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book review: YOU BETTER NOT CRY

BetterNotCryIf you have to be single and you have to be bitter and you also have to be without family for the holidays, Manhattan is the only place to be. And praise Jesus for the Jews, the Chinese, and the alcoholics. If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be able to have sex, eat, or forget all the people I’d had sex with.

I really fell for Augusten’s writing with A Wolf at the Table. Maybe because I have an absent father. My mom divorced my father when I was about eight. Several years later my dad basically disappeared into the verdant scum that is Florida. He turned up several years ago but pretty much blew it.

I’m not a fan of holidays and particularly do not like Christmas. So when someone writes stories about the holiday I’m not really thrilled about it but willing to read them if I like the author. YOU BETTER NOT CRY focuses on Christmas-related stories. So for me, they are hit and miss. There are seven stories in the slim green bound book and I particularly liked three.

There’s the absurdity of a young Augusten making a brick-hard gingerbread house from scratch and sans recipe [As for all the spices—cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, ginger, fennel—I skipped them all.] in “And Two Eyes Made Out of Coal.”

In “Ask Again Later,” Augusten wakes up in a hotel bed next to a much older French guy dressed as Santa. Did they or didn’t they?, Augusten wonders and immediately rushes to his doctor for every test conceivable. He is then haunted by Santas throughout the Manhattan streets and of course thinks of this kinda creepy Frenchman.

My question was: How did I go from merely seeing the dirty French Santa in a bar to being in his hotel room the next morning? And this presented me with an actual equation. How did one plus one equal old French Santa?

Augusten spends Christmas with his HIV-positive partner in the poignant, wistful and bittersweet “The Best and Only Everything.” Augusten is forthright with details about the initial rush of love and the banality of a relationship. Wanting what you don’t have and then not wanting what you have. We’ve all been there.

George was vertical, not horizontal. All of him was right there from the first moment. He didn’t have “sides”; he had fathoms. If you didn’t know him after one date, you couldn’t know him. In this way, he was a treasure perfectly hidden right before my eyes. He was the wreck of the Sussex in my backyard swimming pool.

I like the darkness in Augusten’s writing. The honesty. The bizarre. The raw. The surprises. He is willing to share intimate moments and thoughts. Of course, that makes or breaks a good memoirist. YOU BETTER NOT CRY might not be the best work by Augusten Burroughs but it will bring a smirk to your face or tear to your eye and that’s what the holidays are all about.

Augusten Burroughs is currently on TOUR.

Title: YOU BETTER NOT CRY: Stories for Christmas
Author: Augusten Burroughs
ISBN: 0-312-42379-9
Pages: 206
Release Date: October 27, 2009
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Review source: St. Martin’s Press
Rating: 3/5

–review by Amy Steele


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“I think the most aggravating part is people who write off women immediately for being not funny or that all they talk about is their vaginas. We have vaginas so we’re going to talk about them. I don’t want those people to enjoy me anyway because they’re just dumb.” –Nikki Glaser


I first noticed comedian Nikki Glaser when I saw the documentary I Am Road Comic in 2014. I then started following her on twitter and quickly became a fan. Last year’s show Not Safe with Nikki Glaser turned into must-see television as she explored sex and dating in a fascinating and fun manner while also powerfully elucidating rape culture.

Glaser approaches comedy in a fresh, engaging manner. She’s genuine, passionate and if I had a girl squad I’d want her in it. She grew up in St. Louis, Missouri and earned a degree in English literature from University of Kansas. I spoke with Nikki over the weekend about feminism, dating and the presidential election.

Amy Steele: You got into comedy at 18?

Nikki Glaser: That’s the first time I did it. It was my freshman year of college and my friends really pushed me to do it because I didn’t really know what I wanted to do and they kept saying, ‘you should be a comedian.’ I gave it a shot at a talent showcase on my campus and it went really well and I thought this is what I’ll do forever. So it is.

Amy Steele: What do you like about it?

Nikki Glaser: I always stick with things I’m good at naturally and I had a knack for it. I was good at writing jokes from the beginning. not great but I had potential. so that was a good reason to keep doing it.

One of my favorite things about doing stand-up is the people you get to know and meet and be in the same industry as. It’s a relatively small industry and I’ve met great friends and  the funniest, smartest people through it. I’m in the company of all these people that I think are so great.

The stage is a nice place to let out your anger and it’s my only creative space to do that. I can’t paint about a break-up or write a song so it’s nice. You get to say whatever you want and no one stops you. I love the honesty of it.

Amy Steele: What are the greatest challenges with being a woman in comedy? You’re also really active on twitter about politics and feminism.

Nikki Glaser: I think the most aggravating part is people who write off women immediately for being not funny or that all they talk about is their vaginas. We have vaginas so we’re going to talk about them. I don’t want those people to enjoy me anyway because they’re just dumb.

I don’t see any hard parts about being a woman. I know that there’s discrimination and we don’t get enough opportunities but I love being a woman in stand-up being able to speak for a group of people who don’t often get to speak up about stuff. This new wave of feminism is really exciting and I like riding that wave.

Amy Steele: I list that I’m a feminist on my website and social media profiles and get ‘what type of feminist are you?’ when I’m trying to date.

Nikki Glaser: I read Jessica Valenti’s Sex Object and I love what she said in it about angry feminists: Wouldn’t you be angry?

Why shouldn’t we be angry? If you’re going to write a woman off because of that you’re a fucking idiot. I don’t shy away from being any kind of adjective feminist. Of course I’m angry. If you look at the injustice and how this election went you have to be angry. I’m a furious feminist. That sounds better because of the alliteration.

Amy Steele: Furious feminist. I like that. If you’re not angry and upset and affected by things then nothing’s going to change.

Nikki Glaser: It’s just a way for them to diminish us. When I’m in a relationship, I’m so afraid of being called a nag. We’re so scared of being stereotyped that way and being labeled those things when women misbehave.

Amy Steele: There are guys who might question it but then they agree with the basic definition of feminism. Then he’s an ally or a feminist. I wouldn’t date someone who was not. He might not walk around saying he’s a feminist.

Nikki Glaser: My ex-boyfriend– when we got into arguments with his family about women’s reproductive rights I remember him saying to his brother: ‘you don’t have any right to speak on this because you’re not a woman.’ I told him it was the hottest thing he’s ever said. I love feminist men. I think a lot of us should put our foot down about that.

