2005, Fat Cat
I’ve had an uncountable number of music-nerd debates with friends about which Animal Collective album is our favorite. This is a band whose discography, side projects, and associated friend-bands basically shaped my taste in music. They’ve also defined a large part of who I’ve grown up to be. They have an astonishing ability to take a completely new direction with every new album, while at the same time maintaining artistic integrity and a consistent voice. So, my favorite Animal Collective album is a heavy question. Feels sits calmly in the middle of their discography, like a beautiful oasis, and if I had to choose just one to love best, I suppose this would be it. It seems to pull all of the band’s references, styles, and influences into a coherent collection of songs that journey through naïveté, hyperactivity, and haunting moments of utter profanity. It’s a spectacular concoction of sounds—poppy, twisted, surreal, and crystal-clear all at once. The entire album was written on an out-of-tune piano, so when the band started to record it, they had to bring one of the world’s best piano tuners in to detune the piano in the studio. This kind of thing has always defined Animal Collective to me: the idea of stripping songwriting to the basics, then completely deconstructing everything you knew about the basics. It’s simple and complex all at once. That off-kilter piano evokes nostalgia for the unselfconsciousness of childhood—of doing things according to instinct rather than playing by anyone’s rules. Sometimes when I’m only half-listening to this album, it can sound so dense that I can’t hear what’s going on at all. But when I listen closer, it’s a masterpiece. One of the standout tracks is “Banshee Beat,” a song that bubbles from a slow, slightly melancholic lull into an absolutely transcendental conclusion. The line “Someone in my dictionary’s up to no good, I never find the very special words I should” has always spoken worlds to me. It’s about growing up, learning to communicate with the world, and finding your place, your comforts, your escape. Trying to describe this album is like trying to recite your own childhood memories from start to finish to another person, who can only vaguely fathom the joy, tranquility, loneliness, and surrealism of what it was like for you to be young. All I can say is to give it a listen and make your own story from it. —Eleanor
Mecano is one of my mom’s favorite bands. Every time one of their records came out, we would go to the record store and buy it, and then that’s all we would listen to for weeks. This one came out when I was four, so it has been part of my life for almost as long as I can remember. Mecano shaped my definition of what great pop music should be. Every song on Descano Dominical is about something: celebrating the new year, taking a trip to New York, Salvador Dalí. In Mecano’s hands, even something as mundane as going to the movies becomes an adventure—one that you can sing and dance to! Mecano taught me so much about life—it’s entirely possible that I learned that there are women who love other women from the song “Mujer Contra Mujer,” which describes an affair between two ladies and the battle they face with society. There’s also a song about Laika, the Russian dog that was the first to go into outer space, which always made me feel weird inside because what if you were that dog? The GEM on this record, though, is definitely “Heroes de la Antartida,” which is about the race between the Norwegians and the British to be the first to reach the South Pole. The Norwegians, led by Roald Amundsen, made it there, and the whole British party died. It is a crazy story, and the song is both dance-y and mysterious. Told via Ana Torroja’s sweet voice, which often sang from a male perspective, it was everything I needed to learn how to be a person. As a young kid, you can only ever go so many places—school, your grandma’s house, maybe a friend’s house for a sleepover—but this record took me all around the world, and even through time. It taught me about heroes, and it taught me about love. —Laia
The songs on Convinced are simple and completely unpretentious. They tap into every sincere note of teenage frustration and longing I have in me. “No Good” is my personal theme song, because it describes every unabashed feeling I’ve ever experienced while falling in love with someone, which seems to happen on the daily. If you ever feel like you need to just GET OUT, I highly suggest playing all 45 seconds of “I Don’t Care” as loud as possible and just GOING. I promise you won’t regret it. It’s rare to come across an album that lets me storm off, lie around on my bed being all introspective, and have a dance party with my pals all at once. I suggest doing all of the above and then falling asleep listenin’ to it on repeat. This album is a real dream. —Allyssa
Come Out, Come Out
Need an escape from the winter blahs, a breakup, or a bad mood? This sunny pop-punk album is your ticket. Cub speaks to things we try to get away from, like romances gone bad in “Tomorrow Go Away” and “Life of Crime,” but then picks you up again with stellar songs like “Everything’s Geometry,” my favorite on the album, and a cover of the Go-Go’s “Vacation.” Cub’s music is what Lisa Frank’s artwork would sound like. —Stephanie
2006, Drag City
Soon after my last boyfriend and I met, we started talking about music, and naturally Joanna Newsom came up. This boy asked if I had ever heard “Emily,” the 12-minute song that opens the album Ys. I hadn’t, so we sat in his kitchen while he played me the track, which was unlike any Joanna Newsom song I had ever heard. Onomatopoeic lyrics soared from the end of one line to the beginning of the next like they couldn’t be squeezed into single sentences. The power of Newsom’s words went beyond poetry. The song’s imagery, story, and atmosphere were so strong that it was a self-contained world of its own. Now when I listen to “Emily,” a story I’ve tried to decipher a hundred times before, I still feel like I am discovering new scenes. There is something about the orchestration on this song, and on the four others on Ys, that feels breathtakingly mature, way beyond anything on her previous albums, beautiful though they are. The lone harp in the first few bars of “Cosmia” instantly makes me teary eyed. Newsom has an uncanny ability to pour a thousand stories, sometimes wordlessly, into a single melody or song that evolves and blossoms into an entire universe. Her music is total escapism. After I listen to it, it always takes a few moments to realize that my feet are still firmly planted in this world. —Eleanor
Anaïs Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer
In the late 19th century, the American folklorist Francis James Child curated a collection of 305 traditional ballads from England and Scotland that he called the Child Ballads. In 2013, Anaïs Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer liberated seven of them from their dusty confines, and the results are pretty magical. The album’s arrangement is stark and simple throughout—Mitchell and Hamer’s voices harmonize over acoustic guitars with little else to distract us from the stories and the melodies. The songs are about love lost and won, curses thwarted and fulfilled, and death. The standout track for me, by far, is “Tam Lin,” a Scottish ballad that allegorizes love’s transformational capacity, rather than its tragically doomed nature. Maybe I’m just romanticizing, but it seems to me that the things that affect us the most—love, death, longing, and escape—are universal and constant, and haven’t really changed since these ballads were first composed. The subjects might seem quaintly antiquated, but the themes are as relatable today as they were more than 100 years ago. —Ragini
There are some records that immediately feel like a vivid memory of someplace else you’ve been or an adventure that changed your life forever. The second the organ sounds came out of my speakers at the beginning of “Foreign Installation” and filled the room in a cinematically religious way (there are doves flying all over the altar!), this record became a part of my being. I am 100 percent not lying when I say that for 98 percent of 2013, I listened to Perpetual Surrender exclusively. On my way to and from work, and also AT work, where I made it part of the playlist. The songs take me to the past, but maybe also to the future. There are details, like roaming guitar solos and killer sexy sax solos, that remind me of unspecific things that may have happened or that will happen—I’m not entirely sure. DIANA’s songs are romantic and mystical and feel like they have magical powers. And despite the fact that they have a lot of electronic details, they never feel cold or automated, because above all, DIANA is a human band about human emotions. —Laia
The Sound of Music
Pizzicato Five is one of those bands I was always tangentially aware of because I have a few friends who are big fans. I knew them as an energetic sugar-rush of a band, somewhere at the intersection of pop, synth, and dance music. They also have a massive discography—they averaged about one original release a year in the 16 years they were active. I wish I had an interesting reason why I decided to start with this album, but, really, I just saw it on a friend’s shelf and asked if I could borrow it. The Sound of Music is a best-of put out by the American label Matador. It pulls together tracks from some of the band’s bigger Japanese albums, specifically Bossanova 2001 and Overdose, as well as B-sides and rarities. The track “Sophisticated Catchy” (also an apt description of the band, generally speaking) sounds like it could be the score for the world’s trippiest video game. “Strawberry Sleighride” is basically mandatory for every party mix I make, and it is nearly impossible to listen to “Happy Sad” and be in a bad mood. Seriously. Go listen to that song right now and try not to smile. —Anna F.
