Best books I read in 2018

Best books I read in 2018

As a writer, I learn something from every book I read. These are the ten best books I read in 2018. Please check the links to the blog archive for a fuller discussion of each book.

1. Reservoir 13, by Jon McGregor
This unusual and remarkable book is the story of a village in the Peak District and its surrounding countryside. It’s a story about time, stretching over 13 years with each chapter covering a single year of the village’s life. This is not a book to rush through. It is a book to savor.

2. Waking, by Eva Figes
It’s quite short, only 88 pages, but don’t be deceived. There’s a lifetime packed into this stunning novel. Each of the seven chapters takes us into the thoughts of our unnamed narrator at a different point in her life, from childhood to the edge of death.

3. Priest Turns Therapist Treats Fear of God, by Tony Hoagland
In crafting his poems Tony Hoagland, who passed away this year, brings together humor and tenderness, wit and emotion, gentle satire and surprising insight. Using the things of this world, he invites us to be present in our lives and appreciate each moment. The poems in this, his final book, often moved me to tears.

4. Collected Poems, by Jane Kenyon
For me, reading Jane Kenyon’s poems for the first time has been like falling in love, that moment when you meet someone who seems to be your soulmate, who speaks your language, who knows what you have been through.

5. My Beloved World, by Sonia Sotomayor
This memoir by the Supreme Court justice is remarkably well-crafted and imbued with a generous spirit.

6. A Muriel Rukeyser Reader, ed. by Jan Heller Levi
In The Life of Poetry, Rukeyser talks of the influence of Melville and Whitman, one “the poet of outrage”, the other “the poet of possibility”, and we can see both of these influences in her poems. She also speaks of different sorts of unity and embraces the possibility of our coming together, of our finally bringing an end to war.

7. The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, by Walter Mosley
With this novel, Mosley takes us into the mind of ninety-one-year-old Ptolemy Grey, a mind that is fraying at the edges. It is one of the most moving portrayals of aging that I’ve read. Mosley’s novels are always entertaining, but for me as a writer they are also a masterclass in writing craft.

8. [Asian Figures], by W.S. Merwin
Merwin, a prolific and popular poet, a former poet laureate, chose to translate these proverbs from various Asian cultures. He side-steps the thorny question of whether they are poetry, and instead concentrates instead on what they share: brevity, self-containment, and “urge to finality of utterance”. What they also share is humor, wit, and true wisdom.

9. My Name Is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout
This quiet story is not for everyone, but I fell in love with Lucy’s voice. In addition to the voice, what I admire most as a writer is the way Strout releases information. Among the themes of imperfect love and family is the theme of reticence. The story seems to ramble haphazardly, but when I went back and looked more closely, I could see how well crafted it is.

10. How I Live Now, by Meg Rosoff
Fifteen-year-old Daisy arrives in England, sent by her father and new stepmother to visit her aunt, only to find herself embroiled in an invasion. Daisy’s voice is the best thing about the book—surly, smart, funny and vulnerable. We are all flawed beings; Daisy is no different, yet in rising to the occasion she finds an unexpected heroism. I felt privileged to spend these pages with her.

What were the best books you read last year?

3 thoughts on “Best books I read in 2018

  1. Nichael Cramer says:

    To pick one of my favorite books from the last few months.

    – “Words on the Move: Why English Won’t –and Can’t– Stand Still (Like, Literally)” by John McWhorter.
    For the past couple of years a main focus of my reading has been in the area of linguistics. McWhorter is one of the stars in the field, and he’s become one of my all time favorite writers.

    “Words on the Move” deals with topic of how English (and all languages fior that matter) change over time. And, perhaps more to the point, not only _do_ they change, but that they _must_ change if they are to remain a useful means of human communication.

    On the one hand, we are all familiar with how the simple meaning of “concrete” word (e.g. nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc) “drift” over time. For example, “decimate” comes to mean “completely destroy”; “literally” is rapidly becoming primarily used as an intensifier”; common words like “troll” are overtaken by by specialized, sometimes semi-technological, meanings, and so on.

    What is less obvious, but more important to how any language works, is how “concrete” words gradually become used as “grammatical” words. Those small words that form the paste that holds a language together.

