Posts Tagged book review by Amy Steele
In the Margins: On the Pleasures of Reading and Writing by Elena Ferrante
Europa Editions | $20.00 | Hardback | 9781609457372 | 176 pages | March 15, 2022
If you are a fan of Elena Ferrante, this is the book for you. If you’re wondering about the Ferrante hype, this is also the book for you. In the Margins originated as a series of lectures Ferrante gave at the University of Bologna. She discusses her work as a writer, including her technique, her influences and her struggles. Writers will be inspired by these essays. Writing is hard work, it can be frustrating but it’s worth the struggles in the end. Writing has an inherent power to connect, to educate, to comfort. You’ll want to spend time absorbing these essays.
I might be the only reader who hasn’t yet read all of the “Neapolitan novels.” I liked My Brilliant Friend but wasn’t blown away at the time. I do want to circle back to the others. I have become a fan through her other works. I quite liked The Lost Daughter. It’s a dark, honest and thoughtful novel about the challenges of being a mother. In anticipation of this essay collection, I recently read Incidental Inventions, essays Elena Ferrante wrote as a columnist for The Guardian. The topics covered include feminism, friendship, motherhood, writing, insomnia, addictions, nationalism, death and the recent film adaptation of The Lost Daughter—“I’m attached to that book in a particular way. I know that, with it, I ventured into dangerous waters without a life preserver.”
Like many successful writers, Ferrante is an avid reader and she started writing at a young age. She amasses journals filled with her stories and thoughts. Discussing her youth, she said: “I read a lot, but what I liked was almost never written by women. It seemed to me that the voice of men came from the pages and that voice preoccupied me, I tried in every way to imitate it.” She discusses the writing of Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein and Dante, among others.
In her writing, Ferrante doesn’t hesitate to show the underbelly of humanity, the darkness. That makes her writing so strong and appealing. She explains: “Anyone who has literary ambitions knows that the motivations, both great and small, that impel the hand to write come from “real life”: the yearning to describe the pain of love, the pain of living, the anguish of death; the need to straighten the world that is all crooked; the search for a new morality that will reshape us; the urgency to give voice to the humble, to strip away power and its atrocities; the need to prophesy disasters but also to design happy worlds to come from there.” She said: “Beautiful writing becomes beautiful when it loses its harmony and has the desperate power of the ugly. And characters? I feel they are false when they exhibit clear coherence and I become passionate about them and do the opposite.”
Thank you to Europa for sending a copy.
Based on actual events during WWI, a group of Smith College alumnae formed the Smith College Relief Unit and traveled to northern France to assist in civilian relief work in 1917. They traveled around delivering supplies, providing medical aid and educating school children in decimated villages. Since she can speak French and drive, Kate Moran, a scholarship student, gets recruited by her friend Emmie Van Alden. Kate leaves her job as a teacher and joins 17 other Smith women, including two doctors.
“Debutante nonsense, her mother called it. Good enough for those who didn’t have to worry about getting their living.
But this was work too. She might not be paid for it, not exactly, but the Unit was covering her room and board, and how else was she ever to see France, even France at war?”
Emmie Van Alden comes from a wealthy family and doesn’t need to earn a living. The unit’s mostly composed of privileged women. They could’ve stayed safe in the United States but they chose to help with war efforts and that’s to be commended. The unit leader, Mrs. Rutherford, provides some statistics: “In the little over a week that we’ve been here, Miss Van Alden alone has already made fifty-one calls on forty-two families.” She also noted that the medical department had seen nearly three hundred patients.
Throughout the novel, Kate struggles with confidence, belonging and feeling like an outsider. She even overhears another woman commenting that she didn’t know that there were any Catholics at Smith. However, she’s extremely focused and efficient and even becomes the assistant director of the unit for a while. However, when Kate finds out that Emmie’s family is paying her room and board, it draws another rift in their tenuous relationship. Later she finds out that Emmie’s cousin, Julia, one of the doctors on the excursion, comes from a poor family as well. To Emmie’s dismay, Julia and Kate become close, making Emmie feel like the odd one out. There’s a lot going on in this novel.
