Educated, by Tara Westover
I listened to this book on Audible and was completely enthralled. I spent every spare second listening to the incredible story of Tara—a young girl who, kept out of school, leaves her survivalist family and goes on to earn a PhD from Cambridge University.
Tara Westover grew up in the mountains of Idaho in an isolated, rugged household. Her mother was an herbalist and her father ran a junkyard, earning a meager living selling scrap metal. Although she was allegedly home-schooled, she received little education and never stepped foot in a classroom until she was 17. Tara’s father did not believe in hospitals, and various injuries—from cuts, to concussions, to third-degree burns, were all treated at home with herbalism. One of her older brothers was physically violent, and her parents did not intervene. Modeling the behavior of a different brother, Tara began to teach herself math and grammar. She was admitted to Brigham Young University, where she learned for the first time about events like the Holocaust and the Civil Rights Movement. Her quest for knowledge took her to Harvard and then to Cambridge. Educated is an insightful coming-of-age story that speaks volumes about the growing divide between rural and urban America. I recommend this book to everyone—no personal story has touched me in such a way. Westover’s tale is harrowing, hopeful, and reinforces the importance of personal growth and education.
Call Them by Their True Names, by Rebecca Solnit
Rebecca Solnit is the author of more than twenty books, including my personal favorite and the international bestseller Men Explain Things to Me. Solnit writes about feminism, violence, ecology, hope, and everything in between.
Call Them by Their True Names is a collection of essays about the power of names and naming. In her forward, she writes, “Being careful and precise about language is one way to oppose the disintegration of meaning, to encourage the beloved community and the conversations that inculcate hope and vision.” Her essays explore politics, police shootings, gentrification, the death penalty, the pipeline protest at Standing Rock, and the threat to humanity posed by climate change. The collection is scathing and insistent: names have power and, “calling things by their true names cuts through the lies that excuse, buffer, muddle, disguise, avoid, or encourage inaction, indifference, obliviousness.” The essays are impressively succinct, and this is a good book for anyone interested in taking a deep dive into some pertinent cultural and social problems.
Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes
This book isn’t new—it was published in 1992 and spent 145 weeks on The New York Times Best Seller list over a three-year span. Women Who Run with the Wolves analyses myths, fairy tales, folk tales, and stories from different cultures to uncover the Wild Woman archetype of the feminine psyche. Dr. Estes writes, "Wolves and women are relational by nature, inquiring, possessed of great endurance and strength. They are deeply intuitive, intensely concerned with their young, their mate, and their pack. Yet both have been hounded, harassed, and falsely imputed to be devouring and devious, overly aggressive, of less value than those who are their detractors." Dr. Estes defined wildness not as uncontrolled behavior but as a kind of savage creativity, the instinctual ability to know what tool to use and when to use it. I found myself nodding along in agreement as I listened to her read—this book is eye-opening and will resonate with men and women alike.
Weird in a World That’s Not, by Jennifer Romonlini
Audible recommended this book to me and while I expected nothing a bit of retooled career advice, I was pleasantly surprised. Romonlini’s definition of “weird” is more or less feeling like an outsider. She shares her personal story of going from a broke, divorced college dropout to running some of the largest websites in the world. Her main point is that anyone, with the dedication, drive, and smarts to do it, can achieve success. Her advice caters to the business world, where office politics get nasty and there is no defined way to climb the ladder. Romonlini packs real-world advice into a personal memoir, answering questions many of us have never known who to ask:
-How do I navigate the awkwardness of networking?
-How do I deal with intense office politics?
-How do I leave my crappy job?
-How do I learn how to be a real, effective boss?
-And, most importantly: How do I do all this and stay true to who I really am? Sometimes you just need someone to give you straight advice, without any frills or filler. That’s what Romonlini does, and it’s a career/life guide anyone will find relatable.
The Guilty Feminist, by Deborah Frances-White
The Guilty Feminist is also a UK-based podcast started by comedian Deborah Frances-White to “explore our noble goals as 21st century feminists and the insecurities and hypocrisies that undermine them.” The podcast is both thoughtful and funny, featuring feminist guests from all walks of life. A new podcast is published every Monday, and I highly recommend.
The Guilty Feminist book is an interesting, thoughtful, and easy-to-digest collection of essays and interviews exploring feminist issues—from the implications of the #metoo movement, the 2016 election, weddings, makeup, how to support other women, and how to use your own privilege to help less privileged groups. This is an important book for any feminist or ally to read (and it’s entertaining!)
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer
This was by far the most touching work of fiction I read all year. The story follows Oskar Schell, a nine-year old boy living in New York whose father, Thomas, dies in the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. After his father’s death, Oscar finds a key in a small envelope labeled “Black” in his father’s closet and takes it to a locksmith. He sets out on a quest to find everyone in the city with the last name Black, to see if they own the key and can tell him anything about his dad. Along the way, he meets many characters, including his long-lost grandfather who has been mute for decades. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is layered—Oskar learns the importance of family, finds his way through grief, and makes friends of all ages along the way. It’s a tear-jerker (fair warning!), and was made into a movie starring Tom Hanks in 2011 (but the book is better).
