Thursday, July 27, 2017

a fourth year of books.

In 2016, without really meaning to, I stopped writing in this space.  I'd like to think it's because I'm getting braver and better at sharing my secret thoughts in real life, without needing to hide behind a screen.  I'm minimally less angsty than I was at age twenty, when I started this blog--mostly to write out song lyrics and muse upon how misunderstood I felt by everyone I knew.  Eight years, one marriage, two cats, and lots of therapy later, I have come to rely upon different practices for reflection and remembering, which has mostly left this space quiet and unneeded.

However, doing a round-up of my favorite reads from the prior year has been fun but also so useful.  I've pulled up these posts countless times to make a recommendation or remember a title.  I like thinking about books and stories and narratives.  I like remembering when I first read a really memorable tale.  Most of all, I like making lists.

So.  Here are my top selections from books read sometime between October 2015 and October 2016 (very, very late...and written over many months!):

Memoir



H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald.  After her father's sudden death, Macdonald grapples with loss and explores the edges of her own humanity when she adopts and trains a young goshawk.  What makes this story so compelling is not the familiar theme of an animal providing support for a human's emotional recovery, but rather, the poetic and vivid writing of Macdonald.  She quietly, hauntingly grants her readers a glimpse into how she came to feel devotion and eventually love for an animal as reptilian and alien as a hawk.  The wildness of Mabel the hawk acts a reflection for the inner landscape of Macdonald's grief.   The Times observes, "Macdonald renders an indelible impression of a raptor’s fierce essence — and her own — with words that mimic feathers, so impossibly pretty we don’t notice their astonishing engineering."

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, Roz Chast.  Famed for her cartoons in the New Yorker, Chast offers us a wryly funny and observant account of her experience as an adult child caring for her aging parents.  The only daughter of George and Elizabeth, Chast paints a (literal) picture of her quirky, neurotic, co-dependent parents, who were still living in the Brooklyn home of Chast's childhood as they neared eighty.  This is a candid, darkly comedic reflection on family and loss, brought to life by Chast's ink drawings and frank storytelling.

Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget, Sarah Hepola.  Memoirs about addiction can feel commonplace, but Hepola's account stands out as being genuinely funny while still managing to be unflinchingly honest about her alcoholism.  Sparing no gritty details about what drinking cost her--notably after she begins blacking out, with no memory of the previous night's escapades--Hepola also manages to help us understand the freedom and escape alcohol provided her,  particularly as a young writer.  This is a memorable reflection on both personal responsibility and cultural influence on female drinking and addiction.

You'll Grow Out of It, Jessi Klein.  As a fan of The Moth, I'd enjoyed several of Klein's open mic performances (if you're new to her work, start with The Dress) and found her writing voice consistent in this collection of personal essays: slightly cynical, edgy, and bravely vulnerable, in a really funny way.  She writes, as she speaks, about her anxiety and insecurity in ways that are both deeply recognizable and almost horrifyingly embarrassing.  At times she can be a little crass and dark for my taste, but the final essay in this collection (about Klein's journey to motherhood) is poignant and moving.  I read the entire book on a plane to the east coast and would recommend devouring it in one go for the best experience of her collection.

Honorable mention: The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr.  It's more of a writing handbook than true autobiography, but Karr is arguable one of the finest memoirists of the 20th century, and there are enough tidbits about her life here that it still reads like a personal narrative.  Indeed, The Times review noted, "The best parts of this book are those that veer off course and find her writing about herself again."  The Art of Memoir provides a fascinating peek into the personal and artistic journey Karr took to discover her voice as a writer, which resulted in the seemingly effortless redneck-dysfunctional-poet-survivor narration style of her earlier memoirs (her first two efforts made my list back in 2014).

Fast, fun reads


Eligible, Curtis Sittenfield.  I'm not the most devoted of Jane Austen fans (BBC adaptation series excepted), but this was such a gleeful, clever interpretation that I couldn't put it down.  Sittenfield uproots the Bennett family and replants them in the modern 21st century: with the family approaching financial crisis, the two eldest sisters--Jane, a yoga instructor, and Liza, a magazine writer--leave New York City to return to the family home in Cincinnati.  Their younger sisters still live at home and are obsessed with Crossfit, while their mother is fanatical about marrying off her two eldest daughters before they hit 40; she is considerably relieved when Jane shows interest in Chip Bingley, a doctor who recently appeared on the reality TV dating show Eligible.  Naturally, Chip's co-worker and friend, Fitzwilliam Darcy, strikes Liz as insufferable (we all know where this will end up).  Sittenfield is breezy and cheeky, with pop culture references sprinkled throughout a la Gilmore Girls, but there are also insightful scenes and interactions between characters.  This is perfect for a weekend getaway read.

