“The appetite for silence is rarely an acquired taste.” – Emily Dickinson
I started reading consistently again, and before getting too far into my 2022 reading, I wanted to briefly reflect on the books that pulled me through 2021. Lately I have had an appetite for silence, and reading has helped me find company in solitude.
The first image is a stack of my 2021 reads and the second image is my favorite among them.
I am finding it hard to retroactively write reviews for these books, so I decided to just write whatever the first thing that came to mind when I think of them is.
Educated by Tara Westover: To me, Educated is creative nonfiction at its finest. Westover writes about her life growing up in a survivalist Fundamentalist Mormon family, the trauma that came with it, and how educating herself/ going on to get a formal education allowed her to break free from her family and make sense of her experiences. I’ve heard people critique the book saying “there is no way that all happened!” and I would have to say a.) who cares its a good book and b.) a major theme of the book, I think, is in examining how trauma distorts memory. Memory even without trauma is distorted. Creative nonfiction and memoirs are less about cold hard facts and more about solid truths told in compelling form. That is how I see it, anyway.
Untamed By Glennon Doyle: I deeply appreciate this book. When I first started reading it, I had no idea who Glennon was or what the book was going to be about. The first chapter had me hooked. I picked up a gay memoir without even trying! Midway through, I kind of felt like certain aspects of the book/ Glennon’s optimism made me roll my eyes. But by the end, I came to the conclusion that I respect Glennon immensely, and that I identify with her optimism. No one who has suffered from bulimia and alcoholism and who came out as gay later in life after being married with kids is optimistic because they are saccharine. And, I actually love that in the face of it all, she is NOT jaded and bitter. Instead she is a ray of hopeful sunshine.
Crying in H-mart by Michelle Zauner: This book is special to me. I first read Michelle Zauner’s essay Crying in H-mart in The New Yorker years ago, and I remember thinking at the time that it was one of the best pieces of food writing that I had ever read. When I heard she got a book deal to expand the essay, I couldn’t wait.
As someone who uses food as a means of understanding/ relating to the world around me, it is really beautiful to see Michelle use food to express her love for her mother and her grief over her mother’s sickness/death. Michelle also uses food to speak to her identity as Korean American, and the experience of being not-quite-Korean-enough-but-not-quite-American-enough to fit into either identity. H-Mart becomes a literal and metaphorical haven for Michelle–a place to connect to her mother and her heritage through the food and people she can find/ observe there.
As an aside, I have been following Michelle Zauner as a musician since she was releasing songs for free on Bandcamp under the name Little Big League, so it is extremely cool to see her creative evolution.
So Sad Today by Melissa Broder: I read this book in a day and actually don’t remember much about it at all. It’s a collection of stories that, with an edge of dark humor, cover depression and anxiety and sex and body image. I don’t remember anything I read changing/expanding/resonating with the way I think about any of these subjects though.
The Truth Will Set You Free But First It Will Piss You Off by Gloria Steinem: This is a fun, beautifully illustrated collection of Steinem quotes. Loved it.
Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris: This is a funny collection of stories by one of my favorite writers of all time. David Sedaris is the reason I started journaling and one of the inspirations behind my writing in general. I particularly enjoyed the essay Go Carolina, where he tells this story of having a lisp as a kid, and about working around it by creatively constructing sentences that avoided words with an “s” sound. I was laughing out loud as I read.
The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon: This book is the longest one I read this year, and while I was intrigued, I was not impressed. Strangers on Reddit (*cough* men *cough*) site this book as being THE definitive book on depression. Like, SOOO relatable. Thats why I read it. Not sure what I was looking for really. What I found was a very exhaustive (exhausting?) examination of depression through the personal, political, scientific, cultural… through all the lenses one might say. I found it interesting but not enlightening, and not, to be honest, any more expansive than the New Yorker article (Anatomy of Melancholy) that it is an outgrowth of. Maybe people like this book because the book itself encapsulates depression: sluggish, boring, and persistently melancholic.
