2019 Reading Retrospective

In 2019, I set out to

I really liked most of the books I read this year, so I'm not going to discuss all of them in this poast. Instead, here are a baker's dozen that particularly stuck with me.

The Idiot

Elif Batuman (2017)

It can be really exasperating to look back at your past. What’s the matter with you? I want to ask her, my younger self, shaking her shoulder. If I did that, she would probably cry. Maybe I would cry, too.

Started the year with what became my favorite book of the year. I lived in this book, reveled in each page, and through it relived my own college years. Batuman masterfully captures that duality of the simultaneous dawning realizations of one's own limitations and limitlessness.

Short Stories

Edith Wharton (1911)

It was one of the misfortunes of their situation that they were never busy enough to necessitate, or even to justify, the postponement of unpleasant discussions.

Hilarious, moving short stories. Wharton sneaks up on you, lulling you into a sense of security with her goofy comedy of manners until you suddenly realize you've become close to these fully realized, complex characters.

The Lonesome Bodybuilder

Yukiko Motoya (2018)

When I woke up and looked in the mirror, I saw that my face had finally begun to forget who I was.

Identity is inherently surreal. We look at ourselves and construct Selves that function off of dream logic, while others construct their versions of us from the same. Those dreams inevitably collide, and it's in that collision, in that friction that Yukiko Motoya contextualizes the Body in these delightful, surreal stories. These characters' bodies are both used as weapons by others, and as emancipatory venues by the characters themselves. The title The Lonesome Bodybuilder is from one of the stories in the collection, but also works I think as a sort of mission statement for the collection as a whole; aren't we all lonely bodybuilders?

Sonata Forms

Charles Rosen (1980)

When sonata form did not yet exist, it had a history.

(↺ Reread) I first read this over a decade ago, back when I believed I would one day be a concert pianist and composer. Revisiting it was humbling, inspiring, invigorating. Rosen's perspective is centered on form as function, on structure as expression, on sections not for their own sake but as context for those moments of conflict and drama and pathos that lie between. I didn't know it then, but in retrospect this book had a massive impact on how I think about, listen to, and compose music. I look forward to rereading this again in a few years.

Homesick For Another World

Ottessa Moshfegh (2017)

I know I don't have any real wisdom. I don't have any wonderful ideas. I am lucky to have found a few nice people here and there.

First of all, what a great title. This was the first Moshfegh I read, and at some point in this collection of short stories I realized that I will read everything she has written or will ever write. These are portraits of isolation, of the grim reality of life under late capitalism, of the brutality of indifference -- indifference to the other or to the self -- but most of all they are alive. And yes, life can be murky, like can be bleak, depraved, and life involves piloting these bodies of ours than can be horrifying and grotesque... but beneath it all is that heart, that tangle of contradictions. This collection is a dark, hilarious kaleidoscope of the human experience.

My Year Of Rest And Relaxation

Ottessa Moshfegh (2018)

The notion of my future suddenly snapped into focus: it didn't exist yet.

This was a deeply honest, hilarious, moving read. Living in the world is a neverending ballet of tradeoffs and comprise, so who's to say opting out is wrong? Our narrator tries doing just that, and I'm not sure I should say anything more. Just... click the link and take a moment to savor that brilliant cover.

A Fire Upon The Deep

Vernor Vinge (1992)

Sometimes the biggest disasters aren't noticed at all - no one's around to write horror stories.

It's been a minute since I read a Big Ol' Space Epic. Luckily, this one is fantastic. Something science fiction has within its reach is to depict the human experience from many angles at once. This is a story of grief, love, terror, trust, questions of identity and agency. It deals with the arc of history, of how societies are changed by technology and by scale. It also features an incredible parody/homage of usenet.

City Of Illusions

Ursula K. Le Guin (1967)

Was he leaving home, or going home?

If pressed to pick a "favorite author", my answer will always be Le Guin. Her worlds opened my eyes to what storytelling can do and be, and continue to captivate my imagination. City of Illusions tangles a character's identity with the larger societal narrative effortlessly.

How Long 'til Black Future Month?

N. K. Jemisin (2018)

Who is to say plutonium is more powerful than, say, rice?

Jemisin's novel The Killing Moon was lovely and thrilling; what better way to get to know this author better than by diving into a massive anthology of shorts spanning at least a dozen subgenres? Every story here is wildly creative and vividly emotional; in the introduction she describes short stories as a space for experimentation and that certainly shows, both in content and form. I'm behind on Jemisin's work, but this cemented my desire to dive deeper.

Optic Nerve

María Gainza (2014)

Isn’t theory also in some sense always autobiography?

I sometimes wonder why I have such a hunger to fill my life with art. In Optic Nerve, Gainza tackles that question head on, examining how encounters with art makes our experiences, and how our experiences make our encounters with art. This reminded me a bit of Mathias Énard's Compass, in that this is a close up fictional character portrait that delves deep into the character's, for lack of a better phrase, "subject matter expertise." And that feels vital and real; the way that commitment to some field of knowledge colors one's experience of the rest of life is something that fiction too often either skips over or oversimplifies beyond recognizability, but Gainza gets it just right. In this story art is a mirror used not just to see ourselves, but to see around corners and across time.


Toni Morrison (1973)

There in the center of that silence was not eternity but the death of time and a loneliness so profound the word itself had no meaning.

Toni Morrison is one of those authors who I feel like I've read a lot, but really it's just that I keep rereading Beloved. This year I decided to branch out, and found a very different book that makes me love Morrison all the more. Beautiful, brutal, deeply humane; this story will haunt me, like Beloved has. Toni Morrison will be profoundly missed.

Flowers of Mold

Ha Seong-nan (1999)

Though the garbage was his own, it seemed completely foreign to him.

Stark, atmospheric, dreamy. The line between the mundane and the bizarre is like a curb on a rainy day in these stories. Characters' footing in their perception of the world is slippery and unstable.

The Xenofeminist Manifesto

Laboria Cuboniks (2018)

If nature is unjust, change nature!

Concise, clear advocacy for a vision of intersectional feminism that rejects universalist premises.