Our October/November book reviews section is now online! Read our reviews for books including the satisfying novel Made For Love by Alissa Nutting, the early 2000s rock history tome Meet Me In The Bathroom by Lizz Goodman, the semiautobiographical debut What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons, and many more. Subscribe to BUST magazine here, and check out more of our book reviews, interviews, lists and other literary coverage in our Books section, here.
Made for Love: A Novel
By Alissa Nutting
Following up on her explosive debut novel Tampa, Alissa Nutting brings readers an imperfect protagonist we can root for. Hazel is married to billionaire tech guru, Byron, but she’s fled his sterile compound to hide out with her aging father and his new sex doll. The last straw was Byron’s plan to put a chip in Hazel’s brain, allowing them to mind-meld and experience each other’s emotions—and thoughts.
While Hazel is a hapless heroine, Nutting’s novel, fast-paced and hilarious, digs into a deeper truth: men, even powerful victimizers, need women. Truly, the men in this narrative go to extreme lengths to achieve their version of domestic bliss. Be it with a sex doll, a willing wife, or an affection-starved companion. Meanwhile, Hazel’s story plays out against that of a con man who, after a freakish occurrence at sea, can no longer swindle women with his fuckboy charm. Made for Love reveals that even women who are floundering can rise up and break free from a needy man’s shackles. This novel doesn’t shy away from the ugly and uncomfortable. It’s a satisfying read where women, for all they face, come out on top. 5/5 –Laurie Ann Cedilnik
Debriefing: Collected Stories
By Susan Sontag, Edited by Benjamin Taylor
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Primarily an essayist, Susan Sontag is not well known for her fiction. But Debriefing—a posthumous collection of her short stories edited by Benjamin Taylor—shows another side of her intellectual force. These 11 stories are evidence of a kind of freedom Sontag was not allowed in her non-fiction writing. It seems that she used these works as sketchbooks of sorts to explore form and structure. Her themes are familiar—literature, relationships, art, activism, loss, illness—but here, Sontag blurs the edges of lived experience and fantasy.
A few of the stories are inaccessible and a bit obtuse, but the collection shines in “American Spirits” and “Debriefing.” Another powerful selection, “The Way We Live Now,” follows a group of friends during the early days of the AIDS epidemic who try to provide support when one of them is diagnosed. Sontag masterfully constructs the suffocating atmosphere of living with a chronic illness through run-on sentences and quickly shifting perspectives. It’s an exquisite example of what Sontag was capable of when she was allowed to bend the rules. 4/5 –Rebekah Miel
The End of Men: A Novel
By Karen Rinaldi
The End of Men is a novel that imagines a world not so much without men, but instead one full of women who are nearing their wits’ ends regarding men. Beth, Anna, Isabel, and Maggie are four women in varying stages of motherhood, living in New York City and connected by family, friendship, and the controversial maternity lingerie company Red Hot Mama, for which three of them work.
The novel’s strength lies in its representation of situations and attitudes that defy traditional ideas of motherhood: one woman, pregnant and feeling a solipsistic sense of entitlement and horniness, has a guiltless affair; another chooses to set up her husband with his ex-wife; and a third becomes resentful toward her family while trying to “have it all.” Author Karen Rinaldi inspires empathy for her characters; these situations feel real, as if Rinaldi or close friends of hers have actually experienced them firsthand. Unfortunately, her writing is extremely dull. Sentences have no flair or style, and potentially intriguing thoughts and feelings fall flat on the page. As a result, readers may want to seek their strong, progressive female characters elsewhere. 2/5 –Ann Mayhew
Girl Up: Kick Ass, Claim Your Woman Card, and Crush Everyday Sexism
By Laura Bates
You may know British writer Laura Bates as the founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, a crowd-sourced blog that has been proving gender bias is still real since 2012 (or by her first book of the same name). Already an international bestseller, this survival guide for high school- and college-aged women is an introduction to feminism in the modern world. “I think sexism is a bit like watching a 3D movie,” writes Bates. “Once you put on the special glasses, it suddenly jumps out at you, as real as day, in all its Technicolor glory, and you can’t believe you didn’t see it before.”
Bates is like your cool older friend who throws your lame puberty guide in the trash before telling you how things really are. And the text is broken up with hilarious graphs and flowcharts, lists of unapologetic comebacks, and illustrations of tap-dancing vaginas. Because you can’t travel back in time and give this book to your younger self, consider picking it up for a young woman in your life. Be the cool older friend. 4/5 –Libby Zay
The Incest Diary
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Nobody ever says out loud what Anonymous writes in The Incest Diary, the fullest portrait of incest survival perhaps ever published. Honest and blunt, the book is hard to stomach but an utter page-turner, due to the author’s ability to recollect her experiences in such sharp detail. The diary flows like memories, with chapters seemingly written as the author remembers them. She recounts having sex with her father from ages 3 to 21, and most shockingly, remembers liking it, even being jealous of her mother over it. “My father is my secret. That he raped me is my secret,” she writes. “But the secret under the secret is that sometimes I liked it. Sometimes I wanted it, and sometimes I seduced him and made him fuck me.” She remembers her father tying her to a chair. She remembers incidents with a knife that will haunt the reader forever.
Anonymous eventually confronted her father and told family and friends, only to be rejected. But she doesn’t speculate why her father did what he did or what she should do next. She just reports what happened. And in doing so, creates an unsettling work of art. 5/5 –Whitney Dwire
Like a Dog
By Tara Jepsen
(City Lights/Sister Spit)
In Like a Dog, the novel puts the reader squarely inside the brain of its narrator, Paloma. She mostly spends her time skateboarding in drained pools, going on beered-up adventures with her best friend, bombing at comedy open mics, and watching marathons of murder docs, all while mulling over the role she plays in her own life. Paloma’s in her 30s and the narrative takes place in the present day, but the conversational tone and the cycles of her situations make this book feel timeless in the way a stale bar is timeless—it could be 1999 or yesterday, and that feels right. Supporting characters include Paloma’s brother, who straddles addiction and sobriety; the proprietor of a pot farm that caters to celebs; and the California highways.
