By Rory Collins
TW: This article contains mentions of sexual assault, abuse, mental health issues, suicide, and racism.
As a big reader myself, I am always looking for book recommendations. If you are like me, this article is for you! Here are my top 5 book recommendations that I read in 2022:
5. A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing by Eimear Mcbride
Set in the Irish countryside, A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing focuses on the coming-of-age of a young Irish girl. This young woman is dealing with her brother, who has a brain tumor, and a mother whose mind is only on that. All of the characters in this novel go unnamed, even the main character: they are solely referred to by their relation to her. This was most likely a choice by the author as the book is written in a stream-of-consciousness format. It takes a lot of brain power to understand each chapter, as every page is a run-on sentence and written as if it is coming straight from the idea corner of the girl’s brain. There are barely any periods or punctuation marks either, the brain really has to rewire to make sense of this and it takes a while to get used to. All of that considered, once the reader gets the rhythm of the words down, the novel is a beautiful piece of literature and Mcbride definitely understands the inner dynamics of a teenage girl.
The main character and narrator of the novel lives with her brother and mother, while her aunt and uncle live close by. The family is going through a tough time due to her brother’s brain tumor, and the girl is both devastated for her brother and internally upset about the lack of attention she is receiving. She is bullied in school, by the girls she refers to as “smelly,” and tends to spend most of her time at the pond near her house. The only person that is paying even a smidge of attention to her is her uncle, and he begins to become more of a friend to her than anyone has been in her entire life. She falls into a deeply negative mental spiral as the book continues and the only person who she feels can lift her pain is her uncle. He begins to sexually abuse her in her early teens and doesn’t stop for quite some time. She isn’t exactly against it, but she is in a very bad place and as a minor, she cannot consent to this relationship. Eventually, the girl grows older and moves off to university. The end of the novel does not necessarily resolve any of the narrator’s problems, but she comes to terms with her life, family, and whatever is coming ahead.
I first picked up this book as a “blind date book” at a New York City bookstore. The table they had set up was filled with books covered in paper so as not to reveal their titles. Each book had three criteria under the “You may like this book if…” title. The bookstore characterized A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing as “good for someone who enjoys Irish literature, poetic writing, and the work of Sally Rooney.” As a Sally Rooney lover, I obviously picked this up and was intrigued when I revealed the book under the paper. It was confusing to read at first due to the sentence structure, but as a teenage girl myself I felt very connected to the character once I felt I was inside her brain and could grasp the wording. The topics in this novel are intense and not described in a cohesive way, causing the reader to feel just as confused and hopeless as the narrator. It is almost like we are her. As upsetting as the nature and topics of the novel are, the resolution and acceptance at the end felt worth it to me.
4. I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jeanette McCurdy
I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jeanette McCurdy is probably the most recently published book I read last year. Even before its release, the book was gaining tons of media attention for its abrasive title and traumatic details. The author of the novel, former iCarly star Jeanette McCurdy, stands by the title as well as the amount of detail she included in this memoir about her past eating disorder and tumultuous relationship with her mother. Her honesty in this book is similar to that of The Bell Jar, it almost feels like reading someone’s diary. Seeing a prominent figure discuss the amount of healing she had to go through because of her celebrity and also her family dynamic is not something that is usually seen and then met without criticism. That being said, McCurdy found the sweet spot to maintain the right amount of honesty in her story as well as anonymity for some of the other prominent figures she speaks poorly about in order to remain pretty neutral in the tabloids. This book is a beautiful example of a young girl finding self-acceptance and healing, and it is definitely a must-read.
I’m Glad My Mom Died is an autobiographical story depicting McCurdy’s life before fame, her rise to fame, and her experience in the acting world with her abusive mother. McCurdy speaks deeply about the mental struggle she holds with the acting world: her mom wanted her so badly to be an actress and she would do anything to please her, yet Hollywood is unsafe and unfair to young girls. Almost since her birth, Jeanette was the only one in her family of five that seemed to be able to “predict” how her mother was going to feel and be able to calm her down and make her feel better. This codependent relationship lasted until her mother’s death from cancer in Jeanette’s early 20s. Between these two milestones in their existence, McCurdy and her mother were “best friends.” Her mom taught her about calorie restriction in order for her to look younger for acting roles, she showered her daughter until she was 16 years old, and she was on the set of iCarly with Jeanette almost every day. It took years of therapy to get over the trauma, eating disorder, and feeling of lack of self-worth that her mother gave her, yet now McCurdy speaks about it openly in hopes to help others get out of the situation she was in. In this book, she de-glamorizes being young in Hollywood and encourages young girls to stay young and childlike as long as they can. McCurdy owns up to her experiences and disbelief that she could get over the loss of her mother with this title, and the shock factor definitely aided in sales as well as the overall theme of the novel.
