Required Reading, Volume Nine: Love Stories

Happy Valentine’s Day, y’all! I know this holiday can be controversial, whether you’re aggressively single and feeling lonely, or in a relationship and resentful of the capitalist complex that compels you to drop wads of cash on flowers, chocolate, stuffed animals, and more on an arbitrary February day. But personally, despite my usual status among the perpetually single, I love it. And I’ll tell you why.

Valentine’s Day is a celebration of love. But while traditionally that love is directed at a romantic partner, a boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse or lover, I choose to use this day to celebrate all of the love in my life, particularly for the family members and friends who we maybe don’t tell we love them as often as we should. Just because you’re not involved with anybody in a non-platonic way does not mean you don’t have beloveds in your life, and this day can be a day to honor that…and to eat massive amounts of chocolate.

In the Heart Day spirit, this month’s Required Reading is a compilation of love stories (most of them in the traditional, Big L sense). From classics to newcomers, young adult to experimental, non-fiction to graphic novels and everything in between, these are some of my favorite books about what it means to love and be loved.

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Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen: A classic for a reason. Whether it’s your first or fifth or fiftieth time reading it, you can’t help but get swept away by Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth and their tempestuous path to love. The movies are great, the web series delightful, but nothing beats this masterpiece in its original form.

“To be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love.”

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The History of Love, Nicole Krauss: I’ve mentioned this book in a post before, and with good reason. It is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read; I’ve recommended it to countless friends and bought it for birthdays and Christmases and just because. It tells the story of romantic love, yes, but also of the love between parent and child, brother and sister, friend and friend in a multi-layered narrative that spans continents and decades.

Once upon a time there was a boy who loved a girl, and her laughter was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering.”

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The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., Adelle Waldman: The most accurate portrayal I’ve found in literature of what it’s like to date in New York in your 20s. If you are a twenty-something, or you were once a twenty-something, you will find characters and misadventures here that you recognize.

“Dating is probably the most fraught human interaction there is. You’re sizing people up to see if they’re worth your time and attention, and they’re doing the same to you. It’s meritocracy applied to personal life, but there’s no accountability. We submit ourselves to these intimate inspections and simultaneously inflict them on others and try to keep our psyches intact – to keep from becoming cold and callous – and we hope that at the end of it we wind up happier than our grandparents, who didn’t spend this vast period of their lives, these prime years, so thoroughly alone, coldly and explicitly anatomized again and again.”

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Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro: Warning: Read this one with a box of Kleenex. Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy grow up together, students at a strange boarding school called Hailsham. But what starts as a seemingly typical love triangle quickly devolves into something much darker as the trio discover their history and grapple with their inescapable reality. Like the best of Ishiguro’s work, it will devastate you, enlighten you, and make you reexamine your humanity.

“I keep thinking about this river somewhere, with the water moving really fast. And these two people in the water, trying to hold onto each other, holding on as hard as they can, but in the end it’s just too much. The current’s too strong. They’ve got to let go, drift apart. That’s how it is with us.”

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The Shipping News, Annie Proulx: A quiet love story set among the cliffs and crashing waves of Newfoundland, this novel sneaks up on you. Quoyle is a man who has grown accustomed to being overlooked, scathed into submission by his unstable, unfaithful wife. When she dies in a car crash (having abandoned Quoyle and their two children to run off with one of her lovers), he moves the small family back to his family’s ancestral home where they all set about the task of learning to love and be loved. The colorful cast of village characters will amuse you, the descriptions of the desolate landscape will dazzle you, but it is the love story at the book’s core that will creep quietly into your heart and sit there long after you’ve turned the last page.

“We’re all strange inside. We learn how to disguise our differences as we grow up.” (I also love “One of the tragedies of real life is that there is no background music.”)

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Tiny Beautiful Things, Cheryl Strayed: The best book I’ve found yet that teaches you how to love and be loved. Strayed is gentle but firm, kind but unflinchingly honest. This is another favorite one of mine to give friends or family members as a gift; there is something in it for everyone. My only regret is that there isn’t a way to bring the real Strayed with me everywhere as my fairy godmother and advice dispenser to guide me through life’s ups and downs.

“Most things will be okay eventually, but not everything will be. Sometimes you’ll put up a good fight and lose. Sometimes you’ll hold on really hard and realize there is no choice but to let go. Acceptance is a small, quiet room.”

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The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern: This star-crossed tale about two young illusionists is positively enchanting, much like Le Cirque des Rêves where it takes place. Celia and Marco have been trained their whole lives to compete against each other in a magical duel (which, unbeknownst to them, only one magician can survive). But when they meet, their connection is instantaneous, passionate, and spell-binding. And the book is as enchanting as the illusions they weave, spinning whole worlds from paper and will.

“Most maidens are perfectly capable of rescuing themselves in my experience, at least the ones worth something, in any case.”

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The Lover’s Dictionary, David Levithan: Brilliant and beautiful and sad, this slim volume, as the title suggests, tells the story of a relationship in dictionary entries. Each definition treads the line between prose and poetry, and as the words pile up a picture of a romance (and, spoiler alert, its demise) gradually emerges. It is a deceptively fast read the first time through, but deserves many a revisit (and as a bonus, Levithan continues to write new entries on his Twitter).

“The key to a successful relationship isn’t just in the words, it’s in the choice of punctuation. When you’re in love with someone, a well-placed question mark can be the difference between bliss and disaster, and a deeply respected period or a cleverly inserted ellipsis can prevent all kinds of exclamations.”

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Why We Broke Up, Daniel Handler and Maira Kalman: Not all love stories last forever. Min and Ed’s is ending, right now. As she writes him a break-up letter to accompany the box she will drop at his house, filled with the detritus of a relationship, she goes through the objects one by one, weaving a tale of first love that will take you right back to adolescence. Maira Kalman’s gorgeous illustrations add another dimension to this intimate, sweet, honest portrait of first love.

