For every book I read, I read with the intention of falling in love with it. It would be silly to say this happens all the time, but it happens more often than not. The books in the list that follows were standouts this year, and I did fall in love many times. Also, this was the year I added lots of graphic novels and memoirs to my reading list. Cheers!
All the Way to the Tigers by Mary Morris (memoir)
A memoir that bounces back and forth in time, from the moment the author broke her ankle in seven places to the time she spent in India, searching for an encounter with a tiger. In between she recalls troubling times with her mother and how, as her ankle started to heal, she tried to heal her relationship with her not-so-motherly mother. It’s quite a page-turner, and Morris knows how to describe everything using all the senses. Love her writing. It’s also about privilege and understanding how injustice permeates all our lives regardless of status.
Am I Alone Here? by Peter Orner (essays)
I thoroughly enjoyed these short essays (felt like a new genre). He is painfully, sometimes brutally, honest when he relates books and the stories he’s read to his own life. The ones about his dad left me breathless. Middle-aged never felt so relatable.
Appleseed by Matt Bell (novel)
Ambitious in its scope and agenda, this novel is unlike anything I’ve read before: magical, mythological, radical, genre bending. One of the main characters is a faun, so that sets the stage right there. Bell’s writing allows for this (although he loves to repeat himself in different ways, but that is part of the fabric of this novel). Fascinating that the most human and fully realized character is C, remade 433 times and now “living” one thousand years in the future. The will to live is strong. Humanity cannot fix the climate mistakes made. But life will go on.
Beverly by Nick Drnaso (graphic stories)
Six creepy interlocked stories about the banality of evil, white middle-class anxiety, and racism. Nick Drnaso sure knows how to write dialogue and shape a story. You can feel the seeds of his next work, Sabrina, being planted in this collection. Riveting. His simplistic style fits the dialogue and storylines to a tee.
The Cranes Dance by Meg Howrey (novel)
Another robust novel from Howrey. She writes about performance so cleverly and emotionally. I loved this one because of the world it presents: ballet. The author was a great ballerina and actor, and she combines the two here. A novel about finding oneself when you’ve been strapped to a sibling your whole life. I could have read hundreds of more pages of this.
Days without End by Sebastian Barry (novel)
This novel is magical. The writing is poetry, both epic and personal. Thomas, a starving teen Irish immigrant, befriends another lost boy, an American named John Cole, and the two fight wars and make love together. My favorite line: “And then we quietly fucked and then we slept.” Thomas identifies more comfortably as a woman, and feels more at home in women’s clothing, having had a revelation after seeing the berdache during one of their campaigns. Spoiler alert: I love a happy ending. So much love for this book.
I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong (science)
You can’t help but think about your own body and what microbes are lurking within when reading this book. The author is a terrific writer and really makes his point without using too much scientific jargon. His tone is appealing and refreshing. This is the kind of science book I love. And I learned so much. It seems revolutionary.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (memoir)
A great American book written by a great American writer. I first learned about her when I was young but never read the entire book. So I got this copy and started savoring every word, then started gulping toward the end. Every word was chosen with love, pain, erudition, and emotion. Once, I sat next to her at a bar in Princeton. I wish I had the balls to buy her a round, but I was poor. But I like to think that the light emanating from her seeped into my body and made me a better thinker.
I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Mannie Murphy (graphic memoir)
What a brilliant approach to writing about the growth of white nationalism in Portland from an artist who limits their palette to black and gray watercolor on cheap student-ruled elementary school paper. Perfect read for the times in which we live.
If I Had Two Wings by Randall Kenan (short stories)
The best stories are at the beginning and end of this collection of ten, some containing magic realism, all lively and filled with characters on the brink of self-discovery and catharsis, usually with a gay male in his later forties or fifties. It’s such a pity that the author died the month this published. It is a book filled with surprises.
