I keep accidentally taking hiatuses. Not from reading, but from writing. But in the meantime, I’ve now crushed upwards of 30 books for the year. Some certainly better than others. Here are the highlights, and the ones you should pick up too.
Severance – Ling Ma
This is along the same vein as My Year of Rest and Relaxation with a disaffected female millennial narrator. In Severance, the narrator works in publishing – another plot point I’m always a sucker for – when a plague of sorts sweeps thru and eliminates much of society. In the same way that the narrator in MYORAR just does not have the time for anyone around her, the narrator hates everyone around them and just cannot be bothered by the world.
In addition to being ironic and hilarious, there are some actually poignant nuggets about being a first generation American and straddling two cultures. I’ve recommended this to a thousand people, mostly because I am always thinking about a disease coming and wiping the world out.
The Custom of the Country – Edith Wharton
I owe my Comp II professor a world of apologies for squandering my time in my freshman course on Women in Literature. We read so much Edith Wharton and I just didn’t take the time to appreciate or enjoy the writing. Now, eight (!!!!) years later, I’ve returned to Edith in all her Gilded Age glory.
To begin, I love Old New York. I’m obsessed with what the city must have been like at the turn of the Twentieth Century, when all the big buildings, department stores, and hotels were going up. Everything seemed so rich and ornate. Which is why Custom of the Country was so hilarious, because there were still conflicts between new and old money, and social drama rivaling that of the Real Housewives of New York.
Essentially, the book follows Undine Spragg, a new NYC resident from the Midwest who desperately wants to break into high society, get married, and spend money. For something written over a century ago, it was oddly relevant and entertaining. Definitely recommend if you love drama, New York City, and luxury.
Washington Black – Esi Edugyan
On a totally different note…this book follows the journey of a slave in Barbados as he escapes with the brother of his master and tries to live as a free man up north. It’s a sweeping and epic tale, and is written beautifully, highlighting not only the cruelty of people around the globe, but also the kindness.
I desperately want this to be made into a movie. It’s part adventure tale, part tragic slave tale, and part redemption story.
New People – Danzy Senna
This was a recommendation from Molly Young’s “Read Like the Wind” newsletter, which she called an “easy breezy caustic novel about Brooklyn millennials.” It is, however, so much more than that.
Most of the book’s drama takes place in the head of the narrator, Maria, who like her fiancé, is mixed-race. Although she is engaged to a seemingly-perfect man who complements her wonderfully, she has built up a distant acquaintance, convincing herself that they are in love, despite never having said more than a few words to each other.
This book is enthralling and a little dark and twisted at times, but also manages to highlight some of the twisted ways in which society looks at folks who are not totally black, but also not totally white, and what it expects from them without offering them anything in return.
You’ll Grow Out of It – Jessi Klein
In a moment of existential introspection, I decided that IF I am to ever write a book, it will be one of funny personal essays. I’ve always been neither here nor there on these types of books (I read Bossypants and Mindy Kaling’s books years ago, etc. etc.) but with this burst of conviction, I added a mess of books in the genre to my list at the library, including Jessi Klein’s book.
I knew Jessi from her work on BigMouth with John Mulaney and Nick Kroll, which I believe is one of the funniest shows on earth. I quickly realized Jessi has been around much longer than the past few years, and has written on a slew of shows, including Inside Amy Schumer and Transparent.
Jessi’s book begins by covering several incidences in her childhood and young adulthood, where she explains why it took her forever to learn to dress herself properly and how she never really had a grasp on makeup. These anecdotes are funny, but the stories that shine brightest are the ones about her professional struggles to jump into comedy, or her feeling that she didn’t deserve the things she earned, even as she accepted an Emmy award. Her writing voice actually reminded me a lot of the voice in my head, which gives me hope that maybe I’m a fraction as funny as she is.
Heavy – Kiese Laymon
A book that is objectively not funny. Heavy is Laymon’s memoir of growing up poor, black, and overweight in the American south. And while many of the memories in the book center around his physical weight, many of them also center around the emotional weight he carried, being black and poor, and the weight he carried from having an abusive mother.
Laymon has a sense of self-awareness that punched me in the gut. He writes about being racially profiled, even as a tenured professor in the Hudson Valley, but also about the relief he felt after the 9/11 attacks, knowing he wasn’t the most feared body in any room. He writes about all the ways the system worked against him, but acknowledged that while black men have it rough, black women have it a million times rougher.
I was incredibly moved by this book, even though much of it was painful to read. Laymon is one of the most talented writers I’ve encountered in a long time, and I hope he is doing okay today.
The Gloaming – Melanie Finn
I think I’ve written before about Two Dollar Radio, but I cannot stop singing its praises, and I doubly cannot believe I didn’t know about it until this year. They are the coolest independent publisher based in Columbus, Ohio, and they publish a ton of awesome books, including this one. Also all of their books are the kind of paperback that feels perfect in your hands as you hold it. I can’t describe it.
The Gloaming is a rich and intense thriller that follows Pilgrim Jones after a double tragedy – an accident and her husband leaving her for another woman. It took me a little bit to fall into the book’s rhythm (the first part switches between past and present in two different locations) but once I got the hang of it, I was sucked in.
Finn has an incredible talent for describing grief and justice, all while highlighting the differences (and striking similarities) between America, European, and African cultures. I am eager to read her more recent book, The Underneath (which I will BUY direct from 2 Dollar Radio because I am obsessed with supporting them).