The best books to take with you when you’ve blown up your life

Who am I?

I’m a playwright and novelist born in the US and raised in a grab-bag of other countries. I grew up moving between cities and languages, and now, as an adult, I move between different modes of artistic practice. My first book, The Island Dwellers, is an interlinked story collection set partially in the US and partially in Japan and my second book begins with someone fleeing NY for LA; perhaps one of the impulses I understand most is to abandon ship and start over. I’m compelled by stories in which people seek to transform themselves or to refashion their lives. I think it takes a great daring (and a great desperation) to do either. 


I wrote...

We Play Ourselves

By Jen Silverman,

Book cover of We Play Ourselves

What is my book about?

Not too long ago, Cass was a promising young playwright in New York. But after Cass finds herself at the center of a searing public shaming, she flees to Los Angeles to reinvent herself. There she meets her next-door neighbor Caroline, a magnetic filmmaker on the rise, as well as the pack of teenage girls who hang around her house. They're the subjects of Caroline’s next semidocumentary movie, which follows the girls’ clandestine activity: a Fight Club inspired by the violent classic. 

Cass becomes troubled by how deeply Caroline is manipulating the teens in the name of art. With her past proving hard to shake and her future one she’s no longer sure she wants, Cass is forced to confront what she has come to believe about the price of fame.

The books I picked & why

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Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl

By Andrea Lawlor,

Book cover of Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl

Why this book?

This is a book for shapeshifters, flaneurs, adventurers, queers of all kinds, people who long for the world to crack open and deliver us a polymorphous adventure. I have rarely felt that a book was speaking so directly to me. I read the entire thing on an airplane to Paris and have spent the next five years thinking about it. Paul is the perfect protagonist for me, because his desires make him curious, and he pursues whatever the next thing is without fear or hesitation. This book gave me a gentle reminder to be brave in my choices, and also to let my unknowing lead me. A good companion for when you’ve blown it all up!


Crush

By Richard Siken,

Book cover of Crush

Why this book?

When I was 21, I moved back to Japan (where I’d lived as a kid), taking a job in the rural south. I didn’t bring a lot with me, but of the few English books that felt indispensable, Crush was one. For the next twelve months of that particular job, I read Crush again and again. Through poetry – the poems are written in a distinct and unified voice – the book took on the quality of a series of monologues, a one-sided conversation that I was overhearing. It was a conversation about queerness, about attempting to forge and re-forge the self, about tenderness, about violence. I was a young queer person far from home, living in a country where I was simultaneously much physically safer and yet much more visible than I had been in my country of birth. Crush offered me both a window into what I had left and a window into what I simultaneously feared and hoped for my future. 


Edinburgh

By Alexander Chee,

Book cover of Edinburgh

Why this book?

I’m a huge fan of Alexander Chee’s writing across the board, and it was a toss-up between this and his revelatory book of essays, How To Write An Autobiographical Novel. But Edinburgh is the first novel of his I’d ever read. The craft of it is impeccable. The sentences are sharply honed, beautifully built. Under that craft is a chasm of loneliness, the story of someone seeking to find their footing in a world destabilized by past trauma and current shame, and the ways in which intimacy can rescue us from ourselves – briefly – while never quite transforming the core of who we are. I’ve read this book a few times, each time in a different city. And each time, the book reminded me gently: wherever you go, you are still who you are. It’s up to you to decide to what extent your history will define you.


Dear Senthuran: A Black Spirit Memoir

By Akwaeke Emezi,

Book cover of Dear Senthuran: A Black Spirit Memoir

Why this book?

This book is written as a series of letters that could be diary entries, they are so personal and sometimes cryptic. But inside this structure, I felt myself brought into communication: the book offers a series of Mes and Yous, and I became by necessity the you across from that me. The conversation is far-reaching, from art to trauma to love affairs gone bad to the need to live authentically inside a culture that does not have the right words for one’s existence – a culture whose vocabulary actively erases one’s identity. As a genderqueer person raised between multiple places and cultures, reading a book that actively addresses what it is to live around language – just outside the reaches of it – was a revelation to me. 


Art Is Everything

By Yxta Maya Murray,

Book cover of Art Is Everything

Why this book?

Art Is Everything is a book about obsession, about love, about artistry, about the limits of aesthetics within an industry in which the marketplace is an unspoken but all-powerful factor. When I began reading it, I was amazed and exhilarated by how clearly it is in conversation with the preoccupations of my own novel, although from a different standpoint. Also: this book is hilarious. The humor is sharp, wry, sometimes skewering, but never inhumane. I laughed so hard reading it – and this was in 2020, so I wasn’t doing much laughing otherwise. I would walk up and down the floors of my apartment and read entire sections out loud to my partner. I do believe in the bold declaration of its title, and by the time I finished reading, I felt sure the author did too. 


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in shapeshifters, 21st century, and poetry?

5,810 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about shapeshifters, 21st century, and poetry.

Shapeshifters Explore 48 books about shapeshifters
21st Century Explore 173 books about 21st century
Poetry Explore 204 books about poetry

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The World According to Garp, Broad Band, and The Incendiaries if you like this list.