Night Rooms: Essays by Gina Nutt

These 18 essays about gender, horror, grief and much more are thought-provoking, discomfiting and lovely.

Gina Nutt’s Night Rooms is a startling collection of 18 essays ruminating on life experiences, cultural tropes and horror films, examining questions of gender, fear and grief. Fragmented in form, but firmly interconnected, these essays refuse to look away. Nutt’s prose is lyrical, provocative, intimate and intelligent.

“I used to imagine wanting someone alive would revive them, if caught right after dying.” This opening line establishes one of Nutt’s main subjects: the deaths of loved ones and how people do (or don’t) handle them. She wants to find “a balance between mourning and moving on. How does it look to not be so enamored with the image of the final girl–the one who survives–that we forget, or disavow, our dead (selves).” That final girl of horror movies is objectified: a symbol, a survivor, part of a lineage.

Nutt (Wilderness Champion) is also a poet, and has a way with a simple line in brief scenes and observations: in grief or depression, “time pulls thick, opaque as taffy.” “I am making this [darkness] a buoy.” Her voice is vulnerable and frank. Repeatedly she describes a cultural artifact rather than naming it, so it is recognizable to most readers, but made unfamiliar: “the cartoon mouse dressed in a red sorcerer’s cloak and a pointy violet hat with white stars on it.” Quoted sources are named in footnotes, but those only paraphrased are not, so that different readers will find themselves involved to different degrees–as is true with the cultural artifacts themselves.

Haunted houses, horror flicks with sharks in them, ghost stories and slasher films meet beauty pageants, ballet lessons, sexual explorations and home décor to question what it is about the macabre that fascinates. Although subtitled as “essays,” Night Rooms feels more like it contains chapters, which make reference to one another as much as within themselves. The deaths that occupy the narrator in the book’s beginning are relevant again at its close. Indeed, while these essays are fragmented, cinematic in flashes of image, sound and feeling, they are equally fragments of the whole. Together, these pieces form an experience that is sensory, intellectual and emotional, illuminating difficult and even uncomfortable truths.

Part personal reflection and part cultural study, this unusual collection will haunt readers, in the best ways.


This review originally ran in the March 15, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 insects framed in flight.

Let Me Play: The Story of Title IX by Karen Blumenthal

My Comp II classes got their library instruction early in the semester from our library director, who ran some searches on the big screen for them, including a number using Title IX as the sample topic. So I several times saw this title go across the screen, as a print, hard-copy book in the library on the topic. It’s a “juvenile” book, recommended for ages 8-12. I was curious, so I checked it out. (Why is this juvenile book in our college library? Who knows, but it got here by donation. I’m only the second person to check it out. I suspect our print collection doesn’t see much movement, even outside the juvenile shelves.)

Ages 8-12, sure; there were some points that were a little remedial for me, like the definition of a filibuster and how the legislature works, although I daresay many of us could use a review even there. And one of the points the book makes very well is that establishing federal law is wildly arduous, often a process that takes years, and much negotiation and compromise and heartache. The quest for near-consensus is admirable in theory, but in practice often means very slow or no progress.

Aside from a few issues that I didn’t need explained quite so well, though, even this ‘juvenile’ book was an excellent narrative. What the heck is Title IX? How did we get here? How far have we come? I have to say that I’ve never actually sat down to learn the story in such chronological fashion, and this book for 8-to-12-year-olds was engrossing.

When I started teaching college, I thought of Title IX as being the legislation that said girls could play sports too. When I was a little girl, that’s how I heard about it. I had some direct experience of the law, like when my middle school established a soccer team in my 8th grade year and because there was just the one team, it was necessarily coed. A few girlfriends and I got to play with the boys, and it was both a point of pride and at the same time no big deal. And I knew Title IX was the reason. But then I got to teach college, and Title IX had whole new dimensions. Nobody cares if the English professor knows the rules about equal sports opportunities, but it was very much a part of my training to know that I’m a mandatory reporter of disclosures of sexual assault, dating violence, stalking, and sexual harassment. That’s all Title IX, too: how little I knew. In its simplest form, this is legislation meant to address sex discrimination in educational settings. It’s been applied to equal pay and employment opportunities for teachers, admissions opportunities for students, access to fields of study, and more. But sports, it seems, remains the most visible and well-known area affected by Title IX, as evidenced by Blumenthal’s title.

(My classrooms are full of female athletes. I wonder if they realize how new a thing this still is.)

Let Me Play is a well-produced book. Chapters explain the context for Title IX, including the struggles for civil rights in the wider world, not only for women but for Black people and other people of color. It begins with women’s suffrage and situates events against two world wars. The text is written for a younger audience but is unafraid to use proper terminology (like filibuster!); I wonder if the finer points of government aren’t a bit complex for the stated age group, but what do I know. There are a good number of images, mostly photographs, and quick biographies of important figures along the way: mainly female athletes and legislators. Key events in history, sports, and politics flesh out the world in which Title IX was situated. I’m a fan of this model.

