My Favorite Books of 2018, According to GoodReads

Other years I’ve had to split my 5-star books into two posts, but this year I think they can comfortably be combined into one. Here were my reading highlights of 2018!

Cover of Reza Aslan's "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth"

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

My criterion for rating a nonfiction book 5 stars on GoodReads is that it has the potential for widespread appeal, or that it masterfully addresses a major social or everyday question. Reza Aslan has done an excellent job of outlining the historical context of early Christianity and Jesus Christ.

Cover of Rien où poser sa tête

 

Rien où poser sa tête

I stumbled across this thanks to the review of the English translation in Asymptote. Its chance rescue from obscurity mirrors, almost too well, Frenkel’s own brushes with death in Vichy France. Out of all my reading in 2018, this one was probably the most relevant to today’s events and politics.

Cover of Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf
Image courtesy Icon Books, Limited

Proust and the Squid

I waffled on whether to give Proust and the Squid 5 stars rather than 4, but decided in the end to be generous. While the story of the brain learns how to read isn’t the same urgent issue as Nazis or Christianity, it’s something almost all of us do and whose complexity we should all appreciate.

Cover of Sacred Economics by Charles Eisenstein
Sacred Economics

While Eisenstein might be more optimistic and naive than warranted, his explanation of economics, credit and inflation is the most cogent I’ve read and he dramatically shifted my attitude towards money and how I save and spend it. That’s what earned this book 5 stars from me, despite Eisenstein’s occasional lapse into conspiracy-adjacent tangents.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice

This one was a selection for Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club, and it’s books like this that make me glad I’m allowed to lurk as a satellite member in Stockholm. Leckie’s world building and vision of technology is polished and nuanced. This is how space opera should be.

I mentioned before that 2018 was a weird year for my reading, and that’s reflected pretty clearly in the fact that I only gave one novel a 5-star rating. Historically, I’ve done much better than that. Thanks to studying for DipTrans and Kammarkollegiet, my way forward in nonfiction is pretty clear and structured at this point (though ironically none of those 5-star titles are related to translation!); my way forward in fiction is still grasping at random and hoping to find something good. All while trying to finish Ulysses, at that!

Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History

I stumbled across Voodoo Histories when I went to the library back in October to finish up some reading. I have the great good luck to work a short walk away from Stadsbiblioteket, and I wandered into a study room to finish up another book I was reading when I saw Voodoo Histories in the recommended display. It left the library with me that night.

The UK edition of Voodoo Histories by David Aaronovitch

Author: David Aaronovitch

My GoodReads rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.57 stars

Language scaling: B2

Summary: Aaronovitch debunks a variety of notable conspiracy theories from the last hundred years or so, from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion to McCarthyism to 9/11 truthers to the birther movement.

Recommended audience: People interested in politics or modern history

In-depth thoughts:  Overall, Aaronovitch gives a thorough background on a variety of conspiracy theories that plagued the last hundred years or so. But it doesn’t really live up to the subtitle of the book: “the role of the conspiracy theory in shaping modern history.” The first chapter out of the gate is about The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and it’s a great blend of the details of the conspiracy theory and also highlighting exactly how this particular theory shaped history. But later ones, for example about the death of Princess Diana, are pure debunking that don’t really bring up how they affected geopolitical events.

The other fault with this book is that it was simply before its time. It was originally published in 2009; the latest edition came out in 2011. It was just in time to address the “birther” conspiracy theories surrounding Barack Obama, but the Spirit Cooking and Pizzagate controversies leading up to the 2016 American election would have fit in very well in this book (and frankly had more of an impact on modern history than Princess Diana).

Black Tudors: The Untold Story

Black Tudors is another random find from Stadsbiblioteket’s “recommended” shelf in the study room. Except it’s not that random, because I’d read reviews of Black Tudors elsewhere and had actually put it on my “to read” list last year. Why not pick it up when I had the chance, right?

UK edition of Black Tudors by Miranda Kaufmann
Image courtesy ONEworld publications

Author: Miranda Kaufmann

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.79 stars

Language scaling: B2, though Kaufmann quotes heavily from original sources that are more like C2

Summary: Through the lens of the reconstructed lives of ten free black men and women in Tudor England, Kaufmann provides an important overview of England’s interactions and trade with with different peoples on the African continent.

