Review: The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson, Rosanna Bruno

I ordered this book on a whim after coming across it in an article posted on Facebook (which is appropriate, given the subject matter of the book). The article, entitled “Why Moody Teenagers Love Emily Dickinson” (BBC), quotes the author of The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson, Rosanna Bruno:

“We were taught that she was this reclusive spinster who lived with her family, dressed all in white, and wrote in her room all day”, recalls artist Rosanna Bruno of her high school introduction to the poet in the 1980s. Even then, Bruno felt that the mythology of the poet didn’t really mesh with the poems. “It seemed so incongruous to what she wrote”, she says. “Have you ever heard Helen Mirren reading Wild Nights!? You really have to rethink Dickinson as a reclusive spinster after that rendition.”

Indeed, Bruno has hit on something here. Dickinson is one of those writers, like Poe or the Brontës, whose lives—or should I say whose “images”—come dangerously close to eclipsing their work. I, too, have been guilty of trying to sell Emily Dickinson to teenagers by telling them intrigues about her life. But as I have learned more about her, I have learned more about her humorous side, her playful side, her wicked side, for lack of a better word. And she is way more interesting than our portrait of her as the recluse in a white dress. Rosanna Bruno captures in cartoons what Emily Dickinson’s life might have been like with some of our twenty-first century concerns (and social media accounts). The result is a funny graphic novel that I think Emily Dickinson herself might have enjoyed.

You might need to click on this for the full image to enjoy the effect, but anyone whose tried out writing up classic literature with emojis (that is a thing), will enjoy this:

The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson

From The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson © Rosanna Bruno, used under fair use for the purpose of critique

I enjoyed the juxtaposition of one of my favorite books and my favorite poet:

The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson

From The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson © Rosanna Bruno, used under fair use for the purpose of critique

But my favorite might be her OK Cupid profile, though the Yelp reviews were pretty awesome, too.

The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson

From The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson © Rosanna Bruno, used under fair use for the purpose of critique

Bruno has clearly researched Dickinson’s life, and there are plenty of Easter eggs for those who know a lot about the poet’s life. The artistic renderings of Dickinson’s home and environment are done with a careful eye as well. What shines through most clearly is that Bruno is a fan of Emily Dickinson’s and she had a lot of fun with Dickinson’s poetry as she wrote this book.

Anyone who is a fan of Emily Dickinson’s will probably enjoy this book, and it also has an audience with folks who enjoy Roz Chast’s cartoons (both Chast and Alison Bechdel get fan shout-outs in this book).

Check out Bruno’s website for more images from the book.

Rating: ★★★★☆

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Sherlock Holmes: The Reigate Squires, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Reigate Squires

Illustration for “The Reigate Squires” by Sidney Paget for The Strand

“The Reigate Squires,” also known as “The Reigate Puzzle” or “The Reigate Squire,” was this week’s read for the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. In this short story, Holmes appears to be recovering from some illness, and he goes into the country with Watson and Watson’s army buddy Col. Hayter, ostensibly so he can rest and recover. However, he finds himself plopped in the middle of a mystery upon finding out that Col. Hayter’s neighbors, the Actons, are the victims of a burglary. One morning early in Holmes’s stay, another of Hayter’s neighbors, the Cunninghams, report that their butler has been killed in an attempted burglary. The local constabulary are keen to have Holmes’s help with the case, and he agrees to take it on—despite Watson’s admonition to rest—after finding the torn corner of a note crumpled in the hand of the deceased butler. Watson has misgivings about Holmes’s health, but knows it’s hopeless to argue when Holmes is on the scent of a trail.

I noticed a couple of interesting things in this story. First, I thought of the episode in the BBC series Sherlock episode “The Sign of Three” when Sherlock attends John and Mary’s wedding, and the guest of honor is Major Sholto, who was Watson’s commander in Afghanistan. Of course, I will look for more references in that episode when I read The Sign of the Four, but I thought perhaps Col. Hayter was a reference to Major Sholto, but I discovered that Major Sholto is actually a character in that book rather than this story, so the Hayter and Sholto are not the same. I know Sherlock’s predisposition to run himself ragged and even to make himself ill in working on a case has been shown on the series, but I can’t recall a specific episode. Also, I had a memory of Sherlock feigning illness in the course of a case, but again, I can’t figure out which episode it was. I may be remembering incorrectly. The only reference I could really find was an Easter egg reference to a Chinese restaurant in “Reigate Square” in the episode “The Six Thatchers.”