The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist by Adrian Tomine (graphic memoir)
This memoir is written and drawn classically. Each scenario starts with joy and hope and ends with the cartoonist being put in his place or undermined. It is a classic and funny device and works perfectly for this graphic memoir, which ends with the idea for the cartoonist to write a graphic memoir. A circle.
Lot by Bryan Washington (short stories)
Characters on the brink of self-revelation and self-determination struggle to find their places in a world that is hostile. Is love possible? All the stories take place in Houston, and as a white reader I was definitely the other, which always fascinates me and makes me turn the page even more. The whole point of reading is to feel the experiences of the characters, and when they don’t look like you or patronize the same places or do the same things, you learn more about yourself through learning about otherness and oppression. There was not one bad apple in the bunch. You get used to his nonuse of quotation marks. I would definitely read his novel.
Love and Other Poems by Alex Dimitrov (poetry)
A paean to the comforting and smothering city of New York. A young gay man’s musings on life, love, death, the City, and the Cosmos. He cries a lot and it is cathartic. Lots of meta narration. The last poem, written during three cab rides on an iPhone, is stupendous.
Monkey Bay by Elaine Ford (novel)
I waited thirty-two years to read the now-yellowing pages of this short but mighty novel about the denizens of a north Maine coastal town living hardscrabble lives. Love and honesty seem impossible, but this character study packs a powerful punch. Maine slang! The cover seems a little too eighties cozy. So I was not expecting the fall-to-winter landscapes Elaine Ford so brilliantly captures. The cover must represent that impossible thing we all strive to obtain, which wends its way through Monkey Bay like a venomous snake.
Montana Diary by Whit Taylor (graphic memoir)
In simple yet multilayered renderings, the author explores what it means to be a person of color while exploring big sky country. We learn about York, a slave who traveled with Lewis and Clark, and about the Native Americans who still live on the land of their ancestors. Subtle and at times breathtaking.
The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans (short stories)
Resplendent writing, every story a diamond. The author acknowledges the zeitgeist by fictionalizing current events about race and self-determination and societal acceptance. I loved this and want to read more by her.
Packing My Library by Alberto Manguel (essays)
Some short books are perfect, such as this one. The author had to pack up his library after collecting books for twenty years (a lifetime, really). He moves to NYC, then back to Argentina, where he becomes the head of the National Library. His personal accounts of growing up and his books and library are interspersed between philosophical digressions reacting to the personal counts. I felt a kinship. The last essay was magnificent, about what libraries are for and why we need them on a national and universal level. Reading makes us more empathetic and less selfish.
Pastel & Pen: Travels in Europe by Carol M. Cram, art by Gregg Simpson (essays and art)
Lovely juxtaposition of Carol’s writing and Gregg’s abstract art. Many of the essays share negative stories, but they add to the fun. One of them, about Carol’s great-grandfather, made me cry. Some made my laugh out loud. I envy their gumption to live abroad for weeks and months to pursue their arts.
Pencil Revolution by Johnny Gamber (zines)
A monthly zine from the man who first started a pencil blog of the same name. Who knew that pencils were an inexhaustible topic? I’ve always loved pencils and have over a thousand in my and Steve’s collection. Johnny juxtaposes seriousness and his wry sense of humor to make a point (pun intended).
Persepolis and Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return by Marjane Satrapi (graphic memoirs)
This graphic memoir is excellent: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. A girl grows up in war-torn Iran before and during the Shah’s reign in the 70s. At times it’s harrowing, but what makes it truly special is the wry humor that I welcomed with open arms. Can’t wait to read the sequel. ¶ Sometimes the sequel is better than the first iteration. Don’t get me wrong: I adored Persepolis, but Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return is richer and digs deeper; our heroine grows up before our eyes and is exposed to more cruelties in our ugly world.
Paul at Home by Michel Rabagliati (graphic novel)
This graphic novel about a fiftysomething Montrealer really spoke to me. Paul is not having a good time as his world around him and his body seem to fall apart. I cringed at times, but I also was deeply moved by not only the words but the images and metaphors. A slap in the face, but funny. I want to read the earlier works in this series.
