This may be the strangest combination of books I’ve read this year; a interesting combination of heavy, serious, and required reading for adult humans in the world; and fun, intelligent, engrossing fiction.
In Anne Lamott’s Stitches, she shares this memory of her childhood love of books; I found it very relatable even now:
My brothers and I were not encouraged to search for God, the obvious source of solace, but we three kids were led to the world of books, which to us was just as good. We found in books the divine plop, the joy of settling down deeply into something, worlds and realities greater than our own troubled minds.
I haven’t had nearly as much time to read as I’d like since I made the transition to life as a Spanish student here in Buenos Aires, but “the divine plop”, when I find time for it, continues to be a truly magical moment.
I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai
This is one of those should-be-required-reading-for-all-human-adults books. You’ve probably heard a bit of her story, but to read this account in Malala’s own voice is truly powerful. Especially potent, aside from the obvious theme of equality for women and girls, was learning about the nuances of different sects of Islam. Malala’s father, a devout believer, was her biggest encourager and believed that women should have equality with men, especially in education. Reading about all that Malala has accomplished and inspired in her young life may intimidate you, until you remember she is simply doing what she knows to be right; speaking an unpopular opinion in a hostile environment. Aren’t there places in all our lives where we can be doing the same? It is the hard, grinding work of change but so very worth it.
My mother always told me, “hide your face- people are looking at you”. I would reply, “it does not matter; I am also looking at them.”
11/22/63 by Stephen King
This crazy historical fiction/sci-fi novel was simply delicious. It was my first foray into Stephen King’s literary world and I found myself in awe at the fact that his brain could even come up with a story like this, let alone write it so beautifully. I won’t share anything else, as the title itself gives enough of a hint and I want Stephen himself to reveal the rest for you. Soon, there will be a short TV series based on this book. Read it now. It’s a whirlwind journey on all levels.
We never know which lives we influence, or when, or why. Not until the future eats the present, anyway. We know when it’s too late.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
If there’s one book I think should be required reading for everyone in America right now, this is it. In this brief but profound memoir, Coates writes several letters to his fifteen year-old son, who has a “black body”, in danger of destruction at the hand of the American Dream, like his. Coates writes beautifully about some of the ugliest aspects of our American society today: the machine and systemic reach of the power that allows us to see black bodies as less worthy than white ones. If we care about racial justice, if the self-exoneration in our claims to “not be racist” have truth, then we will step into Coates’ shoes and hear out his experience, knowing it is the experience of millions, with an open mind. What he says is not easy to hear, but infinitely important to listen to.
There is nothing uniquely evil in these destroyers or even in this moment. The destroyers are merely men enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy. It is hard to face this. But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.
Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids by Meghan Daum
I felt a huge variety of emotions and reactions when reading this collection of essays, but most of all I felt gratitude to the women and men who dove into this topic with such raw self-analysis and then allowed us all to read it. I’m encouraging Nate to read this and I’ll encourage you too, if only to step into the shoes of someone else and take a gander at some of the assumptions and expectations we (even a progressive liberal feminist like myself) are still holding onto today. These writers’ experiences are as varied as their opinions on the topic of parenthood, but all reflect common themes that prove grand stereotypical judgements about the decision to not have children wrong time and time again.
Is there any other situation in like where people feel so free to tell you what to do, short of checking you into rehab? “I’d get on with it, if you’re going to do it,” said the gynecologist, blunt as a speculum. “And sooner rather than later.” I didn’t recall having asked her opinion. A literary agent who’d had enough kids to populate a string quartet told me over lunch that I would regret my decision, but by then it would be too late, and she smacked her hand down on the table so our water glasses sloshed. (What decision? What and when had I decided?)
It’s also my little “fuck you” to a society that sentimentalizes children except when it comes to allocating enough resources to raising then, and that would include elevating the 22 percent of children currently living in poverty to a decent standard of living.
The Art of Communicating by Thich Nhat Hanh
As a Communication Studies major and someone enthralled with all applications of such material, I thought this would be a read I’d enjoy and would maybe give me a new perspective on communication since Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk. Well, it was really….monky. Not the meaty communication theory that I like to wade through. I don’t necessarily disagree with any of his observations, but they weren’t written in a style that was easy to take seriously.
Nothing can survive without food. Everything we consume acts either to heal us or to poison us. We tend to think of nourishment only as what we take in through our mouths, but what we consume with our eyes, our ears, our noses, our tongues, and our bodies is also food. The conversations going on around us, and those we participate in, are also food. Are we consuming and creating the kind of food that is healthy for us and helps us grow? When we say something that nourishes us and uplifts the people around us, we are feeding love and compassion. When we speak and act in a way that causes tension and anger, we are nourishing violence and suffering.
True things in this short book, just a little too crunchy for my taste. But I did have to agree with him wholeheartedly on this new thought:
Drinking tea is a wonderful way to set aside time to communicate with yourself.