Amy Steele: That’s why someone like Cory Booker is amazing. Right now with the Planned Parenthood de-funding …

Nikki Glaser: It’s just ignorance and religion. A mixture of those things. I love Cecile Richards. I’m so inspired by her. It just seems so daunting. All these fucking men are so angry. It all comes down to them not wanting women in charge of anything: not their bodies; not the government; nothing. It’s so maddening. I’ve been reading celebrity news right now because I can’t take the news. I’m back to being the way I was at 17. I can’t walk around in a perpetual state of anger.

Amy Steele: NPR is okay and I feel somewhat soothed by the things I hear on NPR. I usually watch Maddow or listen to the podcast and I can’t right now.

Nikki Glaser: It’s a bad time right now. My boyfriend and I broke up the night before the election. I thought ‘Hillary is going to win and this is a seminal election and I’m becoming an independent woman tomorrow. This’ll be the first day I’m single and I’m taking back my life.’ Then that night I thought everybody was going through a break-up with me. It was like September 12.

Amy Steele: I volunteered at Hillary’s campaign in New Hampshire and then in Massachusetts, not as interesting as a swing state. It was devastating to sit in the campaign office with everyone that night crying. I was dating a guy at the time and he didn’t even call me. My therapist couldn’t believe it. From then on I thought ‘red flag. This is not cool.’

Nikki Glaser: What the fuck. That’s unacceptable. He should have a stamp on him. Scarlet letter. He’s an asshole. It was devastating for so many of us and I can only imagine being at the campaign.

Amy Steele: You have a new album?

Nikki Glaser: My album came out in April but I have a whole new hour of material. I’m going to tape something for Netflix coming up in February. I don’t really do anything from the album so people won’t hear a repeat.

Amy Steele: So, a mix of sex and politics…

Nikki Glaser: and my dog. Sex, relationships, pretty much what’s going on in my life. I feel like every time I talk about my material I feel that it’s about being at an age and feeling I’m younger than that age, the responsibilities of my age. I always feel stunted. This special I have is dogs that I’m going to talk about. But in a fresh way. Yeah, I’m going to talk about dogs in a fresh way. I’m excited about it.

If you’re in the Boston area– Nikki Glaser performs Saturday, January 14, 2017, The Wilbur. 246 Tremont Street, Boston, Mass.,



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book review: Hesitation Wounds


Hesitation Wounds by Amy Koppelman. The Overlook Press| November 2015| 192 pages| $25.95| ISBN: 9781468312188

RATING: ****/5*

Well-written novels about mental illness are few and far between. There’s Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel and the classic The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. Many write memoirs. My favorite is Darkness Visible by William Styron. I met author Amy Koppelman through Twitter, an excellent source for connecting with authors. She sent me her novel Hesitation Wounds. I figured I’d be a strong match because I have depression and anxiety.

In Hesitation Wounds, a psychiatrist specializes in treatment-resistant depression. Sometimes meds just don’t work. When you’ve tried seemingly every medication and treatment plan with zero symptomatic relief, what can you do? You face despair and uncertainty. Dr. Susanna Seliger becomes the last resort for many troubled people. Of her practice: “When the MAOIs, TCAs, TeCAs, SNRIs, and SSRIs fail to get results, the patients are sent to me. And I zap ‘em. Or that’s what the movies would have you think. Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), or, as it’s better known, shock treatment, is only shocking in that it doesn’t actually cause much, if any, physical pain. A patient’s emotional pain is an entirely different story.”

She makes every effort to avoid emotional attachment or involvement in how her patients feel but instead treats their symptoms. She maintains a professional detachment. She’s not there to talk and empathize. Dr. Seliger’s brother died and she feels quite a bit of guilt that she couldn’t save him. Koppelman elaborates: “You eternally seventeen. I try to figure out still. What I missed. Words I let pass, smells I didn’t recognize, unfamiliar tastes and sounds. Each an opportunity I failed to seize. Each a possibility to save you. Although now, so many years, so many patients later, I am aware that treatment is not without consequence, death without promise, visions without meaning. And handholding is merely that.” She now tries to save others from suicide. When a patient she allowed to break the emotional barrier [maybe he reminded her of her brother] commits suicide it throws Dr. Seliger into a spiral where she contemplates the relationship with her mentally ill brother and any warning signs she missed. Could she have stopped him?

“You can’t possibly know this because depression is an insidious disease. Robbing you of forethought, it makes you a reactive participant. Witnessing the world through the distorted prism of carnival glass leaves you feeling betrayed. The cruel nature of beauty. The unremitting groan of loss. You close your eyes and see him, cover your ears and hear. But that doesn’t excuse your actions. You should have said goodbye, Dan. Or at the very least let me know you had to go.”

Mental illness and its aftermath aren’t blatantly glamorized on these pages. The words remain open to interpretation. Dr. Seliger questions her profession and her past by allowing thoughts and feelings to gush upon the pages. Grief engulfs herself and leaves her in a quagmire of uncertainty and despair. And as readers we can feel it though we’re helpless just as Dr. Seliger remains somewhat helpless. She must come to terms with it in her own time and through her own distinct process. That’s the beauty of Koppelman’s rather poetic, journal-style writing. At times passages read as an open letter to Seliger’s dead brother. In order to understand herself she must splinter both her heart and her orderly thought process. Dr. Seliger must no longer resist what’s been holding her back from living freely with a level of contentment. That’s the trickiness with mental illness. It’s an up and down process for those who suffer with it and those who love those who live with it daily. This short novel packs a strong punch with lovely turns of phrase. Just like mental illness clear-cut solutions and fairytale endings do not exist. Managing the moment does. The mind remains a malleable work-in-progress. Koppelman writes with heartbreaking authority on the topic. It’s quietly effective, nuanced and moving.

