Posts Tagged Amy Steele

book review: The Leavers

leavers

The Leavers by Lisa Ko. Algonquin Books| May 2017| 338 pages | $25.95| ISBN:

RATING: *****/5*

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. She doesn’t contact the family. No one knows if she’s been deported or if she just took off. As a single mother she struggled to cover expenses as a nail technician. After a month or so, her boyfriend’s sister sends Deming off to a foster home in the suburbs where two dogged white professors adopt Deming and change his name to Daniel Wilkinson. They mean well and want Daniel to have the best educational opportunities afforded to him. They want him to have choices for his future.

The story’s told from Daniel’s perspective as well as that of his mother Polly. Daniel struggles to fit in at this white enclave in upstate New York. He doesn’t do well in school and he develops a gambling problem. His parents aren’t happy and Daniel moves to Manhattan to live with a friend and join his band. Although Daniel is now in his late teens he still wonders why his mother abandoned him and never tried to find him. This definitely affects the relationship with his parents as well as his ability to figure out where he fits in. He often thinks about his birth mother and wonders why she doesn’t care enough about him to track him down. That’s enough to make a young man become wayward and develop a gambling addiction.

In the United States, Polly had created a challenging but routine life for herself. She lived with her son and a boyfriend named Leon. Ko writes: “I didn’t want a small, resigned life, but I also craved certainty, safety. I considered suggesting to Leon that we marry other people, legal citizens, for the papers, and after a few years we could divorce our spouses and marry each other.” Now back in her homeland China, she lives a rather comfortable life working as an English teacher. She’s married and lives in a nice apartment. Readers also finally discover what happened when Polly went to work that day at the nail salon. Polly went through a horrific ordeal after ICE placed her in a camp for illegal immigrants. The harsh and nearly inhumane conditions could easily break someone down. It was shocking to read about these middle-of-nowhere holding facilites. Just harsh.

Debut author Lisa Ko said that this novel was inspired by real-life stories of undocumented immigrant women whose United States-born children were ultimately taken from them and raised by American families. She states: “With The Leavers, I want to decenter the narrative of transracial adoption away from that of the adoptive parents.” It’s an important topic when our current president wants to keep people from entering the country as well as crack down on undocumented immigrants, even ones living quiet hard-working lives who have young American-born children.

READ THIS NOVEL. It provides insight and empathy in the plight of immigrants in this country. It’s utterly heartbreaking yet often optimistic and shows resilience among the characters.  I can’t recommend this novel enough. Lisa Ko utilizes lovely prose, a riveting story-line and relatable, flawed characters to highlight the challenges immigrants face today.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Algonquin.

Lisa Ko will be reading at Harvard Book Store on Wednesday, May 17 at 7pm.

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book review: Mister Monkey

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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new music: The Ladies of the Night; Parson James

The Ladies of the Night, “Sad Time for Music”

Margaret Cotton’s potent and gloomy vocals [parts Garbage’s Shirley Manson and parts Lykke Li] combine with a meditative melody for this gorgeously reflective and intriguing song from the southern California band. It’s a song which reflects today’s popular music. Bassist James Turner stated: “We want to continue where the great songwriting left off in the late 70’s. Musically, only rich songwriting can give you goosebumps.” Under band interests on its Facebook page: Cunnilingus. Coffee. Cannabis Vapor. Classical Music.

The Ladies of the Night is:

Buddy Price: Lead Guitar
Margaret Cotten: Rhythm Guitar / Vocals
James Turner: Bass Guitar
Al Wilde: Keyboard
Melvyn Grant: Drums

Parson James, “Sad Song”

The soul pop artist’s catchy new song addresses the realities of a relationship not working out. It’s about being yourself and being confident in yourself despite heartbreak. It’s a positive affirmation that not every relationship works out and it doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with you if it doesn’t. “And you were no good for me and I was no good for you.” Parson James shines with crisp vocals, an impressive vocal range and cool song crafting.

 

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book review: The Mother

the mother

The Mother by Yvvette Edwards. Amistad| May 10, 2016| 256 pages | $21.99| ISBN: 9780062440778 |

 RATING: ***/5*

 “What has happened can never be undone and it is the fact that it can never be undone that means it will never be okay.”

As a trial unfolds, a London woman must focus on the details of her sixteen-year-old son’s violent murder. Barely coping and subsisting on drinks and pills, Marcia Williams learns details about her son Ryan’s death and about the accused killer, a teenager named Tyson. While attending the trial with her sister, Marcia’s husband flees the house early each day and the two barely communicate with one another. Every mother thinks she knows her child until the worst happens. Marcia discovers some surprising aspects to his life during the trial. Inevitably she scrutinizes Tyson while comparing him to her scholar-athlete son. She also compares herself and her family to Tyson’s mother and Tyson’s family. How will she come to terms with her son’s death? Will she be able to manage her own grief and salvage her marriage?

