Posts Tagged Alissa Nutting

STEELE PICKS: Best Books of 2017

As always I’ve read lots of wonderful books this year. At this writing I’ve read 88 books: 72 by female authors; 16 by male authors; 19 by people of color/ diverse books. Not a bad year in reading. Now if only I could get a paid gig reviewing books.


All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg
–Andrea Bern gave up her dreams to be an artist to take a salaried position in advertising. She lives in an apartment in New York. Her friends are getting married and having children. She rotates through lovers. She does drugs. She feels pain while living somewhat messily and unapologetically. She’s in a safe spot professionally and socially which fits her goals and interests. Her work isn’t challenging but it’s steady and consistent. She isn’t committed to any one man and maintains her independence. She’s coping and she’s living a life that makes sense to her. In the meantime, everyone she knows seems to be changing their lives or moving around and doing new things while she remains in the same place doing what she’s pretty much always done. Her brother and sister-in-law move to rural New Hampshire to care for their terminally ill child. Andrea’s mother moves up there to help them leaving Andrea feeling abandoned. This brilliantly written novel features deft characterizations and dark humor. full review.


A Catalogue of Birds by Laura Harrington
–set in 1970, the novel focuses on the aftermath of the Vietnam War for the Flynn family. Gorgeous writing. Nell and her brother Billy are fascinated with birds: “How they wanted to ride the thermals coming off the water, drift in the currents, creatures of the air. These were the visions that filled their dreams, waking and sleeping. Aloft without the encumbrance of harness and armature, a bird with a boy’s body and sight and consequences, a girl with the skill to dive through the air, skim the surface of the lake, rise with a single wing beat, roll, and play in the sweet pine scent lifting off the trees.”


Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
–A beautiful, thoughtful novel about refugees that couldn’t be timelier. Using mystical realism, Hamid tells a potent and poetic story of love and freedom in this potent novel. Lovely reflections on connectivity and choice and circumstances. Hamid beautifully contemplates very human desires to achieve, to thrive and to share oneself in order to make sense of often nonsensical, violent and cruel world.  full review


Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
–“The interrogation continued for nearly two hours. He wanted to know her thoughts on Shias, homosexuals, the Queen, democracy, The Great British Bake Off, the invasion of Iraq, Israel, suicide bombers, dating websites.” A suberb novel about identity, race, religion, identity, community and family. Isma is a PhD student in Western Massachusetts. She’d put her education on hold to care for her sister Aneeka and brother Parvaiz after their mother’s death. Isma fears that the missing Parvaiz may be following their jihadist father’s path. Into the mix comes the charming and handsome Eamonn, the son of a powerful London politician. Despite their religious differences, Eamonn and Aneeka fall in love. Parvaiz’s religious fanaticism may threaten their relationship. The novel explores the love affair, the radicalization of Parvaiz and how Parvaiz’s religious fanaticism as well as the bond between twin siblings affects the relationship. Beautiful writing from numerous angles.


Impressions of Paris: An Artist’s Sketchbook by Cat Seto
–A lovely adult picture book. The perfect gift for someone who appreciates art and beautiful things. Cat Seto sketches her way through museums, cafes, gardens, bookstores and the streets of Paris. Recalling her time in Paris through watercolor illustrations, she divides the book into four chapters: color; pattern; perspective and rhythm.  review here.


The Leavers by Lisa Ko
–An intense mediation on race, culture, identity, sense of place and belonging, The Leavers by Lisa Ko is a gorgeous and thoughtfully written debut novel that should resonate with progressives and allow others insight into the struggles of undocumented immigrants. It’s not that they don’t want to follow protocol. It’s often that they have few choices. It’s the story of what happens when Deming Guo’s mother Polly, an undocumented Chinese immigrant, fails to return from her job at a nail salon. She just vanishes. full review here.


