Reading used to be my primary mode of relaxation, but with just a couple of weeks left until the term-time madness of reading lists, essays and lectures returns, reading for pleasure can seem like a distraction, rather than time well spent. This Christmas I have forced myself to forget, even if momentarily, the demands of my Renaissance dissertation or preparation for Lent term, and these are the reads I have devoured in a couple of days each, and could be squeezed in before returning to Cambridge.
Becoming – Michelle Obama (2018)
Non-fiction is often what I turn to when I need respite from the fiction-heavy Cambridge English degree, and this recent memoir from Michelle Obama is exactly what I needed in the limbo period between Christmas and New Year. It is warm, funny and at points, strikingly honest, following the narrative of the former First Lady from Michelle Robinson, growing up bright and organised on the South Side of Chicago, to the somewhat reluctant resident of the White House. Her prose is sentimental without being overwrought, and inspiring without resorting to cliché, and I ripped through it in days, despite it being a solid 400 pages.
Their Eyes Were Watching God – Zora Neale Hurston (1937)
I didn’t know what to expect when I picked this up, but it is now one of my favourite novels I’ve read this year, and possibly in my life. It is the story of Janie Crawford, a child of a line of African-American women ravaged by slavery, and the men who enslaved them. Whilst the plot is heartbreaking and engaging, it is Hurston’s language that captured my imagination, immortalising ‘the alto chant of the visiting bees’ like ‘a flute song forgotten in another existence and remembered again’ as she saw them in the southern cities of America, such as the Eatonville she grew up in and those she returned to as part of her anthropological research. This novel is an important part of American cultural and literary history, as a product of the Harlem Renaissance, and an absolute joy to read.
Heartburn – Nora Ephron (1983)
Ephron writes wittily and truthfully about the ideals of love and marriage, as demonstrated by her later work such as films When Harry Met Sally and Julie & Julia, but I think perhaps nowhere more powerfully than in Heartburn, her only novel. Narrated by Rachel Samstat, a food writer, the novel depicts the breakdown of her marriage from her political journalist husband, but is yet infused with humour and includes recipes within its prose, a book as much about food as about marriage. Short and accessible, Heartburn is a perfect holiday read, as Ephron writes clearly but extremely deftly about the emotional and ultimately financial freedom achieved by her narrator.
Normal People – Sally Rooney (2018)
It seems difficult to talk about fiction in 2018 without referring to Sally Rooney, whose second novel Normal People, follows her outstanding debut Conversations With Friends. The novel is a love story, but this label is reductive and does not represent what is in many ways, an indescribable novel. Following Marianne and Connell, teenagers from a small town in Ireland of different financial and social statuses, to Trinity College Dublin, across the ebbs and flows of an imperfect yet beautiful relationship. I adored this intoxicating, addictive story, (as did my Mum, who I have yet to retrieve my copy from), and would not be surprised if Normal People becomes a future classic.