I’ll tell you, out of the books I read this year? Chicken With Plums is a better book on depression in my personal opinion. So is This Is Water.
Note: about half way through reading I switched to audiobook, which was a terrible idea because the narration sounds highly disingenuous to the topic at hand. Retrospectively, this might be why I didnt like it as much as I didn’t like it.
The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler: This collection of stories is so damn important, and everyone should read them (or better yet, watch them told live). I was first introduced to this work of political theater in college when students put on a production of it. I didn’t “get it” until I saw it. And Jesus Christ did it floor me. Going back and reading the piece reminded me of its power. I cried. I laughed. I was angry. Shaped around stories of sex, relationships, and violence, Ensler gives voice to a diverse group of women/ people with vaginas who’s stories are rarely ever told because the subject matter is uncomfortable, or too taboo. She gives these stories a stage and an audience. I’m not exaggerating when I say this work will give you chills, break your heart, change your life.
Girlhood by Melissa Febos This was among my favorite reads from the year. I picked it up on a whim because I liked the cover art, only to realize that Melissa Febos and I have quite a few things in common. To name a few: she has roots in the Woods Hole/ Falmouth area. She is queer. She is a libra. She took OWL. She writes. I felt so seen reading this book. Simply sharing the experience of being a woman moving through this world is enough of a commonality for that. The essays in Girlhood got me thinking about topics ranging from my own shames and desires, the male gaze and the patriarchy, mother/daughter relationships, and all the bullshit that I have internalized over the years without even realizing it (internalized homophobia, the way I view my body, etc.) I saw the book almost like a roadmap for the learning/ unlearning processes necessary for any sort of self actualization/ healing from the anger, grief, and trauma that comes with existing in this world as a queer (albeit highly privileged) woman. This book is stunningly written, too.
The Last time I’ll Write About You by Dawn Lanuza This was a relatively unmemorable book of poetry about breakups/ heartbreak. Some of it resonated with me. Some of it didn’t. It was nice to have a book of poetry to break up my longer reads.
Turtles All The Way Down by John Green: It occurred to me while reading this book that it is the first one I’ve ever read where the main character has OCD. I really appreciated that. I also appreciated reading a work of YA Fiction— the subject matter is serious, but it is not quite as existential as some of my other 2021 reads. Also, I adore John Greene. He writes with such empathy. This book reminded me of a time when all I read was YA Fiction, and I appreciated being transported to that headspace.
The 2000s Made Me Gay by Grace Perry: This book was one of my favorite reads all year. Told through a series of short stories focusing on the early 2000s, Grace tells a queer coming of age story about how the pop culture of the aughts (in all its iconic, nostalgic, and deeply problematic…glory?) influenced/informed her personal narrative. It is funny, It is well written and engaging (I read it in basically one sitting!), and it is RELATABLE AS F*CK (iknowiknowiknow, I didn’t “come of age” in the aughts I was born in 97… but still!). Her book relates to a larger millennial lesbian coming of age experience, and I actually do find some overlap to my own (gen Zennial?) queer coming of age experience. I’m pleased to know I’m not the only one who finds Cadet Kelly to be non canonically gay as hell. Im glad someone could coherently write out my inner frustrations at J.K Rolling for creating a world I fell in love with, only to slight the queer community at every turn (Lets make Dumbledore gay as a lazy afterthought! Lets be TERF-y as hell all over twitter!). Grrr. And my god. I can’t tell you how much I find myself internally screaming whenever I think about Grace’s commentary on the harm brought about by Janis Ian- Dyke, the unforgettable burn book BURN from Mean Girls, which was, now that I think about it, my first introduction to the slur (at a VERY young age). And to be clear, I LOVE Tina Fey and think Mean Girls is funny as hell. Also, I am quite pleased with the entrance of “dyke” into my lexicon. But DAMN! The cognitive dissonance that came from consuming the mixed messages of queer allyship ft. “I mean I couldn’t have a lesbian at my party, there were gonna be girls there in their bathing suits!”can not be overstated. As it turns out, it doesn’t so much matter that this is satire. It hit too close to the thing it aimed to criticize and expose: that to be known as (or interpreted as) a lesbian in high school was to be ridiculed by straight girls who think you are in love with them or something.
