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maya-and-amiri

Maya Angelou dancing with poet/playwright Amiri Baraka. Read the rather amusing story of this image HERE.

“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.

Behind Her Eyes #WTFthatending @SarahPinborough #AudioBook #Thriller

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Behind Her Eyes #WTFthatending @SarahPinborough #AudioBook #Thriller

I don’t often read thriller novels; mainly, I get around to them thanks to book club picks. I also emphasized in my review of The Woman in Cabin 10 that thrillers, for me, are best consumed as audio books. A line like “Oh, my god” can read so flatly on the page when a narrator can read it with shudders in her breath to suggest the terror in her heart. When I discovered Behind Her Eyes, I wasn’t even looking for a book. That Scottish powerhouse, Irvine Welsh, whom I follow on Twitter, Tweeted that everyone should read Sarah Pinborough. I asked him which books I should read, as I’d never heard of her, and, in true Welsh fashion, he bombarded me with Tweets containing the titles of his own books. Salty, that one. I did get Behind Her Eyes from the library, and I did choose the audio version. The novel proved to be dramatic, compelling, and unique.

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Tweet by Irvine Welsh, February 17, 2017.

Though there are less than a dozen characters in the whole novel, the focus is on three people. The novel begins with Louise, a single mom who laughed and had a good time with a man she met in a bar the night before. They kiss before the man says he can’t “do this.”

That man is David, and Louise learns the next day that he’s her new boss just arrived from Scotland — with his wife.

David’s wife is Adele. She maintains her fitness, cooks gourmet meals, and cleans her whole lovely house out of pride. She’s easy to like at first, and I felt bad for her. It sounds like David is abusing her by keeping credit cards and cell phones from her, and she doesn’t have a job. The signs of abuse cement Louise’s determination to befriend and “save” Adele — while she’s moved on to sleeping with David.

Later in the novel (I’m not sure how far in, as I was listening to the audio version), we get sections entitled “Then.” These are flashbacks to when Adele was in an institution at age 17. She befriends a teenage junkie named Rob, who makes her laugh. Adele is sweet and eager, and we learn she’s known David her whole life. They’re already engaged.

The voice actors really made this novel special. Published by McMillan Audio in 2017, Behind Her Eyes included the following voice actors:

  • Anna Betinck
  • Josie Dunn
  • Bea Holland
  • Huw Parmenter

It’s not common to have so many voice actors in audio books. Usually, one person changes his/her inflections to indicate different people. But I found the various narrators to be wonderful. One woman with a more “scattered” sort of “hot mess” sound to her voice plays single mom Louise. Louise tends to bemoan her bad luck in the beginning, and I felt she sounded strangely like Bridget Jones. As the book progresses, Louise’s voice becomes more assured, even though she still weighs her choices more than most. Of course she is: she loves her friend, she loves her friend’s husband. Who does she love more? This voice actress does a spot on Scottish accent when David speaks in her Louise chapters.

A second voice actor plays Adele, the physically fit, beautiful wife in the carefully-maintained home. She loves her husband, David, more than anything in the world. This voice actress uses a silky smooth tone, like syrup pouring onto pancakes. She is the confidence Louse lacks. Eventually, she sounds like a slinky trouble-maker, and it’s not clear that David really is the abuser I thought​ at first. This voice actress doesn’t capture David’s Scottish accent as well, though David doesn’t talk nearly as much around his wife as he does Louise.

Since Louise’s and Adele’s voices are acted so differently and have different voice actors, it’s easy to follow the chapters, which switch points of view back and forth between these women. Both are in first-person point of view, which made sense for the novel. The publisher made excellent choices for the talent.

The last two voice actors were hard to figure out. The 3rd female voice actor must be the one who reads the flashback chapters to Adele’s time with Rob in the institution. Honestly, her voice wasn’t different enough to me to realize she was a different person. She sounded like she could be the voice actor playing Adele if that actor spoke a bit differently. Yet, these scenes are 3rd-person, not first-person.

The fourth voice credited is a man’s. Where does he fit into this book after it has established the back and forth of two narrators plus flashbacks? It’s almost a spoiler to know a man is coming to tell part of the story!

I always thought thrillers were supposed to proceed at break-neck speed, but Behind Her Eyes remains consistent. We never race ahead; we’re never dragging. There are reliable switches among Louise, Adele, and the flashbacks, separated by chapters, so that we never go too long and forget what’s happening with any one person or scene.

The plot was the best part because there wasn’t one big twist that I tried to guess the whole book. And the problem with one twist: if the reader figures it out early in the novel. No, author Sarah Pinborough drops some clues, I realized what she was laying down, the moment was revealed — and that in itself is ridiculously exciting — and then new clues were given to build up to a new thing to realize.  I thought a lot about it, and the best metaphor I can use is multiple orgasms. There, I said it.

Let me put it this way: three days ago I couldn’t stop listening to Behind Her Eyes, but I felt guilty for sitting down for so long. So, I walked around the campus of the University of Notre Dame (in 80 degree weather). About three hours later, sweaty, dehydrated, sunburned, legs shaking, I collapsed back into my car and cranked on the A/C.

Go get yourself the audio book of Behind Her Eyes.

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*Margot over at Lectito also reviewed Behind Her Eyes. You can check out her review in which she makes some comparisons to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca.

The Misadventures of Marty Wu #humor #chicklit @gooddirt @ShadeMountainPr

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The Misadventures of Marty Wu #humor #chicklit @gooddirt @ShadeMountainPr

Thanks to its diary format, The Misadventures of Marty Wu by Yi Shun Lai is a conversational, knockabout book about a young woman straddling two worlds, both of which equally embrace and shun her. Lai visited Grab the Lapels back in August 2016 for the Meet the Writer feature. Check it out here!

Published by Shade Mountain Press in 2016, the full title of Lai’s work is Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu. It’s a mouthful, but the attention to self-help books drew me in. In fact, it’s a self-help book that suggested Marty use a diary, thus the book we read.

Marty is a woman in her late 20s living in New York City. She lived in Taiwan until she was five and then moved to the States. Her mother is also in NYC. Dreaming of becoming the owner of a costume shop, populated with costumes she’s designed and made herself, Marty meanwhile works selling advertisements in a magazine with an aging readership. She’s on the verge of closing such a great deal that would set her up with enough money to quit and buy that shop, but Marty is a woman after Bridget Jones and messes up royally. She’s fired immediately and taken to Taiwan by her mother in an attempt to give her space from her shame, or possibly regroup.

At first, I really didn’t like that Marty was so Bridget Jones. “Done and dusted,” as MyBookJacket would say. There were even some cringe-worthy lines that were so twee. But after Marty is fired, something changes in her writing. She becomes more aggressive with her wording, and I found myself getting pumped to read her next diary entry. Marty reflects on why she is writing: “All self-help books say that writing shit down helps. I am hoping this is true. God knows I can’t possibly get any lower than I am now.” Her content got “real” and less *squee!* and this is when I was more prepared to read about her life.

