In a recent #grateful post, I wrote how virtual book events have been a true joy in a year full of crap. One of those events featured author Yaa Gyasi. I previously didn’t know much about her new novel, Transcendent Kingdom, but I had read her debut, Homegoing. If her previous work indicated anything, her latest would surely impress me. Somehow her spoken word at that event transcended just as powerfully as her written word, and I was captivated for the full hour. Also, I’d love for her voice to narrate my life. (Sorry, Morgan Freeman.) I couldn’t wait for Transcendent Kingdom to show up at my apartment.
Gyasi definitely didn’t let me down and even stepped up her already-impressive literary game with her sophomore publication. It’s hard to put down this novel, and Gyasi will get the best of your emotions. (Fair warning: It’s emotionally tough to read.) She deserves every ounce of praise she’s earned for her second book. In a year full of garbage fires, this is the type of flame we actually need and should be grateful for.
Nobody will ever forget 2020; it’s one for the history books unfortunately. Yes, things have been a garbage fire, but — with everything — there’s always a silver lining. For example, in 2020, I finally decided to go to therapy and invest in my mental health; being quarantined together has been the ultimate validation that Kyle and I are true partners and can get through anything together; and the world has even given the environment a break — albeit a small one.
With so much self-reflection, it’s impossible to not reflect on all of the positives in 2020. One bright spot is that all this time at home has given me a new appreciation for books and allowed me to see new literary themes that bibliophiles and the world over need. With Thanksgiving coming up, I wanted to express my literary gratitude to the books, the authors, and the readers who made a difference this year.
Mental health seems to be an increasingly common theme in literature. Amen. In fact, books are part of the reason why I started analyzing my own mental health and recognizing that I needed to take better care of it. I recently opened up about starting therapy back in May, and I really believe that reading about so many book characters’ experiences with therapy and about their struggles influenced me to seek help too.
Sometimes books about mental health struggles can intensify your own though. It’s not that they’re bad, but when you’re feeling sad, reading about someone else’s sadness — though making you realize you’re not alone — makes you spiral. That’s what happened recently when I read the profound novel, A Little Life. While it was both beautiful and tragic, the latter quality seemed to take over my own feelings.
So was I ready to pick up another novel dedicated to the same topic (not to mention just weeks before the election during a pandemic)? Fortunately, The Existence of Amy didn’t give me those negative thoughts and feelings. Rather, I felt a kinship with the main character — even if her experiences were completely different than my own — and I felt a rush of emotion for those closest to me who have helped me along the way. I didn’t finish this book feeling anxious and sad; I left it feeling hopeful and grateful.
Let’s be frank: There’s a lot of shit in the world today. And 2020 alone is the largest dumpster fire imaginable. So with all the sadness, injustice, hypocrisy, and frustration in the world, I try to find joy wherever possible.
Let me be frank again. There isn’t an ounce of joy in A Little Life. So was this the greatest book for me to be reading or the smartest choice right now when I’ve consciously tried to avoid depressing books in this terrible year? No, no it was not.
But was it a good book? Definitely. It was beautiful and moving and insightful and heartbreaking and possessed all the qualities that make great literature so powerful. And yes, I am glad I read this book and so thankful for my coworker in Germany (yes, Germany — what a saint) who bought this book for me after our many, many discussions about how much he loved it.
Seriously, though, I could have done without 800+ pages of sadness.
The most popular books can make me a bit weary before I read them. I don’t have the best track record, you see. Normal People, which dominated the first half of 2020 both in written word and on TV, left me depressed and confused. Last year, I dived into three critically acclaimed novels — Queenie, Tell Me Lies, and The Female Persuasion — that, while I didn’t dislike them, left me unfulfilled. Even when I read The Overstory, which I rated four flames, I didn’t see quite what the critics did. Then I have books like City of Girls, the kind that completely enrapture me but some have called boring and bland.
Why can’t I connect with literature that means so much to critics and fans alike? Is this a me problem or a them problem?
So I did wonder if Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half would live up to all the hype. This one will surely be on all of the “Best of 2020” lists and win many awards (if it hasn’t already) because it’s already received so much praise since releasing in June. Given that I’d read her debut novel, The Mothers, and completely loved it, I had confidence that this wasn’t just a book I’d obsess over. This would also be a novel that the U.S. — with its systemic racism and struggle with identity — desperately needed and needed ASAP.
