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Best Books of 2021

I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness by Claire Faye Watkins
Riverhead Books, October 2021. 304 pg.

Unique, strange, dark, smart. Just the type of novel I like. The main character is a writer suffering from postpartum depression who questions her writing career, her marriage and being a mother. Honest depictions of ambivalent mothers (see also: The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante) definitely divides readers.. I’m not a mother and never will be. This woman left her newborn to go to a book event. She’s not particularly interested in being married or in a monogamous relationship either. She grew up in this area outside Las Vegas so she’s revisiting past traumatic experiences. Her mother died of a drug overdose and her father was in the Manson Family. There’s a lot going on and Watkins weaves it all together brilliantly.

I Came All This Way to Meet You by Jami Attenberg
Ecco, January 2022. 

This  was everything I want in a memoir: relatable, honest, interesting, complicated, revealing. Jami Attenberg is one of my favorite authors and I appreciated learning more about her writing career and personal life. She’s lived in so many cool places and done lots of traveling; basically she’s done all the things I thought I’d do by my age. ⁣

Real Estate by Deborah Levy
Bloomsbury, August 2021. 224 pg.

I don’t know how I expected to have any sort of writing success when I’ve become so limited by my anxiety. I’m terribly agoraphobic.  I’ve hardly traveled. I don’t have enough experience. I don’t have my own place. I barely have a room of my own to write in. I’m terribly agoraphobic. I’m envious of anyone who manages to have these things because I don’t think I ever will. Of course, that’s what’s supposed to happen as an adult, isn’t it? Booker-nominated writer Deborah Levy didn’t get recognition until she was 50. Real Estate, the third installment of the Living Autobiography series, is my favorite. It’s very journal-like in her recollection of events and chronicling her thoughts. She has a new rented writing shed in someone’s backyard.  Levy  contemplates place, ownership, independence, writing, aging, feminism. She travels to New York, Mumbai, Greece and Germany. She lives in Paris for a year on a writing fellowship. She references literature and film: May Sarton’s journals, the Bergman film Through a Glass Darkly, Little Women, Simone de Beauvoir, the television show Feud, Audre Lorde, Gloria Steinem, Leonard Cohen. 

Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri
Knopf, April 2021. 160 pg.

Loved this and found it very relatable. I’m so happy to read novels with main characters over 40! Jhumpa Lahiri is one of my favorite authors. Lahiri wrote this in Italian and then translated it into English. The central character is single and lives alone. She teaches but remains unmotivated. She wanders-she swims, goes to a coffee shop, goes to a bookstore, goes to a museum and gets a manicure. She does things alone but has interactions and connections. Lahiri writes with an obvious appreciation for solitude.

In Every Mirror She’s Black by Lola Akinmade Akerstrom
Sourcebooks Landmark, September 2021. 405 pg.

Three Black women are linked to a wealthy and  influential white man in Stockholm. Kemi Adeyemi, a successful marketing executive, is hired by Johnny Van Lundin. Flight attendant Brittany-Rae Johnson meets Johnny on a flight and he pursues her even though she’s living with a longterm boyfriend. Muna is a refugee from Somalia who gets a job cleaning offices at Johnny’s company. They’re all navigating in a white world. Told from multiple perspectives, this novel addresses racism, classism, fetishism, tokenism. 

The Last One by Fatima Daas
Other Press, November 2021. 193 pg.

“I hate everything that has to do with the female universe as my mother presents it to me, but I haven’t realized it yet.”

⁣A very personal coming-of-age novel based on the author’s experiences as a young French lesbian and Muslim. The author uses her own name, Fatima Daas, for the central character.  The daughter of religious Algerian immigrants who consider love and sexuality taboo, Fatima struggles to justify her sexuality alongside her religious beliefs as she becomes more independent. ⁣It’s written in a unique style and reads most like a memoir. It’s difficult to know where fiction ends and reality begins. It’s an interesting way to write a novel. 

Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead by Emily Austin
Atria Books, July 2021. 256 pg.

“I can’t get a pet because one day it would die, and I doubt I’d recover.”

