2018 Books in Review
I remember describing myself as an “avid reader” when I was something like 12. I was precocious and overly ambitious with my vocabulary, and that’s why when I tried to impress someone by telling them about my “avid” reading, I accidentally use the word “advent.”
In typical pre-teen style, I withered away from embarrassment when I realized my mistake later and assumed everyone had been quietly laughing at me.
I share this charming anecdote to tell you I’m actually an avid reader, still. And an advent reader. I read during advent and other times of the year, too. I read, ok?
2018 was a good book year for me, and I was overdue for a good book year. I never read much for fun in college while reading all my brain-boggling course material, and I was in college for a ridiculous long time. Then, right after I graduated, I had two babies in quick succession and mostly read books like How to Teach Your Baby to Sleep and How to Survive Sleep Regressions while falling asleep.
This year, though, my babies aren’t babies anymore and I started to rediscover old loves like running, reading, and sleeping. It has been glorious, especially the sleeping. I didn’t read much non-fiction at all this year; 2018 was definitely the year of the classic novel for me. I started the year with a list of 12 classics I wanted to read with my friend Meredith, and we ended up finishing almost all of them (we got scuttled on The Brothers Karamazov from October-December, unsurprisingly). Here’s the full list of what I read this year, including some cursory thoughts on each.
For my own purposes, I define “the classics” as anything that has reached a level of literary acclaim and is considered widely to be a “must-read.” Most of these are older, but you’ll notice contemporary classics in here, too.
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
This book blew my mind. It was a tough read due to Faulkner messing around with point-of-view, timeline, and structure, but it was also brilliant. I relied pretty heavily on SparksNotes and commentary to understand what was going on, especially initially, but I enjoyed seeing how Faulkner influenced the American literary canon with this book. His descriptions were beautiful: I have sentences underlined like “I could smell the bright cold” and “she smelled like trees.”
“I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire...I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all of your breath trying to conquer it. Because no battle is ever won, he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.”
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
East of Eden was likely my favorite read this year. A sweeping and ambitious novel, this book felt like a look into American history with piercing insight into humanity. It was one of those rare classics that is exactly as long as it should be; every side story was well-placed and interesting, and the major thematic threads stayed strong throughout. I read this book early in the year, maybe February, and I can still remember parts of it vividly.
“We have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil. And it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue, is immortal. Vice has always a new fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is.”
The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck
After loving East of Eden, I couldn’t avoid picking up The Grapes of Wrath. Yes, this was the first time I’d read it. Yes, you can classics-shame me if you want. It was, of course, everything it was cracked up to be. I cried a lot. This book shook me up in all the best ways. Steinbeck’s writing style is enviable and his plots are unexpected and rich. I also not-so-humbly suggest the real hero of this story isn’t Tom Joad, the protagonist, but Ma Joad.
“And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed.”
“She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken. And since old Tom and the children could not know hurt or fear unless she acknowledged hurt or fear, she had practiced denying them in herself. And since, when a joyful thing happened, they looked to see whether joy was on her, it was her habit to build laughter out of inadequate materials....She seemed to know that if she swayed the family shook, and if she ever deeply wavered or despaired the family would fall.”
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Another favorite this year. You’ll get tired of hearing me blabber about how much I love books like this that give me a new perspective into history. Their Eyes Were Watching God was my Black History Month read, and it delivered. It follows the story of a black woman’s journey to reinvent herself in the 1930s. Hurston uses the historically accurate vernacular of the day throughout her book, so sometimes I had to re-read sentences to understand what was going on, but this craft choice was intentional and well done. I loved every quality of her writing as well.
“It is so easy to be hopeful in the daytime when you can see the things you wish on. But it was night, it stayed night. Night was striding across nothingness with the whole round world in his hands . . . They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against cruel walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.”
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
Controversial opinion: this book is the worst. Didactic and pretentious, it struck me as everything Wilde wanted to believe and didn’t. I expected more wit and points made through absurdism or sarcasm, and instead felt like I was reading an Aesop fable. Also, it should have been 100 pages shorter… and it was only 250-some pages. I give it two stars to respect the classics and because Oscar Wilde was brilliant… just elsewhere.
