For the past year or so I’ve been making a point of reading books reflecting experiences very different from my own. How noble of me, right? I imagined that would mean reading mostly serious non-fiction, which I happen to like. My pea brain hadn’t considered the possibility that the (frankly enormous) category of “books reflecting experiences very different than my own” could include a laugh-out-loud funny novel, in this case, Adam, by Ariel Schrag.
Schrag’s story of an awkward, straight teenage boy who finds love by posing as a trans man (born a girl; looks like a boy) in the Brooklyn lesbian/LBGTQ scene his older sister inhabits, is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. But it’s also eye-opening—about the trans world, heterosexism, gender politics—in a way that isn’t the least bit preachy. And it’s tender, too. It’s hard not to feel for skinny, pimply, naïve Adam as he tries to transform himself into a twenty-something trans guy in a desperate effort appeal to Gillian, a fem lesbian he falls hard for.
I didn’t intentionally seek out Women, Chloe Caldwell’s new autobiographical novella because it’s about a lesbian affair and I’m straight. I read it the first second I could get my hands on it because it’s written by Caldwell, whose writing I find addictive. She writes about her infatuation and intimate relationship with an older woman so honestly, so vulnerably, and with such incredible urgency, it’s hard not to cancel all your plans until you finish reading. (Since it’s a short, you won’t have to cancel too many plans.)
In a departure from the aforementioned righteous quest to broaden my mind, this year I fell in love with a novel that so mirrored my own experience, I felt as if its author had been spying on me from the time I was a tween. I’m talking about The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer, about an uncommonly tight-knit group of friends who first met at an arts summer camp in the Berkshires in the seventies, and the complicated ways their relationships change over roughly three decades as a result of their successes and failures as artists, relative to one another. I can’t even enumerate the eerie parallels in experiences, narrative arcs and attitudes. But there was much more than identification for me here. Wolitzer draws each character with such precision and depth. It’s as if she’s whatever is the novelist’s equivalent of a method actor; as if she has inhabited every one of them, lending a reader like me much greater perspective on my own experience. Wolitzer doesn’t hit one false note, even as she takes us through the group’s complicated evolution over many years. To use a tired cliché: I didn’t want the book to end.
But now, in the wake of Daniel Handler’s racist “joke” about Jacqueline Woodson’s allergy to watermelon at the National Book Awards, and all the ugly racism brought into high relief by police and grand juries in Ferguson and New York City (and, sadly, even among “liberals” in my midst), I’m back on my mission—the very least I can do in a world where I often feel powerless against racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-semitism, anti-whatever-ism. I very much enjoyed Woodson’s evocative young adult memoir-in-verse, Brown Girl Dreaming, about her childhood toggling between North Carolina and Greenpoint, Brooklyn in the sixties and seventies. I’ve started reading Jesmyn Ward’s “Men We Reaped.” On my nightstand I’ve got Kiese Laymon’s How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, and Jeff Hobbs’ The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace. I plan to pass them on to some “liberals” I know when I’m done with them. (You can applaud now.)
Sari Botton is a writer living in Kingston, NY whose work has appeared in The New York Times, New York, The Village Voice, Harper’s Bazaar and many other publications. She edited the award-winning anthology, “Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving NY,” and the New York Times Bestselling anthology, “Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for NY.” She is a columnist for The Rumpus, and teaches writing workshops through the nonprofit TMIproject.org and elsewhere.