I also like the chapter titles, which are cute and help track progress over time.

There were a few moments I thought Blumenthal could have expanded the generally forward-thinking, inclusive nature of her book. References to “both genders” are out of date with our understanding of more than just the binary possibilities. In a sidebar she honors the dads who support their daughters, when I think the moms could probably have used a mention of their own. The author joins certain legislators in laughing at the ridiculousness of outlawing father-son and mother-daughter events, but I think that humor is misplaced, if we think about the experiences of sons with single mothers, daughters with single fathers, and all sorts of other family models (including nonbinary folks). This book was published in 2005, and times change quickly.

These instances aside, it’s a generally feel-good story about a long, fraught, painful process that has awarded girls and women options we didn’t used to enjoy. Importantly, too, Blumenthal does not stop at the feel-good story of success, but emphasizes that all is not now perfect (boys are still encouraged far more than girls are to pursue STEM subjects, for examples) and that these rights can always be stripped away. I have a lot of respect for her project here, and I find Let Me Play to be an awfully informative, moving, and important book for readers of all ages. (Also, I have never seen such copious endnotes, bibliography, research notes, further reading, and index in a book for children.) The clear storytelling and careful explanations that make it work for younger readers will benefit some older ones, too. I learned some history, and I was riveted at every moment. Definitely recommend.


Rating: 7 athletic bras.

The Hare by Melanie Finn

A totally captivating novel to read in as few sittings as possible (beware!), often a bit disturbing or discomfiting, but always engrossing.

We first meet Rosie and Bennett in 1983. They’re on a date, which doesn’t go very smoothly, and highlights their differences. He’s older, far more sophisticated; he comes from money, while she’s a little awkward. (Or maybe just young.) She dutifully takes his cues, but the reader is immediately uncomfortable. Rosie’s perhaps not as uncomfortable as she should be.

We rewind just a bit to gather up her backstory. A childhood of privation in Lowell, Massachusetts; an art scholarship at Parsons School of Design in New York City. She’s a student there when she meets Bennett at MoMA, and is excited and flattered at his attention. And they’re off and running.

Somewhere inside, Rosie had the idea, like a stone buried deep in the Presbyterian loam of her soul, this pregnancy was punishment for being greedy. Her orgasms were rich as chocolate cake or red velvet. Layers of sweetness and dripping icing.

What lovely lines, hm? And a good example of Finn’s expressive writing, and Rosie’s rich interiority. We follow her from here over decades, eventually to rural Vermont; and I don’t think I’ll tell you much of what happens, but she grows and changes and learns so much. She’s a riveting character. While I empathize deeply with Rosie (eventually, Rose) throughout the book, there are times I disagree with or feel disturbed by her perspectives. This perhaps only deepens the connection, though, and my need to see her through.

The Hare is told in close third person, meaning Rosie is ‘she’ rather than ‘I’ but we still see what she sees, which allows for the question of whether she is really a reliable narrator. There are a few types of unreliable ones: there’s the narrator who is being deceitful and lying on purpose, and then there are other kinds, who maybe can’t see their own worlds clearly. Do I see myself the same way that you see me? Can I reliably narrate myself? Tiny spoiler here: Rosie consistently tells us she’s not much of an artist. But some others around her think she might be gifted. Who do you believe?

The visual-arts frame is a neat one – I love this stuff when it’s done right. A certain Van Eyck painting plays a small but pivotal role. And a little more subtly, Rosie’s eye for image, color, line, and perspective have an enormous impact on how we see what she sees. This is a novel with layers to it in a way that I love; I think I’ll be thinking of it for some time.

Gender is central to this book. Rosie’s position in her life, her situation in several senses, and her feelings of powerlessness are attributed to her being a woman. Her gender, and those of other characters, are always and unavoidably related to their roles and relationships. The novel itself is a commentary on gender roles; Rose eventually make explicit commentary, but she was always make implicit observations, too. The back-of-book blurb calls her “an authentic, tarnished feminist heroine,” and I think that’s about right. In some ways this is a coming-of-age story, but lasting far beyond the time in her life that we tend to think of as the coming-of-age time. She’s still growing up, as we all are (I have come to see), and I really appreciated noting that here.

Finn is absolutely expert at mood and atmosphere. We are with Rosie when she feels dread on a Connecticut (I think) back road; luxuriates in a boathouse on a fancy estate on the coast; works in fear, numb and bone-tired, in the snowy Vermont mountains. This is a book to take you out of your own life.

This review has included almost no plot summary. That’s on purpose. I want you to read this work of suspense and be as surprised by events as I was. It’s beautifully thought-provoking, often lovely, and occasionally frustrating (in that Rosie sometimes frustrated me – as I feel sure Finn intends). Haunting. The hare of the title does extraordinarily broad and deep work. I am enchanted.


Rating: 8 duck decoys.

Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences by Howard E. Gardner

This is a long review of a big, fat, dense book, not particularly a fun read. But I’ve been intrigued and fascinated by the theory of multiple intelligences for years – I think my mother introduced this to me when I was a little kid. I’d read about this theory, but I’d never read Gardner’s own work; I finally decided it was time.

He has written many books, and he’s published books since this one on the MI theory (Multiple Intelligences; Intelligence Reframed), but I chose to go to the original, in its updated form. Frames of Mind was originally published in 1983. My edition has a tenth-anniversary introduction as well as a first-thirty-years introduction; it was published in 2011. (Although published in ’83, Gardner notes he did the writing in ’81, then moved into revisions.) These supplements were helpful to put Gardner’s work in some perspective and keep in my mind the time period he was originally writing in.

I’m going to try to keep it as brief as I can. In a nutshell: I still find Gardner’s theory fascinating and instructive; his thinking about intelligence types informs the way I view people in our world to a large degree. It captures my imagination. Reading this book was definitely stimulating for me. But! it was also pretty frustrating to read, mostly because of his mishandling of gender. Gardner almost entirely excludes women from a discussion of intelligences (except, of course, where we may be of use as mothers to male children). It assumes strict gender roles to an extent that seems almost laughable in 2021. I have some concerns about his treatment of cultural differences, although he’s clearly making some good efforts, but I’m less confident in my criticisms in that area, so I’ll discuss those as concerns I’m not sure about, where the gender business was downright upsetting. As I said about Buried in the Bitter Waters, there is enough good thinking here that it needs and deserves a thorough editing (and in this case, a thorough rethinking), and a rewrite for modern times. In general, a little humility and openness to being wrong is probably healthy for all of us (myself obviously included).

On that note, Gardner is quite good at humility and openness to criticism when it comes to his psychological theory of multiple intelligence, his acknowledgement that the number and identity of intelligence types may need revision, and his easy confession that in some realms he’s not qualified to carry the theory any further. (For example, what this book is not is a prescription for educational theory or practice. This is funny because one criticism of Gardner that I’ve encountered is that his educational recommendations are faulty. Again, he makes none in this book. Although maybe he does so in later works.)

Let me back up and offer you at least a little bit of summary. (This will be minimal, and I’m in a bit over my head with the harder-science side, but there are excellent summaries elsewhere online if you want to go further.) Gardner posits that human beings do not have a single intelligence, in which individuals are more or less gifted, but rather we have a number of different intelligences, or competencies, which are independent of each other; an individual can be gifted in one or more, average in others, and below average in some. In this, his original work on the theory, he introduces and details seven intelligences, defending them in neurobiological terms and with some examples. They are: verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal and intrapersonal (grouped together as the personal intelligences), and spatial. He is careful to separate intelligence from sensory abilities, so verbal-linguistic is not tied to hearing (and hearing-impaired and deaf people can be highly intelligent in this area), and spatial is not tied to vision (same story for blind people). In testing whether an aptitude qualifies as an intelligence under his theory, he requires that it involve a skill set that leads to the ability to resolve “genuine” problems or create useful products; that it also entail the potential to find or create problems; and that it have a biological basis, meaning for example that it be potentially isolated by brain damage. A short list of further criteria: the existence of prodigies; a recognizable developmental history and “end-state performances”; an evolutionary history; support from experimental psychology and psychometry; and “susceptibility to encoding in a symbol system.” Whew. Bookending chapters on each intelligence type are chapters on earlier views of intelligence (background of other theories and schools of thought); biological foundations (hard science, and hard for me); a critique of his theory; comments on the socialization of intelligences through symbolic systems; observations about how we educate to intelligences (observations, not prescription!); and thoughts about “the application of intelligences.”

As you may be concluding, Gardner here writes for an academic audience, in that classic, dry, academic style. Against his advice, I did wade through the “biological foundations” chapter (not that I got much out of it, but I’m a completist). It was a good reminder that psychology is brain science. I would love to see this book rewritten for a more general readership. I think I was hoping for more examples of intelligences in practice – hoping to recognize myself and my friends, family, acquaintances. My interest in this theory is absolutely about armchair-analyzing the world around me, so I was hoping for a slightly different type of book than this, but that’s my mistake; Gardner is clear that this is psych theory, not a which-kind-of-fruit-would-you-be quiz. I would have loved more case studies… and I wonder, is this about my desire for narrative, owing to my individual profile of intelligent types? I especially wanted more from the bodily-kinesthetic chapter, which included only two pages about athletes.

Gardner’s language is often dated. He uses ‘Eskimo,’ ‘victim of autism’ (and clearly sees autism as a tragic disability, when I think we’re pretty far from that mindset now), and ‘idiot savant.’ The use of ‘normal’ for individuals who are neither prodigies nor ‘subnormal’ feels a little wrong to me. And, “for ease of exposition the pronoun ‘he’ will be used in its generic sense throughout this book.” Guess how that struck me. I am aware of the argument that ‘he or she’ is just too much work, and/or too awkward, for regular use, but there are other, more elegant solutions to this problem than just assuming that EVERYBODY IS MALE. You can alternate between ‘he’ and ‘she’ from case to case. You can use ‘he or she’ sparingly (really, I’ve done it, you can). You can also slip into the singular pronoun ‘they,’ which is not a new usage at all, but dates back centuries. To read more than 400 pages of thoughtful and serious social science thinking in which ‘he’ does everything and everything happens to ‘him’ is belittling, offensive, and makes me feel not just left out, but as if I don’t even exist, or these theories don’t apply to me (more on that in a minute). Words matter.

