OK, gauntlet thrown. A high-stakes prompt this morning: what are the best books you’ve read in the past five years?
I’ve written a lot about all of the books below on Magpie, but I thought I’d share them in digest form here in case you’re looking for something gorgeous, or provocative, or escapist — there are, after all, countless reasons to read. Any and all of these books would make excellent book club picks, and I consider them essential to my personal, modern canon.
Circe by Madeline Miller. “A bold and subversive retelling of the goddess’s story,” this #1 New York Times bestseller is “both epic and intimate in its scope, recasting the most infamous female figure from the Odyssey as a hero in her own right.” Of all of the books I’ve read over the past decade, this stands out as the most meaningful, the most powerfully-written to me. I have recommended it to countless people of all different ages and walks of life, and have received almost universal rave reviews. The first line alone sends shivers down my spine. The writing is spring-loaded, imagistic, moving nimbly but containing magnitudes. I love the re-centering of an age-old hero narrative around the woman’s perspective: a myth turned on its head. There are many inversions and disruptions to the traditional hero’s story here: Circe is banished and bound to an island, and therefore not beholden (or invited) to the conventional plot of hero-leaves-home-to-save-the-world or hero-returns-home-having-saved-the-world. Full review here.
Upstream by Mary Oliver. “A collection of essays in which revered poet Mary Oliver reflects on her willingness, as a young child and as an adult, to lose herself within the beauty and mysteries of both the natural world and the world of literature.” I continue to return to this quiet, observant book of naturalistic essays, whose ethos is, more or less, “to live care-ingly.” In these essays, Oliver presents her ethical will and legacy, and sets a high standard for all who tune in to it.
In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri. “An autobiographical work written in Italian, [this book] investigates the process of learning to express oneself in another language, and describes the journey of a writer seeking a new voice. Presented in a dual-language format, this is a wholly original book about exile, linguistic and otherwise, written with an intensity and clarity not seen since Vladimir Nabokov: a startling act of self-reflection and a provocative exploration of belonging and reinvention.” This book is richly meta, operating simultaneously on multiple different planes that prompt deep thought about self-expression, the limits of language, representation in words, representation in culture, translation and loss, cultural identity, and more. The text itself is written in simple, approachable prose (interestingly, though she is fluent in English, she wrote this entirely in Italian and then had a translator translate it back) but there is a lot of meat on the bone. Still waters run very deep. You will want to unpack this with an intelligent girlfriend over a few cocktails.
Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney. “Frances is a coolheaded and darkly observant young woman, vaguely pursuing a career in writing while studying in Dublin. Her best friend is the beautiful and endlessly self-possessed Bobbi. At a local poetry performance one night, they meet a well-known photographer, and as the girls are then gradually drawn into her world, Frances is reluctantly impressed by the older woman’s sophisticated home and handsome husband, Nick. But however amusing Frances and Nick’s flirtation seems at first, it begins to give way to a strange—and then painful—intimacy.” My sister and I have an ongoing debate about whether or not this is “high lit” — an irrelevant volley for so many reasons, but meaningful solely within the context of our literary companionship with one another. She thinks Rooney is entertaining, fresh; I think she’s accomplished something profound in representing modern relationships and communication in a meaningful, truthful text. So many contemporary novels either pretend technology (e.g., texting, cell phones, emails) doesn’t exist or represent it in a cloying way. In Rooney, everything works. Her knack for the cinematic is exceptional, and partly explains why two of her books have been translated into TV series. Beyond that — wow! — the books are steamy without feeling gratuitous. She has a way of representing the dynamics between characters with the slenderest of physical details. Powerful, observant writing. Absolutely un-put-down-able.
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett. “Set over the course of five decades, The Dutch House is a dark fairy tale about two smart people who cannot overcome their past. Despite every outward sign of success, Danny and Maeve are only truly comfortable when they’re together. Throughout their lives they return to the well-worn story of what they’ve lost with humor and rage. But when at last they’re forced to confront the people who left them behind, the relationship between an indulged brother and his ever-protective sister is finally tested.” My love affair with Ann Patchett’s writing is well-documented on Magpie, but it all boils down to this: no one does character portraiture like Patchett. Her characters are spectacularly round, and we develop keen affection and deep understanding for them. I love Patchett’s singular, distinctive voice: observant, smooth, and polished, like fine silver. This was one of the few books I’ve ever read in my life where I actively protested and drew out the finish — I did not want it to end. Full review here.
Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson. “Unfurling the history of Melody’s family – reaching back to the Tulsa race massacre in 1921 — to show how they all arrived at this moment, Woodson considers not just their ambitions and successes but also the costs, the tolls they’ve paid for striving to overcome expectations and escape the pull of history. As it explores sexual desire and identity, ambition, gentrification, education, class and status, and the life-altering facts of parenthood, Red at the Bone most strikingly looks at the ways in which young people must so often make long-lasting decisions about their lives.” I was gobsmacked by the poetry and sprawl of this book. I described it elsewhere as follows: “The prose runs both tactile and evocative, similar in a sense to Seamus Heaney’s poetry, which somehow communicates both earthiness, muck, physicality as well as the ineffable emotions that surge through us–often simultaneously. Both writers are in this sense worldly and other-worldly: they attend to the realities (sensorial and otherwise) of living in this world while also grappling with Big, Profound Things — in Woodson’s case, the meaning of family and motherhood in particular, the conditions of belonging to others while we are alive, even the nature of death.” A resonant, poetic piece of writing — gorgeous.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. “The Vignes twin sisters will always be identical. But after growing up together in a small, southern black community and running away at age sixteen, it’s not just the shape of their daily lives that is different as adults, it’s everything: their families, their communities, their racial identities. Many years later, one sister lives with her black daughter in the same southern town she once tried to escape. The other secretly passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past. Still, even separated by so many miles and just as many lies, the fates of the twins remain intertwined. What will happen to the next generation, when their own daughters’ storylines intersect?” A beautifully-told story of sisterhood, family, identity, injustice, this book hinges on doubles in fascinating narrative ways. Fans of The Gothic as a mode of writing will find these motifs, and the use of space and geography more generally, fascinating. (This is not a Gothic novel, but there are elements of the narrative design that pulled on a lot of its conventions.) I think often about the scenes in this book, and can almost feel the arrangement of people within a given room or space while doing so. The imagery, the visuals last, indicating the precision of her prose. Full review here.
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. “A luminous portrait of a marriage, a shattering evocation of a family ravaged by grief and loss, and a tender and unforgettable re-imagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten, and whose name was given to one of the most celebrated plays of all time, Hamnet is mesmerizing, seductive, impossible to put down—a magnificent leap forward from one of our most gifted novelists.” I wept while reading this. The portrait of grief presented in this novel continues to haunt me, so true to life and so moving it seemed. I love this book’s imagination. We meet Shakespeare, his wife, his children, and learn all about the Great Bard from the vantage of his devoted but wounded wife. So creative! More on this book here.
All the Names They Used for God by Anjali Sachdeva. “A dystopian tale about genetically modified septuplets who are struck by a mysterious illness; a love story about a man bewitched by a mermaid; a stirring imagining of the lives of Nigerian schoolgirls in the aftermath of a Boko Haram kidnapping. The stories in All the Names They Used for God break down genre barriers—from science fiction to American Gothic to magical realism to horror—and are united by each character’s brutal struggle with fate. Like many of us, the characters in this collection are in pursuit of the sublime.” This is an eccentric, other-worldly set of short stories whose imagery lingers and whose rudder steers us toward the intersection between science, myth, and imagination. I read this nearly five years ago and still think regularly about one of the stories, in which a character gets lost underground and attempts to find his way out. (Full review here.)
+Different ways to read the Iliad.
+Who is in your personal canon?
+Fun oversized flower earrings for under $30.
+If you are looking for a “statement sneaker” that won’t break the bank — I really love my court shoes from Madewell, and they have a great new fall-oriented colorway (I own a pastel pair, currently on sale). They are surprisingly comfortable and I like the way they look with vintage fit denim in particular.
+The rattan pumpkins are back!
+I bought one of J. Crew’s plunge swimsuits in the Liberty floral this year and WOW. Wow. The best-fitting suit I’ve ever put on my body? Really flattering. They get the leghole / rear coverage right, and it sort of smooths/sucks you in everywhere. I also love the neckline.
+Still the best (most comfortable, most flattering) underwire bra.
+Clever solution for traveling with your child’s Tonies box.
+Love this simple but style-conscious white bookcase. PB’s writing desk from the same line was really popular among Magpies during the peak of the pandemic, when we were all scrambling for at-home work spaces. It’s petite, functional, sleek, and would work with any range of different aesthetics.
+Just added these mathlink cubes to my cart for my children.
+These little basket bags with the gingham handle are adorable.
+Love this gingham club chair. I found it difficult to find any interesting patterns when I was shopping for this shape of chair a few years ago.