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Summer Sunshine Maya! I love updating her for the seasons❤

“I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels.”

On this site, you can find Book Reviews written by people who identify as women of books written by people who identify as women. You’ll also find interviews under Meet the Writer with people who identify as women who do any kind of writing: fiction, memoir, poetry, blogging, journalism, you name it! Not all of these authors are published, so you’ll get a variety of insight. My name is Melanie, and I’m happy you’re here! Please see the About GTL section to learn more about my reviewing process and FAQ for answers about review requests and why there are no people here who identify as men.

Damnation #bookreview #readwomen @diddioz

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Damnation #bookreview #readwomen @diddioz

Damnation by Janice Lee

published by Penny-Ante Editions, October 2013

Damnation, Janice Lee’s third book, was an intimidating piece to take on; conceptual works often can be, as it’s never a given that I will understand that concept or theory or the context in which the book was written. If you’ve read other reviews of Damnation, you’ll learn that it is “a book-length meditation on the long takes of the Hungarian film director Béla Tarr” (3AM Magazine). “What and who?” I ask. Apparently, Hungarians aren’t big in central Michigan. This is when more intimidation mounts. Will I be “smart enough” to read Janice Lee? After I read the introduction by Jon Wagner, a Professor of Critical Studies at California Institute of of the Arts and a Visiting Professor in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California (just copying from his bio at the end of Damnation), I knew the answer: Nope.Damnation-Lee.png

Part of being a reviewer, though is having the confidence to remember that I’ve read a lot of books in nearly every genre and style (blank books, digital art/music/words books, books that were what the author copied from a newspaper–lots of “out there” stuff). I took on Damnation with my game face on.

One thing that really helped, I must admit, was that the author had pointed me to a link that would take me to a place where she explains in her own words what this project is about. Here, Lee is honest about why she started this project, where she was emotionally, and to what level she took her obsession. It is a fantastic little piece, and I personally wish it was the introduction to the book instead of Professor Wagner’s, who is clearly an intelligent and thoughtful individual, but one who assumes we all have a film criticism in our brain files.

Once I got past the introduction, the work itself was just gorgeous. I was really surprised by how many quotes I wrote down to keep for later. While the “plot” (if one is to call it that) is very simple, the presentation is magical. Basically, a small town gets a package that is addressed to no one in particular. When they open it, they find inside a Bible, which is quickly passed from person to person. We learn “In a place where people both fear and revere the Word, it is also believed that certain words can manifest themselves in this plane and cause real pain and illness upon its bearers….children [start] hallucinating, having strange dreams of great destruction, and haphazardly reciting Bible passages in both their sleep and waking lives.” Since everyone is afraid to hear the Word, they make more noise to drown out the children saying the Bible passages. The town is one big, noisy hot mess. Also, it won’t stop raining. And then there’s wind, and it won’t stop being windy. The characters live in fear of being influenced by the Word: “It’s that book! You’ve been tainted with that book. I told you we shouldn’t have opened it. You insisted. God, your impenetrable stubbornness. And now look at what you’ve brought upon yourself. Endless grief and insomnia and foolish words. We should leave it alone, I said. If we don’t invite the devil in, he has a harder time getting in, isn’t that right? And now he’s here. You’ve brought him here. We all have. Perhaps, then, we all are doomed.”

This book is written in flash fiction. Some sections are just a few short sentences, while others go on for 1.5 to 2 pages. The result is there are a lot of blank pages to make sure each new flash piece begins on the right side of the page, so really the book is a quicker read than you might imagine. Sections examine what someone or something is doing during different moments. For instance, we see into the post office, but not from the perspective of the postal employee. Read about “the lovers” as they discuss staying or parting. Watch the cows or dogs move through the town. This might be what is meant by “long shot,” though I’m not sure what makes this style of writing different from other fiction written in flash. Adding the film aspect could lift the writing to greater levels for those who have the background, but it does not hinder those without. Either way, Lee’s writing is beautiful and thought-provoking. Here are some of my favorite passages (two quotes per theme):

On the past: “Everything that ever went wrong will be just a luminous dream from the past. I can unstitch this fabric and then stitch it back up.”

“What will we cling to when our world explodes? Many would answer those they hold dearest: their love, their children. That what makes them happy. But in reality, they will hold on to their pain. They will cling to their regrets and failures until the sweat and puss are squeezed from their pores.”

On depression: “The windowsill is rotting in places, but neglect and age helps one to forget these kinds of things and allows one to stay in bed longer than usual, especially when even the thought of getting dressed is exhausting.”

“The sadness, mixed with the rain, perhaps rusted around her exterior, like a hard metal coffin that held her not-quite dead body but also served as her defensive wall from misery and suffering of the world.”

On death: “Why were we only made to die?”

“-Probably I’m just anxious about aging but I can’t sympathize [with the death of the girl]. What does it matter if we’re all doomed anyway?

-Are you bringing up the book again?

-Why not? Look at what it’s done to the town. If the end doesn’t come soon, we’ll surely take on the job and finish each other off.”

The characters you’ll meet in Damnation are haunted individuals with no real set course in life. They can’t decide to stay or leave the town. They aren’t sure if hope is deadly. Things are deteriorating, though, and the people can tell: “From the depths of the earth, he thinks he can hear the dead stirring, then screaming, such horrible screaming that originates from below the ground.” If you are brave enough to get past what you’ve heard about Damnation and read the introduction knowing that you probably don’t have a background in film theory, you will easily find a seat waiting for you in Lee’s sad, ghostly world.

I want to thank Janice Lee for sending me a reviewer’s copy of her book in exchange for an honest review.

Meet the Writer: Janice Lee #writerslife #authorinterview @diddioz

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Meet the Writer: Janice Lee #writerslife #authorinterview @diddioz

I want to thank author, blogger, editor, and do-it-all Janice Lee for answering my questions. Check out her books and follow her on Twitter! I have a review of her 2013 novel, Damnation, in queue to be published Friday!

