Author Archives: Grab the Lapels

About Grab the Lapels

I'm a graduate of the MFA fiction writing program at the University of Notre Dame. I also have a MA and BS from Central Michigan University. I teach composition, creative writing, and literature, which has inspired me to follow along with trends in teaching, publishing, and reviewing.

Fat Girls and Lawn Chairs #essays #humor #LGBT #FatNonfiction

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Fat Girls and Lawn Chairs #essays #humor #LGBT #FatNonfiction

Fat Girls and Lawn Chairs by Cheryl Peck

Self-Published in 2002, published by Warner Books, Inc in 2004

Genre: Mini Essays


*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.


If you look at that cover, you’ll see this book reinforces stereotypes about fat women being gaudy cat-lovers. I didn’t think of that when I bought it as part of my quest to find fat-positive fiction and non-fiction by and about women. Is Cheryl Peck obsessed with her cat? Yes, yes she is. She writes some essays from his point of view. They’re confusing. I never thought a cat would call toilet paper “bathroom string.”

I was excited, though, because Susan Jane Gilman, author of Kiss My Tiara, a beloved book I read more times that I can remember when I was 18-20, blurbed Fat Girls and Lawn Chairs, calling it “The literary equivalent of chocolate kisses…yummy, vital, and nearly impossible to put down.” I’m currently re-reading Kiss My Tiara to make sure 18-20 me wasn’t an idiot. I was not; it’s still fantastic.

I had a lot of up-and-down feelings while I read Peck’s collection, mostly stemming from the fact that I “get” what kind of person she is without her explaining it to the reader. Peck is from Coldwater, Michigan, and later moved to Three Rivers, Michigan. I know of both of these towns. In fact, Three Rivers isn’t far from my current home in Indiana. I, too, am a born-and-bred Michigan woman. When Peck writes about playing in gravel pits, I know what she means. When she hates on deer, a creature most see as beautiful and in danger of being shot by an evil hunter, I totally get that in Michigan deer are about as loved (and plentiful) as rats. They’re a massive nuisance, and dangerous. If you’re not from Michigan, however, what she’s saying might make zero sense because she’s not explaining herself. Ever.

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This is a gravel pit. It’s literally a hole (pit) that someone dug in gravel. Hence, gravel pit.

Peck’s sense that we’re all in her head is the ultimate undoing of her essays. In “Moomeries,” Peck says she was trying to spot deer while driving in her truck. Her route took her next to Southern Michigan Prison, and she claims to have spotted an escaped inmate standing in the middle of the road. She tells the police. Believe it or not, this is a metaphor for a cow that got out of its pen. Here’s the problem: there really is a South Michigan Prison, the people inside are actually called inmates, and one would be wise to let the police know an inmate had escaped. When cows come into the conversation, I’m lost. I read this large opening paragraph several times, then called to my husband and read him the paragraph, after which he deemed it “doofy.”

The other confusing aspect of Peck’s essays is her unwillingness to name anyone. Instead, they all get similar nicknames: Least Wee, UnWee, Wee One, Weeest, Brother 1, Brother 2, and Beloved. Seriously? Even David Sedaris names his siblings, and his stories are terribly embarrassing. Peck is telling stories of her siblings doing normal-people activities. And I hate to admit how long it took me to realize Weeest is Wee-est (as in the smallest). I dragged out the word “West” like an idiot for quite some time.

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Peck family photo?

Peck can be a fairly scratchy personality. She admits that her sisters were born quickly: first the author (Least Wee), 1.5 years later came UnWee, and 1.5 years later came Wee One. Then, When Peck was 12, Brother 1 showed up. The brothers are so much younger than Peck that she admits she didn’t even bother getting close enough to them to give them nicknames. She mostly tormented them for the sake of doing so, claiming, “We are fortunate [they] did not join the Neo-Nazis or the NRA.” Even the father was negligent. When the mother left to go to the store, the father forgot his son was in a bassinet and began doing home maintenance. When the mother came home, the baby was still swaddled, but covered in old plaster and bits of wood. I think I’m supposed to laugh?

Cherly Peck is a lesbian, though she almost skips over this facet of who she is. Whomever she’s dating (is it the same person?) is Beloved. There’s one essay called “How Many Lesbians Does it Take?” that’s so poorly written I’m not entirely sure what they’re doing. “The Go-Get Girl” starts with Peck’s memories of coming out at 27 and the same year attending the Michigan Womyn’s Festival in 1977. Instead of being an essay about coming out, Peck describes volunteering at the festival, during which she was supposed to fetch supplies for one food line, but a woman in a different food line was going faster, making Peck look bad. So many of the essays begin or end or tuck somewhere in the middle a nugget to be explored, but Peck focuses on the least meaningful part of an experience. The titular “Fat Girls and Lawn Chairs” is literally about a slightly fat friend whose lawn chair broke under her, and how the other attendees at the party wouldn’t stop laughing about it. Significance? I’m not sure either. These very short essays surprisingly lack much about being fat, either, which would be fine if it weren’t right there in the title.