Sarah Silverman earned a SAG nomination for her portrayal in the film adaptation for Koppelman’s second novel I Smile Back released this fall. I highly recommend the film. Silverman brilliantly depicts a woman struggling with her mental illness while raising her two children. One minute she’s packing school lunches, the next she’s snorting cocaine or crying on the floor. Honest and intense, it’s a must-see

–review by Amy Steele

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book review: The Sacrifice


The Sacrifice By Joyce Carol Oates.
Ecco| January 2015.|320 pages |$26.99 ISBN: 978-006-233-2974

rating: 2.5/5*

This is a follow-up to her National Book Award-winning 1969 novel them. Written the year I was born, I have yet to read it. Not sure the delay in writing or publishing The Sacrifice if it is a follow-up to a novel from 40 years ago. Did she write this novel some time ago but not publish it. Was the timing off. Joyce Carol Oates is a prolific author of 40 novels and numerous short-story collections. The Sacrifice is a timely novel about race, abuse of power, corruption, public perception and manipulation. However, it just came across as dated to me and it also took me an outrageous three weeks to read. And not due to its length—one of Joyce Carol Oates shorter novels at 300 pages– or due to its dense material. She writes from various perspectives, shuffles layers and mystery,provides details into the young woman’s background and then illustrates the hype surrounding this did-it-or-didn’t-it-happen case.

I felt it was a tale already told. I finally realized it was based on the 1987 case of Tawney Brawley. I was in high school or just beginning college when that case happened so I didn’t immediately recall it. This was pre-Twitter, pre-internet, pre-mobile blitz. Some fictionalizations of real-life events work and some do not. This isn’t the first time for Joyce Carol Oates to turn a real-life event into a novel. The most powerful and creepy is Black Water which imagines Ted Kennedy’s Chappaquiddick.

In The Sacrifice a poor black teen claims rape, under dubious circumstances, and when a high-profile reverend and his attorney brother get involved the lines blur. In swoops an Al Sharpton doppelgänger Rev. Marus Mudrick –“in his signature three-piece suit with a flowing necktie, sternly smiling, vibrant and alert, exuding strength, masculinity, Christian resolution”–and his twin lawyer brother Byron, a hard-working, civil rights attorney who eschews the spotlight. The duo complicates matters by adding to the confusion, suggesting possible suspects and promising a better and more interesting life to the teen and her mother.

Of course anyone who claims rape has a reason to do so and Oates delves into that a bit. She wonders why a young woman would fabricate a story as many start to indicate. Sybilla Frye is found hogtied, scrawled with racial slurs and smeared with dog feces in an abandoned basement. She says that a group of men led by a “yellow-haired” man, raped and beat her but she won’t submit to a rape test and is a difficult interview for the police. Is Sybilla lying or so deeply traumatized from sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather—ex-con Anis Schutt–that she believes this truly occurred: “They had white faces and one of them a badge like a cop would wear or a state trooper and they had guns an one of them, he put that gun barrel up inside me and it hurt so bad I was crying so bad they said Nigra cunt you stop that bawlin, we gon pull this trigger an all yo’ insides gon come splashin out your ugly nappy head.” Understandably this teenager and her mother, Ednetta, do not trust the police. Not many young black women would.

They don’t even trust or dare confide in a Hispanic female police officer– a young woman who has her own issues regarding fair treatment by the police department. Oates writes: “Iglesias did not check black when filling out appropriate official forms, Iglesias did not think of herself as a person of color though she acknowledged, seeing herself in reflective surfaces beside those colleagues of hers who were white, that she might’ve been, to the superficial eye, a light-skinned Hispanic.”

The introduction of this female police officer captivated me but unfortunately she’s jettisoned out of the novel far too soon. Here’s a strong WOC. A strong woman in a position of power. Inis Iglesias: “Her life had been, since adolescence, an effort to overcome the crude perimeters of identity. Her skin-color, ethnic background, gender. I am so much more than the person you see. Give me a chance.” That this character wasn’t allowed a chance fits in with the cruelties Oates outlines throughout the novel. I’d like to read a novel on the Inis Iglesias experience.

Describing the poor New Jersey neighborhood in which the Fryes inhabit and piecing together how Sybilla got from there to her present situation works. Oates does an impressive job in etching out that picture. The Princeton professor knows New Jersey. “The Fryes lived on Third Street, in that run-down neighborhood by the river. Abandoned factories, shuttered and part-burned houses, streets clogged with abandoned and rusting vehicles. Pascayne South High, lowest-ranked in the city. The fifth precinct, with the highest crime rate. You had to grow up swiftly there.”

Solid attempt but not quite powerful enough to succeed. Given the racial tensions throughout the nation seems perfect timing for this novel. I wonder if Oates wrote this years ago and didn’t publish until now as it’s simultaneously dated and relevant. I cannot recommend The Sacrifice.

–review by Amy Steele

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

purchase The Sacrifice

purchase at Amazon: The Sacrifice: A Novel


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Comparing and contrasting Bad Feminist and Unspeakable Things: feminist essays by two generations of feminists


“No matter what issues I have with feminism, I am a feminist. I cannot and will not deny the importance and absolute necessity of feminism. Like most people, I’m full of contradictions, but I also don’t want to be treated like shit for being a woman.”
—Roxanne Gay

unspeakable things

“Feminism is not a set of rules. It is not about taking rights away from men, as if there were a finite amount of liberty to go around. There is an abundance of liberty to be had if we have the guts to grasp it for everyone. Feminism is a social revolution, and a sexual revolution, and feminism is in no way content with a missionary position. It is about work, and about love, and about how one depends very much on the other. Feminism is about asking questions, and carrying on asking them even when the questions get uncomfortable.”
–Laurie Penny

Two well-known feminist authors/columnists, Roxanne Gay and Laurie Penny, released essay collections. Roxanne Gay is a GenXer and has much more life-experience than 27-year-old Laurie Penny. Although with all her protest and underground movement experience, Penny might think she has more life experience. Gay is American and makes her living as a cultural critic and teacher. She grew up in a mostly white town with a middle-class upbringing. Penny is British with a career as a political reporter. She’s a contributing editor at New Statesman and editor at large at the New Inquiry. Penny seems to do a lot of protesting, squatting and couch surfing.

Both women write essays on what it means to be a feminist, on various women’s issues such as contraception and pay equity and a feminist perspective on various news and pop culture items. Both are serious about being feminist and about the importance of feminism in today’s world. With different writing styles—Gay tends to write with humor and a cheerier flair while Penny utilizes a more aggressive approach– they both present a clear message about the urgency facing feminists today. Read both works. They’re well-crafted, dynamic and provocative particularly for any woman who’s ever heard a man say “Oh you must be some kind of feminist.”

