This past year was a great one in terms of reading for me. I have been putting effort into reading not just for my own sake, but also to show the little one how much one can enjoy a book. I also have been quite lucky in picking up many amazing titles. I’m not quite sure if it’s because there are more good titles around, or because the good titles are finally getting the exposure that they deserve. Either way, here are the books I most highly recommend picking up at your earliest convenience (basically right now).
Review of ‘Transcendent Kingdom’, by Yaa Gyasi
In case anyone had any doubts after reading her first book: Yaa Gyasi is an incredible storyteller. Although filled with heavy topics and complex writing, Transcendent Kingdom reads as easily as cutting through butter on a hot summer day. I use that analogy with intention; the book will leave you feeling warm and soft, in all the right ways. It reads much more than just the story of Gifty; it’s a brilliant reflection on religion versus science, not offering a specific answer but many paths a reader can choose to explore for himself. Gyazi’s masterful analysis of the relationship between science and religion is told through Gifty’s experience with her mother’s church and her work in neuroscience. The brilliant Gifty was confronted from a very young age with so many illogical religious “truths”, so she turned to science only to find it also coming short. The answer to her brother’s addiction seems to be found, in the end, in an elegant blend of the two: that science and religion co-exist harmoniously when one removes the ego from one’s search for the truth. We live in a world where dichotomy and dissession rule the mainstream discourse; Transcendent Kingdom is much more than Gifty’s story or even its analysis of science and religion. Rather, in it’s lessons in learning to not create dichotomies and look for what is in common between seemingly disparate opinions lies the key to building a united, diverse, harmonious world.
Review of ‘Catch and Kill’, by Ronan Farrow
A must-read for anyone trying to learn more about the way The System works, trying to understand why so many women who are sexually assaulted or raped never report it, and how some people are able to cling to power despite being terrible people. Ronan Farrow’s doggedness, determination, and perseverance through some pretty intense and scary periods of time (this guy was followed by agents from an international spy agency because of his reporting!) will inspire your own activism work. In my case, it made me realise that what I am going through isn’t that bad, and that, most importantly, I really am not alone and the forces we are fighting against are so strong that we really do need everyone to pitch in, even little me with my little actions. Read the book and listen to the podcast, they are both well worth your time.
Review of ‘No Fixed Address’, by Susan Nielsen
When I read Nickled and Dimed, I remembered thinking that this book should be turned into a movie, a TV show, and a series of books, and that the story of the struggle of the working poor should be shared in a way that will make people care deeply about the issue, in order to combat the prejudices around poverty. No Fixed Address is exactly that. I felt the story of Felix at the very core of my being, and shed tears at a particular point in the story when I thought that maybe this was it, that he was going to be helped—and it just turned out to be a dead end. Poverty is not a choice, and I wish people could see it as clearly as described in this book. No one thinks “I’m just going to live in a van for now, use facilities at the community centre, and lead a financially and physically unsafe lifestyle because I want to.” There is so much prejudice that it holding us back as a society and I really feel that books like these are an important tool in girding our loins in order to embark on the tough work of transforming the world for the better.
Review of ‘Big Summer’, by Jennifer Weiner
One of my favorite authors has come out with a book that could be classified as a murder mystery, I guess. But it is so much more than that. It’s about body shaming. It’s about one’s online versus IRL personas. It’s about bullying. It’s about classicism. It’s about neglect. All of this, rolled into one. It was an addictive, unstoppable read (I might have stretched reading time as long as I could for and skipped a few hours of precious sleep…) and it left me feeling both a little raw, emotionally, but also uplifted and hopeful. In the last couple of years, I have “broken up” with a few toxic friendships, and the pull that bully Drue has on Daphne was something quite familiar that kept me, miserable, in toxic friendships for many years. I really felt heard in Daphne, both when it came to her relationship with Drue, but also in her self-description as a “not-that-influential influencer”. I mean, I’m even less influential, so that description really made me laugh. I didn’t see the twist at the end; I’m going to have to reread the entire thing to see if the hints were there, because it did seem to both come out of the blue but make sense. Or maybe I’m just looking for an excuse to dig into this one, even through I really should be getting to the rest of my TBR pile…
Review of ‘Rules For Being A Girl’, by Candace Bushnell and Katie Cotugno
These are the rules as written in the book, which are so true they made me cringe all the harder: “Rules for being a girl: Don’t wear too much makeup. Don’t wear short skirts. Don’t distract the boys by having a body. Don’t get so skinny your curves disappear. Don’t get so curvy you aren’t skinny. Be funny but don’t hog the spotlight. Don’t be a doormat, but god, don’t be bossy. Act like one of the guys. Don’t actually act like one of the guys. Don’t give him the wrong idea. Don’t be cold. Don’t give it up. Don’t be a prude. But calm down! Don’t worry so much. You can do anything! Just don’t forget to smile!” How I hate the rules for being a girl, but oh how true it is that those of use who don’t go by them pay the price. I think it’s better a little better, but I always felt like my tendency of speaking my mind (until I was broken, but I’m getting back to my old self, slowly but surely) had people categorise me as a bossy bitch. But then when I’m quiet, people wonder when I become such a doormat. After some experimentation, I refused to straighten my hair, and I like light makeup—combined with a preference for modest clothing, it made people tell me things like “Good thing you’re kind of smart because you’re definitely not the pretty one” and “You’ll never find a husband.” (Spoiler alert: I did and he is amazing so neener.) But when I experimented with dressing up and putting a full face of makeup on every day, I was called an attention whore and my modesty was mourned. There is only one way girls can win, and that’s by refusing to play the game. You do what is natural to you and use it to build a better world in which these rules are tossed out of the window—and I should be talking about the book, shouldn’t I. It’s a great book. It’s a simple story, not overly complicated with other topics and matters, and, well, at the end of the day, it really shows why girls and women don’t bother reporting sexual harassment, because the price we pay is just too high, even higher than a traumatic incident—just take a second to absorb that.
