Sugar Daddy by Lisa Kleypas

Title: Sugar Daddy
Author: Lisa Kleypas, known for writing historical romances
Release Date: 2007
Genre: Texan bildungsroman with hints of steaminess.
Describe it in a sentence: Liberty Jones goes from the trailer park to a millionaire’s mansion, and has men from both parts of her life to choose between.
TV/movie character who would like it: Tyra Collette from Friday Night Lights. In fact I think she might have written it.

It’s only a matter of time before a real-life sugar baby writes a literary memoir about her time, all short sentences and detached emotions which catch up later, as she smokes a cigarette or showers off the smell of her wealthy older companion’s cologne.

That is not this book. Though it’s called Sugar Baby, a more appropriate title would be Daddy Warbucks. How convenient when a dashing millionaire appears in your life without wanting anything from you other than to love you! Platonically! Yes, that is the better description of this novel.

Sugar Daddy was my first novel by Lisa Kleypas. I read it in the late evenings—which is always when I read my romance novels, because they calm me down. My wonderful romance book club chose it as this month’s selection. After many consecutive rom-coms, I enjoyed this change of pace.

Sugar Daddy is technically a romance, but I find that it’s better classified as a…coming-of-age story that ends in romance. It’s the SAGA of Liberty Jones, belle of the Texas trailer park. My Sugar Daddy reading coinciding with my ending of Friday Night Lights, so I’m just about ready to plan a post-COVID trip to the Lone Star State to get a vibe.

Kleypas manages to make so much happen! There’s a drum-beat in this book. And yet I enjoyed seeing where Liberty, who is our first person narrator, slowed down to savor the moment—like the first time she meets Hardy, the neighbor she imprints on (gah Stephanie Meyer for introducing that word into my vocabulary).

Honestly, to talk about the plot is to spoil a lot. The book winds up to a major twist that changes the course of Liberty’s life. It caught me off guard, as it did her, and I think it makes for a better reader experience not to know. Kleypas pulled a real switcheroo; the book became something I never expected it to become midway through. Certainly, Liberty was as surprised as I was. In a book, it’s fun to not see something coming (less so in life).

Yes, I absolutely pictured both of the leads as Tim Riggins.

I will say: I’ve read romance novels that have introduced similarly gasp-worthy plot twists, and this one does it way better, because Kleypas gives Liberty time to process and deal with what happens. The love introduced isn’t introduced as a way to hurry up her healing. He arrives when she’s ready.

This is the kind of book I might pick up if I was at a hotel and it was in the library because someone left it behind and I’d read it in a day. It reminds me of my aunt’s Danielle Steels on hot summer days in Cyprus. But a bit (read: way steamier). The emphasis is definitely on Liberty—and it worked. I rooted for her from the start. Her practicality and skepticism, balanced by a real heart. In fact, one could say the practicality is the way she protected herself from that big heart—she knew she could get hurt. Look at me, reading into a novel character. That means it worked!

I’m really looking forward to discussing this book with my book club. For one, the names are something else: Gage and Hardy are the two leading men (have you ever MET a Gage or a Hardy?!). Liberty’s sister is named Carrington for a Dynasty character.

I also have Thoughts about the convenient plot machinations, but I also accept them to be the machinations of a novel. And ultimately they produced positive endorphins in me. So I shall not complain…and instead shall read the next book in Kleypas’s Travis series.

Read it in a Day Rec: The Guest List by Lucy Foley

Not sure what to read anymore? Are all of your days blending together in a gray blur, as if highlighters no longer had neon ink but dull? My “Read it in a Day” book recommendations are for whiling the day away.

Title: The Guest List
Author: Lucy Foley, who has the kind of name I wish I had.
Release Date: 2020 Reese’s Book Club edition
Genre: Isolated island thriller
Describe it in a sentence: 
A bunch of privileged guests with money and secrets gather on a gloomy Irish island for a wedding.
TV/movie character who would like it: The cast of Lost, who would say, This is nothing!

Books about entrapment. Books where characters are dealing with the idea that there is no way out, no way off this ride. I bet it’s no surprise that books like this are particularly fascinating to me right now (cough: quarantine). I like seeing what happens to people, how their personalities change, when forces are closing in on them. I guess you could call them “claustrophobic books,” though they needn’t take place in elevators. It’s almost like they’re preparing me for what my life could be like this winter as the temperature drops lower and lower and I can’t leave (Lucy Foley let me know if you need inspo for a new horror novel).

Currently I’m reading Tina Brown’s brilliant biography of Princess Diana, called The Diana Chronicles. After the wedding, it sinks in that she’s really going to have to spend the rest of her life with these stodgy people and their stuffy rules, so old that dust would come up if you blew on ’em. Naturally, she freaks out.

The characters in The Guest List don’t have to spend the rest of their lives on that tiny island off the coast of Ireland, barely inhabitable. But they do have to spend the rest of their lives with themselves. And based on the revelations in this carefully plotted mystery novel, that’s enough of a shame. The setting, an island so small you can walk the circumference, separated from the mainland by a rough passage, complements the almost spiritual claustrophobia of secrets. They can’t run from themselves any longer.