Thankfully, Bennett washed away any and all doubts about it living up to the hype. And I can’t wait to see it on all those lists and with all of those nominations at the end of this year.
With everything happening in the world right now, it’s important that we don’t forget an important celebration: Pride Month!
June has to be the most loving and colorful month of the year. That’s because for 30 days we celebrate that love is love regardless of gender or sexual orientation. And it occurs in June, so that we can remember and celebrate the Stonewall riots that happened 51 years ago, giving rise to equality for the LGBTQ+ community.
Despite those riots and the progress that they catalyzed, it would be misleading and ignorant to assume the LGBTQ+ community can love and live the same way straight, cisgender people can. Narrow-mindedness runs rampant in the world, including in our own backyards with a president who doesn’t govern for all people. In addition to outright discriminations, social constructs still make it difficult for people to come out and love freely.
That’s why we need books like Red, White & Royal Blue, a 2019 novel that throws all harmful conventions out the window and asks what some will definitely perceive as a radical question: What if an immediate member of the first family were gay?
If you read this book and did not root for Alex Claremont-Diaz and Prince Henry, please leave this blog or challenge yourself to understand why their relationship is the fictional tale we need to make all love equal.
If I’m being honest, I didn’t fully understand white privilege until a couple of months ago. I’m ashamed of this. I knew it existed, and that it had been a part of my life as much as any other white person’s, but I didn’t really get it. It’s important to admit ignorance and more importantly to overcome it.
I was running on a hot, humid July day and listening to Armchair Expert, a fantastic podcast with Dax Shepard, when it happened. He was interviewing one of my favorite humans — and one of the most woke — Sophia Bush, the genius who gave the world Brooke Davis. As she explained that white privilege is not meant to diminish anybody’s suffering but rather to illustrate that suffering as a white person has never been the result of the color of our skin, it clicked for me.
It is so blatantly clear that white privilege exists.
And it’s this theme, along with feminism, humor, and mental health, that brings us Queenie, a 2019 novel that author Richard Roper recommended to me. This book is the epitome of intersectionality (don’t worry: I had to Google that term too) and all sorts of sociological terms rolled up into a few hundred pages, but author, Candice Carty-Williams, injects plenty of laughs into it as well. That means we should have a compelling novel on our hands. Unfortunately, I only felt connected and drawn to half of this book, leaving me confused about my feelings. Carty-Williams tackles a lot of topics and their complex relationships with one another in Queenie, and it’s certainly a book we need in 2019. But is it the novel that fully delivers on it’s worth? I’m not sure.
The best artists turn inexplicable pain into art and beauty. Jeannette Walls places herself in that category by detailing her childhood in her incredibly honest memoir, The Glass Castle. Despite living a life that most of us can’t imagine, Walls somehow manages to tell her story without it being colored by hindsight. Rather, she tells it through a child’s lens. Through it all, she demonstrates how love can distort your opinion of someone but also that silver linings and good memories can be found in even the toughest of times.
Loneliness comes in many forms. It can be bestowed upon us by our peers, it can be a solace we seek, and it can also be all we’ve ever known. I’m a 26-year-old woman with a solid group of friends across the country, who’s in a happy three-year relationship, and who considers her family dear confidantes. Do I ever get lonely? Of course I do.
Nobody can evade loneliness, but author Gail Honeyman wrote to its all-consuming effects in her debut novel, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. She told British bookstore Foyles that the idea for her debut novel came to her after reading an article about loneliness.
“When I thought more about it, I realised that there were plenty of potential routes to a young person finding themselves in those circumstances, through no fault of their own, and how hard it can be, at any age, to forge meaningful connections.”
Honeyman’s approach isn’t all somber and sympathy though. Just as the title suggests, the main character is just fine; it’s not her that is different. It’s everyone else and the social norms that confine them that are mind-boggling. (Read Eleanor’s opinion of wedding registries, and you won’t disagree.) What Honeyman gives us is a beautiful novel that’s equal parts hilarious and heartbreaking, something that evokes laughter while you simultaneously reach for a box of tissues.