My 1980s & Other Essays
2013, FSG Originals
This book taught me that it’s OK and valid to treat EVERYTHING as important/meaningful, even if it’s just a passing moment that you can’t explain to others or connect to a larger thought. Wayne Koestenbaum makes this happen through gorgeous essays about some of my favorite things and people, like Blondie’s Debbie Harry and the writer Roland Barthes, and gets me excited to immerse myself in the work of people I haven’t engaged with yet. The best essay is about one such person, Susan Sontag, whom Koestenbaum calls a “cosmophage,” or someone committed to “eating” the world by experiencing (and making art about) as many different facets of life as she could. That piece changed me this year—the whole book did, really. Reading it is emphatically personhood-affirming. —Amy Rose
The Woman Who Walked Into Doors
1996, Jonathan Cape/Viking
When I was 14 I snatched this paperback off the contemporary adult fiction shelf while book shopping with my mom and then snuck it home after a covert transaction at the cash register. I knew the author was Irish (this was during what I’d call my “Ireland phase”), but I wasn’t expecting to have my universe ripped apart when I cracked the spine. It’s a story about love and what happens when it goes horribly wrong (codependency, abuse, alcoholism, and poverty are among its main themes). The narrator, Paula Spencer, is a 39-year-old, recently single, working-class woman recounting her life so far. Paula’s childhood in Dublin’s suburbs is innocuous, but the pace picks up as she enters teenagehood and falls for Charlo, a guy who is the very quintessence of the bad-boy stereotype. She knows he’s no good for her, but his pull is irresistibly strong, and a heady romance is followed by a wedding, a pregnancy…and then, abuse. I was in an abusive relationship myself the first time I read it, and I was interested in seeing how the characters dealt with domestic violence—but more than that, I was fascinated by how deftly the male author entered the mind of a girl, and then a woman, and set down her experience in words that still haunt me today. I have gone back to read sentences from this book over and over again; at one point I even started imitating the terse, staccato style of the dialogue in my own speech. I saw both my present and my future in this book, which was terrifying, but at the same time I was consumed by the startling beauty and power of Doyle’s writing, which was thrilling. —Ragini
The Time Traveler’s Wife
Henry is the time traveler in question: He’s a librarian in Chicago with a disease that makes him shoot through different points in time, landing in different eras and ages of his life. He doesn’t know where he’ll land each time, but two things are consistent: his wife, Clare, whom he meets/met (confusing!) when she is 20, and then at various points in time when she is a child, too; and the total uncertainty of their relationship, defined by that over which they have no control. The novel delves into what it means when there is “distance” in relationships—both the literal kind and that heartbreaking feeling that you’re not on the same page and may never be. But it’s also about what true love means, and what people do to make it work even when the gap between them seems insurmountable. You’d think this book would be very Nicholas Sparks–y, and it is romantic like that, but its sci-fi element adds another level of magic to the love, which is so strong it defies the normal rules of time and space. There’s a movie starring Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams (of course), but definitely read the book first—it will make you think a lot about the nature of love and eternity from a beautiful and I-promise-it’s-not-cheesy perspective. —Julianne
In this wonderful, funny novel, Colson Whitehead captures the geeky agony of summers spent with fighting parents, changing friends, books, and boredom. The protagonist, Benji, is 15 and one of a handful of African-American students at his New York City prep school. He spends the summer of 1985 in Sag Harbor, a tony little village on the East End of Long Island, where he has a job at the ice cream shop. The novel is shot through with hip-hop and pop music, profanity, humor, and pathos, and it’s full of first kisses and waffle cones, just like summers should be. The perfect antidote to wintertime blues. —Emma
Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock
2013, Little, Brown and Company
This book makes no bones about its bleakness, starting with the first page, where the narrator, Leonard Peacock, outlines his big plans for his 18th birthday. First, he will track down all the people who have meant something to him and give them each a gift. Then he will find his former best friend and end both their lives in a murder-suicide. As Leonard goes through his day, he has flashbacks that explain how each person he plans to visit has affected him—in positive ways and crushingly negative ones. It’s a really beautiful and accurate depiction of all the painful, suffocating, and seemingly hopeless parts of depression (but in no way does it advocate suicide—or murder). The subject matter isn’t easy or light, but the author, Matthew Quick, never tries to reduce it to after-school-special material. This book took up residence in my head and stayed there long after I’d finished reading it. Even writing this recommendation is bringing up all these feelings. —Anna F.
