Goodbye, 2010s: The 20 books that made my decade

It’s hard to believe that we will be saying goodbye to another decade next week, but here we are!

As I sit here thinking back to the books that changed me, my brain did some kind of ping…or boink! I’ve read so many books of all genres and fell more in love with literature (if that was possible!).

In 2014, I earned a Bachelor’s degree in journalism and English, and since 2017, I’ve been working towards earning a Master’s in English, currently spending my “spare time” writing my master’s thesis. The final countdown, or so they say!

I’ve read a lot of books during my academic career—from memoirs to fiction to scholarly articles and theory, I’ve achieved a higher level of awareness about the impact that literature makes on society, and I’m excited to share my work with the world in the future.

Anyways, to the fun part. I wanted to share books that shaped me, made me feel all the feels.

Here they are, in no particular order.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
This book changed my perception of race, class, and justice at a very young age. It’s a book I’ve read three times since high school and will continue to press as a book that everyone should read.

Coraline by Neil Gaiman
Oh, Coraline. Need I say more? Coraline, despite being a dark, spooky book, has helped me when I am in dark moments. Her bravery and cunning strength have inspired me since I was a little girl. She almost made it into my thesis, but I know we will meet again in the academic realm real soon.

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton
This is one of those books that I read a few years ago that really made an impact. I love the blend of historical fiction with the fantastic. It was a magical book that made me smile and cry and there’s really nothing else to it!

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Mental health, and specifically, how women who struggle with mental illness are treated, has been a topic of fascination to me for some time. I read The Bell Jar for the second time in college, and I’m glad I did and was able to appreciate it more. This book was phenomenal, and I’m glad I get to study it more as I work on a scholarly article this winter.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
This is an important book to fully understand pre- and post-colonialism, cultural difference, masculinity, tradition, and much more. This book is insightful and offered so much opportunity to learn about a world that is entirely different from our own. Perspective, people. Perspective.

The Handmaids Tale by Margaret Atwood
Speaking of perspective. This book, as the kids say, “shook me.” As a person who never got into the TV show, Atwood’s dystopian novel offers insight into a world that no one ever wants to see. The book explores a totalitarian world where women are subjugated, but they resist and work to establish independence. I actually need to reread this one this year.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
For those who know me outside of the blogosphere, I have trouble shutting up about Little Women. This is my favorite book of all time. Jo March is my favorite literary woman of all time. She also makes an appearance in my thesis as the OG tomboy, the one who really set the standards for a young girl to achieve her dreams. This story is beautiful. I love it so much.

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
Not a favorite of all time, but what made this book significant is that it is the book that my now-husband and I connected on. In 2010, I was reading this book over winter break and posted a status on Facebook about it. A boy who I thought was super cute commented on my post saying that it was a good read, and then we started talking over IM and text. The rest is history.

Don’t get me wrong—the book is also really good!

Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult
This book is thought-provoking, tragic, riveting, you name it. It made me sick to my stomach and cry but it also presented beautiful moments of love and hope. Read this book.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling
I’ve read the Harry Potter series five or six times in the past decade, and I always find myself enjoying the third book of the series the most. I love the Marauders and wish that Rowling would write an entire series about them. I also love Sirius Black so much it hurts.

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
Bilbo Baggins is one of the best literary characters ever. Don’t @ me. But seriously, this book has it all. Adventure, courage, fantastic elements, humor, poetry and song. It’s really a masterpiece. And…that’s all I have to say about that (Forrest Gump voice).

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Yes, I’m THAT person who gets mad if you pronounce her name wrong. I read this book for a college course in my undergrad and really enjoyed it. I enjoyed the romance, the heartbreak, the emotions that Anna experienced throughout her journey and her sad train ride. It’s one of those classics that you have to read. Warning: You will lose track of names. It’s inevitable.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
I clapped when I finished this one. Angelou’s books and poetry always overwhelmed me by its poignancy and beauty. What a life she lived. I am in awe of her strength and appreciate her sharing her story. This book helped me understand trauma and how to overcome it and shed light on racism and its history.

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
In my latest post, Katniss plays a large role (perhaps a larger role than the other heroines I examine) in my thesis. Katniss and I have always had a strong bond. I’ve loved her since the beginning; her strength and resiliency, and her dedication to her family and friends. I read the entire series in three days instead of wrapping up my finals during my junior year of college. I didn’t regret it then. Still don’t. I am excited to write about her and to even present on her this upcoming March at a national conference in Boston. Lit nerds, unite!

Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult
I was just discussing this book with another bookworm on Instagram. We were talking about how lucky we are to have books like this one, for it offers a wealth of knowledge about medicine, race, class, and other social issues. This book left a profound mark; it’s a book about injustice and justice. It’s truly fantastic and one of my favorites from Picoult.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid
This book was everything I wanted: romance, iconic Hollywood, struggle, triumph, heartbreak, control, and other contemporary issues—it had everything in there. It was one of those books you didn’t want to finish. I discovered Taylor Jenkins Reid this year and I will read all of her books.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
This book. Where do I begin? It’s truly a masterpiece. Another young girl that I can relate to in so many ways. Kya is sensitive, intelligent, and resilient. There were twists and turns along with romance and murder. It is one of the best books I’ve ever read.

Educated by Tara Westover
Speaking of one of the best books I’ve ever read. This. Memoir. I even got Ian to read it, and he devoured it in two sittings. This book made me think about my circle of home, and what it could mean to break out of it. Tara’s story is beautifully told, and you wonder how she became the person she is today. There’s no debate. Read it.

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
Much like Crawdads, I found myself identifying with Leni and aspects of her childhood. I feel like these two books were similar but profound and impactful in different ways. It’s another book about the journey through adolescence with its own twists and turmoil. Leni is one heck of a fighter, and one heck of a good person.

Daisy Jones and The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Y’all saw this coming. I feel like this book was written for me. Historical fiction. 70s rock n roll. Fleetwood Mac. Stardom. Music. Podcast-like dreamy Audible experience? It was truly fantastic. I heard some people struggle with the print version. Pop in those earbuds and turn on the audiobook; you can thank me later.

Did any of my books make your list? Share in the comments!

Book Review: ‘The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna’

Since I’ve finished Juliet Grames’ debut novel, The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna, my mind has been in somewhat of a haze. This is a good thing. That’s how I know I’ve read a really good book.

IMG_3374.JPGThere is so much to this novel; so much heartbreak and power. It will be hard for me to eloquently explain how much I loved this book, but I will do my best!

My introduction to this book started by being introduced to the author herself. One chilly evening, I drove from my workplace in downtown Hartford to Breakwater Books in Guilford, Connecticut, to meet and have dinner with author Juliet Grames.

 

I didn’t know much about her debut novel, so I spent the days before the event reading and researching. I read the novel’s positive reviews and the impact it has made on Italian-American women and families. I read about how it effectively portrays what Italian immigrants faced when they emigrated to America, and what the women faced in their small villages in Italy after their husbands left them behind.

Synopsis

From Calabria to Connecticut: A sweeping family saga about sisterhood, secrets, Italian immigration, the American dream, and one woman’s tenacious fight against her own fate.

For Stella Fortuna, death has always been a part of life. Stella’s childhood is full of strange, life-threatening incidents—moments where ordinary situations like cooking eggplant or feeding the pigs inexplicably take lethal turns. Even Stella’s own mother is convinced that her daughter is cursed or haunted.

In her rugged Italian village, Stella is considered an oddity—beautiful and smart, insolent and cold. Stella uses her peculiar toughness to protect her slower, plainer baby sister Tina from life’s harshest realities. But she also provokes the ire of her father Antonio: a man who demands subservience from women and whose greatest gift to his family in his absence.

When the Fortunas emigrate to America on the cusp of World War II, Stella and Tina must come of age side-by-side in a hostile new world with strict expectations for each of them. Soon Stella learns that her survival is worthless without the one thing her family will deny her at any cost: her independence.

In present-day Connecticut, one family member tells this heartrending story, determined to understand the persisting rift between the now-elderly Stella and Tina. A richly told debut, The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna is a tale of family transgressions as ancient and twisted as the olive branch that could heal them.

The event

At the event, Juliet, a warm and gracious person, spoke of her novel and how it is based on her grandmother and her family emigrating to the United States. I couldn’t believe that a woman could have that many near-death experiences, but Juliet and her mother (Stella’s only daughter) confirmed!

Juliet read one of her favorite passages from her book. It details what Juliet’s great-grandmother (named Assunta in the book) had to do to survive with three children while her husband was in America. As she read, the Italian-American women in the room nodded with tears in their eyes (from laughter and sadness), saying that it reminded them of stories from their mothers and grandmothers. I sat there in awe after hearing this powerful passage (removing some spoilers):

“This was how the years passed. Assunta tended her three living children…she stitched their clothes and scrubbed them, washed out their diapers and kept them fed with bread she baked from the flour she ground from wheat she grew in the garden she tended. She preserved and pickled and salted and stored so they would never go hungry, even when there was nothing. To keep them warm through the winter she gathered firewood on the mountain and carried it home tied up in a linen cloth she balanced on her head, with Giuseppe strapped to her chest, Stella holding her left hand, Cettina her right. Assunta dug her own stones out and turned her own soil and pruned her own trees and drew her own water from the well five, ten times a day to cook and clean.

