Maya Angelou

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

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.

Meet the Writer: Tess Makovesky

Meet the Writer: Tess Makovesky

I want to thank Tess Makovesky for stopping by Grab the Lapels to discuss her writer life! Tess maintains a website where you can learn more about her writing and a blog to update readers on her life and work. If you like what you see, follow Tess on Facebook or Twitter!

Do you know someone who would like to be featured at Grab the Lapels? Send her my way so she can participate in the Meet the Writer feature!

Grab the Lapels: Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?

Tess Makovesky: I wrote my first story, about a mouse having an adventure, aged five, and promptly announced to my family that I wanted to be a writer. They laughed indulgently, but actually it awoke a quiet but life-long passion and I really meant it. Sadly, it didn’t happen for many years as I had to go out to work to support myself, but I used to daydream about being a writer even while I was doing the chores or getting the bus to work.

Then two things happened which changed my life. The first was an injury at work which left me with a permanent disability in my right hand. It makes typing at 60 words-per-minute just about impossible and since I was a secretary at the time, you can imagine the result! Luckily, the second change was meeting my long-suffering Other Half, who has supported me ever since and given me the wonderful opportunity to practice and develop my writing.


GTL: How have you developed creatively since then?

TM: My writing has developed out of all recognition. When I first started, I was still in “essay-writing” mode and found it hard to use colourful, creative language, and to write anything other than brief, concise reports. My early attempts at writing featured long waffly novels because I didn’t realise there were any other forms. Then a local writers’ group introduced me to the concept of the short story, and suddenly something clicked. I could write creatively, but still be concise.

Since then I’ve written hundreds of short stories and been lucky enough to have many of them published. (There’s an example, called ‘The Floor’s the Limit,’ available to read free in Out of the Gutter Online here). More recently, I’ve realized that if I string a number of “short stories” together, in the form of separate but thematically-linked chapters, then I can develop longer pieces of work without giving up on my trade-mark snappy style. This is the format I chose for my newly-published novella Raise the Blade, which features sections from the point of view of seven or eight different characters. None of them seem to be linked at first, but gradually you realise that there is a link – and that link is a psychopathic serial killer.

I’ve also taken a journey through various genres, starting with my first love of gritty crime, moving on to romance and erotica (under a different pen name) and finally coming full circle back to darkly humorous noir. The romance/erotica was less successful for me because I kept trying to include dark, gritty aspects that I’m not sure the readers appreciated! I’m much happier with the grim reality of crime, which lets me explore character motivations and psychology to my heart’s content.

GTL: What happens when you’re not happy with your writing?

TM: Well, for starters I get very grumpy. Like many creative people I have an unstoppable urge to give birth to my ideas, and if anything interrupts that process then watch out! It can also make me quite depressed – something I suspect a lot of writers are prone to.

If I’ve already written something but I’m still not happy with it, it nags me like an aching tooth. I know it’s not right; I know the character wouldn’t say something like that, or act in that particular way; or I know that the language I’ve used is clumsy or formulaic. At that point I either sit and stare at the screen in complete frustration for hours, or walk away and leave it to fester for a while. If I’m lucky, a solution suggests itself and I can get going again – although sometimes that process can take days, weeks, or even months.

GTL: What is your writing process like? Which do you favor, starting or revising?

TM: I’m a real “pantser” (flying by the seat of my pants) in that I tend to do little or no advance planning. I get an idea, a title, a first line, and a general idea of the direction/ending I want to head towards, and then I just plunge in. It can lead to disaster, but I find that too much additional plotting, planning and note-making sucks all my creative energy and I have nothing left to actually write the book!

I almost always write chronologically, starting at the beginning and muddling through until I reach what I’m happy with as the end. However, if my characters take over and run off with the plot, I do sometimes go back and add extra sections, paragraphs, or even whole chapters earlier on.

Being something of a perfectionist I used to edit as I went along, but realized that it was slowing me down, and sometimes meant I didn’t finish a piece because I got bogged down in depressing minutiae. Now I tend to write fast, first, and go back and edit later. Sometimes it leads me to think “what the hell was I thinking?” but mostly it seems to work!

GTL: How has your writing process evolved?

TM: When I first started writing I hand-wrote everything, painfully thanks to my wrist injury, and then typed it up when I was reasonably happy with it. Over time the keyboard took over more and more, and now I type everything straight onto the screen, and will only resort to pen and paper if I need to fiddle with a brief section that’s fighting back. Or to sort out something that requires mathematics, since my grasp of numbers is terrible! In Raise the Blade there’s a complex structure where each character discovers the body of the victim before them, and I simply could not keep track of that at all! In the end I had to make a list of exactly who had found whom, and where; otherwise, I’d have ended up in a complete muddle.