Author Yvvette Edwards thoughtfully and thoroughly examines black on black crime. She deals with race and class in London in a classic good vs. evil match-up of star athlete and student planning to attend college vs. delinquent street hustler. Whether black or white or living in a city or the suburbs or a mother or child-free, readers can relate to this family tragedy. The comparison between the two teenagers proves quite interesting. Viewing a trial from a mother’s perspective also captivating. The novel falls a bit short in lingering on Marcia’s wilting relationship with her husband rather than focusing on the murder and trial. Despite the writing, the story proved more predictable than expected. The ending did not sit well with me either. After all that stress and reflection, why did Marcia make that decision?

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Amistad.

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music review: Julianna Barwick

julianna barwick will album cover

During my last two acupuncture sessions I’ve listened to Julianna Barwick’s third full-length album, Will. It’s allowed me to focus on the music and remain in the moment during my treatment. This inventive album scores with its eclectic, gorgeous arrangements and assorted instrumentation. The entire collection exudes transcendent and ethereal vibes with bitter, shadowy undercurrents. An outstanding, striking work of art.

An impressive and glorious pitch combined with strings and piano on “St. Apolonia” reminds me of Chelsea Wolfe’s music. “Nebula” is a completely dreamy, soaring meditative wonder. “Beached” features piano, breathy vocals and a powerful quietness. Opening with expansive and lofty keyboards, “Same” pushes the listener into another realm through the Brooklyn artist’s vigorously exalted vocals. “Someway” conveys a sadness and uncertainty through its layered composition and heartrending vocals. Vibrant electro-beats propel the outstanding and devastating “See, Know.”

This album takes you on the ultimate contemplative aural journey. At turns brooding and at others soothing, there are numerous elements to appreciate, to dissect, to focus upon. Each listen provides a new revelation. Julianna Barwick explained: “While making this record, there were moments of isolation and dark currents. I like exploring that, and I love when I come across songs that sound scary or ominous. I’ve always been curious about what goes into making a song that way.” Somebody on twitter commented that she rarely listened to an album in its entirety. Needing or wanting to listen to an album repeatedly from start to finish remains the rare exception. Will is absolutely that album. Prepare for a spectacular immersive experience with vast appeal.

–review by Amy Steele

Will [Dead Oceans]

Release date: May 6, 2016

purchase at Amazon: Will

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book review: The Wander Society

the wander society

The Wander Society by Keri Smith. Penguin Books| March 29, 2016| 176 pages | $20.00| ISBN: 9780143108368

RATING: ****/5*

A beautiful looking book that explains a secretive society designed to allow a person to get in touch with one’s thoughts, one’s soul and nature. By now everyone knows that meditation, yoga and mindfulness help us pursue calmness and productivity. When author Keri Smith found an old copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, she stumbled upon the Wander Society. The members remain anonymous. Author Keri Smith explains: “While we cannot say for sure exactly who the Wander Society is, I believe its members exist to aid us in our quest to discover our own deepest soul life, to help us move to a higher plane of consciousness. That is the theme that seems to repeat itself again and again in its literature. Smith compiled this book after reading and researching any existing literature she could find associated with the Wander Society.

From an introductory pamphlet: “The path of the wanderer is an experiment with the unknown. To be idle, to play, to daydream.”

Included in this brief book: The Nature of Wandering–includes definition; the philosophy; the importance of “randomness” and how to find fellow wanderers; The Wander Society’s Tactical Guide—includes essentials; time; how to be invisible; wandering meditation; Wandering Initiation– includes setting out; creating a uniform; how to invoke an inner wanderer; Assignments/Research/ Field Work—there’s a ton in this section such as documentation; low wandering; sound tracking; leaving symbols; wandering by bicycle; library wandering; random painting; How-To Section—carving a wandering stick; making a wander belt pouch; making a wander notebook. In the end she includes Wander Society Lexicon; Leave Behind Quotes; Excerpt from Leaves of Grass; the Wanderer’s Creed and Wander Symbol’s Key.

