In 2019, I visited my closest friends who live in Charlotte and Seattle, danced to “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored” on a tennis court, and read 81 books! As I get older, I want to keep trying my best to live a full life, where I value myself based on a combination of what I contribute to society, my relationships, my hobbies, etc. So my love for reading contributes to that goal. It’s not about the number really – I don’t want to glamorize reading more or less for the sake of it – it’s about how it fits into what feels healthful and revitalizing for me. Amidst defending my master’s thesis and attaining my master’s degree, providing more therapy, and learning more about what qualities I value most in my friendships, reading these books have provided a safe and intellectually stimulating solid ground for me to fall back on. While this year’s selection does not feel quite as stellar as past years’ top tens, I still love all these books for the emotions they evoked within me and the lessons I learned from reading them. As always, I included links to my full Goodreads reviews of each book as well as links to past years’ top ten lists for easy reference at the bottom. Please let me know what you’ve read, what you haven’t read, and what you’d recommend. Here we go!
Top 5: Fiction
5. Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala. A gritty, tragic novel that follows two privileged teens from very different backgrounds: Niru, a queer Nigerian on his way to Harvard, and Meredith, his white female best friend. Beyond this book’s brave centering of race, sexuality, and friendship, I so appreciated the rawness of Iweala’s prose, how he renders Niru’s emotional experience with such viscerality and empathy.
4. Hunger by Lan Samantha Chang. Consisting of one novella and five short stories, this book kept me up late at night with its heartrending, honest depiction of the Chinese immigrant experience in the United States. I wrote a whole post about my emotional reactions to “Hunger”: awe at Chang’s beautiful prose, despair at the decisions made by her characters, and gratitude for how she captures the capacity of human connection to both heal and to destroy.
3. Like a Love Story by Abdi Nazemian. A love story to activism, Madonna, and New York, this novel captures the AIDS crisis of the 80s and the resilience of LGBT+ people in the face of hate. With direct yet affecting prose, Nazemian addresses so many matters of the heart through three teens’ perspectives: coming out in an unaccepting culture, caring for a friend who’s hurt you, dealing with grief and loss, and more.
2. Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang. A bold and evocative short story collection, Sour Heart blows the model minority myth into smithereens with its tender portrayal of Asian immigrants living and struggling in New York. Zhang unapologetically centers the perspective of young Asian girls, their desires and insecurities and power. Zhang’s voice is fierce, just like her characters’ complicated yet confident love for one another.
1. Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell. A gorgeous graphic novel that follows Freddy Riley, a high school student whose girlfriend, Laura Dean, keeps breaking up with her. This graphic novel shines with its beautiful illustrations, its queer representation, and its unassuming emotional depth. Two standout messages from this masterpiece: 1) meaningful friendships take work, and 2) you can both love someone and recognize a relationship with that person isn’t what your heart needs or deserves.
My honorable mentions in fiction go to Guapa by Saleem Haddad, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, Home Remedies by Xuan Juliana Wang (especially for its iconic short story “Vaulting the Sea”, one of my favorite short stories ever), Miracle Creek by Angie Kim, Miles from Nowhere by Nami Mun, and Slant by Timothy Wang.
Top 5: Nonfiction
5. Hard to Love by Briallen Hopper. A sharp, compelling essay collection that honors all the forms love can take outside of romance. As someone who loves close friendships and feels them undervalued in society, I so appreciate Hopper sharing her life with us and all the deep and complex relationships she has formed outside of romance, including her friendships, and her bonds with characters and books and shows.
4. White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. Recommended to all white people, this book delves deep into the emotions – anger, fear, guilt – that white people experience when challenged on their own racism, which in turn perpetuate white supremacy and racial injustice. DiAngelo names her own whiteness and calls in her fellow white people, all while writing from a place of great understanding and intelligence.
3. The Body Papers by Grace Talusan. A stunning memoir about moving from the Philippines to the United States, experiencing sexual abuse from her grandfather, and in adulthood navigating cancer. Talusan writes with keen insight about how trauma affects the body, and she honors her body’s resilience in the face of these hardships. What’s most illuminating here is the abundant love she has for those she cares about, as well as the love she learned to give to herself.
2. Mean by Myriam Gurba. Irreverent and funny as heck, Gurba establishes her unique, defiant voice with this coming of age memoir as a queer, mixed-race Chicana. She tackles tough stuff in Mean, including sexual assault, racism, eating disorders and more. She takes control of her story with a swaggering confidence that communicates how much she trusts herself, a quality I think we can all stand to learn from.
1. Know My Name by Chanel Miller. Miller reclaims her narrative with this courageous memoir, recalling the events before and after Brock Turner sexually assaulted her in 2015. Miller imbues this book with remarkable self-awareness and eloquence, a sharp eye toward sexism and rape culture, and perhaps most importantly, a vulnerable account of the devastation of trauma and her fight to heal and to hope again.
My honorable mentions in nonfiction go to The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex by Incite! Women of Color Against Violence, Relational-Cultural Therapy by Judith V. Jordan, Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion by Jia Tolentino, Revoluting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights by Molly Smith and Juno Mac, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center by bell hooks, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharadas, Thick by Tressie McMillan Cottom, The Man They Wanted Me to Be: Toxic Masculinity and a Crisis of Our Own Making by Jared Yates Sexton, Whipping Girl by Julia Serano, and Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence by Rachel Sherman.
What were your favorite reads of 2019, and what books are you looking forward to in 2020? I’d be grateful for all recommendations, though in particular I’m searching for books that center friendship, that are written by queer authors of color, and books that revolve around deep interpersonal relationships (I love me some relational drama.) Hope everyone has a splendorous New Year and see you next post!