To close out the summer, here’s a list of books that the Jezebel staff has recently enjoyed. The list is wide ranging and includes everything from Lesley Nneka Arimah’s celebrated book of short stories to historical nonfiction, memoirs, and Peter Godfrey Smith’s astonishing investigation of animal consciousness. This list is in no particular order and reflects (hopefully) the realities of reading rather than recently published books.
The Babysitter at Rest, by Jen George: If you are craving some fiction that’s extremely funny and does not seem to exist in any sense of reality, I’d recommend George’s debut book of stories. She’s a surrealist writer who sort of reminds me of writers like Nell Zink or Alexandra Kleeman. While the stories here are all delightfully loopy, I’m partial to the first in which a snarky angel swoops into an apartment to help a flailing woman plan a party, but just sort of ends up mooching off her. You will laugh a lot reading it, I swear.
Boundless, by Jillian Tamaki: I love just about everything cartoonist Jillian Tamaki has published (even her Instagram account is great, I recommend a follow) and Boundless, her last collection of short comics, is no different. Many of these stories focus on familiar digital rabbit holes, from a story about an early-Internet viral mp3 file named “SexCoven” that supposedly killed teens to another titled “1.Jenny” about a girl who finds an alternate version of herself on Facebook. And of course, the whole thing is beautifully illustrated!
The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton, by Kathryn Hughes: “Mrs. Beeton” was a Victorian cross between Betty Crocker and Martha Stewart—she’s rightly billed as “the first domestic goddess” in this 2007 book’s subtitle. But she’s been better known as a brand or even a concept than an actual, historical woman, which Kathryn Hughes attempts to remedy with this book. Isabella Beeton helped create the modern women’s magazine with her husband, a pioneering (but perpetually luckless) publisher and then died young of postpartum complications—only for her name to take off with a life of its own. Her story provides a perfect window into the dawn of mass media generally and targeted to women in particular.
Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, by Peter Godfrey-Smith: Here are five things I learned from this lovely, deep, but never prohibitively dense cross of biology and philosophy:
1. Despite their wondrous color-changing ability, “cephalopods, in almost all cases, are said to be color-blind.”
2. Because our closest common ancestor that connects us to cephalopods existed about 600 million years ago and was a simple organism, “cephalopods are an independent experiment in the evolution of large brains and complex behavior” and “probably the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien.”
3. I have no interest in eating aliens, especially smart ones. (I’m not alone in this.)
4. The Earth’s Ediacaran Period (635–541 million years ago) is thought to have been largely free of conflict and predation, largely because a lot of the (again) relatively simple organisms did not interact. So maybe we should all agree to stop talking and looking at each other if we want world peace.
5. According to philosopher and octopus scholar Stefan Linquist: “When you work with fish, they have no idea they are in a tank, somewhere unnatural. With octopuses, it is totally different. They know that they are inside this special place, and you are outside it. All their behaviors are affected by their awareness of captivity.” LET THOSE LITTLE LAMBCHOPS GO SINCE YOU CAN’T STUDY THEM ANYWAY!
The Most Beautiful: My Life with Prince, by Mayte Garcia: About once a year since my teenage years, I’ve gone through a period of compulsive Prince binge-listening that lasts at least two weeks. This year’s has lasted about all summer. I love it. So much of the time when I put music on that isn’t Prince, I think, “Why am I listening to this when I could be listening to Prince.” And then I listen to Prince. I’ve also read a bunch of books on him, and his former protege/ex-wife Mayte Garcia’s is by far the best. It portrays him as neither a saint (he tried to get her to use “Arabia” as her stage name, paid her a pittance when she started dancing in his crew and preached a very laissez-faire approach to her health when she had a life-threatening pregnancy which ultimately resulted in the death of their child, Amiir) nor a monster (excerpts of letters and recalled phone conversations, especially in the beginning of their relationship. fully convey how enchanting this man was on an interpersonal level). Garcia’s prose is often impressive and brimming with insight and empathy—she even shows understanding for Prince’s insistence on shooting the pregnancy-themed video (with hospital scenes and all) for “Betcha By Golly Wow!” after they lost Amiir: “He wanted to return to a moment when he felt complete joy, complete faith, complete love, and he wanted to take me with him.” A memoir in the classic sense, this portrait of a man by one of the few people on earth who knew him well probably would have never seen the light of day had he not died last year. This book is but one of the ways that Prince’s death has inspired a much more nuanced understanding of his life and work. There is something deeply spiritual in that, which, despite being a violation of Prince’s hawkish secrecy, I like to think he would appreciate.
What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky, by Lesley Nneka Arimah: This is a collection of short stories, largely about Nigerian families and, broadly, the variety of forces—love, hurt, resentment, et cetera—that travel through generations, through time and circumstance, just to fuck us up. There’s some mythical and some sci-fi, a story about girls designing babies out of loose materials, and a story about mathematicians discovering a formula to the entire universe and figuring out how to erase people’s pain. Arimah’s writing made me fall in love. In their book review, The Atlantic used the phrase “powerful pessimism,” which both perfectly explains why I loved this book and says a lot about me.
