A Book Bonanza with Natalie Brown

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It’s a new year (and a new decade!) and my ride-or-die Natalie Brown and I have banded together again to discuss one of our favourite things — books. Here are some of our favourite reads from 2019 and what’s on the agenda for 2020. 

From: Jessica at 12:31pm

Happy New Year Natalie!! Before we tackle our never ending to-read pile in 2020, what were some of your favourite reads from 2019?

From: Natalie at 1:39pm

Happy New Year to you too, glitter bug! Every time I purchased a book in 2019, a part of me would wish away a few days of the year in the hopes it would bring this discussion with you a little bit closer. And I read 19 titles in the past 12 months … so that’s a fair few days I wished away. 

Given this figure (which I fervently hope to surpass in this, the first year of the new decade), I almost needed a reverse crystal ball to recall the books I consumed last year. 

The reason, you may wonder? Because, in 2019, I harnessed my inner-Dolly Alderton energy and finally found my “Desert Island” book: Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life.

People give you a certain look — one fuelled by sympathy and mild horror — when you tell them you’re reading this novel. And it’s not just because it’s more than 700 pages long.  

It’s because these people know you’re about to confront parts of the human experience that many — if not all — of us spend our entire lives attempting to avoid. It’s because they know you’ll find yourself uncontrollably weeping and having to put the book down at some points because you have no other choice but to escape the pain. It’s because they know that what you are about to read will never fully leave your mind. 

This book. This BOOK! 

This book is a fucking masterpiece. 

And while it is — and forever will be — the best I have ever read, it’s not one I recommend lightly. Yanagihara presents a level of sadness that is difficult to comprehend, and she exposes you to things you cannot unsee. At times it hurt so much to read that I wanted to close my eyes in order to protect my brain from taking in the horrors in its pages — horrors that I don’t and will never know in my own life. It pushed me to a point where I asked, How much more of this can I take? How much worse could this possibly get? 

Someone wrote in the New Yorker that this book will “drive you mad, consume you and take over your life”, and they were right. The depth in which the themes are explored made me feel like I had lived in someone else’s “little” life by the time I read the final page. As someone who rarely sheds a tear over anything, it broke me. Every other work of fiction will forever pale in comparison. 

Tell me about your encounter with A Little Life — and which other books had an enormous impact on you in 2019.

From: Jessica at 2:15pm

Your review is just *chef’s kiss* and exactly how I feel about A Little Life as well. I started it not long after you finished so we read it roughly around the same time, and now almost half a year later I still think about it all the time. It’s definitely the most impactful book I’ve ever read and will ever read. Part of me wants to say ‘it’s one of my favourite books of all time’ but it almost lives in its own category in my head because nothing else compares to it. I didn’t cry when reading it but now I feel like I cry at everything else, which is something to unpack at a later date. 

Not on the same scale (nothing ever will be!) but how much I enjoyed Know My Name by Chanel Miller took me by complete surprise. I joined my library near the end of last year and put so many titles on hold. This one came in super quickly and to be honest, when I picked it up I didn’t even think I’d get around to reading it. But I was sucked in from the first page to the last. For the unaware, she was the woman who took Brock Turner to court after he sexually assaulted her. It sounds like a heavy read but it’s genuinely so uplifting and insightful and just incredibly written, so I recommend it.

My third and final ‘top pick’ from what I read in 2019 is Expectation by Anna Hope which, ironically, exceeded all my expectations. It was sold as ‘Normal People but with female friendships’ and I agree (if you liked Normal People!). It follows three friends and jumps from where they were in their twenties to where they are in their thirties. It’s juicy without being tacky and has drama without being unrealistic, and again it’s beautifully written. 

I feel bad giving any book a negative review, but were there any titles that missed the mark for you? There are a few overly—hyped recommendations I have in mind, but I’m curious to know your thoughts first!

From: Natalie at 3:04pm

The emotional strength you must possess to have held it together! I, too, cry at other books now. It just unravelled me completely and I want to re—read it, but also doubt if I want to put myself in that headspace at present, y’know?

I want to COMMEND you on joining a library. I can’t commit myself to acquiring books in that way — something about having to give them back once I’m finished makes me distressed but your experience so far (and the breadth of the books you’ve been exposed to) is making me contemplate taking this step. 

