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40 Books to Read Before You’re 30

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A couple weeks ago, a Buzzfeed list of the “65 Books You Need To Read In Your 20s” circulated Facebook, and I have to say I was seriously disappointed…Not just in the choices on the list (or not on the list), but that anyone would accept Buzzfeed as a credible source on must-read literature! That’s like asking the Queen of England to create a list of the funniest fart jokes or Honey Boo Boo Child to recommend diet and exercise tips. This is NOT a knock on Buzzfeed– I love a good list of the “16 funniest lies you can tell a child” as much as the next girl–but basing your summer reading list off their recommendation? Ludicrous!

Now, what makes my list more trustworthy than Buzzfeed’s? Well, for starters, He’s Just Not That Into You didn’t make the cut. Oh, and you’ve probably already read half of these books. That’s the point–if you’re pretty damn close to 30, you should have already come across many of these reads because they are cultural pillars of our society. I must note that I do not like all these books, in fact there are several I would say aren’t even “good”, but they should be read.

I must admit that I found this process to be tortuous. There are books I spent hours reflecting on, and still regret not putting on the list (Wurthering Heights, The History of Love, Harry Potter!), but I wanted to condense it to just the essentials. I’d love to hear your feedback, though–what would you have skipped? Added?

In no particular order…(Click on the title to go to Amazon to read a description/order)…


1. The Lorax, Dr. Seuss

2. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl

3. The Giving Tree, Shel Silverstein

4. The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupery

5. The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger

6. The Giver, Lois Lowry

7. The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky

8. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, J.R.R. Tolkein

9. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, Sherman Alexie

10. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

11. Tuck Everlasting, Natalie Babbitt

12. The Princess Bride, William Goldman

13. Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare

14. Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

15. East of Eden, John Steinbeck

16. Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift

17. Slaughterhouse V, Kurt Vonnegut

18. A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens

19. Everything is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer

20. One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez

21. Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston

22. Shantaram, Gregory David Roberts

23. The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini

24. The Power of One, Bryce Courtenay

25. The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver

26. Freedom, Jonathan Franzen

27. Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace

28. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera

29. Kafka on the Shore, Haruki Murakami

30. A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving

31. The Plot Against America, Philip Roth

32. White Teeth, Zadie Smith


33. The Glass Castle, Jeanette Walls

34. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, Laura Hillenbrand

35. In the Garden of Beasts, Erik Larson

36. Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond

37. Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt

38. Tuesdays with Morrie, Mitch Albom

39. Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer

40. Freakonomics, Steven D. Levitt


Recent Reads

I never expected to mourn the loss of my two hour daily commute, but ohhhhhh, how I miss it! Denmark is annoyingly efficient, so now I never spend more than 15 minutes on a train. My monthly reading has decreased dramatically!  In the past 5 months I’ve read only 5.5 books, which is about half of what I was reading in nyc. So it’s especially depressing that I found many of the books below disappointing…Anyway, here are the reviews–ratings are out of 5 stars.

1. Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn


This page-turner got a lot of good reviews when it first came out, but in my opinion it is pretty overrated. The book goes back and forth between a man’s experience after his wife suddenly goes missing on their anniversary, and his missing wife’s diary entries throughout their decade-long relationship. The story is clever and the mystery is compelling, but in the end I really disliked all of the characters and felt so unsatisfied by the ending. 3 stars.

2. The Age of Miracles, Karen Thompson


I loved this read! The story follows a precocious young teenager as she copes with impending global disaster–the earth’s rotation begins to slow, with catastrophic results. I loved thinking about how this kind of event would actually impact our earth and our lives–I admit I spent lots of time researching predictions about this very topic! Despite the extraordinary circumstances of the story, in the end it’s a common tale of growing up–and all the disappointment and excitement life brings. 4 stars.

3. Broken Harbor, Tana French

Broken Harbor

This is yet another gritty crime drama without a happy ending from French. I wish I could get into mysteries, but I always find them bogged down by cliches. The one that drives this story is a divorced middle-aged cynical detective takes an overly optimistic young rookie under his wing, and leads to both men questioning their principles and beliefs. Throw in a couple of totally unbelievable twists, sad family baggage, and funny Irish-English words, and that’s pretty much Broken Harbor. 2 stars.

