unlovableUnlovable Vol. 1
Esther Pearl Watson
2009, Fantagraphics Books

One day, while washing her hands in a gas-station bathroom, Esther Pearl Watson found the diary of an ’80s teenager. She used that diary as inspo for Unlovable, a series of books about a well-coiffed outcast called Tammy Pierce. Watson has said about the books: “Unlovable is about showing that we need space in which to be awkward, to learn and figure out what it is we are really trying to say with our actions.” Volume One illustrates Tammy’s ginormous bummer of a summer using chunky line drawings and a bazillion shades of neon to detail all of her unflattering fashion choices, along with her supremely uncomfortable social interactions. You can smell the sweat and the Aqua Net just reading it. —Suzy

cvr9781439148877_9781439148877_lgBad Behavior
Mary Gaitskill
1988, Simon & Schuster

Have you ever heard a lecture or interview with a writer in which they talk about loving their characters? If you have, it was not with Mary Gaitskill. Each short story in this collection is a gallery of her characters’ worst flaws, and proclivities she thinks are flaws (but aren’t), like an interest in BDSM. There’s a lot of consternation about the twinned theme of men and women/power and sex in this book, and I don’t agree with the writer’s politics, which often demonize or blame women for “weakness.” But, I don’t always read for politics. With Gaitskill, even in the grimmest stories like “A Romantic Weekend,” you get sentences like this one: “His gaze penetrated her so thoroughly, it was as though he had thrust his hand into her chest and begun feeling her ribs one by one.” I am into the way that Gaitskill makes me feel her perspective, even when I resolutely disagree with her views. Even if you get off on loving to hate New Yorkish literary Brat Pack trash from the 1980s—like books by Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney—Gaitskill is one of that era’s crown princesses, except she’s smarter than her contemporaries. —Amy Rose

complicatedA Complicated Kindness
Miriam Toews
2004, Knopf

Nomi Nickel is a bright, bratty teenager who lives in a small, repressive Mennonite community in 1970s Canada. Her mother, Trudie, took off without a goodbye, leaving Nomi in a prism of grief. Nomi necks with her boyfriend, smokes pot, and listens to Lou Reed—all of which qualify as outrageous sins in her small town. Even though practically all the teens in her community engage in these tiny rebellions, Nomi’s behavior attracts undue attention because her uncle is the town pastor. Threatened with excommunication, and shunned by the town, Nomi bristles at the endless rules that govern every aspect of her life. But she also feels empathy for the people who might force her out: She sees the sincerity of their convictions, and the bind that they’re caught in. Like every teenager, and every young woman, Nomi just wants the freedom to choose the life that’s right for her. —Annie

9780060957407Slut! Growing Up Female With a Bad Reputation
Leora Tanenbaum
2000, Harper Perennial

This book is a li’l dated—it talks about “slut bashing” instead of slut-shaming and it never once mentions the internet—but since slut-shaming is still alive and well, Slut! still feels very relevant. Tanenbaum’s book is probably assigned to lots of women’s studies classes, but don’t be put off by its academic leanings: It’s very readable. Slut! weaves sociological studies and statistics with young women’s stories of harassment, rape, sex, and sexuality. I read this—of my own will—in college, and it helped me to feel less ashamed of my own sexuality, and opened my eyes to how I’d hurt other girls. Slut! is an empowering read that made me feel less alone and changed the way I think about sex. —Stephanie

41WS8WGMQJLA Lover’s Discourse: Fragments
Roland Barthes, trans. Richard Howard
1978, Hill & Wang

A Lover’s Discourse is a book-length ode to how absolutely crazy love can make you. Barthes writes with brutal honesty, and a significant portion of the book is dedicated to ugly feelings like “jealousy, abandonment, recklessness.” All the classic situations are covered: Waiting around for someone to call, getting pissed off, being passive aggressive, getting revenge, and weeping. Of course, love is amazing, and Barthes most definitely makes room for that! But some of his descriptions of getting weirdly angry about nothing will make you look at yourself, examine your behavior, and (hopefully) laugh long and loud. —Meredith

caseyplettA Safe Girl to Love
Casey Plett
2014, Topside Press

I discovered Casey Plett’s work through “Other Women,” a story she wrote in Topside Press’s anthology The Collection. The story was a beacon—when I felt completely isolated as a trans girl in an interminable job in the middle of an Ohio winter—that led me to her short story collection, a trove of funny, smart trans girl protagonists doubting and stumbling through life. These characters fuck up, steal, drink too much, and can’t seem to keep their shit together, no matter how hard they try. In “Portland, Oregon,” Adrienne forgets time and again to feed her cat, as she grows more and more worn out from managing a day job on top of night shifts as a driver for an escort service. This story gave me the rare experience of watching a character register that deep-down knowledge that you’re fucking up. But Plett’s characters always hold fast to their vast, complex inner lives, and refuse to be squashed by the oppressive world they live in. —Annie

cover_bad_feministBad Feminist
Roxane Gay
2014, Harper Collins

With Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay gives us a perfectly imperfect feminism that is never too cool to take itself seriously, but not so serious that it can’t have fun. These essays are kind, friendly, occasionally angry—justifiably so—but never mean, and they take on pop-culture in the most enjoyable ways. There is an entire essay on Sweet Valley High: Surely I have said enough! It’s refreshing to read writing that is unapologetic about the fun it’s having, while remaining super sharp, and mighty smart. Gay presents new language and new ways for approaching feminism, class, and race, and is constantly alert to how these intersect and interact when it comes to thinking about film, books, and media. Bad Feminist is like a bag of potato chips: It satisfies all of your taste buds (the salty and the sweet), and once you’ve read one of these essays you’ll crave the whole book. —Tova