What did you want to be when you grew up?

I went through different phases: teacher, archaeologist (a la Indiana Jones), zoologist, doctor, spy, writer.

What was your least favorite class at any point in your education? Why?

PE in high school. It was so hierarchical and was just asking to create tiers of “winners” and “losers.” Mostly I just chilled with my friends and we pretended we were too cool to care.

What was the first blog post you ever wrote about?

I’ve never had a proper blog. Just my website and various articles around the web. Probably the earliest “blog” I kept up most regularly (though only for a short while) was for my web design company, and the post had to do with what went into building a good website.

Do you think blogging is meant for the blogger, the readers, or both? Why?

Definitely both. It’s cathartic, in a way, for the writer. The Poetics of Spaces series I’m working on right now at Entropy, for example, is really memoir and confession disguised as personal essay. And I’ve had several readers email or message me thanking me for various articles in the series, which is always really gratifying to be able to connect with people in that way.

Are you reading anything right now?

Many things simultaneously but also in between things. I just finished The Ants by Sawako Nakayasu. About to begin Slow Movies: Countering the Cinema of Action by Ira Jaffe.

Do you habitually follow any blogs?

I’m one of those people who feel the need to say informed and connected, so I actually follow almost 100 different blogs that I get in a feed, in all topics: literature, art, culture, film, science, technology, web design, etc. I mostly just skim the headlines each morning and focus more on a few. My favorite site right now is Entropy, not only because I’m an editor there, but because there’s really some rad stuff happening there.

Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self #bookreview #readwomen @daniellevalore

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Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self #bookreview #readwomen @daniellevalore

Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self by Danielle Evans

Riverhead Books, September 2010

I first saw Evans at an AWP conference a few years ago and loved the way she spoke. When I heard the title of her book, I knew I had to read her writing. “Before you suffocate your own fool self” is a quote from Donna Kate Rushin’s “The Bridge Poem.” The poem suggests a speaker who must remind someone to not be foolish, to take a deep breath and not let the worst version kill the best versions of him/herself.

Looking at Evans’s stories, I can surmise why she chose this quote and title. The characters often find themselves in some sort of trouble, but never the same kind of trouble, whether it’s being honest about being a virgin pretending/wanting to handle grown-up relations, like Erica in the story “Virgins,” or Tara nearly dying the summer she lives with her white grandmother and her cousin in “Snakes.”

You might be wondering why I pointed out the grandmother is white. The characters in Suffocate are, more often than not, black. Evans doesn’t come out and say this; instead she leaves room for the readers to figure it out, which doesn’t take long if the character is younger, around teen aged. For instance, in “Virgins,” when Erica, Michael, and Jasmine are at the pool, Jasmine is quick to harass Michael for wearing sunblock: “Sunscreen…is some white-people shit. That’s them white girls you’ve been hanging out with, got you wearing sunscreen. Black people don’t burn.” Erica the narrator reassures us in that Michael is lighter than Jasmine, and that she is lighter than Michael, but that really all three of them burn in the sun. Evans goes on to make references to the differences between black and white adolescents, comparing their hair (“Snakes”), examining the race of the students and the amount money their public school has (“Robert E. Lee is Dead”), and even the value of the eggs of white versus black college women (“Harvest”). I appreciated Evans’s ability to weave race into her stories without having it be the entire focus of characters’ lives. After all, if readers are led to believe people are nothing more than their race, rather than their race being a part of their identity, the author would be doing a disservice.

The non-teenage characters don’t come right out and talk about race, which creates a sort of washing away of stereotypes: there are no thugs, baby mamas, or big mamas who beat sense into her grandchildren, images we’ve all seen on movies and television. These characters are nuanced. They go to school, have sex, make friends, consider their economic options, struggle with their parents. In “The King of a Vast Empire,” Liddie, her brother Terrence, and their parents were in a car accident years ago. Now, Liddie guilts her parents whenever she wants something, or doesn’t want to do something, by casually flashing the large scar on her forehead. They all must remember how she didn’t speak for years after the accident, that she is not permanent, and, therefore, should have her way — even if she wants to be an elephant trainer after having gone to college for some time.

Evans’s prose has depth and variety, switching points of view from first to third, using male and female narrators, and looking through the eyes of different age groups (children, teens, college students, adults). The stories don’t feel like the same subject hashed out over and over again, like some story collections, which leaves me bored. Her collection will keep you entertained and interested.

Procurement: My sweet ma gave me birthday money, so I bought this book on Amazon

Watch the Doors as They Close @BookstoreMemoir #Novella #BookReview #ReadWomen @SpuytenDyvil

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Watch the Doors as They Close by Karen Lillis

published by Spuyten Duyvil (novella series), 2012

watch the doors as they close

Karen Lillis’s novella, written as diary entries from December 12th through the 30th of 2003, begins, “This is the story of Anselm as told to me,” and right away I worried for this poor young woman. Anselm, a bi-polar, world-travelling undergraduate from a poverty-stricken Appalachian town used to date the unnamed narrator, but they broke up one week prior to her journaling. We learn nearly nothing about her (although she does mention that Anselm read the book she wrote and was jealous of some passages).

The narrator feels she knows nothing about Anselm, yet the story is stacked with details about his family, of what he hates, and the neurosis of his many ex-girlfriends and lovers. On my first experience with the novella I got through 40 pages and had to put the book aside to complete other projects. Three days later, when I returned, I found myself zoning out, lost, maybe a bit bored, but I couldn’t figure out why (I had loved the first 40 pages). I read the novella a second time (two sittings in one day) and loved it. The many details of Anselm, it turns out, are vital to understanding the beauty of the situation between the two characters, and I had forgotten brief moments from those first 40 pages. For instance, on page 6 the narrator claims Anselm hates being tickled (who cares?), but it isn’t until page 61 that we learn “there was a not-really-told story about [Anselm’s mother] sadistically tickling him….as if her instinct to beat him started with tickling instead.” If you don’t pay attention to this narrator, she will have no effect on you, and you’ll be missing out on a great deal of excellent storytelling.

