Brideshead Revisited
Evelyn Waugh
1945, Back Bay

I read this book every year in the summertime. When I was younger I would only read the first half, which is full of collegiate shenanigans and fresh ripe strawberries and the escapism of friendship. The second half is about that friendship’s slow, slow decline: “I became part of the world which he sought to escape; I became one of the bonds which held him.” It’s one of the wittiest books you’ll ever read, while also being the saddest. In addition, it will teach you how to masterfully use a semicolon. —Maggie

The Enchanted April
Elizabeth von Arnim
1923, Simon & Schuster

Four British ladies rent an Italian villa in the 1920s. One of them is a young beauty, two are middle-aged and struggling with their marriages, and the fourth is old and extremely particular. The women don’t know each other well, but that’s not really what it’s about—each is on a vacation in order to sort herself out, not to make friends. (Of course, that happens regardless.) It’s like a cross between The Golden Girls and Stealing Beauty. This book will make you want to rent a house and then never leave it, instead just moving from sitting room to garden path to dining room and back again, because that’s where everything important happens anyway. —Emma S.

Weetzie Bat
Francesca Lia Block
1989, HarperCollins

I used to teach after-school English classes to high school students who hated reading, and I would always push this book on them. Because even if you are allergic to books—which is FINE—you will love Weetzie Bat (and its sequels, Witch Baby, Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys, Missing Angel Juan, Baby Be-Bop, and Pink Smog). They don’t feel like reading, they feel like being put under a spell, like WHOOPS you’ve just tumbled into a sparkly world where magic and romance haunt everyone’s real lives, where anything can happen, and where love can change the world. (Lovers of books will also love this book. One time I met a guy who hated this book and I’m not friends with him anymore.) —Anaheed

Dangerous Angels: The Weetzie Bat Books
Francesca Lia Block
1998, HarperCollins

Last month some guy at the bar where I work asked his friends, “If you were going to be stranded on a desert island for 10 years, what book would you bring?” He implied that there were “right” and “wrong” answers to this. His friends hemmed and hawed, clearly trying to impress him. While he waited on them, he called out, “Hey bartender, what would you pick?” I responded in a heartbeat: “Dangerous Angels by Francesca Lia Block.” He made a face because he had not heard of it, and it was not on his mental list of the correct, pretentious books like War and Peace, which was his choice because he hadn’t read it (and apparently when one is stuck on a desert island one should edify oneself by reading notoriously tough literature). “Why?” he asked me, to which I responded: “Because I’ve already read War and Peace and even though it’s good, I wouldn’t want to read it again. I could read Dangerous Angels every day for 10 years and be happy, because it’s magic.” He scoffed at me, so I refused to elaborate for him. He wouldn’t get it. He wouldn’t understand the sometimes poisonous but always gorgeous and glittering paradise that is Francesca Lia Block’s Los Angeles. Dangerous Angels is Weetzie Bat plus four other stories (all published between 1989 and 1995) that round out her world of genies and purple-eyed witches and magic. We get to know Witch Baby—the curly-toed, rollerskating snarl-ball who is my favorite character—and Cherokee and the boys they fall for. We watch them search L.A. and New York City for mothers, missing lovers, and the magic inside of themselves. In the final section, Baby Be-Bop, we get to know Weetzie’s best friend, Dirk, and find out the history behind that magic lamp. It is one big modern fairy tale, and if you love stories that you can feel, smell, touch, taste, and completely IMAGINE being a part of, it will be your desert island book, too! —Stephanie

Frida Kahlo: Song of Herself
Salomon Grimberg
2008, Merrell

This book “glamoured” me into a purchase. I love Frida, but I was on vacay and not into gathering more stuff. However, it called to me, and I was so glad to drag it around in my bag like a precious object. Song of Herself has everything I want in a book: it’s beautiful and has lots of rare Frida images and words that can actually feed the reader. Frida (the O.G. Crown of Love wearer) might be the most famous female artist in the history of the universe. Unfortunately, her life was straight-up tragedy. But she turned that shit around and made HER ART. This book contains rare interviews, a medical history (hers is shocking), and most interesting, a psychological assessment of the artist (the author is also a child psychiatrist). It’s also one of those books that you can flip around in and find a magical passage. I magically flipped to this poem, author unknown: Where is, heart of mine, the place of my life? Where is my true home? Where is my precise abode? Here on earth I suffer! —Sonja

