My blog’s name works on so many levels I want to jump around in joy! That’s What She Had in 2018 — a round-up of my favorite meals of the year — is yet to come. I am also thinking of maybe writing That’s Where She Slept with a list of hotels that give me free rooms, That’s Who She Met — a name-dropping post of celebrities I know (or pretend I do), and That’s What She Meant — for those occasions when people don’t understand my point of view… or my accent. But for now here’s what she (I) read in 2018.
Every year I set a goal of reading 54 books and — surprise-surprise! — every year I consistently fail. My book count is around 20-25, about two books per month on average which, after 4 years in a row of failing the one-book-per-week challenge, I realize is not bad at all.
Let’s face it, promising to read 54 books a year is like promising to go to gym 6 times a week. It would be awesome in theory and so good for you, but the chances of that happening are incredibly low. I mean… I read War and Peace this year. Can a human being read over 1200 pages in a week? Can I count it as 4 books?
With that lame justification out of the way, let’s get to the list of my favorite books of 2018! Oh, one last thing about the way I choose books. I am not New York Times, guys. I am not good with following the latest bestsellers. A lot of the books on this list I should have read, ideally, years ago. But I didn’t.
New publications are not a priority at the moment. My priorities are books written by Russian writers, books written by the authors from the countries I am visiting (looking for German writers recommendations right now) and history books. But there’s a lot in between too. Hope you’ll find something for yourself here.
Disclosure: this post contains some affiliate links which means that if you buy something by clicking the link I will earn a small commission at absolutely no extra cost to you.
The Book I Loved Reading the Most — Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah
The first book I read in 2018 turned out to be the most enjoyable, surprising, and all in all amazing book I’ve read in a while. Yes, a book written by a comic and a TV-show host. When I picked up his book I expected a light, fun account of his early years in South Africa. An easy-to-read memoir that I’d enjoy and forget after a few months. What I didn’t see coming is how good a writer Trevor Noah is. It’s just plain mean to give so many gifts to one person! He is a talented stand-up comedian, an amazing show host (say what you will, I love him in the Daily Show), and he’s a good writer too? Come on!
The book shows the history of South Africa in the 20th century through the prism of Noah’s personal story. It’s witty, inspiring, funny and heartbreaking. And the ending… I was reading the last pages well past midnight, in bed, thinking this is not a memoir, this is a freaking Hollywood blockbuster!
The Book That Blew My Mind — Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
If I could recommend only one book, it would be Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. First of all, how do you describe a history of humankind, even briefly, in under five hundred pages? And what’s more unbelievable, Harari does it in a way that a child could understand his ideas. I truly believe it takes a genius to explain something so complex in such a simple manner.
The book spans from the first humans to walk on Earth to the present days, covering the beginnings of our species, cognitive, agricultural and scientific revolutions, religious beliefs, economic developments, and the question of our happiness.
Interestingly, the reviews on Goodreads range from “this book changed my life” to “superfluous and unoriginal”. I am in the first team, obviously. Maybe, the ideas in the book are not revolutionary, but I certainly haven’t heard many of them before. The whole time I was reading, it felt like tiny explosions happened in my brain. I am now listening to his second book “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow”.
The Book That Made Me Come Out of My Comfort Zone — Writing Great Fiction: Storytelling Tips and Techniques by James Hynes
While blogging requires many varied skills from taking good pictures and editing to marketing and working wth social media to SEO-optimization, I love to think of myself as a writer and story-teller first and foremost. My favorite posts on this blog are not guides and itineraries, but personal musings like this one about the internal struggle of living away from my homeland or this one about the time my suitcases got stolen in San Francisco or even this one about my annoyance at guests who try to help me in the kitchen.
I have read blogs, articles and books on travel writing before, for example, this book by Lonely Planet. But listening to a book about writing fiction was definitely new and uncomfortable. First of all, I never aspired to write fiction (still don’t even after finishing this book), but I thought it’d be good to broaden my horizons.
Listening to this book felt like dissecting a body. Sounds horrifying — wait, let me explain! We’ve all read books. We know, in theory, how books are written. But listening to Hynes explain the inner workings of the writer’s process was eye-opening. The little things you don’t pay attention to while reading — like what tense the writer used or from whose perspective the story is told or the chronological order of events — are explored in detail. Just like we’ve all seen a human body and know, in theory, how it works, actually seeing the inner organs and how they function would be one crazy experience. Ok, I am done with my mortifying metaphor!
This is a great book for any writer, even if writing fiction is not in your plans. Creating a compelling story after all is important for any type of writing.
The Most Heartbreaking Book — Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala
This year I’ve decided to read more books written by authors of the countries I am visiting. And since for the most of 2018 I lived in Sri Lanka, I started with “Wave” by Sonali Deraniyagala. I would not recommend it as “a book to inspire you to travel to Sri Lanka”, it’s way to dark and depressing for that.
Wave is a memoir written by a woman who miraculously survived tsunami that hit the southern coast of Sri Lanka in 2004, while losing her parents, her husband, and two kids. The book is an account of her trying to cope with pain right after the tragedy and during the next decade of her life.
