As I’ve been studying towards my MA and BA in English throughout college and taking a lot of 17th, 18th, and 19th-century literature classes, I’ve realized that I’m not reading nearly enough contemporary books. “Contemporary” usually means the 1950s onwards, but for the purposes of this article, my definition of “contemporary” will include anything post-2010. Here are my reviews of five post-2010 books that I have read in the past two years (but most of them post-pandemic), raw and unfiltered just for you. I’m not afraid to say what I really loved (and hated) about them in order to help your experience as you delve into the mysterious but fascinating world of contemporary reading.
- “Conversations with Friends” by Sally Rooney (2017)
This was the first book I read by Sally Rooney and I’m currently counting down the days until I can finally start her second novel Normal People once I’m done with finals (and beyond excited that her third novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You is coming out later this year). It was exciting to read a book that was set in the familiar yet distant setting of Dublin, Ireland. Two relationships drive this book: protagonist Frances’s relationship with her best friend and former girlfriend with whom she performs spoken-word poetry, Bobbi, and married actor Nick, with whom she starts an affair. To amp up the drama, Nick’s wife, glamorous photographer Melissa, is somebody with whom both Frances and Bobbi have been spending a lot of time with. I read this book within the span of a week even while the semester was in full swing—as someone for whom doing so was a first, that should tell you everything you need to know about how genuinely engaging this book truly is. For the first time in my life, I was reaching for Sally Rooney, even though I had Walter Benjamin due the next day. The sheer amount of subjects this book touches upon in an honest, unapologetic way, from illness (in this case, endometriosis) to the problems that come with being a writer who draws on material from their own life, is yet another thing that I loved about it.
- “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” by Ottessa Moshfegh (2018)
Everything about this book originally drew me in: the title, the cover, even the distinctive appearance of its author, Ottessa Moshfegh. I have to admit, though, that looks can be deceiving and in this case, I ended up disappointed. I found very little that was likable: Not the shallow, airheaded protagonist, not her cold and uninvolved parents, not her snivelly best “friend,” Reva, not her uncaring and unprofessional psychiatrist, Dr. Tuttle, and certainly not her jerk of an on-and-off-again ex-boyfriend, Trevor. I say this knowing full well that I’m not the kind of person who needs to identify with or even like a character to enjoy a book, movie, or television show. This is a book where essentially nothing happens, but I’ve read books where nothing happened that were written a lot better, like Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. I previously described it as, “similar to The Bell Jar, but more depressing.” Yet, honestly, this comparison doesn’t even do The Bell Jar justice, which is written much more eloquently (and paradoxically, a lot of people actually find it uplifting—maybe because it lives in the shadow of Sylvia Plath’s life, which, unlike the book, doesn’t end in a successful suicide). Moshfehgh’s book, though, is downright depressing and leaves you feeling hopeless, without a single redeeming character to lighten the blow. One thing that I did like about it, though, was the lead-up to 9/11—I was rather proud of myself that I saw it heading in that direction the entire time.
- “Crazy Rich Asians” by Kevin Kwan (2013)
I’m not really someone who likes to read books after I already watched the film version (maybe too much of a good thing), but this one is 100% worth it, especially since watching the movie, you’re deprived of the sheer force of Kevin Kwan’s satire and witticisms. It’s pretty hilarious to read about the paradoxical things that Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians do, like clipping coupons despite being able to afford a million-dollar painting. There’s also a vicarious pleasure in reading about all of the sheer glamour and decadence of events like the party that Su Yi throws the night that her tan hua flowers are set to blossom. Kwan’s series, starting with this book, makes for great beach reading and a nice break from academia. One criticism that my friend and I agree on, though, is that some of the characters can be a bit boring and one-dimensional, especially Nick and Rachel. A lot of the rich characters basically read as caricatures, but this can be highly entertaining, especially in the case of Eddie Cheng. My favorite character in the series, though, is Astrid Leong.
- “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” by Ocean Vuong (2019)
This book was on the syllabus of a literary nonfiction class that I never got to take (course requirements can be a killer), but I made sure to jot down some of the titles from the course description, and this was one of them (alongside Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, which is also on my must-read list this summer). Literary nonfiction, though, doesn’t quite describe this beautiful book, which is as poetic as it is beautifully real. I read this book right after reading Vuong’s book of poetry Night Sky with Exit Wounds, and I highly recommend reading these works alongside each other, since they complement each other really well. There are a lot of subjects touched upon in this book, from being gay to family dynamics to drug addiction, but what I found most moving was protagonist Little Dog’s special relationship with his mother and grandmother. The intergenerational trauma in this book is so real that it’s almost tangible, and I find the problem of expressing oneself when one’s education has been cut off and access to one’s native language never fully developed incredibly compelling.
- “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt (2013)
Donna Tartt is hands-down one of my favorite authors and her first novel, The Secret History, is in my top six (because five was too little) favorite books of all time. Of course, I was eager to read more of her writing and reading this novel confirmed something for me about her writing: She is able to get in your head by creating vivid characters that feel more real than most actual people I know. I found myself thinking about Boris or getting echoes of passages from the book for weeks. Some of the things she writes are things straight out of my mind and reading her work leaves me wondering if she’s some kind of psychic with direct access to my brain. However, I do have one bone to pick with her. A major component of Boris’s character is his multilingualism. I loved this aspect of his character; however, I found a few too many linguistic mistakes in the text, which as a Pole, I found difficult to accept, especially in a book that is a Pulitzer Prize winner and allegedly took ten years to write. I expected Tartt’s standards to be a little bit higher than that. Any native Pole could easily spot these mistakes by just giving the Polish phrases that she uses a once-over. For example, Boris calls his high school girlfriend “Kotku,” but this is a form of the word “kotek” (meaning “kitty”) that can only be used to address someone, not talk about someone—and yet this is exactly how Tartt uses this word.