The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales by Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm
I have long heard that the original Brothers Grimm fairy tales are hardly recognizable to us now… and gruesome. I don’t know what prompted me to type “Grimm” into our library’s search page but I was glad to experience some of these tales in their original (albeit translated) form. They were not as gruesome as I was lead to believe, though some parts did make me squirm. There was a theme of cannibalism that I wasn’t quite comfortable with. (ie: After asking a search party to find someone and kill them, the evil King/Queen would often demand the heart/tongue/liver/lungs of said offensive person and then eat them). There are over 200 stories in this collection, so I satisfied myself with reading the familiar ones (Little Snow-White, Cinderella, Rumpelstiltskin, etc.) and whatever others piqued my interest (The Girl Without Hands, The Three Languages, Hans the Hedgehog). I was surprised by the religious themes – characters are often praying to God – and the theme of taking care of animals (and they will take care of you). Of course, there were surprising differences in the classics we now know and love, but I was happy to see that the libretto of one of my favorite musicals, Into the Woods, actually did borrow sections of the original Grimm language. This was a fascinating break from my usual reading, and I agree with the literary critics that suggest this as required reading for adults. (Although I’m looking forward to finding some strong heroine tales with a little less misogyny when we have children to read to).
“When times were good with me, I shared what I had with you. My trade is of that kind that each stitch must always be exactly like the other. If I no longer have my eyes and can sew no more I must go a-begging. At any rate do not leave me here alone when I am blind, or I shall die of hunger.” The shoemaker, however, who had driven God out of his heart, took the knife and put out his left eye.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
I read Sherman Alexie’s poetry in my junior year of high school and have since rediscovered him in The Best American Non-Required Reading 2013. I promptly found my English teacher on Facebook and told her how grateful I was to have been exposed to him back in 2001; Alexie is still in her curriculum today. Although he’s best known as a poet, Alexie’s foray into young adult writing is a smooth transition. He is hilarious, witty, surprising, honest, and raw. He writes semi-autobiographically from the perspective of a Native American teenager growing up on a reservation. He decides to transfer to a better school system, and we get to witness the unintended effects on his identity as he grapples with living in two worlds. As a bonus (I’ve shared this before), here’s his Twitter, which will only make you want to grab all his books all the more.
Do you understand how amazing it is to hear that from an adult? Do you know how amazing it is to hear that from anybody? It’s one of the simplest sentences in the world, just four words, but they’re the four hugest words in the world when they’re put together: You can do it.
Poverty doesn’t teach you lessons about perseverance. No, poverty only teaches you how to be poor.
Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope, and Repair by Anne Lamott
A short, honest, and “good reminders” type book, Stitches was my first Anne Lamott book but certainly won’t be my last. “What follows here is intended to be useful on the bad days,” she writes. And it is. I especially love how she talks about her faith so authentically and with real authority on its application. We can always use more of that out there in the world.
I personally would like a lot more stuff around here to make sense. But when something ghastly happens, it is not helpful to many people if you say that it’s all part of God’s perfect plan, or that it’s for the highest good of every person in the drama or that more will be revealed, even if that’s all true. Because at least for me, if someone’s cute position minimizes the crucifixion, it’s bullshit. Which I say with love.
Legend by Marie Lu
Part of a three book young adult series, Marie Lu’s Legend was a superfast and enjoyable read. It’s a little predictable so far, but I’m looking forward to reading the next two books, Prodigy and Champion. The series is about the dystopian world of the Republic and the Colonies, all of which are the former United States, who are at war with each other. There are young heros on each side. Stuff happens. It’s predictable. But that doesn’t mean it’s not fun to read.
I will hunt you down. I will scour the streets of Los Angeles for you. Search every street in the Republic if I have to. I will trick you and deceive you, lie, cheat and steal to find you, tempt you out of your hiding place, and chase you until you have nowhere else to run. I make you this promise: your life is mine.
Sharp Objects: A Novel by Gillian Flynn
Let this be called “the year I discovered Gillian Flynn”. By now, I’ve exhausted all of her books to date and while the days away praying she’s working on a few more. Her books are dark, stormy, and freakish – but just enough. Her stories are such that you can’t put them down and you constantly crave more. Always enrapturing in their beginnings, intriguing in their middles, and surprising in their endings, they are a true treat for people who love to read. Sharp Objects is the story of a young woman who returns to her hometown to report on a string of murders and finds her own life and childhood surprisingly intertwined with them. Wicked, wicked good.
Even I, in public, was a beloved child. Once her period of mourning for Marian was over, she’d parade me into town, smiling and teasing me, tickling me as she spoke with people on the sidewalks. When we got home, she’d trail off to her room like an unfinished sentence, and I would sit outside with my face pressed against her door and replay the day in my head, searching for clues to what I’d done to displease her.