And Then Things Fall Apart
2011, Simon Pulse
If your summer is off to a rocky start, read And Then Things Fall Apart. You will instantly feel better because the main character, 15-year-old Keek, definitely has you beat. Her parents are on the verge of a divorce because her dad cheated on her mom with someone Keek thought was her friend; her baby cousin was born premature; Keek was (and still is) thinking obsessively about losing her virginity, but then she and her boyfriend had a massive fight; her relationship with her long-time best friend is on the fritz; and on top of all that, Keek has the chicken pox. Getting the chicken pox as a kid is bad enough (I still have the scars to prove it), but getting them as a teenager means spending weeks in a feverish, itchy haze. Keek is in quarantine at her grandma’s with no technology, just an old typewriter and her copy of The Bell Jar to keep her (sorta) sane. The result is this book, a combination of journal entries and poems, all totally honest, but not as dark as you might think. Plath’s protagonist, Esther Greenwood, may be Keek’s idol, but she has a sense of humor about it. This is a fun, true-to-life read that gave me a whole new perspective on The Bell Jar to boot! —Stephanie
100 Years of Solitude
Gabriel García Márquez
1967, Harper & Row/Jonathan Cape
My first encounter with 100 Years of Solitude was during a particularly scorching summer six years ago. It seemed fitting, reading the story of the Buendia family in the sun-dappled fictional town of Macondo as I lazed in the cool of the aircon, sipping mango smoothies, breaking off only for a dip in the pool. 100 Years of Solitude (or Cien Años de Soledad in the original Spanish) is a tale of love and longing and broken hearts, of dreams and ghosts, of history repeating, unchanging and eternal, and ultimately of solitude. The backdrop is a summer that feels like it never ends, against which events both fantastical and mundane play out through Márquez’s nuanced use of magical realism. Entire villages suffer from plagues of insomnia, ghost ships are moored in marshes hundreds of miles inland, a man cracks open his skull and what spills out is not blood but amber-colored oil that smells of the woman he loved, and when Jose Arcadio Buendia, the patriarch of the family, dies, Macondo is covered in a rain of yellow flowers. Heartbreak and unrequited love litter the pages chaotically, silently. When Amaranta Buendia rejects her Italian suitor, he slashes his wrists and hangs himself to the sound of a hundred clockwork toys jangling. 100 Years is not just the story of one family in one fictional village, it is the story of Colombia, and by extension of Latin America. It’s the story of colonization, and the resulting violence that led to human identities’ being fragmented and ruptured, never to be whole again. I raced through the book in a few days, feeling like I was lost in a sad, cocooning dream. When I finished it, I felt like I couldn’t breathe. All I could feel was a sense of sorrow, like I had lost something I couldn’t remember and I knew I would never find it again. —Ragini
Eleanor & Park
2013, St. Martin’s Press
It’s 1986, and Eleanor is the new girl at school. Chubby, poor, and from a tumultuous home, she becomes a target for the cruelty and bullying of the popular kids at school. Park, on the other hand, has always been able to slip under the radar at school, in limbo between unpopularity and coolness. When Eleanor sits next to him on the bus one day, Park’s main concern is how her proximity might affect his social standing. But soon comic books and mixtapes are exchanged and a shy friendship evolves between the two, then something more, and then for the next 300+ pages your heart will be put through the wringer (in a good way, I promise) as you ask yourself the following questions: WHY can’t these two sweet kids just overcome social obstacles and be with each other in public? HOW did the world become such an unkind place? WHERE is the cute boy that will make me mixtapes full of angsty Smiths songs? WHEN will this neverending waterfall of tears falling down my face cease? And finally, WHO is this Rainbow Rowell that is making me feel all these feelings? Have fun. —Anna F.
Two Girls, Fat and Thin
Through gorgeous and painful and gruesome detail, Mary Gaitskill pulls us inside her characters so that we come to understand (and feel, really physically feel) what it is like to inhabit a particular body. We follow the title’s two girls, Dorothy Never (fat) and Justine Shade (thin), from childhood to early adolescence. Longing imbues both of their lives. Dorothy was sexually abused as a child and yearns for a world that is “clean and logical” and holds objective beauty; she finds her escape in an Objectivism-esque pop philosophy called Definitism. Justine was a popular kid with a tendency to rebel and bully; she is later inflamed by an erotic urge to hurt and to be tied up, whipped, pissed on, hurt. The chapters weave back and forth between the lives of these two lonesome souls, until their lives intersect one day in adulthood when Justine, by now a journalist, interviews Dorothy about her involvement with Definitism. As I read the novel, I entered Dorothy’s body and then Justine’s; I was alternately lustful, frigid, trembling, desired, grotesque, but always utterly engrossed. —Anna M.
Sometimes you read a book that is so satisfying, so full of understanding and sympathy for its characters, so full of humor and love, that it feels like its author must have been struck by lightning while writing it. That’s how I feel about The Interestings. I’ve read most of Meg Wolitzer’s books, and they are all smart and affecting, but The Interestings is a perfect storm of a novel. Oh! I haven’t even told you what it’s about. The Interestings is the name of a group of friends who meet at summer camp in high school, the kind of place where famous folk singers wander in for an unnannounced concert and people do modern dance. I went to one of these; maybe you did (or do), too. What happens next is what makes the book sublime–instead of having the book take place over the next year, which is eventful because these characters are teenagers and every teenage year is eventful in one way or another–the book follows the group for decades, through scandals and marriages and children and love. I laughed, I cried. Perhaps most important, I no longer felt sad that my high school summer-camp crush turned out to be a toxic person. It happens to the best of us. —Emma S.
