Reading Partners: The Relationship Edition

For my spouse and I, being on different pages when it comes to our reading preferences can be an advantage.

When I’m ready to curl up on a comfy sofa with a good book, I rarely browse through my spouse’s books. Ignoring our professional tomes or old schoolbooks that survived the Konmari purge, there’s limited overlap between our bookcases. Our common ground appears to be Stephen King’s books[*] interspersed with fantasy or science fiction selections and a smattering of literary fiction. My spouse’s tastes center around the said genres and nonfiction, while I wander freely through many genres. We may read together in the same room, but we’re still reading miles apart.

But, as it happens, being on different pages when it comes to our reading preferences can be an advantage. Allow me to explain.

Reading together. Image designed in Canva by R. Gould

Unexpected Common Ground

As most bibliophiles know, there’s no greater pleasure than unexpectedly finding common reading interests with another person. Early in our relationship, my spouse and I discovered several books and authors we mutually liked, which led us to recommend books the other hadn’t yet read from our shared authors.

But even years later, we still surprise each other when we discover a reading connection that allows us to share new authors/titles with each other. When my husband recommended Good Omens co-authored by one of his favorite authors, Neil Gaiman, I knew I wanted to read it because I already was a fan of its other author, Terry Pratchett. I enjoyed it as much as he did, and we discussed it for ages afterwards. As a result, I ended up delving into a few other books by Gaiman (Coraline, The Ocean at the End of the Lane), while my spouse read Terry Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic.

The Book Finder

Some time ago, my husband purchased Helene Tursten’s short story collection, An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good (translated by Marlaine Delargy). Initially intrigued by the cross-stitch cover and its premise, he purchased this book as he felt like it was one that I’d like (crime/detection fiction is a favorite of mine but not necessarily one of his). I loved it so much I’ve written about it here, as well as pretty much re-shelved it to my bookshelf.[†] But I wasn’t the only one who loved Maud. He’s also a huge fan, and both of us couldn’t wait to tell each other the next Maud collection would be released soon.[‡] Similarly, I’ve found several books that match his interest in science fiction (eg, Arthur C. Clarke winner Anne Charnock’s Dreams Before the Start of Time) or travel (eg, Raynor Winn’s The Salt Path) because I spend more time on book Twitter than he does.

In some ways, our situation is akin to having a personal book shopper who gets what you really want and isn’t afraid to suggest some more eclectic choices. Beyond this, I’ve discovered that our different interests and approaches to finding books often lead us to find authors and books for each other that we individually might not have discovered.

The Influencer

To be honest, I read more nonfiction now than I would have without my spouse’s intervention. Sometimes, his reading features how-to books, tomes on self-improvement, and deep dives into history. Over the years, he’s suggested a few books from these categories when he thought they might be mutually relevant so that we could read or listen[§] to them together (eg, Nuture Shock: New Thinking About Children by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman when our kiddo was young as well as Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up when we wanted to declutter).

But some books more related to his career caught his attention, and and my spouse later referred to them me as they touch upon my interests (eg, Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech corresponds with interests in feminism and science). For my part, I’ve gently nudged him to read more detective fiction (eg, anything Agatha Christie) and literary fiction than he might have otherwise considered reading (eg, Kindred by Octavia Butler, which has elements of speculative fiction).

While having someone (again) introduce you to new book is fantastic, the larger victory is that we both found ourselves more willing (albeit selectively) to read from categories that we might not otherwise given a chance. In short, we’re both a bit more openminded when we peruse books, because we now know that there are great books even in categories that don’t spark joy for us.

Here’s a sample of some of the books that my spouse and I’ve recommended to each other. (Photo by Rita E. Gould)

The Seller

Ever read a book so good that you tell everyone you know about it? My spouse and I both are susceptible to this phenomenon. We’re both well aware that a particular book might not be something the other would standardly enjoy (or even close to it), but we recommend it because it’s that good. I know literary fiction (particularly the grimmer sort) isn’t something my spouse runs toward, but Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (trans. Deborah Smith) is a masterpiece. Similarly, my limited interest in science fiction hasn’t stopped him from insisting that I also read This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. I can’t say that time traveling enemy agents is my thing, but I’ll give it a whirl because its epistolary format interests me. If nothing else, we’ll have plenty of opportunities to discuss why we didn’t like each other’s suggestions.

