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!
The Juniper Tree
by Barbara Comyns
(original review from February 8, 2018)
purchase at Amazon
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!
Darker With the Lights On
by David Hayden
(original review from April 11, 2018)
purchase at Amazon
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.
by Robert Aickman
(original review from May 24, 2018)
purchase at Amazon
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.
by William Trevor
(original review from June 6, 2018)
purchase at Amazon
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.
The Linden Tree
by César Aira
translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews
(original review from June 8, 2018)
purchase at Amazon
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.
The Silence of the Girls
by Pat Barker
(original review from September 5, 2018)
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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, Country Doctor: Portrait of a Simple Man
by Jean Améry
translated from the German by Adrian Nathan West
(original review from September 7, 2018)
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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.
A Wrinkle in Time
by Madeleine L’Engle
(original review from October 4, 2018)
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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.
The Blue Flower
by Penelope Fitzgerald
(original review from October 12, 2018)
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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.
Anniversaries: From a Year in the Life of Gesine Cresspahl
by Uwe Johnson
translated from the German by Damion Searls
(original review from October 18, 2018)
purchase at Amazon
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.
That’s a good looking list. William Trevor and Cesar Aira are good to read any year. I have Anniversaries, but I don’t know when I might get around to reading it. I was thinking about the idea of starting reading it on August 21st and then reading the entry for each day on the anniversary of the date that the events take place, but I am not sure if the book really would sustain such a reading. Do you think that might work for this book?
Last year I responded to your list of favourites of the year by giving you my list of authors and books I read that year that I only knew about from this website, so here again is my list of authors and books I read in 2018 that I might never have read or, in some cases, even heard of, were it not for the Mookse.
– Last year on your list was Domenico Starnone’s Ties. I read it as well in 2017 and it made my list here last year, but this year I read Trick. It was not as good as Ties, but still a great read and one that without having read Ties I would not have read, so it makes this list. I was both pleased and frustrated to hear that Starnone has a lot of books that have yet to be translated into English. Jhumpa Lahiri has now translated two of his books, so with any luck she will get to some of the back catalogue for us. I hope.
– Again, on last year’s list was Lúcio Cardoso’s Chronicle of the Murdered House. Reading Cardoso lead me to Clarice Lispector and I just read her novella The Hour of the Star. I really don’t know what to make of that book just yet as it was utterly bizarre, but also magnificent.
In addition to these three authors and books that I came to as a result of last year’s discoveries, there are some other names that make the list based solely on 2018 happenings at the Mookse. Here are some of those:
– Last year Anita Brookner’s A Start In Life was on your year end list and this year I read it and loved it. It was the first time I read anything by Brookner and while I have yet to get to a second book by her, I am almost certain that in 2019 I will. Reading more of her work is certainly on my agenda.
In April you published Paul’s review of Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi and I read it in May. Coincidence? Nope. The premise of the book hooked me and the execution in the writing did not let me down. Excellent book.
Finally, we come to the event that resulted in my reading a number of authors for the first time, the 2018 Mookse Madness. As a result of reading stories for that I read Elizabeth Taylor, Deborah Eisenberg, and Jean Rhys when I might not have otherwise read them. All three are on my list of people whose short stories I want to read more of, and in the case of Eisenberg I have been working my way through her collected stories already.
Last year I put the total of work I was exposed to through this site at eight books by four different authors. This year I add to my list six authors of four novels and a pile of short stories. Not a bad haul. I can’t wait to find out what new names (and old ones I should have heard of by now) that will be on the 2019 list!
I was hoping you might let us know which are your top 10 favorite New Yorker short story picks for 2018. One of them has to be at least one of the William Trevor short stories. But that would be another project added to all that you already do which is quite amazing. Mookse has been really special in championing really independent books that might be otherwise missed or would not be so highly recommended with the reviews citing excellent reasons for adding them to one’s reading list. I particularly liked “We That Are Young” by Preti Taneja which brought the existential side of Shakespeare’s King Lear from long ago up into present day India. It also brilliantly discusses the elemental basic situation of successful women in modern business as a kind of parallel universe to the situation of Shakespearean women. Without Mookse on the case, I likely never would have known about or read this very relevant novel. Ditto for “The Mars Room” by Rachel Kushner which is labelled crime fiction but wherein the perceptual elemental instinctual agreements and disagreements between feminine and masculine are brilliantly dissected. Though the truths elaborated can be easily disregarded by some as having less relevancy because the fictional woman committed a serious crime. And without Mookse I would have never discovered “When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife” by Meena Kandasamy which Mookse covered as being on the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist. It contains the dirty secret of Socialism’s flawed attitude towards liberated women that seems to comletely fail when put to practical application by a supposedly enlightened revolutionary husband. It is fiction but reads like FIR or first information report filed at one’s local police precinct. And then in the Mookse, there are some commentary writers who are so sharp and observant about what’s in the short stories and novels they read. At times it is like reading brilliant commentary in the best book review journals. It is such a neat gift to everyone that Mookse exists and what new short story and novel delights await us for 2019?
Glad to have found your blog. The Juniper Tree was on my best of list too. I have read only 3 of the books on your list, but I am tempted by several others.
I completely agree with everything you said about A Wrinkle In Time. Madeleine L’Engle is one of my most beloved authors; I have a copy of everything she wrote, and the great good fortune to meet her once at Wheaton College. Magical indeed.
David, I really love that you let me know what has interested you over the past year. It’s so fun to read. Thank you so much for taking the time to do that! On that note, thanks for all the time you spend contributing here. I also look back fondly. As for Anniversaries, I absolutely think reading it one day at a time would be a great way to do it. I didn’t do it that way, but I deliberately slowed down because there is a lot of power in taking that book slowly — not to say there’s anything wrong with just digging in and going for the finish line!
Larry, I’ve done New Yorker year in reviews before, but I haven’t read enough this past year to be a good source for that! Perhaps folks who did — and there are many of you — would like a place to do your own lists? I know I’d love to see what your favorites are.
Heavenali — I’m glad you’re here too! We’ve been with each other on Twitter for some time, but I still love the good old blog :-)
Bellezza, I look forward to more of your thoughts as the year ahead begins!
Trevor, I notice on your best 2018 book picks that all of them are marked “Purchase at Amazon”. Is there a reason for this? Does the blog get funding from Amazon? I make it a point NOT to buy my books from them, preferring to buy at a local brick and mortar store or online through addall.com. While Amazon is on addall’s list of stores from which to buy, there are several small bookstores as well and I try to buy from these when I can, even if it means paying a little more. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not trying to imply and dark or dastardly intent on your part, I’m just curious about the reason for mentioning Amazon at all. Yours is one of my favorite sites, so please don’t take my question the wrong way. Thanks!
David, if you enjoyed Anita Brookner’s A Start in Life, I highly recommend Hotel du Lac. Wonderful book and winner of the Booker Prize in 1984. Also, I recently read Deborah Eiserberg’s latest, Your Duck is my Duck and every story in the book is a flawless gem. She’s an incredible short story writer who is too often overlooked. I think she only brings out a book every 8 or 9 years, and each one is better than the last. I hope you read both books and look forward to reading your thoughts on them.
Hi Diana, as it says at the top of the post, if you purchase your books from these links to Amazon, the site gets a small cut. It’s a standard affiliate link. Of course, I don’t want anyone to feel obligated to purchase their books from Amazon, so no worries on my account and please do continue to support independent sellers and publishers!