Actually, I wouldn’t mind being trapped on an island like this, thx

The Guest List has whiffs of HBO’s Big Little Lies (rich people behaving badly, plus a timeline that goes back and forth) and Agatha Christie (a medley of voices, any of whom could be the killer). It’s the kind of book you can read in one day, and be happy you did—I was totally surprised by the ending, making the race to the finish worthy. OK, maybe not totally, but pretty much surprised. It still gave me that longed-for jolt of attention: I should’ve known!

Here’s the deal. This obnoxious couple insists on planning a destination wedding even though the destination is universally inconvenient for everyone, themselves included. They’re these kind of people: “But it’s all about the moment, a wedding. All about the day. It’s not really about the marriage at all, in spite of what everyone says.”

They want to have a “special” and “unique” wedding. Based on the baggage and secrets on both sides of the wedding party, their wedding would’ve been “special” and “unique” everywhere (and I use those words in exactly the tone you think I’m using them). But thanks to the rough terrain of the island that stormy night, the party becomes…dun-dun-dun: Homicidal.

Christine Quinn of Selling Sunset WISHES her “Gothic fairytale wedding” were this dramatic

Foley lets the story unfold in the voices of multiple characters (and potential victims and suspects): The bride, the plus one, the best man, the wedding planner, the bridesmaid, and the body. Foley’s writing flows effortlessly and easily—deceptively so. Since the characters are all speaking in first-person, if you read too fast, you might mss what they’re saying. Pay attention and it’s totally possible to see the ending coming toward you like headlights in the fog.

Naturally, I had to cast all of these characters. Except for the body—no spoilers. Here are my deranged castings:

  • The bride, Jules, is a media tycoon so I pictured her as Stella Bugbee from The Cut.
  • The plus one, Hannah, is skeptical of all of the people at the wedding. I saw her as the English actress Sarah Lancashire (Happy Valley).
  • Johnno is the best man. I imagined him as the mix of an ex and the actor Daniel Mays (who is in White Lines).
  • Olivia the Bridesmaid is absolutely Xanthippe from The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Dylan Nicole Gelula).
  • Aoife the wedding planner had to be someone foreboding and austere. She is Harriet Walker, queen of stern and sly old women.
  • The groom, Will, is smug TV host of an adventure show. I pictured him Jack Whitehall in hiking gear.
  • Charlie is Jules’s bestie. Due to the overwhelming stickiness of Lost, I can only picture people named Charle as Charlie from Lost.

I think I also liked this book because it was skeptical of all the same things I’m skeptical of: Namely, blowout weddings for couples who only just met. My antenna is always up when that happens IRL, but it was fun to have the chance to be freely judgmental. I guess that’s another lesser-acknowledged virtue of reading. Judge away. Characters can’t have their feelings hurt when you roll your eyes at them.

Are there any claustrophobic books that have spoken to your current situation? Or are you reaching for the opposite kind of book now—travelogues and escapist fantasies? Let me know!

BuyThe Guest List here.

Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich

Title: Love Medicine
Author: Louise Erdrich, living goddess, who published her debut novel at age 29
Release Date: 2020
Genre: Instant classic
Describe it in a sentence: 
The intertwining lives of two Ojibwe families on a reservation in North Dakota, narrated by different family members
TV/movie character who would like it: Bear with me, but Noah and Helen of The Affair—a show about marital infidelity told through each character’s perspective.

It’s not every day that you read a book that reminds you of everything a book can be. Most of the time the books I read are confirmations of what I already know.

To put it bluntly, Love Medicine, Louise Erdrich’s first novel and the first one I read by Louise Erdrich, exploded the novel. Actually, I’m self-conscious of writing sentences down now, having seen all that Erdrich in her mid-twenties could do. I found myself nodding along the way you do when you see the truth repackaged in a new way.

Love Medicine is the start of a trilogy that follows the same families. It’s a polyphonic book, narrated by different characters, all of whom feel the repercussions of the others decisions. The novel breaks with form, retreading the same events through different lenses. Later Erdrich said she wrote her first novel this way because she didn’t know how to structure an entire book leaning on only one voice.

Louise Erdrich gives me Carla Gugino in The Haunting of Hill House vibes

That surprises me, that this is an accident. Because the book seems masterful—far from a first-time novelist relying on gimmick. Sometimes it was hard to follow, but I decided to trust the characters; eventually, the story would come into focus. And it did (though families trees will help).

Take even the degree of differences between each narrator. The cadence of the sentences alters depending on who is telling the story. Language and syntax becomes a vessel for character—the unapologetic, matter-of-factness of Lulu Lamartine, mother of eight sons to different men; Lyman Lamartine as he watches his luck come and go in quick sentences. Characters seamlessly process the magical alongside the real, living in a reality that is abundant in possibility, if limited in opportunity.

It feels a bit silly, for that reason, to go into the plot details. You should let the Kashpaws, Lamartines, and co. tell it yourself. But this is the deal: In the opening scene, June Morrissey, a Chippewa woman, dies after an encounter in a remote mining town. She walks into the snow, and it feels, according to Erdirch’s narration, like going home. Or maybe it doesn’t feel like coming home—maybe it is. After reading Love Medicine, you may take indeed sentence—“The snow fell deeper that Easter than it had in forty years, but June walked over it like water and came home”—literally.

