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What We're Reading: Selections from 2019

book cover of Trick Mirror
Dec 17 2019

Clayman Institute Director Adrian Daub, a professor of German studies and comparative literature, recommends a wide-ranging list from his reading in 2019. The selections include fiction, nonfiction, essay collections and memoir, and include authors speaking this year at Stanford. Pictured: Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino, who is speaking Jan. 16 (click here for event details).

Nonfiction

  • Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement:Really incisive book about one of the most high profile investigations of the #MeToo era. Absolutely meticulous in tracing the mechanisms by which men like Harvey Weinstein were able to manipulate the media until they suddenly couldn’t. 
  • Ronan Farrow, Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators:Another view of the Weinstein saga. Where the book by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey is more of a meditation, Farrow’s reads like a thriller. While some of the cloak-and-dagger stuff can feel a little overemphasized (if anything, #MeToo probably contains more of a lesson about the banality of evil), there is a lot to learn here as well. Farrow, who is Woody Allen’s son, is nowhere more reflective than when he meditates on how the troubled history of his family primed him to read silences in the public record, and primed him to approach survivors in a particular way. 

Essays and Memoir

  • Alexander Chee, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Chee appeared in October; read the story here
  • Tressie McMillan Cottom, Thick: And Other Essays:All of us at the Clayman Institute read this book over the summer, and we couldn’t stop talking about it. A set of beautiful, searing essays that rely on what the author calls “thick description.” These pieces think deeply about and linger on everything from reading whiteness as an African American in the Obama and Trump eras, about being an academic and having an “impact,” to having a body while being black, a woman and a scholar. 
  • Chanel Miller, Know My Name:Chanel Miller, known until the publication of this memoir as “Emily Doe,” tells the story of her years-long battle for healing and justice after Stanford student Brock Turner assaulted her outside a fraternity party. Deeply reflective and brilliantly analytical, Miller points to the many ways in which sexual assault survivors are betrayed by the systems they have to rely on. From an anonymity that seems to protect her assailant more than herself to a justice system that seems inclined to grant him worth that it denies her, every chapter in this book manages to be both eye-opening and horrifically familiar. 
  • Jia Tolentino, Trick Mirror:Jia Tolentino is the wunderkind essayist in the New Yorker who can write about anything from campus sexual assault, via drugs and evangelical culture to the strange persistence of memes associated with the movie Borat. In this volume she brings together a beautiful set of reflections on selfhood, online culture and gender. Tolentino is a brilliant stylist and has the essayist’s greatest gift — not letting go of a topic until one has gone well past overanalysis. 

Fiction

  • Toni Morrison: I re-read The Bluest Eye and Love after Toni Morrison passed away in August. I came away mourning the loss of her brilliant voice, but immensely thankful for her amazing novels. Above all however I would recommend a volume that came out only this year: The Source of Self-Regard collects her essays and speeches, capturing an intellectual giant and brilliant thinker about race, gender and America at the absolute height of her powers.
  • Ottessa Moshfegh, My Year of Rest and Relaxation: Moshfegh’s first novel Eileen was a brilliant and brutal family story set in New England. My Year of Rest and Relaxation, her second, tells the story of a recent college graduate who decides to embark on a perverse project: she uses various meds and ungodly lists of sleeping pills for the eponymous year “of rest and relaxation,” the joke being that the year of course becomes the exact opposite of self-care. Moshfegh deftly satirizes and critiques a culture of wellness, care and optimism, in ways that seem importantly, but ambivalently entangled with questions of gender.
  • Sigrid Nunez, The Friend: This novel really took me by surprise. The set-up (writer adopts a Great Dane who used to be owned by an ex-lover she has deeply complicated feelings about) didn’t seem particularly promising. But before long, Nunez’s novel probes similar autofictional depths as recent favorites like Rachel Cusk’s Outline, and builds to a brilliant and devastating crescendo. 
  • Sally Rooney, Normal People: A Novel: After Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends, one of my favorite books of the last few years, I didn’t love her second one quite as much — but I’ve found that I’m largely alone in this. Where Conversations did the novel of adultery in an age when social mores, liberation and technology have stopped making as big a deal of adultery, Normal People is a mix of love story and bildungsroman concerning two young people growing towards each other in ways that feel admirably small-bore and non-melodramatic. Marianne Sheridan and Connell Wadron meet in high school in County Sligo, Ireland, and the book skips and jumps from one moment important (to them) to the next. The result is a novel that comes to major thoughts about class, gender and education in the 21st century the old-fashioned way: by watching people and their interactions closely. 

A gender lens
exposes gaps in knowledge,
identifies root causes of barriers,
and proposes workable solutions.