“Ed, it was everything, those nights on the phone, everything we said until late became later and then later and very late and finally to go to bed with my ear warm and worn and red from holding the phone close close close so as not to miss a word of what it was, because who cared how tired I was in the humdrum slave drive of our days without each other. I’d ruin any day, all my days, for those long nights with you, and I did. But that’s why right there it was doomed. We couldn’t only have the magic nights buzzing through the wires. We had to have the days, too, the bright impatient days spoiling everything with their unavoidable schedules, their mandatory times that don’t overlap, their loyal friends who don’t get along, the unforgiven travesties torn from the wall no matter what promises are uttered past midnight, and that’s why we broke up.”

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Eleanor and Park, Rainbow Rowell: Speaking of first love, this is another utterly wonderful, not the least bit sappy book about a first romance. To the outside world, Eleanor and Park are an unlikely pair, but these misfits discover that their weird and quirky pieces fit together like a perfect puzzle. That’s not to say that everything is hearts and roses — Eleanor’s home life in particular adds a dark element to their love story — but they love each other, as much as they can, for as long as they can, and they don’t give a damn what anybody else thinks about it. This book is sweet and will give you all the warm fuzzy butterflies of a delicious 16 year-old crush…but you might want to keep some tissues handy, just sayin’.

“You saved my life, she tried to tell him. Not forever, not for good. Probably just temporarily. But you saved my life, and now I’m yours. The me that’s me right now is yours. Always.”

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This Modern Love, Will Darbyshire: Yes, this is yet another YouTuber book, this one courtesy of angsty British charmer Will Darbyshire. But unlike his peers, whose books tend to fall into the memoir/humor category, Darbyshire follows in the tradition of Post Secret with a crowd-sourced compilation covering all things love. Over the course of six months, he posed various questions to his viewers — What would you say to your ex, without judgement? How has technology affected your relationship, either positively or negatively? What single word sums up your love life, your partner, or someone you like? — and then distilled the responses into this book. The letters range from funny to reflective, sarcastic to sincere, and together form a portrait of what it looks like to navigate love in the 21st century.

“Dear —, You are like that one piece of artwork in an art gallery that people spend a little longer admiring. Rosa, UK.”

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Soppy, Philippa Rice: And last but not least, now for something completely different, a graphic novel! British artist Rice documents the everyday life of herself and her boyfriend, a parade of small, everyday moments that add up to intimacy and love. It’s sweet but, despite the title, not saccharinely so. Rice doesn’t shy away from the fights or inconveniences of sharing your life with another person, and the portrait she paints is a complete one, true to the quiet reality of true love.

Required Reading: Volume Nine

My mother collects cookbooks. It started (she thinks) with the Moosewood Cookbook, purchased in March of 1983. She had always loved to cook, and to bake especially, learning hamantaschen and icebox cookies in her mother’s Pittsburgh kitchen. From one book, her collection grew, adding Jewish Cookery and Cookie Cookery (related in name only). When my father entered the narrative, he brought a healthy dose of Cajun cuisine to their marriage and the Joy of Cooking, referred to more commonly in my house as simply “The Bible.”

At some point along the way, one cookbook blossomed into a dozen, which grew to a shelf, which ballooned into two full bookshelves and counting. My kitchen in Kentucky holds an estimated 200 cookbooks at minimum, sprawling across specialties and cuisines. I may have learned to cook in the days before Google, but our house was its own encyclopedia of recipes, with my mom the helpful librarian. I’d ask her how to make a particular dish — say, strawberry rhubarb pie — and without missing a beat she’d start pulling volumes from shelves, not to mention scraps of newsprint and magazine cut outs from her Heinz recipe box.

A tiny excerpt from my mother's collection, the "Family Heritage Shelf"

A tiny excerpt from my mother’s collection, the “Family Heritage Shelf”

This is all to say that I come by my addiction to books — cook- and otherwise — honestly. It’s in my DNA: I never really stood a chance. My parents started me off with the classics: Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Volumes One and Two), The New York Times Cookbook, Moosewood, and, of course, my own personally inscribed copy of “The Bible.” In it, my parents wrote, “In our family, cooking is an expression of love.” And while this is definitely true of our quirky little clan, I don’t think it’s a uniquely Zelda trait. Food, in its best form, is weighted with memory and steeped in sentiment. It nurtures our bodies and our souls, providing comfort or piquing curiosity as it tickles our taste buds. And it’s a cultural touchstone, too — perhaps the most essential and elemental piece of what binds a group or a region together. Who we are, as families or communities, so often comes down to the bread we break together.

Take the South as just one example. The first thing most folks think of when they hear the word Southern is food. You know exactly which kind I mean: soul food, comfort food, food of the people that sticks to the bones and comes from the heart. So much of my own personal understanding of my heritage (Southern and otherwise) is culinary: the gumbo recipe passed down from my grandfather, the hot fudge sauce that appears so effortlessly under the touch of my grandmother’s spoon, the hamantaschen that would arrive at our house each year from Queen Esther, who apparently resided in Osprey, Florida. As an adult, I started to explore Southern cooking as a way of understanding the South and my place in it. Some of my lessons were hands-on — Derby pie with a high school bestie, fried chicken from Scout’s Gaga — but many of them were from books.

My grandmother in Home Economics class at her Atlanta school, age 14 (yes, you read that correctly)

My grandmother in Home Economics class at her Atlanta school, age 14 (yes, you read that correctly)

Though I still have a long way to go to match my mother’s collection (and nowhere near enough shelf space to accommodate such a repertoire), I have amassed quite a few cookbooks of my own. I love them for the poetry of their descriptions, the beauty of their photographs, the wry wit and wisdom inked into the page by their authors. And I love them for their potential, all those untapped recipes just waiting to be brought to life. To write up all my favorites would take far too many pages, so I’ll start on theme, with the culture that brings us together in this particular corner of the internet. Some of these I own, some reside on my mom’s shelves, and many are still on my wishlist. If you want to get to know the Southern people, you must get to know their eats. This is where I’d start.

