10 on a Theme: Messy

Earlier this week, I read The Eden Test by Adam Sternbergh. It’s a thriller about a couple whose marriage is falling apart. I thought, “Their relationship is so messy.” And since I love reading about messy people and situations, I was delighted by the messiness. That thought inspired this post. So today, I’m sharing ten books about relational, mental, or physical messiness. I’ll start with one of my all-time favorites.

Gone girl book cover

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

I read Gone Girl shortly after its release in 2012. Before that, I’d only read a couple of mysteries or thrillers. I only picked up Gone Girl because it was getting so much hype. But, as I read it, I understood why.

The story follows Nick and Amy Dunne, a couple who look perfect on the outside. When Amy vanishes, Nick is the prime suspect, though he swears his innocence. As with any good thriller, nothing is quite as it seems. The Dunne’s relationship is incredibly messy, and reading about it made me realize how much I like stories that show behind-the-scenes glimpses of seemingly idyllic lives. We’ve all got our messes; some are just more obvious than others. 

Now is not the time to panic

Now Is Not the Time to Panic by Kevin Wilson

Frankie and Zeke are two misfits who come together one fateful summer. They’ve never fit in, but they find acceptance in each other. When they create mysterious posters and hang them all over their small town, rumors and fear-mongering immediately follow, causing repercussions they could never have anticipated.

Everything feels so intense when you’re a teenager. The lows are lower, and the highs are higher when you’re young and trying to figure out who you are. It’s easy to make a mess of things because you sometimes don’t know any better. But, you learn as you live, and Frankie and Zeke spend many years wrestling with what they learned from the messes their art created.

Yellowface book cover

Yellowface by R. F. Kuang

Have you ever spilled something and had to use a thin, non-absorbant paper towel to clean it up? As a result, the mess sometimes gets worse, even though you’re trying to tidy. June, the protagonist in R. F. Kuang’s Yellowface, knows a lot about trying to clean up a mess. When her friend Athena, a fellow writer, dies in her presence, June takes the printed manuscript she finds on Athena’s desk. She’s just going to edit the novel but then claims the work as her own. The mess June created threatens to bury her alive when the book becomes a huge success. June quickly learns that you can’t hide from the chaos you create for yourself. This page turner is one of my favorite reads of 2023 so far.

Little fires everywhere book cover

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Shaker Heights, Ohio, was designed as a sort of utopian paradise. The city was meticulously planned, and the impressive homes belong to the most successful residents, including Elena Richardson and her four children. Mia and her daughter Pearl are new to Shaker Heights and rent a house from Elena. The two families quickly become enmeshed, but the messiness of a controversial custody battle and Mia’s unexplained past cause ruptures that aren’t supposed to happen in Shaker Heights. If you like novels with large casts of characters and stories full of messy drama, you’ll love this well-written gem.

She said book cover

She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement
by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey

A sentence about halfway through The Eden Test struck me: “How weird that the person who transgresses has the freedom of being unburdened.” I thought about that idea concerning She Said and Harvey Weinstein’s crimes. 

Many women were preyed upon by Weinstein; his abuse continued for years. Yet he still made money, had famous friends, and got thanked by Oscar winners. Weinstein made the messes, but his victims had to live in the filth. And yet, they told the truth. Kantor and Twohey pursued a story that involved people far more powerful than they were and gave survivors a chance at justice. She Said is a powerful book about women raising their voices.

The recovering book cover

The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath by Leslie Jamison

I don’t drink alcohol. That’s true for several reasons, but chief among them is the knowledge that alcoholism has deeply hurt some of the people I love. The messes from addiction can be the most damaging because they affect everyone in the addict’s orbit. Decisions made decades before can still cause pain, even if the one who caused the pain tries to clean up the mess.

In The Recovering, Leslie Jamison explores her own relationship with alcohol while also discussing how substance abuse affected beloved writers such as Raymond Carver and David Foster Wallace. This brilliant, well-written book seamlessly blends memoir and criticism. The Recovering is one of those books that continues speaking to me years after I’ve read it. Jamison’s writing reads like poetry.

Transcendent kingdom book cover

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

The Recovering talked about true stories of substance abuse and the consequences of it, but Transcendent Kingdom is about a fictional family scarred by addiction. The novel revolves around Gifty, a Ghanaian immigrant who grew up in Alabama with her mom and brother. When her brother overdoses on heroin, Gifty turns her scientific interests toward addiction research. She’s studying neuroscience in California when her mother arrives to stay with her. Her mom has been a shell of herself since her son’s death, and the two women have to wrestle with their loss and how their religious faith seems to have failed them. Transcendent Kingdom is a stunning novel about the messiness of grief, disappointment, and separation. 

