2019 Reading Recommendations

Welcome to my second-annual book brain-dump! Last year, I once again refused to set an “I-must-read-X-books-in-a-year” goal. That tactic works for some, but I fear it would turn one of my favorite solo activities into a source of anxiety. I still managed to read a whole lotta books: 48 to be exact.

2019 started off as a lackluster reading year for me. By the summer, I felt discouraged by the books that I had read: I liked many of them, but none really stood out to me as The Book I’d want to discuss with any poor soul who happened to strike up a conversation with me. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to produce a list of highlights — “favorites” feels like too fickle of a word this year — to share. Fortunately, things picked up in the fall and I ended up with a few books that I’m stoked to stan.

The highlights

I can’t remember why I selected Severance for one of my book clubs to read in September, but I’m very glad that I did. It provided endless fodder for discussion: if we grew bored talking about the post-apocalyptic plot, we could chat for hours about thought-provoking through lines like first-generation immigrant angst, satirized consumerism, and millennial ennui (dare I say “millennui”?). Too many themes? Hell no. This novel—author Ling Ma’s first — was ambitious in all that it encompassed and yet It Just Worked.

I admit that Severance has its shortcomings. For one, it ends abruptly. Worse yet, the protagonist Candace remains aloof if not apathetic throughout her narration, which I found equal parts frustrating and fresh in its incongruity with the crumbling world around her. (I felt similarly drawn to the protagonist of Oksana, Behave! — a book I’ll recommend in a few paragraphs — much to the chagrin of another book club who despised the novel due to her antiheroic antics.) Nonetheless, Severance won me over with its whip-smart writing and unusual mélange of themes, which make me want to write home (or here) about.

In my book (pun intended), 2019 will go down as the year I completed Middlemarch. George Eliot’s nineteenth-century chef-d’oeuvre tends to get relegated to the erudite English major’s syllabus, but I decided to pick it up because Min Jin Lee — author of Pachinko, possibly the best book that I read in 2018 — cited it as one of her major writing influences.

Though the prelude was too abstract to pique my interest, I soon became so spellbound by the narrator’s quips and emotional deep dives that I begun to furiously annotate my copy in an effort to banter with them. I’m still in the midst of transferring the quotes that I underlined into a Google Doc so that I can look back on them with ease. (Yep, they’re that good!) Eliot-slash-her-narrator introspects

“He had two selves within him apparently, and they must learn to accommodate each other and bear reciprocal impediments. Strange, that some of us, with quick alternate vision, see beyond our infatuations, and even while we rave on the heights, behold the wide plain where our persistent self pauses and awaits us.”

and provides incisive commentary on human relationships

“Young love-making — that gossamer web! Even the points it clings to — the things whence its subtle interlacings are swung — are scarcely perceptible.”

and throws in some arresting imagery to boot

“kindly mornings when autumn and winter seemed to go hand in hand like a happy aged couple one of whom would presently survive in chiller loneliness”

and I loved all of it. Keen writing aside, I am most struck by how deeply Eliot cares about her characters as she navigates them (and the reader) through the novel’s (and life’s) peripeteias. I learned a lot about myself and human nature while reading Middlemarch, so I plan to reread it in the future.

The Arrival contains no words and yet artist Shaun Tan’s poignant portrayal of immigration — or, more universally, experiences like loneliness, fear, and readjustment — managed to break and heal my heart in the hour it took me to complete. Well worth a quick library checkout.

As I mentioned earlier, two of the books that stood out the most to me star antiheroines, but the eponymous Oksana of Oksana, Behave! makes Severance’s Candace look positively admirable. Oksana keeps messing up and rarely stops to learn from her mistakes, which, despite serving as a poor example of how to live, felt like an honest depiction of how people sometimes do live. (I read Oksana, Behave! right after completing a tome that piled on over-the-top valor and improbable it-all-worked-out-in-the-end scenarios, so it felt like the the right book at the right time for me.) Realism aside, I dug author Maria Kuznetsova’s predilection for dark humor and organization of Oksana’s life into rollicking vignettes. What’s more, Oksana’s grandmother partakes in and recounts some truly wild dalliances, so, even if you read this book and loathe Oksana, at the very least her grandmother will delight you.

Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language has compelled me to rethink my reluctance to consume nonfiction because I absolutely relished in this pop linguistics book. Reading academic-but-accessible explanations of informal internet writing cause me to have an out-of-body experience in which I linguistically analyzed everything I typed — DMs, status updates, public comments, et cetera — for a couple of weeks.

As someone who grew up as the internet grew ubiquitous, I am quite fond of informal internet-speak (internet-type?), but, as a language nerd, I often succumb to curmudgeonly distaste for “improper” usage. (Example: although I message my friends and coworkers in all lowercase, I daren’t deign to misspell words unless I’m trying to be funny.) Linguist Gretchen McCulloch chipped away at my gatekeeper-y attitude with her ebullience about the transformation that English and other languages have undergone and will continue to undergo online. Her rigorous analysis of non-IRL language usage made me better appreciate the communication I conduct and relationships I foster on the internet.

Honorable mentions include the likes of The Fifth Season and the rest of the Broken Earth trilogy by N.K. Jemisin; Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, Its Chaotic Founding, Its Apocalyptic Weather, Its Purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Becoming a World-class Metropolis by Sam Anderson; and anything else that I rated with four-plus stars on Goodreads. Feel free to check out my full list of 2019 reads there.

Perspective check

I’m including this section after reading another great books-of-the-year write-up. Of the 48 books I read,

  • 22 were written by women,
  • 21 were written by people of color,
  • 7 were published before 2000,
  • 3 were read by me as works in translation, and
  • 1 was read by me in the original French.