I cannot believe we are here again: another year winding down to its close, time for some reflection on the year that was. It’s always fun, though this year I’m a bit sad. I didn’t do nearly as much reading as I’d have liked, and I have felt the lack. However, I did read some amazing books I’m happy to list as favorites of any year of reading. Below are my ten favorite books I read in 2018, listed in the order in which I read them. Links are to the original review. Other links are to Amazon.com; if you click on them and purchase the books, The Mookse and the Gripes gets a small portion of the price.
I hope you all have a peaceful and lovely end to 2018, and may you lose yourself in a good book!
This is easily the darkest book I read this year. Comyns was in her 70s when she set the Brothers Grimm in modern-day England. Here we meet Bella Winter, a young woman who will stray deeper into the dark woods of loneliness, deprivation, and abuse. Bella seems a simple narrator, often unsure of herself in ways that tell us so much.
A small boy came running up to us and slipped his bare hand into her warm mittened one for a moment as if to collect its warmth, then ran after his friends. I asked her if he was her son, he had the same colouring, but she said, “No, I like to watch the children playing but have none of my own,” and the happiness left her face and I knew I’d said something wrong.
Comyns is an important writer I’ve only gotten to know over the past few years. I’m glad there is quite a bit more of her work for me to explore!
This is a wonderfully strange collection of short stories about alienation, written with verve and style and a deep sensitivity to the meaning and sound of words. The first story, “Egress,” had me from the beginning the narrator steps off the ledge at his office building and enjoys a lovely sense of release.
I cleared my desk, and all that I wanted to keep was saved on a memory stick placed in my top pocket. Everything else — I deleted. I found a window that I could cut and cut again to make an opening through which I could step out onto a narrow ledge, and as I moved from there into the air I felt relief, a loss of weight. I began to observe the glittering skin of stone, the terracotta panels, smooth and grooved; the sheets of clean glass. My eye and mind moved with delight from the detail to the great mass of the building and back again. I felt joy to be outside forever.
I’m excited to see what Hayden does next.
Okay, as I list these first three books one might think I had a morbid 2018 — at least in the first half. Strange, dark, mysterious, psychologically acute: that describes each, including Robert Aickman’s lovely collection Compulsory Games. I only recently got to know the work of Aickman, and I’m glad I have. His stories are delightfully weird. Look at this great opening to the title story:
When Millicent finally broke it off with Nigel and felt that the last tiny bit of meaning had ebbed from her life (apart, of course, from her job), it was natural that Winifred should suggest a picnic, combined with a visit, “not too serious,” as Winifred put it, to a Great House.
I still feel a personal sense of grief when I think that William Trevor is no longer with us. I’m always thankful, though, that I’ve come to know his work over the past several years and that I still have much to read. Last Stories, though, as the title makes clear, is the last we have from the compassionate master. It’s a brilliant, melancholic, empathetic collection that I’m still savoring.
Here we get ten final stories, including one of my all-time favorites, “An Idyll in Winter.”
He left what he thought would be impossible to forget — the sadness Mary Bella had spoken of, and something like desperation in her eyes when the last day came and they said good-bye to one another. But Anthony did forget. He made himself, considering it better that he should.
Aira doesn’t always make my year-end list. But usually he’s here. I’d be fine breaking the trend, if I didn’t love his books so much, including the one we got this year, the deeply resonate The Linden Tree. I read it several times!
Although these events have been adorned, deformed and enveloped in the prestige of legend, they really happened. It’s hard to believe — they seem made up — and yet they happened, and I was there, not at the top of the tree, but there in those days, in that town, in that world, which is now so far away. My whole life has taken on the unreal color of that fable; since then I have never been able to find a footing in reality.
I was a bit wary of Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, a re-telling of the Iliad from the perspective of Briseis, the woman Achilles takes as his trophy and who is taken by Agamemnon, bringing forth Achilles’ rage. I didn’t particularly like Barker’s World War I trilogy, and I’m often disappointed by re-tellings of the classics (even if I cannot resist them). But this one was fantastic.
I lay there, hating him, though of course he wasn’t doing anything he didn’t have the perfect right to do. If his prize of honour had been the armour of a great lord he wouldn’t have rested till he’d tried it out: lifted the shield, picked up the sword, assessed its length and weight, slashed it a few times through the air. That’s what he did to me. He tried me out.
Charles Bovary is one of my favorite characters in literature. I think there is so much going on under the surface of his words in Madame Bovary. So naturally I was excited to read a whole book devoted to him. But what Améry does in this book is so much more than explore Charles Bovary. He writes a bit about Charles Bovary in the aftermath of Emma’s novel, but then he goes on to engage in an extended rant against Flaubert, the master of realism!
You denied me the right, Flaubert, my wicked, taciturn schoolmate, master of a tale that became the icon of realism, and yet you intervened peremptorily in my own field of competence. Thereby, and with unprecedented insolence, you shattered the contrat socialwith everyday reality and replaced it with an arrogant poetic reality of your own.
Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time stands out as a major reason I love reading. I have always wanted to love warm milk more than I do, and a stormy night has always been more magical than scary.
It was a dark and stormy night.
In her attic bedroom Margaret Murry, wrapped in an old patchwork quilt, sat on the foot of her bed and watched the trees tossing in the frenzied lashing of the wind. Behind the trees clouds scudded frantically across the sky. Every few moments the moon ripped through them, creating wraithlike shadows that raced along the ground.
With The Blue Flower Penelope Fitzgerald capped off a remarkable literary career. And it’s quite the strange and even elusive book. It’s mysterious, and the book holds this mystery beautifully by being quite mysterious in and of itself, even if it takes a bit of time and work to find the pleasure in searching for something that cannot be found. Since reading it I’ve been surprised to see how many friends do not like it, but I haven’t been able to shake it or Fitzgerald’s unique way of telling the story of the poet Novalis before he was the poet Novalis. I miss this world. I mourn the young Sophie, for all of the ordinary yet remarkable life Fitzgerald suggests she was living. I’ll be rereading this one soon.
This is it, though, folks. If I were ranking books I read and reviewed in 2018, this would top the list at number one. Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries is the book of the year and more for me. Thanks be to Damion Searls and NYRB Classics for putting in a tremendous amount of work getting it to us. This book is beautifully long and feels like real, lived, examined experience. So many of its passages feel like my own memories, so well do they convey the essence of time and space within the mind.
Rain has been falling in the city since last night, the thudding sound of the cars on the Hudson River parkway muffled to a low whoosh. This morning, the slurping sound of the tires on the dripping-wet pavement under her window wakes her up. The rainy light has hung darkness between the office buildings on Third Avenue. The small stores tucked into the base of the skyscrapers cast meager, small-town light out into the wetness. When she switched on the overhead fluorescent light in her office, its glow hemmed in by the darkness painted a picture of homeyness in her boxy cell, for a moment.