It’s finally the best time of year to catch up on all that reading you’ve been wanting to do since the spring, as you enjoy your vacation days at the beach. Here’s a list of our 11 favorite books of the summer, including Jillian Tamaki’s Boundless, Paula Hawkin’s Into The Water: The Novel, and our Lit-Pick, Samantha Irby’s We Are Never Meeting In Real Life.: Essays.
WE ARE NEVER MEETING IN REAL LIFE.: ESSAYS
By Samantha Irby
Calling Samantha Irby funny would be an insult. Irby – who you may know from her popular blog, Bitches Gotta Eat, and her prior collection of essays, Meaty – is so authentic, entertaining, and fearless, funny seems concise a word to describe stepping inside her thoughts for a couple hundred pages. Her writing is both confident and self-deprecating and will strike readers in that perfectly relatable space between glorious confidence and average self-doubt.
Essays about how much she despises her cat and an ill-timed gastrointestinal adventure are mind-blowingly hilarious, as are her musings on the great indoors, her hypothetical Bachelor application, and Zumba. Other pieces, especially those involving her mostly-absent alcoholic father and her mother’s battle with multiple sclerosis are so vulnerable and fearless that they’ll stop you in your tracks. Irby doesn’t shy away from anything, and her brand of honesty is the kind that can inspire new writers and attract legions of loyal readers dying to meet her in real life. (5/5 BUST rating) – MOLLY LABELL
By Jami Attenberg
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
This is the kind of novel you can’t put down even as it’s killing you a little with its truth. Author Jami Attenberg’s protagonist, Andrea, is an existential anti-hero for our times, an art-school dropout in Brooklyn working a boring but well-compensated job. She’s ambivalent about love, uneasy around babies, and cuttingly observant. Told in arresting, voice-driven vignettes, the story manages to achieve a mood that is at once depressing and enjoying – an act of literary virtuosity. From her father’s fatal overdose to her brother’s dying child, Andrea’s perspective allows for some deep digging into the shadows sides of life: “… do I sit quietly and feel the Earth rotate and breathe deeply every morning until I am calm and happy and centered and capable of being satisfied?” she muses while stalking a movie-star neighbor.
Poignant symbolism enters early: Andrea dips back into art by sketching the Empire State Building daily from her apartment window in a gentrifying neighborhood. As condos rise, the view is slowly covered, an effect mirrored by the subplot of her brother’s terminally ill child’s gradual decay. There’s no happiness or redemption to be found, but there is beauty and urgency in that. (4/5 BUST rating) – LIZA MONROY
AND THE SPIRIT MOVED THEM: The Lost Radical History of America’s First Feminists
By Helen LaKelly Hunt
(The Feminist Press at CUNY)
And The Spirit Moved Them explores how a progressive group of radical feminist women in 1837 used their Christian faith to organize in New York City to combat slavery. In these pages, author Helen LaKelly Hunt reveals that this group of early feminists tried to be intersectional, including whites, blacks, and Native people in their first Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women, while challenging the expectations of what they could do outside their home.
As part of her narrative, Hunt asks readers to re-examine the role of religion in feminism. Does the modern movement have to remain secular? Or, despite the issues of organized religion, is there an important role for faith to play in women’s activism today? While Hunt’s position on this is clear, those with a different view will still be deeply rewarded by this enlightening work. These stories are important because they are a reminder that women have always been political and loud and brave in the faces of those who say we can’t be. (4/5 BUST rating) – PRINCESS WEEKES
By Elizabeth Strout
Novelist Elizabeth Strout, known for Olive Kitteridge and My Name is Lucy Barton, returns with a collection of linked stories that inhabit the same world as the latter work. The chapters explore the lives and backstories of the townspeople who grew up with Barton and knew her as the poor, pitiful little girl who escaped to New York to become a famous writer. Each character reflects on their connection to Barton and how she affected their lives. In one story, a woman mourning the loss of her husband and the state of her life finds joy and relief in reading Barton’s memoir. In another, Barton herself appears, confronting the town and family she abandoned in search of a better life. And in another, a man reflects on the Barton he knew when he was a janitor at her school and on the connections he has to her troubled family.
