Posts Tagged book review

book review: Learning to See and The Eulogist

When it’s done well, historical fiction transports you to a particular time, place and setting through the eyes of its characters. The best historical fiction makes me want to learn more about the period or the characters. I try to refrain from googling while reading a book but if I’m itching to look something up, I know the author succeeded in transporting me to another time. That’s one of my favorite genres. Two compelling novels came out recently which center around independent and unconventional women, one real and one fictional.

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Learning to See focuses on Dorothea Lange and her photography in the 1930s. I’m familiar with Dorothea Lange’s Dust Bowl photographs but not much else. In this thoroughly researched novel, author Elise Hooper brings readers into Lange’s world. Told from Lange’s point-of-view, the novel follows her burgeoning career as a photographer at a time when women weren’t pursuing careers, they were focusing on raising children. After moving to San Francisco with a friend, Lange finds work at a photography shop. She soon opens her own portrait studio and amasses clients. She’s friends with a group of photographers and artists which includes Ansel Adams. She marries rather volatile artist Maynard Dixon. They travel to Arizona so that Dixon can work on some painting. Lange notes: “Our first few days were spent examining the terrain, so different from everything I’d ever known: wide sweeps of empty desert, soaring sky, endless clouds. It felt timeless, nothing like the city. The simple geometry of the landscape’s lines and bold shouts of color left me awed. During each sunrise and sunset, under a sky bruised with purples and rippling with flames, the desert was reborn. The air thrummed with possibility.” Lange is an independent, strong woman determined to use her skills to benefit others in a deeper manner than merely taking pretty portraits. Navigating her way as a working mother, wife and professional photographer, Lange faces many challenges including her husband’s alcoholism and affairs. When her marriage and the nation’s economy begin to decline, she decides to take a position with the government taking pictures of the country’s disenfranchised, the photographs she’s known for today. She photographs migrant workers and Japanese Americans in camps during World War II. Hooper effectively allows readers the opportunity to see the time period through Lange’s lens.

Learning to See by Elise Hooper. William Morrow| January 22, 2019| 384 pages | $15.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-291035-6

RATING: ****/5*

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This wasn’t on my radar but the title and cover intrigued me so I started reading it one day and became completely absorbed by it. After immigrating to the United States from Ireland, three siblings forge their path in antebellum Cincinnati in The Eulogist. James establishes a successful candle-making business, free spirit Erasmus becomes a traveling preacher and independent, open-minded Olivia challenges a conventional life. These dissimilar siblings function like the id (Erasmus), ego (Olivia) and superego (James). I became completely charmed by Olivia, by her loyalty, curiosity and determination. She attends lectures by feminists and abolitionists and questions women’s expected roles during that time: “That summer of 1829, culture and curiosity came over the city like the quickening of a maiden’s heart. Cincinnati was overrun by fanatics and intellectuals trying to make their case: Caldwell’s discourse on phrenology; Miss Fanny Wright on slavery and marriage; Dr. Alexander Campbell and Robert Owen battling the fundamental relationship between godliness and goodliness.” She’s not particularly interested in marriage [“I have never been one to pine for marriage, nor did motherhood enchant me. As I saw it, marriage was a function of economic dependence, and wrongly, too, since women rarely had money of their own.”] or starting a family. She does end up marrying a doctor who she falls in love with after spending time with him performing autopsies and doing research on corpses. When he dies, Olivia returns with his body to Kentucky to find her brother-in-law heavily involved in slavery. She’s determined to save a young black woman who has been living fairly free in Ohio from being returned as her brother-in-law’s property. She enlists the assistance of both her brothers. Through detailed descriptions and strong character development, I found myself completely engrossed. Taking place in the decades preceding the Civil War, slavery was illegal in Ohio, the first state created from the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. Ohio was active in the Underground Railroad.  I recently found a family tree my grandmother created which traces several generations in Ohio and I’d like to conduct research someday to see if any of my ancestors had any involvement in the Underground Railroad.

The Eulogist by Terry Gamble. William Morrow| January 22, 2019| 320 pages | $26.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-283991-6

RATING: ****/5*

–review by Amy Steele

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book review: Good Riddance

good riddanceGood Riddance by Elinor Lipman. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt| February 5, 2019| 304 pages | $25.00| ISBN: 978-0-544-80825-6

RATING: 4.5/5*

–review by Amy Steele

“I used to have a husband, from a marriage that was a bad idea from the start. Now I can advise others: Never marry a man who proposes too early.”

