“It didn’t matter where you were, if you were in a room full of books you were at least halfway home.” Anyone who’s seen one of apartments - or helped me move - knows that I live that sentiment voiced by Lev Grossman in The Magician’s Land. But, while books are often celebrated for their ability to transport the reader to a different place, the experience of reading is often tied strongly to the specific circumstances - place and time - in which you encounter a book.
I’m an incredibly moody reader and will respond differently to the same book encountered in different circumstances. So, when the moment is right and the right book finds me at the right moment - it’s something to celebrate. Here are a few of the my favorite books from this year, in the context of the places where I read them.
2018 opened with a bitter cold week in Arkansas. The camellia buds were killed off by several flash freezes. Even the pansies were looking sorry for themselves. My sister came to visit, decided it was too cold to keep making the effort at being a good houseguest, and returned home. I had only a few bottles of wine and a very beautiful amaryllis in my tiny apartment in the Quapaw Quarter, the historic district next to downtown Little Rock. Fortunately, I had a hearty stack of books to keep me busy.
Top of the stack was a magnificently fun comedy of manners, The Windfall by Diksha Basu. The novel focuses on the Jha family, who have recently received an unexpected fortune and make the effort to transition to a wealthier strata of society. As someone who grew up in a small town where all aspects of neighbors’ lives were observed and discussed in infinite detail, I found this novel really resonant of the attentions of a small community. The book was very well written, wry and funny, while still treating its characters with dignity and respect. It warmed me during the long winter nights.
At the end of January, I had a work trip up to northwest Arkansas - Bentonville and Fayetteville. I stole a few minutes on the way up to wander through the grounds at Crystal Bridges Museum of Art. Typical of the lower Ozark woodlands in late winter, things were mostly brown and grey. But I did get to watch the colors change at James Turrell’s Skyspace - both inside its dome and in the sky overhead.
After a chilling walk, I was able to toast my feet in bed and enjoy the strange and wonderful The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins. This book hits all of the points I love - it’s weird, deals with sibling relationships, has children of gods, and is lushly written and pasted over with literary references. I loved it.
Spring was late in coming, but when it finally erupted, the Quapaw Quarter was covered in a rush of bloom. The few camellia buds that were left opened their flowers, fat and flashy. Hyacinths, irises, daffodils, erupted from every crack to pile over the edges of the sidewalks. And the magnolias hoisted their open chalices to the sky. With all this abundance filling the neighborhood, I was able to go back to sitting on my stoop, drinking adult beverages and chatting with my glorious neighbor (shout out to Heather!).
And, just in time for the start of stoop season, we had the release of Ruby Tandoh’s Eat Up. You probably know Ruby from her amazing performance in the Great British Bake Off. I fell in love with Ruby’s writing during the Eating Dirty series that she wrote for Vice in 2016. Eat Up completely lives up to the promise of Ruby’s earlier writing - it’s a wonderful, joyful celebration of food in all its forms. I’ll definitely come back to it again and again.
After spring had fully settled in to Little Rock, I was lucky enough to be able to visit Southern Highlands Reserve in Lake Toxaway, North Carolina for their Spring Symposium. This 120-acre nature preserve celebrates the wonderful high-elevation plant communities of the southern Appalachians. I was astonished at the waist-high Solomon’s seals, luxurious carpets of phlox, incredible populations of trilliums, and hillside-smothering duvets of Vaseyi rhododendrons.
On my wandering drive up into the mountains to visit the Reserve, I was fortunate to listen to the audiobook Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes. If The Library at Mount Char wasn’t strange enough for you, take a crack at this. It’s a fantastically scary and weird story that investigates what happens when creativity goes wrong. The horror of this book is well offset by the tenderness of the relationships portrayed. I loved it.
It’s great enough when one book really resonates with me - that feeling is even more exciting when I get two great books in a row. On my way back down the mountains, I read another winner. Nicky Drayden’s The Prey of Gods was a fun action-packed adventure. I zipped through it. If you like interesting technology & future worlds, this book delivers. If you want action and adventure, this gives it with characters you'll quickly grow to love. This became my default book recommendation for the summer.
While my trip east to the North Carolina mountains was mostly focused on the Southern Highlands Reserve trip, it had the secondary function of allowing me to continue preparing for my summer move to Chattanooga. At my new studio, while I no longer have the luxury of going back home to stoop-sit for my lunch, I do have the privilege of getting to use great public spaces like Miller Plaza and Miller Park. I can sit beneath the lindens, eat a vegetable quesadilla from the magnificent corner shop Taqueria Jalisco, and watch people wander by while I read.
In this idyllic setting, I had the opportunity to listen to the best YA book I read all year: Radio Silence by Alice Oseman. This book showed, better than I’ve encountered anywhere else, the way that modern friendships often occur partly online, partly in person. I have many friendships that occur to some significant degree online, sometimes intertwining with in-person friendship - other times not. This book represented the vulnerability and honesty that occur in online interactions which might be more difficult or take more time to come to in a purely in-person friendship. There’s also great representation of an aesexual character.
For me, reading isn’t just for lunchbreaks. I also love listening to audiobooks when I’m driving around, running errands, or doing household chores. I’m a sucker for a good short story collection. Her Body & Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado scratched that itch perfectly. It’s strange and wonderful and beautifully written. What more do you want?
One of the factors that attracted me to Chattanooga (forget the incredible landscape and interesting urban development was its proximity to two metro regions, Atlanta and Nashville - both only 2 hours out from my current abode. Whenever I get a craving for exotic restaurants, art boutiques, or fashion labels not available in our little scenic city, I can hop on the road for a quick day trip. Hello, Beltline!
On a recent trip to Atlanta, my audiobook adventure for the day was Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab by Shani Mootoo. This book is a fictional memoir of an adult son coming to terms with the death of a trans parent who he’s reunited with late in life. Think of Transparent, but you don’t hate the characters. Also it’s set in Trinidad and Toronto.
I haven’t gone full #bookstagram. I don’t have photos of these books carefully staged in the places where I read them. I’ve only got the mental picture of those stories, those settings. Hopefully you have such glorious memories too. I’m looking forward to stories and settings that 2019 brings…
I also have two honorable mentions of short story anthologies that stood out in my reading this year. They don’t have the clear specific place-memory that the rest of the books in the post have, since they’re written by a multitude of authors. But definitely come running to add them to your reading list for 2019:
Meanwhile, Elsewhere: Science Fiction and Fantasy from Transgender Writers edited by Cat Fitzpatrick
Accessing the Future: A Disability-Themed Anthology of Speculative Fiction edited by Kathryn Allen