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2018 in Reading: A Tally and Favorite Recommendations

In 2017, I set a New Year’s resolution to read more. I wanted to set a resolution that would help me do something I liked more often. And it worked! I read a lot, and I enjoyed it so, so much. It definitely improved my quality of life.

For 2018, I wanted to keep reading, but I set some new goals. I wanted to read more diverse authors, including more work translated into English from other languages. I kind of succeeded in my goals; I read 58 books (!), and 35 of them were by women. Again, I would say that reading a lot improved my quality of life.

Clearly, I spent a lot of time reading. This year, I did a lot more reading while commuting; at some point I cut the data plan on my phone drastically so I couldn’t read about politics on my way to work, because I was arriving already in a bad mood. Instead, I read books. Much better. (There was one time I missed my tram stop because the book was so good, but I can no longer remember which book it was!)

Here are some stats, trends, and recommendations of my favorite things I read.

Read More Women: 34 of those books were by women, and 22 by men. Two were academic books with multiple authors. One of my big goals this year was to read more women, and I definitely succeeded in that!

Read In Translation: Only four books were translated into English from another language. I failed on the goal of reading a lot of translated literature, but I can say all four were great.

  • Inheritance From Motherby Minae Mizumura (translated from Japanese) was charming and heartfelt, and given the story line it’s amazing that it never felt cheesy or cliché; I loved it.
  • Lullaby by Leila Slimani is a Prix Goncourt, a prize in France for “the best and most imaginative prose work of the year”; part of it is a ripped-from-the-headlines crime story, but the examination of class in Paris fascinating and sad at the same time.
  • Fever Dream by Argentinian Samanta Schweblin kind of defies classification. It’s short, surreal, creepy, and fantastic, which is probably why it was shortlisted for the Man Booker International prize.
  • I’ll talk about the fourth one, Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead, below.

Read Diversely: Including the translated books noted above, here’s my geographic tally for authorship: Argentina, Australia, Canada, China, Finland, France/Morocco, Germany, Ireland, Japan, New Zealand, Nigeria, Pakistan, Poland, Swaziland, Trinidad, UK (7), USA (27). I only succeeded in reading more books by authors not originally from the U.S. by reading more books, total. (And some of those international authors reside in the U.S., U.K., or elsewhere.)

I Fell In Love With Short Stories: I have to admit, I was never much one for short story collections. They bring back memories of schoolwork and “best short story” anthologies that I for whatever reason didn’t connect with. This year, though, I read several incredible short story collections and it totally changed my opinion!

Among those that I loved was Damned If I Do, by Percival Everett, partly for its descriptions of life in the West. Florida by Lauren Groff was a pick for our climate fiction book group (see below); the opening story left me “meh”, but several others killed me dead with their perfection, including “Dogs go wolf” and “Above and below”. Then there was Homesick for Another World by Otessa Moshfegh, which I became a huge cheerleader for and recommended to everyone I knew. It’s a rare book that Steve and I both completely loved and found un-put-downable. The stories are weird and you often feel painfully uncomfortable on behalf of the characters, but they are so, so good in that weirdness.

Crime Writing Kept Me Going: I like crime fiction. And for a chunk of this year, it kind of saved me by being a great distraction from my dissertation; a good crime novel has the capacity to just completely suck you into its world, which is sometimes very necessary. This was particularly true in the very last month of my dissertation, when I wasn’t exercising much because I had just run a marathon and my body needed a rest. I had to fill the time that I’d been spending running with something else, and I ended up tearing through crime novels. A full 20% of the books I read in 2018 could be classified as crime, and several more have criminal deaths at the center of the story, but I’d say are more literary fiction than “crime” (A Separation by Katie Kitamura and History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund come to mind).

I read some great crime fiction. A Beautiful Place To Die by Malla Nunn was one of the best books I read this year in that it transported me to a place I know nothing about, 1950s South Africa. It was brutal, beautiful (as in the title), and educational all at once. Then there were some just simply good books. I love the Irish author Tana French, whose police novels are dark and serious. Broken Harbour is both completely creepy, and a social comment indicting of the housing bubble. I like J.K. Rowling’s Cormoran Strike mysteries, which are different in that they are a bit comic sometimes as well (the crimes are no jokes though, actually sometimes quite gruesome). Then there were the less-literary crime novels that nonetheless helped me through. The afternoon I handed in my dissertation, I came home, sat on the sofa, and read Jane Harper’s The Dry all in one sitting. It’s not going to win a Man Booker but it was a good story set in an interesting place and pulled me along when my brain literally couldn’t make up its own thoughts anymore.

