December 28, 2017

A year in reading: a sentence or two on 95 books.

There is a difference between the reading you do when you are relishing every word, rapt in story and prose, and the reading you do when you are waiting.

When you are waiting, you read to pass the time; you read knowing that the goal of picking up a book is not in the joy of the book itself, but instead in assuaging the disquiet mind.

As I wrote in July, this was a year of reading while waiting:

This year, unlike years past, is not a year where books are relished, savoured; this year, each book is a salve, and I read to fill gaps, to pass time, to clear my mind when the world gets heavy.

This year, I read to fill time and space; I read to keep my mind filled with the words of others when I feel burdened by my own.

I am usually good with waiting—I have a zen-like patience for queues and delays that is often met with bafflement from others—but this year, for many reasons, I have had to keep my mind occupied.

And so: I read. I filled my minutes with words and stories, and while I did little, if any, scribbling in the margins, I still immersed myself in worlds other than my own whenever I had a waiting moment.

Next year, I will read many fewer books. I will take more notes, take time to reflect, and be better with waiting.

This morning, as I wait for everyone to wake up, I wait in silence, in quiet. I do not read, but instead relive the stories I have enjoyed this past year. What a beautiful collection of stories they have been.

I read 95 books this year. Of those, 63 were written by women; 51 by writers of color. Here are a sentence or two about each one of them:

13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, Mona Awad: What does it mean to be looked at” when your whole life you’ve tried to be ignored? What does it mean to want to be seen when you’re told your body should be hidden?

1Q84, Haruki Murakami: We read stories to be transported to different worlds; we write them to take the world that we know and imagine what it would look like if it was just slightly different:

That’s what the world is, after all: an endless battle of contrasting memories.

A Good Country, Laleh Khadivi: A rumination on belonging, identity, and the lengths to which we go just to feel included, even if for just a brief moment, in something bigger than us.

American Innovations, Rivka Galchen: There is something unnerving about Galchen’s short stories—they are messy, surreal, and decidedly unconventional—that perfectly echoes the way that life often keeps us on edge.

An American Sickness, Elisabeth Rosenthal: The secret is that healthcare in America is broken not because of political will, but because we have created an entire industry around healthcare management that wields enormous power.

A New Model: What Confidence, Beauty, and Power Really Look Like, Ashley Graham: According to this book, confidence, beauty, and power look like the author; everyone that doesn’t make the sacrifices she has or the lifestyle changes she endorses are often discarded.

A New Way to Dinner, Amanda Hesser: The new way to dinner is the old way: plan in advance, prepare in advance, and be smarter about what you eat and how you make it.

A Rage for Order, Robert F. Worth: The story of a political uprising—in this case, the Arab Spring—is more than just a story of geopolitics. It is a story about people, places, and the relationships we hold on to throughout it all.

The Art of the Personal Letter, Margaret Shepherd: If you haven’t picked up a pen to write a letter to a loved one in years, then this will be a nice reminder. If you’re a prolific epistolarian, then this isn’t necessary to pick up.

A Separation, Katie Kitamura: In my dreams, I travel to the Greece of Kitamura’s creation, and am enveloped in unsolvable mysteries and unrequited love, and only wake up when the sea washes up against me and reminds me that life is much simpler, and much more complex at the same time.

The Association of Small Bombs, Karan Mahajan: Growing up in a household where we lived, at least for a little while, paycheck to paycheck, I am fascinated by how (the access to) money colors the things that happen in our lives. What tragedies could we have avoided if we had money to do things differently; what opportunities would we have missed if we were too well-off to seek them out?

The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell, W. Kamau Bell: I still don’t believe that Denzel Washington is the greatest actor of all time, but I’m getting closer and closer to being convinced.

Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay: None of our heroes are perfect—there is no good or bad, only people who are trying or not. How we reconcile that, how we choose to recognize, empower, and seek guidance from those around us, will help define the people we are.

Baseball Life Advice, Stacey May Fowles: Baseball Life Advice is an illustration of someone who really loves something, and a reminder that we, too, have things we really love and that we shouldn’t be afraid to embrace that passion. (More marginalia here.)

