The Best of My Reading Year

“Lost my focus” “Couldn’t concentrate” “I read so little this year” and other similar laments repeated in my reading and writing circles in recent days as friends tally the number of books read in 2017 compared to previous years and goals are set for 2018.

 

I get it. The personal and the political conspired in 2017 to pull my attention away from that which is so precious to me: reading. But the good literary news is that the year was full of many gorgeous, unforgettable reads, even if the sum total of books completed was less than I would have liked. And here, in no particular order, are those that I most treasured and would press into your hands if I could (click on the titles to read my full Goodreads review):

 

FICTION

A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin (2015)

Time stops with each story in this collection. These are not easy reads and I needed a deep breath and some distance after each story. But Berlin’s is some of the most astonishing writing I have read. Ever. It pains me that it has taken so long for us to recognize her power and mastery, that she will never know how deeply she has affected this new generation of readers. But do yourself a favor. Make it a priority to read this collection- take all the time you need, dip in and out, but know that you will finish a different human being than when you started.

 

News of the World by Paulette Jiles (2016)

But this extraordinary novel is so much more than its plot. This is a story of two misfits at either end of their lives, brought together by happenstance and tragedy who bond during an epic journey through an unsettled land. It is novel of place and of a very particular point in history. It is a few years after the end of the Civil War, but hardly an era of peace. Captain Kidd brings with him news of the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, granting black citizens of the United States the right to vote. Texas is still very much the Wild West, and Jiles captures the grit and heat, the awesome threats and beauty of this massive state.

 

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (2016)

The marvel of this novel is how we become so quickly and solidly attached to the protagonist of each chapter, even though we don’t remain in his or her life for long. And how agile Gyasi is in portraying each generation and location, despite dramatic shifts of culture and geography. The chapters set in West Africa are the most revelatory. I’ve read extensively of the evil and agony of pre-and post-antebellum racism and violence in the United States, as well as the disease of Jim Crow that followed emancipation. But to see the entangled roots of slave history in West Africa, revealed with such vivid storytelling, is astonishing.

 

The Accidental by Ali Smith (2005)

The Accidental shows the rusted and broken bits inside the moral compass of the Smarts, a bourgeois British family of four on summer holiday in a drab northern England town. Eve Smart is mid-list novelist and mother of 17-year-old Magnus and 12-year-old Astrid. Michael Smart, husband and step-father, is a philandering professor of English. It becomes all to easy to detest the Smart mère et père, for they are eye-rollingly entitled and pretentious, but this novel is about the kids. And it is in their voices that Smith’s prose shines like a beacon.

 

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (2017)

What a rich and complicated novel. I reeled with each page, cringing in horror at the Great Plains massacres and Civil War atrocities, astonished by the elegance of Barry’s prose, the fresh wonder of Thomas McNulty’s voice, the lovely matter-of-factness of taboo love and the shock of willing participation in America’s brutal expansion. Days Without Endis a work of staggering beauty.

 

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (2017)

It is the inevitability of migration that moved me the most. We have always been a world, a mass of humanity, on the move. From the very origin of our species, we have migrated. The notion that one part of the world belongs to one certain group of people and should be closed to others is as absurd as doors in gardens that suck people from Amsterdam and expel them in Rio de Janeiro. I inhaled this elegant, uncanny novel in all its prescient relevance and stunning imagination. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

 

The Atlas of Forgotten Places by Jenny D. Williams (2017)

This is an extraordinary debut, written with a masterful sense of plot and pacing and a keen understanding of the thorny world of western intervention in the developing world. Her prose calls to mind the exquisite Francesca Marciano — another contemporary Western writer with personal experience in Africa — with its clarity, precision, and beauty.

 

The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch (2017)

Lidia’s prose is visceral and shocking and physical. She writes from the body as much as from the mind and the heart and you feel her words. As a reader I was stunned, horrified, aroused and broken. Whatever your expectations of this book, lay them aside. Just read and embrace the power of what fiction can do to tell the truth of the world.

 

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin (2015)

THE THING ABOUT JELLYFISH is a luminous portrait of friendship and grief, of the cruelty of youth and the resiliency of the human spirit. Younger readers will find solace in Zu’s determination and big heart; older readers will marvel at the sensitivity and deep truths of a finely-wrought narrative. This is an exquisite novel.

 

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry (2017)

This is a novel of tangled, rich love, both mannered and wild. Multiple hearts beat with loves unrequited and an aching pervades the pages, expressed in letters, in long glances, in touches to cinched waistlines and damp napes of the neck. Along with the palpable sense of dread that follows rumors of a winged beast is a sense of desperation and longing that may spin out of control at any moment: desire without fulfillment can be as dangerous as a legendary ichthyosaur. This is as lovely a novel as I have read in a long time, reminiscent of A.S. Byatt and Sarah Waters. Sarah Perry is a breathtaking writer. Settle in and be prepared to be swept away on a wave of exquisite prose and storytelling. Highly recommended.

