Category Archives: Books

Challenge: Reading off the To-Read Shelf

I’m not buying any books between now and January 1, 2015*. Argh, it hurts just to write that sentence! I have a book buying addiction (which goes part and parcel with my reading addiction); last week I walked out of a used book sale with an actual trash bag full of books. And that was my second used book sale of the weekend.

When I have twenty minutes to kill, I beeline to my favorite bookstore (luckily I live in a place with a dozen really good ones) and I never walk out empty-handed. I’m like a ten-year-old on a road trip who needs a memento from every rest stop.

But books are not stupid keychains or snow globes, you’re lamenting! I know! They are so useful and pretty and full of wonder and adventure and insight! And each one is different! I know, I know, I know! I love them too!

So why am I punishing myself with this book-buying ban? Perhaps more importantly, why am I punishing my local bookstore economy that needs my dollars? Because of the To-Read shelf.

Screenshot_8_5_14_4_16_PM-2There are 84 books on my To-Read shelf. Some of them have traveled with me since I left for college eight years ago. Some of them have seen the insides of two dorm rooms and four different apartments. Some of them have traveled literally around the world in suitcases only to be overlooked because something new and shiny was calling from the English-language table in tiny bookstore in a small town in India.

I want to read my To-Read shelf and I don’t think I can do it without putting a moratorium on new acquisitions. It’s like when you buy a new sweater and all of a sudden it’s your new favorite sweater and all your other sweaters (the ones that used to be your favorites) are crap. The To-Read shelf books always gets pushed down below the fresh-off-the-bookstore-shelf books.

This is hopefully a way of reinvigorating my reading the way purging clothes usually reminds me of things I’ve been meaning to wear but don’t. It will make exciting the things that have been perceived as unexciting for all these years. There’s already a working list in my head of the To-Read books that are rising to the top of the pile (The Color Purple, The Yellow Birds, Maus and Aloft) and I’m genuinely excited to get cracking.

*So what are the rules? There are three exceptions to the No New Books rule. I am allowed to buy:

1. Gifts for other people

2. Books at author signings that I can add to my autographed collection

3. Book club books (though I’ll try the library first)

Why these exceptions? This plan is not about money-saving, though it will probably save me a few bucks along the way. I like spending money in bookstores and supporting the literary infrastructure of my city (or cities in which I’m traveling). These exceptions will allow me to continue supporting that infrastructure without accumulating quite as much stuff, of which I have far too much. They will let me keep participating in the booklover’s economy without overwhelming the To-Read shelf with new arrivals every other freaking day.

I don’t expect the To-Read shelf count to hit zero before New Year’s, but anything less than 84 would be considered a win!

Related Post: The last book I loved: Miss Anne in Harlem

Related Post: My book club is famous.

 

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Why a Single-Sex Media Diet is a Bad Idea

These OkCupid guys…. I mean really. It’s one thing to mention that your favorite author is Faulkner. Cool, I dig it. Or Hemingway, or whomever. It’s even NBD to list a couple of books you like that happen to be written by men. BUT, when you go to the trouble of listing 40+ books you love because YOU JUST CAN’T DECIDE, and literally all 42 are by guys… for real?

They probably don’t even notice. If that’s the case, this is highly fixable. If they notice and don’t care/don’t think it’s weird/don’t think women have interesting opinions or stories…. well, that shit is beyond repair. Or rather, it is a problem to large for me to fix with a snarky message or internet essay.

But the fixable ones, the ones who are oblivious but open-minded, these are the ones I write to today, in my new piece for Role/Reboot:

Screenshot_7_3_14_11_54_AM-3Related Post: The last book I loved, The Flamethrowers

Related Post: Breaking down the gender of the authors I read last year

 

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The Last Book I Loved: Miss Anne in Harlem

Do you guys remember back in college when you’d pick up your books for a new class and the first thing you’d do is skip to the back and be thrilled to find out that 100 of the 500 pages you were expected to read were citations and bibliography? No? Just me?

miss-anne-in-harlem-jacket300wSo last night, on the train home, I found myself in the exact opposite position, eagerly anticipating the last 150  pages of Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance by Carla Kaplan, about the highly problematic, complex, fascinating lives of prominent white women in Harlem in the 20s. I was downright devastated to find instead 150 pages of index and acknowledgments. Noooooo000000000.

It is a rare piece of historical analysis, without traditional plot or suspense, that can grip a reader like that. Slow clap to Kaplan for pulling it off and making it look easy.

