Fifty Things That Aren’t My Fault, by Cathy Guisewite****

Guisewite began publishing the comic strip “Cathy” in 1976, the year that I graduated high school. It was a time of high expectations for women, and the unrealistic suggestion that we would be able to “bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never let you forget you’re a man,” as Madison Avenue decreed, was daunting.  Through her sharply perceptive humor, Guisewite let her peers know that it wasn’t just us; we were judging ourselves with an unfair yardstick. She kept it real, and in doing so, kept us sane.

My thanks go to Net Galley and G.P. Putnam for the review copy.

So how does cartooning translate to prose?  Whereas the cute, punchy single-page entries and single sentence proclamations—and the lists—are her most familiar territory, my favorite parts of this memoir are the least cartoonish ones. Yes, I love the way she takes down the women’s fashion industry and the unhealthy way it affects our body images.  She was good at it forty years ago, and she’s good at it now. But the passages that drew me in and let me get lost in her story are the more vulnerable, deeply perceptive parts of the narrative, her fears for her aging parents; the struggle and triumph of raising a daughter, one with special needs, alone; and the failure of her marriage. I am in awe of the fact that she and her ex made each other laugh until the tears came as they planned their divorce. Who does that? And of course, she made me laugh too.

Guisewite stays inside her usual parameters, never veering outside of the middle class Caucasian realm with which she has experience. Younger women won’t get much joy out of this memoir; women that came of age between 1965 and 1985 are right in her sweet spot, and it is to them that I recommend this book. It’s available now.

Finding Dorothy, by Elizabeth Letts*****

“Don’t let anybody steal your marbles.”

Maud Gage Baum is one of a kind. The godchild of Susan B. Anthony, child of first-wave feminist Matilda Joslyn Gage and an indulgent, progressively inclined father, she is unhampered by many of the traditional expectations that shackled women born during the American Civil War. But though her parents encourage her to develop her mind and talents, they have little prepared her for the wider world that greets her, and when she arrives at the women’s dormitory at Cornell University, she is considered peculiar by her classmates. She is a lonely young woman, until her roommate sets her up with Frank, an eccentric, clever man whose whimsy equals her own. My great thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the galley, which I received free in exchange for this honest review. It will be available to the public tomorrow, February 12, just in time to be wrapped in red paper and given to the bookworm you adore.

Maud’s story comes to us from two different time periods, one of which starts in 1871 during her childhood and moves forward in linear fashion, and the other in 1939, when she comes to the set where The Wizard of Oz is being filmed to fulfill her beloved Frank’s dying wish; he has asked her to look after Dorothy.  And though it initially means gaining access to the studio through duplicitous means, Maude befriends the unhappy but massively talented Judy Garland, and advocates for the intention behind her character, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.

I love this book hard. It has an unusual appeal, not a thriller nor a grab-you-by-the-hair page turner, but rather a strangely comforting novel, one that offers us the chance to follow Maud to another time and another place. I read several books at a time, and this one became my bribe to myself, the reward I could look forward to after completing increments of other books that I wouldn’t abandon, yet didn’t love as I did this one.

How many times have I reviewed a book favorably yet with the caveat that it isn’t bedtime reading, and maybe not good for mealtime either? Listen up. This one is good for both. It will make you appreciate your meal as you move through the hungry years of the Depression, and as you read about poor Judy being starved with lettuce and cottage cheese, her penalty for reaching puberty when the studio wanted her to look like a scrawny waif. And at bedtime, even the sorrowful passages are wonderfully hypnotic.

The love story between Maud and Frank is one for the ages, and without Letts, who would have guessed? Midway through the story I felt the need to know how closely the author kept to the truth, and I skipped to the notes at the end. I am delighted to say that this writer did a great deal of research, and she tells the reader specifically where and when she departs from historical fact for the sake of the story.  The way that the character of Dorothy is invented, based on a string of actual events from the Baums’ lives, is riveting, and in fact had the author not told us otherwise, I would have assumed that much of it was made up, because it’s almost too cool to be true.

Letts develops her characters subtly, with never a caricature or stereotype. Though her settings are well drawn, this is a character based book if ever I read one, and it must truly have been a labor of love. I’ve read a dozen books between this one and the present, yet this is the title that makes me smile.

