I’m often asked why I select so many books for the monthly BitchReads list. After all, none of us (well, most of us) are capable of reading between 15 and 19 books each month. But the point of this list is to give our community of feminist readers options on options on options, especially as the weather breaks. Our BitchReads lists have something for everyone!
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While acclaimed writer Rachel May was studying a textile collection, she stumbled on an unfinished quilt that took her on a journey from the Caribbean to New England and into the dark depths of slavery. While the quilt was seemingly made in the 1830s, it also included papers that were dated from 1798, 1808, 1813, and included words like “rum,” “friendship,” and “West Indies.” May, who’s the author of 2014’s Quilting with a Modern Slant, decided to piece together this history, which she unveils in this rich book. An American Quilt drives home how little we actually know about slavery—and how much history we can still uncover.
Roxane Gay has been open about the sexual violence inflicted on her when she was a teenager, and now, in this anthology that she compiled and edited, readers are able to learn new histories from other writers who are navigating a culture that denigrates survivors. Not That Bad is incredibly honest and forward, but also difficult to read because it delves into trauma, and it stays there. Each of the contributors, no matter how prominent they are, will resonate with every person who reads this book.
Lucy is depressed. She’s writing a dissertation about Sappho, though she’s not invested in the topic. She’s broken up with her boyfriend Jamie. And she just can’t seem to find satisfaction in any area of her life. Lucy’s sister recognizes her depression, and allows her to stay in her Venice Beach, California home as long as she agrees to dogsit, attend a sex and love addiction support group, and really get clear about where her life is headed. What Lucy finds is Theo, a gorgeous merman who stalks the beach at night. Melissa Broder joins the mermaid craze, but she does so with a focus on how our fantasies can help us move past romantic codependency.
Sheila Watt-Cloutier is a Nobel Peace Prize nominee who’s invested in raising awareness about the impact of global climate change, particularly in the Arctic. In her memoir, however, Watt-Cloutier bravely turns her lens on herself and the trauma of her childhood. She explores everything from living in Nunavik, an Inuit community in Quebec, Canada, to being sent to live in a tiny coastal community where she was subjected to isolation, to finding her voice and becoming a prominent climate change activist and speaker. Ultimately though, The Right To Be Cold powerfully argues that ignoring climate change is a human-rights travesty that most harms vulnerable communities.
Lagos, Nigeria has no “welcome” sign, but it is a city that’s consistently welcoming new people who are attempting to find themselves. Chike, an army officer who has abandoned his post, is one of them. When he decides to leave the Nigerian army with deserters Yemi and Fineboy, as well as two women escaping abuse, Oma and Isoken, they set off an adventure that includes encountering an education minister who has funneled $10 million into his own pocket; living in a homeless encampment; and attempting to find their place in “a carnivore of a city that swallowed even bones.” Onuzo does an excellent job of not retreading old ground about Lagos; instead, she focuses on a complex city and its complex people.
In 1960, Zora Neale Hurston died penniless. Now, her last book, which she initially tried to sell in 1931, is being released. In 1927, Hurston, who trained as a cultural anthropologist at Barnard College, traveled to Plateau, Alabama to interview 86-year-old Kossola a.k.a. Cudjo Lewis, one of the last people transported across the Atlantic Ocean and enslaved—50 years after America banned the transatlantic slave trade. Kossola was 19 when he was kidnapped by a neighboring Dahomian tribe, shepherded onto the Clotilda, and sent to America, so he not only spoke to Hurston about life once he arrived in the United States, but also of his time in the Middle Passage and the cultural traditions that he was forced to abandon.
Hurston interviewed Kossola over the course of three months, feeding him peaches, watermelon, and other foods to help coax his story out, and taking clear but brief notes about his life. Barracoon will bring you to tears. It is the story of two people who were forgotten and were then ushered into a consciousness where they will remain forever.
What is it like to navigate the world as a fat woman? Now, more than ever, fat women are speaking to that experience through social media, articles, and books, including Jes Baker’s equal parts heartbreaking and hilarious memoir, Landwhale: On Turning Insults into Nicknames, Why Body Image is Hard, and How Diets Can Kick My Ass. Baker’s collection of essays detail everything from inheriting fatphobia from her father to realizing that she was a perfectionist in school because it helped her see something good about herself. Landwhale is in the same vein of other recent memoirs, including Tess Holliday’s The Not So Subtle Art of Being A Fat Girl: Loving the Skin You’re In and Kelsey Miller’s Big Girl: How I Gave Up Dieting and Got a Life, so fans of those books will love this one.
Julie Murphy is back! While Dumplin’ is adapted for the big screen, Murphy is taking us back to the small Texas town where Willowdean reigned. This time, we’re delving into the world of Millie Michalchuk, a fat girl who has gone to fat camp every single summer, but this year, she wants to pursue her dream of being a news broadcaster and find some romance in the process. When Millie encounters Callie Reyes, her school’s resident mean girl, she finds that they have far more in common that she originally expected, and that they can achieve far more together than apart. Puddin’ is about a blossoming friendship that shows two very different girls who they truly are.
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After her father has put her down for the umpteenth time, Jan Redford climbs a steep rock outside of their cottage. When she reaches the top, Redford decides that she wants to become a professional mountain climber. By the time she’s 20, she’s achieved that dream, and traverses the world scaling impossible mountains and trying to repair relationships with awful men. End of the Rope follows Redford’s heartstopping journey, and everything she’s learned about life through climbing mountains.
