Winter is here and it’s a rough one. And by that we mean it is basically Frozen without the peppy soundtrack. Which makes perfect curl-up-with-a-good-book-and-drink-tea weather. Here at BUST, we have put together ten books to keep you company in this arctic tundra, because there’s only so much Netflix we can handle before our eyes melt.
The books range in genre, but all have one thing in common: women. Yay! These books feature ladies from all walks of life, and illustrate their struggles, successes and historical importance. From how to deal with slut-shaming online or wanting to read a Dickensian-style lesbian romance, there is something here to keep you up at night. In the best way possible, of course.
Edited by Rachel Aimee, Eliyanna Kaiser, and Audacia Ray
(The Feminist Press at CUNY)
$pread, a magazine written by sex workers for sex workers, was published from 2005 to 2011, laying bare the ins and outs of the industry. And the contributors to this anthology include porn stars, prostitutes, phone-sex operators, and exotic dancers of various nationalities, ages, and genders. The book begins with a brief history, then advances into seven explicit parts, with titles like “Workplace,” “Clients,” and “Resistance.” Beyond these chapter headings lie the most popular literary and visual works taken from the folds of $pread, include blow-by-blow details on sex worker relationship, dolla’ management, hooking in the penguin community (seriously!), menses in porno, and my personal favorite—a quickie on proper condom use for the gal on the go.
The stigma associated with sex work and the lack of rights and protections afforded to adult entertainers that are highlighted here will likely enrage you. And as a whole, the collection begs the question: To what degree do we own our own bodies? – Whitney Dwire
By Michelle Tae
Michelle Tea first gained a faithful literary following as a founding member of the spoken word collective Sister Spit, and as a memoirist who tackled her unique life experiences with candor. Her work has always provided an insider’s view of the queer culture of San Francisco, her struggles with addiction, and her time as a prostitute. And, in her new memoir, Tea tells how she finally, at age 40, decided to stop living self-destructively and gained some much-needed wisdom and maturity. Her essays read a bit like a self-help book, offering advice based on past mistakes and stumbles. Among the most compelling sections is her sage chapter on dating, where she laments on how often what feels like love is just a dopamine high, and those who are constantly “falling in love” are “dopamine fiends” who need to gain some perspective. This book is a quick, pleasurable read due both Tea’s humorous and self-deprecating style, as fashion week in Paris. How to Grow Up will have you laughing out loud, and perhaps gaining some insight into your own problems. – Adrienne Urbanski
By Adrienne Mayor
(Princeton University Press)
For anyone who thinks Amazons were as mythical as centaurs or sphinxes, this pleasurable book proves that misconception wondrously wrong. Historian Adrienne Mayor’s account of these fabulous real-life superwomen mines archaeology, art, linguistics, literature, and oral history to bring them to life. The ancient Greeks were responsible for glorifying Amazons in Western culture but also for their bad rap as man-eating, one-breasted terrors. These nomadic women came from societies in Central Asia that were so gender-egalitarian, misogynist Greeks couldn’t get their heads around their powerful positions of leadership, so they turned them into monsters. Mayor’s beautifully illustrated book, truly encyclopedic on all things Amazonian, reclaims the historic image of these dauntless figures in the heroic frame they deserve. – Fran Willing
Edited by Amy Scholder
(The Feminist Press at CUNY)
Based on the idea that the celebrities who resonate most with us also reveal a piece of who we are, this collection of essays features beloved writers sharing their passion for another artist—like Mary Gaitskill (on Linda Lovelace), Kate Zambreno (on Kathy Acker), and Jill Nelson (on Aretha Franklin). Each of the subject is fascinating on her own, but it’s the extra layer—Johanna Fateman talking about her own budding feminism while profiling Andrea Dworkin, or Justin Vivian Bond’s childhood adoration of model Karen Graham—that sets this collection apart.
Hanne Blank in her contribution writes, “Here is the single most practical thing I learned from MFK Fisher: seduction is not the art of showing someone you want them…Seduction, properly done, is the art of inducing a desirable second part to want you to want them.” She then poignantly observes that until she saw a picture of Fisher, who is thing and blond, she had never considered the privilege of having a certain appearance. Instead, she had subconsciously superimposed herself onto Fisher’s words. Each essay is powerful because it illustrates why we obsess over icons: by vicariously experiencing their worlds, we’re able to picture our lives as iconic in their own right. – Melynda Fuller
By Lindsay Hunter
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
In Lindsay Hunter’s debut novel, everyone is damaged. Ugly Girls follows toxic best friends Perry and Baby Girl as they skip school, shoplift, take joyrides, and set things on fire. Perry hates her life in a trailer park with her alcoholic mother, Myra. Baby Girl shaved half her head and chose a new name after her older brother’s accident left him with the mind of a child. “Baby Girl wanted her outside to look like how she felt on the inside. Which was Fuck you,” Hunter writes. Meanwhile, Perry’s Fuck you is more secretive.