So Long, Astoria
The first time I listened to this album, I had no reference points for the Ataris except their pop-punk cover of Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer.” I was 12 and it was summer in Australia when my friend gave me a burned copy of the record. In a month I would start high school, and I remember hearing lyrics like “Being grown up isn’t half as fun as growing up; these are the best days of your lives” (from “In This Diary”) and feeling instantly connected to every teenage wannabe-punk in every small town in the world, itching to be anywhere else. Everything on the album—from its title to lyrics on tracks like “Summer, ’79”—is encouragement to make it through these years in this place because soon you’ll be able to get out and your life will begin. Or at least that’s how I interpreted the romanticized ideas of small-town teenagedom when I first heard it. I haven’t listened to So Long, Astoria in almost 10 years, but it will always be tied in my mind to the years I spent riding around in the backseats of cars, wishing I were looking at a different view. —Brodie
Seasons in Elfland
My friend discovered this band at Faeriecon, and their music does sound like a fairy tale, lush and otherworldly. The music and lyrics on Seasons in Elfland were written by Emilio and Kelly Miller-Lopez, who also sing and play guitar, harp, piano, flutes, and synth. “Rose-Red,” “Golden Raven’s Eye,” and “Gates of Twilight” transport me to the fantastical worlds of my favorite childhood stories. “Under the Snow” reminds me that the end of winter, or any dark time in my life, will come. This is the perfect music for meditation, taking a candlelit bath to de-stress, making art, or casting spells. —Stephanie ♦
From the ages of four to 17, I was psychologically, verbally, and physically abused by my mother. My father and grandparents did nothing to stop her, and none of the other adults in my life seemed to understand the reality of how she was treating me, and child-welfare programs in my city in India were scarce. I felt completely alone, and it was hard for me to hang on to any hope at all.
Maybe you’re also living through abuse and feeling alone and hopeless. If this is the case, please know that you’re strong and brave—you’re a survivor, and no matter how awful your situation may be, you can find help, support, and solace. Even in the worst circumstances, you have options and the power to see yourself through this. Here’s what I’ve learned about creating resources to help you deal with abuse when you feel like they don’t exist anywhere else.
1. Admit to yourself and others that you’re being abused.
Abuse is anything done to you by another person that reduces the quality of your life. It endangers your mental health, wipes out your self-esteem, and can cause depression. Although abuse can be physical and/or sexual in nature, it can also be verbal or psychological, and all of these can cause you very real and valid pain.
For a long time, I didn’t use the word abuse to describe my situation because I didn’t know that it applied to me. My mother’s abuse was predominantly psychological, and corporal punishment (e.g., spanking) was common enough among families in my country to amount to a disciplinary standard. If you talk about your situation seriously, it helps others do the same. Abuse is a word with a lot of power behind it, so harness that power and say it when you tell others what’s being done to you.
2. Report your situation to an authority figure if at all possible.
If there’s anyone who has the ability to exercise control over your abuser, whether that’s a law enforcement officer, a school official, or someone in your family who can remove you from the abuser’s sphere, don’t hesitate to tell that authority figure exactly what’s going on. In the United States, there are governmental programs, nonprofit organizations, counseling hotlines, and other resources that are dedicated solely to helping people in your situation. If you’re outside the U.S., here is a list of global helplines broken down by country, and here is a directory of international women’s organizations.
You might be growing up in a place or culture with few systems in place to protect minors from abuse, like I did. Maybe you don’t have access to a private phone, or you live in a culture where law enforcement is more inclined to side with your abusive guardian or family member than to help you. In this last case, it’s important to proceed with caution. I cannot overstate how crucial it is to completely trust the person you’re reporting your abuser to, because if they tell your abuser about the encounter without taking preventative action against them, your abuser may seek retribution; this sometimes happened when I tried to talk to other adults about my mom. So speak to someone you know will believe you and either has the power to make a change for you or will keep your conversation private. Writing things down beforehand so you know exactly what you’re going to say can help tremendously if you’re nervous about discussing what’s happening to you.
If you’re going to talk to a therapist, counselor, teacher, or doctor, know that they are required by law in many places to report what you told them to law enforcement. This is a good thing—it means a case will be opened against your abuser. Before you talk to any of those people, ask them what they are required to report.
3. Seek support elsewhere.
Abusive people often attempt to isolate their victims from their support networks, so it’s important to get the word out about what’s happening. Tell friends, family members, and other people you trust if you have the emotional ability. If you make others aware of what’s happening to you, there’s a greater chance that they’ll be able to help you, even if it’s just by listening to you and providing you the support you need. There is no shame in this, it’s not your fault or your weakness—if anything, it’s a sign of your strength and your determination to live.
As a teenager, my support network consisted of my close friends. They couldn’t affect my mother’s behavior, but it still helped to confide in them—I found a lot of relief in unburdening myself of these secrets. My friends’ moral support was comforting—it made me feel stronger and less isolated when I’d have to go home every evening and face her.
4. Protect yourself.
Above all else, your main priority should be getting out of this situation alive and in one piece. If you’re being physically abused, your survival strategy needs to adapt to that. If you’re reading this, you have access to the internet, even though it might be infrequent and fleeting, so use your time to look into the resources I linked to above. It wouldn’t hurt to also review some methods of physical defense. And keep your distance as often as you can—if they can’t find you, they can’t hurt you. Avoid being in places where they can corner you, and if you can place a locked door between the two of you, do it. If you’re in a room with them, always know where the exit points are.
5. Find an outlet.
In many cases, abusers limit their victims’ privacy. They can break you down by intruding upon every bit of your life—living without any personal space or belongings was one of the most grueling aspects of my abusive home. A life without privacy can strip you of your personhood. None of my possessions were safe from my mother—she regularly destroyed my music, books, and even my boy-band posters, allowing me only paper and pens. I used them to write my journals, which I stashed in my books at school.
When everything in your life is shadowed by your abuser, it’s important to have at least one thing that’s yours and yours alone, something that they can’t touch. My diary entries were my proof that no matter what my mother took away from me, my interior life was still my own. They saved my sanity. If you can, try to find a creative outlet of your own, be it in writing, making visual art, or whatever else comforts you. If that doesn’t sound like your thing, try going for a run or a long walk when you’re able to. Physical release can help you use your energy in a positive way and give you privacy and emotional space. Your abuser might be able to take everything else away from you, but they can never claim ownership over the part of your mind where your essence lives. Raise your mental walls up as high as you can against your abuser—they are the fortifications that will see you through this period of your life.
6. Remember that this treatment is not your fault.
Guilt is easily one of the most destructive emotions an abused person faces. Abuse often takes place under the guise of punishment, and the person responsible may tell you that you’re being hurt for your own good. This can make you feel like everything you do is wrong, and that you’ll never be good enough to please your abuser. The fact is, though, that you deserve love from the people who are supposed to protect and care for you. You should never have to earn this, especially from someone whose expectations are manufactured specifically to ensure you can’t please them no matter what you do. The cruelty of abusive people comes from flaws inside of them, not inside of you, and it doesn’t mean you are unlovable, or that the abuse is your fault.
For a long time, I thought that if only I had been a better daughter, my mother would have treated me with kindness. Guilt is such a complicated feeling—sometimes you can really love a person who is hurting you, and it’s hard to separate that love from the abuse you’re facing. But you have to put yourself first if a relationship is too harmful or negative to salvage. As I got older, I realized my relationship with my mother was incurably destructive, so rather than continuing to try “fixing” her feelings toward me, which was impossible and not my responsibility, I cut her off when I left home.
7. Focus on the future.
Once you reach the age when you’re legally an adult, there’s no one who’ll have any legal authority over you any longer. If it’s either or both of your parents who are abusive, they could emotionally blackmail you to stay with them, but they have absolutely no legal right to make you stay. And while there might be societal pressures on you to be a “good” daughter to them, you have no legal obligation to keep them in your lives. Hold on to this, and make it the source of your strength.
If it’s possible for you to look for jobs while you’re still in your present situation, do that. Research housing options, too. Going away to college is one of the best ways to escape from an abusive situations at home, so if you have the mental capacity to focus on your schoolwork, put your energies there. If neither college nor job-hunting is an option, make a list of women’s rights organizations and shelters in your city and contact them once you are legally an adult.