In any case, this was an enjoyable story. I liked it more for the relationship it shows between Holmes and Watson. For instance, in convincing Holmes to go to Col. Hayter’s house, he says, “A little diplomacy was needed.” He knew Holmes would not willingly go “rest” in the country. I also loved Holmes’s explanation that “[t]here were twenty-three other deductions which would be of more interest to experts than to you” in the course of revealing how he solved the case. Naturally there were! The relationship between Holmes and Watson was quite similar to what I have seen Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman enact on screen. I don’t know how it was established to take place at this point in the chronology, as I didn’t notice any helpful chronological clues as such.

Rating: ★★★★☆

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI read this story as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. It is the ninth story in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is “The Second Stain.”

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Sherlock Holmes: The Resident Patient, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Resident Patient

Illustration for “The Resident Patient” by Sidney Paget for The Strand

This week’s story in the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge is “The Resident Patient,” which was published in The Strand in 1893 and collected in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. Holmes and Watson go for a walk, and upon returning, they discover they have a client, Dr. Percy Trevelyan. He has a most unusual story to tell about his benefactor and resident patient, Mr. Blessington. Blessington invested in Dr. Trevelyan’s practice in return for a large percentage of the earnings Dr. Trevelyan made. Dr. Trevelyan is visited by a new patient, a Russian count with a form of catalepsy and brought to see Dr. Trevelyan by his son. The patient and son mysteriously disappear in the middle of their consultation when Dr. Trevelyan leaves the room for a moment, and Blessington insists someone has been in his rooms. The two men seek the help of Sherlock Holmes, who insists, upon hearing Blessington’s story, that the man is not being truthful. He leaves. Early the next morning, he and Watson are called and informed Blessington has committed suicide. A cursory investigation of the matter reveals that Blessington was murdered.

This was a good story, and it also stands out as one of more well-written Sherlock Holmes stories I’ve read so far. I liked Holmes’s insistence on the truth and refusal to help until he got it. It was a nice bit of characterization on Doyle’s part. As a side note, crooks are really stupid to leave behind any of their smoking evidence when Holmes is in London. He knows way too much about all forms of cigars, ash, and smoking ephemera. He also knows everything, it would seem, about footprints. At any rate, the story is satisfying with a deduction that is somewhat difficult, but that a reader can still follow and not feel cheated by a left-field leap of logic. I believe there is a tenuous connection between this story and the Sherlock series (SPOILER ALERT) in that Blessington is an informant for a gang of thieves, and once the gang is released from prison, they hunt him down and murder him. In the series, Mary Morstan Watson had been a member of a group of assassins called AGRA, after the group members’ initials. They are surprised and betrayed on one of their missions. Two of the members die, leaving Mary (aka Rosamund) and AJ left. Mary escapes, but AJ is captured. Mary believes him dead. AJ is tortured and imprisoned, and when he is released, he hunts down Mary with the goal of killing her for what he perceives as her betrayal. It’s a fairly loose connection, but it’s the closest one I noticed in the story. Also, Blessington uses an assumed name just as Mary did after the incident that broke up each of their “gangs.” A nice little Easter egg: one of the characters is named Moffat, like the writer and producer of Sherlock.

Rating: ★★★★☆

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI read this story as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. It is the eighth story in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is “The Reigate Squires.”

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Sherlock Holmes: The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Musgrave Ritual

Sidney Paget illustration for “The Musgrave Ritual” in The Strand

“The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual” is one of Sherlock Holmes’s earliest cases. Before Holmes met Watson, he was friends with Reginald Musgrave, whom he met in college. Musgrave seeks Holmes’s help after his butler and maid vanish mysteriously. Musgrave recounts that he happened upon his butler examining a map and an old family document called the Musgrave Ritual, which each generation of Musgraves recites upon accession of the family title and property. Musgrave doesn’t think it means anything, but Holmes is not so sure, and he deduces that it is a riddle that together with the map will lead Musgrave and Holmes to discover what happened to the butler and maid.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of “The Musgrave Ritual” was its description (possibly introduction) of some of Holmes’s quirks: his “untidy” nature, his habit of fixing unanswered correspondence to the mantel with a jack-knife, his abstracted fiddling with his violin, and his shooting his gun at the wall. As a story itself, it’s a nice little mystery, if not without its flaws—in order for the secret riddle to work, trees would need to remain the same height over hundreds of years, and the time of year (which would be important in calculations) isn’t accounted for, not to mention paces as means of measurement are fairly unreliable as people will have vastly different strides. I love it that Reginald Musgrave just happened to get a wild hair and measured the height of all the trees on the property using trigonometry. We all did that in our crazy schooldays, didn’t we? Still, it’s a fun mystery, and it winds up being a genuine treasure hunt, too, with a connection to the Royal Family. “The Musgrave Ritual” was originally published in The Strand in 1893 and was later collected in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.

