how-should-a-person-beHow Should a Person Be?
Sheila Heti
2012, Henry Holt & Company

Some books find you. I had seen this one’s cover in my Tumblr feed a few times before happening upon it at a bookstore right before my first adult vacation. It was instantly obvious that this was the book I needed to read right then. If you are in the middle of figuring things out, this is a good book to read. Humans are always in the middle of figuring things out, therefore this is always a good book to read. The Sheila in this book is not necessarily the Sheila that wrote it but it also is, and she is trying to figure things out—namely, how should a person be (not just a clever title!)? Like most of us trying to figure things out, Sheila looks to her circle of friends—smart, creative people with different talents from her own—for answers. The book doesn’t really have a plot, but that doesn’t mean that things don’t happen, the same way that life doesn’t have a plot and it’s just life. Sheila and her friends go to parties and get drunk. Sheila and her best friend go to Miami and buy the same dress. Sheila engages in experimental sex acts with the guy she’s doing it with. Sheila’s friends have an “ugly painting competition.” None of these things might seem like a page-turner, but Heti’s language somehow starts to become an extension of your own thoughts (or is it the other way around?). You find yourself agreeing with what some of the characters are discovering, and this helps you discover things about yourself…does this sound self-help-y? It’s most certainly NOT! How Should a Person Be is a book about growing into your desires and your friendships and everything else. I read it in one swoop, sitting by a pool, taking notes on the margins and making notes in my journal, and right afterward I called my best friend and said, “I have a book for you to read.” She read it and she loved it, and then she went to see Heti speak at an event last week and she had her sign the book for me and when she told me what she had done, I thought, That’s how a person should be. —Laia

themakingofThe Making Of
Brecht Evens
2012, Drawn & Quarterly

The Making Of tells the story of a semi-douchey artist named Peterson who agrees to participate in an art festival that turns out to be kind of below him. He’s greeted by a cast of characters who are impressed and intimidated by his stature, some of whom even start to try to be like him. Eventually, a series of subtly hilarious exchanges and mishaps shift the book’s focus from Peterson to the group as a whole, and maybe even to ART AS A WHOLE. The story is fun to follow, but the watercolor visuals will really blow your mind. Brecht Evens lets all dimensions of a piece of furniture or building be seen, creating all these gorgeous candy-colored layers and, like, emotionally accurate slivers of light—just look! It’s also a delight to see his system for indicating different parts of the story—instead of using speech bubbles he color-codes the text by character, and he draws dream sequences in black and white, in sharp contrast to the rest of this colorful book. Be sure to take an extra-good look at every page. —Tavi

egan5Emerald City
Jennifer Egan
1997, Picador

This bomb-ass short fiction collection opens with “Why China?”—the best story I can remember reading this year so far, by far. It’s about a banker and the guy who stole thousands of dollars from him. A few years after that crime, they meet up again by chance in China, and both pretend to be other people. The way their actual identities and their backstories are slowly, artfully revealed makes this story as tense as it is beautifully written, and it’s very beautifully written indeed. The rest of the stories in the book are equally ruthless and skillful, and I can promise you’ll find at least one, but probably more, that will linger for weeks after you finish it. —Amy Rose

Semple_WheredYouGoBernadettePBKWhere’d You Go, Bernadette
Maria Semple
2012, Little, Brown and Company

I had just read a series of bleak Russian novels where everybody dies in the end. Why is all the fiction I read so depressing? I asked myself. That’s when I came across Where’d You Go, Bernadette, and it was prefect timing. It’s the kind of book you say you’re going to read one chapter of before bed, then you find yourself on the last chapter at four in the morning because you couldn’t stop. The main character, Bernadette Fox, is something of a misfit—she doesn’t fit in with the other residents of her upscale Seattle neighborhood, and rarely socializes with anyone beyond her husband and their teenage daughter, Bee. When a series of mishaps causes Bernadette to disappear one day, Bee sets out to track her down. In the process, Bee learns about her mother’s mysterious past. It’s a very funny story (relevant: Semple was a writer on Arrested Development) that is still very poignant and tear-jerky. —Anna F.

Twelfthmech.inddTwelfth Night
William Shakespeare
First performed in 1602, published in 1623 by Edward Blount, and William and Isaac Jaggard

I’ve always loved twin switcheroo stories—I watched the Hayley Mills version of The Parent Trap like once a month as a child; my favorite Sweet Valley High plots were the ones where Elizabeth and Jessica pretended to be each other; and Twelfth Night has been one of my favorite plays since I saw it performed when I was in eighth grade. After a shipwreck, Viola finds herself alone on the coast of Illyria, her twin brother, Sebastian, nowhere to be found. Believing him to be dead, she decides to take over his identity in order to access the kind of independence and privilege that women had much less of in the 1600s than we do now. Shenanigans ensue, and people fall in love with people whom they don’t realize share their gender. It’s a super-fun romantic comedy—a nice break from Shakespeare’s tragedies if you are reading a lot of his plays this summer—and a really good one to see performed in a park, if they do that kind of thing wherever you are this summer. —Stephanie

mitchell1111Up in the Old Hotel
Joseph Mitchell
1992, Vintage

I love this collection of essays, most of which originally appeared in The New Yorker, where Joseph Mitchell was a staff writer from the late 1930s until he died in 1996. Among his best known pieces are the two that begin and end this collection, “Professor Sea Gull” and “Joe Gould’s Secret.” They tell the story of a homeless writer living in Greenwich Village and his supposed masterwork, The Oral History, which he claimed contained 20,000 conversations he had recorded over the course of his “research” since his graduation from Harvard in 1911. Mitchell’s mad-elegant essays about Joe Gould were published 20 years apart. Together, they form a long-view picture of a fascinating Village personality—one who often represented himself with half-truths or just plain lies. —Amy Rose

ripleycoverThe Talented Mr. Ripley
Patricia Highsmith
1955, Coward-McCann/Cresset Press

