This year, in an attempt to read more of my unread books, I’m participating in a monthly challenge from Whitney at the Unread Shelf. Each month has a one-word prompt, and the goal is to read a book I own that ties into that prompt. March’s word is “enough.” As I thought about what “enough” means to me, I decided to read Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown. I kept thinking of other books that fit this theme, though, which inspired me to start a new 10 on a Theme series today by sharing ten books that mean “enough” to me. (You can read Whitney’s thoughts on the prompt here.)
March’s word resonated so strongly because I find that I’m constantly feeling the tug of wanting less and more at the same time:
I want less clutter but more stuff (clothes, shoes, makeup, books, etc.).
I want less stress but often take on more projects or responsibilities.
I want less pressure but hold myself to more ever-growing standards.
If you relate to those dueling desires, I hope you find a book in today’s post that will inspire and remind you that you are and have enough.
Content note: Some of these books address sexual assault, eating disorders, and suicide.
Diary of a Void by Emi Yagi
This quirky novel about an office worker who pretends to be pregnant might seem like an odd choice for this list, but I chose it for a reason. As an unmarried woman who doesn’t want children, I’ve been on the receiving end of pity. “One day, it will happen for you,” some people have said. I smile politely, but what I want to say is, “I really hope it doesn’t.”
Emi Yagi’s protagonist knew she would have to become a mother to get respect in her male-dominated office. She knew she would have to become a mother to please her family and form the connections she longed to have. This darkly humorous story reminds me that women should never feel pressured to procreate to be taken seriously. Diary of a Void reminds me that I’m enough without kids.
Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown
Essentialism is the title that inspired this whole list. I haven’t finished the book yet, but within a few days of starting it, I said no to something someone asked me to do. It was for a good cause, something I had done in the past, but I knew I already had too much on my plate. This image toward the beginning of the book struck a nerve:
I knew I was doing too much, but seeing the visual of what that looked like was powerful. This book is the right one at the right time because it advises me that I’m already doing enough. More isn’t always better.
The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brené Brown
As I pondered this list, I kept returning to Brené Brown’s idea of hustling for worthiness. I do it, and you probably do, too. We think we have to be a certain way or do specific things to be worthy or whole. I love this quote from Brown:
When we spend a lifetime trying to distance ourselves from the parts of our lives that don’t fit with who we think we’re supposed to be, we stand outside of our story and hustle for our worthiness by constantly performing, perfecting, pleasing, and proving. Our sense of worthiness—that critically important piece that gives us access to love and belonging—lives inside of our story.
Brown’s work points out how vulnerability is powerful, and perfectionism is dangerous. The latter comes to me easier than the former, but I’m working on ceasing the hustle and embracing the rest that comes with living fully in my story.
Glaciers by Alexis M. Smith
There are moments when I put pressure on myself to succeed in significant, splashy ways. I’ll believe I need a more impressive job, a new, expensive car, or a certain kind of home. But I find great joy and contentment in my day-to-day life. It’s a life that isn’t exciting, but it’s a life I love.
Glaciers is a short but powerful book about a day in the life of Isabel, a twenty-something woman who works in library archives. She, too, has a quiet life in which she goes to cafes, thrift stores, and pines for the man down the hall. The ordinariness of her life emphasizes the beauty in the everyday familiarities we often take for granted. Glaciers tells me my life is enough just like it is.
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay
I recently told a friend that I try to do most of what Roxane Gay tells me to do. She’s a brilliant cultural critic and writer, and Hunger is an incredible book. In it, Gay describes a tragic sexual assault that happened to her as a girl. As a result, she developed an eating disorder. (Hunger doesn’t shy away from details, so if you’re sensitive to those topics, this might not be the book for you.) Though much of this book is heartbreaking, Gay’s resilience and vulnerability convince me that my body is enough just as it is, no matter its size, wounds, or scars. Hers is too, and so is yours.
Know My Name by Chanel Miller
For a while, Chanel Miller was known as Jane Doe in the sexual assault case against Brock Turner. Throughout the trial, her body, behavior, and everything else about her life were up for scrutiny and debate. What must have felt powerless at the time fuels this gorgeous memoir in which Miller claims her voice. Know My Name is a book I’d eagerly hand to any woman who needs a nudge to use her voice too.
