We’re late, we know. But though August is almost over, we’re still publishing our August BitchReads list because there are 15 amazing books to choose from and it’s going to take more than a month to get through all of them. Our goal, as always, is to give our readers a lot to sift through and choose from, ranging from memoirs about the murky perimeters of consent and novels that survey the Black millennial experience to another iconic book from one of America’s greatest writers and a novel about a sex robot realizing her sentience. Ultimately, we hope that there is something for everyone on this month’s list, and that reading brings us all comfort during a tumultuous, strenuous, and grief-filled time.
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Congresswoman Cleo McDougal wants to be America’s first female president, but a single op-ed by one of her childhood friends brings a halt to her political ambitions. Suddenly, the question isn’t whether a single mother, like McDougal, can win a presidential race, but whether she has the moral character to uphold a democracy. But her chief of staff has a plan: McDougal will publicly atone for 10 of the 233 things her friend said she did wrong—and bring a team of reporters along to document the process. This tour of amends-making begins as a quest to repair McDougal’s political reputation, but it becomes much deeper than that as she confronts her past and its role in shaping her as a woman, a mother, and a potential future president. Cleo McDougal Regrets Nothing is a welcome addition as we consider what it means for women in politics to live with their worst traits rather than attempting to deny or change them.
Alisson Wood was a senior in high school when she met Mr. North, a charismatic English teacher who took her under his wing and began directly supervising her writing. North was also a predator with a penchant for grooming his young, vulnerable, female students and making them believe that he loves them enough to risk his teaching career to be with them. Being Lolita is the story of how Wood became ensnared in his trap, revisiting a relationship—if it can be called that—that lasted through high school and her freshman year in college. Wood revisits this time in stunning, stark detail, recounting her slowly dawning awareness of her teacher’s manipulation, dishonesty, and abuse—and making it clear that these kinds of predatory “relationships” happen far more often than we think.
Raven Leilani’s first novel debuted on the New York Times bestseller list for good reason: It introduces us to a new kind of Black woman protagonist—one who is disaffected, discombobulated, and attempting to make sense out of the senseless conditions that millennials, particularly those from marginalized communities, have inherited. Edie is not exceptional and she knows it: She lives in a mouse-infested apartment in Brooklyn with a roommate she barely talks to; she has little interest in her job in publishing but can’t muster the energy for the art she actually has an affection for; and she’s cycling in and out of destructive sexual relationships. Life shifts for Edie when she meets Eric, a married white man who lives in the suburbs, and they begin an ill-advised relationship that results in Edie moving in with Eric, his wife, and their adopted Black daughter, Akila. Edie’s ordinariness makes her remarkable, an unforgettable character in a world that we’re all attempting to figure out—one bad decision at a time.
When Betsy Bonner’s sister, Atlantis, died on the floor of a hotel room in Tijuana, Mexico, the police deemed it a drug overdose, cremated her body, and closed the case without even giving Bonner’s family the opportunity to mourn. But something about the police account doesn’t sit well with Bonner, so she decides to investigate the last months of her sister’s life on her own. As Bonner combs through her sister’s social-media posts, emails, and call logs, she discovers that Atlantis was attempting to outrun their shared traumatic childhood, spiraling into paranoia as well as increasing fear. The Book of Atlantis Black is a different kind of true-crime memoir that brings us ever closer to the answer that eludes Bonner: Why is her sister dead and who is responsible?
Akwaeke Emezi is a brilliant writer and mind who has gifted us with three books in a quick succession: 2018’s Freshwater, 2019’s Pet, and now their first New York Times bestseller, The Death of Vivek Oji. Emezi’s latest indelible novel focuses on a family in southeastern Nigeria that’s grappling with the untimely, devastating death of Vivek, a young man who is found dead on his mother’s doorstep. Emezi takes us from the moment of Vivek’s death through his life—from the blackouts he experiences as a child to the bonds he builds with various people, including one of his closest cousins—both to better understand his death and to unravel the mystery around what killed him. In some ways, The Death of Vivek Oji is a traditional murder mystery, but it also transcends the genre, presenting us with a bending, lasting work that showcases the very best of Emezi’s writing ability.
There’s no end to the number of books being released that focus in some way on sexual assault and the murky boundaries around consent, but True Story is truly an intervention in this emerging canon. Reed’s novel centers on Alice Lovett, a ghostwriter who believes that she was raped by two of her high-school classmates, lacrosse players who drove Lovett home after she passed out at a party. This incident shapes Lovett’s life as well as the lives of the lacrosse players who allegedly assaulted her (and bragged about it to their friends). Over the course of the book, which includes an entire section that’s really a fictional story-within-a-story, the true events of this night are revealed—and there is both less and more to this story than any reader can guess at first glance.
From 1916 to 1970, millions of Black Americans migrated from the South to the North (New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania); the Midwest (Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio); and the West (California) to escape racial persecution and secure some semblance of economic stability. Though many of their families remained in the South, those who started new lives and families elsewhere became, in some respects, disconnected from their roots and rituals. When Morgan Jerkins, who was raised in New Jersey, began asking her mother about some of these cultural habits—such as eating black-eyed peas and greens on New Year’s Day—it brought a dawning realization: Black people don’t do anything accidentally, and to better understand why, she had to learn as much of her familial history as possible. The result is a travelogue that takes Jerkins from Georgia and South Carolina to Louisiana and California on a search for her own lineage and offers a broader view of what’s lost when Black people are forced to leave home. With Wandering in Strange Lands, Jerkins has crafted a masterful piece of nonfiction that reminds Black Americans that the South is one of our rightful homelands.
