a year in books
meeting my Goodreads goal of 35 books in a year was one of my most gratifying accomplishments of 2018
1. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
This book was recommended to me by my mom, and besides her suggestions usually being pretty solid, I was excited to start the year with a book written by an Indian woman. I loved it – it was equal parts personal, political, and historical, and an emotional and informative foray into the world of Delhi’s hijras. It can be emotionally draining/difficult to read at times, so I didn’t devour it the way I’ve devoured books in the past, but I’d definitely recommend this to anyone looking for a good read.
2. Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann
This was one of the ‘hot’ books of the year, and for good reason. I love David Grann’s writing – he really brings out the “story” in “history” (cheesy, but true). More importantly, however, the book refocuses the lens of an important moment in history on the Osage community in a way that humanizes them and brings to light the brutality and hatred waged against them by the not only the white people in their community, but the US government as a whole. Killers of the Flower Moon focuses on a pretty particular part of our history, but that in an of itself serves as a telling indicator as to how and why indigenous peoples have been unjustly excluded from familiar narratives of American history.
3. A Criminal Defense by William L. Meyers Jr.
Sometimes you pick up a book for the sake of reading something and not wondering or worrying if it’s going to be good or not and this was one of those books – it was ok. Definitely not recommending it to anyone, but wouldn’t deter you from reading it either. Super quick read.
4. Animal Farm by George Orwell
A classic. I don’t know why we never read this in high school and I’ve been thinking about it for a while, but reading it now I feel like I got more out of it than I would’ve at the time. The whole dogma versus propaganda thing that comes out of the story is more relevant than ever.
5. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
I can’t figure out why people like this book. I read way more than I should’ve honestly, and finally picked up the courage to abandon it (I literally never do that with books).
As much as I hated reading this book, there’s a Goodreads review of it that is perhaps the most iconic Goodreads review to ever exist, and the review itself is maybe a 20 minute read, but truly worth every minute. I cannot emphasize how good this review is, although I may be biased because it also validated a lot of what I felt while reading the actual book. Either way, it’s pretty fun to read. Here’s the link – https://bit.ly/2Qrfyeg
6. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
After watching The Reluctant Fundamentalist (which has become one of my favorite movies of all time) I knew I had to read something by Mohsin Hamid ASAP and ended up ordering a copy of Exit West, mostly because it was most recently written and because I didn’t want to read The Reluctant Fundamentalist since I had just seen the movie (not the same, I know, this is just how my internal process of justification worked out).
Anyway, this is one of my favorite reads from this year. The story starts in Pakistan and slowly travels westward, following the main characters, Nadia and Saeed, as they’re driven out of their homes after war breaks out. At the center of everything is a relationship that reflects the experiences that Nadia and Saeed are forced into, but also goes through the same shit that relationships tend to have to go through even in the contexts we're familiar with. So much of this story is relatable, and the way things progress and end is bittersweet and real. It’s not too long, and Hamid does a great job of packing just the right punch – never does it feel too contrived, but it never really feels like anything is lacking either – and this book is just so so good.
7. The Inner Courtyard by various Indian women
I liked this one! It’s a little more ‘rustic’ in a sense, and I can imagine that it might be more pleasurable for someone who knows and has grown up in Desi culture. I loved that the authors were chosen from a variety of different time periods and regions within India, and would totally have loved to have read more. Many of the stories were not originally written in English (we get to read translated works from languages like Urdu, Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam, etc.) and there’s a cultural intimacy there that you don’t get from a lot of modern Indian writers who write in English and therefore inevitably write with some degree of western influence. Highly recommend for anyone who is Desi or part of the diaspora, or for anyone who is interested in reading work by women that doesn’t feel colonized.
8. Creativity by Philippe Petit
White man obsessed with his own mind trying to impart wisdom. I regret picking this book up. Not worth discussing further.
9. The Early Stories of Truman Capote by Truman Capote
I am such a big fan of In Cold Blood, so when I saw this book in a bookstore I decided to pick it up. Honestly it’s quite a light read, but a very solid one too. A lot of the criticism I’ve seen about it is the fact that it feels super “freshman” (which, it was – Capote wrote these in his late teens/early twenties), but I actually love it because it paints a clearer picture of his evolution as a writer. Some of the stories can be a little cliche, but that never really struck me as a bad thing while I was reading it – overall, I enjoyed it.
10. Open City by Teju Cole
I LOVED this book. It’s not so much about a story playing out as it is about the protagonist reflecting on a things as his life happens – it’s like reading the personal journal of someone who’s really good at writing. I especially liked reading the conversations he has with the people he meets – particularly ones that make us think twice about how we assume certain systems of thinking and speaking, especially when it comes to conversations about society and politics, and a lot of times those assumptions ignore and/or forget to account for experiences that are not centered around the US.
A lot of Open City is poetic and slow and reflective, and it’s a great read for when you’re feeling quiet.
11. Educated by Tara Westover
PLEASE READ THIS BOOK. It’s wild to the point that I had to keep reminding myself that it was REAL. I devoured it in a day and I’m so sure you will too.
12. Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid
Moth Smoke was Mohsin Hamid’s first novel and reads a lot more like other works of South Asian fiction I’ve read in the past (compared to Exit West), but still stands out because of Hamid’s style of writing, which is always eloquent and beautiful but also still so relatable and never contrived or condescending. The main character is this guy who’s grown up with the elite of Pakistan but as an adult struggles more and more to identify/belong with the people he’s grown up with, which leads to a lot of self-destructive behaviors and decisions. It’s a quick read and can be equally appreciated by both Desis and non-Desis, I think.
If it wasn’t clear, I am 100% a Mohsin Hamid fan at this point.
13. Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston
An absolute must-read. When I say must-read I mean you really must read it. It’s a first-person account from the last surviving person to have been brought over to America on a slave ship –not only is it a vital piece of history, it’s also shocking how much of this man’s story still resonates today. Especially to my fellow Americans – if there is a single book you read on this list, let it be this one.
14. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
I actually did not like this book. I appreciate the story as a whole, but was gritting my teeth the whole way through. Aside from the violence being excessive, the Nadsat slang makes it almost unbearable to read.
15. The Wind Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
My first Murakami and it was an EXPERIENCE in the absolute best way possible. Murakami’s writing style is an absolute delight and the story is simultaneously deeply reflective and whimsical (I guess a byproduct of the magical realism). The story itself was so beautiful and there was enough mystery and intrigue that I started, then kept reading till I was finished, then promptly order like four more Murakami books from Amazon.
16. The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Nighttime by Mark Haddon
A fast and fun read, told from the POV of a 15-year-old with autism. I guess I’d describe it as same vibes as ’Tuesdays with Morrie’ but not as sad, but also not really a happy story either. There’s a mystery at the center of the story, but it doesn’t take center stage, and I was okay with that because it was well-written and engaging. Apparently this was the author’s first time writing for an adult audience, and that makes sense to me when I look at the way the book was written. Overall not exceptional, but very enjoyable!
17. American Appetites by Joyce Carol Oates
I’ve been interested in reading something by JCO for a while and came across this book at a bookstore so I scooped it up. It was… ok. Actually, I think it was mostly well-written, but the characters – especially the protagonist – are ridiculously irritating and sometimes act outside the boundaries of reasonable human behavior, but like in the weirdest/most frustrating ways possible. Nevertheless I was interested enough to keep reading to the end… solidly confused re how I feel about this book.
18. Chanakya’s Chant by Ashwin Sanghi
Chanakya’s Chant is all around just a really good story. I’ve seen it described as a political thriller, which it very much is, but half of it, while still being a political thriller, is in the context of ancient Indian history, so it’s clearly a little more than that too. I’ve seen varying comments about whether or not it’s historically accurate, and I don’t know enough about Indian politics to see the parallels to recent politics, but all in all it’s entertaining.
19. The Outsider by Stephen King
Last year I started reading IT and ended up not sleeping two nights in a row and finishing the whole thing in three days, so I had high hopes for this one. It started off really well and I stayed up to finish it, but it just got more and more boring and ended in a way that was dull and anticlimactic.
20. Another Way of Telling by John Berger and Jean Mohr
So I’m not usually the type to read media theory for fun/without looking to get something out of it for creative purposes, but I saw this on sale at a local bookstore and recognized John Berger (shoutout to CAMS 101) and bought it impulsively. It’s honestly one of the best books I’ve ever read and I 100% intend to read it again, maybe in a few months. It’s incredible how principles discussed in the context of photography extend to a lot of the philosophical and sociopolitical questions that loom large today.
21. Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her by Melanie Rehak
TBH I don’t even know why I read this book and don’t remember most of it, except that Wellesley is featured somewhat prominently, which is why I must have picked it up int he first place. Moving on….
22. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
The last time I read this book was in high school but TBH the school I went to did such a bad job of teaching it that I wanted to re-read it to see if I would get something different out of it, especially since I also read Beloved for the first time a year prior and was blown away. I don’t know that I got something different out of it necessarily, but my reading of the book did feel more nuanced and richer because I was reading it for myself versus having my perception and reading of the book structured by a curriculum.
23. Square by Mac Barnett
My sister found this picture book at one of those fancy indie toy stores and picked it up as a birthday gift for a friends. She showed it to me before wrapping it up, and I was immediately taken with it – the illustrations are absolutely stunning and the story itself is both funny and philosophical. It’s the kind of children’s book that’s actually written for adults and it pulls off that whole shtick SO WELL.
24. Collected Short Fiction by V.S. Naipaul
Another book I picked up randomly in a bookstore on my quest to read more South Asian writers. It wasn’t until I brought it home and my mom said “oh, you’re reading VS Naipaul?” and I finally did some googling that I found out that he’s actually a really important writer in the Desi diaspora. Then a few weeks into reading the book, Obama announced he was also reading Naipaul so that was cool. Anyway, one of the reasons I love his Miguel Street stories (a series of stories that explore the lives of different people living in the same neighborhood in Trinidad) is their illustration of the inevitabilities of existing as brown/black people in a world that is colonized, without centering the colonizers. Naipaul tells the stories of brown people in the diaspora as it existed in places that are not India or America which was something I wasn’t familiar with.