Lonesome Lies Before Us by Don Lee
–Yadin Park once had a budding career as an alt-country/Americana musician. While talented, his career never took off due to his insecurities, lack of charisma and stage presence and then Meniere’s disease, a debilitating hearing disorder. Being a musician, an artist of any kind isn’t an easy profession. The music industry and the entertainment industry subsist mostly on the youth. It’s easy to age out of the music industry as it places a premium on youth and beauty and not always talent. Of course to maintain longevity one must possess talent. The entertainment industry can afford to be fickle as support then drop artists that don’t pull in money. How long does someone want to scrape by in hopes of quitting the day job? It’s infrequent that someone can do that. As author Don Lee stated at a recent book reading at Newtonville Books: “You have to have a certain amount of luxury and leisure to pursue those arts.” It’s true. While the starving artist sounds romantic, in reality it’s not comfortable or feasible for most people long-term. read my full review.


Made for Love by Alissa Nutting
–So much to love about this novel. It’s smart, a bit bawdy, immensely clever, introspective and observational. Hazel recently left her tech billionaire husband, Byron Gogol, and moved in with her father at a trailer park for senior citizens. Her father, who just received his mail-order sex doll Diane, isn’t all that thrilled to have a new roommate. Hazel wants to start over but Byron isn’t going to make it easy. read my full review here.


Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta
–It’s amazing sometimes that you read the right book at the right moment. In reading you might feel connected with and find solace in characters on the page. It’s comforting to read relatable characters. Although I’ve never been married and don’t have any children I felt a kinship with Eve Fletcher. She’s figuring out what she wants to do next. Me too. She’s taking a class. Me too. She works as executive director at the senior center. I’ve worked in elder care. read my full review here.


A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline
–In the gorgeous and mysterious 1948 masterpiece Christina’s World, Andrew Wyeth depicts a woman crouching on a hill looking toward a weathered farm house. Looking at the painting, one might wonder whether the woman is coming or going. She seems far away and in such a twisted, crouching position with her hair blowing a bit in the wind. I never knew that Wyeth painted this on a farm in Maine. Author Christina Baker Kline creates a riveting story of the artist’s muse. Christina Olson lives a rather solitary, quiet and isolated existence in the small coastal town of Cushing, Maine on her family’s farm with her brother. When young painter Andrew Wyeth asks if he can paint the farm, Christina and her brother welcome the distraction and attention. This masterful work of historical fiction—told through first-person narrative– allows readers to feel Christina’s pain, disappointment and glimmers of hope throughout. read my full review here.


This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression by Daphne Merkin

–phenomenal memoir. many moments and thoughts to which I could relate.


What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons
–stunning novel about loss. “I thought about how every place on Earth contained its tragedies, love stories, people surviving and others failing, and for this reason, from far enough of a distance and under enough darkness, they were all essentially the same.”

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book review: Made for Love

made for love

Made for Love by Alissa Nutting. Ecco| July 2017| 320 pages | $25.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-228055-8

RATING: *****/5*

“During her marriage, she sometimes visited her father just so she could feel better about her life when she left. A trip to his home always made a pretty convincing argument that his gruff personality, heavy flaws, and the shortcoming of her childhood that his present-day existence kept freshly resurrected in her memory were fixed roadblocks that would prevent her from ever experiencing true joy, so her choices and lack of personal ambition or work ethic or relative sobriety didn’t really have to matter.”

So much to love about this novel. It’s smart, a bit bawdy, immensely clever, introspective and observational. Hazel recently left her tech billionaire husband, Byron Gogol, and moved in with her father at a trailer park for senior citizens. Her father, who just received his mail-order sex doll Diane, isn’t all that thrilled to have a new roommate. Hazel wants to start over but Byron isn’t going to make it easy.

