You know you’re in for a wild ride with the shockingly inventive collection Shit Cassandra Saw when one of the first stories is a piercing tale of women in New York acquiring supernatural powers that allow them to move through the city without fear of sexual assault. This is followed by a story that’s a one-star Yelp review written by Gary F., ostensibly about a Maryland restaurant called Jerry’s Crab Shack, but really about the man’s deeply dysfunctional relationship with his wife.
Other standout entries include a poignant look at a high school softball team that is reeling from a recent school shooting, and the tale of a woman who is having an affair and being judged by the priggish Colonial ghost who lives in her neighborhood.
So it goes, in dazzling story after story in this debut book from Gwen E. Kirby, a creative writing instructor and associate director at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference at the University of the South. Through humor, ferocity and sometimes a healthy dash of surrealism, Kirby meditates on the fears, joys and pains of being a woman throughout the centuries. Every story feels unique, yet they’re tied together by Kirby’s mind-bendingly confident writing and her clear fascination with strong yet vulnerable women.
And boy, does she know how to create a sense of place so strong you can feel and smell it. In “We Handle It,” for example, we meet teenage girls who are “at a summer music camp, our fingertips sore from strings, our backs sticky with sweat, and when we reach the lake we shed our summer dresses and leap from a boulder into the water, which is deep and clean. Around the lake are tall pines and the heavy hum of Southern bug life.”
Shit Cassandra Saw is pure pleasure with something for everyone, especially readers interested in thinking deeply about womanhood from every possible angle. Kirby’s characters are sometimes sinners and never saints, as complex as the real-life women we know and love.
The female characters in Gwen E. Kirby’s collection are sometimes sinners and never saints, as complex as the real-life women we know and love.
When we think of women’s contributions to World War II, what often comes to mind are bandanna-headed Rosie the Riveter types taking over factory work while the men were away. However, women journalists also reported on the war, facing challenges that male journalists did not, and their contributions are frequently overlooked.
Biographer Judith Mackrell’s wonderful new book, The Correspondents: Six Women Writers on the Front Lines of World War II, examines the war through the eyes of six reporters from this time. Mackrell posits that, though these women had a harder time accessing the front lines or the important political and military figures of the day, creative workarounds led to more nuanced and interesting coverage. “Over and over again,” Mackrell writes, “it was the restrictions imposed on women which, ironically, led to their finding more interestingly alternative views of the war.”
The six women Mackrell focuses on are Virginia Cowles, an American correspondent who started her career as a New York City society reporter; Sigrid Schultz, a brilliant and brave Berlin-based reporter whom readers may remember from Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts; Clare Hollingworth, an ambitious and idealistic young Brit; Helen Kirkpatrick, whose college internship in Geneva led to a lifelong love of covering international relations; Virginia Cowles, an upper-class Bostonian who covered the war while remaining “disconcertingly glamorous in lipstick and high heels”; and Martha Gellhorn, a dazzling writer whom history primarily, and unfairly, remembers as Ernest Hemingway’s third wife.
Mackrell effortlessly weaves together the personal and professional stories of these six journalists, producing a hearty biography that feels almost like a novel with its rich details. She brings each woman to life, tracing her childhood and entry into journalism, as well as her work and romantic life, against the backdrop of a simmering conflict that boiled over into a disastrous war. Although these women covered hard news, delivering scoops about impending military moves, they also wrote human stories that almost certainly would have been underreported had the war been left entirely to male correspondents.
For example, Martha Gellhorn, one of the first reporters to bear witness to the Dachau concentration camp, wrote about one Polish inmate in the camp infirmary who was so wasted that his jawbone “seemed to be cutting into his skin.” After that experience, she wrote, “I know I have never again felt that lovely easy lively hope in life which I knew before, not in life, not in our species, not in our future on earth.”
Judith Mackrell’s biography of six female journalists during World War II feels almost like a novel with its rich details.
In the opening chapters of Dave Eggers’ latest chilling novel, we get a glimpse at a dystopian future in which privacy is a thing of the past and humankind is completely in the thrall of technology. True connection and meaningful communication are withering away. Even the secretary of state tweets dancing rainbow emoji from the official U.S. Department of State account.
At the center of this new world order is the Every, a megacorporation that has acquired Amazon, all the major search engines and social media platforms, and thousands of other companies. Enter Delaney Wells, a young idealist (is there any other kind?) whose parents lost their small-town Idaho store to the Every and now must work for the Every’s Whole Foods-esque grocery service. Delaney believes the Every is “not only a monopoly but also the most reckless and dangerous corporate entity ever conjured—and an existential threat to all that was untamed and interesting about the human species.”
Delaney’s goal is to tear down the Every from the inside. She gets a job at its headquarters and enters an otherworldly corporate culture where everyone dresses the same, steals each others’ ideas and pledges cultlike allegiance to the Every. Delaney begins proposing increasingly outlandish ideas: How about an app that listens to your conversations, tracks the participants’ vital signs and assesses the quality of the interaction? Or artificial intelligence that measures art so we no longer need to decide for ourselves whether “The Last Supper” is beautiful? Or an app called HappyNow? that tells you whether you’re happy with your recent purchases?
