Back in January, in the Before Times, I posted a challenge to myself:
This year, I’m committing to writing more about what I read. It’ll help me remember the books better, and I think it’ll be an important part of living up to another commitment I’ve made for 2020: intentionally expand the set of people I learn from, grow, and build with.
I said I’d post a monthly reading list of five-ish books for us to chat about.
And here we are. In December. The After is in sight but we’re still very much in the During. And I mostly did it — not always monthly, and not always five books, but I did keep up a year long list of reflections on books I read and an open invitation to give me a holler to talk about them.
So I’m posting here my recommendations from my last month-ish of reading, and a consolidated list of everything from the year. Hopefully this is useful as you prepare for whatever version of hunkering down you’re going to do while we wait patiently for the vaccine to make The After possible.
Thank you for reading with me this year!
New recommendations for December:
I haven’t deleted my social media accounts, but I have grown much more deliberate about how I use them thanks to this straightforward set of ten explainers about how social media works to undermine the potential for us to be our best selves, build our best community, and participate in our best — or at least a functioning — democracy. Lanier is an original Silicon Valley engineer, and is no Luddite — in his current role at Microsoft he invented the technology that allowed there to be “live” crowds at the NBA playoffs. But he is an extremely knowledgable insider who’s seen enough to be concerned, and rather than assuage his concerns with philanthropy while he cashes in, he’s acting ethically and transparently to truly address them. This is a quick and worthwhile read.
If you’ve never read any Murakami, this isn’t the book to start with (here’s a good recommendation from his US publisher of four entry points into the Murakami universe, and I’d add Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.) Killing Commendatore is very long, moves at a glacial pace, and so casually bridges the otherworldly and the mundane that on a few occasions I had to reread whole sections to re-establish the plot and characters in my head. But if you’re a fan of surrealism, ready to settle into some discomfitingly long forays into being unmoored from linear time, recognizable characters, and understandable plot lines, and have some time to give it, Killing Commendatore is worth picking up.
Ready Player One was a revelation. I read the book, listened to the audiobook (read by Will Wheaton! Best nerdy audiobook ever!), and even saw the movie (predictably disappointing.) Ready Player Two picks up where the first book left off, and quickly goes to a much darker place, offering a timely consideration of the potential downsides of rapid revolutions in neurotechnology, virtual reality, and corporate control of our public spaces. Add in some deep cuts from 80s pop culture and uncomfortably close-to-home explorations of loneliness and friendship in virtual space (versus in real life — “the IRL” in Ready Player Two parlance) and this is a quick, engaging, fun, and thoughtful read.
Written by a startup founder and author on innovation and entrepreneurship, this short e-book features a sentient Artificial Intelligence as its protagonist. It’s a romp through how AI could evolve in the context of a virtual reality world (not unlike that in the Ready Player books) to outgrow its human-set parameters to develop sentience, what governments and global security apparatus’ would do to stop that, and what human-AI friendship might look like. Pick it up if you’re a scifi nerd like me, are curious about AI, and have a couple of hours to kill.
I am so glad I didn’t get to this book until this stage in the COVID-19 pandemic because reading it in March or April might have caused me to spend all of my money on (very) long term preparations for the impending complete collapse of civilization and inviting everyone I care about to move into a bunker I would have built for that purpose. Station Eleven takes place in the days, weeks, months, and decades after an extremely contagious and deadly virus has killed nearly all humans, causing the end of civilization as we’d recognize it. St. John Mandel’s novels are unique and wonderful in the ways they are built on compelling characters that are linked together in interesting and surprising ways, and Station Eleven is no different. The mystery of how the seemingly completely separate lead characters will turn out to be connected, combined with the slow burn plot and description of the ruinous and surreal world that remains when every modern convenience is gone, makes for a page turner. Read it with a strong drink handy.
