Need something to read this winter? We're bringing you all the book reviews from BUST's December/January issue — featuring Margaret Atwood's latest, the true story behind the movie Hidden Figures, and our Lit-Pick, The Crunk Feminist Collective. Enjoy!
By Margaret Atwood
(Penguin Random House/Hogarth)
The fourth installment in the Hogarth Shakespeare project, Hag-Seed is a magical reinterpretation of The Tempest by Margaret Atwood, who successfully combines the preternatural with realism in a work much lighter than her famous Handmaid’s Tale. Felix, the Prospero of this retelling, has spent years in hiding, working pseudonymously as a theater instructor at a local prison after being unfairly ousted from a prominent position as a theater company’s artistic director. His chance to get back at his usurpers finally comes, however, and he uses his students to create a perfect tempest for revenge.
Atwood deftly explores the play’s original themes, such as revenge and the natural versus the unnatural world, and introduces some of her own, including the importance of the arts in at-risk communities and the power of grief. This quick read is an absolute delight, utterly witty and self-aware. Atwood’s inarguable talents as a writer are apparent as she balances cheekiness with complex characters, a strong narrative voice, and impeccable pacing. The overall effect is a heartwarming tale that successfully mirrors the atmosphere of Shakespeare’s final play while simultaneously bringing it up-to-date for the modern age. 4/5 – Ann Mayhew
The Crunk Feminist Collection
Edited by Brittney C. Cooper, Susana M. Morris, and Robin M. Boylorn
(The Feminist Press at CUNY)
The Crunk Feminist Collective (CFC)—a group of nine professors and writers of color who blog together about race, gender, and hip-hop—describes crunk feminism as “our brand of hip-hop (generation) feminism that centers on the high-energy and percussive nature of crunk music, together with a clear commitment to dismantling patriarchy.” In their first book, The Crunk Feminist Collection, editors from the group pull together their crew to bring that energy to an impressive variety of topics. They cover everything from Nicki Minaj’s impact on steryotypes of black female beauty to the limits of self-care; from respectability politics to “ratchet feminism.”
The vastness of a collection like this could be difficult to navigate, but the editors organize the essays into coherent categories to create a common thread even when their authors’ viewpoints disagree. Despite the fact that the editors are also all professors, they eschew verbose academic writing and instead craft concise and accessible arguments. They even include a short glossary to clarify terms coined by the CFC. This is not a collection to read through once and put down. You’ll keep returning to it as you refine your own version of feminism for yourself. It should be required reading for 2017. 5/5 – Rebekah Miel
By Margot Lee Shetterly
In Hidden Figures (now a major motion picture), author Margot Lee Shetterly unearths a little-known group of mathematicians who worked at NASA during the labor shortage of WWII. Dubbed “human computers,” these gifted minds and their considerable contributions to the study of flight went mostly unnoticed because of two factors: they were female, and they were black. Shetterly collects this rich history—which she describes as “fragments patiently biding their time in footnotes and family anecdotes and musty folders before returning to view”—and chronicles the careers of four women: Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden. While striving to make a scientific impact at NASA, they were all challenged by the racial roadblocks of the Jim Crow South, contributing to some of the world’s most famous flight advances and space missions while using segregated restrooms and sitting at the “colored” table in the office cafeteria.
Deeply detailed and extensively researched, Hidden Figures is an impressive work that exposes a slice of buried American history. It was difficult, however, to follow the book’s more meticulous scientific explanations. Slightly less might have equated to a lot more. 3/5 – Helen Matatov
I’m Judging You:
The Do-Better Manual
By Luvvie Ajayi
Author Luvvie Ajayi, best known for her popular blog Awesomely Luvvie, is a writer who can cover any topic with ease. Her first book, I’m Judging You, divides her essays into four sections: “Life,” “Culture,” “Social Media,” and “Fame.” With such broad topics, however, Ajayi would have been better off writing a book dedicated to one of these themes rather than all of them.
The trouble with this book is that Ajayi covers too much material, jumping from funny to serious within the span of a few pages. While it’s fine to talk about light-hearted topics like how to deal with your Facebook friend who shares way too much online, the book becomes difficult to parse when the tone shifts suddenly to heavier topics like the failures of modern-day journalism a chapter later. Ajayi also writes about serious issues with little formal research, much like one does when writing a blog post. In a book, however, readers expect cited references to help bolster the author’s arguments. Ultimately, I’m Judging You reads more like a collection of blog posts, expecting you to add your thoughts in the comments section below. 2/5 – Jacqueline Sheppard
By Alexandra Kleeman
“I looked down at my body as if for the first time.” If this sentence appeared earlier in Alexandra Kleeman’s first short-story collection, it might read as a little too on-the-nose. Instead, it comes in one of the final stories—after that peculiar feeling has already been diffused throughout the book. So when it’s finally delivered, it feels satisfying, like scratching an itch.
