Top Reads for February
In case you haven’t heard, we’ve gone back to being an unlimited* subscription service, so you can read as many books and audiobooks a month as you wish. To celebrate, we made sure this edition of Top Reads is jam-packed with hot titles, including: A brand-new collection of essays from Zadie Smith, the latest in Jojo Moyes’ “Me Before You” series, Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation so you can prepare for the movie adaptation, and much more.
Alex P.: I’ve been a fan of Zadie Smith’s ever since a friend thrust White Teeth into my hands, years ago, and insisted I read it immediately. Having now read a smattering of her work, both fiction and non-, I’ve come to a surprising conclusion: I may prefer her nonfiction. This is saying something, as her fiction is a delight in its own right, sharp and entertaining in equal measure. But the clarity of thought that defines her fictitious dialogue — some of my favorite in contemporary fiction — defines the entire breadth of her essays. Her writing here so often makes you inhale sharply and realize you’ve always known that, always felt that way, but now someone has caught the words that encapsulate it, that articulate it, and that somehow makes it true. Those moments of recognition are one of my favorite aspects of reading, and they are resplendent in this collection. On subjects that span the high-low cultural divide, from Justin Bieber to Schopenhauer, Smith’s intelligence, humor, and charm shine through, making Feel Free one of my favorite recent reads.
Ashley: Jeff VanderMeer’s haunting start to a trilogy has actually made our list before, way back in 2015. But we figured since the movie adaptation is coming out on February 23rd, now is a fantastic time to revisit Area X — an abandoned piece of land where everyone who attempts to uncover its mysteries quickly ends up mentally altered or dead. Okay, maybe you shouldn’t actually visit Area X, but you know what I mean.
Annihilation follows the twelfth “official” expedition to study Area X, consisting of an all-female team of nameless researchers, each identified only by her function: anthropologist, surveyor, psychologist, biologist. The lack of names is intriguing and disconcerting, but we quickly realize it's the least disturbing part of this ill-fated expedition. VanderMeer's descriptions of Area X perfectly capture the haunting beauty of an uninhabited wilderness pocked with ruins and full of secrets, like the tower (or is it a tunnel?) and the lighthouse that the biologist, our narrator, becomes obsessed with. Rereading it, this is still one of the most gripping and fascinating psychological thrillers I’ve ever read, and you’ll want to start on book two of the “Southern Reach” trilogy immediately. (Also, we’ll have a ScribdChat podcast interview with VanderMeer coming out Tuesday, February 20. Subscribe here so you don’t miss the episode!)
Jen: Still Me is the last book in Jojo Moyes’ popular “Me Before You” series, following protagonist Louisa Clark as she moves from the U.K. to New York City to work as a companion to Agnes Gopnik. Gopnik is a working class Polish immigrant who feels out of place in her husband’s society community.
This job could not be further from her original caretaker role, in which she watched over and eventually fell in love with the young, handsome, and wealthy Will Traynor. Will, a former daredevil world traveler, was paralyzed from a car accident and eventually decided to end his own life via assisted suicide (sorry for the spoilers! You really should be reading this series already, though!). Before doing so, he opened Louisa’s sheltered eyes to the world and sparked a newfound curiosity and confidence.
Louisa explores New York and tackles difficult situations with Will’s lessons in mind. She is committed to adventure and ‘saying yes’ more often. Though it has the expected ups-and-downs, Louisa’s journey comes to a satisfying end and will remind readers that when one door closes, another opens.
Dave: I didn’t know what to expect when I opened Lisa Ko’s The Leavers. It was a rare experience for me, because it was one of the few times in my life when I’ve read a book without knowing anything about it beforehand. Think of it like seeing a movie without seeing its trailer. Maybe that’s why, in the very early pages of the book, I thought that it might be a horror story (spoiler alert: it’s not). Sure, the story itself is horrifying — it opens with a mother from China being separated from her son in the United States and having no way to contact him or explain her situation — but very early on The Leavers reads like classic scary story because Ko’s grasp of suspense in writing is nothing short of masterful. That’s why it’s no surprise that the novel (Ko’s first, if you can believe it) was shortlisted for the National Book Award in addition to winning the Pen/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, and also named a one of the best books from 2017 by NPR, Entertainment Weekly, the Los Angeles Times, BuzzFeed, and Bustle. Trust me, Ko is the type of author whose career you’ll want to follow. She became one of my favorite authors after I read The Leavers and, if you give the book a chance, I know she’ll become one of your favorite authors, too.
Also, I was lucky enough to interview Lisa Ko for the #ScribdChat podcast. If you haven’t yet, you can give it a listen here.
