Posts Tagged by 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: When You Find Out the World Is Against You

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When You Find Out the World is Against You by Kelly Oxford. Dey St.| April 2017| 310 pages | $26.99| (ISBN13: 9780062322777

RATING: ***/5*

Kelly Oxford is described as “the famed blogger, named one of Rolling Stone’s Funniest People on Twitter… one of the most followed and beloved Twitter celebrities.” Sometimes tweets can transfer to writing essays but often the short, pithy style at which one excels on Twitter can’t be transformed into a detailed essay. This collection is definitely hit or miss. It’s an easy quick read and sometimes an essay collection is cool as you can skip around and pick it up here and there to read an essay. Most of these type essays aren’t for me. I’m not one that finds humor in every situation. The essays on parenting definitely didn’t appeal to me and it’s not that I don’t read about parents. I do. it needs to be a well-written and compelling piece. The essays on anxiety are pretty good and I wish there were more of those. I think maybe she tackled too many subjects here.  I prefer intellectual/existential essays.

I’d tangentially heard of Kelly Oxford but I don’t think I follow her on twitter. I’m aware of the #NotOkay hashtag campaign. creating a trending hashtag seems the pinnacle of online social media success. If your tweets, Instagram pics or Facebook posts don’t go viral then what’s the point to even post them? It seems that way at least. I respect and appreciate that Kelly Oxford created this hashtag which allowed women to feel safe in reporting their stories of sexual abuse after the Donald Trump/Billy Bush tape. She wrote: “I immediately open my Twitter account and see everyone tweeting about this. This is huge. This leaked tape is demanding a response.” Then: “My tweet is instantly being retweeted, but I feel like what I wrote isn’t as clear as I want it to be. So I tweet again.” Later she tweets another and says: “If no one responds, I’ll delete that tweet.” So if nobody immediately responds it’s not worth tweeting? this mindset I don’t comprehend. I tweet a lot. I’m sure my tweets get seen but they’re not always liked or RTed. That’s the way it goes. On people’s bios you see them say that they started such and such hashtag. I’m not jealous of this.

Here are a few good quotes:

on her father: “Whisker burn was his nice way, with skin abrasion, of telling me it was time to get up. I put up with it, because I worried this could be my only interaction with him for the day.”

being a hypochondriac and frequent visitor to doctors: “When I was eight, I’d stolen several thousand of those long Q-Tip strep-throat things from under that sink, you  know, to practice swabbing my throat at home, to rid myself of the gag it caused.” (useful in many ways)

on anxiety: “When I reached the top of the stairs, I instantly felt panic. Like from the very pit of my soul I felt I was worthless and everyone knew it and I would never every climb out and feel better. That even if I did climb out, it would still be as terrible as it felt right at that moment. I felt like I was jailed inside by own sick body and my body was definitely going to kill me.”

–review by Amy Steele

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

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book review: Virgin and Other Stories

virgin

Virgin and Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson. Farrar, Straus and Giroux| November 2016| 179 pages | $23.00| ISBN: 9780865478695

RATING: ****/5*

Strong debut short story collection with a dark tone and dark sense of humor. Author April Ayers Lawson, currently a visiting writer at University of North Caroline at Chapel Hill,  grew up in the South with an evangelical background. She grew up in Greenville, South Carolina. It’s easy to imagine that everyone in the South drives around in a pick-up truck with confederate flag and gun rack attending weekly church service. In this story collection she creates a complex image of the South and its inhabitants with rich details and enthralling, layered characters.

In the title story, Jake contemplates the potential deterioration his marriage to Sheila, a virgin when they wed. A teenager becomes tantalized by a mysterious young man living at her piano teacher’s home in “The Way You Must Play Always:” “The love inside her had room to spread out now. It was part nervousness, part desperation, and a little craziness too, and she felt it begin to rush outside of her and around her, leaving invisible prints of itself all over the things she touched: her bag, her books, the keys, the pages of the music she turned.” A woman who befriended a transgender woman at her church takes her son to the woman’s funeral in “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling.” This boy recalls how different his mother would be when Charlene would come over to visit: “First I thought WHAT IN THE WORLD did my mother have to put in a diary? All she did was give me assignments, wander around the house wiping things down, drink green tea, and go to stores. She never said anything to me about a diary; then Charlene’s her thirty minutes and my mom is Anne Frank.”