The book was great and I really liked Naipaul’s writing, but it was hard to read in one sitting. In any case, I actually ended up being glad I split up reading the stories periodically because it was fun to come back to different stories with the same characters – it felt like revisiting an old neighborhood.
25. The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami
A great collection of short stories by Murakami. I wouldn’t consider this a Murakami primer, because there’s something about reading his novel that was missing from the collection as a whole, but if you like Murakami or you like short stories, I’d definitely recommend.
26. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
I gobbled this book up, it is SO GOOD. It’s the intergenerational story of a family in Korea and the best description of it that I saw somewhere was that it is both fiction and a true story – though the characters themselves have been concocted, so much of the story was a reality for Koreans at the time. This was the most satisfying book I read this year, and is the kind of thing that everyone/anyone can enjoy reading, no matter what your tastes are. Fair warning though: this book reduced me to tears MULTIPLE times. Just writing about it makes me want to go back and read it again.
27. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I…. shouldn’t have read this coming right off of Pachinko because it truly felt like a double whammy. The whole fiction-but-true-story thing can also be applied to this book, and even though I was emotionally exhausted reading this after Pachinko, it was actually also kind of cool reading them back-to-back because some of the themes are similar, and it was cool seeing that play out in two totally different cultural contexts/histories.
PS - If you read and liked this or Pachinko and want another similar read, I’d highly recommend checking out The Lowlands by Jhumpa Lahiri.
28. Triangle by Mac Barnett
Another book in the same series as Square and equally good.
29. While Mortals Sleep by Kurt Vonnegut
It’s always interesting when we go back and try to asses authors’ unpublished works. I’ve always held that Vonnegut was one of my favorite authors and I think that may have felt more positively about these stories as I otherwise might have? The stories are good, but not spectacular. But again, if you like Vonnegut or you just like short stories, I’d recommend it!
30. The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston
If you’re like me and you spent your childhood daydreaming of going on adventures and reading about excavations of archaeological sites and all the legends that accompany them and mentally inserting yourself into Jurassic Park and playing games like Cluefinders (even though the educational part of it was way below your level) because you loved the adventure part of it – you HAVE to read this book. You know how in adventure books/movies people have to pinch themselves to confirm that what they’re experiencing is real? That’s what reading this book is like.
Even if you are not the kind of crazed person I described above, you will enjoy this book. There is so much that the author covers – the adventure and archaeology of course, but also the science, the technology, the anthropology, the academic drama, the politics, the history, the ethics, even the epidemiology – and even my dad, who basically hates reading anything but books on economics, business, etc. , really liked it.
Such a huge shout-out to Douglas Preston for relaying the facts and his experiences in a way that is always exciting, well-researched, and refreshingly responsible.
31. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
This book was also…. so good. It’s an innately powerful book that comments on our responsibility to ourselves and our future selves when it comes to making choices about how we live and how ignorant we are willing to be in the name of responsibility and ‘dignity’, and how ‘dignity’ means something essentially different based on our experiences, but also based on where we stand in life and what past, present, and future look like at that point. The whole thing is heartbreaking but also relatable and kind of cautionary and this is yet another book I cannot wait to read again. Also wow Ishiguro is such a skillful writer.
32. Circe by Madeline Miller
Loved this book – a super quick read and it gave me the same pleasure I used to get reading YA books (but this book is definitely not YA). If you like Greek mythology, you'll definitely enjoy it.
33. Hey Ladies! by Michelle Markowitz and Caroline Moss
A year in the life of a gal group in NYC, as told through their emails and texts. It’s funny and light-hearted and easy to get through. I liked it a lot a the beginning and definitely felt called out at points and laughed at many others, but as it approached the end, the characters got a little too exaggerated which just made them annoying and got more boring to read it. I will not be recommending this book to anyone but I also wouldn’t deter anyone from reading it either.
34. Black Swans by Eve Babitz
In all honesty, I got this book because the cover looked cool. It was interesting because having done a little research on Eve Babitz before reading it, I found her as a person and her existence to be interesting. That said, I’m still trying to process how I feel about this book. I initially didn’t like it because a lot of it felt contrived and also ignorant and also super white (actually, super wealthy white which... you know). I don’t think my opinion on her writing itself has changed much, but I do find myself thinking of the stories often so I guess some part of it succeeded. It might also be because I work in entertainment and that whole world from a both a professional and non-professional perspective is so fascinating to me. Again, still trying to digest this one.
35. The Good Society by John Kenneth Galbraith
This was a small book but it took me months to finish. Not sure why because I really liked what I read when I read it, it was just that, for whatever reason, I could only manage to read two sentences at a time. JKG is good at taking concepts that are kind of common sense and reasoning them out and giving them more support and depth, which is what a lot of this book is. I’m not going to be touting it around everywhere, but if you’re interested in socioeconomics and making the world a better place, there’s a good chance you’d like this book.