Was She Pretty?
2006, Sarah Crichton Books
The relationship we have with our current romantic partner’s ex is a bizarre one. In the worse-case scenario, former partners of your partner are a source of resentment and insecurity, and for what? Because the two of you happened to have the same taste in a boyfriend or girlfriend at some point in your lives? Leanne Shapton gets how petty and frustrating, yet how universal, this feeling can be. Was She Pretty? is a collection of fragments and sketches of all the ways past relationships can haunt current ones. It’s a beautiful little exercise that is a source of comfort for all those messy feelings exes can dredge up. —Anna F.
Wanderlust: A History of Walking
This book meanders from the peripatetic philosophers of Ancient Greece to English gardens to socialist walking clubs to pioneers and mountaineers to pilgrimages and protests to the Parisian flâneur (and beyond). With her expansive knowledge and musing prose, Rebecca Solnit demonstrates the cultural and philosophical importance of walking: It allows our bodies and minds to wander; by getting lost, we are able to see the world with fresh eyes. After I finished the book I had an overwhelming urge to head to the hills; to walk, like Peace Pilgrim (one of Solnit’s subjects), from New York to San Francisco and back and forth and back and forth. Instead, I headed for the beach. I heard the waves lapping and felt the ocean breeze, but I couldn’t figure out how to get off the concrete and onto the sand because to get there I’d have to trespass through a bunch of private bungalows with uninviting signs. Oh, well. Another aftereffect was that I couldn’t bear to drag myself to the gym anymore, so I wasted that money. I blame my weak will on this quote that Solnit pulls from the author James Hardie in her discussion of the treadmill, which was invented during the Industrial Revolution as a kind of forced labor/punishment for prisoners: “It is its monotonous steadiness… which constitutes its terror, and frequently breaks down the obstinate spirit.” —Anna M.
This was Junot Díaz’s first book, and the one that made me fall in love with his writing. Like most of Díaz’s stuff it’s narrated by Yunior, a Dominican kid growing up in New Jersey, and like all of his stuff it will break your heart by just describing every detail of life in the most honest and unsentimental way. I’m not a young boy or a teenage boy or a Dominican immigrant, but when I read these stories I feel like I am Yunior de Las Casas. I feel him longing for love, and denying his love to the people who long for it. I’m all up inside his disappointments and his pain and the totally unfair amount of heartbreak that life has heaped on his young self. I fully inhabit his bravado, and I ache for him when he passes his pain on to others. And now this kid—this sweet, cruel, vulnerable, angry, sexist, sad, smart, funny boy—will always be alive in me somewhere, and how remarkable is that? That’s the kind of empathy that Junot Díaz is capable of creating, and, I mean, if that’s not what literature is for, I don’t know what is. —Anaheed
Interpreter of Maladies
1999, Houghton Mifflin
Jhumpa Lahiri is an expert on real human emotion and our inability to fully communicate our deepest longings. In the title story, an Indian-American couple visits India, and the cultural differences between them and the people who live there are shown through the eyes of their tour guide. In “A Temporary Matter,” a couple whose relationship has been strained since their child was stillborn receive a notice that their power is going to be out every night for five days, and they spend those nights trading secrets. The title character of “Mrs. Sen” is a woman who’s recently immigrated to America from Calcutta, and she’s having a hard time adjusting to her new life. The emotional conflicts and journeys that Lahiri’s characters take—their miscommunications and struggles with feeling out of place or untrue—are universally relatable, and they gave me fresh perspective on my own relationships. —Stephanie
The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel
“He told me not to bring him flowers, but I often brought flowers with me, lately cabbage roses. He seemed pained to receive them and did not really look at them until they started to decay. He could not wait to get rid of them so he could enjoy remembering them.” These sentences, taken from the story “Offertory,” gets at a quality—haiku-like, its truths drawn quietly from everyday life—that I find in all of Amy Hempel’s work, which is collected (four short-story collections’ worth) in this one volume. It is the quietness that I love about her sentences: She reminds me that beauty often lies not in an event itself but in its absence, in the way that it is imagined, anticipated, remembered, or re-created. Hempel is a writer who is made of wit and grace and longing, taking pleasure in peacefully quilting together the scraps of every day to create something bigger. —Anna M.
The Grapes of Wrath
The Grapes of Wrath tells the story of the Joads, an Oklahoma sharecropping family who are making their way west along Route 66 to California after the Dust Bowl destroyed their farmland, and with it their only means of survival. There was work in California, picking orange, they’d heard. We follow them—Ma and Pa, teenage Rose of Sharon, and Tom, fresh of out prison for homicide—on their long path to this promised land and watch as they try to adjust to their new lives out West. Tom Joad is the main protagonist, and he has become such an iconic figure that both Bruce Springsteen and Woody Guthrie have written songs inspired by him. This book is nearly 75 years old, and sadly, there are still people in America struggling like the Joads. That’s why it’s an important read, but the nuanced characters and Steinbeck’s painfully gorgeous descriptions of the Joads’ world are what make The Grapes of Wrath my all-time favorite book. —Stephanie ♦