GTL: Do you have a relationship with book bloggers? Why or why not? If yes, what is it like?

TM: I think book bloggers are wonderful! But then I would say that, wouldn’t I? Heh, seriously, I think bloggers and writers often have a great symbiotic relationship where writers provide the source material, and bloggers help to introduce it to the reading public.

Done well, it benefits both. The bloggers develop their own supportive group of readers and gain access to a far greater range of reading material than they might if they were just shopping at their local book store. And the writers get a conduit between themselves and new readers, who might never otherwise come across their work.

However, as a note of caution, it can sometimes go wrong. I know of cases where bloggers and/or reviewers in general have made damningly negative comments about books, sometimes factually incorrect, which have gone on to blight a writer’s entire career. I’m not for one moment suggesting that bloggers should gush about every book they read, as that would be both dishonest and dull! But I do think it’s important for the relationship to be mutually supportive. Without bloggers, authors wouldn’t have as many readers, but without authors, bloggers wouldn’t have as many books.

A Medical Affair #bookreview #readwomen @annestr

A Medical Affair #bookreview #readwomen @annestr

 A Medical Affair by Anne McCarthy Strauss
Self-published September 2014 through Booktrope

I want to thank you Anne McCarthy Strauss for sending Grab the Lapels this reviewer’s copy in exchange for an honest review.

*Read by guest reviewer Caitlyn Faust

I’ll be the first to admit that I have a preconceived notion about what romance novels are and aren’t, regardless of whether it’s actually right or not.  When I started reading A Medical Affair by Anne McCarthy Strauss, I was somewhat convinced it might be a sappy girl-gets-the-guy story with lots of fluff and drama.  For the first chapter or so, I seemed to be right; the character of Heather was seemingly perfect physically and was instantly attracted to our other main love interest, Jeff.  They met when she had an asthma attack that landed her in the hospital, into his care, and couldn’t keep each other off of their minds.  I was very happy to be wrong, as both Heather and Jeff were well fleshed out as real people, both of whom, at a certain point, I was rooting for.

At a certain point in the story, the narrative turns and makes it obvious that this isn’t about love; this is a story about what is ethical and right in regards to doctors and patients, something I had never put much thought to before.  The point that hits home is that it’s unethical to have a romantic relationship with your doctor while they are still your doctor.  Strauss, the author, had done painstaking research in creating a fictional story that mirrors what can (and has) occurred in real life, involving lawsuits and the legal aspects that can go into people being violated by doctors.A Medical Affair Strauss

The narrative style of the story is mostly well composed; the perspective is third person semi-omnipotent, switching focus mostly between Heather and Jeff, with another character as needed for the plot.  Precisely why the author chose third person semi-omnipotent is unclear to me; while it works well enough for the book, it could have just as easily been switched for first person with little lost.  While the perspective focuses mainly on Heather, I thought it was clever that the author used other points of view to better see the situation in a larger sense.

There were a few points in the story during which I questioned the relevance; Heather occasionally brought up her Christian religion, the fact she wore prayer beads, and that Heather and Miguel (her best friend) stopped at Mass before going elsewhere.  In the spirit of Chekhov’s gun, I was pleased to see this was later relevant in the plot development between Heather and Jeff, although I won’t give away why here.

The author of the novel is a victim’s advocate, and according to her website, has spent the last decade educating people about the hazards of these types of relationships.  With this book as a tool to get the story of the potential consequences out in the public, I’m sure she’s informed many more people of the problems that can occur when you’re not careful.

*Caitlyn Faust graduated from Saint Mary’s College with a BFA in Studio Arts. By day, she works at the University of Notre Dame as an IT Help Desk Consultant. By night, she has many interests, including knitting a pair of socks originating from yarn dyers from each state (that’s 50 pairs of socks, folks).

In His Genes #science #BookReview

In His Genes #science #BookReview

In His Genes (2013) by Robin Stratton is a slim novel at 183 pages. The story follows Cassie, a woman on the verge of 40, who works in a lab with the handsome do-gooder Dr. Jack Miller. Jack is tying to find the gene mutation linked to a rare disease called Voight’s that causes women to give birth to male babies who are covered in sores and screaming. A few days later, the mother, who was otherwise healthy, dies. Jack’s own wife died from Voight’s, and he’s racing against the clock to save his son, Jeremy.

