Stacked Up

7 Books That Expanded My View Of The World

Bustle’s columnist recommends a mix of old and new titles that pair well with introspection.

Covers of three books Bustle's columnist recommends for May 2024.
Stacked Up
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May is my favorite month, and I swear it isn’t only because it’s my birthday month. Finally, the weather really starts warming up; finally, we can break out the shorts and tank tops and sundresses. It’s hard to be anything but hopeful in those first weeks of feeling the sun on your skin, optimistic about the longer days ahead. In this spirit — and because my birthday sends me into existential contemplation about who I am and who I’ve been — this month’s column focuses on books that have shaped me: books, both new and old, that expanded my perspective of the world, shifted my understanding of myself, deepened my perception of the human experience, and blew up my notions of what literature can do. (And as a reminder, you can find more of my and other Bustle writers’ favorite new spring books here!)

Something Old

Bluets by Maggie Nelson

Maggie Nelson might be best known for her groundbreaking The Argonauts, the hybrid memoir-philosophical-treatise that arguably brought the idea of the “memoir-plus” into the mainstream, but I’ve found her most affecting work to be 2009’s Bluets. The slim, experimental text is a meditation on the color blue, presented as a numbered list of 240 observations about both the realities and connotations of the hue. Is it poetry? Is it prose? Does the answer really matter? Regardless, it offers quietly poignant insights into love, grief, and what makes us human.

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Jean Rhys’ 1966 feminist take on Jane Eyre was my introduction to literary reimaginings, and it was a powerful education in the necessity of viewing the classics through the sociopolitical context in which they were written. Wide Sargasso Sea is largely narrated by Creole heiress Antoinette, Mr. Rochester’s eventual wife, who describes her childhood in postcolonial Jamaica, the loss of her family’s wealth following the abolition of slavery, her arranged marriage to the English Rochester, and the increasing abuse and dehumanization she suffers as his wife. It’s a nuanced, often painful examination of not only the oppression of women but also the long-lasting consequences of colonialism and the slave trade.

This Is Chance: The Great Alaska Earthquake, Genie Chance, and the Shattered City She Held Together by Jon Mooallem

When New York Times Magazine writer Jon Mooallem’s book about Alaska’s historic 1964 earthquake came out in 2020, I wouldn’t shut up about it. It follows a young and ambitious reporter, Genie Chance, as she broadcasts for three days straight in the aftermath of the disaster that wrecked her city, providing a sense of calm and order in the midst of terrifying chaos. Especially resonant during the worst of the pandemic, the story at its core is one of resilience, community, and hope, and it stayed with me for years.

Something New

Kittentits by Holly Wilson

Holly Wilson’s debut novel tells the electric, surreal, bonkers-in-the-best-way story of Molly — a 10-year-old girl living in a strange co-op in 1992 Illinois who forms an unexpected friendship with Jeanie, the 23-year-old woman who moves in after a prison stint. When Jeanie fakes her own death, Molly isn’t convinced, and she sets off on a journey to find her. There’s a lot going on in this book, even beyond the death scam — a twin on a quest for revenge, a supernatural version of the Chicago Fair, a chaotic pen-pal relationship, an attempt to communicate with Molly’s dead mother via an onstage seance — and between the shenanigans and Molly’s crassness (see: the title of the book), it’s certainly not for everyone. But for anyone with a high threshold for wackiness, it’s a brilliant, wild ride.

Housemates by Emma Copley Eisenberg

I adored Emma Copley Eisenberg’s true crime memoir, The Third Rainbow Girl, and was thrilled to read her debut novel. It didn’t disappoint! The book is a queer take on the classic road trip story, following photographer Bernie and writer Leah — new roommates-turned-something-more-than-friends — as the pair set out to claim Bernie’s unexpected inheritance, left to her by a former professor. Throughout the adventure — as the two encounter uniquely American characters in motels, diners, small towns, and beyond — they explore the intersections of art, sex, love, and ambition.

América del Norte by Nicolás Medina Mora

Brilliant Mexican journalist Nicolás Medina Mora’s debut novel is a thrill — an expansive, ambitious, self-assured story about Sebastián Arteaga y Salazar, a 20-something journalist who leaves his home in Mexico City after getting a scholarship to the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Having come from a privileged upbringing in Mexico, Sebastián is disillusioned by the culture of academia in “El Norte” and the self-proclaimed liberals’ tendency to tokenize him. Medina Mora masterfully interweaves Sebastián’s personal and political experiences — Trump’s attacks on immigrants, his mother’s cancer, and an up-and-down romance with an American girlfriend with a Latin fetish — with centuries of Mexican colonial history.

Something Out of the Blue

Capacity by Theo Ellsworth

I picked up Theo Ellsworth’s graphic novel at a comics fair based on little more than the cover art. So intricate! What I got was a mind-bending journey through the artist’s brain, at once intimate and interactive. (Throughout the story, Ellsworth leaves space for the reader to give their name to the protagonist.) Ellsworth’s imagination is a wonder and a gift, and Capacity brings the creative process to life, depicting it through fantastical mazes, monsters, and magical worlds.