The best books about addiction, recovery, and the ability to transcend painful legacies

Why am I passionate about this?

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve collected family stories. My late grandmother told me that I had “nose trouble.” I can’t help it. I’m fascinated by the psychic ghosts that both haunt us and light us up. In researching my most recent novel about the generational ripples of family addiction, I read more than 50 books and talked with dozens of addicts in various stages of recovery. All my books, though, feature humans who seek to mend ruptures of the soul and in turn liberate themselves from the troubles that define them. These are my favorite stories to read and to tell. 


I wrote...

Swimming with Ghosts

By Michelle Brafman,

Book cover of Swimming with Ghosts

What is my book about?

Swimming with Ghosts is set in June 2012. The magical and slightly cultish River Run swim club is alive with the spirit of fun competition when a perfect storm brews between team moms and best friends, Gillian and Kristy. The ghost of family addiction has turned up, forcing them to face their unresolved childhood trauma. Real sparks fly on the night of the derecho—a freak land hurricane—which sweeps through Northern Virginia, knocking out power for days. The storm ignites a tinder box of secrets, leaving Gillian and Kristy alone in the hot dark—shame their only company. At times humorous and devastating, Swimming with Ghosts is about what it takes to discover a once unimaginable freedom made possible by confronting life’s greatest storms.  

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Father of the Rain

Michelle Brafman Why did I love this book?

This novel stayed with me for literally years.

I love a well-told, emotionally complex, family drama set in the burbs (aʹ la John Cheever, Amy Bloom, A.M. Homes, you get the drift).

Setting and gorgeous writing aside, Lily King crawls inside the heart and head of protagonist Daley Amory, a twenty-something who is trying to escape the tyranny of her father’s alcoholism and reinvent a new life for herself.

I rooted hard for her to make this break, to ride off into the sunset, or to enroll at Berkely to study anthropology, and make a life with a great guy.

I won’t give away the ending, but suffice it to say that King writes brilliantly about addiction, family, and the fierce and often futile siren’s call to repair what is broken.  

By Lily King,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Father of the Rain as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Prize-winning author Lily King’s masterful new novel spans three decades of a volatile relationship between a charismatic, alcoholic father and the daughter who loves him.

Gardiner Amory is a New England WASP who's beginning to feel the cracks in his empire. Nixon is being impeached, his wife is leaving him, and his worldview is rapidly becoming outdated. His daughter, Daley, has spent the first eleven years of her life negotiating her parents’ conflicting worlds: the liberal, socially committed realm of her mother and the conservative, decadent, liquor-soaked life of her father. But when they divorce, and Gardiner’s basest impulses are…


Book cover of Ninety Days: A Memoir of Recovery

Michelle Brafman Why did I love this book?

I’d read about the demise of Bill Clegg, the handsome, superstar New York agent who struggled with alcoholism and crack addiction, and I held my breath while I devoured his memoir about his harrowing quest to complete 90 sober days.

The specifics of his raw and beautifully written story convey the universal truth that recovery from any challenge is not a straight line. Relapses happen, sometimes to the people who are throwing out the lifelines.

Among other things, this is a narrative about the healing and redemptive properties of connection, community, and storytelling. So much wisdom and humility in this brave and vital book.  

By Bill Clegg,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Ninety Days as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The goal is ninety. Just ninety clean and sober days to loosen the hold of the addiction that caused Bill Clegg to lose everything. With six weeks of his most recent rehab behind him he returns to New York and attends two or three meetings each day. It is in these refuges that he befriends essential allies including Polly, who struggles daily with her own cycle of recovery and relapse, and the seemingly unshakably sober Asa.

At first, the support is not enough: Clegg relapses with only three days left. Written with uncompromised immediacy, Ninety Days begins where Portrait of…


Book cover of I'm the One Who Got Away: A Memoir

Michelle Brafman Why did I love this book?

Oh my gosh, there’s a brilliant chapter in this memoir about a friend divorce that I’ve reread about a dozen times.

With ruthless honesty, Jarrell describes the deep intimacy of her relationship with her best friend from college and her role in sabotaging it. She compares her flaws to those of her father who "swam darkly in his own alcoholic brew.” And yet, despite the rawness of Jarrell’s story, this book beams out hope and light.

While the author ended up marrying an alcoholic, she did “get away” or escape her family legacy. She even credits addiction, or maybe learning to manage it, with putting her and her husband “on a path to saving themselves.”  