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General Knowledge:

The Southerner’s Cookbook: Recipes, Wisdom, and Stories (2015): Compiled by the editors of Garden and Gun Magazine, this recent addition to my shelves runs the gamut from classics to regional delicacies, with anecdotes and advice woven in between. I’m a particular fan of the gorgeous copper detailing on the front cover, and of the glossary titled “The Southern Larder,” which goes through many of the quirkier ingredients called for in the book and explains what they are and where you might find them.

Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking (2012): Winner of the 2013 James Beard Foundation Award for Excellence in American Cooking, this tome is Nathalie Dupree and Cynthia Graubart’s answer to Julia Child’s similarly named masterpieces. Dupree calls Southern cooking “the Mother Cuisine of America,” and this extensive guide will walk you through all the essentials, from biscuits to gravy.

The Heritage of Southern Cooking (1986): Camille Glenn, pictured in charming cartoon detail on the books cover, used to be the food editor at Scout’s and my hometown paper, the Courier-Journal. She left no stoneware unturned when compiling this book, which holds 550 recipes, from duck to dessert. My mom swears by her recipe for pecan pie, an essential in any Southern baker’s wheelhouse.

At My Grandmother’s Knee: Recipes and Memories Handed Down by Women of the South (2011): Faye Porter dedicated this book to “all the women in my life who have shared with me the joy of cooking, baking, loving, making a home, and giving from their hands and hearts.” And while we hate to indulge gender stereotypes (Southern dudes can cook too!), it is true that most of what we learned about cooking, and about the love of cooking, came from our mothers, our grandmothers, and the other great women in our lives.

The Taste of Country Cooking (1976/2006): It is impossible to talk about Southern cooking without talking about black Southern cooking and the essential contributions that so many African-American chefs made to the region’s culinary identity, often without receiving any acknowledgement or credit. Edna Lewis, thankfully, is a great chef who did get the spotlight she deserved, and her tribute to the foods of her childhood home in Freetown, Virginia, is considered one of the great classic Southern cookbooks.

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Sweet Treats:

The Southern Baker: Sweet and Savory Treats to Share with Friends and Family (2015): It’s the subtitle of this volume, compiled by the editors of Southern Living, that I think gets at the heart of what makes Southern cooking so unique. A Southern dish is not meant to be precious. It is not fussed over or plated with surgical precision. It is meant to be shared, served up in big sloppy spoonfuls or generous slices and always, always with love.

Kentucky Sweets: Bourbon Balls, Spoonbread, and Mile-High Pie (2014): I actually interviewed Sarah Baird, back when I was writing for the Louisville Eccentric Observer and her book was just coming out. Sarah’s training is as a culinary anthropologist, and she told me, “ I have a deep interest in how food impacts culture and society: the intersections between culture, society and food; how those work together; and specifically, underrepresented or underserved stories about food.” This book was her attempt to tell some of those stories, from the often overlooked corners of her (and my and Scout’s) home state.

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Regional Specialties:

Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen (1984): My personal Southern heritage comes well-seasoned with Tabasco and filé, and this, my father claims, is the best Louisiana cookbook out there. Whether you’re looking for gumbo or jambalaya or Prudhomme’s famous blackened redfish, this book has all the Cajun and Creole classics your stomach could desire.

The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Cookery (1992): Where my Southern roots come from the bayou, Scout’s are grounded in mountain soil. In true Appalachian spirit, the recipes in this book are interspersed with a healthy dose of storytelling and advice. The recipes in this book are unpretentious and full of flavor, just like the folks that make them.

Community Cookbooks: The South has a great tradition of hometown cookbooks, put together by Junior Leagues or women’s groups and offering the best portrait of a town, an identity, and a cuisine. Some of the best (in my, my mom’s, or Scout’s opinion) include The Mountain Laurel Festival Cookbook (Bell County, Kentucky), Talk About Good! (The Junior League of Lafayette, Louisiana), The Plantation Cookbook (Junior League of New Orleans), and Recipes to Remember: A Kentucky Cookbook (Kosair Children’s Hospital Auxiliary; Louisville, Kentucky).

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The New South:

Tupelo Honey Cafe: Spirited Recipes from Asheville’s New South Kitchen (2011): Brian Sonoskus, chef and founder of the Tupelo Honey Cafe, was one of the founders of the farm-to-table movement, which has since spread from North Carolina to Williamsburg, Portland, and beyond. But what is normally written off nowadays as hipster posturing is in fact a very traditional Southern concept: that you should use the best of what your region has to offer, that you should know the folks who grow your ingredients, that quality ingredients assembled with love and care will offer a far greater reward than your fussiest amuse-bouche.

Smoke and Pickles: Recipes and Stories from a New Southern Kitchen (2013): Chef Edward Lee was born to Korean immigrant parents and raised in Brooklyn. So how did he become the most famous chef in Louisville, and one of the most innovative culinary voices in America today? This book tells the tale of his unique, Southern cooking, which mixes together flavors and techniques from his heritage with the traditions of his adopted home.

images via: Zelda’s mama’s photo archives, GARDEN AND GUN, SOUTHERN FOODWAYS ALLIANCE, TUPELO HONEY CAFE

Required Reading: Volume Eight

A couple months ago, I shared with you my wish/to-do list of Southern works of literature I needed to get my hands on. From fiction to nonfiction, classics to recent debuts, they ran the gamut of the Southern experience, chronicling the rich tapestry of characters and places that make the region so uniquely fascinating.

