Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart Review

Title: Shuggie Bain
Author: Douglas Stuart
Genre: Historical Fiction
Blurb: Shuggie Bain is the unforgettable story of young Hugh "Shuggie" Bain, a sweet and lonely boy who spends his 1980s childhood in run-down public housing in Glasgow, Scotland. Shuggie's mother Agnes walks a wayward path: she is Shuggie's guiding light but a burden for him and his siblings. Under the surface, Agnes finds increasing solace in drink. Agnes's older children find their own ways to get a safe distance from their mother, abandoning Shuggie to care for her as she swings between alcoholic binges and sobriety. Shuggie is meanwhile struggling to somehow become the normal boy he desperately longs to be, but everyone has realized that he is "no right," a boy with a secret that all but him can see. Agnes is supportive of her son, but her addiction has the power to eclipse everyone close to her--even her beloved Shuggie. A heartbreaking story of addiction, sexuality, and love, Shuggie Bain is an epic portrayal of a working-class family that is rarely seen in fiction. 

Me: This debut novel about a young boy and his mother in 1980s Scotland has taken the literary world by storm. It just won the Man Booker, and I was excited to finally pick it up and get to read it myself. The praise is so well-deserved; the book was unapologetically beautiful and real. 

Another Country by James Baldwin Review

Title: Another Country
Author: James Baldwin
Genre: Fiction
Blurb: Set in Greenwich Village, Harlem, and France, among other locales, Another Country is a novel of passions--sexual, racial, political, artistic--that is stunning for its emotional intensity and haunting sensuality, depicting men and women, blacks and whites, stripped of their masks of gender and race by love and hatred at the most elemental and sublime. In a small set of friends, Baldwin imbues the best and worst intentions of liberal America in the early 1970s.

Me: Continuing my Baldwin kick with one of his later novels, Another Country. He just not only never fails to disappoint, but always manages to amaze me and pull out something new. And the way he writes about love is unparalleled. 

The Magical Language of Others by E.J. Koh Review

Title: The Magical Language of Others
Author: E. J. Koh
Genre: Nonfiction
Blurb: The Magical Language of Others is a powerful and aching love story in letters, from mother to daughter. After living in America for over a decade, Eun Ji Koh’s parents return to South Korea for work, leaving fifteen-year-old Eun Ji and her brother behind in California. Overnight, Eun Ji finds herself abandoned and adrift in a world made strange by her mother’s absence. Her mother writes letters, in Korean, over the years seeking forgiveness and love—letters Eun Ji cannot fully understand until she finds them years later hidden in a box.

As Eun Ji translates the letters, she looks to history—her grandmother Jun’s years as a lovesick wife in Daejeon, the horrors her grandmother Kumiko witnessed during the Jeju Island Massacre—and to poetry, as well as her own lived experience to answer questions inside all of us. Where do the stories of our mothers and grandmothers end and ours begin? How do we find words—in Korean, Japanese, English, or any language—to articulate the profound ways that distance can shape love?

Me: This book was a truly beautiful memoir, interlacing mother-daughter relationships with our experiences with mother tongues. I felt Koh's story to be deeply personal and vulnerable, and the added letters & translations added a fascinating layer to the whole book. 

The Best Books I Read in 2020

 


2020 has been a wild ride of a year. Before anything, whether this year has grounded and lifted you or really deeply challenged you, I just want to say I'm so proud of all of us for making it through. For me, it's been a year filled with ups and downs, but one single constant has been reading. I read around 70 books total this year. The last time I read even close to that number was in 2016, 4 years ago. I'm always grateful to literature for being an escape and a comfort, but especially this year.

That being said, what were the incredible, mind-blowing, will read-again and treasure forever reads of this year? It was hard to narrow down, but here are (in the order that I read them) the BEST books I read in 2020: 

2020: Some Thoughts From a Year of Reading Like No Other

 
What a year it's been, and it's not even over yet. I honestly can't believe we've made it to November, especially when all the days have blurred together since March. Funnily enough, I've realized that my activity on this blog largely reflects my quarantine state: a huge push in the beginning when I was all motivated to "make the most" of this time, and then little sporadic pushes before I lose any motivation again. I'm trying to be more forgiving of myself. 

However, though I haven't been blogging or really doing anything "productive" that much, I've been reading like crazy. It's weird for me, tearing through books at a pace I haven't had since middle school, and not even trying to read the most "intellectual" or "important" books, but just books that pique my interest. Books have saved me time & time again, and they've really made this whole year bearable.
 
I have a whole list of books that I've read but haven't blogged about, and I wasn't sure how to deal with them. I decided that overall, they might reveal some cool patterns/habits of mine over the past few months; reading habits that I hope to take with me even after this period of the world is over. 

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders Review

 

Title: Lincoln in the Bardo
Author: George Saunders
Genre: Historical Fiction, Contemporary
Blurb: February 1862. The Civil War is less than one year old. The fighting has begun in earnest, and the nation has begun to realize it is in for a long, bloody struggle. Meanwhile, President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son, Willie, lies upstairs in the White House, gravely ill. In a matter of days, despite predictions of a recovery, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. “My poor boy, he was too good for this earth,” the president says at the time. “God has called him home.” Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returned to the crypt several times alone to hold his boy’s body.

From that seed of historical truth, George Saunders spins an unforgettable story of familial love and loss that breaks free of its realistic, historical framework into a thrilling, supernatural realm both hilarious and terrifying. Willie Lincoln finds himself in a strange purgatory, where ghosts mingle, gripe, commiserate, quarrel, and enact bizarre acts of penance. Within this transitional state—called, in the Tibetan tradition, the bardo—a monumental struggle erupts over young Willie’s soul.

Me: After reading Saunders' short story collection Tenth of December, I didn't think I would feel inclined to read any of his other works. He was known primarily as a short story writer before this novel, and while his writing is undeniably fascinating and fresh, it didn't seem like my thing. This book changed my mind, and got me so excited that I get to experience a writer like this in real time. 

South Korea: Human Acts by Han Kang Review

Title: Human Acts
Author: Han Kang
Genre: Historical fiction
Blurb: In the midst of a violent student uprising in South Korea, a young boy named Dong-ho is shockingly killed.

The story of this tragic episode unfolds in a sequence of interconnected chapters as the victims and the bereaved encounter suppression, denial, and the echoing agony of the massacre. From Dong-ho's best friend who meets his own fateful end; to an editor struggling against censorship; to a prisoner and a factory worker, each suffering from traumatic memories; and to Dong-ho's own grief-stricken mother; and through their collective heartbreak and acts of hope is the tale of a brutalized people in search of a voice.

An award-winning, controversial bestseller, Human Acts is a timeless, pointillist portrait of an historic event with reverberations still being felt today, by turns tracing the harsh reality of oppression and the resounding, extraordinary poetry of humanity.

Me: Han Kang is probably the most well-known contemporary Korean author, and it had bothered me for a while that I hadn't read any of her works, especially The Vegetarian (which won the Man Booker and is definitely on my next-to-read list!). I decided to read this first because it was directly related to a period of South Korean history, and I'm so glad I did. It was one of the most beautiful books I've read about any uprising or protest.