Posts Tagged book review by Amy Steele

book review: Blood Highway

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Blood Highway by Gina Wohlsdorf. Algonquin| August 7, 2018| 320 pages | $16.95| ISBN: 978-1-61620-563-8

RATING: 3.5/5*

–review by Amy Steele

Scrappy teenager Rainy Cain knows how to fend for herself even though she’s still in high school. She manages to be independent and to present herself a certain way so that no one will ask too many questions. She’s been through an awful lot in her life and she’s yet to graduate from high school. She’s developed protective coping mechanisms that enable her survival. Her severely mentally ill mother neglected her long ago. They still live in the same house but don’t communicate with each other (sounds like me and my stepfather). After her mother commits suicide, Rainy’s felon father, recently released from prison, kidnaps her in hopes that she’ll lead him to money that he believes her mother hid when he was sent off to prison for a series of armed robberies. He’s a violent, ruthless man. Rainy wasn’t even aware he existed. Blaine, a seemingly good guy and police officer, with more in common with Rainy than one might suspect, pursues them. I love this sentence about Blaine: “His interior was this packed, cluttered museum of guilt and regret.” Author Gina Wohlsdorf spent a decade writing the novel. When she started she wasn’t that much older than her central character, strong-willed and determined feminist Rainy. As I dove into this thriller, which really skirts into horror, I didn’t know what was going on for quite a bit but the compelling writing kept me reading. There’s a cinematic edginess to the characters and this riveting and scary cross-country chase.

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

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book review: My Year of Rest and Relaxation

my year of restMy Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh. Penguin Press| July 2018| 289 pages | $26.00| ISBN: 978-0-525-52211-9

RATING: *****/5*

–review by Amy Steele

“Oh, sleep, nothing else would ever bring me such pleasure, such freedom, the power to feel and move and think and imagine, safe from the miseries of my waking consciousness.”

Before I discovered yoga and meditation I would often isolate from the world by downing a bunch of pills. After a bad break-up, I spent three weeks consuming solely Diet Coke and Klonipin. Not advisable but I wanted to shut everything out as quickly as possible and for as long as possible. It was inherently easier to sleep through the misery in hopes I’d eventually feel better. It wasn’t the best coping mechanism. In case anyone’s wondering, I no longer drink soda and rarely rely on Klonipin. I still have terrible agoraphobia and anxiety but numbing myself isn’t going to fix that and there are much more productive uses of my time.

Everything appealed to me about the novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation, from the title to the cover—a portrait of a sullen Victorian woman—to the description to this sentence in the opening paragraph: “I’d get two large coffees with cream and six sugars each, chug the first one in the elevator on the way back up to my apartment, then sip the second one slowly while I watched movies and ate animal crackers and took trazodone and Ambien and Nembutal until I feel asleep again.”  

The novel focuses on a 24-year-old Columbia University graduate in the year 2000 in New York City and her intention to essentially hibernate through the year with pharmaceutical assistance. She’s recently lost her art gallery job. Her parents died while she was in school. Her on-again-off-again relationship with a guy who works on Wall Street doesn’t satisfy. So what’s so bad that she needs to shut out the world. She explains: “I can’t point to any one event that resulted in my decision to go into hibernation. Initially I just wanted some downers to drown out my thoughts and judgments, since the constant barrage made it hard not to hate everyone and everything, I thought life would be more tolerable if my brain were slower to condemn the world around me.”

She lives in an inherited apartment with few financial concerns. Her friend Reva, who she met in college, stops in once a week for a wellness check. Of Reva: “I don’t know what it was about Reva. I couldn’t get rid of her. She worshipped me, but she also hated me. She saw my struggle with misery as a cruel parody of her own misfortunes. I had chosen my solitude and purposelessness, and Reva had, despite her hard work, simply failed to get what she wanted—no husband, no children, no fabulous career.” She spends any waking hours watching movies, particularly those starring Whoopi Goldberg and Harrison Ford. She also finds questionable psychiatrist who unwittingly assists her sleep plans by prescribing an arsenal of drugs.

“I went to the bathroom and took stock of the medicine cabinet, counting all my pills on the grimy tile floor. In all, I had two Ambien but thirty more on the way, twelve Rozerem, sixteen trazodone, around ten each of Ativan, Xanax, and Valium, Nembutal, and Solfoton, plus single digit amounts of a dozen random medications that Dr. Tuttle had prescribed only once…”

One might wonder how an entire novel could revolve around this subject. Author Ottessa Moshfegh delves into the narrator’s past—her previous relationships, her family, her relationship with Reva, as well as her aspirations as an artist. About her parents: “And I’d feel sorry for myself, not because I missed my parents, but because there was nothing they could have given me if they’d lived. They weren’t my friends. They didn’t comfort me or give me good advice. They weren’t people I wanted to talk to. They barely even knew me.”