Later on, a character beautifully remarks on the thin boundary between life and death: “Your life feels different on you, once you greet death and understand your heart’s position. You wear your life like a garment from the mission bundle sale ever after—lightly because you realize you never paid nothing for it, cherishing because you know you won’t ever come by such a bargain again.”

Erdrich describes June’s death as a kind of home-going. Appropriate, because the entire book is concerned with home, with the reservation these people were born on, and live their lives on—bumping into the same people, the same ceilings of opportunity. Even when the characters aren’t home, they’re thinking of it.

Anyway, June’s character is refined via the narrative engine of the book: A love triangle between Nector Kashpaw and Lulu Lamartine, both Chippewas, and Marie Lazarre, a white 14-year-old who—after escaping a convent—meets Nector in a field. The drama begins when they’re teenagers, and never ends, only evolve.

A wonderful family tree, credit to this blogger

And how could it end? Lulu, Marie, and Nector have no choice but to live through their connections as they change. Marie’s adopted grandson, one of the “strays” she takes in, comments on her relationship with Nector (who, by that point, is losing his mind to dementia but is lowkey carrying out an affair with Lulu). They’re both seniors, but are just as firey with each other—defying his expectation that older people are somehow more docile, somehow feel less.

“You see I thought love got easier over, the years so it didn’t hurt so bad when it hurt, or feel so good when it felt good. I thought it smoothed out and old people hardly noticed it. I thought it curled up and died, I guess. Now I saw it rear up like a whip and lash. She loved him. She was jealous. She mourned him like the dead. And he just smiled into the air, trapped in the seams of his mind,” Lipsha said.

This novel is about what happens when people live in close proximity, and simply never leave. There’s a fishbowl quality to it, like a long social experiment: What happens when you cordon people off into one geographic region, and watch their lives play out?

I looked up many a map while reading

Then again, what the outside world holds might not be any better. Characters are ruined by war. By emotionally meaningless, but physically destructive, encounters with men. By poverty, injustice, and racism. On the reservation, you get the sense that at least characters are understood by one another. Because the world outside the reservation holds the people who made the concept of a reservation necessary at all.

Erdrich’s book is teeming with insight into life on a North Dakota reservation in the 20th century, and with plain ‘ol wisdom, including gems like this: “The greatest wisdom doesn’t know itself. The richest plan is not to have one.”

I’m so happy I read it—and so happy I let the powers of the aisle work their magic. The art of the wander.

moi in the library

While I loved it, Love Medicine came into my life completely by chance. Erdrich’s name was on that hazy list of authors whose work I hadn’t gotten to yet. During my first trip to the library stacks post-quarantine, I was overwhelmed with choice and possibility. It felt like staring at a timetable in an airport and instead of dreaming of boarding a plane to all those destinations, actually going to those destinations. Books are the closest thing I get to travel these days, and the emotional experience of this book was honestly akin to some of the immersive rushes I’ve had while walking alone down an foreign city’s street, seeing the familiar refracted through a new light.

Luckily, I happened to pick her first book, and the first in the trilogy. Now, I fully intend to dive into the Erdrich extended universe, which includes an array of stories—including one dystopia that looks delectable.

Have you read other books by Louise Erdrich? Let me know! I need help guiding my next read.

Buy Love Medicine

Fake Like Me by Barbara Bourland

51mAzWVBwOL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgTitle: Fake Like Me
Author: Barbara Bourland
Release Date: June 2019
Genre: Intellectual thriller
Describe it in a sentence: 
After an unnamed painter (wow, I’m just realizing she’s unnamed because she felt so real to me) her latest project in a fire, she travels to the compound of a famous group of painters to repaint; while there, she discovers their secrets. 
TV/movie character who would like it: The artists in Velvet Buzzsaw, a far more satirical take on the art world

I’ve been thinking a lot about scammers. How can’t I, when they’re everywhere? Anna Delvey isn’t sorry for cheating rich, vacuous New Yorkers. Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman were caught in the great scam that is the American “meritocracy.” Last summer there was the great Social Creatures by Tara Isabella Burton; I recently read a great book called Duped by Abby Elin about what it’s like to date a fraud. All of this is to say — I’m fascinated by the subject. 

But whatever else I read, Fake Like Me blows it out of the water. What a thoughtful, philosophical dive into what it means to be a woman, to be an artist, to be a woman artist! After the first-person protagonist’s paintings burn down, she decides to commit what she calls fraud: She’s going to recreate the massive oil paintings, which had taken her three years to paint, over the course of a summer.

In comparison to the other shit that goes down in the novel, though, her intentions are just sweet! Simply adorable! She’s a scammer with the best intentions: Personal ambition. She’s not hurting anyone unlike some of the oooother characters (you know who I’m looking at, you genetically blessed but cruel bunch!)

After pulling some strings, she scores studio space at the upstate commune that belongs to “Park City,” a collective of five artists who hit it big after art school. The most famous, Carey Logan, was known for alarming life-like sculptures of the human body. Two years prior, Carey walked into the lake near Park City and took her own life. None of the remaining artist have ever been the same.

