I’ve been trying to write this since December. I guess I’ve been busy (reading) because every time I sat down to write, I ended up having to add more books. I’ve finally forced myself to sit down and bang this out, since I absolutely love recommending books, and I’ve read a TON lately.
I need to start writing these more often, and to definitely write down my thoughts on each book sooner, since I tend to remember only how books made me feel, rather than what they were about.
Who Thought This Was a Good Idea?
I first heard of Alyssa Mastromonaco on Sophia Amoruso’s Girlboss Podcast. Immediately after hearing her, I looked to see if she had a book out. She did not, but she had one coming out in a few weeks. For the first time ever, I pre-ordered a book.
Alyssa changed my year. For all you Pod Save America listeners out there, Alyssa is a “best friend of the pod,” as in, she was in the White House with Obama at the same time as Jon, Jon, Dan and Tommy. There’s a blurb from Favs and Dan on the back! There’s pictures of Dan and Jon in the photo insert! But Alyssa is the real star.
The book is a collection of stories from Alyssa’s time as Obama’s chief of Scheduling and Advance, and was not only a beautiful, nostalgic retelling of a better time, but it empowered me and made me understand that politics can be for anyone, and that, even at 25, I can get into politics and do something amazing.
The stories are wonderful, and Alyssa is hilarious, but what really struck me was reading about how she got into politics (interning for Bernie Sanders in Vermont), and how she made it to the White House. It wasn’t a direct path like many others in Politics. She didn’t go to Georgetown and intern in DC and claw her way in. Instead, she kind of stumbled there, even dabbling in (conservative) lobbying. Sitting at my position at a conservative publisher and reeling from the 2016 election, I felt comforted hearing Alyssa talk about how she got to work with Obama by, at first, taking small steps to get her closer to where she wanted to be.
Eventually, Alyssa worked on the Kerry campaign in 2004, which ended in a tough loss . Afterward, she said she never wanted to work on another presidential campaign again, and was pleased when someone called her about working on Obama’s senate campaign, because he was just a junior senator from Chicago, and would “definitely not be running for president.”
Not only was her story great, but her voice (both written and spoken) is so comforting to me, and I see a bit of myself in her. I repeatedly say that I need Alyssa to both give me a hug and tell me I’m doing great and also tell me to get my shit together. I want her to be my life coach.
She inspired me to start volunteering for causes important to me. She inspired me to make a pivot into a job that more closely aligned with my values. She inspired me to get more involved in politics, and most importantly showed me that politics could be for me, a communications major, visual arts minor, who now works in publishing.
And I think the most important thing to take away from Alyssa and her book (in addition to reaffirming the fact that Obama really is the greatest guy ever) is that politics is for everyone, and it SHOULD be for everyone. Her book was the first thing that made me feel like I could get into them, take action and make my voice heard.
My only regret is that this book didn’t exist when I was in college, because it might have inspired me to change my tune earlier.
This book came out a few years ago, but I read it this year and I think about it a lot.
Essentially, there’s a major plague that infects the entire world in a matter of days. In a matter of weeks, civilization has ended. The book follows a handful of characters around 20 years after the plague, some of which are in a travelling Shakespeare group, some of which are tangentially related to the group members.
To be honest, I don’t remember many of the characters’ names, but the author, Emily St. John, weaves their stories together quite beautifully, slowly revealing the way their lives before are tied to their lives after.
It’s somewhat dystopian, but very realistic. I think about it whenever there’s another flu outbreak. Also – some people I’ve told about the group are turned off by the “theater” aspect, but it really didn’t bother me, as it didn’t bash me over the head.
Little Fires Everywhere
In my last book post, I talked about how much I enjoyed Celeste Ng’s first novel, Everything I Never Told You. Ng came out with a new book this year, which I was eager to read. Like her first book, Little Fires Everywhere explores the complicated relationships within families, communities, and cultures, my favorite genre.
That some characters were incredibly frustrating to me is a testament to Ng’s writing, not the story itself. The main mother figure, born and raised in picturesque Shaker Heights, Ohio, wore at my last nerve, her inability to understand why anyone would want to live any way different from her astounding me, page after page.
However, Mrs. Richardson (she has a first name in the book – Elena – but Mrs. Richardson suits her much better) served her role perfectly, acting as a foil to Mia, a single mother and artist with a secretive past and no husband to speak of. And then there’s the relationships between their children, which – to be honest – I could have done without. Their stories were interesting, but it was far more interesting to watch parents and mothers grapple with their own ideas about how people should live, and whether or not it was their own business.
