book review: Where Women are Kings

where women are kings

Where Women are Kings By Christie Watson.
Other Press| April 28, 2015| 256 pages| $16.95| ISBN: 978-1-59051-709-3

Rating: *****/5*

Simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming. Stunning. Entwines race, foster families, adoption, mental illness and cultural differences with exquisite descriptions and phrasing. Every so often I read a novel so gorgeously written and remarkable that I find it difficult to review. This is one of those novels.

The title refers to Elijah’s mother’s birth country of Nigeria. After being moved from one foster family to another, a bi-racial, British-Nigerian couple adopts the seven year old with a history of disruptive behavior. “Nikki had known people would talk. After all, a white woman didn’t suddenly give birth to a black child of seven. Still, she wished people would mind their own business.”

Nikki and Obi believe their magnanimous love and consistent support will make Elijah part of their family. His mentally ill and deeply religious mother told Elijah that there’s a bad spirit in him. She wrote in a journal: “I was so unwell, Elijah, hearing voices constantly, not sleeping, unable to eat, and I knew everything was down to that wizard destroying us. The insects were crawling around inside me.” He believes her and assumes that this evil cannot be stopped. He dreads discussing it and doesn’t know how to fight it “But Elijah could feel the wizard, churning up his stomach, and he had to hold tight to Granddad or the wizard might take hold of Elijah’s body and fly him far away.”

Social workers and therapists attempt to work with Elijah’s wounded spirit but Elijah’s thinking and behavior intensifies. “Nikki felt her own heart thumping against Elijah’s back. Ricardo had warned them about rages and that Elijah might lash out, but, since she’s first seen his scars, Elijah had been nothing but calm and loving. She felt the skin underneath her eye. What had happened to her son? She held him close.”

Often devastating. Completely riveting. Entrancing. Using empathy and humor, Christie Watson wrote one of the best novels I’ve read this year.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Other Press.

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purchase at Amazon: Where Women Are Kings

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book review: reflecting on life’s unconventional choices in Spinster and Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed


Spinster By Kate Bolick.
Crown| April 21, 2015|308 pages |$26.00| ISBN: 978-0-385-34714-3

Rating: ****/5*

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Penguin Random House.

Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids Edited by Meghan Daum.
Picador| March 2015|288 pages |$26.00| ISBN: 978-1-250-05293-3

Rating: ****/5*

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I won an ARC on Goodreads.

“After all, artists—especially writers—need more alone time than regular people. They crave solitude whereas many people fear it. They resign themselves to financial uncertainty whereas most people do anything they can to avoid it. Moreover, if an artist is lucky, her work becomes her legacy, thus theoretically lessening the burden of producing a child to carry it out.” –Meghan Daum

Being 45 never married and childfree I could write an essay on both these books. I have written essays on these topics. At an early age, I knew I never really wanted to marry or have children. It wasn’t something I sought out in relationships i.e. a guy I would end up marrying. I never wanted to own a house. I never felt any maternal urges. I didn’t play with dolls or fantasize about weddings. I rode horses. I wrote poems.

Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed approaches the topic with fresh voices. Much superior to No Kidding: Women Writers on Bypassing Parenthood. It’s not the usual “I’m too busy/my career got in the way and I forgot about children” argument that many people use. Many people feel plenty fulfilled with pets, careers, volunteer work, hobbies, partners, lovers and yeah, just being alone. This idea of being single or being a spinster is exactly what Kate Bolick investigates in Spinster. It’s much more acceptable to be single and over 35 these days. However there remain misconceptions and stereotypes [crazy cat lady anyone?]. In fact there are 158.3 million women in the United States and 105 million are single. Sometimes it doesn’t seem that way surrounded by wedding rings and couples.

Bolick explains: “Not until colonial America did spinster become synonymous with the British old maid, a disparagement that cruelly invokes maiden (a fertile virgin girl) to signify that this matured version has never outgrown her virginal state, and is so far past her prime that she never will. If a woman wasn’t married by twenty-three she became a ‘spinster.’ If she was still unwed at twenty-six, she was written off as a hopeless ‘thornback,’ a species of flat, spiny fish—a discouraging start to America’s long evolution in getting comfortable with the idea of autonomous women.” Bolick mixes her personal experiences and thoughts with research on literary inspirations—Edna St. Vincent Millay; Maeve Brennan; Edith Wharton; Neith Boyce and Charlotte Perkins Gilman to examine the idea of pursuing not just a room of one’s own but a life of one’s own choosing.

