It may seem like I will just keep going backwards, year by year, making lists of my favorite books, and that’s because I am. But I’m only going to go back one more year after this one, and then it’ll be all forward motion from there on out. It’s just that I read some good ones in the past couple of years and wanted to share that with the world before I left them behind for more timely references. So here are the books I found to be most endearing, intriguing, and thought-provoking in 2014, in case you need some recommendations.
Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham
Of the people I know personally who have read this, I am the only one I know to feel as strongly as I do. But I loved this book. I loved her stories and her self-deprecation disguised as self-aggrandizement. I loved imagining her as a child and as an adult. But most of all, I loved her honesty. Her willingness to share her experiences straightforwardly and not out of shame allowed me not to feel ashamed of my past decisions or regretful of the life I’ve chosen. We could all benefit from more of that.
“You’ve learned a new rule and it’s simple: don’t put yourself in situations you’d like to run away from. But when you run, run back to yourself, like that bunny in Runaway Bunny runs to its mother, but you are the mother, and you’ll see that later and be very, very proud.”
Toddlers are A**holes: It’s Not Your Fault by Bunmi Laditan
A hilarious handbook to living with toddlers. I read this as a foster parent of a toddler and a baby, so the complaints resonated with me, just as the ‘solutions’ made me not feel like the worst parent in the world. I felt a kinship to the author and all those who are struggling through the toddlerhood of their little one(s). This woman is beautiful, whoever she is.
“You know you have a toddler when you hate your spouse a little. Toddlers can destroy your marriage if you let them. The stress of living in an insane asylum with a child who makes you want to fall on your own sword will take a toll on your personal relationship. People without a toddler of their own will not understand how someone so cute will make you want to be single and living in a studio apartment with only a bottle of Jose Cuervo to keep you company, but this is the truth. Do your best to not let your little cock block tear your love life apart. You don’t actually hate your spouse, it just feels like it because you hate life. Remember: You’re in a warzone. You need back up.”
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
A story about a family that attempted to raise a chimpanzee but ended up giving her to a lab and the consequences of that for the rest of the family. I loved the narrator– even though she attributed her awkwardness to being raised with a chimp, I thought it made her character so human, so easy for me to connect with her. It made me feel better for my own sometimes embarrassing, awkward characteristics.
“So I can’t prove that I’m different from you, but that’s my best explanation. I infer this difference from the responses of other people. I assume my upbringing is the cause. Inference and assumption, smoke and Jell-O, nothing you could build a house on. Basically, I’m just telling you that I feel different from other people. But maybe you feel different, too.”
Texts from Jane Eyre by Mallory Ortberg
Texts from Jane Eyre is a funny little book with ‘excerpts’ of text conversations from famous literary characters and authors. Most of the conversations make the characters or authors out to be megalomaniacs who are often paranoid and selfish but who have ‘normal’ people around to take care of them in their fragility. So while it was humorous, it also made me think about what makes a genius and what makes a genius memorable. Maybe you can’t be normal to be one.
“there’s this bird
there’s a bird on your car?
no he’s sitting on my statue it’s like mm it just keeps looking at me got those fiery bird eyes you know?
fired up eyebirds you know like how when a bird looks at you so much that you can’t leave the house
that’s no that’s never happened to me”
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
A ‘tragicomic’ about the author’s life and relationship with her parents, namely her father, who had a flair for interior decorating and fashion and an interest in men (and boys). Only after Alison came out as a lesbian did she find out about her father’s sexuality. It is a sad story with plenty of self-loathing, turning inward, and isolation, but there’s also a lot of creativity.
“But how could he admire Joyce’s lengthy, libidinal ‘yes’ so fervently and end up saying ‘no’ to his own life? I suppose that a lifetime spent hiding one’s erotic truth could have a cumulative renunciatory effect. Sexual shame is in itself a kind of death.”
Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace
David Foster Wallace writes so well—so intelligently, inquisitively, humorously, even deprecatingly—that he can make topics I am (or assume I would be) wholly uninterested in—like a review of a usage dictionary, an article on John McCain, and an essay on porn’s equivalent of the Academy Awards—fascinating. I learn something every time I read anything by him and would recommend anything he’s written.
“It’s hard to get good answers to why Young Voters are so uninterested in politics. This is probably because it’s next to impossible to get someone to think hard about why he’s not interested in something. The boredom itself preempts inquiry; the fact of the feeling’s enough.”
