It’s hard to believe 2018 is almost over. Whether you’re hoping to get one last great read in before the start of the new year or plan for 2019, these recommendations from Hugo House teachers are sure to inspire and delight.
Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead
When I read Joshua Whitehead’s Jonny Appleseed this year, I was so glad to encounter the novel’s narrator, observant, deeply felt, playful, wry, and self-aware, embracing of seeming contradictions. I loved the frankness and lyricism of the language, which came at me piecemeal and scattershot, like gems run over by a truck and ground into the road. I loved the many configurations of relationships across sexuality and gender and generations. Most of all I loved Whitehead’s rejection of what I’ve come to think of as neoliberal realism, in which conflict becomes a neat precursor to resolution or assimilation. Instead, with lines like “it’s home because it has to be,” and “our bodies are a library and our stories are written like braille on the skin,” this novel tells a real story of hard won and unsettled self-determination.
—Madeline ffitch, teaching Don’t Kill Your Darlings Yet: The Bold Art of Revision
Less by Andrew Sean Greer
Yes, I understand that this novel won the Pulitzer Prize, so it’s terribly unoriginal, but I vividly remember Greer’s reading at the Hugo Literary Series a few years back, and his work was so charming and hilarious and wickedly smart then, and this novel absolutely blew me away. I found it hard to think about anything else while I was reading it. It’s a very deeply layered book, and yes it’s a funny book, which people somehow seem to think means it’s lesser (pun intended!), but it’s not, it really earned that Pulitzer. As a side note intended to amplify the force of this recommendation: I read more books in 2018 than any year in my life so far—at least 46 novels by my last count, including a lot of really long ones. And this book really stands out as totally unforgettable.
—Peter Mountford, teaching Rule #1: Never Be Boring (There are no other rules)
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain
For a long time, I’ve been interested in how literature responds to individual trauma, especially trauma felt as the result of some large global or national event—like war. Can art help us to understand it, and if so, how? I love Ben Fountain’s novel about an Iraq War soldier and his squad on brief home leave in Texas for many reasons, one of them being the initial insouciance with which it takes on a serious meditation about war and fame and hero-worship. From the first page, which makes a found poem out of the blustering clichés spoken by wealthy boosters at a troops-celebrating Dallas Cowboys game, one knows one’s in for delightfully satirical social observation in the tradition of Kurt Vonnegut or Tom Wolfe. But, more solemnly, the novel also gets you to love its protagonist Billy, and to believe in his moral struggle as he confronts his chance to walk away from the war, in language that is richly detailed, at once grave and funny, and, finally, just deeply intelligent.
—Cara Diaconoff, teaching Fairy Tales as Inspiration
Middle Passage by Charles Johnson
Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage made me want to start writing my novel again. It’s everything I want my own work to be: funny, horrifying, granular, important, realist, mystical. Also, there’s a thief whose favorite “signature of defiance” is “pooping amiddlemost a local politician’s satin pillow.” I mean, come on. That’s literature.
—Paulette Perhach, teaching AWP Prep for First-Timers, Introverts, and the Intimidated
Terrarium by Valerie Trueblood
Valerie Trueblood’s Terrarium is a collection of stories that spans her amazing career. Trueblood is a literary master—she moves with grace and empathy in her craft and what results is moving and groundbreaking and sometimes really funny. “Imagine if there were a mousetrap big enough for a person,” one of her characters says. I’d not only read this book, I’d give it as a present to everyone you know.
—Frances McCue, teaching Craft Intensive: Generating New Work
Mayhem: A Memoir by Sigrid Rausing
Mayhem was published in September of 2017. It took a year to cross my path but once it did, I could not put it down. Rausing’s brother and sister-in-law met in rehab, had a family, relapsed, and years of chaos ensued. The body of Rausing’s sister-in-law was found under a mattress two months after she died from addiction—probably the most titillating plot point. But the difficult and lasting beauty of the book is in Rausing’s rendering of relationships and her clear-eyed examination of all the murky ethics related to “helping” an addict.
—Lisa Wells, teaching Forms in Poetry
The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs
The book I’ve found myself recommending over and over this year is Nina Riggs’s The Bright Hour. It’s a chronicle of the author’s diagnosis with breast cancer and eventual walk towards death—but it’s so much more than that. As someone who teaches illness writing (and who’s writing a book about her own illness), I found myself charmed by Riggs’s conversations on the page with both the essayist Montaigne, and her ancestor Ralph Waldo Emerson, moves that help the book look beyond Riggs’s specific situation toward the bigger questions we’re all living. So, too, does Riggs infuse The Bright Hour with humor, a move all too rare in illness writing. From the imaginary greeting card company she plans to start with her best friend Ginny, who’s also dying of breast cancer—Thoughts and prayers are great, but pot and Ativan are better—to the snort-worthy comments her kids make in the course of daily life, Riggs models a kind of vibrance and vulnerability that makes you, the reader, want to walk back into your life and live better. What’s heartbreaking, of course, is that Nina Riggs herself no longer can.
