This is obviously a subjective list. For one thing, I chose these books pretty much at random, so their relation to 2015 is arbitrary and just happened to be read in that year. For another thing, what I find amusing or thought-provoking or poignant someone else may find boring or pretentious or maudlin. Most of what I read was recommended by someone somewhere, and often I think, who would think this is quality writing? This is terrible! So it makes sense that someone might think the same about my personal list. However, even if a person reads a book and completely disagrees with my reasoning for putting it on a ‘Best of’ list, the fact of their reading it now expands my community of those with whom I can discuss it, which is almost always consists of me and no one else I know. So perhaps my hunger for reading is overshadowed by my hunger to talk about what I’ve read with someone else who has read it, regardless of what they think. I guess what I’m trying to say is, please read these and tell me your thoughts! Let’s be friends! Let’s be an informal, asynchronous, online book club! Let’s read books and discuss them and push each other to think bigger, better, more critical, more compassionate things!
Let’s begin, shall we?
Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed
One of the most—if not the most—beautiful, soul-satisfying books I’ve ever read. It is a collection of answers from the advice column Cheryl Strayed wrote anonymously for The Rumpus for a few years. I could read this back to back fifty times over and not get sick of it. It is rich with insights into infidelity, friendship, parenthood, love, and life in general, every one seemingly directed right at the reader. I was sad when it ended. (BONUS: For more of Cheryl Strayed’s fascinating life story and insights, be sure to check out Wild.)
I might write another post that consists solely of quotes from Tiny Beautiful Things, but until then, here are two memorable ones:
“You don’t have a right to the cards you believe you should have been dealt. You have an obligation to play the hell out of the ones you’re holding.”
“Love isn’t the only thing that’s sometimes complicated and sometimes simple. Truth is sometimes that way too.”
Get It While You Can by Nick Jaina
Another absolutely beautiful book that not enough people have heard of, yet one that so many people would benefit from. It is a well-worded, well-timed, and intriguingly broken-up story of love, music, meditation, and life. It was hilarious and sad and human, and I wish it could have lasted forever.
“Someday a book will be written about all of us. It will contain all of our arcs. Every betrayal, every coincidence. It will all line up, in this book. When we can read the whole story, all at once, it will all make so much sense. It will be years later and we’ll all have figured out our loves by then, so we can laugh at the silly things we did that we thought were noble, and the noble things we did that we thought were terrible, and the terrible things we did that we thought were silly. We’ll close the cover and put it away and laugh the knowing laugh that comes from recognizing how out of control of our own worlds we were.”
Some Things I Did for Money by Stephanie Georgopulos
A Kindle single sold on Amazon, this short book describes jobs the author held from high school through her post-college years. While it was well-written and almost always humorous, what I most appreciated about it were the moments of clarity about the broader issues of society, where empathy and understanding shone through. I have yet to read anything else by the author, but I would love to after having read this.
“I was ashamed, but I wasn’t sure why. Maybe it had something to do with wanting to be better than McDonald’s — better than people who worked there, better than people who ate there — but mounting evidence suggested I was exactly where I belonged. My dad was proof of it. The pride I took in wearing my visor was proof of it. The fact that I had specific, custom ways of ordering every sandwich on the menu was proof of it. Fuck it, I even enjoyed the apple pies (eating them, not selling them). But the job made me feel vulnerable, marked by more than the stench of French fries. It told the world something about me that I didn’t want it to know: that I would have to work for whatever was going to be mine. I didn’t want other people to know this because it felt too committal, like I’d have to start believing it, myself.”
Woman’s World by Graham Rawle
An unsettling, humorous, compelling novel made entirely from words and phrases cut out of women’s magazines from the early 1960s. I was caught off-guard by the revelation midway through, and I had to sit with the ending for a while to absorb it—but it is mind-blowing to think of how the author created such a work of art.
“But today, more than usual, I was in what Mary calls one of my ‘artistic’ moods, so that arranging a vase of artificial flowers on a what-not stand lasted the whole morning. Yes, my morning was very full indeed.”
Henry & June by Anais Nin
I think Anais Nin is a kindred spirit of mine. Henry & June is a portion of the journals Nin kept throughout her life, and it was deeply erotic and so fascinating to read about her love and sexual experiences as well as her devotion to her creativity and writing (and that of Henry Miller’s). It’s no wonder she is so often quoted.
“I want to be able to live… in utter madness, but I also want to be able to understand afterwards, to grasp what I’ve lived through. … Because I am not always just living, just following all my fantasies; I come up for air, for understanding.”
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
Reading Gay’s thoughts on feminism, pop culture, politics, books, and life felt like a conversation—I wanted to sit down and talk about all of these topics with her. She writes critically and humanly, not taking the easy stance, choosing nuance. This book was huge when it came out and has perhaps is already viewed as outdated, but for what it’s worth, I found the essays within it engaging and relevant.
