The Most Magical Books

You’re never too old for magic. There’s a reason the Harry Potter series is credited with helping a whole generation fall in love with reading. The feeling of entering a world that is partly created by the author, but also partly by you is unique to reading. In no TV show, no video game, no film, can you escape into a space that so many people share and cherish, and yet feels completely personal. Does my Hogwarts look like your Hogwarts? No. Does my Narnia look like your Narnia? Well, you get the point. This one goes out to everyone who misses the, well, magic of childhood reading. From British Young Adult novels to South American magical realism, from a traveling circus to the islands inhabited by the Greek gods, I hope there’s something here for every taste.

 

  1. Northern Lights by Philip Pullman northern lights

I just finished this book, and have been recommending it to everyone I meet. I mean seriously, my friends, my family (who have already read it), people on the street, I want everyone to read this book. It’s perfect for those of you I was referring to earlier, who have fallen out of love with reading and miss the fantasy of the kind of books you used to read. Northern Lights is not a children’s book, but the main character is a child. Pullman sort of takes the format of fantasy adventure novels like Harry Potter and recreates it for a more grown-up audience. The themes and language are a little darker, but the magic is there. The story follows Lira, an orphan girl who has grown up as a ward of a fictional college at Oxford. But this is not the Oxford, or the England that you know. It’s a sort of parallel world, where a lot of things are the same, but zeppelins roam the skies and all humans are born with dæmons, animals that are a part of your soul but physically separate from you, constantly keep you company but can shapeshift until puberty, when they assume a permanent form which usually reflects their human’s personality. I don’t want to give too much away, but things really kick off when Lira is given a sort of golden compass (which is, incidentally, the American name of the novel), and we realize she has a destiny far greater than she realizes. Both will lead her to the far north, where armored bears guard over exiled prisoners, witches fly through the skies, and a government lab is carrying out secret and horrifying experiments. Wow, this turned into a long description, but you get the idea that this book is great fun and about as magical as you can get.

 

  1. Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter nights at the circus

Angela Carter is a queen of magical realism, and this is one of her absolute masterpieces. The novel is about a star circus act named Fevvers, a large woman who was born with wings and the ability to fly. For much of the novel it’s unclear whether she is actually the magical creature she claims to be, or if her act is a scam. She’s an unusual hero, foulmouthed and far from traditionally beautiful, but she is strong and intelligent and funny. This is the underworld of London, where magic is gritty. The language is rich and visceral, and reading this book is like stepping into an over-the-top, colorful and fantastical circus tent.

 

  1. Like Water for Hot Chocolate by Laura Esquivel hot chocolate

This is the book that really made me fall in love with Southern American literature, and specifically with magical realism. One of my best friends had read it in its original Spanish, but assured me that the English version was wonderful too, and so I read it just after I graduated high school and could immediately understand why it was her favorite book. It’s set in Mexico, and the novel is split into 12 parts, one for each month of the year. Each new section starts with a Mexican recipe, which becomes an integral part of the chapter and story. Tita is the protagonist, the youngest daughter in her family, and according to tradition this means she will never marry, but instead remain in the family home to care for her family. Meanwhile, her older sister marries the man she loves and who loves her. Tita learns to express her love, her pain, and her frustration through cooking, which takes on a magical force as the story progresses. By the end of the novel, it becomes impossible to distinguish between reality and magic, but the two are clearly inseparable throughout. Reading this book is a heady and delicious (literally) experience, and I can’t emphasize how much I recommend it.

 

  1. The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton the miniaturist

This book is great if you want an easy read with some intrigue and fantasy (heavily) woven in. It’s even greater if you enjoy period novels (which I do), as it’s set in seventeenth century Amsterdam. We meet Nella Oortman as a teenage girl who has been, for all intents and purposes, sold by her poor country parents to be the wife of a wealthy merchant. Her husband Johannes is much older, reserved, and seemingly completely uninterested in his new wife. The only attention he pays her is to gift her a beautiful dollhouse which is a miniature replica of their canal side home. Lonely and intimidated by the brusqueness of the household servants and her husband’s icy sister, the only way Nella has to entertain herself is to write off to a miniaturist she finds advertised in the newspaper to buy miniature furnishings for her dollhouse. Things take a sinister turn when the miniaturist starts to send items that eerily mirror the interior and inhabitants of the house, and then begin to predict events before they even happen and change their nature when they do. It’s pretty mysterious, readble, and very plot driven.. aka, why haven’t you stopped reading this and bought it on Amazon already?

 

  1. Circe by Madeline Miller circe

This is Miller’s second novel following the incredible success of her debut, Song of Achilles (which is also great fun and highly recommended). She graduated from Brown with a master’s degree in Classics and later received an PhD and MFA in 2009 and 2010 respectively. So…not impressive at all. This book follows Circe, the daughter of the sun god Helios, who was exiled to the island of Aiaia for practicing witchcraft. There, she cultivated her magical powers and hosted some of

 

the most famous characters in Greek mythology, from Medea to Odysseus. It combines modern feminist thought with Greek myths and the result is a punchy and powerful novel, filled with familiar faces, gorgeously rich language, and obviously plenty of magic.