I was wary of Miss Anne from the title alone. Do we really need to go looking for ways that white people’s contributions to history, particularly black history, have been overlooked? Really? Those are the buried contributions we want to spend time and energy uncovering? Look! More stuff that you thought black people did but actually it was white people! And a white historian writing about and profiting off of a book about white people writing about and profiting off of black identity politics in the 20s? Are we really not going to address the irony? This book had the potential to go seriously, seriously awry.

And yet.

Oh my god, you guys, it was so good. As you might imagine, I’m a sucker for the behind-the-scenes, never-before-revealed, forgotten-by-the-sands-of-time/ignored-by-the-patriarchal-powers-that-be stories of women shaping, influencing, wielding power. This also applies to people of color, LGBTQ individuals, and other members of marginalized groups whose contributions are often painted over by a whiter, straighter, male brush. The story of Bayard Rustin is one example; a gay black activist who organized the March on Washington and is literally standing behind MLK Jr during the “I Have a Dream” speech, but whose name is often left out of the textbooks. Or all these women I read about when I was traveling Peru.

The assumption that history was built by (white, straight, rich) men, is undermined when you get into the nitty gritty of who was actually working, writing, creating. With each such story that ultimately gets told, it feels like a slow expansion of the canon, and goddamn does the canon need expanding.

That very tension between untold stories of fascinating women and appropriation of black culture is literally and intentionally the central struggle of Miss Anne and all of the women it chronicles. Kaplan selected six white women, “Miss Annes,” to illustrate the variety of roles that white women inhabited (mostly uncomfortably) during the 1920s in Harlem.

The women she picks range from writers and journalists to “philanthropists”–like Charlotte Osgood Mason, who financed significant work by Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Alain Locke while maintaining a dictatorial grip on their social calendars–to playwrights and poets who attempted to “capture the black experience”. Many of them thought of themselves as boundary-breakers and reached into Harlem for certain freedoms they weren’t allowed in upper middle class white society. Some of them craved the spotlight, others were content to work in obscurity (until now) on behalf of the betterment of blacks. There is no unifying thread in their experience, except for their whiteness and femaleness in a period of history mostly discussed from a black male point of view.

It was an era when primitivism ruled and white Americans took tours of “exotic” Harlem to experience the “carefree” music and dance of black dance halls. Some of the women in Miss Anne subscribed to the worst of those primitivist theories. Some of them didn’t. Race novels like Imitation of Life, Passing, and Let My People Go, grappled with the meaning of racial identity, especially when identity was not visibly obvious. The notion of “volunteering for blackness” existed in opposition to passing for white. The dueling concepts of “race pride” and “race is a useless social construction” were constantly being debated in the press, on stage, and in salons. Can you choose how you identify? What happens if it’s in conflict with how others identify you? Why is choosing blackness different than passing for white? What obligations do you owe the members of your group?

In short, it was messy as hell, and to her credit Kaplan ignores none of the mess. Thank God.

There’s only one thing I would add to Miss Anne. If you recall from writing history papers in college, the trick at the end was always to pull the past into the present with some trite sentence like, “And that is why these issues are still ones we are discussing today.” Only better than that, obviously. While Kaplan successfully draws strong lines from 1920s race and identity politics to the present day, there is one piece missing from the puzzle; Kaplan’s story herself. By opening the door to discussing her role as a white historian telling black stories and describing black experience [Note: She is considered an expert on Zora Neale Hurston], she could have added that last complicating layer to an already super complicated, delicious, multi-layered history cake.

Related Post: The last book I loved: The Flamethrowers

Related Post: The last book I loved: The Orphan Master’s Son

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The Cool Kids

Got your geek out goggles on? Good, you’re going to need them. This week the Schomberg Center organized a conversation between Zadie Smith (White Teeth, On Beauty, NW) and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Half of a Yellow Sun, That Thing Around Your Neck, Americanah, “Flawless”). 

In an hour long discussion full of epic brilliance, the powerhouse pair address among many, many things: how white people think of black people as one homogenous class, how most literature neglects the sexual agency of grown women, how Americanah is Adichie’s “Fuck you” book, what it was like to write the rape scene in Yellow Sun, how splitting the check represents (or doesn’t) love, 12 Years a Slave, Barack and Michelle, policing blackness, and of course, hair.

See for yourself:

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And may I also say that I called the Their Eyes Were Watching God/Americanah connection. Ten points for Gryffindor.

Related Post: How to move a wall o’ books

Related Post: My book club is famous.