This beautifully crafted story is bound to rank high among the year’s best historical novels. Sweet, soothing, and highly recommended.

My Own Words, by Ruth Bader Ginsburg****

MyOwnWordsThis one is a crushing disappointment. I seldom buy books anymore, but I was so pumped about this collection that I went all out and got a hard copy, expecting to love it enough to keep it in my home library forever. Sadly, this isn’t what I expected.

Obviously, no U.S. Supreme Court justice is going to have enough time to sit down and write his or her memoirs, let alone an octogenarian justice, but I had hoped to find a collection of her meaty and sometimes even audacious opinions, particularly her dissents. Instead, this slender volume is packed with filler. There are two co-authors whose names are written on the cover in miniscule print, and it is they that write sometimes windy introductions to just about everything;  to make matters worse, they don’t tell us anything you cannot find in other biographies written about this feminist luminary.

And what of Ginsburg’s writing? I didn’t buy the book to see the precocious things she wrote as a child, as an adolescent, or in college. I just want to read her court opinions. That’s it. And that’s not what I got.

I can’t give anything that bears Ginsburg’s name a rating below four stars, but seriously, if your discretionary income forces you to buy books strategically, either skip this one or get it used. Surely at some point something more scholarly will be released, and then I’ll wish I still had the dollars that I spent here.

Eloquent Rage, by Brittney Cooper****

EloquentRageCooper has had enough, and who can blame her?

I received my copy of Cooper’s essays free and early, thanks to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press. Her prose is clear, articulate, and full of fire.

Had I read my post-Trayvon civil rights titles in a different sequence, I might very well have called this a five star collection. However, I read Samantha Irby, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Angela Davis, and Matt Taibbi first, and so the bar was set somewhere in the stratosphere when I opened this galley. I wanted Cooper’s viewpoints to be accompanied by some hard facts, complete with citations. However, for those looking to have their world view clarified and their consciousness raised, Cooper’s collection is recommended.

Jane Crow, by Rosalind Rosenberg****

JaneCrowPauli Murray is the person that coined the term “Jane Crow”, and was the first to legally address the twin oppressions of color and gender. I had seen her name mentioned in many places, but this is the first time I’ve read her story. Thank you to Net Galley and Oxford University Press for the opportunity to read it free in exchange for this honest review. This biography is for sale now.

Murray was born in North Carolina and was a labor activist during the turbulent 1930s. She was academically gifted and hardworking, but tormented by the issue of gender. 100 years ago, in the time and place into which fate dropped her, there was no recognition of trans people, and so her sense of herself (the pronoun she used) was that surely there was some unseen physical aspect to her body that must be male. She searched high and low for a surgeon that would perform exploratory surgery to discover whether she had an undescended testicle or some other material explanation to explain why she was convinced that she was actually male. It hurts to think about it. Those born after the early-to-mid-20th century cannot comprehend how the suggestion that gender could be binary was seen, and Murray was a devout Christian as well, and became an ordained Episcopal priest. By the time trans people gained respect from a significant percentage of Americans, Murray was no longer here.

Despite the misery and confusion that was inherent in such a life, Murray was prolific. She was declined a place at the University of North Carolina because of her race, and later denied a place at Harvard Law because of her gender. She graduated at the top of her class at Howard Law, the only woman in her class. Later she would be largely responsible for inclusion of the word “gender” in the title VII in 1964. Those of us that have benefited from that law—and there are a lot of us—tip our hats to her memory in gratitude.

Rosenberg has done a fine job in telling us about Murray. Her documentation is flawless and her narrative clear. At times—particularly in the beginning, before Murray’s career really catches fire—it’s a trifle dry, but I would prefer a clear, scholarly, linear narrative such as this one, over an exciting but sensationalized, less well documented telling any day of the week.

Those interested in the American Civil Rights movement and the history of the women’s rights movement in the USA should get this book and read it. Even if used primarily as a reference tool, it’s an indispensable resource, particularly to those with an interest in legal matters relating to discrimination and equity.

