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It's Books on GIF's 7th Anniversary!
Our 7 favorite novels and 7 favorite nonfiction books from the past 7 years.
To celebrate Books on GIF’s seventh anniversary, here are some of my favorite books from the past seven years. It was tough to whittle down roughly 200 books to two lists of seven each. I reviewed my archive for weeks like:
The books below are grouped in alphabetical order by author. They are not ranked and should not be understood as the ‘best’ books ever, or better than any books that you love. They are just my favorites that excited or spoke to me the most over the life of this newsletter. Some are classics, others bestsellers and a few are obscure. One is even out of print. But they all blew me away. There were some brutal last-minute cuts, though, like ‘Eileen’ by Ottessa Moshfegh, ‘The Sea the Sea’ by Iris Murdoch and ‘Girl, Woman, Other’ by Bernardine Evaristo, among the novels. For nonfiction, I was heartbroken to leave off ‘The Autobiography of Gucci Mane,’ ‘Mean’ by Myriam Gurba and ‘We Were Once a Family’ by Roxanna Asgarian. All these, and many more, are tremendous books:
Thank you all for supporting Books on GIF. Your feedback, kind words and book recommendations keep me going. Trust me, this newsletter would have shut down long ago without you guys. You’re amazing! Now, let’s talk about some books!
‘The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish’ by Katya Apekina
I saw a woman on the F train last month reading Katya Apekina’s fantastic novel ‘The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish,’ and I was so excited I almost ran up to her to rave about it. But I composed myself and just beamed from across the train car. The story follows two teenage sisters who have been sent to live with their father, a famous author, in New York City in 1997 after their mother is institutionalized. One sister yearns for her father’s attention in increasingly unsettling ways, while the other runs away to reunite with mom. Their journeys are told through the accounts of several characters combined with therapy notes, book review excerpts and letters. ‘The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish’ is a daring feat of literary construction with an all-time great title, and I couldn’t put it down. It’s a masterful blend of form and content, and I discovered one of my favorite GIFs writing about it:
It’s intense, dark and somewhat disturbing, while also strangely beautiful and full of energy. It felt like something I had never seen before, like stingrays trying to fly:
‘In the Distance’ by Hernan Diaz
Hernan Diaz’s novel ‘In the Distance’ was recommended by a friend, and I had no idea what to expect from this finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. What I got was an unforgettable story. In it, Håkan and his brother leave Sweden for a better life in New York. But they are separated, and Håkan ends up all the way in California amid the Gold Rush. He tries to walk across the continent to find his brother, and on the way, death is his constant companion. He always seems one step away from calamity as bounty hunters, poisonous snakes, illness, broken limbs, exposure to the sun and the elements, and other dangers loom. Donna says some moments from Håkan’s journey are still seared into her mind years after she read the book with her book club. Me too, and I can’t wait to read Diaz’s latest novel, ‘Trust,’ which just came out in paperback this week. If it’s anything like ‘In the Distance,’ I’ll fly through it like:
‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier
This is another book I went into with zero expectations. The main reason I bought it was because I share a birthday with Daphne du Maurier. But, wow, ‘Rebecca’ is wild! The drama at Manderley, an estate where the unnamed protagonist has to match wits with her aristocratic and haunted new husband, his cunning and malevolent head housekeeper, and his ex-wife’s (metaphorical) ghost had me riveted. I literally gasped at the major plot twists, like:
My all-time favorite book is ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ by Alexandre Dumas, but after reading ‘Rebecca,’ I had to reassess. The Count is still my favorite, but ‘Rebecca’ is now a close second. The fact that you can go into a book cold and come out with it as one of your faves is exactly why we read books. What joy!
‘The Transit of Venus’ by Shirley Hazzard
‘The Transit of Venus’ by Shirley Hazzard is one of the books I go to most when someone asks for a recommendation. I tell them: ‘It's got some of the best writing I've encountered in a while. A sweeping story over several decades. Gut punches. Love. Betrayal. It's a tour de force. I was emotionally wrecked.’ And they come back to me like:
The story follows Grace and Caroline Bell, two young sisters who emigrate from Australia to post-war England after their parents die in a ferry accident. We follow the Bell sisters as they go in and out of each other’s lives over several decades. We see their loves, their joys, their heartaches, their infidelities and their darkest secrets. Hazzard packs every page with beautifully constructed sentences and turns of phrase, and I littered the book with underlines and marks to remember them.