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Marty’s mom is a whole other mess, a woman so cold, so unforgiving, that my stomach and chest actually hurt when I read her words. Nothing makes her happy. Marty writes, “She feeds me soup, complaining that I’m too skinny (last week I was too fat; the week before I was too sickly) and that I probably drink too much.” It doesn’t matter what Marty does. The mother constantly tearing down a narrator we get to know so personally reeks of abuse. I kept thinking, “If we changed this mother with a lover, everyone would tell Marty to run, get away, call the police.” The mother believes she can control Marty. What a dark turn for a character in a book that can safely be called chick-lit. Then again, Yi Shun Lai writing the mother so convincingly is a credit to her craft.

Like many in 2017, Marty navigates two worlds. A citizen of both Taiwan and New York City, she speaks both languages and knows both cultures. Lai does a wonder job reminding readers when a character speaks in Taiwanese so the language isn’t neglected in favor of English. At one point in Taiwan, Marty makes air quotes when she speaks, noting “even though they don’t translate into Taiwanese.” In another example, Marty’s brother, who has always lived in Taiwan (there’s a whole backstory there), tries to give his kid sister some advice, struggling over the expression:

“You gonna keep on letting her hang the meat until the cat jumps so much it dies?”

I swear, Taiwanese idioms are so weird sometimes.

“Oh, Marty. What’s the American expression — apron strings?”

I really liked these moments when Lai reminded me that I was in Taiwan, and while she’s there, small cultural differences matter in communication. I felt both languages and cultures were respected.

Finally, the choice of diary. Of course we think Bridget Jones, so it’s a risk from the start. But Marty’s diary-keeping seems much more logical, and she processes her actions a great deal more than Jones. Questioning why she writes, Marty notes:

I’m not sure if writing all that down helped. Now it’s on paper, in black and white, and I have to admit it happened, and also admit that I don’t know why, or how to fix it. And, also, that it happens all the time.

While Bridget incessantly wants to fix or blame or wallow, Marty uses her words as tools, which makes the story that much stronger.

In some places, a diary format makes less sense, though. When she’s upset, Marty remembers that all self-help books suggest one take a moment to breathe. In reality, a person would stop writing in a diary and focus on breathing. Here’s where it gets awkward: Marty writes, “Might as well practice breathing breathing breathing. Oh for fuck’s sake. Never mind.” Did she actually breathe? Did she think about breathing and change her mind? The diary format confuses things here.

Overall, Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu is a smarter chick-lit story that is more slice of life than looking for a happily-ever-after ending. If you’re looking for a light read about a modern woman navigating two worlds and an abusive mother, Yi Shun Lai’s book is for you. Yes, I know that sounds like an oxymoron.

The Fat Friend #BookReview #FatFiction

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The Fat Friend #BookReview #FatFiction

*This book is part of my 2017 search to find positive representations of fat women in fiction or nonfiction, and that positive representation will not hinge on weight loss and falling in love. Thus, books will either meet or not meet my criteria, which will factor overall into my recommendations. I purposely use the word “fat” because it is not a bad word. Using plump, curvy, plus-sized, fluffy, big-boned, shapely, voluptuous, or any other term suggests that fat is bad and thus needs a euphemism.


In The Fat Friend by Julie Edelson, published by Baskerville Publishers in 2004, forty-seven-year-old Shell meets up with Tru, a friend from her school-girl days, after months of not seeing each other. While Shell describes herself as “a plump little bratwurst in black,” Tru is the fat friend, who “resembled a clump of Parker House rolls.” During their lunch dates over the next several months (and each lunch date is a new chapter), Tru monopolizes the conversation, telling stories about people Shell has never met. Because The Fat Friend is in first-person, we know Shell really wants to talk about problems with her husband, son, daughter, and job. But Tru won’t shut up. It’s a scratchy relationship that benefits mostly Tru, suddenly starts losing weight . . .

Author Julie Edelson’s style can be quite funny. At a restaurant, a waiter tries to take Shell’s and Tru’s plates. Shell notes, “I sat back, but Tru circled her vegetables with her arms and went limps as she’d been trained to do in civil disobedience workshops.” Here, I’m laughing about protesting over the right to eat vegetables, even though they’re practically sacred to her, thanks to her restricted eating.

Edelson’s style can be confusing. She chooses weird verbs to tag speech, like “grimped” and “spunked.” I appreciate the creativity, but don’t know what these words imply.

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I’m not sure who the little girl is supposed to be! Maybe Shell or Tru?

There are also confusing style choices in Shell’s internal monologue. Other voices jump in, but it’s not always clear whose. For instance, Shell takes Tru into her kitchen to say hello to Shell’s husband, Si, who hasn’t see Tru in ages and is surprised that she’s getting thin. Si is often called “Golden Hands” for being happy to fix other people’s things (but never fixes his own, for some reason). Here’s what happens; again, Shell is a first-person narrator:

Tru embraced him, tipping up that new chin — Why Ashley Wilkes! Did I say that my husband is sexy? Women can sense that, sometimes, he can be good. Not near often enough, mind you; same old Golden Hands — just look at the half-assed projects around here — it’s possible he has a few half-assed projects elsewhere. (“I’m only saying this for your own good, Rochelle: no man in his right mind wants a fat girl.” “You’ll always know Si loves you for yourself, honey.”)

To break it down, I believe Shell thinks her husband thinks that he’s as charming as Ashley Wilkes from Gone with the Wind. However, he never finishes projects at home and possibly starts and fails to complete projects in another woman’s home. In her head, Shell can hear her husband tell her to not be fat, but is a hypocrite when he claims he loves her just the way she is.

While the plot doesn’t fully come together, the characters make the book compelling. Tru is snarky; early in the novel when she is fat, a waitress inconspicuously jabs her for it after the waitress asks what they want to drink:

“Ice tea for me,” I said.

Tru said, “And I’ll have a peach smoothie and some water, please,” studying the menu.

“That’s completely fat-free,” Emily said, writing. Tru looked up at her. Emily clicked her pen at my menu. “What kind of tea to you want?”

I surveyed the blur of choices. Tru said, “Skip it. We’ll both have the holy water.” I laughed.

“That’s two waters.”

“Right,” Tru said, “and a peach smoothie and an iced tea. You’ll figure it out.”

Edelson’s novel is also honest. As Tru gets thinner, people ask how she’s lost weight. “Through intense suffering,” she replies. When she’s very small, Shell tells her, “You look fantastic. But what does it matter what you look like?” Tru bluntly replies, “I never thought I’d hear anything that stupid coming from you.” Fat people are hyper aware of how they look and fit into the world. Tru trusts Shell to be honest, and take honest criticism.

