This list did not turn out how I planned.
I started writing about my all-time favorite books – Princess Diaries, Lunar Chronicles, all that junk – when I noticed a pattern.
I have a habit of acquiring books, thanks to unwise spending habits, a Seattle library card, and literary friends. I fill my pile with finds that others have recommended or that have interesting covers or that cost $8 at Target (a price that hits my stingy sweet spot. $9.99? What am I, made of money? $8? That means I can buy 4!) The floor of my studio is covered with brand new and gently used books I should be reading right now.
…I reread the same 11 books instead.
I think about these books constantly. I press them on good friends, whispering, “This book ruined my life.” I read them to stave off anxiety attacks and cure bad moods.
These aren’t long-time favorites that I’ve collected throughout my life, but more recent volumes that I’ve read over the last two years. These are the stories I need right now, the ones that reassure me I’m on the right track.
How to Be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis
This book inspired this list. I love reading about how other people connect to literature; Samantha Ellis’ book chronicles her experience of revisiting favorite stories featuring heroines she once admired.
I don’t connect to specific heroines the way Ellis does (if anything, I connect more to male characters), but I’ve seen how my writing has been shaped by more memorable narrators. I’ve learned I connect to certain tropes because they remind me of familiar stories.
I find this book so validating; even single, I am the heroine of my life, backed by an army of fictional champions. Thank you and also so there.
Something New by Lucy Knisley
According to everyone I know, planning a wedding is supposed to be terrible.
I’ve watched fearless women cower under the trappings of tradition and uncommon individuals settle for typical ceremonies. Brides find their joy sapped when they bow to expectations, yet they eye me with a sort of “You’re next” expression (Fun fact: NOT an encouraging prospect for someone who hates convention!!!)
Lucy Knisley offers a refreshing take with the story of her own wedding: she and her fiance analyzed the origins of each wedding staple and discarded the traditions they no longer found relevant. This might not seem revolutionary to those raised outside the church, but, after seeing churchfolk define how a “godly” wedding should look (hint: as much like a Sunday morning service as possible), I find this MINDBLOWING. I’d rather create a unique experience with someone I love and respect, and Lucy Knisley says that’s POSSIBLE.
Someday, Someday, Maybe by Lauren Graham
This book has reappeared in my “currently reading” pile three times in the last four months.
I really love this book.
First off, it’s hilarious. Second, it’s about a twenty-something artist bumbling her way through New York City, which is semi-relevant to my current experiences.
I’m not a complete mess (unlike Franny Banks, the Graham-inspired protagonist): I have more than $20 in my bank account (this week); I have a steady job; I’m making art in my spare time.
Still, though, I have this fear that I’m skimping on valuable experiences, that I could be doing better, that somewhere out there a Life Expert is grading my twenties and finding them wanting.
I pictured myself at this juncture making more than one accomplishment a year.
Some days my chest gets tight thinking about what I could (or should) be doing instead of living here and making coffee, hurtling into full-on cardiac arrest when a well-meaning acquaintance suggests that maaaybe I’m wasting my talent…
Franny Banks screws up in every arena: she loses her job, signs the wrong agent, dates the wrong guy, and neglects the people most important to her. A moralist would send her home to Chicago, having squandered her One Shot.
Lauren Graham says there’s hope for Franny.
If Franny Banks can screw up this much and still flourish, I am doing fine.
Big Magic and Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert
I like Liz Gilbert. A lot. She’s so warm and personable when she writes, revealing enough that I feel like we’re already friends.
DO YOU HEAR ME, LIZ GILBERT!? I WANT TO BE FRIENDS!
My two favorite of Liz’s books deal with creativity and marriage, the two subjects I care about most. She includes a ton of research in her books without it bogging down her writing; I can read her treatise on the history of marriage in a DAY.
One of the most comforting ideas gleaned from both books is that Liz – nearing 50, world traveler, writer of a best-seller – doesn’t feel any more “adult” than I do. She faces significant doubts about both art and matrimony but finds the gumption to press on in spite of them. Stephen King’s book On Writing, while fascinating, is less an encouragement than a mandate, i.e., “Write, you lazy ass.” (Not a direct quote. Probably.) Liz takes a gentler tone: Write, dear one, because you want to and because it feels good; you don’t have to be the best or prove yourself to anyone. (It helps that Liz was inspired by The Artist’s Way, another very encouraging book on the creative process.)
