Happy New Year! While some are spending the first day of 2019 making plans and resolutions for the new year, I thought I’d take a moment to recap my reading for 2018.
This past year was marked by a number of challenging changes: my mom passed away in January, my entire group at work resigned between March and early April, and I spent months applying for new jobs before relocating from Boston to the Denver area for a new position in October. With all these changes (plus extensive travels to Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Germany, and Iceland), I figured my reading (and blogging) would be sporadic.
Yet, in 2018, I read 97 books, which is less than previous years but 28 more than I read in 2017. And, after two years of fits and starts with book blogging, 2018 was the year I finally returned to blogging and stuck with it for the full year. Other highlights include:
- I read 15 books off my list for 20 Books of Summer, the first time I participated in this challenge.
- I kept with my typical 60% female and 40% male authors ratio — 59.7% of the books I read in 2018 were written by women.
- 47% of the books I read were ones I’d purchased. Maybe I’m finally making progress on breaking my habit of buying books and then letting them languish unread for years?
Looking back over the year, I would say it was year marked by a number of very strong selections — 51 of the books I read received a rating of four or more on GoodReads. These selections were pretty evenly scattered across the year; five of the ten I named as favorites were read between January and June.
Without further ado, here is my list of ten favorites from 2018 arranged in alphabetical order by author’s last name and linked to my full review, if available.
Picked up by the Soviet police for looting, Lev is convinced he will be shortly executed. Lev and another man named Kolya are pulled from the jail cell and presented to a high ranking NKVD official, who promises to let them go is they secure a dozen eggs for his daughter’s wedding cake. Under siege by the Nazis in 1942, there is no food in Leningrad (formerly and once again known as Saint Petersburg), but Kolya is confident the two of them will locate the eggs, guiding Lev through Leningrad and the outlying countryside to find the price of their freedom. When I read this book back in July, it had been quite some time since I read a book straight through. But I found it impossible to put Benioff’s novel down thanks to the pacing and a surprisingly charming relationship between his characters.
In the Woods by Tana French (2007)
I read French’s Dublin Murder Squad series out of order, and started with the second book in the series, The Likeness, back in 2012 to mixed results. But this novel — the first in a loosely drawn together series — is one of the best murder mysteries I ever read. I was kept in the dark from beginning to end, and every red herring seemed like a completely logical clue to follow. The novel follows a detective named Ryan as he is dispatched to a suburb of Dublin to investigate the murder a young girl — the same suburb where two of his best friends disappeared in 1984. The story interweaves the past and the present, and utilizes Ryan as unreliable narrator to foster lingering doubt throughout.
In 1914, twenty-six year old William Tully, a Social Reformist living in England, marries Griselda the suffragette, and the two sojourn to Belgium for a month long honeymoon. Hoping to take a break from their political activism and enjoy their time together, William and Griselda instruct their friends and family not to write to them or send them English-language newspapers. Neither of them ever considered Europe would end up going to war. Their naivety is lambasted by Hamilton, who puts her characters through a living hell. She is unflinching in her portrayal of firing squads, brutal captors, and the desperation of refugees. But what I liked best about this novel is how she slowly infuses her characters with shades of grey; they lose their black and white view of the world and her black and white portrayal of them.
Offshore by Madeline Gleeson (2016)
Gleeson’s book examining Australia’s policy of offshore processing for migrants and asylum seekers didn’t receive a five star rating from me on GoodReads when I finished reading it in June. But the lessons and critiques from her work have taken on new urgency in my mind as my country, the United States, continues to change its policy towards immigrants in cruel fashions. After the public outcry towards separating minors from their parents at the border, the Trump administration has decided to pay the Mexico government to detain migrants headed towards America as their asylum claims are processed. This is very similar to the policy Australia has used, and Gleeson does a tremendous job of documenting all the issues with said policy.
Subtitled “Dispatches from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq”, Glidden’s graphic memoir recounts her travels through the Middle East with two friends reporting on the plight of refugees from the Iraq War. Rounding out the group is a childhood friend of one of the journalists named Dan. A former US Marine who served as a convoy driver during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Dan is returning to the region for the first time in the hopes of learning more about the people whose country he and his fellow Marines invaded. Glidden is there to report on the reporters; she wants to learn what journalism is and how journalists operate in their quest to tell a particular story. The questions Glidden poses are all ones that have become increasingly important as the idea of “fake news” and the chase of “click bait” undermines the work of journalists in America and abroad.
2018 is the year I discovered Peirene Press, which largely publishes short novels translated to English from other European languages. The Dead Lake wasn’t my first Peirene, but it was the strongest of the eleven I read in 2018. (Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Friedrich Christian Delius being a very, very close second.) This novella is set in a remote region of present-day Kazakhstan where the Soviets tested their nuclear weapons and follows Yerzhan, a young man who looks like a child, as he recounts his childhood in this region. The title — and Yerzhan’s short stature — comes from the pools of radioactive waste left around the Kazakh landscape.
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (2014)
A sweeping saga of two brothers set in India and, later, in America, Lahiri’s novel examines how difficult life in exile can be. Exile from one’s homeland. Exile from one’s family. While one brother leaves for America to pursue academic success, the other becomes involved in a political movement that the government violently oppresses. In my review, I wrote “This is not a warm book; it will not sweep you away with descriptions or emotions. Yet the stark and, yes, haunting way that Lahiri writes builds up the emotional connection over time. The conclusion, which may have felt contrite under another author, feels natural.”
Subtitled “My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad”, Mekhennet’s memoir follows her desire to understand why a few Muslims around the world carry out a violent form of jihad against the West. Their actions do not jive with the version of Islam that Mekhennet was raised with in Morocco and, later, Germany. But Mekhennet’s desire grew not out a desire to prove which version of Islam is correct, but rather out hearing a woman whose husband was killed on 9/11 ask why no one told her or her fellow Americans that there were people out there who hate them. To answer this question, Mekhennet traveled around the world as a journalist, and each chapter of her memoir recounts particular year and a particular event that Mekhennet covered, including the lead up to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, the 2015 attacks in Paris, and the 2016 Brussels bombing.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1963)
A fictionalized account of Plath’s own life, this classic novel follows Esther through the life of contradictions that are offered to a young woman in the 1950s and 60s. Esther is introduced to a life of glamour in New York during a summer writing internship, but is told by the program directors and her own mother that being a wife and mother is the life she should aspire to. Any career she could have should be created with the expectation that she will gladly leave the work force after marrying one of the neighborhood boys. This realization deepens Esther’s depression until she decides suicide is the only answer. Plath’s chosen topic is depressing, but the way she explores the deterioration of Esther’s mental state is masterfully done.
On January 3, 1961, a nuclear reactor in the small Idaho town of Idaho Falls melted down. It is the only nuclear disaster on U.S. soil to result in a fatality — three, actually — and yet the event has been largely overshadowed by the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania on March 28, 1979. Williams’ fictional account of the accident in Idaho Falls follows Paul Collier, an Army serviceman assigned to work at the CR-1 nuclear reactor, and his wife, Nat. Williams’ alternates between the points of view of Paul, Nat, and a third character as the impending disaster unfolds. While I’ve grown tired of this storytelling structure, Williams employees it beautifully to draw out the tension at home and at the reactor. I highly recommend the audiobook version.