Book Review

The Lady of Sing Sing by Idanna Pucci

Genre: Historical Biography
Pages: 304
Format: Hardcover
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My Rating: 4/5 Stars

Summary

The Lady of Sing Sing is a poignant retelling of the first woman in America sentenced to the death penalty and the women worldwide who came to her aid. In 1895, Maria was accused of killing a man who seduced and falsely promised to marry her. Her case lit New York City on fire, even attracting the attention of an American Countess in Italy, Cora Slocomb.

Cora works tirelessly on Maria’s case, seeing her as another poor Italian immigrant being treated unfairly by the American courts. Idanna Pucci, Cora’s great-granddaughter, expertly weaves together the struggles of immigrants, capital punishment, prejudice, violence against women, women’s autonomy, and the power struggles between those in power and women and ethnic minorities. She blends intimate characterizations with broader political machinations to tell a nuanced story of the trials of Maria Barbella.

Thoughts

What I most enjoyed about this book is how the author seamlessly blended fiction with history. It is impeccably researched, yet extremely engaging. As most students of history like myself can attest, that balance is incredibly difficult to achieve and many history texts end up bland and dense. These two characteristics are the opposite of The Lady of Sing Sing, which draws the reader in from the first chapter. I loved the intimate view of the historical figures and how well Pucci captured what their inner lives might be like during such difficult times.

The content of this book is also increasingly relevant today. The death penalty is still unfairly and disproportionately inflicted on minorities, and America is still obsessed with capital punishment. It is easier to reflect on these aspects of American culture when looking at them through the lens of the past. This book offers the chance for that reflection because of its personal characterization of the struggles and unfairness associated with the death penalty. I was shocked as I read about the ineptitude of Maria’s first trial and how the judge’s racist attitudes influenced his decisions, but I was filled with hope by the thousands of people who tried to help Maria. These ideas are not as foreign as they seem and it is interesting to see how the historical legacy of ideas on the death penalty have translated into our modern perspectives. 

Overall, it was a good read and I definitely recommend it to anyone who is interested in history, social justice, or who just wants to read something engaging and different. Also, don’t forget to read the Afterword!


Thank you to Changing Hands Bookstore for providing an ARC
in exchange for this honest and unbiased review.

Book Review

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

Publisher: Graywolf Press
Genre: Memoir
Pages: 264
Format: Hardcover
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My Rating: 5/5 stars

Summary:

What does domestic abuse look like? In what ways can domestic abuse be more than physical harm? What does domestic abuse look like between two women? What does domestic abuse look like when the perpetrator is smaller than the victim? These are some of the questions Carmen Maria Machado sets out to answer in her inventive new memoir In the Dream House.

In doing the research for this book, Machado sought out experiences that mirrored her own, but found the archive of literature and history to be lacking. This is her attempt at taking the first step in adding to that archive. She constructs her story through more than a hundred narrative tropes (i.e. stoner comedy, Chekov’s gun, man vs. self), resulting in an elaborately weaved and imaginatively told story that explores themes of abuse, queer relationship dynamics, queer world building, assessment of self-worth, and ultimately the emotional endurance that humans are capable of. 

Thoughts:

What I love most about this book, and there is a lot to love about it, is the way in which it pushes the boundary between nonfiction and fiction through the exploration of narrative tropes. While this memoir explores themes that are heavy and at times difficult to emotionally process, the reader is guided along by Machado’s incessant wit and playful prose; making this book fun to read despite the nature of its subject matter. Additionally, Machado annotates her experience with motifs from folk literature (i.e. taboos, ghost cries, girl mistakenly elopes with wrong lover) creating a dream within the tightly constructed world. 

Subsequently, this is a book that can easily be read over and over again and even seems to invite just that. There are whole worlds in this work that is part memoir, part literary criticism, part musing on pop-culture, and even part dissection of the music of Aimee Mann. I suspect that each time I reread this book, I will find something new to admire and obsess over. 

In the Dream House became instantly important to me not just because of the innovative way in which it is written, but because it seeks to put in place a framework for a more complete history that previously did not exist. As with her critically acclaimed short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, Machado has again brought attention to an aspect of modern queer life that was once invisible.  For this reason and many more, this book will enthrall its readers throughout its course until the wind carries the story away.