WHAT I'M READING

Here's a list of books I've been reading and what I thought about them.

*warning: stories may be (sometimes) judged for how "they made me feel inside" and not their exceptional literary merit


where'd you go bernadette by maria semple

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This book was recommended to me by a coworker, and it was described as a "vacation read," but after spending the past few months reading dense writing by male authors, I was ready to read something a bit more light. The book isn't literally light (it's about 400 pages) but the story is told through humorous emails and letter correspondences, mixed in with the narrative insight of a teenage girl named Bee. The titular Bernadette is Bee's mom, and she's hated by everyone at her daughter's elitist prep school. What they don't know is that she once won a Macarthur Grant and was (for a moment) the most sought after architect in America. Years later, she's a disheveled but entertaining mother, who -- as you can probably guess -- disappears. Her disappearance takes a while to get to, though, and in the mean time, there's some great scenes with the dad (who works at Microsoft and impregnates this awful annoying lady named Soo-Lin) and the neighbors (whose house gets destroyed by a violent mudslide after Bernadette rips out all the blueberry plants.) The story also takes place in Seattle, which is my favorite city. So maybe I'm biased. But plainly put, this was a genuinely fun and refreshing read. If anything, it was a nice reminder that not everything has to be super fucking bleak and literary for it to be good. 


seek by denis johnson

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A lot of people who I think are cool and literary talk about Denis Johnson, so obviously (to be cool and literary), I needed to read something by him, too. He's better known for Jesus' Son, but I was recommended Seek since I primarily have written essays. And what essays they were! I have to say that I was taken off guard at first. Most of my reading lately has been more on the whimsical, sometimes romantic, and even (at times) wonderfully light-hearted side -- Seek was not that. Instead, I was faced with brutal retellings of civil wars, stranded couples in Alaska, a missing murderer, and a group of bikers who love Jesus. That being said, Johnson carried a sort of dark humor even in the very dark circumstances that he found himself in. Some essays were more serious than others, and they were definitely all an advanced read (this book took me longer to read than most.) Yet all in all, I liked it a lot. But it also made me feel like my problems were trivial compared to those faced in these tragic corners of the world where Johnson traveled, like a true and loyal writer. I guess things can be sad in different scales. (I sure hope so.)


tenth of december by george saunders

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George Saunders was one of those names that everybody liked to drop in my writing classes at USC. "Oh, you haven't read him? He's brilliant." Most of these comments were made condescendingly, which made me want to read him even less, just because that's how stubborn I am. Well, I'm glad I sucked up my ego because this collection of short stories was hilarious, pointed, semi-insane, and incredibly enjoyable to read. Most of the stories didn't have an introduction - instead, they often began with dialogue that put you in the middle of a world that was already existing and running at full speed. Once I got past the initial confusion, I soon realized that anything could be possible in Tenth of December. From prisoners with IV drips that make them fuck and fall in love with women within minutes, to a society where SGs aka women slaves from third world countries are proudly displayed on family lawns, each portion of this book kept me on my toes and more than often laughing out loud. Despite the surface humor, the stories also succesfully touched on deeper societal pangs, class, inequality, and the like. And upon finishing, I was pleasantly surprised by an interview between George Saunders and David Sedaris, which provided some honest and well-spoken truths about being a writer. I can't wait to read him more. 


paris trance by geoff dyer

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I had read Geoff Dyer's Yoga For People Who Can't Be Bothered To Do It a few years back, and I remember being entertained by his style of writing and how he bounced from place to place, experience to experience, often without any sort of goal but still able to muster up some sort of greater truth. Paris Trance was more or less the same, but was also just kind of really sad. Which I liked. Not sad as much as melancholy. It centers on two couples - Luke & Nicole, Alex & Sahra - and together they spend a portion of their lives adventuring throughout France. We see the blossoming of each romance - passionate, heated, and earnest - as well as pure and loyal friendship between the four friends. We then, however, see the deterioration of such bonds, leading the reader to remember that this novel isn't some wondrous fantasy, it's life. And that's just kind of what happens. Most things don't last.  

All memories are premonitions, all premonitions memories.
Nothing in the past has any value. You cannot store up happiness. The past is useless. You can dwell on it but not in it. What good does it do anyone, knowing that they once sat with friends in a car and called out the names of cinemas and films, that they ate lunch in a town whose name they have forgotten?”

call me by your name by andre aciman

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Turns out everybody's pretty boy gay movie of the year was a book before it was a movie. And it also turns out the book is a lot more gay than the movie. Like...a lot. At times, I felt like I was reading porn. Some things were a little too over-the-top (like when he keeps calling apricots apricocks because he can't stop thinking about cocks.) However, the final portion of the book (which is, coincidentally, the part that isn't in the movie at all) was quite beautiful. Oliver and Elio find each other years later when Elio shows up at Oliver's university lecture. And years later, the spark is still there, although their lives have diverged. Their interaction is awkward but gentle, and the affection between them is palpable. I maybe cried just a bit. 


