It’s difficult to focus on anything, including pop culture, given that we’re in the midst of a life-altering pandemic—and that’s perfectly okay. It may take a while for us to return to some semblance of our normal lives, but in the meantime, finishing a single book—no matter how long it takes—might be a comfort. For those who are looking for a place to start, here is another monthly list of BitchReads from a variety of literary genres, including thrillers, novels about everything under the sun, and nonfiction books that explore everything from religious traditions to sexual harassment in the workplace. I hope there’s something on this list for everyone. As always, happy reading!
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Wren Bird feels confined in Trap, an impoverished town in rural West Virginia, and for good reason: The 15-year-old has never ventured further than a few miles from her family’s cabin. She has little idea of the world that awaits her beyond the abandoned gas station where her father, a crooked preacher, promises miracles to a community of people desperately seeking them. Bird’s world expands, though not in the way she dreamed of, when her father summons up a miracle that changes their town and their family forever, ushering in far more secrets than any of them could have anticipated. Shiner continues the work of Burns’s 2014 memoir, Cinderland, by challenging our collective understanding of rural communities, while also laying bare how secrets can slowly eat us from the inside out.
For the African diaspora, religion didn’t begin with the colonial imposing of Christianity. Writer, editor, and filmmaker Lilith Dorsey argues that African cultures celebrated the “divine feminine,” including Nana Buluku, Oshun, Mami Wata, and Yemaya before the Transatlantic slave trade disrupted everything. In Orishas, Goddesses, and Voodoo Queens, Dorsey traces ancestral practices from their origins to our current moment using rigorous historical research as well as her own understanding of magical spells, rituals, and potions. Beware: Transformational journeys, like the ones Dorsey presents in this book, shouldn’t be taken lightly or in jest. This is only a book for those who will take these cultures and practices seriously.
Thrillers set at boarding schools are always entertaining because, as J. T. Ellison wrote in a January article for CrimeReads, these schools are “bastions for the wealthy or the truant, keepers of secrets and lies.” These books, including Lizzie Friend’s Poor Little Dead Girls (2013), Maureen Johnson’s Truly Devious (2018), and Dana Mele’s People Like Us (2018), offer a glimpse into the evil that often sustains elite circles. Catherine House, Elisabeth Thomas’s debut novel, is a welcome addition to this genre. When Ines Murillo is accepted into Catherine House, a liberal arts school in rural Pennsylvania, she believes she’s gotten a leg up into a better life. After all, the school’s alumni includes prestigious authors, renowned inventors, and even former presidents. But Murillo has gotten more than she bargained for: In exchange for waived tuition, room, and board, select students are required to stay at Catherine House for three years, summers included, without any contact with the outside world. While this isolation is billed as a positive for these students, Catherine House is no ordinary school. Thomas’s first thriller is twisted in the very best way possible. Don’t read it at night.
My Mother’s House is an unforgettable thriller about La Kay, a house with human impulses, that watches all the good and bad its owners—Haitian immigrant, Lucien Louverture, and his wife, Marie-Ange Calvert—do, while offering lessons only the reader hears about immigration, violence, and racism. La Kay watches Louverture transform into a man nobody recognizes—from loving to brutish, honest to deceptive—and use the home as a place to hide his deepest secrets. When Calvert dies, La Kay decides to set itself aflame, and in the process, every secret that’s been hiding in its walls breaks free. Francesca Momplaisir has written a book for the ages that will rightfully draw comparisons to Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1987 novel Beloved.
Claire Alalay is drowning in grief: After the death of her father, the 17-year-old doesn’t have much to lean on, other than her mother’s prayer groups, which insist that faith will alleviate the pain, and her father’s old piano, which becomes her true escape. Music becomes a pathway forward for Alalay; if she becomes proficient enough, she can earn a college scholarship that will take her far away from the home, and its memories of her father. When she lands on renowned piano teacher Paul Avon’s radar, it’s almost like a dream come true—until he begins pushing her beyond her boundaries in more ways than one. Private Lessons is a powerful meditation on the limits of grief, the useless pursuit of perfection, and how abusers often prey on vulnerability.
In 2018, Adrienne Lawrence filed a sex discrimination lawsuit against ESPN for allegedly subjecting her and other female employees to a number of abuses, including male employees watching pornography in their presence, male employees and executives grooming and then coercing women employees into sexual relationships, and pregnant employees being made to feel as if they’d be replaced if they used maternity leave. Since leaving ESPN, Lawrence has continued raising awareness about the way workplaces can harm women, and in her first book, she offers prescient tips for women looking to fight back. Staying in the Game is divided into pointed chapters, including one chapter that teaches women how to identify harassers in the workplace, another chapter that gives women tips for documenting harassment, and a chapter that helps women better understand the emotional and mental toll harassment takes on those who experience it. Lawrence’s book is a must-read for any woman in any workplace; collective knowledge is a powerful tool for combating workplace harm.