Being close in age to Gay, I could relate to nearly everything she said– except that I never read Sweet Valley High. I was reading other books. I was riding ponies and horses. Penny represents the newer generation of feminists who embrace lifestyles and methodology that I’m not used to. In fact, Penny had this to say: “The young women of today know far better than their slightly-older sisters who came of age in the listless 1990s how much work is still to be done, and how unglamorous much of it is. They know how bloody important it is to talk about power, and class, and work, and love, race, poverty and gender identity.” I could’ve stopped reading right there. Listless 1990s? I was in my 20s and it was a fantastic time. I’ve identified as a feminist since 5th grade and have been active and outspoken about my feminism all along. I found this a bit dismissive and offensive. What happened to sisters supporting sisters? Gay writes in “How to Be Friends with Another Woman”: “Abandon the cultural myth that all female friendships must be bitchy, toxic, or competitive. This myth is like heels and purses—pretty but designed to SLOW women down.”

Gay breaks down Bad Feminist with these sections: ME; GENDER & SEXUALITY; RACE & ENTERTAINMENT; POLITICS, GENDER & RACE; BACK TO ME. Essays within each section. Penny has five chapters in Unspeakable Things: Fucked-Up Girls; Lost Boys; Anticlimax; Cybersexism; Love and Lies.

“I get angry when women disavow feminism and shun the feminist label but say they support all the advances born of feminism because I see a disconnect that does not need to be there. I get angry but I understand and hope someday we will live in a culture where we don’t need to distance ourselves from the feminist label, where the label doesn’t make us afraid of being alone, of being too different, of wanting too much.” —Roxanne Gay

Gay has a penchant for pop culture and some feminine frippery, thus she labels herself a bad feminist. Can you be a feminine feminist? Can you like looking pretty and favor the color pink. Is a feminist a sell-out if she wants to be taken care of by a man. If she wants the support and constant of a serious relationship. If she doesn’t want to know how her car functions, sometimes fakes orgasms and closes her office door for a good cry? Gay likes watching reality shows, listening to questionable hip-hop and picking apart cultural phenomena. In clear, strong words she thoughtfully writes about Chris Brown, the song “Blurred Lines,” The Hunger Games, The Help, Django Unchained and Fifty Shades of Gray.

“A culture that treats women as objects, that gleefully supports entertainment that is more often demeaning toward women than it is not, that encourages the erosion of a woman’s autonomy and personal space, is the same culture that elects state lawmakers who work tirelessly to enact restrictive abortion legislation.”

In the essay “Girls, Girls, Girls” she discusses the Lena Dunham vehicle Girls as well as women on television. “Girls have been written and represented in popular culture in many different ways. Most of these representations have been largely unsatisfying because they never get girlhood quite right. It is not possible for girlhood to be represented wholly—girlhood is too vast and too individual an experience.” She also adds: “There are so many terrible shows on television representing women in sexist, stupid, silly ways. Movies are even worse. Movies take one or two anemic ideas about women, caricature them, and shove those caricatures down our throats. Indie films provide the most expansive and feminist representations of women. Unfortunately Hollywood’s a sexist environment and there are less female writers, directors and producers making films and television programs than men.

Gay writes about serious matters such as violence against women in “The Careless Language of Sexual Violence” where she addresses society’s desensitization. “While there are many people who understand rape and the damage of rape, we also live in a time that necessitates the phrase “rape culture.”) As I read about her dislike for the term triggers in the “Illusion of Safety/The Safety of Illusion,” I fervently nodded in agreement. “Trigger warnings also, when used in excess, start to feel like censorship. They suggest that there are experiences or perspectives to inappropriate, too explicit, too bare to be voiced publicly.” In “When Twitter Does What Journalism Cannot,” Gay says: “Social networks are more than just infinite repositories for trivial, snap judgments; they are more than merely convenient outlets for mindless joy and outrage. They offer more than the common ground and the solace we may find during culturally significant movements. Social networks also provide us with something of a flawed but necessary conscience, a constant reminder that commitment, compassion, and advocacy neither can nor ever should be finite.”

In the essay “The Alienable Rights of Women,” Gay accentuates all the issues with birth control and women’s constant fear that we’ll lose every personal right for sexual freedom we possess. “Birth control is a pain in the ass. It’s a medical marvel, but it is also an imperfect marvel. Most of the time, women have to put something into their bodies that alters their bodies’ natural functions just so they can have a sexual life and prevent unwanted pregnancies.” Penny too tackles the attack on women’s bodies. She writes in “Anticlimax:” “The backlash against abortion access and contraceptive availability is a sexist backlash, rooted in fear of female autonomy and hatred of women’s sexuality.”

Both women are avid readers and both women like Kate Zambreno. I have Green Girl sitting here and must read it soon. Of Green Girl, Gay writes: “She wants to put her fist through a window but doesn’t because she knows that’s not what is expected of a green girl. She knows she is beautiful but does not necessarily feel her beauty inside. Throughout the novel, these tensions are brightly exposed over and over. At times, the novel makes it seem that to be a green girl is to be in a rather hopeless predicament.” Of Heroines, Gay writes: “They say that every writer has an obsession, and in Heroines, that obsession is reclamation or, perhaps breaking new ground where women can be feminist and feminine and resist the labels and forces that too often marginalize, silence, or erase female experiences.” And in explaining how her career intimidates men, Penny writes: “I would have understood what Kate Zambreno means when she says, in her marvelous book Heroines, I do not want to be an ugly woman, and when I write, I am an ugly woman.”

Women must be likeable which usually means not being terribly outspoken, loud or opinionated. And who wants to be like that? Both Gay and Penny often felt like (and sometimes still do) outcasts for various choices, career goals and how they express themselves. From “Not Here to Make Friends”: “As a writer and a person who has struggled with likeability—being likable, wanted to be liked, wanting to belong—I have spent a great deal of time thinking about likeability in the stories I read and those I write.” An unlikeable man in literature becomes intriguing, dark, compelling. An unlikable woman on the page remains perplexing, a complete outcast and rather hopeless. In her essay “Fucked-Up Girls,” Penny discusses her struggles with an eating disorder and the rampant desire for perfection combined with society’s unrealistic expectations for women. Penny writes: “Of all the female sins, hunger is the least forgivable; hunger for anything, for food, sex, power, education, even love. If we have desires, we are expected to conceal them, to control them, to keep ourselves in check. We are supposed to be objects of desire, not desiring beings.” Dark prospects indeed. The pressures of being female. She adds: “The perfect girl is a blank slate, with just enough personality to make her interesting enough to take to bed.”