Dark humor, a self-deprecating tone and astute details and brilliant writing makes this novel work so well. There are strong Sylvia Plath vibes throughout. If you’ve dealt with mental illness, a major loss or being an outcast then you’ll likely appreciate this character. I found her to be immensely relatable. It’s a complicated, challenging world and some of us find solace in darkness.

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

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book review: ANY MAN

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Any Man by Amber Tamblyn. Harper Perennial| June 2018| 304 pages | $15.99| ISBN: 0978-0-06-268892-7

RATING: *****/5*

“But more than any of that, as you know, I loathe feminists. It’s by no small miracle that all feminists in America haven’t been stoned to death by now. I’m just telling you the truth. Feminists are pollution, taking a stance, against what exactly, no one in their right mind knows. They are angry, bitter, saggy chauvinists masquerading as supportive, loving sisters.”

If you’re looking for an intense, intelligent and engulfing feminist thriller, you must read ANY MAN. Author Amber Tamblyn challenges rape culture and the problematic treatment of victims and glorification of violence and misogyny through this thriller about a female serial rapist. The novel follows six men: an English teacher, a struggling standup comedian, a bi-racial web designer, a high school student, an alt-right media personality and a transgender man. A uniquely irreverent and impressively original novel, social commentary and crime thriller meld with insightful, sharp prose and diverse writing styles. She weaves in tweets, poetry, internet chat room, a radio talk show. She also flips everything one expects in thriller. [As a companion read, I recommend Dead Girls by Alice Bolin– an essay collection addressing society’s infatuation with violence against women]. Whether she’s using tweets or poetry or an internet chat room or journal entries, it grabs you from the first page and is impossible to put down.  If you’re a woman who has been attacked on social media or elsewhere for expressing her opinion, you’ll really get it.  Tamblyn wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times, “I’m Done with Not Being Believed,” which cemented her place among influential feminists who are changing the narrative around trauma and victimization. I found myself nodding and smiling and cringing and marking passages while proclaiming Tamblyn’s genius and reading as fast as possible.

RATING: *****/5*

Amber Tamblyn will be at Harvard Bookstore on July 24, 2018.

–review by Amy Steele

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book review: There are No Grown-Ups

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There are No Grown-Ups: A Midlife Coming-of-Age Story by Pamela Druckerman. Penguin Press| May 29, 2018| 274 pages | $27.00| ISBN: 978-1-59420-637-5

RATING: *****/5*

–review by Amy Steele

“What are the forties? It’s been my custom not to grasp a decade’s main point until it’s over, and I’ve squandered it. I spend my twenties scrambling in vain to find a husband, when I should have been building my career as a journalist and visiting dangerous places before I had kids. As a result, in my early thirties I was promptly fired from my job at a newspaper. That freed me up to spend the rest of my thirties ruminating on grievances and lost time.”

I don’t have much of a career or a personal life. I have no long-term partner and by choice, I have no children. I live in the suburbs and I’m pretty miserable and frustrated. Maybe it could be much worse. Author Pamela Druckerman writes in the introduction: “Obviously, the forties depend on the beholder, and on your family, your health, your finances and your country.” Reading Druckerman’s amusing, thoughtful and moving memoir made me feel a bit less alone. It’s comforting that someone else has had the same thoughts I’ve had about middle age and aging. Everyone goes through it. Maybe some better than others. Does everyone go through a midlife crisis? Probably not. I’m definitely a late bloomer so there’s that although in the end it won’t matter. Also we have greater longevity so maybe you can fuck up more.

Exploring the social, psychological and biological aspects of one’s forties, Durckerman combines topical research with her astute and amusing observations and experiences. She writes about her journalism career, her engagements as a speaker, battling cancer, her marriage and children as well as general thoughts on what one should be doing at a certain age. In the essay How to Turn Forty, she writes: “But I still don’t feel like a grown-up, in part because I haven’t found my tribe.” I feel the same. In the past year, I joined a yoga studio but I’m wedging myself into places I’ll never fit.

Each chapter is titled How to ___. Some of the chapters include: How to Find Your Calling, How to Choose a Partner, How to Turn Forty, How to Raise Children, How to Plan a Menage a Trois, How to Have a Midlife Crisis, How to Be Jung, How to Get Dressed, How to Age Gracefully, How to Think in French and How to Make Friends. Each chapter ends with little jokes which start with Your Know You’re in Your forties when… Two great ones: You know you’re in your forties when … You’re not considering Botox, but you are considering bangs.” And “You know you’re in your forties when . . . You no longer care (or remember) how many people you slept with.” I hooked up with a much younger guy who seemed quite annoyed that I’d had so many more sexual partners than him. I stopped counting at a certain point because it really doesn’t matter.

