THE BUST GUIDE
Happy November! Now is the perfect time to visit a bookstore or library and stock up on some new books. Here are the books featured in our October/November 2016 issue, including The Wonder by Emma Donoghue, The Mothers by Brit Bennett, and Feminist Fight Club by Jessica Bennett.
The Wonder: A Novel
By Emma Donoghue
(Little, Brown and Co.)
BUST Rating: 5/5 *STAFF PICK*
In the latest novel by Emma Donoghue—author of the 2010 bestseller Room—Lib, a nurse trained under Florence Nightingale, thinks she’s been brought to Ireland to care for a patient. When she finds she’s been hired instead to make sure a magical, miraculous girl named Anna, who says she’s lived months without food, is truly as wondrous as she seems, Lib sees it as her duty to become a detective. But the longer she stays, the longer the list of suspects in what she knows must be a hoax grows. And the more certain she becomes that Anna isn’t a player in that hoax—but a victim.
The mystery of how Anna is living seemingly on drops of water is gripping. But the “why” is always more interesting than the actual mechanics, and it’s this underlying reason that drives the narrative at a satisfying clip. Lib is a compelling narrator who is confident in her herself and her opinions, yet not closed off to new information that might change her views. The Wonder is a novel that tackles religion, history, family loyalty, duty, personal vs. professional identity, and grief, but never feels overstuffed. – Molly Horan
In The Darkroom
By Susan Faludi
BUST Rating: 4/5
In the ’90s, author Susan Faludi’s bestseller, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, put her on the map as a feminist journalist. Then she wrote Stiffed, an exploration of our culture’s limited definition of masculinity. Now, she gets personal by focusing on her father, touching on those previous works about what it means to be a man...and to be a woman. That’s because the book begins with her estranged, domineering dad telling her he’s had sex reassignment surgery. Faludi travels to Hungary to meet “Stefáni,” her father as a female. A photographer by trade, Stefáni eagerly becomes a subject, wanting to pose for pictures and be wr itten about by her daughter. We get an account of their visits, plus a detailed view of her dad’s past: as a flawed parent, and before that, as a Jew during World War II, hiding his true identity to survive—a “role-playing” skill he used later in life.
The writing here is sharp, and each chapter ends with resonance. In the Darkroom’s only flaw is its imbalance of information; when Faludi delves deep into Hungary’s history, she clouds an otherwise-clear portrait of a captivating person. – Paula Sevenbergen
Crossing the Horizon:
By Laurie Notaro
BUST Rating: 4/5
Laurie Notaro might be best known for her hilariously self-deprecating essay collections, but her fourth novel, Crossing the Horizon, is a departure into historical fiction. Inspired by true accounts, the book weaves together the stories of three aviatrixes who are vying for the chance to be the first woman to fly across the Atlantic. Elsie Mackay, Mabel Boll, and Ruth Elder each had different motivations for taking such a risk, but whether it was for fame or adventure, they stopped at nothing to achieve their goal.
As a reader, the shift in subject matter was a bit of a leap of faith, because I usually turn to Notaro for her humor. But it was well worth it. Crossing the Horizon not only recounts the lesser-known tales of women who paved the way for Amelia Earhart, but also tells the stories of three ladies who attempted to do something impossible even though society expected them to fail. It’s the kind of allegory that is needed now more than ever. – Rebekah Miel
The Future of Silence:
Fiction by Korean Women
Translated and edited by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton
BUST Rating: 5/5
This accessible and remarkable anthology brings to English-speaking readers nine prominent Korean women writers spanning three generations. Editors and translators Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton place these stories in context in the informative, though rather academic, introduction. And since the stories are presented in chronological order, readers can experience firsthand the development of theme and style. From the beginning, psychological portraits illuminate domestic life—whether one is outside of it (“Wayfarer” by O Chŏng-hŭi) or trapped within (“Identical Apartments” by Pak Wan-sŏ). The first-person perspective, used in the majority of these stories, succeeds in drawing readers in, and styles become more casual as the writing becomes more contemporary.
These tales frequently address mental illness, fear, and language; the title story in particular stands out, depicting a future in which only one language is still spoken. And in “I Ain’t Necessarily So,” Han Yujoo’s narrator describes, “with the absence of end in the dictionary of the kingdom, the king’s scribe must daily sharpen the tip of his pen of steel.” These women’s unforgettable stories are vital reading for both the Korean community and the world at large. – Ann Mayhew
Nicotine: A Novel
By Nell Zink
BUST Rating: 2/5
Mislaid author Nell Zink’s latest novel centers on Penny, a woman whose father—the spiritual leader of a drug cult—is dying. Her mother had married him after he rescued her from a Colombian Kogi tribe, but after his death, she falls in love with one of Penny’s stepbrothers. Not the kind-hearted Patrick, but instead, the clearly sociopathic Matt. When tasked with fixing up an old family property, Penny finds that an anarchist collective has been squatting there for nearly a decade. She develops a deep longing for one of its inhabitants, and this desire becomes her sole motivation throughout the novel.