Watching the Detectives, by Julie Mulhern*****

“’There’s been an incident…Mrs. White in the study with a revolver.”

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Mulhern is on a roll. This is the fifth book in the Country Club Murders series, but I plunged in without having seen the first four, and it was still a treat. Thank you, thank you to Net Galley and Henery Press for the DRC, which I snagged free and in advance in exchange for this honest review. It is now available to everyone.

The story is set among the Caucasian upper middle class of the 1970s, and Mulhern renders the period—when this reviewer was a mere, blushing wisp of a girl—so well that I checked twice to see whether it was an older title being re-released.

Ellison Russell is our protagonist, and people keep dying at her domicile. It’s become a nuisance, and there’s a cop that thinks it’s too great a coincidence. Ellison’s in a jam, and her thirteen-year-old daughter Grace isn’t helping. She sulks when they are told they must leave the house for a few days because it’s a crime scene, exclaiming that people have died at their house before and they didn’t have to leave. It’s just not fair!

Ellison is a widow, and a merry one at that; she has a flirtation going with a local cop whose name is Anarchy—a guy who believes in rules– but her main man is Mr. Coffee. He’s always there for her.

I moan when Ellison’s mother is introduced—yet one more overbearing mother, I thought, and authors always blame everything on mothers, just like everyone else does—but then I am surprised by where she takes it. I won’t say more lest I ruin it for you. But I will say this: every overused or overworked plot element is here for a reason, either to take it apart, or to make fun of it. Mulhern considers every word in this dandy novel carefully, and the result is splendid.

As the story unfolds there are other witty tidbits tucked in here and there, such as a character named Margaret Hamilton who is such a witch. But the frippery and snarky humor aren’t the whole package; while the mystery is a romp, serving up the snobbery of the petit bourgeoisie with a sharp skewer, this excellent novel is also a nicely turned feminist manifesto. While the mystery is a fine 4-star beach read, the author’s purpose is a strong one that’s delivered well. It is for this aspect that the fifth star is given.
Highly recommended for strong women and those that love them.

The Standard Grand, by Jay Baron Nicorvo*****

thestandardgrand“A loaded gun wants to go off.”

Critics have compared Nicorvo’s brilliant debut novel to the work of Heller, and indeed, it seems destined to become the go-to story of those that have served in the unwinnable morass created by the US government against the people of the Middle East: “a drawdown war forever flaring up”. It’s created a tremendous amount of buzz already. I was lucky enough to read it free and in advance for the purpose of a review, thanks to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press, but today it’s available to the public. You should buy it and read it, maybe more than once.

The story starts with a list of the characters involved, but the way it’s presented provides a tantalizing taste of the author’s voice. The page heading tells us these are “The Concerns”, and the subheadings divide them into practical categories, such as The Smith Family, the Employees of IRJ, Inc., and The Veterans of The Standard Grande (misspelling is mentioned later in the story). Then we proceed to list The Beasts, and The Dead, and The Rest, and right then I know this is going to be good.

Antebellum Smith is our protagonist, and she’s AWOL, half out of her mind due to PTSD, anxiety, and grief. She’s sleeping in a tree in New York City’s Central Park when Wright finds her there and invites her to join his encampment at The Standard Grand. Here the walking wounded function as best they can in what was once an upscale resort. One of the most immediately noticeable aspects of the story is the way extreme luxury and miserable, wretched poverty slam up against one another. Although the veterans are grateful for The Standard Grand, the fact is that without central heat, with caved in ceilings, rot, and dangerous disrepair, the place resembles a Third World nation much more than it resembles the wealthiest nation on the planet.

On the other hand, it’s also perched, unbeknownst to most of its denizens, on top of a valuable vein of fossil fuel, and the IRJ, Incorporated is sending Evangelina Cavek, their landsman, out in a well-appointed private jet to try to close the deal with Wright. She is ordered off the property, and from there things go straight to hell.

