My Picks for The Great American Read

If you want to see me really sweat, ask me to choose my favorite book. Sure, I just shared my top 10, but those were in no particular order and ALSO just my top 10 of March 2018. I fully expect that list to change over time (although I’m pretty sure Matilda will always be on there).

So when someone asks me what my single favorite book is, I really can’t do it. Does it mean the book I most enjoy reading? The book I recommend the most often? The book that taught me the most?

A new PBS documentary series, The Great American Read, is premiering next week, and it’s based around exactly that: 7,200 surveyed Americans picked their favorite novel, and a panel of judges narrowed that list down to the top 100 novels. And now we’ll vote, choosing the TOP FAVORITE NOVEL IN AMERICA!

I have a lot of issues with this premise. When my friend Lindsey handed me a list of America’s 100 most favorite novels (printed on a promotional bookmark), I immediately started analyzing: How does ANYONE pick one novel? Some of these authors aren’t even American? OK, I guess it’s favorite novel of Americans, not favorite American novel? And who THE HELL chose Fifty Shades of Grey?!

My initial thoughts about this list weren’t kind, I’ll admit. My degree-in-literature ass was judging the inclusion of certain novels (even some that I did enjoy reading). In my mind, the winner of this contest should be a serious work of literature. Maybe the words on the page are easy to read, but the themes aren’t. A good novel should make you think. About yourself, your relationships with others, the state of the world. And I don’t think that Flowers in the Attic accomplishes that.

BUT those initial thoughts are rude. Just because those are the criteria by which I choose my favorite novels does not mean everyone should or does think that way. I’m constantly complaining about how people don’t read enough, so I should shut my over-educated mouth and let people like what they like.

So that’s the last you’ll hear me complain about the selection of books on the list. (Exception: I will have some SHIT TO SAY if Fifty Shades wins. Read your erotic fiction all you want, no judgement there. Just maybe MAYBE maybe our favorite novel shouldn’t be so poorly written?  😳)

Voting opens after the initial show airs on Tuesday, and you can vote as many times as you want for your favorite book. I chose seven from the list that I love, and I plan to vote for them on a rotating daily basis. Maybe one of mine will emerge victorious, but it could also be the Left Behind series. Ahem.

MY SELECTIONS

  • Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie This is a complicated and beautiful novel. The author’s TED Talk was sampled in a Beyonce song the same year this novel came out, which is, if we’re being honest, what drew me to the book in the first place.
    In the book, the main character moves from her home in Africa to America, and she has to deal with race for the first time in her life. In a country where everyone is black, race is not an issue the way it is in America. There’s also a love story. The premise is thought-provoking and the writing is beautiful.  ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
  • The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood You all KNOW I love this one. My review is here. ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
    I can’t help but think Handmaid’s Tale (and 1984, also on the list) will have huge advantages because they’re currently on television. So we’ll see how that plays out.
  • Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott I LOVE THIS NOVEL! It’s about sisters! ⭐⭐⭐⭐
    But, for real, if you ever want to see me ugly-cry, turn on the 1994 movie with Winona Ryder and Kirsten Dunst. (And I promise that this isn’t a PBS ad, but they’re currently airing a Little Women adaptation that is pretty good.)
    This novel may have been my first introduction to the format of novels that I love so much — multi-decade family drama!! I love that we meet the sisters as children and follow them through adulthood (well, most of them 😭).
    (ALSO, many of the other entries on the list are series — the entire Harry Potter series, the Chronicles of Narnia, the Lord of the Rings. Does that mean that the other Little Women novels are included when you vote for Little Women? Because they are not… quite as good.)
  • The Color Purple, by Alice Walker You all know how much I love the musical, but I loved the book first. A deeply sad story about Celie and her sister, I can’t read it without crying. Sisters separated by circumstance ALWAYS makes me sob. The novel is short, but it covers so many important themes: poverty, racial violence, marital abuse, familial sexual abuse. It is a HARD read, but it’s an important one. Celie’s life circumstances aren’t made up, even though she’s a fictional character. The things that happened to her happen to real women, too. ⭐⭐⭐⭐
  • The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold This is a beautiful novel. AND it’s about crime and murder, so you know I love it. I’m sure many of you know the basic plot, since it was a movie (that I never saw, I’m just now realizing) in 2009. The protagonist is a dead teenage girl who watches her murder investigation unfold from her own personal Heaven. It’s EXCELLENT. I’m seeing via Google that the movie was terrible, so please give the novel a try if you didn’t like the movie. ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
  • The Stand, by MY DUDE Stephen King I love, love, love this novel. It’s about an America in the very near future, where a superflu has killed 99% of the world’s population. It is famously long (so long, in fact, that King cut 400 pages before the initial publication, and an unedited version was released after the novel’s initial commercial success), around 800 pages. I feel like its length will hurt it in the voting process, but I’m happy to see a King novel represented on this list. ⭐⭐⭐⭐
  • To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee OK, OK, OK, this will probably win. It’s a widely beloved novel, we all had to read it in school, and it’s about racism, but the protagonist is white. ☕ People love this novel! And I do, too. ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ I was so, so, so sad when Go Set A Watchman was released against Lee’s wishes. No one deserves to have their first drafts published! That shit is PRIVATE.