Gilda is rather fixated on death. It’s all the 20-something can think about. She struggles with depression and anxiety. After losing her bookstore job, she wanders into a church after seeing a flier for mental health support, and winds up with a job. It’s an interesting place for her to work as she’s not too convinced about the existence of any deity. She’s found herself to be out of place most of the time. It’s thoughtful, relatable and filled with dark humor. 

Backlist titles:

Catch & Kill by Ronan Farrow
Little, Brown and Company, 2019. 608 pg.

Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Ronan Farrow recounts breaking the story on the seuxal assault and harassment allegations against Harvey Weinstein. I listened to the audiobook which I don’t often do for nonfiction that’s this long and dense. Being extremely engaging and affable, Farrow tells good stories. It’s detailed and descriptive and takes you right there into the conspiracies, power and patriarchal constructs. 

Writers & Lovers by Lily King
Grove Press, 2020. 320 pg.

Grieving the death of her mother and the end of a relationship,  a struggling writer, Casey Peabody, moves to  Cambridge, Massachusetts. She lives in a garage apartment and makes ends meet waiting tables while working on a novel.She soon leaves her waitress job for a higher paying job with benefits. She’s able to see a doctor for the first time in five years. She receives several startling diagnoses. She starts dating two guys– the hot guy whose kisses make her “melt” and the older widowed writer with two children. A loan collection agency threatens to garnish her wages. As a child, she was a golf prodigy and earned a scholarship to Duke. Then she found her coach father spying on girls in the locker room. Her mother recently died of cancer and she worries about getting cancer herself. She finally finishes her book and sends it out to agents. I love books about writing and writers. I found this relatable, smart and engaging. It’s a novel about creativity, loss, persistence, independence and pursuing one’s goals.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
Riverhead, 2020. 343 pg. 

“She hadn’t adopted a disguise or even a new name. She’d walked in a colored girl and left a white one. She had become white only because everyone thought she was.”

The Vignes sisters are identical twins. At 16, they ran away from home. Now, years later, one lives in the same Southern town they grew up in and one lives in California and passes as white. The novel covers the 1940s-1950s. It’s brilliant, provocative, insightful, riveting. Absolute perfection in addressing race, gender, identity, belonging, genetics, ancestry, nature vs. nurture and independence. The story and characters stay with you for a long time. 

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show preview: Alex Dezen at Middle East Upstairs, March 9.


The Damnwells have disbanded after 16 years together. Alex Dezen is on tour in support of his second solo album, II. The newest album features upbeat, grooving melodies with a retro vibe. Of the new album, Dezen said: “In many ways, the job of an artist is to re-examine what came before. That informs what we do next, My intention when I made this record was not to make an ’80s record. But as soon as I got the guitar in my hands and started messing around with chords and getting further along into the production and the writing, it just went that way — and it felt very natural to me.”

In 2010, Dezen  earned a master’s degree from the University of Iowa after completing two years at the institution’s Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He writes material for other artists and has worked with  Dave Grohl, The Dixie Chicks, Justin Bieber and Kelly Clarkson. In 2015, he collaborated with the American dance company Pilobolus Dance Theater, composing the music for the dance piece “Wednesday Morning, 11:45 (2015).”

$10, Thursday, March 9, 7 p.m., Downstairs, Middle East Restaurant and Nightclub, 472-480 Massachusetts Avenue, Central Square, Cambridge,


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book review: Virgin and Other Stories


Virgin and Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson. Farrar, Straus and Giroux| November 2016| 179 pages | $23.00| ISBN: 9780865478695

RATING: ****/5*

Strong debut short story collection with a dark tone and dark sense of humor. Author April Ayers Lawson, currently a visiting writer at University of North Caroline at Chapel Hill,  grew up in the South with an evangelical background. She grew up in Greenville, South Carolina. It’s easy to imagine that everyone in the South drives around in a pick-up truck with confederate flag and gun rack attending weekly church service. In this story collection she creates a complex image of the South and its inhabitants with rich details and enthralling, layered characters.

