Lately, I decided to read more books as part of my unofficial New Year’s resolutions. This past year, I was determined to consistently read throughout the year and ended up reading thirteen books, which takes work when you’re a full time student. Most importantly, I feel like I got something out of each of these works, by reading on a wide range of topics. I accumulated this eclectic collection of novels by being open to recommendations and reading books for my classes. The results were an amalgamation of finding new favorites and discovering books that were just meant to be shelved.
Here are the books that I read throughout 2021 and the thoughts that I had on each of them (feel free to disagree)…
“The Body” by Stephen King– This book more likely classifies as a novella since it was under 200 pages. This novel makes every aspiring writer in the world feel understood. King gets right at the heart of growing up and being a writer as a child, coming up with clever stories to amuse your friends with and feeling like you have a way of seeing the world that makes the world have trouble seeing you. King is such a prolific writer, that I was almost surprised that he could be so profound as well. This story had boys showing emotion and much discussion of bullying. King tackles the subject of bullying often and it is not difficult to see why. I am amazed that anyone could endure 1950s bullying and come out without PTSD.
“The Fran Lebowitz Reader” by Fran Lebowitz- Fran Lebowitz is currently considered to be New York’s greatest New Yorker and she probably will be until she dies. “The Fran Lebowitz Reader” is a compilation of her essays on life, revolving around life in New York City. Since my cousin Olivia is living in the city for college (congrats btw Olivia), I decided to get her a copy of this book: a guide book to New York written by one of its greatest New Yorkers. Since it is a bit unusual to gift someone a book that you yourself haven’t read, I decided to give it a read before I gave it to her. It’s clever, witty, what the brits would call “cheeky,” and very 1970s. I recommend it to anyone who’s thinking about visiting New York, or just wants a good chuckle.
“The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho– I kicked the year off with “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho. We had to read it for class because it was one girl’s favorite book of all time, so I had high hopes for it, but I ended up being disappointed in a way that I have never really been with a book before. The whole story reads like a fable in which nothing seems to happen normally and people talk by philosophizing, rather than how they speak in real life. The main theme of the story, which jumps out at you without any subtlety or tact, was the pursuit of one’s dreams. In fact, the whole story was allegorical about the inner conflict of pursuing those dreams. The book just wasn’t for me, but it made for an interesting analysis in class.
“The Summer I turned Pretty” by Jenny Han– In Nora Ephron’s film “You’ve Got Mail,” Meg Ryan’s character at one point says, “So much of what I see reminds me of something I’ve read in a book, when shouldn’t it be the other way around?” That line resonated with me in a strange way when I read this novel. When I read “The Summer I Turned Pretty” by Jenny Han, I was expecting a kitchy YA book that was simple to read and no longer relevant to my life. It did have simple sentences and an easy to follow plotline, but I was shocked to find that one of the virtues of reading a book that takes place in high school, once you’ve already graduated, is that for once I was reading a book that reminded me of my life and not the other way around. I felt like I experienced much of what this girl was feeling: being the only girl at a reunion of family friends and always being treated like some guy’s younger sister, but eventually making your own way and doing your own thing. Bizarrely, this simple novel gave me much to think about.
“The Joy Luck Club” by Amy Tan- Since I was nearing Valentine’s Day and am a firm believer in “Galentine’s Day,” I decided that I was going to read a book that depicted female friendship well. I knew that my reading would slow down once my second semester started, because school work would take precedence, but it ended up taking me a month to finish this novel- going from Galentine’s Day to just before International Women’s Day. The book was very slow moving at the start, to the point where it made me question why it was so highly-regarded. Then out of nowhere, it suddenly got good. I think that the main problem was that the story is told from multiple different perspectives, instead of one steady plotline, like I’m used to. My mother suggested that perhaps I was too young to understand the novel, like how some people are too young to understand why Stanely Kowalski does what he does in Streetcar or why Gatsby takes the fall for Daisy in “The Great Gatsby.” Some books require a decent amount of living in order to understand the motivations of the characters and I simply did not have that. I’ll revisit this novel when I’m older and can give it the respect it deserves.
“Conversations With Friends” by Sally Rooney- I decided to read “Conversations with Friends” by Sally Rooney because I thought it was a capital “R” romance novel. As it turns out it has much to do with friendship (I suppose the title should have told me that) and in particular, female friendships. I also wanted to read this book so that I could give Sally Rooney another chance. I’d previously read, “Normal People,” which was by her as well, but it was not one of my favorite novels, to put it mildly.
This novel was much better than I thought it was going to be. Parts of it were fairly relatable, starting with how the narrator observes every shift in the room and reads into what it all means. The character, being a joyless, college communist and a supposed artist felt very real to me, even though when you’re in the arts you have to be all in and she’s barely even dangling her feet in the water. Also, I’ve noticed that in her two novels, her characters just casually happen to be extremely good at writing (because, sure, that’s how it works). The characters were extremely passive, making the novel lethargic at times. I understood none of the character’s motivations, despite it being narrated by the main character. The ending was anticlimactic, aside from when she fainted in a church. There were themes of familial strife, religion, infidelity, and love, but I felt as though they were touched on more than explored. Overall, it was a pretty good sort of novel that did not leave me wanting my money back.
