When we’re not blogging about the Kardashians, sometimes the staff here at Jezebel sits down and reads some books. Here, in no particular order, is a list of books that we’ve enjoyed reading in the recent past. It’s a longish list, and hopefully, a good one, that covers everything from the classics to books of essays, literary fiction, murder mysteries, and romance novels.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things, by Ian Reid: In his debut novel, Reid applies the universal fear of the unknown to a fairly new relationship that is nonetheless on the rocks. In the words of his female narrator, “We can’t and don’t know what others are thinking. We can’t and don’t know what motivations people have been doing for the things they do. Ever. Not entirely. This was my terrifying, youthful epiphany. We just never really know anyone. I don’t. Neither do you.” The way this truth plays out on a trip to meet her odd boyfriend’s even odder parents is unrelentingly tense, expertly riding the line between paranoid and horrifying.
Mr. Splitfoot, by Samantha Hunt: In this ghostly, absorbing novel, two women relatives take off on a silent journey by foot, and two teenagers and their guardian run a business that promises to speak to the dead. It is the perfect antidote to that bland feeling that comes after a summer of memoirs and half-fictive works that are set in the real world that too much resembles your own. The novel reads as though it was written in the moments just after waking from a gauzy and unnerving dream, and I wished I had waited to read it in October; it is the reading equivalent of drinking a heavy glass of red wine in the late afternoon on an overcast fall day.
Multiple Choice, by Alejandro Zambra: The cover of this slim book asks if it is fiction, nonfiction, poetry, all of the above, or none of the above, and reading will not answer that question definitively. That’s a big part of the appeal of Multiple Choice, which is broken into five sections in the manner of a standardized test. Zambra’s writing is witty and economical, which makes a sprint through the book an appealing choice, but the tension of also wanting earnestly to answer all his questions correctly, as if taking an actual test, makes it a satisfying exercise that made me feel as though I’d just completed a perfectly challenging intellectual activity—editing an article, or writing a school paper, say—upon finishing.
Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert: I’ve recently been feeling guilty for not having read more of “the canon,” so I picked up a copy of Madame Bovary and immediately felt very industrious. Madame Bovary, for those of you who haven’t read it (is it just me??), is dreary and fascinating, one of the many, many examples throughout literary history of male authors dreaming up a woman—in this case, the pretentious and unfeeling Emma Bovary—they can fuck and then obliterate, although Flaubert doesn’t hold his other characters in particularly high regard, either. With this particular looming election in mind, misanthropy can feel kind of great.
The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism, by Kristin Dombeck: Dombeck’s short book is a deep dive into our current obsession with narcissism, both its origins as a diagnosis in the late 19th century, to its current pop culture usage. Much of the book is dedicated to the social and scientific history of narcissism which could be a dry topic, but instead of a straight history, Dombeck bounces back and forth from academic inquiry to modern examples, which range from Tucker Max to websites for “survivors” of narcissistic boyfriends and mothers, to a particularly infamous moment on MTV’s show, My Super Sweet 16. Dombeck is a smart writer and the subject—with all of our concern for narcissistic millennials and their degrading effects on culture (Dombeck’s particularly good when she deconstructs Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell’s oft-cited book, The Narcissism Epidemic)—seems particularly relevant.
Little Labors, by Rivka Galchen: Little Labors is most easily described as a book of essays, though “essay” is employed in its loosest definition. Some of the chapters are full essays, some are lists, and others just a single sentence. Galchen’s weird, short book is a reflection on creativity and motherhood; how motherhood consumes you in unexpected ways, and how it reorders your thoughts. In one chapter, Galchen writes about her obsession with the organization of the contents of a shelf, in another, she reflects on the color orange, and in another she simply lists the names of female writers who either had no children or abandoned their children.
In the exploration of motherhood, creativity is often treated as an opposing force, Galchen’s book is an indirect response to that narrative, and a fundamental (if sometimes ambivalent) rejection that the two are incompatible.
