Happy almost-spring! We're bringing you ten books by women from BUST's book review section in our February/March 2017 issue, including The Wangs Vs. The World by Jade Chang, A Separation by Katie Kitamura, and Un/Masked: Memoirs Of A Guerrilla Girl On Tour by Donna Kaz. And stay tuned for a special section on the best new graphic novels by women, coming up soon!
The Wangs vs. the World: A Novel
By Jade Chang
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Charles Wang’s fortune is gone. All the makeup magnate has left is his family and a powder-blue Mercedes station wagon, which he’s packed full of everything the repo man hasn’t already taken. The Wangs are driving from Bel-Air to New York in hopes of starting over after the financial crisis. But they aren’t victims of a bad subprime loan; Charles’ ego is how they ended up here. That’s something author Jade Chang makes clear throughout her hilarious debut novel, which looks at an Asian-American family dealing with losing everything. Or, more accurately, who think they’ve lost everything.
Without their fortune, Charles, his second wife Barbara, and each of his three children—eldest daughter, Saina; middle son, Andrew; and his youngest girl, Grace—start taking stock of who they are when they can’t afford it all. As Chang explains, “money made everything easy to indulge in.” It also made it even easier to overlook or completely ignore everything outside the Wang’s orbit. This riches-to-rags story examines the importance of empathy using humor, but with each laugh, readers may find themselves checking their own privilege. (5/5) –Shannon Carlin
A Book of American
Martyrs: A Novel
By Joyce Carol Oates
Joyce Carol Oates’ latest novel opens with a murder, or as the man who carries out the act describes it, an “execution.” Luther Dunphy believes he’s carried out the Lord’s will by killing Augustus Voorhees in the abortion clinic where he works. Over the course of over 700 pages and multiple decades, Oates explores the aftermath of the violent act, dedicating chapters to both the violence and persecution the doctor faced when he was alive, and the fallout his family and children must deal with after his death.
Oates jumps between stylistic choices, keeping up the pace of this weighty (literally and figuratively) novel. Breaking down the work into over 60 chapters with subheadings also helps make the narrative more digestible. It’s hard to encounter any art today without thinking about the world it will be released into. A Book of American Martyrs is gripping not only because of the subjects it tackles–abortion, religion, grief—but also because of the way it gets inside the heads of characters with fundamentally different points of view, revealing all of their stories as parts of a whole. (4/5) –Molly Horan
By Emily Witt
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
After ending a serious relationship at age 30, writer Emily Witt began exploring all things sex-related, from dating apps to orgasmic meditation. And in Future Sex, Witt combines detailed research with in-depth interviews and her own personal experiences. For example, the chapter on polyamory begins with the story of a young polyamorous couple Witt interviewed, delves into the history of polyamory, and ends with Witt’s own experiences at a sex party.
Witt accomplishes the remarkable feat of being completely honest about her own experiences without judging others. Just as valuable is the wide range of people Witt interviews, including porn stars and cam girls. She tackles familiar subjects with new insights (the world is not lacking Tinder thinkpieces, but Witt’s examination of Tinder’s marketing is fascinating). There are quite a few topics—like revenge porn—that go unexplored, and the focus is very hetero-centric. Altogether, though, it’s refreshing to read a book that explores sex today with nuance, and without any handwringing about how the youths are ruining society with their smartphones and their sexy selfies. (4/5) –Erika W. Smith
Orphans of the Carnival: A Novel
By Carol Birch
In the 19th Century, Julia Pastrana—an indigenous Mexican woman born with a genetic condition that caused her face and body to be covered with straight black hair—was dragged across the globe to be gawked at as a human curiosity. Author Carol Birch, in her newest novel, beautifully imagines Pastrana’s life, vividly depicting the changing world that celebrated her as a singer and performer while using her as evidence of white racial superiority in an era of colonization.
Birch’s research shines through as she faithfully re-creates the painful realities of freak shows of the Victorian era, prompting readers to wonder if they themselves would have paid to stare at someone like Pastrana. Despite some pacing issues, Orphans of the Carnival’s humanity shines through. The book successfully explores not only how people treat one another, but also the ways in which our differences can strip away our ability to see one another as fellow humans. “Everyone loved her,” Birch writes, “because she made them so glad they were themselves and not her.” (3/5) –Princess Weekes
Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them
By Jennifer Wright
(Henry Holt and Co.)
In her follow-up to last year’s It Ended Badly, historian Jennifer Wright traces the world’s most terrifying plagues and explores how humanity confronts widespread disease. The book includes stories both well known (the bubonic plague and Spanish Flu) and more obscure (the Dancing Plague and Encephalitis Lethargica). Each chapter looks at a different disease, its genesis, its symptoms, and how it was combated. So if falling down a horrifying Wikipedia hole of terrible maladies is your idea of fun, this book is for you.
Wright doesn’t simply state gross-out facts or hold up solitary individuals as heroes. Instead, she highlights the issues that impacted our understanding of and response to medical nightmares. Leadership, religiosity, power structures, and science collide in ways that create widely differing results. She also illuminates the fallout from widespread, catastrophic loss of life, from the way these diseases impact us today to how they can bring about the end of an empire. Written with Wright’s signature humorous tone, this is a grim but engaging look at some of humanity’s most feared foes. (4/5) –Bridey Heing
Prince Lestat and the Realms of Atlantis: The Vampire Chronicles
By Anne Rice
(Alfred A. Knopf)
Anne Rice’s most famous creation, the vampire Lestat, is back in her 12th Vampire Chronicles novel. The vampires have discovered a new kind of otherworldly creature: though at first glance human, these beings have preternatural strength, are unable to be killed, and speak a language unknown to even the oldest blood drinkers. As the creatures’ origin (hint: it has something to do with Atlantis) and mission are revealed, Prince Lestat must face unthinkable challenges, both internal and external.
