Archive for category Books

book review: VICTORIA

victoria

VICTORIA: The Heart and Mind of a Young Queen by Helen Rappaport. Harper Design| January 2017| 304 pages | $29.99| ISBN: 9780062568892

RATING: 3.5/5*

Currently the Masterpiece series Victoria airs on PBS and Victoria historical consultant Helen Rappaport wrote this companion book. The book includes a forward by novelist and series screenwriter Daisy Goodwin, who writes: “There were plenty of people who thought that an 18-year-old girl could not be an effective monarch. But it is clear when you read Victoria’s own words that she was a woman with an extraordinary sense of her own identity.”

The author delves into the queen’s writings to provide scholarly insight. Throughout the book there are quotes from Queen Victoria’s diaries as well as letters from the Queen, her family, confidants and Prince Albert. There’s a useful House of Hanover Family Tree [1714-1837] and plenty of beautiful pictures of the Victoria cast throughout the book. It includes these sections: Little Drina; From Kensington Palace to Buckingham Palace; The Maiden Queen; Lord M; The German Pauper; Her Majesty’s Household; The Court of Queen Victoria; The Welfare of My People; Becoming a Mother; Behind the Scenes.

When I watch historical television series [such as The Crown] I often find myself googling information on people and events. I enjoy researching and perhaps reading additional books based on something I’m watching or reading. This book contains a bevy of information and details which may enhance one’s enjoyment of the program.  It’s a magnificent resource—all in one attractive coffee table book– for fans of the program Victoria, the British monarchy and the Victorian era. This likely is only something that the most avid fan would actually buy/own but it’s worth checking out.

Years ago I bought the Sense and Sensibility companion screenplay and diaries by Emma Thompson. I’m not an Austen-phile but I do love Emma Thompson and loved the film. In the past 20 years the book travels from apartment to apartment and looks good on my bookshelves. I don’t look at it often but I like knowing I own it.

–review by Amy Steele

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

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notable Boston-area book readings in February 2017

bishop

Megan Marshall
Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast
Harvard Book Store
Tuesday, February 7 at 7pm

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Michael Bennett, MD and Sarah Bennett
F*ck Love
Brookline Booksmith
Tuesday, February 7 at 7pm

really-good-day

Ayelet Waldman
A Really Good Day
Brookline Booksmith
Wednesday, February 8 at 7pm

harvester

John Darnielle
Universal Harvester
Harvard Book Store
at Brattle Theatre
Wednesday, February 8 at 6pm

american-hookup

Lisa Wade
American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus
Harvard Book Store
Thursday, February 9 at 7pm

pachinko

Min Jin Lee
Pachinko
Harvard Book Store
Friday, February 10 at 7pm

stand-your-ground

Caroline Light
Stand Your Ground: A History of America’s Love Affair with Lethal Self-Defense
Harvard Book Store
Thursday, February 16 at 7pm

lipman

Elinor Lipman
On Turpentine Lane
Brookline Booksmith
Thursday, February 16 at 7pm

difficult-women

Roxane Gay
Difficult Women
Porter Square Books
Friday, February 17 at 7pm

stolen-child

Lisa Carey
The Stolen Child
Brookline Booksmith
Saturday, February 18 at 7pm

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Emily Jeanne Miller
The News from the End of the World
Harvard Book Store
Tuesday, February 21 at 7pm

bucky-dent

David Duchovny
Bucky F*cking Dent
Brookline Booksmith
Wednesday, February 22 at 12pm

bishop

Megan Marshall
Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast
Brookline Booksmith
Wednesday, February 22 at 7pm

rise of the rocket girls

Nathalia Holt
Rise of the Rocket Girls: the Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars
WorkBar Cambridge
Monday, February 27 at 6:30pm

girl-at-baggage

Gish Jen
The Girl at the Baggage Claim: Explaining the East-West Culture Gap
Harvard Book Store
Tuesday, February 28 at 7pm

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STEELE PICKS: Best Books of 2016

quite delayed on posting my year-end list.