‘The Moor’s Account’ by Laila Lalami
'The Moor's Account' by Laila Lalami imagines the story of the first African to explore the Americas. Estebanico was a real person, a Moroccan slave who was part of the 1527 Narváez expedition in Florida that sought to conquer land for Spain and find:
Three hundred people set out on the journey that began near what's now Tampa. Four men—three Spaniards and Estebanico—survived and were found in Mexico nearly a decade later. Estebanico received a passing mention in an account of the journey written by one of the surviving Spaniards. But it was enough of a jumping off point for Lalami to vividly imagine what his life and harrowing journey was like navigating slavery, alligator attacks, bowel disease, deadly weather, native ambushes and cannibalism. This is a book I read in the early days of Books on GIF, and it has stuck with me all these years.
‘Pachinko’ by Min Jin Lee
If you read only one of the books mentioned in this newsletter today, do yourself a favor and read ‘Pachinko’ by Min Jin Lee. Believe the hype. It’s amazing. Donna loved it. My mother loved it. Everyone else I’ve talked to who has read it has loved it like this guy loves Five Guys:
It's an epic and heartbreaking story that covers four generations of a Korean family forced to emigrate to Japan. Over the decades, we see them struggle to provide a better life for themselves and future generations amid colonization, war and bigotry. I learned a lot from 'Pachinko,' particularly about the treatment of Koreans in Japan and how it parallels immigrant experiences here in the United States. It’s a harrowing, challenging and beautiful book. I look forward to reading it again someday, as well as finally watching the TV adaptation on Apple.
‘Lee & Elaine’ by Ann Rower
‘Lee & Elaine’ by Ann Rower is the only book on this list I’ve bought twice, one digital copy and one print. It’s very hard to find a hard copy from its 2002 release, and I’ve been on a mission to badger The New York Review of Books and McNally Editions into reprinting it. So far, only McNally Editions has acknowledged my campaign when they tweeted this. Help me in this crusade, my friends! ‘Lee & Elaine,’ is set in the early 1990s where a woman rents a house in the Hamptons while on winter break from the New York City college where she teaches. She’s looking forward to some time away to write a book and to have an affair with one of her students. She becomes increasingly obsessed with Lee Krasner and Elaine de Kooning, the wives of famous artists who are buried near her getaway, and her life gets messy. I was riveted from the opening page. It appealed to my love of gossip (I couldn’t wait to see what trouble the protagonist would get herself into), and I loved how her journey highlighted overlooked female artists. Here’s a GIF of one of Krasner’s works:
More people need to read this book! Make it happen, McNally!
‘A Little Devil in America: In Praise of Black Performance’ by Hanif Abdurraqib
Hanif Abdurraqib is one of my favorite writers working right now, and I’ll read anything he writes (like his recent piece on Little Richard in The New Yorker). ‘A Little Devil in America’ includes essays and poetic interludes that zoom in on a specific person, moment, detail or emotion to tell a larger story about race, history or love (sometimes all three) within the theme of Black performance. Don Cornelius, Josephine Baker and Patti LaBelle are featured, as is:
But the essays that stuck with me most are the ones about Spades (my favorite card game) and about Merry Clayton, a backup singer for The Rolling Stones. ‘A Little Devil in America’ is a brilliant, powerful and wonderful book. I can’t recommend it enough.
‘Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City’ by Matthew Desmond
Sociologist Matthew Desmond spent months living among poor families and individuals in the segregated neighborhoods of Milwaukee, observing and recording their day-to-day lives as they struggle, often unsuccessfully, to make rent, keep their possessions and stay in their homes. Desmond’s narrative contrasts the opposing interests of tenant and landlord, while tracing the history of renting in America back through the era of white flight, the Great Migration, slavery and all the way to English colonialism. If ‘Evicted’ doesn’t turn you against unfettered capitalism, or at least make you wildly angry, then I don’t know what to tell you. On every page, I was like:
I used that GIF twice in my review! ‘Evicted’ forces readers to reckon with how best to ensure our country doesn’t remain a place that traps people in poverty and undermines the American Dream. It’s a vital book.
