Archive for category Books
Survival Lessons by Alice Hoffman. Publisher: Algonquin (October 2013). Memoir. Hardcover. 96 pages. ISBN 978-1-61620-314-6.
“In many ways I wrote this book to remind myself of the beauty of life, something that’s all too easy to overlook during crisis of illness or loss. There were many times when I forgot about roses and starry nights. I forgot that our lives are made up of equal parts sorrow and joy, and that it is impossible to have one without the other.”
Survival Lessons isn’t a memoir but a manual for surviving illness and grief. Alice Hoffman said that it took her 15 years to write this little book. When she had breast cancer 15 years ago she read lots of books but found they lacked what she needed and wrote this one to help others who find themselves in the same situation she found herself in. Hoffman begins each section with “Choose” as in “Choose Your Heroes” or “Choose Your Friends” or “Choose to Make Things Beautiful.” I didn’t adore it and felt that some aspects seemed rather obvious. Wouldn’t you do what you wanted to do—eat chocolate, watch movies, read tons of books, and learn to do something you’ve always wanted to try? Some of the other advice she gives—choose your friends and forgive, for instance—I feel I’ve read before in similar tomes. She includes details about her writing career and her family, making this a special little book. Only strong writers can make a major impact in such a concise manner.
“We are all responsible for our actions, and our reactions. We are responsible for how we respond to situations we cannot control. I could not run away from my circumstances, or control the path of my disease, but I could control what I did with my experience of that illness.”
This is Alice Hoffman’s first work of nonfiction. She’s written 21 novels, eight children’s books and three story collections in her 40 year writing career. Hoffman’s advance for Survival Lessons will be donated to the Hoffman Breast Center at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Algonquin Books.
Dirty Love– a collection of novellas– focuses on what draws people toward one another and what pulls people apart in the name of love. What happens when fear, ego, power, desire and raw feelings influence our decisions? Beautifully written, evocative, emotionally wrought with layered characters and impossible situations. Love isn’t always what one expects it to be. Love can be emotional or physical. Love can be a bit of both. The writing never hides anything but peels away ugliness like a sunburn sloughs away one’s skin. There’s a wonderful sense of place and setting. Dark, gritty hideouts described with intricate detail. These characters and stories remains with you after the last page.
I recently spoke with Andre Dubus III by phone during a stop on his current book tour.
Amy Steele: Garden of Last Days is one of my favorite 9/11 novels, one of the best novels I’ve read. I loved it so much. And it’s being adapted into a film?
Andre Dubus III: Well James Franco pulled out of directing it but it’s still optioned by Gerard Butler’s production company. I think it’s still going to get made. I really appreciate you saying that because I don’t think enough people talk about it and I think it’s a better novel than anything I’ve ever written.
Amy Steele: Did you do a lot of research for (the novel)?
Andre Dubus III: Oh yeah I did a ton of research for it. I actually had to start writing just to read. I read the Koran twice. I read about the history of Saudi Arabia and Islam. I think some people see those three numbers 9/ 11 and they walk away. That might be changing now. People are more willing to step into an artistic exploration of that subject. All you can do is let it go.
Amy Steele: How did you come up with the latest idea for Dirty Love?
Andre Dubus III: The honest answer is I’m not sure. There’s a difference between making something up and imagining it. “The Bartender” and “Marla” came from longer stories that didn’t work. I realized they came from the same town. I realized I was writing deeply from an emotional center. I see a lot of marriages crash and burn around me and my wife. I’ve always been curious about how hard it is to love well and be loved.
Amy Steele: I saw comments on Goodreads that people think Dirty Love is depressing and some people consider the characters unlikeable. I’ve discussed reading and writing unlikeable characters in a writing group. How do you feel about writing unlikeable characters?
Andre Dubus III: I’m so glad you asked. Are we writing fucking sitcoms here? I’ll refute the whole notion of antagonist and protagonist. There’s not good guy and bad guy. To me they’re not cartoons. I rarely give a thought that characters have to be likeable. What am I here to fucking amuse you? I think the writer’s job is to paint the gray because no life is clearly defined. We are all living this dance and it is clearly fraught with making choices. Lots of my choices are bad and that’s normal. None of us are attractive at all times. What is attractive to me is authenticity. You know what a turn on is? Truth. You know what a turn off is? Perfume and smiling through fear.
