As we begin 2017, I am taking inventory of 2016. While this meditation certainly includes more than my reading list, the reading list matters too. As with the year in general, my reading list included some amazing things and some that left me underwhelmed. Rather than drag you down the rabbit hole of books that I wanted more from, it seems more useful to share my favorites. Here are the books that made my year of reading thought-provoking, emotionally intense, and meaningful. I offer them to you in hopes that they bring you the same.
The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial by Maggie Nelson
This memoir focuses on the cold case murder of Jane Mixer, Maggie Nelson's aunt. Nelson was busy at work writing a book of poetry about the aunt that she never knew, considering the impact on her family, the legacy of trauma, etc. when the cold case broke open. Now, Nelson and her remaining family confront the trial. Intermingled with stories about Nelson's own life and the lives of her family members, the book is unlike most "true crime." It centers mostly of the family of the victim, considering the process of grieving and the meaning of justice. Nelson often questions why she is writing the book at all, if she ought to have any authority to do so when she was not impacted in the same manner as her mother.
I was awed with Nelson's frankness, how honest the book felt. Her occassional references to philosophy and literature never felt like didacticism or an easy grab for literary clout. They felt searching and authentic. As someone who often references those things in my own life to make sense of what is before me, her grappling with the worlds of ideas and emotions while facing down a very real crime felt bitterly true. Nelson also keeps a pace that held me rapt for nearly the duration. I paused twice, once because I was emotionally exhausted and the other time, because I wanted to save back the last few pages. I wasn't ready for it to end. At times graphic, but never sensationalized. Formalistically, it is genre-bending--but that is the least of Nelson's accomplishments. Give it an afternoon, remember it for much longer.
Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh
Welcome to Eileen's small and painful life. At 24 years old, she is living at home with her alcoholic father and working in a boys' juvenile detention center. Her mother passed away and now Eileen lives exclusively in her mother's old clothes. She is essentially friendless, spending her days half-starved and miserable. When the detention center hires a new counselor named Rebecca, Eileen begins to feel something unexpected for her. She can't help but to be dazzled by the outgoing and beautiful new hire. While assuring herself that she is certainly not a lesbian, she begins to fall in love and suddenly it seems like it might be possible to break from the bleakness of her life. It seems possible to live differently. Of course, nothing is ever that simple.
Moshfegh has a remarkable talent for characterization. In the minute details, a life is revealed. While some critics found Eileen to be a disturbing or unlikeable character, Moshfegh has defended her beautifully imperfect character. "Eileen is not perverse. I think she's totally normal...I haven't written a freak character; I've written an honest character," Moshfegh said. I would concur. While this book is not exactly a feel-good read, I felt good about reading it. The darkness of Eileen is the need to connect without the skills or understanding to make it possible. I appreciate how intricate this novel feels, rather like the author is describing something that has already been rather than creating something new. While this is certainly a novel, it is an intimate work of fiction.
Patience by Daniel Clowes
Clowes' graphic novel is about a man who comes home to find that his pregnant wife, Patience, has been murdered. Grief-stricken, he travels in and out of time to change a truth that he cannot live with, a weight too heavy to bear. The bright images juxtapose against the terrible violence, the bleak emotional resonance. Do not let the colorful illustrations or the time travel element fool you, this is a heavy book that is definitely best read by an adult. It is not only a powerful meditation on love, but also on identity, time, and the ways in which both the past and the future are constantly pressing in on the present, taking us out of the moment and placing us elswehere.
Profoundly affecting and intellectually satisfying, this graphic novel demanded a lot from me. I devoured it cover to cover and it sank into my mind for days. Thank you for writing something at once relatable and strange, Daniel Clowes!
Ugly Girls by Lindsay Hunter
This tiny book is so fierce and mighty. Meet Perry and Baby Girl, two teenagers who live in dysfunctional worlds from which they seek escape, only to flounder in more dysfunction. Hunter deftly trades voices by chapter, letting us into many interior landscapes. Meet Perry's alcoholic mother who spends her days hopeless and drunk in the trailer park. She flirts with younger men and dreams of her younger days when her beauty attracted them. Meet her prison guard stepfather who wants to hold everything together and has no power to do so. And then there is Perry, the girl crawling out of her window at night and driving around, stealing cars with Baby Girl. When an older man starts to show interest in both of the girls online, his attention makes the girls feel special. Of course, readers will quickly recognize the danger before them.
Ugly Girls is a beautiful book full of ugliness. Don't let the brevity fool you. It is quick to read, but well developed and richly emotional.
Summerlong by Dean Bakopoulos
Claire and Don Lowry have spent years building their family, now they are divorcing. During a particularly hot Iowa summer, they begin to emotionally process the end of their marriage and it leads them to new people. For Don, a crush on a younger woman is complicated by her grief over the loss of her beloved partner. She allieviates her grief by smoking pot with Don and cuddling with him while they sleep. Claire falls for a younger man, someone far different from her husband who seems exciting and new. At times magical and whimsical, at others all too real, Bakopoulos perfectly captures the painful desires and losses of love.
I had wanted a fun summer read, but it meant so much more. Lovely story about how we endure our feelings.
Those are the highlights of my reading year, a small sample of the incredible works that I had the pleasure of enjoying. I can't wait to share with you all of the amazing books of 2017. Be well and we will see you soon.