One lazy Sunday late in 2009, I tapped out a list of books that had resonated with me that year. It was a wonderful way to think seriously again about books I had read months prior. I wrote a few reflections about each book and then emailed the list to friends and family. And so the tradition was born.
Why thirteen? First, I just wanted to avoid the “Top 10” trope. I decided to select a dozen books instead. Then, not only was I unable to cut one more book from my list, but I also realized there was wonderfully silly alliteration to “Bodwell’s Baker’s.” Happy Reading! —Joshua Bodwell
2018 BODWELL’S BAKER’S DOZEN
THE DIARY OF A BOOKSELLER
(Melville House, 2018)
When John Cheever’s diaries were published years ago, I had no interest in reading them; I found the whole thing distasteful. But it’s obvious Shaun Bythell—whose The Book Shop in Wigtown is Scotland’s largest second-hand bookshop—always intended to make public his sardonic snapshot of a year in book sales. Each chapter opens with a quotation from George Orwell’s 1936 essay “Bookshop Memories” (which can be found in Books v. Cigarettes). Bythell usually agrees with Orwell’s cranky observations of the bookselling trade, and he is obviously a fan of British comedian Dylan Moran’s scathingly eccentric bookseller Bernard Black on the sitcom “Black Books,” but even when grousing about price-haggling customers and unreasonable staff, Bythell is never a full-on misanthrope like the fictional Bernard Black. In fact, this humorous book is at its best when Bythell is writing affectionately about friends he obviously deeply admires, or on one of his many ventures out to buy book collections from people who are, often because of their age or a death, selling private collections. In these moments, Bythell is by turns philosophical and a wee melancholy…which is to say, I suppose, Scottish.
*A Note on the Cover: I always illustrate my list with the cover of the edition I read…but in this case, the UK cover of his book is so much better than the US edition, I’ve made an exception.
COLLECTED SHORT STORIES & NOVELLAS OF ANDRE DUBUS
Andre Dubus (with introductions by Ann Beattie, Richard Russo, Tobias Wolff)
(David R. Godine, 2018)
What can I say? Yes, over the past two years I served as the series editor of this three-volume reintroduction of Andre Dubus’s short stories and novellas…but as I read and re-read and re-read again all the work, my admiration for Dubus only grew. Along the way, I got to work with three of my literary heroes as they provided introductions for the volumes. So, what can I say? Twenty years ago I got lucky and stumbled upon Dubus’s masterful short stories. To have the opportunity to work so closely with Dubus’s writing, and help introduce it to more readers, has been one of the most truly humbling gifts of my life.
GONE SO LONG
Andre Dubus III
(W.W. Norton, 2018)
At several points while I was reading this Gone So Long—Andre Dubus III’s first novel in a decade—I had to set down the book for days at a time. I mention this as a compliment: because here is a novel that forces us to confront our capacity for compassion and forgiveness, to question our beliefs about redemption; a novel that does not lazily eschew melodrama or sentimentality as “unliterary,” but instead accepts them as layers of our complicated, messy lives.
WHEN I FIRST HELD YOU
Brian Gresko, Editor
(Berkley Books, 2014)
There is no glut of great writing by men reflecting on fatherhood, so this is a very welcome anthology. I discovered When I First Held You: 22 Critically Acclaimed Writers Talk About the Triumphs, Challenges, and Transformative Experience of Fatherhood last winter after meeting the anthology’s editor, Brian Gresko, at a writing conference in Florida. We’d spent hours together manning a booth, and in that time we talked at length about fathering, about our partners, our struggles with clichés about masculinity. When I left the conference, I thought I’d snooze on my flight home from Tampa. Instead, I blazed through about half of the anthology. There are memorable essays by Justin Cronin, Anthony Doerr, Andre Dubus III, and Benjamin Percy, just to name a few. I was moved more than once to tears while reading this anthology.
ESSAYS AFTER EIGHTY
(Houghton Mifflin, 2014)
Late in life, Donald Hall—who passed away in June a few months shy of 90th birthday—quit writing poetry. He’d been at it for seven decades, but in a late poem, “Meatloaf,” he explained: “No / more vowels carrying images / leap suddenly from my excited / unwitting mind and purple Bic pen.” Hall wrote plenty of prose throughout his storied career (including 1987’s very fine story collection The Ideal Bakery from North Point Press) and much to our good fortune, when poetry proved elusive late in life, he directed all his energy into essays. Hall’s voice in these late essays is not unlike that of his Frostian plainspoken rural poet voice, but free of the poetic form, it is more cranky and frank and precise and, much to his credit, funnier. “To grow old,” wrote Hall in his 70s, “is to lose everything.” In this collection, he proves himself wrong.