Update 1/16/17: Season 4, episode 3 of Sherlock was just broadcast last night, and now that the debriefs with spoilers are online, I feel I can update this post to add some of the references to “The Musgrave Ritual” that I noticed in “The Final Problem.” First, Sherlock’s home was called Musgrave, and the rhyme Eurus gives as a clue to the whereabouts of Sherlock’s friend are not too different from the rhyme in “The Musgrave Ritual.” The home is not terribly different from the Musgraves’ home, and the ultimate solution leads Sherlock to discover a grisly death not too different from that of the butler in the short story. Please also check out my post updating “The Gloria Scott” review with Sherlock references to that story.

The episode “The Abominable Bride” in the new Sherlock series references “The Musgrave Ritual”—Sherlock mentions several cases in this story, one of which is a “full account of Ricoletti of the club-foot and his abominable wife.” A tiny reference like that is proof that Gatiss and Moffat are true fans of the stories. I have to admit, I don’t wonder they wanted to play with the potential of the story. Who doesn’t want to know more about Ricoletti of the club-foot and his abominable wife? That particular episode of Sherlock was a Christmas special, and it’s unique in that it’s the only episode set in the Victorian era. It was a really fun episode. I loved the costumes. You can check out the trailer here:

Rating: ★★★★☆

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI read this story as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. It is the second short story in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is The Study in Scarlet, which I have already read, so look for more Sherlock Holmes next month.

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Sherlock Holmes: A Study in Scarlet, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge invites challenge participants to read all 60 Sherlock Holmes stories—four novels and 56 short stories—in the order in which they were published. The first Sherlock Holmes story published was the novel A Study in Scarlet, written in 1886 and published the following year in 1887. The novel introduces two of the most iconic characters in British literature—detective Sherlock Holmes and his friend and companion, Dr. John Watson.

In the event you are unfamiliar with the events of the novel, Dr. John Watson has returned from service in Afghanistan and looking for affordable lodgings when he happens upon an old friend who tells Watson that he knows someone else looking for lodgings, and if Watson doesn’t mind a few eccentricities, he might have himself a roommate. Watson consents to meet the gentlemen, who turns out to be Sherlock Holmes. The two agree to share lodgings at 221B Baker Street. Before Watson knows what is happening, he is involved in a case with Holmes. A body has been found in an abandoned house on Brixton Road, and the German word rache has been written over the body in blood—blood that does not belong to the victim. Watson follows Sherlock Holmes as he works with Scotland Yard inspectors Gregson and Lestrade. Sherlock Holmes unravels the mystery and determines the man, along with another victim found later in the story, was murdered in an act of revenge.

The first half of the novel involves Watson’s meeting with Holmes and Holmes’s subsequent involvement and deduction of the case, while the second half is a flashback taking place mostly in Utah, where the principles involved in the case—the two murdered men and their murderer—met and where the murderer developed the enmity that would drive him to chase the two men across two continents to kill them. In all honesty, the first half is charming, while the second half suffers (perhaps a bit comically) from Doyle’s lack of knowledge about America, Americans, the American West, and Mormons. It’s a fairly ridiculous story in some ways—rache, the German word for revenge, looks like a clue, but is really an afterthought of the killer’s (even though revenge was, in fact, his motive). I have to give the novel four stars for a great first half, but I can’t give it five after the mess of the second half.

