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.

Books & Talks That Made Me Think: 2015

I’ve always loved books, but this year I’ve had the added pleasure of working on some of the talks coming through TED. Here are a few of the moments that I’ve been pushed the most in the last year:

Marie Curie and Her Daughters: The Private Lives of Science’s First Family: I just finished reading this profile of Marie Curie and her incredibly family. I had not fully appreciated the context of the scientific discoveries that Marie, Pierre, Irene and Frederic made during their research lives… especially with a backdrop like the Great Depression and two World Wars. It is incredible how much of their research is still relevant today and how much bullshit Marie Curie and Irene had to endure due to gender rules in France, barring women from important roles in the science community during this time period. I was inspired by the entire Curie family’s defense of pure research and commitment to continuing with their work, through sickness and war and financial trouble.

Monica Lewinsky talked about the Price of Shame at TED2015: This was one of the first talks I supported with research when I first joined TED. While most of my notes did not end up in the final copy, it kicked off a journey into research on clickbait economies (I jokingly refer to this research as studying “how internet trolls make money”) that I still think about now. She is phenomenally brave and reminds our larger communities that this is the time for kindness. I remember this responsibility when I decide what to consume on the internet.

Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century: I am still in process of reading this book, but it is so thoughtful and thought-provoking that when I finish each chapter, I have to take a pause to write pages of notes for continued research to dig into later. I’ve long wondered how Capitalism needs to change to adapt to new historical periods and contexts… how it would need to adapt to work outside the “West” (Hernando de Soto has some interesting thoughts about this). Piketty raises some very important questions about the nature of wealth and income, and how those who start with an advantage end with a serious advantage. This all feels particularly important after Larry Lessig’s campaign on Campaign Finance Reform…

Which also leads to Larry Lessig’s talk about Campaign Finance and American Democracy at TEDxMidAtlantic. Nothing is more chilling than sitting in a room and having someone brilliant on the stage present a case of corruption happening right around you… that you’ve grown so accustomed to accepting that you cannot see another way around it. It’s a moment of feeling helpless and restless and broken… but Lessig also makes you ready to rally for change. It was the first time since writing my thesis about corruption in Colombia’s government (and how cartels invest in political campaigns) that I felt ready to jump back into the mix. Let’s see some campaign finance reform, because the Citizens United case CANNOT be the end of American Democracy as we know it.

I saw Spotlight this week with my family, and after the initial deep despair it causes, knowing how long these child abuse cases were buried by the church in the city that I grew up in (among so many other cities) and how deeply this has damaged the lives of so many people (the movie cities 249 abusive priests and 1000+ victims that came forward after the article in the Boston Globe exposing the cover up of abusive priests in Boston in 2002 was published), I went home and subscribed to the Boston Globe, NPR, New York Times, and other papers tackling investigative reporting. It turns out, this phenomenon is not unique to the Catholic Church, but it happens in a handful of other communities, where “speaking against other members” is met with violence and silence. Without a steady support based, they cannot continue this type of research. I am proud to support investigative reporting, we need much more of it and the journalism industry as we know it is in real trouble financially. We cannot lose this quest for the truth as we are pushed further and further towards consumable media in the form of clickbait.

Palak Shah’s talk at the Personal Democracy Forum was about protecting contract laborers and adapting labor structures to meet new demands on the work force this year. It was stirring and offers us a clear opportunities to protect workers in this new age of the Sharing Economy. I know I thought a lot about conditions she described while deciding how and when to use apps like Handy and AirBnb, among others. My roommate and I went so far as to only use Handy to meet workers that we could hire later (except we paid the worker directly instead of waiting for the worker to take only the small percentage offered to them by Handy). I send this to everyone I know who wants to talk about the Labor Question.

The Art of Communication was a book I stumbled across while taking a weekend to wander alone through Soho and collect myself. I had a really tough summer trying to navigate a break up and make sense of my grandfather’s fight with cancer/how my family was reacting to it. I needed to be alone and re-center myself… and when I found this book, I learned to find more space in my heart for compassion towards myself and the people around me. The writing is gentle and kind… perfect when you need the verbal equivalent of a hug.

Esther Perel’s Rethinking Infidelity… a talk for anyone who has ever loved at TED2015 was another moment that helped me find more compassion in my heart… towards myself. She talks about the issues we run into in modern marriage and pressure on relationships, but when I listen to it I also heard about the permission many of us refuse to grant ourselves to accept that we will change and want different things and should explore who we are. It was a moment where I fully committed to writing “my own rules.” It has also made me a better, more communicative and direct partner because I know what I need to protect in myself and where I want to, and need to grow. This was a real gift.

Patti’s Smith’s The M Train is a journey through time and travel with one of my favorite writers. She inspired some of the structure in the guidebook I built for my boyfriend this christmas. I loved exploring her experiences through her writing, and see what it meant to her to spend time alone. I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be truly comfortable and alone. This, for me, linked back to the conversations I was having about defining my own rule book. I have always admired how unapologetically herself she is.

Finally, I learned a lot from the 27 writers who wrote for the Eccentric Guide to New York that I built this fall. It was fun to see how friends had carved out their own spaces in the city and catch glimpses of them finding themselves. I loved seeing the city through other people’s eyes. Sometimes I forget how magical it is to live here, and I had the opportunity to put this together for someone who was just exploring the city for his first year here offered me a new way to explore my environment.