Posts Tagged memoir

STEELE PICKS: Best Books of 2016

quite delayed on posting my year-end list.

here are the best books of 2016 [not ranked]:

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An Abbreviated Life: a memoir by Ariel Leve [Harper]
–gorgeous writing, sad story. resilience. My parents got divorced when I was around the same age and I only have a few isolated or vague memories.

alligator-candy

Alligator Candy: a memoir by David Kushner [Simon & Schuster]
David Kushner’s older brother Jon disappeared one day on a bike ride to get candy and two men savagely murdered him, sodomized him postmortem and mutilated his body. It’s a horrific event to happen in one’s family. Only four at the time, Kushner didn’t quite understand the full impact. He missed his brother but didn’t know the complete details. Now a journalist, he decided to revisit the case and provide a voice for and memory of his brother. Through compelling prose and devastating emotion this memoir potently addresses murder and its effect on the family. full review

future-sex

Future Sex by Emily Witt [Farrar, Straus and Giroux]
Future Sex reads as a fascinating sociological study on sexuality that delves into orgasmic mediation, internet porn, webcams, Burning Man and polyamory. Witt combines personal experience with research and reporting in a darkly amusing, honest and real manner. Witt investigates sites I’d barely heard of: Chaturbate; Porn Hub; Kink.com; Fetlife. She attends an orgasmic mediation workshop [looked up on YouTube and there are tutorials] and travels to Burning Man. She interviews tons of people such as polyamorous Google employees, the founder of OKCupid, a 19-year-old webcammer as well as a woman who creates female-centered porn. Witt doesn’t make a spectacle of what may be absurd. Instead she writes analytically, astutely with brevity and a sharp edge. full review.

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Girl Through Glass by Sari Wilson [Harper]
A former ballet dancer, Wilson provides intimate details about New York’s ballet scene. While this isn’t solely a novel about the ballet world, girls straddling the line between youth and adulthood provides fascinating reading. The novel flawlessly describes the razor sharp focus on becoming the best, earning a particular status and securing one’s place in this strange world overflowing with beauty and sacrifice. And what happens to all those girls who aren’t’ quite the best? Those girls who do not make the right school or earn a place in a prestigious ballet company? This absorbing, riveting novel does what a wonderful novel can do: it completely transports readers to a specific time and place in such an effective and specific manner that one thinks about the subject and characters well past finishing the last page. full review.

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Heat & Light by Jennifer Haigh [Ecco]
Returning to Bakerton, Pennsylvania—the setting for the 2005 best-selling novel Baker Towers—author Jennifer Haigh again focuses on an energy source and its effects on a small community. full review.

here i am

Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer [Farrar, Straus and Giroux]
–phenomenal writing. for some reason I waited to read this (maybe because it’s quite long and dense). immediately engulfed in the story of a family coming apart. numerous other elements including being Jewish and Middle East politics. amazing.

lazaretto

Lazaretto by Diane McKinney-Whetstone
Set in post-Civil War Philadelphia, this historical fiction novel beautifully explores race, class, gender and family. full review.

llucy pear

Leaving Lucy Pear by Anna Solomon [Viking]
An engrossing and gorgeous work of historical fiction, this novel effectively weaves together issues of class, feminism, wealth, power, mental illness and motherhood. The setting: Cape Ann, Massachusetts, a working class fishing community as well as a lovely coastal summer getaway for Boston’s wealthy. In 1917, the unwed teenage daughter of a wealthy family abandons her newborn daughter under a pear tree outside her uncle’s estate on Cape Ann. A decade later, Beatrice finds herself unexpectedly reunited with the Irish woman raising the determined and spunky Lucy Pear. full review.

modern girls

Modern Girls by Jennifer Brown [NAL]
–The novel focuses on a strong mother-daughter relationship. Brown incorporates historical details which strengthen the plot, setting and characters. For instance in a meeting Rose attends, she urges her comrades to write letters to their Senators to repeal 1924’s Johnson-Reed Act which instituted quotas on the number of Jews that could enter America. While Rose and Dottie don’t share every detail with each other they’ve developed a solid bond and care deeply about each others well-being. Mother and daughter respect and support each other. Despite the decade, the restrictions against women and standard domestic expectations, these women remain strong feminist characters. A sequel set 10 or 15 years on would be greatly welcomed. These characters must be followed up on. Clear your schedule and brew a pot of tea. Once you start this wonderful, detailed novel you’ll want to read straight through. full review.

