Few people can quiet their minds enough to read books right now. That’s understandable, given the fact that we’re in both a pandemic and an uprising. I’ve long said that when all else fails, we still have pop culture—books, TV shows, movies, plays, podcasts—to give us comfort, but right now, even that doesn’t seem as if it’s enough. And yet we’re still here, once again, to give a list of books to consider reading this month. We know this isn’t enough, but we hope this list of a range of books, from young-adult fantasies to poetry collections to nonfiction essay collections, offers even the slightest reprieve from our real-world circumstances.
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A Song Below Water, a YA novel set in Portland, Oregon, reimagines the predominantly white city as a place where magic abounds, especially among Black girls. The book introduces us to Tavia and Effie, two Black teenage girls who must rely on each other as they both come to terms with their magical abilities. Tavia is a siren—part of a group that’s constantly under scrutiny because of their abilities—and Effie is transforming, but she doesn’t know what exactly she’s evolving into. Together, they’re able to face an uncertain future that’s hopefully full of more tolerance, understanding, and acceptance.
Poet Molly McCully Brown was born with cerebral palsy, a condition that 1.5 to more than 4 per 1,000 children born in the United States are diagnosed with. Though Brown’s condition is common, it’s still misunderstood and stigmatized, as many visible disabilities are. In a powerful collection of 17 essays, Brown, who is also the author of the critically acclaimed 2017 poetry collection The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, details a life that has faced that familiar stigma and misunderstanding but also gone beyond it. Whether she’s traveling across Europe or contemplating religion, Brown carefully chronicles her experience without presenting it as universal. Places I’ve Taken My Body is an essay collection that perfectly walks the delicate tightrope between detailing personal experiences and making those individual experiences seem applicable to every single person. This book is about Brown and we’re lucky to be able to see into her experience through her perspective.
In recent months, books about migrating from one country to another have been peddled as thrillers full of unforeseen pitfalls that the person migrating has to see coming and then use ingenuity to escape. Thankfully, The Dragons, the Giant, the Women is not that. Instead, it’s a memoir about Wayétu Moore’s family fleeing to the United States amid the Liberian civil war. The book feels deeply poignant and human in a way that few books that examine social issues—in this case, immigration—do. Moore details her family’s journey to the United States, which began when she was 5; the murder of Black people in the United States at the hands of police officers; and the ways wars cause ongoing trauma. Though The Dragons, the Giant, the Women is fraught because of the heaviness of the issues it contends with, it’s also honest and real and vulnerable, making it a memoir worth spending time with and revisiting.
Essayist Matt Ortile, who serves as Catapult’s managing editor, has crafted an essay collection both about his life and about the broader communities he belongs to, as a Filipino, an immigrant to the United States, a queer person, and a member of the turbulent media industry. He traverses a multitude of humorous and painful experiences with incisiveness and empathy, not only for himself but for the people he encounters in college—he attended Vassar—on Grindr, in his native country, and in New York City, where he now lives. The Groom Will Keep His Name is so insightful because Ortile has crafted it with such care. He recognizes that while his experiences are individual, there are threads within them that will resonate.
In Black American communities, “passing”—an act wherein a Black person changes their identity in order to live as a white person—is a tale as old as time. In past generations, Black people passed to secure a better future for themselves and their descendants, though this often meant severing communication with their Black parents, siblings, and other relatives. The Vanishing Half chronicles twin siblings, Stella and Desiree Vignes, who are separated when Desiree decides to leave Mallard, the fictional Louisiana town they live in, so that she can pass as white. Brit Bennett’s follow-up to her bestselling 2016 novel, The Mothers, examines the impact of Desiree’s decision, not only on Stella but on the generations that come after them.
Liz Lighty has never been the most popular student at her Campbell, Indiana, high school: She’s poorer than her classmates, quiet, and awkward, and she sticks closely to her small friendship group. Though Lighty’s position on the social totem pole has never bothered her, it becomes essential to reconsider when she’s not awarded a scholarship to attend her dream school, Pennington College, and she worries that her grandparents will have to remortgage their house for her to attend. There’s one option though: to become prom queen, a title that comes along with a scholarship just large enough to get her to Pennington. You Should See Me in a Crown is an enjoyable teen dramedy that becomes a queer teenage rom-com yet manages through it all to keep Lighty front and center: She’s a protagonist to root for, even as the odds are continually stacked up against her.