The rest of 2020:
Lost and Founder by Rand Fishkin
Rand (as he refers to himself throughout the book) is refreshingly, endearingly, compellingly honest about the realities of founding and running a startup. Whether he’s covering the financial tightropes and emotional swings of growth, the joys of victory, the lows of defeat and the low-level anxiety of the slog, or the lessons learned the hard way about leadership and decision-making, Lost and Founder is a treasure. It’s chock full of inspiration, cautionary tales, straightforward advice, and real talk about what it’s really like for founders who’s name isn’t Zuckerberg.
Even if you have no intention of ever being a startup founder and don’t personally know any of those creatures, it’s worth a read to understand what daily life is like for those souls who are crafting the tech that shapes our world, and as a model for leadership, transparency, generosity, and vulnerability. Also, you’ll contemplate moving to Seattle so that Rand and his wife, Geraldine, could be your new besties.
The Library Book by Susan Orlean
The Libary Book is a true crime story about a fire at the Downtown Los Angeles Public Libary and the troubled man who may or may not have started it. Actually, scratch that. It’s a love letter to the DTLA Public Library in the guise of storytelling about its history, inner workings, and dedicated staff. Hmmm… scratch that, too. It’s in-depth reporting about the modern role of public libraries in our cities, especially Los Angeles, grounded in several compelling character studies.
The Library Book is all of those things, and more. Organized like a library (by topic instead of chronology) it will make you laugh, make you think, and make you head to your local library branch for your own shiny new library card if you don’t have one already. At a minimum, it’ll make you want to visit the DTLA Public Library. (Let me know when you’ve got that urge — I’ll meet you there!)
Original, thorough, and compelling, The Library Book is a beautifully written page-turner about what you might previously have thought was a staid topic.
Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
I know… you’ve already read Into Thin Air. Because everybody but me has gotten around to reading it by now. And good on you because this is a tour de force of storytelling and reporting. For the three people who don’t know: Into Thin Air is Jon Krakauer's personal memoir of summiting Mount Everest in 2016 on an expedition that would ultimately cost five climbers their lives and a sixth his hand. I stayed up too late, rushed through work, left my husband to his own devices and might have rescheduled a social commitment to stay home and finish this book. After I finished, I read thousands more pages of commentary, follow-up reporting, and controversy, because I wasn’t ready to let go of the story or Krakauer’s voice. It’s that good.
The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland
Part science-fiction, part fantasy, part historical fiction, part comedy, and part romance, The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. is nearly impossible to describe, but trust me: you want to read it. Scifi icon Neal Stephenson and historical fiction writer Nicole Galland dive into time travel, witchcraft, Schroedinger’s Cat qua photography, the multiverse, and more in this hilarious, well-researched, gloriously complex, richly imagined novel. The cast of characters is delightful, the story believable despite the mix of fantastical ideas in it, and the writing steadily excellent despite the co-authorship of two authors with very different styles. I love this book. I hope you read it.
City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert
I loathed Eat, Pray, Love, so if I’d fully clocked that the author was that Elizabeth Gilbert I might have passed on this excellent read, and that would have been too bad. Set primarily in an off-off-Broadway theater in 1940s New York City, City of Girls is the story of a young woman finding independence, adventure, friendship, and family in a time and place where all of those things were complicated for young women. Told in the first-person, it’s imbued with the personality of the main character and narrator and full of details that make it read as authentic and believable. It’s a long book you’ll power through in a weekend.
The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill
My brilliant 11-year-old bookworm niece recommended this gem. Some of the best modern fiction is YA fiction, and The Girl Who Drank the Moon is in that category. Barnhill delivers an inventive and heartwarming fairytale about a village trapped in the clutches of a cruel myth of an evil witch who demands an annual sacrifice of the village’s youngest child. Reality turns out to be very different than myth, and the power of chosen families, love of many sorts, ancient magic, and quiet courage makes all the difference. Thanks, Kiley, for the hot tip!