 

The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld (2017)

Snow and ice, the forest, the silence, the hunters and hunted combine to give The Child Finder a sense that it is once-removed from reality, perhaps a relief for the reader even as the narrative dives deep into the horrors of child abuse and abduction. Denfeld calls upon her own childhood experiences, and that as a professional death penalty investigator and adoptive mother of three children. She lives in real time the sadness and desperation of the used and abandoned, and that reality lives in this frightening and yet ultimately uplifting and redemptive novel. A breathtaking combination of suspense, horror, love, darkness and light, The Child Finder is simply one of this year’s most compelling and astonishing reads. Brava, Rene.

 

NON-FICTION

 

The Answers Are Inside the Mountains: Meditations on the Writing Life by William Stafford (2003)
The Answers are Inside the Mountains is one in a series of Poets on Poetry, a collection of interviews and conversations with a celebrated poet, as well as selected essays and poems. It includes a beautiful exchange between Stafford and his dear friend and fellow poet of the West, Richard Hugo. A slim volume rich and full of hope and light, compassion and encouragement The Answers are Inside the Mountains is one of the loveliest sources of inspiration this writer has read.

 

Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature by Kathleen Dean Moore (2010)
This is a collection of essays and meditations that have appeared over the years in various publications, so they are loosely knit by the theme of finding redemption in the natural world. Moore’s style is poetic and thoughtful, gentle and open- in direct contrast with the often abrupt and heartless way that nature has of carrying on with the business of life and death. But each essay is intimate and poignant, full of gratitude and hope.

 

Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage by Dani Shapiro (2017)
I was married for nearly twenty-five years, years that were happy and full of adventure, but perhaps more heartbreak that we could withstand. I celebrate the beauty of what we had and the wisdom in the letting go. Dani Shapiro speaks of “the third thing” that unites couples, whether it’s a child, a Corgi, an avocation or hobby, and this idea resonated deeply. I had several “third things” with my ex-husband, but in my most recent, and recently-ended relationship, the third thing seemed to be a third rail of pain and codependency. Now, as I welcome a deep and gentle love, I have at last the third thing with a partner that I’ve been craving: art. The mutual understanding, celebration and commiseration of what it means to be an artist, whether it’s creating with paint or with pen, is such sweet relief.

Neverending Story

As a rule, I don’t read reader reviews of my work. By the time a book hits the shelves, my work is complete and the reading experience no longer belongs to me. I do read trade reviews and those from sources I’ve actively sought out, such as book blogs. Occasionally, friends will send their thoughts to me directly, but I try not to ingest their words.

 

Why such caution?

 

I’ve been a member of Goodreads, the online reader review community—which now numbers in the millions of members—for nearly ten years. I’ve written hundreds of reviews and formed wonderful connections with book lovers around the world. Writing reviews, thinking carefully about the books I read, their construction, style, themes, and storytelling, became a vital part of my self-directed MFA. It’s what led me to seek out writing instruction and begin to craft stories of my own. There is no better way, in my opinion, to become a writer than to read deeply, broadly, and reflect deliberately on others’ writing. I saved $30,000 on tuition and fees, thank you so very much.

 

But people, because people are people, can be unspeakably cruel in a forum where relative anonymity is possible. Monstrous things are written about books for no reason other than spite and sheer nastiness. Even simple negative reviews, just plain old “this was crap”, make me cringe.

 

I decided a few years ago to cease publishing critical reviews of books. Not to be a Pollyanna, but because I came to understand that the negativity reflected on me and cost me far more than it did any possible good in the world. If a book does not capture me within the first pages, I set it aside. I don’t have time to waste and the only fair thing is to admit it’s not the read for me. Occasionally I will get all the way through and be frustrated, disappointed, resent the wasted time, but I’ll let the reading experience go with minimal to no comment.

 

I’d much rather exhale joy for something extraordinary. If I spend time writing a review, it’s because I want the world to know about this book.

Salt Creek, WA Copyright Julie Christine Johnson 2017

 

So that’s where I come from as a reader. As an author, I’ve come to accept that readers’ opinions are none of my business. I’m honored that anyone would spend time with my words. But hoping my intent will be understood or appreciated is futile. Readers come in with their expectations, hopes, and biases that have nothing to do with me or my words.

 

At the close of each writing workshop I lead, I read aloud Colum McCann’s gorgeous Letter to a Young Writer . It is a meditation on the power and purpose of writing for writers of any experience. I first read it months before the launch of In Another Life and it’s what made me decide that reviews were not mine to read.

