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Our summer reading list

  • Post Author
    by Talk
  • Post Date
    Tue Aug 29 2023

By Ray Kirsch and Anna Thompson

Talk Director Ray and Community Outreach Director Anna compiled a list of the books they have read this summer. Find out a short description of the books and what they thought about them below!

Ray's picks, from most-recently read to first read:

When You Get the Chance, Robin Stevenson and Tom Ryan

Found on my family bookshelf from a past impulsive purchase, “When You Get the Chance” follows cousins Mark and Talia as they reconnect over a death in the family. They're both queer but from very different ends of the spectrum (the never-ending lesbian versus gay man trope), and they eventually come together for a Pride event. 

Quite honestly, I had to force myself to finish reading this book after getting through several chapters of it. I think it does well for a basic conversations about sexuality and touches on gender, but I also think the characters fall into a lot of stereotypical perspectives of how queer men and lesbian women act — for example, Talia being seemingly “overly aggressive” and an activist or Mark being a chill dude only looking for hook-ups. For a book that was probably intending to be relatable, I found much of the plot line scattered and unrealistic.

While I really appreciated the non-binary representation of Talia's ex-partner, I found myself disliking Mark for much of the book. The fact that Talia had to explain her ex's non-binary identity to Mark made me irked. He had a character development arc toward the end, but it could've been better. Overall, I probably wouldn't read this again. If you are looking for queer fiction, I would not direct you toward this book. 

The Lesbiana's Guide to Catholic School, Sonora Reyes

My lovely friend and coworker lent this to me over a lunch break. Yes, I read it in one sitting. (Hey, Kiran.) I'm utterly obsessed and had to take breathers just for how close it hit to home at points. 

This book follows sixteen-year-old Yamilet Flores as she starts at a new Catholic school. She's a closeted lesbian, still processing her ex-best friend outting her to several friends at her old school, when she meets a girl at her new school and eventually develops a crush on her. Not only are there great themes of sexuality and the Mexican American experience, but Sonora Reyes touches the religious aspect in a very relatable manner. 

Flores eventually falls in love with a classmate Bo and struggles with coming out and self-acceptance. High school, especially the religious ones, is a brutal time, especially for a queer, person of color. Additionally, there is even more queer representation with another close character that I will not spoil!

As someone that was raised in a private Lutheran school for my entire childhood, this book hit close to home. There are themes of religious trauma and parents not being supportive of sexuality, so I would recommend being in a positive headspace when reading. It's a fast read but worth re-reading. 

Four Dead Queens, Astrid Schalte

No, I won't spoil who the murderer is. Also borrowed by my lovely friend, this book switches perspectives from thief Keralie to the four queens of Quadara. As the title suggests, the queens all end up dead, and Keralie gets accidentally roped into finding out who assassinated them. 

Not only was this book a fantastic read, but Astrid Schalte's world building was incredible. There is a map at the beginning of the book, alongside a description of the four kingdoms — setting the stage for the intertwined deaths of the four queens. There were several plot twists that left me texting my friend in all caps, which I would say makes it a recommendable read. 

I was roped into each character, and I enjoyed learning all of the secrets of the queens before they were killed. There is a queer couple, which I loved, and I really enjoy Keralie's character and the final plot twist.

Sharp Objects, Gillian Flynn

As the title suggests, I will provide a content warning for this book for graphic mentions of self-harm. As another mystery book, this book follows journalist Camille Preaker as she returns to her hometown to cover the local deaths of young girls. She ends up writing several stories on the deaths and eventually uncovers the murders. In addition to the murders, Preaker deals with seeing her mother and half-sister, who are difficult connections in individual ways. 

I went into this book blind, and I found myself squirmish throughout the descriptions. I love a good mystery, especially with a character that is a journalist, but I wish I would've been warned in advance of the self-harm aspect.

If you're from a rural town in the midwest, don't read this book until you are in healthy, good mindset. Reading it at night may be quite eerie. For those looking for a mystery with a major plot twist at the end, I would definitely recommend. 

I'll Give You the Sun, Jandy Nelson

Also known as my childhood comfort book, I adore and despise the main characters of this book. I found it at College Library on campus, which was a pleasant surprise after a long day of work. I have had this book since my early teenage years, and it has remained one of my all-time favorites since my first read. 

The story follows twins Jude and Noah, who are seemingly inseparable until they grow up, their mother dies and art school drama occurs. The perspectives switch from Noah's when they were early teens to Jude's when they become teenagers. Noah is gay, Jude deals with sexualization and they both make their own form of art and want to apply to a nearby art school.  

