book review: De Facto Feminism


De Facto Feminism: Essays Straight Outta Oakland by Judy Juanita. EquiDistance Press| October 2016| 233 pages | $19.99| ISBN: 0-9716352-1-0

RATING: ****/5*

Essential feminist reading, these provocative, contemplative essays cover feminism, sexuality, spirituality and race with clarity and depth. In her outstanding debut novel, Virgin Soul, author/activist/teacher Judy Juanita details a young woman’s transformation and radicalization when she joins the Black Panther Party. I admire Judy Juanita and how she experienced so much and remains open to new experiences. She’s open and caring and understands both the realities and limitations and joy in a following creative endeavors and passionate causes.  Several months ago I received an email informing me that this essay collection would be released in the fall and asking if I’d like to review it. I soon received the review copy along with a lovely hand-written note. In the introduction author Judy Juanita writes: “Though exploration and unintentional trespass I’ve crossed boundaries of art, sexuality, spirituality and feminism at the margins of society, where sexual-racial bullying is most intense. Freedom fighters, word warriors and pushy heroines have informed the public of this dilemma, this discomfort borne of alienation, classism, sexism and racism. I stand among them.” Being a white female feminist I won’t proclaim to understand her detailed essays on race such as “Black Womanhood #1” but I’m glad to be both an ally to the Black Lives Matter movement and removed from White Racist America. This essay collection thrives as an insightful meditation on the connection between black women and current events in this society. Most essays first appeared in The Weeklings where Judy Juanita is a contributing editor. Readers will glean new information, empathetic moments and enlightenment.

“Cleaning Other People’s Houses” proves to be an interesting contemplative piece because so many educated women find themselves under-employed at various times of their lives (nearly my entire adulthood). There’s something to be learned in every experience. She learned through the clients for whom she worked as well as in the work itself. Juanita offers: “Whenever I ran into problems, cleaning or otherwise, I feel back on the great rhetorical ‘Why am I here?’ Testing my strength against that of my ancestors? Tackling a horrific job that one should ever have to do? I knew it was temporary, and it wasn’t horrific, just tedious and inglorious.” Two essays tackle writing:  “A Playwright-in-progress” and “Putting the Funny in the Novel.” The first essay explains what she learned about her process and her needs as a writer. In the other when her agent tells her to add more humor to her novel, Juanita embarks on stand-up comedy. She decides that her novel doesn’t need to be funny. In “The N-word: Let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater,” she reflects: “Used with the threat and/or act of murder, discrimination, prejudice, or brutality, of course the N-word is an abominable travesty. Used with affection between friends, in the height of lovemaking (yeah ,people get freaky with it), when making an emphatic  point in dialogue between podnahs, e.g. at a barbershop, on a street corner, at a family dinner with o.g.’s in the family a little toasted, the N-word is appropriate.” Black Lives Matter, the author’s personal Black Panther Party experience, gun-obsessed America and mass shootings powerfully evoked and reflected upon in “The Gun as Ultimate Performance Poem.” There’s a plethora of cultural and historical references in the thorough and provocative “De Facto Feminism.” She writes: “The blur of legality, morality and practicality at the heart of de facto activity has been a feature of African-American life since the first Africans arrived on these shores–and a part of immigrant life. Making it in America means going from the margin to the mainstream, not so easy in one generation. The stigma that black people carry as pigment forces them to be what others would term illegal, immoral but not impractical. The dividing line between feminism and black independence is necessity.”

–review by Amy Steele

 FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from the author.

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show preview: Fitz and the Tantrums at House of Blues Boston on November 15, 2016


Fitz and the Tantrums released a video for the infectious, upbeat single “Hand Clap.” It’s from the band’s self-titled album that came out during the summer. Of the song, Fitz said:  “I was searching for something that felt visceral and edgy. As soon as that moment happened, I was relieved. It felt like the compass — that theme of letting go and losing control — had been set. And it found its way into the rest of the album.” Fitz and the Tantrums formed in 2008. The Los Angeles indie pop band released Pickin’ Up the Pieces in 2010 and More Than Just a Dream in 2013.

