I Read Over 100 Books in 2018: Here Were My Favorites

Monday, December 10, 2018


As if needed repeating -- I really, really love to read. At my most recent count, I've finished over 110 books this year (my goodreads total underestimates because I don't log re-reads). But here's why I read, and why it all matters:

The world burned down in 2018. From the deadliest Californian wildfire in modern history to the Saudi-led, US-supported genocide in Yemen to the 300+ mass shootings in the United States in 2018 alone to the migrant families tear-gassed at the US-Mexico border and all the seismic deaths, injustices, and griefs in between. Primo Levi's If This Is A Man was a resurgence of the same haunting: of cowardice at the root of all suffering, indifference at its ugly head. The opposite of death, I learned, is not life but the insisted writing of it, the way literature resists its own burial. Bao Phi's Sông I Sing was a sanctuary for all of my anger, all of my frustration with contemporary Asian American art, self-gentrified and cheaply manufactured, masquerading as radical for audiences too white to know better. (When you can no longer tell / if you're liberating yourself through expression / or selling your oppression / Remember / there were those of us / living here/ who called you / friend.) I learned that I am so, so fiercely protective of Taiwan. I will scorn any writer who dares exploit it, even if and especially when they share my family history. I learned that art will save me, that artists will redeem me, that there exists a sort of person for whom loneliness is a home and not a reason to pull the trigger. I want to be that person. I learned to be very, very sad, and to find peers in this grief rather than new ways to dull it. I am learning that it is better to care deeply than to protect myself from the suffering of others. I am learning to never turn away from all that is difficult to carry, to bear witness and fight the fire instead of walking away.
I'd summarize this year's curation as a poetic and critical meditation on identity, how a paranoia of prejudice arises from the way our contemporary institutions practice it. May we all find ourselves on the other side of the walls.

I also wanted to share - thanks for bearing with me - that my dear Book of Cord was selected by Entropy Magazine as one of the best Poetry collections of 2018. I am so grateful.

Sông I Sing | Bao Phi
“In this strong and angry work of what he calls refugeography, Bao Phi, who has been a performance poet since 1991, wrestles with immigration, class and race in America at sidewalk level. To hip-hop beats and the squeal and shriek of souped-up Celicas stalking the city streets, [Phi] rants and scowls at a culture in which Asians are invisible, but also scolds his peers ‘Bleached by color-blind lies/Buying DKNY and Calvin Klein/So our own bodies are gentrified.’ . . . In this song of his very American self, every poem Mr. Phi writes rhymes with the truth.” —New York Times 

Cutting School: Privatization, Segregation, and the End of Public Education | Noliwe Rooks
Public schools are among America's greatest achievements in modern history, yet from the earliest days of tax-supported education--today a sector with an estimated budget of over half a billion dollars--there have been intractable tensions tied to race and poverty.
Cutting School deftly traces the financing of segregated education in America, from reconstruction through Brown v. Board of Education up to the current controversies around school choice, teacher quality, the school-to-prison pipeline, and more, to elucidate the course we are on today: the wholesale privatization of our schools. Rooks's incisive critique breaks down the fraught landscape of "segrenomics," showing how experimental solutions to the so-called achievement gaps--including charters, vouchers, and cyber schools--rely on, profit from, and ultimately exacerbate disturbingly high levels of racial and economic segregation under the guise of providing equal opportunity.
A comprehensive, compelling account of what's truly at stake in the relentless push to deregulate and privatize, Cutting School is a cri de coeur for all of us to resist educational apartheid in America.

You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin | Rachel Corbett
In 1902, Rainer Maria Rilke—then a struggling poet in Germany—went to Paris to research and write a short book about the sculptor Auguste Rodin. The two were almost polar opposites: Rilke in his twenties, delicate and unknown; Rodin in his sixties, carnal and revered. Yet they fell into an instantaneous friendship. Transporting readers to early twentieth-century Paris, Rachel Corbett’s You Must Change Your Life is a vibrant portrait of Rilke and Rodin and their circle, revealing how deeply Rodin’s ideas about art and creativity influenced Rilke’s classic Letters to a Young Poet.

American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin | Terrance Hayes
In seventy poems bearing the same title, Terrance Hayes explores the meanings of American, of assassin, and of love in the sonnet form. Written during the first two hundred days of the Trump presidency, these poems are haunted by the country's past and future eras and errors, its dreams and nightmares. Inventive, compassionate, hilarious, melancholy, and bewildered--the wonders of this new collection are irreducible and stunning.

The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity | Esther Perel
An affair: it can rob a couple of their relationship, their happiness, their very identity. And yet, this extremely common human experience is so poorly understood. Adultery has existed since marriage was invented, and so too the prohibition against it—in fact, it has a tenacity that marriage can only envy. So what are we to make of this time-honored taboo—universally forbidden yet universally practiced? Why do people cheat—even those in happy marriages? Why does an affair hurt so much? When we say infidelity, what exactly do we mean? Do our romantic expectations of marriage set us up for betrayal? Is there such a thing as an affair-proof marriage? Is it possible to love more than one person at once? Can an affair ever help a marriage? Perel weaves real-life case stories with incisive psychological and cultural analysis in this fast-paced and compelling book.