There are many ways to relate to both characters and definitely reasons to hate them, as well. While the characters make some decisions that make me want to scream at them through the pages, I think it depicts how complicated life can be at times, especially for teenagers that are grappling with traumatic events. There honestly is not one twin I like more, because they both make mistakes that make me upset with them. But that is life, right? Full of mistakes and growth — which the book accurately describes. 

The Princess and the Grilled Cheese Sandwich, Deya Muniz

A graphic novel that I borrowed from my friend (thanks Rayane), this is a young adult (YA) romance that ends up being a gay (WLW) storyline. It follows Lady Camembert, who really doesn't want to get married to a man, as she pretends to be a man and eventually falls in love with Princess Brie, who doesn't realize Camembert is actually a woman. 

It's cheesy in the best ways. Yes, it's predictable, but that's why I love it. The graphics are incredibly cool, and I found myself wishing a book about queer women had been more popular when I was growing up. The title is on the nose, but it is sweet, regardless. 

I was giddily smiling the entire time and will likely be bothering my friend for another read of it. It's a graphic novel so it reads fast, but I'd recommend soaking it all in. 

Pageboy, Elliot Page

Elliot Page's recently-released memoir follows Page's discovery of his sexuality, gender identity and place in the acting industry. To me, this book was beautifully written. Page was vulnerable and shared many private memories, which I appreciated. This one also needs content warnings for homophobia, transphobia, sexual assault, self-harm and stalking. 

I enjoyed following Page's discovery and eventual self-acceptance to his gender identity, and there were many moments in the book that were relatable to me. Gender exploration is something that was not talked about at all throughout my childhood, so seeing a piece of media that is about all of the ups and downs — taking a step forward and three steps back — was affirming and warming. 

I was lucky enough to see Page on his book tour stop in Madison at the beginning of the summer, where I received a free, signed copy of the memoir. I cried, I laughed and felt blissfully happy the entire time. As soon as I got home from the event, I started reading the memoir because I wanted to keep feeling the warmth of Page's presence. The book achieved that, for sure.

Fine: A Comic About Gender, Rhea Ewing

This book is a graphic novel that asks important questions about gender identity. The author interviewed a wide range of people and produced the novel, which covers topics like hormones, pronouns, culture, religion, race and growing up. It has many references to the Midwest, even Madison, which I thought was very cool. 

My friend read this for one of their Gender and Women's Studies classes, and we found it at a local bookstore. It was another read-in-one-sitting but brought me near tears — and near an identity crisis. You know how for the first book, I said I wouldn't recommend that book to anyone? I would recommend this one to anyone and everyone.

This graphic novel pairs informational content with well-drawn graphics. I personally loved seeing how Ewing progressed alongside all of the interviewees throughout the comic. I would especially recommend this to anyone exploring their identity or anyone trying to grasp any of these concepts. 

Anna's picks, from most-recently read to first read:

I Used to Be Charming, Eve Babitz

In 1960s Los Angeles, Eve Babitz perfected the art of being an it girl. So we all might as well just quit now and read her books instead. “I Used to Be Charming” is a recently published collection of pieces that she wrote for various journals and magazines over the years (side note: is there any job more glamorous than writing for a magazine, before the industry fell into whatever you call the black hole it's currently in?). From iconic publications like GQ and the Los Angeles Times to lesser-known periodicals like Francis Ford Coppola's short-lived venture “City,” the essays span nearly four decades and never do they lose Eve's trademark wit.

Some pieces are barely a few pages long, while others — such as her investigative reporting piece on the lifestyle brand Fiorucci, which I had never heard of but within a couple of pages was inevitably fascinated with — are long enough for the reader to boil water, make tea, drink it, dump the bag in the trash and make another cup. I often go for essay collections at bookstores and libraries for this exact reason; sometimes, you get the satisfaction of completing a piece every five minutes. They're perfect for both a short bus ride and a long, lazy afternoon.

I'd accuse Babitz of name-dropping in this, but that's arguably kind of the point of Eve Babitz, Hollywood It Girl, whose godfather was Igor Stravinsky and whose ex-boyfriend was one Jim Morrison. It takes a minute to get used to but by the time she mentioned “my friend Annie Leibovitz,” I was well and truly along for the gin-soaked ride.

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, Patrick Radden Keefe

This one is for the history nerds, not least because of its density. Patrick Radden Keefe's “Say Nothing” details the peak of the Troubles in Northern Ireland through the lens of one particular murder case in 1970s Belfast. I was a tad hesitant to read this, given how saturated the landscape is with half-assed true crime that exploits tragedy for views and dollars, but Keefe approaches the story of Jean McConville's murder with the rigor of a historian and the kind of humanity needed to tell such a story with diligence and respect.

