A Year Of Reading Women: My 10 Favorite Books Of 2015
Something happened last year that completely defined my reading experience this year: I got stuck reading a painfully boring 691-page political autobiography. Why didn’t I just quit reading it? Up until that point, I viewed quitting a book as something between plain laziness and a personal failure. Reading, something that had always been one of my life’s greatest pleasures, became a dreadful chore. When I finally made it to page 691 after six very long weeks, I vowed to make my leisure reading leisurely again.
I’ve spent the past year and a half searching for books that would give me an experience one of my favorite essayists, Nora Ephron, once described as “rapture.” Rapture, for a bibliophile, happens when a book transports you into its world, and makes you feel alive. Basically, it’s when a book is so good you can’t put it down.
I’ve narrowed down 10 books (not an easy task!) that left me enraptured this year. Following my reading bliss, led me to a lot of books written by women/about women—particularly memoirs. As a result, this list is skewed in that direction. Also, I’m sharing some of my favorite 2015 bibliophile moments (because, why not…).
In no particular order:
1. Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mother—Amy Chua
I love that a Yale Law Professor wrote a funny parenting memoir.
The complete subtitle of the book gives a pretty accurate synopsis of it: “This is a story about a mother, two daughters, and two dogs. This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones. But instead, it's about a bitter clash of cultures and a fleeting taste of glory.” Contrary to some reviews, this book is not a how-to-guide: it is self-questioning and at times even self-deprecating. As a first-generation American, I walked away from Battle Hymn with a greater appreciation of my mother’s parenting technique.
2. Ghana Must Go—Taiye Selasi
Ghana Must Go tells the story of Folasadé Savage, who leaves Lagos for Pennsylvania, where she meets Kweku Sai, a brilliant Ghanaian surgeon. Fola marries him and gives up her dream of going to law school to raise their four children: Olu, twins Kehinde and Taiwo, and Sadé, called Sadie. After losing his job, Kweku abandons his family. When the book opens, Kweku has died, and his family is scattered. By the time the Sai family reconvenes in Ghana for Kweku’s funeral, old grievances have been unearthed, family secrets have been revealed, and complex characters have been beautifully deconstructed. At times, the poetry of Taiye’s writing, made the narrative hard to follow (there is definitely an Arundhati Roy influence here), but that was fine by me: this novel reads like music.
3. What Remains: A Memoir of Fate, Friendship, and Love—Carole Radziwill
Good things have come out of my being a shameless Real Housewives devotee, such as discovering this memoir written by Emmy award winning journalist cum princess cum Real Housewife of New York a.k.a. Carole Radziwill. What Remains is a beautiful narrative of how Carole fell in love with Anthony Radziwill (a Polish prince and Jackie Kennedy Onassis’s nephew), forged a strong friendship with her cousin-in-laws (John F. Kennedy Jr & Carolyn Bessette- Kennedy), and dealt with the death of all 3 of them, 3 weeks apart. Fate is the narrative thread that runs through this book. Goosebumps and tears is how I left it.
4. Mom & Me & Mom—Maya Angelou
I had to read this book, in part to maintain my bragging rights i.e. “I’ve read the complete autobiographies of Maya Angelou.” If you’ve read any of the prior six autobiographies of the legend that is Maya Angelou, you no doubt know a little about her “terrible wonderful mother”—Vivian Baxter. In her seventh and final autobiography, Mother Maya (she is one of my mothers in my head), explores her relationship with her larger than life mother further. Mom & Me & Mom is rich with what many have come to know Maya Angelou for: wisdom.
5. After Perfect: A Daughter’s Memoir —Christina McDowell
Born Christina Prousalis, the author had to change her name to be free from the legal and financial mess her father made in her name, after being imprisoned as one of the guilty players connected to Jordan Belfort (the “Wolf of Wall Street”). After Perfect is an emotional tale that starts with Christina’s ‘perfect’ life as one of the nation’s elite 1%, plunges to her downward spiral with alcohol, drugs and promiscuity following her family’s fall; and ultimately leads to her redemption ‘after perfect.’
6. Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith—Barbara Brown Taylor
I first came across Barbara Brown Taylor during an episode of Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday. Within 10 minutes of hearing her speak, I had ordered her memoir on Amazon. After 20 years of serving as an Episcopalian priest, Barbara Brown Taylor found herself experiencing “compassion fatigue.” Transferring her obvious homiletic skills to her writing, Barbara details her decision to resign from public ministry. Leaving Church is a thought-provoking spiritual account.
7. 50 Women Every Christian Should Know: Learning From Heroines of the Faith—By Michelle DeRusha
Speaking of theology, here is another faith related book I thoroughly enjoyed this year:
Have you heard of Anne Askew, the Protestant martyr best known as the only woman on record to have been both tortured in the Tower of London and burned at the stake? Did you know Fanny Crosby, a blind woman, wrote over 9,000 hymns such as “Blessed Assurance” over the course of her 94 years? Or that President Lincoln once credited Harriet Beecher Stowe with starting the American civil war by writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin? 50 Women Every Christian Should Know shares the stories of these heroines, and 47 more.
8. Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned”—Lena Dunham
Yes, I just transitioned from Fanny Crosby to Lena Dunham—stranger things have happened. After some of the controversy surrounding Not That Kind of Girl, I vowed not to read it. Alas, my curiosity got the best of me. I not only read this book, but ...clutch your pearls… I also enjoyed it! Again, stranger things have happened. While this memoir is certainly not for the faint of heart, I do believe Lena’s childhood behavior was misinterpreted and exaggerated. This line in the book’s introduction summarizes what I love so much about it, and about non-fiction by women in general: “There is nothing gutsier to me than a person announcing that their story is one that deserves to be told, especially if that person is a woman. As hard as we have worked and as far as we have come, there are still so many forces conspiring to tell women that our concerns are petty, our opinions aren’t needed, that we lack the gravitas necessary for our stories to matter.” Let the church say Amen.
9. How To Be A Woman—Caitlin Moran
Continuing the theme of clutch-your-pearls-non-fiction-stories-on-womanhood, I present British writer Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman:
This book is part feminist manifesto, part straightforward memoir. It includes humorous stories like her experience getting her first period, personal stories like what her first wedding was like, and graphic stories, such as her account about having an abortion. There is protest against pornography, high heels, and thongs (because “strident feminism needs big undies”) amongst others. Her writing style is at once witty and blasé: there is a lot of twitter-speak tbh, and WRITING IN CAPS. While I didn’t necessarily agree with all of Moran’s opinions, she made me think, and she made me LOL.
10. Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear—Elizabeth Gilbert
Elizabeth Gilbert’s work has been some of the most important I have ever read. Not surprisingly, Big Magic was one of the most important books I read this year. This is all I will say: If you are a creative of any sort, run—don’t walk—and get this book.
Completely unrelated but also noteworthy bibliophile moment: I met Brandon Stanton of Humans of New York and got my book signed at the New York Public Library:
Photo: Blessing Omakwu-Soremekun © 2015
Speaking of which: thank you, thank you, thank you, New York Public Library for all the books you have let me borrow.
Your turn: What were your favorite books of 2015?