Secondary and side characters are introduced at warp speed, and at first I highlight and number them in my reader, afraid I’ll lose track of who’s who. Although I do refer several times to that wonderful list, which is happily located right at the beginning where there’s no need for a bookmark, I am also amazed at how well each character is made known to me. Nicorvo is talented at rendering characters in tight, snapshot-like sketches that trace for us, with a few phrases and deeds, an immediate picture that is resonant and lasting. Well drawn settings and quirky characters remind me at first of author James Lee Burke; on the other hand, the frequently surreal events, sometimes fall-down-funny, sometimes dark and pulse-pounding, make me think of Michael Chabon and Kurt Vonnegut. But nothing here is derivative. The descriptions of the main setting, The Standard Grand, are meted out with discipline, and it pays off.

As for Smith, she still has nightmares, still wakes up to “the voices of all the boys and girls of the wars—Afghan, Iraqi, American—like a choir lost in a dust storm.”

There’s so much more here, and you’re going to have to go get it for yourself. It’s gritty, profane, and requires a reasonably strong vocabulary level; I’m tempted to say it isn’t for the squeamish, yet I think the squeamish may need it most.

Strongly recommended for those that love excellent fiction.

The Widow of Wall Street, by Randy Susan Myers*****

thewidowofwallI was invited to read and review this title by Net Galley and Atria Books. To be honest, I wasn’t sure I wanted to read it. What, Wall Street? What does that have to do with the real lives most of us lead? But when I noted that the story involves an enormous tumble off that golden pedestal, I was intrigued. I am really glad I accepted the offer to read, because it contains a feminist subtext that I had no idea would be here. This story will be available to the public April 11, 2017.

I had to read the reviews of others to learn that this is a fictionalized version of the Bernie Madoff scandal, but if you approach it as straight fiction it’s just as good. The premise is that Phoebe marries Jake when she is very young, and she’s grateful to him, because she’s in the early stages of pregnancy with a little gift planted in her by a college professor who groomed her, screwed her in the upstairs lounge at school, and then dumped her so he could move on to the next nubile young lady in her class. It’s a time in history when becoming a single mother was an absolute taboo for any Caucasian woman of the middle class. Perhaps you had to be there, but I am telling you it was simply unthinkable. Not only would she have lost friends; her entire family would have lost friends, and maybe relatives also. The social stain was one that did not wash out.

And while we are talking about the time period—starting in 1960—I need to point out that Myers has nailed, with brilliant yet discreetly woven detail, the settings of the time periods between then and now in a way that’s undeniable and that draws me further into the story. Some authors try to use shortcuts in writing historical fiction, and when they do it you can tell they don’t have a grasp of the period: they toss in the names of popular celebrities, clothing styles, and other prominent bits of pop culture that they could glean from a ten-minute web crawl. Myers does the opposite. She focuses on the story and character, character, character, but the time period comes out in the background, as it should, with every aspect from the slang of the period, to its social mores, to every aspect of daily living. This reviewer grew up during the 1960s and 1970s, and as the story progresses, I find myself thinking, “I remember that!” I highlighted a hundred references that won’t fit into this review just out of sheer admiration.

Those that just want a beach read can get this book and use it as such, but for those that want to peel off the layers and look for what’s underneath, the feminist message is one we can relate to today easily. The assumptions that are made about her as a wife, that she is an appendage, and the way her family treats her speak to me. In some ways, I find myself thinking of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”, in which a woman simply becomes part of the home environment; at one point Phoebe notes that her family doesn’t want to hear her talk, and they don’t even really want to share their own stories with her, but she’s like a lamp that should be present when desired for whatever purpose suits the moment.

In the end, when her husband goes to jail for having stolen every penny from his investors, Phoebe has a choice to make. She can stand by her man, trying to eke out a little stash for his prison account so that he can buy candy bars and stamps, or she can live her life without him. To some it might seem to be an obvious decision, but by the time he is jailed, she is past sixty; she has lived her entire adult life with this man, and the mind of a senior citizen is not as flexible as a younger one. The way she works through it is riveting.

Read it as a feminist folk tale or read it as a beach read; one way or the other, this novel is highly recommended. (less)

Hungry Heart, by Jennifer Weiner*****

hungryheart“I wanted to write novels for the girls like me, the ones who never got to see themselves on TV or in the movies, the ones who learned to flip through the fashion spreads of Elle and Vogue because nothing in those pictures would ever fit, the ones who learned to turn away from mirrors and hurry past their reflections and unfocus their eyes when confronted with their own image. I wanted to say to those girls, I see you. You matter. I wanted to give them stories like life rafts…I wanted to tell them what I wished someone had told me…to hang on, and believe in yourself, and fight for your own happy ending.”

