Recently, I listened to an interview with Zadie Smith where she talked about reading, writing, black excellence, Kanye, and culture, etc., and she said that while she could live without writing another word, she couldn’t survive without reading. And I couldn’t agree more. Books are a terrific, magical escape from the everyday. As a child, I loved getting lost in worlds that were foreign to me–I would spend days supine on the couch with a book shielding my face. At school, I stacked a dozen novels on my desk, fashioning a sort of makeshift fortress for myself. Something I still do, even after all this time, only I’ve replaced a school desk with a home in Los Angeles.
I’ve been privileged in the sense that I’ve had more projects this year than the past two alone. While I’m happy that I’m doing some of the best work of my career, working with incredible women who want to break ranks and shatter ceilings, I haven’t had time to write. I used to upbraid myself for not filling up every single moment. I have 30 minutes! Let’s write! Most of the time I collapse, catatonic, the last thing I want to do is think about characters, plot structure, language.
Some people watch reality TV shows. I read paper books. Lately, I’ve been on a tear and I want to share some of my favorites with you.
The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar: I discovered this wonderful book from my friend Hitha’s blog post and she’s never steered me wrong when it comes to solid fiction recommendations. This was easily one of my favorites of the year and the story couldn’t be more politically relevant. It’s a story about the bonds of family, the devastation of loss, homeland and identity, and refugees, but it’s more than that. Two alternating narratives co-exist in the Joukhadar’s debut–one of a twelve-year-old girl, Nour, who finds her life in New York uprooted after her father succumbs to cancer and her mother and sisters return to Syria to be closer with the family and country they love, and the other of a 12th century girl, Rawiya, who flees her home to find knowledge, kinship, and fortune by pretending to a boy and currying the favor of a brilliant explorer whose ambition is to create a map of the undiscovered world. Centuries separate the two girls but their courage and resilience are tested in their respective journeys.
After a shell devastates their home in Homs, Nour and her family make the frightening trek through Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Algiers, and Spain to flee the devastation of war–a journey Rawiya embarked on centuries earlier, battling thieves, spies, mythical snakes, and falcons. No doubt we’ve read about countries ravaged by war and people forced to flee their homeland because of it. Perhaps we’ve become immune to horror because it exists everywhere. It threatens to swallow us whole. We see images; we read a handful of stories, but is it real to us? There’s a concept in neuroscience called “mirror neurons,” where our minds mimic the actions of others in order to not only understand what’s happening but to also emote empathy. We see someone fall down and our brain processes the fall, the ache, the shame so fast that the space between us bearing witness and the “Are you okay?” is nearly immeasurable. I love novels because they give you the space for immersion, to truly understand the whole of someone’s life or a devasting slice of it. I feel more because while I’m reading the rest of the world is on pause. I’m learning, I’m reacting, I’m empathizing on a level that’s deeper because I’m not distracted by the ticker-tape of terror that has become common.
My friend Hitha said that this story remained with her long after she finished the book and I’m inclined to agree. The language is superb, the story engaging and gripping, and the characters are ones you will not soon forget. If there’s a book out of the lot you should get, let it be this one.
The River at Night by Erica Ferencik: WHOA. What a remarkable thriller. Have you guys seen the horror film Descent? This book sorted reminded me of it. It’s one where the twists and turns are wholly satisfying and unpredictable. Winifred Allen is climbing out from under a failed 15-year marriage, a soul-crushing job, and her friend recommends an all-girls adventure in the remote Allagash Wilderness. Like Descent, the friends enter uncharted, unnavigable terrain, and a horrific rafting accident, coupled with unresolved friend tension, forces Wini and the group to survive by any means necessary. They’ve no food or supplies. People have died. And they have no idea how to find their way out. And naturally, there are predators of all kinds that stand in their way.
