Helen Ellis’ American Housewife is a satirical collection of 12 short stories featuring a group of enthralling, outrageous and disturbing women. There are humorous vignettes, such as “Southern Lady Code,” which offers biting translations of benign Southern phrases and “How to Be a Grown-Ass Lady,” which provides tips on how to do just that. There are fleshed-out stories full of characters and situations that are just a little too bizarre to be real — a relocation program for child beauty pageant contestants, an email exchange between neighbors that escalates into all-out war. In “Dumpster Diving with the Stars,” we meet a has-been writer who leads the competition in finding the best deals at yard sales and estate auctions, to the annoyance of the producers who would rather feature the Playboy bunny. “My Novel is Brought to You by Tampax” stars a writer working hard (or hardly working) on her next novel, sponsored by Tampax. A Tampax representative will do anything to make sure she meets her daily writing goal — starting with bribing her neighbors into bringing the writer meals in exchange for feminine hygiene products. The tales feel true enough to make readers uncomfortable even as they’re laughing at the absurdity. Don’t inane parodies of reality shows actually sound like plausible reality shows? And is it such a stretch that a tampon company could make the leap from sponsoring daytime television to sponsoring novels?
These stories are a fictional alternative for people who enjoy humorists like Jenny Lawson and Laurie Notaro. Ellis even received a nod from Margaret Atwood as one of her favorite books of the year: “Surreal tales of American weirdness, with details that ring all too true.” You probably haven’t murdered your neighbor over the tacky décor in your common area…but maybe you’ve briefly considered it.
There’s something magical about the fandom of Sherlock Holmes. For over 100 years, the fans have refused to believe that the detective isn’t real. They send him letters and marriage proposals, form historical societies around him and pay tribute with that most earnest form of flattery, fan-fiction. Otto Penzler’s The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories is the mother lode of such tributes, collecting a whopping 83 short stories from such literary heavyweights as J. M. Barrie, Kingsley Amis and P.G. Wodehouse.
Sherlock fans of all walks of life will find something to enjoy in this collection, because by density of volume: there has to be! There are modern classics such as Stephen King’s “The Doctor’s Case,” in which Holmes is barred from a crime scene due to an allergy to the victim’s cats, and Neil Gaiman’s “The Case of Death & Honey,” in which Holmes sets out to solve death itself, and succeeds astonishingly. There are also historically fascinating pieces such as the story Conan Doyle wrote for the library of Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House, and contemporary parodies in which such clever lines as “Elementary, my dear God!” are uttered.
In the last year alone there’s been a plethora of new stories about the Great Detective such as Dan Simmons’ The Fifth Heart, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Mycroft Holmes and the film Mr. Holmes, adapted from Mitch Cullin’s A Slight Trick of the Mind. It is altogether shocking to observe the similarities between the Holmes of the 1800’s and the Holmes still captivating audiences today, and reading this century’s worth of stories will give you the humbling feeling of watching a small torch pass from writer to writer across decades. Consider giving this to anyone who’s impatiently awaiting the next season of Sherlock. And really, isn’t everybody?
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In her new memoir Find a Way, long distance swimmer Diana Nyad tells of her epic swim from Cuba to Key West, which she completed at age 64 after failing to do so in her 20s.
The seeds for her extreme dream were sown when she was just a child. On his daughter’s 5th birthday, Aristotle Nyad opened the dictionary and pointed to their last name: Nyad (naiad), from Greek mythology, a girl or woman champion swimmer. Nyad doesn’t believe in fate, but she locked onto the word “champion” and knew that it would one day describe her.
She also became interested in Cuba as a child, when the Cuban Revolution brought an influx of refugees to her hometown, and her new friends introduced her to their culture. She recalls standing on the beach at age 9 with her mother and looking toward the horizon. Her mother told her that Cuba was so close that she could almost swim there.
After enjoying numerous other successes as a swimmer, Nyad began to plan and train for her Cuba swim when she was in her 20s. She made her first attempt from Cuba at age 28 utilizing a shark cage, but after swimming for 42 hours and covering 76 miles, strong winds and swells had knocked her so far off course that she was heading not for Florida, but for Texas. The following year, after training for a repeat swim but being denied entry to Cuba, she instead swam 102 miles from North Bimini Island, Bahamas, to Juno Beach, Florida, this time without the shark cage.
At age 30, Nyad figured it was time to retire as a professional athlete and instead pursued a career as a sports broadcaster and journalist. Then at age 60, a Mary Oliver quote forced her to reevaluate her priorities: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” After pondering that question, the extreme dream was reborn. Of course, it wouldn’t be easy. She no longer had the body of a world-class athlete. There would be grueling hours of training. There would be complicated logistics to work through. She would need to sell her dream to a support team of 35 people. There would ultimately be setbacks and failures and nearly fatal encounters with jellyfish. But Nyad’s mantra was: Find a way.