the other woman

The Other Woman by Therese Bohman [Other Press]
This novel bursts with intellectual prowess. It’s witty, provocative and thoughtful about money, class, what it is to have less and desire more, to be educated and smart but not particularly suited to anything. Swedish author Therese Bohman examines societal expectations of what makes a complete life: a good job; a happy coupling; a nice place. All the things by which we define ourselves but realize the innate superficiality of it all. If we focus on the having and not the feeling and the experiencing then we lack integrity, depth and strength of character. full review.

pull-me

Pull Me Under by Kelly Luce [Farrar, Straus and Giroux]
Pull Me Under is an exquisitely dark psychological thriller which examines identity and place through its compelling protagonist and story. read my complete review.

rare objects

Rare Objects by Kathleen Tessaro [Harper]
–lovely historical fiction set in Boston. Author Kathleen Tessaro adeptly describes both the immigrant North End and wealthy mansions with vivid detail. Superb writing and research merge to tell this wonderful story. a page-turner about class, friendship and the things and people we value most. full review.

sun in your eyes

The Sun in Your Eyes by Deborah Shapiro [William Morrow]
–There’s that saying that you can’t tell a book by its cover. Book covers visually connect a potential reader to the book. The cover image makes you wonder what the book will be about. A beautiful, cool book cover sets expectations. On the cover of The Sun in Your Eyes is a photo of two women with a definite 70s rocker chic. What’s going on between these two women? It’s a 1974 photograph by William Eggleston and drew me right in. I’d also just seen the photo in the documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me which features this photo. The blonde was Alex Chilton’s girlfriend. full review.

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The Vegetarian by Kang Han [Hogarth]
–I’ve been a vegan for about eight years and am not too thin. Due to psychiatric meds I need to lose weight. I stopped eating red meat at 12!/everything but fish at 18 then went vegetarian to vegan. So the being deprived and malnourished because she’s not eating meat is bothering me a tad. Otherwise, the writing is great. It’s dark and suspenseful. Entirely original and engrossing.

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We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge [Algonquin]
–a thoughtful and provocative novel which effectively and creatively winds together numerous subjects from coming-of-age, first love, adolescence, sisterhood, race, anthropology, history and family dynamics. In 1990, a family relocates from Dorchester, Massachusetts to the Berkshires to teach sign language to a chimpanzee at the Toneybee Institute for Great Ape Research. full review.

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best books of 2016 so far

Best Books of 2016 so far. I read a lot of historical fiction and memoir so not surprisingly that’s mostly what makes my list. These are listed more or less in the order read.

the other woman

The Other Woman by Therese Bohman [Other Press]

–from my review: This novel bursts with intellectual prowess. It’s witty, provocative and thoughtful about money, class, what it is to have less and desire more, to be educated and smart but not particularly suited to anything. Swedish author Therese Bohman examines societal expectations of what makes a complete life: a good job; a happy coupling; a nice place. All the things by which we define ourselves but realize the innate superficiality of it all.

alligator candy

Alligator Candy: a memoir by David Kushner [Simon & Schuster]

Through compelling prose and devastating emotion this memoir potently addresses murder and its effect on the family. review.

rare objects

Rare Objects by Kathleen Tessaro [Harper]

–Author Kathleen Tessaro adeptly describes both the immigrant North End and wealthy mansions with vivid detail. Superb writing and research merge to tell this wonderful story. Rare Objects is a page-turner about class, friendship and the things and people we value most. full review.

lazaretto

Lazaretto by Diane McKinney-Whetstone [Harper]

–Set in post-Civil War Philadelphia, this historical novel beautifully explores race, class, gender and family. complete review.