While Gardner is able to cite women as scholars and researchers in his own and related fields (education, psychology, anthropology), he is almost entirely unable to name a woman as an example of one of his proposed intelligences. I noted just four, in these 412 pages plus notes: poet Sue Lenier, ballet choreographer Martha Graham, ballet dancer Suzanne Farrell, and Eleanor Roosevelt (for the personal intelligences, held up alongside Socrates, Jesus Christ, and Mahatma Gandhi). By comparison, his male examples number in the hundreds. His chapter on verbal-linguistic intelligence names 35 men who impress him, and just the one woman: Sue Lenier, who he calls the “possessed poet” for her methods which have been criticized (so that the one woman in that chapter, and one of just four in his whole book, has her intelligence qualified, as if her poems aren’t really her own work after all). Representation matters. I am left with the clear impression that Gardner doesn’t think I could possibly be intelligent in any of seven ways. Yes, it was 1981 when he wrote this book. But some men had already figured out how to see women as people in 1981, so Gardner does not get a pass.

Gardner’s belief in clear gender roles, then, will not surprise you. The development of infants falls squarely on their mothers, and mothers are the only ones capable of playing certain roles in the lives of their infants. (Finally, something women can do.) The chapter on the personal intelligences is far too bound up in a gender binary. I am not extremely well read in gender theory, but I am not sure I buy the strict gendered division of labor and personality going back to prehumans that he sets up. I know that nonbinary gender expressions are not the brand-new item that some would have us believe now, but appear in early and traditional societies as well. I know same-sex couples raising children in exemplary fashion. I think, as a psych theorist, that Gardner is missing some significant pieces of the puzzle here.

When it comes to other cultures, I’m on even shakier ground. And I do want to acknowledge that Gardner’s made an effort to find and examine a variety of cultures, societies, educational systems, and ways of recognizing, valuing, and ‘using’ intelligences in different cultural settings; that is important work and involves his awareness that Western culture is not the only or necessarily the best culture. Sometimes his conclusions feel a little unsure to me, but my expertise on cultures other than my own (let alone in terms of sociology, anthropology, pedagogy, psychology, etc.) isn’t sufficient for me to pick Gardner’s work apart. I did find myself wondering if he wasn’t being a little reductive sometimes, though, as in the stereotypes about Japan and China, for example.

I know I’ve devoted a lot of this review to my criticisms, but these oversights in Gardner’s writing and his perspective on humanity 1) were distracting to me as I tried to take in the theory and 2) make a substantive difference in his theory, because how can one understand human intelligences if one (for example) overlooks half the population??

As a theory, Gardner’s work continues to fascinate me and to inform a lot of my thinking. I am very glad I put in the effort (and it was an effort) to read this book. As a book, it was fairly obnoxious. But as a theory, it is intriguing and evocative. I hope somebody takes on the rewrite someday, and finds some non-men to think about. Who knows–we might learn something.


Rating: 7 puzzles.

The Book of Rabbits by Vince Trimboli

Disclosure: Vince is a colleague and a dear friend.


A slim poetry collection with a story at its center: Mary Toft was a young peasant woman in 18th-century England who became famous after she gave birth to more than 15 dead rabbits. The sensational story had doctors scratching their heads and the whole country riveted, until it was found to be a hoax. (This is a true story.) Throughout The Book of Rabbits, Trimboli pokes and prods at this history, questions of gender, womanhood, motherhood, class, family, agency… Some poems deal directly with the woman and the rabbits, while some approach its themes from more oblique angles, but the questions raised by Toft’s story are always present. Part of his concern is who gets to relate these events to us, centuries later. Toft herself was illiterate, at any rate in a time when women’s voices were not much valued.

A foreword by Nancy Lynée Woo gives some of this important background information on Toft’s story – I think the reader needs it – and also describes and assesses the collection some, in ways I found very helpful (because you know poetry still intimidates me). I’m a little tempted to just reprint her whole foreword here as a review, if that weren’t a copyright violation!

I love the variation of forms. There are a handful of haikus, some prose poems (some segmented), and some in different shapes on the page. There is no shortage of lovely, surprising, and thoughtful images: as Catherine Venable Moore states in a blurb on the back cover, “Rare is the poet who sees fire opals in a case of deli meats.” I puzzled over some poems, and I took advantage of having excellent access to the poet himself (Vince and I talk several times a week and sometimes daily) to ask some questions. A few poems included a pronoun whose antecedent was unclear; I considered possibilities and then asked. The author confirmed that that ambiguity was purposeful, as I suspected… I often appreciate syntactic ambiguity, but sometimes I’m not sure it’s intended. I figured it was here. “Some say this is the easiest part of being human,” Trimboli writes, in a section involving several actions; what is ‘this’? Ambiguities like this both thrill and unnerve me.