Sometimes poetic, sometimes overindulgently abstract, Intimations lives in the realm of almost-familiarity: that of dreams—and nightmares. Kleeman’s prose is always clever, though, and she can pull off Roald Dahl-style, funhouse mirror stuff—as in the unsettling opener, “Fairy Tale,” about someone at a dinner party full of past boyfriends and suitors, who are all suddenly strangers. The narrator’s awe, shame, and eventual resignation make the episode a potent metaphor for feeling trapped. But the stories rooted in reality, like “I May Not Be The One You Want, But I Am The One For You,” about a woman’s weird encounter with a man at a café, resonate most. Kleeman’s singular voice is most finely tuned when she is exposing the disturbing in the commonplace. 4/5 – Maura Hehir
By Caitlin Moran
Author Caitlin Moran has taught us How To Be a Woman and How To Build a Girl, but with her latest collection of essays, she’s eyeing the bigger picture and outlining her personal manifesto. Like her first essay collection, 2012’s Moranthology, Moranifesto draws from her weekly columns in the British newspaper The Times, with a few originals written for the book. Moran covers a lot of ground—Benedict Cumberbatch and David Bowie; the refugee crisis and female genital mutilation; her childhood in Wolverhampton, U.K.; and Elizabeth Taylor’s jewelry collection. All topics are approached with the signature blend of earnestness and irreverent wit that have made Moran a bestselling writer.
But as a “manifesto,” the book lacks continuity. Moran offers plenty of solutions with an optimism that will make any cynic think twice. But with many of the columns written multiple years ago, it reads more like a traditional essay collection than a cohesive narrative. If there is one central takeaway, however, it comes from a stand-out series of lists in the middle of the collection; under “Reasons Why The Future Will Be Better Than The Past” she writes, “It always is.” And that’s hard to argue with. 4/5– Bridey Heing
Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt
By Sarah Jaffe
Necessary Trouble is a thorough work of journalism about people who recognize injustice and come together to try and solve it. Author Sarah Jaffe did plenty of on-the-ground reporting herself, witnessing and recording grassroots organizations that challenge everything from corrupt businesses to discriminatory legislation. To make sense of where these movements came from and where they might go, she dives into the history of unions and capitalism in the U.S. And subsequent chapters cover workers standing up to Walmart and college students and clergy coming together to challenge unfair legislation.
Jaffe takes pains to show how so many movements painted by the media as fundamentally different are actually connected by a shared interest in supporting the voiceless in their battles against the powerful. At times, some passages seem repetitive, but this only drives home the book’s central thesis—that everything from Occupy Wall Street to the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy is connected. And while it’s easy to give up hope in the face of corruption, Jaffe supplies dozens of examples of men and women who are willing to fight to change things. 4/5 – Molly Horan
I’m Supposed To Protect You From All This: A Memoir
By Nadja Spiegelman
It’s really no surprise that Nadja Spiegelman wrote a memoir. Her father is Art Spiegelman, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus. But for her own memoir, Nadja’s father is largely left out. Instead, she focuses on the women in her family throughout four generations. She interviews her mother, Françoise Mouly, the French-born, New York-based art editor of The New Yorker; and Françoise’s mother, the outspoken and captivating Josée. Both tell Nadja about their own relationships with their mothers and daughters, exploring the tension, resentment, confusion, and love between the women in their family. But what makes this memoir so fascinating is that it also explores the limits of memory. With this many narrators, there’s no way to know which version of the past is true—or if the truth even matters. 4/5 – Erika W. Smith
Scream: A Memoir of Glamour and Dysfunction
By Tama Janowitz
(Dey Street Books)
What happens to a bohemian literary “It”-girl after fame fades? Broke and beset by an imploding family and eight poodles, Tama Janowitz offers this hilarious self-portrait of the artist as a confused, middle-aged enfant terrible. Alternating between the tragicomic chaos of her current circumstances and glimpses back at a fraught childhood and glittering youth, Janowitz’s tale is intimate and self-deprecatingly charming. To her credit, she makes the excruciating present-day more interesting than the good ol’ times, and those times were pretty glamorous—palling around with the Sex Pistols, Warhol, and Lou Reed, while promoting her bestseller, Slaves of New York. Less sympathetic readers might think this book is just a way for Janowitz to make a buck and settle some scores. But she portrays her mad family movingly, and with curious, slack-jawed compassion. 4/5 – Fran Willing
Walk Through Walls: A Memoir
By Marina Abramovic
Pretty quickly, Walk Through Walls gives the impression that the phrase “real talk” may have been coined solely for its author Marina Abramović. The provocative performance artist pulls no punches looking back over her rough childhood and prolific public career. But it’s not all dark recollections. There’s plenty of wry wit in her memoir as well, as she reveals insights into her various projects and processes. Most delicious is her detailed description of the intense regimen she undertook in preparation for her legendary “The Artist is Present” piece, for which Abramović sat motionless on display at the MOMA in N.Y.C., eight hours a day, for three months. Not only did Abramović blow the minds of those lucky enough to sit across from her during this installation, but she did it all while also nursing a broken heart from her recent divorce. #Slay. 5/5 – Brandy Barber
The Small Backs of Children: A Novel
By Lidia Yuknavitch
The use of art as a means of coping with trauma is at the heart of the novel The Small Backs of Children—now out in paperback. The protagonist, known only as “the writer,” is deeply moved by a photograph of a girl in war-torn Eastern Europe being thrown forward as a bomb decimates her family. Then, when the writer’s own daughter is stillborn, she mentally links her lost daughter to the girl in the picture as she slips into a debilitating depression. Meanwhile, her friends set out to save her by hunting down the girl in the photo and bringing her back to the writer.
