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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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book review: We Were Feminists Once

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

RATING: ****/5*

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

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

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

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

–review by Amy Steele

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

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book review: Commonwealth

commonwealth

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

RATING: ****/5*

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

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

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

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

–review by Amy Steele

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

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notable Boston-area book readings in October

bill-ayers

Bill Ayers
Demand the Impossible!: A Radical Manifesto
Harvard Book Store
Wednesday, October 5 at 7pm

nicotine

Nell Zink
Nicotine: A Novel
Harvard Book Store
Friday, October 7 at 7pm

m-train

Patti Smith
M Train: a memoir
Brookline Booksmith
Tuesday, October 11 at 7pm

mike-love-book

Mike Love
Good Vibrations: My Life as a Beach Boy
Harvard Book Store
Thursday, October 13 at 7pm

reclaiming-conversation

Sherry Turkle
Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in the Digital Age
Brookline Booksmith
Thursday, October 13 at 7pm

water-in-plain-sight

Judith Schwartz
Water in Plain Sight: Hope for a Thirsty World
Porter Square Books
Thursday, October 13 at 7pm

future-sex

Emily Witt
Future Sex
Harvard Book Store
Monday, October 17 at 7pm

gambler

Jonathan Lethem
A Gambler’s Anatomy
Cambridge Public Library
Thursday, October 20 at 6:30pm

against-everything

Mark Greif
Against Everything: essays
Brookline Booksmith
Friday, October 21 at 7pm

mercury

Margot Livesey
Mercury
Porter Square Books
Monday, October 24 at 7pm

fill-the-sky

Katherine Sherbrooke
Fill the Sky
Wellesley Books
Tuesday, October 25 at 7pm

flying-couch

Amy Kurzweil
Flying Couch: A Graphic Memoir
Brookline Booksmith
Thursday, October 27 at 7pm

unamericans

Margot Livesey
MERCURY: A NOVEL
Molly Antopol
The UnAmericans: stories
Newtonville Books
Thursday, October 27 at 7pm

known

Teju Cole
Known and Strange Things: essays
Brookline Booksmith
Monday, October 31 at 7pm

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