Our December/January 2018 book reviews are now online, featuring the Handmaid's Tale-esque novel Red Clocks by Leni Zumas, Mira T. Lee's critically-acclaimed debut novel Everything Here Is Beautiful, and Jaclyn Friedman's nonfiction book exploring "our culture's effed-up relationship with sexuality." Read the reviews below, and don't forget to subscribe!
Unscrewed: Women, Sex,
Power, and How to Stop Letting
the System Screw Us All
By Jaclyn Friedman
In her book Unscrewed, named for her podcast that explores our culture’s effed-up relationship with sexuality, author Jaclyn Friedman refers to today’s version of female empowerment as “fauxempowerment.” By this she means men have always set the parameters of acceptable female sexuality, and until that ends, women will continually struggle to gain any significant power.
Though the subject matter is heavy, Friedman makes her case with warmth, understanding, and hope. Her style is like chatting with a bestie who’s well-versed in everyone from women’s-rights activist Loretta Ross, to Beyoncé, to the riot grrls. Friedman admits that she doesn’t have all the answers to questions such as whether we take back ownership of the word “slut,” or how we can make sure female empowerment isn’t just an ad slogan. She does believe, however, that if we just start talking, we can find common ground. It’s not an easy conversation to have, since not all female-identifying individuals are the same, but it is an important one that Friedman hopes will result in every woman feeling economically, politically, and socially powerful. You know, for real this time. 5/5 - Shannon Carlin
Coming To My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook
By Alice Waters
In 1971, Alice Waters opened her restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley, CA. She was just a 27-year-old with no culinary experience, but with her little French restaurant she revolutionized American cooking forever. To understand how that happened, Waters looks at her past, sharing stories about her progressive mother who ate organic before that was even a thing, her college-aged travels through France, and the woke friends who encouraged her to open her own place.
While these stories explore how Waters became a counterculture cook, it’s as if she’s rushing through nearly three decades of her life to get there. Readers are left wanting more details, not just the facts. To get a true sense of who Waters is, read the italicized passages that pop up throughout the book. It’s here where she gets conversational, opening up about why she never writes down a recipe and about her unwavering love for cheese. She’s full of personality in anecdotes about the time she jumped out of a window to escape a sexual predator, and a Russian trip that almost started a revolution. This is the real Waters and, no surprise, she’s fascinating. 3/5 — Shannon Carlin
The Dark Dark: Stories
By Samantha Hunt
Samantha Hunt’s debut story collection following three lauded novels will appeal to fans of similarly speculative short fiction such as Kelly Link’s Get In Trouble and Karen Joy Fowler’s What I Didn’t See, though Hunt brings a style all her own to the tales comprising The Dark Dark. A woman can turn into a deer, encounter an unsettling double, or discover that the intruder she feared in her home is her own husband. Rife with symbolism and feminist subtext, Hunt’s prose style and ability to weave together fantastical details and factual research into stunningly original scenes makes for captivating reading.
In “Cortés The Killer,” a mother works for a company called “Mythologic Development,” repackaging classical myths for commercial purposes, selling “the Montezuma-Cortés myth to an amusement park in Maryland, which used it for a rollercoaster called the Aztecathon.” “Love Machine,” the most mind-twisting story in the collection, and “A Love Story,” which nails the effects of motherhood and middle age on a couple, are, respectively, the two most intriguing and memorable works. Both offer alarming and urgent commentary on “the surplus and affluence of America,” a key underlying through-line of these 10 gems in prose. 4/5 — Liza Monroy
Everything Here Is Beautiful: A Novel
By Mira T. Lee
(Pamela Dorman Books)
Mira T. Lee’s debut novel is beautiful in its simplicity. The story follows a woman battling mental illness and is told from the perspectives of the people who love her, all of whom are trying their best to understand her condition even as they disagree over how to proceed. At the center of the novel is the relationship between two sisters—Miranda, who came to America an only child and soon became a big sister and caretaker, and Lucia, a young woman with endless energy, excitement, and a psychological disorder doctors can’t quite categorize, even after multiple ER visits and commitments.
