Well-Read: October/November 2019

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

About a month ago I did something to my leg. It isn’t twisted or strained or broken or cracked, it’s just, as my acupuncturist would say, talking to me. It was telling me to stay off of it. I could walk and function fine, and it probably was a bad idea to go to the gym, but I needed something to replace the emotional boost that exercise always provides. I was lucky that my vague ailment coincided with a dip in temperature in Los Angeles; it was officially bath season. I bought a big bag of epsom salts and left a stack of books in my bathroom and started living in my bathtub for at least an hour a day, reading. 

My favorite place to read is a warmly lit bar, mainly because the actual bartop itself is a superior book stand, but my second favorite place to read is the bathtub. Reading a great book in a bar has the tingly excitement of a first date; reading in the tub is like a mug of tea combined with your favorite vibrator. 

I’ve spent most of October and November reading nonfiction, some of it incredibly emotionally devastating. Those books were not like a vibrator, they were instead like crying with a very close friend. Some of it was was warming, some of it was ponderous. 

Reading nonfiction is not as much of an escape as fiction is, because of the twitchy presence of real life fact. Whether the book I’m reading actually reflects my experience or not, it always reminds me that I’m a person in who world who does things, who has things done to them. Sometimes, I don’t want to remember that I have to keep living when things get hard. But during these last few months, while I was waiting for my foot to heal itself, I felt like a coiled snake waiting for my moment to strike. In the tub, I found myself curling forward over my knees, trying to get closer to my books. 

Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was A Girl by Jeannie Vanasco

Pub. Date: Oct. 1, 2019

In this memoir, Jeannie Vanasco talks to her rapist. 

This is the simplest way to describe the subject, and by typing it out in a short declarative sentence and leaving that sentence by itself, I hoped to impart some of the intensity I felt while reading. I’m not sure I succeeded. I’m not sure it’s possible to succeed.

When Vanasco was 19, one of her closest friends raped her during a party. 14 years later, she asked him if she walk talk on the record about the experience, and he agreed, and she wrote a book.

The #MeToo movement has spurred deep cultural change that has the potential to create a better future for all women, especially girls who are growing up in the post-#MeToo landscape. However, like with all major cultural movements, it’s very difficult to express or experience nuance in the landscape, subtly in the arguments. This memoir is the first book or essay or article I’ve read, post-#MeToo, that truly manages to live in the gray areas. It’s incredibly moving, but it doesn’t tie anything with a bow. In that way, even in its imperfections, it’s perfect.

I Used To Be Charming: The Rest Of Eve Babitz by Eve Babitz

Pub. Date: Oct. 8, 2019

I first heard of Eve Babitz in 2013, from a tweet by Emily Gould, who was newly enamored with one of Babitz’s best books Slow Days, Fast Company. All of her books were out of print, then, so I hunted and purchased vintage and used copies. Gould and several other Babitz champions spent the bulk of this decade pulling her work back into the light, so that I can now carry around a bright yellow Sex And Rage tote bag, to signal to all the other cool literary girls that I am one of them. Perhaps writing this paragraph is my way of bragging that I got to her in the first wave of revival, the way I used to brag in junior high that I liked Josh Hartnett before he starred in Pearl Harbor.

The reason I latched so tightly onto Babitz is perhaps because I never did so for Joan Didion. Don’t get me wrong, I think she’s basically a genius (though we’ve abused that word into oblivion) and I find her novels and essays moving, but I never had that “it me” response that I see in so many other women from LA and NYC. But the first time I read Babitz, I felt like she was writing from inside of me. It’s a shocking pleasure, being seen. 

By now, I’ve read all I could get my hands on from Babitz, so a few of the articles in this collection were somewhat familiar to me, and the real draw of this new publication (besides complete-ism) is the brand new essay that ends the book and became its title. In “I Used To Be Charming,” Babitz addresses, for the first time, an infamous 1996 accident that nearly took her life and after which she all but receded from public life — until now, when we’ve pulled her a little of the way back out, the way we’ve done with her work. I hope it makes her happy to know her work is loved. That’s all I can give her back for what she’s given me.

In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

Pub. Date: Nov. 5, 2019

I devoured Carmen Maria Machado’s 2017 short story collection, Her Body And Other Parties, with the hunger of the starving. It’s not often that a queer girl who loves speculative fiction gets to read stories about other queer girls living through speculative fiction. 

So, I expected great things out of Machado’s memoir: a deft use of language, a strong understanding of structure, the ability to draw from a deep well of feeling. The memoir — recounting the downward spiral of an abusive romantic relationship and placing that relationship in a broader cultural context — was all of this, and also more than a sum of its parts. I’m lucky enough to never have lived through the style of abuse that Machando recounts, but I’ve had anecdotal conversations from several friends, some of whom confirmed that it was like a mirror of their experiences, some of whom found themselves newly understanding dynamics they had previously dealt with. 

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