Books have always saved me; they’ve been my constant, a comfort when life is intent on repeatedly punching me in the face. When I was small, I carried a book bag heavy with overdue paperbacks and I would stack the books high on my desk so as to shield my face. I spent much of my life this way—hidden from view. Erecting walls all around me. When the world gets too loud, I read, and books have this arcane way of reducing the world to quiet. Even if it’s temporary. Even if it’s just for a little while.
In graduate school, I was a big book snob. I only read SERIOUS LITERARY FICTION. And I suppose I was a snob because I was a follower back then—desperate to blend in—and most of the people around me were large-time condescending snobs in all caps.
I’m no longer that way because: a. it’s stupid and insipid and b. if a book gives you joy why mock it? There’s so much in this world to be miserable about, books shouldn’t be one of them. Books should raise you up from the darkness and comfort you, as they’ve done for me.
This year brought in joy and some of the usual challenges and I rolled up with my armaments, ready to fight.
This year, I’ve managed to read over 30 books. Some I devoured. Some pulled me out of my intellectual comfort zone. Others I tossed into the pyre. But I’m sharing what made the cut—those magical books that put me on pause, books you need to buy immediately.
The Year of Less by Cait Flanders: Cait Flanders embarked on a yearlong experiment to buy fewer products and she documented not only her awareness of how much we’re pressured as a society to consume, but she also highlights the deeper emotions behind our behavior. Our desire and need to consume and the empty spaces it temporarily fills. I learned the hard way about living beyond your means, and Flanders’ book was a reminder that we don’t need as much as we think we do.
Girls Gone Old by Fiona Helmsley: In 2016, Helmsley turned 40 and she was asked one of the many questions women in our forties get—isn’t it time to grow up? In her wry and raw collection of essays (some are laugh out loud funny, others are devastatingly bleak), she thwarts the question rather than answers it. She writes about wealth, addiction, 80s pop culture, serial killers, aging in America, rape culture, the cruel rise of trumpism—all with a nuanced, no-nonsense take. While I’m definitely not cool enough to hang with Helmsley, I thoroughly loved her book.
The Man Who Wasn’t There by Anil Ananthaswamy: I think if I weren’t a writer, I would’ve wanted to be a neuroscientist or neurologist as I’m endlessly fascinated by how the brain works. Although everyone.com has compared Ananthaswamy to Oliver Sacks for obvious reasons, Ananthaswamy has a voice and style all his own. Through an observant narrative, case studies, and interviews, he tries to get at the core of how we define “self”—which has been a long Biggie/Tupac battle between philosophers and scientists.
We learn about Cotard Syndrome (the belief that you’re a walking corpse), depersonalization (the feeling that one of your limbs is foreign, which triggers a fervent desire for amputation), schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s (did you know that Alzheimer’s principally attacks the region of the brain responsible for storytelling?), and more. The science bits aren’t too heady and Ananthaswamy has a terrific way of distilling complexity to its simplest parts.
All it Takes (Stories) by Patricia Volk: There are a lot of writers who I wish would’ve gotten more airplay (Toni Cade Bambara, Judy Budnitz, Beth Nugent—the list goes on for days, so much so that I’m doing a whole separate post on women who should be getting more play) and Patricia Volk was one of them. I used to host a reading series at KGB BAR in New York and I remember I had her in for a non-fiction cooking-related book she had published. Around that time I picked up an old copy of her story collection at Strand and it took me FIFTEEN years to finally read it. I’m a moron for not having read this sooner. Volk’s stories center on relationships in disrepair, where the wounded dress their scars with humor and acerbic wit. Volk’s characters are flawed, funny, quirky, desperate, and heartbreaking. From happily married women playing dangerous games of “imagine if” when it comes to their husbands to see the lasting wounds when a familial relationship comes undone, these stories will make you laugh and cry all at once.
Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed: Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m late to the party but who cares. This book is for anyone who’s been through it—grief, loss, and heartbreak—and wants to come out swinging on the other side. Her “Dear Sugar” columns were artfully arranged for a read that was smooth and riveting. I admire how Strayed lays herself bear—dolling out advice from a place of deep empathy and vulnerability. Reading the collection kept reminding me that within vulnerability lay strength because it’s truly the strong and determined who are unafraid to show their whole selves.
When by Daniel Pink: Everyone and their pony is writing books about how to make moves whereas Daniel Pink is reframing the conversation to focus on when to make decisions. Timing is everything and understanding your circadian rhythms and the science behind when we do things could make a massive impact on how we live our lives. Do you want to make critical money moves when you’re in constant overdrive and headed toward the midday slump or when your mind is clear and focused? Whether you’re an early riser or you get in your groove when everyone’s fast asleep, the data doesn’t lie—the best time to make a decision is in the morning, according to data in Daniel Pink’s new book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. People are the most productive within the first two hours of waking up because our brains are wired to make optimal analytical and reason-based decisions at this point in the day.
Did you know that judges are more likely to hand out lenient sentencing in the morning and as the day progresses they get tougher, and sadly, increasingly reliant on race as a factor in their sentencing?
I was endlessly fascinated by how and when our minds are operating at peak efficiency and how even being slightly off your game or tired can change the course of your life. Dramatic, I know, but Pink’s book was so smart and sound and put me to thinking that there are so many things that factor into our decision making and timing should be a key element.
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan: I used to think I didn’t like historical fiction, and then I went on a reading spree of New York historical fiction, starting with Jennifer Egan’s remarkable Manhattan Beach. I loved Goon Squad, so much so that I used the structure of Egan’s novel as one of my inspirations for my second book. The book takes place during WWII where we find Anna Kerrigan at the center of the story—an intrepid woman of her time, who fights to be one of the first women divers to repair ships deployed in the war effort. Kerrigan is haunted by the mysterious disappearance of her father in her childhood and how an elusive gangster, Dexter Styles figures into the equation. When she runs into him, years later, at a club he owns, she starts down the proverbial path of no return.