“Some women being empowered does not prove the patriarchy is dead. It proves that some of us are lucky.”
“It makes perfect sense that many of us obsess over our bodies. There is nothing more inescapable. Our bodies moves us through our lives.”
“The abundance of triviality is as hypnotic as it is repulsive.”
The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison
The subjects of the essays in The Empathy Exams are varied and far-reaching but all eventually tie in to the main theme of empathy. Jamison writes so thoughtfully and is so self-aware that even when she writes about people or issues outside of her own experience, she returns to the subjective narration and acknowledges her limitations and tendencies. This book is honest, insightful, and courageous.
“Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination. Empathy requires knowing you know nothing.”
“People say cutters are just doing it for the attention, but why does “just” apply? A cry for attention is positioned as the ultimate crime, clutching or trivial—as if “attention” were inherently a selfish thing to want. But isn’t wanting attention one of the most fundamental traits of being human—and isn’t granting it one of the most important gifts we can ever give?”
“It seems likely that for all her wound has given her—perspective, the grit of survival, an insightful meditation on beauty—Grealy would still trade back these wound boons for a pretty face. This confession of willingness is her greatest gift of honesty, not arguing that beauty was more important than profundity, just admitting that she might have chosen it—that beauty was more difficult to live without.”
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty
A book about death and the funeral industry by a mortician, it was much more interesting and funny and sad than that description makes it seem. I love that she is trying to change our society’s relationship to death and mortality, and I loved how honest about her own life she was throughout the book. I wanted to recommend this book to everyone after I read it, and I wanted to think more personally about how I can be better about dealing with death.
“Death might appear to destroy the meaning in our lives, but in fact it is the very source of our creativity. As Kafka said, ‘The meaning of life is that it ends.'”
Panic in a Suitcase by Yelena Akhtiorskaya
Panic in a Suitcase centers on a Ukrainian family from Odessa living in Brighton Beach and their poet son who is still in Odessa. The story itself may be too jolting or difficult to like for some, but what I loved so much about it was the writing: familiar scenes were described in such new ways, ways that made me know exactly what she was describing because she was describing them how they are actually are rather than how our limited language and tradition have told us to describe them. Maybe I’m not doing such a great job of describing her descriptions, but I thought they were so well done. I want to study them.
“They left satisfied, enriched. There had been a moment of calm, hadn’t there? They’d forgotten that such a moment was possible—everyone together and at peace. Such a moment was created in retrospect.”
The Folded Clock by Heidi Julavits
Julavits made The Folded Clock out of a diary she kept over two years, except she doesn’t order the entries chronologically but goes back and forth in time, much like our thoughts and feelings and memories actually do. Her observations are clear and honest while also being self-deprecating and funny. It was nice reading about someone with similar struggles to me (like trying with her friends to figure out what makes one person leave another) and also with quirks so different from my own.
“Afterward we were told that we were ‘stupid’ and ‘lucky.’ Stupid, I agree. But lucky? We weren’t lucky. We were really, really, really lucky. I would never claim not to be lucky. I am so fucking lucky that I am terrified of luck. I am terrified it will abandon me.”
The Places that Scare You by Pema Chodron
Not surprisingly (to those who know Chodron), this was a book about meditation through a sitting practice and daily life, focusing on getting to know our fears and darknesses so that we no longer run away from them but accept them and therefore accept them in others, too. Her is advice is loving yet practical.
“We are a poignant mixture of something that isn’t all that beautiful and yet is dearly loved. Whether this is our attitude toward ourselves or toward others, it is the key to learning how to love.”
Meaty by Samantha Irby
When I first started reading this book, I didn’t think I was going to like it, but Irby’s storytelling quickly pulled me in and kept me there (even when she was complaining). This is a collection of essays about her life: her childhood, her Crohn’s, her sex life, her love of food. I appreciated her honesty and was most drawn into the essays about her childhood (caring for a mom with multiple sclerosis, dealing with a mostly absent, violent, alcoholic father). I didn’t like how she generalized men and women at times, but show me some humanity– just like she did– and I’m hooked. (And she’s from Chicago!)
“When survival is your imperative, what you look like while doing so becomes of increasingly diminishing importance.”
The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
I have lost count of how many times I have read this—about once a year for almost ten years, probably—but I still find it so beautiful. It is my all-time favorite book, and I find something new with each read. This time around, I realized how much it has influenced my own writing—how many phrases or ways of phrasing feelings have come out when I never before saw the connection to something I had read. I will never stop loving this book.
“Sometimes I thought about nothing and sometimes I thought of my life. At least I made a living. What kind of living? A living. I lived. It wasn’t easy. And yet. I found out how little is unbearable.”