 

Don’t bullshit yourself. If you believe the good reviews, you must believe the bad. Still, don’t hammer yourself. Do not allow your heart to harden. Face it, the cynics have better one-liners than we do. Take heart: they can never finish their stories. Have trust in the staying power of what is good. Colum McCann

What is good. What is good? What is good is to keep my head down and write. To trust the editorial process and know that multiple eyes and brains have pored over and picked apart my work with the sole objective of making my story as true and strong and fearless and beautiful as possible. That it went to print when it was ready. My books will find their readers in their own time and own ways, but my work will not be for everyone.

 

So there. Now, scratch all that. Sometimes you run into yourself.

 

A few weeks ago I went into my Amazon Author Central profile to make some long-overdue updates to my bio. And front and center in the reviews of In Another Life was this comment: “… This was just a ripoff of Outlander. I couldn’t finish it. It was HORRIBLE. Skip it.”

 

Oh, the Outlander thing. I could write columns on how that comparison has haunted me. Not one I invited or welcomed, a delightful book that was not remotely an influence on my novel. This comment stung at first, but then I listened deeply. The needle entered, bit, and then disappeared. It’s okay. It’s not mine to own. Not my experience to worry about.

 

Minutes later, I hopped over to Amazon.co.uk. I didn’t realize that I had to claim a separate author profile over there; I assumed one common profile lived throughout the Amazon Universe. Crikey. How exhausting. But there is was. Front and center: “This is one of the best books I have read in a long time. Well-plotted with great characterization.”

 

If you believe the good reviews, you must believe the bad. Colum McCann

 

Like opening a bag of pretzels, once I started, I couldn’t stop. And then I read something that sated me. This. This is enough. “It is a love story which involves reincarnation, it is not about time travel. Comparisons to Diana Gabaldon’s ‘Outlander’ and Audrey Niffeneger’s ‘The Time Traveler’s Wife’, are misleading. ‘In Another Life’ reminded me in style of Kate Mosse’s Languedoc trilogy, though the stories are completely different.”

 

You beautiful reader. You were inside my head. In fact, I read Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth years ago and that wonderful story sparked my imagination. I went in search of contemporary novels about the Cathars and couldn’t find any. I was so captivated by the history, the land, the potential for story that I decided to write my own.

 

Any writer who says they don’t care about validation, well, fine. But I don’t believe you. We care. We publish because we truly want readers to seek out our work. We want to be noticed, to build a readership, to engage with readers, to know that our words reach and touch and move and inspire and entertain. We write because we must. We seek publication because we believe we’ve done something worth sharing.

 

I’m so pleased to announce that In Another Life is a 2016 Foreword Indies finalist for Book of the Year, Fantasy.  Winners will be announced during the 2017 American Library Association Annual Conference in Chicago in June.

 

Further delight in sharing that In Another Life is a finalist in the Women’s Fiction Writers’ Association annual STAR award for Debut Novel. Finalists’ novels are now being read by a panel of librarians, and winners be announced at the WFWA annual September retreat.

 

A story begins long before its first word. It ends long after its last. Colum McCann

 

My Reading Year: The Best of 2016

The Year of the Fidgety Reader. That was my 2016. Releasing my own novel and editing a second and third cut into my precious reading time, energy and focus, and that frustrated the hell out of me- reading is as important to me as a writer as writing. But I did encounter the extraordinary, books that I look back on now with gratitude, for they have changed me as a writer and a human being.

 

The Breakdown: 76 read

Novels: 42

Poetry Collections: 6

Memoir: 6

Short Story Collections: 6

Writing Craft: 4

Creative Nonfiction: (social, political, historical): 11

Biography: 1

Authors:  68 women; 6 men; 2 multiple authors

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If there was any particular theme to my reading this year, it was survival. Diane Les Bequets’s stunning Breaking Wild and the novel that had my favorite opening paragraph of the year, William Giraldi’s Hold the Dark and the lovely, achingly sad Seal Woman by Solveig Eggerz are literary thrillers that shiver with cold and exquisite tension. Eowyn Ivey took me to The Bright Edge of the World in her novel about exploring the Alaskan frontier, while Midge Raymond, David Pablo Cohn, and Lily Brooks-Dalton transported me to Antarctica and the North Pole with their enthralling tales (My Last Continent, Heller’s Tale, and Good Morning Midnight).

 

War and its aftermath played out in Elizabeth Marro’s debut Casualties, Leila Aboulela’s The Kindness of Enemies, Salt to the Sea by Ruth Sepetys—a gorgeous are-you-sure-this-is-YA novel set in WWII Prussia, Martha Hall Kelly’s beautiful WWII epic Lilac Girlsand one from the master of soul-haunting novels, Edna O’Brien, The Little Red Chairs.