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The Vegetarian by Kang Han [Hogarth]

The Man Booker International Prize 2016 Winner It’s dark and suspenseful. Entirely original and engrossing. I’ve been a vegan for nearly 10 years and am not too thin.  I stopped eating red meat at 12 and everything but fish at 18. So the being deprived and malnourished because she’s not eating meat is bothering me a tad.

modern girls

Modern Girls by Jennifer Brown

Clear your schedule and make a big pitcher of iced tea. Once you start this wonderful, detailed novel you’ll want to read straight through. review.

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We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge

We Love You, Charlie Freeman stands out as a thoughtful and provocative novel which effectively and creatively winds together numerous subjects from coming-of-age, first love, adolescence, sisterhood, race, anthropology, history and family dynamics. complete review.

heat and light

Heat & Light by Jennifer Haigh [Ecco]

At turns fascinating, sad, infuriating, provocative and authentic, Heat & Light pulls in the reader from the jump. This well-researched, impressive novel exposes many angles of fracking. In order to capture this present day dilemma, Haigh effectively dips into the past with the Three Mile Island disaster as well as coaling. The novel generously addresses an important hot-button topic with sharp prose and a stellar cast of characters as well as an intriguing story-line. complete review.

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An Abbreviated Life: a memoir by Ariel Leve [Harper]

–stunning memoir about an adult daughter coming to terms with her childhood and relationship [or lack of] with her mother..

sun in your eyes

The Sun in Your Eyes by Deborah Shapiro [William Morrow]

–from my review: Shapiro delves into the women’s college friendship and its connection to the present. She offers insight, detail and vivid descriptions that allow the reader to understand each woman, their bond and reliance upon one another. Women’s bonds often become broken due to relationships with men (or marriage and families). To this many women (and likely men) will relate. Vivian’s relationship and later marriage to Andy created a rift between the friends. The road trip allows the women to examine their friendship and determine whether or not they should rekindle their friendship, however tumultuous it may have been at times. Jealousy and differing goals certainly pushed and pulled at its core.

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book review: Alligator Candy

alligator candy

Alligator Candy: A Memoir by David Kushner. Simon & Schuster| March 15, 2016| 256 pages | $26.00| ISBN: 9781451682533

RATING: *****/5*

Two people I was once close to vanished into the marshy expanses and dark creature-infested waters of Florida. My deadbeat daddy  more or less disappeared after divorcing my mom when I was in elementary school in the mid-70s. Then my childhood friend was abducted on a walk while attending University of Florida at Gainesville in the late 80s. Case semi-solved but not definitively. Her body has never been found. Florida is the type of state where falling off the map isn’t that surprising. I’m not particularly a fan of the state. My intent isn’t to malign an entire state but it’s beyond argument that weird things go down in Florida.

“It was the early seventies. The Age of Aquarius had given way to the “Free to Be You and Me” generation. We were unbuckled and unrestrained, free from seat belts or helmets or meticulously organized playdates.”

David Kushner’s older brother Jon disappeared one day on a bike ride to get candy and two men savagely murdered him, sodomized him postmortem and mutilated his body. It’s a horrific event to happen in one’s family. Only four at the time, Kushner didn’t quite understand the full impact. He missed his brother but didn’t know the complete details. Now a journalist, he decided to revisit the case and provide a voice for and memory of his brother. Through compelling prose and devastating emotion this memoir potently addresses murder and its effect on the family.

For nearly 40 years, questions swirled in Kushner’s mind. When people ask Kushner how many siblings he has does he say one or two but one died? How does he assuage the guilt he feels that his brother was buying him candy that day? How many should’ve, could’ve, if onlys are there to answer for the Kushner family?

Both parents are quite remarkable. Gilbert Kushner is an anthropology professor and Lorraine Kushner taught Lamaze before it was hip and cool and everyone embraced the practice. Both remained politically and socially active. They moved to Tampa so Gilbert could take a professor position at University of South Florida. Of Tampa, Kushner notes: “But it didn’t take long after they arrived in Tampa to realize this wasn’t a city of liberal New Yorkers.” Au contraire. Quite a strange and conservative place.

After Jon’s death, they embraced the Kubler-Ross Death and Dying movement. Kushner writes: “But for my mother, the death and dying movement seemed like a natural extension of the social action she and my father had taken part in over their lives. The denial of death had created a kind of mass oppression, a culture of silence that left mourners feeling alienated and ill-equipped.”

