7 Books That Will Make You Feel

Today is National Book Lovers Day, and I don't know about you, but the books I love most are the ones I can't get through without a lump rising into my throat or a tide of nostalgia roiling through me or some other real, emotional response. So, to celebrate those stories that stay with us long after we close their cover, here is my list of seven books that will make you feeeeel.   

Mary and O'Neil

by Justin Cronin 

You might know Justin Cronin from his vampire trilogy that begins with The Passage, but it's his debut book, a novel-in-stories, that has remained my favorite since I first read it eight years ago. Mary and O'Neil fall in love and start a family together, but you could argue that the book should be called Kay & O'Neil after the sister and brother who, in their early twenties, lose their parents in a car crash and spend their adult lives supporting each other through their grief and other challenges, Kay's cancer among them. While the narrative touches on big themes and milestones (a wedding, birth, death), Cronin finds the minor chords in these moments with quiet wisdom and emotional precision.  

In one of my favorite passages, O'Neil's daughter has just been born, and he calls his parents' old number from the hospital late at night. He plans to hang up after it rings, but a woman answers, and she mistakes him for her own son. He doesn't correct her.  

‘I wish you were here, honey. Let everyone else handle things for a while. Can you? Just come home.’ 

’I will,’ O’Neil says. ‘As soon as everything’s taken care of here, I’ll come straight home.’ 

’Come home, my darling. Say it: I’m coming home.’ 

’I’m coming home.’ 

’And you miss me.’ 

O’Neil thinks of his parents, gone so long, taken from him when he was just a boy in college, standing at the door with his keys in his hand. ‘Yes, I miss you. It’s awful, missing you.’
— Mary & O'Neil, Justin Cronin

Ava 

by Carole Maso

Ava Klein spends the last day of her life in a hospital bed conjuring the moments, images, voices, and desires that made up her life. This novel by Carole Maso is constructed as an accumulating series of brief, stark fragments, as though Ava is gathering them up in her arms, her yearning to grasp and hold everything in the end so palpable that the reader cannot help but ache and rejoice with her and find themselves sifting through their own lives for those words a loved one whispered in the dark.   

A passage: 

It’s only a moment of course.  

A matter of moments. This life.  

As short as one of these sentences. As brief as that. But with a certain quiet beauty. As seemingly random as it all appears—there are accumulated meanings. I believe that.
— Ava, Carole Maso

The Empathy Exams 

by Leslie Jamison 

Leslie Jamison's collection of essays interrogates empathy and pain like she's turning a prism and catching every possible refraction of light. Whether her subject is an ultra-distance runner, a group of people with the same mysterious, possibly made-up disease, or herself, Jamison writes with curiosity, generosity, and a fierce commitment to connection through understanding.  

About the choice to empathize, the effort it often requires of us, she writes: 

This confession of effort chafes against the notion that empathy should always rise unbidden, that genuine means the same thing as unwilled, that intentionality is the enemy of love. But I believe in intention and I believe in work. I believe in waking up in the middle of the night and packing our bags and leaving our worst selves for our better ones.
— The Empathy Games, Leslie Jamison

Nox

by Anne Carson

Anne Carson's autobiographical account of her brother leaving and essentially disappearing, and later his death, defies definition. It comes in a box, an accordion-folded long piece of paper, on which the text and photographs and copies of a letter are printed. Within the fragmented narrative, Carson translates from Greek the Catullus poem, 101. More than a book, it is an artifact of grief and of searching for meaning. Carson calls it an epitaph for her brother.  

She writes about the act of translating as a process similar to trying to understand the brother she lost:  

I never arrived at the translation I would have liked to do of poem 101. But over the years of working at it, I came to think of translating as a room, not exactly an unknown room, where one gropes for the light switch. I guess it never ends. A brother never ends. I prowl him. He does not end.
— Nox, Anne Carson

5 Ways of Going Home

by Alejandro Zambra

This succinct, postmodern novel by Chilean writer/poet, Alejandro Zambra, begins with an earthquake and grapples with the personal (family, love, friendship) and the political (life under a dictatorship). The first section of the book introduces us to an unnamed boy who, following the earthquake, spies on his neighbor at the request of Claudia, a girl who becomes a sort of friend. Then the book pulls back to situate us in the head of the author-narrator, who is clearly mining his own memories and relationships to tell the story. He reconnects with his ex-wife and returns home to visit his family as he writes his novel, and in the story he's writing, the boy reconnects with Claudia and sees his parents, his home in a new light. Both storylines excavate what it means to tell one's story, the fleeting spark yet inconclusiveness of memories, and how we come to understand (or still fail to understand) our loved ones, our homes, and ourselves. The writing is darkly funny at times but most often is disarmingly tender. If you're feeling introspective or you're fascinated by the way we try to make sense through story, then this brief but moving book is a must-read.  

A passage: 

She looked at me with a new expression, one I didn’t recognize.  

It’s amazing: the face of a loved one, the face of someone we’ve lived with, whom we think we know, maybe the only face we would be able to describe, which we’ve looked at for years, from up close — it’s beautiful and in a certain way terrible to know that even that face can suddenly, unpredictability, unleash new expressions. Expressions we’ve never seen before. Expressions that perhaps we’ll never see again.
— 5 Ways of Going Home, Alejandro Zambra

Olive Kitteridge 

by Elizabeth Strout

Another novel-in-stories, this Pulitzer winner by Elizabeth Strout presents a nuanced portrait of its title character, a math teacher with a tough exterior, as well as a set of recurring characters living in coastal Maine. While Olive may be at times rash, uncompromising, and even cold – not unlike the landscape she inhabits – she has her moments of surprising vulnerability, and Strout writes with compassion and humanity.  

In one story, Olive imposes herself into the vehicle of a former student, now a young adult, who has returned home and plans to kill himself. They sit in his car by the marina and talk despite his urgency for her to leave him alone.  

Again, Kevin found himself liking the sound of her voice. Through the windshield he saw the waves coming in higher now, hitting the ledge in front of the marina hard enough to send a spray far into the air, the spray falling back languidly, the drops sifting through shards of sunlight that still cracked its way between the dark clouds. The inside of his head began to feel as choppy as the surf before him. Don’t go, his mind said to Mrs. Kitteridge. Don’t go.
— Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout

An Untamed State 

Roxane Gay

In Roxane Gay's unflinching novel, Mireille, a daughter of privilege among poverty in Haiti, is violently abducted and held for ransom. She endures a brutal thirteen days of captivity as she waits for her father to pay, even as she fears he will not. The emotions Gay's writing stirred in me were intense and sometimes nearly unbearable, but there is also a spirit of hope in this book, of hard-fought resilience.  

This is the opening passage:  

Once upon a time, in a far-off land, I was kidnapped by a gang of fearless yet terrified young men with so much impossible hope beating inside their bodies it burned their very skin and strengthened their will right through their bones.  

They held me captive for thirteen days.  

They wanted to break me.  

It was not personal. 

I was not broken.  

This is what I tell myself.
— An Untamed State, Roxane Gay

Whether you start a new one or revisit an old favorite, take some time today to indulge a little in a good book. And let me know what you love best about books. Which ones make you feeeel? Happy reading!