This isn’t just a story of an impressive athletic feat. Like Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and Andre Agassi’s Open, Nyad’s story also delves into her family history and personal struggles, and how they informed and shaped her future. Nyad is an impressive storyteller — here’s one of her several TED talks — and this book will leave you feeling inspired to pursue something amazing with your own wild and precious life.
James Bond, who? Meet Schuller. Josephine Schuller. Most people call her Josie and, although she may fit the description of a Bond girl, she's the type of woman who could take Bond down and end his days of drinking shaken, dry vodka martinis. Why and how, you ask? Well, don’t let this homemaker, wife and mother of two, fool you. She is a vicious assassin who knows how to work a knife inside and outside the kitchen. Josie Schuller is the Lady Killer in Joëlle Jones and Jamie S. Rich’s graphic novel set in the early 1960s.
Josie Schuller reminds me of Angelina Jolie’s character, Jane Smith, in the 2005 film Mr. and Mrs. Smith and January Jones’ Betty Draper in AMC’s hit television series, Mad Men. In Lady Killer, Josie tricks her twin daughters, husband and friends into believing that she is just a stay-at-home wife and mother. What they don’t know is that she is also an agent working for Mr. Stenholm, who gives her assignments to terminate lives. Josie learns that she is on Mr. Stenholm’s target list when he sends her co-worker, David Peck, to execute her. Josie devises her own plan to eliminate them both.
This graphic novel is most definitely a treat. The eye-catching, vintage-inspired illustrations by Joëlle Jones and the delicious colors by Laura Allred lured me in. Lady Killer has everything you want in a graphic novel. Stunning artwork? Check. An interesting protagonist? Check. Brilliant colors? Check. A page-turning story? Check.
So, what are you waiting for? Drop what you’re doing and get your hands on Lady Killer by Joëlle Jones and Jamie S. Rich. You won’t regret it.
It’s Marci Thompson’s Big 3-0, and her life on this milestone birthday isn’t at all what she envisioned in M.J. Pullen’s debut The Marriage Pact. Instead of a successful career, a handsome husband, a couple of kids and a dream home, Marci is working a temp accounting job, having an affair with Doug, her married boss, and living in what used to be a motel room. But then Jake, one of her closest friends from back home in Atlanta, sends her a picture of a cocktail napkin contract the two of them drunkenly signed 10 years ago — they would get married if both were still single at 30.
The reappearance of this pact shakes Marci’s belief in her feelings for Doug, who is promising to leave his wife and start a real life with Marci. She puts Jake on the back burner, but is crushed when Doug unceremoniously dumps her because his wife is pregnant. While trying to stay strong at work, the depth of her pain is severe, and she finally realizes she needs to make big changes in her life to alter the bleakness of her future. She moves back to Atlanta where she has the support of family and friends, including Jake.
Jake is ready to pick up where they left off, but Marci's heart is still recovering. The two take baby steps toward a real relationship and even get engaged, but have they really grown up? This is a fast-paced, funny read with likeable and charming characters who readers will look forward to meeting again as Pullen adds to this appealing series. Fans of Emily Giffin, Lauren Graham and Jennifer Weiner will delight in a new author to add to their list of favorites.
In 2012, Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote an article for The Atlantic entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” addressing some of the challenges remaining from the second-wave feminist movement of the 1970s, particularly those that led to the devaluation of caregivers. In the article, she described how her transition from a career as director of policy planning for the State Department to professorship in the Harvard Law School for the sake of providing better care for her teenage sons was frequently viewed as giving up by her colleagues. Unfinished Business is a continuation of this discussion, allowing Slaughter the chance to address some of the criticism that arose from her original article and further refine her ideas.
Slaughter points out how necessary and valuable the work of caregivers is but how little respect and compensation they are likely to receive in exchange. While she primarily writes from her own experience in white collar labor, she tries to be as inclusive as possible, incorporating the responses to her article she received from people of different classes, industries, sexual orientations and race. She also makes a point of examining how trends have changed between the baby boomer, Gen-X and millennial generations. While she does not hide her own party affiliations, she shows how concern over caregiving transcends party disputes.
