3 books to read this month: Who’s Afraid of Gender, Small Fires, Alphabetical Diaries

The latest novels by Judith Butler, Rebecca May Johnson and Sheila Heti.

More about books you should read, and the authors who wrote them, that were recently featured on the Weird Era podcast, by co-host Sruti Islam.

Who’s Afraid of Gender by Judith Butler

I am unlearning a lot (as we all should), and this text by the always foundational Butler is a perfect if not necessary gateway to unlearning about trans oppression. If you’ve ever sat through an undergraduate degree, you’ve already been schooled by Butler (they who reign supreme on gender theory). Readers will be confronted with the diverse social anxieties that spark so much fear about trans identity, and in addressing them, Butler refreshingly evens the ground between a skeptic of trans history and history itself. For those who see trans identities as a threat towards contemporary feminism, Butler elicits a sort of dubious parallel — aren’t women under attack in both instances here? Butler identifies trans religious anxiety in its determinism for reproductive social order, and then fairly asks how well reproductive social order has been working for us historically anyway. This is not a book about being right, but a starting point to the question of how many ways one could be wrong.

Small Fires by Rebecca May Johnson

If you’re a home cook and a romantic, then this one’s for you. Luckily, I am both. During the pandemic, when the world shut down, and my friends felt so far away, I found myself a) bored and b) lonely. And because the only thing that motivates me in a day is my next meal, I took up the habit of cooking. I fell in love. I loved the sizzles and cracks, the way unexpected textures melted into sauces (anchovies!), the lick of heat in spice and the way chicken fat could base an endless variety of delicious sauces. And then the loneliness kicked in, so I started what my friends now lovingly refer to as, “Sruti Dinners.” Rebecca May Johnston writes poetically and more significantly, emotionally, of a similar stirring. She identifies the reader as a specific “you” (someone she so obviously loves), and writes of the ways in which her heart bursts in the kitchen. She speaks of the magic of change, a concept so key to heat, fat and acid, and of the historical ways this loving act has been domesticated to something as silly as, “women’s work.” Read if you love food and your friends.

Alphabetical Diaries by Sheila Heti

Heti fans unite. Our Canadian legend has done it again. Though, I must admit, as her bibliography expands, and as a former bookseller, I find readers are pretty touchy everytime she releases a book. “I loved this one.” “That one was not for me.” “I don’t know…” And I think the win here is that Heti is so devoted to her artistry, it seems obvious enough to me that the writer never wants to write the same book twice. Though there is a consistent permeating texture of auto-fiction, genre wise, no two books share the same form. Alphabetical Diaries exhibits this most directly. Over the course of the last 13 years, Heti has been organizing phrases from her personal diary into alphabetical order, and I still can’t believe how wildly readable it has turned out to be — a collection of phrases bulked together, individuated by chapters. Given Heti’s brilliantly expansive philosophical mind, each personal meditation, although separated from its context, still sits heavy with the reader. “How much I enjoy pleasure,” begins the excerpt on the back jacket. I mean, where to start even there!

The Weird Era podcast is available via Apple and Spotify.

This article was originally published in the Feb. 2024 issue of Cult MTL.

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