Published on August 5th, 2016 | by Mutha Magazine1
ASK A MUTHA: SUMMER’S NOT OVER YET—the Reading List You Still Need
Here we are: August has come upon us, in shimmering heat (and bearing ominous back-to-school PR emails). Aspirational summer reading lists went flocking around by June… But if like many of us, your “summer vacation” has earned those quotes hard, you maybe didn’t get as much quiet hammock-swaying time to yourself as advertised.
Don’t worry, there’s a whole month left, it stretches out in our minds full of the possibility of time. And it’s too damn hot to chase kids on the playground, tuck a title in your bag, find a bench, ignore any looks, open up some books….
Hey MUTHAs: What have you recently read and loved and recommend, and/or still plan to get to before this summer’s end?
I just devoured Olga Grushin’s 40 Rooms, which is one of those books every writer/mother (and human, but especially women who have creative work they want to do) MUST READ. It’s painful and beautiful and true, with scalp-tingling lines on every page.
Right now I’m reading some galleys of forthcoming novels by friends: Kathleen Glasgow’s Girl in Pieces and Marcy Dermansky’s The Red Car. They are both powerful books that snake their way into your everyday life, featuring strong, complex female characters.
Here’s what’s on my bedside table TBR pile/my summer reading goals:
Kaitlyn Greenidge’s We Love You Charlie Freeman
Dana Spiotta’s Innocents And Others
Virginia Woolf’s Diaries — it’s time for a reread.
I feel like summer just kicked off proper. When my kid first got out of school, I was in some kind of sick shock, and was like, “Oh shit, I have to get up at like five in the morning to write now. Oh fuck, I have to go to the overly crowded and musky evening yoga classes now.” But I have since fallen into a sweet state of acceptance and am starting to enjoy the unstructured time that I have with this amazing eight-year old that lives in my house. We take a blanket to the park. We kick a ball around. We eat chips. We workshop story ideas. And of course I troll for play dates or as we say in Overly Passive Portland, “Do you want to trade some childcare?” And if I succeed at the latter, I abscond to the nearest coffee shop with a book and maybe even my laptop.
During the summer, while the berries are spilling out of their crates, I have the attention span of a toddler. So for me, this means short fiction and interviews and maybe a few low-impact essays. Although, one of my fondest summer reading memories was reading a biography of Albert Camus. That is, until I found myself ignoring both my son and my husband, allowing way too much screen time (for both) so I could steal away to 1950’s Paris. Luckily, I caught myself and put down the tome and picked up two story collections, which was, Break it Down by Lydia Davis followed by Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill. Finish a story, bask in it whist watching your child draw Star Wars figures and then make a grilled cheese sandwich. That is my version of summer reading. During the next few weeks, I’m planning on diving into Women Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews and The Soho Press Book of ’80s Short Fiction. – Frances Badalamenti
I recently read and re-read Sarah Ruhl’s 100 Essays I Don’t Have The Time To Write: On Umbrellas and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Fire Alarms, Children, and Theater, and had to keep checking it out from the library. Eventually, I bought it for myself. I keep buying it and pressing it into people’s hands, like a religious tract. Ruhl is a hilarious and brilliant writer and thinker. She writes down things I’ve considered, but didn’t know it was OK to think, much less write it down, then follow it, playing out the logic. The short essay on her family’s lice infestation is worth the price of the book. Reading it opened up my own writing, gave me permission to follow intellectual leaps, to free associate while reflecting on art and parenting.
Rachel Cusk‘s 2001 nonfiction book, A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother, is one of the most incendiary, divisive, imperfect, and true pieces of writing on being a mother and being a writer I have read. That book, and her book about divorce, Aftermath, earned her a reputation as “the first literary Bad Mother.” Her “lethally intelligent,” (in Heidi Julavits’ words), 2014 novel Outline is another of my favorites, precisely evoking the sensation of being muted by society and circumstances, the complications of being a woman who is cerebral and perhaps emotionally remote.
I just finished reading ALL of Ali Smith‘s books, beginning with her most recent, How to Be Both, where I fell in love with the music of her writing, our era’s Virginia Woolf, and loved the twisting plot that read like a mystery told by two narrators winding around each other in a gender-bending, genre-fucking work of art.
Next on my list is Miranda July’s The First Bad Man, because I love her and recently listened to her read Janet Frames’ “Prizes” on the New Yorker’s Fiction podcast, which made me love her more. The New Yorker’s Fiction podcast has been my main source to take in some literary fiction while running/walking/crawling errands and is very handy because I can still keep on eye on things while “reading.” – Rachel Kessler
Girls & Sex by Peggy Orenstein: Must-read for moms of daughters. As much good news as bad. It’s rough out there for girls, but we can help!
The Gods of Tango by Carolina De Robertis: Widowed virgins, artistic passions, cross-dressing, gender bending & sexual awakenings in Argentina 100 years ago!
Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye: A remix of Jane Eyre as a sexually awakened feminist vigilante serial killer!
Dated Emcees by Chinaka Hodge (poems): Chinaka continues to bear witness with brilliance to all the fierceness and struggle of what it is to be black and female, as part of what it is to be human and attuned to the world.