Author Lidia Yuknavitch pushes aside character development and pacing in order to focus on poetic, emotion-filled language and ruminations on sexuality. And her unique, haunting way of writing about the female body will stay with readers long after the novel has ended. Not Yuknavitch’s best work to date, this book is nonetheless a vehicle for her to showcase her talent for excavating the darkest sides of human existence with a knowing eye. 4/5– Adrienne Urbanski
Soul at the White Heat: Inspiration, Obsession, and the Writing Life
By Joyce Carol Oates
As one of the most respected and prolific writers of our time, Joyce Carol Oates could no doubt fill a tome with insights about the writing life. The subtitle here implies that this is that tome. But in reality, only about 20 percent of Soul at the White Heat delivers on that promise. Instead, most of the 390-plus pages here consist of previously published book reviews, with a detailed but slightly dull essay about a visit to San Quentin thrown in.
While reading reviews can be enjoyable (ahem), reading hundreds of pages of them proves disappointing when you’re expecting examinations into what drives a writer to create. That said, Oates’ prose in these reviews is sharp, and in a culture of limited-character commentary, there’s something to be said for lengthy meditations on literary works. Plus, her review of Jeannette Winterson’s memoir made me want to read it, in part, to satisfy my still-unsatisfied craving for something revealing about a writer’s life. 3/5 –Paula Sevenbergen
Today Will Be Different
By Maria Semple
(Little, Brown and Company)
Maria Semple—the author of 2012’s Where’d You Go Bernadette?—has a knack for creating kooky, complicated moms, and Today Will Be Different’s Eleanor Flood is definitely one. When we first meet Eleanor, she’s bored with her suburban Seattle life and its checklist of things she hates doing, including finishing her graphic novel memoir. “You’re trying to figure out, why the agita surrounding one normal day of white people problems?” Eleanor asks after complaining about yoga class and lunch dates with a woman she hates. It’s true, her problems are small in the grand scheme of things. But Semple does a good job widening the scope of what is truly bothering Eleanor. Hint: it’s not yoga. Eleanor has quite a few secrets—secrets she’s forced to confront over the course of one very weird day that’s filled with stolen keys, unhappy poets, concussions, and religious sing-alongs.
This secret is what makes Eleanor’s day different. But it’s the promise of what tomorrow holds for her that makes her worth getting to know. 4/5 –Shannon Carlin
Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners
By Therese Oneill
(Little, Brown and Company)
Have you ever felt like you were born in the wrong time? Or dreamt of a bygone age of class, romance, and appreciation for fuller-sized women? Well sorry, but author Therese Oneill’s history will eradicate any previous illusions about the loveliness of the Victorian era. Instead, Oneill uses biting wit to illustrate just how deeply bonkers that whole period was. For example, when it was time for Victorian women to pick a spouse, it was imperative that the couple’s hair color and complexions complemented each other. (’Twas the age of eugenics, you know.) And how do you suppose a woman cloaked in pounds of fabric was able to use the bathroom and come out just as glorious as before? (Spoiler alert: she didn’t—in fact she probably just added to the smell of manure already in the air.)
Both fascinating and hilarious, Oneill has created a book so excellently informative about the Victorian period, it should be shelved right next to Dickens for reference. Your stomach will hurt so much from laughing, you’ll be thankful you’re not wearing a corset. 4/5 – Princess Weekes
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