I keep by my bookshelf a pile of books I plan to sell at Powell’s. This time around, the victims include Lena Dunham’s memoir, Tillie Walden’s first graphic novel, a poorly-written account of a transgender teenager, and three YA romances I couldn’t finish.
This shouldn’t be a huge deal – I stop reading books all the time. I find it freeing to give up on something I’ve struggled to get through.
At least, it’s hard not to feel that way as a single woman.
For over a year, I’ve watched people panic when I show up without a partner. I’ve been asked, “Soooooo hooooooow’s wooooooork?” more times than I can count. I’ve had others explain things to me that I already understand.
I thought I was the problem. I doubled-down on small talk, asked lots of questions, brought wine to Bible study.
Still I got panicked smiles, questions about college, the dreaded, “Hoooooooow’s work?”
I thought, Maybe these people are uncomfortable around singles.
I’ve rejoiced my parents’ last day of school. I’ve purchased aloe for a terrible sunburn. I’ve broken out the baby powder for 80-degree days.
Summer is upon us.
That means it’s time to read. A lot.
If you’re looking for suggestions, I have TRILLIONS. I even organized them from fluffy to thought-provoking, with ample gray area for darker reads.
Here they are in list form. I’ll start with the fluffiest and get progressively more…mature? Serious? Literary? Whatever.
YA: Young Adult
CR: Currently Reading
TBR: To Be Read
The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot (YA)
A 14-year-old Manhattanite finds out she’s actually a European princess. I will never not recommend this book.
When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon (YA, TBR)
Two teens with clashing personliaties meet and presumably fall in love at computer camp. I will note that I bought this for $3 at a book sale solely because of the iced coffee on the book jacket.
My Lady’s Choosing: An Interactive Romance Novel by Kitty Curran and Larissa Zageris
An absolutely insane choose-your-own-adventure romance. Your choices include a sharp-tongued aristocrat, a half-dressed Scotsman, an intrepid explorer, and several fantastical creatures of dubious sanity. Rated NC-17. No, I’m not kidding.
Bad Kitty by Michele Jaffe (YA)
Forensics fanatic Jasmine Callihan, along with her colorful group of friends, tries to solve a mystery involving a cat, a severed thumb, and Kermit underpants. Hilarity ensues. This is the funniest book I’ve ever read, hands down, and the biggest influence on my writing style. Show some RESPECT.
The Selection series by Kiera Cass (YA)
Published in the wake of The Hunger Games, these books ask an important question, namely: What if the monarchy participated in a “Bachelor”-style reality show to pick the new queen? THESE BOOKS ARE SO DUMB…but I own the entire series, including the spin-offs, which have made me weep REAL TEARS.
The Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Lost: A Memoir of Three Continents, Two Friends, and One Unexpected Adventure by Rachel Friedman (TBR)
Good girl Rachel Friedman shocks everyone by buying a ticket to Ireland on a whim. I keep buying travelogues with mixed results, so we’ll see how this goes.
Something New: Tales From a Makeshift Bride by Lucy Knisley
An artist’s tale of her DIY wedding in comic book format. Includes recipes, photos, practical wedding tips, and pages soaked with my tears.
Less by Andrew Sean Greer (TBR)
Author books whirlwind speaking tour to cope with ex’s wedding. I’m guessing he Finds Love and Learns About Himself…but the book won the Pulitzer prize, so it has to be good,
The Theory of Everything by Kari Luna (YA, CR)
Sophie Sophia, like her father before her, has an active imagination. JUST KIDDING! She HALLUCINATES! Or does she…? A thoughtful look at mental illness in hot pink packaging.
Lunch in Paris: A Love Story with Recipes by Elizabeth Bard
Follows a New York writer as she falls in love with French cuisine. Includes many recipes I will never attempt and one for profiteroles I might.
Dramarama by E. Lockhart (YA)
Small-town girl and her gay best friend navigate theater camp politics. Come for the amateur musicals. Stay for the smart handling of sexuality, race, and identity.
