Best Reads of 2018

Another year gone by! 2018 was a great year, both personally and professionally. Many things ended this year, and many exciting adventures started to take form. My reading lived up to expectation too, and I found myself reading “the right book at the right time” several times. I did not read as much as other years, but I read things that interested me, inspired me and challenged me, and I even revisited old favorites. So I would say it was a fantastic year for reading. Here are some highlights:

Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

This was the first book I read by Ishiguro and I loved it. This is one of the most sadly beautiful novels I have ever read. Narrated from the perspective of Kathy, a girl created for the purpose of becoming a “donor”, along with many other children, for sick people. The whole purpose of these artificially conceived children is to one day give all their functioning organs to deadly ill people. However, Kathy becomes first a carer for other donors and so delays her own donations.

The setting of the book is an England in which kids like Kathy are raised in boarding schools away from society, where they learn about their “mission” and how they’re different from “normal” people. Kathy’s best friends there are Rachel and Tommy. Apart from the romantic triangle between them, Ishiguro builds through Kathy three of the most complex characters in literature who, despite of being told repeatedly that they are not human, love and cling to life bravely and painfully. Kathy herself is a very interesting character, her narrative mixing an honest recollection of the past as well as some reflections on memory and the arbitrariness of it, a topic with which dominates the whole novel and accounts for the generally nostalgic tone of the book.

The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage, Philip Pullman

Last December I discovered Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy and fell in love with it. So this year I got my hands on a beautiful edition (the UK edition) of the first volume of The Book of Dust. This story is set in an earlier time than The Golden Compass, and tells of Lyra’s Oxford while she was a baby. The protagonist is a young boy called Malcolm, whose parents own an inn and who has a canoe called La Belle Sauvage. The lives of Malcolm and Lyra will become intertwined when a creepy (very creepy, really) villain and Mrs Coulter try to steal her from the convent where Lord Asriel placed her. If you haven’t read His Dark Materials, it doesn’t really matter, although they give a lot of information about how this universe works. I recommend this for any fantasy readers: Pullman is a master of the genre.

 

Wild, Cheryl Strayed

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Strayed tells the story of how, at 26, after her mother’s death and her divorce, she made the rash decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, underestimating both the preparation time most hikers take and the physical demands of hiking. She, however, kept to her word and hiked all the way from California to Oregon. Packing mistakes, snow, terrible heat, water scarcity, getting lost and finding creepy men along the way are only part of the obstacles Strayed came across during her journey.

What most interested me about Strayed’s book was the honesty with which she stated her motives in hiking the PCT. I could not help but sympathize with an unprepared, delusional, female solo traveler. I found the book sincere when describing the things that usually lead to a trip, or an expedition as wild as this: “my life is falling apart”. Such sincerity would have seemed cliché were it not for the honesty with which the author addresses this search for meaning in nature and how she shatters this expectations dropping some truths like: nature is indifferent, there’s nothing glamorous in hiking and having your toenails fall off (yes, that still haunts me), and you’ll probably be too busy worrying about surviving that you won’t have time to ponder over your life. But your life and your choices and who you are will always come out when you’re stripped from your comfort zone and left alone with your courage. Every choice out there, whether to quit or to keep going, will be a step towards self-discovery, and the way in which this books portrays that, with humour and angst and anger, rang true to me.

Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer

I really think this book changed my life. Jon Krakauer, with honesty, tact and journalistic mastery narrates what he found about the life and death of young Chris McCandless, aka Alexander Supertramp, an American who hitchhiked his way to Alaska to live in and from nature only. I love this book because I think the critical job Krakauer does to distance himself from McCandless, without idealising or ridiculing him, is amazing. He talked to people who met him on the road, to his family and friends and collected other anecdotes from people who did similar things, and in the end this book is about more than McCandless, it’s about the urge that moved him and people like him to get away from “civilisation” and find a deeper meaning in life through a restored connection with nature and the hard work of survival. The book does not idealise nature either, it shows it at its best and worse, at its majesty and it’s moodiness and lethality. I recommend reading this to anyone interested in hiking, nature, ecology or American transcendentalism (Thoreau’s writings are a great companion for this).

