2018 was my first year to pick my own reading materials for awhile and I found myself caught in the headlights, unsure of where to start. So, of course, I took recommendations from my writer friends and perused the library and googled top picks within genres and ended up liking these ones best:
1. Fun Home
by Alison Bechdel
This was my first graphic novel. I thought they were all comic books before, about superheroes and other things that don’t interest me. But turns out, they’re not. There is this whole genre of books I never looked at before that I should have. This book is the story of Alison’s coming out and her father’s death. It’s about family secrets and shame and the choices we make to live within them or outside of them.
2. Into the Wild
by Jon Krakauer
Biography of Christopher McCandless, a.k.a. “Alexander Supertramp”
I really love this book. I am always intrigued by the Henry David Thoreaus of the world, maybe wanting a bit to be like them but lacking the fortitude and resources. I have this reoccurring dream where I quit my jobs and live in the world, secluded in a cabin near water. I mean I want to live right there on earth where weather and seasons and sustenance matter, where a human body remembers what it was to be where it is, to remain. Instead, I comfortably sit in suburbia, where I drink my hot coffee and lean on my privilege and wonder what the world is like outside these walls.
3. Tenth of December
by George Saunders
It was in LA at the festival of books that my friend picked this book up at a stand, told me to read it. I had just been to AWP and had missed George Saunders’ keynote address because SO MANY PEOPLE and it was my birthday and I got day drunk instead. But after I read this book, I wanted to sit there in a room with George, to worm into his brain, to talk to him about the disparities of class, the ways humans think but don’t speak. I wanted to talk to him about how to be a writer and also keep jobs and relationships. I wanted to talk to him about anything and everything because sometimes a writer shares words and you want every last one s/he has.
4. Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules
Short Story Anthology
So many short stories in the world, so little time! This anthology has so many good ones: Katherine Mansfield’s “Garden Party,” and Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies,” and Akhil Sharma’s “Cosmopolitan” to name a few. Sedaris, of course, makes amazing selections and writes a memorable introduction.
5. When Women Were Birds
by Terry Tempest Williams
Terry Tempest Williams inherited her mother’s journals when she passed (it is customary for Mormon women to keep journals and bear children as a participatory bow to the past and future). Terry found the journals, just where her mother told her they would be: three shelves of beautiful cloth-bound books. She opened one, expecting to discover a mother she had never known. It was blank. So was the next one and the next. Williams’ book is an exploration of the unfilled pages of those journals. It is meditative and profound. It is as if she is writing both to her mother and to herself as a mother would.
6. In the Garden of North American Martyrs
by Tobias Wolff
Wolff is one of my all-time favorites. In this book’s introduction, he says he spent a year reading short stories of his choosing and it shows, his mastery over the short form. Wolff’s ability to skip what comes next and get to what comes after because that is what is important is refreshing. No tangents here, rather: well-crafted narratives heavy on plot with characters who move through their stories.
7. Tiny Beautiful Things
by Cheryl Strayed
I already wrote about this book here. I could write a book on this book. It is excerpts from Cheryl Strayed (and Steve Almond)’s “Dear Sugars” podcast. It is her greatest hits, her finest advice. And fine it is, indeed. I am always looking to Cheryl as an example of how to be a good human–how to be kind and brave.
8. Don’t Call Us Dead
by Danez Smith
Gut-punching poems. This book circles around Smith’s HIV-positive status, around what it is like to be a black man who loves men, about fear and living constantly in it. It is sensory and raw and wonderfully hard.
9. Last Night at the Blue Angel
by Rebecca Rotert
I met Rebecca this year in the MFA program and was lucky enough to share some time with her. What a smart and sensitive and funny and poignant woman. This book switches narrators, from a mother to her daughter. It is an engaging read, full of fleshed-out relatable characters (me as a mother and me as a daughter felt it), full of heart, so much heart. I cried at the end even, moved like that.
10. A Poetry Handbook
by Mary Oliver
How can a craft book be so good? Aren’t they supposed to be dry and pedantic? Not Mary Oliver’s book. It is small and useful and focuses on the fine points of writing. I was reading about families of sound – how within consonants there are mutes and semivowels and suddenly, I had to make a lesson plan, share this information with my students. Mary Oliver excites me like that. RIP.