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Review: Lina Wolff, Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs

In the end, we learn that Araceli Villalobos is tasked to write an obituary for the semi-reclusive writer, and feminist fairy godmother-like figure, Alba Cambó. I think knowing that going into Lina Wolff’s debut novel Bret Easton Ellis And The Other Dogs will help discern how an, at times, structurally disparate narrative arc comes together to form its whole.

With that end result as perhaps its narrative aim, then we see the parts that come before as vignettes of a life of a woman who refuses to live her life, and by extension refuses to allow other women to live their lives, against constraints of their gender told through an inquisitive, young Villalobos. Alba Cambó is our fixed point throughout these narratives: one of how Villalobos and her best friend get involved in sex work through an encounter with a timber trader; a short story penned by Cambó about Lucifer, a schoolgirl, who falls in love with a lonely priest; an impermeable French teacher who is a source of fascination for her students; and a feminist academic who visits a brothel where, we’re told, “There are only women here, and no bitches.” The academic teaches the women about the power of language.

And what could be more powerful, more subversive an act by female voices than these prostitutes naming their collection of stray dogs after male writers? That’s where we get the titular collection of dogs: Bret Easton Ellis, Dante, Chaucer, and even a canary bird called Harold Bloom.

Wolff’s debut unabashedly lays its feminist cards on the table, and it doesn’t care if you’re bothered. Neither does Alba Cambó. Of the many power dynamics at work in this novel, its women will not be denied. They embrace sex, rather than be ashamed of or shamed into it. They embrace their sense of justice. They embrace the value of and power in female voice and experience.

So, let’s say you know of a famous actress starting a feminist book club and she needs suggestions. Let’s say you’re starting a feminist book club of your own. Let’s say you, like Alba Cambó, sometimes wonder “what was wrong with depicting violated male bodies when women’s bodies were continually being used in literature for that purpose” because “(s)ome writers wrote like lazily masturbating monkeys in overheated cages.” Then, even with the odd colloquialism in the translation, Lina Wolff’s Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs will not disappoint. Somebody please tell Emma Watson I’d be happy to lead the discussion group in one of my favorite t-shirts.

Lina Wolff’s Bret Easton Ellis And The Other Dogs is available now from And Other Stories.

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On the Shelf: The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt by Tracy Farr

If you’ve heard, among other songs, “Good Vibrations” by The Beach Boys, “Incense” by Erykah Badu, or “Please Go Home” by The Rolling Stones, you’ve heard a theremin, the instrument pioneered by the Russian physicist Lev Sergeyevich Termen, known as Léon Theremin in the west. It’s an instrument that makes it seem as if one is playing music out of thin air: a box with two antennas, you move your hands through the electromagnetic fields and sound emerges. Done well, it is entirely captivating and pioneered electronic music in the early twentieth century. Done poorly… Well, you can imagine.

Drawing inspiration from Clara Rockmore, the woman dubbed the greatest thereminist of all time, and the film Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey, Tracy Farr presents Dame Lena Gaunt—rocker, junkie, octogenarian—who becomes the somewhat reluctant subject of a fictional documentary film. Mo Patterson, the filmmaker, approaches Gaunt following a performance at a Perth music festival.

Of documentary making Patterson tells Gaunt, “Someone once said that a documentary is in between inventing and capturing reality. I want our documentary, this project, to sort of acknowledge both things, both invention and reality.” The same can be said for Farr’s novel. Structured as a series of interviews either captured on film or through chats with Patterson taking notes, some of the most painful revelations of Gaunt’s life are told only in a manuscript narrative Gaunt has composed and typed herself and left for the filmmaker’s discovery. We learn of Gaunt’s childhood spent away from her family, her love with the modern artist Beatrix Carmichael, the birth and eventual tragic loss of her daughter, and the way in which finding musical fame affected her singular life.

Through the detail of Gaunt’s well-lived, fearlessly loved life and art, I find the greatest strength of Farr’s novel: forgetting entirely that Dame Lena herself is fictional. The skill in creating a protagonist so thoroughly believable makes The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt an incredibly pleasurable, satisfying read.

The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt, first published by Freemantle Press, is available now in the UK, reprinted by Aardvark Bureau. The US edition, also published by Aardvark Bureau, hits shelves early May 2016.

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On the Shelf: Nelly Dean by Alison Case

Of the many things for which Downton Abbey is perhaps catalyst is our frenzied interest and excitement over lives lived below stairs, and how they affect the drama of many a stately home. Recent contemporary novels have hopped on those coattails, opening the airing cupboard on some of classic literature’s stately homes: Jo Baker, on Austen’s Pride & Prejudice in Longbourn; Jane Stubbs, with Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre in Thornfield Hall.

