleberry Finn for the modern age. I intend to read all of Vlautin’s work. This was also made into a very good movie.
  • The Red and the Green by Iris Murdoch – My second visit with this as I march through the entire Murdoch canon once again. Her story of the Irish rebellion, with characters who typically think and talk too much.
  • The Stories of Breece by D’J Pancake – Further explorations into grit lit. His surname actually was Pancake, but the D’J part was the result of a typo in The Atlantic, and he liked it so much he adopted it.
  • Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew Sullivan – I have a weak spot in my heart for stories set in bookstores, but most disappoint me because the bookstore part is usually only a launching point for stories going on elsewhere that often don’t have a lot to do with books. This one wasn’t that bad, but I was still disappointed.
  • The Hours by Michael Cunningham – Excellent! Wonderful! Superlatives galore! First read Mrs. Dalloway, then read this immediately after, then see the movie made of this. No wonder he won the Pulitzer for it!
  • Hero by Perry Moore – Another young-adult novel, this time about some truly odd superheroes, one of whom is a teen who is also gay and having trouble with that. Obvious in many ways.
  • Talking to Ourselves by Andres Neuman – I kept seeing this sitting forlornly at the used bookstore so I finally bought it. A father and son story about a road trip in a big rig. It builds and builds. And then it delivers.
  • Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg – I grabbed it as something to read on an airplane and found myself hooked. It was shortlisted for the Pulitzer, and I can see why, but the premise got too hard for me to sustain.
  • A Stone Boat by Andrew Solomon – Solomon is noted for his writing and speaking about clinical depression, but this book is his one foray into fiction. Privileged people also have troubled lives and deep loves, but should he ever write more fiction, I doubt I’ll pick it up. (Note: I walked three miles in Brooklyn to get to the bookstore where I bought this and then three miles back to my daughter’s house.)
  • Don’t Skip Out on Me by Willy Vlautin – More by the master of grit lit. About a young boxer who should have just stayed where he was thriving. Heartbreaking, even for those of us with black and shriveled hearts.
  • Desert Boys by Chris McCormick – Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, and McCormick gives the stories of three boyhood friends who do the same. Well done, but I’m not sure I’d read it again.
  • The Days of Anna Madrigal by Armistead Maupin – The life and loves of an early MTF transgender person, culminating at Burning Man (where I imagine at lot of those Dirty Kids were). Not my thing but well regarded.
  • Less by Andrew Sean Greer – Last year’s Pulitzer winner. I was not impressed until it all started adding up near the end. A good, short read.
  • The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George – I should have read the title more literally. There is little bookshop and even less Paris in this novel. It seems mostly someone’s idea of how undying love ought to be enacted in a kind of road trip by a cloyingly decent man.
  • Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko – My third time through. First was for a book group years ago. Second so I could write my son’s term paper for him. (“I’m so busy, Dad!”) And this time for me, as antidote to House Made of Dawn. Well done and worth a fourth visit.
  • Suddenly, A Knock on the Door by Etgar Keret – A collection of short stories, many absolutely absurd, by an Israeli writer. It was part of my semi-ongoing effort to broaden my reading horizons, but this was tough going for me, and I don’t think I’ll read anything else by him.
  • Where the Marshland Came to Flower by Peter Anderson – Short stories set in and evoking different parts of Chicago. I’d read his novel Wheatyard a couple of years ago and liked it. This too.
  • The Green Pen by Eloy Moreno – Not at all what I was expecting, and I mean that in a good way. An office worker is missing his green pen and sets out to learn who took it. Lives are destroyed, secrets are revealed, and penance is made. Not available in print in English, so I read this on my wife’s tablet. (Still much prefer paper and ink.)
  • Triptych on Sea and Land by Alvaro Mutis – I’ve been reading and re-reading Mutis for years. This was my third time through this final novella in his series about his modern-day Quixote character Maqroll the Gaviero. Probably not for everyone, but certainly for me!
  • Summerland by Michael Chabon – Delightful! Supposedly a young-adult novel, but it delivered for me. A cross between American Gods and Field of Dreams. Give it to any curious and clever young person (after you’ve finished it yourself).
  • The Last Child by John Hart – Another airport bookstore grab for a long plane ride. A thriller, which isn’t my thing, but it was gripping, with a good (and grisly) payoff.
  • By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham – Doings in the New York art world by a good man who succumbs to temptation. Every word is golden.
  • The Time of the Angels by Iris Murdoch – Next in my Murdoch march. About an Anglican priest without a church (or faith), his daughter, her cousin, and various people trying to make sense of their lives. Definitely not the best place to start with Murdoch.
  • As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner – My fourth time reading this and my attempt to prove to myself that I can finish a Faulkner novel. (Absalom, Absalom still resides unfinished on my shelf.) I find something new in this novel every time. The movie by James Franco is well regarded and I thought a good adaptation of an impossible-to-film story.
  • Darke by Rick Gekoski – Another used bookstore find that I thought was about a recluse. It kind of peters out, but I was amazed by the parallels between this and Murdoch’s novel The Time of the Angels. So much that I’m certain Gekoski had read that novel first.
  • Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner – I only picked up this short novel because she won the Booker Prize for it. I’m glad I did. Slow to start, with some characters I had difficulty finding empathy for, this did not disappoint by the end, and I’m glad I read it.
  • The Red Pony by John Steinbeck – I read this in 7th grade, and it stayed with me so much that I had to come back to it decades later. Your template Steinbeck stuff, and probably more suited to a curious and clever 7th grader.
  • Castle by J. Robert Lennon – Another thriller (I was interested in the recluse aspect) that kept getting more and more incredible until I just wanted to be done with it.
  • The Dream Life by Bo Huston – Striving to be a male Lolita about a man who abducts a boy who soon outgrows his abductor. I didn’t feel sorry for any of the characters.
  • The Motel Life by Willy Vlautin – Again with the grit lit. This time about two brothers who just don’t get a break (mostly because they make really stupid choices). This was made into a movie, but I haven’t seen it (yet).
  • Burning Down George Orwell’s House by Andrew Ervin – Yes, George Orwell’s house does figure in the story, but the burning reference is so oblique that I think the title was just a gimmick to lure in readers. Too many colorful Scottish characters and a resolution that is just too “appropriate.” Also, a werewolf.
  • Death in Venice by Thomas Mann – I read this because it was referenced several times in The Dream Life. Mann can be turgid reading, but it was a short novel. Checked off the list. (Also, virtuously borrowed from the public library.)
  • Empire Falls by Richard Russo – A new love. Russo writes credible characters in credible messes, and he creates some lovely sentences as he does so. A huge tonal shift at the end, and some subplot resolutions that were maybe too pat, but what a ride! I intend to read more of Russo. Also, the HBO miniseries made from the novel was faithful and well done and packed with acting royalty, but if I’d seen it first, I probably wouldn’t have felt compelled to pick up the novel.
  • The Blue Ice by Hammond Innes – I recently wrote about this here.
  • The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer – Highly praised and award winning with a fresh voice, this novel is about a young schizophrenic and his attempts to deal with the death of his brother (whom he may have killed). Probably the best of its kind, but not a subject I find an interest in reading more of.

I’ll leave it to you to do a body count. I don’t care to know.

Right now I’m reading a nonfiction work called The Return by Hisham Matar about an Libyan exile who returns to learn what became of his father. (I don’t know yet.) It was a gift under the tree in 2018 and will be the first completed book on my list for 2019.

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