Strout appealingly plumbs her characters’ psychologies, revealing the experiences and traumas that turned them into the people they are today. While these characters live less than desirable lives, reading their stories can still be uplifting as Strout shows them to be capable of change and hope. (5/5 BUST rating) – ADRIENNE URBANSKI
By Jillian Tamaki
(Drawn and Quarterly)
Though the graphic short stories found in Jillian Tamaki’s latest comic collection, Boundless, range from eerie to outright fantastical, each is grounded in a truth that makes them seem closer to nonfiction than science fiction. In “Body Pods,” a narrator remembers past relationships and the way her partners were all meaningfully tied to a film that seems to be losing actors at a supernatural rate. And “1. Jenny” could be described as the story of a woman obsessed with the social media footprint of a Facebook friend. Tamaki makes the effects of FOMO more explicit, however, by making the object of the main character’s obsession an actual alternate reality version of herself. The collection’s penultimate story, “Sexcoven,” is the one likely to stay with the reader the longest. It questions web culture, what we decide to fear as a society, and what an ideal world, or at least a peaceful corner of it, would really look like.
Tamaki’s illustrations are all stunning, some simple, and others intricately detailed. Boundless is the kind of book that will make you have an hour or so to disconnect from your world and get lost in another. (4/5 BUST rating) – MOLLY HORAN
APPRENTICED TO VENUS: My Secret Life with Anaïs Nin
By Tristine Rainer
Mysterious, glamorous, intellectual: these are all words that immediately come to mind when the writer Anaïs Nin’s myth is evoked. But rarely have fans had an unchaperoned glimpse inside her life. Tristine Rainer’s new memoir finally reveals those details. Rainer was just 18 when she met Nin while picking up books for her godmother, artist Lenore Tawney. When she entered Nin’s apartment, Rainer was immediately enraptured by the rich life she saw around her and the secrets that lay just below the surface. Soon, Rainer became Nin’s protégé and confidant. Apprenticed to Venus is both a celebration of the mentor/mentee relationship and a cautionary tale, as Rainer finds herself entwined in the life of Nin and her seldom-discussed double marriage to both filmmaker Hugh Parker Guiler and actor Rupert Pole.
Told in flashbacks with vivid language and lush scenes, this memoir makes for an exciting read. Like her mentor, Rainer is a celebrated diarist herself, and her attention to detail shows. Though this tale may be less interesting to those unfamiliar with Nin, the story spun by Rainer is worth a read. (4/5 BUST rating) – MELYNDA FULLER
HEARTTHROBS: A History of Women and Desire
By Carol Dyhouse
(Oxford University Press)
Western social history buffs will appreciate Heartthrobs – an examination of books, film, and television concerned with the romantic desires of British and American women. Author Carol Dyhouse, Professor Emeritus at the University of Sussex, takes a specific catalog of post-1800s pop culture and considers the ways in which the rigid structures of U.K. and U.S. patriarchies affected female sexual expression. Dyhouse’s notes on “women-made men,” like Rudolph Valentino, and her timeline of “packaging the male,” from Mr. Darcy to Marc Bolan to Edward Cullen, are particularly compelling. Also salient are her insights into fandoms and romance novels as spaces where women can safely explore their sexualities. Those who flock to these outlets have always been targets of derision from misogynist critics, but Dyhouse’s sources assert that these fantasies are venues for both complaint and escape.
While valuable, the author’s research is almost entirely concentrated on the wants of white, affluent, heterosexual women from a certain corner of the world. Because the subtitle of the book, “A History of Women and Desire,” suggests a wider lens, the actual narrow focus is somewhat disappointing. (3/5 BUST rating) – MAURA HEHIR
By Paula Hawkins
In her follow-up to 2015’s bestseller The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins once again examines the complex relationship between women and patriarchy, this time in a small town with a history of violence. Nel, a single mother, returns to her childhood home to investigate the Drowning Pool, a favored haunt of kids in the area and the scene of multiple drowning deaths over the centuries. Once a place where suspected witches were tortured, it has since become the source of fascination and fear. But when Nel is found dead in the pool and the police suspect suicide, her sister Jules and daughter Lena become wrapped up in the town’s deepest secrets.