“We’ve actually managed to learn and grow a bit. After a lifetime of feeling like misfits, we realize that more about us is universal than not. (My unscientific assessment is that we’re 95 percent cohort, 4 percent unique.) The seminal journey of the forties is from “everyone hates me” to “they don’t really care.”

The essays on midlife crisis and that address wisdom and intelligence are particularly interesting. Druckerman brings in some Jung theory. She discusses cultural differences. As an expat loving in Paris, she writes from a unique perspective. Druckerman lives in Paris with her British husband and French children. French women are much more glamorous and elegant than Americans. I participated in a French exchange program in the 80s and I remember how stylish in navy and black the mom always appeared.

When she traveled to Brazil to speak at a conference, she noted: “Crying is the mark of a successful gathering in Brazil and a sign that you’re connected.” It’s challenging to make new friends as you get older. Are they your own friends or other parents at your children’s school or the spouses of your partner’s colleagues? She also compares Eastern culture to Western culture. Asians are high context and understand they need to comprehend interaction of everyone involved to fully understand something. Americans are (not surprisingly) low context. Americans are mostly concerned with themselves, on individuals. Quelle surprise.

Druckerman wrote a NYT column entitled “What You Learn in Your 40s” and its popularity led to four years researching and writing this memoir. If you’re in or near your forties you’ll definitely find many simpatico elements in this memoir. If you’re younger maybe it should eliminate some of the stigmas associated with aging.

Pamela Druckerman will be at Brookline Booksmith on Wednesday, May 30 at 7pm.

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book review: A Theory of Love

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A Theory of Love by Margaret Bradham Thornton. Ecco| May 2018| 275 pages | $27.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-274270-4

RATING: ****/5*

–review by Amy Steele

“Bermeja was the name given to the eight-mile stretch along Mexico’s Pacific coast halfway between Puerto Vallarta and Acapulco. Surrounded by a thirty-six-thousand-acre nature preserve, Bermeja was referred to as the land where nobody was born and nobody died. Protected by high cliffs and jungles and wetlands, it was often separated on its eastern boundary by flooding rivers.”

Although the couple in this novel hasn’t fabricated a relationship, A Theory of Love reminded me of Glimpses of a Moon, one of my favorite novels by Edith Wharton. In it, a young couple decides to marry so that they can travel around on an extended honeymoon staying at their friends’ lovely homes. In A Theory of Love, Helen, a British journalist, meets lawyer turned financier Christopher while she’s on assignment in Bermeja. He’s there for a bit of relaxation on his surfboard.  Author Margaret Bradham Thornton takes readers to Bermeja, Saint Tropez, London, Sussex, Fontainbleu, Chamonix, Tangier, Milan, Havana and New York.

She’s a journalist in the trenches and he’s interacting with financial elite. That could be why the relationship doesn’t fare well. Could also be the jetset nature of their relationship. His company is rather new and he’s working long days, seven days a week and isn’t able to invest the time in the relationship that Helen desires. Perhaps they’d have fared better if they’d worked out these logistics before marrying. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do? Figure out where you want to live and if you’re both morning people or night owls and if you want to have children and such.

The characteristics which attract them to each other may be the details that drive them apart in the end. I particularly enjoyed the ritzy scenes. They’re elaborate but not grossly obscene.  For instance, Christopher’s mother is involved in equestrian affairs: “She finds talented working students and gives them good horse to ride, and that works for a while until she feels they have been disloyal or unappreciative, and then that relationship falters.” They attend a fancy dinner party hosted by a French businessman (he’s CEO of his family’s chemical company) and his artist wife Penelope–“She was a photographer, and while she spent more time on the decoration of her seven houses than on her photography, she had resisted the cliched hallmarks of the wealthy wife and dressed in a bohemian style.”

Helen wants everything upfront and laments that she didn’t know everything about Christopher before they married which seems impossible and also rather dull. If you already know each other than what do you talk about? Christopher is in the let’s see what happens mode. Thornton writes: “He had come to value, maybe even cherish, a sense of patience—of letting things play themselves out. Perhaps his ability to see how things would develop or unravel allowed him this equanimity. He understood that events had their own interval sense of motion.”

Thornton writes: “She was thinking about how they seemed to be moving away from each other and wondering why neither one of them tried to do anything about it. there were times when it felt as if he had lost her, as if he were thinking so intensely about what was in front of him that he would forget her, as if his mind were emptied of all thoughts of her.”

Sounds like mindfulness to me and honestly, I didn’t particularly like either character but that’s never been essential to my enjoyment of a novel. A good writer makes you continue to read despite the characters. I liked their non-relationship relationship and pondering if they’re getting what they feel they should from each other. There’s mysterious elements to it all. In addition, Christopher thinks his business partner may be involved in illegal activity and as Helen faces an unexpected pregnancy, he’s engulfed in an investigation. This novel effectively ponders attraction and love while languishing in beautiful scenery and prose. It’s a wonderful indulgence and escape.