In the title story, Jake contemplates the potential deterioration his marriage to Sheila, a virgin when they wed. A teenager becomes tantalized by a mysterious young man living at her piano teacher’s home in “The Way You Must Play Always:” “The love inside her had room to spread out now. It was part nervousness, part desperation, and a little craziness too, and she felt it begin to rush outside of her and around her, leaving invisible prints of itself all over the things she touched: her bag, her books, the keys, the pages of the music she turned.” A woman who befriended a transgender woman at her church takes her son to the woman’s funeral in “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling.” This boy recalls how different his mother would be when Charlene would come over to visit: “First I thought WHAT IN THE WORLD did my mother have to put in a diary? All she did was give me assignments, wander around the house wiping things down, drink green tea, and go to stores. She never said anything to me about a diary; then Charlene’s her thirty minutes and my mom is Anne Frank.”

In the best story, a married artist forms complicated relationships with her art dealer and another artist in “Vulnerability.” She’s married to a man who mostly hangs out after work in the garage watching porn on his computer. Of her husband: “Occasionally when I returned from the bathroom at a restaurant I’d come back to find him engaged more happily in conversation with the waitress than he ever was with me; with me he claimed he could be himself, which was depressed.” She creates imaginary relationships in her mind then when she meets the art dealer and another man she corresponded with she plays them off against each other. There’s a dangerous precariousness in her emotions and palpable insecurities: “I knew I had nice legs, and unable to think of anything funny or intelligent to say, my mind sludgy with the clonazepam I chewed like candy and alcohol and th dregs of crumbling fantasy, I shifted then about in hopes that he’d forgive me for not being as smart and inspired and bold as I thought I’d managed to seem in the emails.” Best read slowly to savor and absorb the exquisite details.

–review by Amy Steele

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

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book review: Mister Monkey


Mister Monkey by Francine Prose. Harper| October 2016| 285 pages | $26.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-239783-6

RATING: ****/5*

“They are in this together, everyone is happy to be here and disappointed to be here, glad to have a part in a play, glad to work for scale, but truthfully not all that overjoyed to be working in an off-off-off-off-Broadway production of Mister Monkey, the umpteen-hundreth revival of the cheesy but mysteriously durable musical based on the classic children’s novel.”

In writing this novel about a failing theatrical production, author Francine Prose [Lovers at the Chameleon Club: Paris, 1932, My New American Life, Blue Angel] addresses the rippling effect of the play on a bevy of players. The faltering stage production of a classic and popular children’s novel brings together a disparate group of actors, crew and audience members.  Prose imagines how this rather basic play correlates to the mid-aged actress questioning her career, the child actor playing the titular monkey, the children’s book author and young child in the audience, that child’s teacher and others. Each chapter builds on the past one. The play’s based on a novel about a wealthy New York family who adopts an orphaned monkey. The father’s girlfriend thinks the beloved monkey stole her wallet. The case ends up in court. Absurdity ensues.

Each chapter addresses the play from a different character’s viewpoint adding more layers to the story behind the play. Margot wonders how she ended up working so hard and not advancing her career in the way she’d imagined. She’s playing Mister Monkey’s lawyer in a tiny theater. This isn’t the career she’d envisioned for herself at Yale. She reminds herself: “Art is art, theater is magic, no matter how humble the venue. Together they have transformed a house full of strangers into a group of people all rooting for Mister Monkey!” The home-schooled twelve-year-old actor in the monkey suit became engulfed in everything simian when he landed the role. He also harbors a massive crush on Margot. Costume designer Lakshmi believes “Mister Monkey is a nasty piece of imperialist propaganda justifying human trafficking, which you would know if you were smart enough to substitute a person for a monkey.” Eleanor works as a nurse full-time and acts on the side. The grandfather and his grandson, Edward, attended a matinee of the play. Prior to the play the grandfather started reading the book to his grandson. “The grandfather didn’t like the book either. It seemed obvious and preachy, full of improving lessons about race and class, honesty, justice, and some kind of . . . spirituality, for want of a better word.” Edward takes the playbill to school and a spirited argument about evolution erupts among the kindergartners.

