Whether you’re lying out at the beach or chilling out in your own air conditioned apartment, summer is the perfect time to catch up on your reading. We’ve rounded up 11 of our favorite books of the summer, including Jessica Valenti’s Sex Object, The Girls by Emma Cline and Modern Lovers by Emma Straub.
Sex Object: A Memoir
By Jessica Valenti
(Dey Street Books)
Sometimes being a feminist can feel maddening. We want to be strong and empowered; we don’t want to play the victim, or dwell on the barrage of hints that we’re second-class citizens, we don’t want to “give them the satisfaction” of knowing that the catcalls and abuse actually hit hard. Jessica Valenti knows that disconnect well, and she wears the same armor we all do. But she also suspects that this internalization of constant small traumas can’t be good for womankind. In her memoir, Sex Object, she uses the personal to shed light on a universally female political problem: “We are sick people with no disease.”
If depression is anger turned inward, how many women are depressed? How many are coping with some unnamed form of PTSD? Valenti doesn’t answer those questions outright. Instead, she unfolds her personal experiences — from childhood to motherhood, through adolescent crises and professional hurdles. There is an awakening that happens as a woman reading this book. Because as angry as we may be that the system’s rigged, giving in to that sadness feels counterproductive. But maybe there’s power in it. As Valenti writes, “This inability to be vulnerable — the unwillingness to be victims, even if we are — doesn’t protect us, it just covers up the wreckage.” – Maura Hehir
By Janna Levin
When scientists announced on February 11, 2016, that they had finally succeeded in recording the sound of gravitational waves caused by two colliding black holes, it was huge news. For those intrigued by this discovery and eager to learn more about the phenomenon, Black Hole Blues by theoretical astrophysicist Janna Levin is a perfectly timed introduction.
Levin spends the first 99 pages of her guide describing how scientists had been expensively failing to record the elusive sound of ripples in spacetime (aka gravitational waves) for a century. But they persevered for good reason. “Very nearly everything we’ve learned about this specific universe has been brought to us from observational astronomers and experimental physicists,” she writes, “who collect light from luminous events near the origin of the universe until today.” Apparently, black holes are so dense and dark they suck in light. They totally eat it. So scientists can’t confirm that binary black holes exist with light. Instead, they’ve learned to use sound. It’s fascinating stuff, made even more exciting by this recent breakthrough that finally proved one of Einstein’s 100-year-old predictions to be true. – Whitney Dwire
By Laura Barcella
With its punchy language and sound-bite slogans, Laura Barcella’s Fight Like a Girl may be written for a young-adult audience, but it’s worth a read at any age. The book consists of 50 short vignettes of well-known feminists, some of whom don’t identify as such (like Yayoi Kusama and Cindy Sherman) and others who are famous fighters for the cause (like Madonna and Beyoncé). In an attempt to be more intersectional, this collection delves even deeper than most by including lesser-known folks like Pauli Murray and Leslie Feinberg alongside Geena Davis and Margaret Cho. It’s also a celebration of women such as Jane Goodall and Wilma Mankiller, who might not always be linked to the feminist movement, but who paved the way for generations of women and girls.
The real treasure of this book is the bibliography. Spanning 26 pages of fine print, it’s a reference guide to books, articles, videos, and interviews that will inspire further feminist exploration for years to come. – Rebekah Miel
By Emma Cline
Emma Cline’s captivating debut novel retells a familiar story with new insight. The plot follows a lonely 14-year-old Californian named Evie who falls into a Manson Family-like cult in the summer of 1969. Evie is less drawn to the mysterious and charismatic cult leader than she is to the mesmerizing Suzanne, an older teen who is in deep with him. From the prologue, where Cline memorably describes Suzanne and the other girls in the cult as sharks, the tension builds so slowly that when the violence comes, it feels inevitable.
Cline imagines the Manson Family story in a new way by focusing on the girlhood of the members and the societal influences that drove them into the arms of “an expert in female sadness.” “I knew just being a girl in the world handicapped your ability to believe yourself,” Cline writes in Evie’s voice. Flash-forwards to the present show an older Evie interacting with a young teen in scenes that are less interesting than the cult story, but still drive home Cline’s examination of the vulnerabilities and strengths of girlhood. – Erika W. Smith
By Negin Farsad
(Grand Central Publishing)
Iranian-American-Muslim comedian Negin Farsad wants to make people laugh — and, despite her book’s title, not just white people. She accomplishes this by talking about her immigrant parents, her complete lack of gaydar growing up in Palm Springs, and her nearly female-less college improv experience. (Something she now jokingly calls a “glass is half empty…of vaginas” situation.) But Farsad, who has a master’s degree in African-American studies, is also a social justice comedian who talks about what it means to “feel black” in a world defined by whiteness. She looks at what it’s like to practice a religion that is seen as a terrorist threat, and discusses how it feels when your own people (Muslim females) don’t support what you do.
These are serious topics, but she finds ways to instill humor in each lesson. Farsad compares being a woman and a person of color to always making a turducken for the holidays, instead of just keeping it simple and making a turkey. In other words, it’s not easy being “other,” but we can change this by laughing at ridiculous stereotypes instead of choosing to believe them. – Shannon Carlin
By Ruth Goodman
So much has been written on the Tudors, it’s always a surprise when someone finds a fresh way to approach this fascinating time period. But badass historian Ruth Goodman does just that, taking readers through a day in the life of a Tudor. She provides quotidian details from dress to food to popular forms of entertainment, divided into sections including “To Wash or Not to Wash,” “And So To Bed,” and, “A Time to Play.” She also looks at all class levels and addresses lifestyle changes throughout the long Tudor period.