 

I had joined a wonderful virtual book club at the start of the year and intended to follow along with the plan to read a Virginia Woolf each month. I made it to March at any rate, reading A Haunted House and Other Short Stories and Mrs. Dalloway. This year I’ve added The Voyage Out to the roster.

 

Not enough poetry. But what there was, including W.S. Merwin, Sharon Olds, Louise Glück, Dorianne Laux, expanded my soul.

 

Here are a few books that took my breath away, books I wanted to press into everyone’s hands, saying, “Read this. You must.” Excerpted comments are from my Goodreads reviews, books presented in no particular order.

 

Thirteen Ways of Looking, Colum McCann (Fiction/Short Stories: 2015)

Colum McCann traces the shadows of tension and love, despair and tragedy in this collection of one novella and three short stories-pieces that held me transfixed with their poignancy and fierce energy.

 

Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert (Writing Craft/Inspiration: 2015)

There could not have been a better time to read Big Magic than in the fraught and anxious, giddy and surreal days before launching my first novel. Gilbert’s words soothed and grounded me, took me out of the uncomfortable, jangly headspace of self-promotion and back into the embrace of what it means to be a creative person, why I set forth on this path in the first place.

 

M Train, Patti Smith (Memoir: 2016)

Reading the lovely Proustian interlude that is M Train, I felt like a shadow-angel trailing Patti Smith, from Café ‘Ino down the block from her New York apartment to the far-flung places in her past and present that twirl like ribbons in her poetry, her songs, her art. M Train is a meditation on this artist’s life, more kaleidoscope than memoir, a shifting wonder that spills pieces of colored glass memories.

 

Baby’s On Fire, Liz Prato (Fiction/Short Stories: 2015)

I reckon many reading this review are not familiar with writer Liz Prato or this slim volume of twelve stories, her debut collection. I’m doing what I can here, and in the real world, to change that. Fortunately I live in the literary Utopia that is the Pacific Northwest, where astonishingly talented writers are nearly as numerous as coffee shops and the community lifts up, supports and loves its own. Liz is a literary lion here, but you should know her, you should read her work.

 

The Wolf Border, Sarah Hall (Fiction: 2015)

Freedom/captivity; wild/ tame; fertile/barren; desire/indifference . . . it’s rarely just one or the other in life, is it? We walk on the border between each, sometimes falling one way, sometimes another, ever in search of balance. In this extraordinary novel, Sarah Hall explores the borders nature creates, borders imposed by man, borders the heart transcends no matter how tightly we exert out control.

 

Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist, Anne Boyd Rioux (Biography: 2016)

A well-constructed biography is a dance between feet-on-ground facts and limbs-in-air storytelling. Flesh and soul must be conveyed in the chronology of events, and a case must be created that this one life holds relevance to all readers. A biography is an act of scholarship and illumination. And so it is with Anne Boyd Rioux’s luminous biography of nearly-forgotten 19th century writer Constance Fenimore Woolson.

 

The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness, Rebecca Solnit (Essays/Social Science: 2014)

This collection of 29 essays, previously published in a variety of literary venues, demonstrates Rebecca Solnit’s virtuosity as an compassionate intellectual, a keen and critical observer of the human condition, and a preeminent force in American letters.

 

The Book of Disquiet, Fernando Pessoa (Essays/Philosophy: 1982)

The four months it took me to read Fernando Pessoa’s posthumously-published collection of thought fragments have been some of the most fraught and chrysalis-splitting days of my adult life. This book will forever be synonymous with transition and grief, exploration and longing. I could read only bits at a time, for Pessoa’s struggle to understand the world and his place in it mirrored my own and my many gasps of recognition left me breathless.

 

Rising Strong, Brené Brown (Non-fiction/Motivational: 2015)

There are books that meet you at just the right time, when you most need and are open to their messages. I can well imagine encountering the warm Texan embrace of Brené Brown’s brand of social psychology at other times of my life and being turned off by its fierceness, volume and confidence. I may have looked askance at the cult of Brené Brown, with legions of devotees who discovered her through her TED talk gone viral, read her previous works, taken her Oprah-endorsed self-actualization workshops, or listened to her CD series on vulnerability and shame. Rising Strong is in fact my first encounter with Brené Brown’s work.

 

Good Morning, Midnight, Lily Brooks-Dalton (Fiction: 2016)

A lyrical and poignant elegy for Earth, imbued with irrepressible hope, Good Morning, Midnight is one of the loveliest books I’ve read in such a very long time. Lily Brooks-Dalton’s keen and delightful imagination, paired with a natural compassion and her gorgeous, lucid prose, made this a book I thought of in the hours when I had to leave it behind.