Behold the Dreamers, Imbolo Mbue: My grandfather, an accomplished baker in Zanzibar, worked in a factory to make ends meet after we immigrated to the US. Before he died, I never did ask him about his dreams, and how they had changed through circumstance. We are all dreamers, after all.

Being Mortal, Atul Gawande: I left a copy of this on my parents’ coffee table a few weeks ago. I do not know if they read it, or if they ever will, but these are conversations we all need to be having, now.

Better Now, Danielle Martin: We are lucky to have a healthcare system here in Canada that serves (almost) all. Yet, we can not remain complacent; there is work to do in order to make the system more inclusive, more adaptive—to make the system better.

Big Little Lies, Liane Moriarty: If there’s any book that has made me want to watch the television adaptation, this is that book. Light, but gripping.

Brave New World, Aldous Huxley: Some days we are living in Huxley’s dystopia, but really, it often feels like we are living through something much worse.

Brother, David Chariandy: I’ll probably have more to write about this in the new year, but for now, I think of three Vs when I reflect upon this novel: volume, viscerality, and violence.

Coach Wooden and Me, Karim Abdul-Jabbar: There are a few people I wish I had met before they passed away, and while the list is not long, John Wooden is towards the top, if not right on top.

Demystifying Public Speaking, Lara Callender Hogan: I am lucky that I feel at ease upon a stage; fine tuning that ease into poise is my next step.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman: I don’t know whether to feel bad for Eleanor Oliphant, to be somewhat inspired by her, or to just want to hang out with her from time to time.

Etta and Otto and Russell and James, Emma Hooper: Like Etta, I am drawn to the water, drawn to the sea. Unlike Etta, I do not have to walk across half the country to get there, and for that, I am thankful.

Everybody’s Son, Thrity Umrigar: How do you rationalize your actions and motives when you’ve given someone so much opportunity, but at the expense of stealing their heritage? How do you rationalize that when you’re the one whose history has been stolen?

Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng: We keep secrets because we don’t want to hurt people, because we don’t know the impact that the truth will have on the ones we love. Those secrets can be, sadly, tragic in their withholding.

Exit West, Mohsin Hamid: We are all from somewhere, we are all going somewhere—as humans, we are bound to movement across boundaries. The stories of our movement are rarely this beautiful, this heart-wrenching while still hopeful.

Fruit, Brian Francis: I read this to get a sense of what it would be like to grow up in Southwestern Ontario, our new home, but the tales of the region, the characters, were fleeting. I have forgotten them already.

The Golden House, Salman Rushdie: A parable that lacks any form of subtlety, but a story so enthralling that we become wrapt in the narrative and forget that the story really is, in the end, the story of ourselves.

Goodbye, Vitamin, Rachel Khong: What are we but a collection of our memories? When those memories start to fade, who will do the remembering for us? Who will tell us the story of the life we have lived?

Go Set A Watchman, Harper Lee: The question is not whether we needed a sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird, but instead whether or not this was the sequel we needed or deserved. It adds nothing, subtracts so much.

Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado: How many ribbons have I longed to untie, how many ethereal women have I forgotten, how many times have I pushed away the representation of who I once was? How will I ever be able to shake these stories from my mind?

Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly: How many stories of people who have changed the world have we been denied because of who they are? How many more stories are waiting to be told?

Hip Hop Family Tree, Vol. 2, Ed Piskor: A nostalgia trip that will have music running through your head all day.

History of Wolves, Emily Fridlund: Growing up—say, coming of age—is confusing, often dark, and rarely provides any resolution. Similarly, this electrifying novel offers no respite, no consolation, no resolution: like growing up, it’s beautiful all the same.

Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi: One thing we all have to come to terms with: slavery didn’t just affect those who were enslaved, but affected the generations that came after; there are big wounds to heal, some of them gaping even wider now.

Homesick for Another World, Ottessa Moshfegh: Hard to read a collection of stories that has such contempt for humanity—and especially a vitriol for people who look like me.

How Should We Respond to the Global Refugee Crisis?, Louise Arbour: We created borders to not just to keep people out, but to make sure some people stayed in when those borders become porous, what does our world end up looking like? Who is on the inside, and who gets left out?

