Our June/July 2018 book reviews are now online! Check out BUST’s favorite reads this spring, including new books by Peggy Orenstein, Franchesca Ramsey, and Tayari Jones. Don’t forget to subscribe here!
All The Names They Used For God: Stories
By Anjali Sachdeva
(Spiegel & Grau)
“He waits for me to tell him what I want, what to do. What comes next,” concludes the fifth story in Anjali Sachdeva’s debut short story collection, All The Names They Used For God. “And who knows the answer to that?”
No one does, but Sachdeva vividly imagines the past, the future, the hypothetical, and everything in between. Not quite fantasy or science fiction, these nine stories are cerebral, innovative, and dark. Fishermen fall in love with mermaids; women abducted by Boko Haram break free and navigate the aftermath. “Killer of Kings” offers a poetic speculation into John Milton’s mind as he writes his epic poem and communicates with the angel that serves as his muse. The most resonant story in the collection, however, is nestled at the end. In “Pleiades,” a genetically modified septuplet outlives her identical sisters, who die tragically one by one. Though the stories span eras and continents, Sachdeva creates a small universe in each, and reminds us of all that is possible: there is science, there is God, and somehow amidst both, there is humanity. 4/5 –Lydia Wang
All the Women in My Family Sing: Women Write the World—Essays on Equality, Justice, and Freedom
Edited by Deborah Santana
(Nothing But The Truth Publishing)
Inspiring and profound, this exciting compilation of first-person nonfiction by women of color including America Ferrera, Porochista Khakpour, and more, offers a much-needed and wide-ranging perspective on the 21st- century human condition. These personal essays shed light on both present-day realities and on crucial historical events, such as the Cambodian killing fields, the AIDS epidemic, and the extended reign of terror that was Jim Crow.
Exploring incomprehensible tragedies and incredible triumphs, these narratives encompass a complex array of lived experiences. From the African-American mother whose heart aches for the safety of her son as she contemplates the “unequal application of force and justice depending on race,” to the prominent visual arts scholar who unpacks the uncomfortable politics of how race and ethnicity effect the critical canon, to the South African activist with a searing tale about the devastating mental effects of encountering apartheid at a very early age, these authors invite us to step into their shoes to bear witness and deepen our understanding as they share their personal truths. 5/5 –Renate Robertson
An American Marriage: A Novel
By Tayari Jones
Tayari Jones’ fourth novel follows husband and wife Celestial and Roy’s years of marriage, a classic love story torn apart when Roy is sentenced to 12 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. The couple’s comfortable Atlanta life is shattered as their paths diverge, with Roy paying for somebody else’s mistakes while Celestial decides what kind of life she wants to lead. Celestial, Roy, and their mutual friend Andre’s voices combine to create a stunning polyphonic novel, often depicting how little one can understand of another’s experience and desires, no matter how much love and effort one puts into the attempt. Letters make up a notable chunk of the narrative—and here, too, we witness Jones’ skill as a writer of distinctive voices.
An American Marriage explores the effects of outside forces beyond its characters’ control—racism and mass incarceration—alongside more personal questions like whether or not to have children, how to interact with in-laws, how to reconcile differences in background and upbringing, and finally, how to negotiate a marriage when love, on its own, is no longer enough. 5/5 –Alexandra Chang
Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad & Criminal In 19th-Century New York
By Stacy Horn
This tale of horror begins in 1828 when New York City purchased a small strip of land that would soon house mental patients, convicts, the sick, and the homeless. Teeter-tottering between a history textbook and a murder mystery, Stacy Horn’s Damnation Island is fast moving and entrenched in detail. And the detail is where things get gross (like, the-same-putrid-bath-water-used-by-hundreds-of-patients kind of gross). What’s even more horrifying—it’s all real.
Roosevelt Island is real; the story of journalist Nellie Bly’s 10 terrifying days in the asylum is real; and the countless deaths there that remain uninvestigated to this day are all real, too. Those who were systematically failed by society in the late 1800s and the early 1900s are the exact same demographics being discarded today: people of color, the mentally ill, the disabled, and the homeless. Therefore, it isn’t surprising that these were the unfortunates who ended up on Damnation Island. These days, the island is a residential community dotted with scenic parks and landmarks. But history buffs will be terrified by what occurred there a century ago. 3/5 –Brianne Kane
Don’t Call Me Princess: Essays On Girls, Women, Sex, and Life
By Peggy Orenstein
You might recognize Peggy Orenstein’s name from her viral TED Talk. But before she was discussing what women believe about their own sexual pleasure on stage, she was writing essays and books on an even wider range of topics.
Don’t Call Me Princess is a collection of diary entries, previously published pieces, and excerpts from other parts of Orenstein’s accomplished career as an author. In one recent piece, she hits hard on what it was like to be 35 with breast cancer. She also reveals more of her own story through a series of essays about other notable feminists. Although the book is written with girls and women in mind, it remains all-inclusive in its language. Orenstein talks about women’s issues without alienating allies, yet still maintains a strongly opinionated voice. She also makes readers feel as if they are a part of a community and part of an important conversation. After having read these pieces, you might come away inspired to write some essays of your own. 5/5 –Madison Nunes
Landwhale: On Turning Insults Into Nicknames, Why Body Image Is Hard, and How Diets Can Kiss My Ass
By Jes Baker
In her second memoir, blogger and body-positivity activist Jes Baker—the singular voice behind the website The Militant Baker and the “Attractive & Fat” viral ad campaign—returns with her signature blend of laugh-out-loud, self-deprecating humor and deeply personal ruminations. Baker traces her struggle to love herself and accept herself back to her childhood, and to a father who took his own self-hatred out on her when he saw her struggling with her weight. She also details her romantic difficulties with hilarious and frank tales of dating and sex, including getting dumped by a self-absorbed man who never valued her, only to later find someone who loves her as she is. Throughout these recollections, Baker attacks our sizeist, fat-phobic culture head-on, showing that one can cultivate self-esteem and confidence even when the world is full of bullies.