Back to the book: The chapter titles are hilarious, and this book got me thinking a lot about the way pop culture has influenced my own queer coming of age experience. As I write this retrospective book review (March 2022) I am halfway through reading Girls Can Kiss Now by Jill Gutowitz, which also uses aughts pop culture to tell a queer coming of age story. Though there are underlying similarities, I am pleased to find a whole new voice commenting on many of the same issues/experiences. I am excited to compare notes! Both authors influence my own thinking and writing on the subject (and how it extends into the 2010-2020 era), and Grace’s book inspired me to sign up for a UCLA writing class she is teaching in Creative Nonfiction.
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson: Rather unfortunately, I think much of this book went clear over my head. It is small but dense and academic, and I think I would have to read it again for more clarity. I think I should read it again for more clarity. In terms of books on the subject of queer family building, I much preferred Detransition Baby by Torrey Peters.
Greedy by Jen Winston: I appreciate this book as a piece of work fighting the fight in dismantling bi-phobia and the stereotypes and shame and other-ing that comes with it. The writing style didn’t resonate with me, but much of the humor and light heartedness did. It is a solid essay collection filled with much needed bi affirmations.
I Think I’m In Friend Love With You by Yumi Sakugawa: This book is cute. I think i’m in friend love with you is, of course, a sentiment I wholeheartedly understand. Who doesn’t? I’m glad someone decided it deserved to be a tiny picture book.
Egghead by Bo Burnham: Bo Burnham… writes poetry? Of course he does. What CAN’T he do?
Deep into my Bo Burnham fascination (obsession?) I found out that he wrote a poetry book. I was excited to find it is very Shel Silverstein-eque, and feels very experimental. It brushes between contemplative and absurd. It is filled with beautiful artwork by Chance Bone. I’m not sure how it would stand alone to me, but in the context of the rest of his work, it provides an interesting look into another creative part of his brain.
Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast: This graphic novel had me oscillating between laugh crying and just crying. As I do.
I witnessed my grandparents struggle in old age before they died, and I witnessed the struggles of the elderly people I cared for when I worked as a home health aid. This book somehow captured, WITH HUMOR, DAMNIT, the parts of old age that really do fall at the cusp of absurdly funny and despairingly heartbreaking. Chast wrote and drew the book about her parents, and her experience caring for them in their final years. Though I relate to and empathize with much of this book, I acknowledge that I cant even begin to understand what this reality would look like, were I experiencing it with my own mom and dad.
I saw my grandparents in Chast’s depiction of her parent’s borderline-hoarder tendencies, their codependency, and their unwillingness to talk about or plan for death. I saw them in the expressions Chast drew on her parent’s cartoon faces. I saw my mother and my aunts in the face of cartoon Chast as she struggled to make sense of the paperwork, all the horrible, awful, no-good, unpleasant paperwork that comes with eldercare. I saw myself in Chast as she cleaned up a poop covered bathroom after her mother’s incontinence. It reminded me of all the experiences I had while working as a home health aid that were not remotely funny, but that deserve humor as much as they deserve humility.
This is a book about the stuff no one talks about. All the frustration, irritation, anger, sadness, guilt… that comes with witnessing old age and death as a drawn out, painful-for-everyone-involved, sometimes darkly humorous affair.
Roz Chast draws it all out such that the images move the words and the words move the images. I see it. I experience it. I laugh. I cry.
Feelings For Days by Connor Kelly-Eiding: This was a cool collection of captioned doodles/illustrations of the author’s inner thoughts and feelings, mostly as they pertain to anxiety. I found it at a thrift store, and it turns out to be created by a local LA artist. I related to the style— often time I try to hybrid draw out/write out my thoughts and feelings too. It made me think, huh, maybe I should try to publish my shit. I feel like this book could have benefited from editorial revision, but I understand that it was a low budget early artist project and respect the hell out of that.
