Five Books That F*cked Up My Brain Cells (In A Good Way)

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We’re celebrating Autostraddle’s Fifth Birthday all month long by publishing a bunch of Top Fives. This is one of them!

The stories we read are part of us. When we read and process stories, be they fiction, non-fiction or poetry, they seep into our brain cells and affect our ways of looking at the world. And throughout the history of best sellers and literary criticism, most bestselling authors and literary critics have been white dudes, which means a lot of the stories in our brain cells are white dude stories.

Now, some of those white dudes, like George Orwell and Kurt Vonnegut, were totally into transgressing paradigms and deconstructing oppressive systems. But those authors are still white men who mostly write about white-male characters and often present problematic depictions of women and people of color and erase queerness. And then there are authors like Jonathan Franzen who make piles of money to stare at their own navels.

In high school, at the height of my Sarah Dessen phase, I read Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison for my English class. Y’all, that book fucked me UP.


It was my first introduction to concepts like erasure and systemic oppression, and it remains critical to my understanding of what racism is. Reading Ellison — and soon after Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston — taught me to acknowledge the depth of oppression in American society and forced me to incorporate examination of race and racism into my work as a person who believed in justice.

The best stories scramble our brain cells and force us to put them back together in a new configuration. They give us insight into experiences distinct from our own and help us become better allies, activists, and humans. Here are five books that have done that for me lately. Share your favorites in the comments!


Salsa Nocturna by Daniel Jose Older

A collection of stories about Latino culture, ghosts, and New York City that made me laugh and cry, sometimes both on one page.


Redefining Realness by Janet Mock

This memoir is finally here, and it’s beautiful and hard and great.


How To Seduce A White Boy in Ten Easy Steps by Laura Yes Yes

Come for the title, stay for the poet’s painful and compelling examination of the intersections where she lives.


Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver

A novel about sisterhood, love, and being white in a mostly non-white environment.


Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

A collection of stories about people traversing Indian and American culture and what they gain and lose along the way.

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Adrian is a writer, a Texan and a Presbyterian pastor. They write about bisexuality, gender, religion, politics, music and a whole lot of feelings at Autostraddle and wherever fine words are sold. They have a dog named after Alison Bechdel. Follow Adrian on Twitter @adrianwhitetx.

Adrian has written 153 articles for us.


  1. Yes: “At the height of my Sarah Dessen phase.”

    Sometimes when I reread Sarah Dessen books, I would try to rewrite them in my head as gay. But that’s beside the point.

    Lahiri’s new book, the Lowland, is a new favorite. Her best yet, I think.

    • My google search for Annabel + Colie Sarah Dessen fan fiction yielded zero results. I sense an open market!!

  2. I read interpreter of maladies last month and Holy cow! It blew my mind. I was really in awe of how she wrote so eloquently of the immigrant experience. Every story wag its own world. Every character had a soul. Glad to see it on this list. I intend now to pick up some of the others mentioned !

  3. so I already used my book allowance for the month (what can I say, I move fast) and I’m really upset now and this just confirms my belief that I need to check autostraddle before buying anything ever.

  4. Animal Dreams definitely – for me there is a lot there that mirrors content in my life, and it was inspiring for me to return to my profession.

    Blue Highways – by William Least Heat Moon, just a beautiful odyssey of one guy separated from his wife travelling the blue highways of America and discovering friends in strangers.

    Hitchhikers guide to the galaxy series – by Douglas Adams. This fucked my head up at the time but has since become my default belief system.

    Beloved – by Toni Morrison, I found this compelling and surreal and very human.

    The Colour Purple – by Alice Walker. I loved this, this is the book that made me feel that there were women loving women in the world and that it might be ok to be one of them.

    The heart is a lonely hunter – by Carson McCullers. I loved this, could not put it down.

    Birdy – by William Wharton. About a young guy who thinks he is a bird, kind of haunting.

    Fugitive pieces – by Anne Michaels.

    The god boy – by Ian Cross.

    The Bone People – by Keri Hulme.

  5. I love this list and can’t wait to start reading! Have you heard of Goodreads? Y’all should make an autostraddle group and post more awesome lists :D

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