The Wrap Up: Reading Couple Goals

As two people who love reading and writing, we often do want to talk about the amazing books we’ve read—even if one of us will never read that book. But we’ve found that that our differences worked well to expand our individual reading horizons. While it’s great having a book buddy when it comes to chatting about favorite reads, being able to discuss any book with your reading partner is amazing.[**] And who better to do start that conversation with than your significant other?


Do you and your significant other read together or separately? Let me know in the comments section if you recommend books for each other.


NOTES:

[*] He’s his own genre by now, right?

[†] In the writing of this essay, I’ve discovered I’m something of a book thief. I promised to return…most of them.

[‡] We actually put it on our Goodreads to-read lists within 5 days of each other.

[§] As a rule, I rarely listen to audiobooks, as I read much faster than the book can be spoken. But it’s an ideal way to jointly go through a book, particularly if you’re stuck in a car for a few hours.

[**] Of course, you don’t need to be in a romantic relationship to form your own miniature book club or salon, but it is a bonus if you and your significant other can do so.

The 2020 Reading Review: the Books that Made the Pandemic More Bearable

Without a doubt, 2020 was a challenging year. For some, coping with these harrowing events meant finding solace in books and reading voraciously. Others, despite time freed up by social distancing, could barely turn a page. I found myself seesawing between both states. Although I didn’t meet my reading goals, I’m still happy to say that I read many books that expanded my horizons while remaining home. Even the more intense books (perhaps not the best choices for difficult times) continue to challenge me long after I closed their covers and shelved them. This year’s list, therefore, is not a “best of” list so much as a tribute to those memorable books that made pandemic reading a bit more bearable.

High Hopes: Inspirational Reads

Elsewhere, I discussed Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, and why I felt it was a great inspirational book to read during the pandemic. It remains among my favorites reads for 2020, because she points out the choice that we all have when it comes to viewing our circumstances. This, of course, isn’t the full extent of what Becoming brings to its audience (her life story is fascinating in its own right), but it’s something I ponder often on dark days. How does my perspective control my story? How could it be reconsidered?

But there was another book that I read in 2020 that I found quite inspirational: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s tiny tome, We Should All Be Feminists. Adichie’s book is an approachable, occasionally irreverent, and oft poignant consideration of why we, as the title states, should become feminists. Using a conversational tone (this book sprang from her 2012 TED talk), she makes the case for feminism by addressing both its baggage and the counterproductive effects of clinging to patriarchy—for both men and women. It’s difficult not to see how we’d all be happier if we strove toward gender equality.[*]

The Slowpoke Read: The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart

Disclaimer: If alcohol isn’t your thing, feel free to skip ahead. If you like the occasional tipple and/or enjoy science, read on.

Of all the books I finished this year, The Drunken Botanist: The Plants that Make the World’s Great Drinks took the longest to read. But here’s the twist: I think it’s a feature that this book can be read over long periods. Using the familiar plant field guide format, most chapters focus on a single plant, making it easy to read a section, put the book aside, and return when you like. It proved to be an engaging way to absorb material through 2020, when I wanted to read just a bit or found myself unable to focus on reading for long stretches.

Photo of the book The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart. Photo taken Rita E. Gould

Format aside (the book, for the record, boasts a beautiful layout), Amy Stewart’s efforts to better educate her readers about the plants that give rise to the world’s favorite drinks are enlightening as they are entertaining, The Drunken Botanist does its best to give a broad, near encyclopedic view of the various plants (around 160, I believe) and the alcohols they produce. Often, I found myself focused more on the fascinating details involved in the research (eg, cloves are closed flower buds), not to mention the diverse disciplines she references (eg, coprolites shed information on alcohol consumption of the ancients). And did I mention the drink recipes? Stewart’s how-to, however, also extends to gardening and brewing (when feasible for folks at home), making this a rather complete approach to her topic. A careful scientist, Stewart also elucidates what’s unverifiable tales/myths, distillations best left to experts, dangerous look-alike plants, and the tragic history behind some crops and their beverages (eg, slavery, colonization). All in all, a deep, rewarding dive into botany that makes you appreciate the plants behind the bottle.

Lived up to the Hype, or Never Underestimate a Pretty Woman

I decided to read both My Sister, the Serial Killer and Mexican Gothic, because of the well-deserved buzz surrounding these novels. Both allowed me to escape the confines of my home, while I pondered their various heroine’s difficulties. They also shared a common feature: beautiful young women who people misjudge as harmless, albeit in different ways. However, both novels deftly touch on serious topics as they captivate you. I can’t recommend either enough.

