August 13, 2019

Reading : Favorite Five

The first half of 2019 has been blissful for reading, so I wanted to share some of my favorites before the usual annual year in review.  Incidentally, all of these books are written by women.  I realize how much of a shift this is over just the few decades I've been reading.  Despite going to an all-girls high school whose focus on feminism introduced me to the uniqueness of our sex and gender, so many of my favorite writers as an English major were predominantly men: Hemingway, Murakami, McEwan, Eggers, Franzen, Nabokov. This is largely due to disproportionate ratios in recognition and representation, so I'm really happy to see how many more female writers are showing up on lists, providing feed for what I naturally gravitate towards consuming. Though they're completely different, there's something so unifying about these powerfully woman voices--how close I feel to them, how much I crave them, how much I want to share them.


Front Desk by Kelly Yang
This is a young adult novel of the type that appeals to adults too (and if you aren't into young adult fiction, I would love to share why it's been an incredible force in my life, maybe more so at twice the age of the intended audience than when I was actually young). Front Desk is narrated by Mia, a ten year old Chinese immigrant girl whose parents manage a motel. Because the family is in charge of every aspect of running the motel, Mia takes it upon herself to manage the front desk. Despite the youth of its protagonist and the cartoon cover, this book doesn't sugar coat Mia's life. It strips bare the layers and shame of poverty, racism, and capitalism.  Somehow this all happens seamlessly amidst the pre-teen life of bullies and best friends, because that's an equal reality of Mia's life. Written through the eyes of a ten year old who is just learning how to speak her voice, in writing and in life, this book made me cry half a dozen times.  But before you shake your head knowingly at my soft spot for sadness, I'll tell you that most of the tears are fully happy ones. For all its dark themes this book is primarily fun, funny, and sweet (it's this ability to lovingly write darkness that endears me to YA).  Part of why I loved reading this in my thirties is knowing how much I would have loved reading this decades ago. It's based on Kelly Yang's childhood, and I absolutely love how much she gives by sharing her story.  Growing up helping my parents manage their convenience store, this book resonated so much with me, and I love the visibility of this tiny Asian girl taking on everything that tells her she is foreign and powerless. (If you want this for a little girl in your life or for the little girl in you, it's only $8! Buy it!)

A Place For Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza
As much as I love recommending a good book, I'll be the first to admit that REALLY AMAZING books are rare. If you ask me if I've read anything good lately, something usually comes to mind but if you ask me if I've read something amazingly memorable lately, I have to reach back a bit.  Really amazing books surpass even pretty good books by so much. For me, this book is one of those and I wish for everyone to have the feelings I had reading this (even if it's with a different book). That is, so full of gratitude for the complex shades of family: each person relating to the other, each person relating to the world around them, and how these threads entangle, break, and stabilize. This story of a Muslim Indian family and their strong, fractured ties to one another is less about what happens to them and more about how they see each other, how they define themselves. It's not new, these themes of identity between two cultures and conflicting loyalties to your family versus yourself. But it's rare to feel them so honestly and organically. And to really feel with the perspective of every family member: you can rage against the parents with the siblings as each one is rendered so dynamically individual, and you can melt into the place of unconditional love that achingly guides the parents to alienate their children.  I really recommend this on audio, where the rich realness of voice can be savored. I value the depth with which the author writes Islam and Indian culture, at the same time I could so easily relate with my Catholic and Vietnamese upbringing.

The View From Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America by Sarah Kendzior
This collection of essays by a journalist who was one of the first peopel to predict Trump's win reads smart and sharp, and is just incredibly well-written. Writing on a number of uncomfortable topics like the immorality of college admissions and gentification in our favorite most expensive cities (subjects that are obviously close to my lived life and heart), Kendzior lays out the facts with skilled journalism and calls out our apathy with rare humanness. She couches her essays within simple values, to which most individuals can agree upon, and unravels the complicated ways in which we as a society have betrayed them. While our current state of politics has made outright greed and corruption very visible, Kendzior shows us how every day neglect of each other causes equal damage, and how every day mindfulness of each other and what we're up against can really change our course.

This Woman's Work by Julie Delporte
A graphic novel drawn with colored pencils, the imagery of this book is both sparse and overwhelming.  Delporte processes and expresses what it's been like to grow into and exist as a woman.  What it's like to be in relation to a man, what it means to participate in acts uniquely female, what it's like to be a creative woman in a male-dominated field, what it's like to be a woman in this world. There are many reasons to love the feelings Delporte's expression emotes. The top one for me might be that for all the pain and vulnerability that makes us want to renounce womanhood, this distinct state of being is so powerful, and no one who isn't in it can understand and so they can never own it.  I probably overuse the word beautiful, so I'll have to emphasize by saying this book is really, really, really beautiful. You could read it in less than an hour, but will want to savor the drawings and sentiments forever.

Normal People by Sally Rooney
While I loved this book, it's one of the few times where my audiobook experience has led to me advising people to read this rather than to listen to it. The single narrator for two protanognists of different genders doesn't work well here. I would also say that there has been a lot of hype around this book, which inevitably leads to an equal amount of dissatisfied readers.  So I'd suggest coming at it with no expectations, and just wanted to share that I loved the richness of this relationship between Marianne and Connell. As a disclaimer, I'm a sucker for stories about how trauma leads people to behavior that can be frustratingly irrational and difficult to understand.  I agree that it's hard to watch two people with such a strong connection consistently misrepresent themselves and misunderstand each other.  But when done with insight and sensitivity, this feels less unrealistic and more the natural course of damaged lives.  And while that sounds depressing and I know people want to root for romance, I think this loyalty to people's insensible complexity is the most loving act, and thereby the most hopeful. (PS Sally Rooney is doing a City Arts Lecture in November).

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