While the pacing isn’t as consistent as its voice, this novel contains brilliantly casual radical feminism along with its rising action and denouement, and it tells a familiar story in ways that feel fresh and new but not contrived. Paloma’s observations within the storytelling frequently meander to wisdom so sharp, it stings. 4/5 –Christine Femia
Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001-2011
By Lizzy Goodman
(Dey Street Books)
Those lucky enough to have witnessed the rebirth of N.Y.C. as a rock ‘n’ roll hub in the early 2000s will devour the electrifying oral history Meet Me in the Bathroom. Following in the tradition of the punk literary classic Please Kill Me, journalist Lizzy Goodman compiles nearly 200 original interviews with musicians, bloggers, and others at the forefront of the movement that took shape in post-9/11 downtown New York. Goodman argues that the post-grunge era created a void that was later filled by bands like the Strokes, Interpol, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Fellow journalist Marc Spitz sums up the scene: “It was all of us versus Coldplay and Limp Bizkit…and George Bush and al-Qaeda, you know? It was the cool kids fighting back.”
Only problem is, for those without an insatiable curiosity for the subject, at 600 pages, Meet Me in the Bathroom is long, and at times, meandering. Regardless, Goodman’s done an impressive job of capturing a thrilling decade in the history of both New York and rock ‘n’ roll. 4/5 –Helen Matatov
Refuge: A Novel
By Dina Nayeri
Bahman Hamidi is a successful dentist and opium addict in Iran. An attempted divorce (his third) is bungled, however, when his wife fights back, accusing him of being involved in protests that are rocking their country. Bahman is put under house arrest, forcing him to decide if he should stay in Iran or leave as his first wife and two children did years earlier. His daughter Niloo, now an adult living in Amsterdam, is not enthusiastic about reuniting with her father, who she has seen only four times since leaving Iran. Settling into her marriage and her career, she struggles to find a sense of self that bridges her success as a Westerner and her roots as an Iranian refugee.
There are many threads woven through this novel: immigration, identity, familial bonds, drug addiction, and the complex politics of Iran. The fractured perspectives through which Niloo and Bahman see one another—the former sees her father’s flaws sharply, while the latter puts his daughter on a pedestal—are heartbreakingly universal, as are their conflicting desires for connection and distance. The result is an engaging and lyrical work that balances complexity with relatability. 5/5 –Bridey Heing
What We Lose: A Novel
By Zinzi Clemmons
Zinzi Clemmons’ semi-autobiographical debut novel has a depth that goes beyond its pages. Readers follow a young woman named Thandi through childhood and young adulthood, jumping back and forth across time. Thandi, like Clemmons, is the daughter of a mixed race South African mother and an African American father, raised in Pennsylvania. She is black, but light-skinned, and is often mistaken for Hispanic or Asian. But though Clemmons tackles race and identity with insight, What We Lose is also a novel about grief. When Thandi is in college, her mother is diagnosed with breast cancer, and Thandi becomes her caretaker. After her mother dies, we see how grief follows Thandi as she has her own child, struggles with marriage, and grapples with watching her father move on.
Clemmons includes excerpts from others’ essays, books, and articles between chapters, drawing from Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Barack Obama, and Nelson Mandela, among others. But Clemmons’ writing has weight and poetry on its own. Contemplating the word “orphan,” she writes, “It’s the wound, not the parts that are left untouched.” 4/5 –Erika W. Smith
Where The Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir
By Amy Tan
It’s fitting that Amy Tan’s latest book is subtitled “A Writer’s Memoir,” since it’s more of an exploration of her identity as a writer than a timeline of her life. Tan isn’t afraid to explore her childhood, but often those memories surface through her work as a fiction writer—a previously repressed traumatic incident with her mother is only remembered when she’s pressed by a writing instructor.
Often, the book reads more like a mystery than a memoir—readers learn about Tan’s past and her family history alongside her. There are moments when her deep dive into her process drags, like when she explains at a painstaking pace how she uses music to inform and guide her imagination during writing, even going so far as to map out a narrative based on a piece of classical music. Overall, however, the jumbled structure of the book, jumping around in time and from essays to journal entries, is fitting for a writer’s memoir. These diverse elements create a compelling portrait of a writer figuring out who she is—and how to put that discovered self into words. 4/5 –Molly Horan
Wolf Whistle Politics: The New Misogyny in America Today
Edited By Diane Wachtell
(The New Press)
It may feel like it’s too soon to read essays written about the 2016 election. But Wolf Whistle Politics—a term used by former Democratic Texas Senator Wendy Davis to describe the “sexualized nature” of how women and their issues are framed—makes the case that understanding the sexism in this particular race will be vital to getting a woman into the White House sooner rather than later. The problem, however, is that this anthology focuses way too much on commending and condemning Hillary Clinton, rather than focusing on where we can go next.
It’s a shame, too, since the final two chapters—“Moving Forward” and “What Happens Next?”—provide insight into what went wrong and how it could be righted. The piece, “An Open Letter To White Liberal Feminists” by LeRhonda Manigault-Bryant, is an honest post-election reaction that doesn’t sugarcoat the failures of white girl feminism. And Amy Davidson’s “Thirteen Women Who Should Run in 2020” is a list that shows there are still potential candidates out there worth fighting for, just in case you forgot. 2/5 –Shannon Carlin
This article originally appeared in the October/November 2017 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
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