Despite some insufferable characters and unnecessary plot points, I enjoyed this book too, and loved the things it made me think about, like my relationship with my own mother, and how it could definitely be much worse.
Another important note: Reese Witherspoon is making this one into a TV series, like Big Little Lies, and I trust her to keep the parts that say important things, and make the changes needed to make a stellar show.
Devil in the White City
I read this book on my couch at Christmas time, with a candle burning and the tree lit. It was such a slow, relaxing and lavish read, and that was the perfect environment for it.
The book is a work of nonfiction, depicting both H.H. Holmes’ murder spree and the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. I have had this book on my shelf for years and couldn’t bring myself to read it. On one hand, I was very intrigued by the murder story. On the other, I was very uninterested in the story of the design and building of the Chicago World’s Fair. Eventually, I picked it up, designating it my “bedside book,” (that is, not the one I read on the subway…). However, the story of Daniel H. Burnham and the World’s Fair is almost as intriguing as the murder.
What I enjoyed most was how somehow, two seemingly unrelated stories wove together, and how well the stories were told, despite also being historically accurate. If you told me it was a novel, I would have believed it.
I also, surprisingly, liked hearing the World’s Fair story. I never knew that the Ferris Wheel was invented specifically for it, in an effort to outdo the Eiffel Tower of World’s Fair past. I also liked seeing the complexities and politics that went into it. It was fascinating. I was also devastated to find out that the buildings from the fair no longer exist. Larson described them as so stunning and beautiful, I wanted to visit them and see their grandeur for myself.
And of course, the murder. H.H. Holmes was just so crazy it felt made up. I was riveted, reading about the police trying to catch him and Holmes evading them, all while millions of people poured into the city for the Fair.
A modern retelling of Antigone, which, I’m glad no one told me until I was halfway through. I think I read Antigone, the Greek tragedy by Sophocles, in seventh grade, although I remember very little, except the obvious associations with Oedipus. I think that knowing this was a version of that story might have turned me off, since I have no fond memories of that play.
However, after realizing that Home Fire was adapted from Antigone, I was obsessed with re-learning the characters and story line, and comparing them as the novel unfolded.
The novel itself does not feel like a Greek tragedy, not until the end, at least. It tells the story of two sisters of Pakistani descent, struggling with life and love in modern-day London. The story delves into the brutal truths of being a person of color in today’s world. For instance, the story opens with one of the sisters, Isma, being interrogated at an airport.
The sisters also struggle to deal with the loss of their brother, who has gone East, presumably to join ISIS (or an ISIS-like group). One thing that stuck with me from this novel is how well the author illustrates the allure of such a group to someone who has been marginalized, how one gets wrapped up in it, and how impossible it is to change your mind, no thanks to incredibly strict and sometimes insensitive laws.
I was moved by this novel, and think about the interplay of relationships often. It’s not just a romantic love story, rather it explores love for one’s country and one’s family as well.
The People in the Trees
This is Hanya Yanigahara’s first novel, prior to A Little Life. It’s the story of an anthropological researcher Dr. Norton Perina, who, although advised not to, goes to a far-away island to study its people who allegedly live for hundreds of years.
The story details Perina’s journey to, and from the island, and explores what it is to be human, and how exactly culture lives in us. Perina ultimately takes some of the people from the island back to the US to study, an act that obviously backfires and leads to a wealth of misfortunes, culminating in Perina being jailed for sexually abusing one of his adopted children. The book itself is written from the incarcerated Perina’s point of view.
This was no A Little Life, but I saw some pieces of it, especially in Yanigahara’s storytelling, and her ability to absolutely devastate the reader. I was, of course, riveted by the story, as I constantly waited for Perina to redeem himself, and was constantly disappointed when he did not.
Anyone who’s heard me speak in the past year has heard me yammer on about Dreamland by Sam Quinones.
I was acutely aware of the heroin epidemic in America before, but when the big LA Times article about Oxycontin came out, I was obsessed. I wanted to know how something like this had happened, and why medical professionals let it keep happening. I wanted to know how it had happened so I might understand how to stop it. I needed to know more, which led me to Dreamland.
The book is brilliantly told, narrating the heroin epidemic from all angles. Not only does Quinones illustrate how Big Pharma made false promises and got Americans addicted to opiates, but he illustrates how dealers infiltrated the markets, and why they’re impossible to get rid of, as well as different policies and their efficacy in communities that have been ravaged by the addiction.
