August was a long month and great for staying in to read far and wide. I took advantage, though I am ready for cooler weather, only so that I can take the books outside for a change.
The Shame by Makenna Goodman (Milkweed Editions)
Our Book Cult pick for August was Makenna Goodman’s stunning debut novel about Alma, who lives on a farm in Vermont but obsesses over an Internet influencer in New York. Deeply introspective, The Shame mainly stays in Alma’s brain as she rejects the male advice surrounding her to strike out on her own. You can check out our playlist featuring soft yeehaws here.
The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning by Maggie Nelson (W.W. Norton)
Maggie Nelson’s criticism is always the best, and this collection of essays from 2011 is no exception. She explores the function and effect of cruelty in film, literature, and visual art in search of its benefits and limitations in a culture that increasingly normalizes violence wrought by power structures. Although she frequently references the U.S. military torture that was at the height of the news cycle at the time, I found there was a lot to relate to our current, perpetual cycle of violence in the media.
Thick: And Other Essays by Tressie McMillan Cottom (The New Press)
“The things we touch and smell and see and experience through our senses are how stories become powerful. But I have never wanted to only tell powerfully evocative stories. I have wanted to tell evocative stories that become a problem for power.”
Bringing a light touch to heavy subject matter, sociologist and critic Tressie McMillan Cottom looks out on the world from the starting place of her reality as a Black woman to consider race, gender, class, and more in areas ranging from the medical field to capitalistic beauty culture. Cottom’s takes are fresh, troubling assumed wisdom and replacing it with sharper awareness.
Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irby (Vintage)
We could all use a laugh this year, and Samantha Irby remains the author for the job. With her characteristic wit and unabashed self-deprecation, Irby tackles living in a house (a bad idea), answering phone calls from friends (“a crime,” as she calls it), and her disloyal digestive system (relatable). I spent several weeks with this book, savoring each essay and laughing alone, as Irby intended.
Whereas by Layli Long Soldier (Graywolf Press)
I read this poem and promptly bought Whereas. There is nothing I could add that would be more convincing than this poem.
Obit by Victoria Chang (Copper Canyon Press)
“How do / you walk heavily with subject matter / on your back, without trampling all the meadows?”
When Victoria Chang’s mother died, she found that she could not write poetry and turned to the obituary as a form through which to process her grief. Each poem in Obit contains mourning, for her mother, her father’s ailing body and mind, and pieces of herself that have left her or have been left behind. Within the grief of these pages is so much grace, and I saw so much of myself and others in this collection, learning to be gentler with all of the mourning that a life requires. “To / acknowledge death is to acknowledge / that we must take another shape,” Chang writes. Every year, but perhaps especially this year, we will need to take this line to heart.
Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music by Ann Powers (Dey St.)
NPR critic Ann Powers leads readers through a deep and impassioned history of American music from its beginnings all the way up to Beyoncé, examining the frequent collisions between “love and sex, black and white, body and soul,” as her subtitle indicates. I learned so much from this book, as I always do when reading Powers.
I Can’t Date Jesus: Love, Sex, Race, and Other I’ve Put My Faith in Beyoncé by Michael Arcenaux (37 INK)
Michael Arcenaux grew up in the Catholic Church in Houston, Texas, where his identity as a gay man put him at odds with the harmful messages perpetuated by family, church, and the larger American culture. I especially appreciated his essay on the Queen herself, illuminating how pop culture can help us to stretch beyond ourselves and the communities we grow up in, as well as the touching descriptions of how he eventually healed his relationships with his parents.