But how is the fat representation in this novel? It didn’t play as big of a role as I thought it would. Tru gets smaller, not bigger. She reflects slightly on fatness. For instance, she calls out Shell on her bias: “Of course you’re conditioned to think less of a man who’d make a pass at a heavy woman . . . . As though it has to be kinky.” As she gets smaller and more confused about her body, Tru admits, “I don’t know what the fuck I look like anymore.” While Edelson’s novel wasn’t inspiring or kind to bodies, it does show the gray areas — love and hate — of relationships fat women have with their bodies. It looks at how losing fat doesn’t change a fat person.

The Fat Friend is a compelling novel, one that still feels fragmented as a result of Tru telling a new long story about people the narrator doesn’t know in each of the first several chapters, which can make the reader confused and wonder what the plot arc will be. But, experiencing the humor, a new writing style, and what happens to Shell and Tru can make it worth the read.

This Will Go Down on Your Permanent Record #photography #YA @featherproof

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This Will Go Down on Your Permanent Record #photography #YA @featherproof

This Will Go Down on Your Permanent by Susannah Felts

published by featherproof books, 2008


This Will Go Down on Your Permanent Record is a story about Vaughn, a sixteen-year-old girl who decides to dump her trio of popular best friends right before school lets out for summer. She has a camera and is excited about her fall photography class, so she shoots pictures regularly. Then, Vaughn sees Sophie, a small, dramatic-looking fifteen-year-old girl sitting on the porch across the street. New neighbor from another state! After Sophie drops hints that she hates her mom and has possibly been sexually abused by her uncle, Sophie is permitted to stay with Vaughn’s family when her mother moves away. The story follows the typical coming-of-age novel: Sophie upsets Vaughn’s life by peer pressuring her into trying pot, starting smoking, and hanging out a Dragon Park with two teenage boys. Occasionally, Sophie doesn’t come home when she’s supposed to, and it’s clear she’s the “faster” of the two girls. The novel is set in the summer of 1989, so no cell phones or computers.

There was nothing particularly 1989 about the story. Cassettes are mentioned a couple of times, and we get a description of a Flock of Seagulls-inspired hairstyle, but Felts makes the mistake many other writers these days do: she sets the novel in a time before personal electronic devices simply to avoid the complication of text messages, social media, and Google. Think about it. How many books have you read lately that are set just before the widespread use of personal tech? I actually discuss this topic in a class I teach about technology and literature, and students can only come up with one book that uses current tech: the Fifty Shades series. So, E.L. James has that going for her.

While the story actually is predictable, there were many times I thought it was going to head into unusual territory. How many times does Sophie seem way too “familiar” around Vaughn’s dad? And isn’t Vaughn’s mom practically out of the picture? She creates handmade jewelry in a shed out in the yard. The mother seemed depressed or neglectful and doesn’t even come in for dinner, leaving room for another person to jump in. I was on the edge of my seat during these sections, predicting the weirdness that would ensue when Mom came out of her jewelry cave and found a teen in bed with her husband. But that never happens.this will go down

The characters lack complexity. Sometimes, they lack motivation. Why did Vaughn dump her trio of friends? Why are they so popular when she seems so non-descript? That’s not typically how teen girl group dynamics work. Even though Vaughn was independent enough to dump her popular friends, she’s enough of a pushover for Sophie to talk her into smoking, pot, and getting into cars with strangers with almost no effort.

The title is inspired by the damning potential of a photo printed and kept as evidence. Sophie is Vaughn’s model all summer; she has a unique defiant yet poverty-stricken look. But when Sophie gets the camera in her hands, she catches Vaughn in incriminating situations. The power of the camera is never fully explored, as the potential to control someone through blackmail, even the high school kind, is left untouched. Overall, This Will Go Down on Your Permanent Record cracks open doors but never explores what’s in the room.

 

Meet the Writer: Jodi Paloni @Press53 @JodiPaloni #environment #poetry #fiction #giveaway

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Meet the Writer: Jodi Paloni @Press53 @JodiPaloni #environment #poetry #fiction #giveaway

Today, Grab the Lapels welcomes Jodi Paloni to the Meet the Writer series. I’ve asked Jodi questions about her two very different graduate degrees — one in environmental studies and the other in creative writing — and you read about how poetry may serve a purpose to the poet, but doesn’t have to be published to have meaning. Read more about Jodi Paloni at her website; at the bottom of her site are numerous ways to connect with her on social media.


Grab the Lapels: What kind of writing do you do? What kind of writing do you wish you did more of?

Jodi Paloni: I mostly write realistic fiction. I’ve published a collection of short stories and a number of other stories in lit journals on-line and in print, and I’m currently working on a novel, which is hard work, but very exciting. I love to read fiction and find that getting lost in a story provides both solace and wisdom. Novels provide me with an escape like nothing else. I want to make what I love, so I write.

But when I began to write in earnest — to actually put words on paper, look them over, work on them — it was October 2001 and I was writing poetry. My first marriage was unraveling and the Twin Towers had just fallen. The poetry teacher at the school where I taught held a workshop for anyone who wanted to come and process the national tragedy through writing. My oldest daughter had been born on September 11, 1993. She was eight when the towers burned down and troubled that something like that had happened on her birthday. I wrote my first poem about her, in celebration of her coming to be. It’s still my favorite poem of the hundred and fifty or so that I have written since.

But I don’t publish poems. I keep them private, like one would a journal. Some day I’d like to pull all of my poems out and take another look at them, along with the dozen or more I’ve written in the last few years. If I find something I like, I might start sending them out. I think it would be nice to have an artifact, a chapbook or a book, that embodies the work. Poetry, to me, is the distillation of a moment, a feeling, or an experience.

My poems are mostly about the natural world as a mirror into my interior life. In troubling times, writing and reading poetry is a balm, so I tend to turn towards poetry to process emotion. I also turn to poetry when I am moved by beauty. It’s an impulse. Writing fiction is more of a strategic process for me. I get to use the parts of my brain that are both generative and tactical. It’s like figuring out a logic puzzle: the brain expands beyond the boundaries of normal thought, but is also thoughtful about boundaries. I have to say, though, all forms of writing, even writing answers to these questions, is what I want to be doing most of my time.

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GTL: What is a graduate degree in Environmental Communications at Antioch all about? And did that degree affect your time spent in an MFA program at Vermont College?

JP: I haven’t thought about that degree for in a long time, but recently, at an Earth Day brunch, I found myself reflecting on my time at Antioch with great nostalgia. I earned that first masters in 1990 (wow!) almost thirty years ago.

I had gotten my bachelors degree in education in the early eighties, but didn’t love the idea of working in a classroom. I wanted to be outdoors, exploring the natural world, enjoying it and working to advocate for it. After a few years of teaching in environmental jobs, I decided to indulge myself in environmental study. I say indulge because a lot of the classes were held outdoors. I learned how to identify flowers, trees, and birds. I took one class called, Mammals of the Subnivean Zone, a study of the little furry creatures that stay alive all winter underneath the snow. I learned tracking. I saw Snowy Owls. I was in heaven. The communications part of the degree was about writing, and I read wonderful nature essays along the way, but mostly, it was about how to bring ideas we learned to others in the form of advocacy and policy.