How To Be A Person In the World, Heather Havrilesky: When I’m caught adrift, feeling a little unmoored, I can always count on Heather Havrilesky to tell me how it is, to remind me that we’re all sometimes floating along, waiting to reach the shore again — and that sometimes it’s okay to swim, and sometimes it’s okay to just wait it out.

How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World, Steven Johnson: If you need the reminder, this is it: inventions and innovations that we often forget and overlook (like refrigeration) have made the world we know now possible.

Hunger, Roxane Gay: There is a phrase in this book that stays with me, every minute of every day, because it is so clear to me how it feels, how it is to have a a rush of solace when I ate” because eating is what calms a roiling mind, an unsteady spirit.

I Am Not Your Negro, James Baldwin: I think of this question often: is the lack of connection with the other” because of a lack of access, or just a lack of desire? (More marginalia here.)

The Iliad, Homer: I long for the day when the tale of war and its glory is a tale we no longer have to tell, or at least, one we can point to as an example of the folly of generations past. (More marginalia here.)

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot: What is a legacy? What kind of legacy will I leave? What does it mean to change the world when you didn’t even know that you did, and you didn’t even give permission to be a part of that journey?

The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, Walter Isaacson: We are where we are now because of the insight of a few amazing people, reaching all the way back to Ada Lovelace. For that, I am thankful.

In the Shadow of Edgar Allan Poe, Leslie Klinger: I’ve never been a big fan of horror movies; this collection made me realize that I don’t enjoy horror short stories any better.

Known and Strange Things, Teju Cole: If you’re a fan of Cole’s writing, you’ve already all of these essays separately. They are absolutely worth revisiting in this collection.

The Leavers, Lisa Ko: Some people leave our lives, whether through choice or through forces working hard to keep us apart, and when they return, we have to figure out what it means to be left, what it means to leave, and what it means to build an identity around being pried away from those we love:

Everyone had stories they told themselves to get through the days.

Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders: Read this, relish in its joy, and then do yourself a favor and get the audiobook. A full cast performs this story that’s more compelling than almost anything you’ll watch in a movie theater this year.

The Lion in the Living Room, Abigail Tucker: It is almost ridiculous just how much I love Cleo, our cat. But why? An excerpt from Ms. Tucker’s book:

The plot thickens when you consider how little we seem to get out of this fraught relationship. People are accustomed to driving a very hard bargain with domesticated animals. We expect our dependents to come to heel, schlep our stuff, or even obediently proceed to the slaughterhouse. Yet cats don’t fetch the newspaper or lay tasty eggs or let us ride them. It’s not often that human beings are left scratching our heads about why in the world we keep a creature around, let alone hundreds of millions of them. The obvious answer is that we like cats—love them, even. But why do we? What is their secret?

Love, Loss, and What We Ate, Padma Lakshmi: More a collection of eating-adjacent memories than any kind of narrative about food, this book is uneven but still emotional.

Love Poems, Pablo Neruda: The running joke is that the cells in the human body replace themselves every seven years, so if you see someone you haven’t seen in a decade, you don’t have to say hi because you’re both completely different people. (More marginalia here.)

The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri: It is through our families, our siblings—given or chosen—that we navigate the trials of the world. As always, Lahiri weaves a story of family and politics and grief in the most beautiful language you can imagine.

The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick: Alternative histories are captivating because they make us question our own decisions: what would life look like if I had said no, or yes, or if I had followed the path of another?

Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl: It’s okay to cry when faced with these trying times—as long as we keep fighting through the tears. (More marginalia here.)

Marlena, Julie Buntin: A beautiful, tragic, breath-taking look at young friendship: I was the first person, she told me, whose brain moved as quickly as hers, who got the weird things she said, her jokes, her vile, made-up swears, and could sharpen them with my own.”

Men Explain Things To Me, Rebecca Solnit: Something I thought about all through reading this collection of essays: so much of being a decent person is about giving others (physical, emotional, mental) space. And so, this passage about space from the book resonated:

Public space, urban space, which serves at other times the purposes of the citizen, the member of society establishing contact with other members, is here the space in which to disappear from the bonds and binds of individual identity.