Right after I finished reading the novel, I decided to watch the episode “A Study in Pink” of the BBC series Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman as John Watson, mainly because as I read A Study in Scarlet, it struck me that of all the iterations of I have seen of Sherlock Holmes stories, the current BBC series seems to capture Sherlock’s personality better than most—perhaps all—other adaptations. There is a quirky eccentricity that Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock has that few other actors have managed to bring out in the same way. “A Study in Pink” pulls many elements from the plot of A Study in Scarlet, though thankfully not the second act set in Utah. It also does a masterful job of pulling the story forward to the 21st century while still adhering to many of the elements, including the identity of the murderer.

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeAs I work my way through the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge, I plan to watch episodes of Sherlock that include elements of or allusions to the canon of 60 stories. I purchased a Kindle edition of the complete adventures, so I am not planning on counting the book as “completed” until I finish  the entire collection, though I will track my progress reading the stories on my Reading Challenges page. The second story, also a novel, is The Sign of the Four. I will review each novel and short story here on the blog as I finish them.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Addendum: It looks like I misunderstood the challenge chronology. The stories follow perhaps a different chronology from their publication date, which is something I vaguely recall from reading them many years ago. I am going to try to catch up with the short stories for weeks one and two and post reviews here. Meanwhile, I’m a little ahead on the first novel, so probably no harm done.

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TLC Book Tour: Commonwealth, Ann Patchett

tlc1I’ve been seeing Ann Patchett’s newest novel Commonwealth on all the “best of the fall” lists and displays in bookstores, so I was really excited to be among the first to read it, courtesy of the TLC Book Tours. I was also excited to read it because I really enjoyed State of Wonder. I haven’t read her book Bel Canto, but I understand it’s amazing.

Commonwealth begins at Franny Keating’s christening party in Southern California, when Bert Cousins, attorney at the DA office, shows up uninvited with a bottle of gin that never seems to run out and the idea to make screwdrivers with oranges, abundant in the trees of suburban LA. Before long, Bert is Franny’s stepfather. She and her older sister spend most of the year in Virginia, where Bert and Beverly, Franny’s mother, move after their marriage. Meanwhile, Fix Keating, Franny’s father, stays in California, close to where the Cousins children spend most of their year with their mother. However, during the summer, the families combine when the Cousins children fly out to Virginia to spend time with their father. Bert and Beverly, clearly worn out by caring for all six children at once, don’t pay quite as much attention to the wild adventures the children undertake—an oversight that will prove disastrous and ripple through the family for decades. Years later, Franny meets renowned author Leon Posen, and her family story finds its way into his first novel in years.

This book flashes around in time and takes on different points of view, but for the most part, it is told by Franny. I am not sure if the revelations about Franny’s family or the aftermath when they become the subject of Leon’s book would have been as effective without time jumps, but all the same, it makes it more challenging to follow the plot. However, this book is much more about the characters and how they relate than it is about the plot. Some readers might want to return to other parts, and it’s easy to miss a small but important detail. I did feel the plot meandered too much, and I kept looking for a great revelation or some major event that would tie the ends together in a grand theme, which I did see in State of Wonder. The writing at the sentence level was great—Patchett on form. Patchett pulls some sleight of hand with the pivotal event (I can’t reveal too much) that seems unfair à la Chekov’s gun. Honestly, that particular choice somehow made the universe feel especially cruel. I’d be interested to see if other readers felt the same way. The novel takes a while to get into, but once it grabbed me, it was hard to put down. I wanted to find out how everything would end. The result didn’t feel like a novel story—it felt more like a real family story, passed down over the years, with all the flaws, gaps, and drawbacks as well as all the great realism and importance that a family story is.

Rating: ★★★★☆

tlc2Tour Schedule

Tuesday, September 13th: BookNAround
Wednesday, September 14th: Books and Bindings
Thursday, September 15th: Vox Libris
Friday, September 16th: Art @ Home
Friday, September 16th: 5 Minutes For Books
Monday, September 19th: A Bookish Way of Life
Wednesday, September 21st: A Chick Who Reads
Thursday, September 22nd: Tina Says…
Monday, September 26th: bookchickdi
Tuesday, September 27th: Books on the Table
Wednesday, September 28th: Cerebral Girl in a Redneck World
Thursday, September 29th: West Metro Mommy
Monday, October 3rd: Fictionophile
Tuesday, October 4th: Literary Quicksand
Tuesday, October 4th: Luxury Reading
Wednesday, October 5th: Much Madness is Divinest Sense
Thursday, October 6th: Lit and Life
Friday, October 7th: The Well-Read Redhead

Read on to learn more about the book from TLC Book Tours and the publisher.

commonwealth-coverAbout Commonwealth

Hardcover: 336 pages
Publisher: Harper (September 13, 2016)

The acclaimed, bestselling author—winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize—tells the enthralling story of how an unexpected romantic encounter irrevocably changes two families’ lives.