At first, In His Genes felt like it followed standard protocol for a romance novel: the good-looking male boss and the woman who works way below her intellectual abilities for no money because she’s happy to be near the man. The old “this woman is so smart that she should be the boss, and honestly, he can’t do anything without her” thing. The familiar “she’s like a comfortable shoe” theme. Throw in the sexy, accomplished Dr. Renee Temple, with her excellent fake breasts, who visits Jack once per month for a good roll in the sheets, and we have everything we expect. Unfortunately, Dr. Temple is written with limited emotional range: uncaring, petty, catty. She was more like a paper doll than a person, so it was hard to hater her even though she forgets Jack even has a son.


Although the cozy relationship between Jack and Cassie is meant to give readers something to root for — that moment when they admit they’re meant for each other and he stops seeing Dr. Temple — I was uncomfortable with how much they “played house” as boss and employee. Jack calls Cassie to have her come to the hospital when his son has flare ups of Voight’s disease — and she goes. He expresses sadness over being unable to pay her for all the extra hours she works. They have dinner together at his house, and she loves son and kisses him goodnight. The whole relationship is so inappropriate that I felt uncomfortable. Cassie’s life is on pause while she waits for her boss to figure out she cares about him and is acting as wife and mother in his life. It’s another movie trope, one that has women wait and wait and wait — where’s the initiative? The self-respect?

It was early on I realized I wasn’t sure how to perceive Cassie. First, I couldn’t keep track of her age (almost 40) because I kept thinking she was a post-grad student, someone in her early 20s. Whenever I did remember her age, I couldn’t figure out what she did before she worked in Jack’s lab. She’s only been there for 2  years. It’s weekends, late nights, almost no pay, so Cassie certainly works like a grad student. I felt sad that yet another woman was putting herself in financial jeopardy to play second trombone in the hopes that her boss would open his eyes and fall in love with her.

Cassie is supposed to be a nice woman: her parents love her, her boss loves her, her boss’s son loves her, she’s donating tons of her time for science (albeit so she can be close to her boss). Cassie is supposed to be a happy woman who was “a reader, straight-A student, volleyball star [who] attended Boston College on a scholarship [and] majored in anthropology.” Yet, at times, Cassie was petty enough that I was surprised by the extent of it. Jack’s sister, Margaret, quit her job to care for Jeremy. She’s an MIT grad who pays attention to the benefits of nutrition and rest to prevent flare ups. Still, Cassie is jealous of this woman, as if Jack may fall in love with his sister. Cassie mentally criticizes:

Tall and slender with long, glossy dark hair, [Margaret would] be pretty if not for her crabby pinched-up expression. Rarely smiles, never dates. Destined to be bitter and alone. I look away. Her choice has nothing to do with me.

I just… really can’t get behind this sort of negative criticism of other women, especially when it concerns a woman’s appearance or her status in relation to a man. Was Stratton trying to make Cassie seem petty?


But Stratton throws readers a plot twist: Palmer, a guy in his 50s performing Beat poetry in a cafe who is able to magically fix Cassie’s car when the battery dies on a cold winter night. He’s weird yet caring, and I hoped that the introduction of Palmer would steer the story away from the familiar “underling who loves her boss” trope. Palmer appears everywhere without reason, like he’s stalking Cassie, but he’s kind and takes interest in her work (and even knows about the incredibly rare Voight’s disease). But he won’t take her to his apartment. Has Stratton saddled us with the married adulterer theme? No, Palmer is something entirely different, which I won’t describe because it delves into spoiler territory. The plot heads into some unbelievable directions, such as when a VIP gets Voight’s and Palmer works some magic on Jack’s suffering son.

The book tries to compare science with belief (not necessarily religion), which I felt wasn’t fully executed, make the comparisons unclear. Palmer, who represents belief, wants Cassie to trust without proof, but the science in the book is more about DNA strands and other jargon, instead of principles and hypotheses, so it’s hard to see how the two contrast.

I have a couple of other Robin Stratton books that I plan to read, but for now I would recommend choosing her novel On Air for the humorous comments, genuine emotion, and original plot, instead of In His Genes.

