The New Year is my favorite holiday. I adore Christmas, and the weeks leading up to it in December offer their own inherent sublimity, but it’s New Year’s Day that I look forward to, plan and pine over. It comes down to my giddy love for the blank slate, the fresh start and the resolutions – in fact, I feel similarly about the first day of every month and even the first day of any normal week. I’ll embrace any chance to start again, learn from my mistakes and perhaps do a bit better than before. This mindset doesn’t always set me up to win, but it does always keep me trying.
This proclivity towards self-improvement inspired a deep dive into the self-help genre when I was thirty. I was a new mom with a rapidly growing family, living in a new place and very much convinced that everyone knew better than I did about how to live and how to be. For me, it all felt up in the air; the rules I knew no longer applied, and I recognized nothing.
So I turned to the experts – the bloggers with new books, the masters of self-help, the motivational speakers, and the videos on Vimeo and YouTube. Down I spiraled. The material was endless in 2010, and it’s infinite now. As the years went by and my bedside table stacks grew beyond reason, I slowly began to sense that self-help was leaving me with more questions than answers, more self-doubt than security, and an increasingly vague sense of my own intuition – and I didn’t see an end in sight.
With a nudge from my gut, I broke up it. I went 100% cold turkey on my beloved self-help genre and settled into stories again, and the most surprising thing happened when I did. I found guidance through fiction. I walked alongside characters and learned more about myself. I witnessed heartache and tragedy. I cracked open. I laughed. I realized I wasn’t alone and that aspects of human experience are, in fact, universal.
And so now, every January, with the continued hope of countless resolutions written down, I dive into fiction, knowing that during this month of reflection, I will find myself within the imaginary tales.
Over the holidays, I reread Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I had finished the book a couple of years ago, but I happily found it again in my mom’s house – not a surprise since I gave it to her for Christmas – and I couldn’t resist spending some more quality time with Ifemelu and Obinze, highschool lovers who emigrate from Nigeria only to find their way back to their country years later. Both characters discover what is lost and gained within themselves and within their culture as a whole over the course of their 15 years away. Adichi writes with equal parts empathy and power, and Americanah, eternally relevant, lingers well beyond a first reading.
I came across Karl Ove Knausgaard’s magnum autobiographical novel, My Struggle, at my local bookstore in Providence last fall. It’s 3,600 pages long and divided into six massive, book-length parts, the last of which will be released this September. I accepted the challenge. I piled all of the five published titles in my arms and headed to the cash register.
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Sensing this commitment might be too big, that I perhaps I didn’t need to go all-in immediately, I settled for Book 1, just to start. Knausgaard’s narrative reads like a rambling journal in the best way – obsessively detailed, yet wholly universal. I couldn’t put it down. Countless passages felt as real and true as if I’d written them myself (and I am quite sure that Knausgaard and I couldn’t more opposite in the obvious ways). If you find yourself searching for clues to your own inner life, many insights will be found in this most stunning work, whether you read every volume or simply the first part.
My husband is the kind of guy who insists he learned to read from the sports page and doesn’t like veering too far away from material that revolves around his beloved Cubs. When he does settle in with a book, he always goes for big stuff, never fluff, which both intrigues and wholly intimidates me.
His favorite book is Remains of the Day, written by 2017 Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro (but published back in 1990). When I finally decided to dip into Ishiguro’s work myself, I went for his novels Never Let Me Go and The Buried Giant in quick succession.
There really aren’t words to describe Ishiguro’s talent – anything I could say would sound trite. He is a master of both language and storytelling. Yet, I will declare that his talent for creating an absolutely fresh narrative is phenomenal. I have yet to read another author whose books are different in every way, except that both are exquisitely creative and altogether exceptional.
Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays is a frequent revisit for me – a novel I’ve returned to several times over the years, whose sentences I find myself rereading to make sense of the structure, the setup and this mastery that carries such feeling. Maria, Didion’s main character, is often described as cold and aloof, yet I always think she’s so relatable for her detachment in the midst of crisis. I often find that there aren’t histrionics and high drama when things fall apart in real life, but instead, a turning inward and a cloaking – a feeling that Didion relays with superb accuracy.
My husband and I read Play It As It Lays together, this time around. We do that sometimes, reading the same book at the same time, looking forward to the chance to chat about it together. But this book was different – there weren’t really words to exchange, so much as an experience that simply existed between us, unspoken.
Jenn and Sarah Pearsall included Kale and Caramel by Lily Diamond in our Aesthete 06 collaboration this past winter (along with the aforementioned Americanah). Again, I ran across the book at my mom’s house, since I gave her the Aesthete box as a gift, and so I had some time to settle in with this stunning and magical volume.
Kale and Caramel, like its author, is absolutely exquisite. Diamond’s writing is warm and thoughtful; without dogma or prescription, she simply shows us ways to bring the beauty of nature into our lives a bit more frequently. This book is a stunning, joyful delight written by a woman whose depth and grace shines through every page.