Even though I refused to set an integral reading goal in 2018, I somehow ended up reading 46 books — that’s six more than in 2017, when I felt a bit rushed to reach the 40-book goal that I had set. I’ve pulled out eight books to recommend from my complete list of 2018 reads.
Mid-March marked the five-year anniversary of my acquaintance with Kurt Vonnegut — one of my most beloved authors— so I read three books by him in 2018. I may have found a new favorite in Sirens of Titan, an intergalactic parable about the meaning of life. If you fear that I’m overselling a possible philosophical clunker, I must insist that Vonnegut will not let you down with Sirens. He is a master of equilibrium, balancing ease of understanding with cleverness, seriousness and drollery, and, best of all, satire about and compassion for humankind. Sirens is particularly well done because its ending brings under question Vonnegut’s own philosophy and foreshadows the purpose of a lovely tome called Cat’s Cradle that he penned a few years later.
I’ve been heralding Pachinko by Min Jin Lee as my favorite read of 2018 since I finished it in April. Although I found its conclusion to be a bit lackluster, its beginning and middle parts were so engrossing that I felt quite sad to reach its final page. The questions that Pachinko explored — in brief, what is home and does our blood-family define us — are of particular interest to me. Pachinko also strikes me as feminist: as Lee portrays systematic marginalization of Koreans living in Japan, she spotlights the additional oppression that womanhood brings unto her female characters. What seals the majesty of Pachinko is Lee’s backstory. She came up with the idea for a novel about twentieth-century Koreans in Japan while at university, and has been fleshing it out for about twenty years. Pachinko is the product of her lifetime, though it seems well-researched enough to hold many more within its binding.
Middlesex is the first and only book I’ve ever found that chronicles life as an American growing up in a community that cleaves to its ethnic Greekness. Oddly specific, yes, but of utmost interest to me because that is how I would characterize my own upbringing. I cannot speak to the accuracy of Jeffrey Eugenides’s account of intersexuality, but I fell in love with Cal (the narrator that he writes with such wit) and rooted for him in his recount of his grandparents’ genetic secret, his self-actualization, and all that led to his new life and love in Berlin. Middlesex has beautifully crafted motifs, such as the silkworms of Smyrna, destiny (sometimes as predicted by silver spoon), and the tough transitions that characters must make into unfamiliar roles. Eugenides gifted me with one of the most idyllic novel-reading experiences of the year.
Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows charmed me in ways that most “chick lit” never does: Nikki’s story never felt trite or twee. Author Balli Kaur Jaswal packed a lot into this short-ish book — bildungsroman, desi immigrant story, whodunit, romance, and, as the title suggests, erotica — and it all somehow fit together without me feeling overwhelmed.
I picked up a copy of the hefty We, The Drowned with two weeks left in December expecting that I would not finish it before the new year. I would never self-identify as the type of person who would devour a seafaring epic, but devour it I did. Carsten Jensen re-animates the history of his hometown Marstal (located on the Danish island of Æro) with fictional stories that ranged from swashbuckling tall tales to hyperrealistic retellings of hypothetical lives. Reading We, The Drowned made me realize the appeal of epic novels: those who doggedly read the whole way through will be rewarded by sub-stories that are at worst interesting, or, at best cause for reflection upon their own existence. I encountered both in We, The Drowned.
Collections of Short Pieces
If you, like me, are a twenty-something who is trying to live her best life, I’d recommend giving Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed a gander. It reads like an introspective, middle-aged woman’s take on the beguiling questions sometimes found in the bowels of /r/AskReddit and /r/relationships. I’ve found the contents of this book to be thought-provoking as I strive to make the Right Choices in my own life.
I cried several times while reading The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories. Ken Liu grounds his science fiction and fantasy stories in elements of Asian/Asian-American cultures and then enlivens them with what felt to me like a deep sense of empathy and righteousness. He knows remarkably well to where he wishes to whisk his readers from the first paragraph. Besides the tear-inducing title story, I especially enjoyed reading “The Literomancer,” “The Regular,” and “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary.”
Helen Oyeyemi’s What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is such a wonky delight. The best characterization I can come up with for her storytelling style is “modern-day fairytale.” Characters — who oft break the reader’s assumptions about their race, gender, and/or sexual orientation — flit in and out of ethereal scenarios: they are the threads that unify this collection. I quite liked the world built in “a brief history of the homely wench society.”