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America, According to Simone

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SdB + NA FOREVER

I just read Simone de Beauvoir’s travel journals, America Day by Day, a chronicle of her 1947 three-month journey across the US of A. From New York to San Francisco, LA to New Orleans, DC to Boston, de Beauvoir travels solo on a tour of college campuses and along the way occasionally reunites with her lover Nelson Algren, Richard Wright, Marcel Duchamp, and other famous and semi-famous writers and artists of the era.

De Beauvoir’s discovery of America is a strange mix of attempted conquest, intellectual competition, and condescending observations on American “simplicity” overlaid with the conflicted envy of an outsider looking in on a party she’s not even sure she wants to attend.

America, according to Simone de Beauvoir:

Here the creams are creamy, the soaps are soapy: this honesty is a forgotten luxury.

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I drink Scotch docilely because scotch is one of the keys to America.
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Men remain bareheaded, but many of the young people stick fur puffs over their ears fixed to a half-circle of plastic that sits on their hair like a ribbon–it’s hideous.
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There’s always some holiday going on in America; it’s distracting.
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In America, the individual is nothing. He is made into an abstract object of worship; by persuading him of his individual value, one stifles the awakening of a collective spirit in him.
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America is a box full of surprises.
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Americans are nature lovers, but they accept only a nature inspected and corrected by man.
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But in the end, people are always faced with what they wanted to escape: the arid basis of American life– boredom.
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How I regret being unable to love more unstintingly a country where the reign of man is affirmed with such magnificence, where the love of one’s fellow man seems at first sight so easy to achieve?
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All human problems are posed here on a gigantic scale; and to a greater degree, the solutions they find here will illuminate these problems, retrospectively, in a moving way or swallow them up in the night of indifference.
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America is one of the pivotal points of the world, where the future of man is being playing out. To “like” America, to “dislike” it–these words have no meaning. It is a battlefield, and you can only become passionate about the battle it is waging with itself, in which the stakes are beyond measure.
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And just for kicks, de Beauvoir on Chicago:
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It’s hard to breathe in the lobby [Palmer], which is permeated by a stifling heat and the thick scent of dollars.
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At least I had a glance behind the painted set. I saw a real city, tragic and ordinary, fascinating like all cities where men of flesh and blood live and struggle by the millions.
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And one of my favorite descriptions:
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He also writes about gastronomy and world affairs. The last piece was entitled “Mayonnaise and the Atomic Bomb”
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Related Post: What does one need to watch to have really watched everything? Recommended viewing.
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My Book Club is Famous, and other readerly things

First and most important, my book club is famous. Not People famous or CNN famous or even Jezebel famous, but it is Afternoon Shift famous on our local NPR station, WBEZ. One of our book club members is a reporter and captured some of our nerdery at last Sunday’s book club get-together.

A piece of her interview that didn’t make the air, but that brings me great pleasure, is our discussion of our “Rules of Book Club.” There are many, but my two favorites are:

1. Read the Book because, come on, this is not a wine club, nor a brunch club, though there might be wine and/or brunch. There are limits to what you can contribute and what you’ll get out of it if you haven’t read the book.

2. No Bookclubbing Before Book Club because we all hang out on any number of occasions and in any number of combinations before the designated discussion, save your thoughts and opinions (as best as you are able) for the larger group so everyone gets the benefit of your brilliance.

If you have book clubs, I would love to know how yours works! Ours operates on a nomination system (wherein, every month, anyone can nominate a book, and all the nominations go on a ballot, we vote for two apiece, and the winner is read).

In other random readerly nerdery, have you listened to the Tavi Gevinson Nerdette podcast yet? Also worth a listen:

And lastly, do you ever have that moment where you’re on your way to a new place, and you’re staring at your phone tracking yourself on the map and you’re like… it should be right here. And then you look up, and it it is right there, and if you had used the eyes in your head instead of the device in your hand you would have found it five minutes ago?

So that feeling, that is how I feel about this article about this Atlantic article about “the Netflix for books.” I’m like… um,… we have that already. It’s called the library. It’s actually cooler than Netflix, because it’s free. Also, it’s been around for hundreds of years…. So really, what you’re saying is that Netflix was a “library for movies.” Not the other way around. Respect.

Related Post: I talk about Lean In on the radio with Vocalo and the Morning AMp.

Releted Post: On the radio, talking about feminist dating.