Other miscellaneous thoughts on The List:

  • I love Harry Potter deeply, and I am so happy that those novels got children to read. I just wish they’d maybe read some other novels, too.
  • The children’s books that are included, like Charlotte’s Web, make my heart break with cuteness.
  • I love that Jurassic Park is on this list. LOVE. Michael Crichton was teenage Caitlin’s favorite author.
  • I feel weird about books that were very recently released being on the list, like The Martian. Sure, I liked it, too. But how can you call a book your favorite if it hasn’t traveled through the years with you?
  • Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut is on The List, and that’s the novel that James Delos was reading in his weird Ikea apartment last week on Westworld. IS THIS AN HBO TIE-IN?!

So there you have it. My thoughts and feelings about America’s favorite novel. My educated guess? Mockingbird will win. Or maybe Harry Potter.

Please, not 50 Shades. I’m not going to say any other winner would make me happy, because I am too dramatic for that. But PLEASE not 50 Shades.

My 10 Favorite Books

Reading is my favorite pastime, and I think it always will be. I’ve always been a fast reader, and I’m sure I was just born that way, but I also like to think that I adapted that skill over time so I can read more and more and more.

Last month at book club, a good friend asked me what a few of my favorite books are. And I realized that I’d never put a lot of thought into that. There are books I read over and over, and books that I recommend to you all, but which of those are my favorites?

What follows is a bulleted list, meaning that these books are in no particular order. It was hard enough narrowing down the vast book universe to just 10; there was no way I could rank them, too.

MY FAVORITE BOOKS

    • Matilda by Roald Dahl: One of the first “chapter books” I ever read all by myself, and the start of a truly insane Roald Dahl obsession. (Runners up by him at The Witches, The Twits, and The BFG.) I love Matilda. I could cry just thinking about her. Yes, this is the Matilda of the incredible ‘90s movie starring Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman and Lane Pryce’s wife from Mad Men, about an unloved little girl and her love of books and unexplained magical powers.

      I love Matilda for so many reasons. As a kid, I probably loved her because she was naughty and liked to read just as much as I did. As an adult, I love her because she saved herself. She used her own smarts (and her own magic) to escape an abusive home and a horrifying school. She is strong and brave and imaginative, everything that every little kid should want to be.

      If you haven’t read Matilda, it’s not too late. Yes, it’s a children’s book, but it’s not just for children. You know?
    • Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri: I was assigned a short story from this gorgeous collection in my first semester of college. I don’t remember which story is was, but that doesn’t’t matter. What I do remember is reading it and feeling very adult, like I was reading a book from the grown-up section of the library. There’s nothing particularly salacious in the book. I don’t mean grown up like that. I mean like I was reading the kind of book I’d read in a coffee shop or in bed after a long day of being a fancy woman. Which I was well on my way to being, in my 18-year-old mind.

