Book recommendations for people who #GetIt

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I can’t emphasize enough how much reading has helped me throughout my life.

In second grade, my mom gave me a book about multiplication because I was not grasping it in the classroom. In high school, she would buy me boxed set after boxed set because she always noticed how reading calmed me down. I have been working in publishing with books now for almost 2 and a half years. And after the recent election, I devoured any book I could get my hands on that might help make sense of what happened.

I have a core list of books I recommend to pretty much anyone who asks for suggestions. They run the gamut of genres, but what I’ve gathered is that many of them illuminate what it means to be human, make connections and not have life figured out (#trying). Some are light, quick reads, but many of them are pretty heavy and make you think. Sorry.

An important add – my favorite way to get book suggestions (aside from at work and from friends) is the site Yasiv. You enter a book you liked and it maps out a web of related books, based on Amazon purchasing. Sometimes it’s confusing and directs me to irrelevant things, but for the most part, it’s an amazing tool.

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

I feel like this book has been around forever. The rainbow striped jacket has become commonplace among book collections, and for good reason. The novel follows a group of teens from a summer camp for creatives through adulthood and chronicles how adulthood often means giving up on creative endeavors. The group does stay friends, for the most part, and what I love most is how Wolitzer depicts the relationship between old friends.

It struck a particular nerve because I am still friends with many of the same people I knew when I was in high school, or even younger, and have managed to hang onto them. Yes, our relationships are all different now that we are grown ups, but The Interestings does a remarkable  job at describing the comfort of falling into old routines with people who have known you for longer than you have known yourself.

“It was a relief to know that even in getting older and splitting off into couples and starting families, you could still always come together in this way that you’d learn to do when you were young, and which you would have a taste for your entire life.”

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

This is a bit of a no-brainer, since it won just about every award a few years ago. Regardless, it was well-deserved. The novel tells the story of a young orphan in Nazi Germany, and a blind girl in France during WWII. Although their lives appear to be very different, over the course of the book they begin to overlap.

This book is beautiful and well-written (obviously) and tells the story of a horrifying war through the innocence of two children, both doing what they think is right. It put history into perspective for me.

Doerr’s first novel, About Grace is another favorite of mine. A man who has lived his life seeing his premonitions come true has a vision of his daughter drowning in a flood. The book traces his journey as he tries to avoid the tragedy by any means possible.

Doerr just has a way with beautiful words and storytelling that grabs readers by the heart and sucks them in.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

I’ve had debates about this book with my coworkers. It’s a quick read, but details the aftermath of a family losing their oldest daughter.

While a major plus would have been getting answers, the book leaves readers hanging (hence the debates) but reminded me of The Lovely Bones, in the way it was sort of told from the dead girl’s perspective, and how you can see the family secrets come creeping out.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanigahara

Anyone who has ever had a conversation with me about books knows I obsess over this one. It’s a behemoth, both physically and emotionally.

Early on, it becomes apparent that the main character, Jude, has suffered a terrible childhood tragedy, which is revealed in pieces throughout the book, interwoven between stories of Jude and his other friends in adulthood, all confronting their own struggles in art and life.

The plot seems generally pretty run-of-the-mill, albeit depressing, but something about this book engrossed me. I couldn’t put it down. It made me feel so much, and is one of only a few books that I’ve cried while reading. (I typically save my tears for real life).

A Little Life illustrates the complexity of friendships, and highlights the way a friend can alter your life, something that strikes me every single day:

“The only trick to friendship…is to find people who are better than you…kinder, and more generous, and more forgiving – and then to appreciate them for what they can teach you and try to listen when they tell you something about yourself.”

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

This might be cheating. I haven’t read this book in 17 years but I did just get a brand new hardcover copy…Regardless, at 7 I couldn’t stop talking about this book, and now at age 24 I still can’t stop. For a children’s book, it is incredibly intelligent. It might have been where I heard (and laughed-out-loud at) my first pun. Holla at Mrs. Kress at Briarwood for reading me this book and making me fall in love with words and smart humor!

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Written as a letter to his 15-year-old son, this book is a stunning portrait of our world through the eyes of a black man. Not only are Coates’ words like poetry (not literally, just very very beautiful) but it illuminates the reality of being a minority in America. I acknowledge my white privilege, and Between the World and Me illustrates feelings and conflicts I will never know. An amazing book for anyone looking to learn the struggles and strengths of another culture.

Also read Coates’ excerpt in the Atlantic here for a preview.

I would read the transcripts of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ sneezes. He’s wonderful.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

I first heard of Donna Tartt when The Goldfinch won the Pulitzer back in 2013. Christmas of 2014, I asked for all three of her novels in paperback (is that a nerdy and specific Christmas wish? Maybe). I read them in the order they were published (The Secret History, The Little Friend, The Goldfinch) and of the three, the first was by far my favorite. I believe that’s the general consensus, actually.

Regardless, what I loved most were the John Knowelsian undertones. My favorite book in high school english was A Separate Peace, a very loss-of-innocence type book with heavy symbolism and imagery. The Secrey History had similar “outsider goes to boarding school where he is accepted into a group and they turn on one of their own” vibes. It’s also kind of creepy without being overly scary, if that makes sense.

Of the remaining two Donna Tartt novels, The Little Friend  SUCKED and The Goldfinch was good. Kind of dragged, but good.

Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man by Bill Clegg

When I first started working for my current boss, we got lunch and drooled over how much A Little Life sucked us in. At the same lunch, she mentioned Portrait of an Addict Addict as a Young Man and I was instantly intrigued, for a few reasons.