Ship It by Britta Lundin (YA)
A slash shipper and an inexperienced actor go on tour following a PR slip-up. I thought it would be silly romp about shipping culture, but its deep dive into representation and belonging broke my stupid heart.
The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee (YA)
Bisexual bad boy Lord Henry “Monty” Montague takes a trip with sister Felicity and secret crush Percy that turns into a piratical adventure full of…frank discussions about race and sexuality? WHAT?
If I Stay by Gayle Forman (YA)
Girl hospitalized following a car accident ponders whether she wants to keep living. This was THE book in 2009 and it made everyone cry. Think The Notebook for teens, only interesting and well-written.
The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart (YA)
Private school girl infiltrates all-male secret society. Alternate title: A Young Girl’s Guide to Smashing the Patriarchy.
The Graceling Realm series by Kristin Cashore (YA)
Fast-paced, female-led fantasy novels with a feminist bent. Though all three books are excellent, Fire is my favorite.
Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor (YA)
“Once upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love. It did not end well.” That first line was all the context I had going into this book. I’ve read lots of fantastical forbidden love stories in my day; I don’t often get to read one this well-written. Also, winner of the award for MOST TRAUMATIZING DEATH SCENE. I READ THIS AT WORK. I WAS UNPREPARED.
The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer (YA)
Grimm’s Fairy Tales…IN SPACE. Series highlights: Scarlet falling for a terse streetfighter in Scarlet and all the characters joining forces to abduct royalty in Cress.
Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo (YA)
Six teenage criminals pull off an impossible heist. Don’t let the book’s thickness fool you – the plot moves fast. Contains multiple romances and a gunslinger(!).
The Raven Cycleby Maggie Stiefvater (YA)
Pyschic-adjacent Blue meets a band of prep school boys with an unnatural interest in Welsh kings. Home to THE GREATEST YA HERO in recent memory. The Raven Cycle? More like the RONAN Cycle.
Turtles All the Way Down by John Green (YA)
Anxious teenager Asa Holmes joins her exuberant best friend in a money-making scheme that results in Asa confronting her issues with intimacy, as well as her waning mental health. Contains incredibly-accurate and validating depiction of anxiety.
Jane Unlimited by Kristin Cashore (YA)
On orders from her deceased aunt, Jane travels to the mysterious mansion Tu Reviens, where things get weird as hell. That’s all I’ve got.
The Big Lie by Julie Mayhew
Alternate history exploring a modern-day Third Reich. Picked this up at a Blind Date with a Book giveaway. No regrets.
Am I There Yet? The Loop-de-Loop, Zigzagging Journey to Adulthood by Mari Andrew
Illustrator Mari Andrew reassures “unsuccessful” millennials with her own journey through early adulthood. Buy this for your sad 20-something friends.
The Happiness Project, Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun by Gretchen Rubin
Chronicles Gretchen Rubin’s attempt to increase her happiness in 12 months with charts and research. Eat, Pray, Love for the left-brained set.
Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift
Follows the life of a maid having an affair with a wealthy lord in the 1920s. It’s deeper than you would expect.
You Can’t Touch my Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain by Phoebe Robinson
Humorous and thoughtful take on race relations in America. Contains one of my favorite passages on sidewalk rage ever printed.
Would You Rather by Katie Heaney
Writer Katie Heaney comes out as gay after 28 years believing herself straight. This book came out in May; I’ve already read it four times. Will appeal to anyone who has moved to a big city, struggled with anxiety, or watched “The L Word.”
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
Gay’s essays deconstruct “perfect” feminism, popular television, rape culture, and use of the word “girl.” Now available in pink!
Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church by Rachel Held Evans
Evans ties modern church pitfalls with her own experiences using the seven sacraments. Perfect for depressives dealing with a crisis of faith. (Meaning ME. IT’S PERFECT FOR ME.)
Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill/Chemistry by Weike Wang
Two stream-of-consciousness novels about women battling mental breakdowns. These books are weirdly similar, but I love them both.