We Were Feminists Once… by Andi Zeisler: This amazing book traces the roots of so many of the misgivings I have had about the version of feminism that’s being served up in the mainstream these days. A principled, smart & at times hilarious critique from a committed feminist who co-founded Bitch Magazine. – Aya de Leon
Since my disabilities leave me stuck in bed without the concentration (or desire) to read giant tomes by dead white men, I do “summer reading” all year round. A recent favorite is Shrill by Lindy West. It’s about fatness and abortion and life and is absolutely hilarious. My only problem with it is that it’s so good you will want to read it in one sitting and then it will be over. I also highly recommend reading the Neapolitan Trilogy by Elena Ferrante. This trilogy has the best class analysis I have read in a long time and the central relationship is a female friendship that the books follow over a course of a lifetime. The covers are misleadingly pastel and have brides and kids on them, but this book goes much deeper than traditional “chick lit” (which I also read a ton of) and covers themes of jealousy, family, and messy relationships. Finally, when it comes to summer reading there is one frequently overlooked classic that begs to be reread every summer, The Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann. It has it all! Women, drugs, sex, fame! A 50th anniversary version was just released so it should be easy to find. – Katie Tastrom
PS Comics by Minty Lewis: This is a surprising and funny book and has been among my favorites for years. – Keiler Roberts
Eleven Hours by Pamela Erens captivated me, so much story in the “short” space of an 11-hour labor—a book about birth that goes deep and deeper, past stereotypes and into the philosophical and profound. I’ve been recommending this novella not only to fellow mother-readers but also to freelance editing clients, who might benefit from study of when less can be more.
Little Labors by Rivka Galchen, modeled on an 11th-century Japanese “pillow book,” got enough hype that I came to it a bit skeptical, but yet was delighted as I let its charm in. Her precise descriptions of early parenthood felt so terribly familiar they took my breath away–it turned out perfectly suited for a long summer plane ride while my almost-kindergartener daughter slept (and, OK, watched Peppa Pig for hours) beside me, and I contemplated how she was certainly a baby no more, but always would be mine. – Meg Lemke
The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman. It takes place in the Jewish community on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas in the late 19th century, but its concerns are enlivening and contemporary. From the mutha perspective, the main character is a rebellious, soulful, artistic matriarch who comes into the nurturing phase of her life quite reluctantly, but then ends up having ten children, one of whom becomes the famous Impressionist, Camille Pissaro. It sprawls across generations, time periods and locations, but is always anchored in the dreamy, tempestuous interiority of the mother. – Jessica Carew Kraft
The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo. At first glance this is a children’s book about a bunny. The illustrations by Bagram Ibatoulline are beautiful and weird. There’s a menacing grandmother. There’s a spoiled little girl who is surprisingly charming. But the porcelain bunny with a gold pocket watch at the center of this dark fairy tale is the real star. He’s vain and aloof at the start of the story because he knows he’s fancier than you. So when he is thrust into his unlucky and—yes, miraculous—journey, his fall is hard and heartbreaking.
The first time I read this book I read it weeping in one sitting as a part of 6th-grade English curriculum I was preparing to teach. That was when my son was two and single motherhood felt like drowning and being on fire at the same time. Reading about Edward Tulane’s plunge into despair and (spoiler alert!) his messy, self-pity-fueled crawl into unexpected perseverance, felt like inspiration and empathy.
I read this book again to my son when he was seven. I analyze sections of it with my middle school students as a part of my Humanities classes. I give this book as a gift to single moms. Everybody cries and cheers and comes to love Edward, not out of pity, but because that bunny turns out to be fierce and capable of love despite all the reasons he never should have survived. – K. E. Leong
Irresistible Introvert by Michaela Chung: I’m an introvert. I’m quiet, a thinker more of a talker, I enjoy more one-on-one time, I like socializing but only to an extent. I need to be alone, regroup, process at some point during the night. With that, I started searching for introvert stuff on the internet and came across Chung’s website and more recently a book she wrote. I bought it. It’s so helpful! I honestly wish I knew about this stuff when I was in therapy. I’m working on accepting myself as an introvert in a world that values extroversion. I end up feeling a lot of guilt for not talking as much (because people are always pointing it out) and compare myself to others. This book is helping me accept the person I am and learn how to interact in a world full of extroverted people. – Heather Jackson
The Wedding by Dorothy West is set in the ’50s and is about a young affluent black woman that chooses to marry a white jazz musician. The Wedding explores one family’s long and difficult relationship with colorism, classism, and race. It is a definite must-read by one of the great writers of the Harlem Renaissance. – Ev Petgrave
Has anyone chosen the Elena Ferrante books yet? [Yep.] Or are they passé already? [Maybe, but we’re still reading them—I am on The Story of the Lost Child myself. Ferrante fever pitch having past or not, and these books are truly amazing. – ed.]
They’re so good and I listened to all 3, 19hours each, while I inked my comic. I’ve also just read Lydia Davis. Her essay on teaching hit home hard. – Glynnis Fawkes [MUTHA minds thinking alike]