I measure my reading year from an undefined point in June, because that’s when I started keeping track four years ago, so it is time for the listing of the books, and perhaps some words on what I thought of them. I’ve read more this year than I have in quite a long time, because I work at a bookstore, and I really liked a lot of the things I read, to the point where I wonder, a bit, if I’ve started to read less critically, or if I were really ever reading very critically at all. If the former, it might be a consequence of trying to read more poetry and nonfiction, which requires me, in some ways, to relearn reading. If the latter, well, it’s probably valuable to realize that I am less clever than initially supposed.
Anyway, I’ve included some short reviews of some of my favorite books from this year below, with the complete list at the bottom. This is also the year I fell back in love with comics, but for the sake of space and because I want to go into the subject in more depth, I’m not reviewing any of the series comics that I read in collected trades. If you have any questions about any title on this list, whether I talked about it or not, I assure you I’d be delighted to discuss what I think. To see what I’m reading and get an abstract idea of what I thought of a book without any explanation of what makes the difference between three and four stars, follow me on Goodreads.
I’m…still learning how to read poetry. I can read the words aloud and feel, for a moment, the author’s voice, but mostly poetry washes right over me. I’m still trying to figure out how to talk about poetry, too, so let me just say that Karyna’s poetry, and I mean the whole collection, made me feel a bit like this makes me feel – which is, I think, a good quality for poetry to have.
I’ll keep practicing.
This little book is one of the most affecting memoirs I’ve ever read. Fink is maybe best known for her erotic comic Chester 5000 XYV, and this graphic novel starts out with Fink going back in time looking for her Best Sexy Moments. The art and writing are hilarious, but Fink also explores some deeply upsetting and traumatic events in her life through the conceit of going back to “fix” them. She very deftly handles a silly premise and what are clearly difficult memories in a way that is both very funny and deeply moving.
This book follows three free-running Chicago teens through a violent tragedy that sets them off on wildly different trajectories that test their tight friendship. Part murder mystery, part comic book fantasy, it’s a very smart, sensitive, and grounded story of grief, mental illness, and the volatility of friendship. Avasthi takes several risky gambles that all paid off, for me at least, resulting in a book that is both entertaining and powerful.
I can’t remember the last time I recommended a book before I finished reading it, but Jemisin’s writing grabbed me from the first page and didn’t let me go until I finished writing my fan letter. This novel shifts the real-world center of epic fantasy from Western Europe to a fantastic analog of cosmopolitan Egypt, with characters of every shade and social class featuring in a plot of international intrigue, religious assassination, and sorcerous atrocity that somehow remains character-driven and personal even as the stakes become ever more global. I love this book, and it, more than anything else, has rekindled my interested of fantasy literature.
Subtitled “a memoir of amnesia”, David is put in the position of having to methodically reassemble himself after losing his memory in India, and he doesn’t always like the self he finds. I hate to call it a “journey of self-discovery” but that is what it is, in a very literal sense, in a way that is both intensely singular to MacLean’s life and speaks directly to that which is damaged in all of us.
In order to tell the story of Henrietta Lacks, Skloot has to gain the trust of her family, and she inevitably becomes a part of the story as she sets out to find the human being behind a wealth of scientific progress. Skloot crafts the story of a woman, a cell, a family, and the science that momentarily and then forever after affected their lives, and all of our lives, in a way that is coherent, engaging, and illuminating.
7. West with the Night by Beryl Markham
I stumbled across this book completely by accident at a farmers’ market, with its politely edited blurb by Ernest Hemingway, and got completely blown away by the first page. Markham’s writing is wry and meditative and elegant, especially when she talks about solo flight over the African bush or the nighttime Atlantic. She is an insightful and incisive commentator on the colonial Kenya that was her lifelong home, making the sort of observations about English nationalism and elephant hunting that may be why Hemingway to call her a “high-grade bitch” in the same breathe with which he describes her as a brilliant writer and himself as a mere “carpenter with words”. It’s an expressive memoir of flight, horses, lions, and adventure, and is now be one of my favorite books.
8. The Brutal Language of Love by Alicia Erian
Erian’s writing is stark, giving an unembellished, documentarian authenticity to stories of sex and love and more complicated things that look very much like them. She writes with clear, deceptive simplicity, like Carver at his best. Where Junot Diaz‘s writing in This is How You Lose Her feels conversational and intimate, Erian describes intimacy with very little warmth, and somehow because of that conveys something that is beautiful because it is true.
Like Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, Vaughn’s story takes us to a contemporary world in which the gods and heroes of legend are real, although Discord’s Apple has altogether grander stakes than American Gods aspires to. Vaughn combines comic books, Arthurian lore, the Iliad, and other myths with genuine familial and personal tragedy in a near-future setting just a few steps ahead of our own. I loved her protagonist, and her Arthur, and her gods and almost-gods, old and new. My only complaint, really, was that at the end of the story, I wanted so much for Mako’s voice to say “But that is another story…”
As I explained elsewhere, I have little interest in serial killer stories, and I rarely have the patience for time travel. The Shining Girls approaches both subjects with a deliberation and understanding that works, and works so well that I found it hard to put down. The killer stalks Chicago’s history for his victims, but when he gets sloppy, one of his would-be victims starts hunting him in turn. Beukes writes a wholly unconventional killer thriller, with a compelling heroine, a vicious villain, and a structure that is simultaneously mind-bending and accessible.
