The major publications have already released their “best of” book lists for the year. But nope, at A Lifely Read, I like to push it to the very, very end. Major newspapers/magazines/websites have a reason for pushing their lists a bit early: No new books are being released at the end of the year and publishers want people to buy books for the holidays. (Did you see the article about printing issues that “derailed” holiday book sales?)
People often create reading challenges for a New Year, so I’m going to frame my Best Books of 2018 List according to the 12 months of the year. These aren’t necessarily the months that I read the books, but you’ll see why I’m slotting them in. Second caveat: Unlike official “best of” books lists, these are not just books published in 2018…I just happened to read them this year. My blog, my rules, okay?
January: Hope Springs Eternal
I selected this book for January partly because of the title. (We are all great believers in January!) But honestly, this is the perfect book to kick off your year. This beautiful and sprawling novel about the AIDS crisis in the 1980s had me completely undone. The Great Believers is the type of book you put down and sigh and think and become a little melancholy when you realize it’s all over. We all aim to be better, kinder, more compassionate people in January – my hope is that the spirit of this book keeps you going. (FYI, it was a National Book Award finalist this year.)
February: Winter Sucks
February is a dreary and bleak month. You need to keep your resolutions through this terrible month! That’s why I would recommend this page-turner. I think I bought this book at Target, knowing very little about it except that it was an Oprah pick. (You may know that I have a love-hate thing for celebrity-endorsed books, but I CHOSE LOVE THIS TIME!) I read this book in 48 hours – it has been a long, long time since I’ve done that. My recommendation is to NOT read the dust jacket/blurb…I didn’t and every page was a treat and surprise. February is Black History Month, so this topical book is also very relevant. (I wrote about this book here, and btw, An American Marriage was also a National Book Award Finalist this year.)
March: Don’t Be Tricked Off the Resolution Treadmill!
Listen, you haven’t reached your “90 days to create a new habit” milestone yet, so DO NOT QUIT NOW. There’s probably some great analogy with marathon training, but seeing as I have not run a marathon, I’m just using “don’t fall off the treadmill.” My January and February books – while far from fluffy – are gripping and the type of tales readers fall into. Now’s the time to go all-in: Scribe is different. In short: It’s about a woman who barters her letter-writing services, i.e. her words. Our protagonist is asked to write a letter for a man who then wants her to dispose of it and “deliver” its memorized contents in person to the recipient. It’s about the power of story, migration, and authoritarianism wrapped up in a dystopian setting. If you’re the type of reader who generally follows bestseller lists, this is going to be different and maybe a bit of a stretch. But at 157 pages, you’re not going to get shin splints…it’s a “safe” stretch. And the cover is really badass.
April: Stop and Smell the Flowers
OK, NOW you’ve reached your 90-day milestone, so here are two books to mix things up a bit.
These two books are memoirs – not normally what I write about or even read – but they are far less autobiography and much more poetry. The prose in both of them is simply beautiful. It’s almost as if Irving and Dillard decided to write their memoirs as novels; there’s plot and nuance and no “…and then I…” or “…the next year…”
In The Gospel of Trees, Irving recounts her childhood, predominantly spent in Haiti with her missionary family. Enjoy her thoughts on what “home” means, Haitian history (really great), and what it feels like to slowly understand the strange, power-tilted situation you live in. I wrote about The Gospel of Trees (in conjunction with From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan) right here.
An American Childhood, Dillard’s acclaimed 1987 memoir about “shedding” childhood is so poignant as Dillard recounts slowly exploring beyond her home and neighborhood as she leaves childhood behind. You can read my thoughts about An American Childhood (in conjunction with The Hate U Give) right here.
May: Pomp and Circumstance (aka You Have Earned the Right to Reflect and/or Brag)
It’s graduation season AND you’ve presumably kept your resolutions. If you’re middle-aged (omg, how did that happen), you may be particularly enthralled by this book about a 40-something artist/teacher who reflects on the “shoulda, coulda” of her life. Goals, dreams, notions of how we are perceived by others. Just the typical stuff of narcissists – which we all are, by the way.
For me, The Woman Upstairs struck a major chord. (Except for the fact that I have a very happy home life.) I think it will, too, for anyone who has a creative, artistic inner life (or at least desires one) and has dreams of figuring out how that works with “real life.”
June: Relax! You Deserve it! (Not really, but this is the lie we tell ourselves, right?!)
This is an oldie, relatively speaking, and I had read it several times before when my eldest was a baby because this was pretty much all I could handle. I read it again this year on a whim. It’s truly lol hilarious – and perhaps more relevant than ever given the #MeToo movement. Chick lit for women who don’t normally go for that – but I think this is a good read for men too.
Anyway, I think June is the time to let yourself indulge a bit. If you’re going to pick something light (ish), make it one that’s smart.
