Tag Archives: reading

The Books That Made Me Who I Am

I am the product of endless books.

Chris Ritter / BuzzFeed

Nearly every day, a friend or acquaintance tags me on Facebook, asking me to share a list of 10 books that have influenced me. Nearly every day, I read such lists from the same circle of friends and acquaintances. I understand the tidy pleasures provided by such an exercise, but in truth, I am not merely influenced by books. I could not limit a list of important books to a number or a neatly organized list. The list, whatever it might look like, would always be changing because I too am always changing. I am not influenced by books. Instead, I am shaped by them. I am made of flesh and bone and blood. I am also made of books.

The sweetest, most wide-eyed parts of me are made from the Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. They were some of the first books I read, and as a young girl in Nebraska, I loved knowing there were interesting stories to be told about life on the plains. This is also where my imagination began to swell. I imagined making candy with snow and maple syrup. I could hear the timbre of Pa’s voice as he teased Half-Pint. I envied Mary’s grace under pressure. I loved Almanzo Wilder. I loved him fiercely, that country boy. When he began courting Laura, I imagined what it would be like to ride in his sleigh with him, my face chilled against the brisk winter air, the rest of me warmed beneath heavy blankets and the rushing blood of Almanzo next to me, the thrill of his hand in mine.

The sweetest, most wide-eyed parts of me are made from Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Avonlea, Lucy Maude Montgomery and Little Women, Louisa May Alcott.

I was a shy girl, but when I read, I was adventurous. Books made me bolder. I read stories, the titles of which I can no longer remember, about young girls embarking on thrilling adventures on wagon trains and fending for themselves, panning for gold. The Chronicles of Narnia made me believe I could slip into a wardrobe and emerge in a completely different world. Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time helped me embrace my intelligence, showed me how I was not merely bound to this world, not at all. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory made me believe anything was possible if I allowed myself to believe.

With Forever and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, Judy Blume held my hand as my body changed and my heart changed and I began to feel less like a girl and more like a young woman.

My yearning was stoked by Sweet Valley High. My yearning was stoked by the lives of Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield, their seemingly perfect lives, how everyone loved them and wanted to be them. I was nothing like them, but I wanted to be them or I wanted to be in their golden circle. Through these stories, I understood, intimately, what it meant to be on the outside looking in, utterly unable to look away. I understood what it meant to be enthralled.

As I realized I would never be like those girls, I read The Outsiders and learned there was fierceness in not fitting in.

Boarding school intrigued me, so I read about The Girls of Canby Hall, all 33 books, and then I went to boarding school and it was nothing like The Girls of Canby Hall — but I was a girl from Nebraska, and Shelly Hyde, one of the main characters from the books, was a girl from Iowa. Even though I was a stranger in a strange land, something about boarding school was familiar. As has always been the case, I was not alone because I had so many stories making the inside of me.

Something terrible happened to me so I began to read voraciously about terrible things that happened to other women. This is where I learned gratitude when I did not think it would be possible. This is how I taught myself to believe I was lucky. In Perfect Victim, a young woman is kidnapped by a couple and held prisoner in a box beneath a bed for seven years. What she endures is unfathomable. I took no pleasure in reading this book but I found comfort in knowing our bodies and minds are built to endure. I read this book so often the spine is now white and softened, the pages yellowed with age and the ministrations of my tear-stained fingers.

Something terrible happened so I read Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I learned that there was strength inside me if I could just hold on, if I could just find my way to reach my strongest place. I learned how to write what I could not speak, and how even if I could not use my voice, it was still there, waiting, waiting, waiting.

Something terrible happened and I needed a different way of being in my body. I read Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg and for a while, I was able to live in my own skin on my own terms. In the stories of Macho Sluts by Pat Califia I found swagger. I turned to ink and marked myself with a new skin. I was able to live in my own skin on my own terms.

Lo-li-ta. Lolita. Vladimir Nabokov. From a novel about a pedophile and his unnatural lust for a young girl, I stared down the ugliest parts of what people do to one another and saw the faint, unbearably compelling glimmer of humanity in that hideousness.

The sharpness of my tongue was keened by Edith Wharton and the wit of The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth — novels about social graces and the burdens of class and caged hearts, how passion stifled only deepens.

