Books and reading list from 2019
While 2019 has turned up many a challenge, finding good books has not been one of them. Last year, I was so pleased with the number of voices I’d discovered that I committed a blog post to my 2018 reading list. Below, you will find a list of books I’ve read this year based on a focused diet: Asia, female voices, travel.
The Provenance of Books
Though one usually reads individually, reading to me is inherently social. More than just receiving ideas from others on the page, books always remind me of people: the people who are described, who gave the recommendation, who might also appreciate the same words as well. Books are a personal currency exchanged in breathless awe that gets us to make an order. Before I dive into the list, I want to talk about the distances that some of these books have travelled, to reach me, to get to others, to find an appreciative reader, and a comfortable home.
Books with provenance I have a special affection for; to reach me, they have come through the conduit of other people’s choices, and are in ways conduits to their priorities. I grazed a journalist’s bookshelf on mornings in Beijing to learn about security vulnerabilities and journalists surviving total surveillance, pilfered the Taiwanese version of Factfulness off a friend’s desk to slow down my skimming_._ Two friends gave me favorite books that I had not heard of, one hand-delivered from Kaohsiung (關於女兒) and the other tossed by the delivery man onto the table. I adopted the manga Midnight Diner 深夜食堂 from another friend and the three volumes have been the best company before bedtime. Another friend relieved me of my fence-sitting this year’s winner for the Man Booker prize: Girl, Woman, Other. And through a book exchange, the poets Rupi Kaur and Rumi now grace my shelf. The Taiwanese edition of The God of Small Things (微物之神) was passed to me and circulated through our Japanophile book club.
Books rival food photos that I send to friends. Whenever I browse bookstores and see interesting titles, I send them to the people they remind me of. On more than one occasion, I have followed up a recommendation asking a friend, “Will you buy this?” The implicit threat is that a parcel might show up at their door otherwise.
Books that I have liked the idea of enough to give away without having read include Our Story : A Memoir of Love and Life in China by Rao Pingru.
Because I move, I am not a reliable guardian for many books. My solution has been to find reliable guardians that I visit often enough to send them to, so that I know I can enjoy them in the future. The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse by Charlie Mackesy and The Electric State by Simon Stålenhag are examples.
The most beautiful book I could only give as a gift was the popup book 小さなふしぎな森 新宮晋作 (Un petit bois mystérieux by Susumu Shingu).
I fell in love with the Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo, found on a colleague’s desk one day. Though it’s sitting in my wishlist, I found the postcard box instead and started advertising it to friends with babies.
Every time I move, I need people to entrust my books to. A box sits in permanent loan in a friend’s apartment. Other staples like DIY Rules for a WTF World: How to Speak Up, Get Creative, and Change the World, In Good Company, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat have been adopted by friends who helped me pack. this summer.
In summary, if you have books, share the love. If you don’t, you can still order them on Amazon to anyone in the world.
2019 Reading List
When people travel enough, some habits help ground us to the new places we are exploring. The joke with Chinese parents is that they need their Chinese food, no matter how bad it is. I’ve come to accept that mine is bookstores, even if the bookshelves often carry books I cannot read. Bookstores are how I understand a city and the types of readers they have. Whether they multistory buildings like Indigo in Canada, independent stalwarts like The Strand in New York, a 2-km block that crams 200 second-hand hole-in-the-walls like in Tokyo’s Jimbocho, or a bookstand on the steps of Hong Kong’s Midlevels, I always pause (and spot treasures like Let My People Go Surfing buried under a stack).
The two books I would buy and thrust into anyone’s hands are these two for their crisp prose, the realities they depict, and their potential to change our perspectives.
Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado-Pérez
Our Women on the Ground, edited by Zahra Hankir
This has been a year of revisiting Asia, digging for the stories so ordinary, and so busy being believed, that they rarely make it into the canon of cultural production. I had two terrible revelations to address starting 2019: 1) the unsettling reality that Yukio Mishima’s Spring Snow brilliance is not shadowed by its author’s notoriety, and 2) the revelation that I had only read one female Japanese novelist to date despite professing to love literature from this country. I set about rectifying that you can also check out my list of Japanese female writers available in English.
My two favourites were the spare reality of a not-particularly-maternal working mother trying to get a divorce in Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima and the magical realism in Picnic in the Storm by Yukiko Motoya.
Bedtime Eyes by Amy Yamada
Ms Ice Sandwich by Mieko Kawakami
Empress Dowager Cixi by Jung Chang
Onibi: Diary of a Yokai Ghost Hunter by Cécile Brun,Olivier Pichard, Marie Velde (Translation)
On Haiku by Hiroaki Sato
A Monk’s Guide to a Clean House and Mind by Shoukei Matsumoto
The 1918 Shikoku Pilgrimage of Takamure Itsue – Translated by Susan Tennant
Asia and Asian is shorthand usually for one ethnic group in a Western country. In the UK, it usually refers to South Asians while in North America it is usually East Asians. My project to read through Asia will take some years, but below are books that extend beyond the Northeast Asian focus.
The Secret History of the Mongol Queens by Jack Weatherford
Our Women on the Ground Edited by Zahra Hankir
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee and When Evening is the Whole Day by Preeta Samarasan were both written in the US, but are grounded on experiences abroad. Their way of addressing race, culture, identity differs from the naming so integral to North American cultural production. Pachinko explores Korean experiences under Japanese colonialism and When Evening is the Whole Day explores the Indian experience of Malaysia as it undergoes a transformation from a British colony into a country (that privileges Malays). In both cases, the Asia Pacific is the central focus.
However, the two I recommended are not typical of what I think of as the Asian American canon, which has been flourishing these past few years.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
Simple Recipes by Madeline Thien
Turning by Jessica J Lee
Two Trees Make a Forest by Jessica J Lee
The Measure of my Powers: A Memoir of Food, Misery, and Paris by Jackie Kai Ellis
In Chinese and Japanese
The reading shelves of the Starbucks beside the Tsutaya in Ginza 6, Tokyo.
關於女兒 金惠珍作 (딸에 대하여)
深夜食堂 (Midnight Diner)
微物之神 (The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy)
100の基本 (100 Fundamentals) by Matsuura Yataro
東京日記 (Tokyo Diaries) by Hiromi Kawakami
Non-Fiction: Memoirs, Travel, Nature
This year has been a continuation for my interest in memoirs in my ongoing exploration of what women experience, especially since I have noticed how few writers in travel sections of bookstores are women.
A Fieldguide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit
Notes to Self: Essays by Emilie Pine
Ghost in the Wires by Kevin Mitnick
Astro Noise: A Survival Guide for Living Under Total Surveillance by Laura Poitras
Books have also been my best way to travel to places that are not immediately feasible, or that I am happy to live vicariously through writing only. Beyond the landscapes they describe, I thoroughly enjoy the company of the writers who revere them.
Black Dragon River by Dominik Zeilger
Where the Indus is Young by Dervla Murphy
The Solace of Open Spaces by Greta Ehrlich
A Woman Walks by Lady Colin Campbell
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
Sky Burial: An Epic Love Story of Tibet by Xinran, Julia Lovell (Translator), Esther Tyldesley (Translator)
Beloved by Toni Morison
Neuromancer by William Gibson *This is sci-fi, but it has its moments with Neo-Tokyo.
In my last trip for 2019, I ended up in a city with amazing bookstores. I ended up spending virtually every single day in one of them and limited myself to only bringing 4 home. This is the list of books I’m most likely to get for 2020. If you have additional recommendations, let me know!