Underbug: An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Technology by Lisa Morgonelli
Yes, termites. If the results of constant evangelizing of this book to my husband are any indication this will be a hard sell, but I hope you’ll trust me and give this (long) book a go. Morgonelli takes readers with her on her decade-long exploration with scientists of many disciplines and roboticists (yes! roboticists!) around the world. You’ll discover you should have been fascinated by termites all along — their social structure! their crazy digestive system! their symbiotic relationship with a fungus that lives underneath their mounds (sometimes)!
You’ll become obsessed with how science works. You’ll see both termites and robots in a whole new light. You’ll get some unexpected insight into what it means to be human, how that’s connected to the world around us, and how it’s changing. And you’ll be impressed by Morgonelli’s unwillingness to let this passion project go.
In Defense of Elitism by Joel Stein
Hilarious and insightful and perfectly timely, In Defense of Elitsim will make you laugh and will make you think. And then laugh some more. A lot. Like out loud. And maybe read passages aloud to the people around you, unbidden. Sorry not sorry again to my husband, whom I think enjoyed my blurting out of sentences from this book more than he did my recitations of passages from Underbug about the termite digestive tract.
Stein fits a compelling argument about what the rise of populism around the world is really about, and proposes that it’s fueled, ironically, by a particular brand of elitists for whom he coins the term “Boat Elitists.” The Boat Elitisists are in a pitched battle with the Intellectual Elitists for the future, and at this moment it looks like they’re winning. Stein acknowledges how terrifying that is while maintaining a sense of humor and kindness about it (especially humor.)
I’d say I want to be in Stein’s Loop (read the book), but I’m pretty sure I’m not elite or cool enough.
Who Thought This Was a Good Idea? by Alyssa Mastromonaco
Just when I thought I couldn’t miss Barack Obama more, I picked up this gem and relived the good old days, when we had a real President and White House staff that cared deeply about our country’s institutions and people. Mastromonaco pulls no punches, on herself least of all. She’s honest and interesting and tells the best stories.
Read this if you want a window into how the White House used to function — not just under Barack, but under most Presidents before the guy we’ve got in there now. Read it if you want to learn some new details about some of the most significant events of the Obama years. Read it if you want some insight into the mind and motivations and humanity of the people who (used to) steward the basics of our democracy.
She also made me feel SO MUCH BETTER about how long it’s taking me to finish my book, and about my sort-of mid-life career sort-of crisis.
Kochland by Christopher Leonard
I know there are other books that purport to explain how the f*ck we got here, but I can’t imagine another one illuminating it in as much detail and clarity as Kochland, a deep dive into how the Koch brothers relentlessly, strategically, and brilliantly (in an evil genius sort of way) shaped how our politics and our country works over several (well planned) decades.
Not good bedtime reading — this one will keep you up at night — but you’ll watch the news and this election cycle in an entirely new and much better-informed light.
Fleishman Is In Trouble by Taffy Bodesser-Anker
I fell in deep reader love with Taffy (I like to refer to her as Taffy as if we’re friends, even though I’ve never had more interaction with her than liking one of her tweets) after reading her laugh-out-loud funny (while remaining deeply insightful, unflinching, and somehow still kind) profile of Goop. Treat yourself to a read (or re-read.)
Then put yourself on your library waitlist for Fleishman Is In Trouble, a darkly funny, honest, and ultimately affirming tale of navigating dating as a mid-divorce, mid-career crisis, middle-aged man whose almost ex-wife drops off the kids and disappears for a bit. I love that this book is written from a perspective that’s almost never at the forefront of stories about the travails of middle age (or the challenges of parenting and marriage, or learning to date via apps, or navigating the sex vs. intimacy divide, or any number of other things): the man in the falling apart hetero relationship. And I don’t want to give anything away, but I also loved the way the behavior of the other Fleishman is explained as the book winds its way to a close. Holler at me when you’re done reading this — I’m dying to talk to someone about it.
