This year I’ve made a goal to read 50 books. To date, I’ve read 21. I read 17 of these books in January – March alone, followed by a serious slowing-down (probably due to some major life changes, mainly, me moving from Rome to Washington, DC). Picking four out of that 17 wasn’t easy. There were some seriously great reads in there. But I did my best, and here are the best books I read from January to March.
Describe it in one line? Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong is a hilarious and touching look at what happens when lives fall apart.
Who should read it? Anyone who has ever gone back to their hometown and felt weirdly 16-years-old again. People with complex relationships with their parents. Anyone with a weird and wacky sense of humor.
What is it about? When her cheating professor father is diagnosed with Alzheimers, Ruth returns home to help with her family. What was meant to be a short trip turns permanent. Though she protests for posterity, she doesn’t really mind, because her own life is falling apart too. We follow Ruth through her run-ins with high school acquaintances and never-ending days. While taking care of her father and herself, she must also cope with her mother’s unhappiness, and realizing what her mom really wanted and what she gave up to raise their family.
Why is it so good? It’s funny in a way that is hard to describe. I have a serious soft spot for books that manage to make me tear up with laughter while telling the story of life taking a serious swerve for the worse. Ruth is a great protagonist, a bit of an anti-heroine: awkward, unhappy but unwilling to change. Her growth happens but it’s minimal and feels really realistic.
A good quote? “My fear was a bratwurst: sobering.”
Describe it in one line? The Power of Onlyness is a call to action and a primer for people who feel too much “on the outside” to do the great things they know they are meant to.
Who should read it? Anyone who wants to make a difference in the world but isn’t sure how, who has a great idea, or who just needs inspiration and assurance that their differences are what make them powerful.
Why is it so good? Merchant lays out all the key steps clearly and articulately. Her language is simple and her suggestions are powerful. They don’t risk seeming trite or over-simplistic, and they require real work and effort. They are visionary but not out of reach. And she calls for everyone – from those in power to those with less to apply themselves to building a society that better values and honors everyone’s unique added value. At the same time, she recognizes systemic restrictions and difficulties that must be addressed on a broader scale, rather than placing the onus on the individual to act.
A good quote? “Finding “your people” sometimes means having to walk away from places you don’t fit in rather than trying to squeeze yourself into a too-tight space with the aim to belong.”
Short story collection
Describe it in one line? Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enríquez, is a series of short stories that describe women experiencing horror in an almost sociological sense: visions of poverty, sexism, violence, neglect.
Who should read it? Lovers of horror and the literary. People who see how structural problems in society underly our many ills. Feminists. Non-feminists secretly ready to be converted. People who are always peeking into dark corners hoping to find something weird there. Lovers of perfectly constructed short stories.
What is it about? The characters inhabit very real worlds while experiencing the impossible – haunted houses, ghostly specters, creature cults, and grim disappearances. These are stories of state-sanctioned violence, neglect, poverty, and privilege just as they are stories of the supernatural. The protagonists are realistic and flawed, almost all women, with strong relationships to other women, and lives dimmed by boring men.
Why should you read it? The writing (and translation) is stupendous. The characters and settings leave you constantly prickling, uncomfortable, like any good psychological horror moving. And Enriquez has a unique capacity to use horror to deconstruct some of the most difficult topics in the modern world, all through captivating and terrifying storytelling.
A good quote? “He was boring and I was stupid. I felt like asking one of the truckers to run me over and leave me gutted on the road, split open like the dogs I saw occasionally lying dead on the asphalt.”
Describe it in one line? Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot is a raw look at a woman’s life, love, trauma, and imperfections, all written in some of the most uniquely lyrical prose I’ve ever read.
Who should read it? If I could prescribe this book for everyone’s required reading in life I would. But I can’t. So here’s my pitch: this isn’t an easy read but it flies by quickly because the language is extraordinary. If you love memoir or if you love beautiful language or if you just live in this crazy world you should probably pick this book up and read it.
What is it about? Heart Berries tackles family, especially motherhood. It addresses poverty and the experience of one woman as First Nation. It’s the story of what happens when the people meant to protect us don’t, and when we can’t protect people the way we would like to. It’s about trauma and love.
Why should you read it? Mailhot’s language is cutting, and at the same time deeply felt and lyrical. It flows with a conversational rhythm. Reading this book feels like entering straight into her mind, where she has a preternatural ability to dissect her thoughts, feelings, and reactions.
A good quote? “In white culture, forgiveness is synonymous with letting go. In my culture, I believe we carry pain until we can reconcile with it through ceremony. Pain is not framed like a problem with a solution. I don’t even know that white people see transcendence the way we do. I’m not sure that their dichotomies apply to me.”