In revisiting his brother’s case, Kushner reads through old newspapers and interviews detectives, school teachers and childhood friends. He talks with his brother Andy and details the experience when they both had to address a parole board for one of Jon’s murderers. He discusses as much as possible with his mother and reads through a journal she kept after Jon’s murder.

Everything’s changed since the 1970s and even 1980s. After Jon’s murder, there were tons of child abductions and Murders in the 70s and 80s -i Adam Walsh, which led to John Walsh hosting America’s Most Wanted and led to the establishment of the Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Now a parent, Kushner looks upon his brother’s death with a different perspective.

The passage of time, changes within our society to protect children from predators and Kushner’s personal and professional experiences ameliorates his ability to analyze, process and endure the details he couldn’t understand as a child. Divulging details about his family and Jon’s short life and brutal murder, Kushner composed an astonishing mediation on life, loss and family.

David Kushner is a Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University. He’s a contributing editor of Rolling Stone [if only I could write for that publication; every music journalist’s dream]. His other books include Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture and How a Gang of Geeks Beat the Odds and Stormed Las Vegas.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Simon & Schuster.

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Alligator Candy: A Memoir

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book review: Living Like a Runaway

lita ford. living like a runaway

Living Like a Runaway by Lita Ford. Dey Street Books| February 23, 2016| pages | $26.99| ISBN: 9780062270641

RATING: 3.5/5*

“The power and the grit that come out of heavy metal music and the way it makes people feel and act attracted me, and ever since I can remember I’ve been drawn to it.”

An easy conversational read that grips with its sincerity as well as with the sex and drugs and rock and roll, Lita Ford’s memoir Living Like a Runaway revolves around content and tone. Edgy. Confrontational. Honest. Lots of swearing. Lots of run-on sentences. The writing falters at times. Most won’t be reading it for its scholastic merits. 80s heavy metal icon Lita Ford dishes about The Runaways, her solo career, being a woman in rock and roll, her romantic hookups—with Eddie Van Halen, Nikki Sixx, Dee Dee Ramone, Toni Iommi of Black Sabbath and others– and more. The chapters on The Runaways run flat and lack energy. The passion-fueled intense guitarist fails to draw those emotions and details to the page.

Not so heavy on the drugs. Lita dabbled but never got wrapped up in the excess as much as others in the 70s and 80s. Maybe it’s the close relationship she maintained with her parents. Although Ford joined The Runaways at age sixteen and lived on her own to pursue her musical career, she remained close to her Italian mother and British father. She wrote the song “Lisa” about her mom. Seems the music bug hit after Lita attended her first concert– Black Sabbath—at age 13. Lita’s mom bought her an acoustic guitar and Lita gave up on lessons after two weeks and started teaching herself to play songs by listening to the radio. Her parents met in an Italian hospital during WWII. They supported everything she did and even hosted parties for her musician friends.

In 1975, Lita Ford became part of the world’s first major all-female rock group The Runaways along with Joan Jett and Cherie Currie [I read her memoir about The Runaways—Neon Angel–years ago]. It was a band put together like many boy bands, based on looks and perhaps talent ensures and maybe not. Lita describes The Runaways as “an all-girl jail-bait rock band.” The music part went well. Lita loved playing and touring. The business aspects weren’t that great with the teens touring the world with questionable management. Touring is messy. Managers and others aren’t completely honest with and take advantage of youth. It was a whirlwind for the teens who ended up developing their musical talents and styles along the way. Lita writes: “Inside the music scene, though, people recognized our ability, and we were hanging out with the big dogs: Queen, Kiss, Alice Cooper, Deep Purple, Rush, Led Zeppelin. We were interesting, original, musically talented bad girls, and everyone wanted to meet us.”

