I love receiving book recommendations from family and friends. Books demand our time and attention to finish and with time feeling like our most precious resource these days, a persons curated book list reveals a lot. The books we expose ourselves to reflect where we are making mental investments and represent what we value, our passions and interests, and showcase where our curiosities reside.
Before @thelongcruise, I could count on one hand the number of books I had actually finished in the past 2-3 years. I used to be an avid reader, but the habit was quickly deprioritized when adult life took off at 110mph. Coincidentally, Netflix original programming took off about that time too. Weird.
"The person you will be in five years depends largely on the books you read, the people you spend time with, the food you eat, the habits you adopt, and the conversations you engage in today."
This quote guides a lot of my choices right now, especially when it comes to reading. I recently signed up for a memoir writing class through Gotham Writers to help improve my ability to share the stories we are collecting on @thelongcruise. As my teacher often says, writers need to make it their business to read. For every hour spent writing, you should spend two hours reading. A writer learns a lot about craft by studying the works of other writers—old, new, good, bad. The following books were read with a "writer's eye" in addition to being interested in the content itself. I was looking to see what they did well, poorly, and how they solved writing problems I am experiencing.
If you enjoy the list, don't forget to share your book recommendations back with me! I will keep adding memoirs to this list for a comprehensive 2018 collection.
About: This book tells the story of a 23-year-old alcoholic and drug abuser and how he copes with rehabilitation in a twelve steps-oriented treatment center.
"Failure is an opportunity. If you blame someone else you will never stop blaming. Fulfill your own obligations, correct your own mistakes. Do what you need to do and demand nothing of others. "
"What is more important, fame or integrity. What is more valuable, money or happiness. What is more dangerous, success or failure. If you look to others for fulfillment, you will never fulfilled. If you happiness depends on money, you will never be happy. Be content with what you have and joy in the way things are. When you realize you have all you need, the World belongs to you. "
Reflections: This is a deeply personal glimpse inside the painful struggle of an addict. From a craft perspective, James Frey is a master at the art of descriptive writing. One of the primary goals of a writer is to the take the reader inside the reality of their story through sensory description. James nails it. When he is admitted to his treatment facility as the 23 year-old-alcoholic, he is missing 3 teeth. How he lost them, we don't know because he was blacked out on cocaine and glue when it happened. Since he is in a treatment center, the dentist he goes to see can't offer him any pain medicines while he caps two teeth and performs a root canal on the third. I've had a root canal - I can't even fathom this thought. As I read this chapter, my whole body responded to the scene- I started sweating, I made groaning noises, and I even put the book down for a few minutes to take a break from the experience. It was brutal and utterly compelling to read. A short excerpt:
"The spray continues and the sander is turned on and as it comes in toward my mouth it gets louder and the noise is high and piercing and it hurts my ears and I start squeezing the stress balls and I try to prepare for the sander and the sander hits the fragment of my left outside tooth. The sander bounces slightly and white electric pain hits my mouth and the sander comes back and holds and pain spreads through my body from the top down and every muscle in my body flexes and I squeeze the balls and my eyes start to tear and the hair on the back of my neck stands straight and my tooth fucking hurts like the point of a bayonet is being driven through it. The point of a fucking bayonet. "
About: "Steinem calls herself a “wandering organizer,” and she explains how a life of travel has boosted her spirits, shaped her politics and made her a household name. From her earliest days speaking on college campuses with her collaborators Florynce Kennedy and Margaret Sloan, to her work as a journalist on assignment for New York magazine, to her role drawing crowds to campaign events — it’s easy to understand how the political change Steinem has witnessed and fostered is directly proportional to how peripatetic her life has been "- New York Times
I had to force myself not to highlight the entire book, here are just a few of my favorite. The key takeaway: I want to be Gloria Steinem when I grow up.
"I wasn't on a Kerouac road trip, or rebelling before settling down, or even traveling for one cause...I became a person whose friends and hopes were as spread out as my life. It just felt natural that the one common element in that life was the road"
"So I sat down and began to make notes about many trips, past and present, that left me amazed by what is, angered by what isn't, and hooked on what could be"
"Taking to the road - by which I mean letting the road take you - changed who I thought I was. The road is messy in the way that real life is messy. It leads us out of denial and into reality, out of theory and into practice, out of caution and into action, out of statistics and into stories - in short, out of our heads and into our hearts. It's right up there with life-threatening emergencies and truly mutual sex as a way of being fully alive in the present"
"This new diversity will give us a better understanding of the world and enrich our cultural choices, yet there are people whose sense of identity depends on the old hierarchy. It may just be their fear and guilt talking: what if I am treated as I have treated others? ...As Robin Morgan wrote so wisely, "Hate generalizes, love specifies." That's what makes going on the road so important. It definitely specifies."
