These are the books, articles, and essays that made me think. Some of them, like Fuller’s book, I haven’t stopped discussing with the friend who recommended it; some of them I found myself. To make this list, the piece has to have the following effects:
- Some image, line, or idea from the text makes a permanent impression on me and influences how I view the world around me.
- I then attempt to discuss this image, line, or idea with my husband, i.e., I take it out of the friend zone and into my most intimate life.
- I walk around for days, weeks, and months thinking about pieces of the text.
Book (nonfiction): Leaving Before the Rains Come, by Alexandra Fuller
This book combines several topics that fascinate me: African culture, alcoholism, and the deterioration of marriage. Alexandra Fuller has knocked me out before with her tales of growing up with eccentric parents of colonial ancestry in southern Africa, namely Zimbabwe. This time she’s all grown up, living in Wyoming with an American husband, drinking too much, and suffering from culture shock. A close contender for my nonfiction vote was Wednesday Martin’s Primates of Park Avenue, but the richness and complexity of Fuller’s writing prevailed. Plus, I love an alcoholic protagonist.
Book (anthology): Drinking Diaries: Women Serve Their Stories Straight Up, edited by Leah Odze Epstein and Caren Osten Gerszberg
I found this little gem myself. Ever since I read Carolyn Knapp’s Drinking, A Love Story, I have craved more tales about drinking by women who drink. This anthology is not an AA weapon, a Go Ask Alice piece of bullshit designed to dissuade even the most rational thinker from ever picking up a drink again. Rather, it’s honest stories by professional writers for whom drinking plays a role in their family, culture, religion, or identity. There are tales of inspiration and moderation in here. In fact, I think they outweigh the horror stories. And that’s what I like the most about this collection: its embrace of multiple perspectives on a topic that is often treated with all-or-nothing reductionism.
Book (fiction): Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn
I read this before I discovered it was a movie, thank goodness. My husband only watched the movie and had no idea what was going on. This novel is too complex for film. It’s told from three points of view—the protagonist in the present and past, and her brother and mother in the past. All past events cover a 24-hour period of time that that protagonist is trying to figure out in the present in order to solve a mystery. The protagonist is angry and surly, and there’s no role model character in this novel, rather conflicted people who err. Again, there’s no black and white thinking here—just the way I like it!
Essay: “Take Me at Face Value,” by Tawni O’Dell
This short essay is a light read. I found it in an anthology called 40 Things to Do When You Turn 40, which I bought and read in the Philadelphia hospital where I tended to my post-op parents in July. O’Dell discusses attending a book club meeting with women in their 20s and 30s, and here she realizes that there are some fundamental differences between her way of thinking as a 40-something and theirs.
Article: “The Coddling of the American Mind,” by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt
Yes, I read stuff that isn’t about either women or alcoholism! Ordinarily, I avoid reading stuff about education because it’s just so fucking depressing, but I had had to read this. This article, in fact, is my 2015 first prizewinner for most influential read. Lukianoff and Haidt have received much criticism from the left for raising this issue—Colleges and universities should be the bastions of free speech and freedom of thought, places where students go to learn how to open their minds and to think critically, to use the Socratic method to discuss sensitive issues, and to emerge from the education as grown-ups. But the opposite is happening in our institutions of higher learning—coddled, closed-minded children are dictating what their professors can and can’t say. Before teaching novels like The Great Gatsby, instructors must begin with caveats, or “trigger warnings,” that the material contains such sensitive material as alcohol abuse or sexual abuse. Any ideas not considered PC enough are ousted. Potentially interesting speakers like Condoleza Rice, Bill Maher, and the Muslim feminist Asra Q. Nomani are “uninvited” in protest of soundbites of their views, “We don’t like you… WAH.” The lunatics are running the asylum.
I’ll end on that note… Happy New Year!