MY FAVORITE READS OF 2018

2018 has been a year of phenomenal additions to the literary world, and while I haven't read near as many as I would've liked, I have been lucky enough to read several of them. I have also managed to finally get around to reading some of the other phenomenal reads from the previous few years. Here is a roundup of my favorite reads over the past year, in no particular order.

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The Line That Held Us by David Joy

When Darl Moody went hunting after a monster buck he's chased for years, he never expected he'd accidentally shoot a man digging ginseng. Worse yet, he's killed a Brewer, a family notorious for vengeance and violence. With nowhere to turn, Darl calls on the help of the only man he knows will answer, his best friend, Calvin Hooper. But when Dwayne Brewer comes looking for his missing brother and stumbles onto a blood trail leading straight back to Darl and Calvin, a nightmare of revenge rips apart their world. The Line That Held Us is a story of friendship and family, a tale balanced between destruction and redemption, where the only hope is to hold on tight, clenching to those you love. What will you do for the people who mean the most, and what will you grasp to when all that you have is gone? The only certainty in a place so shredded is that no one will get away unscathed.

Florida by Lauren Groff

In her thrilling new book, Lauren Groff brings the reader into a physical world that is at once domestic and wild—a place where the hazards of the natural world lie waiting to pounce, yet the greatest threats and mysteries are still of an emotional, psychological nature. A family retreat can be derailed by a prowling panther, or by a sexual secret. Among those navigating this place are a resourceful pair of abandoned sisters; a lonely boy, grown up; a restless, childless couple, a searching, homeless woman; and an unforgettable, recurring character—a steely and conflicted wife and mother. 

The stories in this collection span characters, towns, decades, even centuries, but Florida—its landscape, climate, history, and state of mind—becomes its gravitational center: an energy, a mood, as much as a place of residence. Groff transports the reader, then jolts us alert with a crackle of wit, a wave of sadness, a flash of cruelty, as she writes about loneliness, rage, family, and the passage of time. With shocking accuracy and effect, she pinpoints the moments and decisions and connections behind human pleasure and pain, hope and despair, love and fury—the moments that make us alive. Startling, precise, and affecting, Florida is a magnificent achievement.

Oceanic by Aimee Nezhukumatathil 

With inquisitive flair, Aimee Nezhukumatathil creates a thorough registry of the earth's wonderful and terrible magic. In her fourth collection of poetry, she studies forms of love as diverse and abundant as the ocean itself. She brings to life a father penguin, a C-section scar, and the Niagara Falls with a powerful force of reverence for life and living things. With an encyclopedic range of subjects and unmatched sincerity, Oceanic speaks to each reader as a cooperative part of the earth, an extraordinary neighborhood to which we all belong.

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The Afterlives by Thomas Pierce

Jim Byrd died. Technically. For a few minutes. The diagnosis: heart attack at age thirty. Revived with no memory of any tunnels, lights, or angels, Jim wonders what--if anything--awaits us on the other side. 

Then a ghost shows up. Maybe. Jim and his new wife, Annie, find themselves tangling with holograms, psychics, messages from the beyond, and a machine that connects the living and the dead. As Jim and Annie journey through history and fumble through faith, they confront the specter of loss that looms for anyone who dares to fall in love. Funny, fiercely original, and gracefully moving, The Afterlives will haunt you. In a good way.

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Wade in the Water by Tracy K. Smith

In Wade in the Water, Tracy K. Smith boldly ties America’s contemporary moment both to our nation’s fraught founding history and to a sense of the spirit, the everlasting. These are poems of sliding scale: some capture a flicker of song or memory; some collage an array of documents and voices; and some push past the known world into the haunted, the holy. Smith’s signature voice—inquisitive, lyrical, and wry—turns over what it means to be a citizen, a mother, and an artist in a culture arbitrated by wealth, men, and violence. Here, private utterance becomes part of a larger choral arrangement as the collection widens to include erasures of The Declaration of Independence and the correspondence between slave owners, a found poem comprised of evidence of corporate pollution and accounts of near-death experiences, a sequence of letters written by African Americans enlisted in the Civil War, and the survivors’ reports of recent immigrants and refugees. Wade in the Water is a potent and luminous book by one of America’s essential poets.