I couldn’t put this memoir down, perhaps because I saw so much of myself in Hannah. Her story winds through her eating disorder, romantic relationships, and her career exploring the underbelly of New York City’s glamorous culinary scene. The books begins when she’s 18, a freshman at Columbia University and working as a hostess at a Michelin-star restaurant in Manhattan. She’s hungry for so much—knowledge, love, success—but most obviously food. As she struggles with an eating disorder, her own lack of self-compassion leaks into every facet of her life. Her story is not tragic, but a redemptive reflection on her personal journey to nourish herself—mind, body, and soul.
Noah's memoir is a substantive account of growing up in Johannesburg under apartheid. He was the son of a Xhosa mother and Swiss father, both of whom could have been imprisoned for the crime of interracial sexual relations. Noah writes glowingly of his heroic mother, “She was preparing me for a life of freedom long before we knew freedom would exist.” Born a Crime combines political and historical observations with Noah’s own upbringing—from working as a DJ, stealing chocolates, dealing with his stepfather, and reuniting with his father. Noah narrated his book, and I highly recommend taking a listen—his impersonations of all the characters make his story come to life. His perspective is incredibly unique, and his story unlike any I’ve ever read.
Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, by Angela Duckworth
Angela Duckworth is a MacArthur Fellow and is widely known for her work around the idea of grit. She writes, “grit is a combination of passion and perseverance.” While talent is important, talent plus grit builds skill, and skill plus grit results in achievement. The book touches on what grit is, how to nurture and grow grit from “the outside in” and “the inside out.” She also includes a handy self-assessment quiz and a chapter devoted to parenting. Some self-help books are preachy and full of vapid advice, but Grit is the real deal. If you want a bit of a precursor to the book, check out her Ted Talk on grit HERE.
Hunger, by Roxane Gay
Gay is the New York Times bestselling author of Bad Feminist, Not That Bad, and Difficult Woman. She is an incredible author and heroic feminist who writes frankly and unapologetically about her experience living in a larger body, “I ate and ate and ate in the hopes that if I made myself big, my body would be safe. I buried the girl I was because she ran into all kinds of trouble. I tried to erase every memory of her, but she is still there, somewhere. . . . I was trapped in my body, one that I barely recognized or understood, but at least I was safe.”
Gay uses her own emotional and psychological struggles to explore our shared anxieties over pleasure, consumption, appearance, and health. She describes her own body as “wildly undisciplined,” and explores past traumas that, left unresolved and unspoken, nearly derailed her. Gay’s writes with authenticity, vulnerability, and candor, exploring what it means to take care of yourself: how to feed your hungers for not only food but for love, in any sized body.
Meaty: Essays, by Samantha Irby
I was looking for a book to make me laugh, and this did it. Irby's essays range in topic from failed relationships, chin hairs, her childhood, bad sex, her life with Crohn’s disease, the insatiable and often meaningless world of Instagram, and so much more. I enjoyed some essays greatly, others not so much. Her self-deprecation was at times a bit depressing if not hugely entertaining. My favorite essay is entitled “My Mother, My Daughter” (but I won’t spoil it for you). Irby has also penned We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, and New Year, Same Trash. Her books are quick reads, entertaining, and often insightful in disarming ways.
Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
I revisited some of my favorite classics this year, an exercise I always find rewarding. Brave New World was published in 1932 and was a breakaway dystopian novel. Huxley writes of a genetically-engineered future where life is pain-free but meaningless. One character, Bernard Marx, becomes aware of the vapid, meaningless nature of his own life, and the plot unwinds from there. Society is constructed in sects, starting with the Alphas, down to the Epsilons. The Alphas are the most beautiful and sit at the top of the food chain but participate in little actual work while those at the bottom take on menial, necessary tasks to keep society afoot. Bernard takes a woman named Lenina to a “savage reservation” where their constructs of society are entirely unarmed. It’s an interesting (and timely) read that foreshadows how technology could control society while simultaneously exploring how happiness does not always coexist with truth. Brave New World is a relatively quick, captivating read.
Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy
Anna Karenina was first published in 1878 and is widely considered one of the greatest works of literature ever written. It’s a wild, tragic, romantic tale that will keep you occupied for quite some time (it’s long). Tolstoy wrote the story in eight parts, spread over about 800 pages. Anna Karenina is written in vivid detail, and the reader will feel inescapably immersed in the story. Set in Imperial Russia, the novel deals with themes such as faith, family, marriage, sexual desire, and rural vs. city life. To be extremely brief, Anna Karenina and a dashing Calvary officer named Count Alexei Kirillovish Vronsky (be prepared to deal with consonant-heavy Russian names) engage in an extramarital affair that scandalizes those in their circles and forces them to flee Saint Petersburg in a futile attempt to find happiness. Anna Karenina left me in a state of ennui—I wanted more, and for some time no other book stacked up. I recommend this book for anyone with the time to enjoy 800 pages of intense, incredible storytelling.
P.S. Drop me a book recommendation!