Penny has been a young activist in various political movements such as Occupy and she pays careful attention to address gender, race, sexuality and class structure. She focuses on her activism and the underground cultural movement. The radical methods to address conflict and issues in our culture. She elicits a call to action for men to become involved in the feminist movement in “Lost Boys.” As someone who’s been cyberharassed for four years, I took solace in a kindred soul in Penny. In “Cybersexism” she boldly and rightly states: “The Internet creates offline prejudices and changes them, twists them, makes them voyeuristic, and anonymity and physical distance makes it easier for some individuals to treat other people as less than human.” She adds: “Freedom of speech does not include the freedom to abuse and silence others with impunity.”

The veracity of Penny’s ideas on independence and not giving in to societal expectations to couple up, have a monogamous relationship are poignant and quite how I feel as a never-married, childfree by choice feminist of 45. The entire chapter “Love and Lies” is a brilliant turn-about on societal expectations for coupling, for love to be the ultimate goal for everyone’s happiness and to sustain one’s own self and one’s own interests to be satisfied. This IS OKAY. Penny writes: “But I refuse to burn my energy adding extra magic and sparkle to other people’s lives to get them to love me. I’m busy casting spells for myself. Everyone who was ever told a fairy tale knows what happens to women who do their own magic.” And this: “We are all encouraged to feel sorry for ourselves if we are single, to consider ourselves incomplete, but women in particular are urged to consider themselves inferior if their time is not spent comforting and cosseting a man, and ideally children too.” What a sad sad thing. You’re still single? How about people’s obsession with Renee Zellweger, Cameron Diaz and Jennifer Aniston finding the “right” man, get married and procreating. It’s revolting and we need to revolt against it. Fight. Speak up. Be yourself and don’t let anyone tell you that you’re less than.

Laurie Penny reads at Harvard Book Store on Friday, September 26, 2014 at 7pm.

Bad Feminist: Essays by Roxanne Gay. Publisher: Harper Perennial [August 2014]. Feminism. Essays. Paperback. 320 pages.

RATING: ****/5*

Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution by Laurie Penny. Publisher: Bloomsbury USA [September 2014]. Feminism. Essays. Paperback. 288 pages.

RATING: ****/5*

Review by Amy Steele

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Bad Feminist
by Roxane Gay

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RIP Homestead Easter [April 22, 1973- April 2, 2014]


Easter made it through the winter and nearly to her 41st birthday. As anyone in New England knows it was a long and arduous winter with tons of snow and ice. She slipped and pulled a stifle muscle in March, hurting her already weak left hind leg. Several years ago she tore the tendons on that leg when she got caught up in a fence. She used to be able to come and go into her stall at night as she pleased. After that accident, a walkout was built for her. She then was closed in at night into her stall and walkout combo.

She also got tick bites year round and may have had Lyme disease again because she certainly had neurological issues. After the stifle pull she received several steroid shots because she’d been walking askew but then seemed to be doing better, eating a bit and happy. But then I saw a few days when she was just melancholy and not herself. On Monday she seemed okay but not great. She wasn’t eating and was out in the conservation field by what I call the “death tree.” It’s as far as she can get away from anyone. At night she didn’t want to come in. The next day she never got up and had to be euthanized.

2013-07-05 12.33.11

This pony. We owned her for 32 years. My parents bought her for me when I was 12. Easter was 8. She was a registered Welsh pony. 13.2 hands and was running in a herd of other ponies when we bought her. But she always had an independent spirit and was an individual. She did her own thing. No matter what. I’d been riding a few years and was in pony club and 4-H and competed in shows and events. Riding and having ponies and horses can be a sign of privilege for many but I missed out on many things. I didn’t participate in school activities because equestrian events were year-round. So when you show up at a high-school reunion and no one remembers you because you weren’t on the soccer team or involved in theater but were a competitive equestrian no one really gets it. Not even in my community. Easter helped me through the dark days of junior high when I was an outcast: alone and unpopular. Not that I’m that popular now but I’m an adult and more equipped to handle myself than during the pressure-filed years of junior high.

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I wrote this poem about Easter that was published in Highlights magazine:

My pony of the darkest black,
Let me hop upon your back.
We’ll fly off into the sunset together,
Floating, like a feather.

My junior high English teacher joked that he hoped to never read another poem or story about Easter again when I left his class.

I rode Easter year-round. Sometimes bareback. Seven days a week. Riding lessons, trail rides, alone, with friends. We went to tons of horse shows. She wasn’t a “made pony.” She wasn’t an easy ride. She taught me a lot. She had a mind of her own and could be difficult and stubborn just like me. I loved that about her. She had a great sense of humor.

Horse show in 1982:


after winning Weston pace event with my friend Pam Cheney and her horse Chip:

pace event weston. 1982

We got along well because she was independent, smart and sassy like me. Being a registered Welsh pony she was hearty and that’s why she lived so long. When I was sad she knew I was sad and would be there for me. She’d stalk me sometimes. She was patient if I just wanted to cry in her mane or hug her. She was a pretty good listener at times, a good companion.


Easter taught many other children to ride when I outgrew her, which I quickly did. She loved children and despite her independent spirit was quite patient unless a child wasn’t that experienced or paying attention. I went on to ride Cricket and then I owned Senator Scythe, a registered Quarter Horse. I rode in horse shows and competed in eventing– dressage, x-country and stadium jumping. My mom kept Senator when I went off to college. When Easter became too old for lessons and showing, my mom took her back to be with Senator. Unfortunately Senator had Cushing’s disease and he died in 2005. Easter moved to another barn and that mare died several years later of Cushing’s as well. Easter stood over her body all day.

napping in snow.2014

This pony was unpredictable for the most part. If you expected her to be one place, she was another. If you thought she was in, she was out or if you thought she’d be in one field she’d be in another. She followed the sun like a sun-dial– smart as she was black and would be warm and comfy all day. She loved to lie flat-out and take naps even in the snow. After snowstorms she’d get right out into the fields and make paths for herself.


If I lay down she’d come over, sniff me and nuzzle me to be sure I was still breathing. Some days you could barely drag her in from the paddock and other days she’d be waiting for you in the walkout at 4:30 for her dinner. The days she’d knicker hello you knew she was in good spirits. Sometimes she just wanted to look out of her stall.

