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by Jad Josey

2018 was full of awful, heartbreaking things. But this list is about the cathartic kind of heartbreak, the words and songs and people who remind us what it means to be human, about surviving, about rising up and carrying on.

1. Florida, Lauren Groff

Sometimes you find someone who writes exactly what you want to read. For me, that person is Lauren Groff. My introduction to Groff’s work was “The Midnight Hour,” published in the May 23rd, 2016 issue of The New Yorker. It was a transformative experience, at once heart-wrenching and cathartic. I pre-ordered Florida as soon as I could. When it arrived, I read it as slowly as I could muster, sometimes waiting days between stories. Florida reads like a prolonged climax—there is no let down, no deep breath to be taken. At the end of every story, I find myself thinking, “This is the best short fiction writer of our time.” Groff’s stories break my heart over and over again, but they also manage to put it back together in the end.

2. Evening Machines, Gregory Alan Isakov

Gregory Alan Isakov’s music is magic. He is as much a poet as a lyricist, and this new album demonstrates that talent beautifully. Isakov’s songs eschew radio-friendly choruses, focusing instead on the art of imagistic storytelling and shiver-evoking crescendos. In “Berth,” the album’s opening track, “silver-winged, broken English boys, they smoke / talk and joke / above the water” as they immigrate to the shores of New York. “Too Far Away,” a song played on tour for years before appearing on this album, closes with a promise: “Before I go / I’ll leave you with this poem / About the galvanized moon and her rings in the rain.” As the last note fades, the listener is left creating their own poem about this rain-ringed moon. The album ends with two sonically-juxtaposed tracks: the ethereal and brooding “Where You Gonna Go,” which examines the way humans move, damaged, through the world; and the buoyant, vocal-forward “Wings in All Black,” a song that brims with the relief of hopefulness after a time of darkness. If I was to recommend one album to purchase this year, it would be Isakov’s Evening Machines. You can thank me later.

3. “The Frog King,” Garth Greenwell, The New Yorker, November 26th, 2018

There aren’t a lot of stories about happiness. Oh, but this one. “The Frog King” shines a light on happiness deserved, examined, and ultimately reconciled in the best way humans are capable of trusting one another. Greenwell’s prose is unique enough to be recognized instantly—I recommend listening to him read it aloud to truly appreciate the cadence and pacing. I love that he “challenged [himself] to write happiness,” to give these characters an intermission from the cruelty of the world around them, a refuge in each other. This story left an indelible mark on me. I think of it often.

4. Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture (edited by Roxane Gay)

Roxane Gay’s introduction to this essay collection dissolved me to tears. And that was just the beginning. These are hard-to-read experiences that need to be read, now more than ever. Even as I recoiled at the abuses laid bare, I reveled in the bravery of the contributors, in the way their voices rise above the hurt. Brandon Taylor’s “Spectator” was especially poignant for me, especially because I consider him a friend, and I adore his work. This is both a timely and a timeless anthology, masterfully curated by Roxane Gay.

5. Glimmer Train Announces Its Final Departure

I found a copy of Glimmer Train in the local used bookstore in 1993, and I was mystified. Here was this beautiful journal dedicated to short fiction—the very thing that set my heart aflutter. I submitted my first story to Glimmer Train in 1994 and waited patiently for the thin self-addressed stamped envelope that signal rejection. I read every issue cover to cover, studied the stories I loved to understand why I loved them, and envisioned seeing my name on that iconic bookmark someday. And over months and years that turned into decades, I felt a special kinship with the sister-editors of Susan and Linda, like a friend whose mixtapes you’ve listened to enough to parse out their nuanced aesthetic, even as it evolves over the years. Glimmer Train has given us an incredible gift in its time on the tracks, a dedication to the art of the short story and support of the emerging writer. I will always be grateful. It is with a full and broken heart that I bid Glimmer Train farewell.

6. A Lucky Man, Jamel Brinkley

It’s not often that I read every story in a collection—but each story in Brinkley’s A Lucky Man is compelling and delicately-wrought, and I loved them all. One of my favorites, “Everything the Mouth Eats,” strikes me as the cornerstone of the collection. Its graceful pacing mirrors the fluidity and feints of the capoeira it describes, beauty punctuated with danger, life as equal parts choreography and surprise. There is a refreshing vulnerability in Brinkley’s prose—and in the thoughtful way he approaches his work. I’ve been recommending A Lucky Man to everyone who will listen, and I’m not about to stop anytime soon.

7. “Seventeen,” Steve Edwards, Longreads

This essay grabbed hold of my heart and never let go. The writing is impeccable, rife with a deep nostalgia that is as honest as it is heartbreaking. It felt like someone peering deep into my seventeen-year-old brain to uncover long-lost memories. And isn’t that the magic of specificity? How it turns like a hologram into something of your very own? The narrator writes about his first love: “Being around her made me feel like a different person. Or maybe more like myself. As though I didn’t have to blend in or hide. As though I was worth something for no other reason than that I was here and we were together.” Edwards has a way of looking back that feels a lot like looking inward. This essay is an echo I’m still hearing.

8. Isabel Allende’s National Book Awards Speech

Allende’s speech was a highlight of the National Book Awards. I watched the livestream, absolutely riveted. She spoke so poignantly about finding a sense of place after being “chronically uprooted,” about what it means to be an artist, about the power of memory and her own creative process. She captivated the audience with her wit and honesty. She brought us all to tears. “I write to preserve memory against the erosion of oblivion and to bring people together. I believe in the power of stories. If we listen to another person’s story, if we tell our own story, we start to heal from division and hatred.” Yes, yes—a million times, yes.

9. The Twitter Literary Community

I adore the literary community on Twitter. Sure, there’s some drama—but what I find most often is support, kindness, and an overflowing cup of talent. Shout-out to the TwitLit powerhouses that fill me up. You’ve made my 2018 better in so many ways. And the things you write. Oh, geez. The things you write are heartbreakingly beautiful.

10. My Book Group

I love my book group. Comprised of my former professors and colleagues from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, it’s a special bunch of humans. There are some eclectic tastes in the group, which gives us the opportunity to read outside our own preferences. This year we read and discussed The Green Road (Anne Enright), The Dinner (Herman Koch), Less (Andrew Sean Greer), The Mars Room (Rachel Kushner), Speedboat (Renata Adler), Warlight (Michael Ondaatje)—and we’re currently reading The Incendiaries (R.O. Kwon). I waited years for an invitation to this book group—where someone has to drop out before a new person is added—and it’s consistently one of the things that makes me most happy. And, of course, the words we read tend to break my heart in the best way possible. Long live the power of catharsis.

Jad is the author of “Fire Season” — one of our ten most read stories of 2018 — and a whole bunch of other stories that are deserving of many accolades. He’s a true pro in every sense, but mostly in the sense that he’s an absolute joy to work with. Which I guess says more about him as a person than as a pro. The point is, Jad’s the shit.

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