We here at the Riot are scattered all over the place, so we thought it would be nice to gather around the great Thanksgiving table in the sky and share the books we’re most thankful for. Pull up a chair, dust off your favorite tome, and share some memories with us.
Rebecca Joines Schinsky: Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed
Strayed’s collected advice columns from her tenure as Dear Sugar at The Rumpus are filled with warmth, tenderness, and tough love. She gently reminds us that we are all broken, and she urges us to make ourselves whole. I’ve given this book to friends who were struggling, and it has given us a shared language for supporting each other through difficult times and celebrating together in good ones. What could be better than that?
When you’re a kid, it’s comforting to know there are grown ups writing books about radioactive stone fruit and gangs of villainous orangutans. I’m so thankful for this novel about three smartypants 15 year olds, bored out of their gourds in their crummy high school, who invent a sport called “Snarking Out” to save their sanity. Walter, Winston, and Rat “Snark Out” in the wee hours of the night to explore their metropolis of Baconburg and watch B movies at a seedy downtown theater. After a series of oddball adventures, the misfit friends become embroiled in a mystery involving the world’s greatest criminal mastermind and a professional wrestler called The Mighty Gorilla. This book fed my imagination hundreds of times as a kid, and still perches high on a pedestal as my favorite book of all time.
Cassandra Neace: When She Woke by Hillary Jordan
There is something about the image of a woman being forced to wear red, whether it is Hester Prynne or Offred, that has real power over me as a reader. The stories of these women really affected me. They made me stop and think and think some more. But it wasn’t until I read When She Woke that I actually was able to identify with one of these women. I had not had the same experiences, but I had felt the same uncertainty, the same confusion about who I am and my place in the world. At the beginning of the novel, Hannah doesn’t recognize herself, and the novel is spent in trying to regain her identity. Her struggle gave me hope. If she could survive all that, then I can most certainly survive my life. I’ve even tattooed the last line of the novel as a reminder.
Jeanette Solomon: Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
For very personal reasons, I wish I’d read this book when it first came out in—was it really?—1999. Instead, I read it for the first time a decade later, at the age of 26. Speak stands alongside Tori Amos’ “Silent All These Years” (which I did have as a ‘90s teen) as a testament to the power of putting our experiences into words, and of choosing when and how to do that very hard thing, then owning the choice. There have been novels since in which the protagonist self-silences, but Melinda’s struggle feels the most real (without ever turning maudlin), especially the scene where she goes into her closet, stuffs fabric from her clothing into her mouth, and screams and screams. This book is extremely powerful and, indeed, empowering.
Rachel Manwill: Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg
Though it feels cliche to talk about the “Lean In” movement as being revelatory, since it seems everyone else read this book before I did this year, I am thankful that Sandberg’s feminist workplace manifesto found me when it did. I had so many “ah ha!” moments about my own behavior and tendencies at work that I began to make active changes in the way I related to my colleagues, to my friends, to my bosses, even to strangers. This book also found me at precisely the moment I needed it to – as I was in the midst of applying for, interviewing for, and ultimately being offered a new position in my current company. I know from this book that women often attribute their own success to outside factors. Because of that, I’m not going to give credit to Sandberg for this promotion. I’m owning my success and attribute it to my talent and skill. With a hat tip to Sheryl for the wisdom to do so.
Josh Corman: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
The best books are endless. Not in the sense that they’re all thousand-page epics, but in that they never stop instructing us, challenging us, tickling our brains and our hearts not only as we read, but also after we’ve closed the cover. Gilead is endless in that way. It’s a book about a father and his son, a man and his wife, a minister and his God, and at every turn it’s filled with powerful meditations on the challenges and joys of all of these relationships. I’ve read it four times now, and every time it’s given me something new to wonder about, something to savor. The best books are endless, and I’m thankful for them all. But I don’t know if any novel will ever mean more to me than this one.
Josh Hanagarne: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
Life is hard. I cherish anything that that can reliably make me smile and/or laugh. Confederacy, whatever it is, always makes me laugh. I can pick it up at any time, no matter what is happening, open to a random page, and find something that makes me laugh and feel better. And it makes me want to be better, and more loving, and a more useful person, even though I’m now wandering towards the territory of the Precious Moments calendars. It is also the book that taught me that humor is inextricably linked with sadness, which has been one of the most useful lessons I’ve learned.
The Frog King is one of those underrated gems that I find myself telling people about whenever I can. The story of a guy in publishing whose bumbling antics ruin his love life and professional career, it’s a book that, at a time when I was slogging away in a retail job I hated during college, encouraged me to dream of writing and working in the publishing world. It’s a hilarious book, and everyone should read it, especially if you love the publishing biz.
Adam Davies, thanks for igniting that spark. I’ll keep singing the praises of your writing to anyone who will listen.