Easter served as the neighborhood watch pony. She watched the kids across the street get off the bus and go in the house. Stood like a sentry at times watching over bikes and cars passing by on the street. She knew who came in and out of the driveway. She recognized my car, my mom’s and the people who owned the house (they fed her every morning and let her out). The guy across the street and the older lady a few houses down liked to come over to visit Easter. She was quite popular in the neighborhood. Easter shared her fields with a blue heron, deer and occasionally fox kits. Never phased her. She just went about her business and they went about theirs.She loved to be the center of attention. Why wouldn’t she?

She spent her last day down for about eight hours. When I arrived mid-morning she looked at me and nickered. She tried to get up several times but her legs had just had it:


I wanted Easter to live to be 50. I wanted her around forever but I also wanted her to be happy and healthy. I’m lucky for every moment I had with her. I just hope she had a good last few days before she died. I hope I made her happy in the last years of her long life.


love you Easter. xoxo.

e by tree edited

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This time around, PI Sasha Jackson is investigating the murder of a porn star…

The drug addicted girl was a worthless nobody, so the cops aren’t putting much effort into finding out who killed her. Sasha takes on the case, and learns that the dirty picture business is way dirtier than it seems. She discovers surprising motives and even more surprising secrets, and just when she thinks she’s solved the case, another dead body turns up.

Meanwhile, Sasha’s private life is a shambles. Her brother is pissing her off, Sasha’s love-life is on the rocks, and her BFF has her nose out of joint over Sasha’s latest revelations. And then there’s the driving instructor, the locksmith and the glazier. Let’s just say it’s a good thing that Sasha has a credit card.

Why can’t everyone just chill out long enough for Sasha to get in a good jam session, or have a good night’s sleep?

Oh, for crying out loud, pass the Scotch…

Amy Steele: Jill, it’s been two years since the last Sasha Jackson mystery and since I interviewed you. What have you been up to in Toronto?

Jill Edmondson: Two years! Where did the time go? Let’s see, well, I ignored writing for a while and just did other things. I moved homes (what a pain), I traveled a bit (Italy, Peru, Bahamas, etc….), I got a dog, and then another dog (smartest thing I’ve ever done!), and I took my time writing Frisky Business. The three previous books came out in rapid succession; there was no need to rush with the next one. There were a few stretches of three or four or five months at a time when I didn’t look at Frisky Business at all.

Amy Steele: In Frisky Business you’re tackling the Canadian adult film industry. Why did you decide to focus on that?

Jill Edmondson: The book was totally inspired by chapter two of Empire of Illusion by Chris Hedges. Hedges is one of my favourite writers, and Empire of Illusion is one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read in a long time.

Amy Steele: What were the hardest aspects to write?

Jill Edmondson: For me, the hard part always seems to have less to do with subject matter, than with plot and clues and playing fair with the reader. Like, I could know that it’s Colonel Mustard in the Library with the Rope, but how in the name of Pete do I pen that without making it super-obvious, super early on in the book? Yikes, it’s hard to pepper in just enough clues, and to keep them just subtle enough.

Amy Steele: How did you research this novel?

Jill Edmondson: Mainly by reading the Hedges book, but anytime I noticed a newspaper or magazine article on the topic (or a related topic), I filed it away. Also, a wee bit of it was leftover from when I wrote a paper on Human Rights and the Sex Trade when I was doing my MA. The paper wasn’t on quite the same topic, but there was some overlap.

Amy Steele: What attracts Sasha to the sex cases as her brother pointed out? She’s almost an SVU PI.

Jill Edmondson: I’m not sure… I’m intrigued by themes of marginalization and I don’t like assumptions. In Frisky Business (and Dead Light District) the victims were victims even before the murder. People scoff at certain types of (or classes of) people and that makes me angry. Human beings deserve dignity. Who knows what circumstances led to a person (or character) being in such and such a place? Yet, because of their “lot in life” some people are easily dismissed. That’s bullshit. There but for the grace of Gawd…

Amy Steele: Sasha is my favorite feminist PI. Probably because she’s outspoken and she’s an advocate for women and women’s issues by taking the cases that she does. Though she never uses the word feminist. [She needs to be in a scene with a “This is What a Feminist Looks Like” t-shirt or better yet a “I Stood with Wendy” shirt.] Was this your plan all along or has this just developed from the first book?

Jill Edmondson: I think it just is. Or she just is. Sasha sees something wrong and wants to right it. She appreciates freedom, autonomy, and fairness. Those things, or actually a lack of them, are common in the sex trade, and have been a part of women’s issues in general. Sasha’s values are very much my own.


Amy Steele: How do you think Sasha’s developing as a character? Do you have any particular goals set for her? How do you plan out character development?

Jill Edmondson: Goals? Yes and no. I had certain goals back in book one that I have since shelved or changed, but of course there are other things I have held on to. There has to be a logical progression, whether that means love life, or professional life, or what have you. For instance, in Blood and Groom (book #1) she was pretty broke, so it wouldn’t have made sense for her to be thinking about buying a house in Dead Light District (book #2).

One aspect of character development that I will have to start to address is her mother. I’ve pointedly not said much about mom so far, other than mom took off when Sasha was a toddler. But there is a bit of an abandonment issue that Sasha has kept buried, and at some point her natural PI instincts and curiosity will take over. I figure this will happen by book six or seven.

Amy Steele: Sasha balks when her boyfriend of only a few months wants her to move in. Why do you think Sasha doesn’t want to commit to any guy as a partner or live-in situation but yet she always seems to have a boyfriend?

Jill Edmondson: Sasha has a joie de vivre, and part of that includes romantic interest(s), but she won’t be able to commit until she is truly satisfied with other aspects of her life.

Ah, if only she could throw Mick, Derek and Houghton in a blender…

Each guy fills a need (music, friendship, stimulating conversation, etc.) but none of them hits the mark on all three things. Also, she’s known Houghton since high school, Mick from her early twenties band days, and Derek has been a professional acquaintance for a couple years. The three guys she has been involved with were all friends before they were ever romantic interests, and they remain friends. In a way maybe these guys are part of her extended family? Her “inner circle” is pretty tight, with close, cherished, long-standing relationships all around. Even her two BFFs, Jessica and Lindsey, have been around since they were in training bras.

