Believe it or not, in the United States we’re midway through the summer months, but this summer is unlike all others before it. Though states are beginning to open their restaurant patios, and movie theaters are opening their air conditioning to the public, the coronavirus pandemic is still plaguing countries around the world. More than 100,000 people in the United States have died and that number is continuing to rise; we won’t be returning to “normal” anytime soon. But as we continue to practice social distancing, there are still things that can bring us joy: We can put on a mask, make ourselves a picnic, and read at the park—keeping a safe distance from other people, of course. This BitchReads list is curated to encourage everyone to do exactly that—find the small joys, including books, that will help us through this trying time.
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There have been so many iterations of the Cinderella fairy tale that many of us know it by heart, but Cinderella is Dead takes the classic story in an entirely new direction. Sophia, a 16-year-old living 200 years after the original Cinderella story, lives in a society that forces teen girls to attend the Annual Ball, where men choose wives. The women who aren’t chosen are shut away from their community, never to be seen again. Sophia is wholly uninterested in the ball, primarily because she’d rather marry one of her childhood friends, so she can’t refuse an opportunity to dismantle the ball and get rid of the men who control it. Kalynn Bayron’s latest novel reinvents Cinderella for a new generation and tells a tale of patriarchy in the process.
Julie Murphy, bestselling author of Side Effects May Vary (2014), Dumplin’ (2015), Ramona Blue (2017), Puddin’ (2018), and Dear Sweet Pea (2019), humanizes fat characters in ways that feel relatable to actual fat people. Though her characters experience the doubt that often accompanies navigating a fatphobic world in a body that’s seen as deviant, they also have ordinary yet authentic experiences such as learning to accept themselves, falling in love, and taking adventures. Faith: Taking Flight, the first book in a two-part series, continues that important work. Murphy’s newest protagonist, Faith Herbert, is a regular teenager who learns during her senior year of high school that she can fly. She also quickly realizes that only she can turn the tide in her town, when animals and then people begin mysteriously disappearing.
Leslie Kern, an urban geographer and professor at Mount Allison University, has long known that cities aren’t built to accommodate the needs of anyone other than single, white men. Think about it: How can mothers with children in tow navigate subway stairs in cities like New York, where elevators aren’t considered an essential commuter need? How can disabled people access opportunities when they’re required to use stairs instead of having access to ramps? Can a woman, cisgender or trans, feel safe in environments that have harassment embedded in the very terrain? Kern argues that reimagining cities as feminist is essential to modernizing them and making them more equitable. Feminist City is brilliant because of the ways it lays out, quite clearly, the fact that cities are designed to discriminate in both overt and hidden ways and that it’s possible to imagine something new—something that is more inclusive of different bodies and experiences.
One Year of Ugly is a raucous, good time: When Yola Palacio and her family immigrate from Venezuela to Trinidad, their plan is to work hard, fly under the radar (because they’re undocumented), and live as quiet a life as possible. However, their new lives are upended when Yola’s aunt Celia dies suddenly, leaving behind the mountain of debt she owes Ugly, an uncompromising criminal, and a family on the hook for her misdeeds. Ugly requires the Palacios to work for him until Celia’s debt is settled, which throws the family into an unfamiliar criminal underworld and brings Yola close to Roman, Ugly’s sinister sidekick, who charms her in more ways than one. One Year of Ugly is a love story embedded in a family tragedy, taking readers on a rollercoaster ride that ends exactly the way it should.
In 2013, when Rose Andersen’s sister Sarah was 24, she died from an alleged methamphetamine overdose. The police found Sarah’s body in her boyfriend’s bathroom, where she was locked in and incapable of seeking help, even if she’d needed it. Sarah’s death devastated Andersen—who also has a history of addiction that she’s used Alcoholics Anonymous to work through—and left her with more questions than answers. The Heart and Other Monsters is a powerful meditation on Andersen and Sarah’s childhood (which was full of uncertainty and dysfunction), what pulled them both toward addiction, and the ways in which we continue to fail people who struggle with addiction. There’s also an element of mystery: Did Sarah die from an accidental overdose or was she murdered? Andersen’s memoir is by no means an easy read, but it’s worthwhile and leaves a lasting impact on the reader.
