Weirdos, other worlds, love stories and more: what we’re reading and listening to this winter

Essays, books and podcasts we've been savoring.

Looking for something new to read or listen to? Here are some ideas.

Jen

Gingerbread, by Helen Oyeyemi

I’m a sucker for anything magical realism. I love the wonder and escape of reading an author who can skillfully, almost sneakily weave the fantastical, absurd or mythological into an otherwise normal, modern reality. In Gingerbread, Oyeyemi mixes parable, mysticism and mysterious family history with a modern world and familiar coming-of-age elements in a way that, like the titular gingerbread, is magical and quite delicious. I don’t think this book is for everyone — I could see some finding Oyeyemi’s tight interweaving of fairy tale and ultramodern realism to be confusing or strange. Which is of course the point. (Or at least part of it.) As for me, I was sucked in by Oyeyemi’s characters and their challenges, histories and development, not to mention the beauty of her words and — I’m psyched to explore her other books.

Dolly Parton’s America,” a WNYC podcast hosted by Radiolab’s Jad Abumrad

Dolly Parton's America

I’ve never been that into Dolly. Not that I was opposed, just ignorant. Sure, I liked some songs of hers that I knew (like Jolene, obviously). But I never really thought much about her, her music, her amazing songwriting, her feminism, her incredible backstory, or her superpowers as a cultural force capable of bringing together everyone from nuns to drag queens. When people started recommending this podcast to me, I was curious. It did not disappoint. If you’ve ever listened to Radiolab, you may have a sense of Abumrad’s signature rabbit hole-exploring style; it’s a perfect match for playing tour guide into the weird, wonderful and truly inspirational world of the Dollyverse.

Child of Books, by Oliver Jeffers and Sam Winston

Thought I’d go three for three with recommendations that are otherworldly in different ways. OK, yes, this is a children’s book. I’m not embarrassed. I bought it for my kids — with the intention of reading it myself over and over again. It’s a beautifully designed and illustrated, sparsely worded, poetic narrative about the transportative power and wonder of books.

Alyssa

I feel nerdy and proud to say that I read (or listened to) 38 books in 2019, six times more than the year before! For the previous 15 years, I was so focused on reading for school or work and less for my soul. This year, I made some career changes and prioritized learning and being curious. Given a large portion of my reading list was fiction, I think it only fitting to end the year with three novel recommendations. 

Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles

I love to travel and the freedom to do so feels so core to who I am. So, when I read about Count Alexander Rostov’s life in exile in the Metropole Hotel, I was flummoxed by how he makes being a prisoner feel like a trip around the world. He turns daily routines into big life events and delights in the small details. This book, originally recommended by Jen, is a reminder that we don’t need to go too far to find joy in the seemingly mundane (a theme from my fall book recommendations).

An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones

Oprah knows what’s up. This book was on her list in 2018 and, true to form, did not disappoint. African Americans are incarcerated over five times the rate of whites in the US, a tragic statistic that lives at the heart of this novel. On a trip to Louisiana to visit family, newly married Roy and Celestial are tested when Roy is convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. Their letters to each other during his incarceration expose what makes us feel loved, connected and human. 

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant is a weirdo to the rest of the world. She has no acquaintances, let alone friends. If she died, no one would notice. That is, until she makes an unlikely friend at work, Raymond. Eleanor’s experience getting to know and trust Raymond expands her world in ways she never thought possible. This story about mental health, kindness and humanity inspires me to be more compassionate and open to new people I meet along the way.

Amy

Everything I Know About Love, by Dolly Alderton

I haven’t had a reading habit to speak of for the last three years or so. Friends in my book club know I’m mostly there for the socializing, wine and tasty snacks. But I was browsing a bookstore at Heathrow Airport a few weeks ago and came across Dolly Alderton’s bright yellow autobiography and impulsively plucked it from the shelf. Alderton is an award-winning journalist and the co-host of one of my favorite podcasts, The High Low. I knew there was a huge chance I wouldn’t finish her book and justified the purchase by telling myself I was supporting a woman whose work I admire, if nothing else.

I devoured the book. It follows Alderton’s life via the relationships and decisions she’s made along the way. It isn’t always chronological, which I found refreshingly different from other autobiographies I’ve read. Alderton is hilarious, wise and brutally honest about the events of her life and how her sense of self has evolved over time. She and I had completely different experiences in our teens and 20s, but there’s still so much in her story that I identify with — especially the idea that some of our greatest romances are platonic friendships. By the end of the book I felt like I knew her, as if she were a close friend or family member. I was sad when it ended and can’t wait to see what she comes out with next.

Sarah

The ‘busy’ trap,” from Tim Kreider’s We Learn Nothing

This is one of the best essays I’ve read in the last few years. In it, Kreider makes the case for doing less. A LOT less. The writer describes himself as “the laziest ambitious person he knows.” He works 4-5 hours a day, bikes and reads a lot, and says he’s the friend always down to hang out when someone calls. This starkly contrasts the lives of most of his upper-middle class friends who are constantly “busy.” 

Though it’s surely a healthy dose of privilege that enables this lifestyle, Kreider argues convincingly that a lot of what we busy ourselves with is pointless and we often have an inflated sense of how much time is needed to accomplish things. He makes his life sound like that of a relaxed college student and a part of me envies it deeply. 

As someone who openly struggles with “busyness,” every time I read this essay (I come back to it regularly) I wonder, “How much more than 4-5 hours of good, focused work am I really getting out of each day?” For me, having more time to be idle and let my instincts guide me, as opposed to filling my planner to the brim, is a huge motivation in 2020.

Outdoor voices blurs the lines between working out and everything else,” by Jia Tolentino

I am obsessed with Outdoor Voices, the athletic clothing brand. As in, they can literally market an item to me I could never have imagined wearing or needing and I will buy it almost immediately (hi, exercise dress). I’ve read countless interviews and profiles of the founder, Tyler Haney, and none have critically dug into the larger cultural context of the brand and the meaning behind the updated, cool-girl athleisure movement like Jia Tolentino does in this New Yorker article. Her critique of the commercialized wellness industry that Outdoor Voices fits into is that it encourages us to optimize ourselves for a patriarchal, white society rather than reject the societal expectations that make us feel inadequate in the first place. 

I love Tolentino’s writing because she acknowledges her own role in the systems and phenomena she observes and criticizes. I’ve thought of this quote almost every time I’ve stepped into the gym since: “Exercise has kept my head clear, my mood even, my body predictable, my energy up. It has also helped me compete in a culture of escalating beauty expectations and increasingly boundless work. Am I taking care of myself, doing sun salutations in my motivational crop top, or am I running survival drills for life under an advanced capitalist economy? The answer, I’m sure, is both.”

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What else should we be reading and listening to? Use the comments section below to tell us what you’ve been enjoying lately.

(While we aren’t sponsored for anything we write or recommend, we are testing out Amazon Affiliate links. If you’re enticed by one of the books above and buy it using the link we’ve provided, your purchase will support our work here at The Juggle. Thank you!)

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