Fitz and the Tantrums is: Fitz (Lead Vocals); Noelle Scaggs (Co-Vocals); James King (saxophone & flute); Joseph Karnes (bass); John Wicks (drums); Jeremy Ruzumna (keyboards)

venue info:

House of Blues Boston

15 Landsdowne Street

Boston MA 02115

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book review: Future Sex


Future Sex by Emily Witt. Farrar, Straus and Giroux| October 2016| 210 pages | $25.00| 9780865478794

RATING: *****/5*

“I had not chosen to be single but love is rare and it is frequently unreciprocated. Without love I saw no reason to form a permanent attachment to any particular place. Love determined how humans arrayed themselves in space.”

Technology changes everything. It changes how we meet people and it changes how we interact with others. There’s more sexual fluidity and experimental sex than in the past because of both changing ideologies as well as the ability to remain anonymous online if one chooses to indulge in one’s fantasies. Whatever you fancy you’re likely to find it. However, society still expects people to couple up to have families. Author Emily Witt writes: “If every expression of free sexuality by a woman would be second-guessed, it left men as the sole rational agents of sexual narrative. The woman was rarely granted the heroic role of seducer. If a woman pursued a strictly sexual experience, she was seen as succumbing to the wishes of the sovereign subject.” We live in a rampant rape culture. Women also get slut-shamed for wanting and pursuing sex. Can someone subsist outside of a monogamous relationship? Does everyone need to be part of a couple? This book strongly suggests that it’s not essential although how far outside the cultural norms must one go to be happy? Witt explains: “I supposed that since then I had been nonmonogamous in the sense of sometimes having sex with several different people within a specific period of time. As I said this both the idea of counting people and the idea of grouping them within a time frame seemed arbitrary. This was just my life: I lived it and sometimes had sex with people. Sometimes I wanted to commit to people, or they to me, but in the past two years no such interests had fallen into alignment.” Future Sex reads as a fascinating sociological study on sexuality that delves into orgasmic mediation, internet porn, webcams, Burning Man and polyamory. Witt combines personal experience with research and reporting in a darkly amusing, honest and real manner.  Witt investigates sites I’d barely heard of: Chaturbate; Porn Hub;; Fetlife. She attends an orgasmic mediation workshop [looked up on YouTube and there are tutorials] and travels to Burning Man. She interviews tons of people such as polyamorous Google employees, the founder of OKCupid, a 19-year-old webcammer as well as a woman who creates female-centered porn. Witt doesn’t make a spectacle of what may be absurd. Instead she writes analytically, astutely with brevity and a sharp edge.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Emily Witt will be at Harvard Book Store on Monday, October 17, 2016

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TV review: Surviving Compton: Dre, Suge and Michel’le



“Rap was about rage not beauty. Rap hated most women.” –Michel’le

After Straight Outta Compton premiered in theaters last year, many remarked how the film completely avoided depiction of N.W.A.’s violence against women. Here’s the counterpoint. It’s hip-hop artist Michel’le’s powerful and courageous story. As Michel’le narrates the film, this is her truth. Raised by her grandmother in Compton, Michel’le learned to expect men to hit women. That it was just something men did and that women should avoid provoking men and if he hits you to “fix it.” There’s this tragic conditioning of women and acceptance of violence against women. This is Michel’le’s story about her experience in the rap world, particularly her relationships with Dr. Dre and Suge Knight.

Plucked from a department store, Michel’le [adeptly portrayed by Rhyon Nicole Brown] starts singing on N.W.A. albums. She’s a surprise as she speaks in a high voice like Minnie Mouse but sings in a deep, gorgeous tone. She almost immediately attracts Dre’s attention and the two start dating. Michel’le remarks: “We were like family. They were like my brothers. Except for Dre of course.” Dre [Curtis Hamilton] had five children and “didn’t take any of these girls seriously.” Almost every guy that Michel’le knew had a baby. She said it was nearly a “Compton right of passage.” She and Dre move in together and she records her first album.

