The best books where being a hot mess is presented as an empowering lifestyle

Melanie McGee Bianchi Author Of The Ballad of Cherrystoke
By Melanie McGee Bianchi

Who am I?

I spent my early childhood in a rural, isolated, multi-generational household. During summers we rarely saw anyone unrelated to us. My twin sister and I spent our days reading, hiding, and naming our menagerie of barn cats (final count: 36). In my career as a lifestyle journalist, I’ve gotten to interview famous eccentrics ranging from Loretta Lynn to David Sedaris. I live in the North Carolina mountains with my husband, our teenage son, and my aforementioned twin sister. This past summer, a black bear walked the 22 steps up to our front porch and stared in the window, raising his huge paws high in exasperation. 


I wrote...

The Ballad of Cherrystoke

By Melanie McGee Bianchi,

Book cover of The Ballad of Cherrystoke

What is my book about?

These contemporary stories are a sympathetic but unsentimental depiction of life in the touristy part of Southern Appalachia. It’s a lush, enchanting area where the Blue Ridge meets the Great Smokies—and where culture clashes and unchecked gentrification cause social upheaval in a 1.2-billion-year-old mountain range. Yet the stories—having individually appeared in literary magazines from Mississippi to Ireland—are relationship-centered and universal. Characters include a young felon in thrall to his much-older lover, a gig worker with a shady past trying to become a professional baby namer, and a fed-up teacher’s aide who casts her lot with her fourth-grade students. The region’s rich musical history, including old-time murder ballads, is one of Cherrystoke’s unifying motifs.

The books I picked & why

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The Golden Apples

By Eudora Welty,

Book cover of The Golden Apples

Why this book?

Unlike Welty’s works featuring honorable or broadly comic characters, this dense story cycle was never excerpted in anthologies. It’s a trickier cast: consider Jinny Love Stark and Virgie Rainey, who cut through the languor of Depression-era Mississippi with stone-cold intention. Jinny Love plays croquet with her lover to enrage her volatile husband; she encourages her daughter to wear lizards as earrings to offend the propriety of her own controlling mother. Impoverished piano prodigy Virgie flouts her gift merely to watch her teacher go mad. Later, she trims her dead mother’s yard with sewing scissors while neighbors do the real work of laying out the body and receiving mourners. The heat presses forward. What day is it? What hour? This is weird, experimental Welty, and the payoff is sweet.

The Golden Apples

By Eudora Welty,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Golden Apples as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

First published in 1949, THE GOLDEN APPLES is an acutely observed, richly atmospheric portrayal of small town life in Morgana, Mississippi. There's Snowdie, who has to bring up her twin boys alone after her husband, King Maclain, disappears one day, discarding his hat on the banks of the Big Black. There's Loch Morrison, convalescing with malaria, who watches from his bedroom window as wayward Virgie Rainey meets a sailor in the vacant house opposite. Meanwhile, Miss Eckhart the piano teacher, grieving the loss of her most promising pupil, tries her hand at arson.

Eudora Welty has a fine ear for…


We Have Always Lived in the Castle

By Shirley Jackson, Thomas Ott (illustrator),

Book cover of We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Why this book?

I’m 51 and my twin sister and I have always lived together, which some people find peculiar. Sisters Merricat and Constance Blackwood also live together, shut off in infamy after one of them is accused of murdering their parents, aunt, and brother. They spend tranquil days in the remnants of the family estate, a place that was spooky even before the old house burned half to the ground and got ransacked by villagers. Shirley Jackson’s slim novel, one of her lesser-known works, is a primer of introvert goals disguised as a gothic fairy tale. Even though there’s a 50% chance of guessing the “mystery,” you’ll still be surprised when you find out which sister put arsenic in the table sugar.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

By Shirley Jackson, Thomas Ott (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

11 authors picked We Have Always Lived in the Castle as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Her greatest book ... at once whimsical and harrowing, a miniaturist's charmingly detailed fantasy sketched inside a mausoleum ... the deeper we sink, the deeper we want to go' Donna Tartt

Living in the Blackwood family home with only her sister Constance and her Uncle Julian for company, Merricat just wants to preserve their delicate way of life. But ever since Constance was acquitted of murdering the rest of the family, the world isn't leaving the Blackwoods alone. And when Cousin Charles arrives, armed with overtures of friendship and a desperate need to get into the safe, Merricat must do…


Jesus' Son

By Denis Johnson,

Book cover of Jesus' Son

Why this book?