How does this affect Edward’s teacher Sonya? She’s in trouble because her young pupils discussed Darwinism.  Sonya meets a guy for dinner at a fancy restaurant where she ends up next to the book’s author. The date deteriorates quickly. Suffering from PTSD after Vietnam, Ray ending up writing Mister Monkey based on an experience during the war. He’s now wealthy. Whenever Ray receives theatrical royalties he takes whomever he’s dating or married to at the time to dinner at a restaurant called Enzo’s and he gives his favorite waiter Mario tickets to the production. Mario’s fiancée left him—“She was the one who pretended to be someone else, someone who wanted a life of simple contentment with Mario. By then Mario had moved back to his parent’s house for what he’d thought would be a few weeks.” Mario adores the theater and will attend any play and restaurant patrons gift him tickets often.

Prose based the novel on her own experience attending a children’s musical with her granddaughter at a small theater in Manhattan. Prose found the production lacking and tragic and at one quiet moment her granddaughter exclaimed: “Grandma, are you interested in this?” And so Prose wrote this novel to address that question. Fascinating connections allow Prose to explore shattered dreams, unfulfilled goals, success, failure, raising a child in Manhattan, career, love and friendship through wonderful characterizations, vivid prose and a sharp tone. It’s easy to become engulfed in this brilliant, darkly amusing and astutely observational novel.

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

–review by Amy Steele

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book review: Future Sex


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

RATING: *****/5*

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

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

–review by Amy Steele

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

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

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new music: Alexandra Savior; Radar Eyes

Alexandra Savior, “M.T.M.E.”

M.T.M.E. –the abbreviation for music to my ears is the new song from talented 21-year-old Alexandra Savior. The song entrances with intensely sultry vocals and a musical arrangement which effectively fuses Eastern and Western sounds. The L.A.-based Savior wrote the song with Alex Turner (Arctic Monkeys/Last Shadow Puppets).

Radar Eyes, “Midnight Drive”

80s post-punk/goth influences feature prominently on this song. Yearning vocals and stylized, psychedelic guitar make the song pop. It’s a definite throwback for fans of The Church, Bauhaus, Echo & The Bunnymen. Past meets future on this energetic single. Radar Eyes is: singer/ guitarist Anthony Cozzi; guitarist Russell Calderwood, drummer Nithin Kalvakota, and bassist Lucas Sikorski. The band’s new album Radiant Remains [Under Road Records] is available now.

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show preview: Trashcan Sinatras at Middle East Club Cambridge on Tuesday, May 17, 2016

trashcan sinatras pic

Scottish indie-pop band Trashcan Sinatras formed in 1986 and released its debut album Cake in 1990. This album featured the catchy, charming hits: “Obscurity Knocks” and “Only Tongue Can Tell. The second album, I’ve Seen Everything, released in 1993 included the pretty single “Hayfever,.” Trashcan Sinatras create pretty, gentle, melodic songs. Ones that I used to play over and over. The band will release its sixth album Wild Pendulum in May. You can support the new album via Pledge Music.

Trashcan Sinatras line-up: Frank Reader (vocals); John Douglas (guitar); Paul Livingston (lead guitar); Stephen Douglas (drums); Stevie Mulhearn (keyboards); Frank DiVanna (bass-tour); and Grant Wilson (bass-CD).


Cake (1990)

I’ve Seen Everything (1993)

A Happy Pocket (1996)

Weightlifting (2004)

In the Music (2009)

Trashcan Sinatras  play The Middle East Club in Cambridge, Mass. on Tuesday, May 17, 2016.

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new music: Boudoir Noir; Esquela; Slow Coyote

Boudoir Noir, “Endless Dawn”

–dark cabaret-style which combines electronica, a bit of hip-hop/ world music beats, lush compositions and varied instrumentation. become engulfed in the haunting aspect of this single. nearly anything dark as long as it’s not metal, I’ll probably be into it. based in Flint, Michigan, Boudoir Noir is: Maria Fournier- vocals, guitar, production Beni Schlatter- drums, production Graham Rockwood- bass. Fournier’s impressive range complements the intriguing arrangements. Boudoir Noir’s Endless Dawn EP– which I’ve listened to many times over– comes out June 3. These are talented musicians. All three members of Boudoir Noir have formally studied music formally–Maria Fournier at Berklee College of Music, Graham Rockwood at Eastern Michigan and Beni Schlatter at U of Michigan– Flint. Boudoir Noir is a band to watch for 2016.

