The Post-Graduate Reading List

Many of my friends who have just graduated college are getting back into free reading. A few even joined book clubs. As a consequence, I’ve been asked by a lot of people for book recommendations. This makes me feel like a fraud – I actually don’t read as many books as my friends think I do. I’m much more an essay/short story/Aeon/New York Times person. Out of the recommendation list below, there’s only two full length novels – the rest are collections of short stories or a novella. I blame my impatience and/or inability to sift through long-winded allegory for meaning.

Anyway, the following are my favorite books that I’ve read after college graduation, listed in the order in which I read them.

Books and Novels

1. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, by Milan Kundera

Honestly, The Unbearable Lightness of Being was much better. But to uphold the integrity of this post graduate reading list, I had to leave that Kundera novel off and replace it with this one instead. This book is a classic Kundera – set in communist-era Prague, with a bunch of cheating husbands and wives and spies scattered around. For those new to Kundera, he writes like a philosopher whose primary concern is to explain a concept. His focus is not in realistic character development or tantalizing plots. He’s perfect for those who dabble in existential crisis.

Buzzwords – orgy, horoscope, ostriches

2. Kitchen, by Banana Yoshimoto
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This is a very simple story about a girl and a boy and a mom persevering through life despite hardships. However, the context in which I read this book gave it incredible meaning to my life. I borrowed it from Angela to read during the five-hour ordeal that is college Commencement, and then I finished it on the plane to Beijing just two days later.  It’s one of those stories that soak up and illuminate the environment in which you read it. I bet if I reread it in less terrifying, less daunting circumstances, I would experience a different interpretation and mood.

Buzzwords – pineapple, katsudon, taxis

3. On Beauty, by Zadie Smith
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Zadie Smith is non-stop wit and satire in this novel. At its heart, this is a story about family relationships, but a mixed “modern” family with transatlantic roots, from England to New England. It does a wonderful job of depicting the diversity of experiences within black communities.  I especially recommend it to my college friends because it paints such a vivid picture of the pretentiousness and hypocrisy in elite higher education. Certain one-liners had me snickering out loud.

Buzzwords – slam poetry, aesthetics, Haiti

4. Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, by Vincent Lambloodletting-and-miraculous-cures

I recommend this collection for those who want more Asian characters in fiction but don’t want the entire plot to center around the struggles of being Asian and born in a non-Asian country. (God I wish this book took place in America so then I could have written Asian-American instead of writing that convoluted sentence, but it’s important to acknowledge the difference between the Asian-Canadian and Asian-American experience).

Buzzwords – premeds, purple birds, Canada

5. Graduates in Wonderland, by Jessica Pan and Rachel Kapelke-DaleGraduates_FINAL-cover

Coming clean here: I am still reading this. But I knew from page one that I had found the voice(s) of my generation. In this non-fiction memoir, two best friends keep in touch through detailed, charming emails about their new post-grad lives in Beijing, New York, Paris, and more. Of course, terrible dates and awful jobs are analyzed in detail. Quite a few of my friends have scattered across the world in search of adventure and work, and I know we all get pangs of loneliness from all the unfamiliar. Reading this is like reading emails from your best friend and being home again.

Buzzwords – Beijing bikini, beard brother, grad school

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I know, I know. Given that it’s been over four months since graduation, my book list is rather paltry. But since I’ve been abroad for that entire time, getting my hands on a physical copy of a good English-language book (I refuse to join the Kindle revolution) has proven difficult. The selection has been limited to discarded books from faculty and hostels. I made up for it by reading a lot of online short stories and essays sourced from my friends (many thanks to @thenarrowroad). I would just load them on my laptop for times when I had no wifi, which was way too often. Sometimes, I read an idea that actually changes my life. This happens more with short stories and essays than it does for full-length novels.  I think it’s because essays are more direct and to-the-point.  In times of distress, certain lines from an essay would pop into my head and I would repeat it like a mantra to calm down.  I love essays – they can save you. The best part about essays is that they can be easily shared with people for free over the internet.

The following pieces all introduced a new perspective to my life – my routines, purpose, relationships, etc.  Or I just found them to be fantastic writing that made me really feel something. I hope they do for you as well.

Short Stories

Essays

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And of course I’ve been a total basic bitch and reading quotes off of tumblr. But whatever. Words are words. Here’s the most recent:

“Sometimes we must undergo hardships, breakups, and narcissistic wounds, which shatter the flattering image that we had of ourselves, in order to discover two truths: that we are not who we thought we were; and that the loss of a cherished pleasure is not necessarily the loss of true happiness and well-being.” – Jean-Yves Leloup

Finally,  great books and stories spark unforgettable conversations with friends and loved ones in real life. So please let me know if you have read anything amazing recently. I would love to expand my reading list. Or if you also read any of the stuff listed above, in which case I want to pick your brain for your reaction and thoughts.

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#goals.

