What is “scandalous”? Britannica Dictionary offers these two definitions: “shocking or offensive” and “involving immoral or shocking things that a person has done or is believed to have done.” I’d add that, as strange as it may sound, what is scandalous is often humanizing. That is certainly how I feel about the characters, mishaps, and adventures within the books in this list. These novels are gross and violent, sticky and full of lust. They are also sensitive and smart, raw and brave. Through the bodily fluids, the suspense, and the gore, the characters in these books explore what it means to exist in a body, with a soul and a conscience. Whether or not readers have gone through the same wild experiences as these characters, we can surely relate to their soul-searching and the struggle of confronting the dark corners of their minds. These are books to read when you want to laugh, cry, gasp, and feel less alone. These are books to read when you’re feeling scandalous.
Something MILK FED taught me is that the most scandalous books are shocking and offensive, yes, but also raw—not just physically, but emotionally. The novel is about Rachel, a twenty-four-year-old Jewish woman who struggles with an eating disorder, and what happens when she stops talking to her mom, from whom she learned the art of calorie counting, for nine months. During this period, Rachel strikes up a friendship with Miriam, a heavyset Orthodox Jewish woman who works at the frozen yogurt shop Rachel regularly goes to for lunch. Miriam becomes a mother figure to Rachel, feeding her and showing her the kindness Rachel never received from her own mother, as well as an object of sexual obsession. Rachel is so broken and so relatable because she’s trying to answer the same questions many of us have asked ourselves at one time or another—Why are we here? What does it mean to exist in a body? What do I really want?—she’s just answering them in between the steamy lesbian sex scenes. If MILK FED sounds appealing, you may also want to check out Melissa Broder’s forthcoming novel DEATH VALLEY.
Named a Best Book of the Year by Entertainment Weekly, Vogue, Time, Esquire, BookPage, and more
This darkly hilarious and “delicious new novel that ravishes with sex and food” (The Boston Globe) from the acclaimed author of The Pisces and So Sad Today is a “precise blend of desire, discomfort, spirituality, and existential ache” (BuzzFeed).
Rachel is twenty-four, a lapsed Jew who has made calorie restriction her religion. By day, she maintains an illusion of existential control, through obsessive food rituals, while working as an underling at a Los Angeles talent management agency. At night, she pedals nowhere on the elliptical machine. Rachel is content to carry on subsisting—until her therapist encourages her to take a ninety-day communication detox from her mother, who raised her in the tradition of calorie counting.
Rachel soon meets Miriam, a zaftig young Orthodox Jewish woman who works at her favorite frozen yogurt shop and is intent upon feeding her. Rachel is suddenly and powerfully entranced by Miriam—by her sundaes and her body, her faith and her family—and as the two grow closer, Rachel embarks on a journey marked by mirrors, mysticism, mothers, milk, and honey.
“A ruthless, laugh-out-loud examination of life under the tyranny of diet culture” (Glamour) Broder tells a tale of appetites: physical hunger, sexual desire, spiritual longing, and the ways that we compartmentalize these so often interdependent instincts. Milk Fed is “riotously funny and perfectly profane” (Refinery 29) from “a wild, wicked mind” (Los Angeles Times).
Masako Katori leads an uneventful life working the night shift in a factory until a colleague murders her abusive husband and recruits Masako to help bury the body. Suddenly, Masako is directing her colleagues in a dangerous, devious, and sometimes brutal effort to hide the crime. This award-winning mystery features body horror and impeccably delivered suspense on the surface, built on a foundation of social commentary on misogyny and social inequity. The scandal in OUT can be summed up in one question: to what length will Masako and her colleagues go to cover up a murder?
Could a sleezy sex addict and con man be the second coming of Christ? Victor Mancini’s mother thinks so. In CHOKE, Chuck Palahniuk cleverly devises an antihero through which he confronts existential dread and the cost of hope. Victor divides his time between the 1734 colonial theme park where he works, the hospital where his mom lives, and the restaurants where he makes a living by pretending to choke and accepting money from sympathetic bystanders. This book is a wild ride that will never cease to entertain and elicit strong emotions. If CHOKE appeals to you, keep an eye out for Chuck Palahniuk’s NOT FOREVER, BUT FOR NOW, out this September.