It may be hard to be hard to leave. The security of home, even if it’s tenuous, is difficult to let go of, but the day you finally walk out, you will be free. Self-reliance is tough, but it’ll give you your life back, and it’s way better than staying in an abusive household. Finally, every part of you that your abuser tried to erase or oppress will be completely your own, and you will understand that you are worthy of love. The fact that you’re here right now, reading this essay, means that your desire for life and happiness is bigger than the abuse you’re facing. There’s a whole new life that’s waiting for you, and once you take your place in it, no one will be able to hide your inner light from the world again. ♦
Holiday in the Sun (2001)
Everything about this Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen classic is far-fetched, and that’s why I love it. It movie starts out with the twins being whisked out of class and onto a private jet, stocked with fresh Krispy Kreme doughnuts, that takes them to the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas for a surprise winter vacation (I now have a recurring fantasy whenever I’m in a boring class or meeting that this scenario will happen to me). It’s not long before the twins get caught up in all sorts of very realistic and plausible dramas—like tracking down stolen ancient artifacts and fighting with heiresses over cute boys. When I watched this on cable last year for the first time since I was a kid, I realized it’s essentially just one giant ad for the Atlantis resort, and MAN, is it effective—it’s been 13 years since my first viewing, and I’m still holding out for that all-inclusive Bahamas vacation. —Gabby
Roman Holiday (1953)
Sometimes when I’ve overdosed on internet and TV and start having Homeland-themed nightmares, I like to slow it down with an old movie, and Roman Holiday is the perfect escape. Audrey Hepburn is a princess of an unmentioned country who hides out in Rome and falls into the arms of a reporter played by Gregory Peck. What she doesn’t know is that he’s been offered big bucks to write a story about her. This classic rom-com asks an everlasting question: Do you really love me, or are you using me? Before anyone gets an answer, the pair galavants all over Rome, eating ice cream and riding mopeds. Audrey also gets a sick haircut. I’m a sucker for makeover/become-someone-you’re-not stories, and this one is a prototype. It’s so much fun watching the best-of-both worlds fantasy unfold: She’s a princess and a normal girl out on the town. And there’s something about watching Audrey Hepburn dance through the streets of Rome in her summery “I’m just a normal girl” ensembles that comforts me and makes me feel like I’m going back in time. —Monika
Under the Tuscan Sun (2003)
This film is about a writer who discovers that her husband has been cheating on her around the same time her best friends—a lesbian couple—find out they’re having a baby. The result of both pieces of news is that Frances leaves her home in San Francisco ASAP to fill her friends’ now-vacant spot on a trip around Italy for gay tourists. On a whim, Franny jumps off the tour bus, puts a bid on a crumbling villa, and sets about starting a new life for herself in Tuscany. She gradually learns to face her weaknesses and insecurities with the help of a new gal pal who is a free-spirited, sexually liberated guide to Franny’s post-marriage life. OK, I realize this sounds like a cheesy, culture-shock rom-com, but it’s also A LOT more. Yes, Frances rides around on the back of a Vespa with a handsome European man, but she also learns to follow her heart and deal with the shitty consequences as they come. —Brodie
Morvern Callar (2002)
Morvern Callar is a 20-something supermarket clerk living in a small port town in Scotland. One Christmas morning, she wakes up to find that her aspiring-novelist boyfriend has committed suicide, leaving behind her Christmas presents, money for his funeral, and his just-completed novel, which he asks her to send to his publisher. Morvern leaves his body and goes out to a party, telling everyone he’s gone on holiday. When she returns, she disposes of the boyfriend’s body, then she replaces his name on his manuscript with her own and sends it to the publisher. She uses the funeral cash, plus the money from the sale of the manuscript, to take a trip with her best friend to Spain, where they immerse themselves in the rave scene. I admit that this description makes Morvern sound totally callous—even amoral—but the movie is actually a nuanced portrait of a young, working-class woman from a depressed town who is trying to shake off the seemingly inescapable life she was born into. Samantha Morton plays the role perfectly, and every shot captures her character’s unconventional ways of grieving and seeking freedom. The movie is based on a novel of the same name by Alan Warner, which I also highly recommend. Ten years after reading it and seeing this film, I still regularly think of how Movern’s story illustrates some of the disparities between the working poor and the educated middle class. —Stephanie
Stir Crazy (1980)
In this quintessential ’80s buddy comedy, Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder play Harry and Skip, two unemployed New Yorkers who head to the Southwestern United States for a fresh start. They wind up in Arizona, where they’re mistaken for bank robbers and sentenced to a whopping 125 years in prison. When Skip is selected to compete in the prison rodeo, the duo and their new pals realize that the event will be the perfect smokescreen for a jailbreak. Stir Crazy is a screwball romp of the highest order, teeming with goofiness. But the intense chemistry between Pryor and Wilder is really what makes this movie extraordinary—they play off of each other so well that you’d swear they’d been raised together. It’s an incredible and beautiful thing to behold. —Amber
Die Hard 2 (1990)
In Die Hard 2: Die Harder, Bruce Willis reprises the role of John McLane, a hardboiled police officer who just wants to hang with his wife. TOO BAD FOR HIM, because this sequel finds her trapped in a plane circling above an airport that’s been overtaken by villainous drug lords for some reason. In order to bring her down, he’s gonna have to outsmart them AND the corrupt members of U.S. Special Forces they rode in on!! (As with many ’80s action movies, “outsmart” in this context mostly means “set off mad explosions to the rhythms of a very synth-heavy score.”) McLane is extraordinarily good at this and everything else required of this brand of cheesy hero—at one point, he balances on the plane’s wing while it’s still in the air. DO YOU GUYS THINK HE SAVES HIS WIFE? Can you imagine if he didn’t? Despite the fact that anyone could correctly guess the ending to this movie without having seen a single minute of it, you’ll very likely hold your breath the whole time due to all the synthsplosions and other thrills on display. It’s the perfect cornball meathead movie, and I promise it’s worth your two hours…cross my heart and hope to DIE HARDER!! KABLAM! *Cue sick keytar sound effects* —Amy Rose
Orange Is the New Black (2013–present, Netflix)
Based on the memoir Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, this drama/comedy/bit of heaven revolves around Piper, a delicate, entitled woman who struggles with prison life after being incarcerated for assisting her then-girlfriend smuggle drugs 10 years earlier. As the story broadens, everything becomes terrifically poignant and, at times, terrifically bizarre. Other inmates, like Red, an iron-fisted Russian cook who for a time starves Piper; Daya, who’s in prison with her mom; Pennsatucky a “faith healer”; Crazy Eyes, Piper’s not-so-secret admirer; and Sophia, a trans woman who serves as the de facto prison hairdresser, gradually enter the picture with their own fascinating and often painful secrets and personal histories. When I watched these women make friends, form surrogate families, and fall in love, I started to realize that while this may be a show about an educated, upper-middle-class white woman’s experiences in prison, but it’s also about everything that all of these characters do to try to create a little normalcy in this totally unnatural environment. The bonuses, for me, are that OITNB was created by a woman (Jenji Kohan), has a mostly female ensemble, and features women of color in key roles (that will hopefully be expanded in the show’s next season) and not just as props for the protagonist to play against. While we are introduced to the other inmates and the prison’s dynamics through Piper’s story, all of these women are presented, in large part thanks to tremendous acting by every cast member, with depth and sensitivity. It’s a show where everyone really is a star. —Amber
Apollo 13 (1995)
There is nothing more awesome—in the original sense of the word—than outer space. I have been obsessed with it for as long as I can remember, I think in part because of a book I received as a wee one with the most incredible pictures of planets, galaxies, and all the other things that inhabit the infinite space we also populate. Going into space is one of the greatest things we’ve achieved as humans, and it’s something I think about every time I look up and see the moon. NASA’s Apollo 13 mission in 1970 was to be humans’ third trip to the moon, but an explosion on the ship meant that astronauts never got to walk on its surface— instead they had to figure out a way to get safely back to Earth. The story is already riveting enough, but then this movie adds a bunch of GREAT actors. The first-billed star is Tom Hanks as commander Jim Lovell, but I think it’s Ed Harris as Gene Krantz (aka the guy in charge of everything back in Houston), who delivers the most incredible performance, playing a person who refuses to accept the possibility that the three men aboard Apollo 13 won’t make it back to Earth. I love this movie so much that no matter how many times I’ve seen it, I still cry and am filled with hope and nerves and excitement every time. Human beings are capable of SO much good, and this movie is a beautiful reminder of that. —Laia
Pierrot le Fou (1965)
