Top ten reads of 2018

Here’s my list of top reads this year to add to all the other lists that make December merry and bright.

I should explain my criteria. I didn’t pick just for writing excellence and style, though if I’d done so the list would be much longer and include the following: recent titles The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner (women in prison, brisk and sympathetic); Giller winner Washington Black by Esi Edugyan (the meaning of freedom from a slaveboy’s perspective, amazing descriptions); The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker (events of the Iliad from a female perspective, timely); and reaching way back to 2000, (finally) True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey (the voice and images! — “When our brave parents was ripped from Ireland like teeth from the mouth of their own history…” for e.g.); and (also finally) back to 2009 and February by Lisa Moore (grief set in the wake of the Ocean Ranger disaster, powerful writing).

Rather, I’ve selected 10 books that resonated in a more personal way, that left as it were some significant residue inside. Some showed up in earlier posts; I’ve linked to these for more. In no particular order, then:

All Things Consoled (2018) by Elizabeth Hay. Because I too was bound into the decline of my elderly parents.

download (7)Becoming (2018) by Michelle Obama. I don’t know if it’s the trajectory of her life from Chicago’s South Side to the White House or her honest and passionate way of speaking or the brave self-awareness that opens towards growth – to “becoming” – or the current political situation which feels so different, or all of the above, but I was deeply moved by this book. To the point of tears at times. Moved and inspired to keep on becoming myself and making the world better where I can.

411agi+lAEL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Motherhood (2018) by Sheila Heti. Like some reviewers, I found this Giller-shortlisted “autofiction” odd and self-indulgent at first. It doesn’t have much of a plot; the narrator records, from this angle and that, her struggle whether to have a child. But, like the even more obsessive Karl Ove Knausgaard’s work, it was strangely compelling (though I refuse to give Knausgaard more than one book’s worth of space in my head) so I persevered and was rewarded in the end with intense probing of an important question, regardless of what decision is made, and then both movement and readerly satisfaction as the theme faces the narrator’s own mother. Perhaps this read also lingers with me because Heti uses the Genesis story of Jacob wrestling with the angel and I happened to be reading, at the same time, The Angel of the Left Bank by Jean-Paul Kauffman about the Delacroix painting “Jacob Wrestling with the Angel” in Paris. Both books reminded me that what we wrestle with changes us, humbles us like a limp.

download (6)The Redemption of Galen Pike (2014) by Carys Davies. These are wonderful stories, quite short, and successful at a quality Susan Sontag described this way: “Every fictional plot contains hints and traces of the stories it has excluded or resisted in order to assume its present shape. Alternatives to the plot ought to be felt up to the last moment.” Suspense, in other words, of the very best kind. And though the point of stories is not the extraction of moralisms such as “appearances are deceiving”, I think that we do in fact read to remember that there’s often more at play than we suppose or see. Davies’ recent novel West is also good, also short (on some reading days that’s a huge virtue), but if you want to sample Davies I suggest beginning with the stories.

Ordinary Light (2015) by Tracy K. Smith. Because she expresses mother-daughter matters with such insight, and because the environment of her growing up felt so familiar.

Women Talking (2018) by Miriam Toews. Because I was disappointed at first but then pulled in, and because the women talk their way to a simple but profound manifesto to which I’m still saying “I agree!”

The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane. Because, surprisingly, this novel made me less afraid of dementia.

A Boy in Winter (2017) by Rachel Seiffert. Because, as Seiffert told Eleanor Wachtel in an interview, bravery often looks like fear. And because novels can get at the complications of living in difficult historical times better than historians do.

