End of Year Book List for 2018

imageSo, last year I posted my book list, showing that I had read 44 books in 2017. Not sure what this says about me (I’m a slacker?) but in 2018 I only read 38 books—just over one book every two weeks. In comparing the two years, I can’t figure out how I read 18 fewer books this year than the previous, since in 2017 I published 3 books and traveled to over 40 events in 7 states for those books, whereas in 2018 I published 1 book and only traveled to about 25 events in 5 states. Where did my reading time go in 2018? A close examination of my life indicates that I probably spent those remaining reading hours watching television. Yes. I love to watch television. This might be unusual for a writer, but I grew up watching TV (starting in the mid 1950s when we got our first set) and didn’t become a reader until I was in my 50s! I wanted to be an actor before I wanted to be a writer, which explains a bit about my love for the screen.

In my (self) defense, I will say that in 2018 I WROTE another book—my linked short story collection FRIENDS OF THE LIBRARY—so there’s that. (Pats self on the back.) And I organized my personal essay collection, PILGRIM INTERRUPTED, into sections and wrote the introduction. And I spent a good deal of time querying literary agents and independent presses for both of these books. (Pats self on the back. Again.)

Meanwhile, it’s interesting to notice the types of books I read each of these years:

2017: 23 fiction (all novels); 20 nonfiction (9 memoirs, 1 collection of micro-memoirs, 2 spiritual/religious, 2 psychology/self-help, 5 inspiration/essays, 1 art/history); and 1 poetry collection. 18 of those 44 books were by authors I know personally.

2018: 19 fiction (16 novels, 2 short story collections, 1 book of 4 novellas); 15 nonfiction (5 memoirs, 4 spiritual/religious/inspirational books, 3 essay collections, 1 oral biography, 2 psychology/self help);4 poetry collections. 24 of the 28 books I read in 2018 were by authors I know personally.

So, here’s my list of books read in 2018, actually in the order in which I read them. I’m taking a risk of hurting my friends’ feelings, since I know 23 of these authors, but I’m going to put an asterisk by my favorites. Please keep in mind how very subjective this is—certain topics and stories resonate with people who have shared experiences and interests—and not always an indication of how excellent the prose is, although in some cases that’s the reason for the asterisk. I will also add that I read the first 100 pages or so of THE FRIEND, winner of the National Book Award, but lost interest. Maybe it’s just because I’m not a dog person? As a writer, I wanted to see what it was about the book that won it such a prestigious award. Just didn’t get it. See how subjective this is? (NOTE: THE FRIEND did make the New York Time’s list of 100 Notable Books of 2018. So did 2 books I read and liked very much, IN PIECES by Sally Field and EDUCATED by Tara Westover.
What’s up next for me in 2019? Michelle Obama’s BECOMING, Patti Reagan Davis’s memoir about her father’s journey with Alzheimer’s, THE LONG GOODBYE, and THE LETTERS OF FLANNERY O’CONNOR AND CAROLINE GORDON, edited b y Christine Flanagan, are on top of my stack (which is huge!) . . . but I’ll be going to the Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend in January again, where I’ll visit with over 50 fellow authors and lots of prolific readers, so no telling how many books I’ll come home with!

Mourning DoveHappy reading in 2019! Please leave a comment here or on Facebook and tell me YOUR favorites books read in 2018! HAPPY NEW YEAR

Little Broken Things by Nicole Baart

Hunger by Roxane Gay

*Gradle Bird by J.C. Sasser (my review is here)

Spells & Oregano by Patricia V. Davis

Bead by Bead by Suzanne Henley (my review is here)

*Mourning Dove by Claire Fullerton (my review is here)

My Exaggerated LifeThe Dollhouse by Fiona Davis

Time and Despondency: Regaining the Present in Faith and Life by Nicole Roccas (my post about this book is here)

*My Exaggerated Life: Pat Conroy as told to Katherine Clark (my Q & A with author Katherine Clark is here)

The Fighter by Michael Farris Smith

Mississippi by Ann Fisher-Wirth (poems) and Maude Schuyler Clay (photography)

*Confessions of a Christian Mystic by River Jordan

The Mutual UFO Network by Lee Martin (my review is here)

The MasterpieceIn Praise of Wasting Time by Alan Lightman

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Reading the Coffee Grounds and Other Stories by Niles Reddick (my review is here)

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Lewy Body Soldier by Norman McNamara

Tracking Happiness by Ellen Morris Prewitt (my review is here)

Our Prince of ScribesWhere the Creek Runs by Mary Abraham

*The Masterpiece by Fiona Davis (read my chat with Fiona Davis here)

Rush by Lisa Patton (read my interview with Lisa here)

*Our Prince of Scribes, edited by Nicole Seitz and Jonathan Haupt (my review here)