Carey’s the elephant in every room. Think Rebecca of Rebecca, but of its own kind of torture for the artist. Especially since she had always looked up to Carey. Both had pulled themselves up from rough, working class backgrounds; both worked incredibly hard. When the artist starts sleeping with Carey’s ex, Tyler, the lines between her and Carey become thinner.

Bourland clearly knows what she’s writing about. She goes into such detail about the labor required to create art. That art comes from some collision of originality and actual sweat — the skill required to pull a vision into the real world. Every time the artist took measurements about cutting a canvas or paying 22,000 in oil paints my brain jolted. Art is rock ‘n roll, man. I also loved the snippets of dinner party conversation — artists talking about other people’s projects. The way that vast quantities of money are attached to esoteric ideas…the economy of the art world is fascinating. (And also so concerning. This stuff isn’t going to museums! It’s going to the Monopoly Man!)

To add another layer to this book about art, Bourland herself is so obviously an artist. Sentences, all carefully wrought, add up to shape this incredibly complicated character study of many compromised people. I’d recommend slowing down while reading the book. As a notorious speed reader, I found that treating this book more literary and less thriller was rewarding. It deals in ideas as much as plot. So when you get to the end, if you’ve been following the ideas, it’ll have been far more rewarding.

I REALLY recommend this book to people looking for guilt-free page-turners. You’ll underline the shit out of it. I’ll leave you with this brilliant passage of the weight of the seven “virtues” on women. How these concepts police women, but they’re really just traps:

D6pIb_eXYAcIz2_.jpgThe forced perspective of humility. The delirium of purity. The weight of chastity. The rage of temperance. The shame of modesty. The regret of prudence.

The REGRET OF PRUDENCE. *head explosion emoji.* The rim of sadness around all of those nights spend in, spent prudently make sense now.

The Hating Game by Sally Thorne & The Curse of the “Nice Guy”

514sa3HcecL.jpgTitle: The Hating Game
Author: Sally Thorne
Genre: 
hot hot HOT romance, plus some jokes
Describe it in a sentence: 
Two co-workers at an Australian publishing house think that they hate each other, but it turns out that hate is just masking lakes and lakes of luuust (and eventually maybe love?)
TV/movie character who would like it: This book was pulled straight out of the central romance in Much Ado About Nothing. Beatrice and Benedick would see Josh and Lucy and nod knowingly.

I first heard about The Hating Game when I was researching a story about rom-com books for Refinery29. Thorne’s debut novel pre-dates the current rom-com resurgence by a few years. This book came out all the way back in 2016; it’s only now that rom-coms are flooding the market with their cute illustrated covers. These covers mask a whole lot of sexiness, you guys. Because This. Book. Is. SEXY!

Lucy and Joshua are co-workers at Bexley and Gamin, a publishing house that had merged a few years prior. Just as Bexley and Gamin had two different governing philosophies, so do Lucy and Joshua. They’re polar opposites (for more reasons than their height difference). Josh is a neat freak, uptight, seething, grouch. Everyone in the office is afraid of him. Lucy makes it her job to be professionally agreeable — to everyone except Josh. When the book kicks off, Lucy and Josh are regularly throwing insults and each other and racking up HR violations (TBH they do not work in the healthiest work environment – their bosses pit them against each other in a race for a promotion and it’s very corporate Hunger Games).

Don’t be fooled by their friction. Friction fuels fire! The more these two good-looking leads combat each other, the more other feelings grow. Lucy finds herself drowning in her all-consuming hatred for Josh, and then the weird feelings of affection that sprout the more she looks into his eyes.

Sally Thorne is great at writing rom-coms. I would read her rom-coms for days. Quippy dialogue, singular characters, plot that traipses along in between “the good parts” (and you know what the good parts are. I believe in Lucy and Josh’s chemistry.

BUT. I totally worry for them! I worry for their emotional intelligence! First of all, it’s not healthy to fill up your days with a deep and wild hatred for your coworker. Second of all, Josh makes being a “nice guy” out to be like, the worst trait in the world. In the book, “nice” is code for boring, dull, safe, etc. Josh is not expressly “nice” but he will love Lucy with scary intensity. And somehow that is a fair exchange? A loyal pitbull man instead of a friendly golden retriever.

Admittedly, I have historically been drawn to guys like Josh. Guys who make you bend over backwards to crumple their intensity. Cold guys, who make you so hungry for affection that you’ll blush at a smile. Stubborn guys who don’t deviate from their own code of ethics. Hard-working guys who promise they’ll take you where they’re going — so long as you play by their rules. My relationships ended when I had to ask for the simple request: Please be kind to me.

Guys like Josh can be sexy! But the whole book I kept saying to myself – Lucy, be careful! Yes, he makes you feel special now — but only because he’s been a total ass for so many years. Maybe I’m reading too far into this? But the “gruff asshole is secretly a kind softie” is a trope that I see work out in a lot of books, but not necessarily in real life. What do you think?

