13 Subversive Books to Binge-Read Now

PhD-level witchery. A society that throws out any object that sparks joy. Women who know their way around a revenge plot. A misunderstood mental health study. Zadie Smith. And different ways of seeing anxiety, age, and ourselves. The new books we’ve read this week and the less-new books we’re returning to seem to have a theme: subversion.


  • <em>Hex</em> by Rebecca Dinerstein Knight

    Hex by Rebecca Dinerstein Knight

    When Nell Barber gets expelled from her PhD program (biological science), she decides not to let it rest. Her lab had been trying to detoxify poisonous plants, and Nell’s whole life could be said to be a study in the relationship between poison and antidote. Which is perhaps best represented by Nell’s obsession with her ambiguous ex-advisor and mentor Dr. Joan Kallas, who in somewhat equal measures builds and tears down components of Nell’s life. This is a sophisticated, surprising take on the campus novel (with a welcome dose of witchery). Knight’s writing feels a little wild and charged, as if you’re constantly on the edge of discovering something new with her.

  • <em>The Memory Police</em> by Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder

    The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder

    Many dystopian novels work overtime to convince us of the terribleness of conditions in their opening pages. Instead, The Memory Police challenges the reader to feel freedom’s loss through a slow-burning, methodical implementation. This quiet book is set on a remote island where, in a subversion of KonMari, any object that sparks joy is soon to be thrown out and forgotten (an act required by law and enforced by the Memory Police). Our narrator is struggling to write her newest novel when her life changes. She takes in her editor, a fugitive because he has the rare ability—or is it the will?—to remember. Birds, lemon drops, music boxes, and even the island’s ferry boat pass from society, reduced to meaningless objects that spark no emotion at all, as everyone waits to see what will go next. It’s a story about the power of memory in making meaning, and our responsibility to ourselves and to one another to simply remember.

  • <em>Show Them a Good Time</em> by Nicole Flattery

    Show Them a Good Time by Nicole Flattery

    The girls and women who shape Nicole Flattery’s story collection come from and pass through strange, dystopian, and surreal worlds. They’re told to play certain roles: In the opening story, a woman returns to her hometown from a stint in the city and is relegated to working a job at a fake car garage where management tells her she has a personality best suited to short interactions. Flattery’s characters are dark and witty and generally not the kind of people who are going to do what they’re told they’re suited to do. We love them for it.

  • <em>The Starless Sea</em> by Erin Morgenstern

    The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

    Erin Morgenstern, author of The Night Circus, creates extraordinary places and people. In The Starless Sea, we follow Zachary Ezra Rawlins, a book-obsessed graduate student who discovers a mysterious book that includes a story about himself. It’s a story that carries Zachary into an underground society where he begins to make sense of his own life, bit by bit.

  • <em>We Wish You Luck</em> by Caroline Zancan

    We Wish You Luck by Caroline Zancan

    We Wish You Luck is set on the fictional Fielding campus and spans ten-day periods over a few Januarys and Junes when a miscellaneous group of hopeful, and hopeless, writers gather for a low-residency MFA program. We fell right into this creative writing scene and the strange friendship that dominates it. We indulged in Caroline Zancan’s clever writing conceit—the story is told by a collective “we,” a chorus of Fielding students—and her elaborate revenge plot, which you just have to see through to the last dark deed.

  • <em>You Are Not Alone</em> by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen

    You Are Not Alone by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen

    The number one New York Times–bestselling writing duo Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen (coauthors of The Wife between Us and An Anonymous Girl) are back. Their new thriller is about a circle of friends with some suspect intentions. Twist, twist, twist.


  • <em>Buy Yourself the F*cking Lilies</em> by Tara Schuster

    Buy Yourself the F*cking Lilies by Tara Schuster

    Whether you thought the journey to self-love couldn’t be made interesting or it’s the only thing you want to read about: Here is a hilarious, honest, and timely memoir from a young Comedy Central VP. Tara Schuster worked hard, focused, and got to the top of her industry in her late twenties as a TV exec working on The Daily Show, Key & Peele, and more. Her outward success was a thinly veiled cover-up for the anxious and self-medicated person she saw in the mirror (whom many of us may recognize). Schuster realized she didn’t have the essential tools she needed to be who she was in the world. This is the story of how she found them.

