east-of-eden1East of Eden
John Steinbeck
1952, The Viking Press

I first read East of Eden when I was 13, which was convenient, because that’s when I needed it most. Since then I’ve read it nearly every winter, when I’m typically feeling sunken-in and blue. It’s about two brothers, Cal and Aron (based on Cain and Abel from the Bible’s book of Genesis) and their parents, one of whom is less than an ideal caregiver. But in Steinbeck’s version of God’s word, the emphasis is not on inherent good and bad, but on the fact that whatever our upbringing, we can choose to live in a way that is kind to ourselves and to the people who deserve our kindnesses, and, crucially to me at 13, that we aren’t the sum of our family’s parts. We aren’t obligated to make the mistakes we worry most about having inherited. This book will help you keep that thought close to your heart if you’re growing up in a home where you particularly need it. Also, if you love the book you will love the movie, directed by my favorite-ever filmmaker, Elia Kazan. This obscenely brilliant scene—where James Dean sobs when his father rejects a gift he worked hard to earn—is such much richer if you’ve gotten the full context from the book:

So go read this gorgeous book and then fall in love with James Dean again and then marvel at how much your life has improved after those two things came into it. —Amy Rose

THe-Group_458The Group
Mary McCarthy
1963, Harcourt Brace & World; reissue 1991, Mariner Books

Having just graduated from a liberal arts college with lots of ambition but zero practical skills, I found the world described by The Group eerily familiar, and reading it made me feel both prematurely nostalgic about the recent past and VERY afraid for my future. The novel follows the lives eight Vassar grads from the class of 1933, back when it was a women’s college, for their first seven years after college. We watch them go through bad marriages, childbirth, careers in publishing and theater, and one stay at a psychiatric hospital. Candace Bushnell said this book inspired her to write Sex and the City (the book, not the show) and it was super shocking for its time: STRAIGHT TALK about birth control, sexuality, and what it’s like to lose your virginity, in 1963. Thank you, Mary McCarthy! It’s kinda super long, but you’ll be so engrossed it will fly by. For extra credit watch the movie by Sidney Lumet too. —Monika

9780399256264The Theory of Everything
Kari Luna
2013, Philomel

Sophie Sophia, narrator of The Theory of Everything, is into old mixtapes and making her own clothes, and is someone I would have wanted as my BFF in high school. But she doesn’t have very many friends, because her mom has been moving her around ever since they left her dad—a renowned physicist and Sophie’s favorite person—in New York. It doesn’t help that Sophie is having these “episodes.” She sees things like a man’s heart rolling off his sleeve in a diner, the lunch ladies in her school cafeteria breaking into a dance routine to the Ramones, and then there’s Walt, her giant panda shaman. If anyone will understand what’s going on with her, it’s her dad, so Sophie grabs her one friend (besides Walt), Finny, and heads to New York to find him. The Theory of Everything pretty much has everything: a road trip, lots of lists, fun music and clothes, and physics! It’s a highly delightful read and one of my favorite books of the year. —Stephanie

FlowersInTheAtticFlowers in the Attic
V.C. Andrews
1979, Simon & Schuster

Flowers in the Attic is SO GRUESOME and SO UNINTENTIONALLY CAMPY and you probably will not want anyone you know to see you reading it, unless you’re way braver than me. This is because it’s about a teenage sister and brother, Cathy and Chris Dollanganger, who are locked in an attic together with their younger siblings by their evil mother and grandmother, so the teenagers fall in love and bone a lot because of the close quarters. At some point somebody tries to feed someone else a poison doughnut or something, and there’s also some kind of inheritance at stake, but all you can really focus on is the FORBIDDEN LOVE between Cathy and Chris. It’s the kind of schmaltzy, wonderful dime-store trash-book that all others in the genre aspire to be like. Obviously, it was widely banned by schools and libraries when it came back for the romantic and sexual luridness with which Andrews describes incest, which is, in reality, usually abusive and nothing like the relationship in this book. But Flowers in the Attic, and the almost-as-good sequels it spawned (one of which is literally called Garden of Shadows, OH MY GOD, come on), has nothing to do with reality—because, in reality, no one actually has a name as good as Corrine Dollanganger (née Foxworth), the mother of our two bad seeds, at whom the siblings often scream things like, “DAMN YOU TO HELL, CORRINE DOLLANGANGER!” (This is the kind of book where every member of the family has a name starting with the same initial, like incestuous Kardashians.) I really want to scream “Damn you to hell” at somebody now! That’s really the only thing you will learn from this incredible pulpy-ass cringe-a-thon, besides that it’s corny when people do the same-letter thing with their kids. Enjoy! —Amy Rose

