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21 Books Queer Women (And Everybody Else) Should Read

Some eye-opening, radical, and unputdownable books about gender, bodies, and identity.

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1. Felt in the Jaw by Kristen Arnett

CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, kristenarnett.virb.com

Arnett once described this collection as “a look at the contemporary lesbian domestic,” as well as what she calls “backyard atrocities.” That seems to take two forms for her. On the one hand, Arnett is interested in capturing Florida in all its majesty and terror: A woman is bitten by a poisonous spider in her backyard and is forced to call her ex-wife; a couple buries the bodies of birds that dive-bomb their windows. But it’s also about the little atrocities of suburbia: A group of married mothers become almost sexually obsessed with the cooking of the “densely square figure[d]” housekeeper; a woman at a stoplight has a handful of change thrown at her car for no obvious reason. In one of Felt in the Jaw’s real gems, a lesbian couple attempts to secure a space for their wedding on the same day that the church holds a ceremony for the blessing of the animals. It’s extremely funny, but also a poignant look at a woman’s relationship with the church that will bless animals but not her marriage.

Read if: You love Florida and suburban lesbians, or just wanted to know more about that woman who tweeted about finding a lizard in her 7-Eleven.

Get it from Amazon for $16, Barnes & Noble for $16, or a local bookseller through IndieBound.

2. When Katie Met Cassidy by Camille Perri

G.P. Putnam Sons, Ash Barhamand

Perri, who’s already seen success with her novel The Assistants, now brings us the lesbian romance novel we’ve been waiting for. Katie is a lawyer and a Southern girl, newly out of an engagement to a man and negotiating her way through New York. Cassidy is a butch counselor for the powerful Falcon Capital, perpetually dressed in menswear. As you might imagine, Katie’s heterosexuality doesn’t last long. What’s most compelling, however, is Perri’s obvious queerness and the prevalence of “in” queer jokes: about buying shirts from the boys section of Gap, the sacred space of the lesbian dive bar, and the tangled web of ex-lovers and others. Most importantly, though, Katie’s coming out process is treated with a lot of tenderness, as is her relationship with her conservative Southern mother. Relatable to any queer person who’s made a home out of their community, Katie says, “Friends are God’s way of apologizing to us for our families.”

Read if: You’ve been looking for a beach read from someone who’s probably run into an ex at Dyke March.

Get it from Amazon for $11.55+, Barnes & Noble for $12.99+, or a local bookseller through IndieBound.

3. Spinning by Tillie Walden

First Second, Tillie Walden

Everything Tillie Walden does, from her sketches to her multiple graphic novels, is beautiful (and at least a little queer). Spinning is her graphic memoir, about the 10 years she spent competing as a figure skater when she was a child, about the hours and hours she devoted to the sport — on weekends, after school, and in the very early morning. Walden’s drawings of those early hours are particularly affecting: the novel is printed largely in a purplish-blue that lends itself well to the early hour and to the feeling of cold, occasionally cut through with warm yellow — of headlights or lit up windows, that mostly serve to put Walden’s character on the outside. As Walden begins to fall in love with her first girlfriend, however, she falls out of love with skating. More than anything, this is a queer coming of age story, told in Walden’s mesmerizing, meditative style.

Read if: You’ve been looking for some queer comics, or if you, too, were a young queer person committed (or perhaps overcommitted) to sports.

Get it from Amazon for $12.23+, Barnes & Noble for $9.99+, or a local bookseller through IndieBound.

4. Passage by Gwen Benaway

Kegedonce Pr, Twitter: @gwenbenaway

Passage is the second poetry collection from trans, two-spirit (a North American indigenous peoples’ term for a third gender) Canadian poet Gwen Benaway, and the first published after her transition. Her poems speak eloquently about womanhood, her ancestry, violence, survival, and gender, but often through the medium of nature poems. Waterways, and particularly the great lakes, serve as inspiration and metaphor to Benaway. In “Ceremony,” she writes,

may this poem

remind me as often

as I forget to honor

my second girlhood

how the water in me

is still mine.

Outside her poetry, Benaway has written eloquently about appropriation, erasure of indigenous voices, and her transition. “A Body Like a Home,” recently published in Hazlitt, is certainly worth a read, as is her response to last year’s heinous suggestion for an “appropriation prize.”

