Life started going back to normal in March, and I've regained some semblance of a social life since then. I might be an extrovert now, actually. My reading dropped down to almost pre-pandemic levels, 30 books total in 2022. I read 16 books of fiction and 14 nonfiction. I guess listening to audiobooks was mainly a lockdown activity since I only listened to two this year.
Although I abandoned plenty of books, I didn't get far into them to warrant giving my opinions. In the past, I'd try to give a book at least 50 pages, but really, I don't have to read more than a few pages to know whether I trust the author to take me somewhere interesting or not.
With life resetting, some minor travel within North America, and watching prestige HBO shows about messy rich white people, I've had distractions, but at the end of the day, nothing beats the joy of sitting down with a good book. I already have an excellent list of books to read for 2023.
(AB) = audiobook
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Cleanness by Garth Greenwell
A gay American academic teaches abroad in Bulgaria, a country where homosexuality is not accepted. The first story is my favorite, and his prose is such a pleasure to read. Some of the stories featuring violent S&M and sexual assault are too graphic for me, but I admire the confessional candor of every story.
If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha (AB)
Four young women from humble backgrounds struggle to make something of themselves in hyper-competitive Seoul. I heard this book didn't have much of a plot so I had low expectations going in, but I ended up being taken with every character. I feel like I know these girls. Whether it accurately depicts Seoul and its young working-class women, I can't say. The characters' backstories are quite dramatic, but they are haunting and memorable.
Sisters by Daisy Johnson
I'm always up for a good literary gothic horror novel, so I thought this book would fit the bill. After July is bullied for sharing a topless photo with a crush and September takes revenge on the schoolgirls responsible for spreading it, the sisters move to an isolated house near the shore with their depressed mother. I thought this book was just okay. It felt like the author came up with an interesting idea, ran with it, but didn't get very deep. Johnson is talented though, and I'm going to read her first book, Everything Under, at some point.
Pure Colour by Sheila Heti
I kept seeing Sheila Heti's name pop up in different literary spaces, so I looked her up and was pleasantly surprised to discover she is from Toronto. I tried getting into some of her more popular books, Motherhood and How Should a Person Be?—the latter that seems to be about a specific breed of aging hipsters that you'll find in Toronto's Trinity-Bellwoods neighborhood—and could not get very far into them. Pure Colour is Heti's latest release and I figured I should give her work one last shot, and I'm glad I did. It's written in the third person, so it's not as navel-gazing as the other books I abandoned. Even though Pure Colour is short, it took me a long time to finish it. After every chapter, I wanted some space to digest and absorb what I read. If you're looking for a gripping and cohesive plotline, this novel is not for you. It's more experimental, philosophical, and even spiritual. The chapters I enjoyed the most are the most abstract, the ones that ruminate and attempt to answer broader questions on art, love, and being alive. Sheila Heti's books may be hit-and-miss for me, but I'm definitely paying attention to what she puts out next.
Either/Or by Elif Batuman
This sequel to The Idiot made me laugh so hard. It is 1996 and Selin is back at Harvard for her sophomore year. Intellectually gifted, she’s more of an “idiot” than ever in her personal life. She depends on books, dissecting everything from obscure Danish philosophy, classic literature, and even the ‘90s self-help dating manual The Rules, to help navigate adulthood. It took me back to my university days, at 18, 19, when I knew nothing. This novel made me realize I did something similar, reading a lot of classic literature to learn how to be a woman. I read novels such as Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, and The Return of the Native and subconsciously absorbed the lesson that if you make one mistake—mainly choosing the wrong man to marry—you were going to die, usually by suicide. Those books were by men, and in hindsight, gave me some light trauma on growing up. Anyway, Either/Or is a riot, although the best parts take place in Selin's head. When she goes to Turkey for the summer and there's more action and plot, the story strangely loses steam.
