Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Most Memorable Reads of 2018

Hey, bookbaggers! I hope the last quarter of 2018 treated you well, that you read as much as your heart desired, and that you kept your papercuts to a bare minimum.  I couldn't quite get my rhythm together last year when it came to publishing new posts here - I kept collecting and collecting books I wanted to post all together, and saying "just one more and then...", but now that we have a fresh, crisp new year before us, an unlined journal to lure us back to the drawing board (and book) once again, I'm ready to move ahead, write more, and procrastinate less (never mind that it took me until the 2nd day of the year to share my New Year's resolution with you)! 

I can't think of a better way to start my new year than by offering some book suggestions that really, for one reason or another, turned my head in 2018. I also, of course, want to tell you all about the books I'm super excited to have on my TBR list for the year ahead, and share a peek into my own little writing project! 

I wound up reading 92 books last year. I failed to hit my personal goal (120 books), but as I consider the books that I did read, I'm pretty pleased with them. Like most any bibliophile who slobbers over new releases, I read and thoroughly enjoyed a fair number of the award-winners and bestsellers: Educated by Tara Westover, Becoming  by Michelle Obama (go audio with this one!), Circe by Madeline Miller, The Odyssey translated by Emily Wilson (the best translation, hands down - I couldn't stop turning pages), Less by Andrew Sean Greer (Pulitzer), Red Clocks  by Leni Zumas, The Line Becomes a River by Fransisco Cantú,  Elevation by Stephen King. If you missed any on that little list, throw them on the TBR list - and celebrate the fact that, for most of them, you probably won't even have to wait long for a library copy. 

But I want to give slightly more detailed shout-outs to books that didn't necessarily make the lists (especially since a number of them were not 2018 publications). I take my role as one of the biggest influencers* in the book industry very seriously.  And so here, in no particular order, is a brief, annotated selection of books that gave me pause and that I haven't shared with you already. Enjoy! 

Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips (2008) 
Take some down on their luck Olympic gods and goddesses who have been forced to live in a far too small and mightily decrepit London townhouse, add a couple of bewildered humans who were just minding their own business, throw in some long-simmering family dysfunction, and a possibility of the end of the world...and you've got yourself a funny, engaging, surprising way to welcome the new year! One of my favorite reads in 2008.

The Thessaly trilogy by Jo Walton (2017)
I only recently discovered the genius that is Jo Walton. Her eerie, eloquent, beautiful Among Others gave me serious author crush, but after reading the Thessaly trilogy, I've discarded the crush for ardent admiration. Walton imagines a world in which followers of Plato throughout history wish to create his Republic. Thanks to some serious goddess sleight of hand by the inimitable Athena, the followers are gathered on an island in the Aegean alongside 10,000 formerly enslaved children under the age of ten, and encouraged to bring Plato's masterful vision to life. What follows is an utterly absorbing, fascinating, outrageously imaginative trilogy in which the original city is erected - and set aloft to be sewn into world history (or is it?). The stories are told from the perspectives of a small handful of protagonists, including (but not limited to) Athena; Apollo, incarnated as a human; Socrates; and a self-aware robot. Walton manages to dive deeply into the philosophies and social practices of Ancient Greece; grapple with gender, race, and other divisive issues; take readers from the tiny world of what eventually becomes the island of Santorini to as yet undiscovered galaxies; mix gods, icons, robots, those striving for greatness, and everyone in between...and make the entire 700+ oversized page project immensely appealing. Oh, and she wrote the entire trilogy in less than three years. Whatever you have going on this year, if you want to be inspired and pushed out of your comfort zone - read these books. Extraordinary. 

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (2018)
Keiko Furukura never quite fit in while growing up in Tokyo; she completely and unapologetically lacks any ability or interest in emotional investments. This could make living an ethical life somewhat tricky, but Keiko is happy to follow the customs and unspoken rules of her society (insofar as she can make sense of them). Upon graduation, she finds employment at a convenience store - and clicks into place like a puzzle piece. Clear structure! Specific rules and expectations! Guides to conversation! Eighteen years later, she's still killin' it at the Smile Mart. But soon enough, well-meaning family members and acquaintances urge her to change. What happens next offers both laugh out loud funny moments and a deeper reflection into the expectations and challenges of 21st century conformity. A fast, fun read, and a gratifying one, too, as Keiko finally embraces what makes her life worth living. 