Here They Come
Yannick Murphy
2006, McSweeney’s

I love this book so much that it’s PARALYZING. What to say about one of the best books ever written about childhood and adolescence that I’ve ever read? I don’t know, but here goes. Yannick Murphy gets so much right in this short, hilarious, terrifyingly moving novel about growing up on New York’s Lower East Side in the ’70s. Our guide is a 13-year-old girl who lives with her depressed mother, her suicidal older brother, her two sisters, and her alcoholic French grandmother. Her life, in a sense, is fucking hell, but you almost forget it because Murphy’s narrator infuses even the bleakest moments with magical possibility, irreverence, and humor. When she describes seeing the map of scars crisscrossed over her father’s bald head from drinking and falling down too much, you get the sense that she loves him as much as she loathes him, that every gesture of beauty is buoyed by one of cruelty. There isn’t so much a plot as a dreamy weave of episodes as we learn from our plucky, weird, charming, flawed heroine what it’s like to live in total, utter poverty and despair. This book will punch you in the gut when you’re in mid-laugh, heal your wounds when they bleed, break your heart when you think you’re floating, set it free, break it again, and then release you into the thunderclouds of your dreams. —Jenny

Lauren Groff
2012, Hyperion

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to grow up on a hippie commune? Of course you have. In this novel, Groff explores the (not-so-hidden) downside of a utopian community from the perspective of a boy named Bit, following him from his childhood on the land in upstate New York, where all the adults smoke pot and sing songs and otherwise run amok, to his adult life in the city. It unfolds like a fairy tale come to life, dark and truthful, marked by astonishing storytelling and magical thinking. —Emma S.

Helter Skelter
Vincent Bugliosi with Curt Gentry
1974, W.W. Norton

In middle school, my cousin and I were deeply obsessed with the Beatles and everything related to them, which included the most frightening cult-killer and Beatles fan of all time, CHARLES MANSON. We were so scared of Charles Manson that we couldn’t sleep at night without reciting a long mantra about him being cryogenically frozen and suspended in outer space, where he could never get to us. Helter Skelter is an account of the Manson cult murders by the attorney who put him behind bars. It is a must-read for any Beatles fanatic and/or weirdo who wishes to have their library records flagged by the FBI. —Maggie

The Vanishers
Heidi Julavits
2012, Random House

What do psychics know? Can they send each other telepathic messages, can they find the people we’ve lost, can they help us find ourselves? If you’ve ever wondered about any of these questions, this novel is going to be your new best friend. It’s smart and strange and goes places you don’t expect—it’s actually exactly what you want from a psychic. This book won’t tell your future, but it will keep you rapt for days. —Emma S.

Wicked Lovely
Melissa Marr
2007, HarperTeen

Aislinn has been taught by her grandmother not to stare at, speak to, or attract the attention of the fairies she sees in the mortal world, but now there are more and more of them. They seem to be drawn to her, and it threatens to change her entire life. Though Aislinn’s story is central to Wicked Lovely, it’s told from multiple points of view, including that of the Summer King, Keenan, and my favorite character, Donia, the Winter Girl, which allows Marr to build a lush and full fairy world of mythic proportions. I’m not interested in Disney-fied fairy stories. As someone who grew up reading mythology and folklore, poring over Brian Froud’s books and worshiping Francesca Lia Block, my standards are incredibly high, and Wicked Lovely was the first faerie book to really satisfy me. The series is darker than the Weetzie Bat books, but I loved it just as intensely because it’s so vivid. Best of all Aislinn, Donia, Leslie, and all of the other female characters are fierce, independent, and fully capable of making their own tough choices. —Stephanie

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
Michael Chabon
2000, Picador

Sometimes you just need a good adventure story, something both Chabon and the protagonists of his novel understand. At the cusp of World War II, Joe Kavalier flees Nazi-occupied Europe to stay with his cousin Sam Klayman in Brooklyn. The two combine their respective loves of illustration and writing to create the Escapist, a comic book superhero who fights super-villains, including (but not limited to) Hitler. Kavalier’s and Clay’s personal struggles are woven into the stories they create and actual events (I read the book while taking a university course on American comic book history—yes, such a thing exists—and it was very historically accurate). If that last sentence made the book sound totally boring, I assure you it’s not—everybody I know that’s read this book (myself included) stayed up till five AM just to find out what happens next. —Anna

Slouching Towards Bethlehem
Joan Didion
1968, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

This is Didion’s first collection of magazine articles. Her debut novel, Run River (1963), was met by mixed reviews and she found herself deeply questioning the point of devoting her life to the “irrelevant act” of writing. To shake things up she went to San Francisco, where the hippies of Haight-Ashbury were dropping out and turning on. It often takes an outsider to recognize the loneliness of individuals lost in a movement—and that is Joan, the quintessential outsider, the sort of writer people forget not to hide their true selves from because of her quietness and diminutive stature. But don’t be fooled: behind those oversize sunglasses lurks a laser-beam insight. Didion was able to cut through the patchouli-soaked veneer of free love and openness to reveal the deeply disaffected, directionless, and self-destructive youth of America that lay beneath. The only thing you’ll want to do more than read her is be her. I’m still trying! —Kevin Townley

