Posts Tagged by Amy Steele
The Tenth Muse by Catherine Chung. Ecco| June 2019| 304 pages | $26.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-257406-0
–review by Amy Steele
“A mathematical proof is absolute once it has been written and verified: if the internal logic of a proof holds, it is considered unassailable and true. The underlying structure of my family was something I’d never questioned. It had formed the foundation of my life. When it suddenly dissolved, I was unmoored. It had never occurred to me to question my mother’s love for me, or our relationship to each other. I had believed these things were absolute.”
Who would expect a novel about a young math prodigy working on the Riemann hypothesis and uncovering her family history in the process to be so riveting? The Tenth Muse is the best novel I’ve read this year. It’s an engrossing work of historical fiction with gorgeous writing, unforgettable characters and events. It’s a sprawling page-turner set in academia.
Katherine always loved problem-solving and equations and that’s what drew her to math: “Math had always seemed miraculous to me because of the beauty it revealed underlying nature, because of the deep sense of rightness that came over me when I understood something all the way through, as if for a moment I’d merged with the grace I only ever caught glimpses of.” Katherine is a brilliant mathematician working in a male-dominated field. During college and graduate school, her classmates remind her that there are few noted female mathematicians throughout history, notably Emily Noether and Sofia Kovalevskaya. She recalls: “But by then I was resigned to these jokes, to the constant reminder that I was an anomaly, an outsider, a kind of freak. I was aware that even if I contributed to our field, my name would also become a punch line. I didn’t know how to resist, except to make clear that I wasn’t trying to fit in, that I knew I was different and to highlight that difference to make it clear.”
I especially loved all the scenes focusing on Katherine’s academic studies. Reading about books, academia, college and university settings greatly appeal to me. Author Catherine Chung provides plenty of real-life math references and establishes a clear sense of Katherine’s struggles as well as her inspiration. Being one of the few women in a male-dominated field, Katherine is constantly questioned, undermined and often taken advantage of by her colleagues. She has several pivotal love affairs, one with a professor during graduate school.
The novel ultimately centers on Katherine’s identity and I can’t reveal too much. It gloriously unfolds. When Katherine decides to tackle the Riemann hypothesis and it leads her to discover her family story and its connection in World World II. Her Chinese immigrant mother remained an enigma to Katherine throughout her life. Living in Michigan and married to Katherine’s white father, she faced extreme prejudices in post-WWII America. “I heard her called a dirty Jap once, and China Doll, and Red China, and while I flushed red with shame, my mother never so much as flinched at the slurs, so that I was never sure that she heard them.” When Katherine travels to Germany to study abroad, she discovers some shocking information about her family connected to both mathematics and WWII. Don’t think you need to be a math whiz for this book to make sense. There’s so much beauty and bravery within these pages.
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Ecco.
Blood Highway by Gina Wohlsdorf. Algonquin| August 7, 2018| 320 pages | $16.95| ISBN: 978-1-61620-563-8
–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.
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
–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.
I Really Didn’t Think This Through by Beth Evans. William Morrow| May 2018| 172 pages | $14.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-279606-6
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.
“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?”
“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.
Madame Zero: 9 stories by Sarah Hall. Custom House| July 2017| 192 pages | $23.99| ISBN: 9780062657060
In this brilliant collection of dark and strange stories, author Sarah Hall deftly examines relationships, sexuality, existence, nature. She dips into different characters and POVs with exquisite writing throughout, making for a compelling and rewarding read. Leaning into middle age, I’m immersed in existentialism and appreciated the subject matter as well as Hall’s bold, often disturbing and unique writing style. It’s easy to become engulfed in each story. I prefer to read a short story and let it settle a bit before delving into another. These stories seethe into your mind and you need time to fully absorb the details.
A woman transforms into a fox and her husband attempts to sustain a relationship with her in “Mrs. Fox.” At first he brings her home and tries to co-exist but the fox yearns for freedom. He resigns himself to this new reality. Later, he runs into her out in the woods and they develop a comfortable, respectable bond of sorts. Hall writes: “To be comfortable inside one’s sadness is not valueless. This too will pass. All things tend towards transience, mutability. It is in such mindful moments, when everything is both held and released, that revelation comes.”
In “Wilderness,” a woman on a dangerous, challenging hike with her boyfriend and one of her boyfriend’s friends [ “Zachary’s prevailing mood was melancholia bordering on despair.”] contemplates her mortality. Hall writes: “The railway tunnel had a strange industrial eeriness, a primed feeling, like its memory of trains hadn’t faded or it was convinced trains were still coming. The clinker ground underfoot like old bones.”
An epidemiologist examines guilt during a deadly viral outbreak in “One in Four:” “The truth is, we’re all so desperate to carry on, but we’re nothing really, just specs on the glass.”
In “Evie,” a woman’s sexually charged behavior turns alarming for her husband. And Hall really delves in. She GOES THERE: “The man on the screen pulled out of the woman. She presented herself, wider. Her genitals were depilated, the flesh dark purple. The man knelt, put his face between her legs and began to tongue the crease. Evie rolled on her back, held her head up so she could still see the screen.”
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Custom House.
Before Everything by Victoria Redel. Viking| June 2017| 288 pages | $26.00| ISBN: 9780735222571
In hospice for cancer, Anna’s old childhood friends gather at her house. Before Everything moves from present to past to provide the reader with details about each woman’s connection to Anna. Comfort, support and nostalgia connect this group of friends. Each woman has a specific relationship with Anna and with each other and then as a group. There’s the group think and then the individual’s thoughts. Whenever the novel veered into the precious and perfect I lost interest. Lovely crisp writing kept me reading. Author Victoria Redel powerfully chronicles Anna’s battle with cancer and hospice care and dying. This aspect of the novel interested me most. On fear of dying: “That was what Helen had never asked, what over all these years of treatment and periods of health Helen and The Old Friends have trained themselves not to ask. It was a tacit agreement. The answer was too obvious; it loomed in each moment’s specific worry.”