One Sunday afternoon in Southern California, Bert Cousins shows up at Franny Keating’s christening party uninvited. Before evening falls, he has kissed Franny’s mother, Beverly—thus setting in motion the dissolution of their marriages and the joining of two families.

Spanning five decades, Commonwealth explores how this chance encounter reverberates through the lives of the four parents and six children involved. Spending summers together in Virginia, the Keating and Cousins children forge a lasting bond that is based on a shared disillusionment with their parents and the strange and genuine affection that grows up between them.

When, in her twenties, Franny begins an affair with the legendary author Leon Posen and tells him about her family, the story of her siblings is no longer hers to control. Their childhood becomes the basis for his wildly successful book, ultimately forcing them to come to terms with their losses, their guilt, and the deeply loyal connection they feel for one another.

Told with equal measures of humor and heartbreak, Commonwealth is a meditation on inspiration, interpretation, and the ownership of stories. It is a brilliant and tender tale of the far-reaching ties of love and responsibility that bind us together.

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HarperCollins | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

Photo by Melissa Ann Pinney

Photo by Melissa Ann Pinney

About Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett is the author of six novels and three books of nonfiction. She has won many prizes, including Britain’s Orange Prize, the PEN/Faulkner Prize, and the Book Sense Book of the Year. Her work has been translated into more than thirty languages. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee, where she is the co-owner of Parnassus Books.

Find out more about Ann on her website and follow her bookstore, Parnassus Books, on Twitter.

Harper Collins was kind enough to send me an advance reader copy of the book in exchange for a fair and honest review.

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TLC Book Tour: The Bitch is Back, ed. Cathi Hanauer

tlc1I’m glad I had the opportunity to read The Bitch is Back, edited by Cathi Hanauer for TLC Book Tours. First, I wanted to share my own thoughts about the book, and what follows is more information provided by the publishers.

I have not read The Bitch is in the House, to which The Bitch is Back is a sequel, but my understanding is that it, like The Bitch is Back, is a collection of essays written by women about “the face of womanhood at the beginning of a new millennium.” Some of the original writers returned for The Bitch is Back, and a few of these returned to their original essays and reflected on the women they once were and the changes over the last 15 years.

If I had to guess, I’d say the audience for this book is women in their late thirties through their late sixties, and I fall in that bracket. As such, I felt like this book spoke to me in a way it might not speak to younger millennial women or older women. The essays in this book treat on subjects as diverse as marriage and parenting, divorce and adultery, transsexualism, homosexuality, domestic abuse, child abuse, arranged marriage, romance, aging, and sex. I found myself underlining lines and dogearing pages that spoke to me, both of which I rarely do when reading for pleasure. These bitches have a lot to say! They have many of the same fears and questions I do:

  • What, exactly, is menopause going to do to my body? And what about sex?
  • How do you keep a marriage going past its twentieth year?
  • What about aging? What can I expect?

They discuss these and other issues candidly in the essays. Some standouts for me included “Vagina Notwithstanding” by Jennifer Finney Boylan, in which Boylan discusses her transition from male to female and its impact on her marriage to a woman; “Coming of Age: Sex 102” by Sarah Crichton (and Sarah, if you see this, THANK YOU for the shopping recommendation—she, and anyone else who reads the essay, will get it), in which Crichton discusses sex after menopause and a long dry spell; “Living Alone: A Fantasy” by Sandra Tsing Loh, in which Loh discusses the end of her marriage and living with her boyfriend Charlie; and “Second Time Around” by Kate Christensen, in which Christensen discusses advocating for what you need out of marriage. I found nuggets of wisdom in most of the essays, however.

One criticism I have read of The Bitch in the House is that all of the writers were white women who wrote for a living and as such, the collective experience of womanhood wasn’t represented. In The Bitch is Back, Cathi Hanauer appears to have attempted to answer that criticism with the inclusion of more women of color (though the bulk of the women seem to be white) and women in lower classes. As a result, the essays feel a bit uneven, but I think trying for diversity, even if it results in a bit of unevenness, is a worthy goal. It struck me that most of the women seemed to live in the northeast, and in New York and New England in particular, but I also live in New England—another area in which I related with the writers. I found the book to be enlightening and enjoyable. And I definitely wanted to go out for drinks with some of these ladies.