The anecdotes of cruel Anselm are sparse, as if she is protecting him from a reader’s scorn. What she reveals and hides says more about her personality than her own words. When the narrator does express herself, it is through claims, causing the novella to blur into lyricism. One of the woman’s claims:  “One time I was dreaming that everywhere [Anselm’s and my body] touched each other turned to a blanket of green stamps, like fish scales on our skin. My challenge in the dream was to figure out if the green was the color of green of love and growth, or if they were merely food stamps.”

Lillis’s book reads like listening to a friend (another good reason to read it in one sitting). I wanted to shake this friend, but I gained insights into young adulthood from her. When Anselm shows trepidation upon arriving at a party of the narrator’s friend, he wants to stay outside and talk and drink, giving her much personal attention. Ultimately, the narrator realizes, “I also had the foreboding sense that Anselm and I were always going to be only an intangible, fleeting entity, if we never dared to enter real life together.” To her, real life is exposed and worth living, but Anselm’s world is hidden and confusing. Such a short beautiful read, especially for those caught in the crossfire of young adulthood and developing adult relationships that change a person’s identity.

This review was originally published at JMWW.

 

Troglodyte #bookreview #readwomen

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Troglodyte #bookreview #readwomen

Troglodyte by Tracy DeBrincat
published by Elixir Press, 2014

Tracy DeBrincat, whom we met in a Meet the Writer feature, writes characters that are people of the earth, the kind who will comment not on ideas, but appreciate bodily processes as something to which one should pay attention. Her stories take readers to a perhaps uncomfortable place we thought we left behind when we became “adults.” I still remember a joke my uncle told me when I was a kid: two woman are hoeing potatoes in the field when one woman pulls a potato from the ground, looks at it, and says, “This looks like my Issac’s taters.” The other woman responds, “That big?” and the first says, “No, that dirty.” Ha ha ha, right? Where did this “low-brow” humor go, and why did we once like it so much? I loved that joke. DeBrincat reminds me why.

Even though Superbaby of the short story “Superbaby Saves Slugville” was “historically, a fantastic crapper,” he held it all in to keep his aunt from visiting her boyfriend while washing the cloth diapers. The family notices Superbaby is backed up, so he’s sent to the doctor. His sister isn’t sure what this trip to the doctor’s means for Superbaby: “‘Does that mean he’ll poop now?’ Trina wonders about this every morning, making great snakes that don’t break, snakes of beautiful stink and rich color.” I’m thoroughly grossed out by the passage, but let’s be realistic: how many children (or, hell, even adults) haven’t been fascinated by the various characteristics that come out of their anuses. DeBrincat calls us out on thoughts we keep hidden to remain “normal,” and makes us acknowledge who we can be from time to time.troglodyte

The collection isn’t only made of “poo stories,” though. Her descriptions are quite lovely, even if the subject matter isn’t beautiful. This was a feature I loved of the collection. In “Gardenland,” Chichi returns home with her ex-husband Vince after she runs into him at a diner. She realizes she wasn’t “cured” of him when they divorced, that he’s still the same asshole she knew then: “Chichi pricked her ears to hear that piece-of-shit’s voice–the meaningless promises that flew like swallows from his red velvet tongue. She’d done time chasing after those birds, holding crumbs in her open hands while they hopped this way and that. When Chichi looked up he was there, all of him and so much of him was so much the same. The impudent slope of his shoulders, the Gothic lettering on his faded black T-shirt, the way he stood legs spread wide, like his nuts were too big to do else-wise.” Vince’s physical presence is animalistic, as if he weren’t meant to wear pants because his testicles are so….there (I’m personally picturing hairy coconuts). But he’s also capable of the sweet words of a man who leads a woman around. DeBrincat’s characters are often full of contradictions that make them pleasing to experience on the page.

Tracy DeBrincat’s collection stirs the pot of personalities and boils up the most unpredictable bunch ever. Whimsical, laugh-out-loud hysterical at times, Troglodyte is a must have for any larger-than-life woman who finds herself making decisions for happiness’ sake when sanity isn’t an option.

I want to thank you Tracy DeBrincat for sending me this reviewer’s copy in exchange for an honest review.

Meet the Writer: Margot Kinberg #crime #authorinterview

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Meet the Writer: Margot Kinberg #crime #authorinterview

Thanks so much to writer, blogger — and friend to book reviewers like me! — Margot Kinberg for stopping by Grab the Lapels and sharing her writing life with us. You can connect with Margot on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads. And, of course, you should follow her blog, Confessions of a Mystery Novelist.picture1-of-margot-kinberg


GRAB THE LAPELS: What kind of writing do you do? What kinds of writing do you wish you did more of?

MARGOT KINBERG:  I write crime fiction. Now, of course, that’s a very broad genre with several sub-genres. So, to narrow it down, I write traditional-style crime fiction in a contemporary context. My Joel Williams novels, for instance, are whodunits that take place mostly on a modern university campus. In that way, my work’s been influenced by some of the Golden Age/classic crime writers such as Agatha Christie.

You ask an interesting question about what sort of writing I would like to do more of than I do now. I’d actually like to try my hand at literary fiction. There are so many directions that literary fiction can take, and so many possibilities for character development and context — a great deal to explore.  I’ve written a few stories (mercifully, nothing published), but I haven’t done a novel. That’s one of those things I hope to try at some point. First, though, I want to hone my writing skills, and keep improving at what I do.

GTL: Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?

MK: I always enjoyed writing. I’ve liked writing stories since I was in grade school. As I recall, the first story I wrote that I really felt proud of was when I was eleven years old. My English teacher’s support of that story really helped me see myself as a writer.

