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My Favorite Books of 2018

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posted by Kirstie Shanley alias kirstiecat on Sunday 6th of January 2019 04:03:26 PM

I read 255 books last year and I tried to be as diverse as possible in what I read. Many of these books were not released in 2018 (some were) but just reflect what I did read in the past year. So far, I have read three books this year and hope to read 300 by the end of the year. The photograph of the above sculpture was taken by myself yesterday at The Cultural Center in Chicago and is entitled In the Center There Were Librarians and other Gestures. The artist for this photograph is Susan Giles. I worked on the following list for the last week so sorry I haven’t been as active lately. I hope you all had a wonderful New Year’s! 1.Call Me Zebra by Azareen Van Der Vliet Oloomi I saw this Iranian American Author speak at Printer’s Row this year and talk about her journey writing this novel, a really strong sense of the beauty and power of words along with the loss of human life in this one. It has reminiscences of the honoring of literature that often come about in Rabih Alameddine and Salman Rushdie’s work. 2.Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life by Yiyun Li This has been classified as an autobiographical nonfiction memoir but it is so much more than this. It is endlessly philosophical about depression and suicide and an examination of life fully lived as well. It is very different than her fiction and not for casual readers who don’t want to feel deeply. Still, she has given us a gift of insight not just into herself but into the nature of humanity and that cannot be taken for granted. In the few months that have followed, I have thought back on this book and what a strong presence it made on my psyche. Yiyun Li is a Chinese American and I’m so grateful for immigrants like her adding to the canon of books we have available in this country to help make us better Americans and, more importantly, better humans. 3.We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie I read all of Adichie’s books this year and they are all very worthwhile to read. So many tackle issues of racism within American as well as in Africa (you have to remember, what is mass marketed overseas to Africans are shows like COPS that reinforce racism against African Americans). There seems to be so many strong Nigerian authors emerging at the moment and Adichie is the best of the best. Though some might not consider this text to be a full nonfiction work, I still consider it the most important one I read. Adichie explores in such insightful ways how sexism hurts not only women but men also in our current world. It’s something I would recommend for everyone (male, female, or gender neutral) to read or watch the lecture of. 4.Born Bright: A Young Girl's Journey from Nothing to Something in America by Nicole C. Mason Ta-Nehisi Coates has so much to offer American in terms of understanding racism in all facets and the insights of someone who is an extremely intelligent man trying to raise a family in America. Nicole C. Mason does one thing better, though, which is to say she offers more solutions. As an African American woman, she has had to deal with her own challenges in terms of extreme poverty and racism and has overcome this to become a professor at Georgetown University and Executive Director of the Center for Research and Policy in the Public Interest at the New York Women's Foundation. Her insights into our current institutionalized racism and classism are something everyone should be educated on. 5. My Favorite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris I only read five graphic novels this year, which is somewhat surprising considering I read about ten the year before that. Although I am not opposed to the classic superhero type of graphic novels, I’d really rather read more autobiographical type of novels or those that explore the human psyche more than anything else. My favorite graphic novel of all time is by David B. called Epileptic (French). I tend to enjoy the really creepy Tim Lane, Daniel Clowes, or Black Hole by Charles Burns. Anyway, this is also somewhat creepy but, even more so, richly artistic. The way that the drawings match the words in terms of both content and quality is truly a wondrous experience. This is a book you’ll delve into and have a hard time putting down and it is thick and fulfilling. It also takes place in the 1960s in the north side neighborhood of Uptown, Chicago, which is really interesting to see depicted. I love the scenes from the streets and the Art Institute especially. Within the book, the protagonist grapples with disease, murder, racism, sexual identity, and even the Holocaust. Apparently, this is only Book One and there might possibly be Book Two to look forward to later on this year. In any case, a really rich delight. 6.Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor I read many books by Nnedi Okorafor this year but this one was by far my favorite…fantastical Nigerian Science Fiction at it’s finest. This book is intensely creative and extremely well written. It will make you wonder why Okorafor isn’t celebrated in every household in America but I think it’s well acknowledged that racism and sexism within the science fiction genre go hand in hand. Those who really pride themselves on appreciating the genre, however, better start getting woke fast. Reading this one might be a good place to begin. 7.We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates It isn’t enough to really consider yourself to be aware of racism in America and its history because, in order to be truly understanding of this, you have to know how racism has truly pervaded every aspect of America in an institutionalized way both historically and in modern times. I am pro-reparations and what I mean by that is that white people have stolen and oppressed people of color for so long that they are owed by us in so many ways. That is one reason why I don’t vote for white people any longer or donate to their campaigns. In any case, the racism that James Baldwin wrote about so eloquently in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s is still happening today and explored thoroughly and with in depth research by Coates. If you think racism is obsolete in America, you will have much to learn from this book of essays. 