I am not even sure to whom I would recommend this book. Not to someone who wants to learn about that horrifying page of Sri Lanka’s history: the description of tsunami itself takes only about twenty pages of the book. Not to someone who is looking for advise how to cope with grief: there’s no resolution in the end of the book.
Actually, this is why Wave gets a lot of negative reviews: people expect some kind of meaningful ending, hope in the end. Like in “Eat. Pray. Love” when Liz Gilbert falls in love in the last pages of the memoir. Deraniyagala doesn’t offer hope and that makes reading page after page of pain and grief even more unbearable.
I guess I’d recommend it to get a glimpse of what it’s like to survive the unimaginable, to go through something that no human should ever have to go through and still be able to live and breath.
The Most Belated Book — Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling
If there was one thing I wanted to do before turning 30, it was reading Harry Potter. To be honest, there was a whole bunch of things to be accomplished before the big three-o and I did pretty good. But Harry Potter — well, a little embarrassing.
I don’t think anyone needs my review. It’s likely I am the last dinosaur to finally finish it in 2018. But I’ll say it’s as fascinating as everyone said it is. I binged through seven books in two months, but I still haven’t watched the movies (gasp!).
The Book Everyone Must Read — We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi
Fifty pages of wisdom, wit, and answers to the most commonly asked questions about feminism. The essay explains what the word “feminism” means today, why it has so many negative connotations in the modern world, and why caring about human rights is not enough. To quote Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi:
“Some people ask: “Why the word feminist? Why not just say you are a believer in human rights, or something like that?” Because that would be dishonest. Feminism is, of course, part of human rights in general—but to choose to use the vague expression human rights is to deny the specific and particular problem of gender. It would be a way of pretending that it was not women who have, for centuries, been excluded. It would be a way of denying that the problem of gender targets women.”
While I didn’t need convincing that we should all be feminists, it was so satisfying to get answers to the questions I am often asked when talking about feminism with my non-feminist friends and family. Where I blank and don’t know how to explain my point of view, Adichi gives such an eloquent explanation that I want to learn it by heart and tell to everyone. But, obviously, she does it better. So read her essay.
The Most Awaited Book — To Shake the Sleeping Self: A Journey from Oregon to Patagonia, and a Quest for a Life with No Regret by Jedidiah Jenkins
If you don’t know Jedidiah Jenkins, go to Instagram and follow him right now. I mean it, go! I was introduced to this brilliant man by my friend a few years ago, and he has quickly become one of my favorite writers/thinkers/humans on this planet. His Instagram is not for watching, it’s for reading. Every caption is an exploration of human emotions, hearts and life in general. On more than one occasion I stopped scrolling through feed to reread his caption several times. He is that good.
When he announced his book coming out, excited wasn’t even the word to describe my feelings. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. To Shake the Sleeping Self is a memoir describing Jenkins’ sixteen-months-journey from Oregon to Patagonia by bike. Like a lot of travelogues, this memoir is more than a recollection of the cities visited, mountains climbed, and roads traveled. Mainly, it’s an exploration of oneself, of Jenikins’ personality, religious beliefs, and sexual identity.
I loved the book, but at the same time it was a bit less than what I expected. Jenkins’ Instagram captions are always deeply thoughtful, dense with meaning, and make you think: “Exactly! That’s exactly what I thought and you said it!”
The book, on the other hand, is slower. Every paragraph cannot be an eye-opener and a revelation. Although the trip obviously has the beginning, the middle and the end, Jenkins’ memoir doesn’t have a clear climax and resolution. It reads like a string of thoughts set agains a background of his bicycle journey. It doesn’t have a big, transformative ending like, say, Wild by Cheryl Strayed, but it is beautifully written and enjoyable nevertheless.
The Book I Reread This Year and Would Do It Again — War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Pretty proud of myself, guys! For the first time after school I reread Tolstoy’s masterpiece and enjoyed it immensely. Reading Tolstoy gives you the biggest joy as a reader and the biggest frustration as a writer. As a reader, you cannot help but admire his seeming ability to look inside people’s souls, to see the most guarded vulnerable secrets, and describe them with precision that the character himself wouldn’t be able to achieve.
This skill is especially fascinating when it comes to female characters. Last year, while reading “Anna Karenina”, I kept thinking: “How do you know what it feels like to be a woman? How do you know exactly what I think about, how I feel, and what I want?”
As a writer, you feel crushed by the realization that no matter how long and hard you try, you’ll never be able to reach his genius. Feels kinda like going to gym, knowing that you’ll never look like Gisele Bundchen, even if you do three hundred squats a day for the rest of your life.
“War and Peace” is a masterpiece on every level: the historical background, the complex plot, the growth and development of the characters (of which there are 559). The novel is set during the invasion of Napoleon army into Russia in 1812 and follows the lives of several main characters from 1805 to 1820.