In the end, I went back into teaching. I found a wonderful public school in Vermont where both place-based learning and literature was highly valued. I could learn and explore new ideas along with my students. I wrote poetry at night, after my own children were asleep. I dreamed of writing a novel and would sometimes lay awake writing scenes in my head.

I guess all of this it to say, I have two great passions, the outdoor world and stories about regular people. Earning masters degrees in both environmental studies and fiction was really an opportunity to immerse in what I love.

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GTL: What did you want to be when you grew up, and does this choice influence your writing today?

JP: I wanted to be a stage actress or a famous singer, a Joni Mitchell, a Stevie Nicks, a Carol King. I loved the stories the ballads told, and the rhythms, and I loved to sing. Plays and movies were just another form of the storytelling. Ha! I guess writing fiction allows me to wear the mask of my characters and become what they are on the page, so in a way, that is a form of acting — taking on someone else’s voice, imagining how they would gesture or move across their exterior backdrop. Poetry is akin to song lyrics. It’s musical, all about sound, too. Fantastic! I got to become what I wanted to be when I grew up, just not in the way I might have imagined.

GTL: What inspired you to write They Could Live With Themselves?

JP: They Could Live With Themselves is a collection of linked stories about a small town in New England, based loosely on the small Vermont town where I lived for twenty-five years. My interactions with my neighbors and the landscape inspired me, for sure, and other stories I read, too. I pay attention to certain things­­ — nuances between people in a public place, gestures, objects, and am taken by a particular visual moment.

That visual moment is what I usually begin with — a lanky boy mowing a lawn, three teenage girls glommed together on a park bench, a pregnant woman sitting on a curb. I don’t write any notes or make a conscious effort to sit down and write about what I’ve just seen. The images just get stored in my brain.

I often begin a story when a first line comes to me, and I riff on that. Later, I’ll see something in a story that is a knock-off of an image in real life or one from a daydream. I love the mystery of how it all works. Once I had written a dozen or so stories that took place in the same town and found that characters were popping in and out of each other’s stories, I began to think of the ways I could do this with intention, and plan how the stories could be arrange in a linked form to give a novel-like experience of the read, while maintaining each story as a discrete piece. The stories take place over the course of one year, from May to May, in a small town. Readers can watch the evolution of the community as a character, too. It was fun.

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Jodi’s revision process for her short story collection.

GTL: Many times writers find a creative niche and community. What do you think is yours?

JP: I have a writing group that traverses place. We use Google Hang Out. We’ve met once a month, almost religiously, for six years. I also am very involved in my local writing community and the statewide alliance in Maine, which is fabulous, very active, and quite generous in spirit. I have to say, most of my friends are writers, or at least avid readers. We talk a lot about our lives as it relates to writing and books. I go to a few writing events a year, a conference or a residency. I’m currently in a poetry group and just joined two new prose groups, probably too many groups, but we’ll see. I do love spending a Sunday afternoon with three other writers discussing the work. Most of my social media connections are with writers as well, so I’m basically surrounded with writers and craft talk, books and publishing news. Works for me!

GTL: If you could change places for a day with any one of your characters, who would it be, and why?

JP: Oh, wow! Great question, a tough one, too. Let’s see. A lot of my characters are pretty sad, and for good reason. I don’t want to be any sadder than I already am in real life, or as sad as some of them. Ha! Oh, dear. But just for one day, right? I like a character named Wren, a lot. She’s a single woman in her forties. Although she has had very sad events in her life, going as far back to a childhood, she seems to be on the mend. She’s figured out that it’s okay for her to be there for others and still find ways to take care of herself, to make peace with the fact that she actually likes living alone, and, I think, though I’m not absolutely sure, she’s about to hook up with someone who could become the great love of her life, a man named Addison, who lives in a fabulous Vermont homestead high on a hill overlooking the valley. Sure, I’ll be Wren for a day. I’ll pick a lovely spring morning when the sun is hot, but there’s still a hint of melting snow. The stream is rushing. Addison’s just said good-bye to his ex-wife, once and for all. Wren and Addison both have the whole day off. 😉

In fact, there are a number of my characters who, by the end of their stories, are about to embark on something better than where they began because they’ve figured out something important about who they are and who they want to become. I’d trade places with almost any of them if I could pick up where their story has just left off.


The winner of the giveaway, chosen by random, is Jackie over at Death by Tsundoku!

Giveaway: If you want to read about Wren and Addison and some of the other characters living in Stark Run, Vermont, leave a comment written to Jodi below to be entered into a drawing for a copy of They Could Live With Themselves. Currently, winners are restricted to United States due to the cost of shipping. A winner will be chosen at random at noon on May 5th.

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Fat Girl Dances With Rocks #LGBT #ownvoices @SusanStinson

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Fat Girl Dances With Rocks #LGBT #ownvoices @SusanStinson

*This book is part of my 2017 search to find positive representations of fat women in fiction or nonfiction, and that positive representation will not hinge on weight loss and falling in love. Thus, books will either meet or not meet my criteria, which will factor overall into my recommendations. I purposely use the word “fat” because it is not a bad word. Using plump, curvy, plus-sized, fluffy, big-boned, shapely, voluptuous, or any other term suggests that fat is bad and thus needs a euphemism.


You may remember that Susan Stinson stopped by Grab the Lapels recently for a Meet the Writer feature. Many of you asked if I would be reading Fat Girl Dances with Rocks soon. I imagine the title and the cover both draw readers in! In case you can’t see it online, the cover is beautiful and tasteful. The girl is both naked and yet covered (no nipples on her breasts or genitals). The artist, Jody Kim, used colored pencils to give the image a soft, warm, yet nuanced look by layering the colors.

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Fat Girl Dances with Rocks (Spinster Ink, 1994) is narrated in first person by Char, a 17-year-old girl who loves practicing dance moves and riding for hours in her Pinto with best friend Felice. Set in the 1970s, the book makes reference to specific disco songs from the decade. Though they’ve been friends for a good while, Felice has just now agreed to stay the night at Char’s for the first time, and what starts innocently enough with Char asking Felice to fix her hair somehow, maybe braid it, ends with a a kiss. Felice doesn’t want to talk about it.

Char claims she likes the idea of a boyfriend and being touched. She’s had boyfriends, too. Kissing Felice seems more intimate . . . perhaps not because Felice is a girl, but because they’ve been physically close through their friendship. Thus, Char’s sexuality develops naturally. I’ve watched movies and read fiction with characters who come out, and it’s always a huge surprise to the character. My friends in high school, lesbian, bi, and straight, all came to sex at different ages. While some were shy holding hands, others had physical relationships regularly. It all depends on the person’s comfort level. Char’s feelings reflect what I remember as true of teenagers forming relationships and realizing that they want physical closeness. It’s a tricky balance, and many bloggers lament the problematic “insta-love.” You won’t find that in Fat Girl Dances with Rocks.

