Some stories are not easily forgotten. They are seared into your brain from the moment you pick them up and they are impossible to shake off after you’re done reading them. That’s how I feel about the following eight titles. I read some of them in high school, others after college. Regardless of the timing, when my mind wanders off or people ask me what books I’ve read these immediately come to mind. From nonfiction stories that mark moments in my life, to fiction that changed my perception of storytelling, to wildly imaginative short stories, these are the books I will never, ever forget.
When I first read WIDE SARGASSO SEA, I had never read its source material, JANE EYRE. So my first foray into the Brontë world wasn’t with a Brontë classic—it was this novel, an EYRE retelling. This fact elicited some very surprised reactions from my colleagues and that is partly why I’ll never forget it, but, more importantly, this novel marked the moment when I discovered that sometimes reading the classics just isn’t as intriguing or as satisfying as reading other versions of a story. WIDE SARGASSO SEA is told from the perspective of the “madwoman” Mr. Rochester kept in the attic (aka, his wife, Antoinette Cosway) while courting Jane Eyre, but it starts with Antoinette’s childhood in the Caribbean, how she became married to Rochester, and her subsequent move to Thornfield—which is where this novel crosses over into the original storyline.
Jean Rhys's reputation was made upon the publication of this novel, in which she focuses on one of fiction's most mysterious characters: the madwoman in the attic from Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. Rhys portrays a society so driven by hatred, so skewed in its sexual relations, that it can literally drive a woman out of her mind.
The first time I went on a hiking trip, I went to Utah’s Arches National Park. The landscape is absolutely stunning but also especially alien: red desert with massive rock formations that look unreal up-close. While there, I noticed Edward Abbey’s name was mentioned frequently and I found DESERT SOLITAIRE at a bookstore. It documents his experience as a park ranger in Arches in the 1960s, when it was far less popular and developed than today. He spends a large portion of the book detailing the nature and solitude of his experiences. And, while I found some of his opinions questionable—such as his frustration with the general population’s growing interest in nature tourism—this was truly a book that allowed me to settle into the atmosphere of the place I was in, which created an extremely robust experience. It was one of the most compelling and fascinating pieces of nonfiction I have ever read.
As a child, I was terrified of vampires. (It’s a long story, but it has everything to do with accidentally catching some horrifying part of what I think was Interview with the Vampire.) It took me way longer than I think is normal to get over this fear—thanks, Twilight—but when I did, I did a complete 180 and fell HARD for True Blood. Knowing it was based on a book, I of course had to read it. I ended up devouring the entire series in one fell swoop over the course of a summer. I could not put these books down, and for that, I will always remember the series as my first love in the romance genre.
Helen Oyeyemi’s brain is a source of endless fascination to me. She takes fairy tales or fairy tale–like stories, and adds her own flair to them so they become socially and culturally relevant novels—or, in the case of WHAT IS NOT YOURS IS NOT YOURS, short stories about physical and metaphorical keys. Some of them get pretty dark, but I actually loved the depth and the sometimes oddly horrific things that come up in some of the stories. The way she is able to twist reality into something completely unexpected leaves little room for boredom or convention and almost leaves you forgetting about how shocking and eerie it is. And while this collection addresses some heavy questions, it’s also a demonstration of pure talent and imagination.
Helen Oyeyemi’s playful, ambitious, and exquisitely imagined story collection is cleverly built around the idea of literal and metaphorical keys: the key to a house, the key to a heart, the key to a secret. The tales in WHAT IS NOT YOURS IS NOT YOURS span multiple times and landscapes as they tease boundaries between coexisting realities.
It has been years since I read THINGS FALL APART, but when people discuss what they read in high school, this is the book that immediately comes to my mind. I don’t know if I will ever forget how devastated I felt by the end (which I won’t reveal!) or how after the last page the writing lives on as some of the most beautiful and powerful I have ever come across.
Chinua Achebe’s legendary novel encompasses the life of nature, human history, and the mysterious compulsions of the soul. It is an illuminating monument to modern Africa as seen from within.
This coming-of-age story set in New York, with a young woman working at a restaurant, was one of my 2016 highlights. It is now forever burned in my mind as the book that depicts restaurant life extremely well. I also picked it up when I was just a few years older than the main character and, while I didn’t relate closely to Tess herself, Stephanie Danler did a great job of writing what it felt like to live in New York after college, while experiencing an identity crisis and trying to become a mature, responsible adult but tripping up along the way (falling in love with the wrong people, being more self-centered than you should be, and so on). For that reason, SWEETBITTER is like an ode to my own coming-of-age.
Read with a Glass of Rosé
If you want to experience a wild life vicariously, just sit down with a nice glass of chilled rosé and enjoy SWEETBITTER. Stephanie Danler’s debut gives a peek into the world of a twentysomething who’s just landed a job at a downtown New York City restaurant with a pricey wine menu. It’s there that she learns important lessons about wine, about love, and about the world.
This is a laugh-out-loud, sweet, and honest look at how being Type A and achieving your goals doesn’t necessarily lead to “happiness,” and what comes after checking off all of your boxes. I don’t have any children, a husband, or a house, but I felt incredibly understood by Philpott. In fact, I related so much to everything she said—despite our differences—that I will not lend my copy to anyone. It is a precious gem that I often feel the need to return to when I need to laugh or feel comforted. This is memoir perfection that has taken a top spot on my favorites list; it will not soon be toppled.
THE SHADOW OF THE WIND is the book that reignited my passion for reading, after a long book funk during college, and reminded me how deeply and viscerally a person can feel about a single story. High praise, I know, Carlos Ruiz Zafón has earned it. Set in Barcelona, this novel is about a boy who falls in love with a book and looks for others by the same author, only to discover someone is destroying all of them. It’s an eerie, magical mystery and a love letter to the power that books can have over us. I literally hugged it when I finished and couldn’t pick up any other book for weeks after. It helped me remember and find that desire to continue throwing myself into reading. To this day, it is a sacred addition to my personal shelves.
As Barcelona slowly heals in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, Daniel, an antiquarian book dealer’s son, finds solace in what he finds in the “Cemetery of Forgotten Books”: a mysterious book entitled The Shadow of the Wind, by one Julián Carax. But when he sets out to find the author’s other works, his seemingly innocent quest opens a door into one of Barcelona’s darkest secrets—an epic story of murder, madness, and doomed love.