Jenny Worley needed some extra income when she was a graduate student in the ’90s, so she decided to strip at the Lusty Lady Theatre in San Francisco. She adopted an alter ego named Polly and began participating in the club’s nightly peep shows. She and her fellow dancers not only traded tips for making more money but shared stories about the strip club’s managerial failures, their understandings of feminist theory, and their favorite radical zines. Eventually, these conversations led Worley and fellow dancers to form a labor union to organize for better working conditions and wages, an idea that’s met with resistance from the club’s owners. Neon Girls is not just a memoir about Worley’s experience dancing in a club in the ’90s; it’s an examination of economic exploitation, the power of labor organizing, and the toll that sex work can take on those who partake in it, especially when they’re not being paid fairly.
Rachel Elizabeth Griffiths is one of the best poets and visual artists in the United States, with work that interrogates a number of issues, including aging, grief, trauma, and racial terror. Seeing the Body, a collection that offers both poetry and photos, continues Griffiths’s growing canon of work by exploring the ongoing impact of loss on our physical bodies and our psyche. Across a number of poems, Griffiths delves into her mother’s death, the never-ending mourning process, and how we face personal grief at a moment when the world itself is in chaos—from police brutality, climate change, and a pandemic, among other things. Seeing the Body asks questions that can never be answered but are always worth asking: Is it possible to live multiple lives in a single life? Is it possible to be reborn over and over again? Is it possible for loss to become a catalyst for inner transformation?
When Elise Armstrong, Carmen Bradshaw, and DeeDee Davis meet during a yoga class, they have no idea that they have more in common than their shared hatred for their instructor. Over dinner, the women learn that each of them has lost their mother and that they’re all holding on to boxes of their mothers’ possessions. Soon, Armstrong, Bradshaw, and Davis form a pact: They’re going to meet once per week to empty their mothers’ boxes together and share a good cry if they need. Though each woman goes in with preconceived notions about who their mothers were, this process shows them that there’s more to their mothers than meets the eye. The Secret Women is the very embodiment of the idea that women contain multitudes, presenting us with three complex protagonists and three complex deceased mothers that will make us all question what our own mothers are hiding.
The unnamed narrator of Zaina Arafat’s debut novel identifies as a “love addict.” She’s a queer Palestinian American who falls deeply and quickly but somehow always sabotages her relationships before they become too deep to escape. This time, her relationship ends because her girlfriend, Anna, discovers that she’s been sending sexually explicit emails to another woman. There’s no real reason for this; after all, Anna makes our narrator feel satisfied and fulfilled, but self-sabotaging is our narrator’s MO. You Exist Too Much explores how our narrator arrived at a place where self-destruction seems to be a better option than staying in a healthy relationship. Arafat digs through our narrator’s life, from being raised by a conservative mother who doesn’t accept her sexuality to becoming an in-demand DJ in New York, to figure out why a self-proclaimed love addict can’t remain in love.
Black parents are navigating difficult terrain all the time. As we witness Black children and adults alike being killed by unhinged vigilantes and power-hungry cops, discriminated against and harassed in schools, and subjected to systemic racism that impacts our short-term and long-term health, it sometimes seems as if it’s impossible for Black parents to keep themselves and their children safe. This is familiar terrain, explored in-depth in parenting groups online, in Dani McClain’s 2019 book We Live for the We: The Political Power of Black Motherhood, and in other books. Parenting for Liberation, however, takes a different approach. Stemming from an online platform of the same name, Trina Greene Brown’s book aims to connect Black parents with one another, support them, and uplift them. Parenting for Liberation is a literal guidebook that encourages Black parents to ask themselves introspective questions that allow them to amplify their children’s gifts and not parent from a place of fear. In a time when there’s a lot of despair, Parenting for Liberation is a spot of joy that will hopefully help Black parents raise resilient babies full of happiness.
