Summer Reading Diary: Spooky Fiction and Feminist Manifestos by the Pool

Illustration for article titled Summer Reading Diary: Spooky Fiction and Feminist Manifestos by the Pool
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As a kid, I spent my summers almost exclusively reading Stephen King paperbacks (never, ever age-appropriate) and whatever novel about anthropomorphic barnyard critters I could find (Watership Down, anyone?). While my tastes have changed as an adult, I’m also not suddenly reaching for frothy bestselling fiction with titles like The Coroner’s Daughter or The Teacher’s Son or The Nanny’s Brother’s Step-Mother. What I read in the summer is what I read all year, basically.


I started my summer finishing Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing, which was transformative but not in the sense that I’m throwing my phone in the ocean. I’ve been a little annoyed by how many reactions to the book have overemphasized its focus on social media, because it ends on a great, activist note to not just turn your attention away from soul-sucking social media feeds, but to direct that attention to creating new online and offline communities beyond the watchful eye of corporations like Facebook or Amazon and similarly hellish conglomerates. It’s much more than a book about digital detox-ing for a spell, trust!

How to Do Nothing was a great book as well to pair with another I read this summer: former Jezebel editor Jia Tolentino’s debut essay collection Trick Mirror. We are all blessed (#blessed?) to have her as a narrator guiding us through the cultural wasteland the Internet has brought us, from scams like Fyre Festival to the way identities are commodified online, though one of my favorite essays in the book is on the suffocating wedding industrial complex. But there are definitely parallels in how Tolentino and Odell write about the pressure to always “be optimizing” and branding oneself under capitalism, whether through the lens of athleisure or Lean In feminism, and maybe the remedy to that is the manifesto I read right after Tolentino’s book (yes, I’m reading manifestos at the public pool, get in losers!) Feminism for the 99%, a treatise for an intersectional, socialist feminism that centers collective power over power for just a few.

Maybe the ghost of spooky Stephen King summers is still haunting me, because I’ve also had a streak of creepy reads this season. Right now I’m reading My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite, recommended to me by a million people, which is as dark as the title implies but also very funny and more about how two sisters compete with one another than bloodshed. I take back what I said about violent fiction with words like “Sister” in the title! But before that I read Karen Russell’s Orange World, which had been staring at me from my neighborhood book store for awhile. Last summer, after reading the title story in The New Yorker, I went out and bought her collection Vampires In the Lemongrove, which was spooky in all the right places. This collection is similar: very gothic, fantastical short stories, including one which tells the story of Madame Bovary through the eyes of her greyhound. I also picked up Halle Butler’s The New Me, a short novel I had heard a lot about earlier in the year but hadn’t gotten around to reading. It’s about a disgusting and aimless office worker at her temp job and sort of reminded me of Ottessa Moshfegh’s similarly grotesque Eileen, if that’s your thing (it’s definitely my thing.)

In the “give me murder, but smart” department, I also read reporter Rachel Monroe’s forthcoming book Savage Appetites, which is out next month. It’s a collection of four reported essays about women whose lives intertwined with true crime, from an advocate who wormed her way into the Tate family after the Manson murders to a forensic science pioneer. It is a seriously welcome addition to a genre dominated by terribly reported podcasts, TV specials, and longform articles about crime and violence against (or by) women, so I highly recommend it.

I read The Folded Clock by Heidi Julavits because my friend and Jezebel video star Clio had just borrowed it from our friend Haley and I decided to read the same copy right after. It takes the format of a journal in which Julavits recounts conversations and moments in her life, even in all their pettiness (like a time in which Julavits is mad about who wins a Fourth of July suburban float parade). After that I read Jayson Greene’s devastating memoir Once More We Saw Stars, which recounts the sudden death of his daughter Greta at just two years old and the aftermath. A lot of writers like myself know Greene for his excellent work as a music critic and editor, and he brings startlingly close-up detail to this book not just about his grief but the compulsion to document it as a means of process.

Next to read I have a copy of The Case Against Surrogacy by Sophie Lewis that I’m excited to read, as well as a copy of Natalia Ginzburg’s The Little Virtues, a birthday gift from aforementioned Haley. Forthcoming books coming out that are on my radar Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House (sitting on my desk currently) and Natasha Stagg’s Sleeveless, as I loved her surreal novel on internet celebrity Surveys. And then after that, who knows? Maybe I’ll just re-read Watership Down again.

Hazel Cills is the Pop Culture Reporter at Jezebel. Her writing has been published by outlets including The Los Angeles Times, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, The New York Times Magazine, ELLE, and more.



Let’s see...

For suburban creepy, Little Children by Tom Perrota is good (as is the film with Kate Winslet.) It’s full of deeply fucked up people who know they should care about being numb and arid and not loving their spouses and messing up their kids, and they kind of do? but not really.

For older creepiness, The Horizontal Man by Helen Eustis. I have my copy in the anthology Women Crime Writers: Four Novels of the 1940s, but am considering buying a freestanding one so I can carry it around more easily. It’s an enthralling take on mental illness but I won’t say any more because the ending, to use period slang, is really socko. Kate Innes, as a girl detective, is terrific.

Speaking of mental illness, let’s go back to Shirley Jackson. The Bird’s Nest is her take on dissociative identity disorder, and The Sundial on group hysteria. Both fabulous and filled with poisonously hilarious characters.