I did not set out to read 100 books this year. In all honesty, I still might not- as of this writing, mid-December, I’m in the middle of my 95th and 96th. But I set a goal of 50 in January and thought that was ambitious, so I’m a little proud that I made it so close to double that. Next year, I’m going to be more deliberate about the books, authors, genres and subjects I read in order to make sure I keep my books diverse and challenge myself a little (and also make room for fun fluff). But I did ok this year, just winging it, never having read so much in my life.
Here’s a roundup of the books I read in 2018 that I can’t stop thinking about, the ones that burrowed into me and made me feel everything, made me believe in the power of words, taught me something about the world and myself, and felt life-affirming in every way.
1. Abandon Me by Melissa Febos
If you have ever come into contact with me, you’ve probably heard me be overly enthusiastic about the language and depth of this book, claim that it changed my life, and recommend it profusely. I wrote about it in my April wrap-up, where I recounted the story of fate that led me to it: I had picked it up from the Queer Lit bookshelf at Elliott Bay thinking it sounded pretty good and proceeded to, ironically, abandon it. I did not know that the same Melissa Febos would be my writing instructor for a 3-hour workshop at Hugo House about corporeal writing. But that workshop, aside from inspiring some writing, introduced me to the writer that has become my literary north star. She was an incredible teacher; her presence, energy, and enthusiasm were infectious. I was so far from bored that the workshop felt like it ended in 5 minutes, so I dropped everything to read Abandon Me, and I still think about it daily. I think about it when I’m writing, I think about it when I’m thinking about what it means to be queer, I think about it when I wake up and when I’m scrolling through Instagram or Twitter. It moved me in so many ways, awed me with its craft, blew my mind with its sex scenes (they were so sensual! They involved books! They were desperate but slow! I’m not even that sexual of a person and they made me feel seen). It made me cry a lot, made me think about my parents and my siblings, put me in places I didn’t expect to be. I freaking loved it and will never stop telling everyone in the world to read it.
2. Amateur by Thomas Page McBee
This was a summer release that I received an ARC for, one of the first I ever received (thanks Scribner!) I gave it its own review over in the Bonus Book Reviews section, a review that my dad used to successfully pitch this read to his men’s book club, which is probably my proudest moment of the year (at least my proudest literary moment). This book is about masculinity, which is not necessarily a great pitch. But I’m here to tell you that as someone who would never pick up a book based on the line “this is about masculinity,” McBee’s hybrid memoir/essay/social study challenged my thinking about men and what it means to be a man. It also broke my heart (in the best way) with its beautiful writing, and moved me to tears many times, both in discussions about female/male dichotomies, how sport challenges a person to grow and in what ways, and in personal accounts of McBee’s late mother, to whom he was very close. There is so much contained in this short, totally readable book. It’s so, so good. Please read it.
3. Heavy by Kiese Laymon
Here I am again with another book written by a man, who would’ve thought?! This one also has some serious mother-son relationship themes, along with themes of body, race, childhood, America, addiction, family, and mental health. But that list is reductive and doesn’t give any sense of how alive, how thrumming, how urgent, how raw, how beautiful the writing is. Like McBee’s book, it deals with masculinity and how little sensitivity it allows for, but in a different way. It also made me think about probably my favorite read of 2017 and one of my top 5 books of all time, Hunger by Roxane Gay. Roxane Gay heaped praise on this book, which she doesn’t often do, so that tells you something. But also I’m telling you, this book is crushing and powerful and gorgeous.
4. Pretend We Live Here by Genevieve Hudson
Let’s go back to Melissa Febos for a second, so that I can tell you that I associate her with literary fate. Queer literary fate, at that. I saw this little yellow book on her Instagram one day but didn’t look into it further; the next day I saw it in Third Place Books and recognized it so I picked it up and flipped to a random page. The little bit I read about vegan activists driving around in a van with jars of menstrual blood made me laugh so hard that I immediately bought it and read it in 2 days. It’s a little thing, a short collection of short stories, but it packs a huge punch, both story-wise and language/craft-wise. It’s super queer, for one thing, which always makes me happy; it’s nuanced and quiet at times and loud and brash at others. It gave me a real book hangover that made the next book I read seem dull. This is a good one if you’re looking for a quick read that will delight you, but doesn’t lack depth. It’s pretty close to perfection and it made me excited about short stories again, which is a form I haven’t paid much attention to since I took a short story class in college.