But this is a blog about the South and New York, and about the experience of being a Southerner in New York in particular. So I feel it’s only appropriate that, like the good Comparative Literature student I am (or at least, was, at one point), I do my research. Because New York, with its cornucopia of different neighborhoods and folks from every walk of life, was also made for the literary stage. Its streets and skyscrapers have provided inspiration to countless writers over the years, who have in turn produced works as diverse as the city itself. Here are some of the ones at the top of my “To Read” pile.

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Frances and Bernard, Carlene Bauer: This novel could also be titled When Robert Met Flannery, spinning a tale based on the actual friendship between the real-life poet, Mr. Lowell, and short story mistress, Ms. O’Connor. It’s a story of bittersweet romance and the fierce love and kinship of platonic soulmates, otherwise known as best friends, all set against the backdrop of 1950s New York.

Time and Again, Jack Finney: Speaking of bosom buddies, one of mine recommended this book to me, while sitting in a Brussels hotel room after a long day of chocolate tasting and misplaced umbrellas.This book has everything — time travel, government secrets, love, mysterious letters, cross-century romance — and it’s even illustrated. I recently picked up a dog-eared copy at the Strand and can’t wait to dive in.

The Fortress of Solitude, Jonathan Lethem: I thoroughly enjoyed Lethem’s non-fiction (particularly The Disappointment Artist, which I read back in my college days), so I’m optimistic about this modern classic, the book that catapulted him into the literary spotlight. Like one of my all-time favorite New York novels, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, it features orphans, comic books, friendship, and madcap adventures, all of which bodes exceedingly well. Also, it’s a musical!

The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner: This National Book Award finalist, named one of the best books of 2013 by the New York Times Book Review, tells the story of the vibrant, ambitious, reckless Reno and her journey through the radical art scene of SoHo, the East Village, and beyond in the 1970s. Critics described is as “dazzling,” “irresistible,” and “scintillatingly alive” — a wild ride from start to finish.

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Live from New York: The Complete, Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales: I mentioned this in a previous Required Reading but still haven’t cracked it open! An oral history of the sketch show to beat all sketch shows, which kicked off the careers of almost every comedic voice of significance in the United States over the last 50 years. They give it to you in their own words, uncensored, from Armisen to Zamata.

Open City, Teju Cole: In this haunting novel, a Nigerian grad student wanders the streets of Manhattan, reflecting on his life, his relationships, and the nature of the human soul. Cole’s lush prose, full of imagery the New York Times dubbed “delicious,” sweeps the reader along for the journey, down side streets and along Central Park pathways and across the Atlantic Ocean, through the narrator’s personal history and the history of New York itself.

The Group, Mary McCarthy: This seminal tale of female friendship has been on my to-read list for ages. Before Sex and the City or Gossip Girl or Broad City or Girls, there was Mary McCarthy and her story about eight Vassar grads who move to the city and learn to navigate the ups and downs of adulthood, from 1933 to 1940. It’s a portrait of female friendship in all its forms, as well as a keen look at the lives and struggles of women in the period between the World Wars.

The New York Trilogy, Paul Auster: With its dark alleyways, colorful characters, and reputation for insomnia, New York seems tailor made for a detective story. But these are not your typical tales of crime and punishment, no neat Nancy Drew plots or Poirot deductions to be found. Instead, Auster defies his own genre and uses the detective trope to address mysteries of a far more existential nature. After all, as he famously said, “Reality is a great deal more strange than we ever give it credit for.”

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Up in the Old Hotel, Joseph Mitchell: New York is known for its cast of colorful characters, the kind of special snowflakes who would cause a monumental stir in any other town, but in New York muster the barest bat of an eyelash. As a writer for The New Yorker, Mitchell excelled at capturing portraits of these very individual individuals. This book compiles them all in one handy volume.

The Beautiful and the Damned, F. Scott Fitzgerald: If I could go back to any period in history, I would pick Paris in the 1920s. But should my time travel be restricted to this continent, New York in the 20s would not be a bad second choice. Nobody captured the Jazz Age elite quite like Fitzgerald, whose Gatsby is truly one of my favorite New York books. This, his second novel, spins the tale of socialite Anthony Patch and his tempestuous wife Gloria, and rumor has it the couple was based on Scott’s own relationship with his wife, and my pen-namesake, Zelda.

The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe: A Dickensian novel for the 20th century, this tale of ambition, class, race, and greed in 1980s New York first ran as serialized installments in Rolling Stone. The story revolves around wealthy bond trader Sherman McCoy, assistant district attorney Larry Kramer, and British ex-pat journalist Peter Fallow, and its electrifying ups and downs made it the best-selling fiction debut of the decade.

The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton: Before there was Wolfe, or Fitzgerald, or McCarthy, or any of the writers on this list, there was Wharton, chronicling the lives of Manhattan’s elite with honesty and wit. Praised for its subtle irony and attention to detail, the book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1921, making Wharton the first woman ever to do so. Werk.

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American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis: I’m a huge fan of Ellis’s Bennington classmate and friend Donna Tartt, but have yet to read anything by the man himself. In light of the musical adaption of this, his best-known work, in previews now on Broadway (see: My 2016 Theatre Wish List), I feel obligated to experience the tale of yuppie greed and psychopathic bloodshed in its original form before heading to 45th Street.

Just Kids, Patti Smith: This is one of those books that people keep talking about and recommending to me, in the most glowing tones; one that I’ve started multiple times, only to put it down after one or two or five chapters; and one that I just can’t quite seem to get swept up in. But the list of people who love it is long, and filled with folks whose literary taste I trust. So I will try again, and hope that my New York-ness, such as it is, will finally offer me an entry point into this memoir about life and love and what it means to make art.

A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara: A.K.A. the book all of your obnoxious literary friends were raving and bawling their eyes out over last year. As if the portrait of agony that serves as its cover weren’t proof enough, this book is sure to put you through the emotional wringer, with the general reaction to its completion being summed up as: “Whoof.” However, those same weepy readers also uniformly dub this saga of friendship, which follows four college friends across several decades of their lives (in, you guessed it, New York), the best book they’ve read in years. Just make sure you have a box of tissues handy.