“Social Creature” by Tara Isabella Burton- This is a story about the messy friendship between two women in New York City, trying to live up their twenties. The girls have the type of New York City experiences that you think you’re going to have as soon as you move there. They go to wild parties that are far less vanilla than those featured on “Sex and the City,” but this isn’t a girlhood adventure story about two girls living it up in Manhattan. One of the girls has to die, which means that one of the girls has to deserve it. The story gets candid about networking with pseudo-intellectuals in the humanities, having to maintain soul-wrenching jobs to afford your life, and entitled friends who demand all of your free time because they don’t understand that you need to work.
“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” by Iain Rand- It was written in simple sentences. Fragments. And it began sentences with transitional words like “but” and “and.” Existential. But nothing I haven’t thought of before. It had a weird ending that didn’t make any sense. One of the redeeming qualities of the novel was how short it was and the way that it didn’t linger. Overall, I didn’t hate it, so that’s something, I suppose.
“Again but Better” by Christine Riccio- A never-been-kissed twenty-year-old, who doesn’t socialize, but reads excessively, realizes that she hasn’t made enough friends or hung out with enough people at her New York college, so as she enters her junior year she studies abroad in literature and writing. She also runs a blog, speaks Italian, has a financial advisor for a father, and is trying to write the next great American novel, and I’d just like to know why the author stole my life story. I read this book when I was about to enter my junior year, having also felt like I could have gone out to more events and taken more advantage of my New York City setting. The dialogue misses a few beats, but ultimately captures relationships at that age. The ending was a forcibly happy one in which the protagonist gets her cake and eats it too.
“Enormous Changes at the Last Minute” by Grace Paley- This collection of short stories was written by Grace Paley, a short story writer who reinvented the American short story, was perhaps one of the greatest activists this country has ever had, and turned the Sarah Lawrence writing program into what it is today (so I owe her a great debt). She is now deceased, because, naturally, if she is a praiseworthy female writer, she will not likely get her praise until she is already dead. Her writing is sharp and poignant, made extra impressive by its brevity.
“Portnoy’s Complaint” by Philip Roth- I was told that there are three things that you should never talk about with someone you have just met, or at a dinner party, and those three things are sex, politics, and religion. It is therefore fitting that my first introduction to Philip Roth came through a story of a sexually-neurotic, politically-savvy, Jewish Atheist. Aside from the fact that this rule leaves little else to talk about other than things you’d talk about with your coworkers at a water cooler, it does point out certain taboos in our society, and this novel acts as though it’s never heard of the word “taboo.” Roth, who is known to some as a self-absorbed writer, wrote with a confidence and clarity befitting of the subject matter. Controversial in its grotesqueness, the novel redeems itself by its uncomfortable relatability, which speaks to all of the ugly feelings humans have inside of them. However, there were some scenes that I felt were too disturbing and took things too far. It was perhaps not the type of book that I would have chosen for myself, but I enjoyed reading as part of my Modern Jewish Literature class.
“Beautiful World Where Are You” by Sally Rooney- Sometimes, I get the sense that Rooney does a sort of dull Jane Austen routine. Much like Austen, Rooney tells the same story over and over again with slight variations on the plot. Austen wrote about classism in English society and feminism with a dash of lower case “R” romance, since there was little else to talk about. Rooney writes about the interconnectivity of people’s lives in which each character is filled with a textbook liberal agenda and is less interesting than I find myself and my friends.
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens- For Christmas, I decided to close the year out by reading “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens, having bought it a year in advance in anticipation of this. As the story goes, Dickens was presenting at a place called the Athenaeum of Manchester, a Learning Annex of its time, which was one of the few places rich and poor people could intermingle. Because it was Christmastime, Dickens was thinking about the Christian ideals of goodwill and charity and how that was what was lacking in English society at the time. So, he wrote “A Christmas Carol” in response to the gap between the rich and the poor and the setting of Christmastime. I thought that I would love it because “It’s A Wonderful Life” is my favorite film of all time and both stories deal with an ethereal being descending on a miserable man at Christmas to show him the impact his life has had on others by showing him a number of different realities (was that a thesis or what?). I found the story to be extremely heartwarming. I felt sorry for and fell in love with Ebeenezer Scrooge.
My top three books for the year were:
“Social Creature” Tara Isabella Burton
“The Body” By Stephen King
“Enormous Changes at the Last Minute” by Grace Paley
That concludes my book list for 2021. This year, I intend to read even more books that I love. You’ll be sure to know how that turns out.
The Tragic Queen,