“She’d thought they’d been happy at Smith. It had seemed to work then. Emmie provided all the affection and Kate provided the practical skills, and between them, they balanced out rather nicely.”
The unit faces more challenges than anticipated once they reach their post in Grecourt. There’s constant shelling from the Germans, threats to be ousted by the British army and French bureaucracy. Villagers suffer from pneumonia, measles, tetanus, syphilis. One night, Kate and Emmie run out of gas and get lost in a snowstorm and are nearly sexually assaulted by some soldiers. The women in the unit prevail despite undermining, mistreatment and discouragement by men. There’s some romance mixed in, too. There aren’t that many women around France at this time and men come for dinner parties every week. Emmie flirts and falls in love with British Captain Will DeWitt (of the DeWitt biscuits!). He tells her that he’ll propose to her after the war ends.
I’d not heard of the Smith College Relief Unit before discovering this book. I’m a women’s college graduate (Simmons College ‘91) so this particularly appealed to me. Author Lauren Willig completed meticulous research straight from the source at Smith College Special Collections. She pored over letters, journals, reports and photos. There are still so many stories one can cull from historical documents. It’s fascinating. I’ve not read a lot of books based in WWI so I appreciated that as well. This is why I love to read historical fiction. I learn about events I didn’t know that much about and am transported to different times and historical moments in a creative, accesible and memorable manner. While the book dragged a little bit at times and might have been too long, I overall enjoyed reading about these brave, determined women. They must have been forever bonded by their remarkable experience during WWI.
Band of Sisters is the perfect novel to read during Women’s History Month.
RATING: 3.5 /5*
Laura, an aspiring singer/songwriter from Ohio, moves to New York to share an apartment with Callie, her best friend from high school. Despite her plans to avoid dating, Laura ends up falling in love with the bass player in an up-and-coming band. Turns out she’s more into him than he is with her: “Laura fought back the urge, again, to tell him that she loved him, to claim him officially somehow. The thought of him with random girls in different cities made her want to peel off her skin. She wished that they were married. She wanted everyone he met to know they were together. There was no possible way to express any of this to him.” It turns out that Laura wants to be independent and successful on her own merits but also wants to be in a relationship. Which, of course, is possible. It just isn’t possible with this guy. She’s a people pleaser and I almost cringed at the part where she’s over there cooking dinner for Dylan and his roommate/bandmate. I had a crush on a guy in a band one time and would walk his dog for him several times a week thinking that would make him more interested in me. Foolishness that I can’t say I didn’t repeat.
Dylan enjoys the attention and frenetic lifestyle associated with being in a band and touring. Laura and Callie form a band that opens for Dylan’s band and has some potential due to Laura’s songwriting prowess. Dylan’s a troubled soul struggling with a mood disorder and addiction. Sadly relatable: “He was swaying and slurring as he said this. Laura understood, without wanting to, that Dylan was much more interested in getting fucked up than he was in having sex with her.” The short-lived romance ends in tragedy and a life-changing pregnancy for Laura. She ultimately chooses her daughter over her career and her friend Callie ends up with a successful music career; maybe the one that Laura initially wanted.
Divided into three parts, the novel focuses on Laura’s early years in New York, Laura being a young mother and then on Laura’s teenage daughter Marie and her desire to learn about her biological father. As I’ve worked in the music business and have followed bands and dated musicians and experienced unrequited love (too often), I could completely relate to Laura’s early experiences in New York. I lost a bit of interest in the motherhood part. I wanted more details and focus on Laura’s songwriting. The title suggested as much and I expected more. Despite its pivot from singer/songwriter to motherhood, it’s a mostly enjoyable, quick read. Although I was disappointed, I still kept reading which attests to Emily Gould’s writing talents. I’ll try another one of her novels.