Amy Steele: Sasha’s quite independent yet lives with her father and brother. She never explains that to the guys she dates. And no one ever asks. She thought about moving out this time around but it seemed she’s pretty comfortable still. How does she manage feeling independent even while living with her father?

Jill Edmondson: Before I began writing the first book, I had read a few articles and had seen a few news pieces about the growing trend of adult children returning home – much to the chagrin of their (wannabe empty-nest) parents. So, writing her home life as such seemed like a realistic thing to do.

I guess the dynamic of comfort and independence partly rests on the fact that there’s just one parent around instead of two. As well, her dad goes away a fair bit on his gambling trips. And Shane is hardly ever home because of the restaurant. So, there is a home life and bonds with family but they’re not in each other faces all the time.

There one more subtle point to her home life, I think, and that is that Sasha is confident enough and secure enough to know she’s a big girl. She’s not clinging to the apron strings because she has to or needs to. If a guy ever called her on her living situation, Sasha’s response would be: “Yeah, and? What’s your point?”

Also: Toronto is a bloody expensive city to live in!

Amy Steele: We’ve talked about your fondness for traveling, particularly to South and Central America. What are the top three places you want to visit?

Jill Edmondson: Just three?!?! So hard to choose… I am dying to visit Italy again. I spent a month there (~two years ago) and loved every minute of it, especially Sicily. There’s so much more to see!

I need to travel around South America. All of it! I’m happy to go any place where I can practice Spanish. I very stupidly DIDN’T zip over to Lake Titicaca while I was in Peru. Must rectify that…

And Scandinavia has long been on my wish-list… Expensive though. Note to self: Buy lottery tickets.

Amy Steele: You’re already at work on the fifth Sasha book. What can you tell me about it?

Jill Edmondson: You know, this is a funny accident, but it seems that the Sasha books alternate between “light” and “heavy” themes or tones (wedding, prostitution, fetish, adult films). As it happens, Odd Lang Syne will be a “light” book. It’s about Gina Gervais, a former teen idol. Gina is at the peak of her comeback, and she’s back on the top of the charts. Everything should be golden, but it’s not. She’s going through a nasty divorce, she’s got a stalker, and, oh shit, someone’s just released a sex tape of her. If that’s not bad enough, her estranged husband is murdered, and guess who’s the number one suspect?

Jill Edmondson is the author of the Sasha Jackson Mysteries. Frisky Business is the latest novel featuring PI Sasha Jackson. Purchase it at Amazon: Frisky Business (A Sasha Jackson Mystery)

For more info on Jill:


other titles on Amazon

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FEVER: book review


FEVER by Mary Beth Keane. Publisher: Scribner (March 12, 2013) Historical fiction. Hardcover. 352 pages. ISBN: 978-1-4516-9341-6

Opening sentences: “The day began with sour milk and got worse. You were too quick, Mary scolded herself when the milk was returned to the kitchen in its porcelain jug with a message from Mr. Kirkenbauer to take better care. He was tired, Mary knew, from the child crying all night, and moaning, and asking to be rocked. And he was worried.”

It’s 1907 at the beginning of FEVER and Mary Mallon’s dragged off, kicking and screaming, by authorities. They tell her she’s transmitting typhoid through her cooking which she refuses to believe as she’s never been sick herself. Leading the charges is Dr. Soper, a sanitary engineer. Mary’s taken to North Brother Island where tuberculosis patients and others with communicable diseases go to be kept far away from the general population. She must provide blood, urine and stool sample for years.

“At night, she slept with the sheet over her face in case she might breathe in their disease, but after a week she stopped worrying. During the day, she couldn’t stop herself from flaunting her health, walking back and forth by the windows, asking the nurses if she could be of assistance.”

How would it feel to be told you are the first identified carried of typhoid bacilli in America and people are dying because of you? Hello Typhoid Mary! Did Mary Mallon believe she was innocent? Did she ever truly understand the causality between being asymptomatic and transmitting through her cooking? These are questions that author Mary Beth Keane attempts to answer. She writes with empathy and detailed realism about the brutal immigrant experience at the turn of the 20th century. Life for a single working uneducated Irish woman in New York certainly wasn’t easy at this time. Her options were few: cleaning woman, laundress, cook [with experience and references]. Mary Mallon worked extremely hard and managed to secure positions with the wealthiest New York families and to garner excellent wages.

Mallon’s a compelling woman. Independent. Strong. Lives with a man but never marries him. Mary supports Alfred despite his alcoholism and inability to sustain work. He doesn’t exactly stick by her when it seems she might be on the North Brother Island for an extended stay. And on and off Mary Mallon was kept on North Brother Island for 26 years. In FEVER, Mallon often thinks that because she’s a woman Dr. Soper and other doctors treat her differently. This may have been the case. When the Department of Health discovers other asymptomatic typhoid carriers, they aren’t shipped off to North Brother Island. Although unlike Mallon, most agree to the terms: to stop handling food products, for instance.

“Some of the doctors had intimated that she was not right in her mind, that her mental state was part of the reason she could not be trusted, along with her being a woman, and being an immigrant, and being the kind of woman who lived with a man without being married.”

After writing to countless attorneys, one takes her case. Mallon manages to get probation. She’s told not to cook again after she’s released from North Brother Island but she finds a job at a bakery reasoning that baking and cooking can’t be considered the same things. This’ll make you chuckle and wince and shout to Mary. Dr. Soper chases Mary Mallon like Ahab chased Moby Dick. He never gives up. He finds her. She later re-kindles her relationship with Alfred and goes into hiding, taking in laundry for her neighbors. But Mary cannot stop doing what she adores doing. She starts cooking for her neighbors for a fee. Work gets around. Someone offers her work as the cook for a hospital. Soon there’s another typhoid outbreak. The gig is up for good.

FEVER gets into Mallon’s mind and heart featuring some heartbreaking scenes. It’s about justice, fear and how we treat disease. Truly a fascinating and engrossing read.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Simon and Schuster.

Mary Beth Keane will be at Brookline Booksmith on Monday, March 18 at 7pm.

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No Shame Day: My Name is Amy. I have depression and mood disorder and I have No Shame. #NoShame.

Picasso– Weeping Woman

My name is Amy Steele.

I am a journalist, a nonprofit writer, a volunteer, a vegan, a medical assistant, a feminist, a compassionate individual.