My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer by Christian Wiman
Several years ago, Christian Wiman was diagnosed with cancer. Yet, as he faced mortality, he rediscovered faith. This book is a collection of essays in which he talks about his faith and how complex it truly is. Wiman is a poet, and that’s obvious on every page. His prose is exquisite, and his musings are relatable to any person of faith who’s been a believer for longer than a week. He addresses contradictions and questions with tenderness and curiosity, never settling for sweeping uncertainties under the rug. Wiman’s thoughts on belief tell me that faith isn’t always a big emotion or production; sometimes it’s a crumb that you guard with your life, and that’s enough.
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
“You’re so quiet.”
I’m never sure how to respond when someone says this to me. “Yes, I know,” seems rude. “What would you like me to say?” does too. This is another moment when I smile and shrug my shoulders, knowing the person who spoke those words doesn’t know me and has likely shut down the possibility of me wanting to know them.
In Quiet, Susan Cain explores the nature of introversion. This book is a gift to those of us who need plenty of aloneness to recharge, who weigh our words carefully or who choose not to use them at all. It celebrates introverts and explains what extroverts can learn from their quiet peers. Cain’s work tells me that what some people may view as a deficiency is actually a strength.
Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig
Matt Haig is a prolific writer who also struggles with depression. He’s exceptionally open about his battles, and in this book, he shares the ups and downs of his life and explains how he found the will to go on after a suicide attempt. This book is written in short vignettes, perfect for those who are anxious or have trouble focusing. Haig’s book isn’t a self-help guide that includes 8 Steps to a Happier Life. Instead, he gives readers an honest account of how depression can be endured and managed and shares what joy exists on the other side of its darkness. Reasons to Stay Alive is an important book about how the small, ordinary things in our lives can be enough for us to keep going, even when there’s pain.
Simple Matters: Living with Less and Ending Up with More by Erin Boyle
All the other books on this list address the internal idea of enoughness; this book addresses our physical spaces. Part of me wants a minimalist home, a capsule wardrobe, and only essential items in my drawers or cabinets. But another part wants to purchase the entirety of Barnes and Noble and Anthropologie. My maximalist side usually wins out, and this can be a problem.
Simple Matters is a beautifully written and photographed book that speaks to my maximalist self and gently nudges me toward the minimalist life that is probably better for me in the end. Erin Boyle is never preachy or condescending to those of us with 11 backup hand soaps or 17 half-burned candles. (I only have seven backup hand soaps now, so I’m doing great.) I return to this book when I need a gentle reminder that I have enough stuff.
How do you interpret this theme? What books would make your “enough” list? I’d love to know!
According to my reading spreadsheet charts from last year (jealous?), 70% of the books I read were written by women. The stats are looking the same for my 2023 reading so far. I love women writers, so I thought Women’s History Month was the perfect time to share some of my favorite authors. I wanted to keep this post at a reasonable length, so some tough decisions were made, but I feel good about this list. I’ve divided it into several categories, which shouldn’t surprise you since I mentioned spreadsheet charts in the first sentence. Anyway, let’s get to it!
All summaries are from NoveList.
A good mystery or thriller is one of my greatest reading pleasures. I want unputdownable books combining an exciting plot, excellent prose, and believable character development, and that’s what these writers provide.
The Tenant: Two police detectives struggle to solve a shocking murder and stop a killer hell-bent on revenge.
The Butterfly House: Detectives Jeppe Karner and Anette Werner race to solve a series of sordid murders linked to some of the most vulnerable patients in a Danish hospital.
The Harbor:When a 15-year-old boy goes missing, leaving behind a strange note, detectives Jeppe Kørner and Anette Werner become trapped in a web of lies that could prevent the boy from ever being found.
Dark Places: After witnessing the murder of her mother and sisters, 7-year-old Libby Day testifies against her brother Ben, but twenty-five years later she tries to profit from her tragic history and admit that her story might not have been accurate.
Gone Girl: When beautiful Amy Dunne disappears from her Missouri home, it looks as if her husband Nick is to blame. But though he protests his innocence, it’s clear that he’s not being entirely truthful. Gone Girl is not only the story of a disappearance, but a truly frightening glimpse of a souring marriage.
Sharp Objects: Returning to her hometown after a long absence to investigate the murders of two girls, reporter Camille Preaker is reunited with her neurotic mother and enigmatic half-sister as she works to uncover the truth about the killings.
