Top Picks of 2018

Some trends I noticed when reviewing the 265 books I read this year (down about 70 from last year’s epic high but still respectable!):

  • 62% women writers; 34% men; the remainder a mix of both. Non-fiction (69%) edged out fiction (31%) for the third year in a row.
  • Read a lot more poetry in 2018. I hope this continues.
  • Some great graphic novels (Fante Bukowski, Enclyclopedia of Early Earth, Megahex) stay stuck in my head.
  • Went on some weird tangents like disaster movies, history of artists & window displays. Read a lot on the usual topics (walking, nature, capitalism, tourism, solitude, introspection). Read a lot of Anne Tyler and Sujata Massey as escapist fiction.

Non-fiction

Fiction

Poetry

Art

Memoir/Essays

Classics

Read or re-read Virginia Woolf (Room, Vol 1 Essays, Vol 1 Letters), Melville (Bartleby), DFW (Consider the Lobster), Proust, Betty Smith (Tree Grows in Brooklyn), Doris Lessing (Summer Before Dark), Dreiser (Sister Carrie). Discovered Richard Brautigan by way of a display at the Presidio branch library, read everything I could.

A Time to Be Born

The inclusion of snippets from Dawn Powell’s journal in one of the latest New Yorkers left me hungry for more of her work. This was pub’d in 1942, the New York society people agog with wartime fervor, patriotism sweeping the furs and jewels off ladies’ backs so they can be more serious about their efforts. It takes a while for you to be introduced to the character you’re supposed to care about most, Vicky—first we hear about how cold-hearted Amanda slept her way into getting her book published and then married the important publisher, Evans. This couple is brutal in its quest for prestige and fame, very two dimensional. Vicky’s introduced back in Ohio, her lover having run off with her business partner, humiliating her. Vicky rents a room from her brother and shares a bed with her niece; once they get wind that she wants to move to New York they start to panic about missing the cash she adds to the household, but not to miss her. They put out word around town that they expect her to fail in NYC and be back in a few months (she doesn’t). Amanda is pressed into service by her childhood friend Ethel to help Vicky, and she sets her up with a job and apartment, conveniently used as a spot during the day to tryst with her on-again-off-again lover Ken. Of course Ken falls for Vicky (as does another extremely old wealthy man), and the bad people fall from grace while the good ‘uns happily ever after. It felt a bit like reading a script for a 1940s movie.

Powell does great work humorously depicting the characters, like this summation of the woman who stole Vicky’s hometown boy, now pregnant and married but visiting Vicky’s NYC apartment: “Eudora Brown had been assured by her physician that a glass of wine could not possibly injure her coming heir, and on the strength of this medical support was drinking straight Bacardi whenever she could get he bottle out of Mr. Elroy’s or Ken Saunders’ hands. After her initial hearty but shamefaced greeting of Vicky, she allowed her conversation to lapse into one chief word, which was ‘stinks.'”

Also the feeling of the world spinning apart:

The Innocent

Taylor Stevens dips into her own past for this one, a story about the extraction of a young girl from a religious cult currently keeping her in Argentina in a house with dozens of other children, some of whom are sexually abused.

The depiction of Michael/Vanessa starts to get a bit tedious, her nightmares ending in knifed up sheets and terrors, killing random street pervs in New York, snapping necks when she stumbles onto an unrelated child abuse case in South America. But the story still has heat, her rage intact, helping her friend Logan get his daughter Hannah out of the cult.

The Informationist

Crazy good escapism from this thriller, the first of Taylor Stevens books, a stunning debut novel. The gender-bending heroine is the daughter of a missionary, born in Africa, who excels at languages and consults with governments, corporations, individuals to obtain whatever information they need. With this case, her talents are being used to locate a missing woman, Emily, whose stepfather is still attempting to find her after 4 years disappearance in Africa. Naturally, there’s tons of money tied up in the affair, he really wants Emily dead so he can take over her trust (her mother died under possibly suspicious circumstances). Michael/Vanessa/Essa is the hired gun who morphs into any situation to obtain information, wielding killer knife skills she learned from daily torture and rape while a teenager. Her rage makes for an extremely satisfying read.

