This year I did something I have never done before: I kept track. I wrote down the title of every book that I read to completion in 2018. (There were plenty of others I didn’t finish.)
As I look back on the list, I’m both pleased and chagrined. Pleased because, wow, I read a lot of good books. But chagrined because, well, I thought the list would be longer.
While I read at a decent clip, I guess I do not read at a superhuman clip. One friend hit 100 books at the end of November and then steamed on through December, still reading. She might be superhuman.
As I write this, on Christmas Eve, I am at 92. I’ll read a few more before the end of the year, but not eight more; I will not hit 100.
Does my friend read easier books? No. Does she have more free time than I do? No. Is this a competition? Well … no. No, it is not.
It would be impossible to say which book was my favorite of the year. But there were plenty I admired.
I loved “Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret,” by Craig Brown, a biography of someone I don’t care at all about. It was a fun book because Brown wrote it in such an audacious way — snippets and gossip and stories and news clips and rumors, a very fitting structure to a book about someone who lived her entire life in the public eye (and in the tabloids).
And I liked “The Shadow Man,” by Mary Gordon, not a new book — it came out in 1996 — a memoir about searching for the truth about her father, an elusive and slippery man. (A memoir with a similar theme — “Inheritance,” by Dani Shapiro — will be published in February. I can mention it here because I have already read it.)
I loved “Less,” the novel by Andrew Sean Greer, which won the Pulitzer Prize, a comic novel, funny in parts, poignant, with a satisfying ending. The older I get, or maybe the more troubled the world gets, the more I am looking for funny, poignant and satisfying. Those words could also describe “Virgil Wander,” Leif Enger’s novel about a sad-sack man who lives halfway up Minnesota’s North Shore in a sad-sack town.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Julie Schumacher’s funny “The Shakespeare Requirement,” which made me twitch as I read — the infighting, bureaucracy and pompousness in her fictional college reminded me so much of stories my English professor father used to tell about his very real university. “Too real! Too real!” I kept moaning as I read. (Sort of like watching “The Office.”)
Books by immigrant writers and writers of color continue to rise — they’re getting more attention, for sure, and it’s attention deeply deserved. Tommy Orange’s novel-in-stories, “There There,” about American Indians who live in and around Oakland, Calif., was powerful and fresh even as the book headed toward doom. Clemantine Wamariya’s memoir, “The Girl Who Smiled Beads,” about becoming a refugee from genocide at age 6, showed in visceral detail what it is like to be homeless and countryless for years — the dirt, the wandering, the struggle to get water, to find food, to stay human. All of her toenails fell out: That kind of detail sticks with you.
Ingrid Rojas Contreras’ novel “Fruit of the Drunken Tree” came out in July, but I didn’t get to it until just a few weeks ago. And wow, what a book. It’s narrated by 7-year-old Chula, daughter of a middle-class Colombian household, and 13-year-old Petrona, the family’s maid, who are living in Bogota during the time of drug lord Pablo Escobar.
All of these books — and the other 85 or so that I read — transported me: from England to Colombia to Rwanda to a gay Chicago neighborhood in the 1980s (“The Great Believers” by Rebecca Makkai). It was a robust and fascinating year in books.
Which books did you love this year? And why? Write me at firstname.lastname@example.org.