I found irreverence and quiet anger and the ability to laugh at the unfairness of the world in How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired by Dany Laferrière, a writer with whom I share Haitian blood.

The most romantic parts of my heart flourished among the pages of Pride and Prejudice and A Room With a View. Zora Neale Hurston opened mine own eyes through Their Eyes Were Watching God, showing me love in a voice unlike any I had ever known.

My understanding of desire rose out of The Lover, Marguerite Duras, lush and sensual prose, the words thickly wanton. I closed my eyes and wished for the narrator’s prescient arrogance. I closed my eyes and lamented these lovers who could never truly be together, their impossible passion, sweaty bodies coming together in the salt and sweltering heat of Indochina. And in those words there was a line that has always, always stayed with me. “My memory of men is never lit up and illuminated like my memory of women.” My reading and writing have long been illuminated by the stories of women. I carry these stories with me.

Or my desire rises out of The Story of O by Pauline Réage, a novel about darkness and submission, of allowing yourself to be entirely subsumed by the want and will of another. In this book I learned how submission is terrifying and freeing, how submission allows you to be on the outside looking in on yourself until you lose yourself. The Story of O made me want to get lost in myself or someone else or both.

My empathy grew when I began to understand how vastly the world extended beyond what I thought I knew. I read Once Were Warriors, by Alan Duff — a novel about a Maori family in New Zealand struggling through violence and addiction and loving one another too hard. I read Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance and understood the resilience of even the most abandoned among us. I read The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros and The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor and Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich and Krik? Krak! by Edwidge Danticat and For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow is Enuf by Ntozake Shange and Passing by Nella Larsen and Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin and this is a list that could not possibly end.

My writing ambition was sharpened by Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, an unapologetically political novel that reminds us of what it costs to be a woman in this world or the next. My ambition, that toward which I aspire to write, has long been guided by Toni Morrison, Beloved, and through her words, seeing how a novel can be mysterious and true, mythical and raw, how a novel can honor memory even when we want to look away or forget. My ambition has long been sharpened by Alice Walker, willing to tell the stories of black women without apology, willing to write politically without apology — Possessing the Secret of Joy, a haunting, gorgeous novel about female genital mutilation that keeps me transfixed and heartbroken and helpless each time I read it, because sometimes the only way to tell the truth is to tell a story.

Today my writing ambition, my heart, and my mind are expanded by my peers who are writing the books I read with breathless anticipation and envy: Normally Special by xTx, Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones, The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison, Prelude to Bruise by Saeed Jones, The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez, Ugly Girls by Lindsay Hunter, Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce, Salsa Nocturna by Daniel José Older, A Map of Home by Randa Jarrar, Forgotten Country by Catherine Chung, Birds of a Lesser Paradise by Megan Mayhew Bergman. I take in these stories and become more of myself.

In all these books and in so many more, I find the most essential parts of myself. I become more myself. I learn what to hold most necessary when using my voice. I learn and continue to learn how to use my voice.

I am made of flesh and bone and blood. I am made of books. A list could not contain me.

***

Roxane Gay‘s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Best American Mystery Stories 2014, Best American Short Stories 2012, Best Sex Writing 2012, A Public Space, McSweeney’s, Tin House, Oxford American, American Short Fiction, West Branch, Virginia Quarterly Review, NOON, the New York Times Book Review, Bookforum, Time, the Los Angeles Times, The Nation, The Rumpus, Salon, and many others. She is the co-editor of PANK. She is also the author of the books Ayiti, An Untamed State, Bad Feminist, and Hunger, forthcoming from Harper in 2016.

35 Books That Will Teach You A Damn Thing About Your Food

Spoiler Alert: No cookbooks.

Dan Meth / BuzzFeed

1. For anyone who’s ever eaten at McDonald’s: Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Kodiak Greenwood / AP Images

 

If you read anything on this list, make it this. Though published 14 years ago, Fast Food Nation is no less relevant today, giving voice to the hardworking men and women behind the millions of nuggets, patties, pies, and fries that we continue to so mindlessly consume.

2. For anyone who’s ever eaten emotionally: Born Round by Frank Bruni

Penguin

Yanina Manolova / AP Images

 

Like many of us, Frank Bruni has long struggled with his weight. But what happens when the former chief restaurant reviewer for the New York Times turns a critic’s eye on his own eating habits? Born Round is equal parts heartbreaking and funny, a four-star read.