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Hopping Through Central Europe: Berlin, Dresden, Prague, and Vienna

Memories really do fade quickly. Or maybe just the ones that weren’t that important to remember. I visited Berlin, Dresden, Prague, and Vienna over three months ago, but I must’ve been having way too much fun this last quarter of college to have bothered to document those experiences. By now, all that’s left is how my expectations for each city differed from the actual thing. That disconnect may actually be 68% of the joy of traveling.

Berlin, Germany

Expectation: Artsy, modern, great for history buffs, unfriendly to tourists, intimidating

IMG_2965Reality: Maybe I’m just used to “intimidating cities” because I’m a Chicago-girl, but I found Berlin to be the most American-like city that I visited in Europe. The architecture was glassy and sharp. The graffiti was edgy and reminded me of Pilsen street art. The food was so refreshingly affordable after a week in London and Paris (and had actual flavor!)

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Currywurst and fries!

The most impressive thing about Berlin was hands-down, the way the city marks its history. Topography of Terror and the Holocaust Memorial were both extremely well designed, informative, and grappled with the politics of national memory. IMG_2967

Dresden, Germany

Expectation: Free four hour stop over on the train from Germany to Czech Republic. Therefore no expectations.

Reality: The bombing of Dresden would have been considered a crime against humanity had the Allies lost the war. The city left the charred markings untouched on the buildings in memory of that event. I found out that the Dresden Academy of Art is a pretty big deal. The city is a weird juxtaposition of High Renaissance complexes and gleaming new shopping centers.
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Prague, Czech Republic

Expectation: My good friend’s girlfriend lives near Prague Castle. They filmed the Bachelorette here and it looked absolutely stunning. Milan Kundera’s city/country.

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Still from The Unbearable Lightness of Being, featuring the Prague Spring.

Reality: Prague and Paris are now tied in my heart. Though I could never taint my experience of Prague by aspiring to work there. No, Prague is a city in which to slow down, marvel, and share with a loved one. I’ve only ever had one other intense emotional reaction to a city before, and that was in 2013 when I walked along the Seine for the first time in Paris. This time, I took a midnight stroll from my hostel near Prague Castle, over the Charles Bridge, and into Old Town Square. That moment when the city widened before my eyes as I crossed the river, spotlit towers and an expansive sky framed by the Bridge’s stoic stone statues – I think I teared up.

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A courtyard in Prague Castle. Romanesque to Renaissance to Empire style- a living architecture textbook.

The cafes are also magnificent. The Czech tradition of fostering the world’s most beloved writers still prospers – and I bet those cafes have something to do with it. Czech food also is the best tasting in all of Europe in my opinion! It’s rich and tender and flavorful and filled with spices. Ahhh I fell in love with the roast ducks and potato dumplings and the nutella-filled spa wafers.

Cafe Louvre, where Einstein and Kafka were patrons.

Cafe Louvre, where Einstein and Kafka were patrons.

Many people’s number one complaint about Prague is that it’s too touristy, but my reaction was the complete opposite. Yes, the tourists swarm to the city, but the city’s hallmark cafes, streetcars, parks – they are all also well used by the locals. Perhaps it’s just a little hard to imagine how such a storybook place can still exist and function in the modern world. I did benefit greatly from having a local friend show me around. Any city is infinitely more well appreciated when the experience is shared with a great friend and/or someone who can show you the “real” parts of the place.

Colorful.

Colorful.

Fun Facts: 

  • Beer is cheaper than water at $0.68/liter (and it’s good Czech beer).
  • Cannabis paraphernalia is abundant
  • Strip-club industry is on the rise.
  • Europe’s premier bachelor party destination for the reasons cited above
  • Surprisingly large population of Vietnamese immigrants

Vienna, Austria

Expectation: Cultural capital for the performing arts, intellectual hot bed (at least historically), home of the largest collection of Egon Schiele’s works.

Reality: Kind of racist, stuffy, and elitist. The Egon Schiele Museum was bomb though. My favorite part of Vienna was the museum’s exhibition at the time that explored Schiele’s romantic relationship with his muse, Wally. It was the most personal depiction of an artist and his works that I’ve ever seen, and thus also my favorite. Read more about their relationship here.

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I know I sound kind of salty about Vienna but, I still had a grand old time because I was staying with my good friend. One of those friends with whom you can carry four hour long conversations and feel energized at the end instead of drained. Oh, despite the snootiness, Vienna really does have the best coffee in Europe. That melange…IMG_3134

All in all, Central Europe shouldn’t be skipped over! In fact, it should be a prime destination. It’s so affordable, so well preserved, and really quite different from Western Europe. I was kinda broke so I took the buses a lot, but if you get a chance, take the trains! You will be treated to a view of twisting rivers snaking through forested valleys and dotted with colorful homes. Leisurely train rides through Europe must have been modeled on the ones going through Central Europe. That dining car and its frothy cappucinos are just quintessential European Backpacking Perfection.