Lee’s prose is straightforward but warm. She’s created a portrait of a disjointed, unconventional family doing everything they can to save someone, while constantly afraid they won’t be able to do enough. The shifting perspectives don’t always seem to serve the narrative; there are moments when the change in voice seems to serve only to balance out chapter breaks rather than helping the story. However, Everything Here is Beautiful is a quietly sad, yet powerfully hopeful novel with characters that will stay with readers for a long time. 4/5 – Molly Horan
Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music
By Ann Powers
(Dey Street Books)
In Good Booty, NPR music critic Ann Powers takes readers on an ambitious and turbulent sonic trip as she unspools the heady chronology of North America’s erotic musical history, from the hybridized dance scene of colonial New Orleans to the viral fame of Beyoncé in the Internet age. This book is best enjoyed with earbuds plugged in and your favorite streaming service at the ready, in order to create a fully immersive audio-literary experience.
Powers deftly defines the key turning points in the evolution of American pop music as we know it today. Genres blend into one another and branch out like tributaries in the dozens of influential tracks she cites as vital to the musical and sexual evolution of American identity. At the heart of this identity is the sticky tension between the irresistible imperative to blend and transcend cultural boundaries and gender norms, and the violently proscriptive taboos against racial mixing and sexual diversity that uphold patriarchal white supremacy. While Powers’ style is a bit verbose, she overall provides a valuable musical education. 4/5 – Renate Robertson
By Myriam Gurba
(Coffee House Press)
In Myriam Gurba’s piercing new memoir, she discusses her life experiences from childhood to post-college, tackling such heavy-hitting topics as gender identity, sexual identity, race, and sexual assault with sardonic wit. As a Chicana of both Mexican and Polish ancestry, she jokingly calls herself a “molack” while laughing off the racist and disparaging remarks she receives on a regular basis, excelling academically and transcending her negative treatment. As Gurba grows up, she becomes increasingly aware of the gender divisions around her and how being female limits her; she also boldly embraces her blossoming queer identity, even as those around her do not.
Her world is turned upside down when she becomes the victim of a sexual assault and must deal with paralyzing PTSD. As she exorcises her demons, she’s also haunted by the memory of a migrant worker who was brutally raped and murdered by the same man who assaulted her. Gurba explores the stark reality of her suffering as she creates solidarity with other victimized women. Her story is a powerful one, and her voice is certainly one that earns readers’ attention. 5/5 – Adrienne Urbanski
Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America
Edited by Samhita Mukhopadhyay and Kate Harding
When now-president Donald Trump declared Hillary Clinton a “nasty woman” during the 2016 election, the term was quickly embraced by feminists who adopted it as a rallying cry to stand up to Trump’s sexist agenda. And even though the painful election-night surprise has long since passed, this is a timely essay anthology that addresses the possible reasons for Clinton’s loss and the ways in which women can maintain hope and keep fighting during this trying time.
Among the notable writers are Cheryl Strayed, who discusses the “numb shock” she felt following the election, and Katha Pollitt, who gives suggestions for how to stay positive by fighting for women’s reproductive rights. Thankfully, the collection includes a diverse mix of writers, including Zerlina Maxwell and Collier Meyerson, who offer black feminist perspectives on the results of election night and the issues at large. And transwoman Meredith Talusan connects Clinton’s loss to the “way transwomen and femmes are marginalized in post-Trump feminism.” When you’re feeling frustrated after yet another infuriating presidential tweet, curl up with Nasty Women and feel inspired to actively pursue change. 4/5 – Adrienne Urbanski
Rabbit: The Autobiography of Ms. Pat
By Patricia Williams with Jeannine Amber
(Dey Street Books)
Ms. Pat isn’t your average comedian. She came from nothing and found success by any means necessary. She’s even been shot in the boob, which she recounts in hilarious and horrific detail in her autobiography, Rabbit (a nickname given to her as a poor, young girl, after she was seen eating a carrot). The book’s 26 short chapters include “Locked Up” and “Age of Consent,” which are about exactly what you’d think, as well as one called “Leather Boots,” describing the shoes worn by the teacher who convinced Rabbit she could be anything. Her mother was harsh and indifferent. “I don’t remember ever hearing Mama say, ‘I love you’ or ‘You did good,’” she recalls. “In fact, she barely took the time to name her own kids. I have three brothers; one is named Andre and another is named Dre. That’s the same goddamn name.”