When Daphne discards her deceased mother’s yearbook, a neighbor decides she’s going to make a documentary about what she discovers in it. One person’s trash is another’s treasure, particularly an enterprising someone looking to advance her career. Daphne’s mother, June, was a teacher and yearbook advisor for the Class of 1968 who attended every class reunion and kept detailed notes about the students in the yearbook. Seemingly everyone had a crush on Daphne’s mother at this New Hampshire high school. June had an affair with a student after he graduated. Daphne attends a reunion as a fact-finding mission and this man, now a state representative, claims to be Daphne’s biological father. Daphne introduces herself to her tablemates in this manner: “I was bamboozled into a loveless marriage because my husband wouldn’t inherit his grandparents’ money while he was still single.” Daphne hasn’t had the best of luck in relationships. She’s self-deprecating and aware of her challenges and somewhat resigned. She’s completely surprised when she embarks on a tryst with her cute younger neighbor, an actor. She ends up having lots of fun and confides in him. It’s just the ego boost she needs. I found Daphne to be quite genuine and relatable. Her father seems like a great dad. The news that someone else might be her biological father, leads Daphne to have bouts of doubt: “My not sleeping great had to do with the ugly breaking news that my entire existence was based on a lie. Shouldn’t I have been warned of inheritable diseases that might be down the road? Or told to work harder in high school because I could apply as a legacy to Dartmouth? Such were the 2 a.m. agitations of a dispossessed daughter.” Will these new discoveries affect Daphne’s relationship with the only father she’s ever known? Between studying online to become a pastry chef, hooking up with her neighbor and helping her father navigate his recent move to New York, Daphne attempts to thwart her plans to expose her mother’s personal life.  Author Elinor Lipman (The Inn at Lake Divine, On Turpentine Lane) successfully contrasts the idiosyncrasies of small town New England with sprawling Manhattan. Lipman is a master of clever, amusing novels with quirky central characters. Her novels are guaranteed delightful fun reading. I love her writing and creativity so much that I received an advanced copy in October and devoured it right away. It’s the ideal anti-Valentine’s read.

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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STEELE PICKS: Best Books of 2018

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An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

–As its title suggests, this is a novel about marriage. About an American marriage. about the institution of marriage and how it fits or does not fit individual aspirations and dispositions. Recently married couple Celestial and Roy have promising careers in Atlanta—Celestial as an artist and Roy in business. Celestial earned an advanced art degree in New York. She’s focused and determined to excel in the art world. Both she and Roy graduated from historically black colleges. Growing up with wealthy parents affords Celestial the ability to pursue her creative endeavors. Marriage often doesn’t align with a creative spirit.

At its core it’s a novel about the black experience. About what it means to be black in America. According to the NAACP, African Americans comprised 34% of the 6.8 million correctional population in 2014. African Americans are incarcerated at a rate of 5 times that of white Americans. It’s a reality that black Americans will be more likely to know someone in prison or be personally affected by the criminal justice system. It’s a reality that black men get targeted and get wrongfully accused or generally screwed over by the system.

As the novel progresses, the strong, vibrant writing allows readers to become absorbed in Celestial and Roy’s marriage and relationship as well as their relationship to their friends and family. Through these characters, author Tayari Jones explores family and love by delving into step-parenting, wandering biological fathers, fidelity and abandonment. How does the type of family the characters grew up in affect them as adults.

read my full review.

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Any Man by Amber Tamblyn

— 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.

read my full review.

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The Collector’s Apprentice by B.A. Shapiro

–It’s 1922 and a young woman creates a new identity and endeavors to recover her family’s art collection and exact revenge on the fiance who conned her out of her money and reputation. From Philadelphia to Paris, it’s a whirlwind of a historical fiction thriller.

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Crudo by Olivia Laing

— The ecru cover with black lettering and a dismembered fly in the middle of Crudo’s cover pulled me in with its darkness. This might be a slim novel but it’s packed with provocative prose, eccentricities, witty observations and overall intellectual prowess not often accomplished through such brevity and through experimental style. It’s not easy to explain when nothing and everything occurs. It’s a feverish and daring stream of consciousness about our destructive and often restrictive society. Finding an element of safety and belonging can be overwhelming.  Author Olivia Laing  (<em>The Lonely City</em>) impressively wrote her fictional debut in real time over the course of seven weeks.

read my full review.

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Disoriental by Nejar Djavadi

— A gorgeous, exquisite, smart and meditative novel about an Iranian family and its struggles and triumphs. As Kimia Sadr sits in a fertility clinic in Paris she reminisces about family myths and ancestry. She ponders how she got to be where she is at this moment. She recollects her family history as well as Iran’s history and how it’s made her who she is today. Kimia is a lesbian and she’s decided to have a baby with a man that she met during her travels. He’s HIV+ and so they need to use the clinic. Kimia’s been wandering for years in an attempt to figure out where she belongs. For those unfamiliar, it’s the ideal primer to Iranian revolutionary history.  Abundant information gets beautifully shared throughout this novel in an accessible and manageable manner. It’s definitely a challenging yet completely rewarding read.

read my full review.