Mapping Manhattan: A Love (And Sometimes Hate) Story in Maps by 75 New Yorkers, Becky Cooper: And finally, for something a little different, it’s PostSecret meets cartography! Becky Cooper walked from one end of Manhattan to another, armed with blank maps, and asked people to trace their own personal maps of the city on them and mail them to a P.O. Box. The responses she received range from the comedic to the sentimental, filled with honest confessions and delicious tidbits, joy and nostalgia and heartbreak.

Required Reading: Volume Seven

Happy Friday, and welcome to a (slightly different) edition of Required Reading! We’re still at the beginning of this year of 2016, and so in the spirit of resolutions and goal setting, I thought that this week instead of sharing some of my favorite works of Southern or New York literature that I’ve already read, I thought I would compile a literary to-do list of books that have been sitting on my shelf or my floor, in my Goodreads queue or my Amazon cart, for far too long. I may not hit all of these this year, but it’s a worthy goal. And even if I don’t make it all the way down the list, I’ll still get to experience some fascinating, thought-provoking, imagination-consuming stories in the process.

Now my original plan was to make a list of both Southern and New York books for this post, but there were just too many great options to choose from — this whole post would have been a novel in and of itself. So instead, here are a dozen of the Southern works I’m most eager to read. New York edition coming soon!

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A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson: I’ve been a big fan of Bill Bryson for years, ever since I read Neither Here nor There as a study abroad student in Paris. His razor sharp observations and wry sense of humor never fail to leave me chortling out loud, often to the amusement of my fellow subway passengers. This book, about his experience hiking the Appalachian Trail, has been recommended to me by family members and friends alike, and it’s high time I took them up on it.

All Over But the Shoutin’, Rick Bragg: Rick Bragg was a dirt-poor kid from northeast nowhere, Alabama, who grew up to be a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the New York Times. This book, consistently named as one of the best memoirs about the Southern experience, spins the tale of Bragg’s childhood — booze and cotton fields, joy and bitter heartache — with incredible compassion and unflinching honesty. I received a copy for Christmas and can’t wait to crack it open!

A Death in the Family, James Agee: I read Agee’s non-fiction tome, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, my last semester of college, and was blown away by its searing look at the oftentimes bleak but still richly human lives of Southern sharecroppers in 1936. In this novel, published posthumously and largely autobiographical, Agee turns his pen to the experiences of loss and grief as a Tennessee family grapples with the sudden death of Jay Follet.

The Color Purple, Alice Walker: Yes, I realize it is a crime that I have not yet read this essential member of the American literary canon. Winner of the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, this epistolary novel weaves together the stories of several women of color living in the South (mostly in rural Georgia) in the 1930s. As someone whose own (white) grandmother lived in Atlanta during that very period, I’m particularly eager to read this one.

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Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston: Another classic still missing from my library, this novel follows 16-year old Janie through three marriages and a murder trial in the town of Eaton, Florida. It has been deemed a favorite novel by numerous people whose literary opinions I trust (John Green and Zadie Smith among them). It’s high time I took my own crack at it.

The Complete Stories, Flannery O’Connor: Maybe I won’t get through every single one of Miss O’Connor’s stories — 576 pages is a lot in one go — but as a master of the form, and one of the preeminent voices of the Southern Gothic movement, she indisputably deserves a spot on this list. In her 39 years on this earth, the Savannah, Georgia, native managed to produce an incredible body of work including novels, letters, and essays, but short fiction is where she thrived. The 31 tales in this book spin stories of love and loss, flowers and hellfire, suspicion and lust and hope.

All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren: In this completely bananas election year, full of bombast and farcical characters who would be uproarious if they weren’t so terrifyingly real, fact can seem to verge on fiction. Better, it seems, to stay in the satirical world of power and corruption in Depression-era Louisiana, and to remember that this too shall pass, like the Huey Long’s that came before. Hopefully we at least get a great book out of it.

Bastard Out of Carolina, Dorothy Allison: A coming of age story about the indomitable Ruth Anne Boatwright, otherwise known as Bone. This is also a family saga in the Southern tradition, set in the wilds of Greenville County, South Carolina, and a particularly honest look at the often hard and violence-strewn lives of Southern women, particularly in the poor, rural corners of the region.

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Men We Reaped, Jesmyn Ward: I absolutely adored Ward’s novel Salvage the Bones, and her memoir, centered around five men in her life who she lost to drugs, accidents, murder, or suicide over the course of four years, is no less gripping, or so I hear. Ward takes the searing humanity and beautiful prose that made her tale of Esch and her family so engrossing and turns them to her own life, grappling with love and loss and the painful legacy of systemic racism and disenfranchisement in her hometown of DeLisle, Mississippi.

A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole: a mad-cap comedic classic, this is the story of Ignatius J. Reilly as he traipses from mishap to adventure. Brimming with the kinds of colorful characters that make both the fiction and the reality of the South, and particularly in a city like New Orleans, so delightful (and debauched): Miss Trixie, Myrna Minkoff, Patrolman Mancuso, Darlene, etc., etc., etc.

Coming Through the Slaughter, Michael Ondaatje: Speaking of New Orleans, I’m dying to get my hands on this fictionalized account of the life of Buddy Bolden, a New Orleans trumpeter and one of the unsung godfathers of ragtime and jazz music. I’m a big fan of Ondaatje’s memoir Running the Family, about his childhood in Sri Lanka, so this novel, which combines Ondaatje’s experimental style with Creole culture and jazz history, seems like it could be just my cup of tea (or chicory coffee, as it were).

Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell: Last but not least, I am ashamed to admit that while the movie version of Scarlett O’Hara’s triumphs and tribulations is one of my favorite films of all time, I have never actually read the novel on which it is based. A travesty, I know. This year, I plan to stop thinking about it tomorrow and just read the damn thing, today.