Too young during the Runaways heyday, I remember Lita Ford in the MTV 80s when she had such hits as “Kiss Me Deadly”—long blonde hair, full-on black leather and wicked guitar riffs– and well as her duet with Ozzy Osbourne, “Close My Eyes Forever.” I admired this strong, beautiful California-blonde playing guitar to rival the best. However I’ve always steered toward alternative music. During the 80s I mostly listened to The Cure, Depeche Mode and of course pop like Madonna and Duran Duran. Although it was impossible to escape hair metal bands in the 80s and I did see Poison, Def Leppard and Whitesnake the summer after my senior year of high school.

Lita broke out as a solo artist with the debut of Out for Blood in 1983. Lita writes: “I was a bona fide rocker by the time the Runaways broke up, which means not only had I grown into my own musical style, but also that they all really don’t care about you. They want to use you. They want your money and they want your fame. And then they spit you out when they’re done with you.” So there’s that. Lita chronicles her albums, her hits and tours as a solo artist. Her band consists of guys and her writing partners were always men as well. Interesting but not sure how much to read into it. That I’d like to discuss with Lita Ford. I’ve found that many solo female artists have bands full of men. After the Runaways maybe she needed to move away from working so closely with women. Or it’s just the nature of the music industry—it’s male-dominated. Sharon Osbourne managed Lita. It’s a rocky relationship that Lita suggest didn’t work because Sharon assumed Lita and Ozzy were physically involved. Lita insists that she and Ozzy never hooked up and Sharon had nothing to be concerned about. She writes: “As much as I truly loved Sharon, I couldn’t help but feel she was undermining my hard work. I continued to wonder if she thought I had fucked Ozzy. Maybe that was why she was doing this. Let me tell you, he was fucking everything that moved, so to speak—except me.” [Don’t plan on being invited on The Talk.]

“Another fucking battle for me in the industry.”

Being a woman in rock, Lita dealt with sexism all the time. On tour with Poison, she describes how the band’s crew would select women from the audience and bring them backstage for the band to choose from. She writes: “The women probably thought they were going to a party, but they were just pieces of meat for the band and crew that one night. It was a game to them. It was degrading to women in general, and it was upsetting to me to see other women being treated like fucking cattle.” After she collaborated on the song “Hungry” with Michael Dan, its overtly sexualized message wasn’t well-received. Lita notes: “At the time, a song like “Hungry”—sung by a female—wasn’t something that would get played on the radio. As a result, it was banned from radio and the video turned out to be a disaster.” She adds that MTV would not air the video but did play 2 Live Crew’s “Me So Horny.” Double standards abound.

In the early 90s, Lita struggled as many 80s rockers did. In 1993, Michael Jackson’s team called her to replace the guitarist on the Dangerous tour. However she surprisingly didn’t get the part despite her talent. Michael’s longtime guitar player Dave Williams told her: “[sic] Michael didn’t want me in the band because I had too much credibility and had my own name in the industry.” She grew more disillusioned with the industry and decided to leave the scene in 1994. She and her husband moved to Oregon, then Florida then to Turks and Caicos. She writes: “I stopped listening to music completely. I didn’t feel in control of my life. I was growing resentful of my marriage, because it had taken me away from the people and things I had known all my life and loved the most.”

Living the island life, Lita grew further isolated and miserable—“We were living like the fucking Amish. I loved being with my boys, but I felt trapped living in that house and being on that island.” Her husband wanted this solitude and separateness but Lita didn’t like the woman she became after home-schooling her boys and being cut off from the music scene for more than a decade. The increasing sequestration led to soul-searching and a final breakdown. Lita moved out, filed for divorce and returned to California to get back into music. In divorcing her husband she lost custody of her sons. One thing is clear: Lita’s a tough and resilient woman.

–review by Amy Steele

 FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Dey Street Books.

purchase at Amazon: Living Like a Runaway: A Memoir

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book review: Drawing Blood

drawing blood

Drawing Blood by Molly Crabapple. Harper| December 2015| 352 pages | $29.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-232364-4

RATING: *****/5*

“I wanted to meld my two communities: professionally-gazed-at girls like Stoya, and professionally-listened-to journalists like Laurie [Penny] and Tash [Natasha Lennard]. The world tells women they must choose between intellect and glamour, but I saw no such distinction.”

What a difficult review for me to write. It’s such a beautiful book. Gorgeous drawings. An intriguing, meaningful progression. I’d like to say just read it already.