Beyond the story of the murder, Keefe employs a similar rigor in attempting to chronicle and make some sense of the very long and often violent history of the struggle for a united Ireland. I had only a cursory knowledge at best of the events in the book before I read it, and I found that Keefe took the time to properly explain events, people, and ideologies thoroughly enough even for someone with my unimpressive baseline understanding.

“Say Nothing” is a powerful treatise on politics, memory, and generational trauma. Like more than a few books on this list, it's neither light nor easy, but as the book itself will tell you, confronting the past rarely is. The easy option is to ignore it. In the mind of this reviewer, the former course of action is the only one that's well and truly worth it.

Where Are Your Boys Tonight?, Chris Payne

Mainstream emo — or whatever you want to call the scene that took the world by storm from around 2005 to 2008 — has been maligned, mistreated and misconstrued for far too long. Payne and his interviewees bring a wonderful sincerity to this book, which is a love letter to the scene as much as anything else. While I admit that I cringe today when Fall Out Boy released their version of “We Didn't Start the Fire” or when Brendon Urie does pretty much anything, I have a soft spot for this scene that will likely be a part of me forever.

It's interesting what happens when you make an oral history chronicling events that really didn't happen that long ago. Thanks to the straight-edge sensibility that dominated huge swaths of the scene, most of the participants remember things with startling clarity. Last year, I read Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain's “Please Kill Me,” which chronicles the history of punk in the west starting with proto-punk in the 60s and wrapping up with the advent of grunge in the 90s. It's a fantastic book, but it's riddled with contradictions and hazy memories, naturally brought on by the Keith Richards-level excess of pretty much everyone who's qualified to speak on the topic. “Where Are Your Boys Tonight?,” on the other hand, is full of contributors who know exactly when, where and how everything happened. I don't think I could describe what I had for dinner last night with the kind of clarity they bring to their portraits of everything from New Jersey basement shows to Warped Tours.

The book primarily focuses on the artists and music industry cadre that made the scene from the inside, with considerably less focus on the fans that built it up from the outside. For what it is, it's pretty fantastic, but I'd love a followup with the social media historians.

Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann

I rushed out to read this as soon as the full-length trailer to Martin Scorcese's adaptation dropped, and it did not disappoint. Grann's book is almost shockingly detailed, and to think of the research that went into it makes my head spin. The book chronicles the series of murders of members of the Osage nation in the early 20th century, as well as the ensuing investigation by the nascent FBI.

Centered around a rotating cast of characters — most importantly, Mollie Burkhart, who lost most of her family and survived attempts on her own life — the book often reads like fiction, but Grann knows exactly what kind of book he's writing and continually pauses to offer the historical background crucial to understanding the story he wants to tell. It's no light read; in fact, Grann goes so far as to call it one of the bloodiest and most horrific chapters in American history. I'm inclined to agree, but if you have any interest in 20th century American history, it's a chapter that's vital to fully understand the effects and extent of colonization on the Osage nation. “Killers of the Flower Moon” goes well beyond the broad brush stroke of a high school history class by affording these events the scrutiny they deserve.

I look forward to seeing Scorcese's film, but I know it won't hold a candle to the book's depth and breadth. Lilly Gladstone, who plays Mollie Burkhart, remarked that the contributions of Osage consultants and collaborators had a profound and positive effect on the film and stated in an interview that “the work is better when you let the world inform your work.” “Killers of the Flower Moon,” the book, is similarly highly informed by the collaboration between Grann and members of the Osage, and if you're interested in learning more about this chapter of their story, this book is an excellent place to start.

Biography of X, Catherine Lacey

I promise that I do actually read fiction sometimes. Anyway, this book rules. It follows the widow of a larger-than-life artist known as X as she sets out to correct the story of her wife's life and career as it was written in an unauthorized biography published soon after X's death. It becomes clear within a few chapters that “Biography of X” is Lacey's foray into the “alternate history” genre; it describes a twentieth century in which the southern states seceded after World War II and became a fascist Christian state, closed off to the rest of the world, while the northern and western territories remained open and became havens for liberals and libertarians, respectively. If that premise sounds insane, it kind of is, but Lacey makes a pretty good case that it's not as foreign of a world as it may seem. American exceptionalism is and always has been based on myths and lies. Lacey sets fire to its flimsy foundations and surveys what is left behind with humor and pathos.

“Biography of X” is endlessly creative, unbelievably engaging and some of the best literary fiction I've read in years. Funnily enough, I picked it up because I read a review that casually mentioned that it exists in a world where Frank O'Hara (one of my all-time favorite poets) didn't die in 1966 at the age of 40. While I later realized that this has almost no bearing on the plot, I loved the book all the same.