I started writing novels because I had a story in my mind that wanted to be told. With encouragement from my husband and daughter, I gathered my somewhat scattered thoughts about what the story would be like, and they became my first novel, Publish or Perish. I’ve not looked back since.

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GTL: How have you developed creatively since then?

MK: I love that question, because it reminds me that we should always be growing and developing as writers. One way in which I’ve developed is that I’m experimenting with different sorts of crime writing. One of the novels I’m working on, for instance, isn’t a traditional-style crime novel, such as the novels I’ve done for my series. It’s actually quite different, and I’m enjoying trying something new.

As I’ve been writing, I’ve also seen myself taking a few more risks. Some of my stories, for instance, are darker than I’ve done before, which I think helps me explore that side of human nature. I’ve tried a couple of different settings, too, and found that interesting. All of that has happened as the result of working on flash fiction. It’s really an effective way to develop as a writer, to discipline oneself, and to try new things.

I’m also finding that I’ve become better at character development as I’ve done it more. The more real characters are, the better readers can identify with them. And the more I develop my characters, the better I can identify with them. This helps me (at least I hope!) to create richer stories.

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GTL: In what ways has academia shaped your writing?

MK: Well, I come from a background in academia, and my first professional writing was non-fiction. That’s made me a more concise, less narrative sort of writer. In fact, I’ve had to learn to flesh out my fiction, so that readers can engage more with my stories. So I suppose you could say that academia has impacted my writing style and focus.

But it’s also impacted my writing in the sense of my setting. My Joel Williams novels, as I mentioned, are set mostly in a university environment. So I’ve been able to use my experience in higher education to set the scene and context.

GTL: Does your writing include any research?

MK: Oh, I always research when I write. To me, research is absolutely essential to a believable story. Readers want to feel that what they read is authentic, even if they know it’s fiction. So it’s important to me to ‘do the homework’ to make sure that mine is.  When I research, I look online, I talk to people, I sometimes go places, and of course I read. A lot.

The type of research I do depends on the sort of story I’m writing. For instance, for one novel, I researched video surveillance at retail stores. For another, I researched police jurisdiction at federally-owned national parks. And for another, I spent quite a lot of time looking at street maps. It all depends on what I’m writing.

I should say, too, that I’ve been very fortunate in my research. Experts I speak to are always happy to help, and very accommodating when I pepper them with questions. And with today’s technology, it’s really easy to find out almost anything I want to know, just by going on line and being thoughtful about which sites I trust.

GTL: What are your current writing projects?

MK:  I’m pleased to say that my third Joel Williams novel, Past Tense, is available for Kindle pre-order right here. The paperback version is coming soon, too. The book goes on sale on 1st November.  So I’m doing things to get ready for that.

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I’m also working on a few other writing projects. I’m planning revisions for my fourth Joel Williams novel; hopefully that one will be ready some time next year. I’m also writing a standalone novel — a crime novel that’s not the sort of whodunit I’ve written in the past. I’m only about 30 pages into it, so there’s still a lot of work to be done. But even so, I’m pleased to say that it’s taking an interesting shape. This one was inspired by a short piece of flash fiction I wrote, called “Early One Morning.” The characters stayed with me, and wanted me to tell their stories. Who was I to deny them? There are other little things I’m working on, too, but those are the main projects.

Fat Girl, Terrestrial #readwomen #bookreview @FCtwo

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Fat Girl, Terrestrial #readwomen #bookreview @FCtwo

Fat Girl, Terrestrial by Kellie Wells
published by FC2, September 2012

“As you can imagine, I have never been very successful at being a girl, though, for my mother’s sake, I have tried. I have wambled about on gimlet heels that left divots in hardwood floors, permed my hair into a fungal fuzz, wrestled my hips into girdles, painted onto my face a bright hoax of come-hither allure, following closely the prescription in those fashion magazines that advise women how to be more woman than they already are (or less), but this was all a disguise that fooled no one, least of all my mother; an authority on feminine.”

Going into any FC2 book is about like jumping down the rabbit hole: I know it’s going to be different (see FC2’s motto), and I want to experience different whole-heartedly, and yet I’m not sure how much plot will be a factor versus other forms of storytelling. Wells’s novel begins with quite a bit of emphasis on plot and goes off into many tributaries of stories from there.

Fat Girl

Meet Wallis Grace Armstrong, a giant of a woman. She’s 8 feet, 11 (and-a-half) inches and 490 pounds. We first get to experience Wallis in the present; she’s walking alone at night when a man presses a knife to her throat and threatens her. What she doesn’t know when she blasts him with pepper spray is that he’s asthmatic, so her aggressor, Hazard Planet, dies. Wallis’s police report is viewed skeptically, for who would dare attack such an enormous woman? Fortunately, Wallis sticks up for herself to the police, reminding them that “a violent crime against an individual occurs every eighteen seconds and an assault occurs every twenty-nine seconds….You never know when some…flour enthusiast might set up a mill and start grinding…” Wallis decides to meet Hazard’s family, which includes a mother and his sister, Vivica Planet. Lo and behold, Vivica is a giantess as well, “solid as a diamond.” What will this family think of the woman who accidentally murdered their kin?

Something is a little odd about Vivica’s response to Wallis’s visit: “You believe I’m angry with you for what you’ve done, think perhaps I hate you for killing my brother. You imagined no matter what my brother was like I must have loved him very much, because he is, he was, after all, my brother, and that’s what people do, love their brothers, isn’t that right? Brothers, like fathers and husbands, tycoons, magnates, deities, kings, presidents, despots, dictators, do what they do knowing, in the end, we have no choice but to love them?” Vivica’s comparisons of Hazard to male figures that we can deduce are associated negatively in her mind make readers suspicious of what Vivica’s and Hazard’s relationship was like before his death. It’s not until nearly the end of the book that we learn more.