Required Reading: Volume Six

This post is part of our “Required Reading” series, in which we share some of our favorite tales and tomes of New York and the South — classic and contemporary, fiction and nonfiction, short form and long. These are the stories that open our eyes to other walks of life, that shape who we are, and that make us feel at home no matter where we may be. Check out Volumes One, Two, Three, Four, and Five for more of Zelda’s favorite tales of the South and New York.

“The true New Yorker secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding.” — John Updike

“The true New Yorker secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding.” — John Updike

New York is a city of big personalities. The loud, the brash, the irrationally confident — they all seem to elbow their way into Manhattan, or one of its surrounding boroughs. Maybe it’s because, with so many humans fighting for room, you have to shout to make your personality heard. In many ways, it’s what I like least about New York. All that self-preservation can easily turn into intolerance, or arrogance, or just plain bad manners. There’s value in listening, in taking the time to imagine another complexly and to make room for their needs alongside yours. But there’s also something delightful, and unabashedly New York, about a big personality that is completely unashamed about letting his or her freak flag fly. So this post is for them, the characters with the big voices who are proud to stake out centerstage (and who’ll be damned if anyone is going to steal their spotlight). It’s for the unexpected softness and kindness that more often than not lies behind all that braggadocio. And it’s for us, the ex-pats and the transplants, in hopes that when the occasion arrives, we can all summon our “Inner Resources” and find our inner New Yorker.

51otZF4bydL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Classic Fiction: Eloise: A Book for Precocious Grown-Ups

Author: Kay Thompson, with illustrations by Hilary Knight

When It Was Published: 1969

When I Read It: sometime in my youth or childhood

Where It Takes Place: The Plaza, darling

Why I Love It: Who doesn’t love Eloise? The epitome of precociousness, with her brash confidence and mischievous ways, her no-nonsense attitude and her flair for the dramatic, she was for me and many people our first real example of a New Yorker. It’s said she was inspired by Liza Minnelli, Thompson’s goddaughter, but she really could have been any one of the street (or rather, hotel hallway) smart, self-possessed young things who call New York their playground. As a sheltered suburban kid, I devoured the rascally misadventures of our knee-socked heroine on the tippy-top floor of a fabulous hotel (with Nanny, Weenie the pug, and Skipperdee the turtle, of course). And as I grew up and eventually moved to her stomping grounds, I’ve come to believe that sometimes this city demands the inner-Eloise in all of us — to stand up for ourselves, to delight in everyday absurdity, and sometimes to deal this town a well-deserved, hands-on-our-hips raspberry.

Attenberg_SaintMazieHC+(2)Contemporary Fiction: Saint Mazie

Author: Jami Attenberg (who you should seriously be following on Twitter)

When It Was Published: 2015

When I Read It: last month, on rumbling subway rides, with George Ezra in my ears

Where It Takes Place: The Lower East Side, to Coney Island, to the Bowery, and various sundry spots in between

Why I Love It: Let’s start with the premise: A documentary filmmaker discovers the diary of one Mazie Philipps (inspired by the real-life Mazie Gordon, profiled by Joseph Mitchell in The New Yorker in 1940). Wild flapper child turned ticket taker at the Venice movie theatre and patron saint of the hobo masses who swarmed onto the New York streets after the stock market crashed, Mazie narrates the twists and turns of her life in a wry, honest, never self-indulgent voice. Her diary entries alternate with interviews with those who knew her, or of her, apparently done by the filmmaker in hopes of resurrecting the now-deceased Mazie and bringing her mainly unsung exploits to light. The book is as much a portrait of New York — from pre-Prohibition decadence and the first World War through speakeasies, gentrification, and the crippling economic stagnation of the Depression — as of its vivid heroine.

51jwxlk8knL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Non-Fiction: Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns)

Author: Mindy Kaling

When It Was Published: 2012

When I Read It: once the summer after I graduated college, and again when I moved to Brooklyn (and started watching Kaling’s fantastic TV show)

Where It Takes Place: to be fair, largely not in New York, but a significant (and formative) chunk does transpire in a cramped Brooklyn apartment and in sketchy subway cars to and from Manhattan

Why I Love It: Mindy Kaling is my spirit animal. And her take on life in New York, especially as a 20-something female trying to do something vaguely artistic, speaks to my soul. Behind all the hilarity and mishaps are very real lessons about the importance of true friends, especially the gal pals that know you best, and the challenge of forging a path through the chaos and making your voice heard in the cacophony of humans “expressing themselves.” In particular, she’s a big cheerleader for making things you love with people you love, even if nobody else will hear them. Which reminds me of a little blog I know, made by two twenty-something lady besties trying to make it in New York…

LiveFromNewYorkOn My Wish List: Live from New York: The Complete, Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live as Told by Its Stars, Writers, and Guests

Author: James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales

When It Was Published: 2015 (the updated 40th Anniversary Edition — the original came out in 2002)

Where It Takes Place: 30 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY, 10112

Why It’s Awesome: Talk about colorful characters. This tome has been on my shelf for months, with pages and pages of hilarity and behind-the-scenes tidbits ready for me to consume. Miller and Shales talked to as many cast members, writers, crew, and guests past and present as they could to stitch together this oral history of America’s greatest comedy show. This book has everything: Fey, Poehler, Hader, Short, Martin, Chase, Shannon, Oteri, Fallon, Meyers, Ferrell, DJ Baby Bok Choy…the list goes on and on.

images via: NOT THE HARDEST PART, AMAZON, DALLAS NEWS, AMAZON, JAMES ANDREW MILLER

Required Reading: Volume Five

This post is part of our “Required Reading” series, in which we share some of our favorite tales and tomes of New York and the South — classic and contemporary, fiction and nonfiction, short form and long. These are the stories that open our eyes to other walks of life, that shape who we are, and that make us feel at home no matter where we may be. Check out Volumes One, Two, Three, and Four for more of Zelda’s favorite tales of the South and New York.

