Posts Tagged review by Amy Steele
Disgraced by Gwen Florio. Midnight Ink | March 2016| 288 pages| ISBN: 9780738747668
Disgraced is the third Lola Wicks mystery [Montana, Dakota] by Gwen Florio. This time around, Lola’s off on a road trip to Yellowstone with her five-year-old daughter Maggie and stumbles upon quite the interesting story. Her co-worker and friend Jan asked her to drive her friend Pal home from the airport. Pal just returned from Afghanistan. At the airport, she witnesses a soldier’s suicide. No one wants to talk about it. What could possibly be the reason? Pal remains sullen, reserved and takes to heavy drinking. She just won’t discuss anything. While she just returned from war she’s still remarkably closed off. This young woman holds many secrets that will slowly be revealed.
Using her investigative journalism skills she digs into this immediately. It involves a group of friends from a local Native American reservation who just returned home from Afghanistan. Until she moved to Montana, Lola worked as a foreign correspondent. She’s familiar with Afghanistan. There’s not much about the suicide in the local paper although Lola notices some connected stories—another soldier killed while on duty. She notes to herself that in most places this many casualties and ruined lives would spark further questioning—“But this was the rural West, with its staunch and unquestioning patriotism.” Author Gwen Florio always excels with establishing sense of place. She writes: “In fact, she thought, throw in a few flat-roofed mud houses, some flocks of shaggy, fat-bottomed Arabi sheep, and bearded men in pajama-like shalwar qamiz toting AK-47s, and Wyoming would look just like Afghanistan—a fact not inclined to endear the state to her.” You can almost feel the sand in your teeth.
Florio writes from own experience as an international war correspondent and someone who relocated from an Eastern city to a less-inhabited state in the West. She knows the journalism business so when Lola pitches this story to an online publication, Florio writes: “She’d have blown her first and almost certainly her last chance to write for one of the few organizations that paid freelancers real money for serious pieces.” Ah, journalism. Such a fickle but necessary professional field. No one goes into it for the money. It’s about truth, providing information and highlighting the fascinating aspects of our culture.
“The war in Afghanistan wasn’t noted for big body counts. But other things were just as insidious. The constant twanging threat that each new footstep could be the one that tripped a mine, that each madly beeping Toyota pickup could be the one that bore a bomb, that each new face could be that of a potential friend—or killer. And the faces themselves, gaunt with hunger and desperation and resentment.”
Although Disgraced deals with serious subject matter, I chuckled at Lola in her new role as mother—“she never though of herself as anyone’s caretaker.” It was something I wasn’t sure I wanted to happen when I read the two earlier books. I appreciated Lola’s single-woman/ independent status. But the bribing her daughter and inability to answer certain questions and having this smarty pants five-year-old along for the ride provides needed levity. And Lola does as Lola wants, child or not. Lola Wicks is my favorite fictional feminist journalist. She remains unmarried to Charlie, her boyfriend and Maggie’s father. She’s brave, outspoken and extremely independent. That’s why this potential story involving soldiers returning from Afghanistan appeals to Lola.
I will always read this series. One day I will visit Gwen Florio and we will ride horses amid the beautiful landscape. Read my interview with Gwen here.
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Midnight Ink.
purchase at Amazon: Disgraced (A Lola Wicks Mystery)
purchase at Amazon: Montana
purchase at Amazon: Dakota
Alligator Candy: A Memoir by David Kushner. Simon & Schuster| March 15, 2016| 256 pages | $26.00| ISBN: 9781451682533
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.
The Other Woman by Therese Bohman. Other Press| February 2016| 201 pages | $15.95| ISBN: 978-1-59051-742-7
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.
A young woman works at the bottom of a hospital hierarchy as a kitchen aide. Of interacting with her co-workers, she comments: “To them I am someone who has been to college, unlike them, and that creates a distance.” She meets and begins an affair with an older married doctor named Carl Malmberg. While there’s passion and connection, she knows that he thinks her beneath him and will always feel that way. While this independent woman remains resolute in her thoughts and convictions, the relationship causes her to doubt herself and her future goals.