Overall, I definitely recommend The Hating Game, if you take the relationship with a grain of salt, and not as a model. Here’s hoping that Josh is kind to her as his relationship with Lucy continues (and that he doesn’t turn into his father!)

A Year In Books

I read 102 books in 2018, or at least that’s what my Goodreads count added up to. That’s not including the half-devoured books — books with a chapter to go piled up next to my bed (it’s a bad habit), books I only tasted for work so I had a feeling for prose, books I decided not to give my hours to anymore.

It’s hard for me to describe just HOW instrumental books have been this year, and all my life. Sometimes I mistake books for my life. Like, some of my best memories of 2018 have been reading. In the week between Christmas and New Years, I spent an hour a day reading next to the Christmas tree. I deliberately forced myself to put down my work and dive into my novel. Reading a novel is useful leisure time. The world expands, gets fuller with each word. What other activity can compare?

2018 was full of changes. Most of them hard. I’ll say: Books kept me stable. When life was too much, I got to live someone else’s. Of course, there’s always a balance between choosing the books I really, really want to read for fun and the books I have to read for work (the chic books of 2018, etc). Sometimes I ache for the days of my past when I read eclectically and according to whims. But then I pinch myself and say: I CAN’T BELIEVE THIS IS MY JOB!! I can’t believe I get to INTERVIEW AUTHORS for work! It’s a dream, through and through. So I ended up “keeping up” with the books of 2018, big time. Plugged into the discourse.

So, without further ado: Here are some of the highlights, and what I thought.

Nonfiction

  • Ninety-nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret by Craig Brown: We’re allowed to write biographies with such narrative freedom? Brown interweaves biographical details about Princess Margaret with gossip, imaginative musings, and my favorite of them all — a recounting of the time Margaret commissioned a plane to fly around some old poet’s house (I don’t remember who!!) in a variety of different forms, from haiku to sonnet. WHO DOES THAT?! Craig Brown does, my friends. A must read for anyone who loves snark and The Crown. Though admittedly, as an American, some of these British customs were blisteringly foreign to me (aka royalty in general!!)
  • Going Clear by Lawrence Wright: I thought Scientology was scary before I read this book. Now I know it’s much scarier than scary.
  • Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer: In order to explain how two fundamentalist Mormon men decided to murder their sister in law and her baby — and justify it as being a directive from God — Krakauer brilliantly situates the crime within the framework of Mormonism. I learned so much about this American-grown religion. This should be taught in high schools!
  • Bad Blood by John Carreyrou: Make this a movie, now.
  • Vanishing Twins by Leah Dieterich: Will be pressing this lyrical, freakin’ BRILLIANT memoir about love, commitment, marriage, preserving a sense of self in a relationship, into everyone’s hands, forever.
  • Future Perfect by Victoria Loustalot: Victoria, like me, is prone to hoping that psychics are real. The main difference: She writes a book about her experience with psychics, I just putz around and go to psychics.
  • The Ghost Photographer by Julie Rieger: Rieger, a top executive at 20th Century Fox, documents her journey into the world of spirits and ghost encounters, which began after her mother passed away. It’s rare to read a book written with such humor and warmth and complete lack of pretension. When Julie writes about the “other realm,” you want to believe her. This book inspired me to start my own exploratory journey. For a taste, check out my juicy interview with her.
  • Eurydice Street by Sofka Zinovieff: I struggled to read this book for a selfish reason: Zinovieff so perfectly captured the rhythm and quirks of Greece that my heart actually hurt, I missed it so much. Did I look up plane tickets while reading it? Did I consider abandoning my life to move there? Won’t answer, but you can guess.
  • Calypso by David Sedaris: We are not worthy of his humor. Thank you for sharing your family with us, Dave.
  • I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell: WHY DIDN’T THIS BOOK MAKE YEAR END LISTS?! In fact, the fact that it didn’t makes me doubt year-end lists even more than I already do; the subjectiveness and myopia that goes into each one. O’Farrell describes her 17 “brushes with death” with real even-keeled attitude, even though it’s freakin’ terrifying. The book sent me into an existential crisis. It also made me seize my own seconds.
  • Unwifeable by Mandy Stadtmiller: Grateful that Mandy shared such an intimate account of her difficult childhood, her rollicking 30s as a newly single woman documenting her dating life for the NY Post, and her addiction problems. She manages to do it all with such humor. I’d know – she was a hoot to talk to.
  • Small Fry by Lisa Brennan Jobs: You should read this book. But a warning: You won’t ever want to use your iPhone again.
  • Dead Girls by Alice Bolin: Threw the book across the room bc Alice Bolin’s brain was so electrifying that I couldn’t process it.
  • And Now We Have Everything by Meaghan O’Connell: If you are a woman or know women, read this book about motherhood (and childbirth – one of the most shocking hours of my life was spent reading O’Connell’s meticulous description of her difficult childbirth). Was so floored I had to interviewinterview her.
  • Stealing the Show by Joy Press: Takeaway: The women who revolutionized TV also revolutionized culture.