“It's a road trip! It's about adventure! . . . It's not like we have somewhere to go.” — John Green, An Abundance of Katherines

“It’s a road trip! It’s about adventure! . . . It’s not like we have somewhere to go.” — John Green, An Abundance of Katherines

I want to talk about road trips. Maybe it’s the summer warmth that’s lingering in the September air, but lately I’ve had an itch for a steering wheel in my hand, a sing-along song on the stereo, a breeze through my window, and an open road ahead. Scout and I are both fans of road trips, having undertaken a few (moderate ones) as a twosome, and she’s written of her love of the road narrative on the blog before. There’s something inherently Southern about a road trip — big expanses of highway cutting through rolling hills, roadside stands offering up peaches or peanuts, John Denver serenading you about the country roads that take us home — and there’s something inherently literary about it too. This is our 21st century Odyssey, a hero’s journey battling toll booths and traffic snarls and Cracker Barrel wait times, before returning home a little older, a little dirtier, a little wiser, a little closer to who we are becoming.

as i lay dyingClassic Fiction: As I Lay Dying

Author: William Faulkner

When It Was Published: 1930

When I Read It: in the summer of 2013, during lulls at the coffee shop, while I decompressed from Paris and prepared to take on New York

Where It Takes Place: the fictional, and delightfully named, Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi

Why I Love It: Let’s get one thing out of the way right off the bat: This is not your average road trip. In fact, there are many who would argue that the Bundren family’s journey by wagon as they prepare to bury their matriarch, Addie, in her hometown of Jefferson, is not a road trip at all. And while it’s true that there is nary a rest stop, car snack, or game of Punch Buggy to be found in this book, it’s also true that the question of family and what it means is inherent both to this masterpiece of Southern Gothic literature, and to any hours-long trek made in obscenely cramped quarters with the half dozen or so people who share your immediate gene pool. This is the story of a family coming together and apart, of the importance of heritage and tradition, and of the things we owe each other even in our brokenness. And it’s all told in the distinctive voice of Faulkner, who more than any other writer, for me, embodies the rhythm and the soul of the South in his every patient sentence.

paper townsContemporary Fiction: Paper Towns

Author: John Green

When It Was Published: 2008

When I Read It: at some point in college, on Scout’s recommendation

Where It Takes Place: Orlando, one epic day on the road, Agloe, New York, and back down the coast

Why I Love It: This is Scout’s favorite book, in the world, so when she told me I had to read it, I took her at her word. Green’s work often gets written off by those who sneer at tales of teenagers and their “adolescent concerns,” but I would argue that there are few things as universal as figuring out who you are and what you want to do with your life, forging an independent path, learning to imagine other people complexly, valuing friendships, and embracing the moments along the journey rather than the destination. This book is not all road trip, but the road trip is my favorite part. A true classic of the genre, it balances whimsy and urgency, life and death, white-knuckled spins off the highway and the paper heart of romance. And dick jokes.

lost continentNon-Fiction: The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America

Author: Bill Bryson

When It Was Published: 1989

When I Read It: my first year in New York, in subway cars I pretended were rolling down a highway instead of under the Hudson

Where It Takes Place: all over the United States, on a 13,978 mile journey from Bryson’s hometown of Des Moines up and down the coasts, across the Plains, and back again

Why I Love It: I first fell in love with Bryson through Neither Here nor There, his 1991 travelogue covering his tour through Europe. Bryson has a very particular sense of humor, dry but loving, like an older brother who loves you dearly but has a way of narrowing in on all your absurdities and quirks with laser-beam precision. It’s the heart that you feel when reading The Lost Continent, his very first travel book. He was a seasoned expat at this point, having built a life for himself in England, and the trip was taken in response to the death of his father and as a test run to see if the country that birthed and raised him could ever welcome him back again. Some of the passages reek of a bygone era — had the trip been undertaken today, the book might well have been a blog, with a Twitter and Instagram account where you could follow along with Bill’s journey — which makes the palpable nostalgia of Bryson’s observations even more poignant. He laments the loss of the America of his youth, even as the America he wonders and cringes and scoffs and cheers at has now gone the way of payphones and TripTiks. This is not a specifically Southern story, but it is an American one, and in its Americanness it embodies so many of the things that endear the South to me: eccentric people, everyday wonders, big skies and big hearts and big hair, and really excellent food.

rolling junkOn My Wish List: The Cruise of the Rolling Junk

Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald

When It Was Published: 1924 (republished in 2011)

Where It Takes Place: on the road from Connecticut to Zelda’s home in Alabama

Why It’s Awesome: I am positively baffled, and more than a little concerned, that I did not know this book existed until approximately two weeks ago. Now that I do know it exists, I must read it, and as soon as possible. Originally written as a series for MOTOR Magazine, the book follows a road trip Fitzgerald took with his wife (and the inspiration for my nom de plume on this here blog), Zelda, in a claptrap old car he dubbed “The Rolling Junk.” The book blends fact and fiction, Scott’s vignettes and Zelda’s illustrations. Amazon delivered it yesterday, and I cannot wait to dive in.

And an Update: Guys! Guys. How did it take me so long to read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay?! Many friends, whose literary taste I trust and respect, had recommended it over the years, but I kept relegating to my wish list of To Be Read’s. And then one day in July, I picked it up, and I couldn’t put it down until the whole epic whirlwind had come to close. This book, by Michael Chabon, has everything: adventure, romance, bromance, history, comic books, a Golem, magicians, a house in the suburbs and romance at the top of the Empire State Building. It was just delicious, and such fun: It had been a while since I’d gotten swept up in a story like that, and I loved it so much that when I discovered I had forgotten my copy at work the night before I left for New Hampshire, I bought the ebook on Kindle rather than wait a whole week to continue the story. It’s fun, and it’s sweet, and it’s smart, and it made me think about New York and art and what it means to be creative and the value in the work. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Required Reading: Volume Four

This post is part of our “Required Reading” series, in which we share some of our favorite tales and tomes of New York and the South — classic and contemporary, fiction and nonfiction, short form and long. These are the stories that open our eyes to other walks of life, that shape who we are, and that make us feel at home no matter where we may be. Check out Volumes One, Two, and Three for more of Zelda’s favorite tales of the South and New York.

