Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl by Jeannie Vanasco

Jeannie Vanasco’s reckoning with her rapist of 14 years earlier–once a close friend–is distressing, brave and crucial.

Mark was one of Jeannie’s best friends in high school and early college–until the night when she got drunk for the first time and he sexually assaulted her. By the definition of the times, that’s what it was called: sexual assault. Under the FBI’s legal definition as of 2013, it is called rape.

Words matter. And so Jeannie Vanasco (The Glass Eye) delivers Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl, a thoughtful, conflicted, harrowing examination of what Mark did–with his words alongside her own.

From the outset, she worries about the fallout from her choice to include Mark: she feels she should hate him, and she doesn’t want to be a bad feminist. As a writing teacher, “I’d never tell a student that her personal essay about sexual assault would be more interesting with the perpetrator’s perspective.” But Mark was such a good friend; many of her memories of him remain positive ones. “I doubt I’m the only woman sexually assaulted by a friend and confused about her feelings.” Like her first book, Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl is aware of itself, frequently commenting on process and prospective readership. This kind of self-regard is difficult to pull off, but it is clearly Vanasco’s natural style, and she wields it expertly.

The memoir alternates between transcriptions of recorded conversations between Jeannie and Mark, and Vanasco’s reactions to those recordings. She discusses everything with her partner, her therapist and her female friends, nearly all writers or academics. Their discussions involve craft (“As a reader, Nina says, I would want to know…”) and sociology (repeated “performance[s] of gender”) as well as emotional support. Vanasco is very alert to the times, feeling prompted by #MeToo, Trump’s presidency and her creative writing students’ disclosures of sexual assaults. She is very alert, in general–it seems a personality trait–and one of the most intriguing artistic qualities of this book is its vigilant self-awareness.

Clearly this is an important and timely book. Even in a world that can seem brimming with stories similar to Vanasco’s, hers stands out. She feels the need to write “because so many perpetrators of sexual assault are regular guys, and I want to show that.” That mission is well accomplished: Mark is nothing if not alarmingly regular. Perhaps the creepiest element of the whole story is the seemingly easy slide from good friend to rapist and back again. “He smiles, and I see where a friend once was.”

Some of Vanasco’s brave and difficult work here is to consider the line between good and bad people, and good and bad actions. Is it possible for a good person to do a very bad thing? What are our responsibilities to one another, especially after such bad things happen? This narrator is tough, vulnerable and meticulous; the resulting memoir is heartfelt, painful and essential.


This review originally ran in the August 2, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 apologies.

Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession by Rachel Monroe

A powerful, well-researched inquiry into why we find violent crime so fascinating, viewed through the stories of detective, victim, defender and killer.

Rachel Monroe has been “murder minded” since childhood, part of an overwhelmingly female demographic that consumes true-crime books, podcasts and television shows. It’s an obsession that makes her a little uncomfortable. She develops a theory: “Perhaps we liked creepy stories because something creepy was in us.” Monroe’s first book, Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession, explores these interests through four case studies: detective, victim, defender and killer.

Frances Glessner Lee chafed at the limits placed on her by 1890s high-society gender norms. Barred from attending college, she became an expert on early forensic studies and built the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, miniature houses (fully functional, furnished and wired) portraying crime scenes. The Nutshells are still studied today: they are on display in Baltimore in the medical examiner’s office.

Twenty-one years after the Tate murders, Alisa Statman moved into the garage apartment at the former Tate-Polanski residence. She avidly studied the case and befriended Patti, Sharon Tate’s youngest sister. The two lived together and claimed domestic partnership. By the time of Patti’s death, Statman was telling a very public story of Tate family tragedy that included herself, but all but erased Debra, the middle Tate sister.

The West Memphis Three were teenaged boys wrongfully convicted of murder because they were social outcasts. Their story, and one of them in particular, caught the attention of Lorri Davis, who moved cross-country and devoted her life to freeing him from death row; they are now married.