Fiction

  • The Ensemble by Aja Gable: Best friendship novel of 2018. There, I said it.
  • The Incendiaries by RO Kwon: Read it twice. Liked it even more the second time. One must respect sentences like this, sentences that have been wrested and fused together like each was some deliberate piece of art. The prose is a puzzle — Kwon has worked on it for TEN YEARS to make sure it all fit together.
  • Pachinko by Min Jin Lee: I loved the characters in this sprawling, epic novel so much I considered going to Japan to visit their graves (yes, I know they are fictional)
  • The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid: Dying film star Evelyn Hugo promises to tell her life story to a journalist; readers around the world cannot shut book until they find out which of her husbands was her favorite (it’s not who you think it’ll be)
  • The Friend by Sigrid Nunez: Read this because it won the National Book Award. I can imagine Nunez in a one-bedroom apartment writing away, not letting the hype get to her. I met a Great Dane the other day and couldn’t stop thinking about the narrator in this book, as if she were real. Loneliness is not a glamorous topic for a book, but man, is it a pillar in so many lives. The Beatles asked where all the lonely people come from; read this book to learn.
  • The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides: Took this thriller (out in January) on vacation. The ending was gasp-worthy.
  • Rules of Civility by Amor Towles: What a GORGEOUS gem of a book. What a narrator to admire, with pluck and heroism and the perfect amount of social climber instinct to make for an adventure. The book ended with a quote that will haunt me forever: “In our twenties, when there is still so much time ahead of us, time that seems ample for a hundred indecisions, for a hundred visions and revisions—we draw a card, and we must decide right then and there whether to keep that card and discard the next, or discard the first card and keep the second. And before we know it, the deck has been played out and the decisions we have just made will shape our lives for decades to come.”
  • Less by Andrew Sean Greer: Thank god he won the Pulitzer and someone recognized that humor is a form of brilliance.
  • Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn: As always, when I’m reading Flynn, I wonder what she would be like at a dinner party. And if I could sit across from her, knowing that she was capable of coming up with these twisted women, and wonder if she would interpret my mannerisms and verbal ticks as some kind of dark language of the subconscious.
  • Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken: A. perfect. novel. THE PERFECT NOVEL. I will read it, and reread it. And then go read The Giant’s House, her book which I read WAY too young and led me by the hand into the gorgeous possibilities of adult fiction.
  • The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer: All hail Lee Miller, the model turned war photographer at the heart of this fascinating work of historical fiction. She’s my new role model.
  • Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss: Sometimes you read a book and are reminded of how unbelievably smart humans can be; Ghost Wall is one of those. Moss essentially captures the entire pattern of human history in 180 pages describing an experimental archaeology trip to Northumbria. Just go with it.
  • Golden Child by Claire Adam: Read this for your book club. Get prepared to argue.
  • The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins: A magical, Gaiman-esque book about a library that contains all the knowledge of the universe and none of the universe’s rules. Haven’t lost myself in a book like this since I was 7 and reading Harry Potter, maybe.
  • NOS4A2 by Joe Hill: A real thought I had while reading this: “Wow! I love books with plot!!!!!” Joe Hill is funny and witty and scary as all hell. What are you doing? Go buy one of his books!
  • Elevation by Stephen King: Since I loved his son’s book so much, I decided to read some Stephen King. Sorry! I like Joe Hill more!!!
  • The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh: Best feminist dystopia yet.
  • The Falconer by Dana Czapnik: Oh, to be 18, oh to think in long-winded spools of philosophy, oh to be idealistic, oh to have unrequited crushes. I ached.
  • The Arrangement by Sonya Lalli: As she nears 30, a woman contemplates actually going through with an arranged marriage. I liked the way Lalli weighed two different approaches to marriage and didn’t say that one was necessarily better than the others.
  • The Witch Elm by Tana French: Considering what a mess Toby was, I’m surprised I enjoyed spending 600 pages in his head.
  • Melmoth by Sarah Perry: This book was full of fascinating modern explorations of mythology. Melmoth is a woman who bears witness to the most evil of humanity. Perry cleverly interweaves linear narrative with primary documents about Melmoth encounters. This is the kind of haunting story that would’ve terrified me as a kid. Melmoth, hissing over your shoulder.
  • My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite: What a fresh new voice. Really dark but also really witty, satirical, clever. Hard to distill the tone of this book. Which is why it is better read than described.
  • The Auctioneer by Joan Samson: Written in the ’70s. A crazed outsider comes to this quiet New Hampshire town and makes everyone start giving away their belongings in an auction to support the town’s police squad. Prescient read.
  • Dare Me by Megan Abbott: cheerleaders don’t talk like this in real life
  • Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott: Now THIS Abbott I loved loved loved.
  • Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver: I see both sides of the argument about this book. Kingsolver (like Meg Wolitzer in the female persuasion) definitely doesn’t look at the world’s changes as a young person would, but also, how could she?
  • That Kind of Mother by Rumaan Alam: REBECCA, you gotta wake up!! That’s what you’ll be thinking throughout Alam’s book about a privileged white woman raising her nanny’s black son, written in close third-person.
  • Before She Sleeps by Bina Shah: Bina Shah told me in an interview that for her, growing up in Pakistan, The Handmaid’s Tale reflected much of her reality. She created a feminist dystopia rooted in her own soil.