The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht
After her grandfather dies unexpectedly, a young woman traces his origins to a village that once harbored an escaped tiger. That sound you hear is my stupid heart breaking all over the pages.
The Underground Railroad by Coulson Whitehead (TBR)
A novel about the Underground Railroad…except, in this story, it’s a literal railroad. Also a Pulitzer Prize winner, AND I’ve heard the author namedropped by my two favorite podcasters.
Hild by Nicola Griffith (CR)
A novelist’s take on medieval warrior princess St. Hilda of Whitby. Called “one of the best novels ever.” So far my experience fits that description.
Perhaps “love” is a strong word for the conflicting emotions I feel. I went in expecting a different story, but rereads have shown the prose gets stronger with age. I appreciate what Bender does with her character’s emotions, even if the symbolism goes over my head.
So no, this book never betrayed me.
It betrayed my friend Laura.
That spring, nine of us traveled to Chehalis for a college mission trip. For our free day, we walked on the beach, bought ice cream, and hit up a book store. While Laura giggled at the serious titles, I stumbled onto this book:
A couple of things:
I love anything with a birthday motif. I’ve bought MANY books because of promised birthday adventures. I’m just now noticing the similarities:
Maybe I’ve been collecting these books as a way to relive this reading experience? So far I’ve failed; I haven’t liked a single one of the above books.
I get a sense of the story’s sadness from the cover, perhaps because of the creepy, looming shadow I just noticed. But the alternate cover?
Girl! It’s just cake! Chill!
Sadness? Cake? Magic? I didn’t care how much the book cost; I wanted it.
I showed this book to everyone in my group. Reactions ranged from “Huh,” to “THAT’S SO WEIRD.” (Conservative Christians have a low tolerance for whimsy.)
I passed the book to Laura.
To my surprise, she laughed. “That sounds HILARIOUS.”
We were stuck together for the next week, so I agreed.
We went back to our lodgings. While everyone else made dinner, I locked myself in my room to read. I was too young for Aimee Bender’s brand of deep melancholy, but I found the story “enjoyable” and “interesting.”
The next day, Laura asked for an update each time we passed in the hall on the way to our respective projects. “How’s the book? Hysterical?”
I struggled to temper her expectations without shutting her down; more often than not, I smiled and said, “It’s great!”
“Can’t wait to read it!” Laura would call over her shoulder.
I finished the book sometime tthat night. I lay in my bed for as long as I was allowed, absorbing the Great Sadness of the World.
I handed Laura the book the next morning over breakfast. “It was good,” I said, still carrying the Great Sadness of the World. “I liked it.”
When friends say this to me, I assume a “but” is coming.
Laura wasn’t nearly as cynical as I am. “Great! I can’t wait! It looks SOOOOO funny!”
At this point, I’d started to have some dark thoughts. I’d spent five days with these people sharing meals and bathrooms and tools, listening to the same 20-song playlist for the whole of our 8-hour workday, hauling firewood to avoid another tense afternoon in the linen closet. I only had an hour or so to myself where I tried to squeeze in some quality reading time before my body shut down; even then I could heard my team members laughing and making fart noises in the hallway.
So when Laura insisted yet again that a book with “sadness” in the title would be a jolly good time, I did worse than snap: I refused to warn her. “HAHA, YEP, ENJOY!” I said, sprinting off to scarf down another Costco muffin.
I watched Laura over the next couple of days for signs that she was carrying the Great Sadness of the World. While we repainted some walls, I asked, “So…how’s the book?”
Laura’s personality was 90% positive adjectives. It was hard to get recommendations from her that weren’t “AWESOME” or “FANTASTIC” or “AMAZING.” Everything, from K-Pop to J. J. Abrams, astonished her. “It’s…interesting.”
I saw the betrayal on her face. I should have felt guilty. I didn’t. I still don’t.
She handed the book back to me without a word a day later.
“Is that the cake book?” a teammate called. “It looked SO WEIRD!”