This psychological thriller by Han Kang, one of Korea’s most celebrated contemporary writers, follows a homemaker and the shocking chaos that transpires when she challenges convention. Yeong-hye has a simple, quiet life with her husband until she starts having disturbing nightmares. In response to the blood and violence she experiences in her dreams, Yeong-hye abruptly gets rid of all the meat in the kitchen and decides to become a vegetarian. Over time, Yeong-hye loses both her weight and her sanity, a transformation that makes for a suspenseful story. This novel, written in three parts, each with a different narrator, features erotic sex scenes, blood and gore, and a representation of what can happen when a woman challenges the conventions of a male-dominated world.
What happens when a college professor is accused of sexual misconduct, his feminist wife and fellow English professor has a midlife crisis, and a sexy young professor comes on board? You have to read VLADIMIR to find out, but believe me, the ride is worth it. Like many of the books on this list, VLADIMIR is at once sexy and smart—I am convinced that Julia May Jonas is a genius. Through the unnamed narrator’s struggle to support her husband, indulge and understand her desires (those sexual and emotional), and set a good example for her students, Jonas asks what it means to be a moral person and what place literature has in our lives. The narrator isn’t always likeable, and you may not agree with every decision she makes, but I think you will find that she is always convincing and alluring. Come for the steamy scenes, stay for the existential exploration.
An NPR, Washington Post, Time, People, Vulture, Guardian, Vox, Kirkus Reviews, Newsweek, LitHub, and New York Public Library Best Book of the Year * “Delightful…cathartic, devious, and terrifically entertaining.” —The New York Times * “Timely, whip-smart, and darkly funny.” —People (Book of the Week)
A provocative, razor-sharp, and timely debut novel about a beloved English professor facing a slew of accusations against her professor husband by former students—a situation that becomes more complicated when she herself develops an obsession of her own...
“When I was a child, I loved old men, and I could tell that they also loved me.” And so we are introduced to our narrator who’s “a work of art in herself” (The Washington Post): a popular English professor whose charismatic husband at the same small liberal arts college is under investigation for his inappropriate relationships with his former students. The couple have long had a mutual understanding when it comes to their extra-marital pursuits, but with these new allegations, life has become far less comfortable for them both. And when our narrator becomes increasingly infatuated with Vladimir—a celebrated, married young novelist who’s just arrived on campus—their tinder box world comes dangerously close to exploding.
“Timely, whip-smart, and darkly funny” (People), Vladimir takes us into charged territory, where the boundaries of morality bump up against the impulses of the human heart. This edgy, uncommonly assured debut perfectly captures the personal and political minefield of our current moment, exposing the nuances and the grey area between power and desire.
Raizl, a young Hasidic woman, is hoping to get matched for a marriage soon. There’s only one problem: she’s addicted to porn. Every night, Raizl goes to her bedroom—a bedroom which she shares with her sister. So she gets under the covers, and watches videos that teach her about parts she didn’t know existed and things she didn’t realize the human body was capable of doing. To be honest, when I first picked up this book, I wasn’t all that interested. I didn’t think it would appeal to me, given the premise, and I certainly didn’t expect to feel emotionally connected to the characters. What a pleasant surprise, then, when I realized very early on that Felicia Berliner writes a charming coming-of-age story that is as much about the power of language and family as it is about a woman coming to understand herself sexually (and in all manners). Raizl is a protagonist who is easy to empathize with and relate to as she struggles with conforming to the strict Hasidic Jewish culture.
“Hilarious and endearing...Shmutz is a dirty book with a pure heart.” —The New York Times
In this witty, provocative, and “compulsively readable coming-of-age story” (Cosmopolitan), a young Hasidic woman on a quest to get married fears she will never find a groom because of her secret addiction to porn.
Like the other women in her ultra-Orthodox Brooklyn community, Raizl expects to find a husband through an arranged marriage. Unlike the other women, Raizl has a secret.
With a hidden computer to help her complete her college degree, she falls down the slippery slope of online pornography. As Raizl dives deeper into the world of porn at night, her daytime life begins to unravel. Between combative visits with her shrink to complicated arranged dates, Raizl must balance her growing understanding of her sexuality with the expectations of the family she loves.