Baker’s journey toward self-love, her incessant wit, and her willingness to plumb her psychological depths make this book a must-read for women of all shapes and sizes. 4/5 –Adrienne Urbanski
A Girl’s Guide to Joining the Resistance: A Feminist Handbook on Fighting for Good
By Emma Gray
(William Morrow Paperbacks)
A Girl’s Guide to Joining the Resistance is an extremely well done action plan that provides inspiration and tools for doing exactly what the title states. With author Emma Gray’s wise words—and those of the people she interviewed—this small volume is both practical and approachable.
The book provides not only actionable steps to take to join the resistance, but also context and motivational tidbits. It includes chapters on intersectionality, storytelling, and self-care, in addition to more practical tips for taking action, such as apps to use and organizations to reach out to; a script to use when calling your rep; and how to navigate fake news. Gray’s writing is light, engaging, and relatable. And many chapters include quotes from a number of diverse voices, including Elizabeth Warren, Carmen Perez, Amanda Gorman, Deja Foxx, Ashley Judd, Tina Tchen, and more. As Marlo Thomas states within these pages, “It is up to [young women] now to carry the fight forward, as these issues will define their lives and their children’s lives.” 5/5 –Ann Mayhew
Motherhood: A Novel
By Sheila Heti
(Henry Holt and Co.)
Sheila Heti, author of the bestseller How Should a Person Be?, continues to mull over that question in her new novel, Motherhood. But this time around, she focuses on women approaching the end of their fertile years.
Some readers refer to Heti’s style as inventive, others see it as plotless, and many compare her work to a personal diary. Any accurate description will serve to highlight (or excuse) her lack of forward momentum. Motherhood, however, is not a journal, and fortunately, Heti is not your average diarist—she is a strong writer who puts forth honest, provoking observations, exploring motherhood as more than whether a woman decides to have a child. “There is always someone ready to step into the path of a woman’s freedom,” she writes, “sensing that she is not yet a mother, who tries to make her into one.” While the end of the novel made me glad I had taken the journey, the journey itself was rough. Especially when the narrator spent significant time detailing her dreams and engaging in an I Ching-inspired Q&A with herself. Heti is a fine writer, but nothing here felt urgent. 3/5 –Laurie Ann Cedilnik
My Year of Rest and Relaxation
By Ottessa Moshfegh
Ottessa Moshfegh’s unnamed narrator in her latest novel is a disengaged 20-something living in Manhattan months before 9/11 who, unmoored but financially supported by her recent orphaning, relies on a recklessly accommodating psychiatrist to help her pursue renewal through hibernation. She tucks away in her apartment, drugging herself to sleep for days with an impressive list of barbiturates. She’s not suicidal or catatonic—she truly thinks a year of sleep will help, and in moments of lucidity, she eats, stretches, bathes, watches movies, hosts visits from a bulimic friend, and gets bodega coffee. When she occasionally mentions the date, you get a sense of foreboding as 9/11 approaches, which makes one wonder: Is the story a metaphor for American ignorance in the early aughts, or a stand-in for simmering depression coming to a boil?
It’s not clear, but it frankly doesn’t matter—Moshfegh’s writing is uniquely funny and striking. Her characters are never excused from the feral realities of vomit, snot, and shit. And the real enjoyment from this unsettling book is found in the messy corporeality of a young woman who truly doesn’t give an eff: awake, asleep, or in-between. 5/5 –Molly Labell
By Marisha Pessl
Marisha Pessl, best known for Special Topics in Calamity Physics, moves from writing about teens for adults to writing about teens for teens with her first YA novel, Neverworld Wake. Readers follow a group of friends who meet up one year after their prep-school graduation—and one year after their friend Jim died in an apparent suicide. Almost as soon as they reunite, the friends are involved in a near-fatal car accident. Caught between life and death, they find themselves trapped in the “Neverworld,” where they’re doomed to live out the same day over and over, like a goth Groundhog Day. The only way to escape is for the group to elect a single member to survive the accident. The Neverworld looks like the real world, but it has its own rules, and the friends try to figure out a new way to escape. All the while, the real story of Jim’s death begins to unravel.
These characters aren’t as memorable as in Pessl’s other novels, and the many pop-culture references sometimes feel shoehorned in. But the twisty-turny plot and imaginative worldbuilding make this a captivating read, no matter your age. 4/5 –Erika W. Smith
Well, That Escalated Quickly: Memoirs and Mistakes of an Accidental Activist
By Franchesca Ramsey
(Grand Central Publishing)
YouTube star and host of MTV’s Decoded Franchesca Ramsey is no stranger to controversy. Just like her videos, her first book, Well, That Escalated Quickly, tackles racism, sexism, and intersectionality. With chapters titled “Eulogies for Cringe-Worthy Comments” and “Activism is Like Long Division—You Have to Show Your Work,” Ramsey writes an approachable, informative guide for budding members of the #resistance. She begins by discussing her first viral video, 2012’s “Shit White Girls Say…to Black Girls.” In discussing some of the backlash that ensued, she both calls herself out (“It became painfully obvious that I’d made a terrible mistake”) and reflects on her growth (“Instead of telling her she was being ridiculous and low-key racist, I decided to take the high road.”)
Ramsey’s anecdotes as a black woman who grew up in the suburbs are salient, but her explanations of past controversies—such as her infamous interview with Anderson Cooper—are a bit defensive. The book excels when Ramsey is doing what she does best: calling people in and sparking crucial dialogue. 4/5 –Robyn Smith
This article originally appeared in the June/July 2018 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
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