Modern Lovers, Emma Straub.  This clever novel follows three friends and former college bandmates who are now approaching middle age and attempting to sort through the challenges that come along with marriage, real estate, and raising adolescent children.  It's a lighthearted take on identity and aging, infused with wry observations about the struggle to remain "hip" and relevant in middle age--and set, naturally, in Brooklyn.  The plot can feel a little kitschy (i.e. the budding romance between the son and daughter of the two families), but the realistic and recognizable inner lives of Straub's characters save the story and make for an enjoyable read.

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, Helen Simonson.  This is a charming (spoiler!) love story, about the unexpected romance that springs up between a fussy, traditional Englishman (the aforenamed Major Pettigrew) and Jasmina Ali, a Pakistani widow and shopkeeper in the local village.  Simonson perfectly evokes the opinionated and finicky nature of the Major, who feels passionately about the "proper" way things should be done, and how wonderfully his life is disrupted by his newfound friendship with Mrs. Ali.  This is a sweet take on finding love late in life, and the challenges and suspicions that surround tradition and immigration in the 21st century.

Dept. of Speculation, Jenny Offill.  A dreamy, almost stream-of-consciousness novel, which tells the story of a marriage and motherhood in fragmented, lovely prose.  While a story emerges (a love story, a marriage, a child, bed bugs, an affair), this is more poem than traditional novel, made up primarily of observations, quotes, and slivers of thoughts; it truly feels like a glimpse into a personal journal, or perhaps lines jotted on the back on an envelope.  It may take a few pages to settle into Offill's lyrical rhythms, but it's worth the adjustment to encounter the quiet and moving beauty of the story she's created here.

Fiction


A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara.  This may be the saddest book I will ever recommend, but it's also one of the most sweeping and beautifully dark stories I've encountered, as Yanagihara writes intricately and brilliantly about shame, intimacy, and resilience after trauma.  Four college classmates move to New York after graduation; this is the story of their intersecting lives as artists, intellectuals, and friends, but most of all, this is a story about Jude.  Talented and tortured, we slowly learn about Jude's history, even as we begin to grasp how widely his abusive past impacts his current choices and relationships.  Some have criticized the book for being unnecessarily tragic and dark, or simply too long.  I found it to be a haunting and gritty exploration of a compelling and pressing question: can we learn to accept love when trauma and pain have taught us we are unworthy?

Purity, Jonathan Franzen.  All of Franzen's books involve ambitious, sweeping storylines, usually involving several generations of a family.  Like several of his past works, including the terrific Freedom, a character will dominate for a large section of the book, then disappear as we suddenly take on the perspective a new character, only to re-emerge again at some later point.  This leads to a sense of gradual and dawning understanding on the part of the reader, as the various storylines connect in unexpected ways.  It's sprawling, but clever.  At the heart of the novel is Pip, a recent college-grad with a mountain of student debt and a lifelong question about the identity of her biological father.  This novel is biting, observant, and surprisingly funny.

NOTE: I got about this far and then despaired of ever posting a finished summary, because GRAD SCHOOL, so decided--let's be messy and real, and not try to create NYT-worthy descriptions of every single books.  From this point on, my descriptions will aim to be short and sweet.  I hope you'll still check out a book if it sounds compelling to you! 

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel.  The first in a series of three, a superb fictionalized biography about Thomas Cromwell, although only the first two books have been released.  After being born with no title or impressive credentials, Cromwell would eventually rise to become the right hand to King Henry VIII, who founded the Anglican church in order to marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn.  This is a fascinating and approachable reflection on power, politics, and a particularly chaotic period of English history.

Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi.  This is another novel that utilizes the device of generational story-telling--in this case, depicting snapshots of a family over seven generations, across many decades and two continents.  Gyasi explores the legacy of American slavery, beginning with two sisters in Ghana, Effia and Esi, who will never meet.  Their lives and their descendants' lives diverge dramatically, but all are marked by the legacy of slavery and colonialism, as well as a longing to reconnect to a sense of belonging, family, and home.

BONUS: The Elena Farrente Neopolitan Novels.  It fascinates me that the author has chosen to remain anonymous, which certainly suggests there are aspects of autobiography present in her books.  The series centers around the friendship between two girls, lifelong friends, who grow up in a poor, violent neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples.  Their friendship, which is traced from childhood through mature adulthood, is marked by both a fierce competition and a deep loyalty.  These are dense novels: descriptive, confessional, demanding, poetic, and political.  Each book is a slow burn: it takes some time to become fully invested in the characters, but by the end of each volume, I urgently needed to know what would happen next.

Honorable mentions:  Sweetbitter, Stephanie Danler, The Accidental Tourist, Anne Tyler, Euphoria, Lily King

Nonfiction


Girls & Sex, Peggy Orenstein.  A selection by my Seattle-area book club, and one of the most important books I read in the past year.  Orenstein provides readers with a thoughtful, research-oriented inquiry into the current sexual culture in the West, paying special attention to generational gaps in communication and the impact of technology.  While the book is aimed at teenage girls and their parents, I found myself reflecting on my own experiences and beliefs, as an adult who received many of her messages about sexuality from the evangelical church.  This is a passionate, nonjudgmental, and eye-opening examination of stereotypes and the ways in which they impact boys, girls, men, and women in the 21st century.