Many thanks go to Net Galley and Atria for the DRC, which I received a couple of months after the publication date. Having read this memoir makes me want to read more of this author’s work. It’s for sale now.

The fact that I’ve never read anything by this author makes me something of an outlier in terms of her target audience. I’m also slightly older than she is, not in need of a mentor. But none of that matters, because quality is quality, and feminist messages like this one are always good to read.
Weiner writes with an arresting combination of candor and wit, and she talks about the things we grew up being taught not to mention. Those of us that saw role models like Twiggy—a British model with a nearly anorexic appearance—and Mia Farrow, yet were ourselves unable to shake the persistent amount of what kindly adults called baby fat, never thought to argue that we were as worthwhile as these bony fashion icons. Weiner deals with the topic of body image and media head on. And while she’s there, she talks about facing down anti-Semitism in the classroom, and the dry hiss of another child on the playground suggesting that she has killed Jesus. She talks about also being the chunky, unfashionable member of her kibbutz to Israel in the unforgettable chapter titled “Fat Jennifer in the Promised Land”.

At times I confess I am annoyed by appear to be petit bourgeois concerns. You struggled to choose between Princeton and Smith? Oh you poor dear! But later when I read that she is called in to the administration’s offices and told to get her things and go because her tuition hasn’t been paid, I forgive her immediately.

Weiner takes on questions that many feminist writers pass by. I’ve never seen another writer address the fact that if a woman cannot successfully breast feed her baby or even just doesn’t want to, the child will most likely not starve. This and a host of other seldom spoken issues having to do with combining career and motherhood can help other mothers, whether working or taking time away from the workplace to raise a child, feel less isolated.

Every woman needs a funny female version of Mister Rogers to tell us that we are fine just the way we are. Every mother needs another woman that can tell her—sometimes in hilarious ways—that every rotten thing that ever happens to her child is not her fault.

Highly recommended for women seeking wisdom and snarky kick ass commentary, and to those that love them.

The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden*****

“Blood is one thing. The sight is another. But courage—that is rarest of all, Vasilisa Petrovna.”

 thebearandthenigh

The Bear and the Nightingale is the most brilliant fantasy novel I’ve seen since Tolkien wrote, and I want you to understand how different, how special it is. I received my copy free in exchange for an honest review—and those of you that read my last two reviews know that this privilege has never made me obsequious. Thank you Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the advance copy. It’s worth its weight in spun golden magic, and it will be available to the public this Tuesday, January 10, 2017.

 

“The brave live…The cowards die in the snow.”

 

Our protagonist is Vasilisa, affectionately known as Vasya; she’s an adolescent with many talents, some of which are supernatural. She generally keeps these abilities to herself, lest she be called a witch. Her father, Pyotr, is a minor prince in the frozen Northern hinterlands of Russia during the 14th century.  The setting here is mesmerizing, and from the first page I understood that this particular story is one I would save for late nights when my family is asleep. Let my other reading be interrupted by the minutiae of running a household, but not this one. This is a juicy tale, perfect for a cold winter night burrowed beneath the quilts. I open this magical tale and am lost inside it.

Our setting is ancient Northern Russia, then known as ‘Rus’, since no central government had formed yet. This is a time when women carry about as much social worth as a poker chip or livestock, and yet as the story progresses, I realize that this is a stand-up-tall feminist folk tale of the highest order; in fact, it’s a lot of things. This is the sort of debut that most likely causes writers like Harper Lee to go back in the house and never publish anything else, lest the second novel be considered a let-down after the first.  I hope, however, that we’ll see a lot more of Arden.

Our story commences in the house of Pyotr, a minor prince whose wife has died in childbirth. He loved Marina dearly, but as his daughters grow closer to marriageable age, he knows he must go to Moscow to seek a new bride to run his home, and marry his elder daughter Olga to a man of wealth and power. And though Olga’s match is a good one, it’s in Pyotr’s remarriage that things go badly wrong.