Amy Steele: I like this quote from “Listen Carefully As Our Options Have Changed:” “Other women, women like Anna Harrison, seemed to smile on reflex, as if this were something they were taught to do as young girls—be nice, be pretty, nice is pretty—and so you never knew if a woman was genuinely please with something you’d said or done, or not. But Laura only smiled when she felt like it, her eyes turning down at the corners, so it was gift to them all when she did, a gift to Frank Harrison Jr. too, who must have charmed her into doing that at the gym, the place he drove his Audi coupe to every Monday, Wednesday and Friday . . .”
Andre Dubus III: I hope there’s not harsh judgment from me in that passage. I have empathy for mainly women who are taught to do that especially in the South.
Amy Steele: How does writing affect your teaching and teaching affect your writing?
Andre Dubus III: I really like teaching at UMass Lowell because they are the type of kids I grew up with in Merrimack Valley. I really speak their language and I’m moved by the experience. I know I learn a lot from the students in my class and I’m not just saying that to sound like some generous teacher. Teaching well draws from the same well that writing draws from: the reserves of compassion and ability to listen and concentrate on another. So I have to have fine line between teaching and writing. I try not to ever think of career. I just try to go to the dream world every day.
Amy Steele: Back to Dirty Love again, one part up at Hampton Beach you got that so well. I can talk this way because I’m the snob. Hampton Beach is kinda scummy.
Andre Dubus III: Hampton compared to Salisbury is Paris to Detroit.
Amy Steele: There was a moment where she said that she felt he thought he was too good for her.
Andre Dubus III: He admits to himself that maybe his wife drifted away from him for some decent reasons.
Amy Steele: I can’t stand the term slut-shaming. [we discuss it a bit]
Andre Dubus III: It’s offensive. Your larger point is language is important and word choice is important. You can talk about promiscuity without saying slut.
Amy Steele: What do you think are the qualities of good writing?
Andre Dubus III: I can isolate what I find to be negative qualities. I’m not a fan of a lot of post-modern work that I think is self-indulgent, wordy and showing the vocabulary of the writer and the hip world-weariness of the writer. That kinda work leaves me cold. As a reader– generosity of the writer, humility where it’s about the subject and where it’s character-driven in a service of what’s trying to be captured. I read poetry every day. I love the boiled down essence of poetry. I look for poetry in prose. In a way that evocative.
Amy Steele: What do you like best about writing?
Andre Dubus III: I like trying to be other people. I really do. Eudora Welty has a lovely preface to her collected stories. She says the creative that she holds most high is trying to enter into another human being. People fascinate the hell out of me. I never get tired of watching people, listening to people. The best part is not getting up in front of people but meeting people. I like trying to find the right word that captures the thing I’m trying to describe. It’s very pleasurable when you feel like you’ve done it and very frustrating when you feel like you haven’t. It inspires you to work harder and that’s why I do it five or six days a week.
The Cheesy Vegan by John Schlimm. Publisher: Da Capo (2013). Cooking/ Vegetarian & Vegan. Paperback Original. 244 pages. ISBN 978-0-345-7382-1679-9.
John Schlimm embraces the comfortable with this cookbook as well as his others: Grilling Vegan Style and The Tipsy Vegan. If you’ve become a vegan for health reasons, Schlimm’s got your covered. Drink, grill and now make your own cheese or indulge in all kinds of cheesy recipes with the assistance of this new cookbook. Making vegan food too similar to meat remains a pet peeve for me. I gave up meat for many reasons. I don’t need any reminders. But I don’t want to get personal. Also I’m not going to discuss the cruelties involved in the dairy industry. You can do your own research.
Chapters include: The DIY Vegan Cheese Kitchen; Breakfast & Brunch; Soups & Salads; Sides; Sandwiches; Appetizers & Snacks; Suppers; Mac ‘n’ Cheese; Cheesecake; Vegan Cheese Pairings: Wine, Beer & Cocktails.