***
Updated to say that after reading a bit about Ms Stevens, her own story (born into a religious cult, not exposed to books until she and her husband left the cult) is stunning as well…

Spring Comes To Chicago

Campbell McGrath ushers in spring and his soon-to-be-born son in this book of poetry that centers around the massive Bob Hope Poem wherein he watches a snowstorm rage outside while flipping People magazine and musing about Bob Hope’s greed (“so what if he’s a nonagenarian he wants that extra 25 million bucks so bad he can taste it”), the murky underpinnings of capitalism bolstering the American dream, nestled against observations made from the Discovery Channel and National Geographic, amidst quotes from Melville, Whitman, Wittgenstein, Marx, Veblen, Darwin, Thoreau, Columbus. We’re meant to believe that as he’s writing this epic poem, word comes over the radio that Bob is dead, “retired at last to vaudeville Valhalla, that heavenly Pro-Am, that never-ending celebrity roast in the sky… Bob the mad jester of cultural hegemony.”

The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking

Despite knowing better, I attempted to read another Olivia Laing book (I also attempted & abandoned The Lonely City a few times) simply because it’s an irresistible topic. One of my favorite movies of the year, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, even taps into this connection when Lee uses it as an excuse to get into sacred library texts to research her next book about drunk writers.

Early red flags warned me from continuing, like page 9’s admission that she was most interested in pursuing the stories of six men despite “many women writers [she] could have chosen.” Those crimson flags slapped me in the face by the time she was swooning over two of my least tolerated writers, Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald, painting them with the inaccurate golden boy brush and slandering Zelda per usual. I made it 100 pages before abandoning it. Devoted fans of the aforementioned writers plus Cheever, Carver, Berryman, and Tennesee Williams may feel differently.

Sister Carrie

My first foray into Theodore Dreiser territory was successful. This was on Dawn Powell’s list of novels she liked best, so I took it for a spin. Something that’s always enjoyable about opening a time capsule from 1900 is discovering old names for things, like “fire signs” as the term used for electrically lit signs (specifically in Times Square in this instance).

Characters spin in and out of whirlpools, get caught in eddies, then zip back into the story. We meet Sister Carrie in the first sentence, on a train headed to Chicago away from her Wisconsin small town, at the ripe old age of 18. Carrie has an astonishing number of names throughout this tale (Caroline Meeber, officially; stage name Carrie Madenda; pretending to be Charlie Drouet’s wife; then pretending to be Hurstwood’s wife, who goes by Murdock as he’s fleeing to Canada with a stolen $10k from his bosses, and then goes by Wheeler; she’s also affectionately known as Cad). Quickly she realizes that life as a boarder in her sister’s home (paying $4 a week out of her $4.50 wages in a shoe factory) is untenable. She takes up with Drouet, then begins an affair with Hurstwood who kidnaps her on his way out of town after the theft of the money. They end up in New York and she eventually bursts forth as a major Broadway talent once he runs out of money. Hurstwood unravels into a Bowery bum and eventually dies. Carrie enjoys her success, but you’re left wondering if there’s more to life for her.

The Royals

No matter whose dumb idea it was for me to read Kitty Kelley’s book about the House of Windsor (those sucking parasites, as the saner side of the UK seems to render them), it’s still my fault for actually going through with it and suffering many hundreds of pages of inanity. I was looking for a soft off-ramp for my brain at the end of the year, and this was so soft as to be gooey. It reads almost as the script for the TV series The Crown, then once Charles & Di get onto the screen, it’s hundreds of dull pages about their turbulent relationship (and don’t forget Fergie!) I’m finally putting this down after skimming the last few chapters. I don’t think I missed anything.

The Samurai’s Daughter

These Sujata Massey books are getting out of control. Is there a Japanese word for “wishes she had never read this book?” The creakingly terrible mysteries are simply not good, but I have a whole stack of them beside me to ride out the remainder of the year. Will I be strong enough to just toss them all aside in favor of better quality books? I doubt my own resolve.

The only interesting bits in this one (theme: Comfort Women!) were related to Rei Shimura’s brief visit to her parents’ Pac Heights home during the dot com bust. As she’s being proposed to, her car is broken into in the Presidio, super-apt even in today’s world. She mentions Greens restaurant. I think that’s it for highlights.

Sabrina

The hubbub about this book seems excessive. It was the first graphic novel to be nominated for the Man Booker prize, but stop clutching your pearls because it didn’t win (nor should it have). Old friends reunite when one of their girlfriends disappears (turns out she was murdered, and the snuff film hits the airwaves), an AlexJones-esque radio announcer weaves his lies into the ear of the innocent boyfriend but Jones’ army of idiots comes after everyone even tangentially involved in the story with death threats and more. Seriously wonder why this got attention from the prize committee when there are so many better graphic novels to point to. Illustrations have a flat quality that works well with the flat telling of the story, but there’s enough tension in the undercurrents that you’re interested in flipping the pages to find out what happens.