I remember when the Brock Turner case went down, and at the time it felt like the most disheartening thing that could happen to a woman in our “modern” world (boy, was I wrong). So to hear that you found Know My Name to be uplifting and insightful pushes it straight to the top of my to—read list this year. I can’t wait to consume it based solely on the scale with which you enjoyed it — crazy, because it’s not a title I felt super drawn to pick up, unlike, say, Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill or Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s She Said. 

The last time you and I did this, you described the physical feel of a book like it had been passed through the hands of other women before it fell into yours, and She Said gave me that same sensation. When Jodi and Megan initially broke the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment story in 2017, I was blown away — but reading about the process behind bringing the piece together shone an entirely new light on the whole thing. I cried (shocker), and was left feeling beyond inspired by the women in our industry who will go to such lengths in order to give a voice to those who can’t use their own. 

Speaking of writers I admire, Jia Tolentino’s anthology of essays — Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion — was probably the third title (technically fourth, if we count the page—turner that was Catch and Kill, which we do because Ronan Farrow is a genius) I read in 2019 that made a deep impact. While some of the essays certainly outshone the others, Jia’s writing (for those who aren’t aware, she writes for the New Yorker), observations, and way of articulating thoughts is truly something else. 

We both know I do not worship at the altar of Sally Rooney — but I feel as if Expectation was the dark horse in your reading journey in 2019, and for that reason alone it kind of makes me want to read it, too. 

Would you believe, I was just about to ask you whether any titles didn’t quite reach your expectations! Aside from the books I’ve mentioned above, as well as Leandra Medine’s Man Repeller: Seeking Love, Finding Overalls (here’s to you for finally enabling me to read the literary work of my all-time hero), I feel like the majority of books I read this year fell short of the hype they’d been awarded. 

Two titles in particular — Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleishman is in Trouble and Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine — were a real struggle for me to finish. The reason for the former is because a) Taffy, who works at the New York Times and is arguably the best writer of celebrity profiles in the history of the world, is one of my favourite journalists; and b) I am not a divorcee. The plot largely focuses on a 40-odd father navigating life after his marriage falls apart, only for his estranged wife to go missing. I kept waiting for the climax — a moment where the plot would grip me — but it just didn’t happen. 

As for Eleanor Oliphant, I think — again — there was never a point in the story that grabbed me. I didn’t like Eleanor (the protagonist) at all, and would have abandoned the book altogether had it not been for the inference that something big was going to be unveiled. When that unveiling eventually did occur (in the very last pages of the book), it didn’t seem worth it. 

Were there any books in 2019 that left you feeling disappointed?

From: Jessica at 8:27pm

I want to re-read A Little Life too, but I know it’ll knock us out for a couple of months which I CAN’T AFFORD as I’ve challenged myself to read 30 books this year. Initially I wanted to read 12 in 2019 and I ended up reading 20, plus my to-read list is as long as my arm (more on that later) so I’m hopeful!

Thank you again for gifting me She Said for Christmas! I’m about halfway through and it is incredible. I just read the part where Megan sees Harvey in the foyer, tells him they’re investigating him over his treatment of women and he leans in and goes “I’m not that bad. I’m worse.” (!!!!!!!!) I love how kind of matter-of-fact it is. Maybe it’s because the previous book I read was Know My Name which was super reflective, but the sheer amount of facts and digging and work they put in just makes for such a damn good read. I totally get what you mean about not wanting it to end. Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill is on my bedside table so I can’t wait to get into that next. 

That’s so disappointing Fleishman is in Trouble missed the mark, I put a hold on it so I’ll read it sometime this year and tell you how I go. And I’m in the same boat with Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. It didn’t change my life, which wasn’t its job, but the way everyone spoke about it made me expect that it would. Eleanor did grow on me, but it’s a book I read to see what all the fuss is about and won’t re-read.

I was so disappointed with The Farm by Joanne Ramos and I know you were too. It was sold as “The Devil Wears Prada meets The Handmaid’s Tale” and it is so not. It’s about women acting as surrogates for the elite in exchange for a better life, and pardon the pun, but it just didn’t deliver. It had a lot of timely themes for 2019, like race, class and wealth, but I feel like people were just recommending it for the themes and not the actual story. 