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Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet . . . So begins the story of this exquisite debut novel, about a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio. Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee; their middle daughter, a girl who inherited her mother’s bright blue eyes and her father’s jet-black hair. Her parents are determined that Lydia will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue—in Marilyn’s case that her daughter becomes a doctor rather than a homemaker, in James’s case, that Lydia is popular at school, a girl with a busy social life and the center of every party.

When Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together tumbles into chaos, forcing them to confront the long-kept secrets that have been slowly pulling them apart. James, consumed by guilt, sets out on a reckless path that may destroy his marriage. Marilyn, devastated and vengeful, is determined to find a responsible party, no matter what the cost. Lydia’s older brother, Nathan, is certain that the neighborhood bad boy Jack is somehow involved. But it’s the youngest of the family—Hannah—who observes far more than anyone realizes and who may be the only one who knows the truth about what happened.

A profoundly moving story of family, history, and the meaning of home, Everything I Never Told You is both a gripping page-turner and a sensitive family portrait, exploring the divisions between cultures and the rifts within a family, and uncovering the ways in which mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, and husbands and wives struggle, all their lives, to understand one another.

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Good Bones by Maggie Smith

"As if lost in the soft, bewitching world of fairy tale, Maggie Smith conceives and brings forth this metaphysical Baedeker, a guidebook for mother and child to lead each other into a hopeful present. Smith's poems affirm the virtues of humanity: compassion, empathy, and the ability to comfort one another when darkness falls. 'There is a light, ' she tells us, 'and the light is good.'" -- D. A. Powell

 

"Smith's voice is clear and unmistakable as she unravels the universe, pulls at a loose thread and lets the whole thing tumble around us, sometimes beautiful, sometimes achingly hard. Truthful, tender, and unafraid of the dark. . . ." --Ada Limon

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In seventy poems bearing the same title, Terrance Hayes explores the meanings of American, of assassin, and of love in the sonnet form. Written during the first two hundred days of the Trump presidency, these poems are haunted by the country's past and future eras and errors, its dreams and nightmares. Inventive, compassionate, hilarious, melancholy, and bewildered--the wonders of this new collection are irreducible and stunning.

Southernmost by Silas House

In this stunning novel about judgment, courage, heartbreak, and change, author Silas House wrestles with the limits of belief and the infinite ways to love.

In the aftermath of a flood that washes away much of a small Tennessee town, evangelical preacher Asher Sharp offers shelter to two gay men. In doing so, he starts to see his life anew—and risks losing everything: his wife, locked into her religious prejudices; his congregation, which shuns Asher after he delivers a passionate sermon in defense of tolerance; and his young son, Justin, caught in the middle of what turns into a bitter custody battle.

With no way out but ahead, Asher takes Justin and flees to Key West, where he hopes to find his brother, Luke, whom he’d turned against years ago after Luke came out. And it is there, at the southernmost point of the country, that Asher and Justin discover a new way of thinking about the world, and a new way of understanding love.

Southernmost is a tender and affecting book, a meditation on love and its consequences.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
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In Jesmyn Ward’s first novel since her National Book Award-winning Salvage the Bones, this singular American writer brings the archetypal road novel into rural twenty-first-century America. An intimate portrait of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle, Sing, Unburied, Sing journeys through Mississippi’s past and present, examining the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power—and limitations—of family bonds.

Jojo is thirteen years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. He doesn’t lack in fathers to study, chief among them his Black grandfather, Pop. But there are other men who complicate his understanding: his absent White father, Michael, who is being released from prison; his absent White grandfather, Big Joseph, who won’t acknowledge his existence; and the memories of his dead uncle, Given, who died as a teenager.

His mother, Leonie, is an inconsistent presence in his and his toddler sister’s lives. She is an imperfect mother in constant conflict with herself and those around her. She is Black and her children’s father is White. She wants to be a better mother but can’t put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use. Simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high, Leonie is embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of her circumstances.

When the children’s father is released from prison, Leonie packs her kids and a friend into her car and drives north to the heart of Mississippi and Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary. At Parchman, there is another thirteen-year-old boy, the ghost of a dead inmate who carries all of the ugly history of the South with him in his wandering. He too has something to teach Jojo about fathers and sons, about legacies, about violence, about love.

Rich with Ward’s distinctive, lyrical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a majestic new work and an unforgettable family story.

MY NEXT FOUR READS

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