Feminist and activist Molly Crabapple details her journey from burlesque dancer to artist who sketches conflicts and society’s woes with fervent energy in this compelling memoir. Born in New York, Molly has lived there her entire life. She now travels extensively to worn-torn and hot-zone countries in order to document the travesties so the rest of the world can see and feel what she witnessed through her writing and drawings. She’s an artist and a journalist these days but it wasn’t a simple road.

“Artists are the fanciest of the fancy. We’re presumed to exist in a rarified space requiring silence and deep thought. Because of this, the world often ignores the physical reality of what we do in favor of the ideas that animate it. The work of artists often involves skilled and demanding manual labor. Yet we’re often treated more like sophisticated pets than like true workers.”

Molly stripped and worked as a burlesque dancer. She searched Craigslist for illustrator gigs. Working as an artist and performer allowed Molly an entrée into a world she’d never envisioned she’d be in. She schmoozed and mingled with the wealthy and the corrupt. She delves deep into the underground art community filled with weirdos and creatives, the working poor. It’s all sex, drugs and art. She first works art for desire then for money and then for a purpose. She writes: “Once I was out in the world, the art that so horrified my teachers would become my way of gaining the attention of politicians, criminals, nightclub barons, and porn stars. It slipped me past doors marked “No Admittance,” past velvet ropes to rooms where dancers glittered, their lips the purest red.”

Before college, Molly heads to Paris and lives at Shakespeare and Company for a time. “Dirt coated every surface at Shakespeare and Company. It was brown, fragrant, a mixture of mold, cooking oil, and the dust of decaying books. Sometimes if I slept on a top bunk, cockroaches feel on my face. In the upstairs kitchen, the mold-furred refrigerator was stuffed with rotten soup. For Sunday tea parties, George baked pancakes with rancid flour. Ants drowned in the tea. Yet all that decay only made the store more lovely; the place had all the dark romance of Miss Havisham’s wedding dress.” One book Molly read –Explosive Acts: Toulouse-Lautrec, Oscar Wilde, Felix Feneon, and the Art of Anarchy of the Fin de Siecle– greatly influenced her future. “Though I was the daughter of an artist and a Marxist, I’d always feared that politics had to be grim and art had to be frivolous. The book showed me another way. Art and action could infuse each other.”

I’ve always appreciated art but never have been a part of the art world. Music sure. I do have a wonderful artist friend Cynthia von Buhler [also a musician/ former band manager etc.] who threw the best parties and dubbed her house filled with antiques and thrift store finds and mirrors and velvet “Castle von Buhler.” Turns out that Cynthia hired Molly for one of her first gigs. Molly writes: “the artist Cynthia von Buhler hired me to pose as a human statue at a loft party. I painted myself white like Venus, with my breasts out and my hips draped in a white sheet. After a night drinking absinthe with Manhattan’s moneyed bohemia, I took home two hundred and fifty dollars in tips, and swore off honest employment forever.” [note: Cynthia told me at the time of this party she herself was broke. As I said she’s super creative and knows how to inventively throw a party. She and Molly remain friends. I’m sure because they’re both scrappy and driven by art.]

“Despite our ambitions, we had almost no entrée to the New York art scene. There, art was a hobby for trust-fund kids. The road to getting a gallery started with an MFA from a prestigious school—preferably Yale—which would cost you around fifty thousand dollars. Tack on a staggering sum for studio space. In New York, money was the silent grist for the creation of art.”

After leaving college, Molly continues to scrape away painting murals in nightclubs and posing nude. She also begins to evaluate what’s important to her. Burnt out at 22, she starts a “live-drawing workshop where models would be muses” called Dr. Sketchy. It became extremely popular and now runs in other states and countries [not by Molly but by others using the same format.] She spent time at Occupy Wallstreet, sketching people and talking to people and hanging out. From there she starts writing for various publications and finds herself at Syrian refugee camps and Gitmo. Finally art and politics merge for Molly Crabapple.