Love and Ruin by Paula McLain

A Southern Season: Four Stories from a Front Porch Swing (incl. Claire Fullerton)

Becoming Mrs. Lewis*Becoming Mrs. Lewis by Patti Callahan Henry

Becoming a Healing Presence by Albert S. Rossi

Almost Everything: Notes on Hope by Anne Lamott (a few words on this book here)

The Small Door of Your Death by Sheryl St. Germain

Navigating Disaster by Sheryl St. Germain (a few words about St. Germain here)

Madstones by Corey Mesler

*Congratulations, Who Are You Again? by Harrison Scott Key (my review here)Congratulations

All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung

*In Pieces by Sally Field (my review here)

*Educated by Tara Westover

Ya Yas in Bloom by Rebecca Wells

Next Year in Havana by Chanel CleetonEducated

In Pieces

The Importance of Family

My reunion with my cousin Lea Brackett Smith in November.

My reunion with my cousin Lea Brackett Smith in November.

The older I get, the more I value family. It seems I’m not alone, since my second cousin Lee Brackett Smith friended me on Facebook recently and we discovered that we both live in Memphis, and we haven’t seen each other since we were kids in the sixties! Her father and my father are first cousins. When she saw that I was speaking at the annual Alzheimer’s Caregivers Conference in Bartlett, where she lives, in November, she wanted to come but had a conflict, so we met for lunch instead. I was going to be talking about my book TANGLES AND PLAQUES: A MOTHER AND DAUGHTER FACE ALZHEIMER’S. Lea’s mother, my cousin Janet Brackett, has a brain tumor and is showing signs of dementia, although it’s hard to say what the brain tumor might be causing.

Brackett Johnson family treeI had so much fun visiting with Lea. We started drawing a family tree and asking each other questions to fill in the blanks. Then I emailed a couple of more cousins in Mississippi to try to complete the tree. One fun fact is that my grandmother and her brother married Lea’s grandfather’s brother and sister, so there are all sorts of double cousins as a result.

Lea’s mother Janet is from England. When I first met her I was about 10 years old and I was enchanted by her. With her straight black bangs and mod clothes and British accent, she reminded me of Audrey Hepburn.

B Jo Janet Charles Ray and BillyShe married my cousin Charles Ray Brackett back in the 1960s, and Lea sent me these photographs from the wedding. I love this one, with my aunt Barbara Jo and my daddy, Billy Johnson, flanking Janet and Charles Ray.

Charles Ray and BillyAnd this one of my father and his first cousin Charlie holding hands before the wedding!
The last time I saw Charles Ray was in May of 2016, when he came to my mother’s funeral.

He died a few months later, so I was so glad he had come to her funeral.

 

Susan and Jan BrackettSo, this week I was driving down to Jackson for a book signing at Lemuria Books on Tuesday, so I told Lea I wanted to visit her mother. She is now in assisted living, and I went to the lovely facility on Wednesday. I wasn’t sure if she would remember me—we haven’t seen each other in decades, and she has a brain tumor—but when I walked into her apartment, she looked up and said, “Susan!” We embraced and had a lovely visit. I took her the photographs from her wedding, and also new photographs of my family. Her long-term memory is pretty good, but she couldn’t remember that she had been in the hospital a few days ago. She has no pain, only some blurry vision, so she’s thankful to be pain-free.

Jan w iconAt some point I noticed an icon of an angel hanging by her door. I turned it over and read “To Nana from Mitch.” I asked her who Mitch was. He’s one of her grandsons. I asked if he was Orthodox or why he might have given her an icon, and she said no, she didn’t know where he got it. It was one of those icons from Greece with the official information on the back. I told Janet that I used to paint icons and I kissed the angel and asked him to watch over Janet.

As I drove away from Janet’s apartment and back to Memphis, I realized that there are more cousins in Jackson I haven’t seen in years . . . . maybe I’ll hunt them down in 2019!

Educated

Tara+Westover19593_V1I swear I was drawing comparisons of Tara Westover’s memoir EDUCATED to Jeanette Walls’  THE GLASS CASTLE before I read the same comparison in a blurb by Susannah Cahalan on the back cover! I don’t think I got more than a few chapters in before I could see the resemblance . . . the hardscrabble lives that both Westover and Walls lived as children growing up in violent dysfunctional families . . . and especially the love they each maintained for their abusive parents. I think that love and forgiveness are what stand out as most powerful to me in this book. I kept thinking “Get out of there, Tara!” over and over as she returned to the home and environment that almost killed her several times. The power her parents held over her is a testament to the strength of certain mental illness cocktails, such as her father’s bipolar/schizophrenic/narcissism.

west_9780399590504_jkt_all_r2.inddSet in the mountains of rural Idaho in a fundamentalist Mormon sect, Tara and her siblings barely survived their father’s delusional and often violent behavior.  The fact that she was able to leave—much less study and receive advanced degrees at Brigham Young University, Harvard, and Cambridge, is nothing short of a miracle. Did I mention that she never went to elementary, middle, or high school? And received no organized schooling at home?