Whether you decide to take up wandering every day or once a month, this book will certainly encourage you to try it. The beautiful typeset, photos and organization of the book create an appealing guide. It’s also the perfect size and weight to take along as a reference and inspiration during your wandering. Smith writes: “We need more rambling, daydreaming, thinking, perusing, being, looking, existing, allowing, ambling, opening, listening, because it teaches us what we are capable of. The nomadic tendency of wandering allows us to take pause, to consider what is really necessary, what is important for living well.” Wandering is a bit aimless but it’s also a way to think and observe. It’s a way to break our reliance on technology and take moments to savor the world around us. She adds: “The wanderer becomes one with himself or herself and the universe. We connect with the energy of all living things. We live according to our inner nature.” Another beautiful concept behind wandering: “When we enter into the wandering mindset, which can take a while to kick in, we actually change into our true self, not the person we are trying to be for society.”

In this book you will discover that wandering incites creativity. Smith writes: “qualities of great wanderers: “curious, inquisitive, nonconformist, rebellious, daring, revolutionary, inventive, visionary, solitary, self-sufficient.” That sounds ideal. Many of us—the writers, the artists, the radicals, the free-spirits—desire to be seen as change-makers, running against the grain, anti-societal expectations and precepts. Some well-known wanderers include: Walt Whitman; William Wordsworth; Charlotte Smith [an English Romantic poet and novelist]; Charles Baudelaire; Henry David Thoreau; Aristotle; Thich Nhat Hanh; Oscar Wilde; Rebecca Solnit  and Virginia Woolf. So add wandering to your list which should include yoga, mindfulness [read the chapter on Wandering Meditation if you aren’t familiar with mindfulness because there’s such a thing as mindful walking] and meditation. So pack a snack, a notebook, a camera and a bottle of water and head out there to commune with the earth, discover something fresh. Wandering inside in libraries or old bookstores works too.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Penguin Books.

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purchase at Amazon: The Wander Society

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book review: The Big Rewind

big rewind

The Big Rewind by Libby Cudmore. William Morrow| February 2016| 241 pages | $14.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-240353-7

RATING: ***/5*

“We never had to lose touch with anybody; our Facebooks were filled with people we hadn’t spoken to in years, just in case we ever needed to find out how many kids our best friend from nursery school had or whether the guy who sat in front of us in Earth Science had ever come out as gay.”

Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young—one of my favorite 2015 films– features two GenXers who meet two hipster millennials obsessed with anything retro i.e. skateboards, vinyl, Atari. Things from the GenXers 20s and teens. No tapes or even Laser Disc players. Remember those? Wave of the future. This novel reminded me of that. The married couple spends time with the younger couple and becomes detached from their current lives. Turns out regression doesn’t solve anything. Appreciating one’s age and the past remains vital to being in the moment. That’s what I’ve learned from therapy and social media.

Jett moved to Brooklyn with plans to pursue a career in music journalism [tough field to be in, I should know]. She’s temping and living in her grandmother’s apartment. Jett finds her neighbor KitKat dead when she brings a mis-delivered mix tape to her apartment “I had the honor and the horror of finding her body. Not the cleaning lady or the cops, just a neighbor with a mistaken piece of mail.” Jett and her best friend Sid[obvious 80s reference] play records and watch old television programs while lamenting their dating lives. We get it Libby Cudmore, you like the 80s and this mystery/romance follows a standard rom-com blueprint [think When Harry Met Sally meets any Nicholas Sparks novel].

Chapter titles are song titles: Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now; Watching the Detectives; Everyday is Like Sunday; This Charming Man [lots of Morrissey and The Smiths]; The Impression That I Get; A Girl in Trouble [Is a Temporary Thing]; Smile Like You Mean It; Only the Good Die Young. You get it.

Determined to find out who killed KitKat, Jett embarks on an investigation that begins by analyzing KitKat’s collection of mix tapes. Why tapes? The sound isn’t great. Difficult to grasp that anyone would make actual tapes these days. I spent many a Saturday afternoon making mix tapes in the 80s. It’s time consuming. There’s a college professor that may be KitKat’s romantic interest instead of her under-suspicion current boyfriend Bronco, who is gay and doesn’t want anyone to know despite living in New York where things generally go over well. On KitKat: “She was a party on a purple ten-speed, a neat-banged brunette who baked red velvet cupcakes and pot brownies, read tarot, and had both an NES and a Sega Genesis.”

By digging into her neighbor’s relationships, not surprisingly Jett examines her past relationships and in the process makes a realization about her present. At first I couldn’t figure out the age of main character Jett and that bothered me. Finally there’s a mention that made me pinpoint her age at 28. Not many want to read about struggling 40somethings. This strong concept falls flat and becomes formulaic and cliché at times. If you’re looking for a sentimental light read, this should fit.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from William Morrow.

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purchase at Amazon: The Big Rewind: A Novel

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