Kindred, the graphic lit edition, by Octavia Butler (2018)
Butler published her ground-breaking historical sci-fi masterpiece over 35 years ago, but the graphic adaptation makes clear that her dystopian vision of a modern African-American woman who suddenly finds herself repeatedly dragged back to inhabit the life of an ancestor who survived South Carolinan slavery remains as potent, powerful, and pertintent as it was the day it was originally published. An excellent example of how graphic adaptations offer new insights into previously published works.

A Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar (2018)
As the poorly understood Syrian war continues to horrify an impotent, watching world, Syrian artists work feverishly to explicate, preserve or somehow restore to life a Syria that, as any sentient observer can see, has been obliterated by the Assad regime, religious extremists, global power brokers, and others.  Every work of art that emerges from this catastrophe feels at least a little like a letter to a lost love. Some feel a little chilled or seared - and others come to you so full of tears, you can't help but weep as you read along, the beauty and the devastation is so close to the surface. 
Well, this particular artwork doesn't just take you by the hand across the watery surface of Syria's devastation; it leaves you no choice but to dive right into the dark and freezing waters yourself. And what a reward that journey brings! Joukhadar plaits two tales together - one of a Syrian born and NYC raised young girl named Nour whose family returns to Syria in 2010 following the death of her beloved dad, and the other an ancient adventure that brings together a legendary mapmaker, a Syrian girl masquerading as a boy, an unexpected warrior, and a savage, mythological creature that wants nothing more than to burn the girl and her companions to ashes. The twin treks - one across the ancient Levant, the other detailing the traumatic attempt Nour and her family make to escape as civil war engulfs their homeland - together provide insight not only into the Syrian war, but also into the very roots of Syrian culture and society. It leaves you dismantled, breathless, full of fear...and with a tiny flare of hope that stubbornly stays deep within your chest.

How to be a Good Creature by Sy Montgomery (2018)
Sy Montgomery published The Soul of an Octopus a few years back and once I picked it up, my life changed. She helped me remember those youthful days in which everything you encounter is a wonder and a balm; in which all the world's creatures are worthy and capable and interconnected. Her latest offering - a dozen or more brief recountings of the ways in which she's learned from and been humbled by animals large and small throughout her life - reaffirmed that feeling and now I'm a proud member of the Super Sy Montgomery Fan Club (which I just invented). Happily, I've convinced my daughter that Sy is the bees' knees as well, and together we look forward to finding and reading every single book she's published so far  - while keeping an eye out, of course, for new excursions. Get some happy! Remember miracles and wonder. Read Sy Montgomery. 

Antígona González by Sara Uribe (2016) 
Want to better understand the Mexican drug war? And it is a war - nearly a revolution, really, considering that well over 2 MM Mexicans (nearly all of whom were civilians) have lost their lives since the mid-2000's as the state fights an ever-expanding war of domination with the powerful drug cartels that have a monopoly on violence, education, services, goods, and human resources in countless villages and towns throughout the nation. Read this book. It takes the classic story of Antigone (need a refresher?) and ups the tragedy ante, as it were. Antígona is not seeking a proper burial for her lost brother - she really just wants to find his body. The fact that this proves nearly impossible in the tangle of realities that is modern-day Mexico and the US/Mexican borderlands lays bare the outrageous, inhumane catastrophe unfurling in our neighbor to the South. Really makes you stop and think when you consider that the Trump administration has convinced Mexico to hold immigrants seeking asylum in the US in temporary camps. At least, it should. The Mexican state is hanging by a few dozen threads, and Uribe forces us to recognize that those threads, more often than not, are coated in grime, violence, drugs - and come from the achingly empty shrouds of so many, many innocents.

See anything that caught your eye? I hope so! For my part, I've been hopping from book to book and pile to pile like a bird on melting tarmac. I'm so excited to get started with 2019, make TBR lists that will likely be discarded within days, fall in love with new authors and stories, and maybe even begin to share some fiction I've been working on with my favorite fellow bookies. Here's a hint:

Happy New Year! May 2019 be full of amazing adventures, literary and otherwise. - J

*this is a total lie. I'm not even on the map - YET. But you know the old (Weight Watchers?) year, new you! Who can say for sure the wonders that await in the year ahead?