Non-Obvious MegaTrends by Rohit Bhargava
I have some rules. I don’t read things with “mega” in the title is one of them. But rules are made to be broken and this book, the capstone of a decade-long annual trend report project and written by a friend from my DC days who came to LA to pre-launch it, is an excellent reminder of why. MegaTrends is really two books in one. The first part is a guidebook on how to see the world more creatively, analytically, and strategically — how to be non-obvious. The second part is a set of non-obvious observations about the big things shaping our future, built on the last decade of research and annual trend reporting Rohit and his team have published. Both parts are quick reads, insightful without being laborious, and thought-provoking while simple. Take it on your next work trip.
Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
Foreboding, dread, tension, and sadness borne from hopes inevitably and savagely dashed make up the core of this extraordinary novel. Written in 2011, Salvage the Bones is the story of twelve days — eleven before and one after Hurricane Katrina. The narrator, Esch, is a lone girl in a family and extended community of boys — Dad, brothers, friends, and not-really-friends, attempting to survive and transcend desperately poor circumstances in what turns out to be the direct path of a deadly hurricane. Each chapter is the story of a day, and a vignette of a particular kind of suffering — the suffering of hopelessness. Every win turns out to be fleeting, every opportunity for something better lost, and almost every faith betrayed. “Almost every” and not “every” because in addition to suffering, love is a throughline of every chapter. Esch, her brothers, and her father, none recovered from the childbirth-related death of the matriarch of the family, sustain their seemingly futile fight for survival on the strength of their love and fidelity to each other. It keeps you hoping for the best — or at least better — alongside Esch, even as you dread (and know) the worst.
Not an uplifting read, but a good and important one. And sadly timely. Thank you, Rich Neimand, for the recommendation!
The Book of Illusions, by Paul Aster
Published in 2002, Book of Illusions is a treatise on impermanence, disappearing, consequences, and art. It’s also a musing on alone-ness, which I read very differently than I might have even just a month ago. The mechanism for this treatise is the first-person narration of a man broken by the loss of his family in a plane crash who disappears into a project to study a long-disappeared silent film actor. It’s fascinating, gorgeously written, and beautifully constructed — full of surprises and observations, and only a tad bit distracting for its lack of things like cell phones and the internet in moments where the story would be entirely different if set in the modern day. I loved this novel and have three more of Aster’s books on my LAPL waitlist. Another excellent nod from Rich — thank you!
Under the Banner of Heaven by John Krakauer
Any book that inspires a revisit of a classic South Park episode and a dive into the rabbit hole of policy and political theory around religious practice is a worthy read, and this one did both! Under the Banner of Heaven is a journalistic investigation into the world of Fundamentalist Mormons, centered on the practice of polygamy and rooted in the story of the murder of a young mom and her toddler daughter and the family of brothers responsible for their deaths. Krakauer is, as always, a glorious storyteller, weaving details and narrative together to build suspense even when you know the ending and deep investment in the big-picture implications and outcomes of the issues he brings to light. He’s respectful while clear about the moral and humanitarian failings of his subject — though I imagine Mormons of every stripe, fundamentalist and LDS alike, will find much to take umbrage at in his telling of Mormon history and religious teachings — and steers clear of the obvious tropes on polygamy and Mormonism. Thank you, Lara Bergthold, for the excellent recommendation! Let’s go make that doc (when it safe to leave the house again)!
While you’re keeping at least six feet away from any other human and avoiding the urge to buy more toilet paper, you may also be pondering the sudden visibility of the people and infrastructure that largely invisibly made your pre-social-distancing life possible. That includes long-haul truckers who are suddenly, deservedly, on our list of heroically brave people risking themselves to keep the gears of comfortable lives for many of us turning.
