One of my goals for 2020 was to read more good stories in books and comics (and how a adequate plan for this year it proved to be). I read stuff anyway — I prefer books to TV or games, so there is always something in the “currently reading” category on my Kindle and a bookmarked paperback on my desk. This time though, I wanted to be more deliberate about what to read. I wanted to include some comics, children’s stories, books from genres that I wouldn’t usually pick up, some Japanese and Polish authors, and reading that would teach me a bit about story-making.
In Japan, it’s hard to find books in English. Especially if you would like to be surprised by a story, you cannot just go to a book store to look for something unusual. The bookshelves contain mostly books that “will sell,” making the choice repetitive and mainstream most of the time. On the other hand, in the used books stores, you will get a bizarre jumble of Japan tour guides, self-help books bought in airports with loads of Harry Potter mixed in.
I was lucky that the local library located quite close to our house has a whole one bookshelf of English titles (gasp!), so I could find some interesting things there. Some books I bought electronically through Kindle store and Audible, and some titles that don’t have electronic versions (many Polish books don’t) I had to order from places like Book Depository.
Here is the list of most of the books I read this year in the order I finished them (books in series are grouped). I’m sure, though, that I ended up reading more than this and just forgot to add some titles to the list.
You can also follow my GoodReads account for updates and star ratings:
I compiled and painted a shorter list of those books that made the greatest impression on me this year and that I wanted to recommend to you!
Mary Norton – The Borrowers
I knew about this children’s classic for a long time because it’s featured on Hayao Miyazaki’s recommended reading list and was made into an animated movie by Studio Ghibli. When the film was released, I was already in Japan and so was able to see it on the big cinema screen, but somehow I did not reach for the original book. Shame, as this is just such a fun, imaginative, and full of wonder little book! The story and the world it described felt like a breath of fresh air, somehow free of children’s literature or fantasy cliches. With just the right balance of realism and fantasy, I felt like I was just taken along for a wonderful adventure. Even before finishing this short novel, I was already on the Japanese used stuff website, Mercari looking for the rest of the series, but I think the first book was the best and worked great as a stand-alone book too.
Cyril Pedrosa – Portugal
I made sure to include some graphic novels in this year’s reading too and I’m so glad I did. Maybe it’s because I’m also living abroad and my family had a quite bizarre, stormy past (which family in Europe hadn’t, really). This story struck some very familiar and nostalgic notes. It might also be the fact that (like the main character) I don’t speak Portuguese, so some of the dialogue was not legible for me, just like Japanese when I first came to live and study in Kobe. Being unable to communicate naturally in an unfamiliar country is a very peculiar feeling, and I found it again in this comic.
I also love the way this album is drawn. It’s realistic, full of atmosphere, but at the same time loose in a way that prevents the pictures from getting in the way of the storytelling.
Hirako Waka – My Broken Mariko
Kana recommended me this Japanese comic some time ago already, so I was happy to see that an English version was imminent. I waited a month or two for the publication and read it straight away when it came out. It’s a short one-volume story.
I made the obvious mistake of reading this on a train. Don’t do it unless you want to be a sobbing mess when arriving at the destination!
The setting is simple: a young woman learns of the suicide of her friend. Shocked at first, she decides to retrieve the friend’s ashes from her abusive father to scatter them at sea.
The story is well drawn and very well written without any weird Japanese comics cliches or stereotypes.
Ursula K. Le Guin – A Wizard of Earthsea
This book was a re-read for me, but somehow the classic story presented a still different face this time (as it does every time) a mark of a great book, probably. This year, I went deeper, and after reading the paperback I had (containing the first four novels), I went for the rest of the Earthsea cycle.
The whole series is an excellent example of the “escapist fiction from which you bring back tools that help you in real life” thing that Neil Gaiman talked about.
I really feel like I went to the Earthsea and experienced those long lonely travels each time I finish reading.
Ted Chiang – Exhalation
I like science fiction books a lot! I love the light and fun stories that feel like the best SF TV series, so I enjoyed the whole Murderbot series this year.
The two books of short stories by Ted Chaing are on the other end of the SF spectrum — still fun to read, but forcing one to think about broader things like entropy, life, language, consciousness, or free will. The stories do it by questioning the way we usually accept those things as just given truths.
Each story is an eye-opener, and the world around you will not look the same after reading. I also recommend the first collection, Stories of Your Life and Others, but the “Exhalation” short story made the most impact on me.
Frederick Backman – A Man Called Ove
I found Backman’s other book, My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, by accident, in my local library and loved it.
I’m cautious about NY Times bestseller books, especially ones with a possible movie by Tom Hanks coming. But the novel I already read was such a great book, full of human warmth and great observational humor, that I bought A Man Called Ove too. I did not regret it!
There are some movies that, even after you forget the exact plot, still leave you with a warm, well-rounded feeling about humanity. This book is like this.
Shion Miura – The Great Passage
We first saw the Japanese movie adaptation of this book and liked it a lot. (There is also an anime series based on it, but I don’t think it’s any good.) I was delighted to find that the original novel was translated to English and had a tentative try at reading it (a lot of Japanese-English translations are very stiff and unpleasant). It turned out great! Even better and more profound than the movie. Who would have thought that a story about an editorial department struggling to make a dictionary would be so interesting!
I liked this book because even though it’s a praise of alternative lifestyles that allow the characters to follow their passion, it managed to keep a human face. It did not get into the standard Japanese, “sacrificing everything for work is the greatest honor” cliche and social standard, which is just dangerous. (think – drawing manga till you drop – anime cliche, etc.)
Happy reading for 2021!