Review of ‘Frankly in Love’, by David Yoon
This is another one that really made me feel heard. I mean, how many of us children of immigrants have had to deal with elders like Frank’s parents? To give you an idea: Frank’s big sister married a Black man, only to be disowned by her Korean parents. It’s so hard to let down your immigrant parents because they put so much on the line and worked so hard to come to North America and build a better life that we benefited from, but when the education they provided us with turned us against them, well, it can get pretty ugly. I was lucky enough that my parents were of the enlightened kind, so thankfully the awkwardness was only felt a couple of times a week at other people’s homes, and yet it was completely exhausting to live through. Frankly in Love might come off as a silly romantic comedy to some people. But the issues of race, immigration, class, gender, family, and friendship, amongst others, that are obviously and not obviously weaved into the plot will leave many others with a lot to think about, for a long time. Refreshingly honest without being patronizing, another book that slips into my “world transformation” shelf.
Review of ‘You Can’t Touch My Hair’, by Phoebe Robinson
I was thrown back into my high school years, in a very good way. Reading Phoebe Robinson’s book felt like I was back with my Black friends who first initiated me into the things that I, as a white-passing person, kind of knew were happening but couldn’t really get a grasp on. And I mean, the book even comes with sometimes ridiculous, sometimes hilarious, and sometimes completely out-of-the-blue segues, again, just like when a group of high schoolers are chatting it up. I mean, it was so crazy that I actually reached out to a few of them and thanked them (again) for being that person in my life, and also apologising to them for having needed them to school me. Hey, there you go, I am also segueing like a high schooler chatting away with my friends or like Phoebe Robinson, although I am totally on point. Robinson’s book will not go well with everyone, mind you—she swears and can seem, sometimes, all over the place. But if you have a white or white-passing friend (or perhaps even a POC who doesn’t understand anti-Black racism) who loves to learn through comedy, this might be the book to help them take another step towards becoming a staunch anti-racist and ally.
Review of ‘Group: How One Therapist and a Circle of Strangers Saved my Life’, by Christie Tate
I feel like the power of storytelling is coming through with books like this one and some previous favorites in the same vein that I’ve reviewed here before (Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb and Good Morning Monster by Catherine Gildner). If I hadn’t known it was a memoir, it read a lot like a really good Jenifer Weiner book, a dramatic yet introspective, charming, heartwarming, and ultimately uplifting read that stays with the reader for a long time. It’s the kind of read that I feel will help everyone who picks it up, even if they don’t have the same challenges that the author faced through group therapy. The most important takeaway from this book, in my opinion, is that the work involved with making your life better take time and is painful. Tate manages to really reflect these two important concepts very naturally—through the telling of her story in a way that delves into the right things at the right times and draw the line through all the work, as well as the up and downs, of the almost decade-long process that this book covers. Be warned: You might have the urge to go to Chicago to try finding Tate to take her out for coffee after reading this one.
Review of ‘Anxious People’, by Fredrik Backman
This book was beautiful in many ways. The first is the way the story is told—it weaves in and out but always centered around the main plot. It ebbs and flows, wrapping the reader in so much information but at the same time, exactly what we need to gain insight into the plot, the characters, and, most important, insight into the collective well-being—or lack thereof—of humanity as a whole. The most brilliant thing about this book is how it sets you up to judge, disregard, and even hate some of the characters, but you end up loving each one of them and wishing the well by the last page. The complexity of humankind is on full display not just for one or two main characters, but for the full cast of hostage taker, hostages, and the two main police officers involved. In a world where we are set against each other to keep us from achieving our collective power through unity, putting one another down has become the norm; books such as these remind us that even when someone rubs us the wrong way, they are probably quite good people and deserve our best.
Review of ‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’, by Gail Honeyman
There are a lot of people who are labelled as weirdos and oftentimes just brushed off and ignored. At the beginning, it seems that Eleanor is just that—a weirdo, someone just different that isn’t worth anyone’s time, except to mock. Through brilliant prose that reflects how different Eleanor is, we discover a world very different from what we are used to, despite it being the same world that we inhabit. And through some great plot work, Honeyman slowly unravels Eleanor’s story, allowing readers to discover her many facets through her burgeoning friendship with Raymond and the elderly gentleman they save. Clues emerge steadily, although sometimes a little stealthily, about a troubled past, making it clear that however much she wants everyone—including herself—to believe, Eleanor is nothing but “fine”. An empathy-building read that could help transform the gaze of those considered as “normal” to consider that perhaps that “weirdo” is just in deep, wrenching pain, and could do with a friend.