Read if: You’re looking for some cooling nature poetry for your summer.

Get it from Amazon for $13, Barnes & Noble for $13, or a local bookseller through IndieBound.

5. A Handbook of Disappointed Fate by Anne Boyer

Ugly Duckling Press, anneboyer.com

Boyer’s collection of essays refuses to be held together by one topic or idea. Instead, this collection has a voice that is playful, circular, and profound. With Boyer’s insight and dry wit, you will end up thinking in new ways about Kansas City, erotology (the study of sexual love and behavior), poetry and art, and many things in between.

Read if: You appreciate the care an independent press puts into assembling and distributing their books, because this book is beautiful to hold and look at, let alone consume.

Get it from Amazon for $17.88, Barnes & Noble for $19.58, or a local bookseller through IndieBound.

6. Mean by Myriam Gurba

Coffee House Press, Dave Naz

In this fragmented memoir, Gurba explores the intersections of a crime that rocked her town when she was growing up there, sexual assault — both hers and others — and coming of age as a queer Chicana in California. Throughout the book, she handles the telling of one tragedy after another with great care and sharp humor, so there is redemption and levity even in dark moments. The fragmented structure of this book makes the heavy content easier to digest and leaves space between lines to hold onto the gravity of the story being told. We learn that being mean is a method of resistance and political power, a way for young women to assert their voices, and ultimately an idea — among others — that ties the fragmented narrative together.

Read if: Fragmented memoirs compel you to turn the pages and/or you’re interested in a story that shows how we carry with us the stories that are ingrained in the places we live.

Get it from Amazon for $9.99+ or Barnes & Noble for $10.99+.

7. The Fifth Woman by Nona Caspers

Sarabande Books, nonacaspers.com

This is billed as a novel in stories, but reads more like a fractured or free-associative account of a few years in the life of a graduate student. Most of the “stories” take place following her girlfriend’s death in a bicycle accident, and turn a magnifying lens on a different aspect of the protagonist’s grief. The vignettes are often surreal or highly allusive — in “The Dog,” she befriends a shadow shaped like a dog; in “Frontiers,” she attends a birthday party where all the other guests are dressed as characters from Sesame Street; in “Reception,” she describes working as a receptionist at a cracker distribution company when her boss has a psychotic break; “The Horse” largely follows the narrator’s reaction to a story by Samantha Hunt, from her collection The Dark Dark. Taken separately, these stories are simply strange, but taken together, Caspers presents a sort of unified theory of grief. Namely, that it takes us out of ourselves, that it has the power to make the world strange.

Read if: You like fragmented novels, like Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, or Marguerite Duras’s The Lover, or you just love a good book about grief.

Get it from Amazon for $15.95, Barnes & Noble for $15.95, or a local bookseller through IndieBound.

8. A Body Undone: Living On After Great Pain by Christina Crosby

NYU Press, John Van Vlack - Image Pro Photo

Christina Crosby had an enviable career in academia, a loving partner, and only a short time after celebrating her 50th birthday, she was in a bike accident that left her paralyzed. This memoir is a meditation on the loss and pain she faces and the way she is able to relearn and rebuild after the accident. Crosby’s prose is lyrical and she finds language for feelings and ideas that seem inexplicable, forcing readers to think critically about the space we occupy, queer bodies, female bodies, and illness and injury.

Read if: You wish you could find more books that discuss the intersection of illness and queerness in a thoughtful way.

Get it from Amazon for $9.36+, Barnes & Noble for $9.36+, or a local bookseller through IndieBound.

9. Large Animals by Jess Arndt

Catapult, Johanna Breiding

In this story collection, Arndt looks at the queer body as though in a funhouse mirror. It’s clear she’s interested in gender, and the way assumptions about gender play out in the queer community, but she’s also interested in pinning characters between their fears and their wants. In “Jeff,” the actor Lily Tomlin mishears the protagonist’s name, Jess, creating a male doppelgänger that she’s both repulsed by and perversely drawn to inhabiting. In the title story, a series of large animals visit the narrator in dreams, and their raw, masculine sexual energy becomes a kind of obsession. In “Contrails,” Arndt writes, “One day the knowledge was shoved between all the other things I knew about myself. ... I was nudging a body out to sea.” She knows how to talk about the queer body in flux.

