Our book reviews from BUST's August/September issue are now online! Check out our picks, including Hunger by Roxane Gay, Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang, and Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng.
By Anna Fields
Comedy nerds, 20th-century history buffs, and pop culture junkies, rejoice! The Girl in the Show is your jam. Author Anna Fields has compiled facts, first-person interviews, and cultural criticism to make a simple-yet-compelling argument: women are funny. That these three words could cause a whit of controversy is upsetting, and Fields sets out to challenge anyone confused on the matter. Her method, spurred by a visit to Gilda Radner’s grave, was this: “I studied every comedian who happened to be a woman from 1920 to the present.” Fields then uses these studies to further advance the idea that women’s liberation has a great deal to do with the visibility of those magical women who make us laugh.
Fields is no slouch when it comes to intersectionality: comedians of color are amply represented and voices of gender non-conforming and gay performers also frequently weigh in. While it’s not a staunch, scholarly manuscript, The Girl in the Show is well researched, nimbly presented, and sure to inspire the next generation of funny-as-fuck females. (4/5) — Brandy Barber
By Angela Saini
Science, culture, and sexism collide in author Angela Saini’s new book, Inferior, which picks apart the research that has been used to justify stereotypes about women. Citing centuries of studies and widely held ideas about women’s temperaments, bodies, and intelligence, Saini explores the ways in which faulty science has been used as justification for policies that have hindered women for generations. She also looks at the cultures in which scientific views of women were shaped, the erasure of women in scientific fields, and how women today are changing the way we understand what it means to be female.
Though dry at times, Saini’s writing offers a comprehensive look at not only how science has been used against women, but also how limited our understanding of women has been for most of modern history. This isn’t a book that cheerleads so much as clears up, and the tone Saini takes sometimes leaves the reader craving more commentary. She does, however, provide an important look at a field that is constantly evolving in the face of deep-seated biases. (3/5) –Bridey Heing
By Roxane Gay
In the second paragraph of Hunger: A Memoir Of (My) Body, Roxane Gay warns that her memoir will defy easy categorization. This is not a story of weight loss, but neither is it a story of learning to love her body at any size. “Mine is not a success story,” she writes. “Mine is, simply, a true story.” And truth is what Gay gives us here, in her most personal and vulnerable book so far.
Gay traces her relationship with her body throughout her life, beginning with her gang rape at 12, after which she began to gain weight as a form of protection. But though this trauma is one focus, Gay’s memoir is far-reaching, encompassing everything from her romantic relationships to the way her parents talk about her body to why she watches weight-loss shows like The Biggest Loser to what it’s like to be photographed for major publications. Gay also asserts that bodies cannot be considered by themselves; race, gender, sexuality, and age all affect how people perceive and treat her. Though not an easy read, Hunger is a vitally important one—and perhaps Gay’s best yet. (5/5) – Erika W. Smith
By Ariel Levy
Like she did in her brilliant first book, Female Chauvinist Pigs, author Ariel Levy continues to question the so-called rules of womanhood in her latest work. This time, she turns her journalistic eye on herself, a successful 30-something working for The New Yorker who tests the boundaries of love, marriage, and pregnancy, when she takes a work trip to Mongolia while with child, despite the sidelong looks this elicits from others. Her vivid account of what happens in her hotel room there will level readers, thanks to prose that’s specific and incisive.
It’s the consistent excellence of Levy’s writing that makes this book such a joy to read, because, as a subject, she isn’t always a pleasure to spend time with. It seems that being a badass rule-breaker makes a person interesting but can also render her selfish (she uses infidelity as an escape hatch instead of dealing with her marital problems head-on, for instance). But the author has enough self-awareness to acknowledge this, and such honesty lends to her credibility—a nonnegotiable quality of a solid memoir. Thankfully, there are some rules this writer still chooses to follow. (4/5) – Paula Sevenbergen
By Ellen Ullman
This collection of essays by pioneering computer programmer Ellen Ullman spans more than two decades of technology, starting with a reflection on the early days of digital communication in 1994 and ending with a critique of how this form of communication guides our interactions today. What is most engaging about this collection is that Ullman, an expert in the field, allows readers access to sometimes highly technical material, never pandering to the most obvious topics. For example, she does talk about the struggles of women in tech, but doesn’t generalize. It would be too simple, too expected, to rehash that storyline. Instead, she delves deep into subjects like the archeological process computer programmers used to relearn Cobol to prevent system failures during Y2K.
Ullman also pulls at the threads of the new internet economy that has been blazing a trail to remove all intermediaries—from travel agents to accredited journalists to experienced politicians. Her narratives throughout the book both recount historical events and reflect on how much technological advances have affected the core of both our humanity and our society. (5/5) – Rebekah Miel
By Jenny Zhang
In this debut collection of linked stories from Jenny Zhang, a cast of six Chinese-American girls give voice to the confusion, loneliness, and longing of growing up an immigrant in New York. Don’t expect these girls to hold back. The opening story, “We Love You Crispina,” begins with the narrator’s breathless description of what her family has to endure simply to take a “big dump.” (It involves running to the gas station toilet, or else having to use toothbrushes and chopsticks to mash shit down a clogged toilet at home.) Humor and pain coincide in many stories: a sister eats a piece of ham from her self-harming brother’s mouth; a sleepwalking grandmother jumps on a trampoline while calling out to her own mother. “I was worried about how I was seen, who I was seen with, and what kind of abysmal creature other people thought I was—these fears disfigured me,” narrates Mande in “My Days and Nights of Terror.”