Hana and Kei Swansons are twins listening to their mother, Lillie, tell her journey of navigating America as a Japanese American before, during, and after World War II. After Pearl Harbor, Lillie is transported to Manzanar, but eventually relocates in Hiroshima, and then Hawaii, where she gives birth to her daughters. Their older brothers disappear, and it becomes clear that their mother’s trauma will never dissolve. Shadow Child is a dark read, but a necessary one, about what happens when hurt, pain, and trauma never dissipate.
In 1918, 18-year-old Nina McCall was forced to report to a health officer about possibly having a sexually transmitted disease or infection. When the health officer determined that she had gonorrhea, McCall was committed to the Bay City Detention Hospitals. There, she and other women were imprisoned and forced to take mercury injections and submit to hard labor. In his groundbreaking book, Scott W. Stern explores the “American Plan,” a discriminatory program that targeted women who were considered “promiscuous” and incarcerated them. Knowing history is essential to not repeating it, and that’s exactly what the The Trials of Nina McCall aims to do.
From the late 1940s through the mid-1960s, Black girls and their families were at the forefront of the movement to integrate schools and make America live up to its promise of all children getting equal access to education. Ruby Bridges, Elizabeth Eckford, and scores of other Black girls were fighting to enforce Brown v. Board of Education, but they faced discrimination at every turn. In her sweeping analysis of what it means to be “firsts,” Devlin makes it clear what was at stake for these girls and why we must continue to remember their sacrifices.
Twins Mara and Owen have always been best friends. Since they shared space in the womb, Mara and Owen know everything about each other, trust each other, and are willing to defend each other against all. That is until Mara’s friend, Hannah, accuses Owen of raping her. Suddenly, their twinship is sent into a tailspin as Mara grapples with the accusation and Owen faces it. Could Owen be a rapist? Will Mara side with her friend or her brother? Girl Made of Stars is a complex novel that doesn’t include a neat and happy ending.
So much of the fight for racial justice has originated in Black churches, and in her powerful memoir, Austin Channing Brown revisits the importance of Christian communities in dismantling oppression. In the process, Brown also explores the impact racism continues to have on an interpersonal level, from the fact that her parents named her Austin so employers would “assume you are a white man” to navigating white workplaces where she’s treated as an other. I’m Still Here is an incredibly relatable book that breaks down how racial injustice impacts every area of a person of color’s life.
So Lucky is a novel about how disability can shape a person’s life, and the choices they make once they realize their lives will be different. At the beginning of the novel, Mara Tagarelli is seemingly living a life we can only dream about: She’s the executive director of a prominent AIDS advocacy organization; she’s in a long-term relationship with another woman who fully understands her; and she has a firm grasp on what the next day of her life will look like. Then, it all crumbles. After her partner, Rose, leaves her for another woman and she’s diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, she’s then forced to step down from her cushy position. What Mara realizes, however, is that she can use the skills she’s developed to advocate for others with MS, and get them all, herself included, the resources they need. So Lucky sensitively explores the impact of disability without sensationalizing it or turning Mara into a savior.
Jana, Henry, Brit, and Daniel form the Van Ness Quarter while attending Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music. After achieving a small sliver of success, Jana decides to sleep with one of the judges to ensure the group wins a fellowship in the Canadian Rockies. The Ensemble follows the aftermath of Jana’s decision, and then explores how these four different people survive the cutthroat world of classical music over the course of 18 years.
After a frustrating encounter with a sexual partner, Emma Koenig asked herself a simple question: What would you want a past, present, or future sex partner to know about how to make you orgasm? She decided to answer that question by creating How To Make Me Come, a popular Tumblr account that allows women to talk anonymously about the ever-elusive orgasm. Moan, which includes a forward from actress Rachel Bloom, is a compilation of the best essays submitted to How To Make Me Come. It’s at once funny, sad, and frustrating because women have been having sex for so long without getting anything out of it. That must change, and Koenig successfully argues that sexual exploration is the key to pleasure.
It’s challenging to come-of-age as a queer Black boy in a racist and homophobic world. We’ve read about these struggles in previous memoirs, including Charles M. Blow’s 2015 tour de force, Fire Shut Up In My Bones, and Moore’s powerful memoir deserves placement in that elite canon. No Ashes In the Fire traverses Moore’s childhood in Camden, New Jersey in the ’70s as the city was leaked of its resources and crack flooded its streets. Moore experienced bullying because of his difference, and eventually, his tormentors tried to set him on fire. The visceral way that Moore describes this attack, and then later, his attempt to assimilate to ward off the trauma, makes this book special. It will stay with you. And stay with you. And stay with you.
Carl Zimmer has written 13 books about science and his weekly “Matter” column in the New York Times makes science more accessible for those who aren’t experts. In She Has Her Mother’s Laugh, Zimmer offers a compelling look at genetics, and how much scientists still have to learn about what we all inherit from our parents. “Very often genes cannot give us what we really want from heredity,” he writes. “Each of us carries an amalgam of fragments of DNA, stitched together from some of our many ancestors.” In order to explore this issue, Zimmer allows researchers to look at his genome and interpret what it means that he has identical genes to a “typical” Nigerian person and a “typical” Chinese person. You will leave this book realizing how little we know about how we come to be.