This title is misleading because I don’t like to declare any style of book as my “favorite.” I enjoy reading a diverse collection, and I think it’s important to read books outside of my comfort zone or that challenge me (except maybe thrillers…Sam, one day, I promise I’ll read one!). That said, I’ve noticed a similarity in many of my favorite books. Whether they’re fiction or non-fiction, they have a voice that’s descriptive, lyrical, evocative and haunting.
It’s hard for me to describe why I love a particular book. I rely on a visceral feeling the story elicits, which can be hard to put into words. This list is not exhaustive by any means. It’s a sampling. I’m not going to go into too much detail about the plot or my opinions. These will be short explanations of why these stories have stayed with me.
I could read this tiny book over and over again. I gravitate toward personal narrative and essays (especially when the author is a poet). Reading this for the first time was striking. The book is a rumination on the color blue, but it’s so much more than that. Nelson has fallen in love with blue. She examines this through various forms: art, sex, death, heartbreak and more. Her writing is evocative and blurs the lines between essay and poem. There’s an energy that leaps off the page. Even when I was unsure what she’s getting at (I’m not sure she even knows), I was still affected.
“When I was alive, I aimed not to be a student of longing but of light.” —Maggie Nelson, Bluets
This story left a visceral impact on me. It’s haunting, tragic, sensual—with a dark sense of humor. I read it so long ago that I’ve decided to revisit it this summer (especially after reading Emma Cline’s new introduction, which is exquisite). It captures the essence of teenage yearnings beautifully. It’s told from the perspective of the neighborhood boys who are obsessed with the five Lisbon sisters—all of whom commit suicide. There is no happy ending (which I like in a story—life does not always have happy endings). It’s an unnerving tale told in a raw, unapologetic way that grabs hold of you and never lets go.
“We felt the imprisonment of being a girl, the way it made your mind active and dreamy, and how you ended up knowing which colors went together. We knew that the girls were our twins, that we all existed in space like animals with identical skins, and that they knew everything about us though we couldn’t fathom them at all. We knew, finally, that the girls were really women in disguise, that they understood love and even death, and that our job was merely to create the noise that seemed to fascinate them.” ―
To me, this book is poetry. I felt the colors, sounds and locations vividly. I was transported to the Italian countryside in the summertime. It’s about a young man, Elio, who becomes obsessed with an older American man, Oliver. It’s a coming-of-age novel that portrays the feelings of utter rapture and longing so alluringly. It shows the way passion for someone is often an extension of a passion for oneself or a discovery about oneself. Repeatedly throughout the story, I felt the hairs on my arms stand up. I’m annoyingly nostalgic, and this book taps into that feeling. Its introspective prose left me dreaming of my past loves—examining what’s real and what’s a romanticized memory.
“And on that evening when we grow older still we’ll speak about these two young men as though they were two strangers we met on the train and whom we admire and want to help along. And we’ll want to call it envy because to call it regret would break our hearts.” ―
Emma Cline is one of my favorite contemporary writers. Her ability to masterfully build tiny details into her scenes is addicting. I’m currently re-reading her highly acclaimed novel, The Girls. I read it in 2016, but I was very distracted (I’d just had my son). I remember being intrigued, but I couldn’t exactly remember why. So, I’m giving it another go. I include it here because from what I can remember, the prose and the allure of her female characters struck something in me. The plot is about teenage girls who are a part of a Manson-like cult, but what it illuminates is how women present themselves and how they unconsciously understand each other. I’ve realized since creating this list that I’m partial to coming-of-age stories with a dark, carnal slant. There must be something in the way I felt as a teenage girl that resonates with that. I know I had a lot of deep feelings (I still do!).
“So much of desire, at that age, was a willful act. Trying so hard to slur the rough, disappointing edges of boys into the shape of someone we could love. We spoke of our desperate need for them with rote and familiar words, like we were reading lines from a play. Later I would see this: how impersonal and grasping our love was, pinging around the universe, hoping for a host to give form to our wishes.” ―
I’m a fan of memoirs, but the kind I’m drawn to read more like novels. I’ve read plenty of memoirs that end up being boring accounts of things that happened in the narrator’s life, which has given memoirs sort of a bad rap. Danler is another one of my favorite contemporary writers. I loved her debut novel, Sweet Bitter. I re-read it a few months ago, and its magic still holds. So I wasn’t surprised that I fell in love with her recent memoir, Stray. The story revolves around Danler’s return to her hometown, Los Angeles, where she has to confront her shattered past and damaged relationships with her addict parents. She’s also grappling with her feelings about the affair she’s entrenched in. There are many reasons I love Danler’s writing: her vivid descriptions, her love of words, her vulnerability, her rawness—they give you access to her mind in a way that feels almost too personal.
“One time after sex, the Love Interest asked me if I was happy. I was so surprised by that question, its baldness, I said, ‘I don’t know how to answer that.’ I still don’t. Happiness is a filter I apply in hindsight. A wash of color over a span of recollected time. But he is teaching me to name things that move me. Coastal live oaks. Poppies and lupin. Arroyos. When I get in the car with the Love Interest to explore some fabled part of this state, I feel alert, aroused, and at peace. I think this feeling must be very, very close to happiness.” —Stephanie Danler, Stray
I found myself furiously underlining so many passages in Durga’s book of essays. Her musings made me pause and linger—often smiling at how much it resonated with me. I don’t usually annotate my books, but this book had me drawing little hearts next to sentences. I laughed out loud at this: “…or making innocent decisions like buying a shower radio to cure a bad day…” I literally purchased a shower radio a few days before reading this. I suppose I’m predictable. I read critiques about Durga’s meandering writing style and frequent use of metaphors, but I happen to like it. I don’t mind rambling or writing that’s a stream-of-consciousness. I find it honest.
“She is all at once unused but oh, so used up. Or very used to. Why is it that when a woman is occupied by the voice in her head, or the wear of her day, or the landscape that passes through her eyes like windows on a train, the world assumes she is up for grabs? A vacant stare does not mean vacancy.” ―
This book is haunting me. I keep thinking about it and reinterpreting it. I love it when a book injects itself inside you in a way that’s both jarring and satisfying: a strange mixture of feelings to unravel. A good book should do that; it should permeate. Samantha Hunt is an engaging writer in that she effortlessly blurs reality and fantasy. When you’re immersed in her stories, you’re living in a liminal space, which is thrilling and confusing. That’s what I appreciate about this book. It’s a short story, but its aftereffects are anything but small.
“When she met my father she was still really good at being quiet. When she met him she realized how she had been collecting silence in a slender, delicate glass jar behind her ribcage. The bottle was not corked and so she always had to be very careful not to spill it.” ―