Writing down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
This is a Zen-inspired, down-to-earth encouragement to start a writing practice to learn to trust your own voice. Really, ‘writing’ can be replaced with whatever vocation the reader is called to– it is all about paying attention to the details and continuing to show up for the practice. I think it could inspire anyone wanting to live a more fully present, open-hearted life.
“Our task is to say a holy yes to the real things of our life as they exist—the real truth of who we are: several pounds overweight, the gray, cold street outside, the Christmas tinsel in the showcase, the Jewish writer in the orange booth across from her blond friend who has black children. We must become writers who accept things as they are, come to love the details, and step forward with a yes on our lips so there can be no more noes in the world, noes that invalidate life and stop these details from continuing.”
“KATAGIRI ROSHI OFTEN used to say: “Take one step off a hundred-foot pole.” That’s pretty scary, isn’t it? Finally you arrive at the top, which is precarious enough, and now you can’t stay there. You have to go ahead and step off the edge. In other words, you can’t rest on your success. Or your failure. “I have written something wonderful.” Good, but it is a new moment. Write something else. Do not be tossed away by your achievements or your fiascoes. Continue under all circumstances. It will keep you healthy and alive. Actually, you don’t know for sure that you will fall when you step off the hundred-foot pole. You may fly instead. There are no guarantees one way or the other. Just keep writing.”
Women in Clothes by Heidi Julavits, Leanne Shapton, and Sheila Heti
I couldn’t stop thinking of this book for months after I finished: it is about women’s philosophies on fashion, thoughts about themselves and their mothers, relationships with other people and with clothes, etc. that come in the form of conversations, essays, surveys, and projects, mostly photographic. I loved how varied it was and how it normalized my own way of being, especially in regards to clothing and fashion. If I could have conversations about these things with actual women and not just imagine them by reading a book, I would be so happy.
“I began to see that dressing was like everything else: those who dress well do so because they spend some time thinking about it.”
“But after an hour or so we figured out that the girls we considered the best-dressed were not the girls who wore the clothes we may have coveted most, but the ones who had a consistent style, a steady palette, and knew the silhouettes that worked best for them. I realized then that style is about knowing what you like and why you like it, more than anything else.”
“You totally control how the world sees you, and they buy it, completely.”
Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope, and Repair by Anne Lamott
Anne Lamott has yet to disappoint. Although short, this book is rich in life-giving hope and honesty about finding meaning in the difficult mire of life.– life is hard, but somehow we all manage to continue trying to show up. It’s beautiful. I think I highlighted the whole book.
“One rarely knows where to begin the search for meaning, though by necessity, we can only start where we are.”
“Emerson wrote, “People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.” I hate this idea more than I can capture in words, but insofar as I have any idea of “the truth,” I believe this to be as true as gravity and grace.”
“And no matter how great we looked, everything would pass away, especially the stuff we loved the most and could not live without.”
Thank You for Your Service by David Finkel
A nonfiction account of soldiers’ lives post-Iraq and Afghanistan, Thank You for Your Service is the follow-up to the author’s account of the soldiers’ experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan in his book The Good Soldiers (also recommended). The PTSD, TBI, and suicide attempts are so sad, and the impact it all has on relationships and families is heartbreaking. There is some hope in the book, but, ultimately, it is about ruined lives and the weight of loss.
“Could it have nothing to do with the soldier and everything to do with the type of war now being fought?”
In the Body of the World by Eve Ensler
A raw, heart-wrenching, utterly honest account of the author’s experience with cancer. I ate up every word; I didn’t want to stop reading. It made me realize some of some of my own baggage and fears and ‘not-me, projected badness,’ and I appreciated that. She faced so much trauma in her life (personally and vicariously) and still came out with the conclusion that love is all. I want to be that.
“I was raised in America. All value lies in the future, in the dream, in production. There is no present tense. There is no value in what is, only what might be made or exploited from what already exists. Of course the same was true for me. I had no inherent value. Without work or effort, without making myself into something significant, without proving my worth, I had no right or reason to be here.”
“Three of the ten principles governing the City of Joy are (a) tell the truth, (b) stop waiting to be rescued, and (c) give away what you want the most.”
Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brené Brown
This book, based on Brené Brown’s research, hits home—how shame infiltrates our lives and how learning to lean into vulnerability can transform us. I felt so understood reading this and recommended it to everyone I knew before I was even done. If we want to connect with each other and live whole-heartedly, we need to examine ourselves and get uncomfortable; we need to sit in the discomfort that leads to greater trust, joy, hope, and love.
“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.”
“Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”
“If you own this story you get to write the ending. If you own this story you get to write the ending.”