Men Without Women, Haruki Murakami: Hardly Murakami’s strongest work, but still oddly compelling. Also super compelling: Womanhattan, a super short article about women without men.

milk and honey, Rupi Kaur: There were times, while reading Rupi Kaur’s milk and honey, when I was tempted to tear out pages, snippets, and paste them on the wall next to me. (More marginalia here.)

Modern Lovers, Emma Straub: A beach read in the best sense: fun, engrossing, not too deep.

My Lovely Wife in the Psych Ward, Mark Lukach: The book I needed to read right now; the book I really couldn’t read right now.

The Most Beautiful, Mayte Garcia: I will love any recollection of the life of Prince—I still miss him dearly—but perhaps this was too much, too soon.

My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante: Already looking forward to reading the rest of the trilogy; as good as everyone has been saying, but not too good to be inaccessible.

Necronomicon, H.P. Lovecraft: The imagination needed to come up with these tales—strange and eerie and spine-tingling—would have to be immense.

The Odyssey, Homer: I long for the day when the tale of war and its glory is a tale we no longer have to tell, or at least, one we can point to as an example of the folly of generations past. (More marginalia here.)

One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter, Scaachi Koul: Giving voice to the marginalized will not only shift the power dynamics in society, but will also force the marginalized to examine their own place in that society:

Fitting is a luxury rarely given to immigrants, or children of immigrants. We are stuck in emotional purgatory. Home, somehow, is always the last place you left, and never the place you’re in.

The Outside Circle, Patti Laboucane-Benson: Questions that I’ve been thinking a lot about recently: how does addiction and poverty and our disregard for our First People define the history of our country? What can we do to make amends?

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Aimee Bender: I have a great sense of hearing; L has an incredible sense of taste and smell. Sometimes I wonder if she, too, can taste my emotions when I cook.

The Portable Veblen, Elizabeth Mckenzie: One day, I will tell the story of how I began to befriend squirrels, and then slowly started to despise them. Until then, this oddly-captivating novel will have to do.

Refuge, Dina Nayeri: Stories of immigrant life are often centred on stories of families. The relationship between Niloo and her father in this novel is nuanced, beautiful.

Room, Emma Donoghue: Ms. Donoghue lives in London, Ontario, in the neighbourhood where we lived when we first moved here. I have yet to meet her and tell her, like so many others probably already have, that her book was heart-achingly powerful.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari: The history of humans, from the origin of our species to the future of our kind, all in 450 entrancing pages.

Secret Path, Gord Downie: Something I did not learn about in school and only first heard about in my mid-20s, much to my shame: Canada’s residential school program. We need more people to know about this history, and to grapple with how to make amends.

The Sellout, Paul Beatty: Nobody and nothing in The Sellout is comfortable, and that is its greatest triumph. (More marginalia here.)

Shrill, Lindy West: This is an excellent read for many reasons, but mostly for this wonderful defence of The Little Mermaids Ursula:

History is written by the victors, so forgive me if I don’t trust some P90X sea king’s smear campaign against the radical fatty in the next grotto.

Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward: Easily the best book I’ve read all year, in a year where so many titles have made my best books of a lifetime” list. An excerpt from Ms. Ward’s speech upon winning the National Book Award:

I still find myself having uncomfortable conversations with reluctant readers who initially didn’t want to read my work because they said, What do I have in common with a pregnant 15-year-old?” They said, Why should I read about a 13-year-old poor black boy? Or his neglectful, drug-addicted mother? What do they have to say to me?” And you, my fellow writers and editors and publishing people and National Book Foundation folks, read my work and you answered, Plenty.” You looked at me and the people I love and write about, you looked at my poor, my black, my Southern children, women, and men, and you saw yourself.

Swing Time, Zadie Smith: When I need to break free of the world, I turn on some music and dance. I don’t think of how that dance came to be, but instead of the violence of the movement, and let go, let free. Perhaps that’s all dance really is: controlled violence.

Thank You For Being Late, Thomas Friedman: I’m a slow walker, a slow thinker, a slow writer. Some people think I am patient, or zen, or just slow; perhaps I am just tired of the fast pace of life.

Things We Lost in the Fire, Mariana Enríquez: I am reminded that, more than ghosts and goblins, more than ghouls and monsters, more than the dark and the gruesome, what’s really scary is the struggle of being poor, or marginalized, in a world that ignores and maligns the other.

