13 Amazing Books I Read In 2018
I’ve read a total of 40 books in 2018. My initial goal on Goodreads was to read 50, but I had a busy year and poor time-management skills, so it’s ok.
Out of those 40, 13 books stood out for me, in the sense that I find myself thinking of them a few times a week. Nine are fiction and four are non-fiction.
I’m gonna write a few words about each of them, just know I don’t have a top so to speak, except for the books of Jon Kalman Stefansson which were my absolute favorites, so they hold a special place in my heart now.
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Starting with the non-fiction books.
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren. A beautiful combination between a memoir and scientific writing. Hope Jahren is a scientist working in the field of paleobiology who writes damn well. Her book is not only a book about plants, trees, and science. It’s a book about carving your own path in life, about facing difficulties that seem insurmountable and getting to the other side, about the importance of friendship and family, an ode to nature and a plea for its conservation, a book about living your life the best way you can and doing your part.
I simply loved it! And if you’re like me, and love plants and nature and spending time outdoors, you’re going to enjoy this one, trust me :).
“Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life.”
“People are like plants: they grow toward the light.”
Just Kids by Patti Smith. Reading this book was like being transported into another time. And boy, what a time to live in! This is one of the most sincere and earnest books I have ever read. Patti’s writing is lyrical and heartbreaking. If you’re familiar with her and her artistic work you might already know about her relationship with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. This book is about that and so much more. What Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe had it’s something not many people get to experience. This book is about art. This book is about making sacrifices. This book is about life. This book is about a love so strong that nothing, nothing can break it.
If you’re an artist of any sorts, you’ll probably enjoy this one. When I finished reading it, it left me feeling inspired and happy to have been born. How lucky!
“Where does it all lead? What will become of us? These were our young questions, and young answers were revealed. It leads to each other. We become ourselves.”
“I understood that in this small space of time we had mutually surrendered our loneliness and replaced it with trust.”
“But secretly I knew I had been transformed, moved by the revelation that human beings create art, that to be an artist was to see what others could not.”
The Minds of Billy Milligan by Daniel Keyes. This is the story of William Stanley Milligan, a man who suffered from dissociative identity disorder (DID), previously known as multiple personality disorder and who is believed to have had 24 distinct personalities. In October 1977 he was arrested for having kidnapped, raped and robbed three women. In the end, he was acquitted for all of this by pleading insanity as his defense. Instead, he was committed to the mental institutions of that time, where he received his diagnosis and treatment. It’s here where Daniel Keyes went to meet him to find out his story. Extensive research went into the writing of this book, Keyes conducted interviews with Milligan’s family, friends, lawyers, doctors, etc., anyone who was able to give him any information about Billy. This is a fascinating book and story by all accounts, but it’s not an easy read. At least it was not for me, given its subject. It is clear Billy Milligan was a person who suffered tremendously, especially as a child, having been physically and sexually abused by his step-father, he was a man who indeed suffered from mental illness. His case was wildly publicized at that time, and he was considered a monster by the press and the people who knew about the case only from the outside. In one of the mental institutions, he was committed to he was badly mistreated and there was even a politician who took advantage of this case to push his agenda. All of this happened in Ohio, USA, btw.
Personally, this book left me feeling conflicted. I don’t know what to believe. I feel sorry for Billy on one hand, but I can’t stop thinking about the women he hurt and if they ever healed or if the publication of this book hurt them even more. All I can say is read it for yourself and form your own opinion.
Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. Published in 1997, this is the story of Christopher Johnson McCandless, a young man who in 1991 left everything he knew behind, gave himself the name Alexander Supertramp, and made the trip of his lifetime, just as he always dreamed of doing. In April 1992 he hitchhiked to Alaska and entered its wilderness, where only four months later, he died. Jon Krakauer retraced his steps and told his heartbreaking story in this book, where he also tries to solve the mystery of McCandless’s death.
If you haven’t read it yet, you probably saw the movie, or at least heard about it. I recommend them both.
“Happiness [is] only real when shared.”
Heaven and Hell & The Sorrow of Angels by the Icelandic writer Jon Kalman Stefansson. Yes, they’re two distinct titles part of the Heaven and Hell Trilogy, as publishers called it, but I don’t see it as a trilogy. I see it as a bigger novel divided into three parts. The third part is called “The Heart of Man” and I’m currently reading it.
To say I love these books would be an understatement. Stefansson’s poetic prose knocked my socks off, swept me off my feet, etc., etc. This is the coming of age story of Boy, who lives in a village in 19th century Iceland. Following his journey, we meet the men and women of that time, all living hard lives, all at the mercy of Nature and its elements: the Sea, the Mountains, the Wind, the Snow, the Storm, the Blizzard. But as Leonard Cohen sang, “There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in”, sometimes the light does get in for these people even if it’s dim. Life is desperation, but it’s also hopefulness.
