My Year in Books – 2018

 

It already feels like 2018 was a loooong time ago, but here it is: the list of books I read in 2018. Fiction comes first, followed by nonfiction.

Hope you find some good reading choices here. And send me your recommendations!

Fiction

All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

Nothing is better than feeling so stunned by a novel’s power and originality that you linger over the last page, reluctant to leave the world the book has created. This is such a novel. Elfrieda and Yolandi are two sisters who grew up in a Mennonite community in the plains of Manitoba, Canada. They and their mother are far too lively for the conservative community; the elders think they read too many books, and are horrified when it becomes clear that Elfrieda is a piano prodigy. The girls grow up, move to the city and embark on their adult lives: Elfie as a world-class concert pianist, and Yoli as a writer and mother. They live in the modern world but come from a death-haunted history with suicides on all branches of the family tree. Despite her talent, success and loving family, the one thing Elfrieda yearns for is to die. And she wants Yoli to help her, although Yoli is desperate to keep her sister alive. The thing is, this novel is hilarious even as it shreds your heart. From the sisters to the mother to the aunts, this is one of the most lively and unique fictional families I’ve encountered. The language is extraordinary; you could study it for a long time before figuring out how Toews manages to be so funny and so searing at the same time.

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The Forgotten Veterans

Courtesy of The NAM Facebook page. Can anyone identify her?

On this Veterans’ Day, let’s spare a thought for the forgotten veterans: the women who served in Vietnam—overlooked by the military while they served in-country; scorned by their neighbors; neglected by their government when they returned.

“Little is known about the long-term health and mental health status of women Vietnam Era Veterans,” the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs wrote. This was in 2011, nearly 40 years after the war. “For many of these women, the effects of this war are still present in their daily lives.”

What do we know about the women who served in Vietnam?

About 90% of them were nurses.

Photo of Army nurse in Vietnam

Capt. Ryan, 27th Surgical Hospital, Chu Lai. (Photo: Pinterest)

The names of eight of them are on the Vietnam Wall.

Woman in nurse's uniform

Lt. Sharon Lane, 312th Evacuation Hospital, Chu Lai, killed by rocket fire at age 26. (Photo: virtualwall.org)

The most famous woman who served in Vietnam was fictional: Colleen McMurphy, the character Dana Delany played in the TV series “China Beach.”

Actor Dana Delany dressed as her character in "China Beach," an Army nurse.

Dana Delany in “China Beach.” (Photo: imdb.com)

But she was based on the stories and memories of a real person: Lynda Van Devanter, who wrote Home Before Morning, the first and perhaps most scorching memoir by a military nurse of her time in Vietnam.

Lynda Van Devanter (Photo: Michelle Erdman)

The most shocking thing

I spent over a decade researching the women who had served in Vietnam, interviewing them, listening to their stories. The most shocking thing I learned is that a large number of them had never told anyone about their experiences. Not a parent, not a best friend, not a spouse.

“I don’t speak about Vietnam, and most people in my world don’t even realize I’m a veteran,” a nurse named Chris Banigan, who had served two tours, told me. “I prefer it that way.”

Military nurse in a truck in Vietnam

Capt. Chris Banigan (Photo: Chris Banigan)

Based on these years of immersion, I wrote a novel, Her Own Vietnam. It is the story of two Army nurses who served in Vietnam, one white and one African American, who reconnect 30 years later to consider what it truly means to survive a war.

Cover photo of the novel Her Own Vietnam: A pair of dog tags with the title printed on them.

In the four years since the novel was published, and indeed during most of the years preceding it, the U.S. has been in a state of perpetual war.  The number of active-duty military members in the U.S. has remained at around 1.3 million, with another 800,000 or so in the reserves. Since the end of the Vietnam War, the number of women in the military has hovered at around 200,000  to 250,000 per year.  The share of women among the U.S. veteran population is projected to increase from 9.4% in 2015 to 16.3% in 2043.

Long ago the United States shifted from a manufacturing economy to a service economy. We sell products, but for the most part we no longer make them. The one thing we produce with regularity is veterans.

Today is for them. All of them, even the ones we usually forget.

#BookTheVote!


Do you ever wish you could have a hand in shaping the future? You can. It’s called voting.  And now’s the time.

Are you registered to vote? If not, it’s easy to do. Find out how at https://vote.gov/.

And hurry – the window to register in many states closes soon. Check for your state’s deadline here.

You’re already registered? That’s great. But are you sure you’re still registered?

Many states are purging tens of thousands of registered voters from the rolls – mainly people of color, low-income people, and young people.

Make sure you’re still registered.

Today I’m joining with published writers across the country to urge readers to register and vote. It’s never been more important.

But don’t take my word for it. Ask Karen Joy Fowler, Tayari Jones, Meg Waite Clayton,  Celeste Ng, Caroline Leavitt, Soniah Kamal – pretty much any novelist you admire. They’ll all tell you the same thing:

Register.

Vote.

#BookTheVote

Searching for oblivion

A tale of two audiobooks and a library book

Woman reading in hammock Telegraph.co.uk

Photo: telegraph-co-uk

I’ve been looking for a book that I could immerse myself in and forget the world. I didn’t want to have to worry about the characters, or fume at the injustices they encountered, or fear for their futures; I do enough of that with the daily news.

 Things didn’t work out exactly as planned.

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My Hierarchy of Reads

Photo: allposters.com

One day this week, as I was idly gazing at my bookshelves (aka writing), I began to think about what moves me to buy or read a particular book. Of course, there can be any number of reasons, but as I considered it, several distinctive themes emerged.

Using a few examples from books I read in 2017-2018, here is my personal hierarchy of reads.

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