By Andrea Jarrell,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked I'm the One Who Got Away as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

As featured in the New York Times "Modern Love" column * a Redbook Magazine must-read * Harper's Bazaar * Yahoo! Style, InStyle, Rumpus, Hello Giggles, Bustle, and Southern Living magazine Fall book pick

Fugitives from a man as alluring as he is violent, Andrea Jarrell and her mother develop a powerful, unusual bond. Once grown, Jarrell thinks she's put that chapter of her life behind her-until a woman she knows is murdered, and she suddenly sees that it's her mother's choices she's been trying to escape all along. Without preaching or prescribing, I'm the One Who Got Away is a…


Book cover of The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath

Michelle Brafman Why did I love this book?

Leslie Jamison’s memoir rocked my world, and I think it’s because of her treatment of the drama associated with addiction.

She digs deep into her addict-psyche, specifically her tendency to both create and seek “the unhinged sparks of luminous chaos.” The source of this special brand of electricity can be a dirty martini or cheating on a boyfriend (the term “love-grope” is inspired).

But this is a book about recovery, and Jamison travels from glorifying the angst of her drunk writer heroes to the realization that she and legends like Raymond Carver and Dennis Johnson actually write better sober, and that ultimately the story of healing can be just as compelling as the story of a dramatic demise. 

By Leslie Jamison,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Recovering as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Addiction is seemingly inexplicable. From the outside, it can look like wilful, arrogant self-destruction; from the inside, it can feel as inevitable and insistent as a heartbeat. It is possible to describe, but hard to explore. Yet in The Recovering, Leslie Jamison draws on her own life and the lives of addicts of extraordinary talent - John Cheever, John Berryman, Jean Rhys and Amy Winehouse among them - to take us inside the experience of addiction, exposing the contours, edges and wholes of an intoxicated life.

Part memoir, part group biography, part literary history and part definitive analysis of cultural…


Book cover of Song of Solomon

Michelle Brafman Why did I love this book?

Okay, I know this novel might not seem like the most likely pick for a list of books about addiction and recovery, but hang with me for a second.

Recovery often demands an addict’s ability to take flight or free themselves from a painful social or family history.

One of the many things I love about Song of Solomon is how Morrison gives her characters the ability to literally and symbolically fly away from their specific hardships (which I am in no way comparing to addiction).

The character Milkman closes the entire book with the line, “If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.” And of course, I’ve pasted this Toni Morrison quote to my computer, “You wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.” 

By Toni Morrison,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked Song of Solomon as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Song of Solomon...profoundly changed my life' Marlon James

Macon 'Milkman' Dead was born shortly after a neighbourhood eccentric hurled himself off a rooftop in a vain attempt at flight. For the rest of his life he, too, will be trying to fly.

In 1930s America Macon learns about the tyranny of white society from his friend Guitar, though he is more concerned with escaping the familial tyranny of his own father. So while Guitar joins a terrorist group Macon goes home to the South, lured by tales of buried family treasure. But his odyssey back home and a deadly confrontation…


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Book cover of Leora's Letters: The Story of Love and Loss for an Iowa Family During World War II

Joy Neal Kidney Author Of What Leora Never Knew: A Granddaughter's Quest for Answers

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I'm the oldest granddaughter of Leora, who lost three sons during WWII. To learn what happened to them, I studied casualty and missing aircraft reports, missions reports, and read unit histories. I’ve corresponded with veterans who knew one of the brothers, who witnessed the bomber hit the water off New Guinea, and who accompanied one brother’s body home. I’m still in contact with the family members of two crew members on the bomber. The companion book, Leora’s Letters, is the family story of the five Wilson brothers who served, but only two came home.

Joy's book list on research of World War II casualties

What is my book about?

The day the second atomic bomb was dropped, Clabe and Leora Wilson’s postman brought a telegram to their acreage near Perry, Iowa. One son was already in the U.S. Navy before Pearl Harbor had been attacked. Four more sons worked with their father, tenant farmers near Minburn until, one by one; all five sons were serving their country in the military–two in the Navy and three as Army Air Force pilots.

Only two sons came home.

Leora’s Letters is the compelling true account of a woman whose most tender hopes were disrupted by great losses. Yet she lived out four more decades with hope and resilience.

By Joy Neal Kidney, Robin Grunder,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Leora's Letters as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The day the second atomic bomb was dropped, Clabe and Leora Wilson’s postman brought a telegram to their acreage near Perry, Iowa. One son was already in the U.S. Navy before Pearl Harbor had been attacked. Four more sons worked with their father, tenant farmers near Minburn until, one by one, all five sons were serving their country in the military. The oldest son re-enlisted in the Navy. The younger three became U.S. Army Air Force pilots. As the family optimist, Leora wrote hundreds of letters, among all her regular chores, dispensing news and keeping up the morale of the…


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