Becoming Nicole, Amy Ellis Nutt.  This is investigative journalism at its very finest, introducing us to a transgender girl, her identical twin brother, and the way their family is profoundly changed by her journey to self.  While there is a civil rights discrimination case driving the story, this is primarily a coming-of-age tale: of a young girl, yes, but also of the family that learned to accept and celebrate her courage and authenticity.  I was particularly moved by the evolution of Wayne, Nicole's father, a Republican and military veteran.  With issues of transgender protection called into question by the current administration, I highly recommend this book as an introduction to the lived experience of a transgender individual.

Strangers Drowning, Larissa MacFarquhar.  This collection examines various individuals who live with extreme devotion to their ethical commitments, from a couple who adopts over twenty children to a woman who lives on a fraction of her income, donating the rest to purchase life-saving medicine.  It's a thoughtful, compassionate book, reflecting on compromise, integrity, and the anxious, dark side of altruism.  MacFarquhar does not demonize her subjects, nor does she gloss over what it costs them, as many of the subjects sacrifice personal relationships and comfort to help strangers.

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, Jeff Hobbs.  Penned by Robert's college roommate, we encounter a young black man who leaves his impoverished hometown of Newark, NJ, in order to attend Yale.  While Robert's escape to an Ivy League school is considered a triumph by teachers and family, his actual reality was more complicated and nuanced, as he strove to live a kind of dual existence in two vastly different worlds.  This is a much-needed meditation on class, race, and the American Dream during a time of an ever-widening gap between social groups.

Spirituality


Assimilate or Go Home, D.L. Mayfield.  I know Danielle from my youth group days in Boring, OR (I wish I could say this was a joke, but it's a real place).  Her work with Somali Bantu refugees over the past decade has in turns inspired and challenged me, introducing me to the margins of America and teaching me about the importance of baking cakes.  In this first memoir offering, she traces her journey from zealous evangelical teen to a humbled, disillusioned, nevertheless-hopeful disciple of Jesus.  Her efforts to convert her Muslim neighbors fail--only to introduce her to God in new and surprising ways. My all-time favorite line from my all-time favorite essay of hers (about Funfetti!): "Anything that asks us to walk in our belovedness and extend that to other people is the best kind of madness there is."

Disunity in Christ, Christena Cleveland.  I can't highly recommend this book and its brilliant author enough. If you're not into reading long quotes, know she is approaching issues of divide in the church as a funny, smart, and compassionate social psychologist. Jesus + psychology = winning, in my book.  I'm already feeling the need to re-read in the current era of Trump and deepening divides between races and classes in the U.S.
"Here's the thing: I rarely come across Christian organizations that truly want diversity. Everyone wants diversity, but no one wants to actually be diverse. Unfortunately, this happens because even Christian groups who hope to attract more diverse members continue to idolize their smaller cultural identity. Churches and Christian organizations want participants from diverse cultures but are too obsessed with their own culture to allow diverse people to influence it. Rather, they require diverse people to assimilate to and bow down to the dominant culture, just as the majority group is done. Diverse participants who make any attempt to exert diverse cultural influence are silenced or shunned. Minority group members are invited to participate in the organization as 'them'--subordinate outgroup members and second-class citizens. 
Until we relativize our smaller cultural identities and adopt a common ingroup identity (as followers of Christ), our diversity initiatives are doomed to failure because we will never fully appreciate our diverse brothers and sisters and they will not feel appreciated." 

Present Over Perfect, Shauna Niequist.  I'm a long-time fan of Niequist, and so I offer the following caveat all the grace and respect in my heart: she isn't the most superb or skilled writer I've encountered, but her wisdom and honesty still go a long way.  I suspect this book could have been a shorter tome, with a handful of essays, as the message can get repetitive by the end of the book.  However, her reflections on cultural obsessions with busyness, efficiency, and curating one's image as capable were timely for me.  Like Niequist, I have been spent the last several years grappling with my own tendency to overcommit and then suffer the consequences of an anxious, overly full life.  I am grateful for her perspective and gentle reminders as I continue to simplify and slow down.

Wearing God, Lauren Winner.  I'm surprised Winner's books haven't showed up on my annual book round-up, as Girl Meets God and Still are two of my favorite spiritual memoirs (but thank the heavens her titles have improved much since Girl Meets God).  If Niequist's writing is somewhat stilted despite the richness of her ideas, Winner's natural and poetic prose is leaps and bounds ahead.  This imaginative collection of essays explores little-used metaphors for God, exploring how surprising tropes can deepen and expand our spiritual lives.  The chapter on God as a pregnant woman alone makes it worth a read.

El fin.

I joined GoodReads this summer, and am slowly transferring five years of an Excel document (I know, I know) onto my profile.  I'm not sure how that new tool will impact future book lists, especially since I haven't blogged in this space in about two years.  Maybe I will do an annual recommendation on GoodReads!  Friend me there so we can read and recommend together?

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