Our January/February 2019 book reviews are now online! Check out all the books that have been keeping us warm this winter, and don't forget to subscribe to BUST's print magazine.
Beyoncé in Formation: Remixing Black Feminism
By Omise’eke Tinsley
(University of Texas Press)
A companion piece to her undergraduate course, “Beyoncé Feminism, Rihanna Womanism,” at the University of Texas, Professor Omise’eke Tinsley’s third book, Beyoncé in Formation, is the textbook the Beyhive has been waiting for. A literary mixtape, the book focuses both on Beyoncé’s feminism and on Tinsley’s own queer, Southern, Black “femme-inist” worldview. And just like a real mixtape, while this powerful scholarly text is full of nostalgic Black girlhood references and odes to Black womanhood, it still has some flawed and distorted patches, like when it comes to Beyoncé’s relationships with Black trans women.
Tinsley critically addresses, questions, and draws her own conclusions, allowing readers to do the same. Broken down into three parts: family, sexuality, and freedom, the book also examines how high “femme-ininity” is often frowned upon and viewed as traitorous to feminism when it is deemed complicit in patriarchy. A call for solidarity among Black feminists, this painfully beautiful read reminds us that none of us are free until we are all free. 5/5 –Bry’onna Mention
Devotion (Why I Write)
By Patti Smith
(Yale University Press)
Celebrated memoirist and rock icon Patti Smith has always been generous with her creative influences—providing fans with a rigorous breadcrumb trail that leads from Blake to Brontë to Baudelaire to Burroughs and beyond. It’s this enthusiasm for her literary forbearers that makes Smith the perfect writer for Yale’s “Why I Write” series, a collection in which writers present work alongside essays about their piece’s origin. In this slim volume, now in paperback, Smith travels to Paris, the U.K., and into the French countryside. Along the way, she visits Camus’ house, finds the grave of mystical philosopher Simone Weil, and catches a figure skater on TV who rocks her world.
The real surprise, however, is the title story, “Devotion.” It’s a rare foray into short fiction for Smith, in which a teen skater crosses paths with a wealthy artifact collector. A twisted tale of obsession that is as intriguing as it is relentless, “Devotion”is heightened by Smith’s accompanying travelogues. She even provides photos of the story’s handwritten first draft, composed on a train. It’s a breathtakingly personal offering that illuminates her as kin to both of her tale’s entwined main characters. 5/5 –Emily Rems
Well-Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves
Edited by Glory Edim
As kids, most of us wanted to find books that told our stories—that made us feel like we belonged. But for women of color, that has never been easy. It’s why Glory Edim founded the Well-Read Black Girl book club, an online community and IRL group that celebrates and amplifies the voices of Black writers. And now, she’s put together an essay anthology that examines books that have shaped Black women’s lives. For Edim, it’s “a tribute to the brilliant Black women who have made us.” Like Jamaica Kincaid, whose 1978 short story “Girl” helped Mama’s Girl author Veronica Chambers bridge two worlds. Or The Belles author Dhonielle Clayton, who explored her sexuality with help from April Sinclair’s 1994 novel, Coffee Will Make You Black. On the other hand,Jesmyn Ward explains that she never found a book that represented her until she wrote it herself, making the case that representation in literature is something we should never stop fighting for.
In between essays from others, Edim offers book recommendations, not only for your next book club, but also for a “radical and inclusive approach to the literary canon.” It’s an approach that surely will help more women feel seen. 5/5 –Shannon Carlin
Evening in Paradise: More Stories
By Lucia Berlin
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Lucia Berlin published short stories from the ’60s to the ’90s and died in 2004. But her books never sold well until her collection, A Manual for Cleaning Women, was published in2015. This new collection, Evening In Paradise, contains 22 more tales ranging in length from a paragraph to over 20 pages.