Danielle Henderson [“Save Yourself”] writes: “But to me, the lack of desire to have a child is innate. It exists outside of my control. It is simply who I am and I can take neither credit nor blame for all that it may or may not signify.” Geoff Dyer [“Over and Out”] admits: “It’s not just that I’ve never wanted to have children. I’ve always wanted to not have them.” He continues: “Of all the arguments for having children, the suggestion that it gives life ‘meaning’ is the one to which I am most hostile—apart from all the others. The assumption that life needs a meaning or purpose! I’m totally cool with the idea of life being utterly meaningless and devoid of purpose.”

Laura Kipnis [“Maternal Instincts”] states: “It’s only modern technology’s role in overriding nature—lowering the maternal death rate, inventing decent birth control methods—that’s offered women some modicum of self-determination.” She adds: “Though no one exactly says it, women are voting with their ovaries, and the reason is simple. There are too few social supports, especially given the fact that the majority of women are no longer just mothers now, they’re mother-workers.”

Unfortunately due to societal expectations and pressures it does make one feel a bit of a freak, an outsider that one doesn’t have a ring on one’s finger. That one isn’t coupled up. That one doesn’t have children. For a while you get the “you might change your mind” or “it’s not too late” or “you just haven’t met the right guy yet” when someone hears of your supposed dilemma. At 29 I had to have a laparoscopy and wanted tubal ligation but my gynecologist refused because I might change my mind I was young. Then a few months later I turned on The Today Show and see a 20something guy talking about his choice to get a vasectomy. Just because I have a vagina doesn’t mean I want to breed. I’m happy solo. I’d be a great aunt but no one wants to forge that relationship probably due to my mental illness.

Oh, that’s another thing who would want to inflict mental illness knowingly on a child. I belong to DBSA [Depression Bipolar Support Alliance] and in groups I hear person after person talking about their own children being diagnosed with a mental illness. They themselves are here in a group because they struggle with mental illness every day. Someone once said that her babies were what made her get out of bed because of her depression. Yeah, get a cat. That’s a lot of pressure for a child to be your reason to get up in the morning and not kill yourself. As Lionel Shriver writes [“Be Here Now Means Be Gone Later”]: “The odds of children making you happier are surely no better than fifty-fifty.” Elliott Holt discusses her depression and mental breakdowns in “Just An Aunt.” She writes: “I offer my three nieces an entirely different female model: a career-focused artist, with no financial security, who will probably never own a house.”

Both my brothers married college girlfriends at age 23. My older brother had all three daughters before he turned thirty. His daughter married at 21 before even graduating from college. Who knows who one is or wants to be or is a fully formed individual until age 30? Sometimes it takes a while to figure ourselves out both professionally and personally. Anna Holmes [“Mommy Fearest”] writes: “These days, as I enter my forties, I find that I am now beginning to feel comfortable in my own skin, to find the wherewithal to respect my own needs as much as others’, to know what my emotional and physical limits are, and to confidently, yet kindly, tell others no.” Kate Bolick notes: “Austen never married, Wharton didn’t fully come into her own as a writer until she’d divorced her husband, and Mary Eleanor Wilkins—a wildly successful fiction writer in her day; who like Maine’s never-married Sarah Orne Jewett before her, often chose spinsters as her subjects—did in fact produce her best work before she married at age fifty.”

An ex once told me that marriage and having children was “the thing to do.” Another high school friend said that she and her boyfriend thought about whether they wanted to be the type of couple who had children or the type who didn’t. Sounded weird. Think of first time fathers Jeff Goldblum at 60 and Steve Martin at 70. Having a child can be just as selfish an act as not having a child—- to pass on your genes; to keep your lineage flourishing; to have someone to love unconditionally.

We’ve all seen those couples who work out together or those who call each other from the grocery store to consult on what they need. Then there are those people who cannot see films alone or go to a concert. They miss out on so much for fear to go alone. Bolick, who doesn’t go much longer than a few months without a boyfriend, writes: “though marriage was no longer compulsory, the way it had been in the 1950s, we continued to organize our lives around it, unchallenged.” However on the flip side: “Having nobody to go home to at night had always seemed a sad and lonesome fate; now I saw that being forced to leave the house for human contact encourages a person to live more fully in the world.”

