Just Kids by Patti Smith
In the mid-1960s Patti Smith was still a self-described country mouse—observant, somewhat shy and new to New York City. Around this time she met Robert Mapplethorpe by chance—she went to Brooklyn to visit friends only to find out that they’d moved away and been replaced by a skinny ambitious artist who, from that day forward, would significantly shape her life until his death from AIDS in 1989.
Smith’s graceful and direct memoir reminded me that the scope of our relationships are limited only by our imaginations—that we risk missing out on so much if we accept other people’s narrow definitions of what relationships are meant to look like. Friendships (or soul-ships) are their own organic beings, as unique and distinctive as any personality.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Equal parts love epic story, satirical cultural critique, and race-relations juggernaut, Americanah is eye opening and sharply observant. Somehow Ngozi Adichie manages to keep this illuminating novel that spans decades and crosses continents (Nigeria, England, America) as swift and snappy as her protagonist Ifemelu’s posts for her popular blog “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black.” Spend some time in Ifemelu’s mind and you’ll definitely get smarter, or at least feel smarter and that sounds good to me.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Ever avoided a book because it’s been talked about it so much that it’s like you’ve already read it? How good can it really be? After all, you get the gist of the story—forbidden love, adultery, and constraining societal rules in late 19th Century Russia. But knowing what Anna Karenina is about and reading it are as different as looking at a picture of water and standing on a beach in crashing surf. All I can say is, why did I wait so long?
Then again maybe reading Anna Karenina is like the time my stepfather suggested I watch Grease. He had recorded it (VHS style) months earlier—perhaps I’d like to see it? Afterwards, with the closing lyrics “you’re the one that I want” dizzyingly on loop in my nine year-old mind, my elation was eclipsed by the utter disbelief and anger that he had kept it from me this long. Oh yes, I did just compare Anna Karenina to Grease.
Allow the book’s famous opening sentence give you a sense of the scope of this novel celebrated by Dostoyevsky, Nabokov and Faulkner: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
I particularly like the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, who are married and live in Paris. Part of the pleasure of reading this translation is getting to imagine them sitting in some gorgeous apartment over looking the Seine discussing the nuances of the dialogue between Anna and Count Vronsky.
What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt
I remember exactly where I was when I read the final gripping chapter of Hustvedt’s novel, set in the art world of downtown New York in the 1970s and 80s. I was sitting on the curb on Greene Street, SoHo, glancing down at final pages and then up towards a light-filled loft across the street where I imagined the novel’s two main characters, the painter Bill Wechsler and the art history professor Leo Hertzberg (the novel’s narrator) deep in conversation. This book is about art and psychology, for sure, but mostly it is about the strange and alluring entanglements that arise when two families become unusually close over many years—what ensues is part psychological thriller and part homage to love and friendship.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan
A big-hearted book that will crack you open with its harrowing story of love, loss and survival during World War II, this novel won the 2014 Man Booker Prize. Both romantic and savage, Narrow Road depicts the life of Australian surgeon Dorrigo Evans (and his fellow prisoners of war) at a Japanese POW on the Death Railway–258 miles of forced labor that left as many as 90,000 prisoners dead. It may sound bleak (and there is no denying this is heavy stuff) but it’s also an epic ode to mateship, to enduring love and to the power of forgiveness.