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The Last Book I Loved: The Flamethrowers

flameThese are my top five phrases from Rachel Kushner’s strangely compelling, difficult-to-describe, careening novel The Flamethrowers:

“We were a project, a becoming, a set of plans”

“In the way that all buried truths rushed along quietly in some hidden place”

“The important matter of small-town hair”

“Big mustaches, faces barbecued by sun and wind, suspenders framing regal paunches”

“Only a killjoy would claim neon wasn’t beautiful”

Wait, I know the word to describe Flamethrowers: incomparable, literally. I cannot compare it to anything I have ever read before. Sometimes I do a recipe-style breakdown of books–3 parts this, 1 part that, etc– but not with this one. It is no parts anything else, all parts itself. Most books I love occupy familiar space. I love them because they latch on to emotional pressure points, amplifying feelings I already have with new language and insight. SisterlandCurtis Sittenfeld’s new novel, is an example of that kind of book, that lights up pathways in my brain that I like to have lit up.

The Flamethrowers is something else entirely, mapping out new paths altogether, crafting new brain tissue out of matter that it roped in with its bizarre and unheard of magnetic force. It doesn’t fit into any of the rubrics I normally use, and for that, I loved it.

What is it about? Art? Love? Sex? Rebellion? Complacency? Mostly set in the 70s, but dipping into the past to add a little depth here and there, Flamethrowers follows an unnamed young woman (we only know her as “Reno,” so called because that’s where she’s from) who races motorcycles, falls unsuspiciously in love, works as a “China Girl” in a film studio, aspires to artistic innovation, and trips into a life more adventurous and luxurious than she really is equipped to navigate.

And holy hell, Kushner can do phenomenal things with words. I could have picked hundreds of phrases instead of the ones above that have lodged themselves under my ribs.

I also love the way she thinks; read her New Yorker profile. 

Related Post: The Last Book I Loved: Orphan Master’s Son

Related Post: The Last Book I Loved: The Sense of an Ending

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What I Read in 2013

I read a lot in 2013. Some combination of new proximity to my local library, an enthusiastic book club, and my first shot at the quiet and uninterrupted solitude of single-living has resulted in me cranking through the stacks at record pace.

I believe who we read is in many ways as important as what we read. Which voices do we bring into our homes and absorb into our worldviews? Are they just like us? Older? Younger? Poorer? Richer? Colorful?

Some organizations, like VIDA, formalize this count by comparing bylines by gender at major publications. Here’s how my 2013 reading list shook out:

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Included in that blue chunk in the top right were new books like Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go, Junot Diaz’ This Is How You Lose Her, James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird, and Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanahas well as a few overlooked classics, like Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. 

Not that 40 is by any means some sort of definitive line in the sand, but I think it’s interesting that most of what I read (with the notable exception of Veronica Roth’s YA Divergent trilogy) was written by real live grown-ups. You know, not 25-year-olds.

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Lastly, was any of it true? I find that, as I get older, my preference for non-fiction gets stronger. I read more journalism, less bloggery, watch more documentaries, fewer blockbusters, read more memoirs, fewer pieces of fiction. Seems like the real world is plenty full of good stories without having to make them up. Cases in point include Behind the Beautiful Forevers (Katherine Boo) and Random Family (Adrian Nicole LeBlanc). I still read a buttload of fiction, but I only expect the slice of non-fic to get fatter every year.

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So what were my favorites? Read everything I mentioned above (especially the Boo and Adichie). For wild cackling on the train, I suggest Mindy Kaling’s memoir Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? For when you have six solid hours on the couch and you need an epic American tale, pick up East of Edenwhich I finally read and adored this year. For the quirkiest love story of the year about an autistic astronaut and his bald wife, read Lydia Netzer’s Shine, Shine, ShineTo deepen your love of great American cities, read Dan Baum’s Nine Lives (New Orleans), You Were Never in Chicago (Neil Steinberg), or Detroit (Charlie LeDuff). And when you really want to be stunned by what magic tricks a book can do, dare yourself to try Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son.
 
What did you read and love in 2013, and what’s next?

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The Last Book I Loved: The Orphan Master’s Son

the-orphan-masters-sonFifty pages into Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son I was like, mom, what did you and your book club get me into? It was so bleak! The double whammy of this grim story and the rapidly-graying Chicago skies was leaving me severely depressed. She told me to stick with it, and so I did, and by the end I was crushing the last 200 pages in a solid Sunday afternoon during which I didn’t drink any water lest I have to peel myself off my couch. When I finished, I was out of breath. And I had to pee. 