If Westover’s story isn’t enough to fill a great memoir, her writing is the icing on the cake. She has an obvious gift with words, which was only enhanced by the education she received once she was able to escape the bounds of home. And maybe even while living at home, as she read and studied in secret. And by observing her family and the world around her.

I’m a slow reader, but I read this in just a few days. Okay, I’ve been sick and staying home for most of the past two weeks, but usually I resort to television when I don’t feel well. I could not put this book down. It’s up at the top of my favorite books of 2018 now. (I’ll publish my list soon.)

Kudos to Westover for having the courage to not only survive the terrors of her childhood, but to thrive as she moved out to get an education, and then to share her story with the world.

In Pieces

In PiecesIt’s been a few years since I read and reviewed a celebrity memoir . . . . back in 2014 I reviewed Diane Keaton’s book, Let’s Just Say It Wasn’t Pretty. She still remains my favorite actress, but I’m also a big fan of Sally Field. So when I saw she had a memoir out—In Pieces—I was immediately interested. And she wrote it herself—taking seven years and lots of literary and emotional energy to achieve what I think is a really good memoir. This article in the New York Times says that Fields “reveals a personal history, darkened by abuse and illuminated by grace, that she has never shared before.”

One thing I loved about the book was how Field writes with such immediacy, often saying that she “only now” realizes such and such about an event from her childhood or early adulthood, as she is writing the memoir. Writing in present tense increased this feeling of immediacy—of discovery—which is so important to memoir. As writers we often write to understand our world and our lives, and this is definitely the case with Field’s memoir.

If you don’t already know, or suspect, she was sexually abused by her stepfather for much of her childhood. But she didn’t know until she was in her sixties and her mother was in her eighties that her mother knew about it—or some of it—and did nothing. I wept as she described her reconciliation with her aging mother, wishing that I had talked with my own mother about my grandfather before she lost her memories to Alzheimer’s. It’s always been my fear that he molested her, as he did me, which would explain a lot about her obsession with food, weight (hers and mine), and later her alcoholism. I hope that my readers—and especially Field’s readers—will seek out the people in their lives with whom they need to have healing conversations while they are still alive.

One thing that struck me strongly in the book was how Field wasn’t able to really enjoy her success as an actress. Even when she won the Academy Award for Sybil, her first serious acting role, her self-image was so damaged that she couldn’t really let herself celebrate. By the time she landed the role of Mary Todd Lincoln, her confidence had grown, but there is always a shadow over her joy. She grows into a wise woman, though, and I’ll close with these words near the end of the memoir:

How you care for your child from the time they are born until they’re eighteen is important, but who you are as a person and parent for as long as you live also counts, and counts one hell of a lot.

Update on FRIENDS OF THE LIBRARY

It’s been a few months since I blogged about my short story collection, FRIENDS OF THE LIBRARY. Back in September I wrote about my journey up to that point:

“Warming Up To Adele (and Short Story Collections)”

Since that time one of the two university presses that was reading the collection has said no, and the other press is still reading. I also queried a small indie press, so they are also reading it now.

Meanwhile, I was looking at the contests listed in Poets & Writers Magazine and one caught my eye:

MagicTartt Fiction Award

This award is for an author’s first collection of short stories, so my book definitely qualifies. The winner receives $1000, publication by Livingston Press, and 100 copies of the book. I sent in the manuscript a few days ago.

I looked at the list of previous winners, and there I found my friend M. O. “Neal” Walsh, whose first short story collection THE PROSPECT OF MAGIC won the award the fifth year it was offered. I remember when Neal read from this collection at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi when it first came out in 2010. (He was leading the annual Yoknapatawpha Summer Writers Workshop, which I attended for about seven years. It’s now known as The Yokshop, and it’s the best writing workshop ever. Ever.  I don’t think the date for next year’s workshop is set yet, but watch the website.) Neal went on to publish a novel MY SUNSHINE AWAY, which was a New York Times bestseller and winner of the Pat Conroy Southern Book Award for General Fiction.

So, my fingers are crossed that FRIENDS has a chance for this award.

And yet . . . if I hear back with an offer from one of the two presses currently reading the collection, I’ll have a (nice) quandary. So far none of the four books I have published have won any awards. It’s not the money I’m after, but the recognition, and the marketing benefit of having an “award-winning” book. I think more people would be inclined to purchase and read the book.

Stay tune . . .  you know I’ll keep you posted! Have a great weekend.

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