4. Vaclav & Lena, Haley Tanner


This book totally charmed me! The story follows two Russian immigrant kids who meet in an ESL class in nyc. Their friendship appears to be circumstantial, as they have little in common–Vaclav is older than Lena but far more innocent, bordering on naive; he is a dreamer, and Lena a pragmatist. When Lena suddenly disappears from young Vaclav’s life, he is left broken-hearted. They each continue to haunt the other’s memory for the next decade, when the finally reconnect and share their very different stories of growing up. 4 stars.

5. In One Person, John Irving


John Irving sticks to his usual exploration of gender and sexuality in this quirky read. Supported (or obstructed) by a cast of colorful characters, the protagonist, Billy, narrates his life-long journey towards not just self-acceptance, but the much more difficult task of embracing others as they are. The intimate community (parents, teachers, students) that surrounds him in a Vermont boarding school are all walking with their own ghosts from the past, and Billy learns that there are some spirits you just can’t (or shouldn’t) exorcise. This novel is entertaining to the last page. 4 stars.

5.5. Flight Behavior, Barbara Kingsolver


I’m only half way through this, but it is everything you’d expect from Kingsolver: dreamlike, poignant, utterly absorbing, and  relevant. She is without a doubt in my top 7 favorite authors of all time. I can’t wait to find out what happens to her expertly developed characters, but I also don’t want the story to end! Flight Behavior is definitely the best of this bunch! Set in a small rural town filled with bible-quoting farmers, the raven-haired protagonist goes through a metamorphosis of her own when a strange phenomenon bring millions of butterflies to the woods on her husband’s family’s property. Soon hoards of people are showing up to see the butterflies, followed by reporters and scientists. Climate change is the impetus to Kingsolver’s beautiful exploration of the danger, necessity, and wonder inherent in all transformations. 5 stars!

Have you read any good books lately?



Literary Round Up

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I’ve been reading. In no particular order…

1, 2 & 3) Fifty Shades of Grey Trilogy, by EL James

I wanted to like these books. First of all, everyone else does; secondly, the novels are based on fan fiction erotica of the Twilight characters; and do you really need another reason after that last one? But there’s nothing grey about my opinion here: this trilogy is majorly disappointing.

The plot: an innocent young coed (based on Bella) enters a BDSM relationship with a powerful and dark man (based on Edward). SO. MUCH. POTENTIAL.

But, sadly, James doesn’t fully commit to the BDSM (that’s bondage/discipline, dominant/submissive, sadism/masochism for those not in the know) experience, and what should be a sexy, modern, edgy book comes across as painfully adolescent and thus, downright creepy. It’s hard to get excited (that IS a double entendre) about a woman getting whipped on her clitoris with a riding crop when said woman can’t call her nether regions anything other than “down there” or–I’m not kidding–“the apex of my thighs.” OH NO SHE DIDN’T!

If the tone wasn’t bad enough, by the middle of the first book James completely abandons the BDSM angle in favor of a traditional love story…Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

0 stars (out of 5).

4) The Vanishers by Heidi Julavits

What a pleasant surprise! A truly, refreshingly, unique book! One word of caution: this story is a bit Inception-y (you know, a world inside an alternate reality with characters from other realms…) so this is not a novel to read before bed. It takes a certain amount of focus to follow the twists and turns.

The plot: a young woman is a rising star in the psychic world, and her jealous/aging mentor inflicts psychic warfare on her. Enter subplots of mysteries involving dead mothers, missing film reels, and underground feminist extremists. I realize this synopsis doesn’t make any sense, but that’s the very nature of the telepathic phenomenon! However, I promise all becomes clear in the end…

4 stars (out of 5).

5) History of a Pleasure Seeker by Richard Mason

This is a familiar story (boy from nothing becomes man with everything), but it is told with so much originality it sucks you in from the first page.

