Perhaps the main reason I love reading is because there’s nothing more satisfying than having your world rocked by an absolutely brilliant book. Whether it provides a whole new perspective on a subject, dazzles with amazing prose, or raises the bar for an entire genre, I love when books leave an imprint on my brain and make me grateful for the reading experience. Here are ten books that have become a part of my personality and altered my brain chemistry in the best possible way.
MILK FED is the book that irrevocably shaped my current reading taste and inspired this list. In MILK FED, Melissa Broder brings us into the mind of twenty-four-year-old Rachel, a bisexual lapsed Jew who has created ritualistic practices around calorie counting and exercise. Her life dramatically shifts, however, when she decides to take a communication detox from her mother and shortly after meets Miriam, a zaftig Orthodox Jew and the newest employee at Rachel’s favorite frozen yogurt shop. More than just an account of an eating disorder or a queer love story, MILK FED is, at its core, a story of yearning—for food, for love, and for meaning.
Named a Best Book of the Year by Entertainment Weekly, Vogue, Time, Esquire, BookPage, and more
This darkly hilarious and “delicious new novel that ravishes with sex and food” (The Boston Globe) from the acclaimed author of The Pisces and So Sad Today is a “precise blend of desire, discomfort, spirituality, and existential ache” (BuzzFeed).
Rachel is twenty-four, a lapsed Jew who has made calorie restriction her religion. By day, she maintains an illusion of existential control, through obsessive food rituals, while working as an underling at a Los Angeles talent management agency. At night, she pedals nowhere on the elliptical machine. Rachel is content to carry on subsisting—until her therapist encourages her to take a ninety-day communication detox from her mother, who raised her in the tradition of calorie counting.
Rachel soon meets Miriam, a zaftig young Orthodox Jewish woman who works at her favorite frozen yogurt shop and is intent upon feeding her. Rachel is suddenly and powerfully entranced by Miriam—by her sundaes and her body, her faith and her family—and as the two grow closer, Rachel embarks on a journey marked by mirrors, mysticism, mothers, milk, and honey.
“A ruthless, laugh-out-loud examination of life under the tyranny of diet culture” (Glamour) Broder tells a tale of appetites: physical hunger, sexual desire, spiritual longing, and the ways that we compartmentalize these so often interdependent instincts. Milk Fed is “riotously funny and perfectly profane” (Refinery 29) from “a wild, wicked mind” (Los Angeles Times).
After finishing SEVERANCE, I did nothing but stare at a wall for about twenty minutes. This debut novel left me breathless and speechless, and even now there’s so much I can discuss about Ling Ma’s masterful tale of the comforts and dangers of ritual, the collapse of late capitalism during a pandemic, and the ability to pursue art only when your entire way of life has collapsed around you. In order to preserve the magic of this book, I’ll provide only a brief summary of SEVERANCE. After the death of both of her parents, millennial drone Candace Chen throws herself into her work at a Bible manufacturer, so much so that she barely notices when a pandemic spreads across New York City. When it’s no longer possible for her to go to work, she’s picked up by a roving group of survivors going to “the Facility,” a place rumored to have enough supplies to restart civilization.
As soon as I read the first line of this book—“It was her idea to tie up the nun”—I knew that INFINITE COUNTRY was going to be an unforgettable read. Patricia Engel is an incredible storyteller, and here she crafts the heartbreaking story of Mauro and Elena, two young adults who leave Colombia for the United States in pursuit of a better life, only to come up against the brutal realities of living as undocumented immigrants—which eventually result in Mauro and the couple’s youngest daughter, Talia, being deported back to Colombia. Years later, Talia races against the clock to escape the correctional facility she’s being kept in and get back to Bogotá, where her father and a plane ticket to the United States are waiting for her.
INFINITE COUNTRY is the most honest immigration story I’ve read. With poetic prose, Patricia Engel is unafraid to challenge the idea of the American Dream and depict the often cruel realities of migration and deportation.
A REESE’S BOOK CLUB PICK and INSTANT NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
“A profound, beautiful novel.” — People * “Poignant.” —BuzzFeed * “A breathtaking story of the unimaginable prices paid for a better life.” —Esquire
This “heartbreaking portrait of a family dealing with the realities of migration and separation” (Time) is “a sweeping love story and tragic drama [and] an authentic vision of what the American Dream looks like in a nationalistic country” (Elle).
I often wonder if we are living the wrong life in the wrong country.