“Clever, subversive, juicy, and surprising” (Deesha Philyaw, author of The Secret Lives of Church Ladies), Shmutz explores what it means to be a fully realized sexual and spiritual being caught between the traditional and modern worlds.
If you want scandal, look no further: Jen Beagin’s BIG SWISS is an entertaining, darkly humorous, and shockingly humanizing story involving a sex coach, a married woman who’s never had an orgasm, and lovers harboring secrets and unprocessed trauma. Narrator Greta, who works as a transcriptionist for a sex coach, falls in love with a client, the aforementioned married woman (and titular character—Flavia, affectionately known to Greta as “Big Swiss”), and they develop an intense relationship. . . . Come for the quirky humor and wild sex, stay for the dogs, the bees, and the centuries-old Dutch farmhouse. The novel is also being developed into an HBO show starring Jodie Comer.
A brilliantly original and funny novel about a sex therapist’s transcriptionist who falls in love with a client while listening to her sessions. When they accidentally meet in real life, an explosive affair ensues.
Greta lives with her friend Sabine in an ancient Dutch farmhouse in Hudson, New York. The house, built in 1737, is unrenovated, uninsulated, and full of bees. Greta spends her days transcribing therapy sessions for a sex coach who calls himself Om. She becomes infatuated with his newest client, a repressed married woman she affectionately refers to as Big Swiss, since she’s tall, stoic, and originally from Switzerland. Greta is fascinated by Big Swiss’s refreshing attitude toward trauma. They both have dark histories, but Big Swiss chooses to remain unattached to her suffering while Greta continues to be tortured by her past.
One day, Greta recognizes Big Swiss’s voice at the dog park. In a panic, she introduces herself with a fake name and they quickly become enmeshed. Although Big Swiss is unaware of Greta’s true identity, Greta has never been more herself with anyone. Her attraction to Big Swiss overrides her guilt, and she’ll do anything to sustain the relationship…
Bold, outlandish, and filled with irresistible characters, Big Swiss is both a love story and also a deft examination of infidelity, mental health, sexual stereotypes, and more—from an amazingly talented, one-of-a-kind voice in contemporary fiction.
The full title of Katharina Volckmer’s debut novel is THE APPOINTMENT (OR, THE STORY OF A JEWISH COCK). As the subtitle reveals, this brief yet potent book isn’t afraid to “go there,” and it does so with grace, lyricism, and humor. The novel unfolds as a one-sided conversation between an unnamed narrator and her Jewish doctor, Dr. Seligman, during an intimate examination. The narrator, a German woman, divulges all her questions, secrets, and insecurities, from the fact that she has sexual fantasies involving Hitler to the process of making peace with her past relationships and her identity as a descendant of Nazis. What I adore about Volckmer’s writing is how raw and confident it is—she completely exposes her narrator, quirks and all, in such a way that readers are made to feel welcome to laugh and also reflect seriously on their own explorations of identity and sexuality.
“Darkly funny.” —The Guardian * “Transgressive...incendiary.” —The New Yorker * “A furious comic monologue...with a disregard for propriety worthy of Alexander Portnoy.” —The New York Times Book Review * “Sexy, hilarious, and subversive.” —The Paris Review
A whip-smart debut novel in which a woman on the verge of major change addresses her doctor in a stream of consciousness narrative.
In a well-appointed examination in London, a young woman unburdens herself to a certain Dr. Seligman. Though she can barely see above his head, she holds forth about her life and desires, her struggles with national and sexual identity. Born and raised in Germany, she has been living in London for several years, determined to break free from her family origins and her haunted homeland. But the recent death of her grandfather, and an unexpected inheritance, make it clear that you cannot easily outrun your own shame, whether it be physical, familial, historical, national, or all of the above.
Or can you? With Dr. Seligman’s help, our narrator will find out.
In a monologue that is both deliciously dark and subversively funny, she takes us on a wide-ranging journey from Hitler-centered sexual fantasies and overbearing mothers to the medicinal properties of squirrel tails and the notion that anatomical changes can serve as historical reparation. The Appointment is an audacious debut novel by an explosive new international literary voice, challenging all of our notions of what is fluid and what is fixed, and the myriad ways we seek to make peace with others and ourselves in the 21st century.
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