Circe

Beautiful retelling of ancient myths made lively by weaving of the story from the point of view of Circe herself. Best loved the first half of the book, Circe discovering her powers, blossoming into a witch, exiled to her island. Madeline Miller does a phenomenal job breathing new life into this old tale, fleshing out the scenes to make them live and flickering. Also very much appreciated the perspective of the women in the story that’s been passed on for ages, mostly shrinking their view and role, but Miller revitalizes it, injects women back into the foreground.

While in exile, Circe’s called upon to help deliver the Minotaur from her sister’s belly, befriending Daedalus and gifted a loom from him. She returns to her island, her loneliness. You know what’s coming next, and as she begins to turn shiploads of evil men into pigs, the drumbeats get closer. Finally, Odysseus arrives as the greatest love she’ll ever have, and before he finally leaves, a seed sprouts in her womb, becoming Telegonus, brother to Telemachus who’s waiting patiently with Penelope in Ithaca. Telegonus is an unruly baby, but eventually becomes tolerable and dashes off to Ithaca to meet his dad, accidentally killing him.

After Emily: Two Remarkable Women and the Legacy of America’s Greatest Poet

Fascinating look at all the wrangling that happened over Emily’s legacy after she died. Mabel Loomis Todd looms large in the history, having had an extended affair with Emily’s brother Austin that only dissolved upon his death. Mabel’s husband David was a willing partner in Mabel’s infidelity, perhaps because of his own, perhaps because he respected Austin? Instead of wrapping up things nicely, Austin neglects to legally hand over the deed to a property he gifted to David and Mabel, and this results in Austin’s sister Vinnie taking Mabel to court (most likely influenced by Austin’s wife Sue who loathed Mabel for the affair). Vinnie was the one who arrived on Mabel’s doorstep after Emily died, begging her to publish ED’s poems, resulting in heroic work by Mabel, David, and their daughter Millicent to decipher ED’s handwriting and get things ready for publication. Once the lawsuit declared Mabel’s claim on the land false, she tucked away hundreds of ED’s poems into a chest to distance herself from the project (for which she’d received nothing much in terms of payment for all her work). There’s additional wrangling at the end wherein Harvard tries to trump Amherst for Emily’s papers. Such drama for someone who shunned the world!

Transcription

Floating away into the dream world of Kate Atkinson is always a treat. Her forte seems to be the world of 1940s and 50s London, and in this novel she recruits her narrator from a secretarial spy who dutifully transcribes the recordings made of conversations next door to her office. A colleague poses as a Gestapo informant and gleeful housewives fall upon him in a frenzy to get invisible ink and plot their petty treasons against the Crown. Against this backdrop, we’re pushed into the 1950s, post-war, Juliet is working for the BBC now after a stint in Manchester. She’s a bit more weary, worldly, than her 18-year old self. People from the war keep popping up, and she gets a note that rattles her telling her she’ll pay for what she did (which was to accidentally murder one of the housewives gushing to her Gestapo connection). It’s a bit flimsy, but Atkinson can write well and carries it off.

Saul Steinberg by Harold Rosenberg

When The Paris Review reprinted Harold Rosenberg’s review of Saul Steinberg’s The Labyrinth, I was delighted by the simple yet complex drawings and headed to the library to inhale more about Steinberg.

Born in Romania, bopping around Europe pre-WW2, studying architecture in Italty before washing up on the shores of New York. Fairly immediately he was recruited to go to China to confuse the spies there with his drawings as part of the war effort.

Steinberg photographed wearing a mask of he’d drawn on a paper bag

Paging through the hundreds of plates, admiring his portraits done by fingerprinting, I was struck by the thought that both he & Ralph Steadman came at their art by way of technical training (Steinberg as architect, Steadman designing planes at the factory he loathed going to).

Dirty Plotte: The Complete Julie Doucet (vol 2)

This second volume is filled with more of Julie Doucet’s genius, panels crammed with adoration of tampax and cats and dismembered bodies and blood gushing from monster women. The frenzy of her early years comes across, her migration to and from New York, Berlin, Seattle, and finally settling in Montreal and giving up comics in 1999, the comic world too limited for her imagination and talents. She’s since branched out into other visual arts, writing, poetry, collage, etc. Extreme talent!