The Literary Edit: Our May Reading List

From gender politics to psychedelics research with a splash of self-help, these are the four fascinating books we're reading this spring.
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What a difference a month makes! Spring (and practically summer) has arrived, and with it, those glimpses of vibrant perfection that only the sun can bring. 

The new warmth offers a reminder of a beloved quote from Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, in which she describes her love for New York with an evocative image of springtime in the city (and with the absolute deliciousness of a perfectly ripe peach):

“I remember walking across 62nd Street one twilight that first spring, or the second spring, they were all alike for a while. I was late to meet someone but I stopped at Lexington Avenue and bought a peach and stood on the corner eating it and knew that I had come out of the West and reached the mirage.”

It’s this kind of imagery that guides this reading list for the month of May, including four different titles that feel juicy and sweet. 

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I came across The Power by Naomi Alderman while browsing one of my favorite indie bookstores. Intrigued by the cover and admittedly by the fact that it is one of Obama’s favorite reads, I couldn’t resist. Alderman’s story begins with a sudden awakening in which the power dynamic between men and women is flipped, quite literally, as women now hold a new electrical power that is physically contained within their chests and used at will. The result is chaotic, terrifying and, yes, powerful.

Alderman’s prose is electric itself, crackling off the page in bursts. Her words propel the story along at a fast pace, and her word choice generates its own energy. This symbiosis between style and narrative is a quality I’ve not often noticed, and when it happens, it’s transformative. Alderman’s skill here is mesmerizing. This is a perfect read for the nights when we’re not watching Season Two of The Handmaid’s Tale.

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This winter had me dreaming of LA, thinking I should have turned West post-college rather than steer myself towards the inevitable East Coast. I hadn’t read any of Eve Babitz’s books before, and so with my lust for LA firmly in place by April, it seemed like the perfect time to get acquainted and find out if the City of Angels – or, at least, Babitz’s version of it – could be for me. 

I picked up Black Swans first, published in the early 1990s and re-released with the perfect green and pink paperback cover just last month. With each turn of the page, I could practically smell the jacaranda blooms, her descriptions fresh and evocative. I loved most of the essays, and one in particular – “Expensive Regrets” struck me as brilliantly astute and seemed written for today. Her writing style is conversational and inviting, so I often felt like I was sitting in a bar sharing these stories with Babitz, rather than passively reading them. Yet, just like a good conversation can go a bit sideways, there were a few parts that made me cringe, particularly the start of her essay “Coco,” where the light and casual tone seemed to give way to out-of-touch insensitivity. Even so, I know there will be many days that I will crave the sun and fresh blooms, and I will return to Black Swans or L.A. Women (another book of hers, and an ideal beach read) and be happily transported to the Chateau Marmont poolside for an afternoon delightfully well spent.

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Without doubt, Michael Pollan is a hero of mine. He has this gift of highlighting something we haven’t thought about (or have steered away from) in a way that immediately seems right and obvious, changing the way we think about everyday things in an instant (with an “oh, duh” attached). The clearest example of this is from his book In Defense of Food, in which he reminds us to “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Pure wisdom. So simple. How did we forget?

When I received the ARC for Pollan’s latest book, How to Change Your Mind, I was immediately intrigued by the shift away from Pollan’s usual subject matter. Instead of tackling food, this new release discusses LSD and other psychedelics. My interest was piqued, as I had read something within the last year that talked about LSD’s beginnings and the fact that the psychiatric communities of the 1950s and 1960s heralded it as a miracle drug with unlimited potential for use and healing. Until that point, I had only heard the dark stories. 

Pollan dives into the history of psychedelics and the science behind them, and then shifts into memoir, detailing his own personal experience – occasions prompted by the research for this book. Pollan rightly calls this section a “travelogue,” as we join him on this revelatory journey. The whole of this book is a fascinating twist of science and memoir, personal journey and three-person discovery. This is one of the best books I’ve read on a subject that will surely become increasingly relevant as we look for new (or revisit old) modalities of healing.

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