Read on to learn more about the book from TLC Book Tours and the publisher.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Tour Schedule

tlc2Tuesday, September 27th: Dwell in Possibility
Wednesday, September 28th: G. Jacks Writes
Thursday, September 29th: Much Madness is Divinest Sense
Friday, September 30th: Doing Dewey
Monday, October 3rd: Thoughts On This ‘n That
Tuesday, October 4th: Bibliotica
Wednesday, October 5th: Book Hooked Blog
Thursday, October 6th: In Bed with Books
Monday, October 10th: A Lovely Bookshelf on the Wall
Tuesday, October 11th: Stranded in Chaos
Thursday, October 13th: West Metro Mommy

the-bitch-is-back-coverAbout The Bitch is Back

Hardcover: 368 pages
Publisher: William Morrow (September 27, 2016)

More than a decade after the New York Times bestselling anthology The Bitch in the House spoke up loud and clear for a generation of young women, nine of the original contributors are back—along with sixteen captivating new voices—sharing their ruminations from an older, stronger, and wiser perspective about love, sex, work, family, independence, body-image, health, and aging: the critical flash points of women’s lives today.

“Born out of anger,” the essays in The Bitch in the House chronicled the face of womanhood at the beginning of a new millennium. Now those funny, smart, passionate contributors—today less bitter and resentful, and more confident, competent, and content—capture the spirit of post-feminism in this equally provocative, illuminating, and compelling companion anthology.

Having aged into their forties, fifties, and sixties, these “bitches”—bestselling authors, renowned journalists, and critically acclaimed novelists—are back . . . and better than ever. In The Bitch Is Back, Cathi Hanauer, Kate Christensen, Sarah Crichton, Debora Spar, Ann Hood, Veronica Chambers, and nineteen other women offer unique views on womanhood and feminism today. Some of the “original bitches” (OBs) revisit their earlier essays to reflect on their previous selves. All reveal how their lives have changed in the intervening years—whether they stayed coupled, left marriages, or had affairs; developed cancer or other physical challenges; coped with partners who strayed, died, or remained faithful; became full-time wage earners or homemakers; opened up their marriages; remained childless or became parents; or experienced other meaningful life transitions.

As a “new wave” of feminists begins to take center stage, this powerful, timely collection sheds a much-needed light on both past and present, offering understanding, compassion, and wisdom for modern women’s lives, all the while pointing toward the exciting possibilities of tomorrow.

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Purchase Links

HarperCollins | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

cathi-hanauer-apAbout Cathi Hanauer

Cathi Hanauer is the author of three novels—My Sister’s Bones, Sweet Ruin, and Gone—and is the editor of the New York Times bestselling essay collection The Bitch in the House. A former columnist for Glamour, Mademoiselle, and Seventeen, she has written for The New York Times, Elle, Self, Real Simple, and other magazines. She lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, with her husband, New York Times “Modern Love” editor Daniel Jones, and their daughter and son.

Find out more about Cathi and her books at her website, and follow her on Facebook and Twitter: @cathihanauer.

Harper Collins was kind enough to send me an advance reader copy of the book in exchange for a fair and honest review.

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Review: Girl in a Band, Kim Gordon

After Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore announced they were divorcing after about 30 years together, I remember reading a great deal of speculation about the subject online. How could this happen? And if Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore divorce, what does that mean for the rest of us? They were supposed to be the great success story, the one that proved a lifelong marriage was possible in rock.

A few years after the divorce, Kim Gordon published her memoir, Girl in a Band. Of course, it was dissected. She was very honest about every aspect of her life. It might be a bit less about being in Sonic Youth for 30 years than the reader might expect, but I actually found I liked that Gordon wrote a true memoir about her entire life, from childhood to the present. If I have one criticism, it’s that she does blow through the band history very fast. I felt as I was reading that perhaps she didn’t really want to write about it at all but had been told to do so by her publisher. She offers only the barest glimpse into the many albums and songs she recorded. As such, the title is a bit misleading as the focus isn’t really on what it was like to be a “girl” in band so much as about the world of music and art she inhabited and her relationships with family and friends.