8.Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler Octavia is another African American science fiction author that should be a cherished household name. She passed away when she was only in her 50s but she gave the world some of the most imaginative texts. I read quite a few of her novels this year but I liked both Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents best. It takes place in an apocalyptic America and, in the second of the series is a “leader” who takes over who literally screams “Make America Great Again” as his mantra, which is super creepy in its prophetic warning. I also love this concept she explores as a “sharer” who feels extreme and even physical empathy and a development of a new religion. Also really interesting to note is that Octavia was diagnosed with Dyslexia as a child….what a strong author she became despite it! 9.Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada/ Rudolf Wilhelm Friedrich Ditzen I hate to put a white male author’s book on my list. I really do and, unfortunately, this is the first of three. But, in any case, Rabih Alameddine recommended this when I saw him at Printer’s Row Book Festival in Chicago and, as I love his novels, I felt I had to give it a chance. I admit, I didn’t regret it. This story is loosely based on the true story during the Holocaust of a man and a woman who decide they are going to write anti-fascism postcards against the Nazis. It was originally published in 1947 and takes place in Berlin. Fallada himself was not Jewish but led a really difficult life where quite early on, he was meant to die in a supposed duel, a suicide pact made with his male lover. His male lover died and he obviously did not. In any case, mainly this book is about the idea of resistance in any small or large way, even if it seems small, silly, or gets you killed. To resist fascism is to reaffirm your own humanity and the protagonists the Hampels can’t exist any other way. I have to admit, I found myself crying several times while reading this book, especially considering the relevance to modern day times. Alameddine commented on how silly and stupid it was for this couple in real life and in this book to do this…they knew they would be caught….but they managed to distribute hundreds of postcards that put in mind inklings of doubt into the German population about what Hitler was doing and that is extremely important. These days, we just tweet about how much we hate Trump but, back then, there were some who assumed the vast majority of the population approved of the human rights violations the Nazis were committing….which makes me wonder if perhaps social media could prevent another Holocaust. 10.Confessions by Kinae Minato This is some grueling psychological craziness that you will go through but man is it ever worth it. Kinae Minato was an actual teacher in Japan before she decided to write the kind of horror that will haunt you. This one is mainly about the evil that children can commit and the parents that condone and/or encourage it…and, it’s about a society that subconsciously promotes it too or, as in American society, gives attention/press to those who harm and confuse others into thinking this is the best way to get noticed. It’s so much more than that, though, and it will mess you up for days. I read Haruki Murakami’s Killing Commendatore this year as well and this was far more effective in my opinion but this is also about vengeance and made me think of the Chan Wook Park series on the subject (though, he’s Korean vs. Japanese which is an important distinction). 11. Jesse Ball: Census There is no one who can write quite like Jesse Ball. It is almost as if it has been removed from time and space completely and exists in its own strange universe. And yet, it is not science fiction…it’s more like humanistic fiction…like a deep feeling realistic fiction. Though Census isn’t my favorite of his novels (my favorite is actually The Curfew followed by Silence Once Begun as a close second), it is as always well worth reading. There’s such a beautiful sense of this relationship of a father and son as they collect information about strangers…an almost fairy tale esque sort of feeling at times but not quite. It’s difficult to explain except to say that each moment of the story seems one in your life you’d cherish and therefore each word is a pleasure, which is odd considering that some categorize it as Dystopian Fiction. I guess one person’s Dystopia is another’s Utopia. 11.Colossus of New York by Colson Whitehead Such a beautiful poetic and still realistic ode to a city that is always teeming with lives and energy. I’m originally from upstate NY (Rochester) and have visited NYC a few times…what exists there has changed over time but some things to remain more constant. Whitehead captures the essence in a way that is true and in a way that so many others have failed to. I’ve read quite a few of his books this year and have enjoyed all of them but none quite as much as this one. Although, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention he wrote an awesome zombie book, Zone One, that was excellent to read around Halloween. 13. Alice Walker It’s very difficult to talk about Alice Walker at this time when there are so many accusations of anti-semitism. This is nothing new, in fact, as she’s supported Palestine and traveled there to learn about what has been happening to its people for a very long time. She has witnessed suffering and she has written poetry and accounts where she separates the beliefs of what she sees as radical Zionists and those who are Jewish who don’t advocate for suffering. Still, I don’t think it’s ok that she’s defending David Icke’s work and I am very concerned about that. Earlier this year, before all of the controversy surfaced, I had the chance to see Alice Walker as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival and so I read just about everything I possibly could beforehand from novels to poetry to essays. Alice Walker married a Jewish man and had a child with him in 1967…that’s probably important for people to consider. She has also done a ton of work to stop the practice of female genital mutilation in Africa. Her message is solidly one of peace and equality in the Middle East and I hope nothing has changed in that regard. In any case, I am not going to devote multiple entries to Alice Walker but if you are interested in reading her work and deciding for yourself, your local library should have many selections without you needing to look any further. I greatly enjoyed the novels Meridian, By the Light of My Father’s Smile and the essay collections Cushion in the Road and Anything We Love Can Be Saved as my favorites. I’ll also remind people to realize that reading something objectively will not make you a harmful or hateful person. Be ready to learn from all perspectives, to reject some and consider others. That’s what being an intelligent human being is all about. Still, I don’t support anti-semitism or any other discrimination against humans and I hope the world continues to become a more accepting and loving place. 