New year, same me.
Well, not exactly. Yet for the most part, 2019 promises to be an extension of my 2018 reading journey. Last year was the first time I kept track of what books I read, how many I read and set a goal of reading 50 books. I finished 34 in the end, and came to see the number isn’t what’s important. Instead, it’s the quality of books, the diversity of voices and finding balance. I failed to read 50 books last year, but I came away feeling like I succeeded in reading quality literature that ticked off a number of different categories.
Instead of creating a list of my best reads, I decided to highlight some of my most memorable reads of 2018, explaining what struck me and why I believe they matter:
The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion
I started off last year by reading Didion’s compelling memoir about the loss of her husband, the writer John Dunne. Yet beyond Didion’s grappling with death is an exploration of their life together: past memories good and bad, particular statements that remain with her and an evolving interpretation of events. Didion opens the grieving process up to an examination of love and relationships, and what marriage truly means. It’s understandable why it won the 2005 National Book Award for Nonfiction. It also made me a Didion fan for life.
The Unconsoled, Kazuo Ishiguro
Having read Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day previously, I knew Ishiguro was a literary master. It’s this fact that makes The Unconsoled a surprise. A sprawling 500 page novel, it follows Ryder, a famous pianist, as he arrives in an unnamed European city to perform a concert. Yet Ryder is continuously plagued with memory loss as he’s immersed in a confusing web of responsibilities, requests and appointments. It’s a novel that, at face value, you could consider as simply bad: the narrator continuously loses track of time, relationships and his surroundings, proving himself to be utterly unreliable while long, melodramatic conversations about banal topics makes it tedious.
Yet, Ishiguro is up to something. Paralleling form with content, his frustrating and long-winded novel ultimately offers a stunning critique of the arts community and its self-indulgence, ignorance and hypocrisy. This will never be one of his best novels nor his most appealing. Yet if you’re a hardcore Ishiguro fan like me, it’s worth a read.
The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho
I chose to read The Alchemist after listening to a podcast with Coelho. Part novel/ part parable/ part philosophical treatise, it follows a young shepherd boy, Santiago, on his journey to find both an unknown treasure and himself. The work is heavily influenced by Coelho’s concept of the Personal Legend: the belief we all have a purpose in life that we are meant to fulfill and that the universe is on our side. If we continue the pursuit, our goals and dreams might just be realized. Perhaps it may seem overly optimistic and simplistic, but it’s a book that makes you feel anything is possible. Amidst the drudgery of everyday life and modern day cynicism, I think there’s a reason this work has proved itself so enduring and beloved.
Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay
I’ve written about Bad Feminist before and with good reason. With this collection of essays on topics as wide ranging as Scrabble tournaments and film critiques, Gay proves herself as one of third wave feminism’s most prominent and likable voices. The premise of Bad Feminist is simple: for some reason, the bar for feminism has been set at a ridiculously high level, making it nearly impossible for anyone to be a ‘good feminist’. Furthermore, immersed in a historically misogynistic and sexist culture, it’s pretty difficult for any woman to avoid hypocrisy in one way or another. But in Gay’s eyes its better to be a bad feminist than no feminist at all. With humour, personal anecdotes and sharp critique of pop culture books and films, Gay explores modern day feminism in all it’s glory and makes a strong case for being a bad feminist.
Night, Elie Wiesel
Elie Wiesel wrote one of the most prominent and widely read memoirs of the Holocaust with Night and, upon reading it, there’s little doubt as to why. Written in stark, clean prose, Wiesel documents his journey with his father from Sighet, Romania to the Auschwitz concentration camp through to the death march to Buchenwald. Wiesel’s style is the opposite of melodramatic and it’s a simplicity that allows the horror and profundity of the Holocaust to pierce through. Eye opening, jarring and haunting in its candour, it’s a book with a necessary purpose: inform readers of historical events to ensure they aren’t erased, forgotten or allowed to be repeated. It’s certainly a read that will stick with me.
Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka
What exactly is Metamorphosis about? It’s a tough question. Put simply, it’s a novella about a young man, Gregor Samsa, metamorphosing into a giant rodent. Investigated more thoroughly, you might also say it’s a work about human suffering, society’s treatment of invalids, complex family dynamics and more. As Gregor’s family attempt to handle his transformation and Gregor himself comes to terms with his limitations, Kafka manages to evoke sympathy, contemplation and confusion in the reader. What is Kafka trying to say exactly? Your guess is as good as mine, and all the other famed critics, including Vladimir Nabokov, who have done various readings of it over the years ranging from feminist to psychoanalytic.
Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race, Reni Eddo-Lodge
If you’re white (and even if you’re not), you should probably read this powerful debut book by Eddo-Lodge. Not that it will be a fun read (it definitely isn’t). Instead it’s one that’s necessary: Eddo- Lodge powerfully examines the systemic racism that remains ingrained in contemporary society, despite many of us wishing to believe we aren’t racist. By taking the UK as her prime case study, Eddo-Lodge looks at the historical legacy of the slave trade and its lasting consequences along with the unspoken white privilege and underlying racism we might otherwise fail to acknowledge. It’s an important read, a reminder that racism remains highly prevalent and a call to action for all of us who will need to collectively work together for generations to come in order to create a more equitable world.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith
Smith’s coming of age novel about a young girl from the slums of Williamsburg was definitely my biggest surprise read of last year. After picking the book up on a whim in New York City, I found myself completely absorbed in this bildungsroman of Francie Nolan who, much like the tree in her backyard, is forced to weather the harsh surroundings of the inner city to grow and flourish. A novel that deals with themes of alcoholism, poverty and death, it somehow remains a delight to read. Smith writes in a charming, elegant style and paces the novel brilliantly. If you thought it was just some silly novel for young women like I did, think again. And then read it.
Witches Sluts Feminists, Kristen J. Sollee
Another surprise read of the year was Witches Sluts Feminists. Discovered alongside A Tree Grows in Brooklyn in NYC’s Strand Bookstore, Sollee offers up a fascinating account of the witch trials and the legacy they’ve given to modern day conceptions of femininity and womanhood. Linking the definition of ‘witch’ to present day conceptions of ‘slut’, Sollee explores the radical notion of witchcraft in opposition to patriarchal ideals of passive, demure and conservative femininity. If you’ve ever wondered about the history of women and feminism, this is a wonderful read.
The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky
If this was a list of my favourite reads of 2018 I don’t think Dostoevsky would have made the cut. I read most of this 950 page saga of the Karamazov family kicking and screaming but was ultimately rewarded for my perseverance. The Brothers Karamazov is a sprawling epic that examines the complex relations of the male Karamazovs: the belligerent father Fyodor, the deeply spiritual Alexei, the sensualist Dmitri and the intellectual Ivan. Filled with scandal, love triangles, religious parables and even murder, it’s a novel that utilizes one family to explore philosophical questions relating to human suffering, morality, the meaning of life and the presence/ absence of God. To say it’s a purely enjoyable read might be a lie, but it certainly is high value in terms of thought-provoking and wide ranging content.