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  • Writer's pictureLaura Brzyski

First Four of 2018

Updated: Jan 9, 2019

One of my main goals for 2018 is to read at least 50 books. With such a chaotic schedule, I hardly have any time for myself. This past year, I’ve heard myself saying ‘yes’ more to others than to myself. It’s exhausting and frustrating to constantly deny myself small joys and quiet moments. So, I made it a point to carve out more Laura time (essentially so I won’t lose my mind).

But saying ‘yes’ to myself and ‘no’ to others isn’t easy. In fact, sometimes it causes me to feel as though I’m eschewing responsibilities, that I’m unreliable, or that I’m unable to handle a fast-paced, busy lifestyle. Something I keep reminding myself during these moments of self-doubt is a tip from Kelli Russell Agodon. On the last day of 2017, she tweeted a thread titled “Ideas to Get More Writing Done in 2018.” Her very first suggestion is what helps me overcome feelings of uncertainty: “Schedule times to write on your calendar as appointments you must keep. Do not schedule over them.” Although Agodon’s tip addresses production of the written word, it can absolutely be adapted to any goal. Thus, I’ve taken heed of Agodon’s recommendation and have been regarding my downtime (specifically, my reading time) as an important, pre-scheduled, mandatory meeting. Simply put, I cannot miss these “reading meetings.”

Treating my reading time as an essential part of my day has greatly helped me begin my 50-book endeavor. This month, I’ve finished reading four books (which is twice the amount I actually thought I’d check off my list). Every month, for readers’ and my own benefit, I’ll offer accounts of the books I’ve completed. This truly has been an exciting, insightful, and emotional journey so far. I’m thrilled to be able to share my thoughts & recommendations!

January Reads:

We Are Never Meeting In Real Life by Samantha Irby

This past semester, I taught a Creative Writing course. As we were approaching our creative nonfiction unit, I decided I needed to revamp my previous syllabus in order to include current voices (especially those not from white men). It didn’t take me much time or research to land upon Samantha Irby’s most recent work, We Are Never Meeting In Real Life. After reading a preview, I immediately ordered myself a copy and began reading as soon as it arrived.

Author of blog “bitches gotta eat,” Samantha Irby presents a collection of candid, eccentric, and downright hilarious nonfiction essays. With narratives ranging from caring for demonic cat to growing up with a sick mother & a temperamental father, We Are Never Meeting In Real Life made me both laugh out loud (literally, I had people staring at me on an airplane) and empathize with the struggles of adulthood (i.e. budgeting money when all you want to do is buy all the Crunch bars; attempting to avoid long-term commitment until you find someone who you look at & go, “Okay, I guess I wouldn’t mind doing this life thing with you by my side forever”; and navigating one’s body in relation to others’ bodies). In addition to tackling topics that resonate with me (& likely many others [esp. millennials]), Irby writes in such a way that made me feel Irby was having a real-life, couch-&-beer conversation with me. Irby’s narrative voice is crafted as distinct and honest, which not only made me respect Irby as an author, but trust and invest in the entire narrative.

Overall, We Are Never Meeting In Real Life stands as one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read. It took me about a week to read the collection, and I would absolutely read it ten times over, for learning’s and enjoyment’s sake. It rightfully deserves its distinction as a New York Times’ Best Seller and its place on your personal bookshelf. And, in case you’re wondering, I had my students read and analyze the chapter titled, “The Miracle Porker,” which they found captivating and hysterical. You can buy your copy here.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Shortly after establishing my 50-book endeavor, I asked for recommendations from Facebook friends (note: Facebook, although it isn’t utilized as heavily as it once was, is my go-to source for recommendations). My post: “In 2018, I’ll attempt to read at least 50 books. I’m starting to compile my list. What should I definitely not overlook? I’m looking for recommendations that have compelling plots and complex characters, or make me think about our world differently. Go!” The result: 103 responses. Holy cow! Several people (whose opinions I especially value) recommended Anthony Doerr‘s All the Light We Cannot See. It was available at my local library, so I checked it out and began.