71CyHnXkmML._SL1500_Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace
D.T. Max
2012, Viking

David Foster Wallace is one of my favorite writers, and one thing I love about his writing is how much life there is in it: It’s not enough for Wallace to describe a thing; he is compelled to append each scene or fact with multiple, frenetic, hilarious footnotes that are like sparks flying off each thought in his head. They show you how his brain works, and it is so funny and beautiful that you come to love him as a person, this person you’ve never met. So when Wallace killed himself in 2008, after a long struggle with depression, I felt almost like I had lost a friend. I also felt somewhat betrayed, because so much of his work is about the noble fight to maintain your humanity in a world that tries daily to crush it or mute it or dull its shine, and I realized I had been secretly counting on him to win that fight. I read this biography because I wanted to understand how he lost it. But alas, after reading excerpts of the pages of correspondence between Wallace and other writers collected by D.T. Max, and reading what Wallace’s friends, family, colleagues, and editors had to say when Max interviewed them, there was nothing more than the same deeply unsatisfying and infuriating answer that I’ve found way too often when people I’ve loved have died: “It goes by many names,” Wallace wrote in his novel Infinite Jest. “Anguish, despair, torment,” or “psychotic depression…. It is a nausea of the cells and soul…. It is a hell for one.” Sorry for the massive downer, you guys, but FUCK DEPRESSION. Please get help if you have it. Don’t stop taking your meds without talking to your doctor. And—this goes for everyone—go read Infinite Jest. —Anaheed

Story_of_a_girlStory of a Girl
Sara Zarr
2008, Little, Brown

When Deanna was 13, her father caught her in the back of a car hooking up with Tommy, a 17-year-old friend of her older brother’s. Even though she and Tommy had been doing this for a while, as Deanna puts it, “I didn’t love him. I’m not sure I even liked him.” But almost three years later, Deanna’s dad still won’t look her in the eye and she’s still being treated like a slut by everyone in their small town. Deanna dreams of landing a summer job where she’ll earn enough to get the hell out of there, but the only place she can find one is at a crappy pizza joint. Where Tommy works. This is a smart, profound story about one of the realest girls I’ve ever read. Sara Zarr is a master of drawing characters so true to life that you’ll feel like you know them, or maybe if you’re someone who’s made a few mistakes (or one really big one), you’ll feel like you are them. —Stephanie

9781582344164_custom-s6-c10Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
Susanna Clarke
2004, Bloomsbury

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is an epic reimagining of the gothic novel that transcends the genre by combining an imagined history of 19th-century England with elements of the supernatural. Susanna Clarke seamlessly blends the mundane with the fantastical, and fills in gaps in the backstory with extensive footnotes so meticulously detailed that you almost believe they’re true. It’s almost 800 pages long, but it’s a breathlessly fast read, each page pulling you deeper into its world of fairies and dark magic that rises from the depths of a long-buried past to haunt the genteel drawing rooms and misty country lanes of Dickensian England. It’s about Englishness and what it means in an age when all the old markers of it have all but disappeared, about the historical North-South divide, and about myths and legends created in an attempt to forge an alternate history—a magical history, but rooted folklore of a very English kind. The first time I read it, I was an English-lit major fascinated by medieval legends and wanting desperately to believe the alternate history in the book. Happening upon the book years later on a dismal October evening, I picked it up. Enveloped alone in a gloomy fog, I read it again, and this time it wasn’t so hard to believe. —Ragini ♦