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Review: “Educated” by Tara Westover

Given that Obama already listed Educated as one of his top books of 2018, I guess it doesn’t really need me to vouch for it, but here we go anyway. I’m going to add to Obama’s by praise (he called is “a remarkable memoir”), by giving it what is, in my mind, the ultimate praise. This is truly a book for everyone. By that I mean, it’s a book for reading-lovers and skeptics alike. I often find that people who don’t read a ton, tend to gravitate towards memoirs and non-fiction in general when they do. Personally, I’m usually more inclined to fiction, but this book had been getting so much buzz and sounded so interesting that I had to give it a try, and I’m so glad I did.

 

Tara Westover was born into an incredibly strict Mormon family in Idaho. Her parents, and particularly her father, are survivalists who believe the end of the world is nigh and spend their time preparing for the apocalypse. This means a lot of canning and preserving food, and not a lot of time for education. Her parents don’t want to rely on the government at all, so refuse to take their children to hospitals (despite multiple terrifying accidents and injuries sustained during their childhood), or to enroll them in school. Instead, Tara’s mother homeschools her and her siblings. This mostly includes sporadic lessons with a single antiquated textbook and a lot of time trailing their mother around as she treats local Mormon families with her homeopathic remedies and acts as the anti-establishment alternative midwife for the community.

 

As Tara gets older, her natural intelligence becomes more apparent, and she finds herself intrigued by the world of formal education. With some covert support from her older brother, she enrolls in the Mormon Brigham Young University. Here, she learns for the first time about everything from The Holocaust to Civil Rights. Eventually, her drive and intellect will lead her to Cambridge, Oxford and Harvard as she pursues further study and research. With this academic success however, comes the inevitable estrangement from her family, who are both repulsed and afraid by the path she has chosen.

 

This memoir is a fascinating study of the power of education to change your life. It also gives a peak into what it’s like to grow up in a religious fundamentalist family. Westover is very clear that the world she is showing is not indicative of Mormonism, and indeed the Mormons she meets outside her family are, on the whole, completely different from the her own family. Rather, this is a personal story of one extreme and unusual family. I was shocked by the amount of violence and abuse that seemed commonplace in Westover’s world. Her elder brother Shawn is clearly mentally unstable, and has a penchant for cruelty which he enacts on his various girlfriends and siblings. Shockingly, Tara’s parents side with Shawn time and time again, denying his abusive actions and accusing Tara of lying and jeopardizing her family.

 

Tara pulls us into her own intensely painful struggle, as she finds herself having to choose between her new life and her family. It becomes clear that no matter how much academic success you achieve, how much you build a new life for yourself, or how dysfunctional your family is, the pull to the people you come from is not easily overcome. Westover goes to almost dangerous lengths in her attempts to reconcile the two very different worlds, and to avoid having to choose one and sacrifice the other.

 

This is an easy book to read, but it packs a real punch. I recommended it to my mother as soon as I finished it, and she devoured it. She’s still raving about it, which is saying something because she’s one of the pickiest readers I know. I can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t get something out of Tara’s story. It’s a profoundly moving memoir, written with real elegance and tremendous personal insight, taking us inside a world that most of us will never see. If that isn’t one of the best things about reading, I don’t know what is.

Review: “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” by Ottessa Moshfegh

I think I first heard of My Year of Rest and Relaxation in the Buzzfeed Books newsletter. I don’t remember exactly how it was described, but one thing did stick in my memory: that the narrator was very unlikeable. This drew me in, and over the following week I found myself picking up the book in various bookshops until I finally bit the bullet and bought it. Less than three days later I had devoured all 300 pages. It is, without a doubt, one of my favorite books of 2018. The story is told from the perspective of the beautiful heroine. She’s in her mid-twenties, living in a lavish apartment on New York’s Upper East Side, paid for by the inheritance of her parents who died while she was studying at Columbia. Dissatisfied and disillusioned with all aspects of life at the turn of the 21st century, she embarks on a mission to “hibernate” for a year, aided by an absurd combination of prescription drugs and an even more absurd psychiatrist.

There’s a lot to say about this book: it’s darkly hilarious, thought-provoking, and effortlessly written by Otessa Moshfegh (Eileen). Still, what I loved most about it was what drew me to it in the first place: it’s very unlikely and unlikeable protagonist. Although I love a narrator I can empathize with and want to cheer on, I was feeling weary with so many “good” female heroines. Over and over again I read heroines who are fundamentally compassionate, caring, and fighting for justice and truth. They are usually a little clumsy, or a little awkward, and almost always outcasts. We all love to read about the underdog succeeding and proving the powers that be wrong, but I found it refreshing to read a completely different sort of female character. After all, women are complicated and multi-faceted, and quite frankly there was a lot about Moshfegh’s heroine (or anti-heroine) that I could relate to as well. After all, who isn’t sometimes a bit cruel, or snide, or jealous, not matter how hard we try to think the best of ourselves and each other.