Maestra, by L.S. Hilton: I’m in the middle of reading this after a previous recommendation from Jezebel staff. The best, admittedly cliche way to describe it so far is “titillating” and cinematic. A voyeuristic read. But it should be noted that I haven’t finished it yet.
American Heiress, by Jeffrey Toobin: This book (which I only started a few days ago) tells the story of heiress Patty Hearst’s kidnapping by the Symbionese Liberation Army and rapid brainwashing into a gun-wielding “revolutionary” named Tania. It’s an engrossing follow-up to our collective 2016 OJ Simpson binge and my buddy (not really) Toobin is the best at spinning legal yarns.
The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife, and the Missing Corpse, by Piu Marie Eatwell: This traces an infamous and very real Edwardian court case in which a woman alleged that her dead father-in-law was, in fact, the alter ego of the wildly eccentric Fifth Duke of Portland, thereby making her child the heir to an enormous fortune. She claimed if his grave were opened, they’d find nothing but lead. It took years to sort out this legal tangle, a process that uncovered all sorts of other lies.
A Scot in the Dark, by Sarah MacLean: MacLean’s latest series is a riff on celebrity culture—the first book, The Rogue Not Taken, features a passel of close-knit, socially infamous sisters who are the Kardashians of their world. A Scot in the Dark is set in 1834, but heroine Lillian Hargrove has a very modern problem: Essentially, her nudes have been leaked. She poses nude for a portrait by a wildly egotistical artist, thinking he loves her and it’s just between them, only to learn that he’s planning to exhibit his “masterpiece” before all of London, thereby throwing her to the wolves. This is a great example of how historical romance makes a great (and page-turning! and sexy!) place to talk about the present.
Single, Carefree, Mellow, by Katherine Heiny: I read this bit ago but it’s sticking with me, particularly because I’m in a bit of a rut when it comes to recent reads I’ve loved. I’m a fan of short stories, mostly because it’s so fun to see how an author weaves separate voices into one narrative, and Heiny really takes that challenge to a new level, practically making her stories, which feature all woman protagonists, feel like different chapters in a novel.
Bluets, by Maggie Nelson: Like The Argonauts, Bluets models the possibility for nonfiction steeped in philosophical discourse that is warm, inclusive, and deeply personal, rather than alienating. In 240 exquisite prose entries, Nelson contemplates the wrenching loss of a lover and a friend’s quadriplegia, together with its accompanying physical suffering, through an intimate study of the color blue. Interweaving phenomenology, literature, philosophy—any Wittgenstein fans out there?—and unflinching personal testimony, Nelson invokes the blood and guts impulse locate both salvation and suffering in the tangible. If someone has ever broken your heart—or if you yearn for yours to be broken in the best way—read this book.
Ask a Queer Chick: A Guide to Sex, Love, and Life for Girls Who Dig Girls, by Lindsay King-Miller: At age 30, I read my dear friend Lindsay’s quintessential guidebook for queer girls making their way in an often inhospitable world. I did so with the intention of becoming a better ally to the community, and because Lindsay’s writing is always a balm to the soul. I also realized, by the book’s conclusion that, for many years, I have known that I am queer. I do not suggest that you will necessarily have the same experience—there was a critical Evan Rachel Wood dimension to my self-discovery. You will, however, finish this book awash in gratitude and admiration for Lindsay’s careful and open-hearted mentorship. Her chapter on sex demystifies the most sensitive and specific topics: fisting, fingernail etiquette, and kink, for instance. She also devotes a chapter to the critical topic of encountering discrimination. Her advice here is so insightful and pragmatic that it will surely save lives—perhaps it already has. And for those attracted to multiple genders, Lindsay’s chapter on bisexuality masterfully tackles the issue of bi invisibility and the myth of “bi privilege.” Read this book to educate yourself—whatever your orientation—or give it to a friend as a coming out gift.
Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi: For whatever reason, I generally steer away from fiction, but I read Homegoing during a trip to Brazil. While there, I visited Salvador, the first slave port of Brazil. The legacy of slavery seeps through the city right down to the center of the town, Pelourinho, which was named for the whipping post in the central plaza. Homegoing follows two sisters—one who is taken from Ghana and sold into slavery and one stays and follows the diverging paths of their family trees. You don’t have to read the book while visiting one of the largest vestiges of slavery on the planet to fully appreciate Gyasi’s story—though it helps—because she does such an excellent job building a black historical narrative. Her beautiful storytelling illustrates the impact of slavery, not just for black people in the United States, but the legacy it left on the continent of Africa as well.
The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch: Last spring, I realized that I couldn’t read another book about a middle-class couple struggling with the tragedies that arise when trapped in the prison of living comfortably. I wanted to read something fun and adventurous, something that couldn’t be summed up with “life is miserable, sorry,” so, on a recommendation from a friend, I picked up Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora, a pirate caper involving many fun plots of trickery through disguises and quick thinking by the titular character Locke, an expert thief in the fictional land of Camorr.
Think of it as a far more lighthearted Game of Thrones that takes place almost entirely in the back alleys and crime districts of a bustling city. There are not a lot of female characters, but the ones who are there are A). never raped(!) and B). scary-tough and smart. It’s also the first book in a trilogy, so if you like it, there are plenty more. Just be prepared for all your friends to make fun of you because the cover looks like this.
The Phantom Killer, by James Presley: I lived in Texas for the first 23 years of my life, and had never heard about the string of murders that occurred in Texarkana—the odd little blip of a town spread across both Texas and Arkansas—in the ‘40s until earlier this year, after which I was led to this book. The tense and violent opening chapters detailing the series of murders on Texarkana’s own lover’s lane (and a nightmarish encounter in which the killer strayed from his pattern) are a thrilling read, but so is the investigation that follows in the book’s second half, particularly when Presley reconnects with some good ol’ boys from the era who remember the case well. Like Zodiac researcher Robert Graysmith, Presley is pretty sure he knows who did it by the end. And I think I believe him.
Wherever You Go There You Are, by Jon Kabat-Zinn: This was recommended to me by a friendly employee at The Strand when—in an ongoing attempt to lower my blood pressure—I held up a few meditation books in front of her and asked, “Which one of these is the best one?” It’s filled with all kinds of comically zen statements about consciousness you’d expect from a book called Wherever You Go There You Are, but after laughing at every page and giving some of its methods a shot (I’m still trying! I’m still trying!), I was happy to find that WYGTYA did exactly what I wanted it to, it calmed me down.
Uproot: Travels in Digital Music and Culture, by Jace Clayton: I first met my friend Jace Clayton in Barcelona, 2003, where he was living at the time; he was a rising figure in the electronic world known as DJ/rupture. Back then, he’d just released two excellent mixtapes, Gold Teeth Thief and Minesweeper Suite, that conjoined genres from around the world—Arabic pop, dancehall, jungle, hip-hop—years before the internet generation’s music tastes evolved to become so omnivorous. Even 13 years ago, Jace was predictive of music listening habits in the digital era, but most of all he was eminently curious and voraciously intelligent, eager to learn the history and context of the music as much as what it sounded like.
With Uproot, he lets us see through his incisive cultural lens via his travels around the world as a DJ, musician, and ethnomusicologist (I’m not sure he’d call himself that, but I’m going to). He has traveled from Brooklyn to Cairo to Monterrey to Zagreb and back, absorbing sounds and connecting them brilliantly and seamlessly in the global pop sphere (for a taste of what he’s working with, here’s a mix he made to correspond to his book). Coming from anyone else, the analysis could be heady and the topics quite heavy—at a recent bookstore conversation which I moderated, he played recordings of music by Kurdish and Syrian refugees at a camp in Lesbos—but Jace has an inimitable, often funny conversational style that makes even the broadest concepts right at home. I’ve read this twice already, and I feel smarter about both music and how, best case scenario, our interconnectivity makes the world just a little bit cozier.