The Orphan Master’s Son follows a young North Korean named Jun Do (now that I think about it, I assume that’s an intentional parallel to the English John Doe….God, this book just gets more and more brilliant.) We meet Jun in an orphanage where, as the orphan master’s son, he decides who dies by hypothermia (sleeping too far from the fire) and who dies by ingesting toxic chemicals (laboring at the paint plant). And it only gets darker.

But Johnson is a master. He holds you underwater–you and Jun Do–only as long as you can take it, and not a moment longer. When you think you have to stop, when you need to put the book down and watch Golden Girls, or go to yoga, or listen to Beyonce, he lets you–you and Jun Do–get a gasp of air before you’re shoved back under. There’s a bright spot, something spectacularly brief, but it’s enough to sustain you for the next round in the dark. It’s Jun Do on a fishing vessel realizing that the multilingual voices he hears sporadically through his radio are astronauts circling the globe every few hours.  It’s the elderly woman at the prison camp who shows him how to eat fish eggs out of live fish to stay alive in the dead of winter. It’s the sharing of a can of peaches, a last ditch attempt at dignity and self-determination.

In the second half of Orphan Master, Jun Do emerges from a prison camp with a new identity and a mission to rescue the actress Sun Moon and her children. That dunking game that Johnson is so good at speeds up, pushing you down into an underground interrogation chamber and pulling you up into the warmth of friendship and love. The pace speeds up, careening over these emotional highs and deep into the pits of despair (yes, like Princess Pride). The effect is crazy-making, exhilarating, gut-wrenching…

When it’s all over, you’ll be sitting there on your couch feeling all the feelings and even though you haven’t peed in 200 pages, you won’t want to move. Just sit. Process. Breathe. Wait for the feeling in your toes to come back and your heart rate to settle. It’ll take a minute.

Unrelatedly, have you seen these uncensored Instagrams from North Korea?

Related Post: The Last Book I Loved: The Sense of an Ending

Related Post: The Last Book I Loved: East of Eden

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The Last Book I Loved: The Sense of an Ending

Sense_of_an_Ending_Knopf_200Hey y’all, sorry I’ve been AWOL as of late. Much traveling (four states in four weeks), much working, much settling into the new house, excuses, excuses, excuses. Hope to be back at this blog with gusto in the coming weeks!

In the meantime, have you read The Sense of an Ending yet? If you like Ishiguro or McEwan, this slim novel by Julian Barnes is for you. Quiet, pondering, reflective, and philosophical right up until the end (when shit hits the fan like whoa), Ending is, as my friend told me when she recommended it, the perfect book to read in one sitting on a porch somewhere when you’re feeling meditative.

On the surface, it’s a story about an aging Brit looking on his life and contemplating, with the clarity of hindsight (though not as much clarity as he, or any of us, would like) his relationships, how they’ve changed, and how his feelings about them have changed. The writing is beautiful and stately and plays with big questions about cause and effect, and the affects of time and perspective on what we call “history.”

This is my favorite section. As a history major, this paragraph exploring blame is basically like intellectual porn:

“We want to blame an individual so that everyone else is exculpated. Or we blame a historical process as a way of exonerating individuals. Or it’s all anarchic chaos, with the same consequence. It seems to me that there is–was–a chain of individual responsibilities, all of which were necessary, but not so long a chain that everybody can simply blame everyone else. But of course, my desire to ascribe responsibility might be more a reflection of my own cast of mind than a fair analysis of what happened. That’s one of the central problems of history, isn’t it, sir? The question of subjective versus objective interpretation, the fact that we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us.”

And this subsequent conversation between adolescent students:

“History is the lies of the victors,” I replied, a little too quickly. “Yes, I was rather afraid you’d say that. Well, as long as you remember that it is also the self-delusions of the defeated. Simpson?”

Colin was more prepared than me. “History is a raw onion sandwich, sir.”

“For what reason?”

“It just repeats, sir. It burps. We’ve seen it again and again this yeah. Same old story, same old oscillation between tyranny and rebellion, war and peace, prosperity and impoverishment.”

“Finn?”

“History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”

Ugh, and the language about time is so beautiful tooooooo:

“We live with such easy assumptions, don’t we? For instance, that memory equals events plus time. But it’s all much odder than this. Who was it said that memory is what we thought we’d forgotten?”

“Is there anything more plausible than a second hand? And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time’s malleability.”

Related Post: The last book I loved, East of Eden.

Related Post: On pairing classics with new classics. 

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