Embroideries by Marjane Satrapi: Gosh golly I love Marjane Satrapi. This graphic novel struck my as being comparable to The Vagina Monologues in that it tells taboo women’s stories. It is far more funny than sad though. I like that it is an illustrated tale of behind-closed-doors, women-to-women conversations about their private lives. Marjane has a way of absolutely nailing tone, humor, and personality.
The Times I Knew I Was Gay by Eleanor Crewes: Like with Feelings For Days, this book makes me think I should try to make an Olivia-esque equivalent and try to get it published. I thought this book was cute and vaguely relatable, but It wasn’t what I wanted it to be/ thought it could be. I want to see a gay coming out/ coming of age graphic novel that is pee my pants funny, and that nails specificities and nuance. Like The 2000s Made Me Gay. Only in graphic novel form. I want the drawings to capture emotions Allie Brosh style. This wasn’t that, but I do like having more gay comics in my home.
Wolfpack by Abby Wombach: I read this because I read Glennon Doyle and thought to myself, I should read her wife’s writing too! It was a motivational commencement speech, but didn’t leave me changed the way This Is Water did. I did appreciate the fact that this book made me aware of how much less professional woman athletes get payed in comparison to professional male athletes, and all the shitty gender bias crap that the United States Woman’s National Soccer Team has faced/ continues to face.
A Memory, A Monologue, A Rant, And A Prayer by various authors, edited Eve Ensler: This book is yet another example of Eve Ensler doing gods work. It broke my heart even more than The Vagina Monologues. A must read.
Chicken With Plums by Marjane Satrapi: Okay. Whew. So, if you are looking for a graphic novel on depression (besides Hyperbole and a Half which is my #1 rec…) I would say read this. It is the story of a man who loses the will to live after he loses the things that bring him pleasure and love. Eventually, not even his family or his favorite meal, chicken with plums, can take away his despair. It was interesting for me to see a world where a person losing the will to live were enough to make them simply…not. This is a story where in one moment I felt empathy for the main character and his disappointments, and the next I was angry at him for being so awful. This book highlights the way in which depression can so easily be seen as selfish— I found myself feeling sad for the main character’s family more than anything, as they were the ones who had to face his cruelty, detachment, indifference, and ultimately his death.
If you are going to read this book, you must also listen to/watch Marjane Satrapi’s SGS Film Festival Interview on Youtube. It is incredible.
In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado: I was not prepared for this book. A memoir, it was, but in a completely reimagined form. The Dream House becomes many things, from a haunted brain space to an actual dream house. From metaphor to not metaphor. Dear god, just read the book. Its so damn good. I can possibly do it justice here. It is about psychological abuse in toxic queer relationship, but the scope felt so much larger than an individual’s specific experience.
Intimations by Zadie Smith: Zadie Smith’s writing always leaves me in a daze. I remember reading The Lazy River in The New Yorker and being absolutely shook by the line: “and then we all jumped back into the metaphor.” Anyway, Intimations is no different in how it makes me feel. It is an essay collection written during early lockdown of the pandemic, and it uses observation to explore the ways in which the world’s response to the pandemic might reveal/ hint at deeper truths about our relationships and priorities. It also ponders relative suffering, life in isolation, and crisis response. Though the book is small, it is highly reflective. I absolutely adore the last chapter in particular, where Smith acknowledges and exercises gratitude toward the people and circumstances which have allowed her to thrive.
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado: This book was…. haunting? I’m actually struggling to give word to what this essay collection is. Like with The Argonauts, I am left feeling like some deep and intellectual shit went clear over my head here. With that being said, to me this book was a series of stories in which women’s bodies are centered as haunted, unruly vessels of shame, anger, sensuality, complexity. Through fictional essays where sci fi meets horror meets queer theory, Machado creates stories that leave you uncomfortable and confused. I think I’m going to have to go back to the beginning and start again now that i’m noticing re-occuring themes… was the overwhelming feeling I had when reading.