Pittsburgh and Pompeii by Frank Santoro (graphic novel and graphic memoir)
From the first image I was in awe of this memoir about growing up in Pittsburgh with parents who divorced once the grandparents moved to Las Vegas. The narrator/artist tries to figure out what happened and why, tracing everything back to his grandparents and how they handled the rift between the families. The art is simple and colorful but with intense perspective. I tried to figure out what kind of paper he used for the main panels and think it is a velum or tracing paper, as it appears the images come through in a faded quality on the other side. Brilliant! ¶ I love Frank Santoro’s work because you see the process along with the storytelling. In one shade, ash-brown red, he captures the feeling of people living their lives when disaster strikes. Very moving and loving portrayal of an artist’s apprentice and his lady embracing as the ash descends. I think Santoro based these on actual lovers found, who turned out to be two men!
The Queen of Tuesday by Darin Strauss (novel)
The author’s hybrid novel/memoir sparkles and pops with scintillating language and characters in search of more than life is throwing them. Bebpop tempi reverberate throughout the pages. We are privy to so much inner life that Lucille Ball became a real person for me. I love his writing.
Shakespeare Our Contemporary by Jan Kott (theatre essays)
A deep dive into the plays of Shakespeare, Kott posits that we ned to look at modern life in order to understand the Elizabethan world and stage of Shakespeare if we want to get it right. I loved his observations and innately have felt many of them, especially in my handling of the endings of Romeo and Juliet and What You Will, or Twelfth Night. I like how he explains how the post-Elizabethan theatre eras and directors now fall into traps, rendering the plays something other than what Shakespeare had intended.
Summer by Ali Smith (novel)
How I loved this book and the series it is a part of. This edition unites many of the characters in the prior books and captures the zeitgeist to a tee. I love the author's writing and what makes her juices flow. I would love to read more of her work.
Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski (novel)
A slim and compelling novel about ultimately standing up for what you believe in in order to maintain your sanity and identity. A young gay man falls in love in 1980 pre–martial law Poland only to come to terms with hypocrisy and the lack of self-determination. Written in a formal manner, in the second person (to his ex lover), and that seemed the right tone. I think this would make a riveting miniseries. I love how he describes the songs that are playing without having to rely on the lyrics and the reader’s knowing them. I always try to convey this to writers whose work I am editing. Looking forward to more by him.
This Is Paradise by Kristiana Kahakauwila (short stories)
One of the best short story collections I have ever read. There is so much heart and humanity among these six longish stories. Each one moved me in its own way. The last story, “The Old Paniolo Way,” is masterful in its depiction of Big Island life and accretion of isolation and longing for acceptance with the main gay character. I will never forget this one.
The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard (novel)
I wept at the end when I figured out what happened based on earlier narration. What an original story about love, but mainly about self-determination (sovereign power). The last forty pages I read though apace because everything that had been set up was finally being revealed. Many times as I read this, I thought, How can Hazzard get away with writing like this? But she did, and it was a beautiful, emotional ride.
The Unreality of Memory by Elisa Gabbert (essays)
Brilliant, powerful essays about how we react to and deal with disasters and other life-changing events. Gabbert's erudition and turns of phrase are commanding, and quite frankly a joy to read. This book is all about paradoxes. I dug it!
Whatsa Paintoonist? by Jerry Moriarty (graphic memoir)
The layers upon layers of narrative beautifully show how artists create and why they make choices they do. I loved how Moriarty includes ink sketches for his main narrative, and watercolor sketches for his layout, and then his final paintings for each section of the book. I must learn more about this artist whom I have a deep fondness for.
Year of the Rabbit by Tian Veasna (graphic memoir)
I was so moved by the images in this harrowing and hectic graphic memoir about the author’s family’s experiences living through the Khmer Rouge. A difficult read but filled with love and hope. Very timely.