Read if: You liked Maggie Nelson’s discussion of bodies in flux in The Argonauts, but wished it could have been...queerer.

Get it from Amazon for $9.58+, Barnes & Noble for $10.99+, or a local bookseller through IndieBound.

10. Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin

NYRB Classics, thebetter.wiki

This novel revolves around a lesbian narrator, Lazi, and her friends, who are coming of age in Taiwan. Lazi has found herself grappling with the fact that she’s in love with a much older woman. She enlists the support and advice of her friends to help her make sense of the world she’s living in. In this innovative work, Miaojin weaves together diary entries, conversations, and moments between characters that help the narrator find her identity and comment on a greater social and political structure that she’s living in. This book was translated from Chinese by Bonnie Huie and published by the New York Review of Books within the last year, inciting renewed interest in this Chinese cult classic.

Read if: You want to read a cult classic that you may never have heard about before and/or you’re nostalgic for exchanging notes with your friends in class and writing in your diary after school.

Get it from Amazon for $10.84+, Barnes & Noble for $12.99+, or a local bookseller through IndieBound.

11. Fen by Daisy Johnson

youtube.com, Graywolf

Johnson is a master of distortion and of capturing young women in their complexity, with anxieties, occasional pettiness, and raw sexuality. In “A Bruise the Shape and Size of a Door Handle,” Salma is torn between her attraction to Margot — she “had never wanted to bend at the waist and take someone’s fingers into her mouth before” — and her house’s jealous attraction to her — it “loved her darkly and greatly and with a huge, gut-swallowing want that killed the hive of wasps that were building hard in the wall.” Stories that are not explicitly queer still have a kind of queerness to them: A woman grows so thin that she turns into an eel; another falls in love with a fish; a coven of girls seduce and devour men. Johnson is also the author of a novel coming out this July — just missing Pride Month — that features two incredibly powerful trans characters, a complex mother-daughter relationship, and all the spookiness of Fen; watch for Everything Under.

Read if: You like slightly spooky, slightly strange stories of women discovering their sexuality.

Get it from Amazon for $9.99+ or a local bookseller through IndieBound.

12. Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor

Rescue Press, anderlawlor.com

Paul seems like an average twentysomething queer person in the early 1990s who is figuring out exactly who he wants to be in the world. He has hobbies like making a zine, friends, and the specific freedom of not having put down roots yet, which enables him to stay up late tending bar, and ultimately brings him on travels across the US. Paul is special, though: He can transform his body. This shape-shifting power brings him into relationships that both challenge his notion of self, and force those around him to look at their identities. Drawing on an expansive history of the body and gender politics of the early ’90s, Andrea Lawlor both seriously and playfully interrogates gender, its expression, and the journey we take to find a place for our bodies in space.

Read if: You liked Chelsea Girls by Eileen Myles or Valencia by Michelle Tea and are looking to be transported back to the gay world of the ’90s.

Get it from Amazon for $13.32+, Barnes & Noble for $18, or a local bookseller through IndieBound.

13. Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall by Suzette Mayr

Coach House Books

At its heart, this novel is about a black, lesbian academic trying to make it in a buttoned-up Canadian university. Dr. Edith Vane has long been studying the writings of the black prairie homesteader Beulah Crump-Withers; it’s Vane’s ambition to bring her contribution to the pioneer memoir genre to light. As the department increases pressure on her to publish and her old mentor tries to claim ownership of her research, things begin to get strange: Edith begins to see things that aren’t there, the building she works in is overrun by hares, and coworkers are afflicted with a mysterious illness. Though mostly an exploration of what happens when things go sideways, Mayr includes a smart look at race in academia and mental health, and writes a protagonist who is clearly queer without making that the focus of the novel.

Read if: You liked Carmen Maria Machado’s short story “The Resident,” or are more generally interested in the overlap of haunted houses and academia.

Get it from Amazon for $4.99+, Barnes & Noble for $14.18, or a local bookseller through IndieBound.