For uptight readers like me who can barely handle a stiff drink, the Druggy Road Trip genre can feel dumb and snobbish. But Johnson’s close, lucid prose is, well, addictive. Strung out in small-town ’70s America, a young guy called F**khead navigates unreality in 11 intertwined stories. The collection is just over 100 pages, and by the end, F**khead finds himself across the country and in rehab. But sobriety isn’t even the point. Passages like this are: “Georgie and I had a terrific time driving around. For a while the day was clear and peaceful. It was one of the moments you stay in, to hell with all the troubles of before or after. The sky is blue and the dead are coming back.”

Jesus' Son

By Denis Johnson,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Jesus' Son as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Jesus' Son is a visionary chronicle of dreamers, addicts, and lost souls. These stories tell of spiralling grief and transcendence, of rock bottom and redemption, of getting lost and found and lost again. The narrator of these interlinked stories is a young, unnamed man, reeling from his addiction to heroin and alcohol, his mind at once clouded and made brilliantly lucid by these drugs. In the course of his adventures, he meets an assortment of people, who seem as alienated and confused as he; sinners, misfits, the lost, the damned, the desperate and the forgotten. Our of their bleak, seemingly…


Selected Stories

By Alice Munro,

Book cover of Selected Stories

Why this book?

Now 91, the Canadian short-story guru won The Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013. She also made “Southern Ontario Gothic” a genre. Where to start in Selected Stories’ canon of genius? At the end, with “Vandals,” the last, long story in this important early anthology. Under the guise of house sitting, a rootless young woman, Liza, desecrates the home of Bea and Ladner, an older couple whose taxidermy-filled rural property was her childhood playground. Ladner has recently died, and Bea and Liza have maintained a friendly correspondence—and so Liza’s violent act seems bizarre and random. Her reasons for wrecking the place are proven emotionally valid, but the reveal is so subtle, so masterful, it might make everything else you’ve ever read (or written) feel overdone.

Selected Stories

By Alice Munro,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

This first-ever selection of Alice Munro's stories sums up her genius. Her territory is the secrets that cackle beneath the facade of everyday lives, the pain and promises, loves and fears of apparently ordinary men and women whom she renders extraordinary and unforgettable.


Homesick for Another World: Stories

By Ottessa Moshfegh,

Book cover of Homesick for Another World: Stories

Why this book?

Moshfegh revels in gross bodily functions, using them almost as an artistic palette. If it stinks, bleeds, sweats, erupts, or otherwise makes you gag, it shows up in her celebrated book of short stories, individually published in Paris Review, The New Yorker, and Granta before being collected in Homesick. Just by its title, the story “Slumming” could stand for the whole. A depressed, middle-aged, New York City schoolteacher sleeps all her summers away, holing up and doing hard drugs in an equally depressed Upstate hamlet, where the local “zombies,” i.e. young opioid dealers, emerge as the most stable element, always there to sell sweet oblivion. The story lambasts sentimental rural regionalism but also serves as a surreal paradigm of self-care.

Homesick for Another World: Stories

By Ottessa Moshfegh,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Homesick for Another World as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A New York Times Book Review Notable Book of 2017

An electrifying first collection from one of the most exciting short story writers of our time

"I can't recall the last time I laughed this hard at a book. Simultaneously, I'm shocked and scandalized. She's brilliant, this young woman."-David Sedaris

Ottessa Moshfegh's debut novel Eileen was one of the literary events of 2015. Garlanded with critical acclaim, it was named a book of the year by The Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle, nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award, short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, and won…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Mississippi, isolation, and heroin and heroin addiction?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Mississippi, isolation, and heroin and heroin addiction.

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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