Get Cozy and Read This Winter!

As the air gets colder and it’s pitch dark by 5:00, it is easy to get caught in a cycle of boredom. For someone who finds doing things outdoors relaxing but hates cold, I find it especially hard to come up with things to do to unwind. I know with the recent spree of every book ever being turned into a movie or television show, reading may seem superfluous to some, but there is nothing like making a hot drink, grabbing a blanket, and kicking back with a good book as the darkness looms through the windows. Here are some of my favorite books, by category, to get you started.

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(My favorite mug is courtesy of illustrator Feral Doe)

Coming Of Age Tale: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

This novel deals center around Callie/later Cal and their experience with an oft misunderstood affliction, but the story is about so much more than just them. It is about the history of a Greek American family and their travels to come to reside in Michigan, USA (woot! Shoutout to my home for the past 27 years!), and it is about how our family’s history and choices trickle down and touch our current lives as well.  It is also about how different isn’t always something that needs to be “fixed”.

Runner Ups: The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer, The Girls by Lori Lansens

Romantic Drama: Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

This story is very different and much more straightfoward from Murakami’s other works, but it still has his distinctive style. It is a moving portrayal of love and loss, the affect a suicide has on those left behind, and a window into how young people navigate relationships in the aftermath of an intense trauma, just as they are trying to still figure out who they really are, and who they will become as adults.

Runner Ups: There are none. I really don’t read romantic stories at all, and only tried this one because it was Haruki Murakami and I had loved his other more surreal works – so glad I gave it a chance!

Horror: Other People by Neil Gaiman

This is actually a short story from Neil Gaiman’s collection, Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders, yet it was more chilling than any full length novel I had ever read, and I’ve read a lot of Steven King ;). This simple short story paints a specific picture of one way the author envisions hell, and it stuck with me for days after. You can click the link above to read the full short story online.

Runner Ups: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, The Tommyknockers by Steven King (Don’t judge this by the horrible made-for-TV movie like I originally did – this is nothing like it.)

Fantasy: The Name Of The Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

Like Harry Potter, this is another series about a young boy discovering his potential for magic and despite all odds entering a magical school for learning the art of wizardry. I personally enjoyed this series far more (though I must be candid … the author is really dragging his feet on adding more books and continuing the story!). The characters both major and minor are uniquely developed and full of personality, and the story covers the gamut of emotions from moments that are exciting and tense, comical, and also sad.

Runner Ups: Game Of Thrones Series by George R.R. Martin (Yes, there are books. I am absolutely gobsmacked by the number of people who seem to not know this.), American Gods by Neil Gaiman – or really anything at all by Neil Gaiman.

Sci-Fi: Paprika by Yasutaka Tsutsui

I’ve always been fascinated by dreams, and wished desperately as a kid that someone would invent a VHS recorder that could be hooked up to people’s brains and record their dreams. In this book, they have something even cooler – a device that psychologists can use to enter their client’s dreams and hopefully gain insight that can help them better assist them in their struggles. With great power comes great responsibility, and of course, chaos ensues. I watched the anime film first, not even knowing it was based on a novel. The book gives extra details where the film left confusing gaps, and is a little more intense and dark at parts than the more whimsical movie.

Runner Up: Tuf Voyaging by George R.R. Martin

Biography: Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter by Kate Clifford Larson 

This is a difficult read, but something I believe should be required reading for both adults and high school students as well. Even as progress has been made since the time of this story, there are still many today who count the lives of those with disabilities as worth less than “normal” individuals. This sort of thinking is not innate, it is learned and therefore with education and awareness can be unlearned.

Runner Ups: Frida by Hayden Herrera (later adapted into a film starring Salma Hayek), The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy With Autism by Naoki Higashida

Family Drama:

The Marriage Artist by Andrew Winer

This is another story about the intersection of family history and the nation’s history, specifically revolving around the time of the Holocaust, and the trickle down impact of our family’s beliefs, words, and actions down the line. It is rich, complex, and riveting, and taught me a lot I didn’t know before about Jewish culture, including the artistry and meaning behind Ketubahs.

Runner Up: All Families Are Psychotic by Douglas Coupland

On Mental Health: The Memory Artists by Jeffrey Moore

This novel alternates between the individual narratives of each of the main characters. I absolutely love when writers use that technique, so that made this story enjoyable for me from the get go. Memory is a poignant part of each character’s life in some way, from dealing with Alzheimer’s to living with synesthesia and a subsequent photographic memory,  to studying memory and psychology, to dealing with a traumatic past memory that consumes the present. As the character’s lives begin to intersect more and more, the reader is prompted to consider the role memory plays in their own life.

Runner Ups: The Drowning Girl by Caitlin R. Kiernan, A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby

Historical Fiction: Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien

This was about the only required book I enjoyed in high school. It blends reality with fantasy so that the reader is constantly unsure what is real and what is not, much like the main character. It explores the meaning and role of bravery, and the effect the strain of war has on the mind.