July: Prevent the Mid-Point Slump
It’s summer, but if you go into summer mode with all your books that is like deciding to subsist on burgers and Mai Tais for the rest of the sunny season. Next thing you know, it’s September and you’ll look back wistfully at your Pomp and Circumstance self of May.
This book – Barnes’ latest – is a tale of a “Harold and Maude”-esque cougar relationship, but it’s far from sensational. It’s quiet, and gives readers an opportunity to reflect on who tells your story – and how. (Hey, just like Hamilton! But this book takes place in 1960s England, and no major revolution occurs, unless you count the gentle revolution of a young man discovering love and his place in the world.)
I rarely see Barnes discussed in the Instagram/blog world…why?! He is magnificent! Do yourself a favor and pick ANY of his books to read. I wrote about The Only Story here and The Sense of an Ending (for which he won the Man Booker Prize in 2011) right here.
August: Put Down the Margarita
I just adored this book. Like I Don’t Know How She Does It, Honeyman’s novel is genuinely funny. But it’s sad and relevant and thought-provoking too. (I wrote a bit about it here.) If you’ve found yourself in too much summer mode (which means that you did not follow my advice for July!), then transition out with this book. Smart, funny, and readable: Perfect for the beach.
September: What Feels Like the “Real” New Year
I often think of September as the “real” New Year because of the new school year. (Side note: What is it like for Aussies and New Zealanders, whose school year coincides with the calendar year? Interesting…)
Peace Like a River, Enger’s first novel, is one of my very, very favorites. I try to read it every year or two. He released Virgil Wander this year, and per usual, Enger successfully writes about “spiritual things” (including death, purpose, and “evil”) in such a clever, yet matter-of-fact way. Enger is a Minnesotan, and Virgil Wander boasts a plainspoken vibe mixed with weighty observations. And this book’s first lines is one of my favorites: “Now I think the picture was unspooling all along and I just failed to notice.” This is the perfect book to kick off Autumn, aka the beginning of a crisp, new year.
October: Scare Yourself into Following Through
I don’t really know what Halloween has to do with New Year’s Resolutions. But if you’re feeling stuck, maybe a good scare will help? This book is CA-RAZY! It’s weird and twisted and super well-written. If you want to read a psychological thriller – emphasis on psychological – that illuminates those parts of the human psyche that we all have, well, then this is the book for you. (You can click here to read what I wrote about Eileen.)
Moshfegh’s book My Year of Rest and Relaxation was a huge hit this year, but now that I think about it, it’s been months since I put a hold on that book. Hmmmmm. Goal for 2019: Double check where I am in line for that book at the library.
November: Grateful that You’re Almost There?
I actually did read this book in November – and even over Thanksgiving. Why is this relevant? Tommy Orange is the Native American writer whose debut novel has rocked the publishing world. (November is also Native American Heritage Month. Did you know that? I didn’t. You can read Orange’s thoughts about Thanksgiving here.) Native American voices don’t get prominent “shelf space” in many readers’ repertoires except for maybe the fallen-from-grace Sherman Alexie.
This book is clever with its overlapping storylines and gives readers a look into the lives of “Urban Indians,” a demographic that gets, like, no representation in mainstream media. Throw in some history about the Native American occupation of Alcatraz in 1975, and you’ve got the kind of history/social studies lesson that you didn’t learn in school. (Oh, and There There was ALSO a National Book Award Finalist this year. I should add that I did, in fact, read the winner – The Friend by Sigrid Nunez, but I liked the three finalists I’ve mentioned better.)
December: Stupid Time to Slack Off
OK, I will be honest: I have not yet finished this 952-page tome. But on December 3, I committed to reading Book 1 (approximately 300 pages; I don’t know for sure because I’m reading on a Kindle) by December 31 along with a bunch of people I’ve never met via Instagram. (Totally normal.) I did it! In December! I’m completely fascinated by this book. It’s strange, yet very readable. I always put this in an Infinite Jest (by David Foster Wallace) category: Would like to read, but scared by size. My recommendation is to just do it, and find some people to keep you accountable. In my case, they’re people who are incredibly voracious readers with fascinating insights…in other words, I don’t want to embarrass myself.
Remember, “goals” don’t end on December 31. The point is to keep your good habits going, which is why you should pick something GOOD, and something that will carry you over to 2020.
P.S.Nearly four years ago, I wrote a post I titled Resolute about finishing what we start and why trying new things is important. Life sure has changed a lot for our family in four years; I’m glad I have something “historical” to reflect on. Cheers to 2019!
P.P.S. I posted on Instagram that my challenge to myself in 2019 is to read a Shakespeare play every month and write a little something about each of them. My friend Michelle is going to join me. Let me know if you want to as well! (You can read that Instagram post in its entirety here.)