If so, put Host “Long Haul Paul” Marhoefer, a musician, storyteller and trucker for nearly 40 years, in your ear and get a first-hand behind the wheel look at a world that was already in the midst of rapid culture and technological changes before the globe dropped into a crisis mode. Hear about the differences between types of truckers and the social rules about how they interact, the implications of tracking technology on truckers’ lives and livelihoods, and the dramatic (but again, mostly invisible) policy and political machinations driving the future of the industry.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
How does a brilliant neurosurgeon who is also a neuroscientist with a graduate degree in literature and a lifelong fascination with the meaning of life and death approach his own mortality? If this book by the late Paul Kalanithi is any indication, he approaches it with extraordinary wisdom, humility, generosity, and honesty. Written as he was dying of cancer in his late thirties, When Breath Becomes Air is a beautiful and haunting exploration of what it means to know how our bodies and minds work but not well enough to protect them, to be deeply connected to other people versus being responsible for them, and to come to terms with the unfair nature of human existence. It’s also a strikingly straightforward description of the physical day-to-day reality of treating cancer and dying from it.
That Dr. Kalanithi is no longer in this world to be a partner to his wife, a father to his daughter, a son and brother and friend is a tragedy; that he won’t be a doctor to the hundreds (thousands) of patients who should have benefited from his brilliance is also a tragedy; that in the process of that tragedy he delivered this extraordinary book is hard to wrap my head around. It’s not a silver lining — it’s an end that came too soon, at an incalculable cost. I still think you should read When Breath Becomes Air. There are very few treatises on death and meaning written by people with the wherewithal, intellect, curiosity, and heart to document it as they experience it; it would be a shame to pass this one up.
Grand Union by Zadie Smith
Reading this collection of short stories end-to-end feels a bit like binge-watching seasons of Black Mirror, Insecure, and Black-ish (if Black-ish was more noir, more rooted in female experience, and less mainstream) back-to-back might feel. Each story is more a vignette, the collection made up of descriptions of moments of time, as experienced by a wide range of protagonists. There is a wide variety in the genres of storytelling represented in the collection, including science-fiction, memoir, and fables. The thread that strings through all of the stories is empathy for the anti-hero, always down on luck of some kind or another, always wrestling with identity, always with regrets or at least wistfulness about a past rife with missed opportunities, and, when we find them in this book, always at a fateful moment.
Some of the stories are riveting (Sentimental Education, Two Men Arrive in a Village), others are skimmable (Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets), and a few are transcendent (Kelso Deconstructed). Together they made me excited to read my next Zadie Smith tome.
You’ll Grow Out of It by Jessi Klein
Maybe it’s because Jessi Klein could be my much more talented, successful, and interesting twin sister (fraternal — she’s much prettier than I am), and maybe it’s because during these crazy times I needed a break from thinking about the BIG QUESTIONS OF OUR AGE, and maybe it’s because some light and easy laughter was the perfect interlude to the apocalypse we’re living through, but I LOVED this book of essays about what it‘s like to be a (white, Jewish) female in this world. Whether as a child trying to learn the “secrets” of feminity or a woman who’s grappling with the meaning of transitioning from “miss” to “ma’am,” struggling with what it means to be Trying (to get pregnant,) or coming to the realization that no one ever gets “there,” we’re all always still “here,” with all its attendant insecurities, Jessi (I’m using her first name because I’m pretending we’re friends) writes poignantly, honestly, clearly, and hilariously. She’s always kind to her subjects, even when she’s being snarky, and almost always kind to herself, which is a pleasure to experience. Treat yourself to this gem.
Zone One by Colson Whitehead
The most literary zombie apocalypse book you’ll read, Zone One is inventive, interesting, timely, and unapologetically pessimistic. It’s the story of how zombies took over America and what the ostensible “recovery” looks like through the eyes of a newly minted military janitor of sorts, a member of one of dozens of cleanup crews preparing Zone One (formerly New York City) for repopulation after the zombies have been killed or pushed out beyond newly built walls. Replete with references to how capitalism and “brands” remain front and center, how a reconstituted government leverages propaganda to keep control, and how our habits zombify our existence even if we’re not (yet) eating our neighbors, it’s hard not to read this book as a warning we ignored. If COVID hasn’t convinced you yet, you might be inspired to finally stock up on those emergency supplies…
The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
I read this the same quarantine weekend we watched Harriet, and I was glad for the duplication of stylized, idealized, and slightly fantastical tellings of stories on the underground railroad. The Water Dancer is beautifully written historical fiction with just enough detail to drive you to google to learn more. Plot driven, but sticks with characters you’re invested in. Technically science fiction (if you prefer “speculative fiction” that’s cool by me, and I don’t even mind how many of you email or DMed me to say so each month!), but with the lightest possible touch. Hopeful, but true to the dire realities it’s based in. I know I’m late to the party on this one, but it’s one that I’m glad to have read for the first time in this particular moment.