Kalman’s prose is so powerful that I was truly transported into the novel, confronting the Sea and the Snow, together with Boy. And for the first time in my life, I felt like the blurbs on the back of the book praising it were not exaggerated. And I’m not exaggerating when I say I underlined a quote or a phrase on almost every page of the book. His depictions of Iceland are breathtaking. And the elements of Nature are characters in themselves.
If you love beautiful language, coming of age stories and atmospheric reads, this is a novel you must read! And if you read it and you don’t find it as amazing as I do, please don’t tell me, haha. My only hope is that the English translation is as good as the Romanian one that I read. Once I’m done with the third part, I’ll try and write a detailed review, if I’ll be able to find the right words to do so.
“Some words can conceivably change the world, they can comfort us and dry our tears. Some words are bullets, others are notes of a violin. Some can melt the ice around one’s heart, and it is even possible to send words out like rescue teams when the days are difficult and we are perhaps neither living nor dead.”
“Break into the kingdom of death armed with words. Words can have the might of giants and they can kill a god, they can save lives and destroy them. Words are arrows, bullets, mythological birds that chase down gods… they are nets vast enough to trap the world and the sky as well, but sometimes words are nothing, torn garments that the frost penetrates, a run-down battlement that death and misfortune step lightly over. Yet words are the one thing this boy has.”
“Those who live in this valley see only a piece of the sky. Their horizon is mountains and dreams.”
Hard-Boiled Wonderand and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami. I don’t even know what to say about this book. With every novel I read from Murakami he continues to amaze me. To be honest, I don’t even know what I read. With two parallel naratives, the Universes created by Murakami are just mind-bending and they absorb you completely. You know how they say, you either love or hate Murakami’s writing, well I love it.
“Open your eyes, train your ears, use your head. If a mind you have, then use it while you can.”
“Only where there is disillusionment and depression and sorrow does happiness arise; without the despair of loss, there is no hope.”
“Genius or fool, you don't live in the world alone. You can hide underground or you can build a wall around yourself, but somebody's going to come along and screw up the works.”
“In his face there came to be a brooding peace that is seen most often in the faces of the very sorrowful or the very wise. But still he wandered through the streets of the town, always silent and alone.”
“It was like she was cheated. Only nobody had cheated her. So there was nobody to take it out on. However, just the same she had that feeling. Cheated.”
“Owing to the fact he was a mute they were able to give him all the qualities they wanted him to have.”
A General Theory of Oblivion by Jose Eduardo Agualusa. Now here’s a book you probably never heard of. The author himself said about this novel that it has two main characters: Luanda, the capital of the African country Angola (once a colony of Portugal), and Ludovica, an old Portuguese expat, who bricks herself into her apartment on the Eve of the civil war in Angola (1975), where she’ll stay for 28 long years.
As Ludo lives her confined life, war rages outside the walls of her apartment, and only glimpses of it reach her. But even so, Ludo will eventually learn that you cannot run from the outside world forever.
A multitude of characters make their way into this novel and they don’t seem to fit anywhere. But as Anton Chekhov famously said, “Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass”, Jose Agualusa does exactly this, as nothing is accidental in the world he created. And if you don’t believe me read the book and see for yourself :). The writing is very good too.
“The night, like a well, was swallowing stars.”
“The days slide by as if they were liquid.”
“People who are missed by other people, they are the ones who go to Paradise. Paradise is the space we occupy in other people's hearts.”
The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka. Yet another heartbreaking book. Told in the first person plural, this is ultimately a book of historical fiction telling the stories of Japanese women, who were brought to America by steamships, promised they will marry rich and handsome husbands once they’ll arrive, promised they will live better lives, only to find out they were lied to. These are the stories of many Japanese immigrants to the USA. The stories span over 30 years, up until early 20th century.
There is no plot in this book, no protagonist, no story of a single individual. There’s a reason why it’s written in the first person plural. This is an important book. It’s a tragic one. It’s a part of history that needs to be known. One can see that much research went into the writing of this book and I can only imagine how many interviews Julie Otsuka had to conduct to write it so well and with such lyrical prose. I say give it a try, even if the style of this novella doesn’t seem to be like something you would usually read :).
“On the boat we were mostly virgins. We had long black hair and flat wide feet and we were not very tall. Some of us had nothing but rice gruel as young girls and had slightly bowed legs, and some of us were only fourteen years old and were still young girls ourselves.”
”That night our new husbands took us quickly. They took us calmly. They took us gently but firmly, and without saying a word. They assumed we were the virgins the matchmakers have promised them we were and they took us with exquisite care. Now let me know if it hurts. They took us flat on our backs on the bare floor of the Minute Motel. They took us downtown, in second-rate rooms at the Kumamoto Inn. They took us in the best hotels in San Francisco that a yellow man could set foot in at the time...”