In the studio, Dre comes up and punches her hard. Repeatedly. It’s a disturbing scene. Being young and in love and not understanding love, Michel’le stayed with Dre. Another time he chokes her and exclaims: “Sing the song stupid bitch now.” They’re together for several years and have a son together. Here’s this distorted perception on love and loyalty. Women are afraid of men who control them. It’s often difficult to leave. Many women don’t feel self-confident enough to do so. She’s also young, inexperienced and swept up into this wild scene with drugs, booze, parties. In order to numb the pain, Michel’le started drinking and doing drugs. She also starts becoming successful apart from Dre. She opens for MC Hammer on tour in 1990. She also becomes an alcoholic and drug addict.  Death Row Records co-founder [and Dr. Dre’s business partner] Suge Knight [R. Marcos Taylor] becomes an ally, a protector of sorts, and offers to get her into rehab. While Suge’s in jail, they marry. She has a baby. She takes her child to her grandmother because she doesn’t feel confident enough in raising her own child. When Suge beats her, Michel’le leaves him.

See this film. It provides a memorable and potent first-hand female perspective on the rap world. Although a music critic, I only know what I read in the news about the rap world. Alternative music has always been by genre. It’s literally about a woman being knocked down and picking herself up and carrying on. Tremendous respect to Michel’le for this film.

Surviving Compton: Dre, Suge and Michel’le premieres Saturday, October 15, 2016 at 8pm ET/PT on Lifetime.

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new music: The Ladies of the Night; Parson James

The Ladies of the Night, “Sad Time for Music”

Margaret Cotton’s potent and gloomy vocals [parts Garbage’s Shirley Manson and parts Lykke Li] combine with a meditative melody for this gorgeously reflective and intriguing song from the southern California band. It’s a song which reflects today’s popular music. Bassist James Turner stated: “We want to continue where the great songwriting left off in the late 70’s. Musically, only rich songwriting can give you goosebumps.” Under band interests on its Facebook page: Cunnilingus. Coffee. Cannabis Vapor. Classical Music.

The Ladies of the Night is:

Buddy Price: Lead Guitar
Margaret Cotten: Rhythm Guitar / Vocals
James Turner: Bass Guitar
Al Wilde: Keyboard
Melvyn Grant: Drums

Parson James, “Sad Song”

The soul pop artist’s catchy new song addresses the realities of a relationship not working out. It’s about being yourself and being confident in yourself despite heartbreak. It’s a positive affirmation that not every relationship works out and it doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with you if it doesn’t. “And you were no good for me and I was no good for you.” Parson James shines with crisp vocals, an impressive vocal range and cool song crafting.


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book review: We Were Feminists Once


We Were Feminists Once by Andi Zeisler. Public Affairs| May 2016| 285 pages | $26.99| ISBN: 9781610395892

RATING: ****/5*

Andi Zeisler, founding editor of Bitch Media, provides a history of feminism in mainstream pop culture and whether or not it benefits the feminist movement. She writes: “This increasingly looks not like a world that has finally emerged into fully realized feminism, but like a world in which we are letting a glossy, feel-good feminism pull focus away from deeply entrenched forms of inequality.” In the past few years, legislators in various states have decreased women’s health care and threatened women’s right to make choices about their own bodies, sexuality and chose whether or not to give birth. Women do not have pay equity. Must I even mention this country’s prevalent rape culture? I list feminist on my social media bios and my dating profiles. So there are questions such as: “what type of feminist are you?” and “do you shave your legs/armpits etc?” and comments such as “no wonder you can’t get/keep a man.” I could go on but won’t. Zeisler delves into advertising, film, television, music. Meticulously researched, analyzed and thoughtfully presented, this is a must-read.

On film: “If there’s any silver lining here, it’s that more people than ever are talking about Hollywood’s woman problem as pattern behavior, rather than movie-by-movie shortcomings.”

