Lee and Elaine by Ann Rower (Serpent's Tail, $14). An art professor ends a long relationship and retreats to a friend's beach house, where she obsesses over the legacies of Willem de Kooning's and Jackson Pollock's wives. Rower's wide-ranging imagination and translucent, funny, and intelligent style transforms ordinary life into a series of surprises.
Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black by Cookie Mueller (Semiotext(e), $13). The late actress Cookie Mueller, best known for appearing in John Waters movies and Nan Goldin photographs, was also a naturally masterful storyteller. In these sad, beautiful, and funny autobiographical essays, the descriptions of her risky fun get stuck in your head like songs.
Smile, Please by Jean Rhys (out of print). Novelist Jean Rhys tended to write around the edges of her life experience, yet usually kept some distance between reality and fiction. Toward the end of her life, she eliminated that distance. This unfinished autobiography distills the essence of her powerful novels: bracing, bitter, almost impossible to swallow, but richly intoxicating.
Torpor by Chris Kraus (Semiotext(e), $15). The characters in this 2006 portrait of a dissolving marriage are so clearly modeled on Kraus and her former husband that at first blush it seems comical that she even bothered to change the names. But the idea of “fiction” allows Kraus to be forthright about the relationship in ways that are downright miraculous.
Adam by Ariel Schrag (Mariner, $14). This new novel by a gifted comic writer delivers a twist on the conventional story about The Summer That Changed Everything. A teenager goes to visit his sister in New York City and ends up posing as a transgendered man in order to win the affection of a young woman who identifies as gay. Schrag has created a moving portrait of the moments in life that force us to define ourselves.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (Harper Perennial, $18). About more than suicide and institutionalization, The Bell Jar is a wonderfully funny, mean-hearted gem that ends on a note of triumph. Plath's New York City is grotesque and a little bit glamorous, false and violent and utterly destabilizing. All still true.
— Emily Gould is the author of the 2010 memoir And the Heart Says Whatever. Her first novel, Friendship, follows two women in their late 20s as they navigate the vicissitudes of life in New York City.