Recommended audience: People interested in African studies or English history; British citizens

In-depth thoughts:  Despite the title of the book, much of Black Tudors focuses on the life and history surrounding these people rather than, as the name would suggest, their actual lives. Tragically, this means that in a book called Black Tudors, the most ink is spilled over white people. But the records for common merchants and the peasantry are scanty, as you’d expect; I know that there’s not much for Kaufmann to go on and she does a remarkable job with the little material that’s available. Even if their personal struggles and triumphs and simply daily minutiae are lost to history, the ordinary lives of these people—a salvage diver, a trumpeter at the King’s court, a silk weaver, among others—are a great chance to explore what England’s foreign policy and trade actually looked like during the Tudor period, and what kind of engagement they had with the world beyond Europe.

What Kaufmann does exceptionally well is juggling the many names, dates, and events surrounding, say, a piracy expedition or evolving trade relations so that a reader with no previous knowledge can follow the broad strokes of the events and keep up with the story. The different lives then are a sort of framing device or focus for discussing a wide range of Tudor-era laws and customs, making what would otherwise be a disparate collection of facts and anecdotes easy to track.

Beyond the Rice Fields

Beyond the Rice Fields was a Facebook book club selection for September; I finished it in the middle of October. Sometimes it takes me a while, but I get there!

Beyond the Rice Fields cover
Image courtesy Restless Books

Author: Naivo

Translator: Allison M. Charrette (French)

My GoodReads rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.76 stars

Language scaling: C1

Content warning: A fair amount of off- and on-screen violence and gore

Summary: The clash between Christian missionaries and the ruling elite of Madagascar as it plays out in the lives and loves of Fara and Tsito.

Recommended audience: Anyone curious about the pre-colonial history of Madagascar; anyone looking to read more African literature

In-depth thoughts: This is a completely petty point, but once I realized that Beyond the Rice Fields had been translated from French instead of Malagasy, I lost a lot of steam. Not because of anything wrong with the book, but rather because I always feel a little guilty and uninspired when I read an English translation of a work originally written in a language I can more or less read (Swedish, French).  But I didn’t realize that when the book turned up for book club, and so I didn’t even think to see if I could find the French edition anywhere.

My pettiness aside, the book is beautifully written. I savored the prose even when I knew tragedy was just around the corner. Naivo’s writing has a lyricism and a rhythm that’s utterly captivating, though that doesn’t stop the plot from feeling like it’s dragging at certain points. And it’s not even a dragging plot that I mind; it’s that it moves so relentlessly and so slowly towards tragedy. (Spoiler alert, I guess: the ending is a downer.) I’m willing to slog through hell and high water if I think the protagonists will get their reward in the end, but when things become a slow motion trainwreck it’s a little harder to bear. Especially when it feels like a deus ex machina trainwreck.

The most satisfying endings and character arcs are when someone gets what they deserve, for better or for worse. When bad luck and misfortune constantly befall a character, and when they’re undone by chance and circumstances rather than their own poor decisions or character flaws, their tragic end is so much less satisfying. That’s my one-sentence critique of Beyond the Rice Fields: the tragedy feels senseless and unearned. It’s just plain bad luck. Of course, tragedy in real life is often senseless and unearned. I just want something else from fiction, especially right now.

For EFL readers, Beyond the Rice Fields might be hard work in places;  among other things, Naivo has a tendency to stack lengthy modifiers on top of each other:

A scarlet curtain was visible in the back, concealing a secret door, behind which I heard voices.

But this complex construction also gives the prose its lullaby-like quality. If you can’t read the French original, Charrette’s English translation is beautiful and rewarding.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

I received Sapiens as a birthday present last year, and then promptly waited another year to actually read it. What can I say? When you spend a lot of your day job reading, and your free time participating in three (maybe four now?) different book clubs, it’s hard to prioritize reading for your own sake.

Image courtesy Harvill Secker

Author: Yuval Noah Harari

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.45 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: Harari traces the evolution of society and humankind from the earliest assorted versions of humans to the present day.

Recommended audience: Humans

In-depth thoughts: Harari does an excellent job of framing human history within his central thesis: what makes societies and civilizations work is our species’ imagination, and our collective ability to create useful fictions that we can all agree on and participate in. This mass agreement, powered by a species-wide ability to imagine, organizes disparate groups that might not otherwise have much in common, or much reason to trust each other.

Nonetheless, Harari doesn’t do a lot of work to prop up that thesis in the first place. I’m willing to take it as a given, because as a reader and an editor I’m inclined to believe in the power of story, but it’s still easier to categorize an empire as a useful fiction than, say, human rights. Everything is based on a fundamentally materialist view of “existence” and what counts as existence, and I think that’s a view that needs a lot of examination and defense before it can be used as a foundation for anything.

Harari’s style is direct and simple, almost to the point of choppy. Not to the point where it ruined the book for me; it was just something I noticed. In fact, the relatively simple sentence structure he favors means that this is an excellent choice for English students. Perhaps this was an intentional style choice (if you’re explaining and describing complex ideas, no need to make the writing complex as well) or perhaps it was a result of the translation from Hebrew. I’ll probably be re-reading it in Swedish myself.

Asymptote: April 2018

The cover of the April 2018 issue of Asymptote. A blue ink drawing of an urban landscape and a red ink drawing of a jungle landscape intersect, like a Venn diagram, in a purple tree with a bird sitting in its branches.
Image courtesy Asymptote

One of the online publications I subscribe to is the journal Asymptote.  It puts out quarterly editions (plus regular blog posts) that center on English translations of international writing: fiction, poetry, nonfiction, drama, and even art. Asymptote first came to my attention by way of the equally excellent (and perfectly named) Lit Hub newsletter. They aspire to be truly international in scope, it seems; the list of “original languages” you can search from is remarkable. My roster of publications that I’m supporting financially is currently full up, but if and when my budget allows, I’ll definitely be subscribing. The good news is that Asymptote doesn’t fuss with paywalls or otherwise restricting its content, so everything is free for you to peruse if you so desire!

Since I also think that short-form writing  is great reading practice for people who are short on time, I’ll link to some of my favorite pieces from the latest issue here. Or maybe you can just browse Asymptote’s archives yourself and see if there are any writers or stories from your mother tongue(s) that have already been translated!

Anyway, my favorites from the April 2018 issue!

There were two short stories I enjoyed a lot, Taklamakan Misdelivery (part of their special feature focusing on Korean literature) and Tick Constellations (part of the issue’s regular offerings).

As far as the reviews go, this take on Little Reunions made me really curious about Eileen Chang, a writer I’d never heard of before. The story behind how No Place To Lay One’s Head was nearly lost to time and then not is, on its own, a compelling case for making space for the book on your to-read list.

And finally, in nonfiction, Unhappiness is Other People may or may not be channeling Sartre’s “L’enfer, c’est les autres” on the sly, but it’s raw and primal and relateable. And as the descendant of Poles who immigrated to the US from Galicia at the turn of the 20th century, I found the understated and matter-of-fact The Emperor of America nonetheless arresting (if you’ll pardon the pun).

Stockholm Kulturnatt 2018

A fortunate turn of events meant that a little over a week ago, I was able to finish my usual Saturday obligations earlier than usual and meet a friend in town to attend Stockholm Kulturnatt.

Even though Kulturnatt has been an annual event in Stockholm since 2010, this year was the first I’d heard of it. I’m glad I was able to make time this year, but I’m also a little disappointed at all of the years I’ve missed!

I didn’t know quite what to expect, except free admission to assorted “cultural events.” But I’d been thinking recently that I don’t really do enough to actually enjoy Stockholm (aside from my annual treks to Litteraturmässan), so Kulturnatten seemed like a good way to remedy that. I met up with a friend from Meetup, Thomas, with plans to meet other friends of his later in the evening. We queued forever, which seemed ridiculous since it was a free event.

“Maybe they’re counting heads for fire capacity?” I suggested.

“But the building’s huge!”

“Bureaucracy.”

As it turned out, the bottleneck that was leading to queuing was the clerk at the desk, explaining the evening’s program (a couple of lectures and a self-administered quiz) to visitors.

