My best friend from high school loved to read. She always had a book with her, and occasionally talked about them with a peculiar, fanatic, dreamy voice that only happens when a high school girl falls in love with Leonard Cohen's Fishing from Pavement. I managed to evade her love for books. Being a good student but a non-reader, I read what was required in school and stopped at rants about Gatsby. Instead I wrote bad love stories and somehow believed that non-readers made better writers because we had no influences to draw upon.
Today I read not because I write, but simply for the pleasure of reading. If 2013 was biking, music, and management books, 2014 was learning to read in order to better understand a wider world.
2014 / Chronologically
1. Dance Dance Dance, Murakami Haruki, January
Wherein a last grasp of youth (spent on j-rock, lit, films and anime) succumbed to Dolphin Hotels, Sheep Man, elongated hallways and a fleeting memory of reverie. Murakami never fails to present cinematic, dream experiences, but maybe it's me who's outgrown one man's lonely, fantastic tunnel vision, and need a bigger piece of the pie.
2. The Lemon Tree, Sandy Tolan, January
3. The City of Oranges, Adam LeBor
Read before the trip to Israel, and, for an American who knew embarrassingly little about the Middle East beyond headlines, both of these were sweeping epics in their emotion weight. Even though it was difficult to hold on to the facts while Evan recalled timelines and events like a historian on a documentary tour, it helped with the gravity of being in the Old City. Arduous. Complex. Heartbreaking.
4. Quiet, Susan Cain, February
One week of conversation followed this book in the vein of "so do you think you're an extrovert or introvert?" In the end, bestseller semi-self-help books are all the same, a few forgettable anecdotes, statistics, lab tests, and a well-meaning thesis.
5. The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P, Adele Waldman, February
This novella is the act of drinking gourmet coffee in Williamsburg. Everyone is interesting looking and smart and funny and attractive, until you realize we're all the same. Impressive close read on the inner-workings of the Brooklyn writer man-child, but not really a story that needs to be told. In fact, I'm going to say no more New York stories period.
6. Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg, March
The naiveté of which I came to this book and left with shiny eyes only reveals the extent of my lack of understanding of feminist literature and history. The bullish voice Sheryl writes with may not be a nuanced enough, but as with other "feminist" work that gets criticized for not being big enough, diverse enough, at least it's a beginning. Role models take time, just because she's white, privileged, and has a supportive husband doesn't mean it's not a worthwhile fight.
7. Interpreters of Maladies, Jhumpa Lhari, March
The first story in this short story collection, "A Temporary Matter" about a husband and wife who can no longer cope after losing their baby in labor complications, is literally a study of how a universe can be created between the emotional synapses of two people. Loss, told with silence, coupled with secretes, blanketed in dark outs, induces the strangeness of how ephemeral a connection can be. Simply brilliant.
8. On Love, Alain de Button, March
I read this book and skimmed a few of the author's work after listening to a talk of his on TED. Alain de Button makes the inscrutable (philosophy! love! architecture! proust!) digestible like a SOMA pill, made for the modern man dogged by a pressure to succeed. While I appreciate his switching frameworks and unconventional thinking (in one memorable instance, we should all have a day of fools where we fuck other people in donkey suits, more or less), his witticisms can be forgettable, and more an entrepreneurial reaction to first world problems: i.e. School of Life.
9. City of Gold, Jim Krane, April
Read before going to Dubai in my burgeoning interest of the Middle East, this told the short history of a desolate place that found oil and a man who ran a country like a corporation. Wonderful, zipping, perplexing development in the middle of everything impossible… Dubai is willed into existence by man's aptitude for the impossible.
10. From Beirut to Jerusalem, Tom Friedman, May
I barreled through the Beirut section before bed, on buses, on subways, enraptured, but couldn't really claw my way through the Jerusalem section. Somehow Israel really paled against Beirut throughout its Civil War years of death as norm. Still, another good book to gain a foothold into understanding the Middle East. Written with precision and typical Friedman ease.
11. Age of Ambition, Evan Osnos, June
There it is, a China book by an old China hand. Osnos is such the impressive writer who can wrought a meta-narrative through several disparate pieces, pieces that are already incredible strong on their own, but that overall, offers a look into China in the 21st century as a place made of both promise and fake prestige. The cliffhanger is China itself, no one will know what will become of her.
