Culture Connoisseur: The Best Books I Read in 2015

All the books.
All the books.

In 2015, I read a respectable 41 books. While I attribute part of the 41 to being a literature student, I read most of the 41 in the last six months post-graduation. I told myself that I would work on filling in the gaps of my literature education and catching up with recent releases, and my list just keeps growing and growing. It’s the only to-do list I enjoy adding items to. I know you’re probably tired of the December deluge of Best Of lists, but I’m not going to restrict myself to 2015 releases for this list. We should all be reading the older stuff in addition to the new, but time is arbitrary and this is my blog. Here are the best books I read in 2015, complete with specific recommendations for what to read next — some of which I also read this year.

Between The World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

This is just required reading for all humans everywhere. Ta-Nehisi Coates talks about his experiences of growing up and being black in the United States, framed as a letter to his adolescent son: “This is your country, this is your world, this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it.” I’ve spent a lot of this year reading and talking about race, and I’ve been making a more conscious effort to read books written by women and people of culture. It was fitting that I closed out the year with this book. Coates writes beautiful prose, and is one of the most insightful authors I’ve read in a long time. This is probably the best book I read all year, and I highly, highly recommend it. If you like it, try If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin.

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay.

I waited almost two months to get this through interlibrary loan from my local library (Current students, take advantage of all of your university library resources) and it was entirely worth it. I love this collection of essays a lot and I think everyone should read them, especially college students who are interested in race, sexuality and culture. There were a lot of people on Goodreads who criticized the hell out of this, but they’re just haters. Roxane Gay is a national treasure and we should protect her at all costs. If you like it, you’ll appreciate Loose Woman by Sandra Cisneros.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

This summer, I sat down to try and read this novel for the third time. Both times I tried to read it, I only got a few chapters in before getting distracted with something else. I finally did it, and in only two days.  I love the 2007 film version of this novel, but you have to read this to fully appreciate the nuances of the films. Some of the lines in this novel sent me reeling because of their romanticism, but in a good way. In reading P&P, I got a better understanding of this novel as social criticism rather than just a romance novel. If you haven’t read it before and want to, I highly suggest getting a copy that has really good footnotes: I had the Longman Cultural Edition version. And when you’re done, read Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. (And for the record, I prefer Mr. Darcy over Mr. Rochester any day.)

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff.

This. Novel. Is. Incredible. There are two halves to this book, which at its foundation is about a marriage: the first half is about the husband’s perspective, while the second half is about the wife’s. The two things that I loved about this book the most was that it continually surprised me in the best ways, and that Mathilde Satterwhite became one of my favorite female characters of all time. Barack Obama cosigned the love for this novel, so with my and his recommendation you know you have to read it. Make it #1 on your 2016 reading list. And if you love it, read Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. (Fates and Furies is not particularly a thriller, but if you appreciate Mathilde you’ll appreciate Lisbeth Salander.)

The White Album by Joan Didion.

I’ve always felt a kindred spirit in Joan Didion, so it wasn’t surprising that I loved this collection of essays. She’s one of my main writing inspirations, so I’m slowly reading her work and savoring every word. I would try and pick a favorite essay, but it’s too hard because I loved every one. I intensely admire her writing about California, and find that a lot of what she wrote in the 1960s is still incredibly relevant. When you’re done, start right in on another collection of her essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

Citizen by Claudia Rankine.

Reading this book of poetry was a highlight of my college career. Much like Between The World And Me, this is an intensely emotional book about being black in the U.S., and discusses concepts like language and microaggression, as well as analysis of the prejudice and violence inflicted against black people. If you’re interested in educating yourself about the language we use to talk about race and body politics (as you should be), this is a good introductory book that will give you priceless knowledge. I read this book in two classes I took concurrently, and was lucky enough that she visited Cal Poly Pomona to read some selections and explain her stories. To hear her talk about this was an incredible opportunity that I’m glad I took advantage of. After you’re done, read Zone One by Colson Whitehead.

Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein.

This has to be one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read. Carrie Brownstein talks about her life growing up, starting / being in Sleater-Kinney and trying to find a sense of family and belonging. She doesn’t talk about Portlandia, but this book isn’t really about that. Carrie Brownstein is an incredible writer, and I’ve really enjoyed listening to interviews for this book. If you read this and like it, I suggest Patti Smith’s Just Kids.

Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger.