Alison Case takes up the story of Emily Brontë’s much-maligned Nelly Dean in her eponymous epistolary novel that gives us another view into the world of Wuthering Heights. In Case’s book, Nelly promises to tell, “a homespun grey yarn woven in among the bright-dyed and glossy dark threads of the Earnshaws and Lintons,” and she doesn’t disappoint. We learn that Nelly arrived at Wuthering Heights after her father became abusive: she was sent first as companion to the Earnshaw children and then became servant when Heathcliff arrives. If Wuthering Heights was scandalous in its day for its stark depiction of mental and physical brutality, Nelly Dean shows us how equally cruel we can be to people we love via secrets and lies.

What may surprise modern readers is how much the novel engages in discussions on breastfeeding, or wet nursing. It’s hardly ahistorical—Victorians were obsessed with bodies, circulation, and commodities, among other things—and likely will delight modern readers interested in recent sociopolitical discussions and feminist discourse. Case, herself a noted Victorian scholar and professor of English at Williams College, does very well to highlight Victorian anxieties surrounding the female body, embodied and disembodied motherhood, and domestic economies in ways that will appeal to modern readers.

Nelly Dean is best enjoyed if you’re an informed reader. I’m not saying you need to become an amateur Victorianist, but I do think you’re best served having refreshed yourself with a reading of Wuthering Heights prior to beginning. While Nelly unburdens herself of quite a lot, she expects you, as you the reader are her Mr. Lockwood, to know the original plot. Fans of the superior Brontë sister, by which I mean Emily (sorry, Charlotte enthusiasts), will delight over a new look into Wuthering Heights.

Nelly Dean is available in the UK, New Zealand, and Australia now, published by The Borough Press. In the US, readers can look forward to its publication in early February 2016 by Pegasus Books.

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Stream Ellie Goulding's Unstaged Performance

American Express presents its UNSTAGED concert series featuring recording artist Ellie Goulding and directed by Scarlett Johansson. The event takes place November 11 at the Hammerstein Ballroom at 8pm ET.
For fans not in attendance, American Express offers the opportunity to watch the performance via a live stream, and a 24 hour rebroadcast via the following link:

The trailer is available now at featuring exclusive footage of Ellie reflecting on her childhood, doubts and journey as an artist.

On November 11, at 8pm ET, stream Ellie's performance live via the link above, or via the AMEX Unstaged app

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Idina Menzel's Worldwide Tour Stops In Philadelphia

July 16, 2015

Hours before gates to Philadelphia's Mann Center opened to the public, Idina Menzel was running through the grass surrounding the stage with her son. A happy, carefree Menzel displayed an impressive knowledge of dinosaurs much to her son's delight.

Idina Menzel took the stage at 8:20pm, and delivered a powerful performance, lasting nearly two hours. Six year olds dressed in Princess Elsa costumes sat alongside 65 year olds discussing Menzel's most recent Broadway stint in If/Then. Most striking, the number of tweens. The most coveted demographic were sprinkled throughout the audience, mesmerized.

Kicking off the night with "Defying Gravity," Menzel moved effortlessly with audience members hanging on every note from Ethel Merman covers, to Radiohead's "Creep." "Sometimes, you have days you just don't feel like singing Let it Go," Menzel explained before launching into a stirring rendition of "Creep." She did, of course, include "Letting Go" at the end of the evening, and threw in a few Red Hot Chili Peppers' lines "Give it away now," while twirling as the audience sang the chorus from "Let it Go."

The vocal powerhouse delivered high notes and warmth. Menzel frequently pulled out her right ear monitor to hear her audience. "Why are you so late?" Menzel questioned four people entering the second row, three songs in. She continued, "I am a neurotic Jew, so I saw the empty seats, I wonder is it me, are they coming...wait, I'll recap!" and she did, complete with running back up stairs from which she descended to start the night.

Menzel's connection with her adoring fans was on display throughout the evening, as she ran through the audience for her signature fan duets during "Take Me or Leave Me" from Rent. She seemed relaxed, while walking through the crowd, once muttering, "Shit! It came off," referring to losing her shoe, as she continued barefoot through the venue. While there were no restrictions on taking a photo, nor video with a cell phone, Menzel's audience sat transfixed, a testament to Menzel's ability to enchant.

Tony nods and multiple solo tours later, Menzel showcased her vocal prowess. Her voice on songs from Rent, some twenty years ago, stronger than ever. Her appreciation for her audience genuine. Broadway royalty? Pop with power? While critics search for such terms to describe her voice, her presence, it's pure Idina Menzel. If you have the chance to catch one concert this Summer, Idina Menzel is a must.

Tour dates found on the web:

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