While the characters may worry, they are unflinching in their storytelling, and Zhang doesn’t let the reader look away from their discomfort. She has written a book that is original, raw, and fearless. (4/5) – Alexandra Chang
By Hope Nicholson
With the Wonder Woman film finally premiering in 2017, this book might be the perfect find for those currently obsessed with superheroines. The collection is a fantastic introduction to comic book leading ladies, spanning from the 1930s to today. Each character gets about a page of history, maybe a strip, and, if possible, lists of where to read more about them.
To author Hope Nicholson’s credit, the research here is astounding. Sure, there are popular faces like Ms. Marvel and Wonder Woman, but she also includes characters who were featured in one or two issues and have never been reprinted, like Scot, “the swingiest girl in the modnik crew,” who you have to go “back-issue bin-hunting” to find. Nicholson also addresses changes in comic book culture, like when female creators transformed oversexualized comics. A showcase for powerful women who range in sexuality, skin color, and spunk (looking at you, Bitchy Bitch), this collection is an awesome reminder that feminists have been fighting the good fight in comics since before many of us were born. (3/5) – Robyn Smith
By Celeste Ng
Fans of novelist Celeste Ng’s debut, Everything I Never Told You, and devotees of her resistance-ready Twitter feed, can rejoice. Little Fires Everywhere is a fictional series of individual sparks building to a conflagration, all ignited by a single question: “What are you going to do about it?”
Elena Richardson, lifelong resident of even-keeled Shaker Heights, believes in doing what is right, but the arrival of her new tenants, artist Mia and her teenaged daughter Pearl, serves to shake her fixed notions of family and justice. As Pearl becomes absorbed into the Richardson clan, Elena’s youngest daughter grows attached to Mia. The attempt by Elena’s closest friend to adopt an abandoned Chinese-American baby bothers Mia. And then, driven by a cocktail of insecurity and mistrust, Elena attempts to excavate Mia’s well-hidden past, causing unexpected consequences for her own family. The story drifts effortlessly between characters; each is full and memorable as they coax the novel to its fiery climax. Ng reminds us that action is a choice, and you’ll want to keep reading until the last irreversible actions play out. (5/5) – Laurie Ann Cedilnik
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
This Is Just My Face will likely make women everywhere wish they were friends with author Gabourey Sidibe. The Precious actor utilizes her memoir to reflect on her life with honesty and wit to spare. As the daughter of a strict, Muslim polygamist, she was briefly forced to live in a foster home, and developed humor as a coping strategy early on. Even the stress of being overweight in middle school was countered with comedy. “I learned that if I couldn’t stop the jokes about my weight I could make them first,” she writes. And her portrayal of her stint as a phone-sex operator is hilariously absurd. “I told myself I wasn’t degrading myself for some faceless caller,” she writes. “He was the one paying to get all sticky and gross while listening to me recite Cosmo’s latest list of ways to give the perfect blow job.”
Sidibe bravely tackles any subject that’s played a starring role in her life — from how she wears her hair, to racism, to fame — with the same relaxed hilarity. The result is a memoir that is as fun and comforting as a cool girlfriend. (4/5) – Helen Matatov
By Ariel Gore
The novel We Were Witches reads like a lyrical memoir. Author Ariel Gore guides a fictionalized Ariel Gore through the minefields of single, young, feminist motherhood. A time defined by the authors she’s reading in college as well as by a neighbor she’s never met who screams outside her window that she’s unfit to raise a child because of the welfare checks she receives. And just as the reader begins to forget they’re enjoying a work of fiction, magical realism enters as a reminder — like when an author Gore is discovering appears on her roof, then transforms into a bird and flies away.
The book is about large, looming themes — like femininity, what society expects of women, and what society does to them. But this fast-yet-absorbing read never gets bogged down. Each question Gore struggles with as she decides who she will be and how she will best serve herself and her daughter is matched with simple scenes that constantly move the story forward. We Were Witches is part fantasy, part term paper, and part story recounted from a friend. Once all those parts unite, they make a very satisfying whole. (4/5) – Molly Horan
By Carina Chocano
If you’re ever at a party with author and former BUST columnist Carina Chocano, sit down next to her. In her first book of essays, the pop-culture critic tells her story of girlhood through the lens of the films and TV shows that made her realize she never actually wanted to play “the girl.” You know, the female archetype that convinces young women they must play second fiddle to the guy.
Chocano’s life advice doubles as a recommendation list. For instance, she admits she was confused by Pretty Woman in 1990, but realizes now it was actually a future text that explained how love would relate to money in the aughts. She also notes that strong female characters in movies were “never funny and never had any fun,” until Charlie’s Angels: The Movie. What makes Chocano so enjoyable to read is that, for better or worse, she revels in what she watched as a kid, and she’d like other women to do the same. That, and watch Private Benjamin — she definitely wants that, too. (5/5) – Shannon Carlin
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