This was the trouble with emigration—it dismantled the patriarchy. Because really, what did Assunta, or any woman, need a husband for, when she did every goddamn thing herself?” (43)

Once I heard this, I knew I had to buy this book. Feminist tropes? Strong women? Yes, please. Plus, her family emigrated to Connecticut and lived a block from my office in downtown Hartford. There were many interesting ties. I read it in three days. I spent each night staying up way past my bedtime, and I never wanted it to end.

The review: 4.5/5

It’s hard to believe that this story based on real women. Juliet’s grandmother did have an accident that caused her to never speak to her sister for the rest of her life. This is her family’s story. This is what women and families faced, and continue to face. It is an important story about culture, family, and emigration.

albumtempHardship and trauma are such hard topics, but ones that we must read about. It helps establish our character, create perspective, and keep us far from ignorance.

I was intrigued by the patriarchal values that were, and still are, instilled in Italian culture and many cultures. I was enamored with the woman portrayed in this novel—the strong, raw story of Assunta and the life that she lived in Italy. The trauma and turmoil that Stella went through during her childhood and adulthood, married to a man she did not want to marry, constantly put in situations that shook her to her core. Not to mention, the physical trauma that she went through with her near-death experiences. It was gut-wrenching at times, but sometimes, you can’t turn away from the stories that make you uncomfortable. These women didn’t turn away; they persisted.

This book brought raw emotions. It brought tears and heartache, and I found myself having trouble disconnecting when I closed the book for the night. These are real people who went through so much struggle just to live the American Dream that many take for granted. There is still a struggle; there is still injustice. The women in Juliet’s family faced such strife, from poverty to heartbreak to the patriarchy. It was a remarkable book, and I’m so grateful to Juliet for sharing her family’s story.

If you’re interested in buying The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna, you can buy it here on Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

What I have learned about mental health and ‘Harry Potter’

Yesterday, July 31, was a magical day: the birthdate of J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series. Not to mention, it was also Harry’s birthday too. Reflecting on the birthdate of one of my favorite authors and the magical world that she created, I wanted to share a post that I have been writing for some time now, “What I have learned about mental health and Harry Potter”:

I remember the first time I read Harry Potter. I was in fourth grade, and my teacher assigned the class to read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. I remember being completely engrossed. I would always look forward to silent reading during the day so I can pull out my book and get swept away in the magical world that Rowling created
(I also waited for the arrival of my Hogwarts letter when I turned 11, which I never received, but I digress).

Throughout the last 15 years, I’ve reread the series a number of times. I know the movies by heart. I love Harry Potter. I love the waves of sweet nostalgia I experience while reading the books and watching the films. I love the character development and the lessons that we learn as Harry, Ron, and Hermione face all of these near-death experiences and somehow manage to simultaneously keep up with their lessons and social lives. I don’t know how they do it —it’s like magic or something.

Needless to say, I am a Harry Potter fanatic. For my literary-themed wedding, I made sure that there was some Harry Potter inspiration sprinkled in there. I have a Harry Potter shrine at home, where I display my hardcover books and collectibles.

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Every few years or so, I make an effort to reread the series, and I find that I continue to learn more about the plot line and relate to the characters in some way. My husband and I are currently listening to the audiobooks (Jim Dale is amazing!), and just wrapped up Order of the Phoenix. While I always notice something new or something I’ve forgotten about the plot, the last few times around, I noticed something much heavier about the series.

As a person who has a close connection with mental health, I began to realize that Harry Potter is filled with symbolism around mental health, specifically PTSD, anxiety, and depression. I noticed this because I experience these particular challenges myself. They are prevalent in Harry’s character, who experiences the brunt of bad things throughout the series as one of our heroes. This is a topic that I am looking forward to exploring as I continue to read more theory (lots of theory) and continue my graduate studies.

It is well known now that J.K. Rowling wrote The Philosopher’s Stone during a very rough time in her life; she was suffering from depression and facing dark times. It is during this dark time that she found her light in creating a world of her own, unbeknownst that one day millions of people would too find escape and solace in it.

It is in The Order of the Phoenix where I realized how much I resonated with Harry’s character. Harry, who has had his share in traumatic experiences in the past four years, is now feeling completely isolated. Despite having the support of his two best friends and other allies, Harry feels alone. He is angry, violent, and fragile; he cannot control his emotions. His mood swings are frequent, and while he wants to be around people, he also finds himself wanting to be alone. While reading this novel, I cannot help but see the signs of depression and post-traumatic stress, two things that I combat on a daily basis.