‘Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI’ by David Grann
‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ is part historical narrative and part detective story. Grann uses historical and police records to recount the forgotten and dark history of a series of murders of members of the Osage Nation in Oklahoma during the oil boom of the 1920s. At that time, the Osage had become some of the richest people in the world thanks to leasing oil fields under their reservation. Grann also unearths new information to broaden the scope of the killing spree and implicate additional people in the plot. The book is an important one that chronicles nearly century-old crimes, shows how America’s mistreatment of indigenous people continues to this day and reminds us that:
A film adaptation by Martin Scorsese is due to be released later this year, and is supposedly more than three hours long. I’m all over it.
‘Blood in the Garden: The Flagrant History of the 1990s New York Knicks’ by Chris Herring
When I reviewed Chris Herring’s ‘Blood in the Garden,’ I wrote, ‘I love the New York Knicks almost as much as I love books.’ That was before the team made the NBA playoffs this season, and now I think I love them more than books. It’s been great to watch them with friends and other elated Knicks fans at Union Grounds, and I’ve loved seeing players from the legendary 1990s teams, like Patrick Ewing, John Starks and others sitting courtside. It brings back a lot of memories, and so does Herring’s amazing book. It’s brilliantly reported and crisply written. I flew through it and enjoyed it tremendously. Even if you’re not a Knicks fan, if you love basketball, you would enjoy this book. In the meantime, the Knicks are locked in a tough fight with our arch-nemeses, Pat Reilly and the Miami Heat. Here’s hoping we can send them home like Allan Houston did back in 1999:
Let’s go Knicks!!
‘Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations’ by Mira Jacob
I finished all 349 pages of Mira Jacob’s graphic-novel memoir ‘Good Talk’ in one sitting. Jacob explores her upbringing in the Southwest as a person of color and the daughter of Indian immigrants, and recounts her path to becoming a writer and artist living in New York City. She uses photographs of people or places overlaid by her drawings of herself, family members and other people. Most of the time, they stand side-by-side and face outward, making the reader a participant in the story and challenging them on issues of race, immigration and politics in America. It’s powerful, poignant and:
‘An Invitation to Indian Cooking’ by Madhur Jaffrey
It’s not an exaggeration to say Madhur Jaffrey’s cookbook ‘An Invitation to Indian Cooking’ changed my life. Before trying her recipes, I felt useless in the kitchen and embarrassed that I was able to make only the most boring, basic and bland dishes. This book gave me the foundation and the confidence to challenge and develop myself through cooking. Jaffrey’s recipes are delicious, easy to follow and often come with a short story about the history of the dish and its connection to her family. I love all that, but more so, I love that I can now more fully contribute to meals at home for Donna and myself (I made a dal last week!), and when we entertain. Donna has bought me my own apron (it’s black, of course, with my name written in pink), and I love putting it on to make something. Doesn’t this Chicken Moghlai I made look good?
‘The Story’ by A’Ziah King
Some of you may remember in October 2015 when the internet was gripped by a story, told over roughly 150 tweets, about ‘Zola’—a woman on a road trip through Florida’s dark, terrifying and sometimes funny world of strip clubs, sex work and violent crime. Those tweets became the basis for a 2021 movie (which is really good and more people should see), and this book was produced alongside it as promotional merch. But it’s so much more than that. I love ‘The Story,’ not just because it puts King’s incredible tweets into a traditional literary format, but also because of how well it’s made. It has a cloth cover, gilded pages and, as you can see, the tweets jump out at you:
Roxane Gay wrote in the foreword that ‘great stories can be found anywhere if you’re open to the possibility.’ I agree.
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Before you go:
ICYMI: Review #208
Read this: Rachel Cusk’s profile of Annie Ernaux in The New York Times Magazine is brilliant and fascinating: ‘Annie Ernaux Has Broken Every Taboo of What Women Are Allowed to Write’
Read this, too: Still putting together your summer TBR list? Check out this roundup in Bustle: ‘22 Beach Reads To Bring On Vacation This Summer’
Thanks for reading, and thanks especially to Donna for editing this newsletter for the past seven years! Here’s hoping for many more!
Until next time,