images (6)This Is How You Lose Her
Junot Díaz
2012, Riverhead

If you’re an asshole but you know it and you wish you could be better, does that make you any less of an asshole? And does it make you worthy or even capable of giving and receiving love? Maybe that’s an overly simplistic way of thinking about the nine stories in Junot Díaz’s latest short story collection, but I wondered all the same. As I read it, I kept asking myself: Is it enough to be self-aware? Can we ever really escape the childhoods that made us and broke us and hurt us and lifted us into the people we are now? There seems no escaping the cruelty of our foundations, at least not for Yunior, the protagonist in these stories, who is the cheating, chauvinistic, secret-nerd asshole I can’t help rooting for. He reminds me how hard it is to be a person in this world, and how even though there is no actual shortage of love, we’re constantly either starving for it or worried that it’ll disappear from our lives forever. To list everything that these stories contain would be to reduce them into buzz words like: immigration, family, sexism, postcolonial legacies, racism, domestic violence, poverty. But they are about all that and more, and at the center of it, they confront our human tendency to hurt the ones we love and our capacity for being hurt by the ones who love us, and the impossibility of making sense of it all, but the worthiness of trying to anyway. —Jenny

9780312424923The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll
Jean Nathan
2004, Picador

When I was 19, I was well on my way to becoming a complete recluse. I’d just been kicked out of college (a weird story I’ll tell you later), and I was living at home, with no friends except for my cat and my mom. I wasn’t opposed to becoming a shut-in; in fact, I found the idea very romantic. Until I read The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll. It’s the story of Dare Wright, a beautiful and talented photographer who wrote The Lonely Doll books, a fascinating/unsettling/memorable series of children’s books in the ’60s that pictured a sad little doll named Edith in various tableaux with her teddy bear friends. It’s also the story of what can happen when you’re too sheltered from the world. Dare had an extremely close relationship with her mother (also named Edith), and when Edith died in 1975, Dare was suddenly alone. She withdrew into seclusion and became an alcoholic, reportedly letting random homeless men into her apartment, who would sometimes take advantage of her. Please don’t let that be me, I remember thinking. Because of this book, I made the decision to reapply to college and, more important, to try and find a place for myself in the world instead of hiding out forever. I don’t want to make it seem like this book is just a scary cautionary tale (You know what happens to loners, kids? THEY DIE!). The story is more than just its macabre ending—you’ll see that when you read it. —Maggie

The_Fault_in_Our_StarsThe Fault in Our Stars
John Green
2012, Dutton

I’m usually hesitant to pick up a YA book, because they tend to be just a little too “quirky” or melodramatic for my taste, but The Fault in Our Stars is now one of my favorites. It’s about a snarky 16-year-old girl named Hazel (!), who is diagnosed with cancer, and Augustus, the adorable boy whom she meets in group therapy. Together, they fall in love for the first time. I don’t want to say too much, but I kind of feel like crying as I write this? You will fall in love with this couple and their biting wit as they travel from therapy to hospitals to Amsterdam. My brother is a cancer survivor, and it’s refreshing to read a book that tackles the subject so accurately and with the perfect balance of humor and heartbreak. This isn’t “a cancer story,” as some have labeled it, but rather one of the greatest love stories I’ve ever read. For those who are looking for a funny, inspiring, romantic novel that doesn’t shy away from heavy-duty real-life stuff, this one’s for you. —Hazel

images (3)1Q84
Haruki Murakami
2011, Vintage International

I usually feel like I’m reading all the wrong books and all the wrong poems, but this was definitely the right book. It’s long—sold as three separate volumes or one large book-loaf—so there’s a lot going on thematically, but it focuses on two main characters, Tengo and Aomame, who live separate lives full of longing. It’s difficult to explain beyond that without spoiling the plot—Aomame deals with past friendships, Tengo struggles with his father and his connection with Fuka-Eri, a girl whose book he is rewriting—but this is my favorite thing I’ve read recently. Murakami spends a lot of time describing a spiritual world where souls exist, and he also takes his time revealing information. An entire chapter is devoted to a man cataloging his groceries and supplies, which makes my brain feel like a puppy getting its belly scratched. WOOF! —Katherine

400000000000000030936_s4A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
James Joyce
1916, B. W. Huebsch

The first time I read this book, I loathed it with every fiber of my being. First of all, is it or is it not a touch gross to proclaim oneself “the artist”? Also, aren’t half the books in the English canon more or less a portrait of a young man struggling to become an artist? In high school I yearned to read a coming-of-age story about someone who wasn’t a white hetero guy for once. And I still do—but I’ve also found that I’ve developed a lot of tenderness for this book over the years. What I love most about it isn’t the tremendous leaps Joyce took with language, or his deft handling and elevating of stream-of-consciousness narration, or his obsession with cramming in as many references as possible, but rather the fact that this book is sort of the ultimate EMO novel. The protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, has so many tortured FEELINGZZZ all the time. His feelings on girls? TORTURED. Writing? TORTURED. God and faith? TORTURED. The nature of human existence? TORTURED. Family? TORTURED. Sex? TORTURED. The definition of beauty? TORTURED. Anyway, you get the drift. —Jenny

ninHenry & June: From the Unexpurgated Diary of Anaïs Nin
Anaïs Nin
1986, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