Though triggering at times, I found this book to be really insightful under all of the heartbreak. McCurdy’s life has been anything but easy, and each chapter felt like another hurdle was thrown her way for no reason. However, after all of this hardship, she was able to become a renowned speaker and author who advocates for therapy and mental health services for youths. I had the wonderful opportunity to see McCurdy in person speak about her book in an interview at the WBUR CitySpace, where she opened up even more to audience and interviewer questions. Her transparency is so powerful and creates a space for others to feel comfortable talking about similar subjects and how they have affected them as well. The book and interview did cover a dark subject, but McCurdy’s radiant personality is a light in this dark, adding humor and entertainment to a story that is devastating without it. This book is 5 stars and more, every word in it has meaning and then some.
3. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
One of the most classic “favorite” books of teenage girls is The Bell Jar by Silvia Plath. This book, while it is extremely well-known and often romanticized, is very deserving of all the praise and love it gets. Though not outwardly stated, The Bell Jar is seen as a memoir of Plaths own life before she committed suicide in 1963. Plath is characterized by Esther Greenwood, a young woman who begins the novel on a writer’s retreat in New York City as she tries to navigate what she wants to do for work in the next few years. As her story continues, Esther returns back home after falling into a deep depression and experiencing derealization episodes while in the city. She eventually attempts to end her own life, leading to her placement in an inpatient program at Mclean Hospital for the rest of the novel. Esther comes to terms with her condition by believing she is trapped under a “bell jar,” and that the only air she is breathing is her own that is circling the glass. The novel ends after her discharge from Mclean and the “lifting” of the bell jar that used to cover her, insinuating that she feels more mentally healthy as the book finishes.
The main discussion point in the novel is about mental health care in the 1950s. Not unsurprisingly, the world of psychiatric medication and counseling has not come that far since then. Esther (and Sylvia) went through shock therapy treatment as well as cognitive behavioral therapy, one of which is still prominently used today with basically the same principles. Shock therapy is not commonly used today, however, can be used in cases of extreme Borderline Personality Disorder as well as cases causing mountains of distress for the patient. Esther’s diagnosis is not completely clear in the book, but she does undergo shock therapy since it was very commonly used all those years ago. She describes the pain of the shock and how the electricity feels as though it is changing her brain’s autonomy, a sentiment that is shared in much of Plath’s poetry, hinting at her own experience with the treatment. On the other hand, cognitive behavioral therapy is a non-harmful (at least physically) treatment that is still in practice today and is used for many types of mental illnesses and people. Today we refer to it usually as just “therapy,” as it has become the baseline for mental health care and solely involved a licensed therapist and the patient. In The Bell Jar and life now, this type of therapy is basically the same, though criteria for diagnoses may have been tweaked a little. For me personally, this novel felt like reading someone else’s diary. It held the twists and turns of a real life, the heartbreak of real relationships, and the rawness of real mental health. Due to the fact that the book is basically a memoir, there was not one moment where the aspects of Esther’s life felt fictionalized or fake. Though the institutionalization of Esther is glamorized occasionally on social media, the book explains just how traumatizing the experience of getting intense mental health care can be and does not attempt to make it out as super fun or easy. I loved being able to cross reference Plath’s poems about her experiences in her own life with Esthers in The Bell Jar and I hope that more people will read this novel and reduce some of the glamorization or stigma surrounding women’s mental health in the 1950s and now.
2. Crush by Richard Siken
Richard Siken, a modern queer poet, published his incredibly harrowing collection of poems entitled Crush in 2005. After winning the Yale YoungerPoets Award in 2004, Crush went on to be a finalist for many other awards such as the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Lambda Literary Award. The name of the collection says it all, as these poems are not just written beautifully but are also deeply soul-crushing forms of art that can both inspire and destroy the reader in one stanza. Each piece is truly deserving of every accolade the collection has been nominated for and more. This book of poetry is said to have been inspired by the death of Sikens boyfriend in the 90s and the grief, intimacy, and love that comes from losing someone so special in your life, especially during a difficult time for those in queer relationships and the stigma surrounding them due to the AIDS crisis.