 

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Brontë

My main reason to read this unpopular piece of nineteenth century literature was that I love both Emily and Charlotte Brontë’s writing, so I had to read Anne too. And she’s great as well. The book starts with the arrival of a mysterious young widow in a small town in England. She’s a bit rude and very reserved, so obviously the most handsome dude in town falls for her. Oh, and she has a child. However, people soon start talking about her, as no one knows where she came from or if she’s really a widow, and handsome dude needs to know the truth, so she gives him her diary to read. And her diary is most of the book. Anne Brontë reflects on many things in this novel: first, the social position of women; second, the implications of marriage both as a political institution and as a love affair; third, human nature’s propensity to vice; and fourth, religion’s role in both the submission and the liberation of women.

I must say I didn’t enjoy this book as much as Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights. In style, it is very different from them in the way it uses literary devices like the letter and diary format, prayers and such. Nevertheless I found it a good companion, never too dull in its reflections and never too dramatic in its depictions of the sorrows of marriage. A very recommended for classic literature lovers as well as feminists (this might be Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll House antecesor).

Signs Preceding the End of the World, Yuri Herrera

The book narrates the odyssey of a young Mexican girl who crosses the border to the USA in search of her brother. It is an old story, but Herrera’s mythical and poetic prose make it one of the best books by a Mexican author I have read.

A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson

A Walk in the Woods was one of the most interesting books I have read in a while, and definitely the funniest. Bryson’s talent to turn simple and even dramatic situations into hilarious episodes is outstanding. His honesty while reflecting on nature is also admirable. Whatever Bryson passes, whether it’s a mountain, a town, a refuge, an animal, he investigates about and presents his knowledge to you in a very subtle matter. He rants about the government, hunters, the pioneers. He talks of the beginnings of the earth, the separation of Pangea, the birth of the mountains. He describes the changes in American culture, migration patterns, natural catastrophes. He tells of serial killers, obscure anecdotes of the trail, TV commercials.

And all of this, in some way or other, is part of a more profound reflection on the theme that appears again and again in the whole book: the relationship between civilization and wilderness. 

Heart of a Dog, Mikhail Bulgakov

Bulgakov is a unique author. Heart of a Dog tells the story of Sharik, a stray dog taken in by a famous surgeon during the Soviet regime in Moscow. Little does Sharik know, he’s the chosen victim of an experiment to turn him into a man. A satire and wit only paralleled by The Master and Margarita, this is a crazy story full of cynicism, dark humor and a heart-breaking insight of humanity and animality. Heart of a Dog is a theatrical, wild ride with the only downside of being too short.

 

Wind, Sand and Stars, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

This year I thought I would read more non-fiction. I ended up reading mostly travel books —Krakauer, Strayed, Bryson— and, by a fortunate twist of fate, revisiting a beloved author. It could seem like this book has nothing to do with The Little Prince, yet the same sense of wander and the conflicts between humans and a hostile world run through the pages of both books. Wind, Sand and Stars is a series of writings about de Saint-Exupéry’s experience as a pilot for the airmail carrier Aéropostale. He writes of the planes, the trips, of friendship and love, of death, heroism and of how it feels to be in a plane thousands of feet above the ground, all by yourself. A wonderful book.

 

The Accursed, Joyce Carol Oates

This was the creepiest thing I’ve read in a while and, also, my first Joyce Carol Oates novel and I can’t wait to read more of her books. It is a very complex story, but basically what you read is this historian’s account of what happened in Princeton at the beginning of the 20th century, when many women disappeared, were found dead, and other strange occurrences took place within the elite of the town. Woodrow Wilson, Upton Sinclair, Jack London and even Sherlock Holmes appear in this crazy book, as well as the devil himself and other creatures (vampires!). When his sister is “abducted” shortly after her wedding, it is up to Josiah Slade, whom we follow through the historian’s doubtful account, to solve the curse that ravages the town. This is a really entertaining, disturbing, scary, funny novel that touches on many social issues like racism and sexism. Also, it is an admirable work of fiction; I am amazed at Oates’ narrative talent and critical insight.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Burrows

Written as a series of letters and diary entries, the book follows the journey of the writer Juliet Ashton to Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands, to write a book about the occupation. The book is, to put it simply, an ode to literature and the many ways in which it is intertwined with life, an ode to literature as a means of survival, as a means of resilience and, most importantly, as a means of resistance.