The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy
I read Ariel Levy’s memoir The Rules Do Not Apply in one sitting. The author’s narrative of career and relationships paired with her premise of women not having to meet all expectations, including their own, is a refreshing one.
Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood
Ok, I’ll admit it—I’ve a soft spot for this book because my father was also a priest. But what Patricia Lockwood’s memoir has to offer is so much more than the quirky unlikeliness of life growing up in a Catholic parish hall—though those behind-the-scenes details are certainly entertaining! Rarely, though, have I run across an author with such a riveting combination of wry humor and linguistic pyrotechnics. A poet first, she has an incredible ear—making the prose in this book an absolute joy to read—and an eye for all of the unexpected details that make life interesting. From abortions to Barbie dolls, theology to Midwestern road trips, Patricia Lockwood takes everything you thought you knew and turns it upside down. Her stories, gathered together into a loose memoir form, are delightful as stand-alones or as an entire book. Either way, her wry and subtle take on life is a great example of the way that we can take the small, sometimes unexpected moments of life, and turn them into a wildly compelling story.
How To Be a Good Creature by Sy Montgomery
In this charming memoir, each chapter features another significant animal in the life of the author. I was hooked from the first chapter, in which the young girl growing up in a rather dysfunctional home admires the freedom and courage of Molly, her Scottish terrier. In the next chapter, Sy finds her vocation (as a writer about animals) while observing three emus in the Australian outback where she’s doing field work. This book came along at the right time for me as I was grieving the loss of a significant dog in my life (Pepe the Chihuahua featured in my mystery novels) and I could relate to the deep grief Sy felt over the loss of her beloved border collie, Tess. I also got that although one can try to replace that dog with another (Tess came to Sy in a dream and recommended another dog), you can’t, but you can learn to love another dog (for Sy, Sally; for me, my goofy dog, Flora).
Honorary mentions: The Spider and the Fly by Claudia Rowe, and The Secret Lives of Color by Cassia St. Clair.
—Waverly Fitzgerald, teaching Shapes of Stories
Lumberjanes by Shannon Watters, Grace Ellis, Brooklyn A. Allen, and Noelle Stevenson
This year, I gave birth to my first child so the amount of time and energy I had to read for pleasure significantly decreased! However, I discovered that graphic novels are a great bedtime read for a tired mom—visual, fast-paced, deliciously entertaining, and moving. I have been devouring the series Lumberjanes by Shannon Watters, Grace Ellis, Brooklyn A. Allen, and Noelle Stevenson. It’s quirky, funny, fantastical with plenty of volumes to satisfy your appetite for these lovable campers. It’s been wonderful to familiarize myself with a new genre—I’ve really come to appreciate this form of storytelling.
—Clelia Gore, teaching Picture Book Writing Basics
Wade in the Water by Tracy K. Smith
Wade in the Water by Tracy K. Smith is revolutionary from start to finish. Her work always lives among the present while also bending back to the past. Smith’s most recent collection is not to be missed.
—Demi Wetzel, teaching Poetry as Activism
Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett
A friend and I have a half-serious joke that we’ll read any and all fiction published by one very particular demographic: young women from the British Isles. Three of the books I loved most this year were written by authors in this category: Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney, Tender by Belinda McKeon, and Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett. All three are wonderful and share some affinities (sharp, lovely sentences, emotional acuity, a commitment to getting an idiosyncratic but distinctly female perspective down on the page), but it’s Pond that’s stuck with me the most since I read it in March. Told as a series of discrete pieces narrated by a woman living alone in a rural village, Bennett’s book takes the minute, the domestic, and the interior (both house-wise and self-wise) and makes it scintillate. This is partly because the narrator is so frequently funny, surprising, and delightfully cantankerous—in an early section, she grudgingly begins to garden, commenting: “As with most measurable areas of life I demonstrated no ambition whatsoever as a grower and selected to cultivate low-maintenance crops only. Potatoes, spinach and broad beans. That was it. That was enough.” But the book is also charged with a wild aliveness, and with an attention to our relationships with the non-human presences around us (nature, but also our furniture, our clothes, our food—there’s a piece called “Stir-fry,” and also one called “Oh, Tomato Puree!”). I saw things differently after I read it. In an essay on the process of composing Pond, Bennett writes: “It was, after all, the whole cosmos I felt a part of and wished to respond to—not just my small portion of it, the here and now of my specific, increasingly circuitous, circumstances—but everything, everywhere, always.” What more could we ask for from a writer?
—Liza Birnbaum, teaching Epistolary Prose
I Love You Just Because by Catrice Dennis
Okay, I know this children’s book isn’t a piece of highfalutin literature. And often when people think of Seattle’s Hugo House, they think of authors like Raymond Carver of Sylvia Plath. But that doesn’t mean this title isn’t as special as any of theirs. I Love You Just Because is a locally made book by Seattle residents—author Catrice Dennis and illustrator (and Dennis’s daughter) Asiyah. Often, as we peruse our favorite bookstores, we don’t see books like this, books about unconditional love. Catrice conceived of this story while staring into their eyes of her newborn baby and she completed as a passion project with her older daughter. We should all support that here in Seattle. And try to love it just because.