In the first chapter—DIY Vegan Cheese Kitchen—Schlimm tells readers how to make different kinds of cheese such as nooch cheese. Cheese made with nutritional yeast, one of a vegan’s favorite ingredients. I already make this all the time and like it. I use it as an occasional pasta sauce and for mac and cheez and greens. To make cheddar, brie, swiss and mozzarella he uses either cashews or pine nuts. I just don’t have the equipment or kitchen space to be doing this. If I really feel I need some fake cheese, I’d just buy some soy or rice cheese slice from Whole Foods or the health food store. Sclimm has a feta recipe that requires tofu, miso paste, rice wine vinegar and nutritional yeast which I ‘m most likely to try at some point. I’ve made a faux ricotta cheese for vegan lasagna from tofu.
The rest of the cookbook consists of recipes—125– using the cheese he made in the first chapter or substituting store-bought faux cheese. Honestly I’m not all that impressed. But newer vegans or those who really really miss cheese will adore this cookbook. In the United States, cheese gets added to everything. Sometimes too often.
–review by Amy Steele
The Revolution of Every Day by Cari Luna. Publisher: Tin House Books (October 2013). Literary Fiction. Paperback. 392 pages. ISBN 9781935639640.
“She knows people have their own lives, their own things to do. It’s a squat, not a commune. But still, some Wednesdays, it seems they’re all down there together, everyone from Thirteen House and everyone from Cat House, squatter from Maus Haus and Utopia, kids from the park and a steady stream of the homeless. In summer they all spill out onto the sidewalk like a party. Those nights are the best. Those nights she could believe lentils and rice are the best damn thing she ever ate.”
This novel takes place in New York on the Lower East Side in the mid-90s when there’s a movement to take abandoned buildings back from the city. I’m not sure about the logistics and politics but some committed people get together to make the buildings living spaces, to make them communities. They make them safe and livable with electricity, running water and communal spaces. They rotate watch shifts or go dumpster diving and distribute food. Some become leaders. Some cling to relationships. Some find comfort in this strange lifestyle as if it’s the only lifestyle they’ve ever know. Others find that after so many years this is all they’ve got and they’re not going to quickly abandon it.
It’s about low-income housing, low-income living, survival, activism and community. This is about the American Dream becoming increasingly harder to reach. This is about living in a major city being nearly impossible anymore without drastic measures. Everything’s changed. There’s no longer rent control. People get pushed farther and farther away from where they truly want to live.
Intense. Enlightening. Spirited. Author Cari Luna focuses on several people in particular from varied backgrounds and how they came to live at a house they dub Thirteen House. She skillfully places the reader inside the house. Vivid depictions capture New York’s vital essence. A captivating array of characters will draw you in from page one.
Five squatters realize their own internal turmoil and disagreements might weaken foundations faster than city planners, officials and attorneys can evict them. Amelia entered the house as a teen runaway and drug user. While Gerrit believes they’re a couple, she’s having sex with his best friend Steve and is pregnant with Steve’s child. Amelia seems to be growing up and becoming independent and liking it. She’s finally making her own decisions. When she’d arrived at the house, drug-addled she relied on her sexuality and youth. Now she wants more. Gerrit isn’t all that great. He’s rather a pushover for everyone.
Although Steve’s been married for over a decade he constantly cheats on Anne and they don’t have an open relationship. Anne, Steve’s wife, questions both her commitment to Steve and the squatter lifestyle. Steve and Gerrit work well together when focused on the building’s needs and in leading people to fight gentrification taking over their neighborhood. They both have varied experiences as community organizers and protestors. Cat, a former downtown legend of the club/music scene and leader in the squatter movement, might be giving in to a former drug habit. Cat surprised me the most. I didn’t expect her to use again but became so tired with everyone expecting so much from her when she wanted quiet. Seemed the stagnation finally got to Cat.
“Forty-one years old and worried about being late to a job selling onions. This isn’t’ what she’d expected from her life. Though, truth be told, her expectations ran out at thirty and she’s been winging it since then.”
Communal living interests me. I like my privacy and alone time but also prefer not to live completely alone. I’ve often wished I could live in a boarding house but I don’t believe those exist anymore. I doubt I’d survive on a commune because I don’t favor manual labor unless it’s taking care of horses. I don’t like yard work or gardening so I’d be pretty useless on a commune. Maybe I could do the cooking as I’m a pretty good vegan cook. However I could never be a squatter. If I’m living somewhere on principle to be in the city that I want to be in I want to be there and experiencing everything I can.