  • Strike Your Heart by Amelie Nothomb: Finished this book over the course of a train ride. It sunk its talons in me and BAM, I knew I was reading a dark gem.
  • Crudo by Olivia Laing: The only book I’ve read that captures the whirr and terror of the present day.
  • Praise Song for the Butterflies by Berenice L. McFadden: Maybe the most important book I read in 2018. It’s hard to believe this practice is real, but it is: The main character is sold as a ritual slave to help balance her family’s “luck.”
  • Open Me by Lisa Locascio: A girl’s sexual awakening IS fodder for a novel!!! I love books that respect young girls as independent, important people!
  •  How to Be Famous by Caitlin Moran: ^^repeat the above, just add a TON of sentences so funny I laughed out loud. Real talk? This wry, kind-hearted book about a precocious 19-year-old forging her way in the male-dominated world of ’90s music journalism while nursing a crush for a rock star in was, quite simply, the reading highlight of my year. I swooned through every passage of young love. Caitlin Moran remembers those years!
  • The Pisces by Melissa Broder: Underlined so much of this; all of the narrator’s ramblings about the kind of love that sets you on fire; the kind of emotionally vivid life that feels realer than the calmer, but inevitably duller, life of stable. With that in mind, it’s understandable why our protagonist embarks on an all-consuming romance with a merman. It’s something else.
  • Putney by Sofka Zinovieff: In this book, Zinovieff nimbly unpacks a terribly thorny topic: The affair between a young girl and her older family friend, and how memories change over the years.
  • Severence by Ling Ma: Part end of world account; part workplace comedy; all brilliant.
  • If You Leave Me by Crystal Hana Kim: WAAHHH y u have to be so sad!
  • Rough Animals by Rae Delbianco: A gritty western about characters who don’t live on the edge — they live outside society, on ranches, in open fields, where the rules are of their own making. Rae herself is SO inspiring.
  • The Light We Lost by Jill Santopolo: Truly, I wish I could change the fates of these characters.
  • Hey Ladies: Buy this for your friends.
  • Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton: Congratulated myself every time I recognized one of the shiny, spectacular New York locales Burton’s two characters, locked in a twisted friendship, visited. Tara and I spoke about why Social Creature is the perfect book for the summer of cons.
  • The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang: In the year 2018, we got a sexy, sexyYyyYy book about a woman on the autism spectrum finding love with the male prostitute she tried to help teach her how to have sex.  Love. Hoang spoke to Refinery29 about her own autism diagnosis.
  • Kudos by Rachel Cusk: One day, in the far future, Rachel Cusk will be considered a Queen of the English Language.
  • Transit by Rachel Cusk: See above.
  • Florida by Lauren Groff: Read the “Midnight Zone” three times and I still haven’t stopped thinking about its implications — that danger is all around us, that we are the danger.
  • The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton: Beauty is a prison!! Dhonielle Clayton’s new YA series examines appearances like my favorite series The Uglies did, but especially how women are expected to be slaves to beauty. And the characters in these books are slaves – that dawning realization shook me.
  • The Proposal by Jasmine Guillory: Quite simply, the book raised my expectations for romantic relationships — so I had to talk to her about them.
  • Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi: A star is born. I had the pleasure of speaking to Tomi RIGHT before she became a straight up celeb.
  • You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld: She creates characters who are so easy to judge and skewer – but you know she’d judge and skewer you just as ruthlessly. Speaking to Sittenfeld was naturally a life highlight.
  • The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer: I would’ve read a whole novel about Cory, but that’s it.
  • Circe by Madeline Miller: If you had to create My Ideal Book in a lab, it would be this: Literary but fast-moving feminist myth retelling. A feminist odyssey for the ages. 
  • Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday: God, just read this book. Unexpected. Off kilter. Sentences so gleaming I think of them today.
  • Awayland by Ramona Ausubel: Beautiful short stories! Off-kilter, imaginative, unforgettable.
  • Emergency Contact by Mary HK Choi: First of all, Mary is BRILLIANT and one of my favorite interviews. She got me so inspired to commit myself to pursuing my dreams. Anyway — her debut book captured the way we communicate now, through small bubbles sent over phones. More importantly, she emphasizes how falling in love over texts is a perfectly valid and understandable path today. It’s almost an epistolary age.
  • 99% Mine by Sally Hawkins: SWOOOON! Big, capable men fixing up houses is SUCH a type; it is clearly such a type of mine, too (and the main character’s)
  • The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory: SWOON, except for the part about being stuck in an elevator. Since I adored Jasmine’s books so much this year, I spoke to her about them.
  • Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao: A life composed of unimaginable tribulations, strung together in close proximity. The book follows two best friends in their journeys out of their tiny Indian village; one by running away, one by marriage. Girls Burn Brighter honors women’s resilience, but also highlights the unfair structures that cause them to need that resilience in the first place.
  • An American Marriage by Tayari Jones: An American Marriage twisted me up, as it was supposed to.
  • The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas: Finally got around to reading the YA sensation. Now will foist this incendiary book about police violence, code switching, growing up amid hate and fighting it with love, upon everyone.
  • The Book of M by Peng Shepherd: Was downright stunned by this magnificently plotted end-of-the-world novel, perfect for fans of Station Eleven.
  • What We Were Promised by Lucy Tan: The kind of book you wish you could intervene in, help the characters out. Sure, they’re in an expensive high-rise Hong Kong apartment. BUT ARE THEY HAPPY?!

