January 14, 2019

Reading : 50 Books of 2018

In 2017 my general approach to life was to do all the things-- to go full force at everything I loved to do.  Which is probably how I ended up reading 75 books. In 2018 my general approach was to pare down and spend time with what I love most within my loves.  I took more time to decide what I'd read, and I'd generally stop if it wasn't a book I craved in some way.  I wouldn't necessarily say that one approach was better than the other, just that both were tried.  This list is the result of my deliberate choices this year.

Favorite Five

**The Nix - Nathan Hill
I obviously can't talk about this enough because I wrote about it here and here.  I think it means something that it was part of the foundation for my most-read post this year.  It's very reminiscent of Franzen's The Corrections, but funnierEspecially on audio, and I think this is one of those books that's a hundred times better on audio--the narrator captures the voice of completely different characters in such a skilled, nuanced way.

Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World - Anand Giridharadas
It's been awhile since I read a book that challenged my perspective and behavior this much.  Giridharadas argues that people with power attempt to better the world without examining how their wealth has contributed to domestic and global inequality, and challenges everyone with any level of privilege to consider how to do less harm.  Longer post about this to come.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness - Michelle Alexander
I've held out on reading this for a long time because I felt it would be too hard.  But of all the difficult books, this feels too important not to read. Alexander argues (and proves) that even though we've eliminated formal discriminatory processes, we've have maintained the oppression of African-Americans in a more subtle but equally dangerous system.  Possibly more dangerous in how invisible it is to us--that this issue is often inaccurately framed in terms of drugs and crime instead of race, that these people are placed out of sight.  It's mind-blowing how we have institutionalized racism not just through the one act of incarceration, but through all the steps before and after: the targeting of specific drugs over others, the choice to punish some students over others, the inability to integrate into housing and employment.

The Argonauts - Maggie Nelson 
It's hard to describe this creative and form-defying book, which is part of the reason it breathes like a person--there's a solid, familiar structure and after that all bets are off.  The easiest description is it is beautiful.  As a disclaimer, I think it is most beautiful if you remove expectations of a narrative, and see it as a story that unfolds in proportion to your openness.  Loosely it's about Maggie Nelson's relationship with her partner, her child, and herself; and all the forms of love that takes.  She's able to infuse her descriptions with the exhausting labor of loving, at the same time that she floats with all that gives.  Her mastery of language and feelings is what I see the best gift of writing: the connection that happens when someone captures your experience in a way you've never seen yet is exactly what you mean.  One of many examples: "I like physical experiences that involve surrender. I didn't know, however, very much about experiences that demand surrender--that run over you like a truck, with no safe word to stop it. I was ready to scream, but labor turned out to be the quietest experience of my life."

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity - Katherine Boo
This book about families living in slums outside of the Mumbai airport accomplishes something that's rarely done and even more rarely done well, which is to write non-fiction in the style of fiction. The main reason I prefer fiction over non-fiction is the expressivity and depth of feeling and character that comes with fiction writing, that's missing in even well-written non-fiction where the goal is to tell a straightforward story.


On Love in Different Spaces
These are partnerships told deliberately in the context of finding another person in confusing, wondrous settings: in the whirlwind of a complicated city, in the vortex of adolescence.  And how much more difficult, and filling, it is when the love itself is seen by others as "different."  These stories take back ownership of that love, and I'm in awe of what they possess.  I wanted to include both of these in my top five, then decided to give them their own category because they are that good.

**Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe - Benjamin Alire Saenz (5)
I loved listening to this book in a voice I know nothing about: a fifteen year old boy. Aristotle and Dante become friends when they bond over their unusually literary names, and the combined isolation and depth that these titles give them.  Through this single path between two boys, the book traverses so much about identity and all the factors that play into belonging: family, ethnicity, sexuality, adolescence.  Aristotle struggles to find voice in a family that doesn't communicate: his father is a veteran who won't talk about his experience in Vietnam; his older brother is in prison and no one talks about this heavy invisibility.  The backdrop of being Mexican-American in Texas gives a general framework for feeling foreign in your home, but it's Aristotle and Dante as full-fleshed individuals who make me empathize most with what it's like to be apart: apart from a group, torn apart as a lone person.  I also loved their discovery of books and art in young adulthood (reading Grapes of Wrath, seeing Edward Hopper's paintings), reminded of how much by own way of learning about and relating to the world as a teenager was rooted in this culture.

Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me - Bill Hayes (5)
Bill Hayes writes about living in New York with his partner, the neurologist-writer Oliver Sacks, in a combination of conventional narrative, journal entries, and photographs.  The variety in form lends itself well to the variety of subject, which is as the title promises--the many dimensions of New York City, Oliver Sacks, the writer, and the dynamics between all of them.  It is tender and honest, in the way it unfolds organically in real life and how it's re-structured in memory.  I can relate to the desire to document in words and images as things are happening, and the desire to go back and piece them into a narrative.


Nonfiction I Frequently Reference in Conversation: 

Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life  - Marshall Rosenberg (4)
This book was recommended to me several times, and when the time it came off hold at the library many months later, I was in the throes of complex interpersonal interactions with pretty much everyone in my life (family, friends, co-workers).  So pretty much anyone who had a conversation with me during this time heard me talk about this, and I really recommend it to everyone.  When I told one friend about it, he responded: "You always communicate nonviolently; maybe you should try the other way."  Which was funny, but also speaks to how we might think of "nonviolent" as nice or conflict-avoidant.  But it's actually about being very specific and mindful, and honest about conflict.  It has really changed how I approach conversations, how I articulate my feelings and receive those of others.

So You Want to Talk About Race - Ijeoma Oluo (4)
This book so intelligently and clearly examines the conversations about race that we have all had, and how to dissect the reasons underlying common perceptions, how we can respond in productive ways without compromising our values, and how we can all be better. It convincingly explains when and why race is relevant, why it's important to separate race from other disadvantage, why everyone needs to examine how our privilege may harm others. It's uncomfortable to think of ourselves as hurting others, especially when we have good intentions. This book pushed me to confront this discomfort, to consider how to truly follow through with intention.

Living Beautifully: with Uncertainty and Change -  Pema Chodron (4)
I talked about this book on the Buddhist practice of the Three Commitments all the time. The Three Commitments are really simple, true, and difficult to practice: do no harm, help others, and accept things as they are. This idea of do no harm was a recurring pattern in my favorite books this year, and has now become one of my conscious resolutions.


Less Plot, More Language
If we've ever talked about our preferences in anything creative, you'd know pretty soon that my preference is for mood over action, language over plot.  So keep that in mind with why I rated these so highly, and if you are curious as to how a book about not much can be so much, these were very good.

A General Theory of Oblivion - Jose Eduardo Agualusa (5)
Loosely constructed from the diaries and drawings of a woman who locks herself in her apartment in the time preceding Angola's independence from Portugal, this book contains so much and is so creative. Ludo observes the outside world without connecting to it, and the book unravels the stories of what she sees and can't see. The writing is so beautiful, I read lines over and over and want to read the entire thing again.

Winter: Ali Smith (5)
Autumn was in my top five last year, and its sequel didn't disappoint. If you're skeptical about using the trope of seasons for a series, I can tell you that this worked better than it did for Gilmore Girls.  Like Autumn, Winter is atmospheric and focused on the imagery of people's sensations and thoughts. Smith makes winter so much more complex than cold and snow. There's the honesty, beauty and complication of harsh conditions that may or may not give way. I also love that this book is political and poetic at once.  How in the same quick brush of a sentence Smith can be hard ("Human beings have to be more ingenious than this, and more generous") and languorous ("That's what winter is: an exercise in remembering how to still yourself then how to come pliantly back to life again").

Pond: Claire-Louise Bennett (4)
My co-worker described this as "Seinfeld in book form," referring to the fact that Pond isn't really about anything. Yet, I think anyone can relate to how much attention Bennett pays to the open spaces in between concrete events: "Everybody knows deep down that life is as much about the things that do not happen as the things that do." A collection of musings by a woman living alone--the narrator contemplates everything from breakfast to death--it's about how much of life is internal. 


Books Read After Seeing the Movie

The Push: A Climber's Journey of Endurance, Risk & Going Beyond Limits - Tommy Caldwell (5)
I didn't give this a 5 just because it was about climbing. For whatever reason, I'm not generally drawn to books about climbing but I started this after seeing the movie based on it (Dawn Wall). I was really impressed by the nuances of Tommy Caldwell's character, and his relationships.  The book goes into more detail about the complex dynamic between Caldwell and his climbing partner, which I loved for its honesty and openness about how we often turn to rock because relating to another person is so freaking complicated.

Notorious RBG - Irin Carmon (4)
Thank you to my friend Irene for asking me to see this, and who is the only reason I watch any non-climbing movies. I was a little disappointed because I thought the book would go into more detail about RBG's historical cases, but it was still worth reminding myself of the slow labor of equality.