To Delaney’s horror, the more ridiculous her pitches, the more enthusiasm they generate, both within the Every and among consumers. She realizes her plan to turn public opinion against the monolithic company has just one flaw: Consumers no longer care about privacy or free will.
Eggers has long established his almost supernatural storytelling skills, and this new book is positively mesmerizing and wholly original. The Every, a companion book to The Circle, will likely scare the bejesus out of readers. The vivid future he depicts feels fantastical but just realistic enough to make you want to unplug your smart speaker and toss your fitness watch.
Unplug your Alexa and toss your Apple Watch. The Every, a companion book to The Circle, will likely scare the bejesus out of you.
Before she was the world-famous creator of #MeToo, the movement that sparked a reckoning with the mistreatment of women, especially women of color, Tarana Burke was a community organizer and journalist. Her experience as a reporter will be no surprise to anyone who reads Unbound: My Story of Liberation and the Birth of the Me Too Movement, her unflinching, open-hearted, beautifully told account of becoming one of the most consequential activists in America.
Burke was molested by a neighborhood boy in the Bronx when she was 7. Over the years, despite the presence of several loving adults in her life, Burke was repeatedly sexually assaulted. “I was a grown woman before I truly understood the word rape and was able to relate it to my experience,” she writes. “Language like rape, molestation, and abuse were foreign to me as a child. I had no definitions and no context. Nobody around me talked like that.”
In spite of her trauma, Burke writes with humor and gratitude about her experiences. She delves into the rich history of her family, led by a granddaddy who “believed in celebrating Blackness in as many ways as possible” and a mother who was a devout Catholic. In school, Burke was both academically gifted and an agitator who spent time in the principal’s office. A high school leadership program led Burke to Selma, Alabama, where she laid the groundwork for #MeToo after realizing there was an utter lack of programs to support and protect young women as they spoke their truth about sexual abuse.
Burke also writes honestly about her reaction to #MeToo becoming a viral phenomenon on social media in 2017, initially without her knowledge or participation. After spending more than a decade traveling around the country, conducting workshops and speaking on panels about surviving sexual assault, she worried social media would water down or misuse her work.
Ultimately Burke realized that “all the folks who were using the #metoo hashtag, and all the Hollywood actresses who came forward with their allegations, needed the same thing that the little Black girls in Selma, Alabama, needed—space to be seen and heard. They needed empathy and compassion and a path to healing.”
Unbound is not just a thoroughly engrossing read. It’s also an important book that helps us understand the woman who has been so influential as our country struggles to acknowledge women’s trauma.
Early in The Turnout, the beautifully dark suspense novel from bestselling author Megan Abbott (Dare Me), readers will sense that all is not right in the Durant School of Dance, a prestigious yet moldering ballet studio.
It’s “Nutcracker” season, and the holiday staple brings in the bulk of the annual revenue for the school, which is run by the Durant sisters, Dara and Marie, and Dara’s husband, Charlie. Emotions are running high in the days leading up to the announcement of who will play Clara—the most coveted role but also the one that makes the dancer the target of cruel jealousy from both students and parents.
Marie, who had been living with Dara and Charlie ever since the sudden death of the sisters’ parents, has recently set up camp in the attic above the studio. A fire from her space heater leaves part of the studio in ruins, and a possibly shady contractor comes on board to help with renovations. The future of the studio is in jeopardy, forcing the sisters to revisit their traumatic childhood as they decide whether the Durant School is worth saving.
The Turnout submerses readers in the obsessive, toxic world of competitive ballet. Abbott perfectly describes the unique smells and atmosphere of a dance studio: a mix of sweat, vomit and hormones. She unsettlingly juxtaposes a sport that requires astonishing levels of discipline with the sugary sweet story of “The Nutcracker.” “Consider the exquisite torture of all those little girls never allowed to eat dancing as costumed Sugar Plums, as fat Bonbons gushing cherry slicks. Tutus like ribbon candy, boys spinning great hoops of peppermint, and everywhere black slathers of licorice and marzipan glistening like snow.”
Abbott layers dread and darkness as readers learn about the harrowing family home that shaped Dara and Marie and pulled Charlie into their lives. Virtually no one is who they seem, and Abbott keeps the twists coming until the final pages. The Turnout is the kind of gripping, unnerving page turner we have come to expect from an author who does noir better than almost anyone.
Early in The Turnout, the beautifully dark suspense novel from bestselling author Megan Abbott, readers will sense that all is not right in the Durant School of Dance.
Despite the dance studio-setting of her new thriller, The Turnout, Megan Abbott was decidedly not a ballerina growing up.
“My dancing background is restricted to two years at a strip mall dance studio in Michigan,” Abbott says with a laugh. But that didn’t stop her from developing a lifelong fixation with ballet. “Like a lot of young women, because it’s so tied to femininity, I had a fascination with it at a young age. I read all the ballet memoirs. I loved all the stuff about ballet and about young women dying or contracting terrible diseases.”