On “this is what a feminist looks like” t-shirts: “The appeal of the slogan was easy to interpret: after all, too many people find the biggest roadblock to embracing feminism is in its unflattering optic legacy. Hags, dykes, ugly, unshaven, angry, finger-pointing, furious women—such adjectives and images have been encoded as the truth of what ‘feminism’ represented for so long that it’s begun, sadly to feel natural.

On celebrity feminism: “The fascination with Beyonce’s feminism, the urge to either claim her in sisterhood or discount her eligibility for it, speaks to the way that a focus on individuals and their choices quickly obscures the larger role that systems of sexism, racism, and capitalism play in defining and constraining those choices.”

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Public Affairs.

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book review: Commonwealth


Commonwealth by Ann Patchett. Harper| September 2016| 241 pages | $27.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-240353-7

RATING: ****/5*

What may have been an innocent kiss at a summer party leads to breaking up two families and cobbling together another in best-selling author Ann Patchett’s new novel Commonwealth. As she’s so deftly done in previous novels [Bel Canto, Run, State of Wonder] she writes humorously and movingly about seemingly disparate individuals connected by a shared experience. Bert Cousins and Beverly Keating move from California to Virginia along with Beverly’s two daughters Caroline and Franny. When the girls return from visiting their father in California, Patchett writes: “Beverly dropped to her knees to hug them but they were nothing but ghosts. Caroline wanted to live with her father. She begged for it, she pleaded, and year after year she was denied. Caroline’s hatred for her mother radiated through the cloth on her pink camp shirt as her mother pressed Caroline to her chest. Franny on the other hand simply stood there and tolerated the embrace. She didn’t know how to hate her mother yet, but every time she saw her father crying in the airport she came that much closer to figuring it out.” Oh divorce. . I’m a child of divorce but don’t have a blended family nor do I maintain relationships with my siblings or step-cousins.

Bert’s four children—Cal, Holly, Jeanette and Albie—remain with their mother but visit Virginia each summer. The six children bond over a disdain for their parents. Patchett writes: “The six children held in common one overarching principle that cast their potential dislike for one another down to the bottom of the minor leagues: they disliked their parents. They hated them.” They roam about without parental guidance and get themselves into varying degrees of trouble. The divorce of course affects each child differently. Cal, the oldest, leads the pack carrying a gun because that’s what one does in Virginia apparently. The children also give the littlest boy Albie allergy meds [telling him they are Tic Tacs] to knock him out so he won’t get underfoot. Many children of the 60s, 70s and 80s explored without constant adult supervision. A friend and I took our horses swimming in a man-made pond until the developers complained.

After Cal’s sudden death one summer, the children see less of each other. Spanning 50 years, Patchett develops the characters into adulthood where other events bring the step-siblings back together at times. Caroline, who diligently studied an LSAT book her father gave her for Christmas during childhood and her teen years, become an attorney. Jeanette lives in New York with her doctor husband. Albie is the most transient and troubled of them all. Holly escaped everything to a Buddhist community in Switzerland where she spends her days meditating. When her mom visits, Patchett paints a vivid picture of Holly’s chosen lifestyle and her mom’s discomfort yet willingness to participate in order to see her daughter. There’s much focus on Franny, who I loved. She doesn’t quite know what she wants to do with herself and to that I can definitely relate. Patchett writes: “For someone who had no skills and no idea what she wanted to do with her life other than read, cocktail waitressing was the most money she could make while keeping her clothes on.” While working, she meets the author Leon Posen, decades older than her, whom she greatly admires. They become lovers and she tells him about that summer and he writes a best-selling novel about it. Two decades later when the film version hits theaters, Franny is married with stepchildren and she and Caroline visit their father, Fix, now in his 80s and dying from cancer and take him to see the film.

The novel deftly traverses between different time periods as readers discover what happened to Cal and what everyone’s now doing as an adult. Some characters and scenes resonate more than others. It’s quite a large and unwieldy cast of characters and some of them can get lost in the pages. At times I became slightly slowed down by remembering how one character connected to another. In these characters readers will find some commonality, some connection and that makes the novel thoroughly readable and satisfying.

–review by Amy Steele

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

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