Rom-Coms with Asian Leads

The Kiss Quotient - Helen Hoang (3)
Stella is awkward and unaware in the ways of dating, in part due to her Asperger's.  So she hires an escort to teach her, and that proceeds in the way you imagine a standard rom com would.  But I liked the diverse, fully fleshed-out characters; that it explicitly addresses the stigmas of mental health and socioeconomic status; and that it featured a half-Vietnamese male protagonist and snippets here and there of Vietnamese language and culture.

To All the Boys I've Loved Before - Jenny Han (3)
Okay, I gave this book a 3 but I loved the movie because Lara Jean in the movie is so much more vivid, with more surface quirks and underlying depth.  Yes, I have a lot of thoughts about the problematic lack of Asian representation in the male characters and the larger issue of the Asian woman-white male dynamic.  But for me this is not a love story about Lara Jean and Peter K, just me in love with Lara Jean.

I Believe in A Thing Called Love - Maurene Goo (2)
A teenager decides to win over her crush by studying Korean dramas and enacting the same situations in real life.  (...I don't know, I was in a mindless mood and was intrigued by another Asian lead character).

And I tried reading Crazy Rich Asians and got through about half of it before I decided I just don't care what everyone is wearing from head to toe in every scene.


In Which Race is Everything

Reading with Patrick: A Teacher, a Student, and a Life-Changing Friendship: Michelle Kuo (5)
Kuo is a Teach for America teacher in rural Arkansas for two years before going to law school. Then she learns that one of her former students has been jailed for murder, and she quits her job to become his one-on-one teacher. As a believer in the powers of both narrative and generosity, this story really appealed to me. But Kuo isn't naive in thinking that even the combination of these is enough to lessen inequality.  Still, the question she presents is so important: is the endeavor to impact one person as valuable as the one to change a system?

**Long Way Down - Jason Reynolds (4)
The entirety of this book takes place in the 60 seconds it takes a 15 year old boy to decide whether he should kill the man who killed his brother.  Highly recommend listening to this on audio, because it reads more like verse than prose.  It's very short, showing how much goes into defining moments.

Kindred - Octavia Butler (4)
An African-American woman living in California is transported through time to the South during the slavery era. The idea of modern day culture facing this past brings so much new perspective on the complexity of personal relationships against cultural norms.

**Flying Lessons & Other Stories - Ellen Oh (4)
I loved the idea of this, a collection of stories for young adults focused on diverse perspectives. Stories about what it means to be a person with a difference--color, orientation disability, language, income--from the majority. I didn't love every narrative but I really loved these stories were all told naturally, without direct attention to difference. These aren't stories about a black person or a gay person or child of an immigrant; they are just people with these qualities telling their experiences. Which mirrors the rare, tight sliver of time when kids absorb information with judgment.

**Sing, Unburied, Sing - Jesmyn Ward (3)
When his father is released from prison, 13 year old Jo travels through Mississippi with his mother to see him. Along the way and within the state penitentiary, Jo faces the turbulent history of the South and how it affects his path now.

I Will Always Write Back: How One Letter Changed Two Lives - Caitlin Alifirenka (2)
Given the assignment to write to a student in another country, Caitlin chooses to write to Martin in Zimbabwe, and they continue writing to each other for six years. My dense self didn't realize this book was true until the very end, and the fact that it's true is definitely what makes the story. It obviously simplifies what it takes to overcome poverty in a place like Zimbabwe but is a nice reminder of how far simple connection and feeling for someone can go.


On Being A Woman 

Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman's Awakening - Manal Al-Sharif (4)
While I'm indignant about the barriers we face as women here, I'm grateful every day that I have supportive communities enabling me to do what I love. This book about Al-Sharif's battle for women to gain the right to drive in Saudi Arabia reminds me of how much struggle has fueled what we have, and how much we are all on different points of the same frustratingly difficult road. I'm in awe of how much burden Al-Sharif bore on behalf of others. Ostracized and jailed, she put her life at risk over and over to fight for something I take for granted daily.

Men Explain Things to Me Rebecca Solnit (3)
Working at a clinic formed entirely of women except for the male management, and in love with a sport in which men constantly make assumptions about the ability of women, the title of this spoke to me. I imagine it speaks to most women and I appreciate what it expresses: the unthinking ways men exert power over women, and the psychological and physical violence this perpetuates.  The writing and thought processes aren't as good as my favorites in this category last year (Adichie's We Should All Be Feminists, especially on audio). 

The Mother of All Questions Rebecca Solnit (3)
In this collection Solnit goes into more detail about the sexual assault that results from the issues she explores in Men Explain Things To Me. Again I appreciated the attention to this topic but other books about this have been more powerful for me (Jon Krakeur's Missoula, which I recommend to everyone all the time).

Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys' Club of Silicon Valley Emily Chang (3)
This book about the sexist culture women face in tech actually has a lot of parallels to Daring to Drive, where Al-Sharif describes the difficulty of working as a computer engineer in a male-dominated company. It's interesting to see how the same gender dynamics plays out in two entirely different cultures. But while Al-Sharif's story possessed power in its personal narrative, I think Brotopia's use of anecdotes over factual journalism was counter-productive. It made me annoyed with the situation without gaining much more understanding of it.  Still, I appreciate the intention, to publicize this really important topic.

Books on the State of the World That Are Hard, and More Important, to Read

What Happened - Hillary Rodham Clinton (4)
The main things I gleaned from what contributed to the election:
1) Russian interference, the extent and scariness of which is scarily underestimated
2) The role of the media and their depictions of both candiates, also highlighting that we just aren't ready for a female leader because we have no image of what that is supposed to look like
3) James Comey and his re-investigation of Clinton's emails days before the election (statisticians show that Clinton had the votes prior to this event)
4) The displacement of identity of rural whites, not necessarily because of economic inequity but because of a failure of expectation --the threat of the image of the white working class by "otherness"--Muslims, blacks, and the undocumented.
5) Voter suppression

Dreamland: The True State of America's Opiate Epidemic - Sam Quinones (4)
This book tells in parallel the rise of addiction to black tar heroin and prescription opiates. I think the most important part of the narrative is what it tells us about our vulnerabilities and how people take advantage of them, how our individual nature and broader societal systems contribute to the harm of so many people. Sometimes the need to reiterate certain messages took away from fleshing out individual stories. But the overarching motif is so important: the similarities between heroin and prescription pills--in physical substance, in the people who use them, in the people who make them each a corporation and business motivated by profit and willful blindness to the wreckage they create.

**Escape from Camp 14: One Men's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West - Blaine Harden (4)
I became really interested in books about North Korea after reading Nothing to Envy, one of my favorites from last year and a book I still reference all the time. This story about a man's escape from a North Korean prison camp was recommended to me by someone who had lived in South Korea. It's very hard to see how this system reduces a person while immersed in it (having no qualms about competing with your mother for food), and after leaving it (feeling guilt over the past and wondering what it means about you now). What blew my mind in Nothing to Envy blows my mind here: that what we're reading is happening now in our world.


Haruki Murakami

Underground: The Toyko Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche (5) (full review)
This is nonfiction and very different than his other books, but with the same underlying goal to understand and connect people.  He interviews sixty-two people connected to the 1995 Tokyo gas attack in which members of a religious cult released sarin on three subway trains, killing thirteen people and injuring over six thousand.  The interviews focus on memories of the attack and what happened on that day, and how it has affected the person since that time. It's such a moving way of giving voice to these people, and to how trauma perpetually infiltrates life in time and space. 

Killing Commadatore (4)
When I'm reading my most loved Murakami, I have this unmatched sense of this-is-the-best-thing-I-could-be-doing. I enjoyed his last two novels (Colorless Tsukuru and 1Q84) but didn't experience this feeling.  Yet every time I read something new by him, I expect to feel it.  Within a few pages of Killing Commadatore, it arrived: immediate contentment and nostalgia.  I blew through the 700 pages in a week and was sad when it was over.  

Men Without Women (4)
I somehow missed this collection of short stories when it came out last year. I'm not generally into short stories, except for Hemingway and Murakami. And funnily enough, this book is named after one of Hemingway's short story collections. Maybe because Murakami doesn't seem comfortable writing the voice of a woman, he pays homage here to what happens to men when they are missing that voice. They're good but not super memorable (would recommend Blind Willow Sleeping Woman for a better short story collection).

Also, I saw Burning with another Murakami fan. It's an adaptation of his short story Barn Burning, and it was very good and very dark. It doesn't exactly capture the essence of Murakami, but it does incorporate motifs and themes from his work as a whole.


Books I Read Because I Liked the Title

Asymmetry - Lisa Halliday (4)
This was definitely an acquired taste for me. It includes two separate stories, one about the relationship between a young editor and much older writer, and another about a man who is detained in London on the way to visiting his brother in Kurdistan. It's the kind of book where you wonder why certain details are being included and what the overall point is. At first it's annoying that you aren't just being told, and then you get invested and keep trying to go back to figure it out.

The Wide Circumference of Love - Marita Golden (2)
I loved this title, but not so much this book about a woman caring for her husband as he suffers from Alzheimer's.  It relies heavily on the story, which is definitely one to empathize with, but I didn't really get any new perspective or feeling from it.