In the opening poem, entitled “Scheherazade,” Siken immediately pulls the reader into his saddened mind and explores a relationship in which love is called a “ruiner” and shows his own insecurities toward relationships and the possibility of loss at any minute. He opens the poem almost with a request to a lover, writing, “Tell me about the dream where we pull the bodies out of the lake and dress them in warm clothes again.” (Siken, Scheherazade) and ends the same poem with his sentiments toward that story but also toward himself and his partner, stating: “Tell me how all this, and love too, will ruin us. These, our bodies, possessed by light. Tell me we’ll never get used to it.” The rest of the poems in the collection hold the same amount of emotional depth as “Scheherazade,” if not more as the poems grow more and more personal to Siken’s own life.
Reading this poetry collection may have been one of the most emotionally cathartic experiences I have gotten out of a book. Each poem is so specific in wording and emphasizes each sentence in a way that creates a new meaning each time. Siken is not just a masterful writer, but an artist. Each of his words is carefully put in place and helps design some of the most heart-wrenching and gorgeous poems I have ever laid my eyes upon. Though written from the perspective of a gay man, people of all different types of minorities/have societal differences can relate to one of the poems or another. It is a book for everyone. My personal favorite work in this collection is entitled “Seaside Improvisation,” a story that follows a person, who can be assumed to be Siken, and an unrequited love. He compares a lost love to a stone and the difference a stone can make in its path, as well as using hands as a metaphor for changing relationships. His use of creative language and ideas like this enthrall the reader and also provide the imagery needed to support poems that strive to tell a story. To say this collection crushed me is an understatement, it is so very well done.
- Native Son by Richard Wright
Native Son, published in 1940, is a controversial novel that follows the life of Bigger Thomas in the segregated city of Chicago. Bigger grew up on the South Side of the city with his mother, sister, and brother. As the oldest child and an official adult, he was expected to begin working and earning money for himself and the family. Bigger was offered the position of chauffeur for the rich, White, Dalton family. Mr. Dalton builds and develops homes in Chicago, Mrs. Dalton is a blind housewife, and their daughter Mary was a radical and rebellious girl who believed that both Black and White people should be living in the same type of society without segregation or bias. The family hired Bigger in order to turn him into their “ideal” version of an African-American man. They wanted to pay for him to continue his education, force him into uncomfortable conversations about diversity, and eventually, have him work for Mr. Dalton’s company as a businessman. The pressure of being the “perfect” member of his race began to get to Bigger, and these expectations that were put on him by both his own family and the Daltons lead him into a situation involving the murder of Mary Dalton that he cannot get out of.
Though this novel is an important read in order to understand the lengths at which systemic racism can affect Black Americans, it is also criticized by many for not being an accurate representation and more of a novel for “White liberals.” James Baldwin, the critically acclaimed author of books such as Giovanni’s Room and If Beale Street Could Talk speaks about his experience and opinion on Native Son in his essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel” published his own collection of memoirs entitled Notes of a Native Son. Baldwin explained that though Native Son is applauded for “breaking stereotypes” and “showing the true Black American experience,” it actually did more damage than good. Bigger Thomas is a damaged character who commits a horrible crime against a young White girl and then the same crime against his young Black girlfriend. He seemingly has “no choice” in the novel but to commit these crimes, a trope entitled “literary naturalism,” meaning that a character is depicted as being restricted by society and having to suffer harsh consequences after doing what they “have” to. Baldwin feels as though Bigger Thomas is a violent man who is masked by his Blackness and should not be the main literary representation of African-Americans due to the awful things he does throughout the book, therefore shedding a negative light on other Black protagonists and people. This take from Baldwin was met with both backlash and admiration, though the novel is still not classified as “bad” nor “good” for its representation of stereotypes and remains controversial to this day. As a White person, I can never fully understand the plight of Bigger Thomas’ life nor the effect the novel has on a person of the same race as and who could relate to Bigger. That being said, I do believe that every person in the US today should read this novel as well as Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son in order to fully understand and grasp the entire concept of what the book did at its time of publishing and how it affected the Black community of the United States after it was released. Native Son and the criticism of the book are deeply important to read in todays day and age, even if the book is almost nine decades old. We as a society have not come much further than the society Bigger Thomas was living in all those years ago, and it is imperative to realize that and understand what needs to change that has not yet been done.
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