All Grown Up
What does it mean to be a modern woman? Jami Attenberg tackles that question with ALL GROWN UP, the story of Andrea Bern, a single and childless 39-year-old designer who is forced to reckon with her choices and what it means to be an adult. What I loved most about ALL GROWN UP was its refusal to paint Andrea as just one thing. She’s a drinker, a “shrieker,” a daughter, a sister, a hard worker, and a friend. She has regrets about some things, and about others none at all. Told through a series of honest and humor-filled vignettes, it’s truly a celebration of a woman as a sum of all her parts that I think speaks a lot to the cultural conversations we’ve been having lately.
Amanda Wakes Up
2017 was the year I tried to avoid reading books about politics, but I made an exception for AMANDA WAKES UP, which actually became one of my favorites of the year. The protagonist, Amanda Gallo, is a local TV news reporter when she’s handpicked to be the morning anchor on FAIR News, a network dedicated to showing “both sides” of the story. But, as an election cycle kicks into high gear between a controversial female candidate and even-more controversial dark horse candidate, she finds her life, values, and views turned upside down. There’s a lot of great detail about the rat race of news media; if Alisyn Camerota’s name sounds familiar, it’s because you’ve probably seen her on CNN. But what made this novel really stand out for me was the honesty with which she addressed the problems with it, and the relationship between politics and perspective. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a must-read.
The City Always Wins
Set during the 2011 Tahrir Square uprisings, Omar Robert Hamilton’s debut novel is a lyrical, political, and undeniably powerful look at revolution and change through the eyes of people on the front lines. Moving from the highs of back-room meetings and Main Street protests to the lows of exile and loss of life, the book seemed to vibrate in my hands as I read it. It’s about much more than one country: it’s about a generation of people who are ready to change the world around them—and I hope that in 2018, which seems to be the year of activism, more people will experience this bold story for themselves.
I’m always on the hunt for fascinating biographies of badass women, and I found one in MADAME PRESIDENT. This book follows the life of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who went from being a domestic violence survivor and mother of four to an international banking executive, a leader of the Liberian women’s movement, the first democratically elected female president in African history, and a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Women’s issues were at the forefront of last year’s cultural conversations, and I believe they’ll continue to be as we move forward. Helene Cooper’s account of Sirleaf’s coming-of-age and journey into politics is harrowing but triumphant, and introduces many lessons about perseverance, grit, and power that can inspire and set a model for where we go next.
I brought FITNESS JUNKIE along on my vacation as a “beach read” (and that’s not a commentary on genre—I was literally on a beach!) and it didn’t only make me laugh out loud but it made me think in a completely unexpected way. The novel follows Janey Sweet, a recently ousted CEO of a wedding dress company, who throws herself into the world of expensive fitness classes, juice cleanses, and exclusive getaway retreats. There are all the makings of a great read here—a love triangle, hilarious hijinks, unforgettable characters, and thinly disguised cultural references—but more impressively it’s a real send-up of the world we live in today. While Janey’s situation is an extreme absurdity, there’s not much of a gap between her world and ours, where people pay thousands of dollars a year to sit on a stationary bike or eat clay instead of carbs. I would have loved to see it start more conversations about our modern cults of health and wellness.
I was a fan of Fiona Davis’s first novel, THE DOLLHOUSE, which centered around a decades-long mystery in New York’s legendary Barbizon Hotel, and I loved that she continued in that vein for THE ADDRESS. This novel alternates between two young female narrators—Sara Smythe in 1884 and Bailey Camden in 1985—as they search for truth in the halls of another famous Big Apple residence, the Dakota. What connects them is at first a mystery; but as their stories begin to intertwine, secrets about family, passion, madness, and ruin emerge. Whether you live in New York City or not, it will change the way you think about the places you walk past every day.
From Here to Eternity
Before I start on this one, I’ll admit that most people probably don’t want to think—much less read—about dying, death, and, more specifically, the mechanics of burial. But if there’s one book that you should give a chance to change that, it’s this one by Caitlin Doughty. A mortician and death expert, she traveled the world to discover how other cultures care for their dead, from mummification in rural Indonesia to a futuristic visiting facility in Japan. FROM HERE TO ETERNITY hit the bestseller list (yay!), but I would have loved to see it involved in larger cultural, mainstream conversations about all the themes it explores.
As is becoming increasingly common, I first learned about this book from a friend’s Instagram (the best way to find new reads!). I’m a big walker here in New York (sorry, MTA) and that habit carries over when I travel, so I knew it would be the perfect fit for an upcoming trip to Paris. What I didn’t know was that FLÂNEUSE would be a thought-provoking and perspective-shifting meditation of how throughout history, a woman walking in a city—George Sand in Paris, Patti Smith in New York, Virginia Woolf in London, and the author herself in Tokyo—is a radical, political, and personal act. I devoured this on the plane, and then carried it with me through every winding street.
Though I consider myself to be pretty well read, I’m embarrassed to admit that my knowledge of South American and Latin American literature is quite limited. I’m trying to change that with a new reading goal of exploring new places and people, and AFFECTIONS was one of my first stops. It’s a slim but stunning novel inspired by real events surrounding the Ertl family, whose Nazi affiliations drove them to Bolivia after the war. When the patriarch, Hans, brings two of his daughters on an expedition to a fabled lost Incan city, everything changes, and the family is thrown into chaos. It’s a remarkable meditation of war, family, loss, and resistance that everyone should read.
I was lucky enough to get my hands on an early copy of this 2017 debut, and spent the rest of the year recommending it to everyone. The novel follows longtime best friends and creative partners, Mel and Sharon, who are about to celebrate the release of their first full-length feature, based on Mel’s difficult childhood. But, as cracks in their personal relationship begin to threaten their professional one, Sharon is forced to return home herself and reckon with the trauma and secrets she’s been long trying to forget. This is a powerful novel of female friendship, tragedy, and love that I wish had gotten just as much attention as its counterparts last year.
All the Lives I Want
I’m a big fan of essay collections centered around culture, and this book by Alana Massey didn’t disappoint when it came out early in 2017. Looking critically and wittily at pivotal female icons (are you sensing a theme in this list?) from Sylvia Plath and Lil’Kim to Britney Spears and Anjelica Huston, Massey examines why we’re obsessed with the lives and legacies of certain celebrities, how they mix and match with each other, and how they not only shape our view of the world but of ourselves as well.