There are some more moments in the present of the novel, including Wallis visiting a family who claims their future daughter-in-law hanged herself in their barn. Wallis’s specialty is finding small clues in crime scenes that no one else notices because she creates teeny replicas of the scene at home. The problem is that Wallis has always seen her very body as a “crime someone had committed, a Class 1 felony, a crime [she] was determined to solve.” Should she ever find who committed the crime, she would punish him, which would make her “immediately shrink to fit that girly frock, and [her] mother would love [her] and coddle [her] and wish [her] no harm.”

Crime is not new to Wallis as an adult. When she was a girl–very large but young–Wallis tried to get kidnapped so she would feel like she was worthy of someone’s attention. Fortunately for her, she encounters a nice man who has a daughter of his own, though he looks how Wallis perceives criminals who steal little girls. She also helped a bit on the case of a girl missing from her hometown. Wallis and her brother Obie appeared in the newspaper as a result. It’s very early in the book (about five pages in) that we learn that Obie will disappear later, and that the present is about twenty years after that disappearance. Except Wallis can’t help find Obie and is of no help to authorities. She doesn’t know where he is or what happened.

Obie is a strange boy, one who we would never find in real life (though life is stranger than fiction, so, really, who knows). Obie sees Wallis as a god. Why wouldn’t she be? Only someone that large who walks the earth with her head that close to heaven could be a god. He prays at the foot of her bed at night and asks her to tell the biography of god. If you don’t think a giant woman and her devoted brother are too odd, that’s fine. Kellie Wells takes it slowly for us. But then we learn that Obie can talk to animals. His voice is also much more adult that it should be, giving him the wisdom of a learned philosopher. For example, “God is less knowledge than buoyancy in the acquiescence to its inevitable absence.” I know many readers complained of Oskar in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close being a young boy with Jonathan Safran Foer’s brain, but Obie goes way beyond Oskar. Foer’s character is overly tuned in–or at least this is how we can perceive him if we want–but Obie is like a religious professor and Dr. Dolittle mixed into one (in fact, the detective looking for the missing children is named Doolittle, though this may suggest he isn’t worthy of his occupation).

The more I read Obie, the more I struggled with his character. I was especially perplexed when trying to think of reasons why Kellie Wells would choose Wallis’s brother as worshiper. Wallis also has a dance instructor (in the present setting) who is attracted to her and how large she is. A romantic relationship might help readers see why Wallis is so close to a character who sees her as deity. It’s not until much, much later that we learn that Wallis and Obie are meant to be foils to Vivica and Hazard.

It is the interest in a god and who god is or isn’t that causes the tributaries in the story. An assignment from when Vivica was a girl is shared, suggesting how Vivica feels about men and worship. The assignment is to write a letter to a historical figure, and Vivica addresses the letter to “King Hatshepsut, Former Dowager Queen, Vivifier of Hearts, Wife of God, Divine Adoratrice of Amun, United with Amun in the presence of Nobles, Matkaare, Truth is the Soul of the Sun God, Esteemed Pharoh.” Hatshepsut becomes a gender bender when she marries her brother (making her the wife of god in her lifetime), who dies, which means she wants to rule (as god), so Hatshepsut dresses like a man. Her stepson, however, ruins her reign by essentially erasing her from history’s memory. If his predecessor is a woman, he will be humiliated. When Hatshepsut’s mummy is found, Vivica raves that a god of the past isn’t allowed to be so small. How can a god be small? Vivica doesn’t appear to want to be ruled by men and admires those who agree with her, but she’s also not listening to any small women, either.

There are many other stories of creation and gods in the book: a modified Adam and Eve, the tale of a baby born out of an ear, how man is created by Allah, the Book of Ezekiel (a homeless prophet), and a pied piper who takes children after destroying rabbits. Kellie Wells’s last spiritual tale explores the crucifixion:

“…and he saw the swelling serry of the people of posterity whose perishing his sacrifice would reverse (far too many, he thought, to fit inside the most generous paradise) would find more and more ways to inflict suffering–they’d have a genius for it–sometimes in the name of vengeance, often in the name of nothing, and he saw that they would learn to do so with staggering efficiency and that there was a vast and endless freshet of the blood of humans and animals waiting to boil across the millennia to come (today was like every other that would follow), and just before the beating of the man’s heart came kindly to a halt, this heart turning its charity at last on him, he realized there was no such thing as love and never had been and that an empty heart would be the heavier for daring to rise again, a plummet in the airy ectoplasm of his risen chest, all the heavier for existing without at least the avocation of animating the flesh, but it was too late now not to die, and so he did.”

You can almost feel Wells asking, “Do gods still walk the earth? In what form? And do we believe those who say they are close to god?–because we never really know what is meant by god. Are we worthy of a god?” These questions are intriguing inquiries into the world of what isn’t readily available for us to accept. Stories are the only way we can make that connection to a spiritual realm — we can’t see or touch or hear or smell it — and Wells use of a woman-god who’s learning what it means to be a god (even to one person) and comparing her to a woman who wants to be a god, is an ingenious vehicle for exploration.

I want to thank you Kellie Wells for sending me this reviewer’s copy in exchange for an honest review.

The Loss of All Lost Things #BookReview #ReadWomen

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The Loss of All Lost Things #BookReview #ReadWomen

Amina Gautier’s short story collection was sent to me by fellow blogger Bill Wolfe at Read Her Like An Open Book. Although it sounds ridiculous, I accidentally won a copy when I commented on a book review blog post about this collection. Knowing I wouldn’t have time to read Gautier’s book this year, I passed it on to my talented former student, Jennifer Vosters. Jennifer previously reviewed Tides and This Time, While We’re Awake at Grab the Lapels. Please welcome Jennifer back — her review is below!