OUTSIDE IS THE OCEAN
(University of Iowa Press, 2017)
I began reading Matthew Lansburgh’s short stories in 2009, and was thrilled whenever I could find them in literary journals such as Slice, Guernica, and Columbia Journal. But nothing prepared for the wallop of reading Lansburgh’s work all together: taken together, the fifteen linked stories in his Iowa Short Fiction Award-winning Outside Is The Ocean are, as the award’s judge Andre Dubus III says, “mesmerizing.” The stories span from the late 1960s to present day, are told from various points of view, and are almost always centered around two wildly compelling characters: Heike, an eccentric (to say the least) German immigrant, and her gay son Stewart. The book’s finale, “Buddy,” is a standout favorite, and the title story is, well, mesmerizing.
DRAFT NO. 4
Illuminating and inspiring essays about writing nonfiction from one of the most influential living practitioners of nonfiction. Enough said.
(Atheneum Books, 1988)
I snagged a first edition of this early gem by Michael Mewshaw at Key West Island Books. Mewshaw spends some of every winter down at the bottom of America, which makes sense: he’s been living abroad most of his adult life, so if he’s on American soil, it’s at the edges. Mewshaw has an unbelievably charming and captivating nonfiction voice; I raved about his memoir Do I Owe You Something? a few years ago and his Life for Death is a masterful work of true crime nonfiction. Playing Away: Roman Holidays and Other Mediterranean Encounters gathers short pieces written while living and traveling around Italy, southern France, Africa, and the greater Mediterranean. A fantastic reporter with a gimlet eye, a great nose, and an ear for telling detail, Mewshaw’s vignettes crackle with energy and enthusiasm, and elevate beyond “travel writing.”
LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE
This novel is evidence the “sophomore slump” is avoidable. Celeste Ng has followed her 2014 breakout debut Everything I Never Told You with another thoughtful novel that will leave you mulling class and race in suburban America. Ng’s descriptions of late-90s Shaker Heights, Ohio are compelling, as is her captivating ability to capture in words the visual art made by one of the novel’s protagonists. But more than anything, Ng proves again she is one of today’s shrewdest chroniclers of teenagers’ complicated, conflicted, and longing-filled minds.
THE DESTINY THIEF
Richard Russo is one of the funniest, most tender, and shrewdest writers about social class in America…so anytime he gathers together essays on writing, writers, and life, it’s cause for celebration (and close re-reading).
(UGA Press, 2008)
I plan to slowly (s-l-o-w-l-y) work my way through reading the winners of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, published each year by the University of Georgia Press. I began with Bill Roorbach’s stellar Big Bend (2001), and the power of Andrew Porter’s The Theory of Light and Matter (2008), Lori Ostlund’s The Bigness of the World (2009) convinced me it was a series worth watching closely. The stories in Peter Selgin’s Drowning Lessons are at their best when Selgin lets them loosen and take unpredictable turns, as in the fine, yearning-filled “Color of the Sea,” the rage-filled “Our Cups Are Bottomless,” and my favorite, the tender “Sawdust.”
ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE
(Random House, 2017)
When I finished Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton (Random House, 2016) I was depressed it was over and regretted having torn through the quiet novel in just two sittings. I wanted more. Anything is Possible slaked my craving: more Lucy. The stories in the collection are set in Amgash, Illinois, Lucy’s fictional rural hometown. The book brims with Strout’s “beautifully too-human characters” (Claire Messud). I slowly re-read most of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio this past year, and couldn’t help but think of Lucy as something of our modern day George Willard, and of Amgash, IL as our Winesburg, OH. Anything is Possible is classic Strout: calm, compassionate, and brimming with empathy for her characters.
THE BALTIMORE BOOK OF THE DEAD
I almost read journalist and memoirist Marion Winik’s collection of nonfiction vignettes in a single sitting on a flight to the Midwest, but forced myself to stop so I could reflect on and re-read several of the short pieces. The gorgeous, often heartbreaking, portraits read like obituaries written as prose poems. Winik herself emerges in many of the pieces and we begin to see a quilt-like version of her life, but the stars of each piece are the anonymous titular subjects—known only by vague monikers such as “The Classmate,” “The Artist,” “The Ambassador’s Wife,” or, one of my favorites, “The Mensch”—and their birth and death dates. Taken together, the vignettes form a community of sorts and more than once made me think back to Edgar Lee Masters’s masterpiece, Spoon River Anthology. The physical Baltimore Book of the Dead is a delight to hold: its small trim size creates an intimate experience as we are humble by the depth of so many lives (kudos to the great Counterpoint Press, led by North Point Press founder Jack Shoemaker).