Aside from the complexity of the narrator, there’s a lot to explore in the narrative. Our protagonist’s’ dissatisfaction with modern life, and the demons she tries so hard to ignore to deny, force us to question the realities of life in the modern age, in the anonymity of large cities, and in the context of a materialistic culture obsessed with image and wealth. Before her self-imposed hibernation, our narrator worked in a trendy Chelsea art gallery. The exhibits range from a display of suspiciously stuffed pets to paintings made by the artist ejaculating onto his canvases, creating works with names such as “Blood Dimmed Tide” and “Wintertime in Ho Chi Minh City”. After she quits her job, one of her only regular contacts are her “best friend” Reva, who “was partial to self-help books and workshops that usually combined some new dieting technique with professional development and romantic relationship skills, under the guise of teaching young women ‘how to live up to their full potential’”. When the protagonist isn’t ignoring Reva or falling asleep amid her self-conscious ramblings, she is blunt with her, often to the point of cruelty (“‘Don’t be a spaz,’ I said when her mother’s cancer had spread to her brain”). Her other primary human interaction is with her psychiatrist, Dr. Tuttle, who prescribes her a mixture of legal and illegal (in the US) psychiatric drugs to numb her into a complete stupor. Dr. Tuttle’s dialogue is some of the most absurd, hilarious, and dark (given her position of power) that I have read. At one point she tells the narrator upon hearing (for about the 10th time) that her parents are dead: “I’m sorry to hear that. But I’m not surprised… Orphans usually suffer from low immunity, psychiatrically speaking. You might consider getting a pet to build up your relational skills. Parrots, I hear, are nonjudgemental”.

This book is bizarre and completely original, it’s funny and contemporary. It is also thought provoking, and at times heartbreaking, as we see a young woman who seems to have it all grapple with grief and unacknowledged depression in an age where medication and money are presented to us as cure-alls for the pains of life.

If you don’t want to take my word for it, take those of many of the renowned critics who have lauded this novel with praise. Dwight Garner writes for The New York Times describes the prose as “cool, strange, aloof and dsciplined” and praises Moshfegh as “an inspired literary with doctor” with “a sleepless eye”. Meanwhile, M John Harrison from The Guardian applauds Moshfegh for her “relentless savagery” and providing “diamond-hard entertainment”.

The language used to explore this novel is so varied, from dry and humorous to tragic and profound. All this, of course, only points to Moshfegh’s nuanced writing, and her ability to create  a world that feels so painfully real, you can understand the desire to sleep through it, while not being able to quite pull yourself away.

 

 

Books to Read if you Hate to Read

I get it, not everyone is a book nerd like me. Part of the reason I started this blog was to try and inspire people who don’t read a lot to give it a try, and hopefully with the right book you can fall in love with reading. It makes me sad that so many of my friends don’t like to read, because it brings me so much joy and comfort. That being said, I don’t believe anyone really doesn’t love to read, I think they just haven’t found the right books. Don’t let the classics overwhelm you or put you off. If Crime And Punishment isn’t for you, that’s totally ok (to be honest, it’s not really for me either). To find what you love, you have to try a few things. Maybe think to what you love to watch on TV, or even do in your free time. If you thrive on Law & Order, try a fun courtroom novel. If you’re into politics, try a memoir by an eminent politician. Here is some inspiration if you’re lost for places to start. These books range from silly to scary to serious, so hopefully there’s something for everyone who thinks reading isn’t for them.

For the Film Buff I Don’t Know What You Know Me From: Confessions of a Co-Star by Judy Greerjudy greer

If you’ve watched a rom-com made after the year 2000, chances are you know who Judy Greer is. She is possibly the most famous best-friend in Hollywood . You know her as the bitchy best friend who two-times Jennifer Garner in 13 Going on 30, as the sassy, loud-mouthed best friend who guides Katherine Heigl through bridesmaid hell in 27 Dresses, and as J-Lo’s BFF in The Wedding Planner (to name a few). I love this book because it’s so relatable. Greer gives us all the Hollywood gossip we want to know, and explains what it’s like to be famous, but never quite the main star. Most memoir’s, (especially celebrity memoirs), come from unbelievably, unattainably successful stars who can claim to have cracked the secret to success. Judy Greer, meanwhile, is totally open about what it’s like to find and accept that mid-level of success. If you’ve ever felt like you’ve failed just because you’re not the very best, if you love movies, or if you just want a good laugh, this book is light and easy and lots of fun.