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Tin House Books.
How to Be Alone by Tanya Davis. Publisher: Harper (October 22, 2013). Poetry. Hardcover. 128 pages. ISBN 9780062280848.
Canadian singer/songwriter and poet Tanya Davis writes: “Society is afraid of alone though- like lonely hearts are wasting away in basements, like people must have problems if after a while no one’s dating them” in this advice poem. That’s an unfortunate truth. I’ve never had problems or issues in doing anything alone. Societal expectations compel people to believe they MUST always do things in groups. Sometimes solitude can be just the thing. I just went out to a show Saturday—Grace & Tony and Kingsley Flood. I see a film a week in the theater. I prefer it that way. I go to book readings. I never understand when someone says “I want to see X film but I have no one to go with.” I say just go! This could make a cute gift book though for those in fear of being by themselves.
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Harper Collins.
IT’S NEVER TOO LATE by Dallas Clayton. Publisher: Amy Einhorn Books (November 7, 2013). Hardcover. ISBN 978-0-399-16308-1.
“And everyone’s sink/ gets all full of dishes, and everyone’s heart/ gets all full of wishes./ And everyone’s mind/ gets all full of mess,/ and we all read the signs,/ and we all try our best.”
Children’s author and illustrator Dallas Clayton decided to published this “children’s book for adults.” It’s about making the most of time, striving for everything you dream about and want. It’s rather whimsical and fun. Makes a delightful little gift.
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Putnam.
In conversation with William Corbett
At the Coolidge Corner Theatre
(tickets with purchase of book)
Monday, October 7 at 5:30
Tuesday, October 8 at 7pm
The Tenth Witness
Tuesday, October 8 at 7pm
Amy Grace Lloyd, The Affairs of Others
Jessica Keener, Women in Bed: Stories
Wednesday, October 9 at 7pm
At Brattle Theatre
Thursday, October 10 at 7pm
Thursday, October 17 at 7pm
Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story
Monday, October 21 at 7pm
The Concord Bookshop
Thursday, October 24 at 7pm
Jayne Anne Phillips
Porter Square Books
Thursday, October 24 at 7pm
Andre Dubus III, Dirty Love
Tom Perrotta, Nine Inches: Stories
Friday, October 25
Monday, October 28 at 7pm
Tuesday, October 29 at 7pm
We are Water
Coolidge Corner Theatre
Wednesday, October 30 at 6pm
Tickets with purchase of novel at Brookline Booksmith
The Last Runaway
Porter Square Books
Thursday, October 31 at 7pm
SICK JUSTICE: Inside the American Gulag by Ivan G. Goldman. Publisher: Potomac Books/University of Nebraska Press (2013). Nonfiction. Cloth. 256 pages. ISBN 978-1-61234-487-4.
If you’re like me, you may already doubt the U.S. justice system after reading, hearing or watching cases such as George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin, O.J. Simpson, The West Memphis Three and The Central Park Five. Or like me you’ve had your own experiences with the ineptitude or inequities of the legal system. 2.3 million people are incarcerated in the United States. That’s big business. After I’d watched The Central Park Five documentary and been discussing it on Twitter, an author friend told me I should read this book. Author Ivan Goldman thoroughly researched our criminal justice system– visited several prisons, interviewed inmates and included details about little known cases and well-known cases such as Boston mob boss Whitey Bulger and the West Memphis Three.
Goldman explains the brutally ridiculous and unfair mandatory minimum drug sentences, three-strikes laws, punishing nonviolent first-time offenders, the ineffective war on drugs, closing mental health institutions around the country and how that pushes the mentally ill to seek other treatment for their illnesses. He also reveals the big money business in private prisons and bureaucracies running prisons that don’t want to see anything change. Egregious injustices occur when those accused lack money or power. It’s angering, disturbing, eye-opening and a difficult read [meaning you might need to put it down from time to time to reflect].
Some compelling points from the book:
–“one in thirty-one U.S. adults in jail, prison, or on parole, according to a 2009 report from the respected Pew Center on the States.”
–“The National Employment Law Project found that 90 percent of employers check potential employees for criminal backgrounds. More than two-thirds of the states allow hiring and professional-licensing decisions to be made on the basis of an arrest alone; no conviction is necessary. By age twenty-three, 30 percent of Americans have been arrested; this number was 22 percent in 1967.”
