Well-Read is a monthly book recommendations column by book critic and novelist Catie Disabato.
I have a friend in Chicago named Ed who has eight bookshelves. Actually, sorry, it might be nine now. When I texted Ed to confirm I had the number right, they replied that they were probably getting another this weekend. When I rented a new apartment in February, I bragged to everyone that it had built-ins (that is, built-in bookshelves) and I would finally have storage space for all of my books. But even though my built-ins aren’t stuffed to the gills, I keep stacks of books in other areas of my house: on the dining room table I use as a desk and on my nightstand and bedroom dresser. The tarot books go on the back hallway shelves with my spell candles and crystals.
The reason I bring up Ed’s eight or nine bookshelves and my many, many small stacks is that we both love to be surrounded by books. As much as I love their insides, I’m comforted by the presence of the physical object as well. I didn’t grow up very religiously, but one of the things I internalized from my dips into Judaism was the way that Jews kiss the Torah, and how the very religious must fast if they drop it. We find magic in objects because we’re looking for magic.
I guess what I mean by all of this, if you boiled it down, is that I am often exhausted and bereft of hope, and being around books is comforting to me.
I didn’t connect deeply with any books that were published this December, so instead, here are some of my favorite magical objects that were published earlier this year but I didn’t have a chance to highlight.
Pub. Date: Feb. 5, 2019
The strangest thing that happened to me in my 30s is that I started to love going to the gym. It probably won’t shock you to hear that I was a bookish child, plus I have terrible hand-eye coordination and I’m a slow runner, so all the sport activities they push girl children toward didn’t click with me. Two years ago, I took a boxing class with a friend and realized that if I’d been put into combat sports when I was little, I might’ve had an athletic streak.
Now that I’m a big gym rat, I’m experiencing the aches and pains of putting stress on my body for the very first time. My body feels fresh to me and I’m curious about all the new things it’s going through, so naturally I decided to read something about it.
Christie Aschwanden’s Good To Go is in part a reexamination of biased “studies” on recovery products, a send-up of wellness culture, a deep dive into her own body and biases, and a no-nonsense guide to what actually does work for sports recovery (spoiler alert, it’s mostly about getting enough sleep). It was a pleasure to read something that was so engaging on a human level and also so valuable for my new dedication to some kind of athleticism.
Pub. Date: May 7, 2019
Maurene Goo’s books seem to contain the whole pleasure of reading distilled into an object. They’re all wit next to emotion, goofiness next to tenderness, plus great sentences and even better dialogue.
I love all of Goo’s YA novels, all of which have titles from popular pop song standards, including the one that came out this year, Somewhere Only We Know. It’s a reworking of one of my and my mother’s favorite movies, Roman Holiday. The biggest Korean pop star in the world, Lucky, is in New York City on the eve of her Ameican television debut. She bumps into a young tabloid journalist (who she doesn’t know is a young tabloid journalist) and in an unprecedented-for-her fit of rebellion, she embarks on a day full of adventure and hijinks, worlds away from her typically structured existence.
The book jumps between Lucky’s perspective and the budding paparazzo, Jack, giving you a full picture of both sides of the swell of romance between them.
Pub. Date: Sept. 24, 2019
I’m an absolute sucker for time travel stories, and this is the best example I’ve read in years. The thing about time travel stories is that generally they’re pretty hard to summarize but I’ll do my best: in an alternate timeline in which Harriet Tubman became a Senator but abortion is illegal, a secret group of feminist geologist time travelers called the Daughters of Harriet fight a group of Men’s Rights Activists who are trying to edit feminism out of existence. An exciting amount of the action takes place during the ‘90s punk/riot grrl music scene.
In less deft hands, a novel this allegorical might tumble into too-on-the-nose territory, but Newitz is a scholar of sci-fi and too smart to let her book fall out of balance. It manages to be both totally contemporary and transcend one single period of history.