For the Politically & Socially Engaged: I Am Not Your Negro by James Baldwinjames baldwin

I read this book for a class in college, and it still resonates with me today. Published after Baldwin’s death, the book combines some of his most powerful and unpublished writing and speeches into a collection that is part book, part artwork, and part film. It’s short and packs a punch, and you should definitely read it while watching the film (the book is the film, word-for-word, on paper). Definitely don’t skip the book and just watch the movie, because seeing some of his words on paper will make you pause in different places, and really think about the work of one of the most brilliant writers of the last century.

For the Lovers of Rom-Coms: Heartburn by Nora Ephronnora ephron

If you’re more of a film person, try a book by a screenwriter. Nora Ephron is most famous for the screenplays she’s written, from When Harry Met Sally to Sleepless in Seattle, so if you love those movies you can expect to love her novels as well. Heartburn is really an autobiographical novella, that chronicles the heroine’s divorce. Although it might seem like pretty bleak subject matter, this is one of the funniest books that I’ve read. Ephron has a real gift for turning pain into humor, and it’s on full display in Heartburn. When she isn’t loudly wishing her husband dead, she’s using her cooking skills to ease her through her divorce, so the book is punctuated with delicious recipes. What’s not to like?

For the Bingers of TV crime shows: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkinspaula hawkins

This is one of those classic cases where a great book is turned into a horrific movie (sorry Emily Blunt). The book is a psychological thriller, and switches between the perspective of three women. Rachel is an alcoholic who is recovering from the betrayal of her husband Tom leaving her for another woman, Anna. Each day, as Rachel takes the train into work, she sees her ex-husband and his new wife living their seemingly picture-perfect life. A few doors down from Tom and Anna, live another couple: Megan and Scott. Although she doesn’t know them, Rachel starts creating an imaginary life for this couple, where pain and betrayal don’t play any part. Little does she know, in reality Megan is battling with demons of her own. The stories of the three women begin to intertwine, leading to a climax that will shock the hell out of you. This book is a real page-turner, but with psychological depth and fleshed out characters. The movie is trash, don’t watch it.

For fans of Comedy: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adamsdouglas adams

 I really do think that if you think you don’t like reading, you should try comedy. Funny books feel so much more personal and intimate than TV shows or movies, and I think they’re a great way to spark a love of reading. There’s a lot of great comedic writing out there (Nick Hornby is probably my all-time favorite comedic author), but The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was too much fun to leave off this list. You probably know the basic plot even if you haven’t seen the movie, but in essence there are aliens and spaceships and an apocalypse and dolphins and here are a couple of quotations to get you in the mood:

“I don’t want to die now!” he yelled. “I’ve still got a headache! I don’t want to go to heaven with a headache, I’d be all cross and wouldn’t enjoy it!”

“In those days spirits were brave, the stakes were high, men were real men, women were real women and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were real small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri.”

For the Child at Heart: The Princess Bride by William Goldmanwilliam goldman

I read this book for the first time as an adult, and let me tell you, it was a magical journey that you should all go on. The movie is also great. If you loved the movie, you should read the book because it’s basically a longer and better version of the movie. If you haven’t seen the movie, read the book first and then watch it. It’s about princesses and pirates and magical lands and it’s funny and fantastic and essentially an epic fairy-tale that’s a bit weird and you should read it and that is all.

For Everyone: Harry Potter by J.K. Rowlingj k rowling

Obviously. This is my favorite book/series of all time (I even have a little lightning bolt tattoo to prove my dedication). If this series can be credited with getting an entire generation of children to fall in love with reading, then it can definitely have that effect on you as well. It’s not too late for you. Read it. If you’ve read it, re-read it. The magic never dies.

Short Story Collections to Make You Feel Smart in Short Bursts

Some people (aka my mum), are not fans of short stories. I think that’s dumb (sorry mum). Seriously though, what’s not to like? You get to experience incredible authors and inhabit other worlds all in the space of a few pages. Sometimes, in my opinion, they can be more powerful than novels. They’re also great if you’re a) not a big reader, or b) find yourself short on time to read. You don’t need to worry about remembering lots of characters or storylines, because everything can be read in one sitting. They’re also great because you can use them to try out new authors that you might be interested in reading, but nervous about diving headfirst into a full-blown novel. When it comes to short stories, I prefer to read something a bit meatier and even challenging, because it’s in such a short, almost bite-size form that I don’t go to that form for something fluffy. So here are my picks: among these are some of the most renowned short story collections (so apologies if you’re already familiar with them). I promise reading these books will make you feel smart, they will make you sound smart if you name drop into conversations, and you can read them when and wherever you have time.