But by far the most over-hyped book of 2019 for me was Casey McQuiston’s Red, White and Royal Blue. It’s about the son of America’s first female president falling for the prince of England. A gay romcom, thousands of 5-star reviews, sign me up. It promised so much but the writing is just too corny, which would be fine if it was a YA novel but it isn’t. However, since it feels like fanfiction, I can see myself re-reading it when I want something light. 

I bought this book AND The Farm, so both those reads pushed me into joining a library WHICH I CANNOT RECOMMEND ENOUGH. Books are so expensive in Australia and I’ve been able to read so much stuff without committing. It is sad giving back a book you’ve grown attached to, but if it hooks me in from the first few pages, I might just go and buy it myself, which is what I ended up doing with Call Me By Your Name. 

WHICH BRINGS US TO: What’s on your summer reading list? After She Said and Catch and Kill I’m planning on reading Georgie Dent’s memoir Breaking Badly solely because it’s on my bedside table. I heard a lot of chat about it, saw there weren’t holds on it so jumped on it before it got popular. It’s about how she had a perfect life at 24 and then became overwhelmed with anxiety. Not sure if I’ll enjoy it so we’ll have to wait and see!

Call Me By Your Name is right up there for this summer. You called that book the cheapest way to take an Italian holiday and I cannot freaking wait. I knew after 10 pages that I wanted to own it because the writing is stunning, but as soon as I bought it a stack of library books came in for me so it had to go on the backburner (a rare pitfall!).

It’s the same story with Trick Mirror! I bought it and it’s patiently waiting for me. Same story AGAIN with Paul Takes The Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor. I’m not super into fantasy but Paul’s a shapeshifter who can transform their appearance and gender at will which sounds right up my alley. The author is nonbinary and it apparently took them 15 years to write the novel, so I’m intrigued. 

Finally, for summer, I reeeally want to read Johnathan Van Ness’ memoir Over The Top, too, so quite a mixed bag for the next couple of months. What about you?

From: Natalie at 5:06pm

To use a baseball (???) analogy, you absolutely knocked it out of the park with your reading efforts in 2019! Consider me held to your goal of reading 30 this year – let’s go on this journey together. 

Ugh, you’re so welcome — it truly is a story worth owning. And that moment! My stomach dropped — a line worse than any horror movie dialogue. 

How could I forget the SLOG of reading The Farm?! (Actually, the fact I didn’t remember it really says a lot about the quality of the story) Your take on it is absolutely bang on — the whole plot felt so disjointed, and it was like the writer ran circles around the plot but never actually made it to the middle. And I am so completely disappointed by Red, White and Royal Blue. I was hooked on the idea of it when you first told me of its existence and couldn’t wait for you to read it so I could then borrow it from you – to hear it didn’t live up to your expectations hurts my soul. 

I’ve heard many, many good things about Breaking Badly — you’ll have to tell me how it goes! I remember it made quite a splash when it was released last year. It definitely sounds like a story I’d be interested in, so that might be one for me down the track in 2020. 

We stan Call Me By Your Name! Arm yourself with an Aperol spritz and have a good bowl of pasta on standby and it will surely transport you to a summer house in the Italian countryside (the kind of escape we all need right now). The writing is magical, and while I did find it difficult at times to follow, the story just sweeps you away. 

I, too, am not the biggest fantasy fan, but Paul Takes The Form of a Mortal Girl sounds really damn interesting — especially the fact it took the author that long to put it together.

For me, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong is numero uno on my summer reading list. The high priestess of book recommendations, Pandora Sykes, has praised it heavily and I bought my Mum a copy for Christmas, so it’s a non—negotiable that I get my hands on my own copy before February 29. It’s pitched as a letter from a son to his mother who cannot read and “asks how we heal and rescue one another without forsaking who we are”. 

Second is Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage, which I also bought for my Mum as a Christmas gift (a true display of my generous nature, buying books for others that I want to read myself AND resisting the urge to read them before wrapping). I know you loved it, and I wanted to read it for the better half of 2019 but never got around to it. And any book endorsed by everyone’s one true love, Barack Obama, is one worth picking up. 

