Arthur Rimbaud, translated by John Ashbery
2011, W.W. Norton & Company

This is one of the most gripping books of poetry I’ve ever read. Rimbaud wrote all of his poetry in his teens, and by the time he turned 21, he’d completely given up on writing. This is a tempestuous collection of prose poems, filled with rage, sex, grief, rebellion, and triumph. Yes, angsty teens existed in the 19th century! Illuminations is a personal favorite because of how different it is from other Victorian poetry. Rimbaud’s writing seems completely modern in the way it breaks taboos. It makes sense that his outrageous, manic energy influenced many of the surrealists. Rimbaud has also hugely inspired Patti Smith, and if Patti can fall deeply in love with his work, then there must be something to it! —Lucy

autobiography-of-my-motherThe Autobiography of My Mother
Jamaica Kincaid
1996, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

I’ve been thinking about how, in some ways, my life is a sort of dedication to my parents. Of course, I’m my own person, but they have guided me and provided for me, and it shows in my actions and decisions. So many of our parents’ ideas and values become part of our own lives, for better or worse. In The Autobiography of My Mother, Jamaica Kincaid tells the story of Xuela Claudette Richardson, a Dominican woman whose mother dies while giving birth to her. The title is ironic, since Xuela never knew her mother. In a sense, the novel is Xuela’s autobiography, a document of how she forges her way through life. In another sense, Xuela’s true “mother” is the postcolonial Caribbean, in all its beauty and cruelty. Often lonely and miserable, Xuela learns from those around her what it means to be a mixed woman on an island where whiteness is still the most powerful currency. This is a bleak book about a motherless and shunned person, without a place in the world other than the place that she makes for herself. She is her own woman, yet her chilling tragedy tells of generations of oppressed women before her, and of women yet to come. —Estelle

J.M. Coetzee
1999, Vintage

I finished Disgrace in a few days, but I thought about it for months after. Set in post-apartheid South Africa, the novel places people in difficult situations and then examines how history, and the desire to ignore or correct that history, influences their decisions. The writing is easy to digest, but the content isn’t—the book contains scenes that depict and discuss rape and its aftermath. The story follows David Lurie, a literature professor at Cape Technical University, who abuses his position as professor, and his power as a white man, to have an affair with one of his students. When the university pressures him to apologize, Lurie refuses to acknowledge that he’s done anything wrong in an episode that might be said to echo South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings. He is fired, and then goes to live with his daughter on a farm, where they both suffer a horrific, violent assault. What’s so powerful about this book is how it places itself in a thorny context, tightens the narrative as it deals with the high tensions of post-apartheid South Africa, and then refuses to wrap everything up at the end. The novel is as complicated as its context. —Tova

six-feet-over-itSix Feet Over It
Jennifer Longo
2014, Random House

Leigh’s whole life is shrouded in loss. Her family’s home is in a graveyard (yep), her after-school job is selling burial plots, and her best and only friend, Emily, recently died. Beyond all that, she’s devoted so much of herself to her sister Kai’s long battle with cancer, that she’s forgotten how to live. Six Feet Over It isn’t just a story about how different people deal with grief and long-term illness (though it does a great job with that, too). It’s about how we figure out who we are as we emerge from loss and rededicate ourselves to living. Leigh does this with the help of a home-schooled girl named Elanor, and Dario, a gravedigger. Despite its heavy subject matter, Six Feet Over is not a sad book—quite the opposite. It’s surprising, witty, filled with dark humor, and has a unique cast of characters that come to life on the page and stay in your brain. —Stephanie

9780312571290Who We Be: The Colorization of America
Jeff Chang
2014, St. Martin’s Press

There was a time when American advertising would never put a person of color in a commercial. Then came this 1970s Coke ad, with teenagers from all over the world singing in “perfect harmony.” In the ’80s, there were United Colors of Benetton’s multi-racial sweater models, and suddenly, diversity in ads was an actual thing. But did the acknowledgment of people of color by capitalism do anything to combat, you know, actual racism? My most favorite sociologist-author, Jeff Chang, returns with his second book, an examination of how changing demographics in America have led to cultural change in our media. Reading Who We Be, I began to understand how activist movements were dismantled by corporate American and conservative interests. It sounds heavy, but don’t worry. Chang keeps his comprehensive research moving quickly, with humor and crystal clear conclusions. This is one book that I’m studying hard. —Caitlin D.

all-the-time-in-the-worldAll the Time in the World: A Book of Hours
Jessica Kerwin Jenkins
2013, Random House

I have a hard time explaining this book to friends, because there’s pretty much nothing else like it. Like a medieval book of hours, All the Time in the World is organized by time of day. As she moves from early mornings through to late evenings, Kerwin Jenkins delicately illustrates how people across different continents and various historical periods spent their time. Each anecdote is brimming with attention to detail, love, and care, whether Kerwin Jenkins is describing poetry writing in medieval Japan, or the ceremony to prepare an Elizabethan dinner table. It’s called a book of hours for a reason: You’ll be dedicating a lot of free time to this gem. —Lucy

imgresLiving, Loving & Learning
Leo F. Buscaglia
1982, Ballantine Books

When I began high school, my English teacher, really, the nicest man ever, Mr. Sherman, would play Leo Buscaglia video tapes for us in our free time. Buscaglia gave talks about love, empathy, and bettering humanity in the most warm and heart-wrenching way, with many audience members crying through it. His lectures were compiled into books and after breaking down into tears one too many times in class, Mr. Sherman gave me a hug and a copy of this book. My parents’ divorce had left me grieving, and no matter how much of a model student I was, I couldn’t cope with feeling that I still was not enough for my father to love. With chapters such as “On Becoming You,” “That’s Where the Light Is,” and “Choose Life,” Buscaglia imparts wisdom about how important it is to be loving, kind, and understanding in every interaction of our lives, to strangers and even more so to ourselves. He shares touching anecdotes about the prejudice he experienced as a child, and how he used love to overcome people’s senseless hate instead of allowing their ignorance to change his humanity. It’s still one of my favorite reads because it reminds me that hard work and fulfilling one’s potential is a way to be good to ourselves, and that love in general isn’t inevitable; it’s an energy that one must dedicate themselves to, with purpose and sincerity, every day. —Nova ♦