Susan Stinson’s novel does a lot of work in the first several pages. We get the kiss, the tension between Felice and her mother, and Char’s problematic family. The father seems gruff, the brother a bit of a bully, and the mother asks Char every morning, “Did you lose weight?” Both mother and daughter are on diets, while father and brother eat seconds because they are average. Stinson sets up potential problems to be faced head on later in the novel.

After deciding she can’t live with her mom anymore, Felice leaves for the summer. One might guess she’s running away from her feelings for Char, which you may find predictable. Felice is a unique teen, though. She loves geology and identifies and collects rocks, which she mails to Char throughout the summer. Char, with nothing else to do, must get a job, so she lands at an assisted living community. Stinson showcases a variety of rabble-rousing, demanding people with different physical disabilities. A few characters are in wheelchairs, and one can’t fully use her hands.

Though I could easily tell the characters in the home apart (usually people with physical disabilities get clumped together in fiction, as if they are the same), their disabilities were slowly revealed. While I pictured Peg, the leader of a food riot in the cafeteria, one way, later on I would learn more about her the way her body was shaped and functioned differently, and I would have to rearrange her appearance in my head. But Peg helps Char grow up a bit by teaching Char how to treat people, how to think about people, just by interacting with her. Char must figure it all out.

And that’s what I loved about Stinson’s book. Nothing is handed to Char, nothing is obvious, or a given, when it comes to Char. Even her thoughts on her body are complex. Did you forget she is fat? It’s easy to, as it is not the obsession of her life. Sure, bodies are problematic at times, regardless of size, but they bring great joy, too. Since I’ve listed so many horrible things characters say about their fat bodies in previous reviews, below are some positives.

Even when Char is told to get her hair “under control,” she admits to readers, “I love my hair. It was one of my secret vanities. Sometimes at night I would spread it out on my pillow.” Hair is easy, though. Most people can have good hair. What about fat bodies? When she goes swimming with her mother for some good exercise (yes, fat people like to exercise), she watches her fat mother:

. . . once I saw her beauty, it seemed ordinary and familiar. Mom seemed to wake up in the water. She was so loose and white, buoyed up by her fat. She could rest at the surface and make little dips with her hands and feet.

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Char also admires an old photo of her mother, “. . . young, on a horse, with those family breasts pushing out fringe on a fancy cowgirl shirt, and the family thighs spreading wide and strong against the shining brown saddle.” Now that, reader, is an important moment. Do you ever think of fat as an inheritance? Or are you more about the family curse of wobbly arms and big butts? Did you know that features of your body, even the fat ones, connect you undeniably to your blood kin, and that when you insult yourself, you insult them, too? I was so pleased to see Char admire her mother’s body.

Granted, Char’s mother weighs herself daily and asks Char if she’s lost weight. Something toxic is trying to be passed in those familial relationships, too. And it takes it’s toll. We all know our mothers doing a chicken dinner on their own bodies affects how we feel about ours. Are you a mother? Do you still pick at your body nonetheless? Char stands in the shower, holding her excess belly and thinking that it shouldn’t even exist. What an awful thought, but it reflects the reality of her environment.

Fortunately, Char’s not fully warped by diet culture. Home alone and missing Felice, she puts on a record and dances around naked. Pretty soon, she’s hiding the rocks Felice has mailed her in the folders of her skin (under her breasts, in her sides, under her belly). Is it really just dancing, or more of a way to get Felice closer to her body? The moment is both elegant and absurd, and that’s why I love it. She also pats her thighs as she lays in bed, thinking of them as good, faithful dogs.

Fat Girl Dances with Rocks is suitable for all ages, though it strikes me as a coming-of-age young adult novel. The characters are unique yet realistic, and avoid all the pitfalls — “insta-love,” love triangle, nerdy chic, popular kids vs. your obvious choice to side with — that usually make me avoid stories about teenagers.

Misadventures of Fatwoman #fiction #chicklit

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Misadventures of Fatwoman #fiction #chicklit

*This book is part of my 2017 search to find positive representations of fat women in fiction or nonfiction, and that positive representation will not hinge on weight loss and falling in love. Thus, books will either meet or not meet my criteria, which will factor overall into my recommendations. I purposely use the word “fat” because it is not a bad word. Using plump, curvy, plus-sized, fluffy, big-boned, shapely, voluptuous, or any other term suggests that fat is bad and thus needs a euphemism.


Misadventures of Fatwoman by Julie Elizabeth Powell is one of those books that I don’t want to review. I finished it ten days ago, and it’s been in the back of my mind like the need to get blood drawn. Some time ago, I gave up on self-published fiction. However, there’s the chance a fat-positive book would be dubbed unmarketable. Booksellers, from what I’ve seen, like for thin to win, and if the main character doesn’t get her body “under control,” well, that’s not what Americans want to read. Misadventures of Fatwoman was published for Kindle books on July 28th, 2011. I stumbled upon it on Goodreads and took the chance back in December when I was compiling a list and buying books for my fat fiction quest. The cover suggests a svelte, confident woman performing on stage:

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This is a fairly misleading image. Let me explain.

Andi Wallace is a 39-year-old fat British woman. She got married at a young age, had a baby, and then discovered her husband was cheating on her. Later, Andi marries again, this time to a thin man named Ray, and they have a daughter. Andi and Ray have been married for a number of years (16, I believe), so her trust issues are mostly under control. Except she’s fat. Except she found an item from a hotel she’s never been to in her husband’s jacket pocket.

In the very early parts of the book, I thought I had found a winner in my fat fiction quest. Andi thinks, “…why say big when she meant fat?” As stated above, I do not encourage euphemisms for “fat,” because fat is not a shameful word. Then, Andi dissects her memories of being a little girl unashamed of her body, a girl who is adventurous and jumps off the high board into the pool. Andi notes, “. . . what struck her was the utter confidence she had in her abilities. . . .”

Right away, though, I realized Andi’s head is a dangerous place to be. She is “proud” when she doesn’t eat food she wants (only to gorge in the middle of the night). When Andi has a breakdown over her weight, she visits the doctor, who actually listens. This moment is beautiful. Fat people often are not listened to by medical professionals because doctors assume all issues are caused by fat (why does my doctor weight me and ask about my diet when I have bronchitis??). Andi even points out she knows diets don’t work.

