Tracks: A Woman’s Solo Trek Across 1,700 Miles of Australian Outback
1980, Pantheon/Jonathan Cape
Every time I feel a bit stuck in my life, I think of this book. Tracks is a memoir about Robyn Davidson’s quest to cross the Australian desert with no company but four camels and her dog. Set in the 1970s, when women weren’t supposed to do wild things like go on adventures without men, the book details her journey as she learns how to survive in a harsh environment. Any time I need to open my eyes to the world beyond my computer, my apartment, or even my city, I remember Davidson’s story. What I love most about this book is that it doesn’t seem like a total dream—Davidson is treated badly by people she meets along the way, feels like she’s compromised her own vision by agreeing to write about the experience for National Geographic, and loses some of her beloved companions (you’ll need tissues). It reminds me that achieving what you want isn’t always easy, but is its own reward. —Estelle
The Girl With the Silver Eyes
Willo Davis Roberts
The Girl With the Silver Eyes is singly responsible for my not paying attention in almost any meeting or school or church function since third grade, which is when I first read it. It’s the story of Katie Welker, a badass know-it-all 10-year-old who’s a social outcast everywhere, including in her own family. She makes everyone “nervous” because she has silver eyes, and because when she’s around, “strange things always happen.” KATIE IS TELEKINETIC, you guys, and she does hilarious things with her gift, like prank her nasty middle-aged neighbor and make her pastor’s hair dance a little jig in church. Things take a sinister turn, though, when Katie is accused of something bad that she didn’t do, and the book gets SERIOUSLY EXCITING, involving missing children, the police, and CRAZY TELEKINETIC FEATS. The reason I stopped paying attention to my teachers and bosses after reading this book is that I decided that I, too, must be telekinetic. Anytime I get bored, in any situation, you can bet that what I’m doing is focusing intensely on a small nearby object, mentally entreating it to come to me. —Krista
Karen Russell is some kind of badass magician. At the age of 32, she’s written three books (this novel plus two fabulous short-story collections) and recently won a MacArthur Fellowship, also known as the “genius grant.” Swamplandia! was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. I mean, really—this woman is on her way to Total World Domination. But that’s not why you should read this book. You should read it because it takes place at a crumbling alligator-wrestling roadside attraction in Florida (the titular Swamplandia!) and stars a 13-year-old girl named Ava Bigtree who tries to save her family from illness, loss, love, and a darkness just out of her reach. By the end of the book, you will be rooting for this wild, brave girl so hard. —Emma S.
2013, Little, Brown and Company
A terrorist attack at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art instantly makes 12-year-old Theo Decker an orphan. As he leaves the museum and walks in a daze through the rubble, he grabs The Goldfinch, his now-dead mother’s favorite painting. The rest of the book follows Theo through high school and his 20s as he moves through different homes with the knowledge that he has a secret, stolen painting in his possession. Donna Tartt writes so beautifully, creating worlds that feel timeless and making even the grittiest parts of her stories sparkle. This book is for anyone who has loved a piece of art so much it hurts, or for anybody who has felt like a masterpiece was created just for them. —Anna F.
Princesses Behaving Badly: Real Stories From History Without the Fairy-Tale Endings
Linda Rodriguez McRobbie
2013, Quirk Books
I have an obsession with bad bitches—the ladies out to take jobs, heads, hearts, everything, and more. My dad used to read me fairy tales before I went to sleep, and my favorite characters by far were the witches and the rest of the villains. My favorite cartoon heroes? Mulan and Anastasia, certified butt-kickers. If you’re like me and like strong, stubborn, fiery babes, I think you will love this book—even more if you’re a history buff. It covers international princesses from many different eras and ties mythology to history, gender, and religion. It’s an engaging read that’s not weighed down by academic jargon, so it’s actually very fun and light. One of my favorite stories in the book is about Njinga, a Central-West African queen from the 1600s who forced the region’s Dutch colonists to treat her as an equal and led her army, with help from the Dutch, into battles to reclaim land from the Portuguese. I like to read it in the bathtub while listening to Little Mix and pretending I am bathing in the blood of my enemies. —Arabelle
2010, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Paolo Bacigalupi’s vision for the future in Ship Breaker is terrifying because it seems like it could come true: the U.S.’s Gulf Coast is so ravaged by hurricanes that New Orleans is under water; oil is in such scarcity that kids are forced to do the dangerous work of breaking into wrecked ships to try to obtain it; most of the population is living in poverty, many escaping into a haze brought on by something like meth; and genetically engineered human-dog hybrids roam the land (maybe that last part is a stretch). The story centers on Nailer—a teenage “ship breaker” who is prays to strike oil so he doesn’t end up like his abusive, drug-addicted dad—and the rich girl he finds trapped in a wrecked boat. Nailer has been raised in an everyone-for-themselves kind of world, so he has to decide whether he’s going to help the girl or use her to lift himself up. This book’s language and imagery, and the way it deals with how our choices shape the future, remind me of lush, twisted fairy tales like Pan’s Labyrinth and dystopian allegories like The Handmaid’s Tale. If it sounds dark, that’s because it definitely is. —Stephanie
2013, Random House
The plot, in a nutshell: Ashley, the 22-year-old daughter of an eccentric, reclusive film director named Stanislas Cordova, is found dead under mysterious circumstances. Enter Scott McGrath, a reporter who suspects Cordova of foul play. McGrath, the book’s narrator, decides that this is his opportunity to resurrect his dying journalism career, and sets out to uncover the truth behind Ashley’s death and her father’s disturbing movies. You’ll probably find this book in the literary fiction section of bookstores, but it’s a pager-turner that reads like a pulp thriller. Its spooky, noir vibes will make you sleep with the lights on. (And in my experience, it even engrosses people who don’t like it! I lent it to one of my best friends who texted “I hate this book” at three in the morning. But she was up reading it at 3 AM!) —Anna F.