Not everyone is cut out for the domestic life. Case in point: Ferdinand (played by the hunky former boxer Jean-Paul Belmondo), a man who leaves his family and job one night when he discovers his children’s babysitter is none other than his former mistress, Marianne (Anna Karina, my dreamgirl). After she gets into trouble with some gangsters, the duo head off on a seemingly romantic getaway/crime spree that quickly turns sour, with typical relationship bickering bubbling up in between the car thefts and murders. Maybe the film’s director, Jean-Luc Godard, intended its plot to serve as a warning against giving up responsibility—a wagging finger at those who desire a life of hedonism. But on the hot summer night when I, as a teenager, first watched it on the big screen, I felt an immediate urge to head for the French seaside and rent (not steal!) a shiny convertible. The film’s bright color scheme and backdrop contrast dreamily with its moody classical score and its near-constant bloody violence. It becomes abundantly clear that Ferdinand and Marianne are a terrible match (their onscreen love closely resembles Godard and Karina’s real-life crumbled marriage), but their journey to destruction is a beautiful one. —Hannah
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
Butch Cassidy was played by Paul Newman. The Sundance Kid was played by Robert Redford. The costumes in this movie were made by Edith Head (whom we love), and the music was written by Burt Bacharach (a composer who has a rep for being cheesy but whose songs have always broken my heart in one way or another). Somehow, even though I wasn’t born yet, movies made in and around 1969, like this one (even though it was technically set in the 1890s), have always looked and sounded to me like adulthood. In these worlds, running away to, say, Bolivia to flee a crime never seemed like a cop-out or even like actual criminal activity—it was almost the responsible thing to do. I grew up fantasizing that adulthood might be filled with similar high-stakes problems, and that being honest about yourself wasn’t one of them. —Lena
Year of the Dog (2007)
Peggy, played by Molly Shannon, is a secretary who loves nothing more than her dog, Pencil. Pencil’s companionship gives Penny a true sense of purpose. So you can imagine how hurt she is one morning when she finds him dying from toxic poisoning in her yard. In the wake of Pencil’s death, adopts a new dog, embraces veganism, and then dives headfirst into animal-rights activism. Mike White, who wrote the screenplay, wrote Peggy as someone who discovers a passion that becomes so enveloping and important to her that it pushes the other people in her life away (not unlike Amy Jellicoe, the lead character he wrote for HBO’s Enlightened). I don’t want to spoil the ending of the film because it’s one of the most beautiful final scenes I’ve ever seen, and I think about it often, but it’s so cool that a movie about a woman discovering something that means a lot to her and doggedly (get it?) pursuing it, despite everyone around her telling her it’s not as important as having a husband/child/career/mortgage, exists. —Brodie
The Hours (2002)
The Hours is a movie about a day in the lives of three women who are connected across decades by one book, Virginia Woolf’s 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway. The film, which was adapted from Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, follows Woolf as she writes Mrs. Dalloway in mundane suburban London; Laura Brown, a despairing post-WWII housewife who’s reading Woolf’s novel; and Clarissa Vaughan, a 21st-century incarnation of Mrs. Dalloway herself. All three women crave escape as they battle the tedium of trapped lives and rigorous conformity, as well as mental illnesses that tighten their grip with every passing day. The Hours is visually rich—the cinematography, especially paired with Philip Glass’s soundtrack, feels almost overwhelming at times. But it’s not just beautiful to look at: It’s also emotionally nuanced in its depiction of mental illness, and of that particular madness that women across the centuries and millennia have known, when extraordinary minds are trapped in the minutiae of dull routines. For that fact alone, I see it as feminist film, and I recommend it to anyone who has ever dreamed of freedom. —Ragini
What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993)
I can’t usually get it up for Johnny Depp. I find his studied adherence to this image of what it should look like to be a handsome cool-guy coolster—his rebellious feather earrings and facial hair, glum lean-around attitude, and whatever other markers of OUTSIDER HOTTIEDOM have you—antithetical to my personal ideas of sexiness. I’m not saying he’s a bad dude—just that I think, if pointed emotional removal is going to be attractive to me, it had better well come from motivations that don’t seem wholly performative in nature, or at least a place that I can kind of understand as genuine.
In this movie, that place is the musty and vacant fictional town of Endora, Iowa. As the prime mover of a beautiful script written by Peter Hedges (which was adapted from his even more beautiful novel), Depp, stripped of his fedora, tinted glasses, and paparazzi pout, becomes almost unbearably lovely as Gilbert, a checkout boy with a consumptive and complicated family—a housebound mother, a mentally disabled little brother, bitter sisters. He can’t keep their home life together despite his best efforts, and for a while, his only external relationship is a sexual affair with a married woman, which he ends out of intense guilt. He is so goddamn lonely and trapped in his life, and it’s crushing to watch. There are many, many things eating Gilbert Grape—and you had better believe that when I see grief or discontent on Johnny Depp’s face here, I understand it as genuine.
Regardless of your opinion on Johnny Depp (if you even have one), this movie is on some powerful shit. If you’ve ever felt so isolated that you can’t imagine what it would be like to feel close to another person—if you’ve rejected that idea as totally impossible and outrageous—this is your story. If you’ve ever felt like the thing that’s so relentlessly chewing at you is just the entire world itself, you’ll feel reflected here. Luckily, you’ll also see that no matter how irreversibly alienated your heart might be, your loneliness most likely won’t be a permanent truth. I’m not going to tell you how Gilbert learns this, but I can say that it will make you swoon so hard you’ll forget that Depp’s head ever knew the warm embrace of a fedora’s brim. Now go find this movie. —Amy Rose
Big Girls Don’t Cry…They Get Even (1992)
When 13-year-old Laura is sick of dealing with her crazy family, she gets the F outta Dodge and runs away. Laura’s relatives are like the anti–Brady Bunch: there’s her cold, uncaring mother; her blaming stepfather; her three spoiled step-siblings; and her thrice-married biological father, an artist who still acts like a teenager. Laura runs away from her mother’s house to her cool older stepbrother’s place until she gets found out—then she leaves a second time, and THAT is when the real fun begins. By the end of the adventure, SPOILER ALERT: Laura realizes she belongs at home with her wacky fam. If you’ve ever struggled with your home life or felt lost in a large family, you might be able to relate. —Marie ♦
I killed a man when I was 15. He was my first.
Well, the first one I did on purpose. There were others before him, including his mother, but she was an accident. That was before I got a handle on my powers. Then I learned to focus: I wished that something bad would happen to him, and he died.
He was a teacher at my school. My parents forced me to take private tutoring sessions with him, and I quickly grew to hate him and everything he stood for—particularly the way he talked to students from affluent families, which was so different from the disdain with which he treated me. Within a week of my starting those lessons, his apparently hale and hearty mother dropped dead. It seemed odd at first, but I tried not to think about it. But when he died a year later, I knew that it was my fault. After all, I was the one who for months had been thinking, I wish he would just die! The cause and effect was too obvious to ignore.
A few years later, I killed my own mother. “Strained” would probably be the kindest way to describe the relationship I had with her, but “openly hostile” is more accurate. For years, I had dreamed of killing her. She hanged herself while I was locked in a psych ward, battling the demons she had unleashed on me. Her suicide was attributed to alcoholism and depression, but I knew the real cause.
Death dogs my footsteps. Anyone I take a virulent dislike to dies—usually suddenly, unexpectedly. Every time I find myself hating someone, I wonder if they will meet an early grave. My antipathy is a violent, annihilating force that I have little control over.
Like many victims of child abuse, I developed an overactive imagination early in life. Visions of the future were a life preserver that guided me over the treacherous waters of my childhood. But around the time I hit puberty, I started to feel like my visions had an odd capacity to bend reality—my own and those of the people around me. I wished unhappiness on exes, I doomed burgeoning relationships and cursed people with years of loneliness, only to see these things happen in real life.
I have bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder. The former manifests itself, more often than not, as depression; misery is a prominent feature of my mental landscape. I have my good days, but sadness is never far away. It’s hard for me to dream about happiness; it’s easy for me to predict dark futures for myself and almost everyone else. I conjure up violent fantasies, I picture myself being murdered, and once these dark visions start, I am powerless to stop them. I’m terrified that by imagining these things, I am bringing them to pass. Happy thoughts, on the other hand, are fleeting. No sooner does one enter my brain than it is chased out by thoughts of gruesome acts of violence, crippling poverty, unrelenting loneliness.
I know that none of this makes sense. I know I am being irrational. Of course I can’t actually will futures into existence—it’s a scientific impossibility. Nothing is predetermined in this life, and I have no mysterious powers. Death befalls everyone—just because it happens to sometimes coincide with a thought in my brain doesn’t mean I can actually cause it by thinking about it. I think my fixation on these incidents is a way for me to punish myself for surviving while my abusive mother didn’t, for ending relationships, and just for hating people. When you’re told repeatedly for the first 17 years of your life that you should never have been born, you tend to develop a guilt complex, you know? You feel guilt for just existing, and you feel like everything is your fault. Everything bad, I mean.
But even though I know there’s no way what I feel is real, I can’t stop feeling it. I continue to feel responsible for the deaths of everyone I’ve ever hated. I try to live my life morally; I choose to be guided by goodwill and kindness. But I can never actually see myself as a moral person, because of the guilt I walk around with. I know I’m not actually a killer, but I feel like one.
