Well, it’s a wrap on 2018 in books.
I read, or at least started, 38 books this year – some memorable, some less so. Most of the books in my reading pile, the ones stacked up on my bedside table in anticipation, I never got to. Among the books on this list are several selections I read for my book club and others I chose based on recommendations from friends and reviews in the paper. But most of the titles on this list fell into my hands through serendipity.
There were books that caught my eye in the library, where I’d gone to check out something else. A few were afterthoughts, casually chosen at the library book sale on my way out the door. Some came through an ongoing book exchange with friends, while others were loans or gifts they generously dropped off while I was recovering from surgery.
As you can see, my list is a bit of a jumble without much of a connecting thread. But my 2018 reading, as reading has always done, gave me hours of comfort, joy, insight into the human experience, the chance to armchair travel back in time and around the globe, a window of escape from reality (and certainly the news), and the opportunity to expand my heart and mind. I’ll take it every single time.
2018 was also a wonderful year for reading accessories. A friend with an eagle eye for treasures found a beautiful silver bookmark for me at an estate sale. Another gave me a Pride and Prejudice tote bag I take with me everywhere. The mug in the picture is an old favorite from a kindred spirit. We readers know a good thing when we see it.
My favorite books of the year were Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, George Saunders’ Lincoln on the Bardo, Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, and Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah and Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago were the most powerful. Jennifer Lawson’s Let’s Pretend This Never Happened made me laugh and laugh, and I really needed that this year.
My 2019 reading is underway with Lisa Halliday’s Assymetry. I’m curious to see what all the fuss is about. Next I’ll dive into five Holocaust-related titles, Elizabeth Berg’s The Art of Mending and Anne Tyler’s Clock Dance. Then I’ll see where life takes things from there.
Please tell me what you’re reading in the comments.
Wishing you all health and happiness and plenty of time to curl up with a good book in 2019.
Here’s what I read:
#1 Spring and All – William Carlos Williams
I love Williams – his poetry and his sensibility.
#2 Nevermore – Laird Hunt
I found this historical novel – about a woman who disguises herself as a man in order to fight in the Civil War – quick-paced and enjoyable, its characters intriguing.
#3 Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie I loved every beautifully written word of this novel about race in America.
#4 Forest Dark – Nicole Kraus
I was so eager to read this and did so with the intensity Kraus’ fiction requires. But the story didn’t stick to my heart the way her other books have.
#5 Lincoln on the Bardo – George Saunders
It took time to adjust to this unconventional novel about the battle for Willie Lincoln’s soul on the day of his death, but it was well worth it. And then a friend and I had the chance to hear Saunders at a book talk soon after. He’s a fantastic speaker if you ever have the opportunity.
#6 The Man Who Fell into a Puddle: Israeli Lives – Igal Sarna
The clever title got me to pull this book off the library shelf. But I couldn’t get into these real-life stories written by an Israeli journalist, as much as I wanted to.
#7 Let’s Pretend This Never Happened – Jennifer Lawson
A well-written, “mostly true” memoir, this book is laugh-out-loud funny, but also tender and thoughtful, and not for all audiences (colorful language).
#8 Pachinko – Min Jin Lee I enjoyed and learned a lot from this immensely popular, epic historical novel about a Korean family that emigrates to Japan, but didn’t get as emotionally swept up in it as I expected to.
#9 My Mother’s Son – David Hirshberg Set in post-World War II Boston, this novel about two Jewish brothers who uncover an array of family truths spans decades. And yet, there’s a rare moment of family conflict, which is something I’d like to talk to the author about one day. I’m grateful to Fig Tree Books for sending me a copy.
#10 All Over the Place – Geraldine DeRuiter
Irreverent and at moments touching, this memoir recounts DeRuiter’s travels around the globe after losing her job. I laughed out loud often, though again, not for all audiences.
#11 We Should All Be Feminists – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Adapted from her TED talk, this tiny book is heartfelt, not strident, and it’s worth the 15 minutes it will take you to read.
#12 The Man Who Never Stopped Sleeping – Aharon Appelfeld
Appelfeld’s writing is always masterful and raw and leaves a hole in your heart, but so much so in this story about a young Holocaust survivor who begins his life anew on a kibbutz.
#13 The Graveyard Book – Neil Gailman
Wonderful and quirky, this is one of the best novels about parenting and letting your kids become who they are I’ve ever read. Listen to Gailman’s stunning Newberry Medal acceptance speech on parenting and loving books.
#14 Wonder – R.J. Palacio
This book was everything the hype promised. And yes, I cried at the end. Well, that’s not true. I cried on almost every page.
#15 When the World Was Young – Elizabeth Gaffney
It took me three tries to get into this coming-of-age story set in Brooklyn during World War II. The novel explores race, identity, and personal destiny, and features a string of engaging female characters. Local friends: One of the characters is a Jewish math professor at Rutgers in the 1940s.