I’ve heard Vince read from this book a handful of times, so a number of these poems felt familiar, which doesn’t mean I’m not still grappling with what they mean. But I know that I love how he pushes against the gendered tensions of control, choice, and voice. There’s plenty to keep coming back to here, for someone like me who puzzles over poetry.

Some of my favorite poems are “This Is a Story About Poverty,” “Notes from a Field Trip to the Slaughterhouse,” “The Fourth Dream: Deus Ex Machina,” and of course a longtime favorite, “Haiku: Anatomy” (which confused a male undergraduate of mine this semester – naturally). I love lines like…

meats too rich for her purse

postpartum change purse

all pearls are traumas

fear is as much a part of hunger as the eating

And I think there’s a lot here to think about. Glad to know you, Vince.


Rating: 8 gossamer sacks.

Fortune Favors the Dead by Stephen Spotswood

This classic noir-style mystery recast with humor, female leads and superb style is both satisfying and great fun.

Willowjean Parker (who goes by Will) ran away from home at 15 to join the circus. She’s working on the side, a security job at a construction site–the kind of job women get to do now that “the men who’d usually have taken them were overseas hoping for a shot at Hitler”–when she first meets Lillian Pentecost, the famous lady detective. A few clever deductions and a little knife-throwing skill later, and she finds herself in Ms. Pentecost’s employ, apprentice to the aging lady detective. Stephen Spotswood’s first novel, Fortune Favors the Dead, sparkles with the wit and personality of this bold, unconventional heroine. Will may revere her boss, but readers know that it’s the intrepid younger woman who stars.

In Will’s delightful first-person telling, peppered with vernacular asides, the two women initially clash in a violent midnight action sequence worthy of the kind of pulp novel Will so loves. She now relates this and other stories from a distance of some years, confiding in her readers the difficulties of choosing what to include. The major case she highlights is that of the Collins family: the patriarch dead of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound, matriarch bludgeoned with a crystal ball following a séance–in a locked room–leaving twins Randolph and Rebecca to tease and manipulate their hired detectives, Ms. Pentecost and Will. The twins’ godfather is now acting CEO of Collins Steelworks; his loyalties are unclear. And the medium and “spiritual advisor” whose crystal ball became a murder weapon is another wild card: she seems to have unusual power to intimidate Ms. Pentecost, which unnerves Will entirely.

This mystery plot has all the twists and surprises a fan of the genre could ask for, but it is Will’s distinctive, captivating voice and background–from difficult childhood to the circus to lady detective–that is Spotswood’s real triumph. Fortune Favors the Dead resets classic noir elements (smoky nightclubs, femmes fatale, unexplained midnight gunshots) in 1940s New York City as experienced by women who like women and men who like men, as Will discreetly frequents a slightly different kind of nightclub, and no one is precisely who they seem. Ms. Pentecost’s expertise and no-nonsense attitude are appealing and entertaining, but gutsy Will, with her snappy, slangy narrative style, ultimately wins readers’ hearts and carries the day.


This review originally ran in the October 2, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 pockets.

Maximum Shelf: Outlawed by Anna North

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on September 16, 2020.


Outlawed by Anna North (America Pacifica; The Life and Death of Sophie Stark) is a wild, ripping western with a firm feminist bent, set in an alternative North America.

“In the year of our Lord 1894, I became an outlaw.” Some decades ago, the Great Flu decimated the national population, the United States government collapsed and, in its place, the people established Independent Towns west of the Mississippi. Ada has grown up in the Independent Town of Fairchild, where she has lived a good enough life. Her mother is a skilled midwife; Ada excels in her own training in the profession and helps care for her beloved three younger sisters. She marries at 17, as girls do when they become able to reproduce, and so begins the serious and sacred work of trying to become pregnant. But when six months pass, then more, Ada begins to worry. To be barren in Fairchild is a crime punishable by death.

At the end of a year, her husband’s family rejects her, and Ada’s mother sends her to the Sisters of the Holy Child, hoping to keep her safe. In the nunnery’s library Ada continues to read and study, seeking the truth about infertility; her mother had taught her, against popular belief, that barrenness was a medical condition and not witchcraft, but the details are not well understood. It is not a wish to have children herself, but Ada’s hunger for knowledge that drives her from Holy Child and further west, to join up with the infamous Hole in the Wall Gang. This band of outlaws is led by the Kid, “nearly seven feet tall, the sheriff said, and as strong as three ordinary men put together. His eye was so keen he could shoot a man dead from a mile away, and his heart was so cold he’d steal the wedding ring from a widow or the silver spoon from a baby’s mouth.” But like everything else Ada has been taught, these stories aren’t quite accurate. The Kid is charismatic, beloved and possibly dangerous in entirely different ways than the rumors insist, and the outlaws are not what they are thought to be. It is only in the West that it occurs to Ada that “perhaps barren wives were not hanged for witches everywhere.”