For the past ten years, Perel has traveled the globe and worked with hundreds of couples who have grappled with infidelity. Betrayal hurts, she writes, but it can be healed. An affair can even be the doorway to a new marriage—with the same person. With the right approach, couples can grow and learn from these tumultuous experiences, together or apart.

Past Lives, Future Bodies | Kristin Chang
PAST LIVES, FUTURE BODIES is a knife-sharp and nimble examination of migration, motherhood, and the malignant legacies of racism. In this collection, family forms both a unit of survival and a framework for history, agency, and recovery. Chang undertakes a visceral exploration of the historical and unfolding paths of lineage and what it means to haunt body and country. These poems traverse not only the circularity of trauma but the promise of regeneration—what grows from violence and hatches from healing—as Chang embodies each of her ghosts and invites the specter to speak.

Plum Rains: A Novel | Andromeda Romano-Lax 
In a tour-de-force tapestry of science fiction and historical fiction, Andromeda Romano-Lax presents a story set in Japan and Taiwan that spans a century of empire, conquest, progress, and destruction.
2029: In Japan, a historically mono-cultural nation, childbirth rates are at an all-time low and the elderly are living increasingly longer lives. This population crisis has precipitated the mass immigration of foreign medical workers from all over Asia, as well as the development of finely tuned artificial intelligence to step in where humans fall short.
In Tokyo, Angelica Navarro, a Filipina nurse who has been in Japan for the last five years, works as caretaker for Sayoko Itou, a moody, secretive woman about to turn 100 years old. One day, Sayoko receives a present: a cutting-edge robot “friend” that will teach itself to anticipate Sayoko’s every need. Angelica wonders if she is about to be forced out of her much-needed job by an inanimate object—one with a preternatural ability to uncover the most deeply buried secrets of the humans around it. Meanwhile, Sayoko becomes attached to the machine. The old woman has been hiding secrets of her own for almost a century—and she’s too old to want to keep them anymore.
 What she reveals is a hundred-year saga of forbidden love, hidden identities, and the horrific legacy of WWII and Japanese colonialism—a confession that will tear apart her own life and Angelica’s. Is the helper robot the worst thing that could have happened to the two women—or is it forcing the changes they both desperately needed?

If This Is A Man | Primo Levi
'With the moral stamina and intellectual poise of a twentieth-century Titan, this slightly built, dutiful, unassuming chemist set out systematically to remember the German hell on earth, steadfastly to think it through, and then to render it comprehensible in lucid, unpretentious prose. He was profoundly in touch with the minutest workings of the most endearing human events and with the most contemptible. What has survived in Levi's writing isn't just his memory of the unbearable, but also, in The Periodic Table and The Wrench, his delight in what made the world exquisite to him. He was himself a magically endearing man, the most delicately forceful enchanter I've ever known' - Philip Roth.

Don't Call Us Dead | Danez Smith
Award-winning poet Danez Smith is a groundbreaking force, celebrated for deft lyrics, urgent subjects, and performative power. Don't Call Us Dead opens with a heartrending sequence that imagines an afterlife for black men shot by police, a place where suspicion, violence, and grief are forgotten and replaced with the safety, love, and longevity they deserved here on earth. Smith turns then to desire, mortality the dangers experienced in skin and body and blood and a diagnosis of HIV positive. "Some of us are killed / in pieces," Smith writes, some of us all at once. Don't Call Us Dead is an astonishing and ambitious collection, one that confronts, praises, and rebukes America--"Dear White America"--where every day is too often a funeral and not often enough a miracle.

A Little Life | Hanya Yanagihara
When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they're broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their center of gravity.
Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude himself, by midlife a terrifyingly talented litigator yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by what he fears is a degree of trauma that he’ll not only be unable to overcome—but that will define his life forever.

Frontier Taiwan: An Anthology of Modern Taiwanese Poetry | edited by N.G.D. Malmqvist
Taiwan has evolved dramatically from a little-known island to an internationally acclaimed economic miracle and thriving democracy. The history of modern Taiwanese poetry parallels and tells the story of this transformation from periphery to frontier. Containing translations of nearly 400 poems from 50 poets spanning the entire twentieth century, this anthology reveals Taiwan in a broad spectrum of themes, forms, and styles: from lyrical meditation to political satire, haiku to concrete poetry, surrealism to postmodernism. The in-depth introduction outlines the development of modern poetry in the unique historical and cultural context of Taiwan. Comprehensive in both depth and scope, Frontier Taiwan beautifully captures the achievements of the nation's modern poetic traditions.

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel | Alexander Chee
How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is the author’s manifesto on the entangling of life, literature, and politics, and how the lessons learned from a life spent reading and writing fiction have changed him. In these essays, he grows from student to teacher, reader to writer, and reckons with his identities as a son, a gay man, a Korean American, an artist, an activist, a lover, and a friend. He examines some of the most formative experiences of his life and the nation’s history, including his father’s death, the AIDS crisis, 9/11, the jobs that supported his writing—Tarot-reading, bookselling, cater-waiting for William F. Buckley—the writing of his first novel, Edinburgh, and the election of Donald Trump.
By turns commanding, heartbreaking, and wry, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel asks questions about how we create ourselves in life and in art, and how to fight when our dearest truths are under attack.

With love, love, love -- infallible and unbreakable,
LC

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