Hope Cartwright: In My Skin: A Memoir by Kate Holden

Image via Simon and Schuster

When I was a sophomore in high school, I had to choose a nonfiction book off of a list of about thirty for a rhetorical analysis assignment. Why in the world there was an Australian memoir about heroin addiction and prostitution in that list called In My Skin, I have no idea. Obviously, seeing this book on the list, I had to choose it. For some reason, I was the only person in my class who did. Then, I started reading it, and I got why it might not suit many people’s tastes. It was a very graphic description of prostitution that I probably shouldn’t have been reading at age 15. However, I learned a lot from In My Skin. For one, I learned not to do heroin (this book taught me that much more successfully than any school assembly). I also learned a lot about the power of imagery, thanks to Kate Holden’s detailed account of all the penises she encountered as a prostitute. And though this book won’t be going on my Goodreads “favorites” shelf any time soon – or ever, actually – it was certainly a more interesting read than King Lear or Paper Towns.

George Segress: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

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As someone obsessed with horror as a genre – and literary horror especially (see my first NBN article as proof) – how could I not choose Mary Shelley’s groundbreaking classic? High school sophomore me was thoroughly shook by Shelley’s literary masterpiece that invented both the horror and sci-fi genres. The book was conceived by Shelley at the height of the “capital-R” Romantic movement in the most “capital-R” Romantic way. Shelley was dared to come up with a scary story while at a cabin with four other key Romantic figures, including Lord Byron — inventor of the male-manipulator Byronic complex. And, supposedly, Shelley left that cabin with Frankenstein. The Romantic movement impacts all aspects of this book, from her vivid descriptions of sprawling mountainous vistas and heightened emotions of all the characters. This book not only originated sci-fi and horror, but showed us so early on what smart sci-fi and horror should be. The spooky monster is meant for more than meaningless scares, and the sci-fi plot elements work as more than a unique setting. Both genres work to convey the book’s themes on what it is to be human and what is worth sacrificing in the pursuit of science. Even if the book was dumb sci-fi or schlocky horror, it would still be worth a read just out of historical significance, but Shelley’s work stands on its own as a great novel that has stood the test of time.

Rosemary Sissel: The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

Image via Penguin Books

Reading The Secret Life of Bees took me on a crazy, magical trip. It was the first time I had ever seen ritual as a place of personal transformation and a way to make meaning out of our own lives. In the book, which is all metaphorically framed within the buzzing, purposeful lives of bees, protagonist Lily lives in the South during the 1960s with an abusive father and mere fuzzy memories of her mother’s death. After her stand-in mother figure, Rosaleen, bravely stands up to the town racists, Lily and Rosaleen flee to Lily’s mom’s childhood safe space and live with three fantastic beekeeping sisters. The sisters have a religion built around bees, honey and the Black Madonna. Their spirituality helps them assert their humanity as well as make sense of the most horrible – and dramatically wonderful – parts of life. Their religion is also just really, really cool. This was the first time I had ever experienced individual spirituality being so revered. It was magical. And the whole book was magical, too, with a thrumming story and humming grand metaphors and buzzing threads of meaning through all of the characters’ lives. Plus, the book has one good (imagined!) kissing scene, which was nice for my fourteen-year-old self. Lily (and I, alongside her) learned about personal empowerment, explored religion, discovered true family and even got to fantasize about some nice making out. All in all, a very satisfying (and magical) coming-of-age transformation.

Trent Brown: The Awakening by Kate Chopin

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Edna Pontellier is my late-19th-century feminist icon. Set in Louisiana in 1899, The Awakening tells Edna’s story as she starts to question the domestic role she’s relegated to. She starts the novel as a loyal wife and mother of two, but as it progresses, she takes multiple lovers and becomes increasingly dissatisfied with what her future holds. In the end, Edna makes a choice that completely polarized my AP Lit class: she decides to wade into the ocean and drown herself. Did she take the cowardly way out to escape her dissatisfaction? Or did she take her life into her own hands and declare her freedom in one final, definitive act? The interpretation is up to the reader, but either way, I lived for it.

Okay, not the dying-by-suicide part. Obviously, I do not condone hurting yourself. But Edna’s descent from content tradwife to a liberated, in-her-hoe-phase kind of gal is truly ahead of its time. And Edna isn’t the only character deserving of icon status. Her two friends Adèle Ratignolle and Mademoiselle Reisz represent the two ends of the spectrum on which Edna finds herself. Adèle is a truly devoted housewife and mother who takes pride in her traditionally feminine role while Reisz is a social outcast who refused to give up her love of the piano by getting married. These two women act as foils to one another, but they’re both iconic female leads who deserved their time in the spotlight.

Maybe I’m looking back at The Awakening with rose-tinted glasses considering how long it’s been since I read a single word from it, but it was easily my favorite book in AP Lit. If I had to make one change, I might rebrand it for the modern reader – let’s call it The A-slay-kening.

Raquel Weinstein: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

Image via Viking Press & Signet Books

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was my summer read between sophomore and junior year. Though it was perhaps a dark book to be reading during the summertime, I thoroughly enjoyed the book for its themes surrounding mental illness. It outlines the frightening practices of mental health institutions in the 1960s and made the current-day stigmatization of mental health easier for me to understand. I was intrigued by the idea of further exploring the problems from the perspective of someone who was mentally ill themselves. For example, I was particularly fascinated by the idea of “the fog,” which the narrator, Chief Bromden, uses as a way to escape reality. The book also had very powerful imagery of the psych ward and did an excellent job of pushing against the idea that outcasts do not have a place in society. To this day, I refuse to see the movie because I am afraid it will sully my perception of the novel’s story.

Randy Truong: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

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I hate mandatory readings. As a Comparative Literature major who hates reading, I hold strong grudges against all of the books that I read during high school. If you even say “mandatory readings” near me, you’ll probably awaken my inner Winter Soldier, except, instead of turning into Sebastian Stan, I’ll just get very, very sad. Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, however, is not just any mandatory reading. It’s a fun, interesting and touching novel lost in a desert of abstract, tedious and daresay pretentious high school readings.

Set in Seattle during World War II, the novel chronicles the story of 12-year-old Henry as he fights a cultural battle between his Chinese and American identities. In a period of prejudice against Japanese and Japanese-American people, Henry just wants to be able to embrace his Chinese heritage, yet he is chastised by his community and more surprisingly, his family. I loved this book because it not only sheds light on the horrific reality of Japanese internment but also reflects on the cultural and ideological struggles that can come with being a child of immigrants – all under the guise of a Romeo and Juliet-esque love story. When I was reading this book as a junior in high school, I was shocked by how much I – also a child of Asian immigrants – could relate to Henry’s struggles. Although I could write a ten-page rant about just how deep this book gets, I’ll just let you guys put it on your TBR list.

Low-effort thumbnail graphic by Jayna Kurlender.