A brief note about the setting and other details involved with time and place. First know that this story does require a relatively high literacy level; for those that struggle with a high vocabulary level, it may prove to be more work than fun. However—for those reading digitally especially—please note that there’s a glossary at the back of the book. And those that are able to read this digitally on a device with a touch screen will be happiest of all, because it’s so easy to touch a word and get a definition immediately. I also ran a few searches due to curiosity, since I was not at all eager for this book to end. I took my time with it, and while I was buried in this magical world, I was nevertheless learning details of history and geography that I hadn’t known before.

Because I taught teenagers how to write for a number of years, it’s my natural inclination, even in an absorbing story such as Arden’s, to go back and look again to see what specifically produced this alchemy.  Undoubtedly, the development of multiple characters in a deft, expert manner is essential. There’s not one character in this story that I don’t believe. Every last one of them is real to me, a feat in and of itself when writing fantasy. It takes confidence and authority to tell the reader that although the story contains all manner of supernatural elements, it’s all true, and so are its characters.

But also, there are real life details true to the time and place that Arden weaves in seamlessly. As I reread some key passages, I note that when the men come indoors from the snowy woods, they aren’t merely cold, dirty and tired; they’re covered in scratches, they’re voracious, and their boots steam and stink up the room once they remove them. In another scene, when Pyotr travels far from home, he can afford fine guest lodging, but although he gets a big, soft, fluffy bed, he also has to put up with vermin, because they were a part of everyone’s life.  Such details contribute to the immediacy of the story.

It’s Arden’s outstanding word smithery that makes this story a standout. When Arden writes, the mists clear and we are transported, quivering in the snowy forest of the 14th century Russia, tearing pell mell across frozen ground on the back of a noble stallion, facing down death as demons scream and shadows dance.

I won’t spoil any of the subsequent plot points for you, but please know that this is a multifaceted story with a lot of secondary threads that contribute to the main story rather than distracting us from it.  To do so in a debut novel is stunning. A particularly interesting side character is Dunya, the nurse that has raised Vasya and has held onto a talisman intended for Vasya at great personal cost.

Messages and possible themes come out of the woodwork once one looks for them. A story such as this one, in which Vasya defends the old pagan deities against the religion of Kostantin, would once upon a time have caused conservative Christian parents to come screaming to the school with their lawyers on their cell phones in one hand and a flaming torch in the other. It could happen still, but what greater honor could Arden ask than to find her way into the ten most frequently banned books?

Meanwhile, in this trying time for independent women, we need strong female characters like Vasya and Dunya to remind girls and women that we are powerful, and that together, we can conquer those that would strip us of our autonomy and march us barefoot back to our kitchens. I have no idea whether any such direct political purpose is intended by Arden, but it certainly serves as a potent message: we will be oppressed only if we let that happen. Those that have even a fraction of Vasya’s independence, confidence and courage can not only prevent the door opportunity from slamming shut;  we can knock that door off its fucking hinges, for ourselves, our daughters, and theirs as well.

 

’All my life,’ she said, ‘ I have been told ‘go’ and ‘come.’ I am told how I will live, and how I must die. I must be a man’s servant and a mare for his pleasure, or I must hide myself behind walls and surrender my flesh to a cold, silent god. I would walk into the jaws of hell itself, if it were a path of my own choosing. I would rather die tomorrow in the forest than live a hundred years of the life appointed me.’”

 

Those looking for themes here have a banquet of opportunities. Though I would say the story is one of solidarity among women, or of woman’s independence, there are so many other possibilities. One could make a case that this story is about loyalty; one could claim it’s about family. One could say it’s about the victory of the collective good over the pride, greed, and ambition of the individual.

One thing I can say for certain is that The Bear and the Nightingale is impressive any way you approach it. It holds the potential to become a favorite of the genre, handed down lovingly from one generation to the next.  Buy it for yourself, for your daughter, your mother, or for any woman that you love, or for someone that loves women and good fiction. A book like this doesn’t come along every day.

Don’t even think of missing this book. You can get it Tuesday, or better still, you can pre-order it now.