Most of us go through life with the vaguest notion of who we really are, what we really are. Complete self-knowledge is almost impossible to achieve. It’s even harder when you’re afflicted with anxiety. I can’t see myself clearly because my vision is clouded by fear. And those fears have been around so long—my whole life—that they’re a lot stronger than my rational thoughts, who are newcomers around these parts. So, over and over, I succumb to the histrionics of my mind, which twist every thought and action into dark melodrama. In my imagination, I become a tragic heroine, the victim of a curse—that’s the identity I crafted for myself as a child. Imagining that I could kill my enemies with just a random thought was a way to feel like I had some power in the world, when in fact I had none. It lent some dignity to my suffering and made me feel stronger on days when I barely felt human. It didn’t have the warm glow of hope, but the steely resilience of malice drove me forward. The question is, what do you do with a superpower when you don’t need it anymore?
Three years ago, I rejected the only man who had ever been good to me in favor of a more-familiar-feeling relationship—which, unsurprisingly, soon failed. I dove headlong into my usual self-recriminations and eventually drowned in a sea of regret. I fixated on the bad choice I’d made, wishing I could have a second chance, which I knew would never come because I didn’t deserve it.
Then, a few months ago, I got an email. Just three or four lines from the guy I’d turned down, saying he’d found himself randomly thinking about me and wanted to know how I was doing.
Did I bring this about by wishing for it? Probably not. But it threw into question my image of myself as an angel of death and a bringer-about of nothing but misery. For once, I hadn’t dealt out death, I’d created something tender and hopeful instead. I was a seer, a martyr, a doomed soul, but now the Furies have dispersed to the underworld, and I’m no longer on trial. I can feel myself changing.
It’s hard to let go of the thought patterns that have sustained you for most of your life, even when they’re bad for you. My old ways of thinking are like a pair of boots I’ve broken in by shredding my feet to ribbons. I slipped them on unthinkingly for years, because that’s what I was used to. Then one day I realized they no longer fit.
When I was a little girl, I was taught that my life would be one of uninterrupted pain—and that I deserved it. That was the first prophecy that was aimed at me, and I made it come true by believing it. Then I made up several of my own predictions and believed that I made them come true, too. My “superpower” was a coping mechanism to get me through years of abuse. It was useful back then, but I’ve long outgrown it. Now that the cycle of violence is over, I’ve found new powers, much more potent ones: sympathy, compassion, love. Real love. (Remember that guy who sent the email? We’ve been dating. It’s going good so far.) ♦
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 ♦
I’ve been wearing vintage clothing for almost a decade now, and I’ve enjoyed every moment of it…except for the times when I destroyed several exquisite pieces simply because I didn’t know how to look after them. I’ve ripped seams irreparably, let old leather dry up, crack, and mildew, and ruined silks with hot irons. As a result of missteps like these, I eventually learned to take better care of old garments, which, in a way, are similar to old people: They’re fragile and sometimes temperamental, but often come with utterly fascinating histories. So now I’d like to pass my methods on to you so that you can protect your own thrifted treasures! Here’s everything you’ll want to keep in mind to make your vintage last forever.
The first thing to figure out about any piece of vintage clothing is what it’s made of, because that will tell you how delicate or temperamental it is. New clothes generally announce their makeup on their labels, but those tags are often missing from vintage stuff. If you’re not sure what material a particular piece consists of, try asking your local tailor or dry cleaner or another professional in the know. Here’s a breakdown of some of the most common fabrics you’ll come across in your thrifting:
Polyester: This thick knit, which first became popular in the 1960s, is one of the sturdiest fabrics around—I own quite a few ’60s scooter dresses, and all of them are virtually indestructible. Go ahead and wear the fuck out of your poly-knitted pieces, because they’ll last forever no matter how frequently you wear them. Polyester is built to last!
Natural fibers like wool, cotton, and silk: If your tastes are more inclined toward pre-1960s loveliness, keeping your vintage wardrobe in tip-top shape is going to be a little harder. Most clothing from the first half of the 20th century is made from natural textiles that become increasingly delicate with age and therefore require careful maintenance. Look for pieces blended with rayon—they’ll be sturdier than 100% natural fibers. But even the most perfectly preserved deadstock from the ’50s and earlier isn’t likely to withstand everyday use, so be careful when choosing when to wear these treasures.
Vinyl or PVC: It’s possible to find wearable vinyl if you’re willing to search, but don’t buy anything that’s cracked, sticky, or flaky. After a vinyl or PVC piece has started to deteriorate, nothing will slow its speedy demise. When I discovered the glorious world of eBay, I happened upon a collection of deadstock vinyl Golo boots. The seller had issued a very clear warning that the vinyl had cracked, making them unwearable, but I was so taken by the idea of owning a pair of original Golos that I bought them anyway. Predictably, my dreams of mod authenticity were dashed when they arrived in the mail and then promptly fell apart. The moral of this sad story is that we should all heed warnings on eBay! To ignore them is to invite heartbreak—especially with irreparable materials like these.
Leather: There’s a fine line between “worn” and “beyond redemption.” A bit of wear looks great on vintage leather, especially leather jackets, boots, and brogues, but if the piece in question is visibly withered or dry or otherwise looks like the last good day it saw was decades before you were born, it’s best to move on.
If you buy a cotton T-shirt one size down from your regular size, it will be tight, but maybe that’s what you’re going for, and the T-shirt won’t mind. But if a vintage piece in a delicate fabric is tight on you, the tension at the seams and across the fabric might be too much for it to withstand. Vintage seams can be very fragile, especially in natural-fiber pieces. Once they rip, it’s very hard to repair them.Depending on the era and the country of origin of a vintage piece, I can go up five or six sizes from my normal modern-day one—and the older a piece is, the smaller it will be in relation to the number on the label. This is why you should always try things on before buying, to see if you’re able to move freely in that dress or those hotpants.
If you’re buying online and can’t try something on, knowing your measurements will help you tremendously. or a long time, I couldn’t buy anything larger than a specific number without triggering all my fat-girl insecurities, so I’d end up with a lot of vintage clothes that almost fit me. Soon enough, the seams would start to fray, and I’d know the dress or whatever was a goner. Since then, I’ve realized that neither my body’s real size nor my self-confidence are in any way affected by my dress size, so now I always add an inch to my real measurements when I’m considering buying a piece online. Better a garment be a little too big—you can always get it taken in by a tailor—than too tight.
Here’s a handy guide to taking your own measurements.
Putting your wardrobe through the spin cycle is handy if you’re into indestructible and easily replaceable clothing, but that can spell death for older or more delicate finds. Hand-washing extends the life of older clothing exponentially. Here’s how to do it:
First, soak your clothing in warm water (one exception: silk can’t handle anything hotter than room temperature). Then add detergent or, if you’re working with natural fibers, shampoo. This is gentler on very delicate materials, many of which (silk and wool, for example) came from living things. You wouldn’t use Tide on your hair, would you? Don’t use it on wool, either. Once you’ve added your cleanser, leave the clothing to soak for a good long while—extended baths are great for getting funny smells out and make stains much easier to remove—do the latter by spot-treating the blemishes with a cleanser or stain remover tested beforehand on a hidden part of the garment to make sure it won’t damage the material. Then dab that product on the stain and let it dry completely before washing the whole piece. Rinse everything with two loads of fresh water, then squeeze the excess moisture each garment gently. Handling wet clothing roughly can damage it, so never, ever wring it out—and if the clothing you’re washing is particularly old and frail, forego the squeezing altogether. Finally, hang your freshly clean vintage out to dry anywhere you want. Just make sure it’s a safe distance from radiators or other any other source of direct heat, which can damage your lovingly cared for garments.
At the butt end of a winter 10 years ago, I was through with love. As far as other people, and especially guys, were concerned, it was over—“Finito. Kaput. Endy story. Goodnight, Vienna,” I told myself when I thought about it, quoting from one of my favorite books (books, so much better than people). The previous year had brought about some of the biggest and most unexpected changes I’d ever withstood. I’d gone from having an outwardly “normal” life to dropping out of school and moving in and out of mental hospitals as I dealt with the suicide of an abusive parent. Those catastrophes tossed whatever stability I had to the wind, and I was left scrambling for something, anything, to hold on to for comfort.
At first, I decided this meant guys. My mother’s death had left me with an unprecedented amount of autonomy—since her rules didn’t apply to me anymore, I could go anywhere I wanted, with anyone, at any time, and to my sheltered 17-year-old self, this was intoxicating. Drunk on the power of self-governance, I stumbled into the murky waters of dating.
I kissed a boy for the first time that year—a boy who stuck his hand up my knickers and pulled my boobs out of my bra, despite my asking him not to, and pretended not to recognize me in school the next day. After swallowing my disappointment, I made out with another guy I’d had a crush on for a while, who insulted my body as he groped me in a taxi. When he, too, ignored me afterward, I soldiered on and went on a double date with my best friend. I wasn’t really attracted to my date, but made out with him anyway, then—guess what?—never saw him again. Still, onward and upward! Even when my social circle became terribly limited after I dropped out of school, I wasn’t about to let the lack of IRL interaction put an end to my liaisons with guys. Instead, I turned to the internet.