Perry, Baby Girl, and Myra’s lives are thrown into chaos by the mysterious Jamey, whose presence—first on Facebook, then through texts, then finally, in person—makes each woman realize just how much their looks define them. Perry is pretty; Myra used to be pretty; Baby Girl is ugly. And this matters. Hunter’s characters are complex, vividly drawn, and captivating, and the ending is a real surprise. The book’s frequent focus on Facebook already feels dated, but its core themes of female friendship, mother/daughter relationships, and the price of beauty will always be relevant. – Erika W. Smith
By Sarah Waters
After five long years, Sarah Waters has finally released her sixth novel, The Paying Guest. It’s a highly coifed through back to two of her most beloved previous works of lesbian-centric fiction, Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith, in that here the heroine is also down with the V. Known for her deftness with historical fiction, Water sets Guests in the 1922 London, just after the war. Frances Wray and her conventional mother make ends meet by taking in new lodgers, the Barbers, and ambitious and happy young couple. Or are they? Some seriously hot stuff occurs, including a stocking-dropping rollerskating sesh and the sexiest haircut ever to happen on the page. And if that alone isn’t enough to beckon you toward the book, then pick it up for the writing. Waters’ ease and confidence are masterful, and her word choices, arrangements, and suspenseful pacing leave readers begging for more. “They stepped towards each other with nervousness,” she writes, “and the embrace, when it came, felt stiff, even awkward. But then they kissed; and the kiss unfurled, unfolded like a bolt of ripping silk.” See what I mean? It’s almost hard to concentrate on the plot when each sentence is practically candied, like caramel for the eyes. – Whitney Dwire
By Carrie Snyder
“I have outlived everyone I ever loved, and everyone who ever loved me.” This is how 104-year-old protagonist Agenetha “Aggie” Smart begins her story, which is that if a pioneering girl runner. This novel is Carrie Snyder’s fictional take on the 1920 Amsterdam Olympics, the inaugural games for the women’s 800-meter event and the last one for another 32 years after it was decided that women’s bodies were incapable of competing at that distance. But this book isn’t really about running—it’s about the need to escape. We meet Smart as her aging mind struggles to fully remember her life, switching between past and present as if they’ve happening simultaneously. She recalls moments she wishes to forget: family secrets, the downfall of her celebrity, and the child she gave away. Basically, these are the moments that defined her, though she hates to admit it. But while Aggie tries to forget, two strangers come into her life and remind her that no one can really outrun their past, no matter how hard they try. – Shannon Carlin
By Leora Tanenbaum
Almost 16 years after the publication of Slut! Growing Up Female With a Bad Reputation, Leora Tanenbaum has written a follow-up book about how the word “slut” has evolved since 1999. And for the most part, the slut-shaming epidemic has gotten worse. Tanenbaum analyzes how tools like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram can be used to monitor sexuality amongst today’s teenagers. Although she notes that social media can be useful for activism (and cites anti-street-harassment group Hollaback! as evidence of this), Tanenbaum is highly critical of some of the trends that came from the Web. She also highlights the “Slut-Walk” movement and how it chose to re-appropriate the word slut instead of criticizing its use. Tanenbaum finishes the book with “Do’s and Don’ts for Parents” as well as a “Slut-Shaming Defense Kit,” which offers ways to help readers talk about and combat slut-shaming. Hopefully, her advice will lead young, Internet-savvy women toward a more empowered future. –Jacqueline Sheppard
By Kate Colquhoun
Thanks to the title of this true-crime tale, we already know the fate of the central character’s husband. And this gripping account of the death of James Maybrick and the subsequent trial of his wife Florence digs deeply into their famous 1889 case. In her highly readable retelling, author Kate Colquhoun demonstrates both the extensive research that when into this work as well as the skill she possesses to paint a compelling portrait of a tumultuous time in British society.
Liverpool cotton merchant James Maybrick was 41 when he married 17-year-old Florence, and both misrepresented their money situation. Debt, infidelity, and James’ longstanding hypochondria (and habitual self-medicating) marred their marriage. Wills were changed and divorce was sought before James died from what appeared to be purposeful poisoning. The family’s servants and James’ brothers suspected the young widow, and her trials drew the attention of the nation. Colquhoun deftly conveys this sensational story with precision. Weaving together narrative threads regarding chemistry, contemporary literature, changing media, the women’s movement, prison reform, and England’s justice system, she also successfully maintains a true page-turner pace throughout. – Christine Femia
By Kelly Link
The stories in Get in Trouble are captivating because they teeter on the edge of fantasy. The collection’s first story, “The Summer People,” begins as so many tales of teenage longing do, with the young protagonist feeling there’s no escape from her small town and family obligations. But then there’s escape from her small town and family obligations. But then there’s something surprising, sinister, and magical about the circumstances that tie the main character to her home.
It’s hard not to imagine very real celebrities in the roles of the two stars who fell in love on the set of a vampire romance movie in “I Can See Right Through You.” But the genius of the story is how a supernatural element is suggested, then wiped away, then all but confirmed. Author Kelly Link’s description’s final story “Light,” which tells of a Flordia town overrun with hungry iguanas, and a woman whose second shadow eventually becomes her twin brother. Link’s collection is the perfect read for anyone who has ever argues that fantasy can’t be literary. – Molly Horan
Images c/o: Amazon and Disney