here are the best books of 2016 [not ranked]:

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An Abbreviated Life: a memoir by Ariel Leve [Harper]
–gorgeous writing, sad story. resilience. My parents got divorced when I was around the same age and I only have a few isolated or vague memories.

alligator-candy

Alligator Candy: a memoir by David Kushner [Simon & Schuster]
David Kushner’s older brother Jon disappeared one day on a bike ride to get candy and two men savagely murdered him, sodomized him postmortem and mutilated his body. It’s a horrific event to happen in one’s family. Only four at the time, Kushner didn’t quite understand the full impact. He missed his brother but didn’t know the complete details. Now a journalist, he decided to revisit the case and provide a voice for and memory of his brother. Through compelling prose and devastating emotion this memoir potently addresses murder and its effect on the family. full review

future-sex

Future Sex by Emily Witt [Farrar, Straus and Giroux]
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; Kink.com; 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. full review.

giril-through-glass

Girl Through Glass by Sari Wilson [Harper]
A former ballet dancer, Wilson provides intimate details about New York’s ballet scene. While this isn’t solely a novel about the ballet world, girls straddling the line between youth and adulthood provides fascinating reading. The novel flawlessly describes the razor sharp focus on becoming the best, earning a particular status and securing one’s place in this strange world overflowing with beauty and sacrifice. And what happens to all those girls who aren’t’ quite the best? Those girls who do not make the right school or earn a place in a prestigious ballet company? This absorbing, riveting novel does what a wonderful novel can do: it completely transports readers to a specific time and place in such an effective and specific manner that one thinks about the subject and characters well past finishing the last page. full review.

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Heat & Light by Jennifer Haigh [Ecco]
Returning to Bakerton, Pennsylvania—the setting for the 2005 best-selling novel Baker Towers—author Jennifer Haigh again focuses on an energy source and its effects on a small community. full review.

here i am

Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer [Farrar, Straus and Giroux]
–phenomenal writing. for some reason I waited to read this (maybe because it’s quite long and dense). immediately engulfed in the story of a family coming apart. numerous other elements including being Jewish and Middle East politics. amazing.

lazaretto

Lazaretto by Diane McKinney-Whetstone
Set in post-Civil War Philadelphia, this historical fiction novel beautifully explores race, class, gender and family. full review.

llucy pear

Leaving Lucy Pear by Anna Solomon [Viking]
An engrossing and gorgeous work of historical fiction, this novel effectively weaves together issues of class, feminism, wealth, power, mental illness and motherhood. The setting: Cape Ann, Massachusetts, a working class fishing community as well as a lovely coastal summer getaway for Boston’s wealthy. In 1917, the unwed teenage daughter of a wealthy family abandons her newborn daughter under a pear tree outside her uncle’s estate on Cape Ann. A decade later, Beatrice finds herself unexpectedly reunited with the Irish woman raising the determined and spunky Lucy Pear. full review.

modern girls

Modern Girls by Jennifer Brown [NAL]
–The novel focuses on a strong mother-daughter relationship. Brown incorporates historical details which strengthen the plot, setting and characters. For instance in a meeting Rose attends, she urges her comrades to write letters to their Senators to repeal 1924’s Johnson-Reed Act which instituted quotas on the number of Jews that could enter America. While Rose and Dottie don’t share every detail with each other they’ve developed a solid bond and care deeply about each others well-being. Mother and daughter respect and support each other. Despite the decade, the restrictions against women and standard domestic expectations, these women remain strong feminist characters. A sequel set 10 or 15 years on would be greatly welcomed. These characters must be followed up on. Clear your schedule and brew a pot of tea. Once you start this wonderful, detailed novel you’ll want to read straight through. full review.

the other woman

The Other Woman by Therese Bohman [Other Press]
This novel bursts with intellectual prowess. It’s witty, provocative and thoughtful about money, class, what it is to have less and desire more, to be educated and smart but not particularly suited to anything. Swedish author Therese Bohman examines societal expectations of what makes a complete life: a good job; a happy coupling; a nice place. All the things by which we define ourselves but realize the innate superficiality of it all. If we focus on the having and not the feeling and the experiencing then we lack integrity, depth and strength of character. full review.