All the Light We Cannot See interweaves two narratives: one of a young, blind, French girl named Marie-Laure and the other of a young, orphaned, German boy named Werner. Both characters experience first-hand devastation and trauma of World War II, specifically during the Nazi occupation of Paris. Marie-Laure learns how to navigate unfamiliar terrain, literally and figuratively, as a displaced person. Werner attempts to hold on to his capacity for empathy as a German soldier for the Third Reich. As a work that blends history and fable, All the Light We Cannot See is a beautiful, enthralling piece of realistic fiction. Doerr’s hold on language, especially the way he transforms diction into works of art, is not only refined, but admirable. Every phrase mesmerized me, as if the crafted narrative had bewitched me somehow. I simply couldn’t stop reading this novel. Doerr absolutely deserves his receiving the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for All the Light We Cannot See.

All the Light We Cannot See took me about 2 weeks to complete (note: I read every night for 1 hour [few nights for 2 hours]). It is a long book (~530 pages), but it is undisputedly worth your time. You can (& should) buy your copy here.

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

Another recommendation I received–one that reminded me of a book I had been meaning to read, but hadn’t allowed myself the time to do so–was Fredrik Backman‘s A Man Called Ove. To be honest, I had no idea what kind of novel I was about to jump into. I vaguely knew it was about a curmudgeonly elderly man, but that’s about it. The majority of the time, I need to know the narrative arc (save for the ending) before immersing myself into a new read. But, with A Man Called Ove, I allowed myself to let the novel be more knowledgeable than I. So, I dove in head-first.

A Man Called Ove, as I came to learn, tells the story of Ove, a “grumpy old sod” living in a residential community. Because of new neighbors, Ove’s hard exterior eventually softens, showing that even the sternest people have the ability to melt due to the kindness (& persistence) of others. Backman layers another narrative, though: the repercussions of loss. Ove is not willingly single; rather, he is a widow. There are chapters dedicated to ‘A Man Who Was Ove,’ which transports readers into Ove’s past. His past centers around his former wife, Sonja. Their love story, comprised of two seemingly-incompatible individuals, signifies the mysterious and unrelenting power of love, especially as it continues on after death. Even though Ove desperately wishes to be with Sonja again in another life, he discovers that other people in the current life need him, too.

A Man Called Ove is a heartwarming story. It reminded me how one person can impact the lives of others, how being stuck in your own ways doesn’t open the space for progress, and how to continue on after loss. Backman’s novel took me 2.5 days to read, and I recommend it for anyone seeking a quick, but worthwhile read (it’s probably great as a beach read!). You can order your copy here.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne

A few years ago, while perusing Barnes and Noble, I saw John Boyne‘s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas waiting on the shelf. I had always wanted to read it, but again, never allocated time to do so. I had also wanted to watch the film, but vowed a long time ago to never watch a movie before reading the book. Since buying the book, I have not taken it off my bookshelf. On January 30th, I realized I had one more day left in the month to attempt one more book. I saw The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas waiting on my bookshelf, just as it had been waiting for me many years ago. I picked it up, sat on my couch, and read.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas recounts the fictional story of Bruno, a nine-year-old living in Berlin during World War II. Although Bruno is unaware of it, he and his family are under Hitler’s command. They are sent to Auschwitz, not as prisoners, but as overseers (Bruno’s father is its Commandant). Thus, the novel presents the narrative of Bruno’s experience of growing up not only privileged, but safe from and oblivious to the torturous existence of those ‘on the other side of the fence.’ He comes to learn of his own life advantages and the harsh reality of the world around him through conversations with a newfound friend and Auschwitz prisoner, Shmuel, whom he visits every day at the barbed wire fence that separates their worlds. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas serves to confront unjust power dynamics and the ways in which people dehumanize others for their own personal motives or gain.

In all honesty, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is the saddest book I’ve ever read. More than that, though, it is one of the most haunting narratives I’ve ever encountered (aside from Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides). It only took me three hours to complete the 215-page novel (due to its extremely compelling plot that left me insatiable after every chapter). But, after those three hours, I felt an eerie presence infiltrate my environment. The novel shook me to my bones. It wavers so finely between fact and fiction that I ended up haunted by the historical realness of the narrative. I ended up calling my boyfriend in tears, and at 11PM, drove to his house. I did not sleep alone that night. Despite my fear, I would absolutely read Boyne’s novel again and again. It offers valuable lessons about privilege, willful ignorance versus innocence, and karma, that every person (especially in our current cultural climate) needs to digest and absorb. You can buy your copy here.

All four books benefited my mind and my emotional capacity. I look forward to what February brings.

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