The Books I Read On Vacation, Ranked By How Quickly I Devoured Them

Do you know what happens to a human brain when it detached from the suction of work? It puts its proverbial arms behind its proverbial head. It looks around at the blue sky above it and the blue, not quite the same shade but close, sea ahead of it. It is happy.

After breathing the crisp air of an open schedule for a few moments, the little anxieties about unchecked emails, unfinished stories, life paths, regrets start poking through the sand like hermit crabs. The only way to vanquish the hermit crabs, which are rapidly gathering and taking out their snippers, is to put your feet up on the chaise lounge and methodically go the stack of books you brought.

Then when you finish the stack of books, you will inevitably face a moment of irrational panic. Can I really read on a kindle on the beach? The answer is yes, you can, you will.

All right, that ^ ^ is one reading of how I spent my two (!!) weeks of vacation. Yes, I ate, adventured, and hung out with friends and family. But mostly, I read. Here’s the list, in order of how quickly I read them:

  1. The Seven Husband of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid
  2. You by Carolyn Kepnes
  3. Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld (bought in a bookstore on a Greek island, thank you bookstore)
  4. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
  5. Under the Banner of Heaven by John Krakauer
  6. Going Clear by Lawrence Wright.

So, as you can see, the trip was divided between fiction by women and batshit nonfiction about extremist religion by men. That is one of my favorite divisions. Also, NOW I GET WHAT Y’ALL WERE TALKING ABOUT WHEN YOU WERE TALKING ABOUT PACHINKO. IT IS SO GOOD. I WANT TO MAKE A PILGRIMAGE TO JAPAN AND VISIT FICTIONAL CHARACTERS’ GRAVES.

That is all.

 

Things That Happened Before The Earthquake by Chiara Barzini

IMG_3210.JPGTitle: Things That Happened Before the Earthquake
Author:
 Chiara Barzini
Genre:
Literary coming-of-age
Describe it in a sentence:
Girl and her family move from Italy to Los Angeles; girl has way too much freedom
TV/movie character who would like it: Effy Stonem of Skins would really identify with Eugenia. When she went out to bars, she would speak to strange men with an Italian accent and congratulate herself on being so mysterious and mischievous.

I stuffed this book in my tote bag for the commute home along with three other books. Usually, I skim through the first few pages and see what sticks. But immediately after beginning Things That Happened Before the Earthquake, I was pulled into the vortex and had to say goodbye to the rom-com and dystopian I’d brought along, too. That’s how strong Eugenia’s voice is, how true her perspective. Oh, I thought. This 16 year old and I are going to be hanging out for a while. Let’s go back to remembering 16: Thinking you’re self-sufficient but really just wanting someone to pay attention to you; thinking you’re the shit but also wanting someone to cook you dinner and pet your head. Eugenia is in that place where she’s able to see her parents’ flaws, but also yearns for them to revert to being Parents in the archetypal sense – not people. It’s such a precious and precarious moment.

Anyway, I’m side-tracking here. The story is about an Italian girl who moves to Los Angeles so her father can make a movie. Eugenia’s parents, Serena and Ettore, are capital e Eccentric. They let their two kids roam free range around ’90s L.A. while they scrap together a movie, risking all financial security (and possibly breaking some laws) to do so. Eugenia, lonely, wanders around the school and her city and encounters many characters. Each encounter leaves an impression and teachers her something, maybe, but it’ll take her years to figure out what. That’s something I admire about Barzini. Everything’s filtered through Eugenia’s perspective. There are no easy answers. People she meets aren’t reduced to teaching moments; rather, they’re people who push into the clay of her becoming, for better or for worse.

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another great part of this book are its tremendous descriptions of pasta. i ate a lot of pasta as a result. 

I also love that Eugenia can be an asshole. She messes up! A lot! She breaks rules! She stirs shit! When she’s on vacation on what’s essentially a desert rock off Sicily, she gives a makeover to a local woman and fires up rumors of witchcraft. She’s the 16 year old I always wished I was. Even if that 16 year old made objectively terrible and dangerous decisions. Instead, I stayed home with a book and left the adventures to the Eugenias of the world.

Some of the best books I’ve read this year have been first-person coming-of-age stories about teenage girls (Open Me and How to be Famous). They remind me of my younger self. The girl who was just opening up. Who was scared, but also so goddamn excited. I love their arrogant brashness. They see something we (and by we I mean OLD PPL) don’t. They see hypocrisy. But as an old person, I also see the danger that Eugenia constantly put herself in, and was worried.

Oh to be 17! Oh to be on the cusp of it all! There’s a great story in Lauren Groff’s recent collection, Florida, about a teenager attending the tail end of a party full of adults, simmering in anger and resent and love triangles. She feels pity for them. She’s just starting, and she knows it.

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As you’ll find out after reading this book, she’s wrong! They do.