Jesus and John Wayne book cover

Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristin Kobes Du Mez

There are few topics more controversial or divisive than religion and politics. Believers and voters cling tightly to what they believe to be true and often try to persuade others to join their side. But, unfortunately, religion and politics create messes when one fuels the other. Kristin Kobes Du Mez explores this in her brilliant book Jesus and John Wayne.

Du Mez unpacks decades of religious and political movements and shows how entangled evangelicalism and conservative politics have become. A mess inevitably follows when people begin loving power more than they love their God or their fellow citizens. This book is a must-read if you don’t understand how so many evangelicals could love a man as messy as Donald Trump.

How to Keep House While Drowning: A Gentle Approach to Cleaning and Organizing
by K. C. Davis

Most of the other books on this list focus on internal messiness, but How to Keep House While Drowning addresses the physical messes in our homes. What I appreciate most about K. C. Davis is her focus on people struggling with mental health. The messiness in our homes can often mimic the messiness in our heads. But, according to Davis, messiness is morally neutral. Her book is full of brief thoughts about dealing with the messes we make, even when our minds are also cluttered. 

Salvage the bones book cover

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

In Salvage the Bones, a poor Black family in Mississippi is trying to prepare for the arrival of Hurricane Katrina. Esch is a fourteen-year-old girl who’s pregnant and dealing with morning sickness. Her father isn’t around much, and her brothers are mostly left on their own. This family is dealing with the messiness of addiction, a natural disaster, and no parental supervision. While many novels are about the wealthy and elite, Jesmyn Ward’s story of poverty in the rural South is a reminder that stories need to be told about all kinds of families and situations. 


Those are my ten messy books. What titles would make your list? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

10 on a Theme: Enough

This year, in an attempt to read more of my unread books, I’m participating in a monthly challenge from Whitney at the Unread Shelf. Each month has a one-word prompt, and the goal is to read a book I own that ties into that prompt. March’s word is “enough.” As I thought about what “enough” means to me, I decided to read Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown. I kept thinking of other books that fit this theme, though, which inspired me to start a new 10 on a Theme series today by sharing ten books that mean “enough” to me. (You can read Whitney’s thoughts on the prompt here.)

March’s word resonated so strongly because I find that I’m constantly feeling the tug of wanting less and more at the same time: 

  • I want less clutter but more stuff (clothes, shoes, makeup, books, etc.). 
  • I want less stress but often take on more projects or responsibilities. 
  • I want less pressure but hold myself to more ever-growing standards. 

If you relate to those dueling desires, I hope you find a book in today’s post that will inspire and remind you that you are and have enough. 

Content note: Some of these books address sexual assault, eating disorders, and suicide.

Diary of a void book cover

Diary of a Void by Emi Yagi

This quirky novel about an office worker who pretends to be pregnant might seem like an odd choice for this list, but I chose it for a reason. As an unmarried woman who doesn’t want children, I’ve been on the receiving end of pity. “One day, it will happen for you,” some people have said. I smile politely, but what I want to say is, “I really hope it doesn’t.” 

Emi Yagi’s protagonist knew she would have to become a mother to get respect in her male-dominated office. She knew she would have to become a mother to please her family and form the connections she longed to have. This darkly humorous story reminds me that women should never feel pressured to procreate to be taken seriously. Diary of a Void reminds me that I’m enough without kids.

Essentialism book cover

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown

Essentialism is the title that inspired this whole list. I haven’t finished the book yet, but within a few days of starting it, I said no to something someone asked me to do. It was for a good cause, something I had done in the past, but I knew I already had too much on my plate. This image toward the beginning of the book struck a nerve:

A circle has the word energy in the middle with short arrows going out in every direction. Another circle says energy but has only one long arrow coming out.

I knew I was doing too much, but seeing the visual of what that looked like was powerful. This book is the right one at the right time because it advises me that I’m already doing enough. More isn’t always better.

The gifts of imperfection book cover

The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be
and Embrace Who You Are by Brené Brown

As I pondered this list, I kept returning to Brené Brown’s idea of hustling for worthiness. I do it, and you probably do, too. We think we have to be a certain way or do specific things to be worthy or whole. I love this quote from Brown:

When we spend a lifetime trying to distance ourselves from the parts of our lives that don’t fit with who we think we’re supposed to be, we stand outside of our story and hustle for our worthiness by constantly performing, perfecting, pleasing, and proving. Our sense of worthiness—that critically important piece that gives us access to love and belonging—lives inside of our story.