IN DEFENSE OF FOOD BY MICHAEL POLLAN

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I normally jot down a few paragraphs after I finish reading a book but, admittedly, I forgot to do so with this one. I read a lot of nutrition articles so much of the information I read here wasn't exactly new. However, some of the social commentary was really well-said and also (in terms of the USA's eating habits) pretty embarrassing. Pollan points out that we're probably the most nutrition-obsessed country that is actually the least nutritious. Most of us eat processed foods and obesity/diabetes/heart disease rates are steadily rising. He centers his ideas on the basic premise "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." which I think more people should take into consideration. Even in the vegan community, there is a fixation on weird niche products that are marketed as necessary. A few minutes on websites like Mind Body Green or Well+Good leave me feeling like I'm literally doomed to die sooner rather than later because I'm not eating moringa or 10 mushroom adaptogens or spirulina or some other strange expensive thing that will bankrupt me at Whole Foods. Although Pollan himself isn't vegan, I think his focus on bringing simplicity back to food and increasing our intake of the basics - fruits, vegetables, grains, etc - is something anyone (whether herbivore or omnivore) can and should incorporate. 


no one belongs here more than you by miranda july

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Miranda July is my kindred spirit, except her humor is a lot better and marvelously communicated. I really think we'd be friends. I read this collection of stories over the course of a few days, and the what stuck out to most was how refreshing the writing was.  July composes stories that are simple and pretty easy to read, not relying on complex jargon to get her point across. At the same time, however, the characters were complex and flawed in ways that were deeply resonant and made me consider my own flaws into the deep hours of the night. The stories are about failed love and neighborly awkwardness. They are relatable because they are, ultimately, very human.

 


art of cruelty by maggie nelson

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I got really into Maggie Nelson last summer, devouring both The Argonauts and Bluets within a few weeks. The Argonauts encapsulated the type of writing I strive to do - it was both creative and critical, telling the story of Nelson and her transgender partner, of her mother's death, of child-rearing in the 21st century, and of falling in love. It also had lots of great gender theory and excerpts from queer scholars. Bluets, on the other hand, was a small book that centered on the color blue. Blue in art, film, life, psychology, and more. I read it mostly on the metro back in June and I remember feeling happy because it the passages were beautiful. Art of Cruelty (I realized after page 3) would be one of those books I'd have to read with a dictionary by my side. I truthfully don't have much to say about this book except that humans have weird, violent fetishes whether we deny it or not and that art is crude and beautiful and strange and performative and we're kind of all just living in this illusion where we have to suppress the things that we really feel. Oh, and I learned about Marina Abramovic from this book and I think she's kind of a queen. 


my story by kamala das

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I have no idea why Kamala Das isn't a household name in the world of literature. Throughout this book, her poetry was beautiful, her solitude palpable, her desires transcendent, and her passions infectious. She is a writer so purely - feeling, wanting, and wondering fully in every line and chapter. Over the course of the novel, we learn about her girlhood, her failed loves, her broken marriage, painful motherhood, fleeting affairs, the identity of the fabric worn, and the home that is found in smells and oils and foods. Above all, we learn about her surrender to illness and life. I underlined a lot of passages, below are a few. 

The beginning of Autumn:
She floats in her autumn,
Yellowed like a leaf
And free
Madness is a country just around the corner.
Often I have toyed with the idea of drowning myself to be rid of my loneliness which is not unique in any way but is natural to all. I have wanted to find rest in the sea and an escape from involvements. But rest is a childish fantasy, a very minor hunger. The shark’s hunger is far greater than mine. There is a hunger in each of us to feed other hungers, the basic one, to crumble and dissolve and to retain in other things the potent fragments of oneself. But ultimately we shall discover that we are immortal and that the only mortal things are systems and arrangements. Even our pains shall continue in those who have devoured us. The oft-repeated mores of every scattered cell shall give no power to escape from cages of involvement. We are trapped in immortality and our only freedom is the freedom to discompose...”
I am at peace. I liked God to a tree which has as its parts the leaves, the bark, the fruits and the flowers each unlike the other in appearance and in texture but in each lying dissolved the essence of the tree, the whatness of it...Each component obeys its own destiny. The flowers blossom, scatter pollen and dry up. The fruits ripen and fall. The bark peels. Each of us shall obey that colossal wisdom, the taproot of all wisdom and the source of all consciousness..”

THE NORDIC THEORY OF EVERYTHING BY anu partanen

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The full title of this book is The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life. I've heard lots about the Nordic countries and how much better the quality of life is but this book really delved into why that is so. Upon finishing it, I feel educated, inspired, and thoughtful. I've begun to think more critically about certain American values: why we worship work, why we are obsessed with money, why being extraordinarily high-ranked and extroverted is seen as the only true success, why people fail to acknowledge circumstantial and disproportionate disadvantages, why personal time is seen as weak, why vacation isn't valued, why testing is so highly depended upon, why health care isn't a right, and why the idea of the government providing equitable services to create an even access to opportunity is seen as inherently socialist and evil? The Nordic countries are far smaller and less diverse than America, and people grow up with different expectations, but it makes me contemplate a simpler way of life, a prioritizing of personal time, and being less obsessed with monetary success. If anything, the Nordic countries are a consolation that the world is different in many ways and that there is progressive thought happening somewhere...even if it isn't here.