After I graduated college with my proud English degree I proceeded to not read anything for an entire year. I’m pretty sure that cramming a 4-year degree into 3 years damaged my brain, especially considering that I chose to focus primarily on the novels of 19th Century Russia which, as anyone who has ever read this genre already knows, are objectively dense as all fuck and sometimes weirdly translated and somehow never less than 500 pages printed in some awful size 5 font. By the end of it all I was just tired of words. Reading anything more than one paragraph seemed physically exhausting—I got so bad that The Cheesecake Factory menu was even too much.
I love literature. It is, in my meaningless opinion, the superlative medium of human expression, even above the visual arts and music and I know a lot of people don’t agree with that but whatever. I came to this opinion after spending years reading through the classics, because after you’ve worked through the Dostoevskys, and the Austins, and the Faulkners, you learn that there are some people who recognize exactly what it means to be human and who can express that profound understanding so eloquently and in a way that’s both deeply personal and shockingly universal. All you can do is be left shaken and changed after reading it, and that’s badass.
But dude, the classics are fucking DIFFICULT.
And that’s the whole point of them. They’re supposed to be weighty and articulate and sometimes philosophical and theoretical. It’s what makes reading them so rewarding. But when you get sucked down a path of only reading the heavy shit, you forget that literature can be lighter and—dare I say—a little bit more fun to read. So enters contemporary literature. I feel like a lot of undergrad students forget that contemporary lit exists simply because they’re so bogged down in the old stuff. And here’s what’s great about new stuff: it can be just as deep, just as well-written, but the person who published it is probably ALIVE, which is pretty tight, AND the stories are relevant and familiar to your 2018 life PLUS they often include DIFFERENT POINTS OF VIEW AND ATTITUDES besides than the same old, tired, white guy bullshit.
So here are three good books I read that were published v recently (two from 2017, one from 2016). All three were written by LADIES, and while the author’s gender is not something I necessarily care about, I do gotta say that the women writers are fucking crushing it lately.
All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, Bryn Greenwood. 2016.
I’m gonna put this one first because it was actually my least favorite of the three but the one I’ve noticed the most hype over. Lately, my favorite sub-genre of fiction is anything that revolves around trashy, methed-up young people, so when my friend suggested this book to me I immediately went and bought it. The book follows the development of a young girl with a devastating home life and her relationship with an older guy who steps in as the parent figure. In terms of storytelling, this book is phenomenal. I’m personally not a huge fan of constant narrator switch, but it works well here. The prose is gorgeous, and a lot of the supporting characters are some of the most well-fleshed out supporting characters I’ve read in a long time. It deals with heavy topics like drug addiction and statutory rape in a way that’s not preachy; instead, it invites the reader to reflect on their ethical opinion of the various situations the characters end up in. What I didn’t like was the fact that, despite all the great fucked-up shit, this is, at its core, a love story. And worse yet it’s a love story that ends on a relatively uplifting note. Fuck out of my face with that shit I AM SO. FUCKING. OVER. HAPPY. LOVE. STORIES. UGH.
We Are Never Meeting In Real Life, by Samantha Irby. 2017.
Samantha Irby is a celebrity to me and I’d say she’s probably my favorite living celebrity besides Julian Casablancas even though I don’t really even like him anymore since he’s not hot like he was back before 2010. I try to pretend like I’m too cool to fangirl over stuff but I’m 100% all-in on Sam Irby. This book, and her previously published work, Meaty (RECOMMEND), are essay collections that chronicle her life and various struggles with a whole array of subjects ranging from her private, TMI battles with Crohn’s disease, to dating shitty men, to (mostly not) dealing with what to do with her father’s ashes, to lesbian sex with all of its complications AND SO MUCH MORE. But her real appeal is how she a) perfectly balances all of the heavy life-fucking-sucks-shit with lighthearted fun stuff like her opening “Bachelorette application” while simultaneously b) being absolutely hilarious and 100% real the entire time. The thing I like best about Irby is that she’s completely self-aware. Where other, similar comical memoirists like Jenny Lawson sometimes come off as obnoxious or even ignorant in their attempts to force humor into things like mental health issues and other personal shortcomings, Irby remains steadfast because of her poignant mindfulness of who she is. She never tries to come off as a hilarious, relatable individual, she just is. Irby’s writing speaks to me, mainly because her and I live our lives according to the same fundamental principle: “life is trash so don’t take anything too seriously.”
Marlena, by Julie Buntin. 2017.
Best for last because this is one of the greatest books I’ve ever read. Seriously. And for all my love of literature, that’s not something I say lightly at all. The plot is fairly simple. It follows the year-long friendship between the 15-year-old narrator, Cat, and seventeen-year-old Marlena—the beautiful, tragic protagonist whose life and influence still affect Cat well into her adulthood. It deals with family struggles, poverty, substance abuse, manipulation, and many familiar, dangerous adolescent impulses. But it’s the characters, the deeply intricate, ominous glimpse into the livelihoods of these two teenage girls that makes the novel so powerful. I’ve read book reviews where reviewers claim that the story or characters will stick with you long after you’ve put the book down, and sure, I’ve experienced that before. I don’t think anyone really forgets about Oscar Wao, or Raul Duke, or the gross progression of Lolita, or the melancholy arc of This Side of Paradise. But the characters of Marlena creeped into my fucking soul, man. This was the book that got me reading again.
But listen, when it comes down to it, reading is important. And reading good things is really, really important. Read these books if you want, they’re all good books, or don’t read them. Just read SOMETHING, because a lot of people aren’t reading ANYTHING anymore, and that’s heartbreaking. Reading a good book is just slightly, SLIGHTLY more effort than watching Netflix, and you’ll maybe even burn like a whole 2 calories turning the pages so it probably counts as exercise.