14. Sorry to Disrupt the Peace by Patty Yumi Cottrell

McSweeney's, Meiko Takechi Arquillos

In Cottrell’s debut novel, Helen travels from her life in New York to her childhood home in the Midwest after her adopted brother kills himself. Searching for answers about him and his death, this novel brings the reader uncomfortably close to the internal thoughts of the character as she faces her brother’s physical absence and her parents’ emotional absence. Written with an incredible eye for subtlety, the world through Helen’s eyes is bleak; she is lonely and confined in her own head, and as the novel progresses, the intensity of her inner chaos amplifies. Helen’s observations are sharp and strange, her humor is dry and dark, and her sometimes-surprising logic rings true to a character grappling with finding a sense of belonging. By the end, we slowly come to see a worldview that may not be too unlike that of the deceased brother she is searching to understand.

Read if: You’d like to be wrapped up in the inner workings of someone else’s mind, or at some time have thought, I’m definitely not a lesbian, but maybe were.

Get it from Amazon for $9.99+, Barnes & Noble for $11.99+, or a local bookseller through IndieBound.

15. Some Animal by Ely Shipley

Nightboat, blog.bryantpark.org

This exploration of the body in transformation finds a form to fit the content in a flawless way. An artfully composed book of prose/poems, Shipley takes the reader through four sections, pulling in moments of disorientation, and ultimately brings the reader through the complex interior and exterior musings of what it means to have a body that is shifting and changing while occupying space. Each fragment manages both to rely on those that come before and after, and also to stand alone, enthralling us in this fraught space between becoming and being.

Read if: Your ideal genre is somewhere among the mix of poetry and prose and memoir.

Get it from Amazon for $14.04, Barnes & Noble for $15.02, or a local bookseller through IndieBound.

16. Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker

New York Review of Books, Stanford University Libraries

This novel was originally published in 1962, but was rereleased by the New York Review of Books in 2012. Despite this, it never seemed to quite get the acclaim that it should have by queer readers and critics. Cassandra is a gay graduate student at Berkeley, returning home for the wedding of her twin sister, Judith. The two were once extremely close, but have drifted apart since Judith left the apartment they shared for New York. It’s quickly apparent that Cassandra is mostly interested in disrupting the proceedings with her petulance, her moroseness, her anxiety and suicidal tendencies. There’s something almost appealing about how destructive she’s willing to be — cruel, sometimes; scheming, manipulative, like a solipsistic force of nature. Some of this stems from the difficulty of being a queer woman in the 1960s, but it’s mostly just Cassandra and her family’s general dysfunction. Told in three sections that alternate between Cassandra and Judith’s perspectives, Cassandra at the Wedding is like a combination of J.D. Salinger’s stories about the Glass siblings and the Anne Hathaway film Rachel Getting Married, but with more bleak humor.

Read if: You’re looking for an overlooked queer classic or a scattered meditation on identity and the confusion of early adulthood.

Get it from Amazon for $9.99+, Barnes & Noble for $9.99+, or a local bookseller through IndieBound.

17. Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

Graywolf Press, Tom Storm

Much has been said about Carmen Maria Machado’s story “The Husband Stitch” — so much that Machado has referred to it as something like her greatest hit. It is, however, one of only a few predominantly heterosexual stories in this collection that is otherwise deeply queer and rawly about the female body, sex, and sex with female bodies. “Mothers” is a dark, twisted look at a lesbian relationship and queer motherhood. “Especially Heinous” reimagines 272 episodes of Law & Order: SVU, giving the show new, surreal plotlines, and the queer Olivia Benson we all deserve. Perhaps most tender, in “Real Women Have Bodies,” a mall retail worker reckons with a new relationship during an epidemic in which women’s bodies seem to fade out at random. All stories in the collection are smart, inventive, and sexy (so maybe don’t read this one on the train).

Read if: You love fairy tales but always wished they could be queerer.

Get it from Amazon for $9.48+, Barnes & Noble for $9.99+, or a local bookseller through IndieBound.