14.We Crossed a Bridge and it Trembled: A collection of the voices of Syrian Immigrants by Wendy Pearlman Now more than ever it is very important to read about what is happening to this group of persecuted people and understand their perspectives…it is easy to see the anger and desperation, the sadness and sometimes bitterness in these lives but, at the same time, you connect with them on some small level. I can’t begin to imagine how it feels or how badly the US has messed up in this situation. I only know I care and am so very saddened and helpless by it all. Reading their thoughts and about their life experiences is the very least one can do. 15.Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue Such an interesting book about hard working immigrants who are doubly affected by the economic crash in 2008 and who go to such great lengths to stay in America, a country which is basically ruining their very lives. This book really shows a strong sense of the immigrant struggle and the cluelessness of the white people around them in NYC but it has a strong storyline and sense of characters besides that which makes it all the more compelling. 16. I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez This one is so much more than a coming of age story. It combines culture and criticism of contemporary society and has such a witty writing style and takes place in Chicago, which made it an even better read for me. I think there’s an interesting exploration of what is expected of immigrants and their children and also what immigrants are expected to like and the conflict that comes from when those aren’t in sync. Very interesting read and also a very engaging writing style. 17.Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie This book is really something…it’s a little about politics and family but it’s a great deal about love in this modern world, in all its messed up ways. It’s hard for me to talk about this book without giving away the ending, which has still stayed with me after many months but let’s just say it’s very effective and leaving a lasting image with you. Technically, this book is a reworking of Sophocles’ Antigone (it’s been too long since I read this actually) but with a modern retelling that includes the current political climate and ISIS. She won the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year for this book. 18. An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon This science fiction novel combines a little bit of everything-class struggle, race struggle, and sexual identity struggle along within the overarching power struggle of what is written as postmodern space based slavery with an incredibly strong female protagonist leading the revolution. Well written and a fantastic addition to the genre. 19. All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung This is an autobiographical novel based around Chung’s experience being adopted by a white family living in Oregon and explores both the nature of adoption and all of the difficulty that comes from that as well as racism and racial identity. It’s really interesting to see both an evolution of her thoughts and the way she interacts with her biological and adopted families. It’s possible that no one who was not adopted could understand how it feels just like it’s possible that a white person could never truly understand what it is like to be of another race. However, this book is quite honest, revealing, and a perspective that should be learned from. 20.Mischling by Affinity Konar Affinity comes from a Jewish perspective with a Polish ancestry. This novel is based on some of the texts and non fictions surrounding the Holocaust based on twin studies and experiments. I’ve read quite a few books about the Holocaust but I didn’t realize myself the extend of these twin studies and ended up looking up a couple of the names of the most heinous individuals in this book. Affinity rightfully so pulls you into the characters, these two female twins in particular, and their unique bond as well as the overall bond of their family. Because the Nazis wanted to do scientific experiments on identical twins, parents were encouraged to give them up so that they wouldn’t be killed. However, the torture they endured (sometimes also leading to death) was worse than death in some instances. The worst of humanity can be found within these pages…it’s a harrowing read but I also learned from it and feel texts like this are important to remind us that we can never repeat this history. 21. One Amazing Thing by Chitra Divakaruni I loved the concept of a group of people trapped in a situation where, though they are total strangers and come from very different backgrounds, must trust each other with their life stories. And, what really comes through is the richness of a life and of diverse experiences and the nature of their memories. This is so far the only thing I have read by Divajaruni but I look forward to reading more of her work this year! 22.Reality is Not What it Seems by Carlo Rovelli Rovelli is an Italian theoretical physicist and this book is a great deal about the history of the science evolving as well as about time and black holes. I have to admit, there was quite a bit I learned but also quite a bit I couldn’t quite wrap my head around. What the book left me feeling is oddly calm, however. Because, since Trump became president, I’ve had a real strong sense that we are all trapped in a black hole of some sort and this basically confirmed some of my suspicions. Now, if I could just get to a different alternative reality where someone like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is president….perhaps, we’re at least headed in the correct direction, though. 