Hidden Depths

In Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, the heroine, Noemí Taboada, may seem like a frivolous socialite, but this good-time girl has hidden depths. For one thing, she’s keen on earning her master’s degree in anthropology despite her family’s disapproval. The promise of furthering her studies is the carrot her father uses to persuades Noemí to travel to a remote mining town to check up on her beloved cousin, Catalina, who has sent some disturbing letters regarding her new husband, Virgil Doyle. While gothic literature isn’t traditionally set in Mexico, the transplanted Doyle family brough the requisite gloomy atmosphere from England with them. Before long, Noemí realizes something is very wrong in the Doyle’s manor and that she is becoming ensnared by it. Without giving away too much, Mexican Gothic sneaks into literary fiction as Moreno-Garcia masterfully blends serious topics (eg, racism, colonialism,) into the undercurrents of its disturbing narrative, creating an immersive, intense horror story that is difficult to stop reading.[†]

Beauty Is Only Skin Deep

After reading My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite, never has the platitude about the depths of beauty seemed so true. This darkly comic novel (murder shouldn’t be a laughing matter) grabbed my attention from the title through its conclusion, as I inched closer to learning what makes a beautiful woman (Ayoola) turns murderous. It’s the second mystery (I’ll get to that), however, that made me eager to turn the pages.

Through the older and less lovely sister, Korede, we learn about Ayoola’s unconventional method for managing her man problems. Korede, long made responsible for her sister’s action and well-being, seethes as her sister’s looks let her escape Nigerian cultural expectations of women (eg, cooking[‡]) and the consequences of her actions. Ayoola, long accustomed to deference, expects her older sister to clean up her messes, murder included. Korede, of course, does just that with her usual competence. Work is nurse Korede’s only refuge, where she longs after a handsome doctor, Tade Otumu. Here, too, is her only confidant: a comatose patient in whom she confesses the truth about Ayoola’s exploits. But her sanctuary soon evaporates when Ayoola pays a visit. Before long, Tade is dating Ayoola and her patient, once expected to die, awakens. Korede, in a quandary between two loves, needs to make a choice.

Braithwhite’s searing commentary, focused on female beauty, exposes the misogynistic undercurrents of how societies value women. Korede, the more compassionate and competent sister, is often overlooked, and she can’t even criticize Ayoola without being dismissed as jealous. But Braithwhite carefully shows how beauty isn’t always a blessing. Ayoola’s enjoyment of her halo effect doesn’t hide how the emphasis placed on her looks has damaged her, as she lacks empathy, fails to grasp proper behavior on serious occasions, and holds an understandably cynical view of men (“…a pretty face. That’s all they ever want”) who value her looks but know nothing of her interests or talents. Considering the good fortune showered on Ayoola for existing while beautiful, there is some mystery behind her evolution into a literal mankiller. But the more compelling question is why Korede continues to helps her, given her resentment and horror. The answer to both questions lies in their shared history and bond as sisters.

The Reading Year Wrap Up

This year’s reading, whether disturbing (We Need to Talk About Kevin, The Perfect Nanny [alternative title, Lullaby]) or comforting (all the Rick Riordan books I read with my kiddo), often served as a connection point with the outside world, one that patiently waited for me when the current events left me too tired to read. While it might seem activities like reading should be a lower priority during troubling times, I can’t help but think how much art, music, books, television, etc., served as a balm whether I needed mindless distraction or a reminder that were bigger things besides my own cares. Art matters, particularly when life is difficult. As 2021 will continue (at least for now) where 2020 left off, I plan to stock up on few books (in addition to this year’s Christmas haul). Whether the coming year brings good news or not, I hope to have a good book on hand.

Happy reading, all!

NOTES


[*]I would be remiss to ignore Adichie’s controversial remarks about transwomen, even though they do not appear this book. While she later clarified her statement, it’s important to understand why her remarks missed the mark so that we do a better job of making feminism more intersectional.

[†] I stayed up to the early hours to finish this book, and it did not disappoint. Read here for a more in-depth analysis of the book and interview with the author, Silvia Moreno-Garcia.

[‡]And, you know, letting boyfriends live.

Uplifting Reading for the Quarantine: the Inspiration in Michelle Obama’s Becoming

“For every door that’s been opened to me, I’ve tried to open my door to others.”