This One Summer, Mariko Tamaki: The entry into adulthood is gradual, and then immersive. What better format to express that than a graphic novel?

Unaccustomed Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri: Lahiri is the greatest short story writer of our generation; this I can say unequivocally. In this collection, worlds are built and torn apart, quietly, without pomp or circumstance. They are devastating without making a sound.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel Meets World, Shannon Hale: The first thing I think of when I think of squirrels is not a superhero or saving the world, but it’s always nice to be reminded that heroes come in all sizes and forms.

Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation, Bill Nye: It still baffles me that we are still debating the idea of evolution in 2017, but hey, the President doesn’t believe in the word science” so I guess this book is, sadly, necessary.

We Are Never Meeting In Real Life, Samantha Irby: In between the stories of bad dates and a disdainful (yet hilarious) cat, there are nuggets about life and love and the world that will remain with you for a very long time:

Real love feels less like a throbbing, pulsing animal begging for its freedom and beating against the inside of my chest and more like, Hey, that place you like had fish tacos today and i got you some while i was out’, as it sets a bag spotted with grease on the dining room table. It’s not a game you don’t understand the rules of, or a test you never got the materials to study for. It never leaves you wondering who could possibly be texting at 3 am. Or what you could possibly do to make it come home and stay there. It’s fucking boring, dude. I don’t walk around mired in uneasiness, waiting for the other shoe to drop. No parsing through spun tales about why it took her so long to come back from the store. No checking her emails or calling her job to make sure she’s actually there. No sitting in my car outside her house at dawn, to make sure she’s alone when she leaves. This feels safe, and steadfast, and predictable. And secure. It’s boring as shit. And it’s easily the best thing I’ve ever felt.

We Learn Nothing, Tim Kreider: Why do we make decisions, why do we act in certain ways, even when we should know better, when we have already experienced better? Kreider’s book tries, but doesn’t quite answer this question; it does, however, entertain.

We Should All Be Feminists, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: More a long essay than a book, the title captures the essence perfectly: we all really should be feminists, and we are doing ourselves—every single one of us, no matter what our gender—by not being overtly feminist already.

We Were Eight Years in Power, Ta-Nehisi Coates: Coates is the greatest political and cultural writer of our generation; you’ve probably already read every single essay in this collection, but they are worth revisiting here, especially for the context-setting introductions before each one.

What Happened, Hillary Rodham Clinton: Some mornings, I wake up and think everything is normal. And then I realize that a year ago, a tragic thing happened to America, to the world, and I ask myself how it could all have happened. This book tries to answer that question—not quite successfully, but a valiant attempt nonetheless.

Whatever Happened to Interracial Love, Kathleen Collins: Many short stories give you small glimpses into the lives of others. Kathleen Collins’ short stories give you large views into the life of the world. A passage that will stay with me for a long time:

He utterly honored his sorrow, gave in to it with such deep and boundless weeping that it seemed as I stood there he was the bravest man I had ever known.

What is Not Yours is Not Yours, Helen Oyeyemi: The closing story of this collection is about Eva and her diary, and writing so important that it fills the air. This is what Oyeyemi’s writing is like: filling, enveloping, sometimes stifling—and absolutely necessary:

A library at night is full of sounds: the unread books can’t stand it any longer and announce their contents, some boasting, some shy, some devious.

What Will It Take to Make A Woman President?, Marianne Schnall: I am thankful for the leaders I have had in my life—most of them strong, inspirational, incredible women—who have taught me, through their words and action, what it is to be civil, and what it is to have grace under fire. (More marginalia here.)

White Tears, Hari Kunzru: There are questions hidden in here about authenticity, about appropriation, about what it means to take something that is not yours and make it your own. They are questions lost by a second act that falls apart, page by page.

Wishful Drinking, Carrie Fisher: Talking about mental illness feels easy, when living with it is decidedly not. (More marginalia here.)

You Can’t Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain, Phoebe Robinson: Do you like to laugh out loud while also being reminded of the systemic oppression that people of color face in contemporary society? Yeah, me too.

→ Marginalia