Nicotine’s narrative is a collection of pseudo-fascinating people whose self-righteous conversations about anarchy and contradictory lack of action are a critique of modern activist culture. Not self-aware enough to be satire, but too heavy-handed to be taken seriously, the book is problematic in many ways. Zink’s handling of asexuality and rape is painfully misguided. And beyond the clumsy treatment of these delicate topics, her sentence structure is shoddy and her language is obvious. Zink’s dedicated fans may enjoy this novel. But others may find that the book’s deliberate hyper-edginess has replaced character development and plot. – Maggie Stamets
The Mothers: A Novel
By Brit Bennett
BUST Rating: 4/5
Set in a close-knit black community in modern-day Southern California, Brit Bennett’s debut novel, The Mothers, examines the interconnected lives of three young people. There’s Nadia, a beautiful teen mourning her mother’s recent suicide; Luke, a pastor’s son struggling to find his footing after a football injury made him lose a scholarship; and the shyly pious Aubrey, who escaped her abusive stepfather and neglectful mother. Nadia falls in love with Luke, gets pregnant, gets an abortion, and gets dumped. She then finds solace in a surprising friendship with Aubrey. But after Nadia moves away for college, Luke and Aubrey connect on their own—complicating Nadia and Aubrey’s friendship.
“The Mothers” in the title refers to a group of church women who narrate the book: “We didn’t believe when we first heard because you know how church folk can gossip,” is The Mothers’ opening line. But Bennett also examines other kinds of motherhood: Nadia and Aubrey’s feelings toward their absent mothers; Luke’s relationship with his overbearing mother; all three characters’ experiences with pregnancy and unborn children. Bennett’s novel is an exploration of motherhood, love, friendship, and community that’s well worth reading. –Erika W. Smith
How to Win at Feminism: The Definitive Guide to Having it All—
And Then Some!
By Reductress (Anna Drezen, Beth Newell, and Sarah Pappalardo)
BUST Rating: 2/5
If you’ve used the Internet in the past three years, chances are you’ve discovered the excellent humor website Reductress, the self-styled “fake women’s magazine” with headlines such as, “Eye Creams That Would Be Great To Use If They All Weren’t, Like, $200.” With its deadpan satire, Reductress offers a unique brand of feminist snark. Disappointingly, however, its humor doesn’t translate very well into a book. A compendium of the best writing from the website’s many talented contributors would be delightful, but this volume presents all-new material from just three voices: Reductress’ two cofounders and its managing editor.
The book is couched in a “how-to guide” format that feels watered down; 256 pages is too much faux self-help. It has its LOLZ (like the observation, “Feminism is bae.... Men can also be bae”). But while the site’s content is consistently incisive and topical, the book wanders into dubious filler territory. And the barrage of repetitive waistline jokes and fat-loss tips, after a while, begin to register less like parody and more like something more insidious and status-quo-enforcing. – Renate Robertson
Stories and Best Practices From Companies That Help Women Succeed
By Martine Liautaud
BUST Rating: 2/5
For MBA students, author Martine Liautaud’s collection of interviews and citation-heavy essays about women in the corporate world may be enlightening and empowering. But outside the business sphere, reading it feels like attending an all-day meeting. Liautaud began her career as an investment banker in France and later founded an organization to mentor women as business leaders. In this book, she interviews mentors and mentees from companies all over the world. But her subjects speak generally—and often with buzzwords—about their corporate cultures. Few offer personal narratives of successes or difficulties in the workplace (the kind of stories that may inspire readers). Liautaud doesn’t provide many specific tips, either, and women who work at companies without established mentorship or sponsorship programs may be left wondering how they can reach the boardroom. –Aileen Gallagher
Feminist Fight Club:
An Office Survival Manual (For a Sexist Workplace)
By Jessica Bennett
BUST Rating: 5/5
Author Jessica Bennett urges workers to unite in this treatise on starting a “feminist fight club” against sexism in the office. Whether you’re dealing with the “frat social chair” who conveniently organizes men-only company outings or a “manterrupter” (think: Kanye West’s interruption of Taylor Swift at the VMAs), Bennett has suggestions for practical “fight moves” to gain the upper hand. She also tackles self-sabotage, common bias traps and double standards, and language hacks for communicating strength and confidence. Example: Instead of deflecting compliments, ask yourself, “What Would Josh Do?” (Josh being a mediocre but entitled white man.) Packed with relatable anecdotes, startling research, and realistic scripts for handling sticky situations, Feminist Fight Club is a no-bullshit, nuts-and-bolts guide to workplace empowerment. – Erica Wetter
In the Company of Women:
Inspiration and Advice from Over 100 Makers, Artists, and Entrepreneurs
By Grace Bonney
BUST Rating: 5/5
Design blogger Grace Bonney’s quietly radical, profoundly moving project brings together short interviews with a diverse group of women who share insight on their life’s work. A simple set of questions (like what they love about their workspace, instructive missteps, women they admire, words that have guided them) and gorgeous photographs reveal a kaleidoscope of joyful enterprise. Small business owners and poets, chefs and cartoonists, potters and musicians all give generous, humorous counsel on taking risks and following one’s heart. Their creativity is so inspiring that this book should be in every female’s possession, especially young girls in need of positive role models and old girls looking for a kick. Seeing women of so many ethnicities, backgrounds, and abilities successfully living their dreams is totally uplifting. Guaranteed you’ll agree with interviewee Mary Lambert, “Passion is definitely contagious!” – Fran Willing
Seeing As Your Shoes Are Soon To Be On Fire: Essays
By Liza Monroy
(Soft Skull Press)
BUST Review: 3/5
While this collection of essays appears to follow the trials and tribulations of author Liza Monroy’s love life, don’t be fooled. The main relationship here is between the writer and her mother, a retired Foreign Service officer for the State Department who is affectionately known as “The Profiler.” As Monroy writes about her former romantic interests, her mother provides her own commentary after each chapter. Monroy decides her fate on emotional whims, while her mother is extremely analytical. The two have starkly different personalities. So it’s no surprise when conflicts arise between them.
