Last year, in the absence of assigned reading from multiple literature modules, I started reading more. I suddenly had time to read titles that I had picked out or been recommended by friends, bestseller lists and the Instagram community.
Split into categories – the great (ones I loved and would recommend to nearly everyone), the good (ones I enjoyed but didn’t make my ‘top list’) and the OK (ones I liked but probably won’t think about again) – these are my 2018 reads.
A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea by Dina Nayeri
Eleven-year-old Saba Hafezi and her twin sister Mahtab are obsessed with American culture: the music, the magazines, and the television shows. When her mother and Mahtab leave for America, Saba cannot understand why she’s been left in Iran with her father. A beautiful, heartbreaking account of growing up in 1980’s Iran and the years that follow. It’s a story of friendship, maneuvering limited opportunities in post-revolutionary Iran, and the dream of a parallel life in the west.
Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker
I received a copy of Cork Dork as a gift, and was positively surprised by this non-fiction book about journalist-turned-sommelier-enthusiast Bianca Bosker. Deciding to leave her tech reporter job behind for a year spent getting to know the wine fanatics of NYC – from sommeliers who introduce her to exclusive blind wine tastings to neuroscience professors and experts in the mass production industry. I don’t know what impressed me most – to learn about the sommeliers that dedicate their time, careers and earnings to the art of drinking and serving wine, or Bosker who in a year went from drinking box wine to successfully completing advanced blind tastings (pinpointing grape variety, year and region of the wine). Read for an entertaining introduction to the world of wine – and the obsession people have with it.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
A new favorite classic. Having the novel narrated by a child – through the innocent, imaginative and proud eyes of six-year-old Scout – made the story easy to delve into, unlike some literary classics that were on my assigned reading list at university. The overarching storyline of the Tom Robinson trial, and particularly the focus on race in America, kept me immersed until the very end.
Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi
Ghana Must Go is a beautiful story about a family that has fallen apart, global identity (more accurately, Afropolitanism, as Selasi states in a notable essay), and how to put a broken family back together. When Kweku Sai suffers an unjust tragedy and, unable to face his wife and four children, leaves without as much as a goodbye, the Sai family shatters. Years later, we follow his wife Fola and the now-adult children across the world: Olu in Boston, Kehinde in London, Taiwo in New York and Sadie at Yale. Ghana Must Go is a profound exploration of unconditional love, the healing power of truth, and what it means to forgive. All I can say is: read it.
Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney
Sally Rooney’s debut novel follows student and aspiring writer Frances as she navigates the complex relationships with her best friend and ex-girlfriend Bobbi, the sophisticated journalist Melissa and her husband Nick. The novel feels modern, both in its language and the themes discussed. Frances and her friends love discussing the latest within feminist theory or the downfall of capitalism. Sometimes these references feel rather forced (giving the impression of ‘sounding smart for the sake of it’) but they nonetheless lend themselves to setting the tone of the work. Rooney’s unique style, alternating between terse sentences and thoughtful depictions, initially made me feel like I was missing the brilliance of her writing, but after finishing the final page I’d been won over. Frances might not be very likeable, and you might not agree with her decisions, but she feels like a 21st century woman trying to maneuver friendship, sex and career dreams like everyone else.
The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg
Journalist Jenny Nordberg initially visited Afghanistan to write a piece on women in politics. What she discovered during an interview with a female politician, Azita, spurred a revelation of a much greater degree than she could have expected. In Afghanistan, and many other patriarchal cultures, it is not uncommon for a family to dress and raise one of their daughters as a boy if they do not have any sons. A pretend son, also known as a ‘bacha posh,’ is better than no sons at all. Norén reveals that there are various reasons for why a family might make this decision, but they all stem from a culture deeply rooted in patriarchy and patrilineality. Norén’s engaging writing repeatedly raises issues that make you furiously nod along or want to tear at the patriarchal injustice that still exists, not only in Afghanistan, but in the west too.
Normal People by Sally Rooney
There are some stylistic and thematic similarities between Rooney’s debut and second novel, but I would argue that Normal People exceeds what Rooney accomplished in Conversations with Friends. The story traces the formative years of Marianne and Connell’s youths, as they go from high school in a rural Irish town to university in Dublin. Rooney’s second novel is, at the heart of it, an honest and raw love story. The characters’ flaws and senses of self-worth make them utterly human, prone to misunderstandings and miscommunication. The story explores societal pressures and mental health, but most of all what it means to love and be loved, to hurt and be hurt. At the end of it, my heart ached for these characters.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Ifemelu writes a blog called Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known As Negroes) by a Non-American Black – and this reflects two of the primary themes of the novel: race and identity. Following the young lovers Ifemelu and Obinze, from their early high school days in Nigeria to being separated across the Atlantic (Ifemelu in the US and Obinze in the UK), this story, while lengthy, is an important commentary on immigration, clashing cultures and reinventing identity.
There There by Tommy Orange – A commentary on the lives of urban Native Americans: the search for identity, a violent and absent history, loss and recovery. Told through twelve narrators, using interchanging second and third person points of view and multiple tenses, the short chapters give a comprehensive, but by no means complete, overview of living as an urban Native American today. My only regret is not reading it in one go (or keeping a notebook on hand); it’s easy to lose track of the multiple characters – and, consequently, the carefully plotted revelations of connected relationships was slightly lost on me.
Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows – A quick, sweet read in epistolary form, told through a series of letters from writer Juliet Ashton and the inhabitants of Guernsey, about the book club they formed during German occupation between 1940-45.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas – A highly relevant, significant story that captures many of the complex challenges happening in today’s America – a commentary on race, conflicting identity and growing up in two worlds. The language feels representative of Starr’s age and interests, being a sophomore in high school. Despite being targeted at a younger audience, the message is one that people of all ages and backgrounds can, and should, take to heart.
Her Every Fear by Peter Swanson – Her Every Fearis the third novel by Peter Swanson, author of The Kind Worth Killing. Expectations are turned upside down with each new narrative voice that is introduced, in true Swanson-style.
Swear on This Life by Renee Carlino – When Emeline starts reading the bestselling novel from debut author J. Colby she’s stunned, not because of the writing but because it’s her story – the story of how she grew up in rural Ohio with her best friend, and first love, Jackson. Alternating between Emeline’s storyline and chapters from Colby’s book, this novel was what you’d call un-put-down-able. While the ending unfortunately fell a bit flat, the storyline kept me flipping the pages as quickly as Emeline was reading Colby’s All the Roads Between.
Still Me by Jojo Moyes – Still Me doesn’t carry the same motional weight as the previous two books, but this third installment was a sweet way to revisit and tie together Louisa Clark’s story.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote – A classic. The ditsy Holly Golightly is an enigma that you strive to understand. A fun novella, if not only for being the basis of the classic film and one of Hepburn’s most famous characters.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – Another classic that I finally picked up. I wasn’t particularly immersed in the story, but was still captured enough by the premise (and Bradbury’s intro of how he wrote the story in nine uninterrupted days) to keep reading. There are more layers and opportunities for analysis than I gave it time for.
The Girl with a Clock For a Heart by Peter Swanson – The Girl with a Clock For a Heart is Peter Swanson’s debut novel, and after having read two of his later works it is evident that this book was his first foray into writing. The Kind Worth Killing was brilliant and twisted (my favorite, so far) and Her Every Fear kept the reader enthralled with alternating narrators. His debut, however, doesn’t read quite as smoothly, and while there are some fitting twists, his later works are considerably more polished.