And yet the rest of the book is filled with more chicken dinner talk. She uses phrases like “fat, batwing arms.” She’s disappointed that “her excess fat pleated in concertina fashion around her torso.” If something bad happens to Andi, she feels “it was her fault anyway, being so fat and ugly. . . .” After her son is born, Andi “couldn’t seem to shift the tyres of fat that looked like they’d been inflated beyond the realms of possibility. . . .” Why am I going on with so many examples? Because when women, fat or thin, read such a book, they internalize the message. Fat is bad, fat people are monsters, fat people should be reminded constantly they’re fat. I can’t express how hideous I feel when I read books like Misadventures of Fatwoman13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, and Fat Girl. But I’m doing it to find the books that need to be read.

I mostly felt terrible for Andi’s husband, who is shrugged off when he tries to be intimate because Andi is worried he will feel her soft belly. Then there is her best friend, a thin woman who constantly eats, who listens to Andi moan about how she couldn’t do things or express her concerns to her husband about the item she found in his jacket that suggests he’s having an affair. Andi’s fat obsession neuters her. It takes away her agency and renders her passive.

What about that cover? Andi’s job is to teach people who live in a home for those with physical disabilities how to use computers. When the funding doesn’t come through, she decides to put on a talent show to raise money. Though everyone in the house tells Andi she is charismatic, Andi refuses to be the MC. She’s too fat, of course. Imagine that: a house full of people who cannot fully use their bodies have to beg a fat woman, who has no issues with mobility, to see her body as valuable.

In a moment that asks readers to suspend disbelief (“drown” is more what happened), Andi is able to organize the entire talent show in one morning: where to hold the event, the date, how many acts should go on and when, who would sponsor the Talent Night, got a dress shop to donate costumes, a restaurant to donate a meal to 3rd place winners, a basket of “luxury” foodstuffs from the grocery store for 2nd place (a “hamper,” I learned it’s called), and an air balloon ride for 1st place. She talked to reporters, too. Holy moly, lady. People go to college to become event planners; you don’t get the idea one morning and have it all planned within an hour or two. If she did, wouldn’t Andi at least praise her organizing skills? No, she moans that she has to be the MC because there is no one else. And she’s too fat.

Andi, of course, won’t perform in the talent show, which is what I thought would happen based on the cover. Again, she’s too fat. One reason the event was planned so quickly, I’m guessing, is that Julie Elizabeth Powell wanted to have as much room as possible for Andi to look fat, feel fat, be awkward because she’s fat, have other snobby “putting on airs” women tell her she’s fat, and oscillate in her decision to bring up to her husband the hotel. In the end, Andi buys a costume online so that it fits her (who knew that was possible?!) and dubs herself Fatwoman. Why she needs a superhero identity to be an MC, I don’t know.

Overall, the author could have developed a really great novel about a woman who spends 200 pages organizing and participating in a high-stakes charity event that could have ended with Andi coming through as a human being. Instead, Powell encouraged horrible stereotypes, got into my head and made me feel ashamed about myself, and let me down deeply.

For some pick-me-up, read Susan Stinson’s Meet the Writer feature in which she discusses conscientiously writing fat fiction.

Meet the Writer: Susan Stinson

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Meet the Writer: Susan Stinson

I would like to welcome Susan Stinson to my Meet the Writer feature. As many of you know, half of my reading goals in 2017 are to find positive fat fiction written by women. I asked for recommendations from fellow book lovers.

So far, my reading of fat fiction has been a big disappointment. Book after book falls into the chicken dinner category: fat women picking themselves apart into pieces that are then criticized. Ugh. Only Dietland by Sarai Walker and I Do It with the Lights On by Whitney Way Thore have been given my full recommendation.

However, Casey over at The Canadian Lesbrarian introduced me to Stinson’s work. I picked up her novel Fat Girl Dances with Rocks a day or two ago. Though I’m not far in, I love the unique main characters. And we have a fat narrator! She might mention she’s fat, but she’s not chicken dinner-ing (yes, I just made that a verb). Without further ado, I give you Susan Stinson!

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Grab the Lapels: What kind of writing do you do? What kind of writing do you wish you did more of?

Susan Stinson: I am a novelist who also writes poetry, lyric essays, and book reviews. My novels have varied quite a bit in style and content. My first novel, Fat Girl Dances with Rocks, was a coming of age novel in which a young woman comes into a new relationship with her fat body at the same time as she begins to explore her lesbian sexuality. It came out in 1994 from Spinsters Ink, a small feminist press. fat girlThe year before that, two writer friends and I had formed a micropress and published Belly Songs: In Celebration of Fat Women, a chapbook of poetry, short fiction, and lyric essays that examine fat oppression and celebrate the beauty, strength, and sensuality of fat women. In 1995, Spinsters published Martha Moody, which was a mytho-historical western with tall tales and a flying cow. That was a love song to fat women for me, and a pleasure to write. It had Swiss and German editions, and has recently been reissued in German in both paperback and as an ebook as Martha flog auf der Engelskuh, which means Martha Flew on the Angel Cow. I love that.

I published three books in three years because I had finished them all before any one of them were published. My next novel, Venus of Chalk, came out in 2004.

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During that time I was travelling a lot giving readings and talks with my earlier books. When I made appearances, two things kept happening. People would come up to me and tell intimate stories about the pain they were in in relationship to their bodies. It became clear to me that fat hatred was a form of social control that was causing many people of all sizes to suffer. The other thing that people who saw me read asked me over and over again was how I came to be comfortable in my fat body. I wrote Venus of Chalk as a way to give my best answer to that. It starts with a fat woman being harassed and then turning against her own body with self-harm, and then goes on a bus trip from New England to the Texas farm where she used to spend time with her aunt as a child. So it’s a road trip, but it’s also her journey of confronting the roots of her internalized fat hatred and getting to a stronger place. Carline is bossy and difficult, but I think she’s very brave. That’s my answer for how to take on fat oppression, internal or external: it’s a slow, difficult process of confronting difficult things that is also so worth undertaking. There’s no way out but through.

My most recent novel, Spider in a Tree (Small Beer Press, 2013) is very different.

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It is a deeply researched historical novel about eighteenth century Northampton, MA during the time of preacher, theologian, and slave-owner Jonathan Edwards. I live in Northampton, and, in some ways, writing about Calvinist New England is me continuing the process that Carline goes through in Venus of Chalk. My passionate exploration of fat oppression in fiction and poetry took me to confronting other difficult things, such as the long history of northern slavery and intensity of Calvinism and how it might have been actually lived by people with various relationships to someone like Jonathan Edwards.

Right now, I’m working on Lamentation Hill, which is inspired by Jonathan Edwards’s grandmother. She is an unhappily married English woman with murderous siblings and a daughter who betrays her. There is also a Pequot sailor in love with the daughter’s husband in seventeenth century Hartford. Like lampreys in the river — made by and making the landscapes around them — they burrow, wriggle, rise, and latch on.

I wish I wrote more poetry. I love poetry deeply. I read it almost every day. Poetry with clarity, emotional urgency, and live language is an intense pleasure. It’s a balm for isolation. It’s a joy.