Danzy Senna
1998, Riverhead Books

When my first real boyfriend dumped me, I slept in my dorm room for days. With only my tears to comfort me, I sought escape through books. Danzy Senna’s semi-autobiographical novel carried me into a world where her protagonist was also coming of age, with bruises and bumps along the way. Like Birdie, her protagonist, I was discovering my identity, contemplating the meaning of my ancestry, and evaluating its impact on my intimate relationships. Birdie’s story also drew me in because I too grew up with parents who were active in the Civil Rights Movement, and in a home driven by big intellectual ideals and passionate politics. Caucasia focuses on a mixed race girl’s journey of self-discovery during her parents’ breakup, and in doing so, explores how racial identity is constructed, and how it informs the way we view ourselves and each other. —Jamia

Rawi Hage
2008, W.W. Norton & Co.

Rawi Hage’s narrator never discloses his name, or his country of origin: He refers to himself as a cockroach, and he comes from a war-torn place. He has been placed in compulsory therapy after a failed suicide attempt, with a deeply unhelpful therapist. Despite the lack of biographical facts, Hage’s dreamy style really pulled me in. At times I felt so close to the story that I’d have to shut the book for a while, so that I could get some distance. In one powerful scene the narrator finds himself face to face with a gigantic cockroach that tells him: “You are one of us. You are part cockroach. But the worst part of it is that you are also human.” This scene brilliantly sums up much of what the book explores: what it means to be a hybrid creature in worlds that constantly recognize you as “other,” and the struggle to act against those powers that name you instead of allowing you to name yourself. —Tova

Layout 1My Brilliant Friend
Elena Ferrante
2012, Europa

My Brilliant Friend follows friends Elena and Lila as they grow up side by side in a working-class neighborhood in Naples, Italy. Elena narrates the pain and pleasure of being friends with Lila, who I think of as a sort of evil twin. Lila is cruel and street smart, and she helps Elena survive the violence and poverty of their childhood. But to say the two girls are pals is too simple. Elena’s relationship with Lila resonates with me as someone who has had a close friend who is difficult to get close to: a friend you feel you can never fully understand or trust, yet feel bound to by the shared history of that relationship. The sheer force of Elena and Lila’s feelings toward one another—jealousy, anger, love, an us-against-the-world mentality—propels this story. It transported me back to my vulnerable, changeable preteen years when the thing I needed most—a good solid friendship—seemed so hard to find and keep. —Monika

9780802134844Pussy, King of the Pirates
Kathy Acker
1997, Grove Press

Kathy Acker was the perennial bad girl. She wrote about girlhood, violence, and incest in ways that earned her the distinction of “literary terrorist.” Pussy is a reworking of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel Treasure Island, but in Acker’s version the story is told by renegade trash-heap pirate girls who eat rats, fight, ride motorcycles, and have abortions. It isn’t just the content that’s rebellious, the literary style is, too. Acker’s masterful command of narrative means each of the overlapping stories is as strong as the next—and about young women with agency, speaking with their own distinct voices. —Meredith

CoverThe Days of Abandonment
Elena Ferrante
2005, Europa Editions

This book draws out all my ugliest fears about romantic relationships, and about how women are treated as they age, and then, it lays those fears on the table as fact, until they look as real as the glass of water beside the book. Ferrante follows our protagonist, Olga, through her husband’s unfaithfulness and their subsequent divorce. She chronicles Olga’s neglect and abuse of her children, the intricacies of her frantic, addled rage and despair, and the moment she tries to rip out her husband’s side-turned-main-piece’s earrings, like a middle-schooler scrapping in the yard. That’s mad important! Women are often very nice in “women’s books,” aka books with female protagonists. Ferrante doesn’t seem to feel any impulse to uphold the image of women as CAPABLE AND SMART AND STRONG, AT ALL TIMES. Instead she uses the assumption of smart, capable womanhood as her baseline, and then shows what happens when a female character’s untoward, vulgar, and inconsiderate behaviors take over. For all its uncomfortable moments, this novel acknowledges that women, like all people, can be monsters—and that NO person is actually a “monster” just because they act in monstrous ways. Ferrante, basically: “People are wild complex, and also, don’t wear dangling earrings if you fucked somebody else’s person.” I love stories with morals, you guys! —Amy Rose

Amy Reed
2014, Simon & Schuster

Kinsey had her entire future planned out, and it revolved around her best friend Camille. Their friendship had always been a port in the storm, and the storms in Kinsey’s life came around often. Then, Kinsey lost Camille in a car accident, an accident that Kinsey survived, and in which Kinsey was driving. Now Kinsey’s senior year is ending and she’s falling apart. Instead of sleeping, she spends her nights running, and she’s haunted by Camille’s ghost. Finally, she is pushed to the brink and she takes off on a road trip with a friend who is experimenting with drugs and alcohol. This beautiful, heart-wrenching book has elements of ghost story and road trip genres, but mainly it’s one of the most honest portrayals of grief, falling apart, and putting yourself back together again that I’ve ever read. —Stephanie ♦