At the beginning of the year, I set a goal on Goodreads to read 50 books this year. When I was working on my bachelor’s in English literature, reading 50 books in twelve months was no problem. I can remember one particular semester where I had to read 35 books for all of my classes combined. But since navigating full time employment is a new experience for me, I figured 50 would be a pretty good, low-stakes goal to set for myself. So far, I’ve read 22 of the 50 books and wanted to share a few that I particularly loved.
- Franny and Zooey by JD Salinger. JD Salinger is one of those love him or hate him authors, and personally, I love him. No one does a first person narrator quite like he does. Franny and Zooey is told using multiple perspective narration, and in typical Salinger fashion, these narrative voices are really well done and are the devices that drive the story. Franny and Zooey follows the two youngest siblings in a family of intellectual prodigies as one of them experiences a spiritual and existential crisis and the other attempts to talk to her out of it. The entire novel centers on this one plot point, but because of the distinctness of the voices, it’s a dynamic and fascinating read.
- Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong. As a genre, I adore poetry, but a lot of modern print poetry really frustrates me. I know these are unpopular opinions, but I’m not a fan of poets such as Rupi Kaur or Michael Faudet. I don’t like love poems or those trendy typewritten poems you might reblog on Tumblr. What I do love are poems that are complex and beautiful and ugly and painfully real. And I think Ocean Vuong’s collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds is exactly that. This collection explores the poet’s painful early domestic life, the challenges of coming into his identity, and the wounds inflicted upon his Vietnamese heritage. These poems are the type of poems you want to read out loud so you can hear them as you see them. I loved this collection so much I read every poem twice.
- The Crown Ain’t Worth Much by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib. Another one of my favorite modern poets is Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib who explores race in modern America through the motif of music and stories of his own life and growing up in Columbus, Ohio. In my degree, I focused on nineteenth century British literature, the canon for which is comprised mainly of wealthy white guys. The result is that, while I read an insane number of books and poems in college, the selection of authors was not incredibly diverse. Now that I have a few months when I’m not constantly reading for school, I’m trying to read more works from writers of different races, ethnicities, genders, etc. I think it’s important to do so. I believe that literature confronts us with different perspectives and experiences that we may not be privy to ourselves and that it’s important – especially now – to listen to those perspectives and experiences, because that’s how we love each other. I highly, highly, highly recommend this collection. For one thing, it’s incredible in terms of poetic merit, but also because it’s brutally honest. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I imagine it’s relatable to many people in a way that much canonized literature isn’t. And for those of us who cannot directly relate, it challenges us to listen – really listen – to a reality other than our own. I would also recommend listening to some of Willis-Abdurraqib’s performances on YouTube so you can hear his inflections and the lyricism of the poems.
- Swing Time by Zadie Smith. Zadie Smith is so well-known and celebrated that you likely don’t need encouragement from me to read her work. Swing Time is her latest novel and it follows a nameless narrator from childhood to adulthood, the competition between her and her childhood best friend, her employment as a personal assistant to a pop star, and her relationship with her mother. Threaded throughout the nonlinear narrative is the narrator’s evolving understanding of race, and this exploration is rooted by the motif of dance. It seems to me that several of the characters represent distinct types of people that are characterized by their responses to and opinions on race. Zadie Smith is a ridiculously intelligent human and talented writer, and this is one of those novels that stayed on my mind for a while after I read it because I was trying to work out in my mind everything that the novel was saying and doing (which is a lot).
- Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer. I love everything Jonathan Safran Foer writes, because all of his novels leave me with that punch-in-the-gut sad feeling. Just read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and you’ll see what I mean. I picked up Here I Am on principle and was not disappointed. The book follows a Jewish family as they experience domestic tragedy and natural disaster and the narrator explores what it means to be Jewish in modern America versus Jewish in modern Israel versus Jewish in the Holocaust versus Jewish in biblical times. What really moved me about this book was how Foer explored the idea of constructed meanings and inherited narratives and how those things affect the ways in which we grieve tragedies. There’s a scene in the novel where a rabbi deconstructs the story of Moses floating down the river in a basket in order to demonstrate the effects of Jewish history upon modern Jewish identity and grief that left me literally crying at my desk at work. Overall, this book is complex and moving and definitely worth reading despite how heavy it will make your purse or backpack or whatever.
What have you been reading lately?