“Jesus, is this it? This is so awkward. Can’t we just walk past?” I asked no one in a low voice, but shuffled up to the desk to hear the presentation nonetheless. No ticket was given, no name taken, nothing. We smiled at the clerk and took the flyer and the quiz and then went on our way. A safe distance from the counter, we laughed.

“That was the entire reason for the queue. That was, literally, the most Swedish thing I’ve ever seen,” Thomas said. “People queuing because they’re too polite to just walk by. Oh, God. In Britain people would have figured it out and just walked past, given a little nod. Oh, Sweden.”

We had a wander around until his Couchsurfing friends showed up; a mutual Finnish friend of ours had been ahead of us in the queue and was off somewhere with her own friends.  The Army Museum wouldn’t have been my first choice, so I didn’t pay too much attention to anything (though I still learned about the S-363 incident, so that’s something); I was pleasantly surprised to see placards featuring wartime literature (George Orwell, All Quiet on the Western FrontBödeln). By the time the rest of the group arrived, Thomas and I had pretty much had our fill, so after confirming we’d missed the last lecture of the evening, we waited by the entrance for the Couchsurfers to finish the quiz.

The de facto leader of our little group, by virtue of her nerdy enthusiasm, wanted to go to the Nobel museum, so once she and the other Couchsurfer finished the quiz, off we went. Meanwhile, the Finn and her friends had since departed for the Finnish Institute without catching up to us—ships in the night. Thomas and I stayed with the Couchsurfing friends at the Nobel museum for just a brief moment; Thomas read the mood and came to the conclusion that the male half of the Couchsurfing couple was really interested in a date night with Excitable Nerd, so we broke off and made for SF Bokhandeln, with a pit stop at Storkyrkan.

“I’ve never been in here,” he commented.

“I don’t think I have, either.”

They were having a choral performance which I would have been happy to stay and listen to, but I also took the time to wander around a bit like a tourist. (I didn’t think to take any pictures, though. I guess not that much of a tourist.)

The interior of Storkyrkan in Stockholm, Sweden. The view is down the center aisle, facing a stained glass rossette. On the left hand side is a spiral staircase attached to a column, leading to a pulpit. The ceilings are high and vaulted; the columns are red brick. The seats on either side are empty.
Image courtesy Holger Ellgaard.

Such opulence and artistic finery surprised me in a nominally Lutheran church, and I said as much to Thomas.

“Yeah, that didn’t come until the Communists. They used to be Greek Orthodox or whatever before that.”

I thought of the occasional midnight Easter and Christmas services I had attended at my dad’s childhood Eastern Orthodox church, so much bigger and fancier than the Methodist church I had grown up with. “That explains it.”

We both had a chuckle over the prayer candles that now, in addition to (or maybe instead of?) the donation box, simply had a sign with a phone number where you could Swish your donation.

After a few minutes, we turned tail and headed for SF Bokhandeln. We were too late for any of their events, so we just browsed. I ended up picking up Hanabi, which I hadn’t seen the last time I was there. I also picked up a book for Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club that I was having a hard time getting from the library. I’ve since started reading it and unfortunately I’m having a bit of buyer’s remorse. So it goes.

“I wonder how long it would take you, if you just sat down and tried to read the whole shop. Years?” Thomas wondered, picking up and putting down a generic-looking space opera book. “Like, this is the kind of stuff I want to have time to read, but I just end up reading the summary somewhere instead.”

“I mean, not all books are good books. Some are only worth the Wikipedia plot synopsis.”

Finnish friend had shaken her group and landed at a bar on Sveavägen and asked us to come join her. The weather was nice, so we capped off the night with a walk from Gamla Stan to Hötorget. So clear! So warm! Nothing like moving a few degrees’ latitude north to make you appreciate the shift in seasons. If this isn’t nice, what is? But it had been a long day for me (I was up at 6 am!), so after the walk, I bowed out of drinks and went home.

There were still lots of events that I wish I had attended (concerts, primarily), but for my first year at Kulturnatt and going in completely unprepared, I had a really good time. I’ll certainly be marking my calendar for next year’s, and hopefully a little more planning means I’ll get a lot more out of it!