I began hanging out in chatrooms, instant-messaging long into the night with older men from all over the world. I fondly dreamed of meeting and falling passionately in love with them someday, despite the fact that they were more invested in sending me dick photos than in taking part in any conversation that didn’t have to do with sex. Looking back, I find it really disturbing to imagine what would have happened had I not lived in India, continents away from most them, but at the time, it was all an adventure to me—just something to hold on to until I got tired and moved on to the next real-life guy.
After a few months of this, I somehow scored an actual date with a regular-seeming local dude that I’d met in a chatroom. When we got together in person, I found him utterly fascinating, and after we met up for the second time, I took him back to my father’s empty apartment. But when we undressed, things went south: His reaction to my naked body was soul-destroying to the point that now, even a decade later, it still hurts to think about it. In my insecurity and desperation for any kind of closeness, I let him touch me anyway. Two days later, we met again. After we had sex, which was my very first time doing so, he made the promises I’d been waiting so long to hear, telling me he’d be there for me forever. I believed him, until I called him the next day and a girl picked up the phone and told me he wasn’t around. Turned out the expiration date on forever was less than 24 hours.
That experience was harder to get over than the others, but one last IM-based romance took over my life before I totally gave up on love. This time, the guy lived in a different city and was eight years older, but those things didn’t matter to me when he spoke so enthrallingly about my kind of books and music, which resonated with me in a way that none of my many conversations with men ever had before. Two months later, I flew out to meet him, fell achingly in love with him within hours, and spent the next two days trying to persuade him to have sex with me. He refused, which, given how vulnerable I was at the time, now seems like the most decent thing he could have done. Back then, though, it was more than I could take. Upon returning home, I sunk into a deathlike stasis, barely getting through the days and doing the barest minimum I needed to in order to stay alive. I completely retreated from people in the real world and on the internet, relegating myself to a monkish existence. Thoroughly convinced I would only ever know lifelong loneliness, I gave up on trying to extend myself to others in any capacity. As winter turned to spring, I settled into my solitude, hanging out only with my dogs and turning to books again after almost a year’s break from reading.
Throughout my life, the universes contained in books have always been my primary source of emotional sustenance, and I’ve always fantasized about them long after finishing the actual volumes. Although I wrote copiously as a teenager, I had never thought of setting down the stories of Middle-earth that I idly dreamed up instead of the execrable poetry I filled my notebooks with—the concept of fan fiction was totally alien to me. That all changed on the night I followed some links on a Lord of the Rings humor site to a blog where a writer known as Cassandra Claire collected her “crackfic,” or intentionally absurdist fanfic, in a series called The Very Secret Diaries. Delighted by her jokes about elves and pointy hats, I searched the internet for more writing like hers, and it sucked me into a community that would dominate my life for the next five years.
Internet fandom provided me with some of the purest joy I’ve ever experienced and offered sorely needed respite from my loneliness. Different facets of fandom are variously populated by fangirls, fanboys, and nonbinary fans; the niche I stumbled into had a mostly female following, which was one of the reasons I felt so safe there from the beginning. These women were smart, hilarious, and superbly creative when it came to their obsessions. They all wrote fanfic and drew fanart, and much of it was very, very good. I instantly loved that the community was built on imagination and a shared passion for something everyone was creating together.
After immersing myself in other people’s fic for a while, I tried my hand at creating my own. My specialty was the erotic subset of fan fiction known as slash. I indulged my long-suppressed BDSM fantasies by acting them out on the page with the characters from LOTR, and as I entered university, fics focusing on the Weasley twins from Harry Potter obsessed me so thoroughly that they became the focal point of my life—I can truthfully say that most of what I read as an undergrad was fic. I would print out stories to sneakily read during class and spend nights before big tests online, repeatedly telling myself, Just one more story and then I’ll look through my notes. Predictably, the notes remained unread.
I loved these fandoms so rabidly because they brought me the solace I’d never found in real people. As a writer of fic, I had the sureness of complete control over the characters I loved so much, and as a slasher, I found that sexually removing myself from the picture altogether was the most satisfying feeling imaginable. It was the ultimate defense against emotional vulnerability, since I wasn’t an active agent in my fantasies, nor were any people in my actual life, the ones with the pwer to hurt me. My stories involved only imaginary people, which gave me the distance I needed to feel safe, but they were familiar enough to feel almost real to me.
I decided that I never needed to be hurt by another human being again. One of my LiveJournal entries from that time reads, “Fangirling is healthier [than real relationships], yes, I’ve proved it.” Although I would later change my tune about this, recusing myself from interpersonal relationships in favor of fic gave me the space I needed to recoup from the emotional onslaught of my past sexual experiences until I felt like I’d regained some control in that aspect of my life. As it built my sense of self back up, slash fic also helped me prepare me for my first positive romance. By reading and writing it, I was giving myself new templates for what mutual sexual respect and truly caring about another person, fictional or non-, could be like.
I finally started drifting away around the time I got serious about letting that IRL love into my life (which, without fic, I might not have been capable of doing). My deep-seated issues about my bisexuality meant that it took me a long time to acknowledge my girlfriend as more important than the alternate universes I spent most of my time constructing and reconstructing, but when I finally did, it was because her touch had come to feel far more real and comforting than my fantasy life with the Weasleys. My interest in fandom continued to wane as I moved on to new interests, like fashion and the fat acceptance movement, until it vanished completely.
About half a decade has passed since then, and my life has changed immensely, but the gratitude I feel for fandom will never diminish. It’s fascinating to me now that my interactions with actual people once scared me so badly that I needed to escape to a wholly imaginative space—but it’s a story that many fangeeks will be able to relate to. Fandom was one of the few situations in my life where I’ve experienced unconditional acceptance and provided me with some much-needed warmth in a world where I couldn’t form bonds with real people. It made me feel loved when no one else did. And while I may have ultimately chosen to be an active participant in my own real-world life and love affairs, it’s good to know that, should I ever wish to return to the Weasleys, fandom will be right where it has always been, ready to welcome me back. ♦
The Jackson 5
Before Michael Jackson was Michael Jackson, before Jermaine Jackson had a house with 26 toilets, and before Tito was the nice judge on Just the Two of Us, they all performed with their brothers, Marlon and Jackie, in arguably THE BEST family band of all time: the Jackson 5. Try to find a pair of shoulders that doesn’t start shuffling when “ABC” starts to play, or a face that doesn’t squeeze up into a FUNKY POUT when “I Want You Back” comes on the jukebox. I never feel bad when I listen to their angel voices. They’re an instant ray of sunshine. There are about a billion records by the Jackson 5 (they were later known as the Jacksons) and the individual brothers, but Greatest Hits contains the highest concentration of swell family harmonies and baby Michael’s raw talent. His high-flying voice seems to weep with loss in “Who’s Lovin’ You,” and his brothers’ backing vocals provide a supportive cushion for his distress. Who could feel downtrodden while listening to that? And even though its romantic lyrics sweet-talk some lucky lady, “I’ll Be There” also seems to be a brotherly pact among the iconic siblings, making it a unity anthem on par with “Lean on Me.” Even though the Jacksons are not our brothers, they’ve given us so many amazing songs that it kind of feels like they are. —Estelle
Philosophy of the World
1969, Third World
The Shaggs, a trio of sisters from New Hampshire, are one of the biggest musical flukes in history. As the story goes, Dot, Betty, and Helen Wiggin’s father, Austin, took them out of school one day, gave them a set of instruments, and forced them to play music because his mother read his palm and predicted that his daughters would rise to pop stardom. When the Shaggs’ first and only album, Philosophy of the World, came out in the late ’60s, critics panned them mercilessly. But since then, generations of outsider-music enthusiasts (including me) have discovered and fallen in love with their sound. The record fits into the psych-folk genre that was prevalent at the time, but adds something unique in its discordant harmonies, out-of-tune vocals, and arrhythmic drumming. It shouldn’t work, but I’m strangely pulled in by the dissonance. —Ragini
White Blood Cells
The White Stripes
2001, Sympathy for the Record Industry
