“We need to make books cool again. If you go home with somebody and they don’t have books, don’t fuck them.” – John Waters
A few days ago, my dear friend Roxanne posted her favorite books of 2012 on Stories of Conflict and Love. Admittedly, Roxanne reads better books than I do, but I bake more cookies than she does, so I think we come out even. I loved her idea of wrapping up the year by revisiting the words and ideas I consumed in trains, planes, and hostels around the world in 2012. So here is my response to Roxanne’s question, which books have stayed with you?
I spent about six months of this past year in Colombia, and did quite a bit of reading before and during my stay to better understand my new home. The most striking piece of non-fiction I read during this time was Silvana Paternostro’s The Land of Man and God: A Latin Woman’s Journey, which brought me a few baby-steps closer to understanding the complex world of Colombian sexuality and gender roles. This was a place where, on an average Saturday night, I saw a man selling hideous wall tapestries at a local salsa bar called Donde Fidel. On one arm, his inventory glorified a somber Virgin Mary; on the other, voluptuous naked women fit for a Daddy Yankee video. I turned to my Cartagenera companion and asked, exasperated, “Do you not see any contradiction here??” She shrugged and replied, “Not really… He’s got something for everybody.”
My other Colombian reads included A Gringa in Bogota: Living Colombia’s Invisible War, More Terrible than Death: Drugs, Violence, and America’s War in Colombia, and two masterpieces by Gabriel García Márquez: Love in the Time of Cholera and One Hundred Years of Solitude. I tried to re-read Love (my favorite of the two) again in recent months to alleviate my Colombia withdrawal, but the book is so intimately tied to my memories of Cartagena and the man I loved there that I couldn’t get through more than a few pages without blubbering. It has henceforth been buried in my closet under some old Halloween costumes.
While in Russia, I was mesmerized and frightened by The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, by Masha Gessen. I read it just as Putin was reelected for a controversial increased six-year term, after already having reigned over the country for 12 years. It inspired me to start a number of uncomfortable conversations with older Russians about their support for him, which always ended with, “Well, he’s better than the other options.”
I tend to re-read obsessively when I really like a book (or when it’s the only printed word in my carry-on luggage). My count for Jane Eyre is about eight; The Unbearable Lightness of Being is at four or five. This year, I read the light-weight The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown three times, almost exclusively in airports and airplanes. It’s an insightful read for perfectionists everywhere, written by a “shame researcher” with a sense of humor and a warm heart.
Brown’s book sparked a positive psychology kick that followed with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s classic Flow. Another useful, if slightly redundant, self-helper is Creating Your Best Life: The Ultimate Life List Guide,which provides a lot of practical ideas on how to set major life goals and follow through on them.
To help me achieve both “flow” and my newly delineated goals, I devoured John Brockman’s This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking in hopes of reversing too many hazy nights of aguardiente and Ron Medellín. As he has done every year for the past decade, Brockman posed a question to some of the most brilliant scientists, authors, and thinkers of our time. This year, it was “What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?”
One of my favorite responses (“Structured Serendipity”) comes from Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Zweig, who suggests that “creativity can be enhanced deliberately through environmental variation.” He continues:
“Two techniques seem to be promising: varying what you learn and varying where you learn it. I try each week to read a scientific paper in a field new to me– and to read it in a different place. New associations often leap out of the air at me this way. More intriguing, others seem to form covertly and lie in wait for the opportune moment when they can click into place. I do not try to force these associations out into the open; they are like the shrinking mimosa plants that crumple if you touch them but bloom if you leave them alone.”
Yes, she gets her own category, because 2012 was totally her year. After coming out as the formerly anonymous Sugar of Dear Sugar, Strayed published two of my favorite reads of the year (both of which will be re-read): Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail and Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar. I fell in sycophantic love with Strayed through her column on The Rumpus, and this love was only compounded as I journeyed along on her heart-breaking and inspiring memoir. This woman brought Oprah out of retirement, for god’s sake. Read her.
The following books provided encouragement and insight throughout my travels this past year. Theroux and de Botton provoke a lot of self-reflection related to the philosophy of travel, which is at times less than comfortable, but always worthwhile.
The Tao of Travel: Enlightenments from Lives on the Road by Paul Theroux
The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton
Barrels of Laughs
If you need a literary laugh, try newcomer Sara Barron’s pee-your-pants-funny People Are Unappealing: Even Me. Barron holds nothing back in this self-deprecating (maybe everything-deprecating) collection of stories from her childhood onward. I was so thrilled to learn that I was not the only eleven-year-old to have written erotic fiction in a spiral-bound notebook. Barron has me beat with her prose, though, with lines like “he humped me wildly with his weiner.”
Runner-up to Barron’s cheeky memoir is Sloane Crosley’s How Did You Get This Number, another hilarious, though more reserved, set of personal essays. Both authors tell harrowing tales of young hipster life in New York City, but Crosley never goes quite so far as admitting to peeing on a drunk guy in a bathtub. So Barron wins in my book.
And here are some of my other favorites from 2012, in no particular order or organization. Read them and be happy.
In Praise of Messy Lives: Essays by Katie Roiphe
The Moon is Always Female: Poems by Marge Piercy
Dream Work by Mary Oliver
Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion by Alain de Botton
Currently Piled On My Bed With Dog-Eared Pages
These are the books I plan to conquer in the next month or so. Extrapolate what you will about my psychological state and plans for my future. My lips are still sealed.
Due Diligence: An Impertinent Inquiry into Microfinance by David Roodman
Portfolios of the Poor: How the World’s Poor Live on $2 a Day by Collins, Morduch, Rutherford, Ruthven
Black Sea by Neal Ascherson
How to Think More About Sex by Alain de Botton
That wraps up the highlights of my literary life in 2012 and the start of 2013. I will now pass the baton along to you, dear readers. What were your favorite reads of the past year? What will you carry with you into 2013?