Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has been such a major inspiration for me. She is a beautiful writer and brilliant feminist. I spent last summer devouring every one of her books; once, I was so engrossed in Americanah that I went forty minutes in the wrong direction on the 4 train before realizing I was headed uptown. She's that good.
The Principles of Uncertainity by Maira Kalman. My family friend Peggy gave this to me for Christmas when I was in high school and I feel in love with Kalman's lush illustrations and poignant prose. Reading The Principles of Uncertainty always wedges my heart open a little more to new experiences.
Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by Z.Z. Packer. This short-story collection breaks my heart every time. Z.Z. Packer gets at what it means to inhabit a body, to want for someone, to leave our past behind.
Fidelity by Grace Paley. Grace Paley is my literary grandma. Fidelity is the last book of poems she published before her death and it's such a nervy and passionate and brazen piece of writing. Whenever I am confronted with a problem, I think to myself, what would Grace Paley do? Because you know that this badass writer/pacifist/feminist knew how to turn sour lemons into strawberry lemonade.
The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende. I first read this novel when I was 12 or so and it has stayed with me ever since. The female characters are feisty and flawed and full of life. And I loved the magical world that Allende created.
The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen. Sarah Dessen is hands-down my favorite YA author. I read all her books, multiple times, during middle and high school. She writes about girls’ lives in ways that feel realistic, complex, compassionate, and relatable. My favorite was always The Truth About Forever. It tells the story of Macy, a girl grieving her father’s recent death. As a result of this tragedy, Macy tries to make her life “perfect”, attempting to control everything she can, avoiding risks and messiness. Then she meets a group of people who are chaotic, messy, and loving; and with their friendship, she begins to see that perfection isn’t possible and control isn’t always a good thing. This book hit me very hard, at an age when I too wanted perfection and control. But Macy’s story helped me see that chaos is worth embracing, and that love is always messy, and worth it.
Anthropology of an American Girl by Hilary Thayer Hamann. I picked up this book by chance, drawn to its title and its watercolor cover. I love coming-of-age stories, and this is one of the best. It follows the story of Eveline Auerbach, a unique and introspective girl growing up in New York. The book traces her story through several years, through high school and beyond into young adulthood. What makes this book so unique is its immersive quality; it’s a long and detailed character study, and I got sucked into Eveline’s mind, her struggle to begin making her way in the world alone. Though there are several love interests, I was always most invested in Eveline herself, her inner world. That’s what I found so impressive about this book; it’s largely about love, but the most evocative and beautiful part of it is Eveline herself.
The Liars' Club by Mary Karr. The Liars’ Club is the best memoir I have ever read, and one of my all-time favorite books. Mary Karr writes about her young childhood in rural Eastern Texas with humor and devastating detail. Her ability to describe her childhood in all its vivid minutiae is incredible. She describes her family, at once loving and destructive, struggling with alcoholism, divorce and trauma. Even through these episodes, it is evident how much love there is in the family; above all, they feel human. She writes with wit, humor, and dark power. I was amazed by her ability to balance devastation with lightness, dark human struggle with love and humor.
The History of Love by Nicole Krauss. The History of Love is one of the most beautifully poetic novels I have ever read. The book spans continents and half a century, switching perspectives between an old man and a 14-year-old girl both living in New York City, whose lives are intertwined in ways they don’t yet realize. What’s so striking about this novel is Krauss’ ability to write both with humorous irreverent detail, and also sweeping poetic observations about the world. The balance between these two makes the book exquisite. This novel will immerse you in its beauty.
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. Toni Morrison’s first novel is a powerful exploration of the destructiveness of American myths of physical beauty. It is the story of Pecola Breedlove, an eleven-year-old girl living in Ohio, who wishes more than anything else for her eyes to be blue, so that she can feel loved and beautiful like America’s idealized, blonde and blue-eyed children. It is an emotional, powerful description of one young girls’ loneliness and longing. The novel describes the idea of physical beauty as “probably the most destructive idea in the history of human thought.” That quote has stayed with me ever since; how necessary to remember, in this society caught up in such a destructive obsession.