Gina Vaynshteyn
January 30, 2014 10:30 am

I think we can all agree that while immersing yourself in the Western canon is valuable, enriching and blah blah blah, reading contemporary fiction (and poetry!) is also important. I had to read piles of books written by dead European and American men about the wars and their stoic love affairs in order to graduate college with an English degree, and while those stories are beautiful, they’re often stuffy. Yep, I said it.

If you’re like me and are always on the lookout for a new good book to read, here are eight that I read this year that amazed me, changed me, and helped me become a writer and reader. All of these books had some kind of transformative quality that I just loved, so I’m super happy that I get to share my love for them with you guys!

1. Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

If you’re looking for a beautiful love story that is poetic and incredibly well-crafted and layered, this is perfect. Beautiful Ruins follows the lives of an American actress that almost starred in Cleopatra, an Italian innkeeper, and a director and his assistant. Jumping back and forth from the ’60s, ’70s, and to present day, Jess Walter does an amazing job weaving in the Hollywood film industry into a story that is really about “soul searching” and doing what is right.

2. Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

Maria Semple wrote for Arrested Development, so if you’re into that kind of humor, you will adore this novel. Where’d You Go, Bernadette is essentially about this mysterious woman, Bernadette Fox, who hates the Seattle yuppies she’s surrounded by. She’s also incredibly anxious. So much so, she hires a woman from overseas to virtually assist her in daily tasks as well as be her confidant, and vanishes right before a planned family trip to Antarctica. Told through her young daughter’s investigative compiled e-mail messages and documents, this book is hilarious and weirdly relatable on an emotional level.

3. American Gods by Neil Gaiman

This is first book I’ve read by Neil Gaiman (I recently bought Anansi Boys on Amazon, so I’m super excited for that) and definitely a departure from what I normally read. To put it simply, American Gods is a modern day mythology about the war between the old and new gods. But simple doesn’t do this book justice, so I recommend just diving into it, especially if you’re into myths (Norse, Russian, Greek, American, etc) and storytelling, because Gaiman does such an awesome job with that.

4. A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

I read this book because one of my journalism professors in college told me to. He said if I wanted to see an example of brilliant writing, I should soak up everything A Visit From the Good Squad has to offer, and so I did. This book is another non-linear story that follows the lives of people who were connected to each other at some point or another, in some kind of shape or form. These characters include Sasha, a record producer’s assistant who is a kleptomaniac and Bennie the record producer who used to be in an ’80s punk band. The last chapter is written like a Power Point slide through the perspective of a kid, and it’s just so, so smart.  A Visit From the Goon Squad is the perfect read if you’re looking for something out of the box. Oh, and it won a Pulitzer. No big deal or anything.

5. The Color Master by Aimee Bender

Aimee Bender’s short story collections (The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, Willful Creatures) are an essential to any bookshelf. Reading Aimee Bender confirmed my stubborn desire to want to become a writer, and she still shapes the way I write today. She writes about anything and everything in The Color Master (her newest book): A boring woman who becomes obsessed with the idea of becoming a prostitute, an old man who convinces himself he was a Nazi during World War II, and a medical school dropout who finds herself sewing tiger skins back together are a few examples. This collection of short stories is bizarre, but it’s so beautiful, so funny, so imaginative, you’ll become inspired after reading a few pages. You know when you read a really crazy metaphor, but it totally speaks to you on this insane, personal level? That’s what it’s like reading Aimee Bender; after almost every single sentence, you feel like Aimee just did a cannonball into your heart. How’s that for a simile?

6. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah may look a bit intimidating, but it’s one of the most readable yet insanely rich experiences I’ve ever had with a novel. Many of you may already be familiar with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who was featured in “***Flawless” on Beyonce’s newest album and is well known for her Ted talk. An incredible storyteller and feminist author, Adichie brings important social issues to light, many of which we haven’t been discussing, but should. She makes a huge distinction between African-Americans and American-Africans by telling the story of a Nigerian girl who emigrates to America for college but ends up going back to Nigeria after her fellowship at Princeton is over, reuniting with an ex-boyfriend.

7. No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July

If you ever watched Me And You And Everyone We Know and thought it was super weird but endearing, then you’ll definitely be into this collection of short stories. In fact, I think No One Belongs Here More Than You is a lot better than July’s films and visual art (personally speaking, here). I read this book when I was in college and like Bender’s work, it really just inspired me to think differently about everything. Her stories are beautiful and filled with funny depictions of loneliness and I guess humanity in general. No One Belongs Here More Than You is more than just a collection of stories. It offers earthy advice that really resonates with me. Here is an example of one of July’s gems:

“It is terrible to have to ask for anything ever. We wish we were something that needed nothing, like paint. But even paint needs repainting.”  

BOOM.

8. Good Grief by Stevie Edwards

Okay, I’m going to add one book of poetry which I love. If you’ve never read a poetry book or stopped when your high school teacher made you read Edgar Allen Poe, I promise that poetry is actually super interesting and heart-wrenching in its own way. Good Grief is a book which I come back to over and over again. It’s about family, loneliness, relationships, and everything in between. It’s about the hardness of life, really. It’s hard to encapsulate this book in just a paragraph, so I’ll just promise you that you will love it. If you’re skeptical, read this short poem called “Bacon & Butter”:

“I was raised on the principle
that bacon & butter can make anything better.
I watched my two-job Dad grease groans from
his waking bones, growing wide as penance
for his absence. I’d like to grow wide
as a field if it means I can lie down
in myself while sky waits
on sun to rise.”

Isn’t that beautiful?! Now go grab yourself a book!

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