I made a Goodreads goal to read 25 books this year, which I thought would be hard, and then I had a three-month period of unemployment and just happened to be at the coast of California in the middle of it. It’s easy to go through a book or two a week when you spend a few hours at the beach every day. A few of these books were life-changers: Both Autobiography of Red and the sequel, Red> Doc by Anne Carson, Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain, Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay and Americanah Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche all left their marks on me. Here’s my last list from the summer:
Longbourn by Jo Baker — I’m a not-so-secret geek for anything Jane Austen whose canonical Pride and Prejudice I read at least once a year every year since I first read it as a teenager. One of the best presents I’ve ever received was a DVD copy of the BBC version of P&P, a gift I’d eventually have to replace from overuse. All this to say fanfiction of Austen usually does nothing for me, because no one can even touch Austen in her understanding of the times she wrote in. Or so I thought. I picked up Longbourn because it was sitting on an endcap at the library. I started reading it because it was the last in my pile, but it turned out to be the best of the lot. Baker has serious guts. She makes few decisions that made my eyebrows climb up to join my hairline. Does she pull it off? I think she does, largely because she doesn’t focus on the players we know, but the ones we don’t know. And I think she knows that most fans have theories about all kinds of plot points, which she explaores. Genius. P.S. A movie is due out next year. I’ll be there with bells on.
Room by Emma Donoghue — Here’s one of those books I avoided because I’m a pansy. I remember very clearly seeing people in the airports holding this book. I picked up a copy, read the blurb, and put it back down. Fast forward, I saw it in the library and I knew it was time. This is no less than a masterpiece in scope, in ambition, and in impact. Written from the perspective of a child, a carefully crafted narrator, we enter the lives of five year-old Jack and his mother. Jack’s whole life has taken place in Room, or the shed where his kidnapped mother gave birth and raised him. You will need breaks, both emotional and physical. You may need to cry, but if you pick up this book, give yourself over fully to Jack. You’ll come out the otherside scraped raw, but clean.
Lexicon by Max Barry — Imagine a world where Poets are secret agents who can manipulate people with their words and their ultimate goal is to take over the world… Talk about a premise that literally had me bouncing on my toes. As a amateur bibliophile, there are a million books on my to-read list, but I was disgruntled that I’d not heard of this book. Emily Ruff is recruited into the secret world of the Poets and immediately becomes one of the most dangerous manipulators in the history of the organization. But what should have been a badass spy versus spy thriller turned into a political drama mashed with a romance. I wonder where Barry’s friends were to tell him this book got lost somewhere. In the end, I found myself more frustrated with an author than I’ve been in a long time. The ending falls back on a trope that almost made me chuck the book. Do yourself a favor and keep imagining this world of the poets, because what you come up with is surely better than Lexicon.
Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain — In nonfiction class in graduate school, we talked a lot about persona, the difference between the narrator versus the writer, and how personality could easily taint a reader’s experience with a book. If you don’t like who’s telling the story, do you care about the story? If you don’t trust the narrator, do you trust the emotions in the writing? Anthony Bourdain has a bit of a polarizing personality, you either love him or you can’t stand him. And that comes through on ever page of his memoir slash Tell-All about the cooking industry. He curses. A lot. But he’s to be believed, a chef who doesn’t curse is the rarity. He makes assertions, unabashedly sharing his opinions, sometimes without qualifications and anyone who disagrees is an idiot. (His words, not mine) You will either find him funny, charming and poetic or you will think he is a lewd, perverse man. And I don’t think either is wrong. I learned a lot, almost as much about the world of professional cooking as I did about Bourdain himself. I don’t know why it should be a surprise that someone with a successful professional career could also be a great writer, but Bourdain proves over and over again that he has writing chops. His greatest skill is conveying the magic of food beyond taste, beyond famous restaurants and chefs, and to bring the focus back to the the fact that food is one of the most important things in all of our lives, whether we care or not.
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay — I could write a whole blog post about my love for Roxane Gay, followed by another post about her Twitter persona, and finally a third post about Bad Feminist by itself. These are undertakings I hope to attempt someday, but for now I’ll stick with mentioning Bad Feminist here. Years ago, Rachel Toor, my nonfiction professor at the time asked the class if we were feminists. Everyone in the class except me and another student, a guy, said they were. Rachel turned to me and said, “Monet, you’re not a feminist? I’m surprised.” At the time, I was one of those people who heard the word feminist and immediately imagined scorched earth from the burned bras. But it’s that kind of thinking, that old-school image that Gay dispels with easy flicks of her wrists. This collection of essays covers a range of topics, from feminism to race to teaching, but what they have in common is Gay’s ability to relate how human she is, even as she educates. My favorite essays, by far, was “How to Be Friends with Another Woman” which is about exactly that, but also about how not be a jerk. If nothing else, Gay will make you question yourself, and make you reconfirm what you do or don’t believe about gender equality, about race and about yourself. Yeah, I’m a feminist.