Well-Read: September 2019

Philip Cosores

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

Most of the time, I read a wide variety of books. Classic feminist sci-fi novels and niche histories; poems about pop stars and middling contemporary thrillers. Reading is the kind of activity that feeds itself, like how a book about the Chateau Marmont helps me understand the life of one of my favorite LA writers. Another way to put it would be to stay that reading is the type of activity we’ve come to understand as a “practice” — the gains and the pleasure of the experience are exponential.

So occasionally in my practice I get stuck in one particular prose style. This month, I cracked the spines of a few nonfiction books, but despite the quality of these books, which I’m sure I’ll get back to one of these days, I couldn’t get immersed. I’ve been exhausted by the heat in LA and a summer cold   led me to a weakened state, where all I’ve wanted to read is really immersive fiction. Luckily, this September has been an exceptionally strong fiction month, sot was still hard to narrow down the field to just three novels that captured my mind and got me through the long, hot nights.

Cantoras: A Novel by Carolina De Robertis
Pub. Date: September 3, 2019

While I was writing this, a friend texted me that the new season of The L Word was filming at a restaurant nearby, in case I wanted to go over there and rubberneck. Why would I care about whatever cliché-ridden offspring the original biphobic, transphobic, and super-ultra-white series had to offer when I could read the high-quality, dreamy, emotional dyke drama that Carolina De Robertis has given me??

Cantoras begins in 1977 in Uruguay, when five queer female friends begin a vacation away at an isolated little cape called Cabo Polonio, where they feel free to live authentically (i.e. romance and fuck other women and each other) despite a government regime that considers homosexuality a punishable offense. The novel covers thirty-five years of trips to Cabo Polonio, which allows De Robertis to show off her mastery with the expansion and compression of time, allowing certain moments to stretch out languidly and then with equal skill, skipping over years in a word or two.

Who Put This Song On? by Morgan Parker
Pub. Date: September 24, 2019

Morgan Parker began her writing life (or, at least, her publishing life) as a poet and as with many poets, I feel that origin in the quality of her prose. The clichéd way to describe it would be “lyrical prose” or “musical,” but readers who know Parker’s poetry would find this language not only overdone but disingenuous. Parker’s poems take an already-sharp idea and explore every angle until it’s whittled into an even sharper point, but also expanding it into  a forest of other, equally sharp points. I hope that metaphor worked, but I’m not a poet myself.

Who Put This Song On? is Parker’s debut prose book, and it is a rare combination of autofiction and YA fiction. Partially based on Parker’s own teenage diaries, the novel follows a fictional Morgan as she works through her depression, her understanding of her own blackness, and the way teenagers use music as  a path for themselves to figure out the origins of their unruly, monstrous feelings. 

To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers
Pub. Date: September 3, 2019

I love nothing more than a slim volume, especially one whose depth outweighs the number of its pages. To Be Taught, If Fortunate is a novella-length hard sci-fi book whose defining characteristic is existential ennui. 

The novella begins with Ariadne O’Neill, a scientist on a mission to an exo-planet called Votum, sending a missive to whomever might read it on her home planet. The message will take 14 years to arrive; any reply will take another 14 to reach her. So, her writing begins to take on the quality of a well-edited diary: curated, but startlingly intimate.

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