In the Woods: Twenty years after witnessing the violent disappearances of two companions from their small Dublin suburb, detective Rob Ryan investigates a chillingly similar murder that takes place in the same wooded area, a case that forces him to piece together his traumatic memories.
The Likeness: This novel finds Detective Cassie Maddox still scarred by her last case. When her boyfriend calls her to a chilling murder scene, Cassie is forced to face her inner demons. A young woman has been found stabbed to death outside Dublin, and the victim looks just like Cassie.
The Witch Elm: Left for dead by burglars while partying with friends, a happy-go-lucky charmer takes refuge at his dilapidated ancestral home before a grisly discovery reveals an unsuspected family history.
The Dry: Receiving a sinister anonymous note after his best friend’s suspicious death, federal agent Aaron Falk is forced to confront the fallout of a twenty-year-old false alibi against a backdrop of the worst drought Melbourne has seen in a century.
Force of Nature: When one member of a five-woman team of co-workers goes missing during a corporate retreat, federal police agent Aaron Falk uncovers dark secrets in his search for the woman, a whistleblower and major contributor to his latest case.
Exiles: At a busy festival site on a warm spring night, a baby lies alone in her pram, her mother vanishing into the crowds. A year on, Kim Gillespies’ absence casts a long shadow as her friends and loved ones gather deep in the heart of South Australian wine country to welcome a new addition to the family. Joining the celebrations is federal investigator Aaron Falk. But as he soaks up life in the lush valley, he begins to suspect this tight-knit group may be more fractured than it seems. Between Falk’s closest friend, a missing mother, and a woman he’s drawn to, dark questions linger as long-ago truths begin to emerge.
The Family Upstairs: Inheriting an abandoned mansion on the banks of the Thames in London’s fashionable Chelsea neighborhood, 25-year-old Libby Jones is soon on a collision course with her birth family’s past that is linked to long-ago murders.
The Girls in the Garden: Deep in the heart of London, in a lush communal square, as a festive garden party is taking place, a thirteen year-old girl lies unconscious and bloody in a hidden corner. What really happened to her? And who is responsible?
Watching You: When a murder occurs in Melville Heights, one of the nicest neighborhoods in Bristol, England, dangerous obsessions come to light involving the headmaster at a local school, in this place where everyone has a secret.
Sometimes I get tired just writing a paragraph, yet there are writers out there with many books to their names. This category celebrates some of those women.
The Night Watchman: A historical novel based on the life of the author’s grandfather traces the experiences of a Chippewa Council night watchman in mid-19th-century rural North Dakota who fights Congress to enforce Native American treaty rights.
The Round House: When his mother, a tribal enrollment specialist living on a reservation in North Dakota, slips into an abyss of depression after being brutally attacked, fourteen-year-old Joe Coutz sets out with his three friends to find the person that destroyed his family.
Shadow Tag: After she discovers that her husband has been reading her diary, Irene America turns it into a manipulative farce, while secretly keeping a second diary that includes her true thoughts, through which the reader learns of Irene’s shaky marriage, its affect on her children and her struggles with alcohol.
Almost Everything: Notes on Hope: Presents an inspirational guide to the role of hope in everyday life and explores essential truths about how to overcome burnout and suffering by deliberately choosing joy.
Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life: A step-by-step guide to writing and managing the writer’s life covers each portion of a written project, addresses such concerns as writer’s block and getting published, and offers awareness and survival tips.
Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith: Combining elements of spiritual study and memoir, the author describes her odyssey of faith, drawing on her own sometimes troubled past to explore the many ways in which faith sustains and guides one’s daily life.
The Bluest Eye: Eleven-year-old Pecola Breedlove, an African-American girl in an America whose love for blonde, blue-eyed children can devastate all others, prays for her eyes to turn blue, so that she will be beautiful, people will notice her, and her world will be different.
Jazz: In Harlem, 1926, Joe Trace, a door-to-door salesman in his fifties, kills his teenage lover. A profound love story which depicts the sights and sounds of Black urban life during the Jazz Age.
Recitatif: In this 1983 short story about race and the relationships that shape us through life, Twyla and Roberta, friends since childhood who are seemingly at opposite ends of every problem as they grow older, cannot deny the deep bond their shared experience has forged between them.
