When it’s done well, historical fiction transports you to a particular time, place and setting through the eyes of its characters. The best historical fiction makes me want to learn more about the period or the characters. I try to refrain from googling while reading a book but if I’m itching to look something up, I know the author succeeded in transporting me to another time. That’s one of my favorite genres. Two compelling novels came out recently which center around independent and unconventional women, one real and one fictional.
Learning to See focuses on Dorothea Lange and her photography in the 1930s. I’m familiar with Dorothea Lange’s Dust Bowl photographs but not much else. In this thoroughly researched novel, author Elise Hooper brings readers into Lange’s world. Told from Lange’s point-of-view, the novel follows her burgeoning career as a photographer at a time when women weren’t pursuing careers, they were focusing on raising children. After moving to San Francisco with a friend, Lange finds work at a photography shop. She soon opens her own portrait studio and amasses clients. She’s friends with a group of photographers and artists which includes Ansel Adams. She marries rather volatile artist Maynard Dixon. They travel to Arizona so that Dixon can work on some painting. Lange notes: “Our first few days were spent examining the terrain, so different from everything I’d ever known: wide sweeps of empty desert, soaring sky, endless clouds. It felt timeless, nothing like the city. The simple geometry of the landscape’s lines and bold shouts of color left me awed. During each sunrise and sunset, under a sky bruised with purples and rippling with flames, the desert was reborn. The air thrummed with possibility.” Lange is an independent, strong woman determined to use her skills to benefit others in a deeper manner than merely taking pretty portraits. Navigating her way as a working mother, wife and professional photographer, Lange faces many challenges including her husband’s alcoholism and affairs. When her marriage and the nation’s economy begin to decline, she decides to take a position with the government taking pictures of the country’s disenfranchised, the photographs she’s known for today. She photographs migrant workers and Japanese Americans in camps during World War II. Hooper effectively allows readers the opportunity to see the time period through Lange’s lens.
Learning to See by Elise Hooper. William Morrow| January 22, 2019| 384 pages | $15.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-291035-6
This wasn’t on my radar but the title and cover intrigued me so I started reading it one day and became completely absorbed by it. After immigrating to the United States from Ireland, three siblings forge their path in antebellum Cincinnati in The Eulogist. James establishes a successful candle-making business, free spirit Erasmus becomes a traveling preacher and independent, open-minded Olivia challenges a conventional life. These dissimilar siblings function like the id (Erasmus), ego (Olivia) and superego (James). I became completely charmed by Olivia, by her loyalty, curiosity and determination. She attends lectures by feminists and abolitionists and questions women’s expected roles during that time: “That summer of 1829, culture and curiosity came over the city like the quickening of a maiden’s heart. Cincinnati was overrun by fanatics and intellectuals trying to make their case: Caldwell’s discourse on phrenology; Miss Fanny Wright on slavery and marriage; Dr. Alexander Campbell and Robert Owen battling the fundamental relationship between godliness and goodliness.” She’s not particularly interested in marriage [“I have never been one to pine for marriage, nor did motherhood enchant me. As I saw it, marriage was a function of economic dependence, and wrongly, too, since women rarely had money of their own.”] or starting a family. She does end up marrying a doctor who she falls in love with after spending time with him performing autopsies and doing research on corpses. When he dies, Olivia returns with his body to Kentucky to find her brother-in-law heavily involved in slavery. She’s determined to save a young black woman who has been living fairly free in Ohio from being returned as her brother-in-law’s property. She enlists the assistance of both her brothers. Through detailed descriptions and strong character development, I found myself completely engrossed. Taking place in the decades preceding the Civil War, slavery was illegal in Ohio, the first state created from the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. Ohio was active in the Underground Railroad. I recently found a family tree my grandmother created which traces several generations in Ohio and I’d like to conduct research someday to see if any of my ancestors had any involvement in the Underground Railroad.
The Eulogist by Terry Gamble. William Morrow| January 22, 2019| 320 pages | $26.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-283991-6
–review by Amy Steele
Good Riddance by Elinor Lipman. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt| February 5, 2019| 304 pages | $25.00| ISBN: 978-0-544-80825-6
–review by Amy Steele
“I used to have a husband, from a marriage that was a bad idea from the start. Now I can advise others: Never marry a man who proposes too early.”