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

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book review: I Really Didn’t Think This Through

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I Really Didn’t Think This Through by Beth Evans. William Morrow| May 2018| 172 pages | $14.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-279606-6

RATING: ****/5*

Like many others, I discovered Beth Evans on Instagram. The millennial has a quarter of a million followers and posts cartoons about mental health and navigating adulthood. In this book, Evans writes about her struggles with depression, anxiety and OCD and intersperses comics throughout. It’s amusing and touching and honest. She delves into her experiences with bullying, self-harm, dating and how she manages her anxiety while maintaining a bit of a social life. She shares what happened when she first realized she might have depression. She reminds readers to practice self-love and self-care and to ask for help if you need help. With stigmas surrounding mental illness, it’s crucial that people keep sharing their experiences. In her comics and through her words, people will realize that they’re not alone and perhaps find some solace in similar experiences. People may also realize that it’s okay to struggle with mental illness and it’s okay to not have it all figured out. May is Mental Health Awareness Month and this is a perfect reminder to take care of yourself.

On anxiety:

“For those unfamiliar with anxiety attacks, it’s kind of like being shoved off a ledge without being able to scream. It’s a silent takeover during which your body decides what’s going to happen, and all logic is tossed aside. What makes it even more challenging is that it sometimes happens in public. Then, not only do you have to figure out how to take care of yourself, but you have to try not to alarm those around you.”

“Anxiety is a powerful thing, and when it decides to strike, it can take many different, often demoralizing forms. Suddenly the only thing you can focus on is the absolute, fundamental sense of dread and upset storming inside you. When I’m anxious, I become obsessed with keeping everyone around me calm. It’s almost like the minute I start to feel bad, I need to focus on someone else instead of on what’s happening to me.”

Taking it one day at a time:

“And sometimes that’s all we can really hope for—the feeling of staying afloat. When things really suck, staying afloat seems pretty good. Sometimes it’s okay to celebrate just being here, because that in itself is an accomplishment. Some days I’m just going about my business, like walking around Target, and I’ll think, How on earth did I pick up all these broken shards and function like a normal person today?”

Self care:

“Sometimes we get caught up in the idea that self-love has to be thinking we’re great 100 percent of the time. Often it’s something much less exciting, like treating ourselves with respect or holding our brains back a bit when we want to attack ourselves. In a world where we’re taught to be one kind of perfect or another, something seeing beauty in the imperfection is the best thing we can do.”

Recognizing that perfection is impossible:

“I think one of the hardest sentiment to wrap by head around is that I’m an all right human being. So often my brain screams that I’m the worst of the worst, and I constantly judge myself for past interactions and failures. I also need constant reassurances form those around me that I’m not a horrible person, which, honestly, is grating for everyone around involved.”

 

–review by Amy Steele

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

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book review: Lemon Jail

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Lemon Jail by Bill Sullivan. University of Minnesota Press| April 2017| 160 pages | $22.95| ISBN: 978-1-5179-0169-1

RATING: ***/5*

“When we arrived in a town on tour I would take flyers from the club and cruise the area handing them to any young people who would take them. My promotion theory consisted of one thing: guys wanted to go where women were, and women wanted to go where guys were. the better looking the boy or girl the better chance they would sway other people. I was skinny and cute with guyliner, so I could easily slip across gender lines.”

I like The Replacements and appreciated the band’s music but don’t know that much about them. This memoir isn’t the best way to find out that much about the band. This isn’t a tell-all. There’s mention of drinking and drugs and sexual encounters but not with salacious detail. It’s also not about specific albums or songs. It’s a non-sequential tour memoir by one of the band’s roadies, Bill Sullivan, who went on to be tour manager for many music acts including Bright Eyes, Spoon, Cat Power and Yo La Tengo. It’s his experience and recollection which makes for an interesting read. As a Boston-based music journalist, I appreciate the details about touring in Boston in particular.  He mentions lots of popular venues such as The Rat in Kenmore Square. He writes: “The last show on the itinerary for the first tour was in Boston at the Rat in Kenmore Square. Boston is well known as a confusing city to navigate even with GPS. For us, in 1983, we would just look for the Citgo sign and keep turning toward it. The Rat itself played host to so many cool bands it’s impossible to list them. The stage was stocked with speakers and lights, and they didn’t care if you turned up.” Lemon Jail reminds me of a long piece I wrote about touring with The Charlatans in the 90s. The bibliophile/book nerd appreciates the font, the cover, the paper quality and overall look and feel of this book.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from University of Minnesota Press.

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