Inauguration Day was, in the eyes of most people I know, a horrifying day. The poison of hate had taken control of our political system, and it touched us whether we voted for it or not. Thus, the year that followed was for many—even those who sprang into civic action on the right side of history—lived in a state of foul bitterness.
In precise tandem with that political trauma, I happened to receive a shock to my physical system. Hours after the inauguration ceremony, which I had refused watch, I was in an emergency room with a rare, painful infection that progressed far enough to initiate liver failure. I fully recovered from that weeks-long illness, but it set the tone for the resistance I would undertake for the rest of the year. My scary hospitalization was a reminder, for me, that living to fight—to write—another day is reason to not just resist but to be glad.
In the face of such an assault on decency as the current political leadership, there is perhaps no greater act of resistance than to appreciate our lives, even as we fight back against the forces that tear at us. To see beauty in this place called Earth and the broken beings with whom we share it for a short while. To read and write the books that the most corrupted of them would burn.
Here is what I read or re-read this past year. It is a list in which I now see the simultaneous peaceful reveling and spirited reckoning that I hope might save this democracy in peril in 2018.
A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit
A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle
We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation by Jeff Chang
Collected Poems by Jack Gilbert
Dark Money by Jane Mayer
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town by Brian Alexander
Gorilla and the Bird: A Memoir of Madness and a Mother’s Love by Zack McDermott
Healing the Soul of America: Reclaiming Our Voices as Spiritual Citizens by Marianne Williamson
Homing Instincts: Early Motherhood on a Midwestern Farm by Sarah Menkedick
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America, edited by Samhita Mukhopadhyay and Kate Harding
Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder
On Beauty and Being Just by Elaine Scarry
PrairyErth: A Deep Map by William Least Heat-Moon
Revolution by Russell Brand
Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, edited by Manjula Martin
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Someplace Like America: Tales from the New Great Depression by Dale Maharidge
Tales of Two Americas: Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation, edited by John Freeman
The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby
The Clancys of Queens by Tara Clancy
The Dorothy Day Book: A Selection from Her Writings and Readings, edited by Margaret Quigley and Michael Garvey
The Editor and His People by William Allen White
The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir by Kao Kalia Yang
The River of Consciousness by Oliver Sacks
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
The Great Divide: Second Thoughts on the American Dream by Studs Terkel
The Guns of August: The Outbreak of World War I by Barbara W. Tuchman
The Invention of News: How the World Came to Know About Itself by Andrew Pettegree
The Kansas Guidebook for Explorers 2 by Marci Penner and WenDee Rowe
Women as Healers: Cross-Cultural Perspectives, edited by Carol Shepherd McClain
Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés
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David Heatley is a cartoonist and musician living in Queens, NY. His work has appeared on the cover of The New Yorker, in The New York Times, and in numerous anthologies, including McSweeney’s, Kramer’s Ergot and Best American Comics. His graphic memoir My Brain is Hanging Upside Down from Pantheon Books is available now from Pantheon and Jonathan Cape. A 6-song mini-LP soundtrack to the book, produced by Grammy award-winner Peter Wade is available on iTunes. More info at davidheatley.com.Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky. I read Brothers throughout last year while reading mostly non-fiction books. It’s become one of my favorite novel of all time, tied for now with Anna Karenina. These books knock my socks off. Maybe it’s the Christian thing I’m drawn to. Both Doestoevsky and Tolstoy believe that every character is worthy of loving attention, generous description and true understanding. It’s refreshing in an age of hate and fear politics, and in a culture full of genre heroes and villains. I also just love the form of these classic Russian novels. I can’t seem to read any contemporary fiction lately. I’m allergic to all those adjectives. I feel smothered by the language. But Tolstoy and Doestevsky, with their short chapters made for serializing in a newspaper, their unabashed moral center, their razor sharp insight into human emotion, their gripping tabloid-worthy dramas, that’s the stuff for me.Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert & A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle. I’m really into mass culture and have been since I was a little kid. In my teens and early twenties I tried to make myself forget that I love big, dumb, flashy, optimistic American music and art. I tried to convince myself I liked sad, depressive, nihilistic fringe art. The more difficult and narrow the better. But in the last few years, I started to remember what I really love. I hope I don’t forget again. It blows my mind that these two books could have such a huge place in pop culture. Gilbert’s book was the best page-turner I’ve read in years, but it was talking about indelible spiritual matters, like selfless service, unconditional love, prayer and meditation. How did she pull that off? I don’t have a lot of words for what Tolle’s books mean to me. His work has been nothing short of life-altering. He’s given me a clear direction towards which to grow. I need voices like his, speaking to the part of me that resides deeper than the incessant chatter in my head or the surface layer of communication which passes for intimacy in most of my relationships.New Engineering by Yuichi Yokoyama. Published by Brooklyn-based Picture Box (arguably the most exciting comics publisher in operation today), this first book by Japanese cartoonist Yuichi Yokoyama is a revelation. Yokoyama has worked in relative obscurity for most of his career. He seems to regard himself as primarily a conceptual artist who happens to make comic books, citing Sol LeWitt as a primary influence. From reading the interview at the back of the book, I gleaned that his stated purpose is to make stories devoid of emotion or personality. I think that’s impossible, since I believe everything is either conscious or unconscious autobiography. But the product of this experiment of his is utterly fascinating. What appears to be a chase scene straight out of a manga book, complete with samurai swords drawn, quickly becomes a meditation on physical objects and space. The man running from the pursuers winds up in a library and begins hurling books to defend himself. What follows is panel after panel of books being sliced, pages falling through the air in graceful arcs. He seems to explore every permutation of what form a falling, shredded book might take. At the end of the story, the last page floats to the floor and the chase continues off the page. What exactly did we just witness? Who was the protagonist? The books? Other stories are just a series of silent panels showing things being built: rocks crushed, astroturf rolled out, canals dug, water poured. No human interaction with the environment until the last page. Suddenly, characters wearing bizarre, other-worldly costumes celebrate their accomplishment with ridiculously flat dialogue as the fluorescent lights are flicked on. There are no traditional story arcs to any of these works. These stories, despite themselves, are very funny and still work on me at an emotional level. What’s so exciting is that I can’t quite identify what the emotion is or begin to articulate it.Paul Goes Fishing by Michael Rabagliati. Michael Rabagliati is a wonderful cartoonist from Canada who has been publishing his series of “Paul” books with Drawn and Quarterly over the last decade. This latest one is also his best. The artwork, which has always been soothing, consistent and classic without resorting to nostalgia, has been dialed up a notch. His renderings of campsites surrounded by trees, reflective surfaces of lakes, the musty cabins themselves are nothing short of masterful. His work has achieved a perfect balance between realistic detail and cartoon abstraction, which leaves enough room for the reader to inhabit the space and make it his own. The story itself is a complete surprise. It starts off as a pitch perfect ode to the period just following marriage but before parenthood. He captures the friendship and almost brother-sister bond of the newlyweds, complete with in-jokes, teasing, and sweet affection. He also renders perfectly the passage of time on vacation: languid blissful days on a boat, long conversations between friends, the curious and sometimes mischievous games children invent, and the maddeningly long days spent indoors, searching for a relief from boredom during a thunderstorm. There’s little in the way of dramatic emotion, lust or sex here, which is rare but welcome in an “adult” comic book. Slowly it begins to dawn on us that the couple are in fact getting ready to have their own baby. Tragically, the trip is cut short as the couple faces the first in a series of miscarriages. We are shown the horrible details of the D&C procedure. It is shocking to be here after spending more than half of the book in the idyllic woods. Only a page or two are devoted to Paul’s attempt at praying, but it’s enough and it’s terribly moving. By the third time, the pregnancy is a success and we feel all the relief and joy that the author must have at the arrival of his own baby. Rabagliati ends the book with Paul’s trip to the church to give thanks in case it really was his prayer that made the difference. I hope more people spread the word about this heartfelt, understated and rich book. I know I’ll be reading it several more times and studying all its wonderful contours and complexities.More from A Year in Reading 2008