—Jake Uitti, teaching The Art of the Question
Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors
My favorite book of the year is Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors. A Danish author new to me, Dorthe Nors has written a deeply arresting, lovely, and sad novel. Her Copenhagen could well be our Seattle, somehow. And her characters are flawed, funny, misguided, full of eros and regret, replete with dreams and mistakes.
—Joshua Marie Wilkinson, teaching Suspenseful Writing
The Outline trilogy by Rachel Cusk
This meta trilogy changed the course of my next novel, a pagan coming-of-age story. Great Mother will be better because of Rachel Cusk, whom I’ve followed from A Life’s Work to these gorgeous explorations of longing and intimacy as seen through the divine prism of her womanly gaze. Lean style, formal economy, polished rigor.
—Kristen Millares Young, teaching A Field Researcher’s Guide to Authoritative Storytelling
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
What to say about this book. I was three years late to the game reading it, but I’m so glad I finally did. I fell so deeply into this book in a way I don’t often anymore in our shorter-is-easier digital age (another equally captivating novel I read this year was Pachinko by Min Jin Lee). But A Little Life—which is about abuse, self-loathing, and the salvations of friendship, art, and work—captivated me to such an extent that when my partner nicked his hand chopping wood, I found myself happily anticipating the long wait at the clinic, so I could have an excuse to sit with these characters. Before I read it, other people kept telling me, “It’s good, but it’s so sad. Cry your eyes out sad.” While I can agree that it’s heartbreaking, it is also, at times, electric with all the hope and happiness that manages to infiltrate even the darkest times in our lives. Read it, read it, read it.
—Becky Mandelbaum, teaching Revising and Submitting the Short Story
Calypso by David Sedaris
If you can write about midlife crises, your mother’s alcoholism and cancer, your sister’s suicide, and other dire subjects with complete wit, sensitivity, and aplomb…you’ve made it! David Sedaris’ newest is a gem. Go get it now.
—Amee Bhavsar, teaching Publish or Perish (Online)
“Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” from Slouching Towards Bethlehem, by Joan Didion
Every year I reread Joan Didion’s essay, “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” first published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1966 and later in Slouching Towards Bethlehem. It is how I learned the importance of details and description in writing. The story of Lucille Miller, who burned her husband to death in their Volkswagen, the essay is about a time and a place—Southern California—as much as it is about a murder. The essay doesn’t begin with the crime itself. It begins, as she writes, “with the country.” “This is the country…of the teased hair and the Capris and the girls for whom all life’s promise comes down to a waltz-length white wedding dress and the birth of a Kimberly or a Sherry or a Debbi…The future always looks good in the golden land, because no one remembers the past.” I learned from Didion how to use details to build suspense and how riveting a true story can be.
Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams with Matthew Walker
I loved a lot of fiction in 2018 (Mira Grant’s Into the Drowning Deep, Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman) but the book that absolutely changed my life was Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams. You’ll learn why you need a big chunk of uninterrupted sleep at the beginning of the night, as well as the benefits of stretching your sleep all the way through that eighth hour. Sleep is essential for everything from muscle repair to vaccine efficacy, and it also has some interesting effects on the creative process—so you could consider this book another resource to help you improve your writing!
—Nicole Dieker, teaching How to Get Started as a Freelancer (Online)
Throw out every misconception you have about human origins. Abandon the myth that we are born of different races, separated by physical differences and mental capacities. Recent DNA analysis shows how human interbreeding and migration over hundreds of thousands of years has produced the people we are today, with much more in common than we ever imagined. The book is a little heavy on the science at the start, but it’s important to understand some of the research and techniques used in this endeavor, so that the conclusions make sense. And once they do, this book leads to an inescapable feeling that there is hope for humanity to move past our traditionally misinformed differences.
—Joe Ponepinto, teaching Reading Like a Writer
Retrievals by Garrett Caples
Though Retrievals isn’t new—it was published in 2014—2018 was the year I finally discovered Garrett Caples. Retrievals isn’t so much a collection of Caples’s amazingly erudite criticism and essays about under-recognized art and writers as it is a force of nature; while reading Retrievals I thought often of the scene from Pulp Fiction wherein Samuel L. Jackson praises “the big brain on Brett. You a smart motherf*cker!” The book is packed full of knotty, incisive writing and things I hadn’t known. Until reading Retrievals, for example, I hadn’t know where the term “art history” comes from (the British critic Roger Fry; Virginia Woolf wrote his biography). But perhaps more importantly, reading Retrievals led to a most delightful outcome: the desire to seek out other work by the same author. Sure, Retrievals is a great book, but it’s also one that led me to read several others by Caples. Which is the dream of all writers.
—Kevin O’Rourke, teaching Writing Critical Essays and Reviews