Runner Ups: The Book of Madness and Cures by Regina O’Melveny, Let The Great World Spin by Colum McCann, Requiem by Francis Itani, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Social Critique: Good Kings, Bad Kings by Susan Nussbaum

This book was my first introduction to disability activism. It takes place in a group home for juveniles with disabilities, and besides discussing disability activism and the constant fight for the right of independence, it drives home the point that individuals with disabilities are not that different from you and I. We all share the same basic desires for relationships, employment, autonomy, and a place to call home. The title comes from the idea that individuals with disabilities are often at the mercy of a variety of “kings” lording over their employment, relationships, and decisions – some with good intentions, and some who are neglectful or outright hostile.

Runner Ups: The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver, The Awakening by Kate Chopin, Dead Eye Dick by Kurt Vonnegut (on immigration, women’s equality, and gun control – all 3 of these books, written in 1989, 1899, and 1982 respectively, are still so relevant today.)

Surrealist: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

This book is complicated to really explain, and no explanation could really do it justice. It is one of the most fascinating meditations on addiction that I have ever read. It is over 1000 pages long and uses a liberal amount of footnotes, but don’t let that discourage you. This novel made Wallace famous in the 90s for a reason.

Runner Ups: House Of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders by Vitezslav Nezval, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami 

What books have you been reading recently that you can’t put down?

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Your New Summer Reading List

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I’ve always loved reading in general, but there is just something about summer and sitting down with a good book. Even as a kid, I was always so pumped to join the summer reading challenge at the library. If you read x number of pages by the end of the summer, you got a free book, and there was always a really cool treasure map you could color in to track your progress! Back then, my reading list looked something like this.

As I am trying to decide what books to pile onto my “to read” list for this summer, I figured I might as well pass on some of my lesser-known personal favorites to you: life-changers if you will, or at the least very much worth reading.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace – If nothing else encourages you to read this book, a film titled The End Of The Tour just came out last year chronicling a famous 5 day interview between the author and a Rolling Stone reporter. So basically, DFW is pretty important in the literary world. I knew nothing about his work until I by chance picked up this book at the local library, his explosion of fame having taken place after its completion in the 90s, when I was still reading picture books. This book takes place alternately between a tennis academy and a rehab facility, and hosts a strange casts of characters. It is an odd comedy at the same time as it is a philosophical meditation on addiction, the powerful role of entertainment, and what the pleasures we choose say about who we are. Don’t go looking for a cut and dry interpretation, though. For there is still much speculation about what certain parts of this book really mean or what truly happened. This is not a book of answers but of questions, and I think that is why I love it.

The Girls by Lori Lansens – This book follows the life of 29-year-old conjoined twins Rose and Ruby. It puts a totally new kind of character in the spotlight. Readers will be surprised by the girls’ independence and the unexpected differences in their personalities and the separateness of their lives. The novel is written from the perspective of Rose, an aspiring writer, as she pens her autobiography. These unique main characters are treated with respect, awe, hilarity, and tenderness.

Good Kings Bad Kings by Susan Nussbaum – This novel chronicles the triumphs and trials of a group of adolescents. Only – these adolescents happen to live in an institution for juveniles with disabilities. It confronts important issues such as abuse and neglect within institutions and group homes, disability activism, and the infantalizing of individuals with disabilities.  It also shows that disability does not define the individual’s hopes, desires, emotions, and dreams.

The Memory Artists by Jeffrey Moore – This novel revolves around a cast of characters who are all involved or affected in some way by the neurology of memory, from an Alzheimer’s patient to a neuropsychologist to a young woman suffering from blackouts and a young man with synesthesia. It is a moving and uplifting story that celebrates the power of relationships within struggle.

The Marriage Artist by Andrew Winer – I swear I don’t only read books with the word “artist” in the title. This moving, detailed story deals with loss, family secrets, inherited beliefs, societal prejudice and oppression specifically of the Jewish people during the Holocaust, and how our ancestors’ passions, perspectives, and experiences shape our own search for meaning. It is one of the most fascinating historical novels (which also branches into present day) that I’ve ever come across.

Requiem by Francis Itani – This book revolves around our need as human beings to revisit the places and people who shaped us, and confronts the harsh reality of the displacement of Japanese-Canadian and Japanese-American citizens after Pearl Harbor. It is also a sobering look at how easy it is for us as a society to turn our friends and neighbors into enemies simply because of their country of origin.

Darkmans by Nicola Barker – Nicola Barker’s favorite subject matter is described as eccentric or damaged people in mundane situations. I love heavily character-driven works as you can see from this list so far, and when I think about it, I hardly read anything that only has one central figure at the action’s center. This book is filled with strange people linked only loosely by a myriad of intertwining webs. It is strange and surreal, and I can’t really describe the plot outright. But, I promise while reading you will be tickled, emotionally moved, astonished, and entertained.