Rice’s injection of a well-known Western mystery doesn’t succeed in breathing fresh life into this decades-long series; the result lacks the enchantment and suspense of her earlier work. The way the novel’s revelations broaden the series’ fundamental mythology stretches the world thin instead of enriching it. Additionally, the slow pacing and flat character development makes this a much less engaging read than Rice’s earlier, deservedly bestsellers. Hardcore Chronicles fans who can’t get enough of the characters will be pleased just to be spending more time with their favorite vampires. For everyone else, I recommend you get your Rice fix by rereading an oldie-but-goodie. (2/5) –Ann Mayhew
A Separation: A Novel
By Katie Kitamura
A month after she separates from her husband Christopher, a young wife learns he is missing and goes to Greece to find him. While looking for him, the wife also searches for the source of their unhappiness. Novelist Katie Kitamura’s meditative approach doesn’t make for a page-turner, but some scenes are electric. The unnamed wife, trying to understand her philandering ex, goes to dinner with a hotel worker who may have been Christopher’s lover. Later, she takes a drive with a man who may know what happened to her husband. Still, the plot is almost secondary. Kitamura doesn’t treat story revelations like big reveals.
The book has no dialogue. Instead, the wife’s first-person narration forces the reader to dwell inside her head, creating a challenging intimacy. (If you don’t like the wife’s voice, you may not like the book.) But Kitamura’s observations about present-day Greece—“a place I had no desire to visit”—and the familiar awkwardness of in-laws provide relief from the stream of consciousness. Ultimately, this book’s source of power is its language. If only we all thought such elegant, well-constructed thoughts. (3/5) –Aileen Gallagher
Unlikely Companions: The Adventures of an Exotic Animal Doctor
By Laurie Hess, DVM with Samantha Rose
(Da Capo Press)
Imagine a giant four-seat seesaw. Picture your husband, kids, and menagerie of pets crammed onto the first seat; your exotic animal hospital, your patients, their owners, and your staff piled on another; your neglected diabetes and forgotten snacks stacked on the third; and weighing down the last seat is a mystery surrounding a breed of tiny possums that are dying across the country. Trying to balance all those things is a normal week in the life of veterinarian Laurie Hess. And Unlikely Companions tells her story.
Yes, women struggle with being overscheduled every day, but the parade of chinchillas, lizards, macaws, potbellied pigs, and more, makes Hess’ version unique. In a perfect example, Hess and her husband are in bed one night, in a fight. They’d had a date planned, but she stood him up again because of work. As she vows to keep her promise next time and he forgives her once more, Dale, the family parrot, suddenly screeches, “IT’S A PARTY. IT’S A PARTY.” Get lost in this jungle of a memoir and let yourself laugh a little—we could all use some comic relief. (4/5) –Gina Marie Vasoli
The Women Who Made New York
By Julie Scelfo
Julie Scelfo’s The Women Who Made New York is a collection of vignettes about some of the Big Apple’s most influential heroines. While some of the book’s subjects have become synonymous with the city—such as beloved writer Nora Ephron and America’s most famous first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis—many are not household names despite the fact that their contributions impact modern-day life in the concrete jungle. Little-known is the chronicle of Linda Fairstein, a district attorney who changed how New York handled rape cases and prosecuted date rapists. Another unfortunately obscured history is that of Hetty Green, or “The Witch of Wall Street,” a wealthy investor who saved New York’s banks in 1907.
The portraits that resonate most are of those who made waves beyond the five boroughs. It’s difficult not to be inspired by New York-transplant Victoria Woodhull, who in 1872 became the first female to make a run for the White House; or Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, whose fight to provide reproductive healthcare began 100 years ago in Brooklyn. Scelfo’s book is a beautifully packaged volume full of heart, moxie, and wonder. (5/5) –Helen Matatov
Un/Masked: Memoirs of a Guerilla Girl on Tour
By Donna Kaz
As an aspiring playwright and actress arriving in N.Y.C. with stars in her eyes, Donna Kaz immediately experienced the industry sexism keeping women’s stories and meaningful roles off the stage. While working as a waitress, she met Bill, a successful stage and film actor. They began a seemingly fairytale romance, but it soon turned abusive. At this point, the memoir shifts to its real focus—Kaz’s involvement with the Guerilla Girls, an anonymous, renegade feminist group that formed to protest sexism in the arts in 1985.
The tale of Kaz’s life as a feminist activist becomes interwoven with her tale of being in an abusive long-term relationship—her political enlightenment happens as she opens her eyes to the realities of her damaging home life. Her story is a compelling page-turner, packed with inspiring stories about the Guerilla Girls’ plans and protests. But it’s also an inside look at a woman who allows herself to be trapped in a violent partnership. Kaz’s journey to find herself, both as an artist and as a woman, is an inspiring and enthralling one that also gives necessary credit and attention to the Guerilla Girls. (5/5) –Adrienne Urbanski
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