Taste Makers by Mayukh Sen: My boss gave me this book during the Holidays and I absolutely devoured it. This book highlights, as the extended title says better than I can, “seven immigrant woman who revolutionized food in America.” For anyone who thinks Julia Child is the pinnacle of woman chefs and cookbook authors…. A.) you are wrong. B.) you need to read Sen’s heavily researched piece on every trailblazing woman in the food world who never became a household name. Instead, they became “the Julia Child of Chinese cooking!” and “the Julia Child of Italian cooking!” and so on. A tragedy, really. I am grateful for Sen giving these women the recognition they deserve.
On Connection by Kae Tempest: This book was delicious. All of Kae’s work is. Coming out of 2020, I’ve been thinking a lot about connection, and the general lack of connection Ive been feeling with anyone as of late. I appreciated reading Kae’s take on the importance of connecting to other people through art/ creative outlets. Who would know better than someone who has, time and time again, moved audiences to tears with their own art and conviction?
This Is Water by David Foster Wallace: I read this book out loud in my apartment to no one in particular. I read this book out loud to my houseplants. This book deserves to be read out loud. I couldn’t bear to not. It made me cry to my wall. It was all so weirdly powerful and depressing. Maybe it just caught me on an already-feeling-sad-and-existential day. Anyway, this book, which was originally a commencement speech (I highly recommend listening to Wallace give it live), is not even a little bit cloying. Good. It is all about the choices you do and don’t have in this world, and how important it is to control how you use your brain to reframe all the uncontrollable situations you will undoubtably face. This book made me cry, I think, because David Foster Wallace wrote this no nonsense speech about hope, and then went on to kill himself three years later. To say that this fact re-contextualizes the work as a massive bummer would be a giant understatement.
The Best American Food Writing 2019 by various authors, edited by Gabrielle Hamilton & Silvia Killingsworth:
The Best American Food Writing 2021 by various authors, edited by Samin Nostrat & Silvia Killingsworth
I ADORE The Best American Food Writing essay collections that come out every year. Someone needs to give Silvia Killingsworth an award. Woman knows her shit. Each essay from each book deserves time and attention that I won’t get into here, but I will say that the thing I love most about these books is that they bring forth essays that use food as a way to talk about everything under the sun that is not food. This, after all, is what good food writing should be.
Most notable for me from these texts were the essays What a 1944 Starvation Experiment Reveals About 2020 Food Insecurity by Kelsey Miller and Who Will Save The Food Timeline? by Dayna Evans.
The former is an essay about how starvation fundamentally changes the brain, and I could not have been more surprised to find in it the first heavily researched, well written account of what precisely I went through when I developed and suffered from anorexia nervosa. As you can glean from the title, the essay isn’t shaped around eating disorders explicitly, which is something I think I appreciated even more about it. The topic instead is woven between the lines (and actually is referenced directly at points). It hit all the marks without the baggage and bias and wishy washy subjectivity you get in many essays on Anorexia (I typically find myself annoyed and frustrated as hell by most writing on the topic, can you tell?). I get the sense that this essay has better reception/ a larger audience than a piece on eating disorders would because it is based on a study of grown men, and then is framed around 2020 food insecurity. Regardless, it gets at a larger truth that I have always felt like people just don’t talk about. I had been waiting for someone to write a smart, sharp, no bullshit piece on the subject, and in a round about, non-explicit, read-between-the-lines sort of way, Kelsey Miller did.
The latter essay is about a reference librarian who single handedly constructed a comprehensive timeline mapping food history. It is simultaneously one of the most feel-good pieces I read all year and also one of the saddest.
I cried reading both of these essays. The books they are a part of left me wholly satiated.
Detransition Baby by Torrey Peters: This book is just fucking incredible, and Torrey Peters is so damn smart. I picked up this book because it has gotten a lot of hype, specifically queer hype, and I haven’t read a lot of queer fiction. It was more than I could have hoped. What I found in it was a thought experiment/ character study of what it might look like to have three woman— a trans woman, a trans woman who detransitioned, and a cis woman— build an unconventional family together. It is far more complex than that, so just read it.