The plot: a poor young man living in Amsterdam uses the lessons his savvy French mother bestowed upon him (and his natural physical beauty) to climb the social ladder. What makes this novel fresh is that somehow, the dashing Piet never comes across as sleazy. In fact, he goes to great pains to be nothing but genuine, which certainly is part of his secret to success. Furthermore, this historical fiction work gets marks for openly addressing the oft-overlooked but overwhelmingly common episodes of homosexuality amongst the “straight” men of the upper class. Indeed, the frank telling of Piet’s sexual encounters with both men and women very much make this story rather original.

4 stars (out of 5).

6) The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

A little bit spooky, a little bit fantasy, a little bit sad, this emotional read will make you wonder and weep.

The plot: an aging and childless couple living in Alaska build a snow child. When they wake the next morning to find the snow child toppled to the ground, they take note of the strange footprints in their yard. The couple begin to see things they can’t explain, and the reader is left wondering if the couple have lost their sanity in the snow, or found sanctity in it, or both.

This book is imaginative and emotional. A wonderful debut novel from Ivey.

4 stars (out of 5).

7) The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht

Wow, wow, WOW! This is a must read. the best book I’ve read in 2012. I can’t even say anything because this book is EVERYTHING. Smart, irreverent, historical, magical, amusing, moving…you get where I’m going.

The plot: a young woman follows in her beloved grandfather’s footsteps and becomes a doctor in a war-torn Balkan country. She embarks on a journey to solve the mystery of her grandfather’s death by solving the mystery he was investigating…the  deathless man. Of course, you can’t understand death without understanding life, as Obreht so beautifully and unexpectedly expresses in this novel.

5 stars!!!!!!

I’m currently reading The Expats by Chris Pavone. I have no idea what I’ll pick up after that, so if you have any suggestions please pass them along in the comments!



Swamplandia! Book Review, + Hometown Pride

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell was one turbulent, unearthly, and disturbing read. I was shocked to find how little I enjoyed reading the story, given the immense amount of acclaim it has received. That’s not to say it isn’t a well written, riveting read: it is. It’s just that it’s a desperately sad story.

The story follows the broken Bigtree family and their broken alligator-theme park in the Everglades, called Swamplandia! The story includes the amusing tale of how the Bigtrees became the Bigtrees, what brought them to Florida, and the inception of Swamplandia! It is a family history that includes a heavy dose of reinvention, which is a strong theme throughout the book. (It makes you see “reinvention”, though deceptive in nature, as pitiable.)

The story’s stars are the three Bigtree children: Kiwi (17 and male), Osceola (goes by “Ossie”, 16), and Ava (12). Their father (unworthy of being called “dad”) tellingly goes by “Chief,” and their mother, the famous alligator wrestler Hilola, has recently died of cancer. The story is narrated in part by a 3rd person narrator following Kiwi in all his 17 year old boy angst as he runs away from home and gets a job at the mainland theme park (Swamplandia!’s biggest competitor), and Ava, who in 1st person takes us along her hopeless rescue mission of the mysteriously missing Ossie.

At 12, Ava is paradoxically wise and childlike. That’s one of my gripes with the book–Ava just isn’t believable. Her fierce devotion to the failing theme park  is fueled by her dream of filling the expert alligator-wrestler shoes left empty by her mom: clearly, at 12, a small part of Ava might think that by keeping Swamplandia! alive, she can also keep her mother alive. When Ava herself articulates her existential revelation about the very phenomenon of the enduring bonds of mothers and their kin, I rolled my eyes a little. Ava is the sole care taker of the entire theme park’s population of alligators, literally nursing them from birth, and yet the nearly teen-aged girl is clueless about sex? That’s a bit far fetched. Despite this, Ava does work her way into your heart, and at the story’s predictable-yet-shocking climax I found myself weeping for the tearless girl in part because Ava cannot, or will not, or both.

The narrative following Kiwi is a bit befuddling. First of all, it contrasts so sharply from Ava’s story that at times it feels like two completely different books. Furthermore, his motivations are a bit inconsistent. And although you sympathize with the poor kid, he’s just so awkward and odd it’s truly painful. Ultimately, Kiwi is the only comic relief in the book, and you’ll cling to those gems of humor as your salvation from the swamp darkness.