The Bradshaw Variations by Rachel Cusk
I'm slowly going through Rachel Cusk's backlist. The Bradshaw Variations is the last novel she wrote before the Outline trilogy. It tackles some common Cusk themes such as masculine-feminine roles in relationships, parenthood, and balancing creativity with domestic life. It's been interesting reading her earlier work and seeing how she improved with each book until she got to her current genius level.
Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder
Amazing title and cover. It had such promise at the start, but ultimately, I think the concept of an angry mother turning into a dog could've been stronger as a short story, a novella at most. It's a good thing I read this before Elena Ferrante's The Lost Daughter, another novel about reluctant motherhood, because Nightbitch would've felt more shallow and one-note if I read it after. But it's not really fair to compare writers with Ferrante.
The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante
I brought the paperback of Elena Ferrante's third novel on a five-hour flight to Portland this summer. When the plane took off, I started reading it, thinking I'd switch to a movie soon. But five hours later, the plane landed and I closed the book, stunned. I can't remember the last time I read a book in one sitting. It's as gripping as a murder mystery but the crime is a middle-aged woman stealing a child's doll on a beach. The story made me very uneasy but I loved every moment of my reading experience. My favorite book of the year.
Lapvona by Ottessa Moshfegh
Wow. This novel's got everything: violence, torture, murder, rape, cannibalism, pedophilia, incest, weird sex stuff with an old blind woman. Unless you have a strong stomach, don't eat while reading this. But she's such a funny and talented writer, and the storytelling is so good that I kept turning the pages. Some sections made me physically ill. Once I was done, I was surprised to find that I liked it. Even though her characters had done all these horrible things, displaying the worst of humanity, I still found the characters endearing. What does that say about me? I hope something good.
Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus
I was in the mood for a light rom-com but I could not get into those popular Emily Henry novels at all. Lessons in Chemistry seemed like a good option because it's critically acclaimed and well-written. But it turned out not to be a rom-com with a happy romantic ending if that's what you're looking for too. Nevertheless, it is a page-turner and an easy read. In the 1960s, Elizabeth Zott is a single mother and a chemist who is undervalued at the male-dominated Hastings Research Institute. Because Zott is as gorgeous as she is a genius, she gets offered to host a TV show. She accepts only for the money and the show becomes her platform to make housewives use their brains, to the chagrin of the higher-up TV execs. The book's crusade against religious people is shallow. It wants to depict those believing in God as morons and insinuates that real scientists should be atheists. This is an okay escapist novel as long as you don't take it as seriously as it takes itself.
The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank
I've seen this book mentioned throughout the years and it was apparently a literary phenomenon in 1999 when it was first published. The author passed away this year and her books were in the news again. This is a collection of short stories mostly centered around a protagonist named Janie. The first batch of stories come off pretty New York WASP, but I enjoyed Bank's witty humor and the Salinger feel of her work. The better stories are in the latter half of the book.
Joan is Okay by Weike Wang
Wang's dry humor is like no other, and I'll continue to read her work for that reason alone, even if her novels leave me with feelings of sadness and malaise. Both of her novels are set in the STEM world and I always come away with new knowledge on the characters' respective fields. In Joan is Okay, one of the major themes is what happens when children of immigrants do manage to succeed in America, at least financially. Joan is a revered ICU doctor at a New York City hospital. In her thirties, she is devoted to her work and has little interest in marrying and starting a family. This book is similar in theme to the Japanese novel Convenience Store Woman, which I reviewed in 2020. The protagonists are both workaholics who want to be cogs in the machine. Work is the only place they feel they truly belong.
Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
This has been such a beloved novel for over four decades that I had to see what the hype is about. Yes, it's humorous and imaginative, but I just don't think I'm the right audience. It's a bit too silly for me and I prefer more character development.