Talia is being held at a correctional facility for adolescent girls in the forested mountains of Colombia after committing an impulsive act of violence that may or may not have been warranted. She urgently needs to get out and get back home to Bogotá, where her father and a plane ticket to the United States are waiting for her. If she misses her flight, she might also miss her chance to finally be reunited with her family.
How this family came to occupy two different countries, two different worlds, comes into focus like twists of a kaleidoscope. We see Talia’s parents, Mauro and Elena, fall in love in a market stall as teenagers against a backdrop of civil war and social unrest. We see them leave Bogotá with their firstborn, Karina, in pursuit of safety and opportunity in the United States on a temporary visa, and we see the births of two more children, Nando and Talia, on American soil. We witness the decisions and indecisions that lead to Mauro’s deportation and the family’s splintering—the costs they’ve all been living with ever since.
Award-winning, internationally acclaimed author Patricia Engel, herself a dual citizen and the daughter of Colombian immigrants, gives voice to all five family members as they navigate the particulars of their respective circumstances. Rich with Bogotá urban life, steeped in Andean myth, and tense with the daily reality of the undocumented in America, Infinite Country “is as much an all-American story as it is a global one” (Booklist, starred review).
Marlowe Granados’s HAPPY HOUR taught me that a book can contain little to no plot and still be an absolutely magical read. Over the course of one summer, twenty-one-year-old Isa and her best friend, Gala, travel to New York City in search of money, despite their limited funds. Through Isa’s diary entries, we see the girls attempt to make money selling clothes and working as paid audience members, all while mingling with artists, musicians, and celebrities. What truly sold this book for me was Isa’s memorable voice. Her joie de vivre and memorable quips (I think about her declaration that sequins are her favorite color weekly) are grounded in the very real worries of trying to belong and to figure out who you are. I think about HAPPY HOUR constantly, and would love to return to this world one day.
I don’t often read romance, but with THE CHARM OFFENSIVE, I found a heartwarming yet realistic romance with characters I could easily root for (with the added bonus of the best mental health representation I’ve ever seen on the page). Dev Deshpande is a star producer on the Bachelor-esque show Ever After, on which contestants attempt to find their “happily ever after.” When the disgraced tech savant Charlie Winshaw is cast as the show’s star, Dev sees no hope for the season. However, as Dev and Charlie get to know each other behind the scenes and discover that they have more chemistry than Charlie does with any of the female contestants, the two must flip the script and ultimately determine who will get that happily ever after.
In this witty and heartwarming romantic comedy—reminiscent of Red, White & Royal Blue and One to Watch—an awkward tech wunderkind on a reality dating show goes off-script when sparks fly with his producer.
Dev Deshpande has always believed in fairy tales. So it’s no wonder then that he’s spent his career crafting them on the long-running reality dating show Ever After. As the most successful producer in the franchise’s history, Dev always scripts the perfect love story for his contestants, even as his own love life crashes and burns. But then the show casts disgraced tech wunderkind Charlie Winshaw as its star.
Charlie is far from the romantic Prince Charming Ever After expects. He doesn’t believe in true love, and only agreed to the show as a last-ditch effort to rehabilitate his image. In front of the cameras, he’s a stiff, anxious mess with no idea how to date twenty women on national television. Behind the scenes, he’s cold, awkward, and emotionally closed-off.
As Dev fights to get Charlie to connect with the contestants on a whirlwind, worldwide tour, they begin to open up to each other, and Charlie realizes he has better chemistry with Dev than with any of his female co-stars. But even reality TV has a script, and in order to find to happily ever after, they’ll have to reconsider whose love story gets told.
Though I only finished MONSTERS in June of this year, this book has already become a formative text for how I approach the world. In MONSTERS, Claire Dederer expertly navigates, discusses, and expands upon her central question: Can we enjoy the art of monstrous men? Examining figures such as Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, and Pablo Picasso, Dederer explores the link between monstrosity and genius, while asking what exactly constitutes monstrous behavior and who gets to define genius. Without exaggeration, I think about this book daily and am constantly using Dederer’s words as a guide to teach me how I can more critically consume and appreciate art in my own life.