The Sea of Lost Girls by Carol Goodman. William Morrow| March 3, 2020| 304 pages | $16.99| ISBN: 9780062852021
“For all the town’s fascination with its dark history–the Indian massacres and early colony, the influenza epidemic and lost girls– those stores are meant to be part of the past, told on candlelit ghost tours or sold in glossy paperbacks to be read on rainy weekends the lost girls aren’t meant to come back.
But here I am.”
I tore through this mystery/thriller!
Tess teaches at Haywood Academy, a boarding school in Vermont, and her husband, Harmon, is head of the history department. Her 17-year-old son, Rudy, struggles with dark moods and anger. He doesn’t know much about his birth father. His mother wont reveal all that much about him.
Tess got pregnant when she herself was a student at Haywood. One night, Rudy’s girlfriend, Lila, is found dead on the beach. Was it an accident or murder? Did Rudy kill her? Turns out Lila was writing a paper about a missing girl from many decades ago and her connection to Haywood. Is history repeating?
Family secrets get exposed and there are multiple suspects in Lila’s death. Haywood school has a long entrenched history of unsolved cases involving missing girls. The novel revolves around the standard trope of a teacher-student relationship with numerous twists that I definitely didn’t see coming.
I really like school settings, particularly private schools. Privilege, power, youthful insecurities, New England myths and legends, local townspeople provide plenty of drama.
Has anyone heard of the Bennington Triangle? That served as inspiration for author Carol Goodman. I don’t listen to true crime podcasts so I hadn’t heard of it even though I live in Massachusetts and spent many family vacations in Vermont in my youth. I’m now going to find a podcast!
–review by Amy Steele
I received a review copy from William Morrow.
Agnes is the story of a romance. A writer writes the story of his relationship with Agnes, a PhD candidate. It becomes unclear what’s real and what’s fiction. Life completely imitates art. He writes: “In my head, our relationship was already much further advanced than it was in reality. I was already wondering about her, beginning to have my doubts, though we hadn’t even been out together.” Soon enough his writing changes the relationship as Agnes follows in the footsteps of her fictional counterpart. The author crafts exactly what he wants to happen. It’s the power of the pen in full. If he wanted her to dress a certain way for an upcoming event, he’d write about it.
He writes: “Now Agnes was my creation. I felt the new freedom lend wings to my imagination. I planned her future for her, the way a father would plan his daughter’s.” Do they really care about each other or is this writing now solely interested in writing the perfect character and story? Writers possess the power to change circumstances and create narratives. The writer begins to become more focused on writing about the relationship than actually being in the relationship. He writes: “I wasn’t daydreaming. I was fully in control, and everything I thought to myself instantly became real. It was a feeling like walking along a narrow gorge that I couldn’t leave. And if I tried to, I felt a kind of resistance, the presence of another will, some sort of elastic fetters that kept me from setting off in the wrong direction.” It’s an intriguing concept and beautifully written in this short, strong novel.
review by Amy Steele
Metropolitan Stories: a novel by Christine Coulson. Other Press| October 2019| 241 pages | $23.00| ISBN: 978-159051-058-2
I loved this so much and devoured it during a leisurely day of reading. I couldn’t put it down. It’s a love story to art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art told through a series of vignettes. The stories range from amusing to surreal to fanciful to melancholy. The novel brings art to life through detailed descriptions and creative scenarios whether it’s personifying a chair, a drawing (“I am part of the Met’s collection, yet totally invisible.”) or a sculpture (“All the art in the Met could move, but not until it had to.”) Characters include curators, lampers, museum directors, security guards and even an older man who kept the paper gift bags folded and organized. Author Christine Coulson utilizes her vast knowledge of the inner workings of the Met and melds art history, museum subculture and personal experience.