517yb-QXVZL._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_Blindness. This 1995 novel by Portuguese novelist and Nobel winner Jose Saramago grips as narrative, and also by its various possibilities as parable, including these lines about a blind writer’s words in ballpoint,“inscribed on the whiteness of the page, recorded in blindness, I am only passing through, the writer had said, and these were the signs he had left in passing.” Then, since I was immersed in this during our spring visit to family in Paraguay (I never travel without a book), an awful juxtaposition of text and life: our niece, a young grandmother, was led to us at a gathering, recently and mysteriously become blind. (Last we’ve heard, surgery didn’t work and she hasn’t yet recovered her sight).

download (8)I am, I am, I am: Seventeen Brushes with Death (2018) by Maggie O’Farrell. That’s a lot of close calls. One of them made my skin crawl. But in their sum this memoir provokes gratitude for the mystery of life – hers, and mine – and compassion. Plus she’s a very good writer.



What I’ve Been Reading (Part 1)

I began 2018 with a book about jigsaw puzzles (because I did 37 of them last year, which just sounds crazy in retrospect, though it was a crazy year with Trump et. al., plus a transitional year for us): The Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History with Jigsaws by Margaret Drabble. The book ranges about Drabble’s childhood, childhoods in general, games, mosaics, city spaces, working outward from jigsaw puzzles, and reminiscences of her Auntie Phyl. Jigsaws began in the 18th century as dissected maps used as teaching tools; there was a boom in puzzle purchases after the 1929 stock market crash. I liked the author’s personal stories and reflections on puzzling but grew bored with the rest. “Sitting over a jigsaw as an adult, one may well feel foolish.” Yes. “One of the pleasures of the jigsaw-puzzle world lies in that safety, of knowing that all the pieces will fit together in the end.” That too. 51xJlH133+L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_

I forget where I heard about The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane, but it was the “old person” angle that compelled me into it, on account of my new blog on aging. This debut novel is astonishingly good—beautifully written, an eerie and growing suspense, but also the feeling (for me) of a very rich life, whether “really true” for 75-year-old protagonist Ruth or not. In other words, if dementia is this internally rich, well… maybe it’s not so bad. However, there’s much more to the story, which I must not give away. Reviewer Rachel Hore, in The Independent, called it “a wonderfully evoked portrait of old age that disturbs and elevates in equal measure.” The book was hard to put (2)

Can a long-married retired couple’s getaway to Amsterdam, including its small details concerning taxis and suitcases and baths and tooth brushing and meals, be interesting? In the hands of Irish writer Bernard MacLaverty, it can. Midwinter Break tells of Gerry, who has a drinking problem, and Stella, who wishes to leave him and fulfill a vow she made to God long ago while pregnant. One is left pondering marriage itself, both its stresses and strengths.


Roddy Doyle’s latest book is rather ironically titled. I read Smile on the flight to and from Saskatoon to visit my mother, a fact that has nothing to do with the book itself except that the cramped unremitting imprisonment of a narrow seat in a short-haul airplane flight is small suffering compared to the awfulness of sexual abuse of minors by the Irish Christian Brothers. Doyle is an accomplished writer but the subject, handled here with a twist, is grim.

One of the book blogs I frequently visit is Kerry Clare’s “Pickle Me This”. She had a giveaway lately, and guess what? I won Things To Do When It’s Raining by Marissa Stapley. I read this book on a flight as well, this time to Toronto to see our children. The trip being longer, the seat a smidgeon bigger, this attractive, curl-up kind of story about a young woman’s return to the place she was raised, with secrets, plot twists galore, and the reminder to “choose love” was a great fit for those hours in the air. Like Kerry, I was charmed by the items from the “list” of the title that open each chapter. (Her review here.)

Discussing the recent Mennonites and the Holocaust Conference at Bethel College with a writer friend, we reminded each other of the importance–the necessity really–of fiction and poetry to flesh out the complexities, human stories, and nuances of difficult pasts. I can’t think of a better example of this than Rachel Seiffert’s A Boy in Winter. While seeming at first a “typical” Holocaust story — sad, tense, cruel — the characters and their response to the historical situation in which they find themselves is both what we might expect but also either more or less. Particular, that is, and thus recognizable. And, even the best or worst intentions can have their unexpected consequence. And bravery, Seiffert commented in an interview with Eleanor Wachtel, often looks like fear.

What have you been reading lately?