Abbott famously writes intense, often noirish books. Her breakout 2012 thriller, Dare Me, was an unflinching look at the cutthroat world of high school cheerleading, and some of her 11 other novels are inspired by famous crimes from decades past. So talking to her on the phone from her home in the Queens borough of New York City is surprising; she is effusive and lighthearted as she talks about the inspiration for her haunting new book, The Turnout.
It’s a beautifully written look at a musty ballet studio run by sisters Dara and Marie and Dara’s husband, Charlie, who came to live with Dara and Marie when they were teens. All three grapple with the trauma of their deeply troubled childhoods and the toll ballet has taken on their bodies. Once the most promising dancer of the three, Charlie has endured four surgeries and lives with ongoing chronic pain. “His body, still as lean and marble-cut as the day their mother brought him home, was a living reminder of how quickly things could turn,” Abbott writes, “how beautiful things could all be broken inside.”
“It seems the impulse is still there, despite everything, of women judging other women.”
The physically and emotionally grueling world of ballet was a subject Abbott had considered for years before finally sitting down to write The Turnout. “I was interested in the smells and the sort of fixations with the repetitions and discipline required,” she says. “The mind games dancers will do to get in that space.”
The relationship dynamics between women—how they both support and undermine each other—is a prominent theme in many of Abbott’s books. “When I started, there were a vanishingly few crime novels that had female characters,” she says. “I realized, oh, people haven’t really talked about [female relationships] so much in this world. . . . We know this [competitive dynamic] goes on and the way women talk to each other and are passive aggressive with each other. We know the casual comments that women know are a veiled insult—this secret language of women. [After] seeing how rich a mine it was, I just kept going back.”
One perhaps unexpected inspiration for The Turnout was the hit true crime podcast “Dirty John,” which tells the story of John Michael Meehan, a charmer who conned a successful California businesswoman into marriage with disastrous results for her and her family.
“The listener comments would be almost entirely women commenting and basically trashing the [victims], these women who had been conned and brutalized,” Abbott says. “It seems the impulse is still there, despite everything, of women judging other women, particularly for their romantic choices. It’s obviously a really defensive posture, a fear that this could happen to you.”
When writing her suspense novels, Abbott starts out with a story and perspective in mind, but she remains open to her characters making choices, too, and she speaks of them as if they are co-authors. “We’re complex and complicated and ambivalent and change over time,” she says. “It does feel like they’re telling you what you want to do in the moment. I follow the breadcrumbs, so to speak.”
Constant change is an unavoidable part of another of Abbott’s passions: the “love story of her life,” New York City. She’s been a New Yorker since the early 1990s and has watched the city go through several iterations and waves of gentrification. “It was still a little rough around the edges when I moved here, then there was this Disneyfication and the slow ‘everyone is moving to the outer boroughs,’” she says. “Manhattan was becoming empty condos of wealthy internationalists, and now it’s coming back to life. I’ve seen many versions of it. I’ll never leave it.”
Despite this, Abbott does not set her books there. In fact, several of her novels are fairly vague on their exact locations, and that includes The Turnout, where the studio is set on the top two floors of a squat, rusty brick office building downtown—though downtown where is not readily apparent.
“New York is home, so to me, it’s not exotic,” she says. “I do tend to want to write places where I don’t specify too many regional signifiers, so you can picture it and relate to it. I don’t want them to be quite that grounded.”
Living through the COVID-19 pandemic in the city was not easy for Abbott, but having consistent projects in TV and movie writing (including adapting The Turnout into a limited series) forced her to stay productive and focused. “Luckily I needed to basically write all the time during the pandemic,” she says. “With TV and film scripts, you literally don’t get paid until you finish it, and people are waiting! It gave me a rigor. Script work also kept me connected to people in a strange time. As a novelist, it’s a solitary life, but now I couldn’t even leave my apartment, so it was an umbilical cord to the rest of the world.”
One of Abbott’s favorite recent TV projects was writing for the HBO series “The Deuce,” set in the seedy Times Square of the late 1970s. Abbott said it was thrilling, if daunting, to write about this period in the city’s storied history.
“I was so terrified that it really made me obsessively research,” she says. She describes most of her stories as being “very small . . . set in hothouses,” whereas the stories in “The Deuce” are “very expansive, with multiple characters and worlds like the police and pimps.”
Now that vaccines are available in the U.S. and the country appears to be opening up again, Abbott knows exactly how she’s going to reclaim her beloved city. “What I really missed, maybe the most, is a sweaty, loud, noisy bar with friends and the music throbbing and the sensate experience of that,” she says. “That experience of having to strain your voice to talk to your friends about some book you just read or movie you just saw.”
Author photo by Drew Reilly.
Despite the dance studio-setting of her new thriller, The Turnout, Megan Abbott was decidedly not a ballerina growing up.
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