Reading List: Best of 2018
Gertrude Stein said it first, it’s now become somewhat of a tired adage but I still believe in the incisive truth of the statement: “There is no there there.” She was speaking of her return to her childhood home in Oakland, only to find that there wasn’t any there there. There is no sign marking the place, no entryway into some undeniable sense of being in Oakland, in its Oaklandness. America is like this.
In 2018 I learned this more irreparably than ever. There is no there there. There is not always a consolation to be had, a haven from the raggedness of living in America, there is not always a soft place to land. There is no hidden-away pinnacle of goodness locked in the heart of this country; things are not so easy. And where I once lived - that strange, temporal wilderness called childhood, and then adolescence - is not there anymore, not where I left it. We leave our shapes, like the soft imprints of our curled bodies on a couch, but we may not fit into them when we return. There is no there there, but life carries on and somehow, ridiculously, so do we.
In 2018 I read with more urgency than I ever have before, it seems. For a while I’ve much preferred creative nonfiction, memoir, and cultural/political commentary over fiction in any of its subgenres. This year, though, something began to ache that I could not seem to fill with nonfiction alone. Our interior lives matter most of all. Our capacity to breathe through another’s lungs, just for a few hours, is elemental to our capacity for compassion and nuance: let us not appropriate experiences we cannot claim, but let us read those experiences because they don’t belong to us. People are complicated, amorphous, difficult creatures brimming with contradictions and little hungers and achings no one could summarize in political rhetoric. Those who argue in favor of binaries do so because it’s easier to make people so small, so stiff and easy to comprehend. Reading fiction, and I mean reading fiction that challenges, frustrates, and subverts your thinking, is some kind of brutal craft I cannot ever fully grasp. I’m tired of white cis men, of straight people in particular, dominating our literary canon and I wish I had come to terms with the oppression enshrined in the literary world much earlier. Let me read about the emotional, messy, unruly selves of women, of queer people, of people of color - can we be as complicated and perhaps “unlikable” as white dudes without earning generalizations about anyone who shares our identities? Please.
Anyways. I’d like to share my favorite books of 2018, as if my opinion here has any importance whatsoever. I want to recommend books that have hurled spikes at my heart and have then remade it, a little tougher and knottier than before.
Normal People by Sally Rooney
This fucking book. My cursing feels necessary here: Sally Rooney writes novels worthy of noisily ardent reviews, of ramblings, of fucking amazing. Her debut novel Conversations With Friends grasped me in a brief obsession for a good while after I finished it, pondering and aching and thinking. She is one of my very favorite writers, and I very impatiently waited for her next book. Normal People is something else entirely. Reading Normal People is like connecting stars to form constellations only to realize that those stars are really someone you love’s freckles, the sky is their singularly enthralling, devastating, pocked face, the skin of their most familiar, expressive feature. Normal People imposes tenderness upon self-cruelty and sharpens the unsolvable nature of most of us, particularly women, without glossing anyone with easiness. I’m going to be writing a longer, much more in-depth piece about this novel soon, but if you read nothing else on this list, read this book. Find a way to read this book.
Self-Portrait With Boy by Rachel Lyon
A hell of a book. You cannot leave this novel unaffected. You will exit with a hushed feeling about you; a newfound quiet in some pocket of your head that you cannot ever forget. This is one of those novels that lives in you and you don’t even know it, until a moment - eyes pointed downwards out the window of a high-rise, in this case, perhaps, hand searching the glass for fingerprints - catapults you right back into its arms. This could be described as a ‘portrait of the artist as a young woman,’ or perhaps a story that expresses the ethical, emotional costs and tangles of art-making in any medium - but it finally allows a woman to be the one wrangling with these questions. Lu Rile, the protagonist, is as simultaneously frustrating, brilliant, self-involved, endearing, and complex as any man in novels grappling with these same perplexities. No, she is more so. It is endlessly original. It is a creature in itself, this book, that you can’t dislodge by forgetting.
Severance by Ling Ma
I’ve already written about my adoration for this one, but I’d like to again remind you all to read it, immediately. Severance somehow delineates the ridiculousness of contemporary American life and overlays its characters and times with a deadpan irony without being callous or pedantic. Ling Ma writes her characters so well. They are people you know, people we are, and we have to look them in the face here, which may cause us to blush at ourselves a bit. That’s a good thing.
Everything Under by Daisy Johnson
If you prefer your Oedipus with a heaping plate of scintillating prose, women-centric, an indifference for binaries, fluidity (in gender, sexuality, everything), and river creatures, this book will deliver a feast. I read this book very late in the year and I am so perplexed as to why it hasn’t had more fanfare and attention. It is a slim bestiary, in a way. A precise blade of a novel, or really an inhalation of riverwater that slides down your throat and into your gut, staying there slithering and quietly acrid. This is one of my favorite novels really ever, and Daisy Johnson is astoundingly exact in her writing for a debut novel. It’s exceptional, it’s brilliant.
The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner
Rachel Kushner also wrote a novel called The Flamethrowers, but this book is the one really dousing anyone who passes in flames - very cliched, yes, but true. I reread certain passages of this book long after I finished it, finding myself trying to pry open its layers and look through the closed blinds, in a way, of its lean prose, shaded and cool. There is no moralizing or easy proclamations about life in prison. There is a dry and intoxicating humor to this book that caught me by surprise. Kushner unfolds the gnarled, often sticky recesses of womanhood lived in the margins and does so in such clear, precise language that you cannot look away.
Tonight I’m Someone Else: Essays by Chelsea Hodson
A dream-spun landscape, surfaces brimming with impossible and discordant textures you cannot unfeel. This book is magnificent and Hodson’s writing pricks your heart and draws out everything you have been unable to express in words. A perfectly jarring collection of essays. I love love love it.
Betwixt-and-Between: Essays on the Writing Life by Jenny Boully
I wish I had discovered Jenny Boully earlier. This is a slim collection that holds such improbable, unexpected vastness in such lithe lines. It’s a quietly masterful handling of language, prose wrought like poetry, her meditations on writing more so meditations on life itself. For Boully and for me, for a lot of us, the two are inextricable, and that raises a lot of issues and messes. This isn’t solely an essay collection for writers, though; its gorgeous language alone is more than enough reason to read it. One of those books where you just have to put it down for a second and, like, simmer in a sentence for a while. Really.