If we take a step back and look at Harry’s life, he is continuously suffering from extreme loss. He grew up in a home where he was mistreated and then discovers that his parents were killed by a powerful sorcerer who tried to kill him too. Despite being happier than he’s ever been at Hogwarts, he continues to experience hardships. To name a few, he nearly escapes death four times, battling Lord Voldemort, dementors (which symbolize the ugliness of depression), witnesses the death of a friend, and is now being ridiculed and slandered by his schoolmates and the entire wizarding world for telling the truth. Professor Dumbledore, an ally, and mentor is no longer speaking to him. He is hurt, angry, and feels alone.

Harry cannot even control his own mind; it is constantly being overtaken by a dark and angry entity. Throughout most of the series, Lord Voldemort infiltrates Harry’s mind giving him access to his most dark and violent emotions, thoughts, and acts. This is beneficial to Harry, for he is able to follow Voldemort’s moves as he fights to destroy him, but it is also detrimental to his mental and physical health. Despite being asked to learn how to combat these infiltrations in his brain with occlumency, he has trouble finding the will to do so. Voldemort’s power of legilimency is equivalent to the power of depression and the thoughts that can take over your mind. Although unwanted, sometimes it is easier to succumb to it rather than fight it. Harry’s scar and its constant burning is a metaphor for the power that mental health issues can hold on a person. While Harry’s is visible, most mental health scars are hidden, but those who have them are reminded that they are always fighting an ongoing battle.

What I have learned from the Harry Potter series is that despite there being so much dark in the series, there is also light. Harry may have these demons trying to plague his mind, but he comes to the realization that he has something that is stronger than any force in the world: love. He also has true friendship and support, something that someone like Voldemort will never have. In the ministry, Voldemort tries to overcome Harry’s mind and fully possess him, but Harry fights back. Love and light always win.

Although there is darkness, love is one of the key themes of the series, and gosh, does it overflow with it! There are characters who feel so deeply, who suffer from so much pain, but they fight through it. Dumbledore said it best to Harry after he lost Sirius:

“The pain is part of being human…the fact that you can feel pain like this is your biggest strength.”

Pain is strength. Accepting the pain is, even more, strength, and fighting through it can lead to healing, like Harry’s scar at the end of the series. If you think about it, what are the last words in The Deathly Hallows?

“All was well.”

 

Authors note: I noticed upon research after my post that this topic of Harry Potter and mental health has been discussed by others before on Reddit and other forums. If anyone else out there has anything to add/discuss, please comment below or send me an email! I’d love to hear other theories or examples! Best, Kassondra. 

A Spellbound Adventure: Book Barn

Yesterday, I traveled down to Niantic, Connecticut to visit the Book Barn for the first time. The Book Barn is straight out of a fairytale! As an avid book lover, I always take time to go into a bookstore whenever I can, especially if I am visiting a new city or place! After making plans to meet my friend Courtney for a night of nerdom, I immediately checked out their website and learned that they have over 500,000 books to peruse in four different locations. Game on.

Courtney and I met downtown and we had dinner at the delicious Main Street Grille. Full and satisfied, we walked over to the midtown location to check out the children’s books, antiques, and collectibles. We took our time, wide-eyed and excited as we looked at the spines of old antique books. It was magical! I found this 1911 copy of Little Womenmy favorite book! It was only $4!

I also found some books to add to my children’s collection—Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl and Coraline by Neil Gaiman. They were $1 each! I quickly discovered that this was going to be a difficult endeavor—I already had to put away 10 books that I wanted to purchase, and this was just the first stop!

We got in the car and drove over to the Main Barn. All of the locations are within one mile of each other, which is not only super convenient but also gives you that serendipitous feeling of being inside your own literary world.

As soon as I stepped out of the car, I knew that this was my place. The Main Barn was established in 1988 and has other buildings accompanying the barn, including the Haunted, a building filled with mystery and thriller novels. It was spooky, and I found out it has its own creepy story of origin! Fun!

All I can say is books. books. books! We spent a few hours perusing the shelves from poetry to fiction, visiting all of the spots, walking through the gardens, petting the adorable cats who came up to say “hello,” and filling up my reusable bag with literary treasures!

At the Main Barn, I discovered some great finds, including some classics I have been meaning to add to my shelves! Again, I made the choice to put some books back, but it only gave me more motivation to come back!

After making our purchases, we traveled to Store Four to take a look at memoirs, travel books, and some incredible antique and leather-bound books. I surprisingly made no additional purchases, but gawked at the beautiful Franklin Library leather-bound books, again, resisting the temptation.

Needless to say…I was spellbound! For those book lovers out there who haven’t been to the Book Barn yet: GO! And take me with you! It’s such a relaxing place where you can grab a book (or two…or 12!) and relax in one of their many cozy spots to read. They have the nicest staff who are always willing to help you find a book or offer recommendations. Families can also come and enjoy a picnic, play some giant checkers, chess, or Connect Four, meet and feed some friendly goats (!), and escape the busy demands of life. I can’t wait to visit again soon.