Well-Read is a monthly book recommendations column by book critic and novelist Catie Disabato.
I’m writing this intro in Austin, Texas, where it’s 90 degrees. I’m full of queso and salty tortilla chips and a margarita I asked to be made extra sour, but it’s still so full of agave nectar that my lips are sticky. It’s so much more humid here than in my home city, Los Angeles, and the precipitation is radically different; SoCal raindrops are tiny and anemic while Texas raindrops are —and there’s no better way to put this —thicc.
The 57% humidity, the rich meal, and the booze fuzzing my perception are all mixing together to make me feel…what’s the best way to put this? Lusty? Stimulated? Horny??
I’m embarrassed writing this, which is strange if you know me, because in person I’ll talk about sex easily and often — and even in public in a too-loud voice. But something about acknowledging my desire in print, where my parents could be (and probably are) reading it, makes me feel shy. I don’t want to feel recalcitrant; I want writing about female desire to be so common that reading about my own doesn’t even make my parents blink.
Honest explorations of women’s desires and sexualities shouldn’t be revolutionary, but they were made radical by a vast history of distortion and repression. The books I’m recommending to kick off this hot summer are working towards a new Cannon of Desire.
Pub. Date: July 16, 2019
In 1937, on the brink of the second world war, Hitler circulated a most-wanted list of “cultural degenerates.” Leonora Calaway—an American heiress, art collector, and socialite who is heavily based on Peggy Guggenheim—charters boats and planes to whisk her favorite “degenerates” out of dangerous Europe to her resort home in the Mexican jungle. We see this all through the eyes of her 15-year-old daughter, who is emotionally and physically exhausted from being dragged along on all her mother’s wild whims and forced to hang out with her entourage of hangers-on. Lara is ignored and wants to be seen, so when she attracts the gaze of the much-older Dadaist sculptor with a sexy name, Jack Klinger, she gives herself over to the dangerous possibility that, in him, she’s found the love she’s been craving.
Lara’s voice is simultaneously precious and teenage. It’s easy to identify with her desires, and equally simple to see the possibilities for heartbreak that Lara can’t see herself. This gives what is otherwise a somewhat interior novel the tension of a thriller.
Pub. Date: July 9, 2019
We are, each of us, alone inside our own minds. To connect with other people, to get a sense of what it might be like to be in a head that’s not our own, we consume another’s output; stories (fictional, nonfictional, or otherwise uncategorizable) are the best method we have for understanding another person’s life. When a whole group of people —or argument’s sake, let’s say all women, those assigned that gender at birth or not — are actively discouraged from creating that output, the rest of the world is unable to see into their individual experiences. This is a very condensed and generalized version of one reason why Three Women is one of the most important books I’ve ever read. And in case you’re getting an eat-your-veggies vibe, it’s also one of the most entertaining.
Over the course of eight years Lisa Taddeo embedded herself in the lives of three women and explored their desires. Each of their stories sounds familiar — a woman looking back on her inappropriate sexual relationship with a high school teacher, a woman having an affair, a woman navigating a polyamorous-style relationship — but through extensive interviews used to create narrative, interior storytelling, Taddeo created singularly intimate explorations of not just their desires, not just their reasons for action on those desires, but also the deep feelings/instincts/fears that motivated both the desires and the actions. I would’ve read a version of this book that told a hundred women’s stories. I would’ve read this book forever if it had gone on that long.
Please Send Help by Gaby Dunn and Allison Raskin
Pub. Date: July 16, 2019
Between their YouTube series, “Just Between Us,” and their first young adult novel, I Hate Everyone But You, Gaby Dunn and Allison Raskin have turned their real-life friendship into entertaining auto-fiction. This sequel novel continues the story of a long distance friendship between bisexual aspiring journalist Gen and has-a-plan-and-knows-how-to-execute Ava.
The epistolary form of the novel creates a perfect scenescape for Dunn and Raskin to revel in the most engaging element of a best friends novel: the banter. Like all real best friends do, Gen and Ava share a vocabulary and a rhythm of language, which holds the form of their intimate friendship. They each make the other feel safe to be open and vulnerable, which means the reader gets honest portrayals of underrepresented topics. For example, Please Send Help featured remarkably true-to-life conversations about contracting an STD. For the first time that I can remember, characters had a conversation about sexually transmitted diseases that I would’ve had with my friends.
While every form of media now features more queer characters than ever, as a bisexual woman it’s still difficult to find engaging representations of my personal experience. I was delighted by a character as authentically and unselfconsciously rendered as Gen, and excited on behalf of a generation of readers who will find her when they’re young, rather than reliving past experiences through her as I did.