Rachel Cordasco: Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
Thank you, Herman Melville, for giving to us unworthy mortals the fruits of your genius brains. Thank you for writing Moby-Dick, a novel that, when appreciated for its understanding of the depth and breadth of human experience, elicits a passionate fondness in its readers. Thank you for giving us this long, joyous, humorous, terrifying, flippant, mischievous, wonderful book. Thank you for showing us that we all, at various points in our lives, are Ahabs chasing our whales. Thank you for not putting down your pen, even when you were unceremoniously dissed and dismissed by some of the critics in your time. And, finally, thank you for working it so that Moby-Dick found its way into my hands when I was young so that I can have more time to re-read and re-read and re-read it.
Becky Cole: Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
I’ve always loved fairy tales: give me a magical quest with a romance on the side and I’m a happy camper. I was 11 when Ella Enchanted was published, and it turned a light on in my head. In this reimagining of the Cinderella story, the princess saves herself. Here was the piece that had been missing from the other fairy tales. I knew right away that I didn’t want to be like Sleeping Beauty or Snow White or Rapunzel, I wanted to be like Ella. Later on I would meet Cimorene, Alanna, Katniss, Karou, Hermione, and many other strong fictional women to admire, but Ella was my first. Thank you, Gail Carson Levine, for writing a book that helped me realize what kind of woman I wanted to be before I even knew that was a decision I was going to have to make.
Alison Peters: In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens by Alice Walker
Thank you to Alice Walker’s nonfiction, as beautiful and illuminating as her better known (The Color Purple) fiction. Studying abroad during college, the campus library became my sanctuary when homesick: I’d camp out for hours in the American writers section, communing with the Black American writers I was missing. In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens is a masterpiece of essays lovingly touching on everything from Walker’s own journey to resurrect the life and writings of Zora Neale Hurston, to personal accounts of the civil right struggle, to chronicling the life of a black woman married to a Jewish man, to what it’s like just being a black, woman, writer. And in the process, Walker gave readers a delightful alternative to feminist in womanist, as in “Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender.” I am forever grateful for Alice Walker for teaching me, for showing her love through words, and for telling me how it’s done.
Brenna: Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t in love with this novel and I can’t remember a time before my reading universe revolved around it. I needed Anne when I was a confused, shy, and bookish girl, I needed her when I was an awkward teenager, and I needed her when I was a young woman preparing to leave home. And now I look to her to remind me of the joy in small moments, the importance of family and friends, and that the world is far more delightful than anxiety producing. And Anne remains my most reliable test for the awesomeness of potential new friends.
Sarah Rettger: (Since Brenna already claimed my first choice!) Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
It’s not most people’s idea of beach reading, but that’s how I first met Jane, a few weeks before I turned seventeen. The book’s held up to a lot of rereading since then, and I don’t just see new things in the book each time I read it, I learn about myself by noticing how my reaction to it changes over the years. Teenage Sarah just could not understand why Jane turned down Rochester’s offer of pretty dresses and jewels, while College Sarah was into the Jane-as-feminist-icon interpretation. Today what I cherish is her moments of defiance, the stubbornness that feels awfully familiar sometimes.
Tasha Brandstatter: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
It’s kind of hard to pick ONE book to be thankful for, but for now I’m going to go with Things Fall Apart. I was assigned this book in high school and it completely altered the way I viewed myself and how I interpreted how people interact with the world. Okonkwo and so many other characters in the novel act out of fear: fear of not being “manly” (in Okonkwo’s case, anyway) or of how people perceive them. For me, the central message of the book was that a life lived in fear leaves a person emotionally atrophied. I’d never considered how strong fear was as a motivator before, and after reading this book I realized how so much of my own behavior and choices were driven by it. While I’m not going to claim I’ve gotten any braver in the intervening years (because I haven’t), Things Fall Apart and its message has stayed with me, and I’d like to think it has occasionally inspired me to do things even though they were scary.
Jenn Northington: When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams
While there are books I’ve turned to over and over again in times of crisis, they tend to get added to my life very sporadically. This year there were two: Tiny Beautiful Things (which Rebecca has already given the nod) and When Women Were Birds. Terry Tempest Williams has written a book that I keep handy, and that I recommend weekly (if not daily), and that I am so glad to have found. In her exploration of her mother’s journals — all blank — after her death, Williams also creates a space in which to explore fundamental questions about selfhood. She writes gently and movingly about voice and identity, relaying her own struggles to find her way in life and allowing the reader room to ask their own questions, whether or not there are answers.
How can you not be thankful for a book that’s a love letter to food in all of its manifestations? Knisley’s memoir is humorous and full of passion, and it’s a reminder that the one thing we have to do every single day to stay alive is something we can and should celebrate. Eating and the relationship we have with food is personal, as much as it’s about tying us all together as humans. I’d invite Knisley to my Thanksgiving dinner because her stories would make the meal even more memorable — and I suspect she’d whip up a delicious dish or two, too.
Liberty Hardy: Reality Boy by A.S. King
I’m not just thankful for Reality Boy, A.S. King’s most recent book, about a teenager dealing with the fallout of being a child reality television star, but for A.S. King in general. When I read her books, I love how respectful she is of teenagers and how she writes her characters with the humanity and realism they deserve. Her books shouldn’t be shelved under ‘young adult,’ they should be shelved under ‘human.’ The world can be a mean, intolerant place, most times, and yet you get the sense that King believes we can do better and that we will do better. The fact that everyone is equal isn’t even a question. Her love and hope for the future makes me sob every time I finish one of her books. She is a remarkable person, and I think she’s going to save the world. A.S. King in 2016.