My attempt to persuade you to read this book is a personal anecdote: when I had tonsillitis and didn’t want to do anything, this was the only book I still felt compelled to read. Set at the fictional St. Dunstan’s Academy in Maine, THE WORLD CANNOT GIVE is a coming-of-age story that centers on idol worship, queer desire, and the search for beauty and greater meaning. Sixteen-year-old Laura Stearns enrolls at St. Dunstan’s in hopes that her experience will mirror that of academy alum Sebastian Webster, whose novel All Before Them is Laura’s favorite book. In her attempt to experience what Webster calls a “shipwreck of the soul,” Laura joins the school choir, directed by the intense and charismatic Virginia Strauss, and is inducted into a world of arcane music, cliff diving, and midnight crypt visits. When Virginia’s hold on the choir is challenged and her methods of wielding power become more dangerous, Laura has to decide the extent to which her desire for this world—and for Virginia—will go.
“The Secret History meets The Price of Salt” (Vogue) in this “equal parts dangerous and delicious” (Entertainment Weekly) novel about queer desire, religious zealotry, and the hunger for transcendence among the members of a cultic chapel choir at a Maine boarding school—and the ambitious, terrifyingly charismatic girl that rules over them.
When shy, sensitive Laura Stearns arrives at St. Dunstan’s Academy in Maine, she dreams that life there will echo her favorite novel, All Before Them, the sole surviving piece of writing by Byronic “prep school prophet” (and St. Dunstan’s alum) Sebastian Webster, who died at nineteen, fighting in the Spanish Civil War. She soon finds the intensity she is looking for among the insular, Webster-worshipping members of the school’s chapel choir, which is presided over by the charismatic, neurotic, overachiever Virginia Strauss. Virginia is as fanatical about her newfound Christian faith as she is about the miles she runs every morning before dawn. She expects nothing short of perfection from herself—and from the member of the choir.
Virginia inducts the besotted Laura into a world of transcendent music and arcane ritual, illicit cliff-diving and midnight crypt visits: a world that, like Webster’s novels, finally seems to Laura to be full of meaning. But when a new school chaplain challenges Virginia’s hold on the “family” she has created, and Virginia’s efforts to wield her power become increasingly dangerous, Laura must decide how far she will let her devotion to Virginia go.
The World Cannot Give is a “hypnotic and intense” (Shondaland) meditation on the power, and danger, of wanting more from the world.
Of the books on this list, THE ADULT is the one I’ve read most recently; while I finished it only a month ago, I’m certain it will be a forever favorite of mine. It’s an immaculate coming-of-age story following Natalie, a freshman at the University of Toronto who feels aimless compared with her classmates. When a mysterious older woman named Nora asks Natalie to sit with her in the park, the two begin an all-consuming love affair that Natalie holds sacred, even as she discovers that Nora is concealing secrets.
I’m absolutely stunned that this book is a debut novel; the way that Bronwyn Fischer captures the anxiety of growing up and seeking approval, all while you try to find out who exactly you are, is masterful to the point where I’m almost convinced she crawled into my brain in order to conduct research for this book. Natalie and THE ADULT will always hold a special place in my heart.
I normally don’t gravitate toward young adult books, but one of my friends recommended ARISTOTLE AND DANTE DISCOVER THE SECRETS OF THE UNIVERSE so many times that I had to pick it up. By page twenty-two, I’d already cried twice. This book is without a doubt the best young adult book I’ve ever read, and one of the most emotional reading experiences I’ve had. ARISTOTLE AND DANTE is a heartrending and poetic look at the relationship between two teen boys, Ari and Dante, who meet one summer at the local swimming pool. Ari is an angry loner with a brother in prison, while Dante is smart and self-assured. Together, the two bond over books and dreams, and forge a deep connection even as life conspires to keep them apart.
Now a major motion picture starring Max Pelayo, Reese Gonzales, and Eva Longoria!
A Time Best YA Book of All Time (2021)
Dive into the award-winning, internationally renowned book that is a “tender, honest exploration of identity” (Publishers Weekly) and distills lyrical truths about family and friendship—featuring images from the film!
Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be.
I couldn’t write a list of books that altered my brain chemistry without including what is perhaps my all-time favorite book! EDUCATED is the most unputdownable, compelling book I’ve ever had the pleasure of picking up, made all the more remarkable by the fact that it’s a true story. Born to survivalist Mormons in the mountains of Idaho, Tara was forbidden to attend public school or go to the doctor. Her days consisted of stewing herbs for her mother’s tinctures in the summer and salvaging in her father’s junkyard in the winter, all while fearing violence from her father and her older brother. As she grew up, she taught herself enough math and grammar to be admitted to Brigham Young University, where for the first time she learned about the world outside her home. EDUCATED is an incredible story of resilience, change, and creating a new narrative for yourself even in the most challenging of circumstances.
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