GTL: What was the first piece of writing you did that you remember being happy with?

SS: I thought of myself as a writer from the time I was very young. When I was in first grade, I won a school contest for best letter to my mother for Mother’s Day. I got to read the letter from the stage in the gym to the whole school. I got paid, too! They gave me a gift certificate to a local strip mall, which I used to buy a stuffed caterpillar. I never forgot it.

GTL: In what ways has life in and out of academia shaped your writing?

SS: That’s a big question. I was an English major as an undergraduate at the University of Colorado in the early eighties. I took a lot of writing workshops and learned a lot from them. I never got an MFA, though. I couldn’t see how I would be able to pay back the student loans if I went into debt to for graduate school in creative writing. So I moved from Colorado, where I grew up, to the east coast, where my brother, who is an artist, was living. I ended up with a job at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, giving administrative support to visual art studies and learning more about the lives of artists in that role. It was so great to have access to the museum, too. During that time, I began to participate in fat lesbian culture and began to write and think critically about my received notions of fatness. My life was strongly influencing my art, clearly.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the years in writing groups. In some of them, we critiqued each other’s work or discussed aspects of craft. I was the Writer in Residence at Forbes library, the public library in Northampton, for five years. I still facilitate a writing room there, where we gather to write every week. We don’t critique, we just write together, although we have a reading every year.

I taught Fiction Writing at Amherst College in 2014, and I’m about to do that again in the fall of 2017. That was my first time back in academia since the eighties. The students are wonderful, and teaching writing is a great way to grapple with the heart of what I think matters in fiction.

GTL: How do your friends and family respond to your writing?

SS: My friends and family are enormously generous and supportive to me. Sometimes I ask some of them to read unpublished work. Sometimes I’ve made choices not to write about things that I knew would make someone close to me feel exposed. It’s clear that my work has sometimes made some of my friends and family uncomfortable. It’s also very clear that they want me to be able to do the work that matters most to me. One of the things I love about fiction is that it makes it possible to write very honestly about the most intense emotions while also respecting the privacy of others. I think that there is there is an dance of fine-tuning the ethics of writing fiction that is informed by courage, self-knowledge, empathy, and love.

GTL: Are there aspects of your writing that readers might find challenging to them?

SS: Some people are uncomfortable with lesbian content. Some readers have been unwilling to enter imaginatively into the inner lives of fat characters and stick with them even as they imperfectly, haltingly begin to address some of the pain that fat oppression can cause. Writing pain and fatness together is tricky, because many people assume that is all that fat people are. I’m writing characters with their full humanity, which includes strength and power and fight and eroticism, and also includes all kinds of mess. Some readers find it hard to handle that.

My writing isn’t always as light and fast as that of many stories I love. It calls for some patience and attentiveness. It rewards those things, but it does ask for them.

GTL: What did you want to be when you grew up, and does this choice influence your writing today?

SS: I always knew I wanted to be a writer, but I wanted to be other things, too. I remember having a list in elementary school: I wanted to be a writer, a gardener, a ballet dancer, and a teacher. I am happy with where I ended up on that list.

fat ballerina

Ballerina from Russia’s Big Ballet, a troupe of dancers averaging 220 pounds.

Fat Girl by Jessie Carty #Poetry #Poems

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*This book is part of my 2017 search to find positive representations of fat women in fiction or nonfiction, and that positive representation will not hinge on weight loss and falling in love. Thus, books will either meet or not meet my criteria, which will factor overall into my recommendations. I purposely use the word “fat” because it is not a bad word. Using plump, curvy, plus-sized, fluffy, big-boned, shapely, voluptuous, or any other term suggests that fat is bad and thus needs a euphemism.


Fat Girl by Jessie Carty

published by Sibling Rivalry Press, 2011

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Though I don’t often read poetry because it’s not been the focus of my studies, I’ve come to realize that I know more about poetry than I think I do, and that my opinions on it are not worthless. I’m especially a fan of line breaks, clever rhyming (not the Hallmark stuff), and poems that make me want to do something. A fellow faculty member likes to say, “Poems have the power to change the world.” Well, I agree only to that extent when a poem changes my actions. A lot of what I read in college was alphabet soup burped up on paper, and I wasn’t behind that.

Carty’s poems aren’t gastrointestinal afterthoughts, but they don’t meet any of my other criteria for a good poem, either. The first poem, “Woman of Willendoff: The Artifact” threw me off immediately. She’s Willendorf, not Willendoff. This statue is often referred to as the Venus of Willendorf, but Carty writes, “She predated Venus mythology by millennia.”

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Venus of Willendorf. Photo from Wikipedia.

A symbol of fertility, Carty asks how this woman, were she alive, “hold up an infant? Her tiny arms — crossed / over her chest — have no palms.” The focus on this fertile woman wanders to the statue’s hair, which reminds the speaker of “the weaving of baskets.” Strangely, the connection made next is to Easter egg baskets and looking inside “you” like an egg. Who is the focus — the fertile fat woman, or who “you” really is? At best, I  was left wondering what the point was.

The rest of the poems read more like thoughts, perhaps even ones I’ve had myself as a fat woman, with line breaks that don’t end on moments to create anticipation for the next line not to create alliteration, nor rhymes or slant rhymes. Poems included are “The Fat Girl on Grooming,” “Fat Girl’s Wedding Picture,” “Fat Girl on Air Travel,” and “Fat Girl at the Drug Store.” Each poem is very short; the collection is only 45 pages. What this means, though, is each word must have the weight of 20 to make such brevity matter. Instead, the “Fat Girl’s Wedding Picture” notes the bride’s off-white dress, her brown shoes with the low heel, the way she holds her bouquet by her hip. Very much an observation instead of something layered. The image itself, had the photographer considered lighting, tone, a theme, and angles, would be more meaningful.

Mainly, it was the way Carty succumbed to a chicken dinner approach to a fat woman’s body: pick it apart piece by piece.

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a) Separate the parts, b) Name them, c) Criticize

Big thighs are shameful, suggest promiscuity. Breasts inhibit the ability to bend over and trim toenails, are even cumbersome during an autopsy. Clothes are problematic: they’re too small, hard to find, or look just everyone else’s except they don’t because they’re on a fat body.

I’m staunchly against dissecting the fat female body like a frog in biology, and I’m starting to learn that writers, both fat and not, only see the bodies of fat women, and that fat women have brains that match their sad, fat bodies. One poem, entitled “I Love My Biceps,” looked positively at a fat female body. The arms still “sag and jiggle,” but the speaker is proud of them and is reminded of a fat art teacher whose biceps enabled her to sculpt clay like nobody’s business. Since the poem moves into an image of a strong woman working with her hands, I appreciated it more, it still picks one piece of the body and inspects it. Where are more of these moments of strength? Fat is not weakness, but even fat writers are reassuring everyone that it is, and that it’s all fat women think about: a deficit in abundance.