Outlawed is a delightful tale of adventure, rebellion, the importance of knowledge and the value of family–however family is made or defined. With the Hole in the Wall Gang, Ada finds unexpected freedoms and fluid gender roles, and is forced to consider what she has to offer her new friends and the world. “I don’t think I’m much of a threat,” she tells the Mother Superior when she leaves Holy Child, but her story is just beginning.

In her new life of crime, Ada learns to care for horses, to shoot and to be a member of a community she’s chosen and loves. As the gang plans and attempts robberies, North’s narrative is often lighthearted, with style, humor and a sense of fun, but her protagonist never forgets the high stakes. Ada meets men and women who are not what they seem, including an actor who’s studied male dress, movements and mannerisms because “the male roles were the most prestigious.” She becomes aware of not only gender but also race as a point of prejudice and contention in North’s version of the Wild West. She learns new skills to supplement her midwife training; she treats gunshot wounds and mental illness and comes to be called Doctor. She learns to carry herself differently. But she never stops worrying about the sisters she’s left behind in Fairchild, who are vulnerable to punishment simply for their relationship to Ada, “a barren woman, a discarded wife, an outlaw wanted for cursing women’s wombs even though I had helped coax dozens of babies into the world.” Ada does not take naturally to the business of holding up stagecoaches or robbing banks, but her devotion to her new group of friends forces her to take risks. Eventually she must choose to invest in their future, or strike out on her own again.

Part of the genius of Outlawed is that its feminist themes juxtapose neatly with the traditionally male-dominated western genre. In Ada’s first-person narration, the critical significance of reproduction and fertility seems simply a background element, central to the workings of North’s fictional world, which is in itself curious and thought-provoking. Ada’s voice is perfectly authentic and easily believable: her developing rebellion is organic, born of her love for her family and friends. She is a maverick, and the best kind of heroine: adventurous, innovative, self-doubting but brave, with intense loyalty and a magnetic, compelling curiosity.

Outlawed boasts a lively, quick-paced plot, a well-constructed alternate-historical setting and an indomitable heroine. While North clearly has something to say about gender in society and the politics of reproduction, this novel is absolutely a work of energetic literary entertainment first. For all readers in all times.


Rating: 7 drops.

Come back Friday for my interview with North.

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

I picked this book up blind, not knowing what was inside, and it was a roller coaster. Often painful and uncomfortable, but often delightful and hilarious. I love the protagonist and her fierce best friend; I struggled with the difficult subject matter. I think it’s a very fine work of fiction, with the added appeal of social issues we need to be thinking about. I encourage you to stop reading now and go buy this book. If you need more convincing, keep reading.

Emira is a 25-year-old Black woman in Philadelphia. She’s part of a foursome of friends who take care of each other, and this is where the book opens, at Shaunie’s birthday party. Emira is also getting a little nervous about that big question of what she’s going to do with herself; with her life; for money. Soon she’ll get dropped by her parents’ health insurance, and she has a college degree but nothing that really calls to her in a professional career sort of way. (I am deeply empathetic. This was me at 25, and in some ways it’s me now.) She works part-time as a transcriptionist and part-time as a babysitter for a wealthy white family. She is completely crazy about the three-year-old daughter she cares for there, and she’s really good at her job.

The opening ‘inciting incident’ is this: Emira is pulled away from Shaunie’s birthday party when her employer, Mrs. Chamberlain, calls and asks her for help. It’s not exactly a babysitting time of night, but the cops are about to show up to the Chamberlains’ house (just a little disturbance), and they’d like the three-year-old, Briar, not to be there. Emira takes the child to a nearby grocery store to browse. She’s getting paid double, and Mrs. Chamberlain doesn’t mind at all that Emira’s not dressed for childcare. Well, can you guess? The store security questions why this young Black woman has a little white girl with her. They harass and eventually hold her until Mr. Chamberlain arrives. It’s a scene. Somebody films it, although Emira begs him not to share the video.

The evening ends with Emira walking away, ostensibly unharmed. “This was a video about racism that you could watch without seeing any blood or ruining the rest of your day.” But of course it has lasting repercussions for Emira, and for a few people in her circle.

I’ve only given away the first few pages of the novel. The rest of it shifts between the POVs of Emira and Mrs. Chamberlain, and Emira continues as Briar’s babysitter. Her distress over her place in the world – financially, professionally – grows. She gets a boyfriend, a situation that is both pleasing and a source of further angst (as boyfriends are). Her friends are awesome, but as they get promotions and better apartments, there’s a certain distance. Emira is still crazy about Briar, who is a frantic talker, a little nervous, not particularly girly or ladylike, and who adores Mira in turn. Mrs. Chamberlain is… a lot. It’s unflattering to describe her: hung up on appearances, insecure, adrift in a new place (recently moved to Philly from NYC, and she clearly feels that Philadelphia is NOT cool). She has a business and a brand, but she’s losing her grip on it. She’s not a likeable person; but she is a realistic one. I can’t like her, but I can sympathize, here and there. And then there’s a character from Mrs. Chamberlain’s past who complicates things considerably.