Grand Union: A first collection of 10 original short stories and selections from her most-lauded pieces as first published in The New Yorker and other prestigious literary magazines.
Intimations: Written during the early months of lockdown, Intimations explores ideas and questions prompted by an unprecedented situation. What does it mean to submit to a new reality–or to resist it? How do we compare relative sufferings? What is the relationship between time and work? In our isolation, what do other people mean to us? What is the ratio of contempt to compassion in a crisis? When an unfamiliar world arrives, what does it reveal about the world that came before it? Suffused with a profound intimacy and tenderness in response to these extraordinary times, Intimations is a slim, suggestive volume with a wide scope, in which Zadie Smith clears a generous space for thought, open enough for each reader to reflect on what has happened–and what should come next.
White Teeth: Tells the story of immigrants in England over a period of 40 years.
Poetry doesn’t have to be complicated or hard to read. You don’t need to analyze every line to enjoy a poem. These women write beautiful, approachable poems that will bring you joy or make you think.
What Is This Thing Called Love by Kim Addonizio
What Kind of Woman by Kate Baer
Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz
Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds
Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver by Mary Oliver
Second Sky by Tania Runyan
Goldenrod by Maggie Smith
Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith
The Best of the Best
These writers have delivered some of my all-time favorite books. I bet even their thank you notes are full of gorgeous prose.
A few years ago, I had no desire to be part of a book club. Even though I love reading, I never wanted to feel obligated to read a certain book. (Earning my English degree might have something to do with that.) But when the opportunity arose to get involved in one of my school’s book clubs, I found myself surprisingly excited about it. Now the book club I’m in is one of my favorite things. I look forward to each meeting and have grown to love discussing all kinds of different books with my fellow readers.
If you’re in a book club, you know choosing a book for a group can sometimes be challenging. Today I’m sharing 30 titles that I think would make fantastic book club picks; 20 are fiction and 10 are nonfiction. I think this list has something for everyone, whether you’re looking for a book to discuss with your club or simply want something to enjoy on your own.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Summary: Separated by respective ambitions after falling in love in occupied Nigeria, beautiful Ifemelu experiences triumph and defeat in America while exploring new concepts of race, while Obinze endures an undocumented status in London until the pair is reunited in their homeland 15 years later, where they face the toughest decisions of their lives.
Why I chose this book: Americanah raises important questions about race and belonging, but it’s also a beautiful love story at its core. Adichie’s writing is wonderful.
The Appeal by Janice Hallett
Summary: When the cast of a local theater group raises money for an experimental treatment for the director’s granddaughter, who has a rare form of cancer, one member raises her concerns, creating tensions within the community, which leads to murder.
Why I chose this book: This is an epistolary novel written in emails, text messages, and notes. It’s a fun page-turner and keeps readers guessing. The large cast of characters will make for a great conversation.
Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke
Summary: In a rural East Texas town of fewer than 200 people, the body of an African American lawyer from Chicago is found in a bayou, followed several days later by that of a local white woman. What’s going on? African American Texas Ranger Darren Mathews hopes to find out, which means talking to relatives of the deceased, including the woman’s white supremacist husband — and Mathews soon discovers things are more complex than they seem.
Why I chose this book: I love a good mystery novel, and this book delivers an unputdownable story featuring a vibrant protagonist.
Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
Summary: A five-decade saga tracing the impact of an act of infidelity on the parents and children of two Southern California families traces their shared summers in Virginia and the disillusionment that shapes their lasting bond.
Why I chose this book: Commonwealth is engrossing from beginning to end. We can all relate to complex families and how they hold each other’s secrets.
Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen
Summary: It’s December 23, 1971, and heavy weather is forecast for Chicago. Russ Hildebrandt, the associate pastor of a liberal suburban church, is on the brink of breaking free of a marriage he finds joyless―unless his wife, Marion, who has her own secret life, beats him to it. Their eldest child, Clem, is coming home from college on fire with moral absolutism, having taken an action that will shatter his father. Clem’s sister, Becky, long the social queen of her high-school class, has sharply veered into the counterculture, while their brilliant younger brother Perry, who’s been selling drugs to seventh graders, has resolved to be a better person. Each of the Hildebrandts seeks a freedom that each of the others threatens to complicate.
Why I chose this book: IT’S SO GOOD, THAT’S WHY! Crossroads is long, so this book is only for the most dedicated book clubbers, but Franzen has given us so much great stuff to discuss thanks to the oh-so-complicated Hildebrandt family.