The intense focus of each section makes this book a good read both for those who like to go cover-to-cover and those who prefer to read a section here and there. What makes this book especially enjoyable is Goodman’s enthusiasm for her subject matter; indeed, her life revolves around it. Besides her superior research and knowledge, Goodman also recounts her own attempts to “be a Tudor,” by living in a recreation Tudor house, baking bread using a Tudor stove and recipe; and learning popular Tudor dances. – Ann Mayhew
By Emma Straub
The novel Modern Lovers focuses on two upper-class couples in their late 40s, one heterosexual and one lesbian, as their lives unfold in the swiftly gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood of Ditmas Park. Three of the four main characters — Elizabeth and Andrew (who are married) and Zoe — were in a band together in college. And their hit song, penned by Elizabeth, brought the band surprising fame before their other bandmate went solo and self-destructed. The news of a biopic being made about their doomed former bandmate causes the trio to revisit their pivotal years as musicians and question their marriages and life paths. Andrew lives off a trust fund and never found a real calling, and Elizabeth put aside her musical aspirations and now slaves away as a real-estate agent, while Zoe is stuck running a restaurant beside her wife, and divorce seems imminent. Conflicts develop between the two couples, and their longtime friendships are challenged more than ever before.
Although author Emma Straub draws her characters somewhat superficially, her narrative develops into an enthralling page-turner with conflicts and mysteries that will keep readers riveted. With summer upon us, this will surely be an ideal beach read. – Adrienne Urbanski
By Sara Benincasa
(William Morrow Paperbacks)
The titular essay in author Sara Benincasa’s memoir/self-help collection, Real Artists Have Day Jobs, is the best pep talk any aspiring creative could hope for. While many humor essayists have recently taken a backward-looking approach, recalling what a drag life was before they truly became artists, Benincasa makes it clear you don’t become a writer once you hit some elusive benchmark. Rather, you become one when you finally say you are one.
The 52 essays here are a solid mix of practical advice and personal anecdotes that will make readers feel like they’re getting tips from a friend. The warmth and humor Benincasa shows off in her novels (most recently in her multi-narrator YA saga DC Trip) is on full display here. Whether you want to learn how to organize your apartment, organize your thoughts, or just be more confident in your Twitter bio, there’s an essay here for you. At times the sheer volume of essays and their short lengths can make the collection seem choppy. But the overall theme — “You’ve got this!” — really holds the book together. – Molly Horan
By Idra Novey
(Little, Brown and Company)
A $600,000 gambling debt. A missing Brazilian writer. A loan shark after his money. A mistrustful daughter looking for her mother. An ear delivered in a box as a warning. Love, family, and death — Idra Novey’s debut, Ways to Disappear, has it all.
Though the novel isn’t short on plot, it is surprisingly lean. Interspersed between fast-paced narrative sections, there are formally experimental chapters comprised of emails, gossip columns, poems, and wonderful fictional dictionary entries. (One on the word “permission” goes: “Formal consent, as in: A translator must acquire permission to publish a story consisting of words that are not her own but that also incidentally are.”) Novey evades the navel-gaze-y quality that often plagues fiction about writers. Instead, she creates a worthy, captivating storyline that is less about writing than it is about the ways in which people misunderstand one another — caught in the grip of opposing desires to be seen and to run away. – Alexandra Chang
By Jessi Klein
(Grand Central Publishing)
Fans of Amy Schumer (ie, everybody?) will fall in love with funnywoman — and Emmy Award-winning Inside Amy Schumer writer — Jessi Klein’s relatable collection of humor essays. Klein finds the funny in both standard and not-so-standard humiliations, from screaming at an ex-boyfriend on a New York City street while his new girlfriend watches, to being a bridesmaid in her little sister’s wedding at Disney World. While her tales do include “rites of modern femininity”—from baths to wedding dresses to childbirth — there’s plenty more.
Klein’s collection requires no marketing hook — her hook is simply being herself, whether she’s becoming uncomfortably close with her therapist or feeling like less than a “PRINZESS” at the Emmys. Discussing how Joan Rivers’ death inspired her to take a risk, she writes: “I thought about Joan, and thought about my fear of telling my story and having no one care, and then I thought, fuck it. I care. I don’t care if they care. It’s my story. I relaxed and ordered an embarrassing amount of room service before driving to my next meeting.” The payoff of releasing this fear? “They bought it,” she reveals. And so will her readers — Klein is a truly witty PRINZESS. – Liza Monroy
By the CALYX Editorial Collective
If the best anthologies are a patchwork of pieces that each say something unique but are threaded together with careful cohesion, this collection from CALYX succeeds enormously. Poems, essays, and works of short fiction collected throughout 40 years of this feminist press feature distinct voices — some who’ve gone on to illustrious careers, others whose work makes readers want to search out their back catalogs — telling stories as varied as their tellers. This anthology strikes a strong balance between personal and political with early works from Barbara Kingsolver and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, tales about the body, and stories of the diaspora. No book could be a comprehensive universal representation of women’s voices, but this one is certainly a richly woven and deeply satisfying tapestry of women’s work. – Christine Femia
This article originally appeared in the June/July 2016 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
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