The marriage seems a compromise. Byron wanted a wife and Hazel wanted an escape from what she assumed would be a rather dead-end life. Author Alissa Nutting writes: “Her life was going to be different from what she’d thought. This had felt sad and she wasn’t sure why, because she’d always planned on having a terrible life. But familiar terrors: loneliness, paycheck-to-paycheck ennui, unsatisfying dates with people a lot like her whom she wouldn’t enjoy because she did not enjoy herself.” She met Byron while in college and they married fairly quickly. His power and wealth dazzled her. He seemed both delighted by her and intrigued by her. [“Here was the thing: Hazel had not delighted her parents, ever. Nor had she delighted herself.” And then . . . “Hazel had never intrigued her parents or herself either.”] She’s been with him for a decade and over the years he’s become more controlling and Hazel’s been limited. During the marriage he’s kept tight tabs on his wife through technological surveillance and tracking. Hazel reached her limit when he planned to connect them via brain chips in a “mind-meld.” Byron’s methods to track down and bring his wife back become intense, severe and threatening. Hazel realizes she must make drastic measures or this megalomaniac will control her for the rest of her life. Or he’ll kill her. Neither appeals to her.

“It was easy to get along with him because she acted like a mood ring, always agreeing with what he found great and what he found intolerable.”

Technology connects us in a plethora of ways yet also disconnects us by making in-person communication less frequent and less necessary in many situations. It’s rare to find someone that has absolutely no social media presence. And if you do it’s just a bit suspect. How can one possibly keep up on news, politics, entertainment, celebrities and college friends without twitter, Facebook and Instagram. We rely on technology for both our professional and social lives. When you end a relationship there’s generally tons of data out there on social media to remind you of that relationship or make it difficult to move on. Plus how are relationships defined in the age of social media?

There’s a blunt honesty, offbeat humor and near absurdity in Nutting’s writing. It’s easy to relate to Hazel’s predicament and moods. Most readers will find solace in both her determination to begin anew and her frustrations in allowing the relationship to continue as long as it did. She’s not afraid to tackle unpleasant or taboo subjects [Nutting’s previous novel Tampa focused on a teacher-student romance] nor does she hold herself back in delving into these topics. In this novel it’s wealth and sex and loneliness and relationships. There’s the strange and humorous relationship between her father and his sex doll Diane. He treats the doll like a person. He’s content with her company.

In her marriage, Hazel felt lonely and isolated. She felt sad and detached. Nutting writes:  “But Hazel hoped now that after so many bad years of internal and external surveillance, of cohabitation with someone she’d grown to hate and fear alike, the absence of sadness might feel something like contentment, or close enough. At one point she meets a guy in a dive bar named Liver who tells her: “I just meet women in this bar. Mainly they use me to help them reach bottom. I’m like a brick they grab onto midair. Sleeping with me helps them admit their lives have become unmanageable. They realize they want and deserve something more, and then their recovery process can begin. I get laid in the meantime. Win-win.” Sounds quite like the last few lowbrow working-class guys I’ve dated.

The perfect blend of absurd and genuine, Made for Love is one of the best novels I’ve read this year.

–review by Amy Steele

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

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book review: novels tackling teacher/student affairs from female perspectives

The taboo that comprises many a male fantasy: an affair between schoolteacher and student. The seduction of the sensitive, bookish virgin enamored by the teacher with whom she places complete trust and transfers those fears for safety and protection that she’s lacking at home onto him. Or the nubile male student who lusts after his not much older hot hot teacher—c’mon Van Halen didn’t write “Hot for Teacher” for nothing! It’s an illicit thought that goes through many adolescent male minds late at night in bed with a box of Kleenex. I say it’s the ultimate male fantasy because historically men write poems, stories and songs about it. There are tons of cases of female teachers embarking on relationships with their underage students. So that happens. An adult having sex with a virgin child 19-25 years her or his junior has her/his own issues with insecurity, dysfunctional relationships, inappropriateness and reality vs. fantasy certainly. Both teachers by picking these young virgins can teach them to be their sexual toys, their playthings. They’re clay. They’re clean slates. They start from scratch and do what they want. Two young authors tackle this topic in their debut novels. Both take completely different approaches yet provide female perspectives and both write page-turning stories with gorgeous prose.