pull-me

Pull Me Under by Kelly Luce [Farrar, Straus and Giroux]
Pull Me Under is an exquisitely dark psychological thriller which examines identity and place through its compelling protagonist and story. read my complete review.

rare objects

Rare Objects by Kathleen Tessaro [Harper]
–lovely historical fiction set in Boston. Author Kathleen Tessaro adeptly describes both the immigrant North End and wealthy mansions with vivid detail. Superb writing and research merge to tell this wonderful story. a page-turner about class, friendship and the things and people we value most. full review.

sun in your eyes

The Sun in Your Eyes by Deborah Shapiro [William Morrow]
–There’s that saying that you can’t tell a book by its cover. Book covers visually connect a potential reader to the book. The cover image makes you wonder what the book will be about. A beautiful, cool book cover sets expectations. On the cover of The Sun in Your Eyes is a photo of two women with a definite 70s rocker chic. What’s going on between these two women? It’s a 1974 photograph by William Eggleston and drew me right in. I’d also just seen the photo in the documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me which features this photo. The blonde was Alex Chilton’s girlfriend. full review.

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The Vegetarian by Kang Han [Hogarth]
–I’ve been a vegan for about eight years and am not too thin. Due to psychiatric meds I need to lose weight. I stopped eating red meat at 12!/everything but fish at 18 then went vegetarian to vegan. So the being deprived and malnourished because she’s not eating meat is bothering me a tad. Otherwise, the writing is great. It’s dark and suspenseful. Entirely original and engrossing.

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We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge [Algonquin]
–a thoughtful and provocative novel which effectively and creatively winds together numerous subjects from coming-of-age, first love, adolescence, sisterhood, race, anthropology, history and family dynamics. In 1990, a family relocates from Dorchester, Massachusetts to the Berkshires to teach sign language to a chimpanzee at the Toneybee Institute for Great Ape Research. full review.

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book review: Lady Cop Makes Trouble

lady copyLady Cop Makes Trouble by Amy Stewart. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt| September 2016| 320 pages | $26.00| ISBN: 978-0-544-40994-1

RATING: ***/5*

This was an overall fun and enjoyable read. I didn’t read the debut Kopp Sisters novel Girl Waits with Gun so maybe it wasn’t a good idea to read the second book. I do think that even in a series each book should be a stand-alone that anyone can pick up to read and figure out what’s going on. Despite not knowing the case from the first novel which did carry over to this novel–at least in consequences for Constance Kopp and her position as deputy sheriff—I could mostly piece together what I needed. The youngest sister Fleurette confused me at first and I didn’t know if she was a daughter or niece. I absolutely admire and appreciate that Amy Stewart found clips in which to base this case and that Constance Kopp was a real person. Stewart explained, “I’m lucky enough to have a huge treasure trove of newspaper clippings covering 1914 and 1915. Constance was in the paper all the time. This book covers one particular incident that made headlines nationwide: the pursuit of a convicted criminal.” This is a delightful description of Constance’s duties for the New Jersey sheriff’s department: “I wasn’t just a chaperone for wayward girls. I carried a gun and handcuffs. I could make an arrest, just like any deputy. I earned a man’s salary. People did find it shocking and I didn’t mind that one bit.” Constance stands as a strong, determined female working in the male-dominated field of law enforcement. She doesn’t seem deterred when men don’t know how to speak with her or how to react to her as she carries out her varied responsibilities. She lives with her sisters, Fleurette and Norma, in the countryside in New Jersey. Norma seems content to raise homing pigeons and not venture far from home. Fleurette dreams of the stage and for now acts in a local production. The sisters look out for one another and serve as sounding boards for each other. Not having sisters it seems a wonderful thing. This case didn’t quite enthrall me enough for a mystery/thriller, fortunately the strong female lead makes up for my lack of interest and sometimes confusion in the case. I rooted for Constance and her sisters to fight the system and to fight sexism.