You can be a feminist and pose nude, work as a stripper or escort, or do burlesque. It’s about maintaining control over your body and your image. Molly comprehends this better than many. She worked for the well-known web site Suicide Girls until it imploded. She explains: “When I thought of every proposition or threat that I got just walking down the street in my girl body, I decided I might as well get paid for the trouble.” It’s standing strong, owning one’s sexually and using it as one wants. That’s all about feminism as much as women’s reproductive issues and fair pay. After an abortion Molly writes: “Lying in bed, I promised myself two things: I would do my best to help anyone as powerless as I was at that moment. And I would never be that powerless again.”

The memoir maintains a perfect tone. Molly assumes nothing. She’s not arrogant or condescending but genuine and earnest. She describes events just enough to remind us of what happened and provides us with insight from her perspective. Just what a memoirist should do. These pages burst with stunning moments, pure honesty, inspiration, scrappiness, art and politics. Just read it already! It’s truly perfect and riveting.

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Harper Collins.

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book review: The Art of Memoir

art of memoir

The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr. Harper.| September 2015| 256 pages | $24.99| ISBN: 9780062223067

RATING: ****/5*

If you ever wondered what it would be like to take a class on memoir writing or a class with Mary Karr, this book is for you. It’s based upon a class syllabus. I’ll admit I’ve yet to read LIT for some reason though I own a copy. I did immensely enjoy Cherry and The Liar’s Club. I also went to hear Karr speak and she’s wonderful. I imagine her being a thorough and thoughtful teacher.

The Art of Memoir reminds me of The Republic of Imagination by Azar Nafisi, who writes about three novels as they relate to America and the immigrant (and her immigrant experience)—Huckleberry Finn by Tom Sawyer, Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. The last is a favorite novel of mine. I’ve read Huckleberry Finn and have yet to read Babbitt. Karr discusses many memoirs which she teaches in class, some I’ve read, some I haven’t and many I’ve added to my to-be-read list. Karr provides an impressive required reading at the end. Some of Karr’s favorite memoirs include: Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov [“Part of his singular skill—manifested in his voice—is translating philosophical ideas into physical or carnal metaphors; in this way he is not until Babel and Batuman. He’ll somehow smoosh ideas into unforgettable images.”] and Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston [“The two prongs of her massive talent mirror the two sides of the story’s conflict—her truth-hungry, feminist, Americanized self does battle with her mother’s repressive notions of Chinese ladylikeness and humility.”

She explains what makes each memoir special, what makes each stand-out and what makes each writer successful in writing memoir. It’s not a how-to-write book. Karr makes that quite clear. She writes: “No one elected me the boss of memoir. I speak for no one but myself. Every writer worth her salt is sui generic.” It’s a survey course in memoir writing. Here’s how Karr beautifully describes the heart of memoir, one’s memory: “Memory is a pinball in a machine—it messily ricochets around between image, idea, fragments of sense, stories you’ve heard. Then the machine goes tilt and snaps off. But most of the time, we keep memories packed away. I sometimes liken that moment of sudden unpacking to circus clowns pouring out of a miniature car trunk—how did so much fit into such a small space?” Karr includes an important chapter on why NOT to write a memoir—revenge, writing about those you vehemently despise and writing that will negatively affect a group of people.

In explaining the importance of voice, Karr states: “Voice isn’t just a manner of talking. It’s an operative mindset and way of perceiving that naturally stems from feeling oneself alive inside the past. That’s why self-awareness is so key. The writer who’s lived a fairly unexamined life– someone who has a hard time reconsidering a conflict from another point of view– may not excel at fashioning a voice because her defensiveness stands between her and what she has to say.” The point is: “Great memoirs sound like distinct persons and also cover a broad range of feelings,” Karr writes. Anyone who enjoys reading memoir can generally distinguish the good from the bad and it’s often based on voice. If you can get into a memoir whether it’s about drug dealing or being in prison or a hiking trip or mental illness or adopting a cat, there’s usually a distinguishing voice and emotions throughout, you’re going to keep reading. If it’s flat you’re likely to put it aside.