  1. Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami

men without womenWhen I went to Japan last year, my friends and I went to beautiful bookshop in Tokyo which had an entire wall dedicated to books by Murakami. I realized he was prolific, but oh my God, how many people can say they’ve written enough books to fill an entire wall? What’s awesome about Men Without Women is that it’s as respected and acclaimed as his very best works like Norwegian Wood. Every short story features a man who is, in some way, lonely and lovesick. From a successful doctor who, well into middle age, finds himself unexpectedly and heartbreakingly in love with a married woman, to a man confined in his house whose housekeeper-turned-lover tells him spellbinding stories à la Scheherazade, each story demonstrates the themes of loneliness and alienation that are so characteristic of Murakami’s writing. The prose is subtle, funny, and moving. This book is a real classic, and a great intro to Murakami if you haven’t read him before.

  1. Evil Eye by Joyce Carol Oates

This is really a stand in for all of Joyce Carol Oates’s short story collections (of which evil eyethere are many.. many many). She’s one of my all-time favourite authors, and is as prolific and impressive in her short fiction as her long. I love her attraction to dark, slightly twisted subject matter, as well as her penchant for taking real-life events and fictionalizing them. The full title of this book is Evil Eye: Four Novellas of Love Gone Wrong, so you sort of know what you’re getting into. Except you don’t. The stories are dark, disturbing, and completely gripping. While we’re on the subject of Joyce Carol Oates, I have to mention that she also wrote my absolute favourite short story ever (I do realized hoe many times I’ve written favourite here). If you haven’t read it, it’s called “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been”, and I honestly don’t think any other story demonstrates the power and brilliance of this form, as well as the talent of Oates. Just read it, I’m begging (the whole thing is free to read online here.)

  1. Complete Short Stories of Flannery O’Connor

complete short storiesFlannery O’Connor is one of the most widely acknowledged masters of the short story, and if you’re going to read her, you may as well go all in and get the complete collection (it’s also probably easier to find than her shorter collections). Her most famous story is “A Good Man is Hard to Find’, so if you’re overwhelmed, that’s a good place to start (read it online here if you want to get a taste of her style and skill). O’Connor is the queen of Southern Gothic writing, and she’s also a fascinating person in herself. She was born in Savannah Georgia (incidentally also the setting of the incredible novel Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil), and died aged 39 of Lupus. She was a devout Roman Catholic, and yet her writing mocks tradition and conservatism. This is a book I dip into every now and again (it’s a little thick for me to read in one sitting), and I’m always struck anew by the power of her stories to transport the reader to a different world and time (usually the historic American South) from the first sentence.

  1. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver

what we talk aboutRaymond Carver is another author most known for his short stories, and he really is a master of the form. This collection, published in 1981, is his most prominent work. If the title isn’t enough to entice you to go straight out and buy this book, hopefully I can help. Set primarily in American suburbia, the stories explore the depths of human love in all it’s amazing and bizarre forms. The opening story, “Why Don’t You Dance?” tells the story of an ageing man selling some of his possessions on a yard sale, who watches a young couple stop by, full of the excitement of starting a new life. In “Gazebo”, Carver gives us a peek into an elderly couple who manage a motel, and a conversation that sees the disintegration of their marriage. In the title story, four friends discuss the loves and losses they have experienced, particularly the history of one abusive relationship. The stories often seem to go nowhere, and leave you with more questions than answers, but if you’re like me that’s something you love about short stories. You may also recognize some of these in their film versions. The movie Birdman follows a Broadway production of the title story, and “Why Don’t You Dance?” was adapted into the 2010 film Everything Must Go starring Will Ferrell.

  1. Bluebeard by Angela Carter

bluebeardThis is a great collection to give you a sense of Angela Carter before you dive into her longer fiction. I adore her as an author, and hopefully if you read this then you will as well. It’s a teeny tiny book of classic fairytales with modern twists. Carter brings her mastery of magical realism to these traditional stories, with retellings of Cinderella, Puss in Boots, Little red Riding Hood and more. Be warned, many people prefer Carter’s short story collection The Bloody Chamber to Bluebeard, which is also a collection that retells fairytales, so you have my full permission to read that instead (you’re so welcome). Still, if you only have a little time, Bluebeard sits at 64 pages and is great fun.

 

  1. Tenth of December by George Saunders

tenth of decemI’m ending this post with one of, in my opinion, the all-time best short story collections. The stories are varied, and the main thing that links them all is their absolute excellence. I don’t even really know how to write something that gives a sense of this book, so here are a couple of quotations:

“Why was she dancing? No reason. Just alive I guess”

“He was like the bed at a party on which they pile the coats”

“But hereby resolve to write in this book at least twenty minutes a night. (If discouraged, just think of how much will have been recorded for posterity after one mere year!) (September 5) Oops. Missed a day.”

I read the opening story, “Victory Lap”, in one of my first Creative Writing classes in college. I must have read hundreds of short stories throughout college, and since, but this is one that really stuck with me, that I can still see and hear and feel viscerally when I think back on it. The collection was selected as one of the ten best books of 2013 by the New York Times Book Review, and it won the 2014 Folio Prize. Oh, and George Saunders won the Man Booker Prize last year as well, so there’s that as well.