–“The New York Innocence Project fond that in more than 15 percent of wrongful convictions overturned by DNA testing, an informant or jailhouse snitch had testified against his defendant.”
–“In June 2011 The Global Commission on Drug Policy, a high-powered group of former world-leaders, including former United Nations (UN) secretary-general Kofi Annan and past presidents of Mexico, Brazil, and Colombia, issued a report that concluded the global war on drugs has been a disastrous failure that foments violence and doesn’t curtail drug use.”
–“Wackenhut is a private security firm that was renamed the GEO Group in 2003. As the GEO Group, it currently runs lockups in fourteen states and is a component of British-based G4S, the world’s largest security company.”
–“The National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors estimated that in 2008-11 states cut $3.4 billion in mental health services, while an additional 400,000 people sought help at mental health facilities.”
–“In January 2004 the Sentencing Project estimated that a black man had a one-in-three chance of serving time in prison at some point in his life.”
–“The practice of stop-and-frisk rests on a 1968 decision that established the benchmark of ‘reasonable suspicion’—a standard lower than the ‘probable cause’ benchmark used previously.
From 2004-2009, New York City police officers stopped people and checked them out three million times. “Nearly 90 percent of the people stopped were completely innocent of any wrongdoing.” Crime was going down and the number of people stopped and frisked during this time period went up.
–“In 2007 Texas began place more low-risk, nonviolent offenders on probation or freeing them on parole. It also started providing treatment to inmates suffering from drug and alcohol addiction or mental health problems.”
–“Convicts who maintain contact with family and friends in the outside world are less likely to be convicted of additional crimes and usually have an easier reintegration back into society, yet the clumsy federal system still incarcerates inmates far from home.”
–“Up to 60 percent of ex-convicts in New York State are still unemployed after release, according to a study from the Independent Committee on Reentry and Employment.”
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Potomac Books.
The Lord of the Flies by William Golding
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
The Awakening by Kate Chopin
A Separate Peace by John Knowles
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
“I know that some people feel unhappiness the way others love: privately, intensely, and without recourse.”
And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini
Lillian & Dash by Sam Toperoff. Publisher: Other Press (2013). Historical Fiction. Softcover. 385 pages. ISBN 978-159051568-6.
“That bond, however it is presented and whatever it is called, endured for three decades, contorted, stretched, and strained but unbroken by distance, professional jealousy, countless flings and more serious affairs by each, pathetic need, insult, drink, recrimination, and disappointment.”
What a charming novel that delves into the long affair between playwright Lillian Hellman [Little Foxes, The Children’s Hour] and noir author and screenwriter Dashiell Hammett [The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man]. Theirs was a complicated relationship as Dashiell remained married [and had several children] while Lillian never married. As both writers lived well before my time, I’m only familiar with their work. I’d seen and truly appreciated Hellman’s Little Foxes and The Children’s Hour but knew nothing about her personal life. Of course I’d seen The Maltese Falcon and I’d heard of the popularity of The Thin Man novels and film series but I’ve yet to see them but will at some time. As with Hellman, I knew little to nothing about Hammett.
Author Sam Toperoff makes you feel as if you’re drawn into the midst of a black and white film or at a party with Lillian and Dash. Lillian Hellman– independent, successful, driven – so much so that Dashiell became immensely jealous of her and that drove a wedge between them at various times but they kept coming back to each other. Although she did fine on her own and had plenty of other affairs, Lillian loved something about Dashiell despite his drunkenness, instability and unreliability in later years. The more I read about Lillian, the more interested I became in her writing and her life and the more I wanted to read about her and the less about her relationship with the drunken Dashiell. He just seemed to be a hanger-on, a nuisance. Perhaps when they were younger he had a certain charm or enticing quality but it didn’t stand out in this novel. He never seemed happy for her successes. There’s a plethora of details about their projects, behind the scenes in Hollywood and some political incidents including the Spanish War and McCarthyism. ]. The manner in which Toperoff crafts this novel swept me right up into their Hollywood romance. It’s a treat for those fascinated by Old Hollywood and classic films.
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from the Other Press.