I never get around to reading half of what I want in any given year, but there were still some definite highlights for me.
1) Roy Choi, L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food
If you think Asian American coming-of-age stories have to always be about diligent, hard-working students blossoming, Tiger-Mom style, into doctors and lawyers, be warned. Choi’s journey from Seoul at the age of two to the streets of L.A. contains just about every wrong turn a parent could have nightmares about — gambling, drinking, and even crack cocaine. In the end, he becomes one of America’s most famous chefs and the originator of the current food-truck craze. A love letter to his dysfunctional family, America, Korean food and culture, and above all, the Los Angeles that has nothing to do with Beverly Hills or Hollywood. Bonus: Every chapter ends with recipes.
2) Jennifer Egan, A Visit From the Goon Squad
A novel that goes in so many directions it should fall apart, but doesn’t. It’s mostly about music, early 80’s post-punk in particular. No, it’s about families and how the same people can be so wonderful and so horrible to one another in the same lifetime. No, it’s about drugs. No, it’s an entire chapter written as a power-point presentation on “Great Pauses” in the history of rock music. No, it’s a sci-fi book about the end of America and our descent into darkness and our literal inability to ever speak to one another again.
3) Amitav Ghosh, River of Smoke
I’m not usually a fan of historical fiction. I’d rather read solid history or great fiction instead of blending the two. But Ghosh is masterful, and here in the second part of his Ibis trilogy we see the British-Chinese Opium Wars about to begin. As the British and Indian merchants of Canton realize their opportunities to sell the drug within China are drying up, desperate measures in the name of a newly discovered religion called “Free Trade” are taken. Along the way we learn about the linguistic complexities and mixtures that informed 18th century Asia, the sheer rapacity of Western traders eager to make a buck off of both Indian laborers and Chinese addicts, and, of course, flowers.
4) China Mieville, Embassytown
Not an easy read, but once you find your bearings this is another novel-length meditation on language that really struck me. Human “ambassadors” work with an alien race that communicates through sound, as we all do. But this race communicates with two “voices” at the same time, and the humans must form couples that can “perform” the alien language together in response. But of course, you can’t speak together if you can’t think together, and that’s when the train begins to fly off the tracks. I will read anything by Mieville, period.
5) Max Blumenthal, Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel
A journalistic account of Israeli life between the election of a hard-right government in 2009 and now. Without ever stepping foot into the occupied areas of Gaza or the West Bank, Blumenthal simply offers facts, anecdotes, and details about daily life in the “safe” parts of the country, where rabidly exclusionist, if not downright racist, right-wing Israelis are fashioning a country that could hardly be called a democracy with a straight face. And all of this is happening with the blessing of the United States government, not to mention billions of dollars in aid from US citizens.
6) Gary Shteyngart, Super Sad True Love Story
It’s the 21st century in America. People don’t really talk any more, they just web-cam their lives for others. People don’t really work any more, because there aren’t any jobs. People don’t read books any more, because society has become “post-literate.” Sex is always ironic. The government has privatized everything and sold most of itself off to China. New York, like the rest of the country, is a miserable, fascist police state. Amid the misery, can true love bloom? No, not really. But something like it might. Definitely worth reading as a sort of companion to Egan’s novel.
And a book I really, truly loathed? Tao Lin’s Taipei. Not sure why this was supposed to be his breakthrough from experimental bomb-thrower to “serious” novelist. This is a shitty book about shitty people taking shitty prescription drugs who somehow think it makes them interesting when they go to a McDonald’s, even if it is in Taiwan instead of Brooklyn.
Unless your name is Jack Kerouac or Allen Ginsberg, it doesn’t.