A Cute Tombstone #bookreview #readwomen #Russia

A Cute Tombstone #bookreview #readwomen #Russia

A Cute Tombstone by Zarina Zabrisky

published by Epic Rites Press, 2013 (48 pages)

A Cute Tombstone includes two pieces, a short poem called “The Hat” and the main story. Before the poem is a beautiful black-and-white picture of a woman in a giant, fluffy black hat with bows on it. The woman herself is quite attractive and put together. In the poem, the hat first represents love, but the hat might disintegrate or be the woman herself (without a head) or be put on a man’s head or the woman’s head (it fits at first but then it doesn’t) until we’re uncertain what the hat means, as if there cannot be love because we don’t know what it means.a cute tombstone 2

Following the poem is the long story “A Cute Tombstone,” preceded by another black-and-white picture of a woman in simple clothes. Her portrait is beautiful, but comes from the era when smiles in pictures were not welcome, so she looks unhappy or mournful instead. In this title story, a Russian woman who moved to the U.S. 11 years prior gets The Hatthe call that her mother has died in Russia. The narrator reflects on the ease of death in the U.S. and that shoppers at Costco can sample nuts, buy Cheerios, or purchase a coffin. Before the mother died, Russia represented crazy, decadent summers of parties and friends for the narrator, but when she returns to make the funeral arrangements, she can’t help but note that everyone winks, the traditions try to overpower the individual’s wants, and there are always smells in the air that are unfamiliar to Americans: fish pies, vodka, raspberry marmalade. In this way, Zabrisky produces the experiences of a Russian through the lens of an American.

American readers see what’s unusual, and the details are enough to make the story’s setting and characters vividly “other.” When the narrator heads to a funeral portrait business to get her mother’s photo enlarged to put next to the closed casket, she notices the displays of others’ funeral portraits: “I imagine their lives: At six, they probably played with German trains and tanks—war souvenirs. At eighteen they were getting married in dresses made from curtains, airy veils and ill-fitted military uniforms—the women pregnant already.”

Zabrisky’s story is smooth and melodious. It’s important to read the punctuation carefully, the words slowly, to get the full poetic effect. A sentence may begin positively and end in a new place. You won’t be lost; she’ll lead you there, but if you read too fast, you’ll find you’re trying to gulp down your specially-made meal.

*Review originally published with some slight changes at TNBBC. Thank you to Zarina Zabrisky and Epic Rites Press for sending me this reviewer’s copy in exchange for an honest review.

#BookReview obliterate the following items from the beginning of time #poetry

#BookReview obliterate the following items from the beginning of time #poetry

obliterate the following items from the beginning of time by Thais Benoit

Published by NAP magazine, July 2013

More and more the way we encounter “books” surprises me. Thais Benoit’s bitty work (a 35-page chapbook) is a downloadable PDF as opposed to a thing with pages, even pages stapled together and handi-crafted with love. I approach such small works in a PDF more like a Happy Meal representation of the author’s writing than a full meal that showcases the writer’s palate.

Benoit is able to create interesting juxtapositions in a small spaces. She writes:

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The speaker runs from someone lecherous, but as she does, she doesn’t lose the youthful exuberance that compels us to bap flowers as we pass them (especially those hard-to-resist fluffy dandelions). Her speaker is two persons at once.

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Beniot also juxtaposes strength with weakness by stringing together two famous women, one who saves everyone, the other who must be saved: “I’m a handful, forcefully felt / A pint sized Wonder Woman princess peach.” Blurring the differences between Wonder Woman and Princess Peach opens the door for Benoit to say her speaker is complicated and contradictory at times by cleverly conjuring these women of pop culture.

Complex speakers fill the other poems, too. One declares, “I like puzzle people” and later says, “I am a puzzle person.” The speaker defends herself, explains the speed and which her mind races, and still is open to understand another person intimately. She explains who she is: “i prefer to take my time; i like good accidents / and the kind of sunsets caused by pollution.” Benoit adds an unromantic flavor to the sunset by giving it a good dose of reality: the skies are filled with pollution, so this is how we experience sunsets today.

Some of the poems read more like lists without meaningful connections to the reader, like in the poem “things i’ve done as a child.” There is something familiar there, though; Benoit works in the alt-lit genre, typically a boys’ club of lowercase letters; nonsense exclamations about the beauty, and, conversely, meaninglessness of life; and pop culture references (Kanye, dubstep, hashtags). But she’s not so flighty—there is something there that resonates with me in some of Benoit’s stanzas, as opposed to leading me to think “brah, ur funny #LOL” like I usually do when I read alt-lit poems. Here’s an example of a stanza that represents youthfulness pile-driving into adulthood, a flighty speaker who understands consequences:

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This review was originally published at The Next Best Book Club. I received a copy of the obliterate the following from the beginning of time from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

The First Bad Man #BookReview #readwomen

The First Bad Man #BookReview #readwomen

The First Bad Man by Miranda July was chosen by an elderly man in my book club for our September read. Last night, when we discussed the work, he confessed he planned to stop choosing books he felt would appeal to women (I’m offended that he does this in the first place, but I still like the guy overall). Basically, everyone hated July’s novel, and some people refused to finish it.