 

Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey

This book is life changing. Edward Abbey got a job as a park ranger at Arches National Park in Utah and this book is formed by a series of essays on different topics that he wrote there, living on a van during the winter. Abbey’s reflexions on wilderness and our relation with it are as actual as his his critique of capitalism. This book is at times bitter as desperate, exasperating and sad, hopeful and exiting. Abbey is such a gifted writer, mixing narrative with his essays, conveying closeness, warning, teasing, teaching. This book is so important for the challenges we face today in regards to global warming and consumerism, and it is also a wonderful piece of prose.

I am currently reading The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry and finding it delightful. It’s been, overall, a very good year for reading. What were your highlight? How should I start 2019?

Best reads of 2018 (so far)

June is over. Although I’m way behind on my reading, I have had the chance to read a few amazing books this year. I chose six I would love to discuss further with anyone interested, here they are:


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Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

To be honest, before he won the Nobel Prize, I had never read anything by Kazuo Ishiguro. I had watched the movie for this book some years before and I liked it, so I decided to read Never Let Me Go to get acquainted with Ishiguro. And I loved it. This is one of the most sadly beautiful novels I have ever read. Narrated from the perspective of Kathy, a girl created for the purpose of becoming a “donor”, along with many other children, for sick people. The whole purpose of these artificially conceived children is to one day give all their functioning organs to deadly ill humans. However, Kathy becomes first a carer for other donors and so delays her own donations.

The setting of the book is an England where kids like Kathy are raised in boarding schools away from society, where they learn about their “mission” and how they’re different from “normal” people. Kathy’s best friends there are Rachel and Tommy. Apart from the romantic triangle between them, Ishiguro builds through Kathy three of the most complex characters in literature who, despite of being told repeatedly that they are not human, love and cling to life bravely and painfully. Kathy herself is a very interesting character, her narrative mixing an honest recollection of the past as well as some reflections on memory and the arbitrariness of it, a topic with which dominates the whole novel and accounts for the generally nostalgic tone of the book. A must read, really, an overwhelming reflection of what it means to be human.


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MAUS, Art Spiegelman

This graphic novel was recommended to me many times before I finally got to it in January. It is one of the most inventive and heartbreaking pieces of graphic literature I’ve read. Spiegelman represents every race with different animals, Jewish people being mice (hence the name), and narrates, through text and mostly blank and white, simple drawings, his own creative process as a first generation American in New York, as well as his father’s recollections of WWII, Poland and the concentration camps. The simplicity and raw honesty of the stories told is at times painful and heartbreaking, but hopeful and even fun too.


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Into the Wild
, Jon Krakauer

I’ve written about this one in other posts and that’s because I’m OBSESSED with it. I think this book changed my life. Jon Krakauer, with honesty, tact and journalistic mastery narrates what he found about the life and death of young Chris McCandless, aka Alexander Supertramp, an American who hitchhiked his way to Alaska to live in and from nature only. I love this book because I think the critical job Krakauer does to distance himself from McCandless, without idealising or ridiculing him, is amazing. He talked to people who met him on the road, to his family and friends and collected other anecdotes from people who did similar things, and in the end this book is about more than McCandless, it’s about the urge that moved him and people like him to get away from “civilisation” and find a deeper meaning in life through a restored connection with nature and the hard work of survival. The book does not idealise nature either, it shows it at its best and worse, at its majesty and it’s moodiness and lethality. I recommend reading this to anyone interested in hiking, nature, ecology or American transcendentalism (Thoreau’s writings are a great companion for this).