2004, Random House
Cloud Atlas spans centuries, planets, and the perspectives of many different narrators, but as you read it, each plotline begins to feel as though it belongs to one common worldview. I’m stunned by David Mitchell’s ability to conceive of such a wide range of places and people over the course of hundreds of years that all feel as though they could actually be you, whether they’re 18th-century mariners or members of a servile android race living in a future millennium. Cloud Atlas is a deeply empathetic and gorgeous story that looks at how your experiences impact others, even long after you die, and I feel better after each time I reread it, which I do maybe more than any other book. —Amy Rose
1975, Farrar, Straus and Giroux
When I was a tween living in Saudi Arabia, a mix of popular culture and Arabian mythology sparked my interest in genies. During a school camping trip in the desert, a classmate asked what I’d wish for if I ever encountered one of the magical creatures. “I want to live forever,” I said. A few years later, I read Tuck Everlasting, Natalie Babbitt’s beautiful coming-of-age novel about a curious 10-year-old who falls in love with an adventurous boy from a family of immortals, shifted my thinking on this matter—I realized that living vibrantly and fearlessly was more important than living forever. Now, whenever my fear of death creeps up on me I remember these words from the book: “Don’t be afraid of death; be afraid of an unlived life.” —Jamia
If I Stay
Mia’s family—her punk rock parents and her cute little brother—come to life in the first 10 pages of this book, then everything changes with a crash. Literally. Suddenly Mia is looking down at her family’s wrecked car and wrecked bodies on a snowy road. In the hospital and in a coma, she hovers between life and death, surrounded by family and friends, and tries to decide whether to stick around. I started this book thinking it could be a cheesy tearjerker, but instead discovered a real-seeming story about the choices and tiny moments that shape us as people. Gayle Forman intricately arranges the parts of Mia’s past and her uncertain future like a gorgeous piece of orchestral music. I think this is a must-read for anyone trying to figure out where life is taking them. And it’s being adapted into a screenplay, so try to read it before the movie comes out. —Stephanie
Fear of Fighting
Stacey May Fowles
2008, Invisible Publishing
This is a book about the aftermath of a breakup. The plotline is simple enough in its scope, but Fowles’s prose manages to make everything seem mundane and epic at once, capturing the feelings of loneliness all too well. The book is illustrated by the artist Marlena Zuber, whose surreal, eclectic drawings are the perfect accompaniment to the text. They make the story feel whimsical despite the realistic depiction of all the crappy, though rarely permanent, aspects of breaking up. —Anna F.
As a child, Rebekkah Barrow watched her grandmother Maylene attend every funeral in Claysville and perform the same strange ritual at each one: taking three sips from a silver flask and telling the dead, “Sleep well and stay where I put you.” When Maylene dies, Rebekkah returns to Claysville and discovers the truth about her family’s role in the small town’s history: Generations of Barrow women have worked alongside the town’s undertakers as “graveminders,” people tasked with watching over the dead to make sure they don’t reawaken as zombies—which some of them, Rebekkah learns, have started doing again since Maylene’s death. But this isn’t just a zombie story! It’s about family, relationships in a small town, tradition, life, and death. It’s a Southern gothic fairytale so lush and incredible that I wanted to live in it—even with the undead. —Stephanie
OK! I know: Pixie has written about this beautiful book before. But how could we not mention it again when it is so perfect, not only for how theme-appropriate it is (obviously) but also because of how radical it still feels, almost 40 years after it was published, in the way it treats teenagers as real human beings who experience real love and have real sex and can make real mistakes while at the same time lucidly talking about their feelings and taking good care of their own hearts and minds? We couldn’t. —Lena
Not Your Ordinary Wolf Girl
I was all of half a chapter into this book when I realized, Dang, this is so Rookie. The protagonist, Sam Lee, is an 18-year-old who plays in an all-girl punk band. She happens to be biracial, but it’s something that is just a matter of fact, which, being mixed-race myself, was SO NICE to read. (Rarely do you see biracial characters in books, and when you do, it’s in Very Serious Stories about identity politics.) Sam’s navigating her way through this thing called life, and that’s fodder enough for a good book on its own, but then (NOT a spoiler ’cause it’s hinted at in title of the book) she gets bitten by a werewolf, and a whole new slew of problems arise! Werewolf-related problems! Perfect holiday reading, if you ask me. —Anna F.