Karr stresses: “The best voices include a writer’s insides. Watching her mind feel around to concoct or figure out events, you never lose sight of the ego’s shape, its blind spots, dislikes, wants.” Some of the elements Karr writes about include choosing details to include, knowing how to edit, lying/ stretching the truth, finding your talent, dealing with loved ones both on and off the page and structure. This book includes tips for writers at every level. It’s much more academic than I expected. Although knowing it’s based on her Syracuse University class syllabus makes sense. However I’m ill-prepared because I have yet to read many works discussed. You might want to check the recommended reading list, read a few memoirs then read Karr’s The Art of the Memoir.

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Harper Collins.

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book review: How to Be a Man

how to be a man

How to Be a Man By Duff McKagan.
Da Capo Press| May 2015|304 pages |$25.99| ISBN: 978-0-306-82387-9

Rating: ***/5*

–review by Amy Steele

Easy read that I often found tiresome. I get it. You’re a wealthy rock-star with a model wife and enviable life. I never really liked rock bands in the 80s. Sure I liked some of Guns and Roses hits but I wasn’t all into them. I’m an altgirl. Always was. Always will be. I am not the target audience for this book. I’m a single GenX music critic who likes alternative music. Duff McKagan expresses his disdain for music journalists quite a few times. Don’t expect a tell-all filled with rock and roll debauchery. Duff McKagan is now 50, sober and married with two teenage daughters. McKagan writes: “I don’t remember the 80s. I remember being in a band. I remember my family. I remember the friends I lost to addiction. I am fully aware that I am lucky to have emerged.” Now McKagan writes columns for Seattle Weekly, ESPN.com and Playboy.com.

This is the calm family-man rocker advice book. He works out and does yoga. He prefers perusing books stores to heading to a strip club. He likes to take in the culture of a city he’s touring if he’s allowed the time. He uses a Blackberry because he believes in loyalty and probably didn’t want to learn how to use an iPhone because people on iPhones do as much business on their phones as those on Blackberries. It’s true. He provides advice based on his decades of traveling whether in a van and staying in motels or in a streamline tour bus and staying at high-end hotels– don’t roam on your data plan; use conditioner for shaving; be kind.

In a chapter entitled “Don’t Burn Any Bridges,” he writes: “Lazy journalists love to put tags on things to sum up a whole genre or moment with a one- or two-word phrase that will make their job easier. IF the tag can take a little backhanded swipe at a band—even better. We’ve seen this a million times: “stoner rock,” “grunge,” “indie,” “hair metal.” Okay McKagan but when you refer to Death Cab for Cutie’s Benjamin Gibbard you call him “one of Seattle’s illustrious and beloved indie-rock front men” Okay. There goes your great advice/theory. In that chapter he was discussing with Gibbard the Bon Jovi song “Wanted Dead or Alive” with the lyric: “I’ve seen a million faces, and I’ve rocked them all.” McKagan doesn’t think you possibly can “rock” or entertain EVERYONE you play for. Gibbard agrees.

He tells you the 100+ albums you need to hear—including Adam and the Ants, Kings of the Wild Frontier; Aerosmith, Aerosmith (only time I saw GNR was opening for Aerosmith in 1987); Alice in Chains, Dirt; The Beastie Boys, Paul’s Boutique; The Clash, The Clash; Death Cab for Cutie, Something About Airplanes; P.J Harvey, To Bring You My Love; Jimi Hendrix, Axis: Bold as Love; Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, I Love Rock and Roll; Joy Division, Closer; Jack White, Blunderbuss; The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Fever to Tell. He also recommends some favorite books including A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan [fantastic read]; Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson; The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald; Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand; Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro [a favorite of mine]; War by Sebastian Unger and Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer.

McKagan opens up about depression and how he deals with the dark moments. He exercises it out. He pushes it away. “Depression wants you to stay still. It wants you to lie in bed. That’s when you have to get up and run. If I am having black thoughts, I force myself up, and then I go and break a personal best record—or at least try. This has been my secret and savior. I run through it. I hot yoga with weights through it. I jump rope through it and life weights through it. I write when I don’t want to and ask my kids how school was and actually listen back through it. I make love through it and climb steep hills with a pack on my back through it.”

This book isn’t for everyone but many will find something in it that appeals to them.

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Da Capo Press.

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purchase at Amazon: How to Be a Man: (and other illusions)

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