It’s a really fascinating and does an amazing job covering as much of the epidemic as possible in a readable manner. HIGHLY recommend this one.
I don’t have a lot to say about this book, other than that I really enjoyed it. It takes place in an unnamed city in the Middle East, and details a love story between two characters. They try to flee through some kinds of magical and secret doors, but often times the ones they’re looking for aren’t safe anymore, or don’t lead where they want.
I thought this was a beautiful story and that it highlights what it’s like to be in a war-torn area, to feel the need to flee, and to be denied.
In some ways, this Pulitzer Prize-winning story is similar to Exit West, although it takes place in a completely different time. As the title suggests, this is the story of a slave, Cora, who decides to escape from her plantation, like her mother did many years before.
Like Exit West, the book is realistic for all but one part – Cora encounters a literal underground railroad, a secret network of subterranean train tracks that transports runaway slaves throughout the South. Cora travels to different locations in search of freedom, while on the run from bounty hunters, and other hostile parties.
The story was absolutely riveting, and I found myself trying to sneak times to read – on the train, on my lunch break, a few more pages before going to bed. I thought the storytelling was spectacular, and it’s homage to the hardships of slaves, and the plight of minorities today was so well done.
In this book and Exit West, I wondered if the bits of magic diminished the experiences of actual slaves or refugees, who endured the real thing rather than passing thru a magic door or riding a primitive subway. But I think it’s these magic elements that help tell the stories better; instead of dwelling on passages that we already know are brutal, the brutality and ugliness comes from other things, like broken relationships or the racism of a child.
The Woman in the Window
I read this book in one day. It is another story of murder – maybe?? – told by an unreliable female narrator, but I devoured it nonetheless.
The main premise of the story is that an agoraphobic woman is stuck inside her Harlem townhouse, since she’s afraid to leave, and she thinks she sees her neighbor get murdered.
There are just so many twists and turns that I was shaken up again and again. So many parts took me by surprise. Some of my friends said that they saw a few of the twists coming (like what happened to her that made her agoraphobic, etc.) but I saw none.
This one was almost on the level of Gone Girl, and definitely better than The Girl on the Train. Like I said, I read it in just one day.
I was most intrigued by the premise of this novel – set in a future that looks very similar to today, except that all women develop the power to shoot electric currents from their hands, causing a shift in power, as men no longer have the strength to remain in positions of power.
The book also deals with questions of gender in religion, government and war, and ultimately discusses the roles which we assign to genders. At the end of the book, the faux male historian who “wrote” it discusses it with a female mentor, in disbelief that there was a time when women were seen as nurturing and soft, and men were strong leaders. Ultimately, the female mentor advises the historian to publish his book under a female name, to give it more credibility.
While I found this novel a bit too YA for my tastes, I liked how it made me think. If I gained the ability to overpower men, would I? While feminism advocates for the equality of the sexes, this book seems to suggest that an equilibrium isn’t possible, that one will always dominate the other. Am I supposed to be a nurturing person simply because that’s just how women have always been, or is there something about me that gives me a proclivity to mother others?
Definitely a quick read, and definitely worth reading, especially to discuss with other people.
This book made me into an asshole.
I’ve always enjoyed wine. A few years ago, I went to a wine tasting class with my coworkers and crushed it. I belonged to a monthly wine subscription (Winc) and thought I had a refined palate and good taste. But since I read this book, I’m so much worse.
The book is the detailed experience of a tech reporter, Bianca Bosker, and her attempt to become a Master Sommelier in a year. Passing the Master Sommelier course typically takes the average person over three years and a total submersion into the wine culture. (Spoiler) Bianca does it in one.
She dives right in, working in the wine cellar of a NYC restaurant with an acclaimed beverage program (which is essentially what the cocktail/wine selection is referred to in the biz) and interviews everyone she possibly can in the industry, while tasting as much wine as humanly possible.
Bianca does an exquisite job explaining how to mindfully taste wine (and everything else), as well as takes a deep dive into the service industry. For instance, why waiters stand where they do, how to properly serve wine to a table (always bring a coaster for the cork) and how somms size up customers to determine which wines to recommend.
She also meets with the people behind brands like Kendall Jackson to investigate what makes a wine “good” and how companies develop wines to appeal to a wider array of drinkers.
After reading this book, I made a conscious change in how I drink. I try to taste as many elements as possible, and to really enjoy the wines I’m drinking. I replaced my stemless wine glasses with the customary stemmed ones (which preserve the temperature of the wine better). I’ve found that now, the cheaper wines don’t taste as good to me, and I’m actively seeking out different types to taste at the liquor store. It’s more expensive, for sure, but also far more enjoyable.