 

 

Review: “Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books” by Azir Nafisi

reading lolita

When I finally sat down to start Reading Lolita in Tehran a couple of weeks ago, I felt it had been a long time coming. This was one of those books that had been sitting on various bookshelves in my house in London for probably a decade or more. My aunt had been telling me to give it a try whenever I asked for reading recommendations, but for some reason it never seemed to be at the top of my list. Finally, I asked her to bring it out during a visit to New York. I think it’s the fact that, now that I’m no longer in college and studying literature, I felt a desire to read something bookish. And I have to tell you: this is a reader’s book. It’s author, Azir Nafisi, is a literature professor, currently at John’s Hopkins and formerly at the university of Tehran, where she was expelled from for refusing to wear the veil. This book is a memoir, but in strong narrative form. It reads somewhere between an autobiography and a fairy tale… but the dark and terrifying fairy tales of Hans Christian Anderson rather than the technicolor ones of Disney.

After Nafisi was expelled from the University of Tehran, living through two revolutions and the chaos they wreaked on her life and her country, she began teaching an illicit class to a group of select student in her own home. These students, all women, met in her living room every Thursday to discuss great literature, from authors who were no longer acceptable to be read publicly in Iran, and to openly analyze criticize, and discuss the works. The book is separated into four parts, based on four of the books and authors that Nafisi taught in her secret class: Lolita, Gatsby, James, and Austen. As she retells the stories of those classes, we learn about these women’s lives under the totalitarian regimes of Iran in the late 20th century, and the peculiar parallels and comforts drawn from very Western novels and authors. For example, while reading Nobokov’s Lolita, Nafisi explains:

“Like my students, Lolita’s past comes to her not so much as a loss but as a lack, and like my students, she becomes a figment in someone else’s dream. At some point, the truth of Iran’s past became so immaterial to those who appropriated it as the truth of Lolita’s is to Humbert. It became immaterial in the same way that Lolita’s truth, her desires and life, must lose color before Humbert’s one obsession, his desire to turn a twelve-year-old unruly child into his mistress.”

            Nafisi is an insightful and empathetic narrator, but her training and life’s work as a professor is pretty apparent throughout the book. Often, it feels as though you’re sitting in a college lecture. For some people (myself included), this isn’t a bad thing. Like I said before, I read this because I was missing the academic stimulation of university life, and wanted to immerse myself in a world of literary discussion. With that being said, if you aren’t as much of a book nerd as I am, or if you simply don’t want to feel like you’re sitting in a classroom, this book may not be for you. As well as the slightly lecture-like tone, the entire novel is peppered with allusions to works of fiction and authors in and around the literary canon, with the assumption that you’ll understand these allusions.

Still, what makes this book so incredible and so worthwhile is, of course, its remarkable setting. Perhaps more importantly, however, what it showed me was how much resistance there was from women in Iran during this period. I wasn’t born when many of these events were unfolding, and so my knowledge of Iranian history and politics is murky at best. I’m not proud to say that a lot of what I know comes from British and American films and TV shows. With such a blinkered view, I had never really appreciated what life must be like for women who had been born and educated in a liberal country, only to suddenly find themselves barred from many institutions, segregated from men, forced to cover themselves in public, and censored in all aspects of life. It is fascinating to read as these events play out, and reading classic literature becomes an act of resistance:

“Every great book we read became a challenge to the ruling ideology. It became a potential threat and menace not so much because of what it said but how it said it, the attitude it took towards life and fiction. Nowhere was this challenge more apparent than in the case of Jane Austen.”

Equally interesting is the difference between people like Nafisi—who had grown up and lived most of her life in a free Iran, who now watch their life and liberties being snatched away from them—and her students, whose main memories and experiences come from the time after the first revolution. Nafisi explores these differences in the book with a certain dry wit, at one point, she explains how many of her students had trouble understanding the brilliance and importance of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby:

“My students were slightly baffled by Gatsby. The story of an idealistic guy, so much in love with this beautiful rich girl who betrays him, could not be satisfying to those for whom sacrifice was defined by words such as masses, revolution and Islam. Passion and betrayal were for them political emotions, and love far removed from the stirrings of Jay Gatsby for Mrs. Tom Buchanan. Adultery in Tehran was one of so many other crimes, and the law dealt with it accordingly: public stoning.”

Perhaps more telling, and more tragic though, is to hear from the students themselves, who are fully aware of lacking something, of the freedom they have never been able to enjoy and the experiences that have been barred from them. One of Nafisi’s select students Nassrin exclaims towards the end of the book: “All of us—girls like me, who have read their Austen and Nobokov… how we know nothing, nothing about the relationship between a man and a woman, about what it means to go out with a man.” Intimate moments like this really bring home the reality of life in Tehran in the eighties and nineties, and evoke an empathy that news headlines never could.