How to Be Both by Ali Smith
Oof. I wanted to like this book. By which I mean I wanted to finish this book, because I can appreciate the ambition of writing a book that is actually two books, the same story written through two perspectives, in two completely different voices. How to Be Both is structured as a kind of choose your own adventure — you choose which version of the story to read first, which will obviously change how you interpret and discover the second one. It’s a clever and interesting device.
But again, oof. I opted to start with the version told by “Francescho,” who is possibly a ghost stuck in a painting, speaking in the first person in very long sentences with no punctuation and very little structure. Starting with that may have been a mistake because I got about a third into it and still had no idea what I was supposed to be taking away from it. Allegedly there’s a plot and characters there, but I couldn’t really track them. So I switched to the other story, narrated by a character named George who is mourning the death of her mother and might be in the center of a conspiracy. While George’s storytelling is more straightforward, I still just didn’t… get it.
I very rarely put down a book without forcing myself to finish it (I read every word of The Goldfinch!) but I found myself doing things like laundering the throw rugs rather than picking up my Kindle to read this. Not good. Did you read it? Did you get it? Did you like it? I’d love to chat with someone who loved How to Be Both and could convince me to give it another go.
Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney
A first-person narrative with a clear beginning but (spoiler alert) a very unclear end, and a twisty, compelling, sometimes cringey middle, Conversations with Friends is a parable about love. Sort of. Narrated by Frances, and featuring her sometimes lover and sometimes best friend and sometimes frenemy, Bobbi, and their interactions with an older, complicated, and wealthy artsy couple, it’s a novel take on the cascading effects of a damaged self. I wasn’t sure I liked it until the end, when I was sad to see the characters go.
In The After, when television production is happening again, Conversations with Friends will be a Hulu series. I’m excited to reunite with these troubled, brilliant, creative, and dangerously broken people.
Foundation by Isaac Asimov
I’m sure I read this book forever ago, but I didn’t remember it and a story about the end of a universe-spanning empire and the machinations of a society of scholars to limit the timeline for suffering before the new world order is established felt… timely. Also, it’s science fiction canon, and I am a science fiction fan so I felt an obligation to throw it in the mix.
Foundation is possibly the first book in a five-book series, or possibly the third in a seven-book series, or it might be the eleventh book in a fifteen-book series. Confused yet? It depends on which brand of Asimov fan you are, and whether you think the Foundation series is actually just a subset of a much more comprehensive set of stories that include I, Robot (originally published as The Complete Robot.) Asimov himself at one point said that the Foundation books are the end of a trilogy of stories and should be read after all of the Robots and Empire stories.
Foundation is a collection of five stories (originally published over a seven-year period, 1942–1949) that begin 300 years before the end of the 12,000-year-old galactic empire, as prophesized by a renown “psychologist” who leverages vast troves of data on human behavior to predict the future. Each story focuses on a leader and the era he (always he) presides over, bookended by appearances by hologram of the long-departed psychologist — recordings from the past to help bring about a specific future.
I liked this collection of stories, and the way a few of them are told almost entirely through dialogue. I enjoyed the expansiveness of Asimov’s imagination about what the universe of humanity could be like, someday, and what the collapse of that expansiveness might look like. As a political nerd, I appreciated the details around civic organization and power, and how the best leaders leveraged them for change.
One distraction: Asimov’s worlds consist entirely of men. This is not an exaggeration — I think there are three women in the entirety of Foundation, all of them annoying spouses or otherwise side notes. He was an author of his time, yada yada yada, so still worth a read, but distracting and a tad annoying nonetheless.