I really liked Cork Dork, and recommend it to everyone I know who likes drinking, and appreciates the finer things.
I read this book most recently. Another that I’ve had on my shelf for a while, I picked it up on a whim, half expecting not to finish it. It’s quite a behemoth – over 700 pages in paperback. But after the first 200 or so pages, I tore through it. It went from being my bedside-only book to my lunchtime and commuting book, as well as my replacement for before-bed Dateline NBC.
The main story in The Nix is of Samuel, at times in the story a boy, at times a grown up, and his longing to figure out why his mother abandoned him as a child, sparked by his rediscovery of her when she throws a handful of rocks at a presidential nominee.
The story is told from multiple perspectives over multiple time periods, with plenty of other characters added in. At times, it felt like too many. But the end result was a satirical portrait of America, and all the people in it. Written in 2011, I was most impressed by the author’s prediction of a presidential candidate like Trump, and a news cycle like the one we have now. I guess in his effort to exaggerate the climate when he wrote the book, he accidentally conceptualized the circus we’re living in now.
At first I didn’t realize the book was a satire, but some of the characters were such a perfect blend of exaggerated traits I caught on quickly. There’s a student who plagiarized a paper and then exerts a ridiculous amount of energy to get out of facing the repercussions. There’s an online gamer who is literally addicted to his online world but in complete denial about it. There’s a book agent who is solely obsessed with finding the next new thing and selling it to the masses. And of course, Samuel, with a tendency to cry and a self-righteous streak who has spent his whole life waiting for things to happen to him.
While there is a lot going on, it’s weaved together wonderfully, and the story was intriguing. I felt a connection to the characters, but hated them all at the same time. Ultimately, I genuinely enjoyed it. It was ironic and human and incredibly entertaining.
Until the last chapter or so, I LOVED this book. I loved the characters – Anna, a smart and inventive woman during WWII, Dexter Styles, a shady mobster, Ed Kerrigan, the dad that disappeared – but at the end, nothing tied together like I wanted, or at all, and I was frankly, disappointed.
The first 90% of the book reminded me of Amour Towles’ first novel, Rules of Civility, which I need to re-read because I enjoyed it so much. It started out as the story of a girl asserting herself while the men were at war, doing the dirty work and proving people wrong. Then, her father disappeared mysteriously and the main character, Anna, was reunited with one of his associates as an adult. The intrigue! I loved reading about the Naval Yards and Coney Island and the Midtown bars in the 1940’s.
Ultimately, though, there were pieces that ended up feeling unnecessary. Anna’s mother and how she obviously favors Anna’s crippled sister Lydia. A bunch of details about Anna’s father, Ed, and his relationship with Dexter. I just wanted more, and I wanted it to be far more inventive than it was.
That being said, the majority of the book was delightful. I think I told my friends twice a day how much I was loving the book.
I’m a sucker for Old New York – so any recommendations in that era are highly welcomed.
PHEW. Perhaps I should write these more often, but that was a lot of books, and not even every one I read. But here are a few more on my to-read list:
- Great Expectations by Charles Dickens: If you know me, you’ve heard the story of my Henry James scholar uncle who sent me Great Expectations when I was 8. I tried for almost a year to get past the first page, but at 8, I did not have it in me to comprehend Dickens. I am proud to say that I’ve read a few chapters so far and it’s going much better.
- White Oleander – I bought this at an art installation where you could pay what you want for used books. That’s reason enough to read it, but I feel like I’ve been hearing about it for years and need to just get with it.
- The New Jim Crow – I’m way behind on this, but given today’s political climate, I want to read this one and arm myself with more information, so I know exactly what I’m fighting for, and against.
- Old New York by Edith Wharton – My freshman year of college I took a class on Female Writers in the 19th Century, and it was completely lost on me. Now, I’m starting to go back and actually read these writers, so I can actually appreciate them. Also, I said I love old New York. This one’s a given.
- Lolita – as you can gather from this lengthy post, a lot of classic literature has been lost on me, so it’s become my mission to read (or re-read) these works. When I was looking for an equal read to A Little Life, many people suggested Lolita. Added to my Amazon cart, just waiting for payday.
- Killers of the Flower Moon – I love murder, I love crime shows, and I love books. This book has also been in my Amazon cart for months, I’ve just been avoiding it, since I have more books than I can currently shelve. But I might pull the trigger soon anyway, because another book never killed anyone, and I think I can find a place for it.