And the third book on my summer reading list, a bit less traditional, is Alison Roman’s second cookbook, Nothing Fancy. Over the past few months, she has become my number one woman crush, and after treating myself to her debut Dining In and making many a yummy meal as a result, I can’t wait to add this one to my collection. She’s hilarious (like the Jennifer Lawrence of the culinary world), her books are an aesthetic feast for the eyes, and all of her food is unbelievably delicious (and pretty simple to make). 

Let’s talk big picture — what other titles will make up the big three-zero for you in 2020?

From: Jessica at 1:21pm

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous sounds amazing, so it’s definitely got a spot on my list. And Alison Roman’s Nothing Fancy sounds right up my alley. There are so many cookbooks out there and recipes online but I like the premise of what she’s about, plus the cover looks divine!

There are about 30 titles on my reading list so far and they’re mainly popular books from last year I didn’t get around to. There are cute romcoms like Beth O’Leary’s The Flat Share and Star Crossed by Minne Darke, more Sally Rooney with Conversations with Friends, Leigh Sales’ Any Ordinary Day, books that are getting the Reece Witherspoon treatment like Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, hugely talked about ones like Trent Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universe and Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, and of course a little (or a lot) more Timothee Chalamet-inspired reads like Beautiful Boy, Tweak and Little Women (which I started!) I also really want to re-read one of my favourite books, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. And, running ahead a bit because it’s not due to be released until July, I know we’ll both be devouring Pandora Sykes’ collection of essays How Do We Know We’re Doing It Right? as soon as we can. 

But something that really got my attention is The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai. I THINK it was recommended in the comments section of a Man Repeller article about books? It jumps between a group of friends in America in the mid-to-late 1980s during the AIDS crisis and a woman in 2015 who has gone to Paris in search of her estranged daughter. I have no clue how they’re related but someone in that comment thread said it’s the only book that comes kind of near A Little Life, so add that to your list if it’s not there already!

What are some other titles you’re hoping to finally read?

From: Natalie at 5:37pm

Like you, a lot of the books that have crept onto my 2020 “To Read” list are leftovers from 2019 — and many of the same titles — The Flat Share, Beautiful Boy, Tweak and Little Fires Everywhere are all on my list. 

Leading the charge, as you mentioned is obviously How Do We Know We’re Doing It Right? and its delicious watermelon-esque cover. If there’s any book I’m most looking forward to reading in the next 12 months, it’s well and truly that one. 

I hadn’t heard of The Great Believers, but I trust your recs and Man Repeller recs and also anything that could come within a whisper of the brilliance that is A Little Life is definitely worth reading. Consider it added to the list! 

Also among my 30 are Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which is a bit of a classic I think (and was made into a not-so-well received film adaptation last year starring Nicole Kidman and Ansel Elgort); Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation; and the memoir of Tina Brown (who inspired the concept of The High Low) The Vanity Fair Diaries. 

As we’re all aware by now, The High Low is my favourite source for book recommendations, so there’s a range of titles loved by Dolly and Pandora that I also can’t wait to get my hands on: two anthologies of essays, Sloane Crosley’s Look Alive Out There and Marina Keegan’s The Opposite of Loneliness; as well as Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott and Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter. 

I know Dolly’s also coming out with a fiction novel (titled Ghosts, I believe) and if that’s out in 2020, push that to the top of the list as well. 

The final book I hope to read (and am embarrassed that I’m yet to) is Michelle Obama’s Becoming. 

From: Jessica at 8:40pm

God, what a cracking to-read pile we create between the two of us. I can’t wait to hear what you think of these titles and what other books the good, the unexpected, and the life-changing fall into our hands over the next year! Thank you again for sharing your thoughts with me on some truly great reads, I would love react this entire post if I could.

From: Natalie at 5:32pm

Likewise — I cannot wait to embark on another year of reading with you. While we do love our Italian food (and gluten-free donuts), I’d say that books may be our favourite thing to consume. And no – thank YOU for once again asking me to have this conversation – one I would gladly partake in on a daily basis, at great length – with you and your exceptional mind and wonderful recommendations once again. Consider this entire post love-reacted by me as well.

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