They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us, Hanif Abdurraqib

This book is sensational. Hanif Abdurraqib is one of my favorite contemporary authors and poets and is also featured several times in the aforementioned “Where Are Your Boys Tonight?” as an interviewee, to my absolute delight. “They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us” is a collection of his essays, most of them about music and popular culture on the surface but really about so much more. There aren't many writers who could make me cry with a piece on the night that Allen Iverson crossed up Michael Jordan, or the time that they went to a Carly Rae Jepsen concert, but Abdurraqib is just cut from some different, celestial cloth. He has an extraordinary gift for affect, and I admit that I was moved to tears more than a few times; once, just because of the sheer reverence with which he writes about art and artists.

His reflections on the topics of race and class are both incredibly powerful and insightful. While most of the essays were clearly written at different times and for different purposes, the order in which they appear feels coherent and well-organized. “They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us” is driven by his signature gift for parsing meaning out of the murkiness of memory, his trademark style and the warm glow of real, deep love for the people that fill its pages — whether they be his grandmother, Bruce Springsteen, or ScHoolboy Q.

Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer

This may be my favorite book recommendation I've ever received. Lauren, if you're reading this: hi. I love you. Robin Wall Kimmerer's “Braiding Sweetgrass” is the enormously acclaimed follow-up to “Gathering Moss,” a book that I'm told is perhaps better suited for the more scientifically minded amongst us. I am not scientifically minded, so nearly every fact about nature and ecology that she shares in “Braiding Sweetgrass” was new to me, but the book is written in such a wonderfully accessible way that very little prior knowledge of these topics is required.

I read most of “Braiding Sweetgrass” in the forests and on the lakeshore of Northern Wisconsin, and every morning that I woke up to have my coffee and take my solitary walks in the woods, I walked a little slower and looked a little longer at all of the life around me, the life that sustains ours. The book ultimately outlines a new approach to science informed by indigenous knowledge, primarily through the lens of Kimmerer's own stories of reconnecting with her culture and of working with plants as a botanist and ecologist; interspersed throughout are her poetic retellings of folklore. Ultimately, the book is also a rhapsodic ode to what Kimmerer calls “the gifts of the earth” — from sweetgrass to squash to the flowing of the river. I'll never stop recommending it, so to those of you who know me, you really might as well just read it now. That way, we can talk about it for that much longer.

The Nineties, Chuck Klosterman

Klosterman conjures a beautiful collage out of a decade remembered often but not exclusively for the sheer ugliness of some of its best-known cultural products. From Nirvana to Bill Clinton to “Reality Bites,” he dissects social change and cultural shifts with a deftness that certainly comes in part from the passage of time, but also from his own first-hand experience. Throughout the book, he demonstrates a talent for dodging both mythologization and righteous condemnation of oft-lionized cultural figures and products, examining them not just as they are but as they were. At times, it dips into self-indulgence, but overall, I found it fun and insightful.

I've only scratched the surface of the rest of his writing and until I read this had yet to really connect with any of his work. I've started to read a few titles and put them down long enough to have to chuck them back into the return bin at the library, but “The Nineties” hooked me in from the very beginning; I don't know what changed this time, but suffice it to say, I devoured it within a few nights.

Sovietistan, Erika Fatland

One thing about me that should be highly evident by now is that I'm gonna read some nonfiction. Erika Fatland's “Sovietistan” is a fascinating look at centuries of history in Central Asia, with a section devoted to each of the region's former Soviet Republics. Starting in Kazakhstan and ending in Uzbekistan, Fatland's book is part travelogue, part history and a little bit of everything else, from science to geography to politics.

Last year, I took a course here at UW-Madison about the history of the Cold War. Towards the end of the semester, we covered the revolutions that shattered and ultimately doomed the Soviet Union, and I was embarrassed to admit to myself that of the five Soviet republics in Central Asia, Kazakhstan was the only one that I could confidently point to on a map. Kazakhstan is one of the largest countries in the world, so I felt that it wasn't a particularly impressive achievement. Spurred in part by curiosity and in part by that lingering feeling of embarrassment, I resolved to learn more about Central Asia and found Fatland's book in the process. While it's no substitute for a history course, “Sovietistan” is a great place to start if, like me from last semester, most of your knowledge of these countries comes from where they fit into the histories of others.

Fatland's book is a brilliant if still fairly broad painting of these five countries — Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan — which features several portraits of individual figures as well as voyages into larger historical events, spanning centuries. For a nonfiction book that's fair to place in the history category, it's also a pretty easy and highly enjoyable read, bolstered by Fatland's evocative prose.

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