When I began writing this post about the books I read over the last few months, I focused on a few I wanted to highlight for Black History[*] and Women’s History Months. What I wrote, however, seemed to strike the wrong note as the COVID-19 pandemic emerged. I still will assert that it’s always a great time to read more books written by black and/or women writers, but I’m going to put the cheekier tone on hold. For now. Instead, I’m focusing on reviewing a book that I feel provides inspiration for these troubling times: Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming.

At the end of Becoming, Michelle challenges us to reconsider how we look at our circumstances. Within a week, the area where I live in Pennsylvania went from practicing social distancing to receiving stay-at-home orders.[†] Right now, it’s easy to view these restrictions as confining, but it’s also easy to reframe this effort as doing our part in limiting this disease’s spread. We might not be able to control our circumstances, but we can choose how we consider such situations. Michelle Obama’s story has many lessons, but the power of shaping your own narrative is an important one.

(TLDR: For those of you needing a quarantine read that keeps your hope afloat, check out my review of Becoming and see if it appeals to you. Stay safe, everyone.)


Becoming

Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, gives its readers an insider’s view of the First Lady’s life up to and through Barack Obama’s historic presidency. Both touching and humorous, she shares her unique perspective on career, politics, and family. Michelle’s achievements, as is often the case for first African Americans to hold a position,[‡] differ from her First Lady predecessors in many respects. But her blue-collar upbringing on Chicago’s southside (an area known for “white flight”) shaped her life profoundly, sparking both her ambition and willingness to help others. She recognizes that for her to achieve success as a student, corporate lawyer, nonprofit organizer, First Lady, mother, and wife, others first had to invest in her success. Poignantly, Michelle reflects on how various relatives abandoned their dreams to survive and how her parents sacrificed their own aspirations (eg, home ownership) to help their secure their children’s future. Both Michelle and her brother, Craig Robinson, would go onto attend Ivy League schools and embark on professional careers.

Career, Love, and Politics

During Michelle’s early career as a corporate lawyer, she met Barack Obama. This section of the book, often laced with fond spousal exasperation, shines as these opposites fall in love, find a balance that works for them, and support each other through familial losses, infertility, family life, and what now seems to be Barack’s inevitable political ascent. Aware that Barack’s ambitions could eclipse her own, Michelle credits him for helping her “swerve” from the more sensible if unfulfilling law practice into nonprofit work despite the pay cut and their student loans.

As their lives became fuller with the arrival of their daughters and Barack’s burgeoning political career, the book shifts into the more familiar history of that ascent. Michelle, wary of politics and the scrutiny it would bring their young family, was reluctant to become a politician’s wife. Despite her concerns she supported Barack’s decision to run for various political offices and, ultimately, his presidential candidacy because she believed “he was exactly the kind of smart, decent president I would chose for this country”.

White House Days

When it comes to her years in the White House, Michelle focuses on the development of her outreach programs (eg, the Let’s Move) as First Lady. She discusses the pain and discomfort associated negative and often racist publicity targeted at herself and her family as well as how she learned to put it aside. In addition to revealing her behind-the-scenes planning and her reactions to notable events as they unfolded, she also shares what it’s like living in the White House. As the presidency approaches its end, fun tidbits abound (including her early preview of a musical that would one day become Hamilton). But there’s also a strong sense, however, that those final days were a blur between campaigning for Hillary Clinton and preparing for the Trump presidency. Arguably, Becoming might be part of the process of unpacking these moments.

Final Reflections

Like many memoirs, Michelle Obama’s closes with her reflecting on what she has learned thus far. Looking back on her childhood, she realized it could be characterized however she wished, either by focusing on the negatives and positives. Perhaps for this reason she wants to both share her story and listen to those of others. As she best stated it, “For every door that’s been opened to me, I’ve tried to open my door to others. And here is what I have to say, finally: Let’s invite one another in. Maybe then we can begin to fear less, to make fewer wrong assumptions, to let go of the biases and stereotypes that unnecessarily divide us.” She concludes this account at the point of her new beginning, a new chapter where she will continue becoming herself.

NOTES:


[*] In the United States.

[†] Meaning I must stay home unless I qualify as an essential worker (eg, healthcare, grocery, government, etc.) or I need to be out (eg, grocery shopping, need medical attention).

[‡] Several reviews refer to her “improbable” ascent to First Lady, given that she grew up in blue-collar, African American community. However, her family as, Barack Obama observed, was more like a black version of Leave It to Beaver.