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The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage, Philip Pullman

Last year I discovered Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy and fell in love with it. I only wish I had read it younger, although probably I wouldn’t have understood its critique of Catholicism and institutional religion. So this year I got my hands on a beautiful edition (the UK edition) of the first volume of The Book of Dust. This story is set in an earlier time than  The Golden Compass, and tells of Lyra’s Oxford while she was a baby. The protagonist is a young boy called Malcolm, whose parents own an inn and has a canoe called La Belle Sauvage. The lives of Malcom and Lyra will become intertwined when a creepy (very creepy, really) villain and Mrs Coulter try to steal her from the convent where Lord Asriel placed her. If you haven’t read , it doesn’t really matter, although they give a lot of information about how this universe works. I recommend this for any fantasy readers, Pullman is a master of the genre.  


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Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell

This is actually a reread for me, but still one of the best reads of the year. I absolutely love this book. Around a thousand pages, and still a complete page turner and a complex reflection on what it means to be brave and the different kinds of courage people can possess. Scarlett O’Hara is both one of the most hateful and greatest characters ever written, and equally complex and wonderful are Rhett Butler and Melanie Hamilton. Set in Georgia during the American Civil War, the book tells the story of a slave-owner’s daughter, her loves and struggles when her way of living suddenly disappears. Perhaps this book wouldn’t be that interesting if Scarlettn was not so selfish, mean, stubborn, wilful… and brave. What makes the book for me are the characters, and although I really like Mitchell’s descriptions of the old south, they’re obviously idealised and very politically incorrect nowadays. However, this is a novel that must be read once in everyone’s life. 


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The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Brontë

This one I just finished. My main reason to read this unpopular piece of nineteenth century literature was that I love both Emily and Charlotte Brontë’s writing, so I had to read Anne too. And she’s great as well, this family was something else. The book starts with the arrival of a mysterious young widow in a small country town in England. She’s a bit rude and very reserved, so obviously the most handsome dude in town falls for her. Oh, and she has a child. However, people soon start talking about her, as no one knows where she came from or if she’s really a widow, and handsome dude needs to know the truth, so she gives him her diary to read. And her diary composed most of the book. Anne Brontë reflects on many things in this novel: first, the social position of women; second, the implications of marriage both as a political institution and as a love affair; third, human nature’s propensity to vice; and fourth, religion’s role in both the submission and the liberation of women.

I must say this book is not quite as good as Wuthering Heights in feeling or Jane Eyre in style, it is very different from them in the way it uses literary devices like the letter and diary format, prayers and such. Nevertheless I found it a good companion, never too dull in its reflections and never too dramatic in its depictions of the sorrows of marriage. A very recommended for classic literature lovers as well as feminists (this might be Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll House antecesor).

Have you read any? I’d love to hear what you think of these on the comments! 

Which have been your best reads so far? 

Books That Inspired Me to Travel

Throughout my life, and perhaps the more so because I’m a literature undergrad, I have read many kinds of books. And many of those books have changed me and shaped the ways in which I interact with the world.

Of all those ways in which books have changed me, this post is dedicated to those books that inspired me to travel, those which gave me itchy feet and to which I owe this never-ending desire to go to “faraway lands”, to get lost in big cities and found in quiet mountain tops or forgotten little towns. Some of these books just describe places in such a vivid way that I was compelled to visit them, but most are not about destinations about but journeys themselves.


Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman

Whitman’s poetry is hope, energy, youth. When I first read Leaves of Grass I started to understand things I had only guessed before about my place in the world. “Not I, nor anyone else can travel that road for you. /You must travel it by yourself. /It is not far. It is within reach. /Perhaps you have been on it since you were born, and did not know. / Perhaps it is everywhere – on water and land.”

To actually feel part of the world wherever I am, however distant it may seem, has been a big breakthrough for me: “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” I used to set too much store on destinations and possessions, to think that when I had this or when I were somewhere else I would be happy, but that was not only untrue, but also an unsustainable way of living. Now I’d rather be here and think of traveling in a broader sense, I want to be here as much as possible and when I’m somewhere else I want to be there with all my heart.