A winding road of ’80s music, babies, crack, and bad relationships follows, buoyed by a handful of positive influences. But through it all, it’s Ms. Pat’s belief that she’s capable of greatness that carries her through. Her story is one that dares everyone reading it to dream bigger. 5/5 – Whitney Dwire
Red Clocks: A Novel
By Leni Zumas
(Lee Boudreaux Books)
In a small fishing town in Oregon in a near future where abortion is illegal, four women’s lives slowly collide. There’s Ro, a single high-school teacher in her early 40s trying to have a child. Ro’s student Mattie is a 15-year-old adoptee wondering about her birth mother, something that gets more complicated when she becomes pregnant herself. Susan is a stay-at-home mom who wants to leave her marriage. And finally, there’s Gin, a mysterious “mender”—and possibly a witch—who lives in the forest.
Comparisons to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale are inescapable with this novel, given the subject matter. But in Red Clocks, women don’t wear red cloaks and white bonnets—the only thing different about their world is that a Personhood Amendment has been passed, outlawing abortion and giving fetuses legal rights. “She was just quietly teaching history when it happened. Woke up one morning to a president-elect she hadn’t voted for,” author Leni Zumas writes of Ro. Those are just two of many chills-inducing sentences that remind us how close this possible future is. 4/5 –Erika W. Smith
By Maria Alyokhina
Pussy Riot band member Maria Alyokhina named her memoir about life in Russia’s prison system Riot Days, a title that suggests a brief chapter of rebellion. But what Aloykhina demonstrates with her harrowing recollections of incarceration is that protest is a way of life.
Sentenced to two years for Pussy Riot’s guerilla performance at a Moscow cathedral (opposing the Orthodox Church’s support of Vladimir Putin), Aloykhina refuses to keep quiet behind bars. She carries out hunger strikes and legal actions against the prison for its inhumane practices. Her sacrifice earns the inmates thicker mattresses, warmer garments, and higher work wages. But her actions also provoke the guards, and any progress is counterbalanced by setbacks. “It is just an illusion that you go on hunger strike to achieve results,” she writes. “Yes, that’s how it begins, but later, you realize that it’s not for the imagined outcome, but for the very right to protest. A narrow sliver of a right, in a huge field of injustice and mistreatment.” Aloykhina’s determination is truly her weapon, and Riot Days is the story of someone with the guts to fight back, one small step at a time. 5/5 –Helen Matatov
The Talented Ribkins: A Novel
By Ladee Hubbard
Ladee Hubbard’s debut novel, The Talented Ribkins, is an entertaining coming-of-age story that flips the “magical negro” trope on its head. Readers are introduced to the extraordinary Ribkins family and each members’ unconventional superpowers: Johnny Ribkins can draw a map of any place, even if he has never been there. His brother, Franklin, can scale walls. Their father sees colors no one else sees, and the rest of the bloodline has similarly unique abilities.
Having originally used their talents to assist in the civil rights movement as a group called the “Justice Committee,” once the family’s assistance proved to be ineffective, the organization disbanded. This fall from grace led to a life of crime through a series of burglaries. And now 72-year-old Johnny Ribkins has one week to pay off a debt. Hubbard maps out Johnny’s quest as he backtracks his way through Florida, recovering past stashes with an unlikely partner—his 13-year-old niece, Eloise, who also has her own superpower. Inspired by a W.E.B. DuBois essay, Hubbard delicately dissects race, class, and politics by calling on her characters to justify their actions beyond their well-meaning intentions. 4/5 – Bry’onna Mention
This article originally appeared in the December/January 2017 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
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