In “Musing” a museum director searches for a muse to bring to an event. There’s a casting call with all the available muses in the museum department by department–“A major crease in the shoe was Michel’s long-held disinterest in American art.” An assistant in the development office delivers inter-office mail in “Meats & Cheeses.” Staff refers to inter-office envelopes as “cheese.” The assistant has this brilliant observation: “I had only worked at the Met for a year, but its strange cocktail of confident superiority and tolerated eccentricity had introduced me to a promised land.”
“The Gift Man” is about a famous photographer who takes pictures of a major donor after he makes a particularly news-worthy gift to the museum. Turns out that 85% of the museum’s collection is procured through donation. A security guard hears and feels whatever a painting depicts in “Night Moves.” If it’s a snowy scene, he feels cold. Of a war scene: “For him, the metal echoed with the howls of battles and death and smelled of burning corpses and ravaged flesh.” The young women of the development office, at a fancy fundraising event, center “Mezz Girls” —“The Met had convened its club and this benefit to raise money for building the collection felt like its actual dance.” In “The Lehman Wing,” a wealthy Walter Lehman left his collection to the Met in 1969 with the requirement that it be assembled exactly as his house. A man who recently lost his job spends his time in the museum and gets lost in that wing.
I’ve applied to the Museum of Fine Arts and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum many times. I have development and communications experience but lack the art history degree and/or art experience that most employees likely possess. That’s clear from reading Metropolitan Stories.
Christine Coulson will be appearing at Boston Public Library on November 21, 2019
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Other Press.
We Are the Weather by Jonathan Safran Foer. FSG| September 2019| 272 pages | $25.00| ISBN: 978-0-374-28000-0
“The truth is I don’t care about the planetary crisis—not at the level of belief. I make efforts to overcome my emotional limits: I read the reports, watch the documentaries, attend the marches. But my limits don’t budge. If it sounds like I’m protesting too much or being too critical—how could someone claim indifference to the subject of his own book? —it’s because you also have overestimated your commitment while underestimating what is required.”
Okay so two things: I have been a vegan for 15 years and was vegetarian for at least a decade prior to that; I am a fan of Jonathan Safran Foer. Eating Animals and Here I Am are favorites of mine. I always recommend Eating Animals to people. And it’s not that I wouldn’t recommend We Are the Weather but I just didn’t like it that much. I wasn’t impressed. It’s a self-exploration of why Foer isn’t doing more or caring more. This is the book someone writes to appease guilt. It’s an existential search for why he cannot sustain a vegan diet and lifestyle. It’s well-written and researched–the book provides plenty of facts to back up the thesis that factory farming affects climate change. Foer writes: “Climate change is the greatest crisis humankind has ever faced, and it is a crisis that will always be simultaneously addressed together and faced alone. We cannot keep the kinds of meals we have known and also keep the planet we have known. We must either let some eating habits go or let the planet go. It is that straightforward, that fraught.” This book didn’t move me as much as Eating Animals moved me.
Utilizing family history, notable the Holocaust and WWII, Foer states the importance of decreasing meat consumption for the common good. Foer notes: “Ninety-six percent of American families gather for a Thanksgiving meal. That is higher than the percentage of Americans who brush their teeth every day, have read a book in the last year, or have ever left the state in which they were born. It is almost certainly the broadest collective action—the largest wave—in which Americans partake.”
I understand something is better than nothing and I’d like everyone to reduce meat, dairy, poultry and fish consumption. As someone who is first and foremost vegan for the animals, I can’t relate to the sentiment that it’s okay to sometimes eat fish or meat or sometimes have dairy ice cream if someone says they’re vegan. It isn’t a “cheat” diet. There are dire consequences. Foer writes: “According to Project Drawdown, four of the most effective strategies for mitigating global warming are reducing food waste, educating girls, providing family planning and reproductive healthcare, and collectively shifting to a plant-rich diet.”