Brown’s work points out how vulnerability is powerful, and perfectionism is dangerous. The latter comes to me easier than the former, but I’m working on ceasing the hustle and embracing the rest that comes with living fully in my story.

Glaciers book cover

Glaciers by Alexis M. Smith

There are moments when I put pressure on myself to succeed in significant, splashy ways. I’ll believe I need a more impressive job, a new, expensive car, or a certain kind of home. But I find great joy and contentment in my day-to-day life. It’s a life that isn’t exciting, but it’s a life I love. 

Glaciers is a short but powerful book about a day in the life of Isabel, a twenty-something woman who works in library archives. She, too, has a quiet life in which she goes to cafes, thrift stores, and pines for the man down the hall. The ordinariness of her life emphasizes the beauty in the everyday familiarities we often take for granted. Glaciers tells me my life is enough just like it is. 

Hunger book cover

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay

I recently told a friend that I try to do most of what Roxane Gay tells me to do. She’s a brilliant cultural critic and writer, and Hunger is an incredible book. In it, Gay describes a tragic sexual assault that happened to her as a girl. As a result, she developed an eating disorder. (Hunger doesn’t shy away from details, so if you’re sensitive to those topics, this might not be the book for you.) Though much of this book is heartbreaking, Gay’s resilience and vulnerability convince me that my body is enough just as it is, no matter its size, wounds, or scars. Hers is too, and so is yours. 

Know My Name by Chanel Miller

For a while, Chanel Miller was known as Jane Doe in the sexual assault case against Brock Turner. Throughout the trial, her body, behavior, and everything else about her life were up for scrutiny and debate. What must have felt powerless at the time fuels this gorgeous memoir in which Miller claims her voice. Know My Name is a book I’d eagerly hand to any woman who needs a nudge to use her voice too.

My bright abyss book cover

My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer by Christian Wiman

Several years ago, Christian Wiman was diagnosed with cancer. Yet, as he faced mortality, he rediscovered faith. This book is a collection of essays in which he talks about his faith and how complex it truly is. Wiman is a poet, and that’s obvious on every page. His prose is exquisite, and his musings are relatable to any person of faith who’s been a believer for longer than a week. He addresses contradictions and questions with tenderness and curiosity, never settling for sweeping uncertainties under the rug. Wiman’s thoughts on belief tell me that faith isn’t always a big emotion or production; sometimes it’s a crumb that you guard with your life, and that’s enough.

Quiet book cover

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

“You’re so quiet.”

I’m never sure how to respond when someone says this to me. “Yes, I know,” seems rude. “What would you like me to say?” does too. This is another moment when I smile and shrug my shoulders, knowing the person who spoke those words doesn’t know me and has likely shut down the possibility of me wanting to know them. 

In Quiet, Susan Cain explores the nature of introversion. This book is a gift to those of us who need plenty of aloneness to recharge, who weigh our words carefully or who choose not to use them at all. It celebrates introverts and explains what extroverts can learn from their quiet peers. Cain’s work tells me that what some people may view as a deficiency is actually a strength.

Reasons to stay alive book cover

Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig

Matt Haig is a prolific writer who also struggles with depression. He’s exceptionally open about his battles, and in this book, he shares the ups and downs of his life and explains how he found the will to go on after a suicide attempt. This book is written in short vignettes, perfect for those who are anxious or have trouble focusing. Haig’s book isn’t a self-help guide that includes 8 Steps to a Happier Life. Instead, he gives readers an honest account of how depression can be endured and managed and shares what joy exists on the other side of its darkness. Reasons to Stay Alive is an important book about how the small, ordinary things in our lives can be enough for us to keep going, even when there’s pain. 

Simple matters book cover

Simple Matters: Living with Less and Ending Up with More by Erin Boyle

All the other books on this list address the internal idea of enoughness; this book addresses our physical spaces. Part of me wants a minimalist home, a capsule wardrobe, and only essential items in my drawers or cabinets. But another part wants to purchase the entirety of Barnes and Noble and Anthropologie. My maximalist side usually wins out, and this can be a problem. 

Simple Matters is a beautifully written and photographed book that speaks to my maximalist self and gently nudges me toward the minimalist life that is probably better for me in the end. Erin Boyle is never preachy or condescending to those of us with 11 backup hand soaps or 17 half-burned candles. (I only have seven backup hand soaps now, so I’m doing great.) I return to this book when I need a gentle reminder that I have enough stuff. 


How do you interpret this theme? What books would make your “enough” list? I’d love to know!