One night in the springtime, I woke up at about 4 a.m. and couldn’t go back to sleep. I don’t know what possessed me, but I decided to watch the Salinger documentary on Netflix. This brought on a mini-obsession where I read two of his short story collections and some of his New Yorker essays, all of which are world-class examples of how to write. Franny and Zooey is about two members of the Glass family and a discomfort with inauthenticity. People know J.D. Salinger for The Catcher in the Rye more so than his other work, but I think his short stories are much better. After you read this, read his Raise High The Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction.

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway.

My dad had a copy of this book for the longest time, and in sixth grade I tried to read it on my own and had absolutely no idea what was going on beyond Europe and bullfights but finished it anyway. Eleven years later, I enjoyed it so much more — a story about a dude just trying to figure his life out. Now I really know why Hemingway was celebrated as the voice of the Lost Generation. And of course, the Gertrude Stein epigraph sold me immediately. If you like it, read A Farewell to Arms — another Hemingway I read in 2015.

Honorable Mentions: Mr. Palomar by Italo Calvino, On Beauty by Zadie Smith, Underworld by Don DeLillo, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson, A Gate At The Stairs by Lorrie Moore and Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien.

What did you read this year? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

Link Party: 6/22-6/26

I did a quick series of sketchbook papers on words I use frequently. This was my favorite one.
I did a quick series of sketchbook papers on words I use frequently. This was my favorite one.

I used my laptop a grand total of two times this week, and I gotta say, a digital detox beyond my phone felt really great. Granted, I still read articles and surfed Facebook / Twitter on my phone. But baby steps, right? Back to your regularly scheduled programming next week. And now to the party:

1. If you’re curious, this is what being a zookeeper is like.

2. Elaine Benes was truly the best part of Seinfeld.

3. I wholeheartedly appreciate Rashida Jones’s advice on happiness at work.

4. Man Repeller nails (as always) an analysis of what the Gmail undo send button really means.

A twofer 5. Claudia Rankine on the condition of African American life being one of mourning and Roxane Gay on why she can’t forgive Dylann Roof.

And a bonus: Everyone was talking about it earlier this week, but Marc Maron’s podcast with Barack Obama is definitely worth listening to.

Have a fantastic weekend.

Undergrad Adventures: 20th Century American Literature

My three favorite texts from this class.
My three favorite texts from this class.

I graduated on Saturday (!) but I couldn’t forget to blog one last time about my undergrad adventures.  The last class to cover this quarter is my last upper-division English class, 20th Century American Literature. There were two main takeaways for me from this class.

The class text selection was one of the best I’ve ever had. 

In an English class, it’s pretty typical to have a reading list of five or six novels for the quarter. I rarely disliked the reading lists for my English classes, but this class had a particularly good one: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen (An overlap with Black Lit in the U.S. [same professor]), Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel and Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs. There were also a few essays from postmodern theorists, as well as required viewing of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. All of these texts made for some really great class discussions about biopower, precarity, total war and bare life, and affected me personally in two instances. I had read Ceremony for a prior class, but hadn’t ended up liking it that much. But looking at it through a different lens helped me parse out the implications of post-traumatic stress disorder and being part of a marginalized community, which made me appreciate it as a novel more. I will also never be able to watch a superhero movie / view Bruce Wayne in the same way, but I’m okay with it. And now it’s nearly impossible for me not to think in these terms. I’ve been making my way through Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, and there were a few stories where I immediately thought about the concepts I learned about in this class. To me, that’s a sign that this was a great class.

Being an English major was the best decision I ever made.

We opened the class with a discussion about biopolitics and biopower, concepts that Michel Foucault pioneered in several of his works, including a series of university talks called Society Must Be Defended. I had already read two of his texts — The Order of Things and The Archaeology of Knowledge — so I had a slight idea of what I was getting myself into. We only read a section from the talks, but I want to add the entire text to my reading list. In an oversimplified nutshell, Foucault says the state controls the population through regulating our bodies in many ways, which obviously has many implications. Everything from sexual health to incarceration to even racism is wrapped up in these concepts. And once you understand what biopower is, you begin to understand just how significant the government’s biopolitical intentions are for you in your daily life. This is just one of several examples of concepts I learned about in this class that ended up changing the way I think about the world.

I was talking about this at graduation with my fellow graduates, but I think the best things about being an English major was how interdisciplinary it was and how I got to read books and talk about social issues / get new perspectives. I was encouraged and pushed to look deeper, think more critically and weigh in other possibilities. I don’t think I would have gained as much being a journalism student. You can teach yourself how to use Photoshop and read the AP stylebook cover to cover, but learning in a literature class — and the people you learn it from and the people you learn it with — is like nothing else. I will miss the classroom immensely.