If you’re feeling the need for kinship, both Spinster and Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed are compelling reads. If you don’t understand how someone could choose to be single or choose not to have a child, then you need to read them also. If you’re a feminist [and if you’re reading one of my reviews you should be], these are required reading.

Kate Bolick will be at Harvard Book Store tonight, April 23 at 7pm.

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purchase at Amazon:

Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own

Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids

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TOUR NEWS: original Shonen Knife bassist Atsuko returns for U.S. tour


Japan’s fabulous all-female pop punk band Shonen Knife’s bassist Ritsuko announced her maternity leave from the band this week: “I have a baby on the way!!! Am I following similar “got pregnant stories” frequently made public recently in the gossip columns? No!! Mine is the real happy love story!! I am very happy now, even though I will miss the upcoming North American tour. I am grateful to Atsuko-san for rejoining Shonen Knife in the upcoming tour.”

Shonen Knife will be doing a US tour in June w/ CJ Ramone in the Midwest and East Coast and original member Atsuko (who is also the younger sister of lead vocalist/guitarist Naoko) will fill in for the band on these US dates. The tour kicks off in Buffalo, NY and winds up in Cambridge, Mass at The Middle East Restaurant and Nightclub.


6/3 Buffalo, NY – Waiting Room (SK Only)

6/4 Cleveland, OH – The Happy Dog (SK Only)

6/5 Sandusky, OH – Collosalcon14, Kalahari Resort (SK Only)

6/6 Columbus OH – Ace of Cups

6/7 Chicago IL – Bottom Lounge

6/9 Milwaukee, WI – Cactus Club

6/10 St Paul MN – Amsterdam Bar and Grill

6/11 Lincoln NE – Vega

6/13 Nashville, TN – Mercury Lounge

6/14 Atlanta GA – HELL at The Masquerade

6/16 Chapel Hill, NC – Local 506

6/17 Louisville, KY – The New Vintage

6/18 Cincinnati, OH – The Woodward Theater

6/19 Baltimore MD – The Metro Gallery

6/20 LongBranch, NJ – Brighton Bar

6/21 Philadelphia, PA – Black Box in Underground Arts

6/22 NY, NY – Le Poisson Rouge

6/23 Hamden CT – The Space Ballroom

6/24 Cambridge, MA – Middle East Downstairs

purchase at Amazon: Overdrive


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book review: Your Health Destiny

your health destiny

Your Health Destiny By Eva Selhub, M.D.
HarperOne| April 2015|245 pages |$26.99| ISBN: 978-0-06232-7789

Rating: ****/5*

Merging Eastern philosophies and alternative treatments with Western medicine, Eva Selhub, M.D. effectually discusses essential body systems in a systematic manner by dividing this book into chapters on the immune system; the heart; the lungs; the gastrointestinal system; the musculoskeletal system; the spine and the brain. She writes: “Modern medicine focuses on getting rid of symptoms and managing body parts, so that you can continue on with your life; it does not address the real core issues of why you are in the state you are in to begin with or the reason the body is reacting the way it is in the first place.” The Mind-body connection is important. Many people have a basic understanding that eating well and exercising makes them feel physically and emotionally better. Selhub adds: “Simply put, you have the power to transform your mind and improve the functioning of your body. The key to this power lies in your ability to bounce back from illness, manage life’s stress efficiently and effectively, and truly believe in the possibility of good.”

Dr. Selhub uses the acronym POWER to help people figure out why their body isn’t in homeostasis. PAUSE to clear and open your mind. OPTIMIZE awareness of body parts and how they function. WITNESS you body’s language and physiology “so that you can further your awareness and move into acceptance, understanding how your body speaks to you.” EXAMINE deeper emotions and beliefs. RELEASE negative habits and beliefs, RELIEVE your body of stress and RESTORE the power to bring your mind and body into balance. In each section she provides an anatomy and physiology review/lesson, points to contributing factors to issues with that system, red flags that you need to get checked by a doctor, then brings in some Eastern philosophy to tie everything together. An example: “It is believed in many wisdom traditions that breath is a metaphor for life and breathing represents the essence of our being.”

