Top Ten of 2018 + Reading Goals Recap

There’s three weeks left in the year, but I honestly don’t expect to get much reading done till my Christmas break (beginning the 20th!!!), so I thought I would start my yearly retrospective a bit early.

These were my reading goals for 2018:

  • Bring back Book Journals – Kind of a fail. I started a book journal with Ben-Hur but lost momentum early on.  I’m still tacitly reading it, and maybe during my break will start posting about it again.
  • Read more non-fiction.  Check!  Of the 45 books I read (or partially read) this year, almost a third were non-fiction, and some of the fiction was based heavily on real life.  That’s pretty good for me.
  • Escape the comfort zone.  Check.  I read a number of books this year that definitely challenged me, and some made me extremely uncomfortable.
  • Revive the blog.  Check.  While podcasting, I made an effort to write posts that complemented the episodes, and that worked out nicely.

In spite of having more or less reached my 2018 goal of 40 books, I have to admit only a fraction of the books really stand out to me as I think about it now.  Some were duds; others were momentarily entertaining but failed to leave a long-lasting impression.

Here, then, are my top ten books of the year (excluding re-reads):

10. The Undead: Organ Harvesting, the Ice-Water Test, Beating Heart Cadavers–How Medicine Is Blurring the Line Between Life and Death, by Dick Teresi
What a title… This wasn’t a cheerful read, but I thought it was very educational, especially the sections on the ambiguity of death itself. 

9.  Please Look after Mom, by Kyung-Sook Shin
A moving and memorable novel about family, old age, and culture.

8.  Various stories by Flannery O’Connor
Can’t believe I hadn’t read O’Connor before.   

7.  The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea, by Bandi
Disturbing, dark, and challenging to anyone who is a writer.

6.  About Orchids: A Chat, by Frederick Boyle
A sad history story about one of my favorite flowers.

5.  Embers, by Sándor Márai
Another book I couldn’t believe I hadn’t read before.  The ideal book for fans of the introspective, nostalgic novel, almost like something by Ishiguro…

4.  84, Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff
A short, poignant book to make you laugh, then cry.

3.  A Pale View of Hills, by Kazuo Ishiguro
I don’t generally like or read ghost stories, but this one is a masterpiece.  It’s also featured in one of my favorite podcast episodes from this year – “What Is a Classic?

2.  CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping, by Kerry Brown
To my own surprise, I really gravitated to this biography of a very powerful, and somewhat mysterious, leading figure of 2018.  Absolutely worthwhile.

1.  The Sea and Poison, by Shūsaku Endō
This book is a Kafkian “axe” if ever there was one.  I spent the better part of a week in shock over the book itself, as well as over my research for the episode “Doctors, Murderers.”  Hard as it was, I’m glad I pushed myself and tackled a subject I was almost too afraid to talk about on the podcast.

That’s it for me.  What were some of your favorites from this year?

My (Reading) Year in Review

It’s mid-December already – can you believe it?!

According to Goodreads, I read 36 books this year.  (A couple of those were “did not finish”s, but apparently those count, too.)  It was twice as much as I committed to, and I don’t say that to brag; it was more of an accident than anything.

You see, I started out the the year intending to read very specifically: learn to read French, read through the whole Bible, read longer books, read challenges, etc.  I’ve mentioned earlier this year some lessons learned in this area, which pretty much explain my “reading schedule” (or lack thereof, as it turned out).

2017 was a year of learning for me, nonetheless:

  • Though I didn’t stick with French, I did read several UX books for work, which made a life-changing impact on my day job.
  • I read four plays (three by Arthur Miller) and discovered the literary greatness of that genre.
  • My coworker lent me a 699 page biography of T. E. Lawrence.  Not only do I now know T. E. better than most real-life acquaintances, I actually finished the book in a reasonable amount of time (double win!).
  • C. S. Lewis melted my heart with Till We Have Faces, then broke my new podcast with That Hideous Strength, a book too tough to talk about.  (Actually, I’m releasing my podcast review of “that hideous book” early next year.  So it’s not 100% broken…just delayed.)
  • I’ve been working seriously on one of my own novels this year, the longest yet.  It’s my take on the Victorian Gothic, and I’m excited to finish it in the next month or two.  ^_^

So, the mistake with starting out the year with Till We Have Faces is that all the subsequent fiction I read pales by comparison. I’ve also been shy of my physical TBR shelf, which contains some randomness like The Prisoner of Zenda and the Lucia & Mapp stories, as well as the ever-agonizing Nostromo by Joseph Conrad, a book I have started some three or four times… 

Basically, I’m ending the year in a reading rut, and I probably won’t do much reading over Christmas break because I’ll be writing and podcasting.  But that is ok.  As someone with far too many hobbies, I am trying to accept the fact I cannot do everything at once, and these pursuits are still fulfilling even when taken in small sprints.

Kazuo Ishiguro – Nobel Laureate

Exciting news in the literature world… today it was announced Kazuo Ishiguro won the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature!

As you may know from following me here and on Goodreads, I have great respect for Ishiguro as a writer.  I do not agree with his outlook on all issues, and my reactions to his novels have ranged from jaw-dropping admiration and pure enjoyment to boredom and pure disgust.  Nonetheless, he is a truly talented storyteller, who is not above using plain language to reach his readers.  His genius lies in the fact that his simplicity of style never gets in the way of his subtlety or message.  As a reader I am drawn into his world, and as a writer I remain in complete awe of his style.  Kazuo Ishiguro is certainly a author of “axes” for frozen seas and, for the writing standard he sets, a worthy Nobel Prize laureate.