2018 BONUS LISTS!?
BOOKS TO READ BEFORE YOU SEE THE MOVIE
A few novels I deeply admire were adapted into films in 2018. I haven’t seen any of the films yet, though I intend to watch them all.
LEAN ON PETE
SHORT GEMS TO READ IN A SINGLE SITTING
Some books are slim enough and captivating enough that they almost demand to be read in a single sitting. One of my 2018 single-sitting picks is a memoir by the founding editor and publisher of Ambit, one of the UK’s greatest literary journals; the second is a surprisingly breezy read by a serious Hemingway scholar about the legendary author’s first marriage (picked up at the Hemingway House in Key West).
TWO LIVES TO LEAD: The Early Years
(Ambit Books, 2018)
THE PARIS HUSBAND: How It Really Was Between Ernest and Hadley Hemingway
TOTALLY NERDY & TOTALLY GREAT READS
I am constantly reading books on books, books on design, books on book design, books on printing and printers. These two were a couple of my favorites this year.
THE PLANTIN PRESS of SAUL and LILLIAN MARKS
Tyrus G. Harmsen
(Dawson’s Book Shop, 1960)
LANCE HIDY: DESIGNING THE MENTORING STAMP
(Kat Run Press, 2007)
It’s tricky to even try to keep track of the loads of great short stories and essays I read in magazine and literary journals over any given year, but here are a few I found pretty unforgettable.
“Catbird” Tom Barbash (Zyzzyva, Vol. XXXIV, No. 1)
“Quality Delivery” Andrew Bode-Lang (Epoch, Vol. 66, No. 3)
“Our Own Philip Levine: 1928-2015” Christopher Buckley (Five Points, Vol. 16, No. 3)
“Carver and Dubus, New York City, 1988” Andre Dubus III (Five Points, Vol. 17, No. 2)
“Accommodations” Richard Ford (Best American Essays, 1989)
“The Architecture of a Marriage” Leslie Moore (The Maine Review, Vol. 4, No. 1)
“Neighbors” Julie Orringer (The Paris Review, No.221)
“Nashville” Lydia Peelle (The Southern Review, Vol. 54, No. 3)
“Rhinebeck” Andrew Porter (Epoch, Vol. 66, No. 3)
“Vines” Andrew Porter (The Southern Review, Vol. 54, No. 3)
Back in 1993, Tom Hodgkinson was a 23-year-old journalist at the Guardian when he dreamed of starting a magazine named after an essay collection by that great Englishman of letters, Dr. Samuel Johnson. Begun as an annual collection of essays, The Idler has evolved through several iterations over the past couple decades and is now a charming quarterly brimming with eclectic articles about language, sheds, pubs, lollygagging, bullshit jobs, canal boat living, walking, reading, drinking, ukulele playing, etc. The Idler is a handsome read, too, thanks to great art direction by Alice Smith and design by Christian Brett of Bracketpress in London.
SUCH SQUANDERED POTENTIAL…
Sometimes I pick up a book with enthusiastic expectations only to be disappointed and unable to finish it. Several books fell into this category in 2018. Here are just two examples.
YOU’RE LIVING ALL OVER ME
(Continuum 33 1/3 Series, Vol. 82, 2011)
DOUBLE NICKELS ON THE DIME
Michael T. Fournier
(Continuum 33 1/3 Series, Vol. 45, 2007)
This wonderful series of slim volumes about music (just about 100 pages in a very small, pocket-sized format) tackles a single album with each title. After reading Bill Janovitz’s great take on the Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main Street,” and Colin Meloy’s on The Replacement’s “Let It Be,” I was eager to read about two of my favorite albums by (respectively) Dinosaur Jr. and the Minutemen. These were crucial and formative bands for me in my teens, and I would be hard-pressed to even estimate how many times I listened to these cassettes, which I’d often order directly from SST Records via the mail with an order-slip and cash or a check from my parents. But, damn, these books, are sapped of life. I suspect the root of the problem is simply this: both books were written by academics, rather than writers.