Takes Place in Space

An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth - Chris Hadfield (4)
This book was just really fun to read. It balances the wonder of being in space and having experiences none of us can imagine, with the routine of how so much of what happens out there applies to how we can approach our lives on Earth.  I would've liked to hear more about the difficulty of being in space, but it was also super enjoyable reading about how much Hadfield loves space.

** The Wanderers - Meg Howrey (3)
Coincidentally, I came across this right after reading An Astronaut's Guide and it explores what I missed from that book: the darker side of space.  Following the (fictive) narratives of three astronauts preparing for a mission on Mars by simulating the mission, it considers how this affects each person's relationships and psyche.


Writers Drawing Their Parents

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant - Roz Chast (4)
Chast wrote this graphic novel about what it was like to watch her parents grow old.  It's both sad and hilarious, and I love how the humor isn't detracting. Instead, it gives depth to the complex relationship of seeing your parents lose independence and gain idiosyncrasy, and trying to grow with and against them.

Maus - Art Spiegelman (3)
I'd heard so much good about this Holocaust graphic novel, written by about Spiegelman's parents.  Maybe it was that hype, but while I related to the difficulty of learning your parents' history, I wasn't as moved by the story as expected.


Self-Proclaimed About Life

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End - Atul Gawande (4)
Gawande speaks to what we learned quickly in medical training: we spend too much on the wrong efforts at the end of life. My favorite part was about how placing animals in a nursing home improved health and quality of life more than any medical intervention.

Everything Happens for a Reason : And Other Lies I've Loved - Kate Bowler (3)
A young woman and new mother is diagnosed with late stage cancer, and writes about what it's really like to live this tragedy.  I appreciated the grappling with the question of why, and the acceptance of the inexplicable.

** One Day We'll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter - Scaachi Koul (3)
I'll probably read any funny book by a woman of color in the hopes she can articulate our experiences with the humor I don't have.  I didn't think this one was that funny, but loved the experiences.


Books I Read Because I Loved The Previous One

Little Fires Everywhere - Celeste Ng (5)
(Because I loved Everything I Never Told You).  Ng is so good at letting a backstory unravel, reminding us how we don't know about our families, neighbors, fellow human beings. The characters seem like typical tropes: the suburban family aside the bohemian artist mom and her daughter.  But each has such intricacy, alone and connected to one another.

The Monk of Mokha - Dave Eggers (3)
(Because I loved What is the What).  I saw a Nourse Theater lecture with Dave Eggers and the protagonist of this book, Mokhtar.  Mokhtar is a Yemeni-American who travels to Yemen to cultivate coffee and becomes trapped in the midst of their civil war.  The story itself is a pretty amazing one, but lacks the complexity of character and unique voice that I loved so much in What is the What.  I also just learned that Mokhtar's coffee company is being sued for racketeering, which is disappointing as the book presents him in an especially positive light.

Feel Free -  Zadie Smith (2)
I've had a crush on Zadie Smith since I saw her read in college, but I've never loved her books as much as other people (I've read White Teeth and On Beauty; if you recommend others let me know!). I liked these essays (especially the ones on family and libraries) because I like her, but otherwise couldn't get into them (that might also be because a lot of them are about movies and music and I'm bad at pop culture).


Books I Wanted to Get But Didn't

Less** -
Andrew Sean Greer (2)

This book, about a novelist turning fifty and facing the so-called failures of his personal and work life, won the Pulitzer.  So even though I didn't like it, I want you to read it and tell me what I'm missing.

**Lincoln in the Bardo - George Saunders (2)
I listened to this on audio because there are 166 narrators, which sounded amazing but ended up being pretty confusing for me. A couple friends who read the book loved it, and one sent me a beautiful passage from it that I didn't remember at all from the audiobook. So maybe I should read it and re-evaluate...

**The Red Car - Marcy Dermansky (2)
A woman inherits a red car and goes on one of those classic self-discovery road trips, except I never felt like I learned anything about her.

The Immortalists - Chloe Benjamin (2)
Four siblings learn the date on which each of them will die, and we learn how each of their lives unravel toward those dates.  I felt the book relied too heavily on the plot, which is an interesting one, and catered too much to predictable emotional responses.

In 2019, I'd like to listen to more audiobooks. I've also been reasonably called out for reading mostly books that are heavy and sad.  I could have an hours long conversation about why sad fiction makes me happy, but that being said, I wouldn't mind some more humor and fluff in my reading this year.  Recommendations for that and everything else please.

No comments :

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...