(I also enjoyed some true crime books this year, particularlyKillers of the Flower Moon by David Grann, which taught me a lot I didn’t learn in history class and was both gripping and devastating, and The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson.)

I Joined A “Climate Fiction” Book Group: My friend Joan started a reading group around the theme of climate fiction. We have read a lot of different kinds of things. Some about dystopian futures; The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi and Memory of Water by Emmi Itaranta both hit me hard because I can picture the landscapes where they are (partly) set, south-central Colorado and Finland respectively, based on my own travels and/or residency. We also read some just plain weirder speculative fiction, including Annihilation by Jeffrey Vandermeer, which I loved so much I went out, bought the other two books in the trilogy, and devoured them. We read a long literary noel with a Big Environmental Message, The Overstory by Richard Powers, and I loved that too (I put a quote from it on my holiday card). And we read Florida, which is not explicitly about climate change in a bang-you-over the head way, but it’s there. This group has been a great thing to join and if you’re interested, you can find out more on Twitter.

The Weirdest Book That I Absolutely Loved: Steve gave me Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of the Dead by Polish author Olga Tokarczuk because he read a review of it in The Economist and thought I might like it. I dove in without learning anything about it, to the extent that through the whole first chapter I wasn’t sure if the narrator was a man or a woman. This book is super bizarre, but I liked it – it was so different than anything I’ve read this year or maybe ever. I won’t give it away other than to say that may or may not be your cup of tea. Steve tried to read it after my rave reviews and got most of the way through before flinging it onto the table as he shouted obscenities, so, your mileage may vary.

Two Books About Science and Society That Changed Me: Two nonfiction books stuck with me and will probably alter how I go about my life as a scientist and human being. The first was The Home Place by J. Drew Lanham, a book that my mother gave me as a gift. The memoir resembles an essay collection, and I typically don’t love essay collections, so I put off reading it. Then I picked the book up and wanted to savor every word. The book details the author’s relationship with nature and the place he grew up, and the challenges he faces as a Black wildlife biologist. It is beautiful nature writing, and made me see my field differently, too. It rightfully won the 2017 Southern Book Award.

The second was Inferior by Angela Saini, which highlights how understudied women are compared to men and how many of the things our culture, or indeed our whole women, believe about women based on centuries of “knowledge” are simply bullshit propped up by pseudoscience, because nobody thought it was interesting or worthwhile to do the real work. This book blew me away and made me mad, but it also profiles researchers working to change the game. Maybe there’s hope.

A Delightful Novel That Will Change Your Opinion of the Author: Some feminist websites I read have occasionally gushed about Orlando by Virginia Woolf. I finally picked up a copy. I like Woolf; if that makes me pretentious, I don’t care. If you don’t like her, though, try this book anyway. It’s about an ageless character who lives for hundreds of years and transforms from a man to a woman in the process. It’s legitimately hilarious in places, but also has some beautiful descriptions of tons of different settings, and musings on the human condition.

Other Books I Highly Recommend: Circeby Madeline Miller; Black Riverby S.M. Hulse; The Invention of Natureby Andrea Wulf.

***

What’s next? I’m going to keep reading, of course. These two years of trying to read a book a week have reignited a habit in me that was last seen in middle school. My inner bookworm has re-emerged.

In fourth grade we had some kind of reading contest, challenging the class above or below us (I can’t remember which) to see who could read the most books in a month. This brought out my competitive side and while some of my friends struggled to read one book because they just found it boring, I read at least one per day (these were middle-grade books, so nothing too dense)– it was partly because I wanted to win, but it totally wasn’t a chore. It was like getting a prize for something you wanted to do anyway.

Now, I have 11 books on the “to-be-read” shelf of my bookcase, and my Amazon wishlist is hundreds of books long. It would take me well over a decade to read them all at my current rate, even without the many that I add based on new releases each year. I’ll never get there. But I’m excited for the ones I do read.

Want to track your own reading in a systematic way, for example to make sure you really are reading women authors? The website BookRiot has a nice spreadsheet you can use (and adapt).

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