I have major depression, anxiety and non-specified mood disorder.

everyone’s afraid of the truth. it’s easier to judge. to avoid. to stigmatize.

When I was 16, I developed bouts of anxiety when traveling to France –had an incident on the plane– but was fine during the exchange program. In college, I spoke to some therapists about feeling sad but no one ever said I needed medication or I was depressed. When I drove X-Country at 22, it got a bit worse. I felt strange driving in some wide open spaces or when camping but I managed it through visualization and breathing. After my first year of graduate school in Washington, DC, my housemate and I drove South and I just couldn’t make it beyond North Carolina. I went home to Boston and finished my masters degree at Boston University. I went to a psychiatrist and he prescribed Xanax which helped.

I really don’t remember anyone officially diagnosing me with depression but I had an awful time finding the correct medication and a decent psychiatrist. I started meds at age 27. I’ve tried beta-blockers, Zoloft, Paxil, Prozac, Serzone, Abilify, Lexapro, Wellbutrin and many others. I’m now 42 and in the hands of a resident at Brigham and Women’s Hospital department of psychiatry. I’m taking cymbalta for the depression, clonipin for my anxiety and topamax to keep my mood from swinging too far out-of-bounds (don’t want to be yelling or crying too much).

Over the years I’ve gained weight, lost weight and felt crappy. I’ve been briefly and mistakenly hospitalized and lost many friends. I’ve had people unreasonably judge me. I’ve had people who know nothing about me call me “bat shit crazy” or “insane” when I’m not. I’m *still* being harassed online due to my mental illness. I had to change my phone number and email and twitter. I lost my best friend two years ago because I had a breakdown and he cowardly wanted to get married and end our friendship.

People often don’t want to take the time to understand what you’re going through. Those are the people who should feel shame. Those people are despicable. If I had cancer or a physical illness, I wouldn’t be judged at all but because mental illness is just that people think that we have some sort of control over the chemical breakdown of our brains. A guy recently told me it was all “mind over matter” and being on meds was “BS.”

We do the best we can. We need support. We don’t need the stigma. We don’t need to be put into a box and told we’re having a bad day or going off the edge or that we’re crazy or that we’re having a meltdown. Don’t do that to us. You can hug us. You can listen but don’t label us.

I have an illness that I’m managing with a very good therapist (I’ve been seeing him for eight years), an excellent psychiatrist and medication. It’s not easy. I have good days and bad days and better days and worse days. I walk. I eat well. I do yoga.

suggested reading:

My name is Amy, and I have No Shame.

Please visit The SIWE Project to share their stories and hear others’ accounts of their battles with mental illness and to check out @thesiweproject on twitter, hashtag #NoShame.

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August Rush: DVD review

“Where I’ve grown up, they try to keep me from hearing the music but when I’m alone it builds up inside me.”

Once I got over the clichéd, unbelievable romantic encounter of cellist Lyla [Keri Russell] and rocker Lewis [Jonathan Rhys-Myers]—the love-at-first-sight and then girl gets pregnant thing– I settled in with the complete fairytale of August Rush despite some ridiculous moments.

August Rush has all the elements one seeks in a fairytale: the princess [Lyla], the prince [Lewis], the evil guardsman [her father], the tower [her father’s protectiveness], the lost love, lost dreams and the chance for reunion and redemption.

While performing in New York, Lyla hooks up with the lead singer in a band on the roof of a party. Apparently, the evening is completely memorable and life changing for both parties. Lyla’s overprotective father keeps her from meeting her paramour the next day. Lewis quits his band. All are haunted by the past. Lewis is obsessed with memories of Lyla and that one night so long ago. Lyla thought her baby died. She was so young her father made a choice regarding her musical career.

11 years later: everything’s magical.

The boy literally hears music in everything and is, quite predictably, a child prodigy like his mother. Meanwhile in Chicago, Lyla, as her friend ironically states, is a “music teacher who doesn’t play music anymore.” In San Francisco, Lewis works in finance and is no longer in a band. Lyla’s father confesses what he did. Lyla goes on a frantic search for her son.

Suddenly both parents want to play music again. Lyla picks up her cello; Lewis contacts his band, winning them over with his Lyla-influenced love song. Lyla decides to play a concert in Central Park, while Lewis and the band book a gig at Irving Plaza in Manhattan. And he happens to be getting ready for his concert debut. In Central Park. And we all know that New York is the ultimate destination for dreams to come true.

“I believe in music the way some people believe in fairytales.”

There are many Dickensian elements in August Rush. Shades of Oliver Twist. August [Freddie Highmore] has been languishing at a boy’s school for the unwanted. [There is nothing wrong with him and he would have been adopted as a baby or small infant, surely. But I let that go.] He runs away to Times Square amidst the symphony of musical city sounds. The cacophony of millions of people, clashes, grinding, and motors aplenty makes the music for him. After coming under the spells of an Artful Dodger –type [in the form of a cute street musician], August meets a Fagin-type known as Wizard [Robin Williams channeling Bono’s performance and look from Across the Universe]. Wizard gets possessive, violent and sees cash in the boy. Wizard tricks August into thinking that no one else will treat him any better. But, August wises up and escapes to a church; sneaks around and plays the organ. Of course his talents cannot be kept hidden and he soon is at Julliard being properly taught.

Highmore [Finding Neverland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory] takes a soft-spoken, serious approach which suits this type of film perfectly. The kid must be really centered, having appeared in so many fantastical films. He vacillates from dismal moments with pooled tears in his eyes to complete bright-eyed excitement. Russell excels at red-eyed crying, anguish and disgust all wrapped in one. She also marvelously and expresses the yearning she has for what is lost [both physically and emotionally]. She needs to find her son and reclaim her music for her own well-being. It shows in every expression. Russell is a superb talent as evidence by her turn in this summer’s sweet, charming Waitress, in her small role in The Upside of Anger, as well as her years on Felicity. This film must have been cast for eyes—all piercing, emotive, beautiful eyes. Gentle, lovely Terrence Howard plays a caring child services representative.

August Rush has a dreamy, ethereal feel. Director Kirsten Sheridan [daughter of acclaimed director Jim Sheridan] deftly creates this magical atmosphere which takes viewers on an improbable journey. The film connects a series of fortunate circumstances and chance encounters. August Rush is sweet and hopeful in its overtones; I fell for it, at least for one night.

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