Well-Read is a monthly book recommendations column by book critic and novelist Catie Disabato.
I’m writing this during the very beginning of January, the first flush of not just a new year but also a new decade. The first week of January is always like a spiritual springtime in the middle of winter, with the possibility for new fertility everywhere. You’ll be reading this at the end of January, though, during a period of time when the internet may be filled with articles and social media posts imploring you to check in with whatever New Year’s Resolutions you made at the turn of the year.
I don’t go in for resolutions (I am very good at making and then quickly breaking resolutions any time I feel like it, not constrained to January), but I’m even more annoyed by cynicism about resolutions, or cynicism about the cynicism about resolutions, or even this new truism—which is growing into a fresh new cliche at the speed of light—that if you stick to a resolution for even just a month, that’s a whole month of your life where you made positive choices and inched towards incremental change (which is how change really works, everyone says) and that’s still valuable. It’s not that I disagree with the latter, it’s that I’m already bored of the entire conversation. I just want to be left alone to change nothing or everything or some things without those changes being forced into a framework.
If I’m so over this conversation, so bored of even the parts I agree with, why bring it up?? Maybe I’m just annoyed enough to rant or maybe I’m copying TV critic Emily Nussbaum, who often writes about how she hates top 10 lists. These are all good theories, and part of my calculus I’m sure, but the actual reason is that it’s January and I’m going to tell you to do something over the course of this year. You could even call this thing a “resolution” if you wanted to. I won’t call it that. But if you want to, you probably wouldn’t be mislabeling it.
However this year goes for you personally, it’s going to be a difficult year politically. During the latter half of the year especially, the election is going to suck all the air out of every room. Anecdotally, it seems like publishers are front-loading this year with fantastic debuts and exciting new books by beloved writers, potentially flipping the big book season from the fall to the spring.
Starting now, I recommend making a reading list for October and November. Come up with a realistic number of books you can read in a two month span. Maybe it’s one, maybe it’s ten; be realistic, not aspirational. You aren’t a better or more valuable person if you can read more. Keep this list handy, someplace you already look. If you’re a journaler, write it down. If you’re an internet person, make a Google Doc. All year long, when you hear about a book you want to read, add it to the list. If you reach your number, don’t make the list longer, perform triage: Make a decision about which books to keep on the list and which you can live without reading. Wait until the end of September to buy the books (unless you’re 100 million percent sure the book will stay on your list) and start reading on October 1st. You don’t have to blog about this or post about this (unless that gives you pleasure) and I’m not going to create a reading club or a hashtag. I’m just going to make sure I have a way to get through what will probably be the two roughest months of this year, like an emotional emergency kit ready for the storm I can feel coming in my bones.
I loved so many books published this month, and any of these three I’m recommending would be a fantastic way to begin your list.
Pub. Date: Jan. 7, 2020
The back matter of Topics Of Conversation describes Miranda Popkey’s debut novel as “composed almost exclusively of conversations between women” which is an accurate description of the book, but another way to put it is that Topics of Conversation is what happens when female novelists are given clout and encouragement for making not just themselves the subject of their work, but also their relationships with other women.
Topics Of Conversation snuck up on me, like only realizing you’re quicksand once you’re up to your knees. I was drawn in by the beautiful language, by the way Popkey handles her character’s mean streak, and by the familiarity of the conversations about power (told via conversations about sex).
Pub. Date: Jan. 7, 2020
I know my sun, rising, and moon signs, I know I talk too much because my Mercury is in Leo, I know to read the horoscope for both my sun and rising signs and take what I need from both, but beyond these basics (ultra-novice stuff, especially if you live in Los Angeles), I’m not very knowledgeable about astrology. I am envious of my friends who can demystify their new crush’s charts or succinctly explain why it’s not a good idea to hang out with Capricorn moons (sorry), but every time I try to learn more, I feel like I did during my undergraduate Philosophy Of Language class: enthusiastic at the beginning, and then a sudden suspicion I was tricked into learning math.
Though I love LA-famous Chani Nicholas’ horoscopes in the form of affirmations, I was fully prepared to have that accidental-math-class feeling again when I saw that the first chapter of this book was already getting into “sextiles” and “trines.” But using a combination of direct language, illuminating charts, coherent examples, and strong metaphors, Chani distilled what had previously been concepts where understanding wasn’t worth the struggle into something so neatly absorbed that days later I can actually explain what everything means. I even gleaned a little something new about my own chart, which I excitedly texted to friends.
You Were Born For This isn’t exactly a workbook but it has workbook-like elements, and because I knew I was going to have a slog of a January, I put the book aside after the first chapter, certain enough of its quality to recommend it, but wanting to save the insights and excitement for quiet nights after hard days.
Pub. Date: Jan. 7, 2020
At the start of the novel, Evangeline appears to be in a sort of stasis. Though she’s on the eve of her wedding (implying action and change), she’s a passive recipient/observer of the elements affecting her life: she’s living on the island where she was born and grew up, her groom’s fishing boat didn’t return when it was supposed to, her difficult mother has appeared uninvited, and a dead whale is trapped in the harbor, sending rot into the air that seems to energetically threaten the very idea of a happy wedding day.
Though the novel opens on this stuckness, Crissy Van Meter dreamily transitions back and forward through Evie’s life, unsticking her and letting us get to know both her character and the particular nature of the island that (along with a combination doting and absent alcoholic father) raised her.
Van Meter’s debut is sweet, sad, and ultimately cathartic.