My 2019 Books

Week 79

I read twenty-one books in 2019. I didn’t have a particular focus or goal when it came to genre, but I did end up reading some Japanese classics, my thoughts being that I could strike up small talk with my students or coworkers. Overall, it was a year with a good mix of styles. However, I started 2019 with one of the most reviled authors in American literature—Ayn Rand. 

A gift from a friend, I began reading The Fountainhead in December and finished it in January of 2019. It was my first time reading Rand, and I was wary of my prejudices against her. All I knew is that admiring Rand’s philosophy was akin to ridicule from certain circles. After reading The Fountainhead I understand why she is ridiculed so. I began to write a full review after I finished the book but deleted it because I felt like my hate of Rand and her philosophy seeped too much into the writing, turning my arguments into a rant instead of thoughtful commentary. It was painful to get through, to say the least.

Grounded on Rand’s philosophy called “objectivism,” the book centers on an unlikable main character and his unflinching devotion to build things his own way. Objectivism’s main tenet is that man’s principal purpose if the pursuit of happiness and achievement, according to Rand. And she also argued that the only system she sees this philosophy possible is in laissez-faire capitalism. Uh oh. We’re already off to a shaky start. If Rand’s philosophy depends on a system proven to be destroying the world as we know it and responsible for decades of collective human suffering, I don’t see it going very far. And that’s before we get to the arguments whether or not people are capable of love and compassion, a couple of emotions that make no appearance in The Fountainhead. 

All in all, terrible book—would only recommend to someone trying to understand their local conservative/libertarian ostracized youth’s argumentative thinking. Then you can make even more fun of them. 

I’ve tried to get a taste of some basic Japanese literature ever since I landed in Japan. It hasn’t disappointed! I received Jun’ichirō Tanazaki’s In Praise of Shadows from a friend in the beginning of the year and grasped a better understanding of Japanese architecture and interior design. When I moved here I wondered why there were so many spaces with no access to outside light. Tanazaki’s arguments of the calming, serene powers of shadows made me feel more comfortable living in my apartment. Natsume Soseki’s Botchan, a classic taught in middle schools around the country, turned out to be the best book I read in 2019. A simple plot with straightforward characters, the novel is charming and funny throughout. Kokoro, also by Soseki, is a different tale. Centered around the relationship between a college student and an older man, the themes of honesty and friendship that appear in Botchan are still there but in a deeper, mournful manner. 

The other Japanese classic I read was Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata. This was more in style with the classics I’m used to—dense and difficult to parse in some parts but undeniably mesmerizing from beginning to end. It’s a quiet book. Snow and tragedy are linked, and characters are victims to their own loneliness. Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage achieved a similar tone to Kawabata’s classic. It was my first Murakami (I tried 1Q84 a few years ago to much failure) and I’m looking forward to my second. 

Two other novels related to my attempt to introduce myself to Japanese literature were Never Let Me Go and A Tale for the Time Being. Both of these can be considered English literature, but each has a connection to Japan. Never Let Me Go is a novel about the human condition and our relationships with others. It’s written by Kazuo Ishiguro, the Japanese-born 2017 Nobel Prize laureate. He moved to the United Kingdom when he was five and didn’t return to Japan until thirty years later, but he’s talked in interviews about the effect his childhood memories and growing up in a Japanese household have touched his writings. I was interested. Never Let me Go was beautiful—a horrifying story that brings you to death and back. 

Ozeki’s novel was a cross between a memoir and fiction. Ozeki and her husband are characters in the novel. She becomes linked to a young girl from Japan after finding a series of letters that wash up on shore in a bottle. The letters are addressed to the finder and recount the experience of a Japanese-American girl moving to live in Japan for the first time. It’s a big book, with a broad set of themes, experimental styles, and ideas; it sometimes tries to cover too much ground for its own good but still comes out being a good narrative on the immigrant experience and modern Japanese culture. 

Science fiction is an important genre for me. It has the power to coalesce things like environmental, immigrant, class, racial, gender, and political issues into one consumable narrative. It’s a great vehicle for dismantling the power structures around us and imagining a better life. Or sometimes it’s good to give us a glimpse of where we’re headed. 

I read N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season right after Rand. It was a much needed change of pace. The story takes place in a world plagued by natural disasters that wipe large swaths of humanity from the earth time and time again, leaving little chance to plant a working civilization anywhere. It ties together issues that I mentioned and is a joy to read. I read The Fifth Season’s sequel, The Obelisk Gate, last year too and it continued the same ideas while enlarging the setting. 

I finally crossed Dune by Frank Herbert off my list after starting it senior year of college. It was a thrill up until the end where it loses its foot on the story and sort of nosedives. But its legacy and impact shouldn’t be understated. I can see how it inspired a whole generation of SF writers. My favorite SF piece of the year was Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation. What surprised me was the horror in the novel. There were moments with visceral resonance that stayed in my mind for the duration of the read. I enjoyed the first book, but I’m not sure if I’ll try the other two parts of the trilogy. It felt like a standalone story. 

Niel Gaiman’s Norse Mythology was a very easy introduction to the topic of… Norse Mythology. Gaiman opens a door so that anyone, regardless of their knowledge of Thor or Odin, can digest an overview of the mythos. If you want a better introduction, however, the 2018 video game God of War by Santa Monica Studio is head and shoulders above this collection of short stories! 

U.S. foreign intervention policy has been an unmitigated disaster since before I was born. And Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood and a Story of Return by Marjane Satrapiis a growing-up comic memoir about a girl that faces the repercussions of decisions made before her life ever began. With Iranian-U.S. tensions high right now it’s important to know that the U.S. government’s interests are not aligned with the Iranian people. As it stands, there are people in power gushing at the idea of a war with Iran who have only profits and a god-complex to satisfy. Persepolis is a window at the destruction that lands wherever U.S. imperialist forces take a sniff, with the 1953 CIA-backed coup serving as a starting point in explaining the rocky relationship between the two countries. In the end, the core of this story is the trajectory of a girl’s life with political turmoil as the main backdrop. 

The other non-fiction piece I read this year was James M. McPherson’s Battlecry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. It was a colossus nearing 1,000 pages. It’s a meticulously researched book with immense detail given to major battles and minor skirmishes alike. The major takeaway from this book is that the root cause of the American Civil War was slavery. One can argue all they want about the economical or cultural differences between the south and the north, but these arguments pale in comparison to the rot that was slavery. This country’s foundation has not recovered, and I wonder if it ever will in my lifetime. 

I began watching a lecture series on YouTube called “The American Novel since 1945.” It’s from the early 2010s and is taught by Dr. Amy Hungerford from Yale University. The lectures have been interesting. They introduced me to Richard Wright’s memoir Black Boy, Flannery O’Connor’s religious odyssey Wise Blood, Jack Kerouac’s seminal On The Road, VladimirNabokov’s masterpiece Lolita, J.D. Salinger’s gentle and compassionate Franny and Zooey, and John Barth’s experimental narrative Lost in the Funhouse. 

My challenge this year is to read fifty books. I want to learn more about politics, particularly Marxism. I have a lot of hope for the world this year. A good person could potentially become President of the United States for the first time in my lifetime. And I want to contribute to the discourse. The more informed and organized we become, the better equipped we’ll be to stand against the people that wish to keep the world in a state of paralysis. 

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