3. For anyone who’s wondered: Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It by Gary Taubes

 

Science writer Gary Taubes brings his degrees in physics, aerospace engineering, and journalism to the human body to explain how weight is more likely the product of our anatomy than our appetites.

4. For anyone who’s been on Atkins or just really likes butter: The Big Fat Surprise by Nina Teicholz

Simon & Schuster

 

Atkins may have been right all along. According to Nina Teicholz’s research, the low-fat frenzy of the past half-century was based on bogus — if well-meaning — science. How this became federal policy and shaped generations of American dieting is a deeply compelling cautionary tale.

5. For anyone who still hasn’t read Kitchen Confidential: Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain

HarperCollins

Peter Kramer / KRAPE / AP

 

Even 15 years later, Bourdain’s remains the preeminent curtain-pull among epicurean exposés. Somehow, his down-and-dirty account of the madmen and -women behind haute cuisine doesn’t detract from our enjoyment of the food. In fact, it might just make us enjoy it more.

6. For anyone who wishes Kitchen Confidential had been compressed into 24 hours: Sous Chef by Michael Gibney

 

Gibney takes two bold turns in this remarkable debut: 1) He limits himself to just 24 hours, and 2) he pivots to present it all in the second person. The result is an extra-urgent, in-the-trenches tumble through a day in the life on the line.

7. For anyone who liked Kitchen Confidential but wanted more sex and drugs: The Devil in the Kitchen by Marco Pierre White

 

Perhaps the least polished and most profane of this list’s memoirs, White’s The Devil In The Kitchen is still a rollicking wild ride. Think Gordon Ramsey but more pissed off.

8. For anyone who dreads grocery shopping, or just wants help doing it: What to Eat by Marion Nestle

 

You know not to grocery shop when hungry, but do you know what to look for — and avoid — in each aisle? Marion Nestle’s blow-by-blow guide to supermarket shopping is a godsend: a delight to read and easy to reference on the fly.

9. For anyone who wants to know why they hate tomatoes: Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook

 

Not all tomatoes are as bad as the ones you find in the supermarket. Estabrook tells us why and introduces us to the farmers — from Florida to Peru — who have worked to bring us the Big (bland) Red.

10. For anyone looking for a laugh with their Big Mac: Food: A Love Story by Jim Gaffigan

Random House

Nigel Parry via Random House

 

Gaffigan brings his trademark wit to our cultural cravings, waxing poetic on everything from Hot Pockets to Cinnabon. Food: A Love Story is written for the everyman — the hungry man — who remains suspicious of kale and enamored with bacon.

11. For anyone who thought Eat, Pray, Love was overrated and really just wanted Julia Roberts to open a kick-ass restaurant in New York: Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton

Random House

Sergi Alexander / Getty

 

By far the best-written chef’s memoir on this list, Blood, Bones & Butter is clearly the work of a pro. And it makes sense, seeing as Hamilton holds an MFA in fiction writing from the University of Michigan, in addition to her stints as a dishwasher, underage bartender, world traveler, and catering director. If you’re ever in New York, her tiny restaurant, Prune, is worth a visit.

(Bonus good/bad news: The book has allegedly been optioned for a film adaptation, with Gwyneth Paltrow attached to play Hamilton.)

12. For anyone considering culinary school: The Making of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman

 

Don’t let all these raucous, debauched restaurant memoirs fool you — being a chef takes hard work. Ruhlman’s detailed look inside the Harvard of U.S. culinary schools is proof.

13. For anyone who likes to learn (and fail) on the fly: Heat by Bill Buford

Random House

Bebeto Matthews / AP Images

 

If school’s just not your thing, you might identify more closely with Buford’s approach to the culinary arts. Bypassing any formal training — or even former restaurant experience — Buford jumped from his job at The New Yorker to the kitchen of Mario Batali’s famed restaurant, Babbo. His resulting education is hectic, hard-won, and hilarious.

14. For anyone currently watching Fresh Off the Boat: Fresh Off the Boat by Eddie Huang

Random House

Richard Shotwell / Invision / AP

 

You might not recognize all of Huang’s many punchy pop culture references, but that doesn’t make Fresh Off the Boat any less fun. Whether discussing Asian-American stereotypes or soup dumplings in Taiwan, Huang writes with delightful verve. It’s easy to see why this book translates so seamlessly to the screen.

