I read thirty-two books last year, up eleven from last year. I read some wonderful stories, with one particular book’s impact coming to mind. I included a good amount of recomendations from my friends last year, which turns out to be a good idea since they know your tastes. This is how the year went.
I started off with Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. I didn’t understand most of the book. I was lost almost the whole way and it felt like I was spinning around in circles as I kept flipping each page. The plot eludes me since it’s peripheral in the novel, but I enjoyed it for its characters, I think. I don’t really remember why I gave it 4 stars on Goodreads.
Luckily, my other fiction books hold stronger memories. The Bluest Eye was my first Toni Morrison. A story that presses your heart until it hurts, it’s rife with elegant prose plus a mix of unconventional structures. It’s a book about being a poor black girl in the U.S., and it left me wondering just exactly how much cruelty we allow to pass by us unnoticed. I also recommend listening to any Morrison interviews on YouTube. She had an incredible way of describing her work and explaining how it should be examined.
Close to The Bluest Eye in terms of aesthetic is Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, the most beautiful book I read last year. It’s a haunting novel about the meaning of familial bonds. At the center of the book is loneliness. I’ve never read loneliness described the way Robinson does in this novel. She uses very specific metaphors that inject light and shadows to represent what it feels like to be truly alone. I read this book in the beginning of March, just as the pandemic started to rear its head. Only fitting.
Continuing in the same genre, I read Shion Miura’s The Great Passage, a quirky love story about a group of people aiming to construct the best Japanese dictionary. Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse delivered with its stream of consciousness, shifting character perspective without a ripple in its lyrical prose. Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian was a bloody odyssey. Its main character is strong and sympathetic, but many often fall to the allure of the main antagonist, Judge Holden—a man whose descriptions depict him sometimes as Adam and sometimes as the devil, a trait that highlights the duality of humanity.
The most disappointing read of 2020 was Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami. The characters felt insipid and the story uninspired. This is the second Murakami book I read and it’s becoming clear he is an overrated author. But his western audience loves to read these depressingly boring novels and extract a sweeping interpretation of Japanese literature and culture. It’s not Murakami’s fault per se, but his novels are still bad. Two other books that couldn’t quite grasp my admiration were Ha Seong-nan’s Flowers of Mold and Kenji Miyazawa’s The Restaurant of Many Orders and Other Stories, both short story collections. The former is my first book translated from Korean. Its genre is the uncanny, that which looks familiar but is decidedly off. The latter novel’s main piece is a famous children’s story in Japan. Unfortunately, the translation made the whole story a little incomprehensible.
Fantasy didn’t disappoint (it rarely does). N.K. Jemisin’s The Stone Sky was a fitting end to The Broken Earth trilogy. The story never inflates beyond an adequate amount; everything is kept at a great scale. In Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, magical doors that transport you to different parts of the world suddenly appear around the globe. But that’s the extent of the fantasy. This novel’s appeal lies in the relationship between its two main protagonists and their desperate attempt to flee war and discrimination. I also read Ted Chiang’s Exhalation: Stories in a failed attempt to redo my experience reading The Paper Menagerie. It was good, but not as inspiring.
Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police lingers in my mind. It’s about a woman who lives on an island where people periodically wake only to realize that they’ve had parts of their memory erased. It’s a tremendous look at semiotics. The novel deals with the effect of the signifier and the signified being forcibly torn apart. I had heard a lot about George Orwell’s Animal Farm and it exceeded my expectations. It’s a wonderfully simple yet heavy treatise on power and tyranny. A must-read. In a similar dystopian flavor is Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. A friend lent me this. I found it too predictable at times and too on-the-nose with its arguments, but it kept me hooked nonetheless.
The best dystopian novel I read last year was the legendary Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower. The premise is simple: resources like water and fuel have become extremely scarce and climate change has altered the coasts, a future that’s looking more like our future as each year passes. Many have been forced to migrate, while some lucky people manage to build things resembling communities, which is better than living alone. The main protagonist is a smart and shrewd black girl. I can’t wait to read the sequel.
The funniest book of 2020 award goes to Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. I was intimidated at first by the fictional language used throughout the novel, but in the end I had a blast learning the vocabulary. I watched the movie with my droog after I finished the novel. The movie is an excellent accompaniment. Another silly book was Natsume Soseki’s I Am a Cat. It’s a book narrated by a cat. It’s a hefty book, but it’s not dry. It deals with the mundane, but it doesn’t read that way. Soseki’s novels have all been a wonder to read. Osamu Dazai, born a few years after I Am a Cat’s publication, is the author of the bleak novel No Longer Human. This book follows the life of a man on a downward spiral. It’s Japan’s second bestselling novel behind Soseki’s Kokoro. Suicide, rape, and addiction all play a center role in the novel. I didn’t enjoy it, but I glimpsed parts that reflect the merit of the literature.