In 2015, Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan—fashion critics who run the popular Go Fug Yourself blog—tapped into one of our secret desires: imagining life inside the royal family. The Royal We fictionalized the courtship of Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, as seen through the eyes of Rebecca “Bex” Porter. Porter is a young woman from the United States who falls in love with Prince Nicholas, the heir to the British throne, as they both attend Oxford. The Royal We is more than 450 pages of pure entertainment, thrusting us into a world we know little about but are so fascinated by. The Heir Affair, which takes us beyond the couple’s world-stopping royal wedding and into their complex marriage, has more gravity than its predecessor: The stakes are higher for Prince Nicholas and Porter, and the problems that await them might tear them (and the royal family) apart. If you’re obsessed with the Royal Family drama, then this book will definitely quench your thirst.
Wendy Doe has no idea who she is. When she arrives at the Meadowlark Institute for Memory Research in 1999, she’s unable to recall her name, her age, or any other defining identifications. It’s unclear if she has friends or family looking for her or even if she’s from the area, but it’s research fellow Lizzie Epstein’s job to help Doe piece her memory back together. Mother Daughter Widow Wife traverses two timelines—one in 1999 and one set in our present time, in which Alice, Doe’s daughter searches for her mother after she’s gone missing again—and asks a really clear, probing question: Who can a woman become when she’s no longer tethered to who she once was?
As addiction has become more of a national conversation, thanks in part to bestselling books like Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath (2018), women authors have been at the forefront, making us reckon with the toll addiction takes on families of all shapes. Erica C. Barnett’s memoir continues this important work, reflecting on her alcohol addiction, which began during her first job as a reporter at the Austin Chronicle and continued for years, even as she made great strides in her career as a journalist. By the time Barnett was in her late 30s, she’s recovered and relapsed countless times, giving her a unique and eye-opening perspective about the language we use to discuss addiction (“Rock bottom is a lie,” she writes) and how few resources are available to people with addictions who continue to relapse.
Essayist Kendra Atleework was born and raised in Bishop, California—an insular mountain town in the state’s Eastern Sierra region, which has been bled of its water supply and left to fend off monstrous dust storms, raging wildfires, and rampantly cruel poverty. Atleework paints this oft-overlooked area of California and its inhabitants with compassion and empathy. She recalls her parents, Robert Atlee and Jan Work, who did their best with the little resources they had, and her larger community, which was full of people who simply made do. Miracle Country compellingly draws us into a town and region that’s been depleted but is somehow managing to survive.
In 1990, Lacy Crawford was raped at St. Paul’s School, a prestigious boarding school in New Hampshire, by two older students. Crawford didn’t hide her assault; she reported it through the school’s established channels. Yet she still experienced harassment at the hands of other classmates and was dismissed by school administrators who told her parents that the rape was consensual. Notes on a Silencing chronicles Crawford’s fight, from the ’90s until now, to receive some semblance of justice, rather than allowing the institution itself and the people within it to bury her trauma or treat it as the cost of admission. In 2018, when investigators uncovered a broader scandal at the school, Crawford’s case resurfaced—and so did this powerful, brutal, and painfully honest manuscript that aims to reckon with the experience that she and so many other women who’ve been silenced have had. If you’ve ever wondered about the difficulties of coming forward, this book documents the uphill battle in painful detail.
Melissa Valentine, her brother Junior, and their four other siblings, were raised by a white father and a Black mother in Oakland, California, in the 1990s. Their upbringing was normal, until Junior began being bullied in school and was eventually brutally attacked, leaving him reeling and seeking security. It was the beginning of a cycle—stealing cars and participating in other petty thefts, dealing drugs, and having brushes with the police—that ended with Junior’s incarceration at the age of 18. Valentine, who looked up to her brother and loved him deeply, found herself on an emotional rollercoaster that peaked when Junior was fatally shot at the age of 20, just one week after he was released from prison. The Names of All the Flowers, which finds good company with Jesmyn Ward’s award-winning 2013 memoir Men We Reaped, is an ode to Junior, other young, Black people who’ve lost their lives, and the systems that failed them.
