Armchair Traveler: 2019 Round Up

The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go. —Dr. Seuss


At the end of last year, I set some reading goals for 2019:

  • Read 52+ books
  • Increase the percentage of POC authors in my list (I can do better than 25%)
  • Read more translated works or works by non-Americans
  • Maintain the 50/50 fiction/nonfiction mix that has worked for me over the last few years
  • Continue my education through nonfiction, focusing on geography/culture, immigration, feminism, and raising kids.

So how did I do?

Well, if I had to give each of those goals a grade, this is what we’d have:
A+
F
C-
B
A
(I might also give myself extra credit for surpassing my reading goal of 52 by 8!)

I read 60 books this year, completing 115% of my reading goal of one per week. Last year, I also beat my goal (reading 63) so I think for 2020, I need to set my bar higher and just aim for 60.

Instead of increasing the number of POC authors, my percentage actually decreased. I only hit 20% for POC authors, though the works provided solid insights into their experiences and world-views. When They Call You Terrorist might be one of the most important books any American can read today. For anyone wanting to learn a disturbing amount about our immigration system, I recommend two memoirs by immigrants, Dear America and Tell Me How It Ends, both difficult to read but so important and prescient. And three works of fiction by women of color, The Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali, America for Beginners, and There’s Something About Sweetie, all provided in-depth looks at Indian-American culture, making a fascinating culture I’ve never really understood more accessible and relatable.

Most of the international works I read were, unfortunately, by English-speaking Western writers. While I did read a few books by Nigerian women (Stay With Me, and The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, neither of which really enthralled me and were both sad), and several UK and Canadian authors, only one of my 60 books was not originally written in English, the slow-burn (and frankly boring) Japanese mystery Rainbirds.

I almost maintained my fiction/non-fiction ratio (46% NF and 53% F), and I did succeed at reading on many different topics across many different genres, learning about everything I wanted to tackle (and many things I didn’t know I wanted to learn about but really enjoyed).

My nonfiction reads this year were diverse, from the history of yoga (and finding ways to implement the ancient practice into our modern lives) in Do Your Om Thing, to the unexpected connections between coffee and gratitude, to the joys and challenges of managing creative teams in the must-read Herding Tigers, to the historical and cultural relevance of Seinfeld. One of the most fascinating and unexpectedly dramatic stories was the behind-the-scenes examination of the operations at Lowry Park Zoo in Zoo Story. It’s detailed journalistic approach balanced informational exposition with thoughtful character portraits that resonated on both emotional and intellectual levels.

I read a lot of great parenting books (Free Range Kids, Cribsheet and The Science of Mom all stood out to me, the latter two being much more data-driven and scientific), listened to several memoirs (Busy Philipps’ and Chelsea Handler’s were both excellent and surprisingly emotional), and spent a lot of time learning about language (I now know that Arabic is crazy complicated after reading All Strangers Are Kin, and Word by Word became my favorite book about English until I read Words on the Move, and now I can’t decide which was more fun).

Travel memoirs ranged from mediocre (Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down) to fun and informational (Don’t Make Me Pull Over: The Informal History of the Family Road Trip) to truly relatable and inspiring (At Home in the World). The two books that could walk the line between parenting and travel memoirs were both chock-full of useful and culturally-insightful information — Achtung Baby and How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm.

Most of the celeb memoirs I finished this year were middle-of-the-road but enjoyable audio books, including H. Jon Benjamin’s, Abbi Jacobson’s, James Corden’s, and the unusually-structured love story of Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman.

While I didn’t read anything specifically about feminism, Arab women’s struggles were brought to life in Excellent Daughters, and The Moment of Lift addressed many feminist and women’s issues with a powerful, inspiring call to empower women around the world (one of the best reads of 2019; everyone needs to read this book). For those into YA fiction, the underwhelming Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein did provide a feminist variation on the horror classic that was refreshing, and Before She Sleeps, a piece of Asian speculative fiction, definitely had a feminist bent, but didn’t wow me.

It seems that most of the British books I read were in the mystery/thriller genre, including the super fun, meta, Sherlockian The Word is Murder, the twisty psychotherapy murder mystery The Silent Patient, Ghosted‘s promising premise with a lackluster ending, and the family drama dressed as a mystery The Mother-in-Law. In the same genre, I also enjoyed the first two of the fun and compelling Truly Devious series, the Breakfast Club/Pretty Little Liars mashup One of Us is Lying, and the stunning debut My Lovely Wife (I’ll def be reading this author’s next thriller).

Some of the sci fi I tried this year didn’t resonate with me: Famous Men Who Never Lived should’ve worked but left me reeling in disappointment; The Dreamers never took off and felt like a hazy dream;  Before I Fall just didn’t sit right with me; Tell the Machine Goodnight felt like a promising Black Mirror episode that ended abruptly and too soon; and Walkaway overpowered its killer concept with meandering narratives and annoying dialogue. But Here and Now and Then and Black Crouch’s Recursion gave me the time travel fix I needed, both John Scalzi’s Head On and All Systems Red delivered on plot and snark, and Station Eleven weaved one of the most beautiful stories I read all year.

The most emotionally gut-punching reads from this year were all YA, though (not surprising, tbh), ranging from a survivor’s guilt road trip story of healing, to a charming NYC romance told through alternating authors, to the story of a best friendship coming to a fork in the road post-high school. The Summer of Jordi Perez was an adorable YA romance but didn’t quite hit me in the feels quite as hard as the ones listed above, and I was let down by the problematic schizophrenic premise of Made You Up.

Finally, I stepped outside my comfort zone into the historical urban fantasy Westside and LOVED it. And I didn’t think I’d be into the weird-as-hell reimagining of Lady Jane Grey’s story in My Lady Jane but it’s feminist romance, irreverent tone, and utterly charming characters pulled me in.

(To see my full 2019 in review, click here.)

So 2019 was a great year for the types of stories I ingested and the diversity of characters and topics, but I can do better by reading more international voices in 2020. I also want to explore more fiction genres that I usually overlook since two of the weirdest and most enjoyable reads were things would not usually consider. In terms of non-fiction, I think I do a good job of eating my veggies, by tackling tough or complex subjects, while still indulging on lots of cake, with fluffy celeb memoirs and travel journals (though some of those turn out to be surprisingly poignant or educational as well).

For 2020, I think I need to revisit two of my goals from last year, and push myself with my ‘vegetable’ reads:

  • Read 60 books, with a 50/50 ratio of NF/F
  • Increase the percentage of POC authors in my list.
  • Read more translated works or works by non-Americans
  • Read at least 5 works that I would not usually choose
  • Read at least 10 books that take place in or are about different countries

Now, you tell me: Where have words taken you this year? What far away places and interesting people did you encounter through your armchair travels in 2019? Which stories captivated you and taught you something about the world or expanded your worldview? Where should I go when I read in 2020?