Books of 2016 – Memoir & Essays

January 16, 2017
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And in the last in the series on my books read in 2016, today I’m rounding up memoir and essay collections:

So Sad Today, Melissa Broder. This was like a potent shot of tequila on an empty stomach. The singularity of her raw, repetitive voice, the unblinking honesty without ever really knowing her, her willingness to share the most mundane as well as the most insane. I’ve never read another book like it. I had to take a break half way though but this book is still with me. Start with this piece on illness to get a feel of it.

I Was Told There’d Be Cake, Sloane Crosley. These stories are hilarious and sharp. Despite being just 2008 years old, it felt a little dated. The internet is moving us forward very quickly now kids.

Prostitute Laundry, Charlotte Shane. I read Charlotte’s newsletter and was particularly moved by her closing one: “thank you for changing my life with your attention”. I bought this on Kickstarter in part to support her and this new way of publishing, but also because I wanted to understand the extended, convoluted backstory. Reading it all in one clump was a little too intense I think. The trouble with collecting correspondence is that while the individual pieces feel layered and nuanced, the book felt dense and repetitive. It’s a diary of someone’s life and so is fascinating anthropologically, but as a book I found it a little exhausting. Still, she writes beautifully and with great fidelity to emotional nuance and it’s a perspective on sex work unlike any other I‘ve seen.

Shrill: Notes form a Loud Woman, Lindy West. One of my favourite books of the year. This is a raucous, thoughtful journey through an interesting mind. I want to buy a copy for everyone who says fat phobic things, especially doctors. And every woman with something to say, which should be every woman and for every teenage girl. The chapters on comedy, on what she lost by speaking out for what she believed, are particularly poignant and will be familiar to anyone who’s ever felt the backlash. There’s a price for speaking up.

Treats, Lara Williams. I found this via Leena’s channel and the passage she reads is perhaps the best depiction of going on a bad (any?) date. Written in little vignettes with a powerful first person narrator, it felt like a hug from a big sister.

Better than Sex, edited by Samantha Trenoweth. I order most of my books online via Book Depository. (God bless free shipping). Though of course the one called ‘Better than Sex’ was the one my downstairs neighbour accidentally opened and then returned to me with a package of cheap sweets. This was an uneven collection on sex and relationships in the digital age. For a taste, start with Ann’s essay on rat clits/female desire. Other favourites were Rachel Hills, Zoe Norton Lodge, Emily Maguire and Maggie MT Hess.

When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi. Another of my favourites of the year. A neuro-surgeon diagnosed with stage 4 cancer writes about literature and science, about what it means to live and die well, about the decision to have a child even though you know you won’t be alive to raise it. It’s deeply moving and clear eyed with that doctorly authority that occasionally borders on arrogance. (Buy hey, doctors right?) I read the author’s sister in law’s blog (Cup of Jo) and his wife’s interview with Charlie Rose and Katie Couric were also lovely. (And her new house tour – she looks so happy!)

The last passage is worthy of quoting in full:

“That message is simple: When you come to one of the many moments in life when you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.”

The Art of Sleeping Alone, Sophie Fontanel. I mixed this one up with another translated from french story about romance gone awry (“All this is nothing to do with me,” Monica Sabolo), which is on its way to me. This is an ode to singledom, a rallying cry against the idea that women are there to be consumed. It shouldn’t be so radical for a woman to say “no thank you” to domesticity, coupledom and motherhood but it still is. This has that admirable french defiance, a shoulder shrug of “why is this still a thing that I need to write a book about?”.

Becoming, Laura Jane Williams. This is well-written and entertaining, but ventured to far into cliche for me. It’s a “heartbreak memoir” about a girl who gets dumped, her ex-boyfriend marrys her best friend and the ‘Eat Pray Love’ style journey of travel/sex/boozy indulgence that brought her back to her true self. Not for me, but she’s a good writer with a strong voice.

I’ll tell you in person, Chloe Caldwell. I love Chloe’s writing and this is one of the first books from Emily Books/Coffee House Press which I wanted to support. She’s one of the strongest young essayists working. My current favourite kind of book is something that echoes my own experiences, and gives you a new perceptive on your life. Highlights include a really sweet essay about her relationship with a young girl she babysits (Cheryl Strayed’s daughter Bobbi) and a failed sleepover with Lena Dunham. One of my faves of the year.

Pond, Claire Louise Bennett. This is a weird book. I often go for things that are a little quirky, but these short vignettes about ordinary domestic things, sex, writing, life are very strange, but very compelling. I found this a little exhausting in its intensity. It’s dense and swerves wildly from one theme to the next, but it’s unique and powerful and lingers in the mind long after you’re done. Would be a great present for a slightly weird female person. My favourite line:

“and thus calmly confronted the nauseating possibility that perhaps the reason why I’d drunk so much for so long was because I enjoyed feeling enthusiastic about men and since that enthusiasm, which I so very much enjoyed, could not be bought about by any other means, I’d had no choice but to spend a good part of my time becoming drunk”

Sex Object, Jessica Valenti. Valenti has been at the forefront of internet feminism writing for more than a decade, and this is by far her best work. It’s a memoir of essays that attempts to answer one singular question: who would I be if I hadn’t been born into a world that hates women? She catalogues a lifetime of misogyny without sentimentality and I underlined almost every page with some combination of recognition, understanding and empathy. Over and over again, she does what all great writers do: gives voice to something that I couldn’t quite articulate, that was just beneath the surface of my own thinking. My favourite book of the year.

Friday was the Bomb: Five Years in the Middle East, Nathan Deuel. I mentioned this here too. It’s a collection of essays from the author’s various stints living in the Middle East. Though there were a few that I liked, particularly those set in Lebanon which I know a little, the overall collection was weak. For essay collections to work as a whole they need, I think, a narrative arc or some connecting biographical details or an introductory paragraph. I frequently got lost in the chronology. As a narrator, I just wasn’t sufficiently compelled by his experiences to stay interested. (I suspect this is a gender thing.)

Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on their unshakeable love for New York, edited by Sari Botton. I read the first edition in this series while living in NYC, not sure if I could stick it. This, I read at home in Dublin, feeling very far away from my once home. It’s a solid collection – Adelle Waldman’s piece was my favourite, mostly because it’s the story of how she became a writer and wrote one of my favourite books every. But there are plenty of good ones in this, particularly by Rachel Syme and Issac Fitzgerald.

Julie and Julia, Julie Powell. The film is one of my favourite comfort re-watches, I love the worlds Nora Ephron creates and I love food, so I finally ordered this on my kindle. I (predictably) love books that were once blogs, but this one felt a little stiff and stale to me. There was something deadening about the endless references to her sucky job, to how tough the cooking challenge was, to the grimmy apartment. It tired me, in a weird way. Though, it’s perfectly well written and funny and she, the main “I” character, is warm and self-deprecating and very entertaining.

P.S. I also rounded up my favourite fiction and non-fiction books of 2016.

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