Speaking of being no longer human brings to mind Philip Roth’s The Human Stain. It’s an Americana the delves into race and academia. It was good, and I can see why it’s taught in some university classes. Unfortunately I think it falls into typical pitfalls when it comes to portraying its female characters. And by pitfalls I mean obviously sexist portrayals: the jealous and neurotic rising star woman, and the calm, mysterious, and insightful janitor mistress. The novel takes itself too seriously.
Fortunately I read better novels written by women. I finally fully read Maxine Hong Kingston’s seminal The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts.I had only read part of it in college, so I wanted to get a better picture of it. One of the biggest criticisms of the book is that it’s not actually a memoir, and that it portrays Chinese-Americans through a colonized lens. While I agree with the latter, I can’t agree with the former. A memoir is more than a set of real-life events offered in a chronological order. A memoir can hold magic in it, as this memoir does. A memoir’s accounts don’t have to be vigorously verified down to the smallest detail, for whose memory can do that?
Mieko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs was a pleasant surprise. It’s divided into two parts, both of which have the same main character, a middle-aged woman dealing with her career and Japanese society’s strict expectations. The two parts are different enough that they feel like different novels (in Japan they were actually published as separate books).
I come now to my second favorite book of 2020: Yu Miri’s Tokyo Ueno Station. Physically small and coming in at only 180 pages, this is a tour-de-force. It’s set in Ueno Park, one of the most popular tourist spots in the Tokyo metropolis. This novel exposes the underbelly of the city and its desperate journey to prepare for the 2020 Olympics. A large number of homeless people have a semi-permanent living arrangement in Ueno Park. But as the Olympics draw closer and the Emperor pays a visit to the park, we see how the government treats this population and attempts to erase their existence. All of this is narrated by the ghost of a former homeless occupant. But we also follow the narrator’s life and see how many ordinary people in Japan end up in a situation that society turns its blind eye toward.
Some loose ends before I talk about the non-fiction I read last year: Jorge Luis Borge’s Ficciones was too tough for me to read in its original Spanish. I finished it but I feel like it eluded me. I might try it again in English. パパ・カレー (Papa’s Curry) by Miho Takeda is a children’s recipe book. I followed the instructions to make some curry and it came out edible. And I read Making Sense of Japanese: What the Textbooks Don’t Tell You by Jay Rubin. The title is self-explanatory.
The first non-fiction book I read last year was Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland. My weak memory can’t recall the major dates and events of The Troubles, but I was enthralled in Keefe’s depictions. A stunning recounting of people fighting for independence against the United Kingdom’s dirty paws. My friend lent me The Autobiography of Gucci Mane by Gucci Mane. I liked it. I read They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib. It’s a collection of essays on different songs, albums, and bands. It was a tiny bit too melodramatic in some of its essays, but mostly fun to read.
William F. Mitchell and Thomas Fazi’s Reclaiming the State: A Progressive Vision of Sovereignty for a Post-Neoliberal World was the most difficult book I read in 2020. It was rewarding, however, to slug through its arguments. The economic theories were hard to grasp (this was my first time reading about Modern Monetary Theory), but the book’s main argument holds strong: neoliberal austerity policy, aided by the state and its current political actors, has ravaged the world as we know it. It’s time we fight for an alternative. In the same vain is Alex S. Vitale’s The End of Policing. We give so much money, power, and trust to our police departments that it was terrifying to read Vitale’s breakdowns of how ineffective these institutions are at keeping us safe. “Defund the Police” is not just a catchy slogan. We have to work together to reimagine the meaning of policing.
Finally, my favorite book of 2020 was actually a book published in 2007: Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. If there is something that can be called a primer on the major things wrong with our government and economy, this is it. I learned a great deal from this book. From the U.S.’s toppling of left-leaning governments in Chile and Indonesia in the 1960s and 1970s, to the active hollowing out of our government’s capacity to serve its people, to the myriad ways workers have steadily lost their footing to corporations, this book has it all. This book is a must-read and an essential reference for your bookshelf.
I hope I can read even more books this year. I wanted to finish Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude by the end of last year, but it’s too good to speed through. If I had read it in 2020 it would probably be right next to The Shock Doctrine as my favorite book of the year. Now it’ll have a whole new slew of books to compete with in 2021.