As an awkward teenager, Lindsay Souvannarath nursed a growing interest in mass murder. At 22, she met her match in a young man with a plan. He got the guns and she chose her outfit, but by the time she arrived, the cops were on to them. “I had a skull mask I was going to wear, and he had his scream mask. We would’ve looked perfect.” Her accomplice killed himself, and Lindsay is currently serving life in prison for their plans.

These case studies, exploring the archetypes that structure our thinking about crime, are intercut with stories of Monroe’s own life, her own guilty obsessions and research. Each story receives intelligent context: the “tough on crime” crackdown in the wake of the Tate murders; the panic over imagined satanic sacrifices that drove the conviction of the West Memphis Three; the fangirls who call themselves Columbiners and swoon over school shooters. She references Harriet the Spy, Ayn Rand, the Oxygen true crime television channel and a multitude of serial killers.

Monroe attends CrimeCon and Souvannarath’s sentencing hearing, giving herself nightmares, and ultimately mines her personal experience of true-crime obsession to question the appeal of violent crime. Is it possible that within each of us resides detective, victim, defender and even some version of killer? Savage Appetites is a chilling, compelling examination of the darkness in us all. This is obviously a book for true-crime fans, as well as anyone interested in human nature.


This review originally ran in the July 18, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 Tumblr posts.

Galley Love of the Week: Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl by Jeannie Vanasco

Be among the first to read Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl by Jeannie Vanasco, a Shelf Awareness Galley Love of the Week. Presented on Mondays, GLOW selects books that have not yet been discovered by booksellers and librarians, identifying the ones that will be important hand-selling titles in a future season.

Fourteen years after her friend Mark raped her, Jeannie Vanasco (The Glass Eye) asks him if he’ll talk to her about it. The result is Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl, a nuanced effort to come to terms with Vanasco’s own trauma; her decision to include Mark’s voice in her memoir is only one of its surprising elements. Editor Masie Cochran says, “To me, the idea was devastating and captivating. Why are we not talking about these things? Jeannie destroys simplistic, binary ways of thinking about victimhood and perpetrators. She invites–demands, really–all of us all to be more rigorous in our cultural investigation and self-excavation.” This book is self-aware, scrupulously questioning every assumption at every turn. Courageous, smart and painstaking, it’s some of the most compelling writing you’ll encounter.

Galley Love of the Week, or GLOW, is a feature from Shelf Awareness. View this edition here.

No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us by Rachel Louise Snyder

This thoroughly researched examination of the domestic violence epidemic is chilling but deeply important and surprisingly accessible.


Journalist Rachel Louise Snyder used to think of domestic violence as “an unfortunate fate for the unlucky few,” a hardwiring gone wrong. But then an acquaintance offered a new perspective: that this is a social epidemic, one it is possible to prevent. No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us is the product of copious, immersive research, an investigation into a universal and insidious violence and what can be done about it.

Snyder presents her findings in three parts, ordered as “The End,” “The Beginning” and finally “The Middle.” That is, she first studies what intimate partner violence looks like at its conclusion: homicide and regrets that various systems (judicial, law enforcement, advocacy, etc.) couldn’t do more. Next, she investigates the beginning of such violence. Abusers often come from abusive home environments and, along with their victims, grow up in a society that values stoicism, control and violence in men, submissiveness and emotional labor in women. “The Middle” examines how services are provided to victims of domestic violence, and what changes should be considered.

No Visible Bruises sounds like an appallingly dark read, and it’s true that the content is deeply disturbing. But by focusing on case studies–individuals’ stories–Snyder returns humanity to the horrifying larger issue. These cases (including familicides, or murders of entire families, as well as homicides, private terrorism and abuse of all stripes) are indeed awful stories, but told with such compassion and curiosity, they turn out remarkably accessible.