  1. The author, Bill Clegg is a literary agent who has repped several very successful recent books (Fates and Furies, The Girls).
  2. It’s his memoir of a two week crack binge in New York!!!

I am infinitely intrigued by drug addiction. After reading in the LA Times about OxyContin, I was couldn’t look away from the epidemics running rampant today.

Clegg illustrates how he smoked crack in public places, and managed to work and get high. It opened my eyes to how many people are struggling with addiction while appearing to have it all together.

It was also incredibly fascinating to see first had (or as close as one can get when recalling a crack binge) what it was all like.

Just Kids by Patti Smith

I’ll admit, I’m neither here nor there about Patti Smith’s music. But, every time I looked up book recommendations based on my previous likes, Just Kids came up.

So, typical weirdo fashion, I asked for both of Smith’s books for Christmas this year (of course in paperback, my preferred format). Admittedly, it’s only mid-January, so I’ve only read Just Kids, but I LOVED it.

For one, Smith is a poet. Her writing is natural and beautiful and has a lyric quality. Second, she came from literally nothing in New Jersey in the 70’s, already gave a child up for adoption by the time she came to New York in her early 20’s, and lived in the Chelsea Hotel with longtime friend and iconic artist, Robert Mapplethorpe.

Her entire memoir is honest and humble, but a few things struck me as particularly important. Mainly, as a twenty-something during the Vietnam War, Smith illustrates the same angst, fear, and unrest that’s present right now. Although Jimmy Carter or Richard Nixon weren’t as bigoted and hateful as Trump, the concern was there, and the willingness to fight was also present. The willingness to get through those times makes me hopeful that what is right will persevere now, too.

It also won a National Book Award, and if you can’t already tell, I’m a slut for book awards.

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

If anyone has heard me speak since November 9th, they’ve heard me rave about Hillbilly Elegy. I cannot shut up about what an amazing book it is.

Working in publishing, the popular view of Hillbilly Elegy this year was that is was an anomaly. No one expected it to be a breakout sensation, selling thousands of copies each week.

And then, the election happened. I truly, truly felt like the Mr. Krabs meme. I desperately wanted to understand what happened and try to make some sense. So, as I do in most times of incredible stress, I went to a bookstore. Three hours later, I emerged from The Strand with Vance’s book in tow. Two days later, I had finished the book and I haven’t shut up about it since.

A lot of things about this book are important. For one, Appalachia is kind of looked over as a demographic of Americans. I have been spoiled to live in a powerful area of a powerful state, and I can understand that those who live in middle America feel forgotten. While I feel like I am at the center of it all, they’re the fringe.

The other important thing about this memoir is the voice it gives to blue collar workers, and more specifically, former blue collar workers. Much of America used to be an industrial boom-town, full of manufacturing jobs and promise. And suddenly, technology swooped in and everyone who believed that a manufacturing job meant they were set for life found themselves unemployed. I saw it myself – one of Rochester’s top employer’s was Kodak. In my lifetime, I watched an iconic brand spin-off, close, and lay-off thousands of employees. I remember the same uncertainty, knowing my family could be laid off any day now.

But that was only half the story. Yes – middle America feels looked-over. But the other part of the problem is not something any government problems can solve. Vance, a writer for the conservative New Republic is the first to admit that many issues of “hillbilly” America are cultural.

What this book made me realize the most was although I understood the plight of the end of manufacturing in America (to an extent), I did not understand hillbilly America. One part that struck me, more than anything else, was when the author described his shock that his college girlfriend, now wife, experienced little stress around holiday gifts growing up; while his peers would amass massive credit card debt to make sure the season’s hottest toys were under their children’s trees on Christmas day, his wife knew no such thing. She asked for and received books for Christmas!!

I related to the wife. And I felt like there was so much to learn from this somewhat forgotten culture, that I was incapable of grasping.

The other thing I liked about this book was that it’s not preachy. I didn’t feel like I was reading an incredibly historical or politically charged book. It felt accessible and relatable. It actually reminded me a lot of The Glass Castle, a book I read and have loved for a long time.

Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll

When this book first came out, it was billed as a thriller “for anyone who loved Gone Girl or Girl on the Train.” At that point in my life, I was over both of those things.

Alas, a few of my coworkers (who were also over the “Girl” thrillers) read this and recommended it to me, not because it was fantastically mind-blowing, but because it was a quick read that encompasses a few cultural points that I talk about a lot.

Without revealing too much of the plot, I will say that the book’s narrator is a women of nouveau-riche upbringing just outside the Main Line in Philadelphia. The character suffers sexual assault, and for a long time, the author asserted that although the assault was depicted hyper-realistically, it was a figment of her imagination.

However, months after the book’s release, Knoll wrote a letter admitting that she was raped in high school, and that’s why the book felt so real to so many other survivors.

It felt like a grown-up version of Laurie Halse-Anderson’s Speak, if the main character was in her 20’s, self-assured, and worked at a women’s magazine.

For all of it’s superficialities, Luckiest Girl Alive has some important things to say, and is a wild ride from start to finish.


Those are my top-top recommendations. The books that stick with me and that I think about daily. I reference them in my thoughts, and to people who haven’t read them yet and don’t get it, but whatever. Read them now.

Up next on my “To Read” shelf are:

Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didon (I’m ashamed to say I haven’t read this yet)

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

American Heiress by Jeffrey Toobin

Comment what you’re reading? Do enough people read this to make it a real call-to-action??

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