I read—a lot. Both for work and for pleasure. But because I cannot cover every single book within the outlets I write for, I am going to dedicate a post every so often to spotlight the books that I am otherwise unable to cover, books that flew under the radar, and books that aren’t new—because they deserve our love and attention, too. Now read on for some bomb-ass book recs.
Note: Everything is fucking scary right now—from the deplorable anti-trans directive ordered by Governor Greg “Bitchass” Abbott in Texas to the Russian invasion of Ukraine—and I know many of us—myself included—are glued to our respective devices, endlessly scrolling in an attempt to absorb as much information as possible. That, in addition to the quotidian internet—other articles, memes, and other business-as-usual behavior—not to mention still being in the midst of a global pandemic, makes reality feel truly dystopian, resulting in only more duress. I hope these books—or any books for that matter—can offer solace in these times of nightmarish uncertainty. Be kind to yourselves, and to one another.
The beauty of the short story collection is that it offers boundless opportunities to experiment with form and innovation—maybe even more so than any other genre. Stories can travel toward a shared destination, pulling the signal cord on the bus bound for one theme or another, or passing each other by completely, like two flights traveling in opposite directions, only a moment shared in passing. Maybe they meet somewhere in the middle. Or not. It’s up to the writer to determine how they texture each other and how.
In Vernita Blackburn’s second collection of short stories, How to Wrestle a Girl, Blackburn does a little bit of it all—and then some—executed with masterful precision to boot. By pushing the boundaries of form—stories in the form of crossword puzzles! Grief logs! Quizzes!—Blackburn explores race, queerness, the body, and grief among a group of young women, most of which takes place in Southern California. The stories range in length (the first story, “Fam” is a single paragraph spanning two pages), but they all pack the same potency: their voices, in particular, draw the reader in and make it hard to leave—wash, rinse, and repeat thirty times over.
In “Ambien and Brown Liquor” (one of my personal favorites), the narrator and her sister, T, dine at a Denny’s at three in the morning after their mother has just attempted suicide, tender sisterly moments crystallizing within extreme hardship. In “Bear Bear Harvest™,” a family business consists of selling excess fat and skin for food processing. And, in the second part of the book, which consists of linked stories, an unnamed Black high school girl grapples with her burgeoning queerness amidst family dysfunction.
To sum it all up: this collection is breathtaking from start to finish.
I Came All This Way to Meet You by Jami Attenberg
I’ve been a fan of powerhouse novelist, Jami Attenberg, ever since I read the national bestseller, All Grown Up. Immediately captivated by Attenberg’s insight, humor, and masterful ability to wield her fiction as a tool not unlike a Swiss Army knife of the literary variety, I made my way backwards, reading the New York Times-bestselling The Middlesteins, along with the rest of her body of work. So, imagine my excitement—especially if you subscribe to this newsletter; you know memoir is extremely my shit—when I found out that, after seven novels, it was announced that Attenberg would be releasing a memoir.
And reader, she delivered. And then some.
Life on the road seemed to be the natural path to follow as the daughter of a traveling salesman from the Midwest. I Came All This Way to Meet You is a memoir of drive, both metaphoric and literal, her devotion to her art and general wanderlust taking her across the country—and, eventually, all over the globe—crashing from couch to couch, working job to job, all in pursuit of inspiration tucked within the written word. Attenberg also writes, admiringly, with profound honesty about the highs and lows of a career in publishing, the toll it takes, and the immense conviction required to create and continue to reclaim your space in a capricious industry. This book is a testament to a prolific career, and, more importantly, a heart that’s always willing to lend itself to others, both on and off the page. Simply put, this book is a total swoonfest.
I finished this book weeks ago, and I am still reeling. This New York Times-bestselling, National Book Award finalist, and 2020 Booker Prize-winning debut novel has captured the hearts of millions across the globe, for reasons made abundantly clear by only a few chapters in. With characters that leap off the page and not just tug on, but turn your heartstrings into an arrangement akin to a game of Cat’s cradle, Shuggie Bain tells the story of Hugh “Shuggie” Bain, an irresistibly sweet, but lonely, young boy as he grows up in neglected public housing in 1980s Glasgow, Scotland.
His mother, Agnes, is a bright light and a safe space for Shuggie to be himself when it would otherwise result in emotional or physical torment. But her alcoholism dictates the day-to-day lives of Shuggie and his siblings, dysfunction constantly butting heads with whichever sibling is spearheading the responsibilities of the household, their fathers a continued absence in their lives. Eventually, Agnes’s need to escape her reality, all while trying to keep up her glamorous pretenses—pride the most important accessory of all—eventually drives her two eldest children away, leaving Shuggie alone to take care of Agnes as she pendulates between promised sobriety and alcoholic binges.
What results is a story that is heartbreaking just as much as it is heartfelt, threading addiction, sexuality, and love into the portrait of a working-class family that is traditionally underrepresented in fiction. At the center of it all, a mother-son relationship not to be forgotten.
I saw Liv Stratman read from this book in Brooklyn this past summer, and I became obsessed the second she opened her mouth. The audience, myself included, couldn’t get enough, each laugh closely following the one before. By the end of the night, I was lucky enough to find a new friend in the debut author whose book earned praised from my favorites like Emma Straub, Melissa Broder, Rachel Khong, and the aforementioned and lovely Jami Attenberg.
In Cheat Day, Kit, a young woman in her thirties living in her childhood home in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn with her college-sweetheart-now-husband, David, is well into the Radiant Regimen, her latest dietary undertaking. Her husband, in an effort to be supportive, follows along. In the meantime, Kit returns, once again, to Sweet Cheeks, her sister and cousin’s bakery that she has repeatedly quit managing in an effort to a pursue other professional vistas.
Back at work and on a dietary program that promises healthy eating and self-control, her appetite directs itself at Matt, the carpenter whom her sister and cousin have hired to install new shelves for the bakery's kitchen. Flirtation between Kit and Matt escalates, resulting in a passionate affair that lasts months, satiation and guilt engaging in an internal game of tug of war. Written with a wit that I would be happy to possess even half of, this debut novel is a perceptive look at the gray area in relationships, limitations, both self-imposed and not, and hunger—in all its forms. It is—sorry, I must!—a treat.
Is there such a thing as love at first sight, but with books? If not already, there’s going to have to be, because there’s no other way to describe my relationship with Tacky by Rax King. There are essays about America’s Next Top Model and The Cheesecake Factory—my muses! If you’ve read or will read this, I promise you’ll be like, “Of course Greg loved this book.”
In this collection of essays, King intertwines her expert examination of pop culture and what we’ve collectively deemed “bad taste” with coming-of-age in the 2000s, which, like me, means we considered the mall to be one of our primary caretakers growing up. Indeed, there is an entire essay devoted to the mall and that particular era (specifically, when Hot Topic reigned supreme), along with other artifacts of nostalgia we constantly find ourselves wanting to return to, many of which are experiencing a renaissance now (denim on denim! Uggs! Anything fuzzy!).
Above all, it is an embrace of the questionable, the things we love to hate, and our generation’s propensity for irony, using pop cultural staples—Sex and the City! Jersey Shore! Guy Fieri!—to light the way, all while holding these cornerstones of growing up in the aughts against the author’s own girlhood and relationships along the way, romantic or otherwise.
As Nicole Richie once said whilst being cuffed by a policeman on The Simple Life: loves it.