These conflicts are the backbone of this memoir, and neither side is completely right or wrong. In the first chapter, readers might sympathize more with Monroy, but halfway through the book, her mother starts sounding more sensible as the two try to figure out whether Monroy’s new flame is promising or a complete disaster. Love cannot be determined by pure emotion or analytics. It requires compromise. And although Monroy and her mother are different, they manage to find balance. – Jacqueline Sheppard
Soulmates: A Novel
By Jessica Grose
BUST Review: 3/5
Jessica Grose’s second novel opens with a mysterious murder and ends with a cult, but struggles to find a narrative arc that makes either come alive. Dana’s husband, Ethan, left her two years ago, and in that time she has risen through the ranks of her law firm while he has become a YouTube yoga-teaching sensation. But Dana’s quiet life is shattered when she learns that Ethan and the woman he left her for were found dead in a New Mexico cave. When an investigating police officer reaches out to her, Dana decides to snoop around the yoga community Ethan was involved with before his death, and finds a generations-spanning story of abuse, manipulation, and sexualized rituals. She also figures out what she wants to do with her life, choosing a path that breaks completely with her corporate existence.
While Soulmates starts strong, the narrative has a hard time keeping up the momentum and sense of danger. Dana’s evolution also feels sudden and shallow, more like brainwashing than a legitimate choice. Even with those flaws, though, the book is a fun, fast read with some laughs and enough twists to keep you tuned in. – Bridey Heing
Who Killed These Girls?: Cold Case: The Yogurt Shop Murders
By Beverly Lowry
BUST Review: 4/5
We can all appreciate a good scary movie. Tales of the unimaginable can be fun—we jump, we scream, and then we turn off our televisions and go to bed. But what if reality was just as horrible as the movies we watch on Halloween? Who Killed These Girls? is a very real reminder that horror isn’t just a fictional genre. Author Beverly Lowry recounts the Yogurt Shop Murders, a cold case from the ’90s in which four teen girls were brutally assaulted, shot, and burned inside of an Austin, TX, I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt! shop.
Although it’s a page-turner, this book’s graphic descriptions of true-crime violence are not for the faint of heart. Lowry lets no detail escape her literary light. With each new revelation, readers will yearn for a happy ending—the killers put away, the parents given peace—but there is no such conclusion. Who Killed These Girls? is not a light at the end of a dark tunnel, but the tunnel itself. These murders shook a city and are sure to haunt you long after you set the book aside. – Madison Nunes
Trainwreck: The Women We Love To Hate, Mock, and Fear...and Why
By Sady Doyle
BUST Review: 5/5
It’s easy to dismiss a book that attempts to explain how criticism of modern pop icons like Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton, and Nicki Minaj parallels the treatment of historical figures such as Billie Holiday, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Harriet Jacobs. But to miss Trainwreck would be a mistake. Author Sady Doyle breaks down eloquently the ways in which women are berated for their sexuality, their pain, their mistakes, and their inability to be what we want. Equally adored and loathed, celebrity women aren’t judged for successes and failures in their chosen professions, but rather for their performances of womanhood. We are quick to forget that Paris Hilton did not leak her sex tape, Miley Cyrus and Britney Spears were sexualized as kids, and society mocked Amy Winehouse’s addiction as she crumbled (only to then exalt her in death).
Doyle isn’t asking anyone to become #Team anybody, or ignore the problematic aspects of some of the women she profiles. She’s instead suggesting we re-examine the lenses through which we have judged women for hundreds of years. Brilliantly snarky and smart, Trainwreck deserves a place on every savvy woman’s bookshelf. –Princess Weekes
This article originally appeared in the October/November 2016 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
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