It seemed almost strange to read about feminist subjects in a short collection of essays instead of on the Internet, where 90% of my feminist education has come from. Covering familiar topics from what is now commonly called “mansplaining” and the widespread violence against women to a more esoteric exploration of the unknown in the work of Virginia Woolf and its connection to hope, Solnit’s words and ideas challenged me as a man, a feminist, and an ally to be and do more.
The first page drops the reader immediately into a gritty, alien world of murder and temple-sanctioned bareknuckle boxing matches, where bugs power the machines and serve at the command of magicians, and it’s sink or swim, for the characters and the reader. God’s War is brilliant and brutal, with the stark violence of a 70’s western and the backstabbing drama of a 30’s noir. The setting is dominated by hard women and soft men, a seemingly endless war between variations of brown skin and Islamic faith, and life traded cheaply to governments and gene pirates. This book was the best kind of neo-noir action movie. Parker would be proud.
Loosely structured as a general business self-help book, in truth this short novel is much more ambitious. It is moving and honest and beautiful, in the same category as a book like The Unbearable Lightness of Being in terms of scope and heart. I would never have guessed I would recommend a book written in the second person, but it is a brilliantly executed piece of fiction, from start to finish, and you really must give it a chance.
14. The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle
Simply one of the best books ever written, a fantasy that embraces and subverts its genre without apparent effort, but which is so expertly crafted that every line feels completely, utterly true. Unicorns, in the novel, are more real than the rest of us seemingly real creatures, and this novel is more real than other, apparently more realistic novels. I don’t believe in magic, but if there were such a thing, it would work exactly like this. Required reading.
Books Read: Year 4
1. Collected Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay
2. I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl: Poems by Karyna McGlynn
3. We Can Fix It! by Jess Fink
4. Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama
5. Legacy by Greg Bear
6. Myths of Origin by Catherynne M. Valente
7. Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord
8. The Fight by Norman Mailer
9. This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz
10. Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened by Allie Brosh
11. The Barefoot Emperor: An Ethiopian Tragedy by Philip Marsden
12. She by H. Rider Haggard
13. Blasphemy: New and Selected Stories by Sherman Alexie
14. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
15. The Mongols by David Morgan
16. Bossypants by Tina Fey
17. Feed by Mira Grant
18. Madame de Pompadour: Mistress of France by Christine Pevitt
19. Drift by Rachel Maddow
20. Stories and Prose Poems by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
21. The Encyclopedia of Early Earth by Isabel Greenberg
22. Chasing Shadows by Swati Avasthi
23. Thrilling Adventure Hour by Ben Acker
24. The Killing Moon by N. K. Jemisin
25. Saga vol 1 and 2 by Brian K Vaughn
26. Old Man’s War by John Scalzi
27. Hawkeye vol 1: My Life as a Weapon and 2: Little Hits by Matt Fraction
28. The Answer to the Riddle is Me by David MacLean
29. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
30. View with a Grain of Sand by Wislawa Symborska
31. All the Windwracked Stars by Elizabeth Bear
32. Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford
33. A Brief History of Witchcraft by Lois Martin
34. Boneshaker by Cherie Priest
35. West with the Night by Beryl Markham
36. The Brutal Language of Love by Alicia Erian
37. Discord’s Apple by Carrie Vaughn
38. The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
39. The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan
40. The Harlem Hellfighters by Max Brooks
41. The Hunter by Richard Stark
42. The Society of Timid Souls; Or, How to Be Brave by Polly Morland
43. Conan and the Spider God by L. Sprague de Camp
44. Chew, vol 1: Taster’s Choice by John Layman
45. Fatale, vol 1: Death Chases Me by Ed Brubaker
46. Congratulations By the Way: Some Thoughts on Kindness by George Saunders
47. Vampires in the Lemon Grove and Other Stories by Karen Russell
48. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
49. Kraken: The Curious, Exciting, and Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid by Wendy Williams
50. Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit
51. Locke & Key, vol 1: Welcome to Lovecraft by Joe Hill
52. God’s War by Kameron Hurley
53. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid
54. Pretty Deadly, vol 1 by Kelly Sue DeConnick
55. Conservation of Shadows by Yoon Ha Lee
56. When the Cheering Stopped: The Last Years of Woodrow Wilson by Gene Smith
57. New Mutants Classic, Vol 1 by Chris Claremont
58. The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle
59. Sex Criminals, vol 1: One Weird Trick by Matt Fraction
60. Abina and the Important Men by Trevor R. Getz
61. Living with a Wild God by Barbara Ehrenreich
62. Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems by Billy Collins