"If someone called me a lesbian - in those days all single feminists were assumed to be lesbians - I learned to just say, "Thank you."It disclosed nothing, confused the accuser, conveyed solidarity with women who were lesbians, and made the audience laugh"
"Needing approval is a female cultural disease, and often a sign of doing the wrong thing."
"Shit equally divided is always better than shit unequally divided"
"There is power in proximity. Get close to the problem you feel drawn to. Change the narrative. Stay hopeful. Be willing to do uncomfortable things."
Reflections: I started this book on a Monday, finished it by Wednesday night, and immediately went back to the beginning to read it again. As you might imagine, the story of her life on the road deeply resonated with me. I simultaneously want Gloria to be my new best friend, sister, mentor, and colleague. She inspired me to do more while on this trip and also put into words thoughts and feelings I was struggling to find myself. From a writer's eye, I was in awe of the breadth and depth of her first-person anecdotes - what a collection of stories and the level of details has pushed me to journal more to capture more of my own. The only thing I wanted more out of this story was a deeper understanding of her. She gives an amazing overview of how her road life shaped her professionally, but she doesn't go into too much detail on the personal implications of it.
About: This is the first volume of Maya Angelou's autobiography. "The cage bird sings of freedom" is the title's answer and also the the reoccurring theme as she eloquently explores the struggle to become liberated from the shackles of racism and misogyny.
"The lack of criticism evidenced by our ad hoc community influenced me, and set a tone of tolerance in my life"
"Life is going to give you just what you put in. Put your whole heart in everything you do, and pray, then you can wait"
"How maddening it was to have been born in a cotton field with aspirations of grandeur."
"I find it interesting that the meanest life, the poorest existence, is attributed to God's will but as human beings become more affluence, as their living standard and style begin to ascend the material scale, God descends the scale of responsibility at a commensurate speed"
"Now no one is going to make you talk - possibly no one can. But bear in mind, language is mans way of communicating with his fellow man and it is language alone which separates him from the lower animals...Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with the shades of deeper meaning"
Reflections: Despite having very different upbringings and realities to navigate around, her coming of age story and the disillusionment that it brings are universal and very relatable. I was drawn to Maya's use of dialogue. Dialogue is one of the best ways to reveal character and a writer must strive to make every character sound unique and different. Maya never had to explicitly tell me the story took place in a poor, small town in the South. She revealed it to the reader in the way the characters spoke to one another - conveying class, education, and place of origin. A strong reminder that in memoir writing, it is much better to show than tell.
About: "From a former Marine and Yale Law School Graduate, a poignant account of growing up in a poor Appalachian town, that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class. Part memoir, part historical and social analysis, J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is a fascinating consideration of class, culture, and the American dream."
"We spend to pretend that we're upper-class"
"We talk about the value of hard work but tell ourselves that the reason we're not working is some perceived unfairness: Obama shut down the coal mines, or all the jobs went to the Chinese. These are the lies we tell ourselves to solve the cognitive dissonance - the broken connection between the world we see and the values
"I don't believe in epiphanies. I don't believe in transformative moments, as transformation is harder than a moment. I've seen far too many people awash in a genuine desire to change only lose their mettle when they realized just how difficult change actually is."
"Research does reveal a genetic disposition to substance abuse, but those who believe their addiction is a disease show less of an inclination to resist it"
"Evolution and the Big Bang became ideologies to confront, not theories to understand. Many of the sermons I heard spent as much time criticizing other Christians as anything else"
Reflections: The day Trump was elected I bought this book and it's the only hard cover book I brought with me on the trip. I bought it because taking a small action that day, even just buying a book, helped me feel like I was doing something, anything to try and understand how a man I despise was elected to our nation's highest office. I think a lot of people, from both sides, could benefit from this read to build up their empathy muscle for people and a lifestyle that might be different from your own - more empathy could solve a lot right now. From a writer's perspective, Vance is a compelling story teller. He knows how to move the story forward while zooming in on key moments to captivate the mind of his readers.
"Have you ever wondered what became of the Scotch-Irish, who dug America’s coal, forged America’s steel and built America’s automobiles, who worked for the American Dream Monday through Friday. prayed to The Good Lord on Sunday, and revered F.D.R. and J.F.K. every day of the week? The last thing I heard, they elected Donald Trump. And I am still looking for explanations."