2018: A Year Lived, With Books

Did we ever love? Nonetheless I like the sentiment. Michigan Avenue north of the bridge: a territory into which I rarely venture. August 2018.

I said I’d list some of my favorite diverse books this year, and then never got around to it: getting around to things is, sometimes, not my forte. (Other times it is.) I also planned to do some sort of stock-taking, much as I did last year—and so, as 2018 winds to its tumultuous end, I’ve decided to combine the two. 2018 was a year that I lived—that you lived, too—and 2019 will be another, and here are some of the books that came on the ride and were my favorites, for whatever reason, this year.

Before I should launch into the books (and the writing! I’m trying to get to my hundred rejections, so I can get to actual publication!), I should note that in some ways 2018 has been an incredibly good one, for me, despite the continual crash-and-burn of my country and my world. (My patriotism screams, here: I’d like to believe my Awful Ancestors, or at least the Yankees among them, believed in Something Better, as they fought and bled in the name of this country that wasn’t even yet a country—and I’d really like to believe that this isn’t where they’d want to see us, as 2018 bleeds away into 2019.)

After nearly four years on the academic job hunt, and eternal despair, and an incredibly toxic situation, I am now working full-time in academe. I feel like a person with worth; I’m even writing more. That said: I always, always have a plan for what comes next in my life, and I am making plans now. Because, you know, I saw the way my father’s employer chewed him up and spit him out, and I’ve watched what goes down in music, and I’ll be damned if I, too, will be chewed up and spit out and left to drown. (I am not a trusting person.) So here’s to my career, I guess, which seems an awfully arrogant thing to say, but also a wonderful one.

Also I totally beat my 2018 Goodreads challenge! I set it at 85, which is probably pathetic considering I once read close to two hundred books by May—but I was also working nineteen hours a week then, and spending the rest of my time job-hunting (and reading). But as a dyslexic, reading is a bit more closely tied to my stress levels—and, therefore, to what’s going on around me—than I might like. My reading over the past two years—and the past two Goodreads challenges—has very much fit this pattern.

In 2017, when I just made it over my one hundred book threshold, I’d already begun to see the effects of a toxic workplace—and an individual who went through my library holds—on my ability to read. It got much worse in the first eight months of 2018—and then took a wild turn, beginning in October. In September, according to Goodreads, I finished three books. (I was just getting used to a new job, after all.) In October, there were five—and in November, ten.

December has brought eighteen thus far, and I may yet finish another on this rainy final day of the year. So, in short, when I don’t feel as if I’m going to drop dead from the stress of my workplace (which is, unfortunately, not a hyperbolic statement, in this case), I focus better and read a lot more, likely in part because I can. It also means, of course, that I have a lot of marvelous books to choose from, as I discuss some of my favorites of the year. Now, I’m pretty much The Worst™ at choosing favorites (or rating things), and so I’ll go by categories this year.

I’m not quite sure how to categorize Carl Hiassen’s Assume the Worst: The Graduation Speech You’ll Never Hear, but I thought it was pretty much the best. The worst is coming, or the worst is here, and I guess I was thrilled to find that someone agreed. It was inspiring (to me), and hilarious, and I didn’t feel so alone, reading it, and what more can anyone ask of anything, than that? Battleground Chicago: The Police and the 1968 Democratic National Convention was, while distinctly horrifying, another of the best books I read in 2018. I’ve already written about it—and about the ’68 Democratic National Convention—and so I won’t go into any great depth here, but to say that it is a frightening drumbeat of weaponized nostalgia, and a reminder of the ways in which class, race, and gender can interact—and blow up. It’s scary, it’s good, it should be read alongside the Walker Report, and it’s one of my top books of 2018, for sure.

It’s a bit hard to rate most of the nonfiction I’ve finished this year. (And finished is the proper word, here: I’ve read bits and pieces of a lot of other works as well.) I’ve read some amazing books about fashion, and others about the mechanics of writing (and selling one’s writing), about birth and changing cultures and about neighborhoods and enclaves of Chicago—many, many neighborhoods, Bridgeport and Lake View, East Lake View and Chicago’s Gold Coast, Puerto Rican Chicago and Irish Chicago, and then German Chicago once, and also revisited.

I’ve delved into what Chicago wore to get married, and what its wealthy trend setters wore to live; I’ve read Grounded Identidad, which delves into Puerto Ricans in Chicago, and have paged through my copies of Brown in the Windy City and so many others. And, the thing is, they’re what I need, and what I’ve carefully selected—because, you see, I read for research, for world-building, for structure and personality and vendettas for the characters whose lives tumble out onto my pages, and so each of them is, in their way, the Best Book. (You see? I suck at reviewing.)

My fiction is a bit less methodical: I read, there, for pleasure. (And did you know that Creepy Pair of Underwear and Ta-Da! are both quite charming? Or that A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo is actually a very sweet little book?) The Book of Polly is still so funny I cry (and still reminds me, very much, of my family’s gleeful grudge-holding). Sarah Gailey’s River of Teeth series remains crisp and fresh and incredible, and I can’t wait to read her Magic for Liars, coming from Tor in June 2019. Of this year’s romances, I’ve most enjoyed Sonali Dev and Alyssa Cole and Jasmine Guillory, so very, very much, and also The Kiss Quotient, although Guillory and Cole and Dev spoke more to where I was and needed to be, this particular year.

Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver is a work of perfection, for this time and this place but also for the next time and the next place, delving into hate and ambition and anti-semitism in the midst of beautiful writing and exquisite perspective shifts and a land of myth and wonder that is also painfully real. I said once that J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter is not my favorite set of work: that falls mostly to Strike, and Lethal White was a magnificent entry in the series. I loved The Bear and the Nightingale, and The Women in the Castle, though that carried little optimism and much to consider, in our grim world.

I’ve read Susanna Kearsley’s books for some years now, and was delighted to see Bellewether—and to see that her characters have finally tumbled over into the modern world, cell phones and all. The Frame-Up is kind of a mess—I noted the privilege in its interactions with the cops, for instance—but, holy cow, I don’t often laugh that hard over any book, and it was good, in an ugly year, to be able to laugh until I cried. Nicole Rivas’s A Bright and Pleading Dagger struck me as tiny pieces of perfection, and stays with me even more tightly than did Carmen María Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties. In other tiny fiction pieces, I was delighted to see that the incomparable Sandra Cisneros had written another book—and the tiny chapbook Puro Amor did not disappoint. I’ve read P. Djèlí Clark’s work before, and the novella The Black God’s Drums lived up to A Dead Djinn in Cairo, another incredible little piece of worldbuilding.

But this has also been a year of incredible young adult works. I’ve re-read Maggie Stiefvater’s incredible Raven Boys cycle, about which I’ve written before. Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation, the first book of a planned series, is without a doubt one of the best books I have read this year, smart and sharp in its social commentary and filled with action and believable teens. Clare LeGrand’s Sawkill Girls steps into the wonder and horror of adolescence, and of growing into womanhood, and I thought it was magnificent. (I also really liked her Furyborn, in case you’re wondering. Lots of action! Am looking forward to ) As Strange the Dreamer was one of my favorites in 2017, so was Muse of Nightmares one of my favorites in 2018. (I really love Laini Taylor.)

Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Hearts Unbroken takes readers through the world of Louise Wolfe, dentist’s daughter, average teenager, and member of the Muscogee Nation. One of the criticisms I’ve seen is that Louise is, like, immature and stuff, and I mean, if I’m being kind I can say that this is hilarious—she’s a teenager, and teens are generally immature. If I’m not, I could point out that it’s interesting we even expect greater maturity of Native characters. That said, I love Hearts Unbroken (and I’m not the only one), and I think that one of the things that makes it great is its depiction of Louise, and her brother, as teens in our modern world.

I had a similar reaction to the equally incredible You’re Welcome, Universe, by Whitney Gardner and winner of the 2018 Schneider Family Book Award. I’ve never read an avowedly own-voices narrative of the Deaf community, and it was wonderful—and also an incredible novel, all round. Once again, though, I’d like to point out that teenagers are teenagers are teenagers, and, just like me when I was a teenager, they are kind of immature. It’s par for the course and so on and so forth. Earlier in the read I read Randa Abdel-Fattah’s The Lines We Cross: painful, intense, and, I think, intensely important—especially in our increasingly xenophobic world. (It’s set in Australia, but is equally important here in the U.S.)

Then I have two, here, which some folks might categorize as fantasy or magical realism, and which I did not. Years ago, in a Mexican literature class, a professor called us all out on our Eurocentrism: it wasn’t fantasy, he said, or even magical realism, not until the very end, when the villain crumbles into rock. It was folk belief, and that isn’t fantastical. It’s just what people believe. And I’ve thought about that a lot, both in relation to that particular novel (one of my favorites, Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo) and in relation to texts I read that delve into other’s beliefs. And so, you see, though I know people who might classify them differently, I will tell you that both Ibi Zoboi’s magnificent American Street and her brilliant, charming Pride, a Brooklyn-set retelling of Pride and Prejudice, are realism—and are also some of my best of 2018.

Then, to tie it off—because (nearly) every book is Best Book, and I’ve read ninety-eight this year, and you can see them all at my Goodreads challenge—I’ve enjoyed Sleepless, because it’s pretty and has action, and The Death of Stalin, because it’s horrid and hilarious, and I need to read more graphic novels in 2019, for sure. And I finally read—all in a day, or, rather, considerably less—Northwood, the first book launch I’ve attended (or attended in years), making it special, as well as intense. Really, I should probably do a recap of my favorites every six months or so, because I can’t choose favorites for anything, and also because I do read rather a lot.

I’m still terrible at New Year’s resolutions, because I think they’re kind of absurd. I still think that the world is burning, probably worse than before. But I’m in a slightly better place than I was, last year at this time, and I’m going to try to run with it: to take in more culture (I saw the Newberry Consort‘s A Mexican Christmas!), and to read diversely, again, and to push myself a bit more. I’m presumably still cold and logical and Slytherin, so that’s a glorious thing that never changes. (I’ve even been told that I am Very INTJ, which is rather hilarious given that Myers-Briggs is garbage science and/or pseudoscience, take your pick.) Oh, and I have some amazing new research books coming in, from Haymarket and the University of Illinois Press. It’s gonna be a great year in books, you guys.

Happy 2019! Let’s try for something better, this year. (And enjoy 2018’s most popular gifs thanks to Giphy!)