This is a story, on one level, about race. Emira’s just trying to live her life, and leave the night at the grocery store behind, but the world throws a lot of barriers at a young Black woman. A handful of ‘white saviors’ get in her way with their ostensibly well-meaning but thoroughly obnoxious interferences. It’s also about ‘the anxiety of affluence,’ and the intersections of race with class, and societal expectations. (A certain Black character plays a passable version of white savior, herself.) This is why I say the story is often painful and uncomfortable: these forces in our world are uncomfortable, and that’s why this book is important. But as a novel, make no mistake: this is not an earnest, humorless political take. It tackles serious subjects, but it also knows how to have a good time. I smiled as often as I squirmed.

Kiley Reid is a hell of a writer; the writing, as I sometimes say, disappears; I was right there with Mrs. Chamberlain and Emira in turn. Dialog is snappy. The nastiness and self-deception is too real. Mrs. Chamberlain (Alix) commits various microaggressions (as well as some regular macroaggressions), but to encounter them told through her own POV is extra creepy.

[Mrs. Chamberlain] knew Emira had gone to college. She knew Emira had majored in English. But sometimes… Alix was filled with feelings that went from confused and highly impressed to low and guilty in response to the first reaction. There was no reason for Emira to be unfamiliar with this word. And there was no reason for Alix to be impressed. Alix completely knew these things, but only when she reminded herself to stop thinking them in the first place.

A powerful, realistic story, and one we should be paying attention to, also crafted as a masterful work of fiction: this book is highly recommended and Kiley Reid is one to watch. I agree with the back-of-book blurb that calls Such a Fun Age “written so confidently it’s hard to believe it’s a first novel.”


Rating: 9 bags of groceries.

comparative literature and lives, from Pops

The Living Mountain
Nan Shepherd (1945 / 1977)

Under the Sea Wind: A Naturalist’s Picture of Ocean Life
Rachel Carson (1941 / 1952)


I want to celebrate early – and timeless – work from two remarkable women naturalists of the 20th century. This is not really book reviewing; it is tribute to these two writers’ noteworthy similarities and differences, and appreciation of their early, largely disregarded success. The books came to me unintentionally, separately, and coincidentally; that’s always a fun thing.

As shown in these books, both authors were naturalists in the purist sense: keen observers of the more-than-human milieu around them, with a literary voice enabling them to describe what they saw, which appeared so differently to them than most people. Humans rarely feature; they appear only occasionally as natural background to the author’s higher interest in place, or other inhabitants.

While both show an informed ecological understanding of what they observe, such insight is rarely explicit; they ‘teach’ by example. Both prefer to rely on literal and figurative senses as a narrative lens, and the result on these pages, while different in style, is surprisingly similar in tone, feeling and impact. There is a sophistication to their form that impresses, especially for its time. Carson embraced the term ‘poetic prose’, which certainly applies to both.

They lived during the same era, against a backdrop of both constraint and change for women. They wrote the two works cited here within the same decade (1935-45); publication of each book was at least partially affected by the war. There is no suggestion they knew of each other.

While both traveled internationally, they lived on different continents. The focus of their attention in the natural world rarely overlapped, even while the results of their inspiration bore similar fruit on the page. Carson was a committed author and trained biologist; Shepherd, always ‘only’ a writer, and more introspective. Early writing success met Carson, followed later by greater success and international impact; Shepherd’s writing was only fully appreciated late in life, and even then mostly limited to her region.


Nan Shepherd was born (1893) and lived always within walking distance of the Cairngorm massif in Scotland’s central highlands – and walk she did, across every ridge and through every valley of her cherished place. Always a poet, sometimes an essayist, she had a brief burst of minor publication before she finished writing The Living Mountain in 1945 at age 52.

For various reasons – post-war disruption, intervention by a mentor, some factors perhaps inexplicable – the book was not published. Only in 1977 was the original manuscript revived by the author and publisher (4 years before her death); it immediately gained attention regionally. Largely due to ‘discovery’ and ardent promotion by Robert Macfarlane, it has belatedly become a classic. The Scottish five-pound note now displays her image, with a quotation.

Shepherd’s subject here is explicitly The Living Mountain, which she embraced passionately her entire life. Her brief Foreword in 1977 testifies to her continued attention to that place. While the narrative draws from her experience over decades, it is organized into 12 chapter categories of her choosing, from Water, to Plants, to Being.