Reading Lessons Learned – 2017

Usually I would save this type of post for late December.  However, more and more I’m convinced that if you need to recap something in your life or change the way you do something, there’s no reason to wait for the end of the year.  As the saying goes – why save for tomorrow what you can do today?  😉

Now, that’s not to say that I won’t come to any more “revelations” during the rest of this year.  I just wanted to share some things that have been on my mind lately – lessons learned, if you will – not about books specifically, but about reading itself: as a process, a journey, and a joy.

Alpine view

Finding Axes

    In my second podcast episode, “Ice and Axes – What Makes a Favorite?”, I talked about Kafka’s recommendation to read a book that is “an axe for the frozen sea within [you].”  It really made a lot of sense, so I abandoned my “favorites” list and resolved to start evaluating books in this new light.  When I read now, I see if a book a) gives me a new idea, b) makes me think about an old idea in a new way, or c) changes my life in some way.  This is how I personally define an “axe” book.

    I’ve added a new page on my blog called “Axes,” where you can find some of those titles.  🙂  I’m particularly happy that it catches some of those reads that, while not fitting the “favorite” label, are worthwhile nonetheless.

    Challenges Aren’t My Cup of Tea

      Except for very short read-alongs, no more challenges for me (*sigh*).

      I had moderate success with my 2016 reading challenges, and it was my plan to do the same this year.  I came up with an ambitious Russian Lit reading list, a pile of books for Mount TBR, and even my own, comprehensive Sherlock Holmes re-reading spree.

      There was nothing stopping me from fulfilling these challenges, except a distinct lack of determination.  I felt bad, because I was definitely reading – in fact, surpassing my 15-book Goodreads goal – but I wasn’t committed to the challenges.  Strangely, very few of those books sounded appealing this year.

      What I realized from this (or rather, finally admitted) is that spontaneity is key to my reading enjoyment.  If I am an armchair traveler, then I like my travels to be real adventures.  I don’t like to plan out in detail where I’m going next.  Also, it is hard to predict when is the “right time” to read a particular book.  I’ve had more success just picking up the book that sounds interesting at a given time.

      Pair Long Books with Quick Books…

      The title is self-explanatory.  You would’ve thought I’d learned this long ago.  (I thought I did.)

      Up till the recent past, I have tried to read a fiction book and a nonfiction book at the same time, assuming the fiction book would be a quick read and the nonfiction book could be a six-month project.  I’ve finally realized that some memoirs can be read in a day or two, while some apparently “short” novels can take me forever to finish.  Now I will try to be smarter about my “book pairings.”

      …and Stick to Two at a Time

      I love starting a new book, too much so.  This year it’s become painfully clear that reading more than two simultaneously is overwhelming.  I’m still downsizing my Currently Reading list and plan not to get in this predicament again!

      Read More, Share More

      This summer I surmounted my fears and launched a podcast, Classics Considered.  It was meant to be an experiment, so though it’s fizzled out a little, I’m not concerned, nor is it completely abandoned.  The point of trying it was to figure out, is podcasting the next step?  Is there value in audio reviews?  Do I enjoy it, and if so, is it in addition to or instead of blogging?

      Speaking into a microphone, and to an audience of the world wide web, is very tough.  Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that recording just six episodes turned me into a more confident speaker at my day job, enabling me to give presentations without nearly as much anxiety as I had before.  This wasn’t the original goal, but it was a life-changing bonus.

      As for the podcast itself, I don’t particularly like hearing myself speak, but I do love the content and sharing it in a casual, verbal format.  On the other hand, writing comes much more naturally, and it’s far less time consuming than preparing, recording, and editing an audio track.  I also regret the dearth of quality posts on Noonlight Reads this year.

      The long and short of it is – I now have two viable ways to share classic literature, and I really want to keep both without sacrificing quantity or quality.  On a side note, I have also started writing more Goodreads reviews, and my Instagram…well, it exists.  😉  I may start a YouTube channel, being a daily YouTube user as well.

      Sharing more thoughts, more frequently, is an ongoing goal.  It’s terribly overwhelming, but somehow, someday, I’ll find the right balance among the umpteen social media platforms.  For now, I just need to be more consistent and keep sharing as often as possible.

      Let me know – what are your reading takeaways from this year?

      Wedding Preparations in the Country

      I rarely read Kafka straight through.  Even in the middle of a story, I’ll take a sudden hiatus and return to it later, not the worse for a break.  The world through his eyes is weird, menacing, and illogical, yet too close to reality to make it entirely escapism.  This collection of his complete short stories is no different; I’ve owned it for several years, and returned to it just now after an extended break.

      “Wedding Preparations in the Country” is less fanciful than his more famous work, The Metamorphosis, yet it is no less Kafkaesque.  Raban, a city dweller, is setting out on a rainy night to journey to the country, where his fiancee awaits him.  Along the way, he encounters his friend, Lement, as well as a host of strangers who leave their own influences on him and his already tenuous nerves.  Raban alternates between soaking in his surroundings and musing over the trip before him, finding little to comfort his anxieties and much to increase his sense of dread.

      This short tale was quintessential Kafka.  I particularly enjoyed it because it brings out one of the best qualities of his writing – the impressionism.  He writes attitudes more than characters, atmospheres more than places, and feelings more than coherent thoughts (Kafka’s rambling dialogues are masterful).  Of course, it’s not an upbeat story; like most of his plots, it seems more like a thought experiment or a bad dream.  The realism that comes through, however, is what leaves me in awe every time.  It’s like looking at Monet painting from a distance: you don’t see blobs of paint, you see a window into someone else’s real world.