Have thoughts on 20th century American literature? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

Undergrad Adventures: Black Literature in the U.S.

I gave a presentation on this Basquiat painting in ENG 205 yesterday, and easily could have talked for hours about it. This painting is called "Untitled (History of Black People)," and it's Basquiat's reclamation of the Egyptians as black.
I gave a presentation on this Basquiat painting in ENG 205 yesterday, and easily could have talked for hours about it. This painting is called “Untitled (History of Black People),” and it’s Basquiat’s reclamation of the Egyptians as black.

I originally signed up for ENG 205, Black Literature in the U.S., for two reasons. One: I needed some extra units. Two: It’s with my capstone professor, so I was already familiar with how rigorous the class was going to be and what was to be expected. Seven weeks into the class, I can say that I had no idea that this class was going to be so incredibly important for developing my understanding of contemporary race issues in the United States, as well as my understanding of other people’s understandings of literature.

The class dynamic is very different, to say the least.

I walked into this with very limited reading under my belt — Two of the examples I can think of right now are Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison. Not only am I one of the oldest students by standing in the class (shoutout to Eric for also sticking through it), but I am also one of a handful of white people, which I can honestly say is refreshing. I don’t think it would be as good of a class if it was predominantly white, which I’ll get to in a moment. The last things you need to know are that it is classified as a general education course, and the subtitle of this class is A Literary History of Ferguson, Missouri.

The range of disciplines and racial diversity that make up the student body of this class makes for a really interesting dynamic that makes for a greater takeaway. There are quite a few students who are involved with the African American Student Center, and I can’t seem to tell who is actually an English major. There have been a few moments where I’ve been really frustrated about the direction of the conversation (The ratio of discussion of social issues to text is 60-40, and it’s difficult to return to the books we’ve read once we’ve gone off in the other direction / sometimes social justice opinions cloud the discussion, and the texts are what I’m really most interested in) it has made for incredible discussion. Before taking this class, I had no real idea of just how pervasive implicit racism is. Although I will never be able to understand what that feels like, I appreciate the perspective it has given me. I am also very lucky that I go to a university that prides itself on diversity and allows for this kind of class to be a part of the curriculum. I’ve wanted to tear my hair out when people have used their 2015 lenses to look at 1898 or 1970s issues, but thinking about why they analyze it in that way is also a learning opportunity for me about how other people experience literature.

The resilience of the African American community after so many years of injustices and inequality should be the more important American narrative. 

Part of the class has involved a presentation from each student, highlighting examples of black resistance and resilience. I’ve enjoyed this part of the class too — it’s been cool to see what people have come up with. Yesterday, one student talked about how disco, a genre pioneered by Chic, resonates throughout today’s music. Other students have talked about the Tuskegee airmen, The Brownies’ Book and Maya Angelou. In a class that is steeped in the literary history of Ferguson, it’s wonderful to hear about really positive movements in light of some really shitty setbacks. I wish that more of these people and movements were recognized on a wider scale, and it sucks that the history we all learn about in high school (and even college) is so whitewashed.

The reading list has been A++++.

We started out with Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, which has to be one of the most important books I’ve ever read. Citizen brings attention to the forms of implicit racism that people of color experience every day at every moment, and I’ve never experienced a book like that before. We were also really lucky to have her come to campus to read her poetry and answer questions. She is a national treasure.

We’ve also read Charles Chesnutt’s Marrow of Tradition, and just finished James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk. I had read Baldwin’s novel exactly a year ago for another class, but wasn’t particularly moved by it at the time. Knowing what I know now, however, has made it a more fruitful read. Up next is Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, which I’m also excited to delve into.

I am grateful for the further education on social issues.

I like to think that I keep on top of current events, but this class has shown me that there is a lot of injustice and inequality that just isn’t covered in big media. Granted, I tried to follow the Michael Brown and Ferguson protests as they happened, but I was truly ignorant of a bigger cultural conversation on police brutality and mass incarceration. This class has also coincided with a big historical movement, which has made me pay more attention to it and the voices coming out of it.

The first few weeks of this class centered on a more contemporary conversation about race, and I left most days feeling incredibly depleted and emotionally drained — but it has definitely been worth it. I am much more aware of the language I use to describe situations (for example, riots v. protests). And I am more aware of my white privilege than a lot of other white people (as aware as I can possibly be to still have privilege), and this class has moved me towards understanding in what ways it works.

Have you ever taken a class like this? Let’s talk about it in the comments.