Nafisi structures her story expertly. She weaves in personal anecdotes and memories with larger explanations of the political climate, always maintaining a clear narrative arc and deftly bringing in the novels to explain herself and draw surprising parallels. I geeked out on reading about books I love and authors I have studied in such a wildly different context, and seeing that they hold their own and are still relevant in what feels like an entirely different world. At the end of the day though, as I mentioned before, what is most impressing about Reading Lolita in Tehran, are these quietly rebellious women. To see the small acts of resistance that take place under a totalitarian regime is very inspiring, and (perhaps I’m naïve in saying this), surprising as well. These women are a motley crew, and many of them are unlikely rebels. Some are deeply religious, modest, and unassuming, yet despite all this they risk their lives every week to discuss Western literature in secret and speak openly about the horrors of the regime they live under. In one moment, Nafisi describes the heroines of the novels they are reading:

“These women, genteel and beautiful, are the rebels who say no to the choices made by silly mothers, incompetent fathers… and the rigidly orthodox society. They risk ostracism and poverty to gain love and companionship, and to embrace that elusive goal at the heart of democracy: the right to choose”

Of course, these women exist in the pages of this novel as well, as these women become immortalized on paper in the ways their fictitious counterparts such as Elizabeth Bennet and Daisy Miller were before them.

Books to Read on Your Commute

reading on subway

Here is a fun fact that I learnt during a social psychology class for my college minor: in life we suffer every day from something called micro-stressors. Micro-stressors are essentially day-to-day hassles, and one of the main ones that most people experience is the time spent on their daily commute. This minor but persistent source of stress actually makes you more likely to suffer from serious, chronic illnesses throughout your life than major tragedies like divorce or the death of a family member. You’re probably wondering why I’m giving you this morbid and somewhat useless piece of information. The reason is this: if you don’t see your commute as a hassle or source of stress, you improve your overall health in the long-term. Personally, I love my commute, and that’s for one key reason: it gives me lots of time to read.

In fact, my all-time favorite place to read is on my commute. Living in Brooklyn and working on Manhattan, I spend about an hour on the subway each day.  This hour is my time to fully wake up in the morning and decompress on the way home. It’s sacred time that I get just to myself, to do what I love most, and hopefully, with the right book, it can be the same for you.

If you live somewhere with an underground train system, reading is the perfect thing to do when you lose phone signal and need something to look at so you don’t have to make eye contact with anyone, ever (is that just me?) You want something that’s fun to read, and that won’t put you back to sleep when you already went through all of the effort of waking up the first time. But let’s be honest, you also want something that will look impressive to everyone sitting around you. I 100% judge other people on the train based on what they’re reading, and even though you’ll never see each other again, there’s something so satisfying about knowing people are impressed with your literary prowess. So, for all you commuters out there, here are five books to read that will wake you up, get you ready for the day ahead, and make you feel intelligent while keeping you entertained.

 

P.S. If you drive or walk to work, try any of these on audiobook.

 

P.P.S To return to my initial fun fact about micro-stressors, you can now thank me in advance for saving you from heart disease or premature death. You’re welcome. I accept thanks in the form of Diet Coke.

 

  1. Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult small great things

Jodi Picoult is prime commuter reading material. Her books are easy-to-read, but usually deal with serious and pertinent subject matter. Small Great Things is widely regarded as one of Picoult’s masterpieces, and although it isn’t short, you’ll whiz through it (my roommate and I both finished it in about a week). The narrative weaves three very different lives into one story. The first is that of Ruth Jefferson, an African American nurse who works on a maternity ward in a Connecticut hospital. The second is that of Turk Bauer, a white supremacist whose wife goes into labor, but Turk refuses to let Ruth touch the baby because she’s black. When the newborn baby goes into cardiac arrest on Ruth’s watch, she hesitates for a crucial moment, torn between complying with the racist orders she’s been issued and not helping the baby, or jeopardizing her job and future to do her job. The result brings the third main player into the mix, Kennedy McQuarrie, a white public defender who takes on Ruth’s case. The novel makes every character question their implicit and explicit prejudices, and just as importantly, it forces the reader to confront their own as well.

I have to be completely honest, the fact that this is a book about race in America, with an African American woman as the protagonist, that is written by a white author, was a little troubling for me. Picoult, however, is acutely aware of the position she is writing from. In an interview with NPR, she said “do I even have the right to write this story? I am a white woman. I have not lived this life. This is not my story to tell.” She goes on to explain that the character of Kennedy shares many similarities with herself. A white woman who considers herself to be liberal and informed, but quickly realizes how little she knows and understands.

I love that this book is so engrossing, because you will absolutely forget that you’re on a crowded train, hemmed in on one side by a screaming toddler and on the other by a man who smells of tuna. The story will draw you in quickly, and teach you about yourself without you even realizing it.