Most people remain ignorant to the impact of their diets. They’re not morally opposed to consuming animal products. They also don’t think that an individual’s choices will affect the greater good. They’re wrong. He states: “When I first chose to become vegetarian, as a nine-year-old, my motivation was simple: do not hurt animals. Over the years, my motivations changed—because the available information changed, but more importantly, because my life changed. As I imagine the case for most people, aging has proliferated my identities. Time softens ethical binaries and fosters a greater appreciation of what might be called the messiness of life.” He makes these types of statements but by the end of the book I still don’t understand these other motivations and why it’s so hard for Foer not to be 100% vegan. If you want to be vegetarian or omnivore then that’s your choice. It’s not, however, difficult to commit to being vegan if you’re in it for the right reasons. And if you’re committed to helping the environment, then it’s critical that you make changes in your diet.
Here’s some notable facts from the book:
–“There have been five mass extinctions. All but the one that killed the dinosaurs were caused by climate change.”
–“Since the advent of agriculture, approximately twelve thousand years ago, humans have destroyed 83 percent of all wild mammals and half of all plants.”
–“Sixty percent of all mammals on Earth are animals raised for food.”
–“There are approximately thirty farmed animals for every human on the planet.”
–“In 2018, more than 99 percent of the animals eaten in America were raised on factory farms.”
–“Humans eat sixty-five billion chickens per year.”
–“On average, Americans consume twice the recommended intake of protein.”
–“The four highest-impact things an individual can do to tackle climate change are eat a plant-based diet, avoid air travel, live car-free, and have fewer children.”
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Farrar Straus Giroux.
Invisible as Air by Zoe Fishman. William Morrow| September 2019| 392 pages | $15.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-283823-0
Good novel but I put it down and went back to it weeks later. It didn’t have quite the emotional pull I expected but I’m not a mother or a wife so maybe I’m not the right audience although good storytelling and writing should have a wide appeal and take people into an experience, they aren’t personally familiar with. It wasn’t that compelling when I wanted it to be. Maybe if it were a bit shorter it would be better.
I did appreciate a novel centered around a woman over 40 years old. Sylvie is 46. She’s still mourning the loss of her daughter, born stillborn. Her husband had been dealing with his grief by putting all his free time into biking. When he hurts his ankle, his doctor prescribes him oxycontin. He doesn’t want to take it and managing his pain with ibuprofen. Sylvie sees the pills one day and decides to try one to see how she feels. Turns out she likes how she feels: “It had almost been two hours since she had swallowed the pill. Inside, Sylvie was an undulating ripple of goodwill, despite the fact that she was steeled for Paul’s unwelcome reverence and splattered with batter.” Not unexpectedly, as Sylvie becomes addicted to the oxycontin, her marriage and relationship with her son spiral out of control. She also loses her job. It’s a solid story about a family coping with grief. I started reading it because I love the cover of horses on a beach during sunset.
–review by Amy Steele
I received a copy of this for review purposes from William Morrow.
Oops! I did it again. I read another contemporary romance. These keep getting sent to me even though I have repeatedly stated that my reading interests primarily lie in historical fiction, memoir, contemporary literature, literary fiction and feminist books. I know that these are popular books and I’m often sucked in by the cover and descriptions. It’s definitely a good way to break up my reading. After a challenging book, I often want a palate cleanser such as YA or thriller or romance.
So let’s look at this novel and why I chose it. First the cover attracted me– a fun picture of a couple kissing under an umbrella with a dog and a bright color palette with pink and blue. Next, is the author–I’ve read at least one novel by Meg Cabot in the past. She writes both contemporary adult fiction and YA. She wrote the popular The Princess Diaries. Finally the description sounded great. Hurricane season seemed the perfect time to read a novel about a hurricane in a gorgeous island setting. Plus there’s animal rescue? I’m in!