      Now that I’ve read the book as an adult, I know that I was fascinated by the subtle way Lahiri describes relationships. Reading her stories feels like being an omniscient fly on the wall. There’s nothing flashy about her writing. It’s observational and richly detailed. Lahiri taught me to appreciate fiction that revolves around character development, rather than a complicated plot. I’ll always be grateful for that.
    • Misery: A Novel by Stephen King: I LOVE THIS BOOK. Oh, it’s just so creepy. The scariest books to me have nothing to do with the supernatural. They have to do with the crazies that lurk around every corner.

      If you’re not familiar, Misery is about an author who is held captive by his superfan, but it is SO MUCH MORE THAN THAT. It is terrifying and suspenseful. (I am pretty ambivalent about the movie, but Kathy Bates is in.cred.ible. as Anne Wilkes, the deranged superfan. She won an Oscar for the role.)

    • Bossypants by Tina Fey: There are so many good things to say about this book. It’s smart and laugh-out-loud funny. For years, I had a bootleg copy (please forgive my sins) of the audiobook, and I would listen to it on long car trips (this must have been pre-Serial). Sometimes, I’ll remember a passage from this book at a random time, and laugh out loud in the elevator at work or while doing my makeup or waiting for a coffee.

      But the story that left the strongest impression for me is this: Tina and Amy Poehler and Jimmy Fallon are joking around at SNL. Amy is doing a bit, and Jimmy jokingly says “Stop that! It’s not cute! I don’t like it.”:

      “Amy dropped what she was doing, went black in the eyes for a second, and wheeled around on him. “I don’t fucking care if you like it.” Jimmy was visibly startled. Amy went right back to enjoying her ridiculous bit.
      With that exchange, a cosmic shift took place. Amy made it clear that she wasn’t there to be cute. She wasn’t there to play wives and girlfriends in the boys’ scenes. She was there to do what she wanted to do and she did not fucking care if you like it.”

      I think of this all the time. If I ever think of not doing something because I’m worried about what others will think, I remember my pretend-friends Tina and Amy. I’m here to do what I want to do, and I do not care if you like it.
    • Heartburn by Nora Ephron: This book is a fictionalized telling of Nora Ephron’s marriage to Carl Bernstein (one of the reporters who broke the Watergate scandal). It is SO GOOD. Ephron’s writing is conversational and frank and hilarious. There are also recipes. Gossipy novel about marriage + food = my dream book. Also the movie is excellent.
    • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood: I have loved this book since the first time I read it in high school. It is horrifying, suspenseful, introspective, and just close enough to believable to be truly scary. I’ve read my copy so many times (and written more than one paper about it in college and grad school) that it’s tissue-soft. If you only know the Republic of Gilead from the Hulu show (which is excellent, but not the same), read this book.
    • The Secret History by Donna Tartt: This book is a combination of two things I love — complicated relationships with long backstories and MURDER. Seriously, this book starts with a bang and then unravels the backstory throughout the rest of the novel, and I couldn’t ask for anything more. If you read and loved The Goldfinch like everyone else in the world, this is by the same author, but it’s even BETTER.
    • American Wife: A Novel by Curtis Sittenfeld: If you haven’t noticed a pattern, I love long, multi-generational stories about families or close friend groups. I love reading about how relationships change over time and about the ways that we change ourselves to fit (or not) in a group of people. This novel, which is a fictionalization of First Lady Laura Bush’s life, is so great. It’s a light, easy read, but the discussions it prompts about personal values and the nature of marriage and family dynamics are complicated and fascinating. When I read this book in college, I liked it because it’s an interesting story about a woman. Reading it now, as a wife, adds another layer of appreciation. 
    • Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin: I’ve written about this book at length before. Reading it was the jump start to my healthy lifestyle. Seriously, before I read it, I hardly exercised, didn’t eat healthfully, thought that I didn’t have time to pursue other goals outside of work, etc!!! Read this book and learn how to change your own life through habit formation.
    • Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert: WOW. This book is insane, in the best way. It’s a collection of personal essays about the nature of inspiration and how to cultivate it. Reading this made me feel more creative, more confident in my skills, and more excited to develop skills that I thought were out of my reach. (Special honorable mentions go to State of Wonder: A Novel by Ann Patchett and The Signature of All Things: A Novel by Gilbert. Both EXCELLENT novels that are explicitly mentioned in Big Magic. The story of how the idea for State of Wonder developed is literal creative magic, and it’s worth reading the book for that anecdote alone.)