 

  1. Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

norse mythology

Although Neil Gaiman is a prolific author, with a large and dedicated fan base, this is the first novel of his that I’ve read. For my senior thesis in college I wrote a collection of original fairy tales, and my research led me to read a lot of, and fall in love with, myths and folklore. I also knew nothing at all about the stories surrounding the Norse gods, so this book was a new adventure for me (which is partly why I was so excited to read it), and let me tell you, it was a fun one.

In Norse Mythology, Gaiman retells the traditional stories of the creation of the world, the elements, and all we know and understand today, as they have been told for years in many Nordic countries. This world is governed by capricious gods who fight, steal, and love, and affect all our lives in the process.

This is a great book to read as you commute, because Gaiman breaks it up into short stories as part of a larger narrative arc. Each story can, to an extent, be read on its own, so there’s no need to panic if, in the hassle of life, you forget exactly what had happened three chapters previously. It’s also great fun, and hanging out (in literary form) with Thor, Odin, Loki and the other gods in Ragnarok is about as transporting as you could hope for in a book to read at 8am.

 

  1. Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

cats cradle

I adore Kurt Vonnegut. I don’t think I’ve ever met a reader who doesn’t, although I’m sure there are plenty of them out there (if you’re one of them, just skip to the next book now). Cat’s Cradle has his classic love of the absurd and science fiction, as it follows an inspiring novelist Jonah who is researching Dr. Felix Hoenikker for his upcoming novel. Hoenikker is a deceased inventor who allegedly invented a chemical weapon so powerful it has the ability to end the world as we know it, by freezing everything it comes into contact with.

What I love most about Vonnegut is his obvious love of, and playfulness with language. He uses words in ways you would never expect, not just here and there, but in every sentence of every novel he’s written. Seriously, it would take most people weeks to craft just one sentence like the ones his novels are packed with. If you’re wondering what I mean, here are a few: “the most heartbreakingly beautiful girl I ever hope to see,” and “I could carve a better man out of a banana”. If you like the absurd, Kurt Vonnegut, or very short books, then this is for you. Plus, it’s so short that even if you don’t love it, it doesn’t weight much and it’ll only take you a couple of trips on the train to polish off.

 

  1. This Is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay

this is going to hurt

 

Warning: do not read this book if you are squeamish. With that being said, I don’t particularly relish the thought of blood and broken bones, but I still loved this book. It’s made up of the diaries of Adam Kay, a former NHS junior doctor (for you Americans out there, that’s the National Health Service). It follows his medical training, nights spent working in Accident & Emergency (or the ER… honestly if you’re American you may need to do some Googling with this one), all the way to his specialization in obstetrics and gynecology (I love his explanation that it’s the only field in medicine where, on the whole, your patient count doubles rather than diminishes every day).

Despite the grueling nature of his work (unbelievably long hours, no time for a personal life, the knowledge that you hold the lives of mothers and babies in your hands every day, and painfully low salaries), this book is hilarious. Kay writes about his job and the insanity of his day-to-day life with so much humor, as well as so much heart. I loved this book because, although it’s filled with anecdotes about absurd patients and ridiculous scenarios, you never doubt how much Kay cares about his work and his patients. Just to give you a sense of the comedic voice, some quotations include: “Electrolytes are the salts in the blood – mostly sodium, potassium, chloride and calcium. If levels become too high or too low, your body has a way of alerting you, by making your heart stop or putting you in a coma. It’s clever like that”, and a single diary entry that reads “3am attendance at labour ward triage. Patient RO is 25 years old and 30 weeks into her first pregnancy. She complains of a large number of painless spots on her tongue. Diagnosis: taste buds.” I promise that you will laugh out loud while reading this, while simultaneously feeling a lot less self-indulgently miserable about your own job.

 

  1. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

little fires everywhere.jpg

This is another book that has made its way around my apartment, as it has around every book club in the Western world. It’s a fast paced, delightfully readable mystery, set in a wealthy suburb of Cleveland. It starts in media res, or really, it starts right at the end with a fire at the home of the protagonist’s family. It then backtracks to explain the events leading up to the fire, which surround the prosperous, American-dreamy Richardson family, and the nomadic Warrens.

Mia Warren and her daughter Pearl move into a small property that they rent from Elena Richardson, the matriarch of the seemingly-perfect Richardson family. Quickly, the Warrens become an object of intrigue with the Richardson children, and the friendships and relationships that form as a result lead to some WILD drama. Everything comes to a head around a local family adopting a Chinese-American baby, leading to a custody battle that finds the Warrens and the Richardson on opposite sides of a fight that divides the town.

This is everything you could hope for in a commuting book: there’s mystery, there’s intrigue, there’s romance, there’s betrayal. Additionally, there’s an interesting discussion of ethical dilemmas that surround adoption, motherhood, and class in America today. For me, this was a book that I couldn’t wait to read every day, and made me look forward to all that time spent on the subway.