The Battle of Versailles: The Night American Fashion Stumbled into the Spotlight and Made History, by Robin Givhan: I bought this book on a whim after reading something on the internet that told me to buy it, but I’m very glad that I did. In 1973, five American designers staged a runway show with five Parisian designers at Versailles, ostensibly as a fundraiser for its restoration. Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta, Anne Klein, Halston and the little-known Stephen Burrows represented the United States, showing their collections alongside French powerhouses Yves Saint Laurent, Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Cardin, Emanuel Ungaro, and Marc Bohan of Christian Dior. According to Givhan, a woman that I trust about these things, it was after this fashion show that the world started looking towards American designers as trendsetters and influencers, upsetting the French’s dominance and changing the game forever. Good for the beach or for sitting on the couch and devouring it in one sitting, like I did.
The Refugees, by Viet Thanh Nguyen: Everyone has read—or has been told by someone to read—The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning debut about a Communist double agent living in America. It’s an excellent and absorbing work that I cannot recommend enough. Nguyen’s second book, a thin collection of short stories about the refugee experience, is even better.
Secrets of the Night, by Jo Beverley: Before you go back to school get in one more beach read. Romance author Jo Beverley died in 2016, which I didn’t realize until her final book, Merely a Marriage, was announced. I was truly heartbroken because I’d been looking forward to reading her historically detailed, well-paced and genuinely sexy novels for many more years. If you’ve never read her, I recommend starting with Secrets of the Night, which is the fourth book in her Malloren series. Beverley had a gift for writing the trope of the plucky proto-feminist heroine in a way that spoke honestly to the precariousness of women’s circumstances in Regency-era England. She also convincingly portrayed the mind-bending force of love, and horniness, between two destined people. The Mallorens are a whole family of charismatic siblings looking for marriage, so if you like one book, there are plenty more. Jo Beverley’s gift to the world!
Under the Banner of Heaven, by Jon Krakauer: I only recently started getting into historical nonfiction because it’s a good reminder that, in our current social and political climate, the world has always been a mess and humans have always been a species of violent trash-apes. Nowhere is clearer than in Krakauer’s 2003 book Under the Banner of Heaven, which explores the 1984 murders of Brenda and Erica Lafferty through the lens of Mormonism, a uniquely American religion forged in and by violence. (You could rightfully argue that this is true for all religions, but Mormonism has the misfortune of an emerging in an era of literacy and record-keeping, giving Krakauer—and us—the privilege of studying it from its inception.) Krakauer is a tremendous writer, crafting a narrative that is neither too dry nor too embellished. If you, like me, have been putting off reading Under the Banner Of Heaven for a decade and change, I highly recommend reading it now.
The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride, by Daniel James Brown: There is much to be learned from this extensive history of the Donner Party, the group of pioneers that got marooned in the Sierra Nevada mountain range during the winter of 1846 and ended up, yes, eating each other. Brown explains a lot—from the mental and physical effects of hypothermia to a number of calories gained by eating emaciated human flesh to (on a somewhat lighter note) creative methods of birth control on the wagon trail. In all honesty, I was not always a fan of Brown’s flowery writing style and occasionally grew frustrated with his long winded projections onto pioneer life and the individuals of the Donner Party, but the content is so fascinating and tragic that I quickly got over it.
The Devil and Sherlock Holmes, by David Grann: I just started this David Grann essay collection. So far, it is good...
The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood: This is quite old, incredibly obvious and the same book I’m seeing everyone else read on the train right now—which is a good way to feel at one with your community—but I finally finished The Handmaid’s Tale because I wanted to read it before diving into the show. I’ll admit I was a little scared to read it? Just because of everyone talking about how topical it is for Our Modern Times, which made me concerned that it would throw me into a fit of depression, which I’m trying to avoid outside of work for self-preservational reasons. But Madeleine lent me her copy, which is from the actual ‘80s, and helped get me in the zone of when it was written. And as you probably know already, it’s great! But if not, read it! I didn’t spiral during or after it.
The Story of Pain: From Prayers to Painkillers, by Joanna Bourke: Joanna Bourke’s dense book tracks a critical history of pain from the 18th century to the modern era. In a kind of rebuttal to Elaine Scarry’s classic investigation, The Body in Pain, Bourke traces both the sensation of pain—that is, the thing itself—as well as how being in pain was historically interpreted. Bourke considers the extensive lingo of pain, the endless descriptions (stabbing, throbbing, etc.) we have to make visible and thus concrete something that, for all of the reality of feeling, often seems invisible and abstract. “Figurative language discloses our being in the world,” Bourke writes, capturing the alienation that being in pain produces.
Through everything from personal letters to diaries and medical texts, Bourke shows how pain has been historically understood producing a body that is a “repository of social and political meaning.” There are illustrative vignettes that linger: a Civil War nurse who watched a doctor perform his very first amputation that she compares to the “carving of a Thanksgiving turkey,” a scene that she “shall never forget.” Other histories, too, that are not told enough, particularly the relationship of pain to race and class (an ugly history that continues to linger). It’s an enlightening book and one that feels particularly pertinent as the debate over health care is far from concluded in this country. Pain and suffering—both its causes and its treatments—linger on the sidelines of that debate when, as Bourke demonstrates, they are central to modernity’s construction of identities.