Amina Gautier’s 2016 short story collection (Elixer Press), named for the third piece in the mix, is aptly titled The Loss of All Lost Things: fifteen stories of varying lengths, all chronicle different (yet noticeably similar) experiences of loss and the “losers” who must live with it, losers familiar enough to haunt us when we look in the mirror. In The Loss of All Lost Things, one gets a sneaking suspicion that Gautier is writing not just about “everyday people” but her readers themselves, their families, their neighbors, with grim precision. And while one must admire Gautier’s unflinching insight, it’s enough to inspire some measure of discomfort, even discouragement, after a long reading session. In such a long collection rife with pain and failure and distance, the reader wears out before the writer does.

Perhaps, rather than “short stories,” a more accurate description of Gautier’s work would be “snapshots,” because the author has an uncanny ability to make readers feel that we’re given privileged access into a slice of a person’s private life: that messy, borderless thing that often comes without clear arcs or conclusions or epiphanies — making it all the more beautiful when a real one comes along. The gems of this collection are when Gautier seems to have concentrated on doing precisely that: “The Loss of All Lost Things,” “Resident Lover,” “Cicero Waiting,” and “Most Honest” stood out for their honesty, sharpness, and tautness, almost photographic and with no words wasted. These read effortlessly, as if all it took to get the words down was a click of the shutter. There was none of the heavy-handedness that slackened some of her more obvious attempts to shock or to preach (“Lost and Found” and “Disturbance” were two of these).

Gautier wins when her prose is delicate, focused, and restrained, and when her characters speak for themselves rather than for her. The pieces flounder when she tries a little too hard to get a point across, such as in her attempt at dystopia in “Disturbance,” which in addition to being heavily expository also passed glaring judgment on current events with very little subtlety.

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As a whole, the collection’s primary fault is really being too long… or, rather, too unvaried for the number of stories and pages it spans. Within the fifteen thematically linked stories, Gautier returns again and again to searing losses that with repeated exposure somehow become dull. (Whether they lose their vigor because these repetitive losses are so enormous or in spite of it, I am not sure.) Failed marriages, abducted children, and empty relationships appear and reappear like characters in a continuing saga, except we do not learn new things about them with each cameo. Gautier compounds this sense of déjà vu by putting the majority of her main characters in the same career field (higher education, which also happens to be the author’s) and the same dissatisfied-to-the-point-of-depressed tone that weighs on a reader’s mind — and concentration — after a while.

Yet Gautier does something in a few of these pieces that seems increasingly rare in literary fiction: she allows for a small ray of hope. Not always, not everywhere, but in a choice few stories she opens the possibility of healing, to keep her work from delivering a damning and robotic prognosis of recovery after loss. Even better? The hope is a hint, a whisper, not enough to undermine the tragedy of the rest of the work, but just enough to cling to as an alternative to the otherwise bleak picture of damaged existence she paints over and over.

Despite the repetition, there are enough beautiful moments and interesting characters — and a tender, brutal honesty that may be Gautier’s signature — in The Loss of All Lost Things to make the collection worth reading. My advice? Read each story individually, carefully, with time to digest between. Because as a collection, The Loss of All Lost Things can drag; story by story, it stings (and you’ll like it).


Jennifer Vosters is a 2016 alumna of Saint Mary’s College in Indiana, where she studied English, Theatre, and Italian. She is currently working as an actor in Milwaukee and excitedly diving into the sizable reading list she’s compiled over the last four years.

#20BooksofSummer DONE! Congrats on a solid season of reading and reviewing, everyone!

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#20BooksofSummer DONE! Congrats on a solid season of reading and reviewing, everyone!

To my fellow Americans, Happy Labor Day!

To my fellow book bloggers who know Cathy at 746, Happy End of #20BooksofSummer!

It’s been a wild summer, that’s for sure. For me, 2016 was the first year participating in the 20 Books of Summer Challenge, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I know I’ve read a lot in summer’s past, as my job in the sweaty months provides a lot of down time — in fact, it’s almost all down time.

But in these last several weeks, I’ve been preparing, designing, and teaching four college courses! One is brand new; the course was so popular that we had to open a new section in the middle of the first week, which was unprecedented and absolutely hectic.

But what are a professor’s office hours for if not reading? And that’s how I managed to finish Fluke by Christopher Moore and Rilla of Ingleside by L.M. Montgomery. Whew! Seat of my pants and all.

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Here are some things I learned about Cathy’s summer challenge that perhaps you can use to get you through next summer!

The Page Count Matters

When I chose my original pile of books way back in late May, I looked through my shelves for two things: the reviewer copies sent by authors/publishers that I wanted done and out of the way, and time-consuming books. This is not a good way to go (and should have been obvious).

By time-consuming stories, I really meant The Brothers Karamzov. I wanted this chunker in my hands, and isn’t summer a long, leisurely time to do that? Well, no, not if you’re doing the 20 Books of Summer Challenge! There’s no time for leisure, nor is there time for a 720 page Russian classic. Big books are out, unless you take the 10 Books of Summer Challenge and maybe do all fat books. I might do that next summer!

Math Matters for Pacing Yourself

Had I not gotten the idea from Cathy to count up all the pages I wanted to read over summer and divide them by the number of days in the challenge, I would have horribly failed. ( This summer, I read over 5,500 pages). I found that on average (I had to adjust a few times over the summer) I needed to read 50 pages per day. Not so bad, right?

But that meant that on days I wrote a review or went away for a weekend, those 50 pages were piled on to the next day. At times, I had a goal of 150 pages per day just to catch up, which can be intimidating! It might be better to not divide the total page count by all the days in the challenge; subtract some days for vacation and blog writing.