I LOVED this book. I kept flicking pages because the story moved seamlessly, the characters were fascinating (you have the hot and superfit pack leader, the Type A-nurse, the shy and comely friend, and Wini. I was drawn into their uneasy dynamic and how they were going to survive. If you love thrillers and books about testing the limits of friendship, you will need to get this book PRONTO.
The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs: This is my favorite book of the year and it’s also the hardest one I’ve read from an emotional perspective. People have asked me why I find horror movies so calming. I actually always have one playing in the background while I work and I remember a neighbor passing my apartment and knocking on my door because the screams from the screen frightened him. I love horror movies because I know they’re not real. H.P. Lovecraft once wrote that “the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” In horror movies, you’re forced to reckon with the most frightening and certain aspect of life: death. Yet, you get to experience it without truly experiencing it. It’s sort of like imaging the worst that can happen to you and when it happens it’s not as bad because you’ve prepared yourself for it. Does that make sense?
Well, reading Nina Riggs’s devasting memoir chilled me to the bone because it was real. A woman in her early 40s gets diagnosed with metastatic cancer and her brave, sometimes hilarious, always beautiful story about living in the face of death–with the awareness that she’s leaving her husband, children, her LIFE, behind–was a heartbreaking read. We all think we’re safe until a certain age but death doesn’t age discriminate. I have a friend who died of brain cancer at 23 and I remember our senior year in college. I held her while she cried because she knew she was going to die so young and how do you reconcile that? How is that fair? How do you smile and love and laugh when you know that you’ll soon return to that darkness from which you’ve come? I had to put this book down several times because it affected me that deeply. Not only because of her deft, poetic style of storytelling but because death is real and frightening and it’s the one certainty beyond our control.
I Am I Am I Am by Maggie O’Farrell: Okay, okay, okay. Two books circling death in a row. I promise you will love this fascinating book and yes, the author is still alive. I Am I Am I Am (a title that borrows from a line in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar) is a fascinating anatomical take on the author’s seventeen brushes with death. From enduring the kind of flight I routinely have nightmares about to an encounter with a man who would go on to murder another woman to physical conditions and impairments that punctuate her existence, O’Farrell has a cool and controlled way of sharing the horrors that plagued her.
Although she doesn’t see them as horrors, rather she thinks of them as a reaffirmance of life. I can’t imagine having that rich and mature of a perspective on having to deal with constant threats to her physicality and her life. She even goes on to recount the most frightening of them all–a life-threatening allergy from which her daughter suffers. The book fascinated me not only because O’Farrell is a skilled and compelling storyteller, but because she’s managed to turn death on its head. She’s doing the thing with life that I do with horror movies–she’s experiencing it without fear. It’s truly a beautiful thing to witness on the page.
Hope in a Jar by Beth Harbison: OMG, this is SUCH a stereotypical beach read but I LOVED IT. I’m a sucker for high school reunion stories because I was SUCH A LOSER and naturally you have Romy and Michele–level redemption dreams. And this one is a good one. Allie and Olivia were BFFs in high school. Allie was the pretty, popular blonde and Olivia was the smart one in her shadow. Fast forward to their twenty-year reunion and Allie is not-so-hot in all aspects of the word. Her boyfriend is cheating on her, she has a dead-end temp job, and she’s not the fox she used to be (yeah, there’s a lot of stereotype in this which had me rolling my eyes hard, but it’s a procedural beach read). Whereas Olivia is the high-powered beauty editor of a bold-faced magazine and still holding a grudge against Allie for spilling a big secret when they were in high school.
As you can imagine, there are the catty girls, the guy, the romance, and the friendships lost and found, but I found this to be a quick and funny read. I’d recommend this as a palate cleanser from all the death books I’ve been reading. It was refreshing to read about a happy ending even if it’s totally a fairytale.
Stay tuned because I have a TON of new book reviews to share with you in the coming weeks. This is ONLY the beginning, my friends.
Full Disclosure: I used Amazon affiliate links throughout this post, which means I make like $3 a month, which goes towards my website hosting fees. 🙂