Dear Fang, With Love by Rufi Thorpe
Summary: Newly involved in his daughter’s life shortly after she suffered a breakdown, Lucas takes the teen on a trip to Europe in the hopes that an immersion in regional history and culture will help her forget his past mistakes and her uncertain future.
Why I chose this book:Dear Fang, With Love is an underrated gem. It’s sweet, surprising, and the European setting gives readers a nice sense of escapism.
Hell of a Book by Jason Mott
Summary: A work of fiction goes to the heart of racism, police violence, and the hidden costs exacted upon Black Americans, and America as a whole.
Why I chose this book: This novel addresses important and heavy themes, but it’s Jason Mott’s use of magical realism that makes this novel a memorable must-read.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Summary: Two half-sisters, unknown to each other, are born into different villages in 18th-century Ghana and experience profoundly different lives and legacies throughout subsequent generations marked by wealth, slavery, war, coal mining, the Great Migration and the realities of 20th-century Harlem.
Why I chose this book:Homegoing is one of the most important books written in recent years. It’s incredible how much story and characterization Yaa Gyasi fit into 320 pages. The fact that this is a debut novel continually blows my mind.
I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai
Summary: A woman must reckon with her past when new details surface about a tragedy at her elite New England boarding school.
Why I chose this book: The best book club books are page-turners that also have a lot of important themes to discuss. The mystery at the heart of I Have Some Questions for You will keep readers turning the pages, and themes of class, justice, and homecoming will keep any book club talking.
If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin
Summary: When a pregnant Tish’s boyfriend Fonny, a sculptor, is wrongfully jailed for the rape of a Puerto Rican woman, their families unite to prove the charge false.
Why I chose this book: Baldwin is a genius whose skill is on full display in this classic. Though it was published in 1974, Beale Street’s look at the American justice system is as important as ever.
In the Woods by Tana French
Summary: Twenty years after witnessing the violent disappearances of two companions from their small Dublin suburb, detective Rob Ryan investigates a chillingly similar murder that takes place in the same wooded area, a case that forces him to piece together his traumatic memories.
Why I chose this book: In the Woods is the mystery novel to which I compare all others. The writing, characters, and moody setting are utter perfection.
Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
Summary: Waiting to be chosen by a customer, an Artificial Friend programmed with high perception observes the activities of shoppers while exploring fundamental questions about what it means to love.
Why I chose this book: Even the sci-fi haters will like this thought-provoking story about a future that seems all too possible.
Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Summary: Four famous siblings throw an epic end-of-summer party that goes dangerously out of control as secrets and loves that shaped this family’s generations come to light, changing their lives forever.
Why I chose this book: Malibu Rising looks like a breezy beach read if you judge it by the cover, but Taylor Jenkins Reid delivers a powerful story about a family whose famous father left tragedy in his wake. I read this in one sitting.
The Nix by Nathan Hill
Summary: Astonished to see the mother who abandoned him in childhood throwing rocks at a presidential candidate, a bored college professor struggles to reconcile the radical media depictions of his mother with his small-town memories and decides to draw her out by penning a tell-all biography.
Why I chose this book: This book got a bit of buzz when it came out in 2016, but it’s my literary mission to keep The Nix alive and well. There’s a lot happening in this book, but it’s the complicated mother/son story that anchors the narrative.
Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld
Summary: This powerfully imagined tour de force of fiction of what-might-have-been follows Hillary Rodham as she takes a different path, blazing her own trail – one that unfolds in public as well as in private – and one that crosses paths again and again with Bill Clinton.
Why I chose this book: Who hasn’t wondered what their life would be like if they’d made different choices? There’s so much to talk about throughout Sittenfeld’s reimagining of Hillary’s destiny.
Sam by Allegra Goodman
Summary: Grappling with self-doubt and insecurity as she grows into her teens, Sam, yearning for her climbing coach’s attention, dealing with her father’s absence and raging against her mother’s constant pressure, must decide who she wants to be in the face of what she’s expected to do.
Why I chose this book: Have you ever finished a book and knew you’d be thinking about it for a long time? That’s exactly how I felt when I finished reading Sam. I love this moving coming-of-age story.
Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich
Summary: After she discovers that her husband has been reading her diary, Irene America turns it into a manipulative farce, while secretly keeping a second diary that includes her true thoughts, through which the reader learns of Irene’s shaky marriage, its affect on her children and her struggles with alcohol.
Why I chose this book:Shadow Tag isn’t one of Erdrich’s most popular novels, but it’s one of my favorites. Readers who love stories about messy marriages will like this one.
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Summary: A story of how the past affects the present, and of deeply entrenched racism, Sing, Unburied, Sing describes the life of a biracial boy, his addicted, grieving black mother, and his incarcerated white father. A road trip to Dad’s prison kick-starts the novel, which offers deeply affecting characters, a strong sense of place (rural Mississippi), and a touch of magical realism in appearances by the dead.
Why I chose this book: Jesmyn Ward is an incredibly talented writer whose gift shines in this novel. The prose is beautiful, the story is heart wrenching, and familial love pierces through the bleakness of the subject matter to infuse the story with hope.
Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid
Summary: Alix Chamberlain is a woman who gets what she wants and has made a living, with her confidence-driven brand, showing other women how to do the same. So she is shocked when her babysitter, Emira Tucker, is confronted while watching the Chamberlains’ toddler one night, walking the aisles of their local high-end supermarket. The store’s security guard, seeing a young black woman out late with a white child, accuses Emira of kidnapping two-year-old Briar. A small crowd gathers, a bystander films everything, and Emira is furious and humiliated. Alix resolves to make things right.
Why I chose this book: Despite its themes, this novel really is a fun read. Plus, it provides an interesting look at influencer culture, which I find endlessly interesting.
Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt
Summary: Her world upended by the death of a beloved artist uncle who was the only person who understood her, fourteen-year-old June is mailed a teapot by her uncle’s grieving boyfriend, with whom June forges a poignant relationship.
Why I chose this book: This book came out in 2012, and I always thought it deserved more buzz. It’s a deeply emotional novel about grief and the relationships that sustain us.
Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise by Ruth Reichl
Summary: The editor-in-chief of Gourmet recounts her visits to some of the world’s most acclaimed restaurants, both as herself and as an anonymous diner in disguise, to offer insight into the differences in her dining experiences.
Why I chose this book: Few things unite people as much as food. This memoir is a quick, delightful read that any foodie will adore. Have snacks on hand.
Here for It: Or, How to Save Your Soul in America by R. Eric Thomas
Summary: A humorist and playwright provides a heartfelt and humorous memoir-in-essays about growing up seeing the world differently, finding unexpected hope and every awkward, extraordinary stumble along the way.
Why I chose this book: This is the perfect book if you need some good laughs but also love stories with a lot of heart. Here for It is one of those books that I think most readers will enjoy.
Me, My Hair, and I: Twenty-Seven Women Untangle an Obsession edited by Elizabeth Benedict
Summary: These twenty-seven “hair pieces” offer up reflections and revelations about family, race, religion, ritual, culture, motherhood, politics, celebrity, what goes on in African American kitchens and at Hindu Bengali weddings, alongside stories about the influence of Jackie Kennedy, Lena Horne, Farrah Fawcett, and the Grateful Dead. Layered into these essays you’ll find surprises, insights, hilarity, and the resonance of common experience.
Why I chose this book: Hair is a big deal, but we don’t often talk about why. This essay collection is funny, illuminating, and will start great conversations about female beauty standards.
Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong
Summary: Why I chose this book: An award-winning poet and essayist offers a ruthlessly honest, emotionally charged exploration of the psychological condition of being Asian American.
Why I chose this book: I read Minor Feelings two years ago, and I’m still thinking about it. Essay collections can make excellent book club picks because there’s sure to be at least one piece with which each reader will connect.
A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
Summary: Hemingway’s memories of his life as an unknown writer living in Paris in the twenties are deeply personal, warmly affectionate, and full of wit. Looking back not only at his own much younger self, but also at the other writers who shared Paris with him – James Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald – he recalls the time when, poor, happy, and writing in cafes, he discovered his vocation. Written during the last years of Hemingway’s life, his memoir is a lively and powerful reflection of his genius that scintillates with the romance of the city. –Goodreads
Why I chose this book: Classics might not be a book club’s first choice, but there’s something special about reading and discussing a work from the past, especially when it takes place in Paris. Hardcore book nerds will love the literary elements of this memoir.