Her focus never strays beyond its boundary of geography, shaped by water. But her meaning for ‘the living mountain’ encompasses everything about it: rocks and water; clouds and winds; plants and insects; large and small; above ground and below; its impact on the psyche. Implicitly, this is an ecological view. Her language is intimate, lyrical and dense – all, matching her perception of the subject. Yet her voice is calming & humble, conveying her affinity for Buddhism. There is likely nothing else in print resembling her work here.

Macfarlane’s introduction in the 2011 edition runs to 28 pages including three pages of footnotes. This is a superlative essay in itself (of course, one might say), partially because Macfarlane himself roamed these hills as a youth, and even today. But mostly this is his own tribute to Shepherd, as we hear her on these pages. As he says, this is “a formidably difficult book to describe.” I would agree, and say that about both books.


Rachel Carson was born more than a decade after Shepherd, in rural Pennsylvania. Even though she grew up land-locked her reading inspired an interest in the ocean. So it is unsurprising that the sea informed both her early interest in writing, and eventual degree in aquatic biology. Significantly, her early work in articles led to mentoring by a Dutch children’s author, who encouraged her simple, direct, descriptive writing style, which is so effective later.

Under the Sea Wind was her first book, published in 1941 at age 34. (Two subsequent books now comprise her ‘Sea Trilogy’: The Sea Around Us, and The Edge of the Sea.) While initial publication met with critical success, sales and popularity were dampened by the war. When The Sea Around Us became a bestseller in 1951, the earlier book was rediscovered and the next year also became a bestseller.

Under the Sea Wind is organized into 15 chapters, divided 5-7-3 into three sections, or ‘Books.’ Each Book is a theme that ties together its chapters in loose narrative; yet all three also naturally connect in a general sense, and comprise a generic year’s cycle.

Carson’s sightline in this book covers the broad western hemisphere, especially the western Atlantic, encompassing ocean and sea; shoreline and river; marine and freshwater; birds and fish; whales and sand fleas. Yet, on a given page, her attention is particular species, and even individuals of a species, which she sometimes assigns a proper noun. One can imagine children of a certain maturity devouring some passages; and adults of a certain proclivity cherishing its entirety.

The magic of her ecological view is how her ‘narrative’ seamlessly and endlessly follows one organism to the next, taking as a thread a trophic food chain, or an expansive migration path, or intricate inter-species symbiosis. But she rarely resorts to such jargon, any global perspective, or stated scientific facts. She simply knits together, piece by piece, story by story, an appreciation of this connected web of life.


The relaxed pace; the embracing language; the sense of peacefulness amidst natural turbulence; the reassurance in understanding how things work – both books display these things, and commend themselves to sympathetic readers.

movie: The Pieces I Am (2019)

Transcendent, not that I’m surprised.

This documentary of the life of Toni Morrison was released shortly before her death, which has helped it make an even bigger splash, although it was doing fine anyway. My dear friend Liz told me I needed to see it, which pushed me further (I was already interested). I was so glad to get a chance to see it locally at a micro-theatre here in Buckhannon, West Virginia.

For starters, check out that image above. The collage of Toni’s face is built up in an opening sequence that shows many faces of Toni Morrison as she ages, and as a portrayal of the creative process I found it moving and thought-provoking. The rest of the movie followed suit. I loved that they mostly let Toni speak for herself. A “present” Toni sits against a blank backdrop and speaks directly into the camera throughout the film. She is dressed in black, white, and gray, highlighting her beautiful gray hair. She speaks with humor and wisdom, and as she talks, we see images and film clips from her life. Friends and contemporaries including celebrities (Angela Davis, Oprah Winfrey), other artists (Sonia Sanchez, Walter Mosley), and college professors (Farah Griffin, David Carrasco) also speak to the camera; a voiceover reads from a few articles, like nasty racist criticisms of Morrison’s early work. But mostly it is Toni’s own voice that tells of her life, from the melting-pot steel town on Lake Erie where she was raised (Lorain, Ohio) to Howard University to Cornell, to teaching, marriage and divorce, raising two boys, and her influential career as an editor at Random House… and of course writing 11 world-changing novels in 45 years, along with children’s books, short fiction, drama, nonfiction, and an introduction to The Oxford Mark Twain‘s edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that I’d love to see.

The impression of Toni Morrison that I take away from this film is an entirely take-no-shit, strong woman who we might describe as brave, but I think her own view would be that she was not so much a brave woman as just doing what needed to be done, and what was right, without thinking twice about it. Of course that is brave, but it seems to have just come so naturally to her.

It was nice to see her celebrated not only as an earth-shatteringly talented, singular artist, but also as an incisive, gifted editor, who dragged Angela Davis’s memoir out of her and put Muhammad Ali in his place during the editing of his. I enjoyed the story of her Nobel Prize and the delightful party she so enjoyed in Sweden. In short, I found a rich and rounder portrait here than I think I’d seen of Toni before now.

Although I knew it before, I feel again what a loss we suffered this year when she died, and I feel how lucky we are to have her work in the world. I’m so glad I saw this movie. Don’t miss it. There are lots of ways to watch at home, so you’ve no excuse.


Rating: 9 dolls.
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