Review: Cinderland by Amy Jo Burns


Cinderland by Amy Jo Burns

Louise DeSalvo writes of Cinderland that Burns has, “charted new territory for the memoir by substituting the “I” narrative with the choral “We” and in so doing has brilliantly demonstrated how the harm done to one of us reverberates with us all.” DeSalvo accurately pinpoints the singularity of Burns’s memoir but there is more to Cinderland than the simple change of “I” to “We.” The  memoir is riveting and powerful, delving into the steel collapse and its affects on a small town and the ultimate cost of keeping such terrible secrets.

Discussion Questions are available here: (By yours truly)

Amy Jo Burns grew up in Mercury, Pennsylvania, an industrial town humbled by the steel collapse of the 1980s. Instead of the construction booms and twelve-hour shifts her parents’ generation had known, the Mercury Amy Jo knew was marred by empty houses, old strip mines, and vacant lots. It wasn’t quite a ghost town—only because many people had no choice but to stay.

The year Burns turned ten, this sleepy town suddenly woke up. Howard Lotte, its beloved piano teacher, was accused of sexually assaulting his female students. Among the countless girls questioned, only seven came forward. For telling the truth, the town ostracized these girls and accused them of trying to smear a good man’s reputation. As for the remaining girls—well, they were smarter. They lied. Burns was one of them.

But such a lie has its own consequences. Against a backdrop of fire and steel, shame and redemption, Burns tells of the boys she ran from and toward, the friends she abandoned, and the endless performances she gave to please a town that never trusted girls in the first place.

This is the story of growing up in a town that both worshipped and sacrificed its youth—a town that believed being a good girl meant being a quiet one—and the long road Burns took toward forgiving her ten-year-old self. Cinderland is an elegy to that young girl’s innocence, as well as a praise song to the curative powers of breaking a long silence.

Review: The Bees by Laline Paull

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The Bees by Laline Paull

Orwell meets entomology. How could you go wrong?

I loved this book, from its cover to its intimate bee hierarchies, and carefully hidden subtexts. You are immediately thrown into this puzzling and complex world with Flora, a lowly sanitation bee, who commits the ultimate sin against the hive by laying an egg when only the queen may lay.

Review: All Souls: A Family Story From Southie

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All Souls: A Family Story From Southie by Michael Patrick MacDonald

It seemed a crime to have worked at Beacon Press for so long and to never have read All Souls by Michael Patrick MacDonald. In poignant and honest prose MacDonald describes his childhood in South Boston, “southie” as it is affectionately known here in Boston. Although the book certainly touches on exciting topics like Whitey Bulger and the busing riots, its quiet strength is found in MacDonald’s depiction of his family life, his proud Irish neighborhood and his conflicting feelings about both. MacDonald has continued his work as a non-violence advocate in Boston and New York City.


Review: An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States



The latest addition to the ReVisioning US History series at Beacon Press, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States is both honest and unwavering and should become an essential text in understanding US history and the origins of the United States. Dunbar-Ortiz reframes US History to dismantle foundation myths and reveals a brutal system of colonialism and a fictitious ideology meant to cover its violence. It’s not just about a faraway past, however, As Robin D. G. Kelley, author of Freedom Dreams, adds, “Spoiler alert: the colonial era is still here, and so are the Indians.”


Review: Frog Music by Emma Donoghue


Frog Music by Emma Donoghue

I was immediately taken aback by Frog Music – and that doesn’t happen very often. The portrayal of the underbelly of San Francisco in the 1870’s, with the raging smallpox epidemic, the underlying racial tension with Chinese immigrants, and the oppressive heat, was fascinating. Donoghue’s characters were unlikeable and flawed but the story she weaves with them is so fascinating. I’ve seen that the book has been marketed as a sort of mystery but I think that’s selling the book a little short and might leaves readers expecting a mystery-thriller disappointed. A great, surprising book!



Summer of 1876: San Francisco is in the fierce grip of a record-breaking heat wave and a smallpox epidemic. Through the window of a railroad saloon, a young woman named Jenny Bonnet is shot dead.

The survivor, her friend Blanche Beunon, is a French burlesque dancer. Over the next three days, she will risk everything to bring Jenny’s murderer to justice–if he doesn’t track her down first. The story Blanche struggles to piece together is one of free-love bohemians, desperate paupers, and arrogant millionaires; of jealous men, icy women, and damaged children. It’s the secret life of Jenny herself, a notorious character who breaks the law every morning by getting dressed: a charmer as slippery as the frogs she hunts.

In thrilling, cinematic style, Frog Music digs up a long-forgotten, never-solved crime. Full of songs that migrated across the world, Emma Donoghue’s lyrical tale of love and bloodshed among lowlifes captures the pulse of a boomtown like no other.