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
Summary: Demonstrates how introverted people are misunderstood and undervalued in modern culture, charting the rise of extrovert ideology while sharing anecdotal examples of how to use introvert talents to adapt to various situations.
Why I chose this book: As an introvert, this book made me feel seen. Extroverts will benefit from better understanding the quiet folks in their lives and learning why they behave the way they do.
The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House by Kate Andersen Brower
Summary: An intimate account of White House life from the perspectives of the service staffs of the Kennedys through the Obamas details their friendships, marriages, everyday activities and elaborate state dinners.
Why I chose this book: I love presidential history, but even if you don’t, I think you’ll find this book to be an entertaining read. We’re all familiar with images of the White House, and this account gives readers behind-the-scenes access to the chefs, florists, gardeners, and other important people who make life and events possible for the President and their family.
The Shelf: From LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading by Phyllis Rose
Summary: Can you have an Extreme Adventure in a library? Phyllis Rose casts herself into the wilds of an Upper East Side lending library in aneffort to do just that. Hoping to explore the “real ground of literature,” she reads her way through a somewhat randomly chosen shelf of fiction, from LEQ to LES. The shelf has everything Rose could wish for–a classic she has not read, a remarkable variety of authors, and a range of literary styles. In The Shelf, Rose investigates the books on her shelf with exuberance, candor, and wit while pondering the many questions her experiment raises and measuring her discoveries against her own inner shelf–those texts that accompany us through life.
Why I chose this book: If you’re in a book club, you probably love books. And if you love books, you’re likely to enjoy reading books about other books. I adored this fun literary adventure and think most book lovers will too.
Sigh, Gone: A Misfit’s Memoir of Great Books, Punk Rock, and the Fight to Fit In by Phuc Tran
Summary: In 1975, during the fall of Saigon, Phuc Tran immigrates to America along with his family. By sheer chance they land in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, a small town where the Trans struggle to assimilate into their new life. In this coming-of-age memoir told through the themes of great books such as The Metamorphosis, The Scarlet Letter, The Iliad, and more, Tran navigates the push and pull of finding and accepting himself despite the challenges of immigration, feelings of isolation, and teenage rebellion, all while attempting to meet the rigid expectations set by his immigrant parents.
Why I chose this book: This memoir is such a joy, especially for book and music lovers. It’s funny, insightful, and will give any book club much to discuss.
Strangers to Ourselves: Unsettled Minds and the Stories That Make Us by Rachel Aviv
Summary: Raising fundamental questions about how we understand ourselves in periods of crisis and distress, the author draws on deep, original reporting as well as unpublished journals and memoirs to write about people who have come up against the limits of psychiatric explanations for who they are.
Why I chose this book: A lot of books on this list are lighthearted; this one definitely isn’t, but it’s a great and important look at mental illness. This book would be wonderful to discuss in a group of thoughtful readers.
Most summaries came from NoveList.
Have you read many of these? What titles would you suggest for a book club?
I’m starting a new blog series in which I spotlight backlist books I love. My book club just finished reading and discussing Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin. It’s one of my all-time favorite books, so I decided to kick off this series by giving Baldwin’s stunning first novel a little love. Let’s dive in!
Publication date: May 18, 1953
Genre: Classic literary fiction
Setting: Harlem, New York City
Themes: Identity, religious belief and formation, family secrets, racism
Summary: On John Grimes’s fourteenth birthday, he experiences a powerful religious awakening as family history, trauma, and secrets come to light.
Why You Should Read This Book
Go Tell It on the Mountain was the first James Baldwin book I read, and after I finished it, I knew I wanted to read everything he’s ever written because I found his writing so profound. In addition to novels and nonfiction, Baldwin also wrote some poetry and drama. His sentence structure and metaphors reveal a poet’s sensitivity to words, and the dynamic scenes he describes would be at home in any theater.
A vivid setting is important to me as a reader, and Baldwin delivers, whether he’s describing John’s walk down 5th Avenue, the tension in the family’s living room, or a conversion taking place in a raucous Harlem church service. Most readers probably wouldn’t describe this novel as a page-turner, but there are moments when Baldwin exposes a truth or has a character confront another that are as gripping as any thriller.
“For he had no words when he knelt before the throne. And he feared to make a vow before Heaven until he had the strength to keep it. And yet he knew that until he made the vow he would never find the strength.”