“Perhaps I ought to become a teacher or a librarian, surely not everyone who follows those career paths can feel passionate about them, they have simply chosen a route and followed it through, that is how people live: they make a choice and stick to it, whether it is a matter of education and training or a job or a partner. I have never been able to do that. I always think that I have an uncompromising attitude to life in that respect, an attitude that makes things difficult to me, but which I cannot talk myself out of. I have the same attitude about everything: people, clothes, literature.”
In embracing and exploring her femininity, this young woman questions feminism. Understandable that many young women think that to be a feminist one cannot also be feminine. She seems at odds with her peers in their revolt of certain “feminine” things. By such conscious questioning she’s defining her own version of feminism as every woman should do. It’s a myth that’s been carried throughout the years. She notes: “Femininity was an intricate network of rules with a minimal amount of leeway, where everything was unspoken in the bargain.” Then she says this: “I am a failure as a feminist woman. I am a failure as a perfectly ordinary woman as well, I am too clever—I said that to Emelie once when I was drunk, she got angry with me, really angry, she looked at me as if I was a traitor.” She may think this but in living as she’s living and in desiring equality and certain standing she’s without doubt a feminist. When a woman questions herself and her feminism, she’s inherently a feminist.
She makes an intriguing new friend named Alex. She confides in her about the affair. She remarks: “Talking to her about it feels sexy too, I like Alex’s smile because it is hungry and inviting, not in terms of eroticism perhaps but in terms of life, or adventure . . .” In both the affair and this friendship she’s discovering herself and blooming. Perhaps re-thinking her present situation and contemplating a writer’s lifestyle.
This is the best novel I’ve read so far this year. As someone who has yet to find her path, I completely relate to this character. She’s somewhat stuck at the moment but not accepting and not giving up. Isn’t that why we often read novels? If not to escape, then to find kindred spirits. She notes: “I am an expert when it comes to being alone. I have always been alone, because no one else is like me.” I think to myself: me too. It’s not the standard, predictable novel about an affair. It’s twisty and existential. I dare not give away too many details.
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Other Press.
The Big Rewind by Libby Cudmore. William Morrow| February 2016| 241 pages | $14.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-240353-7
“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.
purchase at Amazon: The Big Rewind: A Novel
The Ex by Alafair Burke. Harper| January 26, 2016| 304 pages | $26.99| ISBN: 9780062390486
High-powered New York defense attorney Olivia Randall gets a call from her ex-fiancé Jack Harris, a successful novelist, after more than 20 years. They dated while she was in law school and were got engaged. An impulsive move for Olivia as marriage wasn’t truly part of her life plan. So she hurt Jack and they’ve never spoken until now. Jack sits in a jail cell accused of murder. Several years ago Jack’s wife died during a mass shooting at Penn Station. Can Olivia help him? As the story unfolds, Olivia isn’t even sure whether Jack is innocent or guilty but he’s her client and she’ll do what she can to make sure he never goes to jail. The Ex is an unexpectedly good thriller. Author Alafair Burke unravels the details of the mass shooting which devastated Jack and his daughter. She slowly reveals the events which caused the split between Jack and Olivia.
“For the first three years, Jack and I were happy. Being with him felt easy and safe, the way I always thought relationships should be but never were. But I should have known that a fear of losing someone was not the best reason to kick off a serious relationship.”
The character of Olivia Randall appealed to me. She’s a 43-year-old, never married attorney with no children and no desire to partake in either societal convention. Burke writes: “At forty-three, I knew by now that my natural expression when I was thinking—intense, brow furrowed, lips pursed—could be intimidating to most people. The Internet called it RBF: Resting Bitch Face. And, no question, I had it.” Olivia’s best friend and confidante runs a bar—an auspicious sounding board for Olivia as she sees all types of people visit her establishment.
It’s a thoughtful thriller which addresses many issues without wearing thin at any point. Burke covers hot button topics such as the criminal justice system, revenge, surveillance, wealth, depression and mass shootings. The reader may doubt Jack’s innocence as much as Olivia which keeps the pages turning.
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Harper Collins.
Drawing Blood by Molly Crabapple. Harper| December 2015| 352 pages | $29.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-232364-4
“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.