LIFE: 4 Books on a Big Topic

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Ilana Masad

Staff Writer

Israeli American, queer, chronically ill, and forever reading, Ilana Masad is a book critic and fiction writer. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, the Guardian, the Los Angeles Times, Tin House, McSweeney's, Joyland Magazine, and more. She is the founder and host of The Other Stories, a podcast that features new, emerging, and established fiction writers. Twitter: @ilanaslightly Blog: Slightly Ignorant

Hello, Rioters! I’m trying something new here, and I’d love to hear what you think! I’m taking subjects, both big and abstract and small and mundane, and recommend some great reads, fiction and non-fiction, about these topics.

For the first installment, I decided to take the biggest subject there is – life itself! – and find a couple eye-opening books of these two genres (alas, I know very little about poetry, but would love recommendations in the comments). Without further ado, please enjoy the following recs!


A Guide to Being Born by Ramona AusubelA Guide to Being Born by Ramona Ausubel

Ramona Ausubel’s first collection of short fiction is divided into four parts that work backwards from life: Birth, Gestation, Conception, Love. The stories in each section dwell on different kinds of oddities of life and of our bodies. In one, a soon-to-be father discovers drawers growing out of his chest and begins storing plastic babies inside them. In another, grandmothers share a mysterious cruise ship to nowhere in a story that seems to explore a kind of afterlife. Each of the stories is gorgeously crafted and intriguing. Life, Ausubel seems to be saying, is always full of the unexpected.

A Little Life by Hanya YanagiharaA Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Hanya Yangihara’s acclaimed work of fiction is not at all little. This massive book carries the reader through over thirty years in the lives of four unforgettable men: Jude, JB, Willem, and Malcolm. They meet in college, where they’re roommates, and their friendships and fights continue on for decades, with the most unexpected twists and turns. Not for the faint of heart, this book deals with a lot of truly difficult issues, many of which will make your skin crawl with sympathy and your breath catch in emotional pain. But the beauty of this book is that it showcases deeply realistic characters and the way pain is offset by pleasure, sadness by joy, even if the fleeting happiness doesn’t last.


Redefining Realness by Janet MockRedefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love and So Much More by Janet Mock

Janet Mock grew up with many marginalizing factors: she was poor, she was multiracial, and she was trans. For good reason, it was chosen by The Root as one of their favorite nonfiction books of 2014. Mock’s story is one of a life worth living despite the hardships she faced, and despite what some readers may expect, Mock’s story is not all about her body or her gender. It is about her mind, her essence, and her bravery as a human, not as the sum of her definitions. Life lived to its fullest in difficult circumstances is on beautiful display here, with a rise not only to safety and security but also to prominence.

The Family Gene by Joselin LinderThe Family Gene: A Mission to Turn My Deadly Inheritance Into A Hopeful Future by Joselin Linder

Coming out this March, Joselin Linder’s book is a fantastic memoir and portrait of a life lived in the shadow of illness. Worse, the illness in Linder’s family was impossible to categorize or diagnose. Doctors simply didn’t understand what had killed Linder’s great-grandmother, her uncle, her father. But a few incredibly skilled and curious physicians took the Linder’s under their wing and figured out that a variation in a particular gene was causing all the problems. This book is about family and the value of life more than it is a medical memoir, and it does a fantastic job at giving us perspective not only on death, but on living our way up to it.


If there are subjects you’d like me to tackle, I’d love to hear your recommendations!