5. Dust Tracks on a Road: An Autobiography by Zora Neale Hurston
Time for some backlist. This memoir by one of the queer icons of the Harlem Renaissance was first published in 1942. (While she doesn’t write explicitly about queer themes in this book, and her queerness has been basically erased from history, Hurston is widely regarded as queer these days). This little yellow Penguin edition that I picked up at my crack dealer I mean Elliott Bay Books has some really cool extra stuff in the back including previously unpublished versions of some of the chapters, which gave insight into the process of Hurston the writer. Anyway the book itself is pretty straightforward in that it covers a lot of her life, but the thing I really loved about it is how curious Hurston is. She was an ethnographer first, and her endless fascination with human beings – including herself – is inspiring, interesting, and really fun to read.
6. The Reckonings by Lacy M. Johnson
I was sent a copy of this new book by the publisher without ever having read Lacy Johnson before. I had heard of her memoir The Other Side, in which she recounts a chapter in her life in which she was kidnapped and sexually assaulted by an ex-boyfriend. I was scared to read it, but now I want to devour everything she’s written. The Reckonings is an essay collection that spans personal, political, and environmental issues from US government cover-ups of toxic waste sites to her personal account of Hurricane Harvey. She does a great job exploring privilege in her writing, without tying anything up neatly (because there’s nothing neat about it). The essays are about reckonings with some of the darkest aspects of our world, but there is hope to be found in this book that keeps the reader from total despair. Plus, she’s just a really good writer.
7. Florida by Lauren Groff
I read a lot of short stories this year, and can I think they are kind of a perfect form. When they’re done well, they are SO powerful and potent. Florida got a lot of hype this year, and I think the hype was well-placed in this case. The content of the stories was white suburban middle-class for sure, but Lauren Groff is such a fantastically talented writer that I was sucked into them anyway. The stories are extremely evocative of place, which is the number one thing that set this collection apart in my mind. It’s hard to pull off a truly atmospheric piece, something that transports the reader completely. The other thing that short stories allow for, or maybe just tend to be, is the weird. There’s a lushness and an eeriness to these stories that hovers right below the surface, so that it’s jarring when something really dramatic happens.
I also took a writing workshop with her this fall at Hugo House that changed my life; I found her so compelling and energetic and present in person that I will be following her work more closely now. I’m definitely going to read Delicate Edible Birds in 2019, and maybe The Monsters of Templeton too. (Probably not Fates and Furies though; sorry bout it).
8. Tough Girl by Carolyn Wood
This was the surprise of the year for me: a somewhat obscure memoir by a former Olympic swimmer who, later in life, walked the Camino in order to deal with the grief of losing her relationship to her long-term partner. I saw this book in the sports section of Third Place on a random rainy day when I was just browsing, and I thought, give me a story about a queer lady athlete and I'm almost guaranteed to be into it. The bonus with this book is that Carolyn Wood is a pretty great writer. The two stories are told in alternating chapters: Wood's childhood from age three to adolescence, mainly building up to her participation (and gold medal) in swimming in the 1960 Olympics in Rome; and the long solitary walk she took on the Camino de Santiago in 2012 after the end of her decades-long relationship with her partner Rose. Both threads make for wonderful reading, and enhance each other by illustrating the similarities and differences between intense athletic training and youth; and a slower, longer, more deliberate journey to walk a very long way and work through the pain of a devastating breakup as an older person. The book also stays the course of the story it's trying to tell: it's not an exhaustive account of her entire life (though I would definitely read that if she were to write it), but rather about these two specific chapters in her life (with a few more details/context thrown in at the end for good measure). That's a real strength of this memoir- the reader doesn't get lost, and it makes for a more powerful and potent narrative.
