To start, a list of the books I enjoyed very, very much:
I expected to like Lydia Kiesling’s debut novel, The Golden State, not only because she is my friend, but because I only made her be my friend after reading her genius nonfiction on this very website. However, I did not like the book. That puny, superficial word doesn’t portray my experience with this powerful, singular work. Never! The novel’s anxiety-laced vulnerability, its at once mundane and urgent first person narration, was a revelation. Of course! This is what parenting a young child is like! The novel begins, “I am staring out the window of my office thinking about death when I remember the way Paiute smells in the early morning in the summer before the sun burns the dew off the fescue.” Its brilliance never lets up.
My favorite nonfiction book of the year was Like a Mother: A Feminist Journey Through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy by Angela Garbes. In her book, Garbes shares her personal experiences as a pregnant person and mother, and balances these with larger investigations into the history and science of reproduction, pregnancy loss, childbirth, breastfeeding, and so on. Her writing is accessible and compassionate, and filled with wonder at the miracle of the female body. (I get it! The placenta, for instance. HOLY SHIT.) Garbes’s project takes on political weight as it becomes increasingly clear how the medical and scientific communities have ignored and/or devalued women, especially black and brown women, which is perhaps why it’s taken this long to get a book this good.
This summer I found myself about to get on a plane without a book. The horror! I ran into the nearest Hudson Gum and Magazine Store and bought the first novel that looked the least egregious. I have to admit, I wasn’t planning to read Less by Andrew Sean Greer. Sure, it won the Pulitzer, but I’d read and not cared for a previous novel of his, and the premise, about a writer trying to avoid his ex-boyfriend’s wedding by accepting every literary invitation to come his way, and thus traveling the world, sounded annoying. Writers! Who cares? Well, turns out, I do. Less was by such a delight: funny and moving, with paragraphs that made me weak. The writing made me at once jealous and full of joy. Everyone and their mom has read this book, but if you’ve resisted, please just give in and read it. Here’s a taste: Greer describes a jellyfish as “a pink frothing brainless negligeed monster pulsing in the water.” Negligeed. Isn’t that perfect?
For professional events, I re-read two books that I had the pleasure of reading for the blurb-industrial-complex the year before: Invitation to a Bonfire by Adrienne Celt and And Now We Have Everything by Meaghan O’Connell. Celt’s second novel takes its inspiration from Vladimir and Véra Nabokov’s famed marriage: it’s got sex, intrigue, a vicious all girls boarding school in 1920s New Jersey, and lines like, “On a budget, eggs are the perfect food, until they’re not.” It’s delicious and smart and I want HBO to adapt it into a mini-series. O’Connell’s is a collection of funny, irreverent, cry-fest-inducing essays about becoming pregnant by accident at age 29, and follows her pregnancy and the beginning of her son’s life. Yep, another motherhood book, and a necessary one. In the tradition of A Life’s Work by Rachel Cusk, And Now We Have Everything doesn’t hold a single thing back in its mission to convey the mindfuckery that is becoming a parent for the first time.
I read these and many other wonderful books in 2018 all by my lonesome: in the bath or in bed or over lunch, or, as mentioned, on an airplane. My favorite reading experience, however, occurred with another person—my son, who turned seven in June. Most of the time, since I am busy putting his sister to bed, or making school lunches, or hiding in the corner with my phone, he reads alone or with his dad. However, a few times this year, I took over. Have you recently read a chapter book to a child? Sometimes they cuddle. Sometimes they wipe their snot on your shoulder. Sometimes they pace the room as you narrate. Sometimes you have to argue about the division of labor (in our house, it’s supposed to be two pages per person, back and forth). The experience is different from reading a picture book, for there is no shared visual to comment upon; it’s a comforting alone-together feeling, each of us projecting images inside our own brains as we read from the text.
Together we’ve read Because of Winn-Dixie, and the first Harry Potter, and began the new translation of The Odyssey (but, I admit, stalled out at Book 3). My favorite book I got to read with him, though, was Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I love the beauty of the sequel, the more famous Little House on the Prairie (there is an image of the stars in the sky that pretty much ruined me…), but Wilder’s racist depiction of the Osage Indians—and the fact that the family is taking their land—is, though an important history lesson, not my favorite book to share with my kid.
Little House in the Big Woods, however, takes place in Wisconsin, before the family moves to “Indian Country” and it offers some of the same pleasures as the later, more problematic books, including detailed-yet-simple descriptions of their everyday tools and domestic duties. We learn how Ma colors the butter with some carrot-soaked milk, and how Laura and her sister Mary get a pig bladder to toss around like a ball, and how to smoke some Venison in the hollow of a tree. Wilder’s prose is clear and easy for a young reader, but it’s not without its poetry. The final paragraphs are the best thing I read all year:
“She thought to herself, “This is now.”
She was glad that the cozy house, and Pa and Ma and the fire-light and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.”
Reading these words, I recalled what it was like to be a child, to be seven again, my son’s age. I didn’t just think about it, I felt it.
What a gift reading is.
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