I like to have fun with my annual Hoggies. Although truth be told, I had been thinking that I wasn’t going to do them for 2018. I just wasn’t feeling like I had the creative juices to come up with anything amusing. But then someone out there said she was looking forward to them. So then it became a matter of giving the public what they want. Happily, as I started to contemplate what the awards would look like this year I got inspired and enjoyed doing them after all. So now that I have done them three years in a row, I guess they are now a tradition that must be kept up.
It did occur to me, however, that the awards were much less substantive this year because I didn’t really have many blog posts to refer back to for those books that won awards. So now that the accolades for the Hoggies have died down, I decided I might reflect for a second or two on the books that really blew me away this year.
There were quite a few books that I really enjoyed in 2018 that I wanted to put on this list, but as I started narrowing down the possibilities I realized there was a much smaller set of favorites that really transcended mere enjoyment. Books that packed an emotional wallop that was hard to ignore. The oddest part about this very short list (only four out of 126), is that they are all by men. This is fairly unusual for me. Also unusual is their subject matter is decidedly not the type of thing I would normally go for. And there is a lot of bleak here. Devastating but beautiful.
Train Dreams by Denis Johnson
If you want to see how an author can write an American epic in only 116 pages, you need to check out Train Dreams. I had never heard of Denis Johnson until one of the attendees at The Readers Retreat talked to me about how much she liked him. When I went looking for a book by him, the only one available was Train Dreams. So I took a chance on it. A story about an adult orphan in prohibition-era Idaho. It has so much devastation and beauty in such a small package. When you read something this short and this good, it really makes you wonder what all those other authors are doing wasting your time with endless pages of prose.
All the Little Live Things by Wallace Stegner
I had read two or three of Stegner’s better known works, but this one was completely new to me. It’s a story about retired man in 1960s northern California in a battle with a young squatter who has created an impromptu commune on his land. I enjoyed this for its development of the setting and the characters and how completely intertwined they both are. It’s full of quiet moments that are tender, devastating, and beautiful. It’s also not short of high drama that is equally devastating.
Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams
I am not a fan of Westerns, but when a book is well written, it often doesn’t matter what its setting is or what genre it belongs to. I was (and am) indeed a fan of John Williams’ wonderful academic novel Stoner, but I must say, Butcher’s Crossing is a far better book. It’s the story of a Will Andrews, a Harvard student who heads out west to join a buffalo hunt at a time when pretty much all the big herds have been decimated by the buffalo trade. He runs into one hunter, however, who talks about a herd he is convinced still exists in a remote mountain valley. I won’t say anything more about the plot except that Will does go on a hunt. It’s all pretty breathtaking. If this hasn’t convinced you to read this one, you can see more detail here. It’s one of the few books I actually wrote about on Hogglestock in 2018.
The Hunters by James Salter
If Catch-22 wasn’t a horribly tedious, boring, overly long, one-note, overly satirical look at the stupidity of war, it could have been half as good as The Hunters. Published in 1956, the novel is about an ace fighter pilot who has less than an ace time when he is deployed to Korea. I loved everything about this book. I loved the period detail. I loved the plot and character development as the well regarded pilot has trouble maintaining his reputation and starts to see the whole situation differently. It kind of takes testosterone and turns it on its head.