Opium and Absinthe: A Novel by Lydia Kang
Your standard period piece murder mystery love story class warfare tale of drug addiction, grief, changing gender norms, perils of wealth, and toxic motherhood in turn-of-the-century New York City… this book is hard to describe but very easy to read. Dive in for a very quick, satisfying genre-bending romp that’s escapist without being vapid, with a narrator-protagonist, Tillie Pembroke, that you care about even when she’s annoying and a problem to solve that’s interesting even after you’re pretty sure you know whodunit. Perfect pandemic summer reading,
Cleo McDougal Regrets Nothing by Allison Winn Scotch
Cleo McDougal Regrets Nothing is another quick, easy, and delightful read for your (re)quarantine summer. Cleo, a protagonist that you almost entirely root for, and, if you’re a successful, ambitious woman who’s also a mom you identify with at least a little bit, is a very young Senator on the precipice of running for President who’s thrown into a wrenchingly public soul-searching deep dive into her life’s deepest regrets… which she’s helpfully documented in a list since she was a girl. Throw in some sometimes hilariously unsubtle commentary on the deeply ingrained sexism of law, politics, and Washington, DC, the lasting consequences of sexual harassment, and how culture seeps into the very core of how women operate in the world, and you’re in for a thoughtful treat. The pages-long explanatory internal monologues can be a bit tedious but stick with it for a thought-provoking contemplation of what it means to take responsibility for your actions, relationships, and outcomes.
Severance by Ling Ma
When your MAGA-hat wearing relatives (or Twitter frenemies) say that no one could have predicted our current situation, maybe some fiction will be more effective than tomes of science, policy, or news? Send them to Severance, which I think was probably a funny read about office culture in the Before Times but right now reads like a preview of a very grim future. A virus originating in the Wuhan region of China goes global, shutting down businesses, schools, infrastructure, and ultimately maybe everything. Candace Chen, daughter of immigrants, devoted to routine and stability, soldiers on through increasingly intense office politics and a harrowingly intense post-pandemic reality. Less fun than my first two recommendations, but less depressing than, say, Octavia Butler’s extremely prescient preview of our current reality, Severance is a different kind of good read for our pandemic summer.
The End of October by Lawrence Wright
If Severance is too indirect, go with The End of October, which reads more like academic documentation of the worst-case scenario of our present circumstances than a feat of imagination. The End of October is exactly what you might imagine would result when an extremely knowledgable international affairs expert who is interested enough in microbiology to get the details right and committed enough to telling a good story to craft deeply sympathetic characters writes a work of (mostly) fiction. That’s who Lawrence Wright is and that’s what he’s done here. Wright is best known for his non-fiction account of the lead up to 9–11, The Looming Towers, and if you’ve read that or watched the lightly fictionalized TV show of the same name you’re prepared for his highly detailed, technical, yet still utterly compelling style. Read The End of October if you’re into a fascinating story and learning more about viruses, global geopolitics, and how what we’re living through today could be orders of magnitude worse.
The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
The Great Believers sucked me in from the first sentence. Gorgeously written about fully developed, honest people that you care about from the moment Makkai introduces them, this is a book that explores what happens to joy when its cost seems to be death or at least suffering. It’s an unblinking look at the AIDS crisis from 1985 to present day, a story about many different kinds of love, and about growing up in the shadow of existential threat. It’s almost impossible to recommend this book in more detail without spoiling it, so… just trust me. Read it.
This book is non-fiction about policy and politics in recent history and it will make you hopeful. No, I’m not shitting you and no, I haven’t even had even one glass of wine yet. Won’t Lose This Dream is the story of Georgia State and how it was transformed from a backwater, racist, second-tier night school that was a place of learning mostly in name only into a major educational institution that managed to close achievement and graduation gaps of every kind while expanding its footprint and impact in a once-declining downtown in a majority Black city. In it you’ll meet administrators and teachers and counselors and advisors with vision and relentless commitment to create change — and politicians with the wherewithal to support them! And you’ll meet inspiring students with stories both heartbreaking and aspirational who stuck it out and, in many cases, ultimately got the educational opportunities they were entitled to.