Sasquatch Books re-released Tough Girl this year and I went to see Carolyn Wood read on her little mini book tour (she’s from Portland and still lives there, so Seattle’s not a big leap). She was a delight and I’ve bought copies of this book for many people on my holiday gift list. I also feel like it was fate that I read this this year, because chronic running injury has led me to what for me is the final frontier of athletics: swimming. Every time I’m in a pool, I think about Carolyn Wood and try to channel her enthusiasm and drive in swimming. That’s helped motivate me immensely to keep pursuing this sport.
9. We The Animals by Justin Torres
This book is just the kind of lyrical prose I live for. Justin Torres created something so consistently beautiful, so dense, so harrowing, so tender, so atmospheric. Structure-wise, it really works for me that the majority of the story is centered in childhood with just the quickest stroke of adulthood at the end. I also loved how humans and animals are one in the same in this story; so much is about the earthly and visceral, the pack, the dirt, the clawing, the fighting, the grooming. I read it in a couple of sittings in anticipation of seeing the film adaptation at SIFF, and I love both of them equally. I really like stories that address queer childhood, before sex enters the picture. There’s something really unique about being a queer kid that doesn’t get talked about or written about a lot.
10. Orlando by Virginia Woolf
It took me until 2018 to read literally anything by Virginia Woolf, and I feel this was a good choice to start with. First of all, her style is nuts in a good way. Her sentences are gorgeous, technical, meandering, poetic, challenging, potent. The story itself is one of the strangest, most wild and playful I’ve ever read; it’s way ahead of its time in terms of gender fuckery, and it’s at turns sensual (as in all of the senses are employed in imagery), action packed and cerebral as hell. I’m a little stupefied, and can’t wait to read more of her in 2019.
11. So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
This book came out in February. I’m a longtime Ijeoma Oluo fan (from her writing in The Establishment, her fabulous Instagram and the fact that she is Lindy West’s sister in law, and it makes me so happy that two of the best feminist writers in the world are close like that). So I picked this up on pub day and read it immediately, then saw her talk at Seattle Arts and Lectures and later saw her read at Hugo House. Basically she’s a wonderful human and writer, and this book is essential reading for white people. It’s straightforward, easy to understand, full of hard truths with some humor. It’s just really good and you need to read it, especially if you’re white, because we have a LOT of work to do in this fucked up world.
12. Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith
This is the first poetry collection I’ve read in years. I was a Mary Oliver fan in college but never got super into poetry as a genre beyond that. I will now change that, because WOW. I picked this book up because of my ongoing goal to read a lot of queer voices across genres. Danez Smith’s voice is power. Their voice is power, their body is power, their mind is power- the kind of power that doesn’t fuck with whiteness’ concept of power. I was lucky enough to see them perform live (again, Seattle Arts and Lectures! Gotta love ‘em) and that brought a whole new glittery, sharp, tear-stained and joy-filled depth to this collection, but it stands alone too (though I recommend looking up YouTube clips of Danez, because they will likely make you cry, laugh, shout, gasp, moan, and close your eyes to bask in their words). I really cannot gush about this enough. If you’re like me and tend to avoid poetry, I highly recommend picking this up. If you’re not like me and you’re already a huge poetry person, I applaud you and still maintain this will change your poetry-reading life. Reading it has inspired me to read a lot more poetry in 2019.
Those are my favorite 2018 reads! I read a lot of amazing books this year and could actually make this list much longer, but I have to end somewhere.
Now it’s time for the news: I’m transitioning from this vague lifestyle blog thing to book blogging over on my new site, Pages and Bones! If you enjoy my book recommendations, please follow me over there, as I plan to be more intentional about reading in 2019 since I exceeded my own expectations in 2018. I hope you’ll follow along, and can’t wait to read and share more with you in the new year. Thank you for following along on this weird little journey! I hope you have a happy, healthy, and bookish new year :)
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