Ok. That was a lot. And now I have the NEED to reread all of those books immediately. Seriously, after I took photos, I just left them next to my nightstand. 

What are your favorites? I’m always looking to add new books to my reading list!  I especially want to hear if you’ve read any of my faves (even if you hated them).

MAKEUP CORNER//My highly emotional journey to finding a new favorite lipstick

You guys may know me for long rants on organization and easy recipes, but I haven’t talked a lot about my other love here: makeup 👄

Bite Beauty lip in Beetroot

I have loved makeup for as long as I can remember. For a long, long time, I was only allowed to wear neutral eyeshadow, clear (CLEAR!) mascara, and blush. As an adult, I totally get the why of these rules, but that doesn’t mean the preteen me liked it. I remember applying multiple layers of a champagne-colored eyeshadow from lashline to browbone, coating on that clear mascara, and heading off to a high school football game (I was probably 14).

Don’t worry, my makeup skills have improved over the years. But I am still just as obsessed. I’m not the woman that needs a full face to hit the gym or the grocery store, but you best believe I take a good hour to get glam before an event (or a random date night, if I’ve got the time).

Makeup has always been more than just fun for me, though. I’ve had acne since I was nine. I literally don’t remember what it’s like to have clear skin, and it’s possible that I’ll never have that experience. In the past five years or so, a bold lip or fake lashes (or both if you’re lucky 😍) have been a way to take control of my face. I don’t think that either of these accessories totally hide the acne — I know that they don’t — but manipulating my face in a way that I can totally control makes me feel confident about my looks in a new way.

If you have a big pimple, wear a really bold lip. #distraction
Bite Beauty lip in Hazelnut

Almost six months ago, Grant was diagnosed with new allergies to several really common cosmetic chemicals. Like really common. His dermatologist supplied us with a PDF of “safe” products, and you know what wasn’t on there? A single lipstick that I owned.

I am not proud to tell you that I cried. My poor husband was physically suffering, and I was crying over vanity. (In fact, I’m writing this in public and just had to take a bathroom break to pull myself together.) In the months leading up to this diagnosis, I’d been using Lipsense (I’m sure a FB friend or two of yours sells this permanent lipstick), including on our wedding day. It’s a two-step application, including a gloss. The SECOND ingredient of the gloss, which I had been wearing daily, is one of G’s new allergens. His poor lips had been splitting on a regular basis after being exposed to my stupid, vain lipgloss.

Wearing my beloved Lipsense: One coat of Fly Girl and two coats of Sheer Berry.

I also had to replace hair and body products, but nothing hit me quite as hard as my lipstick collection. I took the PDF of safe products to Ulta, and they didn’t carry a single thing that was safe for me to use.

I cried in an Ulta. I was a mess.

After a lot of tears and some journaling, I came to those realizations I outlined above. The why of my emotional reaction changed everything. Yes, lipstick is superficial, but it’s also really important to me. 

So, after all of that, my mom and I went to Sephora, where I found my NEW holy grail lipstick.

Bite Beauty lip in Fig

Bite Beauty Amuse Bouche. It’s creamy, moisturizing, long-wear if you blot it well enough, heavily pigmented, AND the colors are named after foods. PERFECT. The formula is made of edible oils, and the ingredients are a lot cleaner than the average lip color. AND, it’s safe for my boo, which is the real end-all, be-all qualification. (I wouldn’t call this formula kiss-proof, but it’s definitely quick-peck-proof, as long as you blot first.)

Wedding-ready in Bite Beauty lip in Gazpacho

Honorable mention: Bobby Brown Art Stick. Also really good, but not as wide of a color range, and not quite as creamy.

Hazelnut, Fig, Radish, Beetroot, Gazpacho, Jam, Cayenne, and Ginger, all by Bite Beauty.