Villette, Charlotte Brontë

Though not Charlotte’s most famous novel, Villette is perhaps my favourite. A young woman with no money or family who embarks to Europe in search of a better life. She arrives in a little town in Belgium only to realise that the journey is not yet over. When she’s in she ship, uncertain of where she’s going but fully embracing her own adventure, she says: “So peril, loneliness, an uncertain future, are not oppressive evils, so long as the frame is healthy and the faculties are employed; so long especially, as Liberty lends us her wings, and Hope guides us by her star. And this quote has accompanied me since. Somehow that’s what traveling is about for me, the excitement of adventure, the fear and uncertainty that freedom can arouse, and ultimately the hopes for better things to come, and to each travel to show us things of ourselves we didn’t know before.


Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer

This is a recent read for me (no, I haven’t watched the movie yet), and I must say I was completely appalled and excited by the adventures of Chris McCandless (aka Alexander Supertramp) that Krakauer narrates. When talking about this book I found that many people think the author glorifies the stupidity of this young man who went to live by himself in the Alaskan wilderness. I really don’t think he does. I actually think Krakauer does an amazing job in setting apart his opinions from the facts, while also rendering a complex portrait of the 22-year-old. I don’t believe Chris McCandles was a hero, but I do believe he understood what he was up to and understood too the perils of modern society. If I learned something from this book, it was about self-reliance. This book made me so much more conscious of my dependance on material things as well of the implications of everything I do (from the food I eat to the clothes I wear), and I think we could all learn a bit from both Jon Krakauer, an amazing writer and adventurer, and Chris McCandless. I also can’t wait to travel to Alaska.

If you’re interested in self-reliance, I highly recommend you read Emerson’s text of the same name. It might change your life. Also, if you’re on Goodreads, I made a list of all the books that appear in Into the Wild, most of which McCandless read. So add me here, and the list is called “Into-the-wild”. 


A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway

I’m a big fan of Hemingway (my favourite novel is definitely A Farewell to Arms) and so I had to read this memoir. Apart from it being the best memoir I’ve read, it is also one of the best books about Paris ever. I love this book because it combines my two passions: literature and travel writing. Hemingway’s descriptions of Paris are astounding, he describes the parties and the itineraries he followed when living there, all the alcohol and tobacco and all the artists he met there. He also tells some funny and heartbreaking anecdotes and talks of Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso and James Joyce. When I read it I had already been to Paris, but the way in which he describes the cafés in the Latin Quartier, all the gardens and the boulangeries, just made me want to go again. From this book you’ll get a ton of places to see in Paris, including Shakespeare & Co., as well as some of the most interesting reflections on what it means to be a writer and what it takes to write.


On the Road, Jack Kerouac

Of course, I had to include this one, and you’ve probably read it already. Although Kerouac might not be my favourite beatnik, this book is special. I must confess I found it poorly written and boring at some points (and I don’t think I hate any fictional character more than I hate Dean Moriarty), but there’s some raw stuff in here that is so important for me, the love of experience for the sake of experience. The book is about a road trip, perhaps The Road Trip, across North America, and Kerouac was clearly not gonna let grammar interfere in his rendering of this experience. The book has many great moments of clarity that made me jump of excitement and recognition, and I think any fellow traveler, or any young person really, will feel the same.

I’ll just leave some cool quotes here:

  • “What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”
  • “… the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”
  • “Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.”


The Call of the Wild, Jack London

This is one of the books mentioned in Into the Wild. It is about a house dog from California that is sold to be a sleigh dog in Alaska and how this drastic change forces him to go back to his nature. What I like about this book is that it does not idealize nature as something good, but it represents it with all its violence, as a merciless force, and yet a majestic one. This book made me think so much about our relationship to nature and it made me change the ways in which I interact with it, so if you’re a nature lover, I recommend this book.

Have you read any of these?

If so, what did you think of them? I’d love to hear from you on the comments.

Happy reading!