When Daphne discards her deceased mother’s yearbook, a neighbor decides she’s going to make a documentary about what she discovers in it. One person’s trash is another’s treasure, particularly an enterprising someone looking to advance her career. Daphne’s mother, June, was a teacher and yearbook advisor for the Class of 1968 who attended every class reunion and kept detailed notes about the students in the yearbook. Seemingly everyone had a crush on Daphne’s mother at this New Hampshire high school. June had an affair with a student after he graduated. Daphne attends a reunion as a fact-finding mission and this man, now a state representative, claims to be Daphne’s biological father. Daphne introduces herself to her tablemates in this manner: “I was bamboozled into a loveless marriage because my husband wouldn’t inherit his grandparents’ money while he was still single.” Daphne hasn’t had the best of luck in relationships. She’s self-deprecating and aware of her challenges and somewhat resigned. She’s completely surprised when she embarks on a tryst with her cute younger neighbor, an actor. She ends up having lots of fun and confides in him. It’s just the ego boost she needs. I found Daphne to be quite genuine and relatable. Her father seems like a great dad. The news that someone else might be her biological father, leads Daphne to have bouts of doubt: “My not sleeping great had to do with the ugly breaking news that my entire existence was based on a lie. Shouldn’t I have been warned of inheritable diseases that might be down the road? Or told to work harder in high school because I could apply as a legacy to Dartmouth? Such were the 2 a.m. agitations of a dispossessed daughter.” Will these new discoveries affect Daphne’s relationship with the only father she’s ever known? Between studying online to become a pastry chef, hooking up with her neighbor and helping her father navigate his recent move to New York, Daphne attempts to thwart her plans to expose her mother’s personal life. Author Elinor Lipman (The Inn at Lake Divine, On Turpentine Lane) successfully contrasts the idiosyncrasies of small town New England with sprawling Manhattan. Lipman is a master of clever, amusing novels with quirky central characters. Her novels are guaranteed delightful fun reading. I love her writing and creativity so much that I received an advanced copy in October and devoured it right away. It’s the ideal anti-Valentine’s read.
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
–As its title suggests, this is a novel about marriage. About an American marriage. about the institution of marriage and how it fits or does not fit individual aspirations and dispositions. Recently married couple Celestial and Roy have promising careers in Atlanta—Celestial as an artist and Roy in business. Celestial earned an advanced art degree in New York. She’s focused and determined to excel in the art world. Both she and Roy graduated from historically black colleges. Growing up with wealthy parents affords Celestial the ability to pursue her creative endeavors. Marriage often doesn’t align with a creative spirit.
At its core it’s a novel about the black experience. About what it means to be black in America. According to the NAACP, African Americans comprised 34% of the 6.8 million correctional population in 2014. African Americans are incarcerated at a rate of 5 times that of white Americans. It’s a reality that black Americans will be more likely to know someone in prison or be personally affected by the criminal justice system. It’s a reality that black men get targeted and get wrongfully accused or generally screwed over by the system.
As the novel progresses, the strong, vibrant writing allows readers to become absorbed in Celestial and Roy’s marriage and relationship as well as their relationship to their friends and family. Through these characters, author Tayari Jones explores family and love by delving into step-parenting, wandering biological fathers, fidelity and abandonment. How does the type of family the characters grew up in affect them as adults.
Any Man by Amber Tamblyn
— If you’re looking for an intense, intelligent and engulfing feminist thriller, you must read ANY MAN. Author Amber Tamblyn challenges rape culture and the problematic treatment of victims and glorification of violence and misogyny through this thriller about a female serial rapist. The novel follows six men: an English teacher, a struggling standup comedian, a bi-racial web designer, a high school student, an alt-right media personality and a transgender man. A uniquely irreverent and impressively original novel, social commentary and crime thriller meld with insightful, sharp prose and diverse writing styles. She weaves in tweets, poetry, internet chat room, a radio talk show. She also flips everything one expects in thriller.
The Collector’s Apprentice by B.A. Shapiro
–It’s 1922 and a young woman creates a new identity and endeavors to recover her family’s art collection and exact revenge on the fiance who conned her out of her money and reputation. From Philadelphia to Paris, it’s a whirlwind of a historical fiction thriller.
Crudo by Olivia Laing
— The ecru cover with black lettering and a dismembered fly in the middle of Crudo’s cover pulled me in with its darkness. This might be a slim novel but it’s packed with provocative prose, eccentricities, witty observations and overall intellectual prowess not often accomplished through such brevity and through experimental style. It’s not easy to explain when nothing and everything occurs. It’s a feverish and daring stream of consciousness about our destructive and often restrictive society. Finding an element of safety and belonging can be overwhelming. Author Olivia Laing (<em>The Lonely City</em>) impressively wrote her fictional debut in real time over the course of seven weeks.