The Interestings by Megan Wolitzer  – This book follows a group of four friends who meet at summer camp as their relationships grow and change far into adulthood. I may have found this story particularly interesting as one who is nearing 30 and still maintains my core group of high school friends, some of whom I have known since 1st grade or earlier! It explores how as people grow older, talent, success, money, achievements, and social class can affect one’s long term relationships. It is a fascinating character study, and highly relatable to anyone with long term friendships and connections.

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami – Murakami is another writer who favors more surreal, philosophical, complex stories. However, this novel is one of his most straightforward with no strange, unexplained dream-sequence-like descriptions or complicated metaphysical symbolism. It is a story about young love and coming of age, the loneliness of beginning collegiate life, and the life altering experience of dealing with a good friend’s suicide. I normally am not one for either romantic based plots or books I know are going to be sob stories revolving around dying. I also am not one to be moved to tears during books or movies usually. I absolutely loved this book, read it multiple times, and cried.

What books do you recommend I attack this summer? Help! I need suggestions! 🙂

Stories As Inspiration

Remember what I said about myself and movies … I haven’t had even basic cable in years, and television shows generally don’t hold my interest, but I can’t get enough of books and movies. When I last talked about films, I was discussing movies that had visually inspired me as an artist. Those I chose to include in the list were chosen for visuals only, having nothing to do with the story line.

Awhile ago, I happened upon an article online as I traveled down the rabbit hole that is the internet … you know how it goes. The article was something like “10 Questions To Ask Yourself In Your 20s”, meant to help us young adults find ourselves and figure out what the heck we’re doing by percolating on the answers we came up with (I use the word “percolate” rather than “meditate” intentionally, because I have far too active an inner thought life to ever even attempt tranquil inner peace. I’ve come to terms with this fact.). One of the questions was, “What are your favorite stories, what do they say to you, and what does this say about you?” It’s an interesting thing to think about, especially for creative people since stories whether in film or print are an art of their own. I’ve shared my list here. These books and movies are not all necessarily the most mind-blowing, best written, or most awarded in their genre – that isn’t the point. These are the stories that my mind has continued to wander to from time to time since I first experienced them, or that I’ve found myself watching/reading over and over for whatever reason. The fun part after you make your own list is to figure out why that is.

What are my favorite stories?

Benny and Joon (film) – I swear I did not pick this because it has Johnny Depp in it, though that is what first prompted me to rent it back in the day ;).

  • No one is unlovable. We all have difficulties that we deal with, it is just that some come with a label and some don’t.
  • People are capable of becoming so much more than we’d ever imagine when given the chance.

Wristcutters: A Love Story (novel, later film) – Don’t let the title turn you off, this is actually a whimsical, heartwarming story (with some dark bits) that I remain glad a friend recommended.

  • Don’t despise where you are at in your life right now, or wish it away; there will come a time when you will miss it.
  • Sometimes what you are chasing after, what you think you need and want, will distract you from the opportunity for true happiness right in front of you.

The Sound of Music (film) – I was listening to this soundtrack on my parents record player and dancing to it in the basement playroom as a little kid long before I saw the movie for the first time. I’m sure many of you have seen it at least once as well, because Julie Andrews is basically the Queen of Everything.

  • Don’t try to force yourself into a life plan that doesn’t fit you; it never will. You have a right to change your mind at any moment.
  • People don’t change by having anger or reproach directed at them, being insulted or accused. They change when someone is willing to love them where they’re at, but also respectfully challenges their ideals and pushes them out of their comfort zone in a kind but spirited way.

The Picture of Dorian Gray (novel) -This book made me an Oscar Wilde fan for life.

  • Don’t discount small choices, each decision we make shapes who we will become.
  • Be aware of who you allow influence over what you believe and what is important to you.

The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night-time (novel) – I heard this book has become a play now, and I hope to see it someday. This story is told from the point of view of a young boy with autism, and for perspective alone I would recommend you give it a try.

  • Again, people are so much more than we let them be. Don’t box someone in and limit your view of their capabilities simply because of a label they’ve been given, or because their struggles are different from yours.

Middlesex (novel) – Certainly one of the most complex and interesting character-driven stories I’ve ever read, by one of my favorite authors.

  • Don’t be so quick to judge who someone is or what has made them the way that they are. Everyone has a rest of the story.
  • Oftentimes, the most courageous and subversive thing one can be is who they already are.

Howl’s Moving Castle (film) –

  • Again, always remember that everyone has a story, you only see a part.

I was actually surprised that many of the core takeaways from each very different story often overlapped (Though I shouldn’t have been – it makes sense I’d be attracted to the same theme that I value again and again represented in different ways). I can see my draw towards the celebration of idiosyncrasies, and the affirmation of individual human lives as intricate and full of possibility, in my surreal portraits that I’ve fallen in love with creating. I can even see evidence of living out the themes found in these stories in my career choice, not only opening up people’s capabilities through teaching art, but in working with people with disabilities, a group that is often unjustly marginalized and discounted. Stories are important. For creators of all types, our stories come out in what we create. But, even those who view themselves as the least creative individuals on the planet still tell a story in how they interact day to day with other people and with the world around them. So, what are some of your favorite stories?