If you’re a policy nerd, you’ll love this book. If you’re a data nerd, you’ll love this book. If you’re an education nerd, you’ll love this book. If you love aspirational stories about inspirational people, you’ll love this book. If you’re looking for reasons to believe that systems can and do change for the better, you’ll love this book. I loved this book so much I read it all the way through the notes at the end. Won’t Lose This Dream is a perfect mental antidote to 2020. I might read it again.
The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel
Sumptuously written with sentences I wanted to read out loud to someone so they could enjoy them with me, The Glass Hotel is a tightly woven story of intersecting lives and how events big and small (a mother’s apparent suicide, the economic collapse of 2008) affects them. The Glass Hotel covers a lot of plot and by the end I found I couldn’t read fast enough to keep up with my curiosity about what would happen next, but it’s not really plot-driven. And while it’s also character-driven, there’s a big cast of primary and just-to-the-side-of-primary characters to keep track of.
The story of Vincent, named after the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay by her now-dead mother, is the coherent central path of the book, and the stories of the people at the center and the margins of the largely mundane things that propel her life — deaths, friendships, complicated family, work — are the incredibly compelling container for Mandel’s musings on finding meaning amidst change, and dealing with one’s past(s). A plot summary is impossible (see the attempt on Wikipedia for a giggle), so this recommendation is going to stay as strangely, and end as it started, just like the book: The Glass Hotel is a glorious, diverting read.
Uncanny Valley by Anna Weiner
Uncanny Valley is a part memoir, part mea culpa, and part tell-all about the early days of Silicon Valley startups and the (young white) men at the ground floor of making extraordinary amounts of money building the surveillance and attention economy while disrupting and breaking everything including norms against sexual harassment and basic HR principles. The book covers the few years when Weiner moved from her job in the publishing world in NYC to SF for a series of customer service jobs in tech startups.
Describing SF at the time as a city that was “trapped in nostalgia for its own mythology, stuck in a hallucination of a halcyon past, had not quite caught up to the newfound momentum of tech’s dark triad: capital, power, and a bland, overcorrected, heterosexual masculinity,” her take is a fun, gossipy, vindicating, and important read. The upshot: if we’re wondering what fresh hell will be wrought, we’d be well served by a keener understanding of who and what created the current hell.
The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa
When I finished reading The Memory Police I asked my husband for a hug — I needed to shake one of the saddest fiction books I’ve ever read. So, if what you’re looking for is an escape from doom put this one on the list to read later. But definitely keep it on a list, because it’s a truly beautiful lamentation on the experience of loss.
The plot is deceptively simple: people in a small island community periodically lose all memory of something, and with their memory they lose that thing. It starts slowly — one morning, umbrellas are gone, and by the end of the day no one can conceptualize what an”umbrella” is. Another morning, the rivers are full of flower petals from the botanic garden at the top of a hill, and by the end of that day no one remembers flowers. The pace of disappearances and the importance of what disappears amplifies, in a slow-moving catastrophe of loss.
Translated from the original novel published in Japan in 1994, The Memory Police is haunting, sad, and far too relevant for these modern times of loss.
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
Part of the joy of this book is following the winding path that connects each of the dozen main characters and hunting for the easter eggs in each story that reach back to prior chapters. The rest of the joy is in the characters and stories themselves, and the deeply and lovingly developed explorations of the relationships between women — moms and daughters, partners and friends, neighbors and coworkers — in the context of racism and sexism and the intersections of the two in and around every relationship. I grew to love each and every one of these women and saw myself in the good and bad decisions they made and the way they built their lives. This is a fun, interesting, thought-provoking, and diverting book and excellent to escape into for a bit.
On Witness and Respair: A Personal Tragedy Followed by Pandemic by Jessamyn Ward
A heartbreaking, sublime, powerful essay on grief and loss.
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