Disoriental by Nejar Djavadi
— A gorgeous, exquisite, smart and meditative novel about an Iranian family and its struggles and triumphs. As Kimia Sadr sits in a fertility clinic in Paris she reminisces about family myths and ancestry. She ponders how she got to be where she is at this moment. She recollects her family history as well as Iran’s history and how it’s made her who she is today. Kimia is a lesbian and she’s decided to have a baby with a man that she met during her travels. He’s HIV+ and so they need to use the clinic. Kimia’s been wandering for years in an attempt to figure out where she belongs. For those unfamiliar, it’s the ideal primer to Iranian revolutionary history. Abundant information gets beautifully shared throughout this novel in an accessible and manageable manner. It’s definitely a challenging yet completely rewarding read.
Eventide by Therese Bohman
With an emphasis on culture and art, Eventide is a meditation on solitude, success and meaningfulness. Working in a male-dominated field, art history professor Karolina Andersson begins working as thesis advisor to a male student who claims to have discovered new works of art by a female artist in the early twentieth century. He’s attractive and intriguing to Karolina who recently ended a long relationship and finds herself wondering if she wasted her prime years with this man and if she’s even doing what will make her the most fulfilled. She’s plateaued in her career and doesn’t have as much interest in it as she had when she was younger. As a woman who also wasted many years in a bad relationship, who never married or had children and in her late 40s, I found myself completely commiserating with Karolina.
Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao
— a devastating, provocative and beautiful novel which illuminates the horrific reality of sex trafficking and domestic abuse. Growing up in an impoverished village in India, Savitha and Poornima lack choices such as furthering their education. Instead, they’re expected to marry young and start families. After Poornima’s mother dies, she’s expected to care for her father and younger siblings. Which she’d rather do than be shipped off to marry. The bright spot remains the strong friendship that Savitha and Poornima established. They create saris on looms which Poornima’s father owns. The women initially think that they might be able to succeed on their own and not have to agree to an arranged marriage. Savitha’s independent spirit and veracity inspires Poornima. Together the women become determined to forge a better reality. Although these women face repeated horrific abuse at the hands of men, author Shobha Rao makes readers both root for the women and wonder what they’ll do next to escape their current predicament.
Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot
How to Be Famous by Caitlin Moran
–as a C-level and not famous music critic, I loved this novel and found much to which I could relate in this smart, funny, observant novel.
The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon
— this novel is weird and dark and brilliant. it’s about identity, connection, spirituality, faith. a young woman joins a cult, becomes completely immersed in it and in doing so, grows apart from her boyfriend. he feels completely alienated but he also wants to save her from this cult.
The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers
–I really like Dave Eggers’s nonfiction books. even though i’m a tea drinker, this book about a man bringing coffee from Yemen to the United States is extremely interesting. it’s challenging in many ways. Yemen is a tribal country with much poverty and civil unrest. He’s of Yemen descent which helps immensely. I’m fascinated with Yemen. It’s complicated.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
— LOVED IT. very relatable. plus I appreciate dark humor. Before I discovered yoga and meditation I would often isolate from the world by downing a bunch of pills. After a bad break-up, I spent three weeks consuming solely Diet Coke and Klonipin. I wanted to shut everything out. It was inherently easier to sleep through the misery in hopes I’d eventually feel better. It wasn’t the best coping mechanism. In case anyone’s wondering, I no longer drink soda and rarely rely on Klonipin. I still have terrible agoraphobia and anxiety but numbing myself isn’t going to fix that and there are much more productive uses of my time.
Everything appealed to me about the novel from the title to the cover—a portrait of a sullen Victorian woman—to the description to this sentence in the opening paragraph: “I’d get two large coffees with cream and six sugars each, chug the first one in the elevator on the way back up to my apartment, then sip the second one slowly while I watched movies and ate animal crackers and took trazodone and Ambien and Nembutal until I feel asleep again.”
The Parking Lot Attendant by Nafkote Tamirat
— unusual novel about a female teenager and the Ethiopian community in Boston. she lives with her father. her mother took off. she becomes friendly with a substitute father father, Ayale, who works as a parking lot attendant. She becomes a runner for him, regularly delivering packages to several members of the community. She doesn’t know what she’s delivering and doesn’t ask until there’s some trouble.
I appreciated the beautiful writing and sharp, dark humor and mystery element.