As is my wont, I waited until The Deathly Hallows was released before beginning The Sorcerer’s Stone, so there would be no waiting in between books. I think I read the whole series in less than a month, and it was one of the best months of my life. There’s nothing quite like losing yourself in an amazing story for weeks on end. It’s definitely one of the highlights of my reading life.
Kim Ukura: The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
I picked up The Sparrow last year based on the strong recommendation of a close friend. I didn’t know much of anything about the plot or characters (other than it sounded strange, bringing together four Jesuit priests, a child prostitute turned computer expert, a doctor, an engineer and an astronomer). And it turned out to be one of the most incredible books I’ve ever read. The ending was like an emotional punch to the stomach (in a good way, I promise). I’m so grateful to have found this one.
Derek Attig: The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett
Maybe there’s something a bit unpatriotic about choosing a book about English royalty for this list, but so be it. This is what I reread whenever I’m feeling blah, whenever I want to be reminded how awesome books are, whenever I want to laugh and smile in equal measure. In this novella, Queen Elizabeth II follows her corgis onto a bookmobile and falls dizzy and headlong into the world of books. She reads and reads and reads and is–surprise!–finds herself transformed. As will you when you pick up The Uncommon Reader.
Amanda Nelson: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Anna Karenina was the first doorstopper of a classic that I ever read, and it was so engaging and thought-provoking and easy to get through that it busted down any intimidation I held around any other books. It made me a fearless reader at 16, a characteristic that has served me well in the 12 plus years since. It’s also been a barometer of my own character: every time I re-read it, I feel differently about Anna and her situation (going from finding her completely selfish and irritating as a teen to finding her sympathetic but still irritating as an adult). When I’m wondering what kind of person I’m becoming, I go back to Tolstoy to find out.
It may seem ornery of me to choose a book which is currently out of print, but The Adventures of Endill Swift was one of my favourite books as a child, and it remains so today. Young Endill finds himself torn from his loving (albeit strange) parents and dispatched to his unnamed country’s only school, a gigantic edifice of endless corridors and sadistic teachers, located on an island patrolled by an man-eating eel. The book wonderfully captures the surreality and idealism of childhood, punctuated by moments of extremely subtle darkness and illustrated by Harry Horse, whose tragic death in 2007 is still deeply felt by those who remember his work.
Jodi Chromey: Beezus and Ramona by Beverly Cleary
Oh, if I could adequately express what a big deal this book was at the time, I’d rule the world. Beezus and Ramona by Beverly Cleary ushered in many big firsts in my life. It was the first chapter book I ever got to check out from the school library. This was a huge big deal in the second grade. Chapter books that required actual bookmarks were the coolest. And better than that, being allowed to check out chapter books opened up the entire library to you. No longer was I limited to the babyish picture books, housed in the two shelves closest to the floor. And then, of course, there is good ol’ Beezus Quimby herself. Beleaguered, studious, and oft-forgotten Beezus Quimby the older sister, destined like Meg March and Mary Ingalls to stand in the shadow of the spunkier, sassier younger sibling. Beezus was the first fictional character I could relate to. Her troubles were my troubles and she taught me so much about grace and forgiveness and dealing with bratty little sisters that I will be forever thankful.
Jeremy Anderberg: Holes by Louis Sachar
I’m thankful for Holes for a variety of reasons, but first and foremost because it’s the book that really cemented and catapulted my love for reading. It was the first book to keep me up late into the night, and the first book that I read for a second (and third, and fourth…) time. It first introduced me to the beauty of character development and plot mingling in such a way to keep you rapt for hours on end. Without finding Holes as a ten-year-old, I’m not sure that today, 15 years later, I’d spend more free time reading than any other single activity. Here’s to you, Louis Sachar!
Jill Guccini: The Pigman by Paul Zindel
When I was in high school, Paul Zindel came to my local library, which was remarkable in itself because I lived in a podunk little town in the country where no one ever came, but somehow, the author of this book that I loved so much was going to be there on a Saturday! Of course, I was working this soul sucking job every weekend which I couldn’t get out of, so instead I wrote him a letter about how The Pigman felt like this really good friend that helped me feel less alone, and I rushed over there on my lunch break and awkwardly handed it to him in the middle of his talk, then quickly walked back out. Fast forward 15 years or so, and last week at trivia night at a local bar, there was a question about Mr. Paul Zindel, whom none of the other teams had apparently ever heard of (even though he won the freaking Pulitzer Prize). When a member of another team asked me how in the world I knew the answer, I yelled in what I immediately realized was too loud of a voice, “He’s my FAVORITE!,” all while embarrassingly doing some type of dramatic hands-to-my-heart/frantically hugging myself gesture. The point is, if one little book about a boy, a girl, an old man, and loneliness can induce such passionate reactions from me across the decades, you could probably say I’m grateful for it.
Your turn, readers. What are the books you’re most thankful for?
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