Gordon is understandably not very charitable toward Thurston Moore, who, as far as I’ve read, hasn’t said anything negative in response (though I admit I didn’t dig very hard). She is equally not very magnanimous toward Courtney Love, but given the very public ways Love has displayed her crazy for everyone to see, I suppose it’s probably accurate. The one thread that runs through the entire book is how true it seems. It can’t have been easy for Gordon to write, to put herself out there in that way. She describes herself as someone who liked to fly under the radar, to keep the peace, to acquiesce. It sounds like she is working on it, from the tone of the memoir, but it struck me as fundamentally honest to share that side of herself.

One might accuse Kim Gordon of name-dropping a bit in the memoir, but the fact is that she did know all these people, and if anything, she downplays her own influence and importance to the Riot Grrl movement, fashion, and Third Wave Feminism. I can’t say I am particularly a fan of Sonic Youth. I have a couple of their songs in my iTunes library. I have always, however, thought that Kim Gordon exuded cool. She always gave off the impression that she was unapologetically being herself. Who knew that she struggled with the same insecurities and worries a lot of women do? And why shouldn’t she? Perhaps the more casual fan of the band—someone like me—might appreciate this memoir more than a super Sonic Youth fan might because they probably won’t get the book they are looking for.

One thing I found as I kept reading the book is that I liked Kim Gordon. I could see hanging out with her outside the guitar classroom, if she had gone to my high school. She seems fairly down-to-earth, no nonsense. She is a good writer, and I actually didn’t know that she had done so much writing prior to this book, either. She discusses some of the rock journalism she has done, as well as her other art, which I didn’t know anything about prior to reading this book.

Perhaps because Gordon was working through a great deal of emotional turmoil as she wrote this book, there is a great deal of distance, even though she strikes me as real and honest, between her and what she writes about in the book. She sounds almost detached. It feels like she is processing a great deal, and because she’s processing it, she is looking at it from arm’s length. It’s not a criticism because memoir is tricky. I would assume if you are writing a memoir, it has to be the memoir you really want to write in that moment. Otherwise, why bother?

Was it healthy to vent so much about Thurston Moore? Maybe, maybe not. It was her truth, though. Her anger is certainly understandable. However, if you plan to read it, you should know going in that this memoir is not so much about what it was like to be in Sonic Youth as what it was and is like to be Kim Gordon. That seems pretty fair to me.

Rating: ★★★★☆

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Review: When She Woke, Hillary Jordan

Hillary Jordan’s novel When She Woke is frequently described as a mashup of The Scarlet Letter and The Handmaid’s Tale (review). I wouldn’t disagree with that characterization, and it seems clear that Jordan was attempting to evoke comparisons to both books. The novel’s protagonist, Hannah Payne, lives in a dystopian near-future after which a terrorist bombing has nearly obliterated Los Angeles and a horrible new sexually transmitted disease rendered many women infertile until a cure was found. Seizing the fears of the populace, the Religious Right convinces many that the natural disasters, wars, and disease are the judgment of God against America. Out of concern for the sanctity of life after so many threats to its existence, the evangelical Trinity Party is able to pass new laws all over America condemning adultery and “fornication” and outlawing abortion. In Hannah’s America, criminals undergo a process called melachroming. They are injected with a virus that turns their skin different colors based on the severity of their crimes. Hannah’s crime is that she had an abortion, rather than expose her minister as the baby’s father and subject him to the punishment their society would mete out. Abortion is considered to be murder, and Hannah is ordered to be melachromed. When she awakens from the procedure, she is red.

Jordan is not exactly a match for Nathaniel Hawthorne or Margaret Atwood, but few writers are, and what she does manage in this book is an intriguing and quite plausible story—all the more plausible during this election season if you listen to the rhetoric of some of the politicians running for president. Hannah takes some time to discover herself, and she begins to doubt much of the religious teaching she has heard all of her life. Do I believe that some people would find the idea of melachroming people as punishment for crime plausible? Jordan’s idea is all too believable and brings Nathaniel Hawthorne’s punishment of wearing a scarlet letter to a horrifying evolution. It makes a lot of sense to me that “chromes,” as they are known in the novel, would become the targets of discrimination and all manner of ill treatment, from assault and rape to murder.

