I like reading a mix of fiction and non-fiction, alongside my academic papers. I find this is the best way to improve my writing style and think about the best ways to communicate different ideas memorably for different audiences. The following authors taught me a lot about character development and playing with research + language + scenes to develop characters and complicated stories.
My six favorites from this year were:
1) Difficult Women (Roxane Gay)
2) Outline (Rachel Cusk)
3) Another Brooklyn (Jacqueline Woodson)
4) My Name is Lucy Barton (Elizabeth Strout)
5) Argonauts (Maggie Nelson)
6) Cork Dork (Bianca Bosker)
Difficult women was a breath of fresh air in a year when I was fighting to define myself, including the less “savory” bits. The characters in each of the short stories in Difficult Women are challenging, complex and real. It was so refreshing to see someone develop female characters this way. They were unapologetic about their strength and who they were. I have read it three times this year when I am having trouble writing clearly and concisely. I find Roxane Gay’s writing memorable, powerful, and intense. I’ve learned so much from her writing style that I consider when I am writing this year.
While reading Outline, I imagined a beautifully performed play where the most beautiful moments are these smaller moments of reflection where characters learn about themselves from interacting with each other or the landscape behind them. I enjoyed the slow reveals and how present the characters and story felt. I’ve thought about this story structure often since the first time I read it, because it feels like a valuable way to present an experiment and related it back to theory/abstract reflection, rather than front or rear loading it.
There were so many elements of Another Brooklyn that delighted me. I loved the writing style: short sections that were beautifully written, memorable, and visually powerful. I was living in Brooklyn and could easily imagine this parallel story taking place nearby. The four women grow into themselves and their friendships in powerful ways, with all of the strength, sorrow, and pride that comes with navigating into adulthood. The author does an incredible job introducing the explicit and implicit challenges of female friendships and transitioning roles for women in their communities.
I read My Name is Lucy Barton around the same time I was reading both Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in their Own Land. The combination of these three books, in conversation with one another for me, felt like an important moment for me this year. It was an intense conversation about social class and expectations. What we take on from others, what we leave behind, what we choose to hide, what we define for ourselves, etc. I had many uncomfortable moments and questions arise from reading these three books at the same time, especially in a piece of fiction like Lucy Barton where I could imagine people I’ve met through the years in each of the roles she describes in her book. It made me think more deeply about fiscal responsibility and how openly we do (or don’t) discuss social class.
I had never in my life read anything like The Argonauts before. I know I am a little late to this party, but wow. I enjoyed the way Maggie Nelson weaves together research, personal essays, and beautiful writing to ask difficult questions and turn some of my assumptions about gender, motherhood and relationships on their heads. Powerful and challenging. Wow.
My dad gave me Cork Dork as a summer read before I started graduate school and it was a FUN way to think about methods and questions for ethnography from the perspective of a journalist who was HUNGRY for answers and fearless about how far she could push herself into this other world to answer them. I related to her insatiable curiosity. Each of the characters Bianca Bosker learns from sound like fascinating characters and it gave me a new way to think about New York’s restaurants. Each time I walk by or go have dinner, I watch for the subtle and impressive ways these teams coordinate their work. I have a new language for describing smells and flavors, as well. I realized how limited my descriptions were for these sensory experiences and kicked myself to do better.