The takeaway:

–Don’t worry. Be happy. A University of Kansas 2010 study found that “optimism was a significant predictor of positive physical health outcomes.”

–the Journal of Neuroscience recently found that environmental factors [stress, drug abuse, poor sleep] “compromise the circadian rhythm, causing the genetic landscape of your ‘clock genes’ to change its shape.”

–Think positively. “Your thoughts, emotions, and beliefs, and therefore your perception of yourself and your world, are directly connected to your body’s biochemistry and physiology.”

–95% of the body’s serotonin lies in the gut

–allergies are the fifth leading cause of chronic diseases in the United States in all age groups

–Autoimmune disease is one of the top ten leading cause of death in girls and women up to sixty-four years of age.

–60% of your immune systems exist in the lining of your gastrointestinal tract.

–studies show that eating more cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, kale and cauliflower reduces risk of getting lung cancer

–as you age, the acidity in the stomach decreases and low acid levels hinder digestion

–more than 34 million Americans are afflicted with diseases of the digestive system

–studies show that those who feel they have a purpose in life are healthier and live longer

–CDC recommends 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise.

–Drink Water. According to The Institute of Medicine the adequate intake for a male is 3 liters [13 cups] of total beverages daily and for women it’s 2.2 liters [9 cups].

–“While the left side of the cerebrum enables you to be more detail oriented and logical, the right side is more responsible for your artistic tendencies and your ability to think abstractly.”

–One in four adults suffers from a mental illness in a given year

–“Not only do mental health issues affect one’s ability to fully engage in life’s activities, but they also negatively affect families and loved ones. Mental health problems affect emotions, thoughts, behaviors, and often physical health.”

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Harper Collins.

Eva Selhub, M.D. will be at The Brookline Booksmith on Tuesday, April 21 at 7pm.

purchase at Amazon: Your Health Destiny: How to Unlock Your Natural Ability to Overcome Illness, Feel Better, and Live Longer

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ON TOUR: Madi Diaz


beguiling, passionate Los Angeles singer/songwriter Madi Diaz East Coast Tour Dates:

Apr 20 Middle East (Upstairs) Cambridge, MA
Apr 21 Rough Trade Brooklyn, NY
Apr 23 Wolf Den at Mohegan Sun Resort Uncasville, CT
Apr 24 North Star Bar Philadelphia, PA

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live review: Johnette Napolitano at Johnny D’s

photo by Ellen Stone Photography

photo by Ellen Stone Photography

Curiosity brought me to the show. I like female singers. I like bands fronted by female singers. The show featured Concrete Blonde’s Johnette Napolitano and local favorite [although she’s now a self-proclaimed farmer in Montana] Laurie Sargent. Admittedly I don’t know that much about Concrete Blonde. I think I had Recollection in my CD collection at one point. Didn’t see them back in their heyday in the 80s and 90s. Particularly popular is the album Bloodletting from 1990 which includes the hit “Joey.” It’s always great to see an acoustic, intimate performance by a veteran. The majority middle-aged crowd savored the show and often shouted out to Napolitano when she told her stories, some that she read out of a notebook.

It was a wonderful performance because Johnette Napolitano is tough and cool and chatty. She sings with distinctive raspy brash vocals. The set featured stripped down, mellow, splendid versions of some Concrete Blonde songs, some originals and some covers. The set was anything but somnolent however with Napolitano sharing stories from her days on the road with Concrete Blonde, personal experiences and opinions. She loudly declares at one point “I’m a fucking rock star!” but then won’t go so far as claiming feminism. She said: “I love men. I don’t like this feminist thing we don’t like men. I like men too much.” She lost me after that comment unfortunately. When will women understand that feminists don’t hate men? Feminists want equality with men. That’s all that feminism means. Equality on social, political and economic levels.