Bree Beckham left Manhattan for Little Bridge, a small island in the Florida Keys, where her family vacationed. Bree’s mother is a millionaire and famous radio personality known as Judge Justine. She’s working as a waitress and trying to figure out next steps as a category 5 hurricane barrels toward the island. Most people leave but Bree stubbornly decides to stay with her rescue cat. Her boss’s wife invites her to stay at their more Hurricane-proof home. She takes them up on the offer. After the hurricane, she starts rescuing and helping pets left behind and her boss’s nephew Drew offers to help her out. They of course start to fall for each other. I found Bree’s story to be relatable. She was working in a field she didn’t quite like and she’d left a terrible relationship behind in New York. Her intelligence and strength carry the novel. That and her flirty banter with Drew. Their relationship starts in Moonlighting style. Do they like each other or don’t they? Little Bridge is the true star though. This is Cabot’s love letter to the Florida Keys. She creates a strong sense of place throughout this novel. Although it’s predictable, it’s a sweet little romance novel sure to allow readers a bit of escape. It’s the first in the Little Bridge series, of course, as the most popular novels tend to be.
Cabot was inspired by the true-life story of Brittany Davis who rescued pets in need during Hurricane Irma. Cabot herself decide to stay at her Key West home during the storm that hit the Florida Keys in 2017. Cabot had a landline and soon her home became a hub for locals who wanted to connect with the outside world after the power went out.
–review by Amy Steele
I received this book for review from William Morrow.
The Accidentals by Minrose Gwin. William Morrow| August 2019| 381 pages | $16.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-247175-8
–review by Amy Steele
“That fall June and I had at long last begun to plumb the depth of our mother’s unhappiness.”
In 1957, Olivia McAlister chooses to have an abortion in Mississippi. Illegal at the time, the only options for abortion were often cheap, quick back-alley abortions. Olivia longed to return to New Orleans and feels like an “accidental”—a migratory bird flown off course. Olivia dies leaving her two daughters, Grace and June, and her husband Holly on their own, the effects far-reaching throughout their lives. Holly becomes obsessed with building a bomb shelter. The daughters struggle to find their place in the world.
As a teenager, Grace becomes involved in a love affair with two boys. When she becomes pregnant, she’s sent away to have the child. Originally the aunt had planned the raise the child as her own but the child’s born with a facial defect—a cleft palate—and the aunt gets scared away. At an orphanage, the baby has an accident and is presumed dead. Ed Mae Johnson, an African-American care worker ends up taking the child home and raising her. Grace goes to college and later grad school. She travels the world studying ancient texts—“Here I am, fluent in Greek and Latin and Arabic. I can examine a piece of papyrus and give you its age within twenty years . . .” She works as a professor. She bird watches and feeds the wildlife in her backyard.
“One of the few things I’d come to pride myself on was having learned to take pleasure in things nobody else would think twice about. I had no expectations so I was constantly surprised by small pleasures. A thick peanut and butter and jelly sandwich, flocks of blackbirds flashing their red-tipped wings as they swooped down on the corn, Elsa’s celery smell at the end of a day in the kitchen. The first snow of winter, which had fallen just the past week and melted the next day.”
June finds religion as a teenager. She goes to church with a friend and gets baptized. She practices kissing with a female friend until that friend gets a boyfriend. She attends college and works as a journalist. She notes: “… I am the bona fide reporter, hardcore police beat and such, first woman in my paper’s history to work the news desk.” June unhappily marries and has a son. After undergoing cancer treatment, she starts fostering and adopting dogs—“These dogs of mine, they weren’t pretty to look at, and after Noel left, I made a point to choose the ones I know didn’t have a rat’s chance of getting taken.”
Everyone ends up in Nashville, Tennessee at the end. After many years with little communication or contact, June moves to help Grace after she’s diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Grace’s baby, now grown, lives in the city too. They may have already met. The Accidentals packs in plenty of details as chapters alternate points-of-view. It’s a lovely story about resilience, forgiveness and family bonds.
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from William Morrow.