15. For anyone who wants to know where these truly upsetting retro recipes came from: Something From the Oven by Laura Shapiro

 

Shapiro roves from the origins of Betty Crocker to the miracle of canned bread, showing how mid-century feminism and postwar technology united to produce bizarre foodie fads unlike any we’ve seen since.

16. For anyone wondering why Lunchables are still a thing: Salt Sugar Fat by Michael Moss

 

Investigative reporter Michael Moss reveals how big brands like Kraft, Coca-Cola, Lunchables, Kellogg, Nestlé, Capri Sun, Cargill, and Oreo have engineered our addiction to their products. His in-depth look at the strange science behind processed food is at once fascinating and terrifying.

17. For anyone who really really likes corn: The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan

Penguin

Fran Collin / MichaelPollan.com

 

Michael Pollan is the king of contemporary food writing, swirling together history, science, and sociology with surprising élan. The Omnivore’s Dilemma is essential reading for anyone trying to grasp the full scope of food in America, which, it turns out, is mostly made of corn.

18. For anyone who really likes Michael Pollan: Cooked by Michael Pollan

Penguin

Marty Lederhandler / AP

 

Seriously, this guy can write. In Cooked, Pollan invites us to learn alongside him as he masters the art of preparing food with the four classical elements — fire, water, air, and earth. So if you’ve ever consumed barbecue, bread, beer, or bourguignon and wondered how it all came to be, this book is for you.

19. For anyone with a casual Ph.D. in chemistry: On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee

Simon & Schuster

 

This is the brainier version of Cooked, with a legitimate “Chemistry Primer” appendix on molecular reactions and the like. But phases of matter aside, On Food and Cooking is a veritable kitchen bible, with how-to and tell-me-why chapters on everything from “The Problem of Legumes and Flatulence” to “Why Pain Can Be Pleasurable.”

20. For anyone who wants to drool: The Art of Eating by M.F.K. Fisher

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Richard Drew / AP

 

M.F.K. Fisher is the writer you probably haven’t heard of but definitely should know. Whether she’s describing a tiny restaurant in the French countryside or how to properly savor a tangerine — even how to boil water — Fisher’s words practically drip from the page. The Art of Eating represents her collected works, a transcontinental record of how to best enjoy the simple pleasures of a meal.

Proof of her beautiful prose, and inspiration for any aspiring food writers out there: “It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and hunger for it … and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied … and it is all one.”

21. For anyone contemplating going gluten-free: Grain Brain by David Perlmutter

Little, Brown & Company

 

Definitely a pro-gluten-free screed, Grain Brain presents the science on the side of our most recent de rigueur diet. Great for those with celiac disease and gluten intolerance, and maybe better taken with a grain of salt by the rest of us.

For a more even-handed look at Big Bad Gluten, try Michael Specter’s piece in The New Yorker.

22. For anyone who salts their watermelon: Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky

Penguin

Sylvia Plachs via markkurlansky.com

 

Another “wait till you hear where your _____ comes from” book, but somehow Kurlansky manages to make salt — yes, salt — a compelling protagonist. Who knew that this familiar, meek little mineral could have been the impetus for so many revolutions, conquests, and wars?

23. For anyone who wants to know what it really means to “live off the land”: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

HarperCollins

David Wood via barbarakingsolver.com

 

Having heard the virtues of Locavore and Slow Food diets endlessly extolled, Barbara Kingsolver decided to give it a try. Her whole-hog endeavor — transplanting her family from Tucson, Arizona, to rural Virginia, where they only consumed produce that they’d personally planted or raised — is drastic, but ultimately rewarding. She shows us how to reconnect with the land and ourselves, thinking mindfully about what we eat and how it’s made.

24. For anyone who really identified with the critic in Ratatouille: Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl

Penguin

Brigitte Lacombe via Gourmet

 

How do restaurants actually earn their stars? Go undercover with renowned New York Times food critic Ruth Reichl to see how egos, infighting, anonymity, and authenticity co-mingle to determine the fates of restaurateurs and their reviewers.

25. For anyone wondering where the phrase “You are what you eat” comes from: The Physiology of Taste by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin