Posts Tagged by Amy Steele

book review: Agnes

Agnes by Peter Stamm. Other Press| September 2019| 160 pages | $14.99| ISBN: 9781590511534

RATING: ****/5*

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

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book review: No More Boats

No More Boats by Felicity Castagna. Europa Editions| February 2019| 250 pages | $17.00| ISBN: 9781609455095

 

RATING: *****/5*

Addressing many hot button topics—immigration, the working poor, migrants, terrorism, political asylum, national identity—No More Boats is a thoughtful and powerful novel. I became quickly engrossed and couldn’t put it down. Set in a working-class suburb outside Sydney, Australia, the novel focuses on a retired construction worker’s reaction and subsequent mental breakdown when hundreds of refugees remain stranded in a boat off the coast of Australia due to political debates. It’s known as the “Tampa affair.” This occurred in 2001, in the months leading up to 9/11.

An Italian immigrant, Antonio finds himself forced to retire after injuring himself during a construction accident that kills his best friend—“They were the last of their kind. There was no one else to talk to, really; they had outlasted all the other people like them. Now the young Aussies sat with the children of people like them who had migrated too long ago for anyone to remember that they were migrants too.” Extremely frustrated and hopeless, Antonio paints “No More Boats” in front of his house. This leads to much debate within the neighborhood and community. The white supremacy group welcomes Antonio to its meetings. It pushes his already dissatisfied family over the edge. His wife questions their relationship. His adult children—Clare and Francis—seem rather aimless. Clare quit her teaching job to work at a bookstore although she never told her parents. Francis would rather smoke and party than work. Everyone’s affected by Antonio’s seemingly rash action.

I love the daughter Clare. She’s socially awkward and rather nerdy, preferring to read rather than anything else. She has an on-again-off-again boyfriend–“What she would like to do, really, was spend the rest of the evening reading in bed. She wanted to fall asleep with a book by her side and get up again tomorrow morning and read it some more and now that she’d had sex with Richard she could do these things and stop feeling like she hadn’t put some kind of effort into the outside world.” Clare explains her father: “I just think, he’s old and he’s angry that he’s not in control anymore. He’s always had a thing about migrants these days not working as hard, not trying to fit in as much as he did but, you know, it’s nothing extreme, just the usual racism, I guess.” One day one of Clare’s former high school students, Paul, arrives in the store to work and they start to hang out often together. Paul is of Vietnamese descent and despite the age difference, they find many commonalities. She explains her former political activism: “I was like crazy busy with self-invention. I joined all those anti-nuclear marches and spent the night chained to a chair inside the Vice Chancellor’s office. I got kind of stuck in this vortex of radicalism. It sucks you in. Mostly, the social side of it. I was just like awkward and bookish and I didn’t know how to talk to people, so it worked for me. You know, people shouting slogans all the time. I didn’t have to talk and nobody noticed me, but I got to be in this big crowd of people. I could convince myself that I was never lonely, but I was always alone. I’m not sure if anyone really even knew I existed.”

I became quickly engulfed in No More Boats. It draws you in and you’ll think about the characters and subject matter long after finishing it.

 

–review by Amy Steele

 

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Europa Editions.

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book review: Careful What You Wish For

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Careful What You Wish For by Hallie Ephron| William Morrow| August 6, 2019| 304 pages | $26.99| ISBN13: 9780062473653

RATING: ****/5*

“Months later, bright and early on this muggy August morning, as she stood in her sunlit bedroom in shorts, a tank top, and flip-flops, the message those socks whispered to her heart was more about privilege than joy. Who on earth needed so many pairs of socks?”

After a video of her organizing her sock drawer goes viral, Emily Harlow decides to leave her job as a teacher to launch a career as a professional organizer. Emily’s lawyer husband remains immune to Emily’s de-cluttering skills, he spends every weekend browsing yard sales. The attic, garage and basement are all filled with her husband’s collection. Emily and her partner Becca have two new clients: an elderly widow, Mrs. Murphy, who needs to de-clutter her late husband’s storage unit and a young woman, Quinn, whose husband won’t allow her things into their home.