Napolitano began her 75 minute set with a duet on “Joey” with opening act Laurie Sargent. She sang a slow and sweetly pretty “Sun” which she introduced by saying that she grew up in Beverly Hills and is a city girl but now lives out in the desert near Joshua Tree. She declared: “All that’s out there is animal energy and moon and sun.” She performed a beautiful rendition of the Johnny Cash tune “Ghost Riders in the Sky” and a fantastic cover of Steve Vai’s “It’s All About Eve.” She sang a subdued and lovely song she wrote about Billie Holiday called “Billy.” She sang a slow and melodic “Rosalie.” Napolitano introduced the potent “Walking in London” by saying that it was a popular song with the military and played in tanks. With lyrics like “I’m either going insane or I’m a human wire receiving a signal desire” it makes sense. She left out some popular Concrete Blonde songs like “Everybody Knows” or “Ghost of a Texas Ladies Man” likely to the crowd’s dismay.

Laurie Sargent played an energetic, charming opening set.

Johnette Napolitano
with Laurie Sargent
Johnny D’s
Somerville, Mass.
April 16, 2015

purchase: Bloodletting (20th Anniversary Edition)

purchase: Recollection: Best of Concrete Blonde

purchase: Heads & Tales

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I recently wrote a review of the wonderful novel The Art of Unpacking Your Life by Shireen Jilla. It centers on a group of college friends who take a trip together 20 years after college. Much happens while they’re on holiday–births, deaths, love, scandal and affairs. It’s a topsy-turvy read. Highly recommended. Ms. Jilla worked as a journalist before writing novels. This is her second novel. Her first is a psychodrama called Exiled.

Recently Shireen Jilla answered a few questions via email.

photo by Francesco Guidicini

photo by Francesco Guidicini

Amy Steele: How did you get the idea for this novel?

Shireen Jilla: I was like a schizophrenic for years, muttering to the main characters, who wouldn’t leave my mind.

I wanted to write about a generation that didn’t all end up married with 2.4 children. By 40, some are single, divorced, gay, with children, without. To me, it is no longer clear cut.

Amy Steele: It’s your second novel. What did you do differently in writing this one than the first?

Shireen Jilla: My last novel, Exiled, was a psychological thriller set in New York. Like Rosemary’s Baby. So the plot came first. It was the very immediate story of one woman, so I decided to write it in the first person.

With Unpacking, my starting point was altogether different. I had been thinking about the six main characters for a long time. I was equally interested in each of their stories. So I eventually decided to use a ‘roving’ third person perspective inspired by Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway.

Amy Steele: How does your work as a journalist affect your novel writing?

Shireen Jilla: It makes it easier and harder. I am used to settling down to write, but a 1,00-word newspaper feature with a clear beginning, middle and end, is ver different from facing the mountain of 100,000 words of fiction. Once I had worked out what I wanted to do with Unpacking, I wrote it very fast.

The first draft was completed in five months. I spent six weekends working from Friday through to Monday, practically without sleeping.
I am not precious about getting the scenes down and I don’t prevaricate. I think that’s because I am also a journalist.

Amy Steele: Why did you decide to set this in the Kalahari? How did you recreate the settings?

Shireen Jilla: I tried setting it in Sardinia, but it wasn’t a remote or extreme enough to allow the characters to unravel in such a short space of time. When my brother took me on this trip of a lifetime to the Kalahari, my first ever to Africa, I realised it was the perfect setting.

I kept a diary, took hundreds of photos, some of which are on my website, bought books, and talked extensively to the guides. All the detail is accurate.

Amy Steele: As they seem to be the main characters, what do you like best about Connie, about Luke and about Sara?

Shireen Jilla: I am incredibly fond of all the characters in the book. I admire Connie’s strength, love her doubt. I was drawn to Luke because of his unspoken vulnerability. And Sara is highly intelligent and funny, but ultimately a loyal friend.

Amy Steele: Why did you pick three guys, three women?

Shireen Jilla: I wanted Unpacking to be about a group of friends, close but disparate. And I wanted it to be written from a male and female point of view. Both reasons led me to have six main characters. In a literary sense, six main characters is considered a handful. And the editor at my literary agency encouraged me to reduce them.

Amy Steele: Are you still close friends with college friends? Would you take a safari trip together?

Shireen Jilla: Yes! I would love to do it.

Amy Steele: What do like best about writing novels?

Shireen Jilla: I love the actual process. It’s probably escapism. Still, I am never happier than when I am in the middle of writing a novel.

The Art of Unpacking Your Life [Bloomsbury Reader] by Shireen Jilla is available now.

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