The Impossible Knife of Memory
Laurie Halse Anderson
January 2014, Viking
Hayley Kincaid is being raised on the road by her father, Andy, an Iraq War vet who keeps them moving to escape his nightmarish memories of combat. For Hayley’s senior year of high school, they finally return to the small New York town where Andy grew up and where Hayley lived while he was overseas. In some ways, Hayley finds normalcy there. She hangs out with her best friend, Grace, and starts a relationship with an adorable oddball named Finn. But parts of Hayley’s “now” are starting to seem like they will be with her always: taking care of her dad, rescuing him from bar fights, diverting him from a world of flashbacks, and keeping him away from an ex-girlfriend who’s battling her own demons. Laurie Halse Anderson is a master of delicately shaping realistic characters who are surviving something hellish—in this case, PTSD. Her books always leave me with deeper understandings that shape the way I treat others (in a good way). I loved her 2001 book, Speak, but this might be her most powerful story yet. Save some room on your holiday gift cards to pick it up after January 7, when it’s officially released. —Stephanie
The Love Song of Jonny Valentine
2013, Free Press
There’s an early scene in The Love Song of Jonny Valentine where the main character, an 11-year-old pop star in the mold of Justin Bieber, sneaks onto his mother’s computer and googles himself. Among the millions of blogs and videos and fansites and such, there’s a page created by an adult that counts down to Jonny’s 18th birthday, when he’ll be “legal.” Reading this, I was reminded of real-life child stars who’ve inspired online “legality” countdowns: Mary-Kate and Ashley, Justin, Dakota—and, most of all, Britney.
I remember the first time I ever saw Britney Spears on TV: She was 16 and “…Baby One More Time” had just come out. She was a guest on MTV’s Total Request Live, and they showed the video, in which she dances suggestively in basically a “sexy Catholic schoolgirl” Halloween costume. When the host of the show commented on how risqué the video was, Britney either feigned or genuinely expressed naïve ignorance, kind of unfairly suggesting that his reaction had came out of left field. Britney’s image then was built on this kind of double bind: In interviews she talked about remaining a virgin till marriage, while the accompanying photos showed her in booty shorts and a pushup bra, standing pigeon-toed in a little girl’s bedroom, surrounded by dolls. She was sold as a virginal seductress, a message that was catnip for the kinds of pervs who make legal-age-countdown websites about children.
As her fame grew, I remember allowing my thoughts about her to wander one day until they reached what turned out to be a real premonition, though not a psychic one, because anyone who bothered to extrapolate a trajectory based on what we knew about her—she was super young, super talented, totally sheltered, incredibly famous, extremely savvy about the music industry but clueless about much else, media-coached to death, exploited by parents with too much to gain from her success, and cornered into a predicament where hundreds if not thousands of adults were apparently obsessed with the state of her actual vagina (was she “really” a “virgin”?)—could have seen where this train was headed: Oh man, I thought, that girl is going to go literally insane, and it will be OUR fault. I have a hard time looking at Britney now; it makes me too sad. We as a culture used her up and spit her out, and I can’t watch her play a dead-eyed shell of the performer she used to be, trying desperately to regain the conditional love of the very people who destroyed her.
Jonny has a lot in common with Britney: He’s coming of age sexually under an intense spotlight, he’s bulimic and has a bit of a pill problem, and he’s being overworked by a momager who depends on him to keep her out of poverty. He narrates The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, and Teddy Wayne gets his pubescent voice so right that I worry about little Jonny Valentine the way I do about Britney Spears, a real person. The book is an indictment of “celebrity culture” and the “media machine” and so on, and it’s also a sad, funny story about a sad, funny boy. It is the kind of book you don’t put down even when you have to go pee or get the mail or pull your toast out of the toaster. It is just great. I am obsessed with it and think it should be Sofia Coppola’s next movie. Read it if you have time. —Anaheed ♦