A book’s purpose is manifold. They are adventure, dreams, heartache, and laughter. They are commiserators as much as they are co-conspirators of the roiling, trying, and wonderful nature of being human that flows within us all. The following list of books acted as companion through a cold, hard winter and compatriot in my nation of soul-searching. And, whether or not explicitly stated, these books inspired living, loving, and appreciation—just in time for spring.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Deception. This is the book you’ll be sneaking snippets of at work and missing your train stops for. Meet Nick and Amy Dunne, exactly five years married the day beautiful Amy disappears. Nick whispers his side of the story in your ear and the diary Amy left behind tells you another. The portrait of a toxic marriage comes into view but the edges remain blurry all the way through, leaving your spine chilled and with raised eyebrows about the people you keep closest. Flynn spins a tightly woven thriller that’ll keep you guessing and the pages turning all the way to the end.
We the Animals by Justin Torres
What Torres puts in your hands is a family photo album that is both tender and savage, through and through. Each chapter acts as a snapshot, though we linger long after the camera is put down and the smiles have faded. This is a story about loving through thick and thin; about being one while belonging to a whole. You can cruise through in one sitting with Torres’ slim volume of immeasurable and unparalleled beauty about family and self.
Tenth of December by George Saunders
Saunders puts a three-dollar bill in your hand and makes you scratch your head just before he suckerpunches you with a fistful of heartache. As always, Saunders takes the reader to the periphery of our reality or to the sidelines of our hearts and minds that no one but ourselves get to hear or see. Through the simplest language and the most absurd scenarios, Saunders guarantees a chuckle, but make no mistake—Saunders’ greatest accomplishment is getting each and every person in the room to take a long, hard glance in the mirror and love themselves.
The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake by Breece D’J Pancake
Daydreamers. What if high school never ended and you lived with your parents forever? The twelve stories left behind by the much-too-early-departed Pancake (yes, that was his real name) center on men bound by obligation, given over to failure or so hung up on yesterday that they never quite get out of the house or, at least, beyond the county line. What are they left with? Yearning.
Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro
Women on the verge of living. In life, we are asked to make choices and those choices define our lives. In this collection of stories, we meet a bevy of women whose choices more closely resembles deals and agreements. With the men they love (or think they love). With life. Most often the real bargaining seems to be with themselves—‘cause ultimately, we are the architects of our own lives, no? In classic Munro form, she packs a novel-length life into a short story without skimping on the tiniest details.
The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
“He fell in love. It was his life.” When these words find you, have a tissue ready. As a young boy, Leo Gursky does, in fact, fall in love and in the rusty winter of his life has not fallen out of it—long after his love has asked him to go away because “it’s what she needed him to do.” The old man Leo, a teenage girl named Alma, and several others are bound together by a love story penned by a young Leo that’s been living a life of its own over oceans and generations to keep people hoping and looking for more. This book very much asks you to believe in love and, by the last page, you won’t have much of a choice.
Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman
First love. It acts like no other because it’s not only got your heart beating at break-neck speeds, but your thoughts and actions as well—or, you’re so fraught with anxiety or frozen with fear you nearly blink yourself out of existence. When teenaged Elio falls for a summer house guest at his family’s home on the Italian Riviera, Aciman tears up the floorboards of your heart’s memory and has you cringing, laughing, sighing, and crying at the, let’s be honest now, fine line between impassioned love and total obsession that only a first love can conjure.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
I always say science fiction finds amazingly new ways to break your heart. Consider The Time Traveler’s Wife
, if you were wondering what I was talking about. If a single detail were left out, you’d think the world that Ishiguro paints of 1960s rural England was the same as our own. Unfortunately, it’s not. Despite our many shortcomings, we haven’t yet given over to cloning ourselves and harvesting the organs of said clones to extend the lives of others. (While I’m sure the idea has been teetering on the minds of scientists and ethicists for many years.) Rather than focus on the science or act solely as a cautionary tale, Ishiguro’s main task for us is to remember that people are people—we have always and will always hunger for identity, purpose and love. Cloned or not.
Blue Nights by Joan Didion
The long look backwards. The road traveled. Didion, always a masterful writer, asks the reader to sit in a corner of her mind as she contemplates time and mortality. After the death of her daughter, Quintana Roo, on the coattails of her husband’s passing, Didion asks all of the questions, considers all of the moments that brought her to the present. All the while wondering what we all do when it all doesn’t turn out quite the way we’d thought or hoped it might—Is there some way I could have known this is how it would be?
Zeitoun by Dave Eggers
When Syrian-American, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, decides to stay in New Orleans, unaware of the devastation Hurricane Katrina is about to deliver, he enters a seemingly unending nightmare. Eggers reconstructs Zeitoun’s days of the initial flooding as he canoes the deluged city rescuing people from their homes or feeding starving and abandoned dogs. As if it weren’t enough to see your home and city submerged, Eggers then tells of the 23 days Zeitoun spent in the slapdash prisons constructed amidst all the chaos as he is accused over and over of being “al Qaeda” and “Taliban.” If what happened in New Orleans in the wake of Katrina is any sort of model for what might happen were the world to end, the question we should be asking is: Who would save us from ourselves?
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
In 1995, the 26-year-old Strayed makes the decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. Why? Between shopping for gear to prepare for her trip, she quits a job waiting tables, finalizes a divorce, and visits her mother’s grave—these amongst a slew of other problems. In short, she’s looking for a journey to become unlost. At a glance, this is a tale of woman v. nature, but it’s nature that tells her the true fight is woman v. self. This book is many parts adventure, part dealing with the hot coal of grief, part labyrinthine exploration of one’s own psyche, and all parts inspiring.
The Still Point of the Turning World by Emily Rapp
In January 2011, Rapp is informed that her 9-month-old son, Ronan, had Tay-Sachs disease—a rare, incurable and degenerative disease that generally results in death before the age of four. Though Ronan is now gone, what Rapp wants to tell us is that life is truly short and we should be actively loving the ones we love. No doubt there is grief and unimaginable heartache in these pages, Rapp is ferocious and determined to claim her sadness while not allowing it to consume her. What this book truly is: a love letter from mother to son. From Rapp’s first blog entry just days after Ronan’s diagnosis: “I am Ronan’s mother, and I will greet all of this head-on … And today, and every day until Ronan’s last, I will never, not for one moment, avert my eyes.”
Meadowlands by Louise Glück
If there’s one area of literature I neglected, it is poetry. And, the loss is entirely mine—which I am especially reminded of when reading work like Glück’s. We’ve all got our perfect post break-up songs, but how about taking it beyond the violins and sinking our teeth into the perfect post break-up poems. Glück, long recognized and well-respected in the world of poetry, will put a knowing smile on your face or have you gritting your teeth because she squarely nails it on the head here. She effortlessly recreates and dissects a very particular state of mind.