  • <em>Feel Free</em> by Zadie Smith

    Feel Free by Zadie Smith

    Even the range of topics in Zadie Smith’s essay collection is a pleasure—from Joni Mitchell to Get Out to Justin Bieber. Smith’s fiction has earned a solid reputation for being unmissable, and her essays should be, too: When we go on Facebook, she writes, we’re looking at (and conforming to) the inside of Harvard sophomore Zuckerberg’s mind. In another essay, Smith can’t imagine herself as a corpse, and this somehow—brilliantly—brings up art, philosophy, inequality, and the iPhone. Feel Free combines previously unpublished work as well as some Smith OGs that can be read and reread for years to come. (And while we’re talking about Zadie Smith: If you happen to be in the market for an audiobook, we like her 2016 novel Swing Time, about a complicated childhood friendship.)

  • <em>First, We Make the Beast Beautiful</em> by Sarah Wilson

    First, We Make the Beast Beautiful by Sarah Wilson

    Finding the right book on anxiety can feel a bit like finding the right therapist: If it doesn’t hit right, there is a fear that it will do more harm than good. Sarah Wilson’s is one of the best books on anxiety we have ever read. In First, We Make the Beast Beautiful, Wilson grounds us with one overarching suggestion—to view our anxiety as our finest teacher. It’s a simple reframe that flips much of what we’re told about anxiety on its head. Could anxiety be something we embrace? Wilson takes us through her own journey with it in essay-like chapters, cut by interviews on mental health with people like Brené Brown and the Dalai Lama. It’s a book we read slowly and thoughtfully. And in times of more notable stress, we return to certain chapters.

  • <em>The Great Pretender</em> by Susannah Cahalan

    The Great Pretender by Susannah Cahalan

    In 1973, David Rosenhan enrolled several of his students at Stanford University in a study that would forever change the field of psychology: They showed up at mental hospitals and said they heard the words, “thud, empty, hollow.” Almost all of these pseudopatients were diagnosed as schizophrenic. The study was a blow to the legitimacy of psychiatric diagnoses; it denounced the poor conditions inside asylums, and many closed. Now Susannah Cahalan—author of Brain on Fire, who suffered from mental illness due to an autoimmune brain disorder—unravels the mystery behind Rosenhan’s study. Because, as it turns out, the story it told was not the whole story.

  • <em>Keep It Moving</em> by Twyla Tharp

    Keep It Moving by Twyla Tharp

    At seventy-eight years old, famed dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp is often asked, “How do you keep working?” Tharp has created more than 130 dances, she’s won two Emmys and a Tony, and she’s stewarded the careers of many, many dancers and artists. Her advice is not about chasing youth. It’s about small and simple ways to reframe aging to lessen our collective fear around it. All the parts—including and especially the messy ones—are things we earn, not run from. With anecdotes, exercises (both physical and mental), and tips from her own life, Tharp does a masterful job of revealing aging to be both beautiful and meaningful. If you’re a millennial with decades to go, there’s a lot of hope for you here, too.

  • <em>Save Yourself</em> by Cameron Esposito

    Save Yourself by Cameron Esposito

    If you haven’t gotten involved in Cameron Esposito’s comedy, may we recommend you start now. Her stand-up is as funny as it is insightful and emotionally intelligent. And Esposito’s memoir delivers, too. In Save Yourself, she pulls from her own mishaps and struggles as she opens up complex conversations on gender and sexuality (Esposito grew up gay in a devout Catholic home). Honest, embarrassing, and hopeful, Save Yourself offers a quick reminder that bears repeating: You’re enough just the way you are.

  • <em>Travel Light, Move Fast</em> by Alexandra Fuller

    Travel Light, Move Fast by Alexandra Fuller

    Travel Light, Move Fast is the most recent in Alexandra Fuller’s stunning suite of memoirs. It’s fundamentally an examination of grief, in the form of an ode to Fuller’s adored late father. But like her other work, it dips into a tumultuous African childhood, American adulthood, and her parents’ madcap marriage. Nobody writes like Fuller about the messiness of family life in a war zone; fiercely loving, totally impossible, far-from-sober parents; the can’t-describe-it bond of sisterhood; and obsessive yearning for a place (in this case, Central and Southern Africa). Travel Light, Move Fast is a searing memoir that delves into the age-old question: How does one survive a loss that feels unsurvivable?

We hope you enjoy the books recommended here. Our goal is to suggest only things we love and think you might, as well. We also like transparency, so, full disclosure: We may collect a share of sales or other compensation if you purchase through the external links on this page.