TAMPA by Alissa Nutting. Publisher: ECCO (March 4, 2014). Contemporary fiction. Paperback. 266 pages. ISBN 978-0-06-228058-9.

In TAMPA, Alissa Nutting describes a female predator in a disturbing but completely engrossing manner from the first page with its edgy tone, smart style and graphic descriptions. Celeste Price is a stunning and cunning junior-high English teacher with a predilection for sex with 14-year-old boys. She intends to embark on a sexual relationship with one during the upcoming school year. She’s married to a police officer with family money which enables her the freedom to painstakingly plan this out and keep her husband from suspecting anything.

Of her target boy she says: “Extreme growth spurts or pronounced muscles were immediate grounds for disqualification. They also needed to have decent skin, be somewhat thin, and have either the shame or the preternatural discipline required to keep a secret.” Nutting does address society’s obsession with looks. Celeste’s husband, Ford, clearly married her because she’s gorgeous and ten years younger than him. He expects her to look good and show up for functions and parties as the pretty showpiece. He treats her as a sex object most of the time.

Yes, she’s preying on this young kid but Nutting’s also making us think about how much we value looks because Celeste uses her looks to get the kid and as leverage in her marriage and the husband uses her looks as a playing piece in their marriage as well. “People are often startled by my handwriting; because I’m pretty they assume everything I do is pretty. It’s odd to them that I write like I have a hook for an arm, just as Ford would be startled to learn I have a hook for a heart.” TAMPA ricochets to a somewhat surprising ending.

RATING: ****/5

wood of suicides

The Wood of Suicides by Laura Elizabeth Woollett. Publisher: The Permanent Press (January 2014). Contemporary fiction. Hardcover. 192 pages. ISBN 978-1-57962-350-0.

In The Wood of Suicides, author Laura Elizabeth Woollett makes it murky who’s the seducer and who’s seduced even though it’s statutory rape when a high school student has sex with her teacher. Woollett writes with a poetic flair. Mature writing, a fascinating portrait created for Laurel and some lovely scenery descriptions. Laurel’s father died and she transferred to this boarding school. She’s an anorexic and suicidal. [“I did go to the bathroom, but not to throw up, not to self-harm, self-pleasure, or even cry. The impulse to do all these things was there, but not the resolve, as I sat with my feet up inside the locked cubicle, locked in a paroxysm of self-hatred, desire, and despair.”] She carries her father’s pills and contemplates taking them to kill herself. Even if Laurel had a crush on Hugh Steadman, her English teacher, it’s wrong for him to make advances and to take advantage of her as her teacher. But he did and this goes on for a year. “It was evident that he saw me, from the way that his eyes were occasionally drawn to my swinging legs or paused often and for a longer time on my face; even that he saw me as a nice-looking girl. His gaze did not betray anything further, however; no inappropriate feelings, no bubbling, uncontrollable lust. It was the gaze of a felon, on the brink of committing statutory rape.”

Laurel thinks that her teacher might be seducing her until she gets a book on a day trip and starts to study her teacher some more and puts time into it on her end. She studies the art of seduction. It’s a confusing mutual admiration and many young women have crushes on their teachers that should never end with sexual encounters. In this case it’s as icky and gross as he’s 25 years older and even more so as he reads her poetry and tells her about love stories that remind him of them. Of course at the beginning Laurel’s rather enamored and can’t believe it’s happening but as it goes on clearly Steadman’s the lucky bastard fucking the “nymph” as he so grossly calls her. The deviant. He’s married to a doctor and unrealistically tells Laurel he’ll leave his wife and they’ll marry. He puts her on birth control as they’re having sex three times a week on the rug in the classroom. Laurel doesn’t even enjoy the sex that much. As these things go, they come to a disappointing end for all parties involved.

RATING: ****/5

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received these books for review from the publishers.

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