When They Call You a Terrorist
Adia: I usually stay away from delving deeply into the topic of racial injustice because it dredges up unpleasant feelings. But I knew that, despite my hesitation, I had to read Patrisse Khan-Cullors’ book When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir. And I’m so glad I did.
This eloquent memoir, co-written by author Asha Bandale, interweaves Khan-Cullors’ experiences growing up in southern California with a social commentary about where we are now and where we can go from here. It’s peppered with statistics, many heartbreaking and infuriating. Some parts are particularly difficult, like the treatment her mentally ill, wheelchair-bound brother experienced in prison. But despite the injustices, Khan-Cullors pushes forward in the pursuit of justice, not just as a founder of Black Lives Matter, but as a queer, black woman who continues to emphasize that black lives do matter. She stresses the importance of solidarity, healing, and humanity. Despite the frustrating, painful experiences Khan-Cullors shared about in When They Call You a Terrorist, this is also an empowering book that shows the importance of why people need to “push for… justice, dignity, and peace.” She ends the book by saying that if someone calls her young son a terrorist, she’ll hold him and say, “You, each one, are what love, and the possibility of a world in which our lives truly matter, looks like.”
Andrew: Ursula K Le Guin, a literal Science Fiction Grandmaster, died last month, aged 88. I’ve spent the last couple weeks re-reading my favorite novels and short stories of hers, including one of my all-time favorite novels: The Dispossessed.
The Dispossessed is the story of two planets, Urras and Anarres. Urras is an allegory for our Earth, with capitalism and great wealth and steep inequality, and Anarres, Urras’s moon, is an anarcho-communist colony world.
The story itself is about a mathematician from Anarres who travels to Urras, and who works to bridge the gap between the worlds. There are few spaceships or laser-gun fights; this is science fiction that transcends genre limitations and helped to establish Le Guin as a writer of literature and science fiction as a legitimate setting for profound stories.
This is one of the classics of the genre. If you haven’t read it yet, do yourself a favor and check it out now.
The Largesse of the Sea Maiden
Katie: Denis Johnson’s novella Train Dreams is one of my favorite books. Ever. So I couldn’t wait to read the final collection of stories from Johnson, a National Book Award-winning author and two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist. The Largesse of the Sea Maiden was published posthumously after Johnson passed away in 2017. His poignant depictions of shattered characters has ignited a passionate, cult following, so to say his new book has been hyped doesn’t even come close to describing the excitement.
This new collection does not disappoint. True to his mastery, Johnson’s pared-down prose evokes whole worlds in just a few words. Each of the five stories is sublime. And, while the subjects vary, from rehab-induced hallucinations to an ad man who can’t tell which ex-wife is calling to say she’s on her deathbed, each is deeply moving. Johnson transcends the wreckage of their lives with the beauty in which he writes them.
The Largesse of the Sea Maiden is bittersweet because it’s Johnson's last. Even so, it’s a glorious introduction to his body of work for new devotees, and a reinvigorating excuse to reread his books for those of us who have poured over every word.
How to Be Everything
Karyne: Emilie Wapnick coined a term for people who don't fit into one box and have always had trouble answering the daunting question of “What do you want to be when you grow up?”: multipotentialite. It’s kind of a mouthful, but once you dig into a few chapters of her book How to Be Everything: A Guide for Those Who (Still) Don’t Know What They Want to Be When They Grow Up, the term starts to make sense. Work as an editor by day but are in an a cappella group at night? That’s OK! You fit into what Wapnick calls the “Einstein” work model. Are you a filmmaker turned lawyer turned restaurant owner? Don't feel bad about jumping careers! The “Phoenix” work model is more your style. But don’t think of How to Be Everything as a career guide. With exercises and conversation prompts to help you explain that you're not just antsy or unfocused, you’re actually choosing to have 3 careers at once, think of Wapnick’s book as way to design your life the way you want … and not apologize for it.
Ashley (again!): Every Day has a set-up with an extreme hypothetical premise: What if you became a different person every single day? One day, you’re inhabiting the life of a nerdy boy named Nathan; the next, you’re inside the body of a giant football player named John. You have no body of your own, you’re just a wandering consciousness. That’s what’s happening to David Levithan’s main protagonist, who’s simply named A (listen, A named themselves this when they were only a four- or five-year-old spirit. This is why we don’t let babies name themselves.) And despite their better judgment, A falls in love with a normal human girl named Rhiannon while hanging out with her in the body of her boyfriend, Justin.
Is it a weird love story? Yes, of course it’s a weird love story. But it’s also a touching, thought-provoking look at what factors really matter when choosing to love someone and a contemplation on moral responsibilities. Spirit A tries to interfere as little as possible with the lives they’ve taken over for the day, but the boundaries keep being pushed. The movie adaptation of Every Day comes out later this month, starring Angourie Rice as Rhiannon.
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