Published in 2015 by Scribner, The First Bad Man is inaccurately advertised. I thought the focus would be narrator Cheryl Glickman’s job at a women’s self-defense studio, as her job seems emphasized in the synopsis, but it barely plays a role. I had already imaged Cheryl kicking ass and teaching women some sweet movies while wearing karate-esque pajamas. No such luck.

Instead, it seems that the company used to teach self-defense but then cashed in by turning the moves into workout videos. Suggesting women can get thin by saving their own lives says a lot about July’s fictional world. Cheryl almost never goes to work; she puts together a yearly fundraiser, but she almost never sets foot in the office over the two years during which this novel takes place. Where does her money come from? Money doesn’t matter in July’s world. However, a couple on the board decide Cheryl — a single woman with no children at 43 — is the right person to take their daughter, Clee.

Clee is a voluptuous bomb-shell with horribly infected feet, a shitty attitude, and a violent streak. She’s 21, so why her parents decide to foist their heathen on a co-worker makes no sense. Nor did they have Cheryl’s permission, actually. If you want July’s book to fit into a reality, well, your princess is in another castle. Clee sleeps on the couch and lives like a pig. Then, she starts attacking Cheryl, slamming her to the floor and bending her arms. The book is so randomly violent for the first 50 pages that I felt sick — Cheryl doesn’t call the police or Clee’s parents, and what is July trying to say??


Such an unremarkable cover.

There are other oddities in July’s novel: when Cheryl was 9 entertained a baby while her parents and the baby’s parents visited in the next room. Cheryl decided that the baby had a stronger bond with her than his own mother, so she dubbed him Kubelko Bondy and seeks out his soul in every baby she sees. Since Cheryl is the (most unreliable) narrator, we read her thoughts and what she thinks are babies’ thoughts. As if they talk back to her with telepathy.

Add in Phillip. He’s a 70-something man whom Cheryl feels has been her romantic soul mate for all time. July fails to establish a relationship between Phillip and Cheryl to suggest to readers why we should like one cell of his being. He admits to Cheryl via text that he’s fallen in love with a 16-year-old girl and would like Cheryl’s permission to have sex. Cheryl decides she has to think about it because she’s sad Phillip doesn’t want her. Impatient, he sends texts, like “SHE STRIPPED FOR ME: SAW HER PUSS AND JUGS. UHHHH. KEPT MY HANDS TO MYSELF.” Really, Miranda July? Who the hell are these people?

All the characters were so far removed from anything I could image being even remotely realistic. I can more easily believe science fiction creatures because it’s all about world building. When a writer builds a story, he/she must have rules for that particular universe, no matter how weird — AND THEY MUST BE ADHERED TO. As one book club member said, “this book is pudding.” Case in point: Cheryl has a therapist who tells her that the bathroom is too far away, that Cheryl will use about 30 minutes of her appointment to get to the toilet and back, so why not pee in old Chinese take-out boxes the therapist has saved. During one visit, the therapist has several boxes of old piss on her desk. What is this doing for the reader? What is the point?

I will concede that July can write beautifully. In some scenes she has descriptive settings and vivid imagery and true emotion. The problem isn’t her writing skills; it’s her failure to create something with meaningful connections and motives. Had this book gone through any of the writing workshops I was in during my college years, we would have ripped The First Bad Man to shreds.

I got this book from the library. Neither the publisher nor author were involved in my procurement of this book.

Why We Never Talk About Sugar #bookreview #readwomen #science @aubreyhirsch

Why We Never Talk About Sugar #bookreview #readwomen #science @aubreyhirsch

Why We Never Talk About Sugar 
by Aubrey Hirsch

published by Braddock Avenue Books, 2012

Aubrey Hirsch, who we previously met in a Meet the Writer feature, dishes out 16 pieces of fiction in this collection. The key themes were physics, being stranded, childlessness, and illness. I especially applaud Hirsch for having these themes without pounding me over the head, telling me in an obvious fashion that her stories are related. She trusts her reader.