“We forgot about Buddha. We forgot about God. We developed a coldness inside us that still has not thawed. I fear my soul has died. We stopped writing home to our mothers. We lost weight and grew thin. We stopped bleeding. We stopped dreaming. We stopped wanting.”
Small Country by Gaël Faye. When I finished reading this book what I wrote on Goodreads was this: Once in a while I get to read a book that leaves me in complete silence after I finish it. This is one of them. Now, several months later, the silence is still there.
Gaël Faye is a French-Rwandan author, composer and hip-hop artist. He was born in Burundi and was inspired by his own childhood in the writing of this little gem of a novel. The book is structured in two parts. In the first part, we met Gabriel, living his perfectly imperfect childhood in Burundi, with almost no worries at all, except for being a witness of the shaky relationship between his Rwandan mother and French father, who were growing distant from each other with each passing day. Then in the second part of the book, the unimaginable happens. A war starts. The genocide of the Tutsi population in Rwanda begins.
There are no words to describe the unspeakable things the Tutsi population was put through. This is a part of recent world history not many people know about in detail, but we should. And if you want to know more, go to the Humans of New York page on Facebook and read the stories of the people in Rwanda Brandon interviewed when he was there in 2018. The stories start with this photograph (click here). And afterwards read this book.
"Genocide is an oil slick: those who don't drown in it are polluted for life."
Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. A gorgeously written novel of only 159 pages. This book became a classic of LGBT literature and no wonder. But the thing is, even if you’re a straight person you will find yourself relating to the characters of this book because in some way they are universal. This being the first book I read from Baldwin I was surprised by how much he managed to say about human psychology in so few pages.
There are dangers in not accepting who you are, in lying to oneself and hurting others, in self-hatred, in trying to run from yourself, and this book is about all of that and much more. Truly a must read!
"And no matter what I was doing, another me sat in my belly, absolutely cold with terror over the question of my life."
“People who believe that they are strong-willed and the masters of their destiny can only continue to believe this by becoming specialists in self-deception.”
“Time is just common, it's like water for a fish. Everybody's in this water, nobody gets out of it, or if he does the same thing happens to him that happens to the fish, he dies. And you know what happens in this water, time? The big fish eat the little fish. That's all. The big fish eat the little fish and the ocean doesn't care.”
An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine.
Aaliya Sohbi is the name of our protagonist. A woman who lived her entire life surrounded by books and a secret translator of great literature. She’s 72 years old now, lives in Beirut, and reflects upon her life. Through the books she read and translated, through what she lived or didn’t, through the decisions she made or didn’t. I saw myself in Aaliya. Yes, I’m 28, but I saw myself in a 72 years old woman from a foreign land of which I knew little. That’s the power of literature for you.
I don’t know what I could say about this book, to do it justice. I guess I have to reread it and reflect upon it some more. But even so I doubt I’ll find the right words.
“Most of us believe we are who we are because of the decisions we've made, because of events that shaped us, because of the choices of those around us. We rarely consider that we're also formed by the decisions we didn't make, by events that could have happened but didn't, or by our lack of choices, for that matter.”
“I long ago abandoned myself to a blind lust for the written word. Literature is my sandbox. In it I play, build my forts and castles, spend glorious time.”
“I thought every person should live for art, not just me, and furthermore, why would I want to be normal? Why would I want to be stupid like everyone else?”
The Easter Parade by Richard Yates. What sad and depressing novels Yates wrote. This was the first book I read in 2018 and it left me feeling sad for days. How much power can a writer have, if he makes you feel that way only by writing some words on blank pages? There’s nothing pretty in this book. There’s no joy, there’s no hope, only misery. The story follows the lives of the Grimes sisters, who come from a dysfunctional and broken family, from youth through middle age. I’m not giving away anything from the book if I say that these sisters lives remain unfulfilled. After all, the first sentence of the novel gives it all away. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but hope for some kind of miracle, maybe Yates just wants to deceive me, the reader. I should have known better though. Yates is unforgiving. It’s not that he doesn’t have any sort of compassion for his characters, because he has, but he’s not helping them either.
People have called him a master of realism and a great storyteller, and I humbly agree. And if you never read his books, approach them with caution. They might leave you feeling desperate.
“For a year she found an exquisite pain - almost pleasure - in facing the world as if she didn't care. Look at me, she would say to herself in the middle of a trying day. Look at me: I'm surviving; I'm coping; I'm in control of all this.”
“I see,' she said. And when would she ever learn to stop saying 'I see' about things she didn't see at all?”
“And do you know a funny thing? I'm almost fifty years old and I've never understood anything in my whole life.”
This is it. The most amazing books I’ve read in 2018. I hope you enjoyed reading about them and I hope I made you curious. Let me know in the comments what books you loved most last year or send me a DM on Instagram.
Thank you for reading!