I LOVED this book. It was not only riveting, but it’s a delight to see the city in which you grew up in a different light. The New York of the 1930s and 40s was dangerous, nefarious, untouched, and on the verge of an economic boom and I love how Egan draws her flawed characters and humanizes them.
The Dollhouse by Fiona Davis: Near my home, there’s a fancy-pants private dental practice and they have a free lending library perched outside of their office. Often, the books are quite good. I scored a lot of gems (including Manhattan Beach), and when I read the jacket of Fiona Davis’s The Dollhouse, my interest was piqued. Davis, as I’d learn while reading her next book, The Apartment, loves a dueling time narrative. In this case, the stage is set at the famed Barbizon Hotel (yes, home to Sylvia Plath for a month in 1953 when she was a guest editor at Mademoiselle) where the likes of Ali McGraw and Candice Bergen got their start. Davis tells the story of two women—Rose and Darby—who want to make their mark in New York on their own terms, without a safety net.
Abandoned by her mother and shunned by her stepfather, Darby McLaughlin heads to the famous hotel while she’s studying to be a secretary at the Katherine Gibbs school. Surrounded by glamorous models, she feels alienated and homely until she strikes up a friendship with an ambitious, kinetic housekeeper, Esme. Soon, Darby falls into the electrifying downtown scene, replete with nightclub owners, heroin addicts, jazz musicians, and dealers. Her life soon comes undone on Halloween night when Esme falls to her death. Or does she?
That’s the story Rose Lewin investigates as a journalist for an online magazine that feels a lot like Buzzfeed, only with a quarter of the panache and traffic—a step down from a promising career in network television that came crashing down, along with her five-star relationship with a well-heeled politico. Darby’s story is the only thing keeping her afloat. The novel hurtles quickly to a surprise ending (Davis loves her red herrings), and you’ll be left completely satisfied.
The Address by Fiona Davis: When I like a writer, I go DEEP. I became a CIA operative in the way that I track down everything they’ve ever written. Once I finished The Dollhouse, I ordered The Address and pre-ordered The Masterpiece. We’re back to the dual narratives, this time with Sara Smythe and Bailey Camden–two women tied to the famed Dakota residence in New York City. In 1884, Sara Smythe serves as the head housekeeper in a posh London hotel. When she saves the life of the child of a famed American architect, Theodore Camden, he offers her the job of a lifetime–head manager (unthinkable in those times) of the new Dakota apartment building. This was a time when apartment buildings had AMENITIES. We’re talking on-site tailor, kitchen, maids, etc. Ambitious and determined, Sara travels to the U.S. to take on the role but finds herself falling in love with the Theodore, a married man with children.
Meanwhile, it’s 1985 and Bailey Camden, fresh out of rehab and with a tarnished reputation in New York City’s interior design circles, finds solace in the fact that her wealthy cousin, Melinda Camden, has hired her to remodel the very apartment Theodore Camden owned over a century ago. While Bailey struggles to stay sober, she soon discovers the illicit affair and becomes fixated on knowing the real facts behind her lineage.
Similar to The Dollhouse, the two narratives converge with an explosive and wholly satisfying ending. I actually LOVED this book more than The Dollhouse. Davis has a fine sense of pacing and timing and the reveal is always artfully crafted. And who doesn’t want to revisit the New York of the nineteenth century?
You Think It, I’ll Say It (Stories) by Curtis Sittenfeld: I recently read this New Yorker piece that talks about Sittenfeld and Sloane Crosley creating “awkward lit.” Candidly, I also purchased Crosley book and didn’t love it as much as I wanted to (although she’s clearly talented and witty), and I hadn’t even thought of classifying You Think It, I’ll Say It as a genre other than it feeling real to the reader. I’ve loved all of Sittenfeld’s books and she has such a way with dialogue and making her characters–regardless of their flaws and missteps–compelling and empathic. Like most of her books, this collection centers on relationships in various states of undress. My favorite story of the lot was “The Prairie Wife,” where a woman becomes fixated on an old lover who suddenly turns Christian, conservative, and lives that prairie life. Sort of like watching Ree Drummond in the closet. There are some nods to the trump era (and yes, I refuse to capitalize his name) with “Gender Studies,” where a woman, having just ended a passionless marriage, has a cringe-worthy one-night-stand with an ardent trump supporter and “Do-Over” where two a woman grapples with sexism when she reunites with her high school crush. In “Plausible Deniability,” a bachelor and his sister-in-law engage in an illicit email affair over…classical music.
For Plath Fanatics (her second set of letters will be released in October!): Granted, I started off the year a little morbid, diving into two books that are a little salacious, to say the least, A Savage God by A. Alvarez and Giving Up by Jillian Becker. Alvarez’s book is a fascinating meditation and historical account of suicide, while Becker’s book centers on the last few weeks of Plath’s life. Becker was one of Plath’s friends, who happened to be present during the affair and its aftermath. Candidly, if you’re a Plath fanatic, you’ll appreciate these. However, you can definitely rent these from your local library.
That’s all for now! Next week, I’ll be sharing reviews of the following books:
- On the Shortness of Life by Seneca
- Newspaper by Edouard Levé
- Brave by Rose McGowan
- Practice You: A Journal by Elena Brower
- Being Boss by Kathleen Shannon and Emily Thompson
- The More of Less by Joshua Becker
Full Disclosure: There are Amazon affiliate links in this post, which means if you purchase any of these books, I make a little cash to pay for my site’s hosting fees.