I never tire of this book. Written and set in the 1950s, it is a psychological thriller that takes the reader from New York to the Italian coast. Tom Ripley is a man who wants so very much, comes from so very little, and is willing to do whatever it takes to get the life he covets. Tom is also consummate liar and something of a chameleon. He is the kind of man who makes himself into whomever people want or need him to be. Tom is skulking along in New York when he meets Herbert Greenleaf, who offers to pay him to fetch his rakish son, Dickie, who’s living off a trust fund in Mongibello, Italy, and return him to the United States. When Tom arrives in Italy, he is immediately entranced by Dickie and his American friend Marge. He envies their lifestyle, their sophistication, and how they seem to take their blessings for granted. Slowly but surely, Tom inserts themselves into their lives, hanging on with all his might as he realizes they’ve begun to tire of him. He is forced to do something drastic that will send him on the run across Italy, pretending to be Dickie, and searching, always searching for a way to stay in this new life he has found. Highsmith has written the loveliest of novels because there is so much empathy for Tom in her writing despite the terrible things he does. She clearly cares about this flawed man, and she makes us care about him too. It’s also just a really gripping book—the tension is almost unbearable from beginning to end. Highsmith so effectively puts us in Tom’s head that his fears become our fears, his joy our joy, his desires our desires. Tom Ripley is a man who has assumed so many identities, he can no longer remember who he once was. This book’s greatest trick is how it makes us believe that who the “real” Tom Ripley is never mattered at all. —Roxane

Kate Zambreno
2012, Semiotext(e)

There’s a scene in Woody Allen’s movie Manhattan where Woody Allen’s character describes a female character as “the winner of the Zelda Fitzgerald Emotional Maturity award.” It’s supposed to be an insult, of course, reducing Zelda to the punch line of a joke about how intense she was, how emotional, with a palpable subtext about how she was somehow lesser than her husband, F. Scott Fitzgerald. In Heroines, Kate Zambreno revisits the biographies of women like Zelda, writers and artists who lived in the shadow of their famous-writer boyfriends/lovers/husbands and who, once they were no longer considered useful as muses to these men, were largely cast aside (Zelda died in a mental-institution fire). It’s also a very personal book, as which Zambreno weaves bits of her own story in with those of all these women, and uses their stories to ruminate on her position as a writer who is also someone’s wife. It’s a book that will remind you that your experiences—as well as the art you make—are just as valid as anyone else’s. —Anna F.

jbisdeadJohn Belushi Is Dead
Kathy Charles
2010, MTV Books

John Belushi Is Dead is about the side of Los Angeles that you don’t see in Francesca Lia Block‘s colorful, magical novels. This L.A. is gritty and sad and utterly devoid of magic. The plot revolves around Hilda and her friend Benji, who are both obsessed with celebrity deaths. Then Benji starts to get really dark and Hilda starts to pull away, then Hilda starts to hang out with another guy and Benji cannot handle it. It’s an incredible study in personality, why we become obsessed with certain things, why we keep secrets, and what our obsessions and secrets can do to us. It’s beautiful, sad, and filled with interesting tidbits about celebrity deaths and the underbelly of Hollywood. —Stephanie

hammondbookGod, If You’re Not Up There, I’m F*cked
Darrell Hammond
2011, HarperColins

This is both a recommendation and a trigger warning. Because if you have experienced physical and/or psychological abuse, torture, self-harm, and/or addiction and reading about such things is bad for your mental health, you should not read this book. If you, like me, have experienced any of those things and reading about them makes you feel less alone in this world, I recommend that you do read it. It’s the autobiography of the guy who did all those amazing impressions on SNL throughout the naughts: Bill Clinton, Jesse Jackson, Donald Trump, and about 100 more. It’s kind of about his career, but the real subject is his process of identifying the source of his lifelong inner turmoil—which happens, in such a sad twist that is not really surprising when you think about it, to be the same source of his uncanny talent for impersonating other people: his mother. Hammond’s mother seemed to love him only when he was doing impressions, which she had a knack for too. The rest of the time (maybe if you’re in that first group I talked about you stop reading now) she literally tortured him. With knives. With electrical wires. With threats, and with a fear that never leaves him. How convenient that the gift she gave him allowed him to do what he later used alcohol and drugs for too: to leave himself for a little while. I came to see his remarkable talent as the most complicated gem, formed by taking equal parts unimaginable pain and a stubborn desire to escape from that pain and throwing them into a fire together. I’m glad I read this book. It made me feel less alone. —Anaheed

watersroleRole Models
John Waters
2010, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

John Waters is not afraid to gush about his idols, and this collection of essays is an homage to the real-life characters that have inspired his films and his life over the years. I had read and enjoyed shorter works of Waters’s before, but what I loved about this book is that he really takes the time to go into detail about these people, exploring what it is about them that fascinates him so. You wanna read 34 pages on the greatness that is Rei Kawakubo? Oh man, has he got those for you! Waters combines his adoration of Kawakubo, Miles Davis, Little Richard, Tennessee Williams, and more with a genuine desire to humanize and understand them—with Leslie Van Houten, the onetime Manson Family member with whom he’d been obsessed since her murder trial, he attempts to reconcile the atrocity of her crimes with the good friend she’s become to him in the intervening years. It’s a personal, complicated piece that proves that Waters can write a thoughtful, contemplative essay almost as well as he can put together a delightfully trashy film. —Anna F. ♦