Much like in A Manual for Cleaning Women, the majority of the protagonists in Evening in Paradise are those who are often overlooked: women, particularly older women; the working class; and Latinx folks. The title story is one of the few with a male narrator, a hotel bartender named Hernán who observes the drama when Ava Gardner and Elizabeth Taylor come to town. In “The Wives,” a first and second wife commiserate about their terrible husband. In “Lost in the Louvre,” a woman skips the Mona Lisa—“There was always a line in front of her and she was behind a window just like they have in liquor stores in Oakland”—and instead finds joy in a wing full of “lovely mundane objects. [...] Like death, this section was not extraordinary. It was so unexpected.” 4/5 –Erika W. Smith
Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger
By Rebecca Traister
(Simon & Schuster)
In her latest book, journalist Rebecca Traister chronicles and analyzes the outpouring of women’s anger that has emerged since 2016, and gauges the potential that rage has for transforming politics and culture. Charting the ways women’s anger has driven change for centuries, Traister places #MeToo and the Women’s March within a legacy of transformational fury. She also teases out cultural norms that stifle women’s anger, and the ways in which that stifling serves the dominant power structure.
This is a timely and insightful read that addresses all the power dynamics between women that can ultimately help uphold white supremacist patriarchy. But it doesn’t follow a clear narrative arc, with chapters jumping around through history and touching on numerous topics or movements. This style makes the book feel directionless at times, and stops it from creating a cohesive picture that adequately conveys how women’s anger has transformed countries and cultures. Nonetheless, this dive into the thorny nature of anger at once provides inspiration and challenges the reader to think deeply about women’s rage. 4/5 –Bridey Heing
Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood
By Karina Longworth
Spoiler Alert: Howard Hughes—the millionaire/pilot/filmmaker of Hollywood’s Golden Age—was a garbage person who treated everyone around him like crap. Yet his legacy, sadly, still haunts Hollywood to this day. Seduction,by noted film historian Karina Longworth, follows Hughes from unknown rich brat in Texas to well-known rich brat in Acapulco. If you’ve ever seen a black-and-white movie, chances are you’ve seen a Hughes film. And Hollywood’s first starlets like Faith Domergue, Terry Moore, Ginger Rogers, and Katherine Hepburn were all linked to Hughes in increasingly horrific ways.
Hughes manipulated, abused, stalked, and financially ruined aspiring actresses for 50 years starting in the 1920s. But Longworth balances her disdain for him (he was also a raging racist) with pity derived from the severe germaphobia that made him a recluse later in life. “He was either a sociopath,” she writes, “or else he got genuine pleasure out of manipulating people.” Good luck not throwing this book across the room while reading about one of Weinstein’s most prolific predecessors. 2/5 –Bri Kane
She Wants It: Desire, Power, and Toppling the Patriarchy
By Jill Soloway
Jill Soloway is no stranger to mining real life for creative content—their own parent’s gender transition helped inspire what would eventually become the beloved Amazon series, Transparent. And this same fearlessness is on ample display in Soloway’s most recent book, She Wants It, a treasure trove of juicy insights into the artistic process of the in-demand, Emmy and Golden Globe-winning television creator, showrunner, writer, and director.
But the true charm of this raw retelling of Soloway’s story lies in the personal descriptions of life as a parent, a partner, a daughter, and (after a deeply personal inventory taken after undergoing a breast reduction and coming out as queer) a non-binary person. That journey is captivating, full of chaos, and at times, admittedly imperfect. “I am still compelled by the idea that I have to hurry and change the world before I die,” ruminates Soloway. By putting out this insightful blend of memoir, self-assessment, and feminist theory, Soloway has arguably already done so. And for that, many readers will be extremely grateful. 5/5 –Brandy Barber
She Would Be King: A Novel
By Wayétu Moore
Debut novelist Wayétu Moore skillfully blends historical fiction with magical realism in this immersive interpretation of Liberia’s roots. She Would Be King follows three young protagonists who can only be described as superheroes: June Dey, who uses superhuman, bulletproof strength to survive childhood on a plantation in Virginia; Norman, the biracial child of a violent colonizer and a Jamaican mother, who is able to turn invisible; and the standout heroine, Gbessa, the immortal witch and “would-be king” referenced in the novel’s title, who is able to survive absolutely anything. The book’s first half alternates between these characters’ coming-of-age (and superpower) stories, before connecting them to the founding of Liberia.