The White Stripes’ third album, White Blood Cells, came out around the same time the truth about the Detroit duo’s members, Jack and Meg White, did. Before then, the rumor was that they were brother and sister, but Jack Gillis had actually married Meg White (and taken her last name) in 1996. They divorced in 2000, right before they hit the big time. The logic behind their lie was that it would keep critics and fans focused on their music rather than their relationship. And the idea of Jack and Meg as siblings in coordinated red-and-white outfits fit the childlike vibes of an album with songs like the short but powerful “Fell in Love With a Girl” (and its amazing Lego video!) and “We’re Going to Be Friends” (which takes me straight back to elementary school and the friend crushes I had then). White Blood Cells is one of my all-time favorite albums because it captures so many emotional experiences, from head-over-heels love in “Hotel Yorba” to the pain of breakups in “Expecting.” They may not really be brother and sister, but Meg and Jack helped prepare me for so many of life’s ups and downs that they felt older siblings to me. —Stephanie
Donnie & Joe Emerson
2012, Light in the Attic Records
If you love kitschy pop ensembles such as the Partridge Family and the Searchers as much as I do, then you need to listen to Donnie & Joe Emerson. The brothers were just teens from rural Washington when they put this album together in a studio their dad built for them. The biggest “hit” was “Baby,” which over the years has been covered a whole bunch (and well!) by bands like Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti. It’s a song that’s bound to put me in a good mood whenever it starts up. It coos directly to my heart and creates a deep peace inside. Use as directed: to serenade a loved one, while driving on an unreasonably warm day, or as you’re curled up in bed and drifting into sleep. —Kimberly
The Real Ramona
Kristin Hersh and Tanya Donelly—stepsisters, guitarists, and equally amazing songwriters—formed this band while they were in high school. Their unconventional song structures and amazing harmonies made them darlings of what was then called the “college rock” circuit. By 1991, when they were in their early 20s, they were considered progenitors of alternative music. This album is my absolute favorite of theirs. Released right before Donelly left the band to join the Breeders (and, later, Belly), it alternates between intense, poetic songs like “Ellen West,” dreamy wistful ones like “Dylan,” and supercharged jangle pop like “Not Too Soon.” I lost my virginity to this record, so it’s extra special to me. —Julianne
Rhino Hi Five: Sister Sledge
There’s one track that always inspires me to move without caution, whether I’m on a subway platform, pirouetting in my living room in my undies, or preparing for a night of plotting with like-minded feminists over snacks and tea: “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge. I have sentimental feelings about this song because it will always be associated in my mind with seeing my in-laws and parents dancing together at my wedding in a conga line of 200 people of various faiths and ages this past summer. And I’ve always loved Sister Sledge because the band is made up of four glam and powerful sisters who grew up singing in Baptist churches like the ones I went to as a kid. The way they’ve used their spiritual and cultural roots to make timeless, unifying pop hits like “Got to Love Somebody” moves me. —Jamia
Babes in Toyland
During my senior year of high school, when my parents announced they were getting a divorce and my group of friends was falling apart, this was my go-to album. The third and final studio recording by Babes in Toyland has plenty of their signature rage (“S.F.W.” is a prime example), but also contains an incredible sense of loneliness. Songs like my favorite track, “Ariel,” always made me feel like I was being lifted out of despair, and “All by Myself” is the perfect door-slamming, glass-breaking wailer for when you want shut yourself away from your family (or your family of friends) because no one gets it. But the Babes’ cover of “We Are Family” will get you dancing and smiling. —Stephanie
4 All the Sistas Around da World
Before Missy Elliott was a solo star, she and her friends were part of a groundbreaking songwriting crew called Swing Mob (later renamed the Superfriends) that included the producer Timbaland, the rapper Magoo, and the singers Ginuwine and Tweet. The makeshift musical family would change the face of pop music, and Sista, the all-girl R&B group Elliott formed with her childhood friends Radiah Scott, La’Shawn Shellman, and Chonita Coleman was what brought them all together in the first place. (Elliott asked Timbaland to help produce the record, one of their first collaborations.) 4 All the Sistas Around da World lost the record label’s support after the first single, “Brand Nu,” did INEXPLICABLY poorly—my guess is that it was too ahead of its time, beat-wise. It’s really hard to find a copy now, but you can still listen to a lot of their awesome girl-group harmonies and dance jams here. —Julianne
A Date With the Everly Brothers
The Chapin Sisters
2013, Lake Bottom Records
There are 14 tracks of glorious, genetically predestined harmonies on this album of Everly Brothers covers sung by Abigail and Lily Chapin, daughters of the folk singer Tom Chapin. Even if you’ve never heard of the Everly Brothers, you’ll recognize some of their huge hits from the ’50s and ’60s, like “When Will I Be Loved” and “(Till) I Kissed You,” but the Chapins add extra melancholy and gravitas to those old songs. (To round out the package, the Chapins have been performing in Everly Brothers–inspired matching outfits and slicked-back hairdos.) I understand that having a sister or brother doesn’t automatically mean you can sing this beautifully, but I like imagining that it does, OK? —Emma S.
Days Are Gone
2013, Columbia Records
Este, Danielle, and Alana Haim make music that, on first listen, I just didn’t think was “my thing.” Now that I’ve listened to this, their latest album, a bunch of times, I realize my early opinion was for basically no good reason—I just hadn’t wrapped my brain around Haim yet. I could not have been more wrong, either, because now I LOVE THEM. Days Are Gone is one of the most thoughtful, layered (in that way where I notice new sounds every time I listen to it), and catchy pop records I’ve heard in a while. Haim’s lyrics are about topics that I will never stop wanting to hear about: independence, maintaining independence when you’re in love, regret, owning your feelings/actions, and expecting other people to own their feelings/actions, too. Their songs might not be the easiest to sing along to because each one packs in so many ideas, but they all just sound good! I hear snippets of ’70s and ’80s pop I know and love in there, but it’s almost impossible to put my finger on exactly what the Haim sisters’ influences are, because their sound is so THEIRS. —Lena ♦
Vivian Versus the Apocalypse
2013, Hot Key Books
Have you ever read a book that made you want to be a braver person, one that is beautiful and scary and funny and heartbreaking and genuinely weird all at once? Vivian Versus the Apocalypse is that kind of book. Orphaned after her religious parents disappear during the Rapture, Vivian Apple finds herself trying to make sense of her new reality, which thankfully is shared by her best friend, Harpreet “Harp” Janda. Their world is dangerous, strange, and violent, with those who were left behind clinging to extreme religion or other types of organized thinking in order to survive. Along the way Viv is able to reinvent both herself and the notion of what family means, and the friendship between her and Harp hits Rayanne-and-Angela levels of greatness: There’s real love, real understanding, and, even in the darkest days, a lot of humor between them. There’s also a little romance involved, but it’s never treacly. Coyle’s storytelling is so good, and I promise that as soon as you pick up the book you won’t be able to stop reading it—you’ll do that weird thing where you balance it on your knee as you eat your bagel and drink your coffee because you can’t stand to leave Vivian’s universe for even one second. —Pixie
2013, St. Martin’s Press
Cath loves to write fan fiction, specifically the slash fiction that she co-writes with her twin sister, Wren. But now that the two are at college, Wren wants to go out and make new friends, even while Cath continues to seek comfort in fictional worlds. Rainbow Rowell is a tricky writer—it’s only after you put Fangirl down and find that you can’t stop thinking about its characters and situations that you understand how nuanced and complex the world of this book is. This is a good read for everybody, but it should be mandatory if you are feeling at all anxious about or overwhelmed by your first year of college. —Anna F.
The Signature of All Things
2013, Viking Adult
Most people know about Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir, Eat, Pray, Love and have picked a side: either love or hate so much that the mere thought of it makes them want to hurl. No matter which side you come down on, I think you’ll love this new book, Gilbert’s smart and sexy second novel. It’s about family and botany and love, and it’s not a spoiler to say that there are some truly great masturbation scenes, too. The story stars Alma Whittaker, a brilliant and homely spinster and a self-taught moss expert, and if there were any justice in the world, girls everywhere would dress up as her for Halloween. There were so many scenes in this book that will stay with me forever, the way my very favorite novels do. —Emma S.
Looking for Alaska
2005, Dutton Juvenile
This book tells the story of a teenage boy who, while waiting for his life to begin, falls in love with a beautiful, free-spirited girl. No, wait, come back! I know that sounds like the most contrived, clichéd description of every coming-of-age story about bland dudes everywhere, but John Green knows what he’s doing. Miles “Pudge” Halter, the boy in question, heads off to a boarding school in Alabama, where he joins a group of gifted misfits. They teach him how to live—if by “living” you mean smoking a lot of cigarettes and pulling pranks on rich kids. One of his new friends is the girl in question, Alaska, who has some less-than-admirable qualities, which is where Green’s book diverges from all those cliché coming-of-age books starring moody boys and Manic Pixie Dream Girls who exist only to help the male protagonists find themselves. Keep this book close, and lend it out only to people you really, really trust. —Anna F.