Who is Vera Kelly? By Rosalie Knecht
–a fantastic spy novel with a charming central character
–Amy Steele, January 9, 2019
New York-based duo Cults — one of my favorite bands– released Offering B-Sides & Remixes, a companion release to 2017’s LP Offering that includes three previously unreleased songs and a new remix of “Recovery” by famed producer John Fryer. The band start a U.S. tour in Washington, DC on November 30. Get ready for some dreaminess.
Offering B-Sides & Remixes Tracklisting:
1.) Not Impossible
2.) Hope You Found What You’ve Been Missing
3.) An Echo
4.) Offering (Mike Simonetti Remix)
5.) I Took Your Picture (Etienne de Crecy Remix)
6.) Recovery (John Fryer Remix)
U.S. TOUR DATES:
11/30/18 – DC9 – Washington, DC
12/1/18 – DC9 – Washington, DC
12/2/18 – Johnny Brenda’s – Philadelphia, PA
12/3/18 – Great Scott – Allston, MA
12/8/18 – Baby’s All Right (Early Show) – Brooklyn, NY
12/8/18 – Baby’s All Right (Late Show) – Brooklyn, NY
12/15/18 – Barboza – Seattle, WA
12/16/18 – Barboza – Seattle, WA
12/17/18 – Mississippi Studios – Portland, OR
12/19/18 – The Chapel – San Francisco, CA
12/20/18 – Gundlach Bunschu Winery – Sonoma, CA
12/22/18 – Echo – Los Angeles, CA
12/23/18 – Echo – Los Angeles, CA
It’s The Dandy Warhols’ 25th anniversary and the band will release its 10th studio album ‘Why You So Crazy‘ (Dine Alone Records) and embark on a tour in 2019. A 360° short film for the song ‘Be Alright,’ was done in a single shot and filmed at the band’s space, Odditorium, which includes a bar owned by vocalist/guitarist Taylor-Taylor who has a deep passion for the wine world. Taylor-Taylor also directed the film which stars Jessica Pare (Mad Men).
The Dandy Warhols are:
Courtney Taylor-Taylor (vocals, guitar)
Zia McCabe (keyboards, vocals)
Peter Holmström (guitar)
Brent DeBoer (drums)
‘WHY YOU SO CRAZY’ tracklisting:
1. Fred N Ginger
4. Be Alright
5. Thee Elegant Bum
6. Sins Are Forgiven
7. Next Thing I Know
8. Small Town Girls
9. To The Church
10. Motor City Steel
U.S. TOUR DATES
May 3 – 5 – Atlanta, GA – Shaky Knees Festival (on sale 11.14)
May 6 – Washington, D.C. – 9.30 Club
May 7 – Boston, MA – The Sinclair
May 8 – Brooklyn, NY – Brooklyn Steel
May 10 – Toronto, ON – CMW
May 11 – Chicago, IL – Metro
May 12 – Minneapolis, MN – First Avenue
May 14 – Denver, CO – Gothic Theatre
May 16 – Los Angeles, CA – Theatre at the Ace Hotel
May 17 – Santa Ana, CA – The Observatory at North Park
May 18 – San Francisco, CA – The Fillmore
Infectious beats and an uplifting song. The video stars British actor Jeremy Irvine (War Horse and Mama Mia). He dances through the streets of London’s Docklands. more info on Friendly Fires.
A Little Tea Book by Sebastian Beckwith with Caroline Paul. Bloomsbury| October 16, 2018| 132 pages | $20.00| ISBN: 978-1-63286-902-9
here’s my little review:
Although I’ve been drinking tea for years, I’ve only started learning about tea. I enjoy an Assam or Earl Grey in the morning and will drink green tea later in the day and evening. This lovely book serves as the ideal tea primer. It has brief sections and a conversational tone. As it states in the introduction: “I’m offering you a little about a lot.” It’s a foray into the world of tea and will make you want to read more and acquire more knowledge. It delves into quite a few tea topics including the tea plant, the six types of tea, names, history and health benefits. I didn’t know that tea originates from one plant—Camellia sinensis. Tea is categorized from least to most oxidized: green, yellow, white, oolong, black and dark. The tea name may refer to the process or to its place of origin. Where a tea comes from matters. For instance: “Green teas grown in China often have a nutty, roasted, vegetal profile while those from Japan tend to be more grassy and rich.” It’s a quick, pleasurable read—while sipping tea, of course– and also a solid reference. It will make a perfect gift for the tea lover in your life.
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Bloomsbury.