Hi, it’s May of 2019 and I’m just now sharing my favorite books from 2018…whoops! Look, I’ve been busy. I had a baby. That’s my excuse for everything now. But here are the books I loved last year.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Pachinko begins in a small fishing village in Korea in the early 1900s, where Sunja in seduced by a Japanese business man and finds herself pregnant. A traveling minister saves her family from shame when he offers to marry her, and the two immigrate to Japan. The fascinating thing about this book was that it taught me about a time and place I knew little to nothing about. I had never learned about the Japanese occupation of Korea, how many Koreans immigrated to Japan and lived as second-class citizens, even after their families had lived in Japan for generations. Sunja works hard to make a better life for her sons, who both eventually become involved in the pachinko business, but her family is constantly looking back to their heritage in Korea and reminded of it by the prejudice in the country they live in.
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
I’m pretty late on picking up this book since it’s been out since 2010 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, but I’m glad I finally got around to it. Each chapter focuses on a different interconnected character and we bounce from punk rocker turned music executive Benny Salazar to his kleptomaniac assistant turned artist Sasha and the characters who populate their lives, all orbiting one another and the city of New York, its own presence in the story. Equally present in the novel is music, first in the punk rock scene in late 70s San Francisco up to an imagined (and maybe close) future in which toddlers become the hottest demographic in music with their ability to select songs just by pointing at smart devices. It’s a beautifully written and engrossing story that pulls you into well-drawn lives across generations.
Modern Lovers by Emma Straub
Another story set in New York, this one in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Ditmas Park, which isn’t too far from where I live. Elizabeth, Andrew and Zoe are famous-adjacent: their college bandmate Lydia went on to stardom, then died young. Now, a film production company is trying to make a biopic of her life, but need the three to sign away their life rights. Elizabeth, a real estate agent now married to Andrew, is all for it. She’s curious to see how their college selves will be recreated on screen, and proud of the hit song she wrote that Lydia went on to make famous. Zoe, Elizabeth’s neighbor and best friend, is ambivalent—she’s more focused on deciding whether to stay married to Jane, and what her decision would mean for the Brooklyn eatery they own together, and their daughter Ruby. Andrew is dead set against it. He won’t quite say why, instead disappearing for long hours each day to a new yoga commune that’s popped up around the block. A story about love, both new and old, Modern Lovers is compulsively readable and satisfying.
The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
Fairy tale retellings have become commonplace, but this fresh and compelling take on a Russian tale of the frost king and a gifted maiden stands out. I loved that the basis for the story comes from a culture less commonly written about in Western literature, so I learned about some new supernatural creatures, like the domovoi, a household spirit who guards the home and hearth. The heroine, Vasya, is gifted with the sight, which gives her the ability to see the spirits present in their rural Russian village, from the vazila in the stables to the rusalka in the stream. But a priest and icon painter arrives from Moscow intent upon ridding the villagers of their superstitions and ceasing offerings to the old gods. Without the friendly guardians of hearth, stable, and wood, an ancient god of death and fear—the Bear—will be freed from his long slumber. A tale of family, faith, and love, The Bear and the Nightingale is a fascinating peek into the intersection of beliefs old and new.