My Favorite Reads from 2018

Good day! I thought it would be nice to share with everyone some of my 5 star books from 2018. I get a little verbose about some of them, but hopefully y’all enjoy and find some books to add to your own reading list!

The Power by Naomi Alderman: It’s difficult to even know where to start with this review — having attempted to explain the book I was reading to several people I found it was quite difficult to explain it without giving away the story and characters. The best I’ve been able to come up with was, “It’s a huge middle finger to all those MRA jerk offs who think feminism is oppressing them. It’s like it’s saying ‘you don’t know what oppression looks like. Here, let me show you…'” The role reversal in gender-based oppression was honestly chilling, at some moments thrilling in a vengeful way but more often deeply unsettling or outright disturbing. I’ve been recommending this book with the caveat of a hundred trigger warnings, especially for male survivors of sexual violence. The framing device of the novel adds a really interesting layer to the story as well — pitching it as a historical fiction novel by a man living in this role-reversed world, imaging how such gender-based oppression could have come to be. This framing casts an almost absurdist glare over the oppression and violence perpetrated and suffered by both sexes in the novel, just shy of stating the abject, horrifying absurdity of the gender based violence and oppression that is acted out in our own real world.

MaddAdam and Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood:

I didn’t realize MaddAdam was the last of a trilogy when I started listening to it, but figured that out very quickly. Even though I accidentally skipped the first two books I was able to catch on rather quickly to what was going on, as the world building is just that effective. It’s written so clearly and vividly, with alterations in point of view fleshing out the narrative and the world. I’m excited to read the other books as well!

Hag-Seed is a fascinating modern retelling of The Tempest, with a solid dose of the meta mixed in. I can’t say much without going into detail about what happens, But there are at least two different renderings of The Tempest captured within this one story, and it’s woven in a way which is honestly quite a bit more sensible than the original play and expands much upon its charms.

Dream Girl by Clementine von Radics: This is one that I returned to this year after having initially purchased it at a reading by von Radics and immediately read it front to back. Having had the pleasure of hearing Clementine von Radics read her poetry made the experience of reading this collection all the richer. The poems touch on so many experiences and they are so blunt and real — chronic illness, the violence endured by the female body, substance use, death, healing and recovery… I look forward to the day that my nieces are old enough that I can pass this along to them.

Between the World and Me and The Beautiful Struggle by Ta-Nehisi Coates:

I wish Between the World and Me was required reading in high schools everywhere. This book brought me to the point of tears repeatedly. It is clear, it is concise, it is powerful, it is humanizing of issues that for many white people across the nation are only theoretical.

The Beautiful Struggle is absolutely beautiful, moving, and deeply thoughtful and reflective. It’s a fantastic glimpse into the youth of Black Panther writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and the relationships and education that shaped him.

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut: This book is so strange and charming, an unexpected quality in a book about the cruelty and brutality of war. In a way the charming strangeness of the novel both makes the horror of the war more palatable, but it also provides a stark contrast, serving also to make that horror more jarring. It’s a unique take on the war novel, effective and engaging. I’ll definitely be recommending it to anyone who hasn’t yet read it.

Beloved by Toni Morrison: Though a bit hard to follow in audiobook format (I’ve been listening to books at work and on road trips lately), this novel is absolutely stunning. Beautifully written, emotionally and psychologically evocative, it’s perhaps one of the most powerful novels I’ve encountered in quite some time. Novels like this are the ones that made me want to teach literature. I’ll definitely be returning to this novel eventually — in hardback format.

Love Letter to Self by Giselle Buchanan: So beautiful, this is one to be read, re-read, and re-read again if you can get your hands on it. Bright paintings, drawings, and gorgeous, crisp photographs accompany poetry centered around honoring and healing. Definitely keeping it at my bedside for a long while to come.

Kinda Like Brothers by Coe Booth: This book does a really amazing job of introducing and looking at very real, very heavy issues in modern America. It takes a hard look especially at the educational system and the way it fails students who struggle to keep up (“no child left behind” was always laughable) but it also manages to work in a cold hard look at the way police profile black men — even black boys in sixth grade.

This book was actually pulled from the Battle of the Books reading list during the 2016-17 school year at the school I currently work at. The English teacher encouraged me to read it for this reason, and to consider the reasons it might have been pulled. It’s hard to say exactly, because despite the things the book looks at (child abuse and neglect, racism and racial profiling, a critical assessment of the education system, mental illness and poverty) it’s hardly particularly explicit in any of these subjects. They are addressed and discussed enough to drive the point home but it pulls back just enough to keep it “safe” for the young reader. Is it the criticism of the educational system that prompted the administration to pull it? Was the blatant address of racism in police policy too provocative for a conservative small town? Would the mentions of abuse and neglect hit too close to home in a town steeped in poverty?

I’m not entirely sure, but I do wish this book had been kept on the list. The issues it addresses are important and vital to discuss with kids. The way it addresses those issues is incredibly honest without making them inappropriate or unapproachable to a young audience. It handles all of these very heavy issues with surprising grace, so that the various threads of the narrative come together seamlessly rather than becoming too convoluted.

Ultimately I ended up reading this book with a group of 5 students in 6th grade. My students LOVED it. That cannot be understated. The book provides plenty of opprotunities to discuss major social issues of our time, in an accessible way which students can easily connect with and understand. Teachers who overheard us reading and discussing pointed out that these discussions provided not only a chance to work deeply in comprehension, but also in social/emotional education. And I really cannot stress this enough: they absolutely loved this book. So much so that when I was gone they begged their sub to let them read, and when we didn’t have time in our group to finish the book they rushed to the library to check out copies and finish it on their own. That says more about the quality of the book and how engaging it is for young readers than I could ever put into words, and I honestly think that the challenging and honest subject matter is a huge factor in how engaging it is.

Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey: Here’s another book with which it is difficult to know where to even begin. I picked it up shortly after reading One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest in high school, then let it gather dust for a decade. I finally started reading it because it felt, well, thematically appropriate, given that I’m living in a dying logging town in the Pacific Northwest. It’s my father’s favorite book, and one of my best friends’ favorite book. I went into it anticipating that it might be rather blunt and straightforward, to match with the manner of the kind of people the story revolves around. I seemed to have forgotten that Ken Kesey was, well…Ken Kesey.

The plot of this novel is itself somewhat blunt and straightforward, but it is also secondary both to the building of the cast of characters and to the style of writing itself. The book as a whole is anything but straightforward: the narration twists and turns in on itself, as a friend of mine described it, it seems to mimic the tangled roots of trees, or the tumbling tangle of the forest itself. The point of view is fluid, but without telling transitions: in one moment you’re in the perspective of Hank Stamper, and within a breath, without the relief of a line break or so much as a new paragraph, you’re in the perspective of Indian Jenny mixing and matching indigenous and Christian magics. While the narrative style is reminiscent of the forest into which the story is set, the point of view is as fluid as the river which is slowly eating away the bank into which the Stamper house is set.

Having been born and raised in Oregon, visiting the Cascades for hiking, camping, hunting, and fishing at least once a year, and spending a great amount of my childhood in a small patch of Oregon ash on my family’s farm, there was something about the descriptions in this story which resonated deeply with me. In many ways this story feels like a 630 page love letter to the Pacific Northwest in all of its green, wet, cold, harsh, and miserable beauty. There is an implicit sense of the consumption of the wilderness, both in the form of the river chewing away the bank, constantly threatening the Stamper house, and in the very nature of logging as a profession: my father has known several of his own friends to been crippled in logging accidents, or to have lost their lives to such accidents, something which Kesey does not overlook or shy away from in this novel. The wilderness, it seems, is hungry and will claim what it will.

Furthermore these are the kind of people I was raised around: hunters, loggers, men and women who did hard labor for a living and who lived close to the land and the wilderness. Kesey captured that culture immaculately, down to the way in which people speak (more than once I recognized my father’s speech patterns in the ways the loggers in this book spoke). Kesey’s use of this language to establish characters is absolutely masterful. The diction of loggers is markedly different from the diction of a union negotiator, whose diction is different from Indian Jenny’s, whose diction is different from the bordering-on-madness intellectualism of Leeland, etc. These marked differences in language are the most telling signs of POV shifts throughout the book, and establish the characters as visceral people moving through a well-grounded, well-detailed world which they occupy (the descriptions of the land were so pristine that I could almost smell the rain-soaked forests of my childhood rolling off the pages).

All of this said, I can understand why someone might not like this novel. The stylistic nature of the narration makes it difficult to follow, and to be entirely honest it took me about a hundred pages to really get into the book and feel invested (however curious I was about the severed arm). To add to that, Kesey captures this rural culture exceptionally well, down to the underlying misogyny and casual but somehow not-quite malicious racism. It is, quite often, uncomfortable. The plot itself is also not overly exciting: a family of loggers and mill-owners who have made a deal with an out-of-state lumber buyer are facing a massive strike as a result, and Hank Stamper, heir-apparent to the patriarch of the Stamper family who has been laid up with bad injuries and is as a result running the business, calls on his estranged half-brother to come help with filling their quota. The half-brother, Leeland Stamper, comes to Hank’s aid, but only because he wants revenge against Hank for having an affair with his mother when Leeland was a small boy.

For me, it wasn’t the plot that made me love this book. It was the development of the interpersonal relationships, the descriptions of town and the forest and river, the style of the writing itself which begged careful attention to follow. It was the fully-fleshed quirks of the different characters, the way in which the backstories of even the most minor of characters were elaborated so as to make them feel real, not just like extras on a set. I didn’t like Leeland’s character for his overarching plots and schemes, but for his neurotic, almost pathological intellectualism which further separated him from his estranged father and brother — an intellectualism so neurotic that he regularly attempted to deconstruct his plots and scheming, serving to call out not only himself but also his plot within the larger narrative as straight-out Oedipal. I loved the way the story dips in and out of the lives of Jenny and Viv (Hank’s wife) to round them out as characters, making them more human than some of the men in the story might wish them to be. And I love the way in which, after focusing so heavily on the men in the story, the novel ends on the perspective of the women.

This book definitely isn’t for everybody. If you’re character oriented, then this book might be for you. If you have a deep passion or connection to the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest, then it might be for you. If you don’t mind or are even intrigued by a complex narration styles, and enjoy them as more a puzzle to be parsed out, then I would definitely recommend this book. If you have an affinity for or connection to the culture of PNW rural cultures, you’ll probably enjoy this book. It’s a bit of an investment at over 600 pages, and it took me a while to work my way through it, but it is well worth the time.

Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr: This is another very good book for opening up historical and cultural conversations and would be a good book to add to a child’s library if you’re looking for representation for girls of color. It’s a sweet and heartbreaking story based on true events. Simple and quick, it still manages to have nuance and depth. It does deal with very tough subjects such as cancer, war, and death, so do be wary of that.

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