Well-Read: February 2020

Dara Bankole

Well-Read is a monthly book recommendations column by book critic and novelist Catie Disabato.

A few weeks ago, dozens of books started arriving at my door. Prior to this windfall, I’d spent an afternoon sending a barrage of emails to book publicists, requesting review copies of anything that looked like I might, possibly, love it enough to include it in this column. When the books arrived, I took pictures of them on my glass coffee table or my woven cane bedside table or on the floor of my bathroom (when I was reading in the bath). To give you all the best recommendations possible, I have to read as much as I’m able, more than I could ever include in my column. I posted the pictures to Instagram with the hope that even if I didn’t include certain books, a few other readers might notice them, investigate them, buy them, and love them. 

The other day, a friend jokingly texted me that my Instagram stories give her anxiety, because I appear to read so much. And it’s true that by most standards I do read so, so much, but the way I post on social media makes it look like I read even more. Some people like to use social media as a tool to shape other people’s perceptions of them. I could make it look like I read hundreds of books a year, when the reality is that I actually read much less. Sometimes, I like the feeling of appearing to read more than I actually do. Sometimes, I feel a stomach-churning guilt over it.

Here’s a description of what and how I actually read:

I crack open every single book that I request for this column. Sometimes, publicists will send me extra books, or reach out to me to offer me a book, and I dip into the majority —but not all —of those. They are lowest on my reading priority list.

My goal, my rule, is to read at least 50 pages of each book. I’m a fast reader and depending on the style and substance of the words on the page, I can usually reach 50 pages in about an hour of reading time. When a book captures my imagination, I finish it. When a book leaves me cold, I can easily put it aside. Sometimes, I’m torn, and then I agonize, sometimes reading another 50 pages before I settle into a yes or a no.

If you look me up on Goodreads, you can easily track the ones I actually finish. I don’t talk about the ones I don’t finish, because 50 pages isn’t enough to give a book a fair criticism. But if you notice me post a book on Instagram and then it doesn’t appear in my Goodreads, and you’re curious about why, feel free to DM me. I’m always happy to explain why I put something aside. Most months I’ll finish more books than I can recommend, and this month is no exception. In fact, I had such a hard time deciding between two excellent but very different novels, I decided to stop struggling and just include them both.


My Autobiography Of Carson McCullers by Jenn Shapland

Pub. Date: Feb. 4, 2020

Shapland’s title elegantly encapsulates the mixing of biography and memoir in this re-working and re-contextualizing of Carson McCullers’ life and work. This book also re-queers McCullers’ biography, using letters McCullers wrote to her mostly-unrequited crush Annemarie Schwarzenbach as well as newly surfaced transcripts from sessions with McCullers’ therapist and girlfriend, Dr. Mary Mercer. By making her own investigation into McCullers’ life and queerness one of the subjects of this text, Shapland reflects the slipperiness and mutability of queer identity and desire.

Throughout the book, Shapland notes parallels between her own story and McCullers’. For me as a reader, it functioned like a mirror that reflected the lives of my own queer community. When I was reminded of one of my friends, I wrote their name in the margins, adding all of us into the narrative. 

The book functions as a history of queer female erasure, and then as a corrective for that erasure, as one of our own refuses to let McCullers’ life remain edited and incomplete. I felt so seen and moved and completed by this book that I haven’t been able to shut up about it for weeks.


Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey

Pub. Date: Feb. 4, 2020

The publisher of Upright Women Wanted, Tor, is building an exciting library of queer genre fiction. This one is a Western from the tips of its cowboy boots to the brim of it’s hat, set in a future America with politics around femalehood and queerness that closely resemble that of the past (and that’s where the similarities to The Handmaid’s Tale begin and end). 

In Upright Women Wanted, Esther flees her father’s home after he hangs her best friend (and secret girlfriend) for possessing “resistance propaganda.” She stows away with a group of Librarians who rove between settlements distributing books that are Approved Materials, hoping to live a righteous life, but instead finds herself among a group of a queer people, the Queer Resistance in Approved Materials clothing.

This slim volume is pure fun and pleasure, with all the genre touchpoints you crave from a Western (like gunfights on horseback, campfire stew) with a healthy dose of queer romance. I read it in one sitting.

Weather by Jenny Offill

Pub. Date: Feb. 11, 2020

Offill’s books have often been referred to as “novels in fragments,” but I think of them as assembled puzzles, each piece clicking seamlessly into the ones next to it, each piece necessary to form a completed shape and image. 

Weather is a novel about climate anxiety, personal boundaries, and emotional labor. Lizzie Benson emotionally supports her brother and mother while simultaneously working for her old mentor, Sylvia Lille, who recently became famous for a climate podcast and needed someone to answer her emails. Lizzie contemplates questions, wishes she had answers, tries to find them, and then communicate to others. This is the kind of climate novel I’ve been waiting for, something that acknowledges not just anxiety and dread, but the shocked stillness of not knowing how to act in the face of an existential threat to our species.


Good Boys by Megan Fernandes 

Pub. Date: Feb. 18, 2020

I’m picky about poetry and tend to favor poets that take social media or pop culture or living online as their subject . I want my poetry to seem incredibly contemporary and urgent, like something that couldn’t have been written more recently than last year. I want my poetry to describe a very current-feeling moment. 

With that said, it’s no surprise that my favorite poem from Fernandes’ collection takes Grindr its subject —  without naming it. The title “No Black. No Asian. No Femme.” invokes a common bigoted refrain on many-a Grindr profile, cis masc white guys looking for same. Fernandes writes:

I don’t know why this stuff still kills me

to be a couple of brown femmes spitting

with laughter at their own repulsion

projected flagrantly on the white screen.

This is exactly my shit! 

I also loved that so many of Fernandes’ poems took place in restaurants and among groups of people, with the narrator(s) feeling exposed rather than isolated.

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