    For example, if we needed to come up with a new word that meant something specific, something “concrete” like a noun or a verb, we could do this without much trouble and, although we might need to learn what the word “meant” we could easily learn how to use it (“Mary bought a froob.” “John gribed the apple.”)

    But suppose the issue was adding a new “bit of grammar” to our language? For example how would you come up with, say, a preposition? As an example McWhorter gives the word “back” which originally was used only as a noun in English. But we can imagine how the usage of “back” might drift over time: “The house’s back.” Then “The back of the house.” From there it’s not too big a leap to “The barn is out back of the house”, and suddenly we have a whole new bit of grammar.

    Likewise, there is the phrase “going to” which we use in English to mark future action (“I am going to have supper when I get home”). But this is a fairly recent addition to English. For example, in his plays Shakespeare uses “going to” almost exclusively to mean things along the line of “I am moving from here to there”. But a century later it was commonly used in constructions that had nothing to do with physical motion (“You are going to like Tim when you meet him.”)

    (We can kind see how such a drift might happen. When you say “I am going to New York” you are typically implicitly stating that you are doing something in the future. And as used in common usage the phrase came to mean some sort of futuricity.)

    (In a similar way “will” –“I will drop the ball”–, which originally meant simply something like “I intend [to do X]” came to indicate an action to be performed in the future.)

    Even cooler are the so-called “pragmatic” markers, that is words that don’t so much indicate what a sentence “means”, but rather what the speaker “intends” by the sentence.

    For example, suppose Person A says “Why don’t horses usually get attacked by wolves?” and Person B responds “Well, horses can run fast”.

    Now imagine trying to explain to someone learning English what “Well” means in the second sentence.

    The issue is that, as used here “well” doesn’t have a standard “concrete” meaning –for example, it’s not an adverb (it doesn’t mean “in a goodly manner”) nor is it a noun, like a water well.

    Instead it indicates what Person B “intends” by the sentence. That, roughly, the speaker wants to acknowledge what Person A said, but to introduce new information, perhaps even politely contradicting what has been previously said. In this case, not only the meaning but also the function of the word “well” has drifted significantly.

    OK, I’ve gone on far too long here, so I’ll stop. But this is a fascinating topic, and I highly recommend any of McWhorter’s books.

    • barbara says:

      Interesting. I took linguistics my last year at university (along with Anglo-Saxon, but that’s another story) and wished I’d encountered it sooner. If I’d gone on to grad school right away, that’s what I would have studied.

  2. Nichael Cramer says:

    OK, one more entry here (but I promise I’ll be much shorter. ;-). )

    Another writer I’ve been reading a lot of is Deborah Tannen.

    Tannen’s field is the study of “Coversational Style” (the fifty-cent term is “Discourse Analysis”).

    In brief the idea here is that each social group of people (national, cultural, occupational, familial, even gender or age, etc) has its own way of interacting via speech, and, more specifically its own implicit definitions, conventions and rules for what represents “polite” or “civil” discourse.

    The problem, of course, is that those rules change from group to group in what are usually nonobvious or invisible ways.

    Consequently if someone to whom we are speaking is behaving or interacting in a way which is different from the conventions that our “group” defines as polite –even if the other person is doing their best to be polite according to the rules that they are used to– it can unfortunately because almost reflexively easy to assume that the other person is behaving in an offensive or even deliberately “rude” manner.

    In the worse case this can all too easily end up in situationes in which both parties see themselves as bending over backwards to “get along” but the other person is “only interested in acting like a jerk”.

    I’m admittedly rather over-simplifying her arguments, but here are three of Tannen’s books:
    – “That’s Not What I Meant” (This was Tannen’s first “big hit”, and discussed a broad range of topics.)

    – “You Just Don’t Understand” (This was Tannen’s follow-up to TNWIM, which expands on its chapter on conversation between men and women.)

    – “Conversation Style” (This book predates TNWIM, and is more “textbook-y” than the other two books.)

    Again, all highly recommended to anyone interested in these things.

    [[Yeah, I know, I didn’t stick to my promise to keep it short very well. But once you get me talking about favorite books….]]

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