The maternal mortality rate in the United States has increased significantly since 1987, and more than 50 percent of these deaths are preventable. There are many reasons for this, including racial bias in medicine, but in her new book, journalist Lyz Lenz connects this ever-increasing death rate to our cultural mistreatment of pregnant women (though we know that people of all genders can get pregnant and have babies). Lenz brilliantly breaks down how rampant misinformation about pregnancy itself—what it signifies, how it’s achieved, and who gets to decide what happens to a pregnant person’s body—has influenced everything from abortion policy to coffee- shop baristas refusing to serve pregnant women. If we ever want to make the world safer for pregnant people, then we have to first confront and combat these myths. And if our culture values motherhood as much as it claims to, we cannot continue to treat women, pregnant or not, like they’re incapable of making decisions about their bodies.
Isabel Wilkerson is the world’s greatest living writer. We don’t see or hear from her often because she’s usually working on a culture-shifting book, like her bestselling 2010 masterpiece, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. A decade later, Wilkerson has returned with Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, which has already debuted on the New York Times bestseller list and in Oprah Winfrey’s book club. Wilkerson has achieved what few authors have been able to do: effectively break down America’s caste system, which the country has attempted to obscure while it simultaneously condemned Nazi Germany for exterminating Jewish people and other marginalized groups. Caste explores this guiding American organizing principle through the stories of multiple people, including Martin Luther King Jr., Satchel Paige, and other critical figures in our history. This book is life-changing—and we expected nothing less.
Kate Manne, a philosophy professor at Cornell University, is one of our greatest feminist thinkers. Her 2017 book, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, coined the term “himpathy” to describe the public sympathy offered to male perpetrators of sexual violence, and we’ve seen numerous examples of it since then—perhaps most notably in the 2018 confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh. With Entitled, Manne encourages feminists to consider a new framework for what constitutes misogyny. The book breaks down male entitlement as a key function of misogyny in clear terms: It shows up when men attempt to mansplain ideas to women or when Elizabeth Warren isn’t treated as a serious presidential contender. It shows up when doctors disbelieve women who say they’re in pain, and when we treat Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein as simply “bad actors” in an otherwise functioning system. Entitled treads terrain that feminists, particularly Black feminists, have walked for years, but it also takes these ideas in new directions, building on an ever-growing foundation of theory and scholarship that seeks to make the world more inhabitable for all of us.
Emilio is an undocumented Guatemalan immigrant, but he doesn’t know that because his parents never told him. Instead, he thinks he’s just a typical American teenager, having fun with his friends, gallivanting across California, and preparing for college. Everything changes in an instant when he’s involved in a car accident during his second year at the University of California, Berkeley, and is subsequently referred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement because he’s driving without a license or any other form of ID. The New American brings readers along on Emilio’s unforeseen journey as he’s deported to a country he’s never known and becomes determined to return to his life in California. The book isn’t a thriller, and it doesn’t attempt to sensationalize a migrant’s journey; instead, it’s emotionally wrenching because that truly reflects the experience of undocumented immigrants in the United States.
Sara Seager, an astrophysicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has spent a large part of her life considering the solar system beyond Earth, studying the stars, and thinking about what’s possible after we exit this atmosphere. But though this specialized, focused training has helped her craft a special career, it’s no match for grief right here on Earth. When Seager’s husband dies unexpectedly and she’s suddenly a 40-year-old widow with two young sons, she must attempt to piece together a life of meaning that honors her husband’s memory and allows her to move forward. The Smallest Lights in the Universe is a stunning memoir about how Seager put the pieces of her life back together—through grief groups, through building an even stronger relationship with her sons, and through the work that has sustained her for so long.
Why are we still obsessed with beauty pageants? Though many people presumed they’d be a relic of the past by now, beauty pageants are enduring, with more Black teenagers and women securing crowns in record numbers. Hilary Levey Friedman has some ideas: As the daughter of Miss America 1970, a former state president for the National Organization for Women, and an infrequent pageant judge, Friedman intimately understands pageants—their rules and protocols, the reasons women continue to participate in them, and the enduring cultural fascination with women flaunting their beauty for scholarships. Here She Is traces beauty pageants from their origins during the suffrage movement to their evolution and their push to become more inclusive, and it makes a clear argument: Whatever we think of beauty pageants, they’re a tradition that we’re unlikely to shake.
The pop culture opportunities for disabled people to discuss their unique experiences has expanded in recent years, and includes Ryan O’Connell’s Special, a Netflix comedy series adapted from his 2015 memoir; Keah Brown’s 2019 memoir, The Pretty One: On Life, Pop Culture, and Other Reasons to Fall in Love with Me; and Bitch contributor Alice Wong’s 2020 anthology, Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the Twenty-First Century. Rebekah Taussig’s debut essay collection is a welcome addition to this important canon. Taussig, who runs the popular @sitting_pretty Instagram account, explores everything from the exclusion of wheelchair users from pop culture in the ’90s and early 2000s and ableism in every facet of life to how we misunderstand intimacy for people with disabilities. Sitting Pretty is a witty, honest, and insightful memoir-in-essays that doesn’t feel overly explanatory.
Sylv.ie is a sex robot who, along with a generation of new robots, has been integrated into everyday homes to meet every one of her Husband’s needs. Her Husband’s wife knows she’s there, but she pretends as if Sylv.ie doesn’t exist, so Sylv.ie is secluded at the top floor of their home, where she lives solely to await her Husband’s visits. All of Sylv.ie’s time alone, however, allows her to think about a better life for herself—one that allows her to go outside, meet new friends, and even argue with humans she disagrees with. These are all forbidden thoughts for sex robots, but she writes them down in a diary anyway, courting the danger of being discovered and reprogrammed. The Hierarchies is a unique book about our human impulse to exploit every creature to whom we consider ourselves superior.
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