In repeatedly facing the stereotypes and assumptions she brought to her research topic, Snyder gains credibility with her reader. She applies extra attention to breaking down those myths she once believed: for example, that “if things were bad enough, victims would just leave.” Her years of research and immersion in the subject–riding along with law enforcement, shadowing advocates and interviewing survivors, families and abusers alike–lend her further authority. Snyder holds concern for abusers as well as their victims. She spends time with men involved in prevention campaigns, former abusers working to reset patterns and forge new ways to relate. She comes to see that shelters are not the answer, even while noting how much good they’ve done since the early days of recognizing domestic violence.

Perhaps most importantly, she gives context to the apparently senseless horror, placing domestic violence in relationship to issues of economics, education, employment, the criminal justice system and other, more “public” types of violence. The result is an impressive body of knowledge about domestic violence in the United State: what it looks like, its terrifying prevalence, what works and what doesn’t in trying to stem the tide. No Visible Bruises speaks with urgency about solving a problem that, however invisible, affects us all.


This review originally ran in the April 15, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 calls.

movie: Anita (2014)

At my father’s encouragement, I spent several nights in the van watching this documentary in small pieces, as wifi connections and laptop batteries permitted. This was the right way to watch it for me, anyway, because I continue to find this difficult content. Like so many millions of women, I had a hard time seeing Dr. Christine Blasey Ford give testimony against a man who is now a Supreme Court justice, just last year. I have a hard time watching Dr. Anita Hill do the same. I have a hard time with the continuity of this story.

I’ve written about Anita’s story before, when watching Confirmation and reading Speaking Truth to Power (in two parts). Looking back at those reviews, I guess I’m feeling the way I did with that first of two book reviews: discouraged, traumatized. Of course, looking back at the email in which my father recommended I watch this, I see he saw this coming: “You could skip roughly the first half of the 77-minute film – it recounts the hearings with too many excerpts for us who have seen too much of it already.” Strangely, I guess that’s me, even though I didn’t watch the hearings in 1991.

For my father, the point of the film was was redemptive. (He saw it at a local documentary festival event.)

Once it shifts to Hill’s update on her aftermath, it becomes uplifting and fulfilling as it recounts the huge community of support that has buoyed her life, and catalyzed social change (such as it is). (I did not know anything about her move to Brandeis University in Massachusetts, where she has clearly blossomed as activist & educator.) By the end, there is emphasis on younger generations of women in particular.

The years since 2013 have not been as good, and the audience discussion with (filmmaker) Mock and two local women attorneys (one from local Western Washington University) was attentive to that and the Kavanaugh hearings. But I found the film personally necessary, because it counters the sad-end-narrative for Hill herself, which I had stuck in my head after her book, the recent reenactment film, and Kavanaugh. I’m sure Hill was knocked askew by Kavanaugh too, but now I know what a strong place she was in when that debacle arrived, and trust she is weathering it along with us all.

And those points are well taken, although I guess I needed reminding of that. I viewed the film’s final minutes – that spotlighting of the inspiring younger women saddling up – as positive but also disheartening again, especially because I watch this in 2019 and know what these young women, filmed in 2011-12, don’t know about the immediate future. I guess what I’m saying is that it’s hard for me to stay positive in the face of this ongoing story, but I don’t argue that that’s the right perspective. Hope is better. I’m trying.

To Anita Hill, for the 500th time, I take my hat off and thank you. As far as this film, I think Pops has it right: the footage from the hearings is essential stuff, but if you’re already well-versed, there’s nothing especially new there (and it’s hard to see them press her about pubic hairs and big-breasted women over and over again. Not as hard as it was for her to be pressed, though). The later stuff in the movie is new, even for those of us who have already worked through Hill’s excellent memoir and the very good movie Confirmation. And Pops is correct, it’s good to see how well she’s doing, and that’s she still doing the work.

The story is essential. Pick your version, for starters. You would not do badly if you chose to start here.


Rating: 7 times they made her repeat herself.