Life Ceremony: Stories by Sayaka Murata
The author of Convenience Store Woman is also known for her short stories in Japan. I admire many of the stories in this collection. My favorite is the first, which takes place in an alternate world where human bodies are recycled into practical items like furniture or materials to make clothing. The title story is a little revolting as well, about a new death ceremony where the living feast on human meat to honor a person's death. Give this collection a go if you like weird stories that make you question reality and the status quo. I was certainly left with strange feelings after reading many of the stories.
Out There: Stories by Kate Folk
If you like the surreal horror stories of Kelly Link and Carmen Maria Machado, this book is for you. The title story about dating blots, male robots designed to court women on dating apps and steal their data, is a standout, along with the last story, "Big Sur," from the POV of a blot named Roger. I also found "The Bone Ward" really absorbing. The other stories are okay to decent, but they all have interesting concepts and are never boring. The author does not seem to have a positive outlook on men and relationships, at least when she wrote these stories. Out There is a great title as it has multiple meanings.
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Raskolnikov, an impoverished student living in St. Petersburg, murders his landlord and steals her valuables. The last novel I'm reading this year and I still have 300 pages to go. I'll update this post with my opinions once I'm done.
Lost in Summerland: Essays by Barrett Swanson
Barrett Swanson wrote the best thing I read in 2021, so his debut book was high on my reading list. Almost every essay is good, but the best two involve his brother. In “OK Forever,” Barrett dissects his complicated relationship with his aggressive older brother, who is in a coma after getting punched outside a bar. In the title essay, the Swanson brothers go on a trip to a psychic community in search of answers after his brother develops mysterious psychic powers from his head injury. If you like David Foster Wallace's essays, read this collection.
Cultish: the Language of Fanaticism by Amanda Montell
While not the deepest exploration of the psychological manipulation of cults, this book dissects how cult leaders harness the power of linguistics to persuade their followers. Giving examples from a wide range of communities—boutique gyms, MLMs, Instagram influencers, and actual cults—it argues how language can help manufacture cults or cult-like communities. While it's clear that a SoulCycle class is not the same kind of cult as Heaven's Gate or Scientology, I do find it interesting how different communities employ common buzzwords, phrases, and verbal elements to keep members connected and in sync. They're not always used in nefarious ways, but this book helps me question how language is being used in my own communities and whether I'm at risk of being absorbed by their hiveminds.
Conscious Luck by Gay Hendricks and Caroline Kline
The advice in this book to cultivate your own luck may seem simple at first, but I did discover some new concepts to live a more intentional and abundant life. Sometimes, basic concepts can be the hardest to implement, so I'm buying a copy of this short book to remind myself.
The Nineties by Chuck Klosterman (AB)
I listened to this on audiobook mostly for novel research (I'm writing a novel set in the '90s). I was intrigued by the sections on music, movies, and the general culture and mood of the decade, but the stuff on politics and sports bored me. One observation that made me laugh is that, yes, it is quite odd that phone books used to exist, and you could look up anyone's phone number and address as long as you had that person's full name. Nowadays, that information is sacred while everything else is fair game online.
12 Rules for Life by Jordan B. Peterson
I decided to block out everything I'd heard about Jordan Peterson, good and bad, and read this book to see for myself what the fuss is about. I started out with a library book but ended up buying the hardcover because I wanted to highlight a lot of passages. Do I think this book has value? Yes, totally. I can see why it has helped so many men get their lives together (and prevent suicides), although anyone can benefit from this book. My main complaint is that it can be a slog to read sometimes, especially all the Bible stuff and Peterson's personal interpretation of it. I think Mr. Peterson would really enjoy learning Kabbalah and its wisdom on the Bible. If I ever meet him, I'd gift him books by Rav Berg. If you've already formed a negative opinion of Jordan Peterson based on hot takes and out-of-context sound bites on social media, I recommend reading this book to judge for yourself.
Atomic Habits by James Clear
This is a massively popular book on how to form good habits and stop bad ones. These tips, such as habit stacking and visual cues, can help people, but this book did very little for me. I'm already doing a lot of these things intuitively. If I really want to accomplish something, I have my own system to getting things done.
Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon
These square Austin Kleon books are quick reads, little coffee table books for doses of creative motivation. I read Show Your Work! last year, which was fine, and I figured I might as well read the other two books in his series. Not the most groundbreaking advice, but again, sometimes the most basic concepts are the hardest to implement.
Keep Going by Austin Kleon
Keep Going is the better book in his series. It contains practical tips on staying creative when you're discouraged or burnt out. I still think about that one tip about going outside to walk and get some fresh air. Obvious, right? But I genuinely forget that it's an option. Also, I like that section on giving yourself permission not to monetize every creative skill.
The Last Nomad by Sugri Said Salh
This memoir was quite the journey. I've always been curious about tribe living, especially in the modern age. The author recounts her childhood growing up in a nomadic tribe in Somalia in the ‘80s before finding her way to America after the Somali Civil War. Salh comes from a lineage of storytellers and she’s a natural writer. Although the book deals with serious topics such as war, sexual assault, and FGM, her writing is so warm and personable that I felt a sense of safety in her words.
Rethink Love by Monica Berg
Out of the countless dating and relationship gurus out there, I think it makes the most sense to take love advice from those who have been happily married for at least a decade. Based on Kabbalistic wisdom, Monica Berg's new book teaches how we can do the inner work to attract the one by becoming who we want to attract. Once in a relationship, she gives sound recommendations on how to deepen the connection. This book gave me clarity on the spiritual purpose of marriage.
Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner
If you want your heart to be shattered into a million pieces, read this memoir by indie musician Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast. I read the excerpt in The New Yorker a while back and it was so sad, it took me a while to get around to the book. After a few chapters, I realized I couldn't read it in public without getting covered in tears and snot. I don't know if I'd reread this because I don't want to get destroyed again, but it contains some beautiful passages I'd like to revisit.
I'm Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy
Another memoir about a dead mother and the daughter's complicated relationship with her. I didn't know anything about Jennette McCurdy having never watched her Nickelodeon show, but how can you resist the ballsy title and cover? I read it in two sittings. The mother is damaged and abusive, but McCurdy tells her life story with such humor and some of the events are so ludicrous that I couldn't help but laugh.
The Queen's Code by Allison A. Armstrong
I've been learning more about masculine and feminine energy in relationships, and this was one of the books recommended. It's a self-help book about relationships and understanding men but written in the form of a novel. It's so corny that it might make you want to puke, seriously. It took forever to get through because I had to put it down every couple of pages due to heavy cringing and eye-rolling, but I kept reading because it does contain useful information on how to communicate with men. By the end, I kind of got used to the writing style and even felt empathetic to the characters. SPOILER ALERT: Claudia, the grandma giving the younger women "man lessons," becomes increasingly ill near the end, and the book keeps alluding that she is going to die. But don't worry, she doesn't. She's just exhausted from giving all these man lessons because she was too much in her masculine energy. Lol.
The Secret History of the Zohar by Michael Berg
This slim book contains the dramatic tale of how the Zohar, also known as the Book of Splendor, was revealed to the world. First, the spiritual wisdom was passed on as oral tradition, and then recorded as sacred text in the 2nd Century. The book was concealed for hundreds of years before reappearing again in the 13th Century. This is a beginner's overview on the history of the Zohar and how it influenced great thinkers of the past, such as Plato, Newton, and Michelangelo.
I borrow books from the library most of the time and only buy books if I know I'll reread them. From the books I read this year, these are the ones I purchased or are on my wish list:
- Either/Or by Elif Batuman
- The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante
- Lost in Summerland: Essays by Barrett Swanson
- Conscious Luck by Gay Hendricks and Caroline Kline
- 12 Rules for Life by Jordan B. Peterson
- The Last Nomad by Sugri Said Salh
- Rethink Love by Monica Berg
Read my other annual reading roundups.