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My approach to books is the same as my approach to food: I’ll try anything once, and if I don’t like it, I’ll try it again until I do. I read widely across genres, but am particularly fond of literary fiction, narrative non-fiction, and cookbooks, which I read cover-to-cover, like novels. I read in pursuit of the elusive “book tingle”—the sense of illumination and recognition when you realize you’re reading exactly the right book at exactly the right time.
I love and recommend all of Jon Ronson's work, but almost 20 years after its publication, "Them" looks more and more like a roadmap to where we are today. In this collection of articles, Ronson profiles various extremist groups--from Islamic fundamentalists to neo-Nazis, and a number of figures who would ultimately wind up in the current White House. Despite their contrasting beliefs, these groups share the common paranoia that a tight-knit, shadowy elite is ruling the world. In his approachable and self-effacing way, Ronson indicates the absurdity and irony of the extremists' views without shaming them. As disconcerting as it is, I find it impossible to read this book without giggling aloud... and shuddering, too.
The memoir that inspired the movie "October Sky" (an anagram of "Rocket Boys") starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Chris Cooper. Hickam grew up in a small coal-mining town in West Virginia in the 1950s, where the only viable plan for a young man was to play football or mine coal. After witnessing the Soviet satellite Sputnik streak across the sky of his hometown, Hickam and his ragtag group of friends set out to design and launch their own rocket, despite meager resources and stern resistance from an overbearing father. This book stands out for its vivid portrait of a struggling town, and its emotional ride from frustration to hope and back again as the boys tinker their way to success. "Rocket Boys" has everything: beautiful storytelling, a sense of place, a historical and cultural lesson about rural America during the Cold War, and an underlying message of hope in the face of limitations.
Tragic, despairing, jaded, honest. Jean Rhys offers one of the most vulnerable and least romanticized portraits of a woman in Paris that I've seen in literature (though there is something dismally romantic about a woman drinking Pernod alone in the cafes of Paris, isn't there?). This is about the daily minutiae, the grim emotionality, and the occasional moments of light for a single, disillusioned woman drinking her way through Paris in the 1930s. This book's aesthetic? Luxury and grit. Its cheap hotels, dim brasseries, and lonely Parisian wanderings still haunt me.
I am fascinated by books that deal with slavery, and have read widely in the genre, but this is one of the most far-reaching, thorough, and beautiful books I have read to date. Ambitious in scope, this novel successfully brings to life oft-overlooked facets of the slave trade, Black Loyalists, and their various migrations across continents and cultures. It also features some of the most deftly drawn female characters I've seen. Its gripping prose makes for an emotional but wholly rewarding read.