“But to look back from the stony plain along the road which led one to that place is not at all the same thing as walking on the road; the perspective to say the very least, changes only with the journey; only when the road has, all abruptly and treacherously, and with an absoluteness that permits no argument, turned or dropped or risen is one able to see all that one could not have seen from any other place.”
If you like or want to read Go Tell It on the Mountain, you might also enjoy:
I love a short book. I appreciate it when writers get to the point and don’t spend pages telling readers something they could say in a paragraph. Short books can be especially appealing toward the beginning of the year if you’re trying to start strong to meet a reading goal.
A few years ago, I shared eight of my favorite short books. I’ve read a lot since then, so I’m sharing eight more great books that are less than 250 pages. I hope you find at least one title you can’t wait to read.
84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff 112 pages
If you’re a devoted book lover, chances are you like books about books. 84, Charing Cross Road is one of my favorite bookish books. It’s a collection of letters between Helene Hanff and a bookseller in London who specializes in used and hard-to-find titles. This book is a sweet read and a reminder that literature can bring people together and help them form deep friendships.
All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg 197 pages
I’m always delighted when I find a book focused on a complicated woman. Well-written female characters are such a treat, and Andrea, the protagonist of All Grown Up, is no exception. She’s a single, childless New Yorker who hasn’t entirely lived up to her family’s expectations. So when her niece is born with a scary medical condition, Andrea navigates the situation alongside her family, who are just as complicated as she is. All Grown Up is a witty delight.
Assembly by Natasha Brown 112 pages
Assembly is one of the shortest books on this list, but its story is one of the most memorable. The book focuses on an unnamed Black woman who lives in London. She’s doing everything right: she has a good job, a loving boyfriend, and she carefully weighs her choices. But she wonders if her life is enough, if all the rules, responsibilities, and pressures to perform are worth it. Assembly is a beautifully written book that will stay with you long after you finish it.
Diary of a Void by Emily Yagi 224 pages
I read Diary of a Voidlast month, but I know it’s a story that I’ll keep thinking about for a while. The novel follows a woman named Ms. Shibata, who works in a male-dominated office. Because of her gender, her coworkers expect her to clean up after them and perform other chores no one else wants to do. Finally, one day, Shibata has enough and announces that she’s pregnant. Her coworkers finally start treating her with the respect she deserves. The only problem is she isn’t actually pregnant. Diary of a Void raises important questions about motherhood and a woman’s worth. It’s also just a fun and funny book.
Mouth to Mouth by Antoine Wilson 179 pages
The unnamed narrator of Mouth to Mouth runs into Jeff, a former classmate, at the airport. The two head to the lounge to enjoy a few drinks, and Jeff starts telling a story about how he once saved a man from drowning. What follows is how that act changed the course of his life. This page-turner keeps readers wondering how all the pieces of Jeff’s story fit together and whether or not what he’s saying is true. Antoine Wilson fits so much story into so few pages, which makes Mouth to Mouth a quick but memorable read.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong 246 pages
Ocean Vuong might be best known as a poet, which seems evident as you read his debut novel. The story is told through letters from a son to his mother, a Vietnamese immigrant who can’t read. Vuong addresses many vital issues in this book, including race, family history, sexuality, addiction, and trauma. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a must-read for lovers of literary fiction who enjoy an up-close look at complex families.
Recitatif by Toni Morrison 81 pages
Recitatif is a short story by Toni Morrison, the only one she ever wrote. It follows Roberta and Twyla, women who meet as little girls in an orphanage and remain tethered for years. One girl is Black, and the other is white, but Morrison doesn’t reveal who is who. As they grow up, the two women keep running into each other. The only thing they have in common is the time in the orphanage, but they can’t deny that bond and how trauma brought them together. Morrison’s choice not to reveal the characters’ races makes this a story to be read over and over again, exploring the question of how our skin color affects our lives. This story would pair beautifully with Passing by Nella Larsen.
The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw 179 pages
The Secret Lives of Church Ladies is a collection of short stories about women of various ages and different places in their lives. What unites them is their thoughtfulness about who a woman should be, especially when she has her roots in the church. Short story fans will find much to love in this book since Deesha Philyaw writes complex characters so well in so few pages. If you enjoy Recitatif, pick up this book next.
What are some of your favorite short books? I’d love some recommendations!