Esquela, “Gold Digger”

— rootsy, funky with twangy, rousing rhythms and grooving melodies. There’s a jovial vibe that must translate to a fun show. I’d definitely see Esquela live with beer in hand. From the band’s third album third release Canis Majoris. Esquela is: John “Chico” Finn [bass/vocals]; Becca Frame [vocals]; Brian Shafer: [guitar]; Todd Russell [drums/vocals]; Matt Woodin [guitar].


Slow Coyote, “American Cream”

–subdued, stripped down folk/acoustic with a longing and aching I find appealing. Portsmouth, NH’s Slow Coyote –aka Lucas Perry– notes that he’s played over 100 shows. He also performs spoken word poetry at his gigs. This single is off his new album, End of the Highway.

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new music: nav/attack; tindersticks

nav/attack, “More Wins”

named by L.A. Weekly as one of 10 Los Angeles artists to watch in 2016, art-pop, synth band nav/attack have its self-titled debut album out now. The music mixes piano, trumpet, drums and bass with drum machines, computer speech, vocoders and vintage samplers. Los Angeles-based artist, producer and engineer Andrew Lynch stated that the name nav/attack moniker is derived from “an ’80s “War Games-esque” software that uses a computer to locate a specific target and relay information back to its human counterpart. To avoid misunderstandings with a computer, you must learn its language.” Andrew Lynch studied film and video at Academy of Art in San Francisco. He has recorded music for Christopher Guest‘s film For Your Consideration and Drew Barrymore‘s directorial debut Whip It.

tindersticks, “were we once lovers?”

another short-film out accompanies this gorgeous and hypnotic song from British band tindersticks. I’ve liked this band for some time. Its sound is romantic, wistful and evocative. The video, directed by Pierre Vinour, is a strange and intense car trip. Rather fitting for the song. The new album The Waiting Room [City Slang] is out January 22nd. The album features short films for each song. Directors include Christoph Girardet, Claire Denis, Rosie Pedlow and Joe King (who directed the “Hey Lucinda” video), Gregorio Graziosi, and Gabriel Sanna (who directed the “We Are Dreamers!” video).

Of the video, Stuart Staples stated: In the early 90s Pierre Vinour made an iconic short film called ‘Paris – Marchseille’ – a time lapse view of the journey through a car window condensed into three minutes ending by driving off the edge of France into the sea. When I saw this film I felt an immediate connection with ‘Were We Once Lovers?’ – the speed of the journey, but I also felt that the song was speeding through the drivers mind. I was pleased that Pierre felt that connection also and he set to work building on this idea. Still, I was still not prepared for the effect the final film had on me. The clenching intensity I felt when making the song was literally doubled. I love it but I can’t wait to be released from it, it holds me in this strange limbo.”

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TV News: Amanda de Cadenet speaks with Secretary Clinton on The Conversation

First, I’m not sure if The Conversation is returning as a series to Lifetime. This sounds like a one-off special. Following Amanda de Cadenet on Twitter, I think it airs online. Second, I have zero idea who any of the YouTube  “personalities,” “experts” or “influencers” are or how one becomes one. Is this now something that millennials and the next generation aspire to be? But kudos to young women for speaking out. I’m a GenXer. I just don’t understand that kind of celebrity.

On Wednesday, January 13 at 10pm ET/PT on Lifetime will air an exclusive one-hour presentation of The Conversation with Amanda de Cadenet featuring Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton. de Cadenet and Clinton discuss her childhood, life as a grandmother and what drives her to run for President of the United States. The two discuss issues facing women and girls, the importance of friendship, the definition of success and the best advice Clinton’s ever received.

conversation special

For the second part of the special, de Cadenet invites social media influencers – comedian and YouTube personality GloZell Green, fashion expert and stylist Chriselle Lim and creator of the “Be Shameless” movement, Maya Washington to discuss a variety of topics important to women.

The Conversation airs Wednesday, January 15 at 10pm ET/PT on Lifetime.

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