X-List: A Year of Magical Reading
I think it was Stephen King who once wrote: “Books are a uniquely portable magic.” This year, I made a commitment with myself to read, and to read furiously. Reading – plus a reinvigorated passion at work, a rekindled interest in origami, and a newfound hobby in kickboxing (more on that when I feel like it) – somewhat rejuvenated me.
All that aside, I think my taste in reading has also somewhat evolved. “Dune” and “Lord of the Rings” are still up there when it comes to things that make me happy, and there was some catching up to do with Terry Pratchett’s universe after years of not reading it. I still enjoy the classics – Dumas, Goethe, Beowulf – but this year was particularly special. Enjoyable, even; lends peace to the chaos.
So much so that overshooting Goodreads Reading Challenge goals is probably one of the best things I did for myself this year.
Without further ado, here are ten of my favorite reads this year. Most of them are a little old: methinks that some of the more recent books I read still need the test of time (except for a few).
Here we go!
Robert Olen Butler, “Had A Good Time: Stories from American Postcards”
Robert Olen Butler was a rather interesting surprise for this year: I just picked this book out from the fiction section out of curiosity, and man, was I impressed. It’s like a master class in writing exercises: Butler takes greetings and messages from the back of old postcards, and weaves stories about them: usually about the slices of old America we in here are so used to hearing just snippets of. The stories are a mixed bag of topics (and postcards) on everything from war to immigration, to a particularly poignant love story around tuberculosis. This is a brilliant keeper of a book.
Roland Barthes, “A Lover’s Discourse”
Barthes is up there as one of my favorite authors of all time. What I loved about “A Lover’s Discourse” was the raw emotion in it. There’s some academic jargon, but when you get to the root of it, Barthes’s fragments of love and heartbreak and absence draw so deeply from the well of human emotion. The language is moving, the insight so incisive, the fragments at the very precipice of charming self-destruction. It is Barthes, I think, at his most human and accessible. I’d dare say: this is the most beautiful book I have read this year.
Sandra Cisneros, “The House on Mango Street”
Growing up around SRA kits and Holt Elements of Literature readers (those big thick ones sold in rummage sales, usually donated by American schools), I’m sort of familiar with Sandra Cisneros. “The House on Mango Street” is quite an old book, but the storytelling still has that recent tone and flavor to it. The book is made up of bite-sized stories, but situate the narrator (and the author) in a unique position that sort of define Chicana identity for the young reader. Easy to read from cover to cover, and quite deep and relevant for something “intermediate.”
Monique Lange, “Piaf: A Biography”
I adore (or is that j’adore) Edith Piaf. Having not watched the biopic starring Marion Cotillard (which I hear is a fantastic film), I read two Piaf books this year. This one, in particular, is so moving: detailing the life of France’s “Little Sparrow,” from her humble beginnings singing in the streets of Paris, to her rise as worldwide superstar, to her eventual downfall. If you like biographies, this is a must-have and a must-read.
Elie Wiesel, “Night”
This isn’t the first time I read “Night,” but this is the first time that I read it outside of required reading. In the world of Holocaust literature, misery lit, and stories that pierce through the heart and the stomach and every fiber of your being, this has got to be the finest example of it. It is sure to depress: nothing here seeks to uplift, or make examples of the “indomitable spirit.” The imagery is haunting, clear, even disturbing. I never, ever want to read this book again, if only because it has burned a hole into my memories that, like in Elizer’s words, “never shall I forget (that night).”
Ellen Raskin, “Figgs and Phantoms”
This was also a rather pleasant surprise. Lent and recommended to me by a friend, “Figgs and Phantoms” is one of those charming little books that’s full of quirky and fun things that also carry with it very meaningful lessons. It’s also very involving: set in an alternate world, like most Raskin pieces you have to really involve yourself in the work to solve a mystery. What I also loved about this book are the interesting illustrations Raskin herself made to involve the young reader into a world of Figgs and pop culture references and many of the classics I myself grew up reading. Plus, I kind of see myself in one of the characters. Rare find, must read.
Ryszard Kapuściński, “Shah of Shahs”
I never really figured how to pronounce Kapuściński’s’s name, but a book like “Shah of Shahs” is, to my mind, one of the the finest works of literary journalism (if there’s such a thing) ever written. The work is about the last Shah of Iran, Mohamed Reza Pahlavi, and the people of Iran forming the background of his rise and fall. Journalists would typically give you facts and tables and such. But what makes this work particularly compelling is the style by which Kapuściński does it: intensely and eloquently, whimsically and brightly. I’ve read quite a few travelogues and political things myself, but I have to agree with a friend here: Kapuściński is the best of them all.
Trevor Corson, “The Zen of Fish: The Story of Sushi, from Samurai to Supermarket”
Yes, this is a book about fish, but I loved the details of it. We’ve all seen sushi-related clips and documentaries – “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” for one – but anyone interested in the science and the business and the behind-the-scenes of sushi-slash-sashimi should read this book. The intricacies of sushi are well-explained from the lens of sushi masters and students in a sushi college. This does for the mouth what Peter Suskind’s “Perfume” does for the nose: it makes you hungry. It’s the kind of reading that makes you rethink your ideas about sushi, and having second thoughts about mixing your wasabi in with your soy sauce. Easy to read, informative, fun, and hunger-inducing.
Joan Didion, “The Year of Magical Thinking”
In terms of intense, depressing reading, this is another book I don’t mind not picking up again. Not because I didn’t like it, but because the feelings it induced were just so raw and painful. This is a book about grief – maybe a little privileged, but it is Joan Didion, after all – but it’s not about recovery or “indomitable spirits.” This is quite cerebral: a book which makes you think. But for all its intellectualizing and name-dropping and medical briefs, this memoir is sharp. It kind of makes you realize why she’s one of the best, and why the articulation of grief is made all the more difficult.
Haruki Murakami, “The Strange Library”
“Norwegian Wood” will still be my favorite Murakami, but for those new to the work of the man, “The Strange Library” should be your first. First, it’s a short story: it doesn’t intimidate. Second, it is – physically – the most beautiful book I’ve seen. Third, it’s weird and quirky Murakami at his finest: some of his works carry a lot of weight and feels (like “Norwegian Wood” and “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki”), but here’s the Murakami that’s worth introducing to the young adult reader engrossed in Wattpad and cancer-stricken young people. Without giving too much away, it’s a great brain-sucking romp that combines great writing with good book design.
They make for great holiday reads, I think. If you haven’t read these yet, I do recommend getting them. If you have, let me know what you think in the comments.