1991, Pantheon Books
Maus, a graphic novel about the Holocaust, is often assigned as required reading in school, but it doesn’t feel like a history lesson. Even though the characters are all drawn as animals, it’s such a human story, based on the life of Art Spiegelman’s father, Vladek, during World War II. We’ve all heard so much about the Holocaust that it can be hard for it to feel vivid and real anymore, but this book shows you so many little details and tiny human moments that it returns you to a place where you can actually imagine what the people living through it might have been feeling. Spiegelman describes things I never even considered that must have added to the misery of being imprisoned, like when Vladek tries to find a way to talk to his wife, Anja, in Auschwitz, and when Jewish families are subject to surprise encounters with the Nazi secret police. The story is mostly heartbreaking, but you have to read this if you want a real, human perspective on the war and the Holocaust. —Britney
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
Karen Joy Fowler
2013, Marian Wood/Putnam
This is the first Karen Joy Fowler novel I’ve read, but it definitely won’t be the last! I picked it up because I’d heard there were some fun twists and turns in it, but what really drew me in was the narrator’s voice: Rosemary is infinitely witty and relatable—she seems like kind of girl you’d turn to for advice just to hear her view on things. We begin her story in the middle, as she starts explaining to us that two siblings in her close-knit family have long since disappeared, and she, now a grownup, and her family are still trying to pick up the pieces. The less you know about what unfolds from there, the better, but this story had me laughing, sobbing, and cringing for hours on end. —Emily
The interconnected stories in this book, told from the perspective of teenagers living on the streets of L.A., reveal how the kids came together to create a new home—one that is a lot less lonely than the ones they came from, even if it lacks a roof and regular meals. Tracy is the leader and mother figure, but she’s also addicted to drugs and doing some sketchy sex work to survive; 12-year-old Eeyore, the youngest character and the real heart of the story, seems like she’s headed in the same direction. Though it’s a work of fiction, Almost Home is the most realistic and raw portrayal of teenage homelessness I’ve read. Six years later, I still think of it often, especially when I’m pondering what family really means. —Stephanie
44, A Dublin Memoir
2000, Pan Books
I discovered the playwright Peter Sheridan’s autobiographical novel about his teenage years in 1960s Dublin during my Irish literature phase, and it remains a firm favorite. It’s a remarkably candid treatment of teenage life, especially in the way that music and the particular sort of obsession with it is something most teenagers know by heart. His relationship with his father, with its overtones of abuse, make for difficult reading at times, but Sheridan handles the subject sensitively, and he makes sure that we see his father as a person rather than just a cruel monster. This is a great coming-of-age novel, and it adds a touch of ’60s disaffection and counterculture to the usual mix. —Ragini
Stuck Rubber Baby
1995, Paradox Press
This semi-autobiographical graphic novel chronicles the 1960s civil rights movement in the American South and the author’s experience with racism and homophobia. Heavy, right? The main character, Toland Polk, transforms from a politically indifferent white guy trying to deny his homosexuality to a devoted gay activist celebrating his first out relationship. He’s able to make this change thanks to the black community of his hometown, since they’re the first people in his life to accept his homosexuality. The extremely detailed drawings in the book give life and intimacy to historic events, and Cruse also effortlessly tells a larger story about the idea of family, unconditional love, how the family you’re born into can affect you, how the one you choose can heal you, and what it feels like to finally belong to something bigger than yourself. In the end, Stuck Rubber Baby really drives home the point that everyone is worthy of love, despite—and sometimes because of—our differences. —Emma D.
Cecil Castellucci is a storytelling goddess in my eyes—I mean, just check out the story she wrote for Rookie. This is my favorite of her books, and also one of my favorite books ever. It’s about a 16-year-old girl named Katy who is forced to trade Montreal for L.A. when her mom heads off on an archeological dig for the summer. This might sound like a dream vacation for some, but for Katy it means living with the father she hasn’t seen since she was little, who turns out to be an aging punk rocker called the Rat. Katy isn’t into punk (or music at all)—to her it only represents her parents’ messy history. Newly thrust into the L.A. punk scene, she definitely feels beige, which happens to be the nickname given to her by Lake, a punk girl who’s been bribed into being Katy’s friend. Watching the relationships between Lake and Katy and (especially) between Katy and her dad is a pure delight, but the best thing about this book is that it isn’t about a fish out of water learning to be like the other fish—Katy really becomes her own authentic person. —Stephanie
The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants
2001, Delacorte Press
The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants book series exists at a really specific moment in my memory. Thinking about Tibby, Lena, Bridget, and Carmen, the “sisterhood” in the title, now takes me directly back to the year before I started high school, when I wanted desperately to leave my stifling hometown and have friendships as unspoken and intimate as the ones those girls shared. The five books in the series are all about creating a family by surrounding yourself with the people you choose to have close to you. Despite having kind of cheesy titles written in a Curlz MT–style font, the novels tap in to really challenging and mature material and taught me a lot when I read them as a teenager. Carmen’s questioning of her cultural identity and her struggle to accept her father’s new family, Lena’s sexual awakening (followed by a drawn-out and painful heartbreak), Tibby’s relationships with people struggling with mental-health issues, and Bridget’s alienation from her withdrawn father are all intense story lines for a YA series—these books go into deep shit. The titular jeans are the physical embodiment of the titular friendship, but eventually the girls discover together that their relationship can’t be defined by a pair of pants. Seriously, how can you ignore such a great message? —Brodie
Everything Is Illuminated
Jonathan Safran Foer
2002, Houghton Mifflin
This is a work of genius about a journey to uncover the past, but it’s also about how the history of our families makes us who we are today. In the book, a character who shares author Jonathan Safran Foer’s name is compelled by a single old photograph to travel to Ukraine to find the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. He’s accompanied by a young Ukranian named Alex, Alex’s blind grandfather, and his grandfather’s “seeing eye bitch,” Sammy Davis Jr., Jr. The pages feel heavy with infinite sadness—the sadness of memory, the sadness of Jonathan’s ancestors, and the sadness of Jonathan himself. It’s a multilayered story about Jewishness and what it means, and how the past touches and changes our lives. —Ragini
The God of Small Things
1997, Harper Collins
Set in India, this novel is about a family that endures the consequences of breaking that country’s love laws, rules about couples and families that everyone’s expected to follow. The story is often seen through the eyes of Estha and Rahel, twins who are seven years old at the beginning of the book, as they try to make their lives make sense in the wreckage left behind after it’s discovered that their mother, a divorced woman named Ammu, has been secretly seeing a man from a much lower caste than her own. While expertly weaving that family’s story, Roy also manages to make important commentary on Indian history, socioeconomics, and the postcolonial attitudes, while also conveying how the seemingly small interactions and misplaced love between people often have big, tragic consequences. —Nova
The Family Fang
I picked this up on a whim at Powell’s Books while visiting friends in Portland last month—an employee recommended it, and as a former bookseller the one thing I know to be true in life is that your bookseller is rarely wrong. The great thing about this story is that you can’t tell if the performance-artist parents at the center of the story are completely crazed and their kids should be taken away by the state, or if this weird family should be a model for stuck-up parents everywhere to aspire to. You follow the kids to adulthood, so you get to see the ways their childhood has shaped and damaged them, but The Family Fang doesn’t dwell on negativity as much as it reveals the strangeness of being related to people in the first place. If living with your family makes you feel like an alien, this is the book for you. —Danielle
2002, Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Middlesex tackles heady subjects like incest and intersexuality with sensitivity, but it’s also a seamless blend of fact and fiction that traces the lives of multiple generations of Greek immigrants. The book story will suck you in with its details about secret cults, illegal liquor trading, war, race riots, and what teenage life was like in the 1970s. It’s kind of about a family chasing the American dream, but not in a stuffy or boring way. Main character Callie/Cal’s evolution and the changes in the dynamics of the Stephanides family are windows through which we get to watch the evolution of America. —Ragini
All We Ever Wanted Was Everything
2008, Spiegal & Grau
This story is told from the point of view of three women: Janice, a Silicon Valley wife whose husband has just left her for her tennis partner, and her two daughters, Margaret, whose feminist magazine Snatch is failing as badly as her relationship with her actor boyfriend, and 14-year-old Lizzie, who has recently been labeled the school slut. I initially thought it would be hard to relate to their upper-middle-class problems, but they are such real, flawed characters that I couldn’t help empathizing with them as they faced their issues and worked together to make a new life. This was a fast and entertaining read that I immediately passed along to my mom. —Stephanie ♦