In the aftermath of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Rashaud Brooks’s deaths at the hands of the police, we’ve been having a national reckoning—not only about police violence, but also about how we can defund and abolish the police, dismantle the prison-industrial complex, and adopt transformative justice as the default approach to redressing injustice. These are concepts Maya Schenwar, the editor-in-chief of Truthout, and activist Victoria Law (who has contributed to Bitch), have been thinking through long before abolition became a trendy topic. Prison By Any Other Name digs deeper than surface conversation about the prison-industrial complex, examining—through a combination of rigorous research and personal experience—how mass incarceration extends beyond courts and prisons. Mass incarceration extends into electronic monitoring (which costs people in more ways than one), mandatory psychiatric lockdowns, and probation that lasts longer than the sentence for the original crime. Abolishing police and prisons requires imaginative solutions; Schenwar and Law present them in ways that will make readers rethink their understanding of the carceral system.
Since Donald Trump won the presidential election in 2016, there’s been intense media focus on white nationalism, particularly the role it played in getting him elected and how closely associated it’s become with his rhetoric and policies. In media profiles of white nationalists, however, there’s been a tendency to overlook the white women who’ve been integral to sustaining and progressing this hate movement. In Sisters in Hate, Atavist editor-in-chief Seyward Darby goes deep into the belly of the movement, profiling three women—Corinna Olsen, Ayla Stewart, and Lana Lokteff—who’ve been entangled within and become public voices of white supremacy. Darby also offers rigorous research about the rise of white nationalism, how it retains its relevance, and the various reasons white women, including those profiled in the book, are drawn to it.
For more than 20 years, best friends Ashley Freeman and Lauria Bible have been missing from a rural town in Oklahoma. It’s unclear what happened to them, though the facts surrounding their disappearance have long been clear: On December 30, 1999, the teenagers had a sleepover at Freeman’s trailer home. The next morning the trailer caught on fire, but once the flames were extinguished, the girls were nowhere to be found. It’s still a cold case, though crime writer Jax Miller went to Oklahoma in 2015 in hopes of solving it and bringing Freeman and Bible home dead or alive. Instead, Miller discovered that the case ran deeper than anyone knew—and that Freeman and Bible weren’t the only people to go missing from this town. If you enjoy true crime, Hell in the Heartland will hit a sweet spot.
When Sara Faith Alterman was 12, she was browsing bookshelves in her family’s home and realized that her father, Ira, wasn’t just living a normal life in the New England suburbs. He was a prolific and wildly successful sex writer, responsible for books with titles like Bridget’s Sexual Fantasies and Games You Can Play With Your Pussy, but he’d (rightfully) hidden his career from Alterman. However, when Ira turned 64 and developed Alzheimer’s—long after Alterman had come into adulthood—he decided to revive his writing career with his daughter’s help. Let’s Never Talk About This Again is an entertaining memoir about that experience, but it’s also a survey of Alterman’s tender, honest, and loving relationship with her father who had the secret of all secrets.
Evelyn is 37, enmeshed in a failing marriage, and unsure of how to move forward. She’s effectively in limbo—uncertain of whether she wants to remain married or embark on a life as a single woman—so she drives for hours and hours and hours throughout the Eastern Sierra region of California only to return home to the same holding pattern. When Evelyn decides to become a death doula and help terminally ill people find comfort in their final days, her life gains more meaning. She meets a number of different characters, including Daphne, a terminally ill cancer patient who still has an exuberance for life; Daniel, a man with agoraphobia, who’s dying from cirrhosis; and Lawrence, who used to produce porn films but is now miserable for many reasons. Life Events gives us a protagonist who wants a new lease on life; though that’s easier said than done, this book offers up an unconventional roadmap to consider.
Natasha Trethewey has won nearly every prestigious writing award available, including the Pulitzer Prize, and Memorial Drive showcases exactly why she’s so deeply celebrated. In this painful, vulnerable, and heart-wrenching memoir, Trethewey details her mother’s murder at the hands of her former stepfather. That kind of tragedy upends everything, and Trethewey’s life was no exception: Losing her mother Gwendolyn, when she was 19 served as the catalyst for everything that came after that moment. Memorial Drive dives deep into the impact of that loss, but is also about her childhood, about the relationship she and her mother forged, and about how domestic violence escalates—from a sly word here and there to physical violence. This book isn’t for the faint of heart; it will pull you in and then leave you questioning how people put their lives back together after their worst nightmares come to pass.