23.Electric Arches by Eve L. Ewing It was such an honor to see Ewing speak as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival this year and such a wonderful thing for Chicago that this extremely talented poet, graphic novelist, and nonfiction writer resides here. This collection of poetry really speaks to growing up on Chicago’s south side in the 1990s but it’s so much more than that. It’s an important collection of poetry not just because of Eve L. Ewing’s voice but because of the strength of her words and imagery. My only disappointment with this is that it wasn’t longer so I could keep reading. Eve L. Ewing also just published a nonfiction work, Ghosts in the Schoolyard, covering the closure of 50 public schools that Rahm Emanuel imposed as one of his very first acts as mayor. This is probably one of the most important books that was written this year but I haven’t read it yet (which is horrible, I know). It’s a little too close to home for me as I remember with horror all of the striking and the aftermath from this from the fake community meetings (literally set up by Charter school profiteers to gather information) I attended to all of the marches in the streets. In one of the most horrible things, the “welcoming schools” that were taking in students from the closing schools had no information on the students with disabilities showing up. Working with students who are nonverbal and have severe autism, some of these students couldn’t even tell us their names and so we couldn’t look them up in the system to even know their allergies and medical precautions. Most people are familiar with making children cross gang lines, I realize, which is also horrific, but this was something that also haunts me still today. In any case, people need to realize how damaging to a community it is when public schools are not supported and kids are placed in danger. 24.Feel Free by Zadie Smith I am really impressed by the range of topics these essays address, though I would have loved more political essays. Zadie Smith does have an insightful essay on Brexit but she also talks a great deal about her parents, Italy, and such a huge variety of art between paintings and films as well as meeting famous actors and musicians. Never before did I think I would come across a selection of essays about Anomalisa and Get Out for example and also she wrote an essay on Christian Marclay’s The Clock. There’s something here for everyone, basically. 25.Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada I felt haunted and a dream like state reading this book written from the perspective of a polar bear. Between zoos and circuses and effortless wandering, it seems we are all, in some ways, polar bears, meditating on existence itself. I felt like I could be a human being and a polar bear at the same time. 26. Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak This novel is a thrilling mix of the personal and the political by this Turkish author. It really looks at the ideas behind religion and class struggle in an insightful way with a riveting plot that goes back and forth between present day and when the main protagonist was going to college. 27 .God Loves Haiti by Dimitry Elias Léger I really hope we get more from Léger as this is story telling at its finest….an earthquake, a love story, a hideout, and a sense o heavy life choices with different protagonists each strong affected by the earthquake that occurs here. It’s interesting to use the earthquake that happens at the very beginning as the stimulus to drive the rest of the plot but it works well here. One senses that, earthquake or no, each life choice matters greatly. 28.Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala This novel does such a good job of exploring white hypocrisy as well as highlighting the difficulties of being an immigrant in America and being gay in a culture that is homophobic. The male protagonist in this story is forced to go back to Nigeria in order to be freed from his homosexual “affliction” but has to deal with his own troubles back in America in terms of racial profiling and police brutality. This is a story that could happen today easily and we should all make sure it doesn’t. 29. The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery This affected me more than I thought it would. I am vegan, sure, but I’ve never really been all that fascinated by marine life (nor have I ever wanted to eat any kind of seafood) and I really felt the strong sense of empathy between Sy and the octopuses she writes about as well as the journey she takes overall in terms of understanding them. The empathy she feels and the strong sense of personality and intelligence she senses should not be ignored. I found myself by the end of this wondering aloud how I often do when it comes to many animals…how could anyone eat such a lovely living creature? 30. The Secrets Between Us by Thrity Umrigar All of Umrigar’s books are fantastic and this isn’t even my favorite of hers to be honest-The World We Found is the one I like best. But, this is still a fantastic story set in India this time about making unlikely friends and survival, it’s about living under a rigid caste system as well and hints at some changes taking place slowly but surely with time and access to higher education. It’s also about apologies and redemption. Btw, Thrity is a wonderful speaker to see if you get the chance. Honorable Mentions: Short story collections I loved this year include Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others, N.K. Jemisin’s How Long ‘TIL Black Future Month? Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang, and Revenge by Yoko Ogawa. I also liked most of Carmen Maria Muchado’s Her Body and Other Parties. I also found Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How it Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions informative and valuable but I thought it needed to be much longer. Hanif Abdurraqib’s They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us essays on music was also really well written and offered interesting insights into music and culture and W. Kamau Bell’s Awkward Thoughts had me thinking about race in a different way AND had me, at times laughing with his very geeky but cool sense of humor. I also really loved the graphic novel, Saga.

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