As a result, I don’t recommend Fat Girl by Jessie Carty, though her other poetry collections may be quite different.

Dust Tracks on a Road #BlackLit #Autobiography

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Dust Tracks on a Road #BlackLit #Autobiography

Dust Tracks on a Road is Hurston’s autobiography, though it doesn’t read like a traditional autobiography. The book is broken into sections. First, it reads like the story of her life, but then she moves into chapters about friendship, collecting folktales in the Caribbean, bringing “true Negro dancing” to the the U.S., and what it means to be an individual instead of a member of a race. Hurston died in obscurity in (1891- 1960). As scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. notes in the afterward:

Hurston’s fame reached its zenith in 1943 with a Saturday Review cover story honoring the success of Dust Tracks. Seven years later, she would be serving as a maid in Rivo Alto, Florida; ten years after that she would die in the County Welfare Home in Fort Pierce, Florida.

How could the recipient of two Guggenheims and the author of four novels, a dozen short stories, two musicals, two books on black mythology, dozens of essays, and a prize-wining autobiography virtually “disappear” from her readership for three full decades?

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In 1975, Alice Walker (the author best know for The Color Purple) wrote an essay about Hurston, which was published in Ms. magazine. The article launched a Hurston revival, and more people have read Their Eyes Were Watching God between 1975 and today than did between 1937 and 1975.

Dust Tracks on a Road begins with a bit about the development of Eatonville, Florida, starting with two Brazilians. For reasons not fully clear to me, black and whites worked together to help black folks create Eatonville, which is sort of attached to Maitland, Florida (the geography is confusing). Hurston explains, “Eatonville, Florida, is, and was at the time of my birth, a pure Negro town — charter, mayor, council, town marshal and all.” For this reason, Hurston is not aware of racism to the extent that other black Americans are; not once to my memory does Hurston mention an incident involving race in this book.

Unexpectedly, I visited Eatonville a few weeks ago. I visited my ol’ Granny for spring break, leaving behind the mushy Indiana weather. One day at breakfast, while wearing my “Zora t-shirt,” I began to discuss the writer and explain her hometown. A quick tango with Google revealed we were only about an hour from Eatonville, so we made the trip.

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We didn’t stay too long, but we ate Jamaican lunch at Momz’s, visited the Zora Neale Hurston museum, and tried some key lime cake at Be Back Gordon’s Fish House (don’t you love that name??). Some things had a Maitland address, while others were Eatonville, though all locations were within blocks of each other. Everyone simply calls it Eatonville.

 

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Understanding Eatonville is key to understanding Dust Tracks on a Road. It’s also important to know about “the Dozens,” which Hurston doesn’t explain in detail, but is a game played in black communities that has become part of the culture. I cover “the Dozens” when I teach African American literature. “The Dozens” is cleverly insulting someone, and while the person doing the insulting may not have any formal education, people get creative. When Hurston first goes north, she learns that she is different. Southern children are “raised on simile and invective. They know how to call names.” Here is a great passage that may help you next time someone has it coming:

It is an every day affair to hear somebody called a mullet-headed, mule-eared, wall-eyed, hog-nosed, gator-faced, shad-mouthed, screw-necked, goat-bellied, puzzle-gutted, camel-backed, butt-sprung, battle-hammed, knock-kneed, razor-legged, box-ankled, shovel-footed, unmated so and so! Eyes looking like skint-ginny nuts, and a mouth looking like a dishpan full of broke-up crockery!

There is a mean little person in me that loves this list, mainly because I have learned from my own story-driven kinfolks that name-calling is one of the richest places to get inventive. Hurston uses idioms the entire book, making it a rich read.

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Hurston has a book titled I Love Myself When I Am Laughing…& Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive (ed. by Alice Walker)

This is an autobiography full of storytelling, because that’s the heartbeat of her community. One time, her “Aunt Cal’line” tripped a lady off the church steps to see if she was wearing underwear; the woman was not, so Aunt Cal’line spit on her naked bits and rubbed the spit in with her foot. One time, Hurston tried to kill her stepmother with an ax. One time, Hurston interviewed one of the last living slaves who came from Africa. He was in his 90s and wondered if his kinfolk in Africa still missed him. Sadly, Hurston’s studies revealed that whole village had been murdered the day he was captured by a rival African village and sold into slavery.

It’s possible that Hurston’s unique upbringing is what makes her one of the most independent thinkers I’ve ever read about. She fits with almost no one from her time. When other blacks in America (and not all are African American, hence I use “black”) are fighting for equality, Hurston sympathizes with the black man who owns a barbershop that served only whites. One day, a black man comes in and demands to be served, but everyone throws him out. If rumor got around that the owner had served another black man, his white clients would not only ruin his business, but he would have to close the 6 other shops he owned. Hurston argues that helping one black man achieve equality wasn’t worth all the jobs the black employees had.

In fact, Hurston took a while to even begin writing a book because she was told “Negroes were supposed to write about the Race Problem.” She argues she doesn’t want to talk about the “Race Problem” and spends an entire chapter explaining why — mainly that she judges folks individually, not as a group. Hurston gives explains the feeling of “hopeless resignation”:

For example, well-mannered Negroes groan out [“My people! My people!] when they board a train or a bus and find other Negroes on there with their shoes off, stuffing themselves with fried fish, bananas and peanuts, and throwing the garbage on the floor. . . . Now, the well-mannered Negro is embarrassed by the crude behavior of the others. They are not friends, and have never seen each other before. So why should he or see be embarrassed?

Hurston goes on to argue that the “well-mannered Negro” feels so badly because people focus on race instead of pointing to the folks dumping the trash on the ground as problematic individuals. I know that this viewpoint will cause a lot of discussion on the pros and cons of race solidarity, but I applaud Hurston for arguing her point carefully. She has an entire chapter entitled “My People! My People!” in which she discusses what she calls race pride, race prejudice, race man, race solidarity, race consciousness, and race. “My people” is always said with an “ermehgerd” sort of tone, as if the person can’t believe how embarrassing other people in their race can be.

Overall, whether you agree with her opinions or not, Hurston brought African dance, music, and stories into the United States. She made it okay for black men and women to write using their own tongues (dialect, idioms, words that live under the words) when many authors thought they had to write in Standard English to be accepted (I wonder if some of those writers thought, “my skinfolks but not my kinfolks — my people!” about Hurston…).

If you love language, you have to read Zora Neale Hurston. If you love independent women, you have to read Hurston. My only regret is that I can’t describe and quote everything I highlighted. I’ll end with a Fun Fact:

This independent lady was a writer and an anthropologist, and it was rumored that when she would hang out with famous poet Langston Hughes in Harlem, she would stop random people and ask if she could measure their skull circumference.

Extra Goody: listen to this five minute interview in which Hurston describes what a zombie is. She met them in Haiti, you know…

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