The power of belief was a major factor in the stories about childlessness. In “Certainty,” when two lesbians want to have a baby, Cris decides she wants it to genetically be their baby, and that with enough belief it could happen, despite a zero percent chance. Her partner thinks about probability and the meaning of love:

If Cris and I could have a child together, I knew that kid would be the best, most interesting kid on the planet. But I also knew we couldn’t. Every time we made love, Cris looked at me with this intense longing. She was trying to make it happen. I could tell. And sometimes, right before I came, I almost thought it was possible.

Here, I could feel the intensity of Cris trying to make something with her love (and dare I say I wanted to believe it could happen in Hirsch’s world?).

The sadness in the stories involving multiple sclerosis were the ones that broke my heart. In “No System for Blindness,” a daughter stays with her father as his disease worsens. Some symptoms are permanent while others can be managed. When he wakes up blind, they cross their fingers that it will pass. Just the description of the two eating breakfast, and the careful way Hirsch shows us that the father is blind, gave me chills (and made me want to cry):

He stares past me, to my left, tapping the table in search of his glasses. There is powdered sugar in his beard. It makes him look older. He places his glasses back on the bridge of his nose. There is a greasy white streak across one lens, but he can’t see it.

An impressive part of Hirsch’s stories is her knowledge of physics. The formulas and ideas read more like poetry and were a way to talk about life and relationships. As an example, a young man gives a woman a birthday present, even though it is their third date, because one should always give birthday gifts. His present?

“It’s a picture of subatomic particles, through an electron microscope. The technical term is ‘hydrogen event in a bubble chamber.’ It’s what happens when two particles are smashed together at very high speeds. This one’s from the accelerator at FermiLab. The lines and spots are tracks made by the explosion.” He runs a bulky fingertip along one of the swirls. “See?”

What a moment, yes? My first thought, albeit inappropriate, was, “Why hasn’t someone given me a hydrogen event in a bubble chamber?” Hirsch has this way of bringing the reader into at least one of the character’s shoes in each story, grounding us 16 separate times.

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

May We Shed These Human Bodies #ReadWomen #BookReview

May We Shed These Human Bodies #ReadWomen #BookReview

May We Shed These Human Bodies by Amber Sparks

published by Curbside Splendor, 2012

What exactly is it? Sparks’s book wears many hats. It’s a collection of short stories and flash fiction. At times, it’s a series of lists: objects in an exhibit, school periods and corresponding homework, numbering/bullet points, character types (Mother, Father, Child, etc.), math equations, and boxing rounds. It’s an entry into all points of view: first, second, third. You’ll find longer stories that are plot-driven, flash fictions that are exercises in descriptive language or pondering theories. Bonus: the effect of varied forms is varied experience for the reader.may we shed

May we shed these human bodies: what does this polite request mean? Amber Sparks suggests shedding the human body is a means of ridding oneself of the possibility of being lonely or waiting for another body to comfort you. Dare I argue that every single story in Sparks’s collection uses the word lonely or alone? She writes, “Dream of throwing a blanket over your lonely life at last.” She writes, “You would always be the strongest, and you would always, always be alone.” She writes, “It will leave you utterly alone.” This device holds the collection together, although I can’t help but wish for more varied human emotions. I became exhausted by loneliness, wishing I could tape together the pages, merge the worlds of multiple stories, thus giving each character a friend (albeit a lonely one). Nor was I fully comfortable with these characters whose only mobility is down (sometimes literally down the drain).

Her varied form comes with varied tone. “As They Always Are” is a story that presents a mother with a baby whose appetite is vicious, though his mother is too sweet to care.When she dies, he never eats again, though he grows chubbier. How does he thrive? Why, the ghost of his mother feeds him at night, which we know only because his new stepmother is caught by the baby’s ghost mom while spying from behind the crib. The next morning, “when the sun rose, the baby’s nursemaid came to check on him as she did every morning. She found him lying on his back, eyes open and quite dead. All the fatness and pinkness had gone from him: he looked as though he’d starved to death.” Does seeing a ghost kill it? Was the dead mother no longer able to feed him? Was the jig up!? Sometimes the stories seem shocking for its own sake, and I felt like the writer was trying to be “cute” or “clever,” which annoys me.

Sparks writes in the voices of trees, teenagers, ghosts, dictators, a city, poets, and children. If you’re not sure what you like, there are so many options in Sparks’s collection, and perhaps you like “Surprise! Something weird happened out of no where!” more than I do.

This review was originally published in JMWW and has been slightly edited.

Damnation #bookreview #readwomen @diddioz

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.