Her arguments are well researched and persuasive, and her suggestions for change are timely and practical. Employers are encouraged to fully utilize the flexibility now allowed by technology to accommodate the scheduling needs of their workers who are caregivers. The time people spend attending events in their children’s lives, supporting their aging parents and being present in communities outside of the office develop the soft skills highly prized in the modern business arena. For true gender equality to be achieved, there needs to be a destigmatization of men’s work in the home, allowing for men to care for their children without being emasculated, manage a household on their own terms and define how they provide for their family outside of the rigid constraints as a “breadwinner.” Anyone trying to juggle a career and family will want to check out this book for its empathy and encouragement.
Claire Vaye Watkins’ novel Gold Fame Citrus prophesizes apocalypse by desertification. When part of the United States is engulfed by sand and declared uninhabitable, it becomes a refuge for those looking to escape from the lives they’ve made for themselves. To some, threats of dehydration and starvation are worth the risk to avoid returning to civilization.
Luz and Ray are surviving: after drought choked the West Coast and sand spread to the seas, it’s all anyone can do. California has shrunk into itself as golden kestrels encroached and devoured the landscape. Most have fled to military refuge zones to the north and east, but for some, that is a less desirable option than wandering the wasteland as a newly branded “Mojav.” After rescuing Ig, a malnourished child born into a gang of abusive Mojavs, Luz and Ray depart from the derelict McMansion they’ve been squatting in, hoping to find an old contact who can expunge their pasts and allow them passage into sanctuary.
During their journey across an ever-evolving frontier of shifting sands, Luz and Ray struggle to suppress nostalgia as they teach Ig about what their world has become. After losing the main road when the sand swallows the tire tracks, Ray leaves Luz and Ig to find gasoline for the car and fades from man to apparition on the horizon and alters the course of their new lives.
Readers who enjoyed Watkins’ short story collection Battleborn: Stories will recognize her beautiful prose style and wonderfully creative imaginings. Perhaps the best part of Gold Fame Citrus is the extended description of the desert itself, likening its fluid motions to those of the oceans.
Watkin’s new novel about a frighteningly realistic, drought-stricken California is so clearly and crisply described that readers are immediately sucked into this unnerving story. The writing is as blindingly brilliant as the landscape. The book is at once beautiful and brutal.
Californians are portrayed as a group of people always searching for something better, buried gold for the taking, legendary status or even year-round citrus. The dunes destroy that California, and most flee. However, some continue to be drawn by an almost supernatural magnetism to the wasteland left behind. These “Mojavs” carve out an existence, forming strange new communities with few and fluctuating rules.
Watkin’s characters are made more tangible by their flaws and readers can’t resist the urge to protect them from themselves as well as their ruthless environment.
When Ray has to strike out and look for help, Luz and Ig are rescued by a seemingly peaceful society existing in refuge on the very edge of the habitable world. The leader of this group becomes an increasingly menacing character, and the group sheltering Luz and Ig begins to look more and more like a cult. This is an interesting twist in the story given Watkin’s own personal history. The father she never really knew was Charles Manson’s trusted assistant, often in charge of recruiting young women. Though she didn’t really know him, she does explore the topic of cults in her first collection of short stories, Battleborn. Readers will also enjoy Margaret Atwood’s new apocalyptic novel The Heart Goes Last.
Did you ever wonder if anyone else went down the rabbit hole like Alice did 150 years ago? Was anyone looking for her on that summer day? If so, your next must read has to be After Alice by Gregory Maguire, the story of another girl’s journey through Wonderland and the subsequent search for her and Alice above ground.
Told in two parts, Maguire first introduces us to Ada, Alice’s friend who is mentioned briefly at the beginning of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. She is the opposite of Alice. Stricken with severe scoliosis, she walks with a limp, has poor color and is not fanciful in the least. While looking for Alice along the riverbank, she comes upon the strange rabbit hole and down she goes! Just steps behind Alice, Ada encounters many of the curious characters familiar to us all – definitely a highlight for us readers! But will she find Alice in this strange underworld where everything is not as it seems? Will she make it home safely? Meanwhile, above ground, two people are searching for Alice and Ada that day: Lydia, Alice’s 15-year-old sister, and Miss Armstrong, Ada’s governess. The second part of the story deals mainly with their adventures. Their search leads us through the town of Oxford, the University and to both Alice’s and Ada’s homes. Mirroring the journey through Wonderland, they encounter many curious characters including Charles Darwin and Siam, a former slave who escaped via the Underground Railroad.
Take the time to get to know Ada, Lydia and Miss Armstrong. Join them on that summer’s day in Oxford. You will come away with a newfound understanding and love for Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. You may also want to read (or reread) it. Trust me, it gets better each time! Other novels by Maguire worth a look are Wicked: Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West and Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, my personal favorite! I also suggest checking out Gregory Maguire’s October 25th interview with NPR, which is both entertaining and insightful.