My third year in China has somehow rendered me uninterested in Chinese literature. I guess reading Osnos is at least a bit of a redemption despite it not being in the language. He is missed.
12. The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides, July
This fast read of the love and life of Brown kids intertwined in romance and destruction is just that, a very fast read. Eugenides is a smart and good writer, but the characters are limp and uninteresting, except for introducing the effects of Manic-Depression for me, applicable to a dear friend in real life so that I may more empathetic.
13. The Interestings, Meg Wolitzer, August
The idea of the interestings probably reminds all kids with an arty bent of a youth dominated by thinking we were the most interesting people who've ever graced the earth. This book was about that, but also the aftermath, the banality, life's every little mundane play after therein and the nagging fear/reality that, maybe you too are ordinary, and that may be ok as long as you try to stay good and kind. This was entertaining. The geek main character was a treat, but otherwise nothing heartbreaking.
14. Little Birds, Anais Nin, September
15. Diary of Anais Nin, Vol II, October
Anais Nin marks the year that I try to reclaim Feminism 101. At first it's love, like OMG writing quotes to Tumblr love if I only I had know her when I was 16 man! Then fear of narcissism and emotional over-indulgence floods in, and so ends the reign. It's too bad. She, and her writing is sumputous, fearless, and beautiful to the teeth and bone. If only we had the audacity to embrace all that we are: a crazy bundle of emotions, un-honed, beatific, horrific. Such is life. As for Little Birds, a collection of erotic stories, they deserve to have as many hits as pornhub except with far better orgasms. I would masturabte to Anais Nin erotic stories anyday.
16. Bali: Heaven and Hell, Phil Jarratt, October
17. Surf Stories, Stormriders, October
Read during and after the Bali trip in my newfound ritual to read about a place before I go, this was also a call to youth when I went through a minor surfing phase (in Ohio, dreaming of groms). Bali turns out to have had quite a vibrant expat creative scene dating back to before WWII, led by one charismatic German primitivist painter Walter Spies. The convergence of an artistic community around him reminded me, at times, of our little bubble in Beijing. Unfortunately he met his end during the WWII, drowned on a ship of prisoners.
18. The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt, November
1. This book was nearly all Boris for me.
2. I picked it up because Kate Bosworth took a photo of a chapter entitled "Morphine Lollipop". Since then, I've been following Kate Bosworth. Then Instagram was blocked. Blue Crush was awesome.
3. It's one of those books that you read knowing "this probably has been optioned," then wondered if the writer purposely wrote it that way.
19. White Tiger, Aravind Adiga, December
The theme of book I read this year is basically IndiaMiddleEastChina, or so I like to think. This book, recommended by a friend, is written from the perspective of a Indian entrepreneur / murderer in a letter to Premier Wen Jiabao. The premise is clever enough, and the book moves swiftly and bitingly as the main character makes his way from countryside to Delhi, from the darkness to promise. It's hardly a favorable view of India, which only makes me think that ironically, even while Balram notes of China's ostensible success compared to India's "failed democracy," such a story would be hard to be told in China, period.
20. Midnight in Peking, Paul French, December
I don't read or watch much horror/mystery anything, so this was read mostly for Beijing as it makes rounds in the expat community here. To my delight, this was a great book to wade through while knowing the invisible lines that make this ancient city. Geography plays a big role here, as in most murder mysteries between people, places, and alibis. At times I literally pulled back at the mention of Hutongs and British girls who speak perfect Chinese, not to mention ample references to my dearTianjin (Tientsin), Edgar Snow, and an expat scene that brimmed of gossip. Beyond the perks of historical fiction and re-living Beijing in 1937, the book was simply a thrill, an astoundingly well-paced tragedy, a beautiful, proper girl lost to the throes of a licentious underbelly, a brokenhearted, obstinate father who waged his own investigation, a sympathetic hermaphrodite, villains with nudist colonies. In some ways, maybe mystery is fiction at its purest form, to make us wonder ceaseless until we hurtle to the end.
2015 / reading, to read
The Looming Tower, Lawrence Wright
An Unnecessary Woman, Rabih Alameddine
Serious Men, Manu Joseph
Creating Effective Teams: A Guide for Members and Leaders, Susan A. Wheelan