On Being 40(ish) ed. by Lindsey Mead

These collected essays about the milestone 4-0 remind readers to laugh, cry and hope.

In On Being 40(ish), 15 women muse on what being 40 years old–give or take–means in their lives. This anthology, edited by freelance writer Lindsey Mead, offers diverse viewpoints and concerns but as a whole aims to inspire. As Mead writes in her introduction, “These are not reflections on the dying of the light, but rather a full-throated celebration of what it means to be an adult woman at this moment in history.”

The contents are varied, including celebrations, uncertainties and elegies. Some writers mourn losses, some rejoice at new beginnings; some are concerned with the existential, some more lightheartedly concerned with changing appearances. Lee Woodruff writes about her mother’s 40th birthday, her own and what she hopes to pass down to her own daughters. Taffy Brodesser-Akner writes about time, which “happens no matter what you’re doing with it.” The quickness with which years pass is a theme across these essays, as is the victory involved in aging: “by forty, we know who we are,” Jill Kargman writes. “When we are young, we are diluted versions of ourselves. We become balsamic reductions as we age–our very best parts distilled and clarified.”

Allison Winn Scotch writes about accepting the unexpected when a devastating injury interrupts plans for a trip to Mexico. She closes: “I worried that my injury would upend everything. It turns out that it did.” And that’s a happy ending.

On Being 40(ish) is mostly about happy endings; or the ongoingness of life–its not ending at all, not yet. This is an anthology for women of all ages and all perspectives.


This review originally ran in the March 19, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 6 rainbow suspenders.

Midnight: Three Women at the Hour of Reckoning by Victoria Shorr

Well-researched, perceptive writing results in a gripping triptych of the inner lives of Jane Austen, Mary Shelley and Joan of Arc.

In Midnight: Three Women at the Hour of Reckoning, Victoria Shorr’s (Backlands) remarkable literary voice illuminates the lives of three famous women. Jane Austen, Mary Shelley and Joan of Arc are each seen standing at respective thresholds in these well-researched fictionalizations, their extraordinary lives given immediacy and power and even–despite what we already know–suspense.

At 27, Jane Austen is practically an old maid by her society’s standards. Along with her unmarried sister and parents (who have given up home and livelihood for one of their sons), Jane travels from one relative’s home to another, essentially homeless, and without hope of the one salvation expected for a woman of her class: marriage. Her witty writings have entertained only her immediate family. And then, a near miracle: the younger brother of dear friends proposes. Jane agonizes through the night, but decides she cannot marry for less than love, like the best of her heroines. Instead she carries on a life of privation, quiet embarrassments and the masterful writing of the classics we love her for today.

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was 16 when she met Percy Bysshe Shelley on a street corner at 4 a.m., to run away to a life of adventure and art and pain. We meet her on a beach at 24, after the deaths of two children, pacing the shore where Shelley has sailed away. He was due back days ago, and now Mary reviews her choices. Might she have been happy if she’d never met Shelley?

Readers find Joan of Arc on the platform beneath the stake where she is to be burned, in the moment when terror strikes her and she renounces her saints and her cause, hoping to avoid death. Over the next week in prison, she relives her triumphs and her faith, then dies at the stake after all. It is a brief interlude in her life, but an enormous one for the reader, who feels in this extended flashback all the intensity she’s lived. Would her life have been better if she had stayed home to mind her sheep in Lorraine? If she’d turned back from Reims, and not pushed, prideful, for Paris? Shorr sets up an interesting interplay between Joan of Arc, the confident hero, and Girl X, as the woman who renounced her beliefs on the platform thinks of herself. The dialogue between the two carries on until the end, when Joan burns.

Each of these women faces a choice early in her narrative; then the consequences unfold. Shorr’s prose is incisive, thoughtful and personal, deeply exploring the interior lives of her characters. Fans of Austen, Shelley and Joan, as well as fans of rich inner lives in historical fiction, will be riveted.


This review originally ran in the February 1, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 spurs to action.
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