Laura said nothing. I enjoyed a brief pocket of silence, my “weird” book shielding me from my teammates’ conversation.
Good thing I minored in drama. (Only metaphorically. Just go with it.)
Which book destroyed my reading freedom like a terrorist?
WELCOME, FOLKS, TO JUDITH FERTIG’S THE CAKE THERAPIST!!
The Cake Therapist by Judith Fertig
If you want me to like you, buy me books.
If you want me to love you, let me buy my own.
Graduating from college netted me cash and gift cards from various relatives, including my brother’s-in-laws. Because they don’t know me well, they sent me a nice note and a Barnes and Noble gift card.
I couldn’t wait to spend it.
With celebratory spirit I entered Maplewood Mall’s giant Barnes and Noble, skirting away from my aunt’s beloved used section to ogle the New Releases.
There I saw the perfect book.
An imaginary salesman popped up next to me as I drooled over the cover: “This book has EVERYTHING: rainbow cakes, magical realism, plot for DAYS…just LOOK at that cover!”
My aunt came over to squint at the price tag. “You could get FOUR used books for this price,” she muttered.
I ignored her and bought the book anyway.
I should have listened.
I’d purchased a similar book three years earlier called The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (and I have a great story about how that book betrayed someone else…but now is not the time.) In it, the protagonist learns she can taste others’ emotions in the food they make, something she discovers after her dissatisfied mother bakes her a birthday cake. I read that book expecting it to lean into the magical realism and found a very different story waiting for me. Though the story’s magical elements play less of a role than I expected, they still serve a purpose in exploring the emotions of the protagonist and her outlook on the people in her life.
Long story short: the flavor ability functions as an exploratory tool rather than a gimmick.
Here’s how The Cake Therapist betrayed me:
Judith Fertig used an interesting premise to sell a boring 1940’s mystery.
Much like the character I described above, protagonist Neely can taste feelings in food. More interestingly, she can pinpoint the particular flavor someone needs to either incite or quell a specific emotion. I thought that sounded PRETTY NEAT, like this decade’s Chocolat. Right? RIGHT, JUDITH?
A look at the cover reveals specific uses for different flavors: cinnamon for remembrance, orange for wake-up calls, and plum for…pep, I guess?
Surprise! Those are the only three flavors discussed in the book!
I’d pictured Neely acting as a therapist in secret; she’d listen to her friends blab about their problems and make them a “pick-me-up” that, through unique flavor combinations and witchery, would tap into their emotions and make them feel better.
I was excited to see what flavors Fertig assigned to different personalities. DO YOU UNDERSTAND HOW FASCINATING THAT PROSPECT IS TO ME, JUDITH? YOU ESSENTIALLY UNLOCKED A NEW SORTING HAT. IMAGINE THE POSSIBILITIES: VANILLA LOVERS LACK DISCIPLINE, RED VELVET EATERS NEED AFFECTION, AND SO ON AND SO FORTH.
Neely pulls the “therapist” act maybe twice, though I can’t remember in what context. She spends most of her time trying to remember a flavor she just can’t recall.
But enough of that noise; there’s a mystery afoot!
The novel kept jumping back in time to the 1940s to take a not-so-interesting look at a poor Jewish family living in Neely’s hometown. I knew the flashbacks had to have some importance, but I couldn’t figure out what this gritty historical tale was doing in a chipper magic cake novel.
At the very end, Fertig tried to tie the two stories together by having Neely solve a decades-old mystery with her magic powers. I felt gypped. Where was the cake therapy? Where were the flavor assignments? If anything, the “cake therapist” portions felt like padding for a poor man’s Brooklyn.
All along, Neely’s magical reputation was a gimmick. Fertig showed no actual interest in the idea beyond using it as a framing device for her actual plot.
How DARE you, Judith.
Oh, and the flavor Neely was trying so hard to remember? Cinnamon.
Girl, how could you not remember cinnamon!? What is wrong with you!?