No specific theme here—just some recommendations across the board. Things I’ve read and some old favorites I’ve returned to during quarantine. All good books to read in captivity for one reason or another. Rereading a few of these at the moment, because I am incredibly repetitive; I love trying new things but also find it to be a lot of work. So I don’t actually love trying new things. I read the last page of The Book Thief out loud every night to myself, like a prayer. Right now I’ve only got my favorite characters to keep me company. And my cats, who have also enjoyed a lot of these books because I read out loud to them too. I have tried to be somewhat diverse in terms of subject, but forewarning, most of these are sad in one way or another. I do not feel they are negative, and have tried to only include books that are in some way life-affirming if kind of depressing.
- Reincarnation Blues: I am fascinated with anything related to reincarnation. I was either laughing or crying the entire time I read this one, and I read it very quickly. It’s about a soul who has lived almost 10,000 lives and fucked up every one in some way. In this version of the universe, you only get 10,000 chances to reach perfection before fading into oblivion, so he doesn’t have many chances left. He’s died so many times he’s used to the whole cycle, and is in a literal romantic relationship with death personified. Also one of his spirit guides is a cranky old woman who chain smokes and has a bunch of cats, so that resonated with me. It’s gorgeously written and tragic. It’s also hilarious. The story takes you through life after life and all the time in between. There’s a lot of contemplation on whether it’s wholly a good thing to become a mature, perfect soul and fade into the collective energy of everything. Without flaw, we cease being human and that’s a scary thing. It scares me to death.
- Being Mortal: I finished this in one day. It’s by a doctor who works with the elderly, and he makes the case that we as a society focus too heavily on prolonging life despite suffering it may cause. I really strongly agree with this idea so I particularly enjoyed it, but it’s a great book regardless of your personal stance on quantity versus quality of life. The author contrasts Western cultures’ attitudes towards aging and mortality with those of Eastern cultures, which tend to be more death-positive and comfortable with the aging process. Very moving in a dry, science-y way.
- Pain, Parties, Work: Retrospective about Sylvia Plath in her early days living in New York. Sad, but beautiful, visceral. It’s a love note to the City. It’s also a moment in time captured, and I’m a huge history nerd, and particularly love anything that takes place in the mid-twentieth century. Reading it left me in a really bad mood but because I kind of thrive on being upset, I will probably read it again.
- Call Me by Your Name: Top three favorite. It’s pretty well-known, but for anybody who isn’t familiar, it’s a really painful love story between two young men in 1980s Italy. Really. Really. Painful. Oliver is a graduate student staying at Elio’s parents’ house for the summer, and their relationship goes from there. It’s a story of first love, which I tend to find particularly poignant, and the whole thing is doomed from the start, because the guys only have six weeks together. I love the movie too, but the book is much better. More graphic too…there’s a scene in which Elio and Oliver make a point of watching each other poop and it was a little too *tender* for my taste, but at the same time there was not a single moment of this book I did not enjoy. It’s just that well-written––I literally cannot imagine having such a way with language. It feels like Andre Aciman invented English. It’s lyrical, lush, and nostalgic AF, even as somebody who did not grow up in the early 80s. The book is also significantly sadder to me than the movie because it’s narrated by Elio as a middle-aged man. He’s never gotten over his brief relationship with Oliver, who is clearly his soulmate but has found it much easier to move on than he has, and is married with children. The peak of Elio’s life was when he was seventeen. Six weeks of one summer. It’s heartbreaking.
- The Exorcist: Even better than the movie. Straight up poetic. It’s terrifying but I wouldn’t call it straight horror because there’s so much going on here, and in a way it’s more of a character study than anything else. There are some genuinely disturbing bits (I still haven’t gotten over the discomfort of seeing a little girl masturbating with a crucifix at age fourteen when I first saw the movie). But it’s ultimately a positive book, in its own way, and did not leave me sad like most books I like. I tend to assume most people are familiar with the premise––a young girl is possessed by the devil. That’s essentially the plot, with the major point of the story being the struggle to save her soul. The writing itself is incredible, and the central character, on some level more central than Reagan and her mother, is one of my favorite characters of all time. Damien Karras is an angsty, badass Jesuit priest who drinks and boxes and has a gay best friend. He’s called upon to perform an exorcism on the girl with the help of another much older good-guy priest. Hands down my favorite part of the story is his struggle with his faith and constant uncertainty on whether Reagan is really possessed or just a victim of a strange psychiatric condition (with some paranormal elements). He wants to believe the devil is involved so he can believe in God, and the whole thing is just really, really great.
- A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius: This one is a memoir, another favorite of mine that strikes a perfect balance, being both deeply sad and very funny. The author, Dave Eggers, is primarily a humor writer. It’s an insane story. Essentially his parents both died when he was in his early twenties and he was left to raise his ten-year-old brother; Eggers’ experience caring for his brother is unsurprisingly a wild and at times difficult ride. Includes what may be my favorite quote on how insane it is being human––“We are unusual and tragic and alive.”
- A Little Life: Sorry for all the depressing books. Another new classic, A Little Life is about friendship, specifically the enduring friendship of four very different men. Set in New York, which makes me love it all the more. The story spans several decades, so it’s also a study in aging and how we change over time. Another emotional novel about gay men. The main character is Jude, who is, in addition to being a genuinely kind, very decent person, absolutely brilliant. He is also really physically unwell and suffering from the aftereffects of severe (really severe) trauma from his childhood, which remains shrouded in mystery for most of the book. He is, as an adult, adopted by one of his college professors and his wife. His adoptive father narrates the story and consistently shows Jude pure love and acceptance. Jude still struggles with intense self-loathing and finds it difficult to accept the fact that he is worth loving. Enough said. I was kind of speechless when I finished it, mostly because I was crying so hard. Comes highly recommended by literally everyone I know who’s read it.
- The Year of Magical Thinking: Favorite Joan Dideon book (and I am a big fan of her in general), a reflection on the time following her husband’s death, during which her daughter was also in the hospital close to death. She traces the history of her marriage, which was both loving and complex. This is predominantly a book about grief and how everybody experiences it differently.
- Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: Another non-fiction book about death, albeit of a very different nature than Being Mortal. Obviously my taste in books is somewhat specific. I tried to diversify, but I have to include this one. By a very cool female mortician (Caitlin Doughty), it’s a look at the funeral industry and our attitudes towards death. Doughty is of the mindset that death is nothing to fear or resist. It’s really interesting in that it shares a lot of “secrets” of the business of death (care of the dead, rituals, anecdotes from the mortuary). Also shows the insane measures we take as a society to keep death out of sight if not out of mind.
- The Book of Highs: A long, long list of ways to achieve a state of altered consciousness without drugs. Fun to read during captivity, good ideas for things to do when bored.
- The Recovering: Beautiful memoir on alcoholism and sobriety. The author is a truly gifted writer and alumni of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. It’s deeply personal but also looks at addiction on a broader level––how we as a society view addicts, and the idea of rehabilitation as it pertains to creativity. Many well-known people who struggled with addiction are spotlighted, especially the writers who inspired the author (Leslie Jamison) in her own career. Every book I read, I go through with a highlighter and mark my favorite lines for later reference; by the time I finished this one, half the book was fluorescent blue.