Six books that captured my imagination in 2017

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.

2017: Year in Review

If each year has a theme, I believe this year tested my ability to recenter myself and recognize when I needed to take a break and come back to something. For someone with the kind of “I never get tired!” attitude I had in college and post-college, this was a big step towards preserving my sanity. I learned that we are never always and completely self-reliant — the wisdom in “it takes a village” is just as much about adults as it is about raising children. Perhaps there are weeks and tasks that I can accomplish on my own, but there is no shame in asking for help.

2016 ended with what felt like an apocalypse. The day after the 2016 election felt like a funeral — I rode to work in a subway car that was uncharacteristically silent, with people weeping silently into their coats. I bought a sweater pattern that I finished 6 months later. It was something to keep my hands busy and knitting is very meditative for me. The anxiety I felt about the changes we were undergoing, especially the rising abuse in the ways people spoke to each other on and offline, felt truly overwhelming some days.

I believe in kindness. I believe in the kind of Christianity that I was raised in — where I give whenever and wherever I can. I started re-centering myself by taking deliberate time to be around people who made me feel positive about the world and hopeful. I was careful about how I devoted my truly focused time to projects and people that I was with and forgave myself when I was no longer able to juggle too many projects simultaneously.

I was fiercely protective of my time, preferring to do a few things really carefully and not try to improvise as much as I had to for a while. I read 52 books this year. I kept a list and wrote a sentence about each one so I could remember where I had started and how this year’s literary journey ended. I spent 15-20 hours a week on a single assignment (my math/programming homework) and planned my days around the hours I knew I was sharp and focused, leaving my less focused hours for all the tasks that used to take up so much more time during my day. I spent time cooking complicated dishes as a study break, learning to make curry by first toasting the whole spices and grinding them myself. I protected my Monday evenings as a “family dinner” time with my roommate. I hand wrote more letters this Christmas than I ever have before. I felt each word, and meant it, as I wrote to people I loved and missed during my new academic monk hood.

My world in some ways feels smaller now that I don’t juggle my overbooked calendar every week, but I am proud of what I am creating and the new creative ways of thinking I can access while I truly focus on my projects.

There are many days I have to cut myself off from reading the news (and twitter. I had already cut down my facebook habit significantly from last year). I feel the bile rising in my throat and a rage I’ve never felt before bounce through my veins. But this year, I tried to turn to my curiosity and understand what was happening so I could recenter. I learned that there are many things happening that are utter lunacy, but there are others that have some reasons that make sense to others and I can engage with that. I subscribed to the National Review, followed a number of Evangelical leaders on twitter. I started reading more of what my conservative friends were posting on their facebooks. I don’t agree with them frequently, but reading well thought out arguments and seeing how they gathered evidence took the “bogey man” element out of policies that I had felt were shoved down my throat during this last year. I was humbled in some of my finger pointing when I noticed that they too were enraged by things like voter suppression. This was not a conservative value, just a product of the horrible political machines in power these days. I re-centered. The rage was not allowed to consume me.

I read the bible, finding places I related to and found some of the values I grew up with stated time and time again. If this was a language that was so important to so many parts of the country, I decided it was time that I learned to engage with it.

I gave friends long hugs when they needed them most and I talked openly about my anxieties. Especially on the days that were much harder and I doubted myself or doubted that I would find hope again. I chose stillness on days when the world felt especially crazy to me. I stopped pretending to be happy and together when I was having a hard day and took time for myself to get better. Accepting this side of myself, the part that needs a little more attention some days, allowed me to love others more honestly. I found a partner who forces me to design our relationship with him each step of the way, without being lazy and assuming pre-determined roles. We talk about everything when it is beautiful and when it is difficult. And we go through very long walks in the woods on the weekends, just to be alone together in stillness.

And there were always books. Because books are my antidote to everything — heartbreak, change, excitement, exhaustion, hope. I will post a media list later this week, but books helped me through a lot of the harder times this year.

I learned the dimensions of my patience and my fear this year. I would have been so scared to do that years ago, preferring to “turn everything off” and just run like a machine for as long as I could. This year I listened and confronted my biases and fears and stubbornness when it deserved to be challenged. I constantly adjusted my expectations of myself allowing more room for growth than ever before.

I leave 2017 with hope and gratitude for those who love me even when I have a hard time doing everything I am supposed to be doing. I hope that I can one day do the same for you when you need me most.