Engrossing as Moore’s novel is, it is definitely not an easy read: themes of violence, racism, and misogyny are highlighted against the backdrops of slavery and colonization, both in Africa and the United States. But the resilience of—and powerful bond between—the three heroes makes She Would Be King a hopeful and quick-paced tale that will have you running to the library (or the internet) to learn more about Liberia’s history as soon as you finish this unforgettable story. 5/5 –Lydia Wang
Things To Make And Break: Stories
By May-Lan Tan
(Coffee House Press)
Author May-Lan Tan’s debut story collection elicits marvel and delight with its innovative use of language, disturbing imagery, and masterful writing. Sex and gender, extraordinary love, and strangeness form thematic through-lines in the otherwise disparate and vast universe of Tan’s creation. In one of the most compelling stories, “Candy Glass,” a gay movie star falls in love with her trans stunt double, only to lose her to circumstances more harrowing than any on-set accident. In “Laurens,” two characters who will never meet are more connected than they’ll ever know through experiences of shocking violence and despair. And “101,” one of the more realist pieces in the largely surreal collection, features the saddest wedding hookup in contemporary literature.
What really carries Things to Make and Break, though, are its stunning lines, where precision and creativity abound. In “Laurens,” for instance: “As he walks across the lot, he feels day-old sunshine trapped in the asphalt.” Though all the characters here are trapped in some way—whether by a surreal dominatrix in “Julia K,” in the frightening family scenarios of “Laurens,” or in their own bodies in “Candy Glass”—Tan leaves readers feeling liberated from conventional storytelling. 4/5 –Liza Monroy
Under Fire: Reporting from the Front Lines of the Trump White House
By April Ryan
(Rowman & Littlefield)
There are times in history when having a government backstage pass might’ve been boring, or academically interesting, or perhaps just pretty cool. But April Ryan, a 21-year veteran White House reporter, is there now, at an absolutely atypical and ever-changing time, with a front row seat to this mess. Well, technically, she sits in the third row, “smack in the middle.”
Ryan’s writing is conversational and accessible while also displaying impressive depth of knowledge and access. She provides, for instance, some context behind blundering generalizations made by the 45th president about healthcare, quoting not only from conversations she’s had with a senator the prez said refused to meet with him, but also from scholarly texts about health disparities for different races and socio-economic groups in the United States. Sometimes pointing the spotlight, occasionally in it, Ryan very apparently values truth—seeking it and telling it. This book gives perspective on our most recent presidential election and, though timely, will still be providing valuable insights for years to come. 4/5 –Christine Femia
The Woo-Woo: How I Survived Ice Hockey, Drug Raids, Demons, and My Crazy Chinese Family
By Lindsay Wong
(Arsenal Pulp Press)
In this darkly humorous memoir, author Lindsay Wong delves into her childhood in the McMansion-and-Chinese-immigrant-filled “Hongcouver” suburb where she grew up amid wealthy drug dealers, mean girls named after Greek gods, and ghosts her family called “the woo-woo.” Wong’s dysfunctional family believed their mental illnesses were caused by ghost possession. So when Wong begins grad school at “the Columbian University,” as her father calls it, in New York, and she experiences severe migraine-associated vertigo, the family decides she has gone woo-woo, just like her mother, suicidal aunt, and schizophrenic grandmother.
Wong is not afraid to acknowledge the absurdity of her family and younger self. But now an adult out of her family’s bubble, she’s able to recognize the danger she survived, like her mother burning her foot to wake her up, the taboo of being alone in a bathroom (the woo-woo can get you then), and her anxiety-fueled binge eating. The writing is rough around the edges, more clunky than smooth, but The Woo-Woo is a unique look at class, immigrant experience, and mental illness. 3/5 –Ann Mayhew
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2019 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
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