Jasmine Guillory is one of the best romance novelists (and novelists, period) in the world right now. Since releasing her bestselling novel The Wedding Date in 2018, Guillory has released three other books, including The Proposal (2018) and The Wedding Party (2019), which all introduce us to characters who are interlinked in some way. As its title suggests, Guillory’s latest novel, Party of Two, is somewhat of a departure. For Olivia Monroe, who has moved to Los Angeles to start a law firm, falling in love isn’t at all on the horizon. But then she meets Max Powell, a junior senator who must keep his love life low-key, which is just what Monroe needs. Party of Two has all the elements that have made Guillory’s previous books so irresistible: careful plotting that doesn’t feel rushed, steamy sex scenes, and a complex couple who both come in with their own baggage. If you want something fun to read this summer, this book is it.
In the early to mid-2000s, Black women in the United States and around the world underwent a hair renaissance: Wearing our natural hair was both encouraged and celebrated, and an entire industry was erected to provide us with products and styling tips. For Emma Dabiri, a contributor to the Guardian and a BBC correspondent, this kind of acceptance seemed revolutionary because it eluded her as she grew up in Ireland. Twisted goes beyond Dabiri’s experience to offer a complex, layered, and full history of Black hair, from Africa before the transatlantic slave trade, through slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, the Harlem Renaissance, and into today’s natural hair movement. Dabiri carefully deconstructs this history without pathologizing the Black hair experience.
Alice Wong, who has contributed to Bitch, has long been at the forefront of the disability justice movement in the United States. She created the Disability Visibility Project, which aims to amplify media created by people with disabilities, and she has been one of the leading partners in the #CripTheVote campaign to “engage both voters and politicians in a productive discussion about disability issues in the United States, with the hope that Disability takes on greater prominence within the American political landscape.” Now, 30 years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Wong has curated an anthology of essays from other prominent disability writers and activists, including Keah Brown (who has contributed to Bitch), Rebecca Cokley, Jen Deerinwater (who has contributed to Bitch), June Eric-Udorie, and Karolyn Gehrig, about their experiences in a world that doesn’t always consider adapting itself to accommodate the needs of disabled people.
The concept of self-care—a curated set of routines and habits designed to preserve emotional and mental health in the face of oppressive violence—has long been divorced from its roots, becoming a buzzword that’s thrown around in service to capitalism and selling products. Leigh Stein’s second novel, Self Care, follows this co-opting to its extreme, satirically exploring the inevitable end of taking a revolutionary idea and stripping it to its bare parts for financial gain. In this hilarious book, Devin Avery and Maren Gelb are friends who run Richual, a lifestyle company in the vein of Goop that seeks to “catalyze women to be global changemakers through the simple act of self-care.” Too bad that neither woman practices what their company preaches and that Richual represents the worst of start-up culture, with no human resources department, poor family-leave policies, and investors with gross politics that counteract the company’s mission. Self Care is the perfect book for this time, as we watch influencers and millennial companies use the language of feminism and self-care to turn a profit without actually putting the concept into action.
Rose and Lily Winters are twins with an unbreakable bond that often manifests itself in their dieting rituals, with Rose essentially starving herself and Lily adopting binging behaviors. When Rose enters a rehabilitation facility, Lily becomes her only tether to a life before seeking treatment, and their codependent relationship takes center stage. After Rose is released and she begins living with Lily, it becomes clear that neither of them are ready for a life after diet culture. Lily is in an abusive relationship with someone who encourages her to develop dangerous eating habits, and Rose realizes that she must save her sister in order to save herself. Thin Girls offers a statement about our current moment, as we broach the breaking point of diet culture.
Shayla Lawson, currently a professor at Amherst College, has been navigating the United States as a Black woman—and that experience, in itself, is worthy of examination. In this equal parts humorous and insightful collection of 17 essays, Lawson explores everything from growing up in Minnesota in a neighborhood with few Black girls to working at a company that tries to sell “Black cool” to white customers to figuring out what Black girl magic is versus how it has been marketed. This Is Major marks a debut from a writer who understands just how multifaceted the Black woman experience is and is able to excavate it in a relatable way that will connect with Black women readers.
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