Natalia Borges Polesso’s brilliant short story collection follows a circle of lesbians living in Brazil, some of whom know one another and some of whom don’t. Love is what threads these 33 stories together—self-love, love for other women, and a love for a freedom that only truth can bring. “Renfield’s Demons,” one of the most enthralling stories in the collection, follows Débora, a woman who discovers her girlfriend having sex on their living room floor with another woman. The infidelity sends Débora into a depression, which she attempts to shake by attending a sex party. When she has sex with a woman who’s dressed in a vampire costume, she discovers that her new lover may actually be a bloodsucker. Amora is full of stories like this—real, vulnerable, and full of twists you’ll never see coming.
When Max and his family relocate from Germany to Delilah, Alabama, he doesn’t know what to expect of his new Southern town or his new classmates, but he’s quickly welcomed onto his school’s football team, where camaraderie runs as rampant as homophobia. As Max immerses himself in this new culture, he finds himself drawn to Pan, the school’s goth “witch” who he develops an odd kinship with. As their relationship deepens, however, Max finds himself torn between multiple factions—a brewing evangelism in his new town, his growing attraction to Pan, and his role on a football team that counteracts his personal values about tolerance and acceptance. Boys of Alabama is a captivating read, driven by the impulses of a boy making sense of who he wants to be.
Porochista Khakpour never wanted to be a spokesperson for Iranian Americans, but the literary establishment has often pigeonholed her into that role. After publishing three books, Sons and Other Flammable Objects (2007), The Last Illusion (2014), and Sick: A Memoir (2018), Khakpour declares in her first essay collection that she’s not “Miss Literary Iranian American.” Her work is much more expansive than the white literary imagination would have us believe, and this sharp collection of 23 essays is evidence of that. Khakpour traverses so much terrain: growing up as an immigrant in Los Angeles, moving to New York for college, learning to reject whiteness, and figuring out her politics. Brown Album is a master class in essay writing and cultural criticism.
Rodham asks a simple question: Who would Hillary Clinton be if she’d never married Bill? Curtis Sittenfeld, who explored similar terrain in 2008’s American Wife, has plenty to draw from, given that Clinton has said that Bill proposed multiple times before she finally said yes. What if she’d said no and, instead, blazed her own trail? Sittenfeld paints a full portrait of who Clinton could’ve been without her husband’s baggage—a political trailblazer, a women’s rights activist, and a complicated public figure who always has her pulse on what’s at stake when she wins and when she loses. Rodham is a powerful fantasy, though I oftentimes found myself wishing it were reality.
Dorian Williams, a working-class white woman living in South Central Los Angeles, has spent 15 years mourning her mixed-race daughter Lecia’s murder at the hands of a serial killer who killed 13 girls, but was never identified or caught. When another girl is murdered the exact same way—years after that serial killer has gone dormant—it brings women on the margins to the center, including Latinx detective Essie Perry; former sex worker Feelia, who survived an encounter with the same serial killer; and Julianna, the child Lecia was babysitting on the night she was killed. All of these women are this book’s narrators, driving us through a difficult journey of fighting for justice in a system that continually ignores them.
Ilana Masad, who has written for Bitch, has crafted a brilliant novel about understanding and forgiveness. When Maggie Krause’s mother, Iris, suddenly dies in a car accident, she’s forced to return home to California to help settle her affairs. Krause and Iris had a strained relationship, driven in part by Iris’s discomfort with Krause’s queerness. But as Krause arranges her mother’s funeral and shivah, she comes across five letters that Iris wanted to deliver to five different men. That task now lands on Krause, who embarks on a journey to meet the men her mother wove in and out of her marriage to be with. In the process, Krause comes to better understand the woman who raised her. All My Mother’s Lovers is a powerful debut that signals a new voice in fiction who can interweave multiple threads through a single protagonist.
Award-winning writer and editor Meredith Talusan describes Fairest, her debut memoir, as a “journey across gender.” It is that and also much more. Talusan’s journey begins in the Philippines, where she’s grappling with feeling attracted to boys, being raised by parents who are often physically and emotionally absent, and learning that proximity to whiteness is a currency that can be levied into opportunities. We then follow Talusan to the United States, where she attends Harvard, comes out as gay, and enters into a complicated relationship with a professor. Then, there’s Talusan’s gender transition, which is handled with a delicate care that doesn’t sensationalize the experience for the benefit of cisgender readers. Fairest represents the very best of what memoir can be—an excavating of intimate, personal experiences to make broader connections that will resonate with readers seeking to better understand the writer and themselves.
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