In the best story, a married artist forms complicated relationships with her art dealer and another artist in “Vulnerability.” She’s married to a man who mostly hangs out after work in the garage watching porn on his computer. Of her husband: “Occasionally when I returned from the bathroom at a restaurant I’d come back to find him engaged more happily in conversation with the waitress than he ever was with me; with me he claimed he could be himself, which was depressed.” She creates imaginary relationships in her mind then when she meets the art dealer and another man she corresponded with she plays them off against each other. There’s a dangerous precariousness in her emotions and palpable insecurities: “I knew I had nice legs, and unable to think of anything funny or intelligent to say, my mind sludgy with the clonazepam I chewed like candy and alcohol and th dregs of crumbling fantasy, I shifted then about in hopes that he’d forgive me for not being as smart and inspired and bold as I thought I’d managed to seem in the emails.” Best read slowly to savor and absorb the exquisite details.

–review by Amy Steele

 FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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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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cookbook review: Soupelina’s Soup Cleanse

soupelina soup cleanse

Soupelina’s Soup Cleanse by Elina Fuhrman. Da Capo Press| February 2016| 265 pages | $24.99| ISBN: 978-0-7382-1888-5

RATING: *****/5*

The subtitle: Plant-Based Soups and Broths to Heal Your Body, Calm Your Mind, and Transform Your Life. Who doesn’t want all that? I’m in! Soupelina’s Soup Cleanse is packed with data about a plant-based diet to absorb before even diving into the cleanse. Why are cooking vegetables better than raw? Less bacteria, easier to digest and easier mineral absorption. In the chapter Diving In, author Elina Fuhrman discusses various tools and ingredients. She includes fascinating and useful facts about tons of veggies, fungi, legumes, fruits, spices and oils.

Arugula and romaine alkalize your system and clear your colon. Avocado has amino acids needed for effective liver detox. Cauliflower contains vitamin K and omega-3 fatty acids! Cucumber flushes toxins and reduces heat and inflammation. Cabbage is another anti-inflammatory. Sweet potatoes “are known to fight cancer, but also elevate mood and slow down aging.” Onion boosts immunity and also has anti-inflammatory properties.

My favorite and most-used spices are cardamom, coriander, turmeric and cumin. Cardamom: “In Ayurveda, cardamom is prescribed to bring joy and clarity to the mind.” Coriander stimulates blood and relieves infections. Turmeric is an anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, anti-aging power spice! Cumin operates as a digestive aid that “is an antidote to weakness and fatigue.”

Fuhrman explains: “Even though my delicious soups began as a way to heal myself, they became so much more than that.” She writes: “Healthy plant-based, veg-centered eating and wellness are taking the world by storm, infusing the media and pop culture and raising a new generation of healthy eaters. I’m so very proud to be a voice in this wellness revolution that I believe will transform the world and our health.”

Here’s the Soupelina’s Soup Cleanse summary:

Eat—eat one soup at each meal

Snack—snack on broths and some raw veggies

Drink—drink plenty of water between meals

Eliminate—you should have two bowel movements per day during the soup cleanse

Rest—“energy levels will fluctuate on a day-to-day and moment-to-moment basis. Listen to your gut.”

Avoid—avoid coffee, any sugar, animal protein, dairy, alcohol, wheat, nicotine, processed foods and fried foods

Consider—add wheatgrass and turmeric shots into the plan

Sleep—focus on how WELL you sleep not how long

Soupelina’s Soup Cleanse is divided into these sections: Introduction: My Walk into Wellness; Soup Up; The Balancing Act; Diving In; Soup-Rises; Soupelina Secrets—Make It Your Soup Cleanse; Time to Soup; The Recipes—Blended Soups, Chunky Soups, Broths, Raw Soups; I Am Done with the Cleanse; Now What?; Listen to Your Gut; Find Your Soup-Er Calm.

Recipes include: Cauliflower Me, Maybe?!; And the Beet Goes On; I Yam Who I Yam; With My Chick-a-Peas; Oh Snap!; The Perks of Being a Purple Cauliflower; I Don’t Carrot All What They Say.

This is a cleanse I’ll definitely do and soups I will make and enjoy. Soup is easy and filling and nutritious and delicious. Fuhrman uses a Vitamix which a costly appliance for many [$300-4600]. I’ll do what I can with the blender I own. You can eat these healthy and healing soups anytime not just on a cleanse. I highly recommend this #Soupelina cleanse and cookbook.

Elina Fuhrman is the founder and chef of Soupelina.

 FTC Disclosure: I received these cookbooks for review from Da Capo Press.

–review by Amy Steele

 

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purchase at Amazon: Soupelina’s Soup Cleanse: Plant-Based Soups and Broths to Heal Your Body, Calm Your Mind, and Transform Your Life

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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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