2013, Random House
Two things I have always wanted are to be psychic and to have a twin sister. This novel combines both of those dreams and relays a suspenseful, funny story about how special powers don’t necessarily make sisterly love any easier. Twin sisters Vi and Kate have taken totally different paths—one denies her innate gift and the other profits from it—but when an earthquake hits their native St. Louis, the sisters’ lives crash together again. —Emma S.
Leslie Marmon Silko
Ceremony’s main character, Tayo, is half white, half Laguna Pueblo, and a veteran of World War II. Overseas, he witnesses the death of his cousin, Rocky, and is held as a prisoner of war. After the war, he is sent to a veteran’s hospital in California to recover from his injuries and “battle fatigue,” or what we now call PTSD. When he goes back home to his reservation in New Mexico, he’s far from healed, and he finds that his tribe is in a similarly bad way—their cattle have vanished without a trace and many of the men are drinking heavily. Tayo also turns to alcohol to escape his memories of the war, but he “escapes” into a mental breakdown. I was assigned this book in a college mythology class, and though it does read like an epic, intricately crafted myth, it was so much more than that to me. I found catharsis in the poetry of the healing ceremony; it was my lifeline out of self-injury. I buy used copies of this book whenever I see them at bookstores or garage sales so I have them on hand to give to friends when they’re struggling with similar problems. —Stephanie
2012, Carcanet Press Ltd.
I was introduced to Louise Glück’s poetry when I read her 1996 collection, Meadowlands, when I was 19. My heart was instantly and permanently manacled to her words, which, in that book, partially focus on the lived experience of Penelope, a character in the classic Greek epic the Odyssey. In Homer’s text, Penelope’s role in the plot takes a backseat to the journeys of her husband, the book’s protagonist, Odysseus, as he travels around for a decade trying not to fall in love with sirens or whatever as he sojourns home from a war. Penelope mainly hangs out at home, turning down other dudes who want to marry her (of which there are many) and working at her loom. Her story might seem less engaging to most readers than Odyssesus’s…but not to Louise Glück. The first poem in Meadowlands, “Penelope’s Song” (also included in this anthology), imagines Penelope’s interior life, turning upside-down the impression of her character as a steadfast and devout spouse. In the poem she is self-aware and brilliant, “unnatural…passionate like Maria Callas,” and powerful in ways the men in her life could never begin to understand. To Glück, Penelope is kind of a Beyoncé figure: She’s in love with her dude, but knows she’s got plenty to offer the world outside of their relationship, and basically everybody in her life finds her irresistible. Plus, when she chooses to be, Glück’s Penelope is trouble, and everyone’s trying to get in it: “Whose most demonic appetite could you possibly fail to answer?” the narrator asks of her, knowing that the answer is NOBODY—PENELOPE WOKE UP LIKE THIS. In this poem, her slyness and self-possession makes Odysseus look kind of like a chump. Don’t think she’s just his little wife.
Sometimes, though, your Odysseus doesn’t come back home. Glück knows what that’s like, too: So much of her non-Odyssey-based work demonstrates how well she understands the feeling that you’re undeniably smarter than your heartbreak—you know you can get over it and go on with your life, and you realize that your experience as a person isn’t limited to the role you play in a romantic relationship—but sometimes, you don’t give a fuck about all that stuff. You want to dress yourself up in your pain like it’s an elaborate costume that it really only makes sense to wear for this one special occasion (this period of your heartbrokenness, which is coming to an end). This is your last chance to sink inside that feeling, and it feels illogical and horrible and true and great. In “Matins,” one of my favorite of Glück’s poems, she expresses the savage awfulness of begging someone you know is no longer worthy of your love not to leave, because you’re afraid of life without them: “Forgive me if I say I love you: the powerful / are always lied to since the weak are always / driven by panic.” No one else I’ve read gets my heart, when it’s at its craziest, like that. The beauty of her lines practically makes my blood vibrate inside my veins, as when, at the end of “Quiet Evening,” a work that draws a parallel between a modern relationship and the one shared by Odysseus and Penelope, she gives us this portrait of how wrenching it is to long for a partner you’ve been separated from: “From this point on, the silence through which you move / is my voice pursuing you.”
So much of why I love Glück’s work, which she’s been making for over 40 years, is because in it, I recognize so many of the polarizing conditions that come with being a person whose heart is always going to rule out over her brain—the confidence, sexiness, and self-composure that fuzz over the world when love is being good to you, and how frenzied and all-encompassing your fear and misery are when it isn’t. I admire her honesty: When things go to shit for her, she doesn’t kowtow to pride, or try and look composed and aloof, and that quality makes her poetry some of the most beautiful I’ve ever read. When she writes, Louise Glück is all the way in or not at all, which is why I’m all the way into her. —Amy Rose ♦