Although not as thrilling as The Girl on the Train, Into the Water is a heavier hitting interrogation of how women respond to victimization. It’s a story about how one town gets rid of “troublesome women,” as Nel writes in her notes about the Drowning Pool, but also about how women survive within a toxic environment. Entitlement, guilt, and blame all swirl together to create a tension that underscores each interaction, building to a twist ending that provides more shock than closure. (4/5 BUST rating) – BRIDEY HEING
TOO FAT, TOO SLUTTY, TOO LOUD: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman
By Anne Helen Petersen
With her second book, journalist Anne Helen Petersen takes a closer look at the women who are too fat (Melissa McCarthy), too slutty (Nicki Minaj), too loud (Jennifer Weiner), and many other “toos” that get people (read: men) all riled up. Too naked Lena Dunham forgoes male-approved nudity for something more raw. Too queer Caitlyn Jenner starts a conversation about transnormativity and privilege. The pop culture scholar – Petersen holds a PhD in media studies – thoughtfully portrays the “small, yet significant ways” 11 women have cracked the glass ceiling while also questioning why female persistence often gets misconstrued as failure. Make no mistake, her book is “a celebration but also a warning” that women can be too much while also not being enough.
Women who don’t just break rules also attempt to write new ones pay a price for their trailblazing: they are eternally at the mercy of everyone’s opinions. Petersen asks readers to keep this in mind before criticizing Kim Kardashian’s pregnancy or Madonna’s age. “Unruliness can be liberating” she writes, “but it is also endlessly exhausting.” (5/5 BUST rating) – SHANNON CARLIN
By Lauren Grodstein
The protagonist of this novel was given a five-year prognosis about two years before she set out to write this – a letter to her six-year-old son. She imagines him reading it at 18, a retelling of their recent (and not-so-recent) past with some questions and musings about what she suspects might have happened “after.” A campaign consultant to a seedy politician and a single woman, Karen Neulander travels with her kid between home in N.Y.C. and near-Seattle, where he’ll live with his aunt upon his mom’s forecasted death by ovarian cancer. But, there’s a wrinkle. He gets curious about his father – a man Karen dated who steadfastly insisted he never wanted children – and a meeting between elder and younger is arranged.
This interesting – if maudlin – premise loses steam, meandering between angry diary, traditional novel, and earnest letter from loving mother to not-yet-abandoned son. In turns both tender and tumultuous, this storyline might feel unendurably Lifetime Original if not for the deft storytelling of Lauren Grodstein. She grounds this work with details and fairly raw realness while describing a woman in a terrible in-between. (3/5 BUST rating) – CHRISTINE FEMIA
WATCHING PORN: And Other Confessions of an Adult Entertainment Journalist
By Lynsey G.
At age 24, Lynsey G. knew a few things: she wanted to be a writer, but needed something to write about; she was a regular and longtime consumer of online porn, and was drawn to the taboo in general; and she needed a job. Then, one day, an opportunity to write freelance porn reviews for a “jizz rag” fell into her lap, and her life was changed forever. Watching Porn is a humorous, thought-provoking account of five prolific years in Lynsey’s porn journalism career. While earlier sections of the book are more devoted to the particulars of how she got started, later chapters address a kaleidoscope of broader themes – such as the massive, economically detrimental impact the Internet has had on the industry; the paradoxical divide between gay and straight porn, and the controversial use of condoms in each; and the revolutionary genres of queer and feminist porn.
Watching Porn chronicles not only Lynsey’s strivings to get others to think about pornography in new ways, but also her personal transformation. Ultimately, Lynsey finally reconciles her own inherent feminism with her equally inherent appreciation for porn. (4/5 BUST rating) – KIM HEDGES
Top photo credit: Radness.com.au / Wikimedia Commons
This article originally appeared in the June/July 2017 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
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