And then there’s Ossie, the proverbial middle child, whose voice is missing from the story. Ossie develops an obsession with communicating with the dead, which leads to a romantic relationship with a ghost. This saga plays out rather tragically, with Kiwi begging her to get professional help, Ava uncomfortably teasing her but still accepting it as truth, and the Chief laughing it off. Most depressing of all is that Ossie’s shattered sense of reality is a far more appreciable (if macabre) experience than life at Swamplandia!

Russell does an outstanding job of explaining the beauty and savagery of the Everglades, as she ought to–she’s a Florida native. The characters are vividly described in all of their isolation and suffering. (I couldn’t help but think that those children who are fathered by their own grandfathers and grow up locked in a basement would be very similar to the Bigtree kids…) As the story progresses, you get more and more absorbed in their world, and that’s the problem–it’s a depressing one.

This is a solid literary work, and the uniqueness of swamp life is definitely a strong merit. In the end, though, this novel is too imperfect and too, frankly, weird, for me to recommend.

Currently reading: The Tiger’s Wife by Lea Obreht.

My hometown, Ann Arbor, was named the 6th gayest city in America by the Advocate! So proud to be from such a progressive town that celebrates ALL love!

Favorite Reads of 2011

I’m a bit of a bookworm. Although, now that I have a Kindle, am I still a “bookworm”? E-readerbug? Kindlegnat? Oh, semantics! I digress…

My literary taste very much leans toward contemporary fiction, but I do read a current nonfiction book every four or five reads. The following are my favorite books of 2011, in no particular order:

1. The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern

After the solemnity of 2010’s best books (Franzen’s Freedom, Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, etc.), Moregenstern’s debut novel was pure, well, magic. A conventional plot–star crossed lovers–is injected with heady mystique when set amidst a beguiling circus. Morgenstern weaves so much detail into the setting of the circus, I still find myself trying to beckon a memory from the back of my mind only to realize it’s not a memory at all, but a scene from this book. Compelling and entertaining.

2. State of Wonder, Ann Patchett

This is perhaps my favorite of all of Patchett’s exquisite novels. Her latest is a transporting story of a female medical pharmaceutical researcher who treks into the Amazon to discover the truth behind her lab partner’s death while working there. This book wonderfully blends mystery, biomedical ethics, exotic cultures, and deep character evolution. The story will haunt you.

3. Bossypants, Tina Fey

Seriously funny, seriously smart, seriously honest–what’s not to love about Tina Fey and her hilarious memoir? More than just a collection of embarrassing confessions, this book is a frank portrayal of the struggles women uniquely face. But, I swear, even men will laugh out loud at every turn…so long as they are feminists.

4. What Alice Forgot, Liane Moriarty

This is one of those unique books that has the ability to make you laugh out loud one page, and then weep the next. The story opens with Alice waking up after an accident at the gym. Alice’s injury leads to the past ten years of her memory being erased, so the 39 year-old divorcee wakes up believing she is a 29 year-old pregnant newlywed. While the book gives a 26 year old like myself some hope of the future (Alice is thinner and prettier at 39!), it is also totally horrifying (in ten years will I, too, develop all those characteristics I presently hate?). This is a book to read and discuss with your best friends and your mom.

5. In the Garden of Beasts, Erik Larson

This nonfiction work about the American ambassador  and his family living in Germany during Hitler’s rise to power is more wild than any made up story. Larson’s historical narrative, while inherently retrospective, is told with the objective coherence of his subjects’ realities. A very fresh look at a rather exhausted time in history. (Any bets when Hollywood will turn this into a movie?)

6. The Dovekeepers, Alice Hoffman

Set during Jerusalem’s fall to the Romans during the first century, Hoffman’s novel follows the lives of six women in the Masada settlement. The story is told in four parts, each narrated by a different woman.  The prose and the plot are extraordinary, but even more noteworthy is that this story is based on historical artifacts. Like most historically accurate stories, this one is rife with tragedy; what makes this story unique is the portrayal of the magic–both figurative and literal–possessed by this time period’s women.

Happy reading!