“You will always be fond of me. I represent to you all the sins you never had the courage to commit.”
“There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Another one people like to raise their eyebrows at when they hear I hadn’t read it before this year (I read 1984 so I was good on dystopian novels for a while). This book was creepy and a great read, of course. 2018 was also a great year to read it (come to think of it, just like every other year in the history of humanity, probably).
“But I don't want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”
Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
Ahh, good old Walt. This one disappointed me, although there was plenty of underline-able moments. For an anthology that includes famous lines like “I contain multitudes” and “I know nothing else but miracles,” there was a lot of what I call people-and-things-do-things (boring). Call it blasphemy if you want, but large swaths of Leaves of Grass aren’t enjoyable poetry.
“O Me! O life!... of the questions of these recurring;
Of the endless trains of the faithless—of cities fill’d with the foolish;
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light—of the objects mean—of the struggle ever renew’d;
Of the poor results of all—of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me;
Of the empty and useless years of the rest—with the rest me intertwined;
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here—that life exists, and identity;
That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.”
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
This book will join my top ten, maybe top five favorites ever. It was poignant, sweet, fun to read, and had a touch of subtlety. It didn’t jump to moral conclusions but let the story unfold naturally, and felt entirely relevant even set 100 years ago. If your ancestors came to America near the turn of the century, this book also serves as a fictionalized family history—it’s the story of every first or second generation European immigrant family struggling against the tides of industrialization, poverty, and the clash of Old versus New World ways. Also, Smith’s writing style is a delight.
“Dear God," she prayed, "let me be something every minute of every hour of my life. Let me be gay; let me be sad. Let me be cold; let me be warm. Let me be hungry...have too much to eat. Let me be ragged or well dressed. Let me be sincere - be deceitful. Let me be truthful; let me be a liar. Let me be honorable and let me sin. Only let me be something every blessed minute. And when I sleep, let me dream all the time so that not one little piece of living is ever lost.”
“From that time on, the world was hers for the reading. She would never be lonely again, never miss the lack of intimate friends. Books became her friends and there was one for every mood. There was poetry for quiet companionship. There was adventure when she tired of quiet hours. There would be love stories when she came into adolescence and when she wanted to feel a closeness to someone she could read a biography. On that day when she first knew she could read, she made a vow to read one book a day as long as she lived.”
“She was made up of more, too. She was the books she read in the library. She was the flower in the brown bowl. Part of her life was made from the tree growing rankly in the yard. She was the bitter quarrels she had with her brother whom she loved dearly. She was Katie's secret, despairing weeping. She was the shame of her father stumbling home drunk. She was all of these things and of something more...It was what God or whatever is His equivalent puts into each soul that is given life - the one different thing such as that which makes no two fingerprints on the face of the earth alike.”
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Another tough-read classic because of thematic elements. The Color Purple was lovely and thought-provoking and sad. Walker’s use of craft is part of the beauty and pain of this book; the story is told from the protagonist’s perspective and becomes more self-aware and multi-layered as she herself grows. The Color Purple absolutely deserves its place as a classic, especially since Walker bravely confronted uncomfortable realities and told the story of countless black women during a time that their lives were invisible in poverty, illiteracy, abuse, and silencing. Warning: this one has graphic and visceral descriptions of repeated abuse, and is not at all for anyone who’d be triggered by reading those themes.
“I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it. People think pleasing God is all God cares about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.”
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Yes, this was the first time I’d read it. No, I can’t watch the Hulu special—I don’t like nightmares. Yes, it was everything it was cracked up to be. I low-key hated the ending, and I’m high-key excited for Atwood’s sequel to remedy the ending. I’d say more about this book, but everyone’s saying everything about this book right now so I won’t bother.
“We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom.
We lived in the gaps between the stories.”
“Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.”