The White Album
Joan Didion
1979, Simon & Schuster

This is Joan Didion’s second collection of essays, published over a decade after her seminal Slouching Towards Bethlehem. The White Album is much more grown up than its predecessor—it’s not necessarily cynical, but has a greater perspective on the world as it is. Didion depicts her experiences in California (and, to a lesser extent, America as a whole) in the ’60s and ’70s with keen insight. She is thoughtful without being schmaltzy: there is not a superfluous word in the book. You get the sense that she’s standing in the back of a room, constantly observing her surroundings, perhaps overlooked but always present. Some of the essays are very topical, covering things like the Manson family or the Doors, but Didion explores a need to make sense of the world that always feels universal. —Anna

The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm
2010, Seven Treasures

The Brothers Grimm went around Germany in early part of the 19th century and collected oral folktales. These were lascivious, bawdy, and gruesome tales meant to entertain the village folk, especially women who sat for hours, bored stiff, spinning and weaving textiles. If you think Cinderella’s wicked stepmother and stepsisters get off easy in the Disney version, don’t worry, because here, the sisters get their eyes pecked out. The evil queen in Snow White is forced to wear red-hot iron shoes and dance until she falls down dead. In The Juniper Tree, the father is tricked by his second wife into eating a stew of his dead son’s bones. In these tales, everyone is always so hungry, virtuous women die in childbirth and are replaced by wicked ones, children are abandoned and forgotten by the adults who are supposed to take care of them, and the men are nothing more than neglectful, useless bystanders who swoop in at the end to enjoy the fortunes won by their clever children. For the most part, the paradise that the heroes and heroines of these tales pursue is nothing more than the desire to be taken care of and loved. Sure, there are magical birds and enchanted forests and cunning witches and trolls and the stuff of fantasy, but in the end, it’s the reality of poverty that anchors these fairy tales. —Jenny

Will You Take Me As I Am: Joni Mitchell’s Blue Period
Michelle Mercer
2009, Free Press

“The people who get the most out of my music see themselves in it,” Joni Mitchell tells the author here. This is the handbook/bible/companion to Mitchell’s masterpiece, Blue. She is arguably the greatest female musician of all time, and Mercer goes deep into the psychology and influences of all that surrounded the album and its predecessor, For The Roses. “What I did was bring just a little more detail to pop lyrics like ‘I feel blue,’ for example, pairing it with more-specific character and metaphors and making the music actually feel blue with what I call my chords of inquiry,” Mitchell says. Who else could achieve her perfection? —Sonja

Legs Get Led Astray
Chloe Caldwell
2012, Future Tense

As a child, I didn’t understand greed was bad. Once, I sat in front of an open refrigerator, shoving slices of Kraft cheese into my mouth until I vomited. Another time, I piled all of my mom’s sweaters on my head in the middle of July and sweated until I fainted, and when I woke up, I asked my mom, “Did you like my show?” Chloe Caldwell’s debut collection of autobiographical essays is full of greed—sweaty, ugly, beatific, endless greed. She fixes her gaze on the subjects that have never ceased to fascinate us—youth, sex, love, death, drugs, friendship, New York, rebirth—and she does it with an excess and an earnestness that will make you wish you could be her best friend. If you were her best friend, she would invite you to an orgy that she secretly tapes and listens to the next morning on her flight back to Portland. The essays in this collection are as exuberant as they are sad. Her storytelling is as vulnerable as it is bombastic. The essays roll in gangsta, but wear freshly picked daisies in their hair. They’re short and often take the form of repetitive lists that spiral outward like galaxies. When she lists all the different times and ways she’s made herself orgasm—as a child lying face down on her mother’s couch, listening to Tori Amos in an airport at 16, in the bathroom of a library in the middle of writing this very essay—or all the things she did when she first moved to New York, you get this sense like nothing will ever be enough, and that that is a beauty all its own. There’s an essay where Chloe reads her lover’s diary and admits that she’s always wanted someone to invade her privacy. The essay ends with: “I can accept that all I’ve ever wanted is not very special—all I’ve ever wanted, like most people, is proof of love.” And in some ways, this entire collection of essays is Chloe’s invitation to us to invade her privacy, to get to know her, maybe even to love her. —Jenny

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir
Bill Bryson
2006, Broadway

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I get really tired of reading major dramatic books with major dramatic themes and problems. I find myself flipping back to the beginning, when things were still happy—a childhood is being described, or a mother (who smells of Chanel No. 5) stands in her slip, putting on her earrings before she goes out for the night. Nothing bad has happened yet, ya know? The childhood hasn’t been taken away. The mother hasn’t quite lost her mind. Everyone still loves one another. Because I read for escape, I love the parts of books that just describe how things were. Enter one of my favorite books of all time: The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. It’s a goldmine for escapists. You are dealing with 375 pages of NO PROBLEMS, just a totally hilarious description of being a kid in the 1950s. Go back in time to when everyone knew everyone else on the block! Eat neon food laced with dangerous chemicals! If you need a mental break from drama, this is the book for you. You can read about America at its most optimistic, when the war was over and happiness was a refrigerator in the kitchen, a self-cleaning oven, and an upside-down pineapple cake. —Krista ♦