2018 was a rather big year for me: my daughter was born in January, I wrote a memoir (which is coming to a bookstore near you very soon), I joined The New York Times, and did a handful of other things that I will (I’m sure) tell you all about in the near future. It was a wonderful year, filled with joy and fun and new levels of focus, but it was also a very difficult year, filled with sadness and hurt and serious illness.
As you know from my reading list, I try to read 52 books each year. There hasn’t been any real rhyme or reason as to how or why I choose which books to read, and I have tended to just read whatever books caught my eye or seemed relevant at the time. (I’m going to change that a little bit in 2019, and try to read books that are known to be “great” — but I’ll write more on that later.)
Reading 52 (er, 53) books was a difficult task this year. Finding time to read with a newborn was difficult — I was often too tired to pay attention to what I was reading, and I found that I had very little spare time. Luckily, I was able to catch up on my reading in the last quarter of the year, and I owe that to some vacation time, some short and fun and exciting books, and to my daughter being old enough that I can let her play at my feet while I read.
I didn’t like every book I read. For example, I could not stand One Hundred Years of Solitude, which greatly disappointed me because all I’ve heard the past twenty-seven years of my life is about how great it is; while I was reading it, people would come up to me in restaurants and tell me how much they loved the book. I wanted to love it, and I tried very hard to love it, but I couldn’t even finish it. There was another book I read (which I will not name) that I absolutely loved — that is, until I was told it was ghostwritten, which totally ruined it for me, because what I loved most was the writer’s style.
But, overall, I loved most of the books I read. And here are some of my favorites, and the reasons I loved them.
I was raised in a Christian home, the daughter of a Pentecostal preacher, and, as a result, I have a somewhat complicated relationship with religion. I’ve always had a difficult time explaining my religious beliefs, my relationship with Christianity, and perhaps that’s because I don’t quite understand them very well myself. I’ve also never met anyone else who thinks about Christianity the same way I do — until I read Tolstoy’s The Gospel in Brief.
The Gospel in Brief is just what its title says it is — a sort of “the four gospels in a nutshell” — but, as Tolstoy’s retelling of the teachings of Christ, it’s a little more than that. Tolstoy went through the New Testament and stripped out the things that he found incoherent, troubling, overly supernatural, and the like. I suspect that many devout Christians would call it blasphemous or something along those lines, but to do so would, I think, be a mistake.
It is a beautiful, wonderful, enriching, and life-changing book to read. If you are familiar with the gospels, it will change the way you think about them; if you are unfamiliar with Christianity, it will change the way you think about life and the world around you. And, even if you don’t much care for religion, it’s Tolstoy, so you really can’t go wrong.
I love Russian literature, yet somehow I’d made it through the first twenty-seven years of my life without having read The Master and Margarita. As soon as I finished it, it took all of my self-control to not begin reading it again immediately, and I’ve found myself picking it up off and on over the year to find some passage or scene that I especially loved.
The retelling of the story of Pontius Pilate and Jesus is, perhaps, one of my favorite scenes in a book from all time. But each scene is more wonderful, more terrible, more fantastic than the last, and the book never tires and never lets up not even for a moment. It gripped me and it changed me to the core, one of those rare books that I walked away from a very different person.
My husband had been encouraging me to read this book for several years, and I finally gave in and read it this Spring, and good God, I am so glad that I did. Crossing to Safety tells the story of two couples and the relationship between the couples over several decades. It doesn’t sound interesting, I know, which is why it took me so long to pick up and read in the first place, but that’s exactly it. Stegner does something magical in this book: he makes the ordinary seem extraordinary; he brings glory to the small, seemingly commonplace things and events and thoughts in life. I don’t know exactly how he accomplishes it, but he does, and he does it really well. At times, I felt like I was really a brilliantly-written memoir, and I couldn’t help but wonder, as I read it, how much of it he took from his own life.
Early in the year, I saw the movie Stalker for the first time. As soon as I learned it was based on a book, I had to read the book right away, and ordered the book Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky brothers. While waiting for the book to arrive, I found another book by them at the local library called Definitely Maybe, and decided to read that in the meantime.
It strikes me as funny now that, having read both books, my favorite is the random one that I found on the library shelf. Definitely Maybe tells the story of a group of somewhat ragtag scientists who are on the brink of discoveries about the universe, yet every time they sit down to work, something totally bonkers happens and distracts them from their work. I can’t say much more without giving away the plot, but the book is very short, and you should go read immediately it if you like science fiction.
I read quite a bit of Bradbury this year: The Martian Chronicles, Dandelion Wine, The Illustrated Man. I loved every one of these quite a bit, and they are all now on my list of the very best things I’ve ever read. The Martian Chronicles were, ultimately, my favorite of all the books, but it was Dandelion Wine that had the greatest effect on me. There was just something magical in Dandelion Wine, in the way it made me feel like a child again, in the way it allowed me to see the world through the eyes of my childhood again, and how that little bit of childhood wonder and marvel has stayed with me many months after I first read the book.
People are always quick to make fun of my love of children’s book series like A Series of Unfortunate Events and The Chronicles of Narnia. But I think that dismissing books simply because they are marketed to children just robs these people of the joy they would find if they sat down and took the time to read them. A Series of Unfortunate Events is a wonderful, lively, brilliant story split over thirteen books — I’ve probably read the whole series three or four times in my life so far — and it’s one I never tire of. The writing is perfect, the story is perfect, the plot is perfect, and the twists and turns and funny little details are the perfect way to lose yourself for many hours. (I should note that the movie and Netflix show are dull and boring in comparison, and you should just skip both of those and read these books instead.)
I’ve always loved Tolkien — The Hobbit was one of the first books I clearly remember reading as a child — and I was so excited to find this book, which I had never seen before. Letters from Father Christmas contains a long series of letters that Tolkien wrote to his children over the years. In the letters (which contain wonderful calligraphy and illustrations), he pretends to be Father Christmas, and tells his children all sorts of adventures that Father Christmas and his friend (a polar bear) are having at the North Pole. It’s one of those books that I’ll add to my Christmas reading list, along with A Christmas Carol, The Nutcracker, and Gogol’s The Night Before Christmas.