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
If you know me, you know I love (to hate) the Russians and their haunting beautiful, moody, intense music, novels, and poetry. I’ve read Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Pushkin, Mandelstam, Mayakovsky, Tsvetaeva, and Akhmatova. There’s something about Russia that develops the kind of art I like to consume. Ah, the Russians. I can’t quit them. The Brothers K has been on my list for a long time and I finally knocked it out this year. Controversial opinion: I could have done without the Father Zosima backstory throughout the middle of the book. I didn’t feel it added substantially to the philosophical or religious points Dostoyevsky was trying to make. As expected, the final 300 or so pages were by far the best. It was a tough one to wade through but the reward was significant. I’ll have a tough time pulling quotes from this one because I underlined and bracketed whole pages.
“Above all, don't lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.”
“I think the devil doesn't exist, but man has created him, he has created him in his own image and likeness.”
“A beast can never be as cruel as a human being, so artistically, so picturesquely cruel.”
“The more I love humanity in general the less I love man in particular. In my dreams, I often make plans for the service of humanity, and perhaps I might actually face crucifixion if it were suddenly necessary. Yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone for two days together. I know from experience. As soon as anyone is near me, his personality disturbs me and restricts my freedom. In twenty-four hours I begin to hate the best of men: one because he’s too long over his dinner, another because he has a cold and keeps on blowing his nose. I become hostile to people the moment they come close to me. But it has always happened that the more I hate men individually the more I love humanity.”
The Contemporary Novels
Since this is my 2018 Books in Review post, I get to choose the ratings. You’ll notice almost all of these get lower ratings, and that’s because I’m not a fan of most contemporary novels (because I’m an “old soul” or a “nerd” or “overly ostentatious” or whatever you prefer). Also, I won’t be quoting these novels because they’re not quotable by and large.
Run by Ann Patchett
Enjoyable. The novel’s central plot twist did take me by surprise.
Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
Why did everyone love this book so much? Why did I hate it so much? There are some mysteries we’ll never understand.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
This book didn’t live up to the hype at all for me. Shallow characters, predictable plot, uninteresting prose. This book felt like a tired subject (planned suburbs clash with free-minded artists, oh no!) with poor execution and an incredibly heavy-handed narration. I might have liked Ng’s story if she hadn’t told me exactly how to like it from the beginning.
Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George
A fun diversion. The romance was unrealistic and melodramatic, but the book-love was enjoyable.
Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver
Another fun summer read. Not my favorite Kingsolver by far. The reason I enjoyed it as much as I did was Kingsolver’s masterful descriptions of the natural world.
American Street by Ibi Zoboi
Magical realism meets American racism meets immigrant stories. It was incredible. Pro tip: I listened to the audiobook, dramatized by Robin Miles, and it enhanced the story ten fold for me. Miles hits the accents and verbiage admirably and made this book even more gripping.
Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed
I read Wild last year and have listened to Strayed’s podcast, Dear Sugar, on occasion. Tiny Beautiful Things was full of poignant stories, kind advice, and interesting ideas.
Yes, Please by Amy Poehler
It delivered on what I wanted: funny anecdotes delivered through my earbuds by the Queen of Comedy herself, Amy Poehler. I definitely recommend the audiobook.
Dance of the Dissident Daughter by Sue Monk Kidd
What to say about this book? It was an interesting read. I disagreed with a lot of it, but since it was someone’s personal narrative about her own spiritual journey, I wasn’t really meant to agree. I will say I feel this book tried to be a personal narrative backed up by deep research and fell short of that for me. I found the research fairly shoddy and many sweeping claims went entirely unsupported.
Mothers, Daughters, and Body Image by Hilary McBride
I listen to Hilary McBride’s podcast, The Liturgists, often, and enjoy her perspective. This book is a psychologist’s take on body image issues and features interviews with mothers and daughters as McBride tries to trace back the roots of our destructive body image problems. It’s written vulnerably and truthfully, although I’ll say sometimes it felt like McBride had her own conclusions before writing the book, rather than exploring the conclusions through the book and with her audience. I enjoyed the chapter on embodiment most.
And there you have it. My 2018 Books in Review. If you’ve made it this far, you must also be an advent reader! Congratulations!