#16 Bodies and Souls – Isabel Vincent
A true story about the tragic plight of impoverished European Jewish women forced into prostitution in the Americas beginning in the late 1800s. A hard read.
#17 The Choice – Dr. Edith Eva Eger
A memoir about Eger’s survival in Auschwitz and how she learned to heal herself by healing others as a therapist.
#18 Ms. Marvel/ No Normal -Wilson Alphona
A friend gave me Volume I in this series, a short book-length comic about a young American Muslim of Pakistani origin who discovers that her heroic powers lie in being true to herself.
#19 Winter’s Bone – Daniel Woodrell
A heart-wrenching, poetic novel about a young woman who must learn to fend for herself under dire conditions in the Ozarks.
#20 A Guide to the Birds of East Africa– Nicholas Drayson
I bought this novel at the library book sale because of the lovely bird illustrations throughout, but I enjoyed the sweet love story about retiree bird watchers, too.
#21 Garlic and Sapphires -Ruth Reichl
Reichl’s memoir about her career as the New York Times restaurant critic. I was intrigued at first, but soon found myself skimming my way to the end.
#22 An Encyclopedia of a Meaningful Life – Amy Krouse Rosenthal
An alphabetical memoir that conveys the accumulated experiences of a lifetime. I loved this book. It’s poignant and funny. She was a wise and gifted writer.
#23 Commonwealth – Ann Patchett
I read this beautifully written, heartbreaking family sage in one sitting. Patchett has become a favorite.
#24 Yarn Harlot: The Secret Life of a Knitter – Stephanie Pearl McPhee
I prefer crocheting to knitting, but I related completely to McPhee’s obsession with wool and yarn crafting. Plus, she’s funny.
#25 This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage – Ann Patchett
I loved everything in this collection except the final essay. Also, this book will make you want to visit Patchett’s bookstore in Nashville.
#26 Homecoming – Yaa Gyasi
This novel weaves across generations and continents to explore fate and the legacy of slavery. Gyasi writes beautifully, though the book reads more like a collection of interconnected stories than a novel and I found myself losing track at times.
#27 Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder – Caroline Fraser
I was so looking forward to reading this, but could not make my way through more than 85 pages of it. It is too laden with detail.
#28 As Close to Us as Breathing – Elizabeth Poliner I enjoyed this novel, a multi-generational Jewish family saga and the ongoing reverberations of a tragedy it endures one summer.
#29 The Little Red Chairs – Edna O’Brien
Goodness, this was a hard book to read, a violent, painful, heartbreaking story about a woman who has to pick up the pieces after experiencing the most devastating kind of betrayal and loss.
#30 The Book of Psalms
Though I recite Psalms in Hebrew all the time, this was the first time I read it straight through in English. Meaningful exercise, though the poetic, musical quality to the language gets lost in translation.
#31 Write Your Way In – Rachel Toor
Excellent college admission essay advice, but also good writing advice.
#32 Dr. Zhivago – Boris Pasternak
I can’t believe took me decades to finally read this sweeping Russian epic that suffered a complicated path to publication. Pasternak won the Nobel Prize for Literature one year later, but he did not make it to Oslo to accept. Read more about how Pasternak won and lost the Nobel.
#33 The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures – David E. Fishman The unbelievable story of Vilna Ghetto residents who rescued valuable manuscripts and artifacts from the Nazis and later the Soviets.
#34 The Line – Olga Grushin
I found Grushin’s use of the queue as a metaphor for the challenges of Soviet life poignant, sometimes deflating. Though I found myself confused occasionally when the book switches from the narrator’s voice to someone else’s thoughts/memories in mid-chapter, I really liked this book.
#35 Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life – Pat Conroy
A collection of the late author’s speeches and blog posts. Some lovely messages, but I haven’t read much of his fiction and I felt left out as a result.
#36 The Last Convertible – Anton Myrer
A nostalgic, sentimental story about a circle of friends at Harvard on the eve of Pearl Harbor – their friendships, romances, war-time experiences, careers, and lives.
#37 The Velveteen Rabbit – Margery Williams
Not sure what compelled me to reread this children’s story about a stuffed rabbit that becomes real, but I’m glad I did. It’s a great lesson for everyone who is getting older, which is all of us.
#38 The Alice Network – Kate Quinn
This was a good book to end the year with – a historical novel about a female spy and an American socialite who give a French war profiteer his comeuppance. The Alice Network was, in fact, a network of spies in France during World War I.
In addition to the books listed above, I read two short pieces that were meaningful and I want to mention them here.
The first is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” – a remarkable piece of persuasive writing. His use of language and the way he infuses words with power deserves reading.
And lastly, E.L. Doctorow’s short story, “The Writer in the Family,” which packs a full-scale novel’s worth of family conflict into a 11 pages. Wow.
It was a good year!