Books to Read When Life Gets Sketchy

We all have them, those things that we can count on to inspire and anchor us year in and year out. When the going gets tough we instinctively reach for them like a tattered security blanket and pull them tightly around our shoulders, waiting out the storm. Remember that scene from The Neverending Story movie when Bastian curls up in the attic to hide out and read, surrounded by candles and snacks? That is the comfort I speak of. 

I have a selection of books that I find myself returning to when things feel off-kilter or uncertain, each of them able to give me just the thing I need depending on the trouble or heartache of the time. Over the last year I've turned to my old reliables a lot, sometimes grabbing one as I head out the door to read a chapter or a few pages. Sometimes that's all it takes. Over the years some have gone out of rotation while new selections have found their way in and there are some books I read and reread to death as a kid that I cannot imagine picking up now (I'm looking at you, Alex: The Life of a Child and Tiger Eyes). I find it interesting that the stories of frailty and devastation that soothed me as a pre-teen and teenager are now the stuff of my worst motherly nightmares. 

1. The Shell Collector, Anthony Doerr  - We are often quick to disregard the value of an excellent short story and this book reminds us not to do that. 

2. The Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett - Reading this book is like going in and out of a fever; you'll hold your breath, you'll cry, you'll sweat and when it's over you'll clumsily set it down then stumble around in a daze for a week. I have a friend who swears by the audiobook but I don't dare for fear of being stuck in my driveway unable to move for three or four days. 

3. The Girls Guide to Hunting and Fishing, Melissa Bank - Chicklit-esque? I mean, maybe? But also like having a friends older sister who you've idolized for years give you the dirt on what her glamorous-seeming life is really like. 

4. Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - We live in time where oversimplification is the name of the game. It's possible that we can have lives that are vastly different from those in other countries and cultures but still have the same struggles. Don't believe me? Take it from Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. 

5. Please Kill Me, Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain - Salacious and absurd, you'll be relieved to live in a simpler time of cigarettes, groupies, gigs and larger than life bandmates. 

6. Attack of the Theater People, Marc Acito - Sorry, for this one the audiobook is the only way to go. The first time I listened to it I was actually laughing so hard that I was crying and had to pull over on the side of the road. A concerned motorist pulled over and asked if I was okay. You've been warned! If you're looking to get a gift for a friend who has been feeling blue or just had a baby and in need of entertainment, this is the one. 

7. Garlic and Sapphires, Ruth Reichl - I love to know how the sausage is made, especially when it comes to the things we don't normally hear about, like how restaurant critics have to go to exceptional lengths to book reservations without being figured out. Another strong audiobook contender. 

8. Like Water for Chocolate, Laura Esquivel - Like veganism or crossfit, someone's love for this book usually finds it's way to the surface within the first five minutes of a conversation. You'll know you're dealing with good people and half the work of sussing them out is done, just like when someone tells you they grew up in Cleveland. 

9. The Stone Diaries, Carol Shields - Way back in the day, when Oprah first started her book club, a dear friend and I would sit for hours outside our favorite coffee shop, seething at the choices of Her O-ness. "What is she thinking?!" we'd fume, certain that she must be a closeted conservative man, intent on keeping women diminished and oppressed. My favorite comment my friend ever made was the day someone saw the latest selection on our table and asked how it was. Without missing a beat Devron said, "How is it? I'll sum it up for you: the gist of this book is by the end the main character says, "Well my husband still beats me, just on Tuesdays and Thursdays." Oprah has since redeemed herself but geez some of those early titles were heavy handed. We always wanted to know why she never chose something from beloved writer Carol Shields, a national treasure who has since passed from breast cancer. 

10. Empire Falls, Richard Russo - Men like the ones in Richard Russo's books are truly a dying breed. Crusty and distant, we can all relate to the frustration of cracking the tough exterior of men from this era but it's so worth it. 

11. The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family, Mary S. Lovell - What's that you say? You, too, have often dreamed of being part of a large, batshit crazy family in England? Well then look no further. This book will get you your fix and help make some sense of British history. 

12. Cunt: A Declaration of Independence, Inga Muscio - Originally published 15 years ago (2002) when feminism was on a latte break, Inga Muscio will explain some history, make your jaw drop and get you fired up. A quick, though provoking and highly entertaining read. 

13. Just Kids, Patti Smith - When this book came out in 2010 I couldn't wait to get my hands on a copy but then, I just couldn't get into it. I tried several times but nothing. I wasn't ready for it. A couple years later I gave it another go and sure enough, it was everything I hoped it would be. All the questions I always thought I would ask her if I ever kidnapped her and held her captive in my cellar, she answered. It peeled away some of the layers of romanticism we often view the Warhol years through without losing the magic. Best read in the fall. 

14. The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett - Hard to believe the story of Mary and Colin is over 100 years old and yet this book has managed to withstand the test of time. Hours and hours of adventures were inspired by this book, always determined to find a secret wall, a hidden note, a sick and howling playmate tucked away somewhere on our property. Sadly, no, but this book is a gift in itself. What I missed about this book until I wrote a paper on it were the HUGE nods to Christian Science. Interesting.