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Your Readers Still Need to Care About What You’re Reading

I felt like this challenge was for me and figured my audience would be on board no matter what. Before I started the 20 Books of Summer, I was under the impression that everyone had read and loved both the Green Gables series and Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. My Rebecca review was full of spoilers, which is not normal for me, causing some readers to comment that they would not read my review. I definitely lost some readers who hadn’t read Anne and either didn’t care about her story or didn’t want 8 books worth of spoilers. I don’t typically read series on Grab the Lapels, and in the future I don’t think I will again. Choosing the Green Gables series was a selfish choice. I’m glad I read them, but it was weeks of Anne, Anne, Anne!

Blog Posts Still Need to Be Up to Standard

If you’re reading so many books that you can’t keep up with your reviewing, the point is a bit lost on the audience, who man not care about or appreciate your challenge. Or, perhaps you could alter the challenge: read 20 books, but do 10 thorough reviews. I’m proud that I spent a lot of time writing substantial reviews and didn’t change the quality of my posts. Don’t sacrifice quality for quantity, or your reviews will be more like the 20 count chicken McNugget meal.

Reading Challenges Can Cure the “I don’t wannas”

Even though my summer reading job has a lot of down time, that didn’t mean that in past summers I was sitting there soaking up the books. I would often get depressed that my job didn’t require me to use my brain. (Going to a job is better than sitting at home. For one, it requires a shower and dressing). Actually, I wouldn’t read nearly as much as you would think — instead, I wasted my time on social media, which can get very, very depressing. The challenge really helped my self-esteem all summer. I felt like I had a purpose, though I am purpose-driven while others are not. To fail the 20 Books of Summer challenge felt awful in my heart, even though no one probably cares. I cared.

Well, that’s it! I hope you had a great summer!

Here’s the roster:

  1. Harley and Me by Bernadette Murphy
  2. On Air by Robin Stratton
  3. Single Stroke Seven by Lavinia Ludlow
  4. Girls of Usually by Lori Horvitz
  5. Retelling by Tsipi Keller
  6. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
  7. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  8. Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich
  9. Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America by Jonathan Kozol
  10. Terror in Taffeta by Marla Cooper
  11. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  12. Anne of Avonlea by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  13. Anne of the Island by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  14. Anne of Windy Poplars by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  15. Anne’s House of Dreams by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  16. Anne of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  17. Rainbow Valley by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  18. Rilla of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  19. Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher by Monica Nolan
  20. Fluke, or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings by Christopher Moore

 

Rilla of Ingleside #20BooksofSummer #WWI

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Rilla of Ingleside #20BooksofSummer #WWI

Rilla of Ingleside by L.M. Montgomery (1921)

Book #8 — the final novel — in the Anne of Green Gables series. Be sure to read my previous reviews, linked below, before you read this one!


As Anne and Gilbert Blythe aged, LMM’s narrator began referring to them as Mrs. Blythe and Dr. Blythe. These distant names allowed me to forget this series started with Anne, so I didn’t feel quite so bitter like other readers when the novels were no longer really about her. While I didn’t love Anne of Ingleside — even in that book she was Mrs. Blythe and barely played a role — I did love Rainbow Valley. Both books are about children, the Blythes and then the newcomers, the Merediths. I’d like to say you could skip book #6 and just read #7 and #8, but you’d have a terrible foundation for the relationships between the important characters in Rilla of Ingleside. The children grow up and start falling in love with their friends and parents’ friends’ children: the Merediths, the Fords from Anne’s House of Dreams, the Crawfords, whom I don’t remember, but apparently there are a lot of them. You practically need to remember all the characters from the previous 7 books. When I forgot who someone was, I looked them up on the trusty Wikia created by fans; however, spoilers abound on that site — and I didn’t know until a few things were spoiled for me! Doh!

The year is 1914. The novel opens with trusty old Susan, whom I’ve always found boring and bossy in a bad way, reading the Glen newspaper. She’s looking for the gossip column about Glen folks and is happy to see that many inhabitants of Ingleside have made the news for their accomplishments. The paper also mentions something about an Archduke being killed, but really, it’s not decent for such things to clutter up Susan’s gossip.

Rilla is now 15. Her parents say she’s irresponsible and unmotivated (no extra schooling for her, thank you very much, and no, she will not be learning how to cook, bake, sew, or keep house because that’s boring — and maybe she’s implying it’s beneath her?). But Rilla is beautiful, and LMM has taught me nothing if not beauty rules the world.  The book opens with her hardly able to wait to attend her first dance. Although Rilla has a splendid time and spends an hour alone with Kenneth Ford, the night is ruined when a boy runs into the dance exclaiming that war has been declared — readers know this is World War I. Fortunately, Kenneth had broken his ankle and it’s still healing, and Walter Blythe is still recovering from a near-fatal bout of typhoid, so they won’t go. But Jem Blythe is so terribly excited about signing up, telling everyone how fun war will be. He and Jerry Meredith are the firsts to go, making everyone proud. The war will be over in a month or two for sure.

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And that’s the basic summary of how the novel starts. But there’s something different about Rilla of Ingleside: I felt engaged and involved in a way I haven’t felt with no other Green Gables book. At first, I was very worried about how shallow Book #8 might be. Rilla is a pill. She tells her friend:

“There’s five [Blythes] going to college already. Surely that’s enough. There’s bound to be one dunce in every family. I’m quite willing to be a dunce if I can be a pretty, popular, delightful one. I have no talent at all, and you can’t imagine how comfortable that is.”

I mean, this girl is my enemy. She’s the girl I see sitting in my classroom whose parent forced her to go to college, but she’s always 20 minutes late to the 8:00AM class because putting on make-up to literally look like Barbie is time consuming.

