In 2017, I had a goal to read 50 books over the course of the year; roughly one book a week. Between all the other things going on in our daily lives, finding time to read can easily be pushed to the side. If you aren’t in the habit of reading every day, it can not only feel impossible to fit in, but also difficult to focus once you do get started. In order to change this for myself, I found that I had to read for at least 15 minutes a night. The more I began to integrate this into my routine, the more natural it became, and the more focused I grew. I not only began to read faster, but I was also sleeping better. Instead of gluing my eyes to the disruptive light of my phone, I used my time to slowly turn off my brain before bed as I made my way through pages, chapters, and books.
I managed to hit my goal – I was right down to the wire, actually – finishing book #50 on the afternoon of December 31st! Over the course of last year, and during the first two months of 2018, I’ve come across some fantastic books, new and old, fiction and nonfiction, that totally captivated me. I would like to share 5 recent reads that I particularly enjoyed.
1. A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin
This book was a New York Times top 10 book of the year in 2015. The interesting part is that most of these stories were published in the 1960’s, 1970’s, 1980’s and up through 1994 when Lucia Berlin died at the age of 68. Despite winning the American Book Award in 1991, Berlin never achieved widespread notoriety or developed a large audience. Her writing was sporadic, largely due to a long-term drinking problem, but the stories she produced are raw and lyrical. Many are semi-autobiographical, and although the narrator of each story is a different person, or someone in a new stage of life, the tone of voice throughout is strong and matter-of-fact. Berlin’s descriptions are very physical, and you feel as though you are going through the pain of each character with them, experiencing each minute feeling of hurt. There is a lot of death and fear of death, alcoholism and tragedy, but all of it is handled in a deeply human way. In “ Panteón de Dolores,” Berlin writes, “I guess it is natural when one is dying to sort of sum up what has mattered, what has been beautiful. We have remembered your jokes and your way of looking, never missing a thing.” However, there is also a lot of humor in Berlin’s stories, and her voice has a quick wit, like in “Sex Appeal” when she writes “Sex itself seemed to have something to do with being mad. Cats acted pretty mad about the whole thing.”
Usually I prefer full-length novels to short story collections, but this book has changed that. If you haven’t read Berlin already, I cannot recommend her more.
2. How to Murder Your Life by Cat Marnell
Phew! This book was a roller coaster. I truly could not put it down. I found myself sneaking into the bathroom during work to read it, and plowed through all 300-something pages in one day. But it was not an entirely easy read. How to Murder Your Life is a memoir by Cat Marnell, a former beauty editor at Condé Nast and columnist at Vice. She is also a drug addict. Marnell was first put on Ritalin, the attention deficit disorder medication, in high school by her psychiatrist father. Her relationship with the drug quickly spiraled out of control, and she began to regularly abuse many other hard drugs and alcohol. All the while, Marnell managed to hold down a great job at Lucky magazine, eventually move on to xoJane.com as an editor, and finally landed at Vice before checking herself into a rehab facility in Thailand. But Marnell’s story did not feel like another tale of privilege and addiction. First of all, she’s a fantastic writer, as her resume would suggest. In addition, her sense of humor is sharp and distinct, and I was laughing out loud through some parts. Even more intriguing, however, was her complete honesty and deep sense of self awareness. The combination of these factors kept me laser focused on her story, and fully invested in her recovery. I spent a lot of time after turning the last page reading interviews with Marnell and looking for her old columns – she’s that type of person! Shocking, disturbing and hilarious all at once, this is a compelling read.
3. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
I know this is not a new book, and most people have probably already read it, but wow. I’ve always had Catch-22 on my list and had never gotten around to starting it. On a recent rainy Sunday, I finally cracked open my copy and ate up every word. I love Heller’s wordplay and the way he adeptly points to all the absurdity and chaos in our world. There were so many amazing one-liners, but some of my favorites were:
“The real trick lies is losing wars, in knowing which wars can be lost. Italy has been losing wars for centuries, and just see how splendidly we’ve done nonetheless.”
“Everyone was always very friendly toward him, and no one was ever very nice.”
“General Peckham liked listening to himself talk, liked most of all listening to himself talk about himself.”
“Nurse Duckett found Yossarian wonderful and was always trying to change him.”
“They were the most depressing group of people Yossarian had ever been with. They were always in high spirits.”
Ok, ok, I won’t go on any longer because, as I said, this title is nothing new, but if you haven’t read it (or even if you already have), get yourself a copy! This is an essential novel for any fiction lover.
4. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
I cried at the end of this book. I had previously read Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her and was already a huge fan of his writing style, but The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was one of the most captivating books I’ve read in years. I felt so connected to all the characters and so invested in the narrative. I needed to know what happened next and carried the book everywhere with me for days, sneaking in reading at all opportunities. The book, published in 2008, received both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It chronicles the life of Oscar De León, an extremely overweight Dominican boy who lives with his mother and sister in New Jersey. Oscar is obsessed with science fiction and fantasy novels and is completely girl crazy. All he wants is to fall in love. The novel spans multiple generations of the De León family, bringing us to the Dominican Republic, the US and back again, all woven together by the overarching theme of Fukú, a curse that Oscar believes plagues them. The novel is told from multiple view points and delves into not only the De León family history, but the history of the Dominican Republic, its politics and corruption. There is plenty of humor in this book, but there is also tragedy and heartbreak. The entire story is told in such an incredible way, you will not want it to end.
5. The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
It’s hard to believe that a book about teenage suicides could be funny, but Eugenides has such a distinct and perceptive voice that he is able to imbue this tale of tragedy with humor and spot-on observation. The story of the Lisbon sisters’ suicides, tragedies that take place in a suburb of 1970s Detroit, is narrated by a group of boys who become infatuated with the sisters and attempt to make sense of their suicides. Eugenides captures adolescence and nostalgia with such precision that I had to laugh at some parts, especially when he describes the distinct smell of each neighborhood house – “Chase Buell’s house smelled like skin, Joe Larson’s like mayonnaise, the Lisbons like stale popcorn” – or when he mentions a retainer accidentally left behind after a party. The book has the feeling of a Greek tragedy, and the collective narration that of a Greek chorus, and these are themes that Eugenides has explored in other books as well. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for his novel Middlesex, which I read before The Virgin Suicides. Both are set in suburban Detroit in the 70s, and both represent adolescence and the hilarity and heartbreak of growing up in such an expressive way. Some of you may have seen the movie version directed by Sofia Coppola and starring Kristin Dunst, but if you haven’t yet read the book, I strongly encourage picking up a copy.