Emily finds rare books in the storage unit that appear to have come from several libraries–“Emily was no expert, but it certainly looked old. It was an engraving or an etching, though Emily didn’t know the difference. With no tears or foxing, it was in pristine condition. She used her phone to google the words on the label. Back came a link to an auction house that, in 2012, had offered what looked like the identical map. According to the description, it was published in London in 1624. In “excellent condition,” it had a value estimate of . . . Emily blinked . . . $12,000. If the map in front of her was worth that much, and if it turned out to have been on permanent unofficial loan, she and Becca were catapulted into felony territory.” Did Mr. Murphy steal these books and other antiquities or acquire them legally? Emily brings her librarian mom in to assist with this project. When Emily meets Quinn, after several glasses of wine, the conversation turns personal as Quinn expresses a desire to get rid of her husband. When the husband goes missing and then is discovered dead in the widow’s husband’s storage unit, everyone becomes a suspect. It’s impossible to ignore the similarities between an expensive art collection in Quinn’s house and Murphy’s rare books. How would these men have known each other? Emily’s husband’s law partner recommended that Quinn contact Emily. What’s his connection to all this?

De-cluttering almost always leads to some sort of discovery, often something personal. There’s a reason why people collect or hoard things. Oftentimes it’s to fill a void or due to some emotional connection to their things. According to the Mayo Clinic, hoarding disorder is “a persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions because of a perceived need to save them.” Most everyone has seen at least one episode of Hoarders or Marie Kondo’s Netflix show. This topic can go in lots of different directions and provides an intriguing theme.

If you like novels by Elinor Lipman, you’ll like the work of Hallie Ephron. Both women write witty, humorous, observant novels with mature characters. And not mature in any negative sense but in that these are highly capable, experienced women. It gets tiresome to read about 20- and 30-somethings once you’re in your 40s or 50s (I just turned 50). There are a lot of books about 20- and 30-something women out there. It’s refreshing to find older characters with whom one can relate. I appreciated this: “In the month since Emily had least seen her, her mother had dyed her hair red and cut it short and spiky. As she’d told Emily countless times, the problem with getting older was that women over sixty were treated as if they were invisible. At sixty-five, between the hair, a short silk caftan in swirling shades of pink and purple, and the layers of bangle bracelets that jangled whenever she gestured, Lila showed the world just how determined she was not to disappear.”

If you like suspense novels, this one doesn’t disappoint. Be Careful What You Wish For is an ingenious and amusing novel that makes a great summer or vacation read.

–review by Amy Steele

I received this book for review from William Morrow.

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book review: Lady in the Lake

The Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman. William Morrow| July 23, 2019| 352 pages | $26.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-23904-2

RATING: ****/5*

“Alive, I was Cleo Sherwood. Dead, I became the Lady in the Lake, a nasty broken thing, dragged from the fountain after steeping there for months, through the cold winter, then that fitful, bratty spring, almost into summer proper. Face gone, much of my flesh gone.”

“It was only when she started moving her things in that she realized while the apartment was charming, the neighborhood was decidedly mixed. Mixed on its way to being not so mixed. Maddie wasn’t prejudiced, of course. If she had been younger, without a child, she would have gone south to join the voter registration project a few years back. She was almost sure of this. But she didn’t like being so visible in her new neighborhood, a solitary white woman who happened to own a fur coat. Only beaver, but a fur nonetheless. She was wearing it now. Maybe the jeweler would pay more if she didn’t look like someone who needed the money.”

When Cleo, a young African-American woman is murdered in racially divided Baltimore, recently divorced Madeline “Maddie” Schwartz thinks she can solve the mystery.  It’s 1966 and Maddie wants to have her own success apart from her wealthy ex-husband –“The infuriating thing was that her mother was right. Everything about Maddie’s post-Milton life was smaller, shabbier.”– She starts working at a newspaper where she’s relegated to answer questions for an advice column. She becomes romantically involved with an African-American police officer who provides her with inside information on Cleo’s case. She’s determined to figure out who killed young Cleo and to earn a better position at the newspaper. Maddie seems to be the only one interested in uncovering the truth about Cleo’s murder. Meanwhile, the ghost of Cleo has her own opinions about Maddie’s sleuthing. Author Laura Lippman effectively takes readers to the gritty streets of Baltimore in the 1960s through the vastly different and unique experiences of a black woman and a white woman.The novel alternates between Maddie, Cleo and a cast of characters (such as a bartender, a classmate, a patrolman, a columnist, a waitress) who may or may not know things about both women and the murder. As the novel progresses, we discover details about each woman. It’s a classic noir novel but also a strong psychological novel that examines what motivates women to make the choices they do, particularly in a white male-dominated society. Will Maddie’s own secrets end her journey of self-discovery, freedom and empowerment?

–review by Amy Steele

I received a copy of this novel from William Morrow for review purposes.

 

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book review: The Tenth Muse

The Tenth Muse by Catherine Chung. Ecco| June 2019| 304 pages | $26.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-257406-0

RATING: *****/5*

–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.

 

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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: There are No Grown-Ups

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

RATING: *****/5*

–review by Amy Steele

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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