Rilla

Yet a war won’t allow someone to stay a pill, not one capable of love. Rilla must change, and LMM does a splendid job with character development. One by one the boys of the Glen leave, and Rilla must be strong for them so they can be strong in the trenches. That’s a big request, one Rilla realizes she must take seriously. At her mother’s encouragement, she starts a Junior Red Cross. While canvassing one day for the JRC, she decides to go to a home that looks a little problematic due to the residents’ possible attitudes on canvassers (Oh, how this reminded me of Anne and Diane canvassing in Anne of Avonlea). What Rilla finds through an already-open door is a dead woman, a fat woman smoking and drinking, and a shrieking newborn. The mother gave birth and didn’t recover, so the fat woman stuck around, but wasn’t caring for the baby. The father had enlisted and so was gone, not knowing of the birth of a baby. Rilla, shallow Rilla, decides she can’t leave the baby there. She carries the “ugly baby,” who isn’t dressed or clean, home in a soup tureen. Problem is, Rilla hates babies:

“I wish I could like the baby a little bit. It would make things easier. But I don’t. I’ve heard people say that when you took care of a baby you got fond of it — but you don’t — don’t, anyway.”

To avoid burdening Susan or her mother, Rilla buys a book called Morgan on Infants. It’s so specific and funny reading a how-to book on babies from the 1920s, such as it’s unhygienic to kiss an infant on the face (I agree) and never walk a baby to comfort it. Yet, Rilla does walk her nameless war baby: “I could have shaken the creature if it had been big enough to shake, but it wasn’t.” Shaken?? Good grief! Rilla’s frustrations didn’t strike me as barbaric or cruel, though; I found her realistic. If in 2016 I have to defend my decision to not have children, imagine Rilla saying she doesn’t like babies in 1914. Some people see crying babies and feel empathy; others of us want them to be quite now. It was strange; I never thought I would connect personally with a Green Gables book, but Rilla had me connecting with her frequently. Even much later Rilla says, “No, I don’t like you and I never will but for all that I’m going to make a decent, upstanding infant of you.” Oh, how I laughed!

The novel is told via a narrator and occasionally a diary that Rilla keeps. The balance works well. As you may remember, I didn’t care for the majority of Anne of Windy Poplars being told as letters, mainly because they read exactly like the narrator. Was the narrator Anne? No, but their voices were indistinguishable. Rilla’s diary, however, is very Rilla, and it’s awfully sassy, too. Her voice is unique, strong, and enjoyable. She has a lot to say that couldn’t be uttered aloud, so readers get a true insight into her feelings.

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Letters are sent back and forth from Canada to the trenches through the whole book.

Rilla also learns to knit “war socks” and bake food to send over seas. She grows and changes. She humiliates herself by apologizing to a truly cruel young woman in order to make a success of the Junior Red Cross benefit concert. There’s a determination there, much like Anne Shirley’s determination to never be friends with Gilbert Blythe, but her determination is written in a way that’s both funny and significant. You want Rilla’s plans to work out, as she really is working hard to be the support the boys in khaki need and were promised.

War Socks

Another big transformation that I loved happened in Susan, a character I never liked. In fact, I was more endeared to Rebecca Dew of Anne of Windy Poplars, even though Susan’s been in four whole books! But war changes everyone. Susan religiously reads the newspapers for stories from the front. She memorizes geography, difficult to pronounce names, important leaders, and learns the in’s and out’s of politics. Really, she’s the most knowledgeable of the characters on the war. She’s calling the local store for the most recent news, and she usually gets it before anyone else. I was amazed and grew to love Susan for the upstanding person she became. She rationed and sewed and dug up her beloved flowers to make a potato garden and ran up the flag after small victories and tilled a field and chased a German sympathizer with a pot of boiling dye.

Most memorably, the author had me in shambles for most of the book. I’ve never read a war story that, to me, realistically captured what it was like for the people at home. Sure, the characters get to sleep in their own beds and eat good meals and be relatively lice-free (Jem says he’s fighting “Germans and cooties”), but the agony of not knowing day after day …and the war lasts four years… is just awful. I never thought it could be as awful at home as in the trenches, but LMM shows it really was. People are jittery and more apt to speak honestly, even if they swear and have bad manners and say negative things about God.

LMM injects pathos both realistic and unrealistic that grabbed me and choked me up with emotion. The soldiers who do come back to the Glen are, realistically, not the same laughing, excited, 18-year-old boys who left. They are men, gaunt, limping, incomplete in body, changed in soul, some with grey hair after only four years — and tears were shed for the reality of it. Then, there’s Dog Monday, the Blythe’s pet who saw Jem off at the train station when Jem signed up immediately for service. Dog Monday will not come home, keeping vigil at the train station and checking every passenger who disembarks to see if his beloved master is yet returned. Dog Monday had me crying at times from the heartache I truly felt.

The last paragraph of the book actually had me laughing — from relief, from the romance I hoped would endure between characters, from literally the last word spoken by Rilla Blythe in the book.

Rilla of Ingleside is my favorite book of the Anne of Green Gables series, and for those of you who never read the later books, please do just so you can get to #8. There’s something special and important in this final novel that’s lacking in the previous seven books. When I woke up the day after I finished, I was sad there was no more.

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#20BooksofSummer

This book was read as part of Cathy 746‘s challenge to read 20 books between June 1st and September 5th.

Here’s the roster:

  1. Harley and Me by Bernadette Murphy
  2. On Air by Robin Stratton
  3. Single Stroke Seven by Lavinia Ludlow
  4. Girls of Usually by Lori Horvitz
  5. Retelling by Tsipi Keller
  6. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
  7. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  8. Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich
  9. Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America by Jonathan Kozol
  10. Terror in Taffeta by Marla Cooper
  11. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  12. Anne of Avonlea by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  13. Anne of the Island by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  14. Anne of Windy Poplars by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  15. Anne’s House of Dreams by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  16. Anne of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  17. Rainbow Valley by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  18. Rilla of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  19. Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher by Monica Nolan
  20. Fluke, or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings by Christopher Moore

DONE!

Look for my wrap-up and lessons-learned post on the last day of the challenge, Monday, September 5th!