It would be easy for some to dismiss this novel as alarmist and far-fetched. However, we do engage in public shaming (think about how quickly we embarrass those who transgress on social media). Magdalene Houses bear an eerie resemblance to the halfway house where Hannah stays after she is released from the Chrome Ward—there is even a picture of Mary Magdalene in the Straight Path Center. There are always individuals who, in pretending to offer help to the downtrodden, actually victimize them further because society cares so little about them. The novel also includes a note of caution about the increasingly wired lives we are living. Chromes (and really everyone else) are all trackable; hiding is impossible, and running away is fatal. Money exists almost solely on a NIC card, and a port (a futuristic smart phone) is a lifeline to the world, but Hannah will risk immediate detection if she tries to use either device. Ultimately, this novel is all too easy to believe. However, in the end, like Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, When She Woke is a thoughtful meditation on forgiveness and the true nature of God.

Rating: ★★★★☆

I received this book free via a Goodreads giveaway (full FTC disclosure) a very long time ago, and I am embarrassed it took me so long to read and review. It’s been on my Goodreads shelf since October 8, 2011, and I imagine it’s been in my TBR pile almost that long. I’m glad I finally read it. I’m counting it toward both the Shelf Love Challenge and the Mount TBR Challenge because of how long it’s been on my shelf and in my TBR list.
 

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Review: The Rock and the River, Kekla Magoon

Kekla Magoon’s novel The Rock and the River is the story of Sam, son of a civil rights leader named Roland Childs, who is a friend of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s and a leading voice of the Movement. Sam and his older brother Steven, whom Sam calls “Stick,” find themselves increasingly frustrated by the lack of progress they see. When they are attacked at one of their father’s rallies, they fight back, and Stick winds up in the hospital. Some time later, Sam and his friend Maxie witness the brutal beating and false arrest of one of their friends. Sam finds Black Panther literature in his brother’s things. Though he knows involvement in the Black Panther Party would disappoint his father, Sam finds himself drawn to the group, especially the political education classes, free breakfast program, and the promise of a free clinic. At the same time, he is also attracted to the Black Panther Party’s more militant ideals, especially after the Movement loses Dr. King to an assassin’s bullet, and Sam’s own experiences with police lead him to question whether his father’s way will really bring about change or if there is a another way.

The Rock and the River is an intriguing coming-of-age story. I can’t recall that I’ve ever read any historical fiction, or even memoir/nonfiction about the Black Panther Party (aside from Wikipedia). Most of the focus of the Civil Rights Movement is on nonviolent social protest and leaders like King. Given the attention police violence against the black community has received over the last couple of years, many young adults will find Sam’s story interesting in offering a historical perspective. After a fashion, the Black Panther Party is one of the first #blacklivesmatter organizations. Some of the good they did for their communities is obscured by violence perpetuated by some individuals in the Black Panther Party. As shown in Magoon’s novel, the Panthers did institute free breakfast programs, legal counsel, and clinics in underserved and forgotten communities. Magoon does not flinch from showing the Panthers’ tensions with the police, either. I found the book to be an honest and balanced portrayal of the group (based on my own research). I plan to recommend the book for my students and get a copy for my own classroom library.

Something I have been thinking about a great deal, as it has come up both in my teaching and in my own thinking, is that we need everyone’s stories. All of us have stories. I know for a long time I heard one story about the Black Panther Party, and it wasn’t a very nuanced one. I think I started digging into my own albeit somewhat cursory research around the time I started reading and later watching Aaron McGruder’s comic/TV show, The Boondocks. The strip’s main character, Huey Freeman, is named after Huey P. Newton, one of the founders of the Black Panther Party. This connection prompted me to read a little bit more about Newton and the Black Panthers. Magoon’s book is the first novel I’ve seen about the group, however. I particularly appreciated the novel’s nuanced portrayal of the Black Panthers. It was an intriguing book and told a story that I haven’t seen told before. There is a danger in hearing only one story or one side. People, and by extension groups of people, are rarely all good or all bad or all black or all white. For that reason, I think it’s important that we hear as many stories as we can and make it our business to listen to one another. I’m glad that Magoon told this story.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Set in 1968 Chicago, this book was published in 2009. I purchased it for my Kindle in 2010, but I hadn’t read it until now. Picking it up enabled me to address a book that’s been on my reader library and in my TBR pile for quite some time. A good start for three challenges in the first week and a half of January!

 

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