“There is nothing gutsier to me than a person announcing that their story is one that deserves to be told, especially if that person is a woman.” — Lena Dunham

“There is nothing gutsier to me than a person announcing that their story is one that deserves to be told, especially if that person is a woman.” — Lena Dunham

My first Required Reading focused on Southern ladies and the incisive, insightful, charming, and generous things they write. In this post, I turn to New York, who has no shortage of awesome and literarily-inclined women. From sisters to sisters from other misters, the books by these wise, witty, wonderful women are about relationships — between people, between people and places, and with ourselves. People often talk about New York as a place people come to find themselves, to figure out who they want to be. It’s a crazed scrum of humanity teeming with possibilities, which can be by turns exhilarating and exhausting. These authors all carved out corners of the chaos to call their own, and the tales they spun (or continue to spin) brim, overwhelmingly, with love — for family, for friends, for romantic counterparts, for books, and for the city they call home.

all of a kind familyClassic Fiction: All-of-a-Kind Family

Author: Sydney Taylor

When It Was Published: 1951

When I Read It: somewhere around kindergarten or first grade, when I lept from Arthur’s Eyes to chapter books

Where It Takes Place: The Lower East Side

Why I Love It: Reading the tales of this Jewish-American family on the Lower East Side is the first memory I have of New York. I was only 5 or 6 at the time and my suburban house in Overland Park, Kansas, could not have been more different from their turn-of-the-century apartment, but I dove headfirst into the adventures of Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte, and Gertie (and later Charlie). They searched for buttons while dusting the parlor and traded pennies for little chocolate babies and celebrated holidays and sucked smoked salmon off the scraps of skin the fishmonger would give them, and I was hooked. I fell in love with the way books could transport me to another time and place, into another person’s life. And a seed was planted then, too, that would grow into a fascination with New York.

history of loveContemporary Fiction: The History of Love

Author: Nicole Krauss

When It Was Published: 2005

When I Read It: in the Paris winter of 2013, riding the bus out into the banlieue

Where It Takes Place: Brighton Beach, and Poland

Why I Love It: “Once upon a time there was a boy who loved a girl, and her laughter was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering.” Incandescent and enchanting are the best words I can think of to describe this book, which crosses boundaries of time and distance and says so much about the human condition, the power of language, and the ways we love. I read this in a cold and snowy winter, far from home and uncertain of what I was doing (or wanted to do) with my life. It was recommended to me by one of my dearest friends there, a fellow lover of words, and it brought such light and beauty into my grey days. It’s a story about family and romance and time and creativity, and about storytelling itself. Ten year-old Leo falls in love with his neighbor Alma, so he writes her three books. The first is too prosaic. The second is unconvincing. But the third, The History of Love, is dedicated to her, and its story goes on to have ripple effects for generations (to say any more would spoil the novel).

not that kind of girlNon-Fiction: Not That Kind of Girl

Author: Lena Dunham

When It Was Published: 2014

When I Read It: shortly after it came out, sitting at my desk at work or on the subway as one of at least three adult females per car all reading the same thing

Where It Takes Place: Soho, then Brooklyn, with some Ohio and Los Angeles thrown in for good measure

Why I Love It: I am not an avid watcher of Girls, and I’ll admit I was a bit skeptical about Lena Dunham’s prose debut. But her honesty and wit blew me away. Reading these essays, you feel like you’re Dunham’s best friend, staying up late at a slumber party and whispering those thoughts that only get spoken after lights out. She is by turns poignant and hilarious, and extraordinarily brave in the way she lays bare her life, warts and all, and refuses to apologize for any of it. Some chapters were more enjoyable than others, but overall it was a delightful read, and her deep love for New York is one of the book’s most prevalent themes. She speaks of the city like a life-long bestie, like a parent, like a teacher, and like the most intimate of lovers. From Soho to Brooklyn, she knows the city like it was tattooed on the back of her hand, a constant companion through all her ups and downs and heartbreaks and weird sexual encounters and bad hair decisions and champagne toasts. Taylor Swift may have been named New York’s Ambassador, but when it comes to loving this city (in all its gritty non-pop fantasies), her pal Lena could give her a run for her money.

the groupOn My Wish List: The Group

Author: Mary McCarthy

When It Was Published: 1963

Where It Takes Place: Poughkeepsie originally, swiftly followed by New York City

Why It’s Awesome: The original girl power novel of female friendship, The Group follows a group of eight friends as they graduate from Vassar and make their way into the world, from 1933 to 1940. The book was seen as scandalous at the time (it was even banned in Australia), and later went on to inspire Candace Bushnell to pen a certain series about another group of fabulous gal pals who go by Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha. The book is the story of friendships and how they evolve post-college, and it’s the story of the divergent paths women’s lives may take, at a time when more and more options were starting to be put on the table. But it’s also the story of New York, and how it shapes the many confused and excited and lost and eager women who call it their own.

And an Update: My favorite book this month comes from Girl Raised in the South, and former New York transplant, Mamrie Hart. I was expecting her memoir, You Deserve a Drink, to be funny, full of her trademark blend of bawd and puns. But what I wasn’t expecting was how much I would identify with her stories, and how much insight would be found between the cocktail recipes and dick jokes. Read it, if you haven’t already (preferably with one of her original cocktails in hand).