Despite caring so much there’s still a level of competition between the friends: “But Helen knows the answer. She’s known it since she arrived two weeks ago and began her adamant petition to pull Anna from hospice. She knew it back at the pond when she agreed to help Anna if Anna asked. Helen’s job all these years was to keep Anna away from fear and close to the yes. But Anna is not afraid. Again, Anna is doing something before Helen. It has always been this way. Boys. Drugs. Marriage. Children. Even the pregnancy that Anna ended. Over and over. Anna went first. Now this.”
I appreciated the realistic description of outsider views of these old friends: “He was glad for her yelp. Any dose of dark humor was better than all the treacly concern he heard from her visitors.” A newer friend thought: “The Old Friends. Whatever they called themselves, there was always a pecking order. Pretty pathetic considering the circumstance.” When my friend’s mom fought cancer, some of her friends kind of pushed my mom away when my mom wanted to help. I can’t imagine still being so connected to childhood friends. At every phase of my life I’ve lost friends and made new friends. I maintained friendships with high school friends into college and some college friends post-college and sure I am still connected to some high school and college friends via Facebook but if I really needed someone would these friends be there for me? The novel started strong and petered out toward the end. It seemed too much, these women and their near perfect lives and near perfect friendships. At the last high school reunion I attended a friend said that it was impossible to know what other classmates had endured despite outward appearances to the contrary. I get it. Unfortunately, I lost a connection to the various characters.
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Viking.
Made for Love by Alissa Nutting. Ecco| July 2017| 320 pages | $25.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-228055-8
“During her marriage, she sometimes visited her father just so she could feel better about her life when she left. A trip to his home always made a pretty convincing argument that his gruff personality, heavy flaws, and the shortcoming of her childhood that his present-day existence kept freshly resurrected in her memory were fixed roadblocks that would prevent her from ever experiencing true joy, so her choices and lack of personal ambition or work ethic or relative sobriety didn’t really have to matter.”
So much to love about this novel. It’s smart, a bit bawdy, immensely clever, introspective and observational. Hazel recently left her tech billionaire husband, Byron Gogol, and moved in with her father at a trailer park for senior citizens. Her father, who just received his mail-order sex doll Diane, isn’t all that thrilled to have a new roommate. Hazel wants to start over but Byron isn’t going to make it easy.
The marriage seems a compromise. Byron wanted a wife and Hazel wanted an escape from what she assumed would be a rather dead-end life. Author Alissa Nutting writes: “Her life was going to be different from what she’d thought. This had felt sad and she wasn’t sure why, because she’d always planned on having a terrible life. But familiar terrors: loneliness, paycheck-to-paycheck ennui, unsatisfying dates with people a lot like her whom she wouldn’t enjoy because she did not enjoy herself.” She met Byron while in college and they married fairly quickly. His power and wealth dazzled her. He seemed both delighted by her and intrigued by her. [“Here was the thing: Hazel had not delighted her parents, ever. Nor had she delighted herself.” And then . . . “Hazel had never intrigued her parents or herself either.”] She’s been with him for a decade and over the years he’s become more controlling and Hazel’s been limited. During the marriage he’s kept tight tabs on his wife through technological surveillance and tracking. Hazel reached her limit when he planned to connect them via brain chips in a “mind-meld.” Byron’s methods to track down and bring his wife back become intense, severe and threatening. Hazel realizes she must make drastic measures or this megalomaniac will control her for the rest of her life. Or he’ll kill her. Neither appeals to her.
“It was easy to get along with him because she acted like a mood ring, always agreeing with what he found great and what he found intolerable.”
Technology connects us in a plethora of ways yet also disconnects us by making in-person communication less frequent and less necessary in many situations. It’s rare to find someone that has absolutely no social media presence. And if you do it’s just a bit suspect. How can one possibly keep up on news, politics, entertainment, celebrities and college friends without twitter, Facebook and Instagram. We rely on technology for both our professional and social lives. When you end a relationship there’s generally tons of data out there on social media to remind you of that relationship or make it difficult to move on. Plus how are relationships defined in the age of social media?
There’s a blunt honesty, offbeat humor and near absurdity in Nutting’s writing. It’s easy to relate to Hazel’s predicament and moods. Most readers will find solace in both her determination to begin anew and her frustrations in allowing the relationship to continue as long as it did. She’s not afraid to tackle unpleasant or taboo subjects [Nutting’s previous novel Tampa focused on a teacher-student romance] nor does she hold herself back in delving into these topics. In this novel it’s wealth and sex and loneliness and relationships. There’s the strange and humorous relationship between her father and his sex doll Diane. He treats the doll like a person. He’s content with her company.
In her marriage, Hazel felt lonely and isolated. She felt sad and detached. Nutting writes: “But Hazel hoped now that after so many bad years of internal and external surveillance, of cohabitation with someone she’d grown to hate and fear alike, the absence of sadness might feel something like contentment, or close enough. At one point she meets a guy in a dive bar named Liver who tells her: “I just meet women in this bar. Mainly they use me to help them reach bottom. I’m like a brick they grab onto midair. Sleeping with me helps them admit their lives have become unmanageable. They realize they want and deserve something more, and then their recovery process can begin. I get laid in the meantime. Win-win.” Sounds quite like the last few lowbrow working-class guys I’ve dated.
The perfect blend of absurd and genuine, Made for Love is one of the best novels I’ve read this year.
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Harper Collins.