2018 Books in Review

The year’s books gave us a microcosm of our world.


Island-based and Island-connected authors provide an annual lode of books for readers on and off the Island.

Considering the constraints — book authors must reside here or have a real Island connection, the work must be published in the calendar year, and we must have read and reviewed their work — I had a nagging worry in the beginning that the volume of work might be too thin to sustain an annual look-see.

After compiling six of these annual summaries, I can tell you the well is full every year, and has grown over time in volume and breadth of topics, including fiction, historical fiction, topical nonfiction, poetry, children’s books, and a growing list of young adult titles.

National and world events are typically represented in a year’s worth of titles. Last year produced several “reaction” books, generally including anger, bewilderment, and maybe some catharsis, around the Trump Syndrome.

In 2018, several books dealt with the aftermath of our president’s race-baiting, a most annoying Trump characteristic, but one that successfully challenges belief that we are living in a post-racial age.

Social scientist and academician Dr. Walter V. Collier, a longtime Island resident, released “Why Racism Persists: An Uncomfortable Truth,” which relies on a disciplined approach to a seething topic. As a trained observer and as a black man in America, Dr. Collier offers both a professional and personal assessment of where we are racially in our country.

A second book, on womanhood and race, comes from a robust compilation of very personal essays by 70 women of color, titled “All the Women in My Family Sing: Women Write the World: Essays on Equality, Justice, and Freedom,” edited by Deborah Santana, from Nothing But the Truth Publishing LLC. Santana established the imprint to publish work like this, and the imprint’s title provides all you need to know about the muscle in these stories. If you attended our “Islanders Write” event in August, you got to hear several of their voices in person.

In addition to race and women’s rights, the ability of Americans to afford to live in the U.S. is a raw social issue these days. Alissa Quart, journalist, author, social activist, and longtime Island visitor, brought us an unnerving book. In “Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America,” Quart has done the legwork to show how elusive “middle class” has become, not only for workers staring at shuttered factories and workplaces, but folks who thought a law degree or a Ph.D. would be the catapult into a secure middle class social position. The stories of lawyers, professors, and researchers working as contractors for short money, towing a cargo of education loans, and Uber-ing to make ends meet gave me the willies. As Quart asks repeatedly in “Squeezed,” “Where is the hope?”

A wide range of fiction appeared in 2018, including Island resident Alex Woollacott’s second book of historical fiction based on the true stories of Woollacott ancestors. Several years ago he debuted with “The Immigrant,” based on the life of his progenitor, John Law, a 14-year-old Scots lad set down as an indentured servant in Concord in 1650. This year Woollacott produced “The Believers in the Crucible Nauvoo,” the story of a distant-generation aunt, Naamah Kendall Jenkins Carter, of Peterborough, N.H., a Mormon convert and one of that religion’s co-founder Brigham Young’s 55 wives. Woollacott emerged as a wonderful writer from Day One. His work involves the reader, and provides well-researched historical perspective. Considering he has almost 400 years of family lore to draw on, there’s no dearth of possibilities.

An autobiographical novel that has stayed with me is “DaNang Postscripts,” by Island resident Bill Gaulman. The story is based on Gaulman’s religiously kept diary of a year in the life of a young black Marine in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. The story of days of boredom, nights of terror, and efforts to escape the reality with drugs, drink, and sex offers a perspective rarely provided about the Vietnam War.

Other fiction that caught the eye included “Wildball,” a young adult/general fiction hybrid about the coming of age of a Cape League baseball player by Falmouth resident Brian Engles, and an engaging sailing yarn, the young adult title “The Riddle of the Graveyard,” by Peter Hufstader. The Hufstader story includes creation of an Island, with attendant topographical charts with tidal current, swirls, eddies, and dangers. The engaging story aside, Hufstader’s work to create a complete and dramatic watery environment is quite extraordinary.

We love repeating seasonal rituals here, and octogenarian Island murder mystery writer Cynthia Riggs, well into her second decade of Island tales, nurtures a new entry into bloom every spring in the Martha’s Vineyard mystery series. Her love of flora has led her to include the name of an Island flower or plant in every title. “Widow’s Wreath,” the 14th in the series, pits nonagenarian heroine Victoria Trumbull against the the forces of evil.

Island history is cleverly represented in a work created by Dr. A. Bowdoin Van Riper, the research librarian at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. In “Edgartown: Images of America,” Van Riper uses archived photos to show the changes and physical growth of the Dukes County seat over more than 150 years in a manner that lets us see the growth in a sort of time-lapse format.