If you decide to take up the challenge of reading over 1200 pages, prepare that it is not an easy task, especially, if you are reading a translation. Get acquainted with the history of Russia in the beginning of XIX century first. Second, accept that the names of the characters change. That is normal for Russians, but confusing for everyone else. For example, Natasha Rostova can be referred to as Natasha, Natali, Natalya Ilyinichna or countess. And that goes for every character in the book.
As the name suggests, the scenes of peace, i.e. the life of Russian aristocrats in Saint Petersburg and Moscow are intertwined with the scenes of war. Please, don’t skip “the war” as some reviews suggest. Some of the biggest revelations and shifts in characters’ view of the world happen on the battle ground. Besides, Tolstoy’s description of the war scenes is epic, like everything he does.
I could write several thousand more words about “War and Peace” and why you should read it, instead I’ll say one thing: to read Tolstoy is to understand Russian soul.
P.S. I read the book in Russian, but I’ve done some searching and a lot of people say that the translation by
The Most Motivational Book — The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change by Stephen R. Covey
I am late to the party, as usual! If you are anything like me and have heard the title a dozen times, but didn’t get your hands on the book, now is the time! The book explains seven habits that make both your personal and professional life more effective and productive.
Originally published in 1989, it was revolutionary for its time. Not anymore. But! It is still relevant as hell. Honestly, it’s not that we don’t know the theory of how to be successful, especially with the amount of self-help books nowadays. It’s just that we forget it. Listening to this book was a way to remind myself of the basic principles and to keep myself focused on the important, if only for a while.
The Best Biography — Elon Musk: Tesla, Space X, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance
Not that I read many biographies this year, and those I did read include autobiographies of Kevin Hart (I know!) and Nelson Mandela (surprisingly, I enjoyed Kevin Hart more, you can unsubscribe from me now, I’ll understand), but this one was the most captivating.
I wish Elon Musk wrote a memoir, but for now we have to make do with a biography written by Ashlee Vance. And although we can’t get inside Musk’s head and see the mind of a genius first hand, we can get a glimpse of the way he thinks, lives and works through this book.
Unlike many biographies, this one doesn’t particularly make you like the guy. He comes off as arrogant, demanding, and sometimes plain mean. At the same time, you can’t help but admire his global thinking and perseverance in the face of challenges. The latter — especially. If you want to get motivated to achieve goals no matter what read about the three failed attempts to launch Falcon 1 and exhausting all company’s funds before successful fourth launch or about the many struggles with Tesla, including horrible media reviews and almost going bankrupt. You’ll have conflicting feelings towards Musk throughout the book ranging from admiration to pity to rage, but one thing does not change: he is an inspiration!
The Book That Surprised Me the Most — The Untold History of the United States by Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick.
The alternative name of the nomination is “the book I really like but cannot finish for the life of me!” It all started with a Netflix documentary with the same name “The Untold History of The United States”. The first episode of the series was dedicated to the WWII. Honestly, I am not too fond of watching American-made documentaries about WWII because, although I can’t say they are untruthful, they definitely leave a lot of important information out. I wrote about it extensively here.
But for some reason I’ve decided to give this documentary a try. And, boy, was my mind blown! For the first time (!) I heard the history of WWII told in English the way I know it, the way I learned it at school and later through many history books. Just like the series follows the biggest events of the XX century, the book’s chapters go into detail describing the history of the United States from the Great Depression to WWII and Hiroshima to the Cold War and Cuban crisis and beyond.
Director Oliver Stone and historian Peter Kuznick wrote a book that challenges traditional history books every step of the way. Was dropping the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki necessary? Who won the Second World War? Who is responsible for perpetuating the Cold War? If you are not afraid to have all your preconceived knowledge shattered, this is the book for you. I have to say, though, that it is incredibly hard to read with dozens of names, ranks, and dates on every page. I often have to flip a few pages back to remember who’s who and what’s happening. I started the book in January and managed to finish about two thirds by now. Still, highly recommended!
There are two more books by Russian authors I want to mention. I couldn’t find their English translations anywhere online, but if you ever come across “Shadows Disappear at Noon” by Anatoly Ivanov or “Requiem for Convoy PQ-17” by Valentin Pikul, give them a try.
“Shadows Disappear at Noon” is a Soviet book, a very stereotypically Soviet book. I’d read it not for the author’s take on real events in the beginning of the XX century in Russia, but rather to witness how Soviet propaganda was strong even in fiction literature during those times. Ivanov’s a good writer who knows how to create a captivating plot, but the characters of the book are nothing less of stereotypical Soviet idea of real people. The rich guy is always a mean, unjust man with low morals who got to where he is by lying and stealing. The poor guy is by default a good guy. Religion is a sect. Everyone who believes in God ultimately either perishes or comes to realization that there’s no God. Reading this novel today is quite fascinating.
“Requiem for Convoy PQ-17” — is a tragic story (based on real events) of a convoy that perished in the Arctic Ocean during the Second World War because the covering force provided by the Allies was ordered to scatter and leave the ships unprotected. The convoy was heavily attacked by Luftwaffe and U-boats losing 24 out of 35 merchant ships.
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