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Eventide by Therese Bohman

With an emphasis on culture and art, Eventide is a meditation on solitude, success and meaningfulness. Working in a male-dominated field, art history professor Karolina Andersson begins working as thesis advisor to a male student who claims to have discovered new works of art by a female artist in the early twentieth century. He’s attractive and intriguing to Karolina who recently ended a long relationship and finds herself wondering if she wasted her prime years with this man and if she’s even doing what will make her the most fulfilled. She’s plateaued in her career and doesn’t have as much interest in it as she had when she was younger. As a woman who also wasted many years in a bad relationship, who never married or had children and in her late 40s, I found myself completely commiserating with Karolina.

read my full review.

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Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao

— a devastating, provocative and beautiful novel which illuminates the  horrific reality of sex trafficking and domestic abuse. Growing up in an impoverished village in India, Savitha and Poornima lack choices such as furthering their education. Instead, they’re expected to marry young and start families. After Poornima’s mother dies, she’s expected to care for her father and younger siblings. Which she’d rather do than be shipped off to marry. The bright spot remains the strong friendship that Savitha and Poornima established. They create saris on looms which Poornima’s father owns.  The women initially think that they might be able to succeed on their own and not have to agree to an arranged marriage. Savitha’s independent spirit and veracity inspires Poornima. Together the women become determined to forge a better reality. Although these women face repeated horrific abuse at the hands of men, author Shobha Rao makes readers both root for the women and wonder what they’ll do next to escape their current predicament.

read my full review.

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Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot

–raw poetry

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How to Be Famous by Caitlin Moran

–as a C-level and not famous music critic, I loved this novel and found much to which I could relate in this smart, funny, observant novel.

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The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon

— this novel is weird and dark and brilliant. it’s about identity, connection, spirituality, faith.  a young woman joins a cult, becomes completely immersed in it and in doing so, grows apart from her boyfriend. he feels completely alienated but he also wants to save her from this cult.

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The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers

–I really like Dave Eggers’s nonfiction books. even though i’m a tea drinker, this book about a man bringing coffee from Yemen to the United States is extremely interesting. it’s challenging in many ways. Yemen is a tribal country with much poverty and civil unrest. He’s of Yemen descent which helps immensely. I’m fascinated with Yemen. It’s complicated.

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My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

— LOVED IT. very relatable. plus I appreciate dark humor. 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. I wanted to shut everything out. 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 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.”

read my full review.

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The Parking Lot Attendant by Nafkote Tamirat

— unusual novel about a female teenager and the Ethiopian community in Boston. she lives with her father. her mother took off. she becomes friendly with a substitute father father, Ayale, who works as a parking lot attendant. She becomes a runner for him, regularly delivering packages to several members of the community. She doesn’t know what she’s delivering and doesn’t ask until there’s some trouble.

I appreciated the beautiful writing and sharp, dark humor and mystery element.

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Who is Vera Kelly? By Rosalie Knecht

–a fantastic spy novel with a charming central character

 

–Amy Steele, January 9, 2019

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book review: Crudo

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Crudo by Olivia Laing. W.W. Norton| September 11, 2018| 142 pages | $21.00| ISBN: 978-0-393-65272-7

RATING: 4.5/5*

The ecru cover with black lettering and a dismembered fly in the middle of Crudo’s cover pulled me in with its darkness. This might be a slim novel but it’s packed with provocative prose, eccentricities, witty observations and overall intellectual prowess not often accomplished through such brevity and through experimental style. It’s not easy to explain when nothing and everything occurs. It’s a feverish and daring stream of consciousness about our destructive and often restrictive society. Finding an element of safety and belonging can be overwhelming. Author Olivia Laing  (The Lonely City) impressively wrote her fictional debut in real time over the course of seven weeks.

Kathy, a recently-turned-40 writer contemplates existential issues, the horror of the Trump presidency, white supremacy, Brexit, impending nuclear war with North Korea, social media, marriage and love.  “She was at the middle of her life, going south, going nowhere, stuck between station like a broken-down engine.” She marries a man 29 years older than her (also a writer) and falls in love. Of this new marriage: “She was feeling panicky, she couldn’t quite remember how to be alone, ironic since she barely regarded herself as female. A fag with tits, statically improbable but not unheard of, especially in the conglomerate-building internet era of gender dismantlement.”

When Kathy meets a friend at a pub, “They talked about marriage, how to do it so it didn’t bury you beneath its baggage. They thought they had a handle on it, they thought they could see a way to maintaining their dignity independence autonomy style, but it was touch and go they both admitted.” Completely relatable to me as I’m 49 and I haven’t been on a date in a year and I’ve never been married and struggle to find someone intellectually and culturally compatible. Someone who can support and comfort without control or stifling. “You think you know yourself inside out when you live alone, but you don’t, you believe you are a calm untroubled or at worst melancholic person, you do not realize how irritable you are, how any little thing, the wrong kind of touch or tone, a lack of speed in answering a question, a particular cast of expression will send you into apoplexy because you are so unchill, because you have not learnt how to soften your borders, how to make room.” Sheer brilliance throughout.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from W.W Norton.

 

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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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