18. Sphinx by Anne F. Garréta

Deep Vellum Publishing, Isabelle Boccon-Gibod

Garréta pulls us into a world that feels as if it’s in a magical haze. The narrator’s love for A*** is unbound and consuming. We join them for nights at the Eden, the club where the narrator is a DJ and A*** dances, and we witness a palpable longing that builds slowly and tenderly to a point of no return. Originally written in French and constructed with astounding care, Garréta employed constraints on the text so that the narrator and the lover, A***, have no gender. Garréta is a member of the Oulipo, a literary group whose work is marked by restraint; this book employs what they call a Turing constraint — named for Alan Turing’s artificial intelligence test — which Garréta has said allows for the absence of gender. While the novel is highly regarded for its linguistic feat, its magic depends on the taut narrative, which allows a reader to be thrown into a secondhand spiral, getting lost in this world of intimacy and near obsession.

Read if: You’re ready to feel someone else’s intimacy and heartbreak as if they were your own.

Get it from Amazon for $9.99+, Barnes & Noble for $11.49+, or a local bookseller through IndieBound.

19. The Estrangement Principle by Ariel Goldberg

Nightboat, pratt.edu

This book-length essay interrogates the label “queer art” and discusses the ways in which this classification limits the work of queer artists who should also have the opportunities to have their work classified in other ways. Goldberg uses a mix of cultural and art criticism, analysis of text excerpts, and personal narrative to carry readers through their argument, which is ultimately complicated and makes a larger statement about the categorization of literature and art and the urge and necessity to name and resist naming at once.

Read if: You are looking for a book that approaches queer theory from a new angle in an accessible way, or if you’d like a text that will leave you with a related reading list a mile long.

Get it from Amazon for $16.19+, Barnes & Noble for $16.95, or a local bookseller through IndieBound

20. Autumn and Winter by Ali Smith

Pantheon, Sarah Wood

Scottish writer Ali Smith has been a queer icon for a number of years. She started with a short story collection in 1995 and has since released over a dozen books, including the formally challenging How to Be Both, which was printed in two editions, each with the text in a different order. All of her books are dedicated to her partner of over 20 years, Sarah, who is referenced in a number of guises: Sarah Daniel, Sarah Wood, etc. Though neither of the two books in her most recent project — a quartet named for the four seasons — is explicitly queer, there is a tangle of relationships in both that feel observed with a queer sensibility. In Autumn, which has been described as Smith’s Brexit book, a young woman returns to the village where her mother lives and periodically visits and remembers a man she knew growing up, who now lies in a coma. In Winter, Smith turns her eye on a family at Christmas, in all their methods of function and dysfunction. Though the plots are simple, the feeling is complicated. Smith is a masterful storyteller; you can sense the powerful engine behind each twist, each turn of phrase.

Read if: You like tense stories about family (and to avoid having to pick up Karl Ove Knausgaard’s cycle of the same titles).

Get them from Amazon for $10.97+ and $12.05+, Barnes & Noble for $11.99+ and $12.12+, or a local bookseller through IndieBound here and here.

21. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Doubleday, Jenny Westerhoff

This is the only novel on this list to feature primarily — even exclusively, one might argue — male characters, but it was just so good. A Little Life follows four queer friends from college into the tumble and mangle of New York City, where they fall in and out of love — with men, women, their jobs, art, their friendships, and one another. The size and scope of the novel lets Yanagihara follow them for most of their lives, until they seem more like your own friends. Parts are extremely dark — there’s a lot of self-harm and sexual abuse in one of the character’s past, and a lot of discussion of suicide; one of the biggest critiques of the novel was that it was “trauma porn.” Taken together with the fact that it comes in at over 700 pages, it’s hardly a beach read, but the characters Yanagihara creates are extremely real and worth it.

Read if: You were a fan of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, but wished she’d said more on Francis and made Henry gay. ●

Get it from Amazon for $11.55+, Barnes & Noble for $12.99+, or a local bookseller through IndieBound.

Kit Haggard teaches at Emerson College. Her work has appeared in the Kenyon Review, Electric Literature, and The Masters Review, among other places. She is the recipient of the St. Botolph Emerging Artists Award, the Rex Warner Prize, and the Nancy Lynn Schwartz Prize for Fiction. She can be found on Twitter @kithaggard.

Alanna Duncan is a writer whose work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Electric Literature, Entropy, and Five2One, among others. She lives in Brooklyn with her bicycle and tweets @acdunc.