One of my favorite creative mantras comes courtesy of Liz: DONE is better than GOOD. After a year spent meeting someone else’s exacting standards, I’m in the process of killing my inner perfectionist. Nowadays, I’d rather produce something mediocre than edit the same 80 pages until I die. Spurred on by Liz’s words, I continue to create.
The Best Party of Our Lives by Sarah Galvin
This book includes some of the most heartwarming, creative love stories – and they ALL REALLY HAPPENED. RIGHT HERE. IN WASHINGTON (mostly.) Followed by the GREATEST WEDDINGS I’VE EVER SEEN (except for the Thanksgiving wedding. I will die before I plan a wedding involving turkey and gourds.)
I wasn’t sure why I identified with this book about gay marriage so much until I compared these couples’ experiences with my friends’ experiences. Where my friends focused on tradition (rant forthcoming), the gay couples interviewed here focused on celebration.
I don’t want my wedding to be bogged down by gender roles or superstitions; I want a giant party treated with as much tenderness and expressed with as much creativity as these real-life Seattle couples. The freedom they felt to make their own choices inspires me, and I hope to create something that compares.
You Know Me Well by David Levithan and Nina La Cour
I once swore underwhelming author David Levithan would never make me cry. Eager to prove me wrong, Levithan teamed up with Nina La Cour, author of my beloved Everything Leads to You.
I read this for the first time on a ferry after signing the lease on my current apartment. Turning the final pages, I sobbed. Big time. In front of commuters and daytrippers and flagrant breakers of the no-alcohol-outside-the-galley rule. CURSE YOU, DAVID LEVITHAN, YOU FINALLY DID IT.
The story follows two gay teenagers as they meet, bond, and support each other through some of life’s toughest transitions. They put their other relationships on hold in favor of unconditional support from a near stranger, achieving the kind of connection I long for. You can find me reading this book on the Seattle-Bremerton ferry and bawling my eyes out.
I’ll Give You the Sun/The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson
It’s no secret that I love Jandy Nelson’s prose, as well as the quirky-yet-suitable names she chooses for her characters.
Nelson writes big emotions, grief coming to the forefront in all of her stories. Tensions erupt between characters that care for each other, anger existing in places normally overshadowed by love.
I need grief. I need anger. I want to read about siblings who tore their relationship to shreds and came back together.
I reach for these books when I’m upset or overwhelmed. These are what I read when something good in my life dies.
Just One Day by Gayle Forman
The other books on this list are cathartic; this one inspires me.
The first third of this book is nothing special: girl and boy meet, girl and boy go to Paris, girl and boy fall in love…
Then boy abandons girl.
Girl returns home.
Girl rewrites her life.
Allyson’s journey covers multiple topics, including depression, changing friendships, parental expectations, and coping with failure. The romance takes a backseat to Allyson’s attempts to heal. Where she goes and how she accomplishes this are MUCH more interesting than who she ends up with. Her transformation turns the ending from happy to worthwhile.
Honestly? Forget the love story; I read this for Allyson’s platonic relationships, particularly her friendship with childhood pal Melanie. Allyson notes the hypocrisy in their friendship as Melanie tries on new identities. Mel lambastes Allyson for being “boring,” then switches to criticism when Allyson makes drastic changes. I’ve watched a similar relationship in my life disintegrate; like Allyson, I’m ambivalent about whether this was for the best. Forman ends her book ambiguously; seems Allyson and I are both waiting to see how things turn out.
Everything Leads to You by Nina La Cour
I’d forgotten how much loss this book covers.
While quieter and less devastating than La Cour’s debut novel, this book involves two messy breakups, graduation, death, and homelessness caused by fractured family bonds. There’s a reason the two leads are longing for connection, and the connections they do make are messy. Moments pile up. People miss each other and make mistakes.
While loss is a theme, recovery is the ultimate goal. As hurt as Emi is by her sixth and final breakup with set designer Morgan, she’s kind to herself. In my favorite scene, she and Ava commiserate about their exes with words I’ve adopted as a mantra: “Look at who I am without you.”
At the end, all the tiny tragedies and awkward interactions draw two people together despite their combined failures.
What a comfort for those who feel unworthy.
Finishing this book, I breathe a sigh of relief, knowing I haven’t screwed up the trajectory of my life by missing little moments; other people and projects are leading me to and through this life well-lived.