Anaïs Nin is most famous for her journals and for being one of the best female writers of erotica. She paints gorgeous portraits of sex, love, and passion that resonate physically, emotionally, and poetically. All of that started with this book, a collection of uncensored journal entries from 1931 and 1932, when 28-year-old Anaïs meets the writer Henry Miller and his wife, June, in Paris. Anaïs is also married at the time, but the spark is gone; she’s looking for something more, and falls in love with Henry and June. She admires June in that way where you can’t decide if you want to be the person or devour them so they can become part of you. Anaïs’s attraction to Henry begins intellectually, but when June leaves for New York, the two have a crazy hot affair. Then June returns and they’ve got a real-life love triangle. In Paris. With gorgeous artists. Because of all of that, Henry & June was basically my bible in my late teens and early 20s. I wanted to be awakened—not just sexually, but intellectually and emotionally, like Anaïs. Of course, my love life was messy more than anything else, but at least when I read this book, I got to live and breathe her 1930s-Paris world of passion and words. —Stephanie

fire(You) Set Me on Fire
Mariko Tamaki
2012, Razorbill

Allison Lee is about to start her first year of college, though she doesn’t have high hopes about how it will pan out. She spent her high school years as an outcast, and figures it doesn’t help that her body is covered in burns after having been set on fire (twice). Then she meets the mysterious and intoxicating Shar. Allison and Shar quickly become best friends (and occasional lovers), though things get complicated when Shar reveals some pretty manipulative and reckless motives. I recommend this book to everyone, but especially to anyone who has ever been in a toxic friendship or struggled to fit in (so, yeah, mostly everyone). —Anna

414YN0yC5YL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_The Elements of Style
William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White
1959, Macmillan

This classic guide to good grammar is a beacon in the darkness of bad internet habits, lazy writing, and superfluous clauses. Do you know when to use further and when to use farther? The difference between like and as? Thumbing through this book will make you cringe at all of your terrible habits, but that’s the point! I hereby vow to never again begin a sentence with the phrase “the truth is” (read to find out why!). The Elements of Style is as full of charm as it is wisdom, and the edition I have is illustrated by the goddess Maira Kalman, which makes it even better. —Emma S.

geek-love-katherine-dunn-hardcover-cover-artGeek Love
Katherine Dunn
1989, Alfred A. Knopf

Aloysius and Crystal Lil Binewski are a married couple who run a traveling carnival. If you’re like “Oh, a carnival! How fun and whimsical this book must be!” let me advise you to think again. Al, desperate to save their failing business and win the award for father of the year in one swoop, creates his own freak show by exposing his pregnant wife to drugs and chemicals. These experiments result in Arty, who has fins instead of limbs; Oly, an albino hunchback who narrates the book; conjoined twins Iphy and Elly; and Chick, whose abnormality turns out to be the most extraordinary of all. Not knowing a life beyond the carnival, the Binewski children learn to value spectacle and distrust anyone outside their sphere, which ends up having horrific ramifications. This is a dark, addicting book, one that you won’t be able to put down even when you want to look away. —Anna

image descriptionGirls Like Us
Sheila Weller
2008, Washington Square Press

I absolutely, positively, categorically LOVED this book. My copy is tattered beyond belief, because I kept marking the meaningful pages, and since this is a book about the lives and work of Joni Mitchell, Carole King, and Carly Simon, that was basically every page. This book made me feel super connected to all women everywhere, as it talked about these three women’s experiences related to feminism, birth control, abortion, sex, and relationships, and revealed parallels between the songs they were writing and what was going on in their lives—and in lots of women’s lives—at the time. The sensitive treatment of Joni Mitchell’s decision to give her daughter up for adoption made me cry, and all the speculation over Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” will make you feel like you share her secret. Carole King’s outstanding dedication and hard work may make you feel inadequate for a minute, but then it will make you feel like you can do anything. This is as close to a definitive biography of these women’s lives as you’re likely to get. It’s also probably as close as you’ll get to being their best friend. Sorry. —Minna

BGN (1)The Bitch Goddess Notebook
Martha O’Connor
2005, Orion

This book is almost uncomfortably passionate at times, but it was a favorite of mine when I was 15 for just that reason. It chronicles the troubled lives of Cherry, Amy, and Rennie, who survive the oppression of small-town life in Illinois circa 1988 by becoming best friends, blasting the Sisters of Mercy, and detailing their dreams for a better future in their holy Bitch Goddess Notebook. They take a blood oath to declare their love for one another, but their devotion is tested by a horrifying accident. O’Connor swings back and forth between the girls’ teenage narratives and the present day, and in the process documents drug addiction, sexual abuse, self-harm, abortion, and murder, but underneath all the drama is a touching portrayal of girlfriends who would risk anything for one another. —Esme

images (5)Rose of No Man’s Land
Michelle Tea
2005, MacAdam/Cage

This is one of those books that you have to read in one sitting because they just suck you up in a whirlwind and won’t let go. It takes place the summer after Trisha’s freshman year of high school. She’s stuck in this working-class suburban life that she hates. Her mom’s a hypochondriac who rarely leaves the couch and her sister is addicted to reality TV. Trisha’s big break is getting a job at a super trendy store at the mall, but then she gets fired. Fortunately, she meets Rose, who is kind of like Rayanne Graff and Jordan Catalano rolled into one. Rose takes Trisha on a hell of a journey that includes hitchhiking and crystal meth and sexual discovery, and proves to be one of those friends (who might be more than a friend) who can either complete you or destroy you, but will definitely upend a cookie-cutter, mall-world existence. —Stephanie

crackpotCrackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters
John Waters
1986, Macmillan

Criminals. The National Enquirer. Christmas. A Baltimore stripper. These are some of the things that fascinate cult filmmaker John Waters. In this collection of essays, he explores his obsessions and influences, and will try to convince you of their greatness. You may not always agree with him, but his arguments will definitely entertain you. This was originally published in the ’80s, but get the updated version from 2003, which has some new content and a new intro by Waters, in which he admits that he is apt to change his mind—which is something I respect. —Anna ♦