Reviews: The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon and Americanah

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I thought I’d review these two books together seeing as how I’ve read both of them this week and they offer distinct views of Africa. Alexander McCall Smith’s series is incredibly popular ( now in its fourteenth book) and follows the story of Mma Ramotswe, Botswana’s  first and only female detective. Americanah is a more literary work and NY Times Bestseller that has been recommended to me from almost every avenue of the publishing world. 

The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon, The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

I’ve been reading this series for years and have always loved the way McCall Smith captures the essence of a changing Africa. Mma Ramotswe is uniquely perceptive and refreshing as a character and the events in this new addition to the series had me dashing through the book. It’s not my usual fare but the series is a delight to read.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche 

Looking over my reviews, I’m a pretty happy reader. I can usually find something special or intriguing about a book and don’t post too many negative reviews. That being said, I had a hard time dragging myself through Americanah. The scope was impossibly large, the story told over three continents, many years, and multiple characters, and seemed to get sidetracked often. The two main characters, Ifemulu and Obinze, were interesting and thorough characters but too much of the story was spent elsewhere. Ifemulu’s blog posts contained exciting and provoking comments on American society but they were thrown at the end of long narratives to wrap up chapters and bundle up the moral of the story. Ngozi Adiche is a quickly rising literary star and I see so much potential in this novel. It’ll come, I’m sure of that but it’ll come even quicker with a gifted editor with some editorial focus.  

Review: The Most Dangerous Book by Kevin Birmingham

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The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses by Kevin Birmingham

It’s the centennial of the publication of Dubliners and Joyce seems to be everywhere. The Most Dangerous Book follows the publication history of Ulysses, detailing the book’s severe censorship and period of illegality, Joyce’s diminishing health, and the modernist movement that propelled Ulysses into notoriety. Birmingham is engaging and thorough, documenting the spirit of the age that created and supported Joyce and his work of genius with wonderful profiles of figures like Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, and Sylvia Beach. The book is immensely readable and gripping and I look forward to Birmingham’s next works of scholarship.

Review: The Weirdness by Jeremy P. Bushnell



The Weirdness by Jeremy P. Bushnell

Melville House publishes the coolest books and The Weirdness is no exception. It’s funny, irreverent, and different and might be just one large joke about the lengths people go to to get published. Oh, and those satanic fair trade coffee beans? You can buy them from Melville House’s website.

What do you do when you wake up hung over and late for work only to find a stranger on your couch? And what if that stranger turns out to be an Adversarial Manifestation–like Satan, say–who has brewed you a fresh cup of fair-trade coffee? And what if he offers you your life’s goal of making the bestseller list if only you find his missing Lucky Cat and, you know, sign over your soul?

If you’re Billy Ridgeway, you take the coffee.

Review: Love & Fury by Richard Hoffman


Love & Fury by Richard Hoffman

Richard Hoffman’s latest memoir (released today by Beacon Press!) is a striking reflection on fatherhood and Hoffman’s upbringing in a post World War II blue-collar family. He writes honestly about the racism and sexism he sees in his upbringing and faces these issues head-on as he discusses the imprisonment of the father to his grandchild. His narrative is not politicized but instead details his experiences in the flawed justice and prison systems. The memoir, while weighty, unflinchingly deals with issues of addiction, racism, and the “love and fury” inherent in family relationships.

This will not come clear. It can’t. There is no binary good/bad, glad/sad conclusion to be reached. When I have spoken of my family in the past, there is always someone who wants to know how such love and fury could coexist, and I don’t understand the question. It seems either naive or disingenuous. Families seem to me to be made of love and fury. The world is mostly water; we are mostly water, but we don’t ask how such hydrogen and oxygen can coexist. We just drink it and live. Maybe we wish it were champagne, or root beer, or cider, but we’re not foolish enough to wish it were liquid hydrogen or liquid oxygen.” (28)

Review: One More Thing. Stories and Other Stories by B.J. Novak


I had heard a lot about this collection and was curious to see if the clever wit I associate with Novak as a producer and writer on The Office would translate to his short stories. They’re notoriously tricky to write and even trickier to sell from a publisher’s point of view. Novak, on the other hand, brings something refreshing to his short stories. Sure, sometimes he tries a little too hard to be clever but he is clever. And funny. And biting. And vulnerable. He understands people and so he understands humor. It’s one of the most surprising books out in the market right now and I look forward to his career as a writer.

In Teddy Wayne’s New York Times Review “Out of Character” he writes, “The melancholy sensibility and verbal élan elevate Novak’s book beyond a small-beer exercise in clever monkeyshines and into a stiff literary cocktail, with a healthy pour of vintage Woody Allen and a dash of George Saunders strained through a Donald Barthelme sieve — droll and smart in spades, but often humane and vulnerable, too.” No one could put it better than that.