–review by Amy Steele

 FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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book review: Pull Me Under

pull-me

Pull Me Under by Kelly Luce. Farrar, Straus and Giroux| November 2016| 272 pages | $26.00| ISBN: 9780374238582

RATING: *****/5*

At the novel’s beginning, twelve year old Chizuru Akitani, the Japanese American daughter of acclaimed violinist Hiro Akitani, fatally stabs a classmate. She’s bullied in school for one of the most common reasons children tease other children, she’s different– she’s a hafu—Japanese for mixed blood [“Hafu implied my Japanese-ness was the only part of me that mattered, that there would never be enough.”] and fat. Her American-born mother commits suicide. Her father didn’t spend that much time with her (or her mom). She suppressed anger for as long as she could until she was pushed too far by the bully. It’s explained like this: “I noticed at a young age—four years old, five—a dark presence in my chest, a blackness, clinging to the back of my heart. Mostly the thing lay dormant and I could put it out of my mind. But occasionally it swelled like an infected gland. These were the times I felt hurt or angry, the sensations so closely linked that I never separated them until a therapist pointed out the difference. My anger was an organ.”

The haunting story unfolds methodically revealing details. Chizuru serves time in a juvenile detention facility, must denounce her Japanese citizenship, changes her name to Rio and moves to the United States to attend college. She reinvents herself while rarely looking back on her past. Rio strives to blend in and succeeds. This seems quite a positive and mindful manner in which to exist. Rio becomes a runner—“I’d found a way to soothe that curdled feeling of anxiety; when I ran, the bad things fell away.” She becomes a nurse, marries her college boyfriend and has a daughter. She’s the good wife, good mother, and good employee. Of her life in Colorado: “I feel like what I am: a thirty-eight-year-old mother and wife with a retirement fund and a house in the suburbs and a Volvo. My life has been built for safety.” While in the United States, many might present several various facades for various relationships or settings, there’s a name for it in Japan—“Interactions revolve around honne and tatemae. Honne is what you really think and feel; tatemae, like the façade of a building, is the face you show to the world.”  Globally, women are expected to suppress emotions, feelings and thoughts. Perhaps more so in Japan than in the United States although it’s clear per societal standards and the general zeitgeist that outspoken women and poorly behaved women rarely get rewarded compared to male counterparts.

Decades later, Rio returns to Japan to reconcile her present with her past and perhaps embrace forgiveness. Her husband and daughter know nothing about her past. Rio reflects: “Sal doesn’t know all of me. Maybe this is true of all husbands and wives; after all, there are inaccessible places in each of us. Places few would understand, and marriage, I’ve come to believe, is about finding someone who understands the right things without digging up the wrong ones.” At her father’s funeral she reunites with a former teacher, a New Zealand-native named Danny. When Danny says she’s going on a pilgrimage through Japan’s numerous temples, Rio decides to tag along. Along the trail, the women start hiking with a young law student named Shinobu. What Rio discovers about herself as well as her father may affect her life back in the United States.

“I can be hafu, if I want; I can always find someone to call me incomplete. But I can be whole, too; I can be unsplit and complete in the fragmented way that a life is a life.”

Pull Me Under is an exquisitely dark psychological thriller which examines identity and place through its compelling protagonist and story. It’s easy to empathize with Rio and understand her motivations to minimize her Japanese ancestry. Author Kelly Luce provides detailed descriptions –“Ryozenji is all worn stone and dark, weathered wood. A pond with a fountain sits in the middle. Goldfish swarm the edge where an old woman tosses bread. She pinches off a piece and holds it out. A white and orange spotted fish jumps fully out of the water.”–and fascinating cultural elements—“I fill my basket with the candies I loved as a kid: sesame sticks, caramel frogs, tubes of sugar decorated with astrological signs.” Every aspect of this novel creatively allows readers to become fully absorbed from beginning to end.

–review by Amy Steele

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

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book review: De Facto Feminism

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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book review: Future Sex

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; Kink.com; 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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