Overall, Peck’s Fat Girls and Lawn Chairs reads like a good candidate for a memoir class, one in which a smart teacher would point Peck toward the gold to be meaningfully mined and away from the you-had-to-be-there tales you tell friends at dinner.

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Meet the Writer: Olivia Kate Cerrone

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Meet the Writer: Olivia Kate Cerrone

I want to thank Olivia Kate Cerrone for stopping by! Olivia maintains a website where you can learn more about her writing and information about her new book, The Hunger Saint (Bordighera Press, 2017). If you like what you see, follow Olivia 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?

Olivia Kate Cerrone: My parents always read to me as a child and that definitely sparked my love for stories, the places books could take you in your imagination. I began writing fiction from a very early age, producing “novels” and short stories with handmade drawings to accompany. The sense of wonder and possibility of storytelling has never left me.

GTL: How have you developed creatively since then?

OKC: I never thought of creative writing as a hobby. Even as a kid, I wanted to become an author and publish books. Of course, I had no idea at the time as to how very difficult that journey would be, but I had the drive and the passion to keep trying, even after years of rejection and disappointment. Throughout my life, I have always (and continue) to seek opportunities to develop creatively, be it through a workshop, a writing conference or an MFA degree. I enjoy being in a workshop with other writers. I am very lucky to have a group of talented prose writers with whom I meet with on a regular basis in Boston, MA. Growth is continuous, and you have to stay humble and resist arrogance or complacency in order to keep getting better. Real growth takes time. I hope that I am a much better writer in five or ten years than where I am now.

Cerrone Author Photo

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

OKC: Honestly, I am seldom ever happy with my writing, especially the first draft of anything, so I revise constantly. Perhaps even a bit obsessively. A piece goes through many different drafts and often past the eyes of a trusted editor before I send it out into the world for possible publication. Sometimes, if I’m really struggling, I have to just let a manuscript sit for a while, and go work on another project or just take a breather from writing altogether and read, read, read. Often, I find that poetry helps me connect to language and ideas in fresh ways, and that actually helps me find a way back into my own fiction if I’m blocked.

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

OKC: Ideas usually comes to me in fragments — snatches of dialogue or a phrase of description that are later explored and built into a scene or the narrative in some way. Sometimes, as was the case with The Hunger Saint, I will come across a piece of history or an experience that haunts me and demands to be told. When I first learned about the carusi, for instance, I was shocked by how little had been written about them, especially when children as young as six years old were sent by their families to work in the sulfur mines of rural Sicily. That disturbed me enough to produce The Hunger Saint. Research also figures a great deal in my creative process. Getting the details right, even in fiction, is very important to me. I like to “sketch out” the outline of a plot, especially with short stories, as it tends to help me keep focused on what needs to be told, instead of trying to cram an entire world of information in ten or fifteen pages. But with larger projects like novels and novellas, you can’t exactly know where you are going at every point along the way or the story itself might feel stilted. You have to trust the process, be patient and keep trying with each draft.

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GTL: How has your writing process evolved?

OKC: I spend a lot more time on revision now than I used to. Perhaps that comes with maturity and patience. Revision is so crucial, especially with a larger manuscript. There are certain things you simply can’t develop until the third or fourth draft. I have learned the hard way over the years that rushing through the development of a story just for the sake of having it published is never a good thing. My prose also tends to be a lot more socially conscious now than it was when I was younger. I believe that literature should engage readers in larger questions about human rights, especially in these challenging and uncertain times. Stories have such great potential to raise awareness and spread compassion over complex and difficult issues throughout our society.

GTL: What are your current writing projects?

OKC: Right now, I am working on DISPLACED, a novel set in Boston absorbed with themes of identity, family, immigration issues, intergenerational trauma, and deportation. The book questions what it means to be an American in a time fraught with so much tension and upheaval. I am also working on a few short stories and essays that speak to various political and humanitarian concerns.


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!

Anne Moody’s autobiography Coming of Age in Mississippi 

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Anne Moody’s autobiography Coming of Age in Mississippi 

Anne Moody’s autobiography, Coming of Age in Mississippi, was originally published in 1968. I wanted this book to see if I could get an entirely different, yet still intensely personal, side of the time period compared to Malcolm X’s autobiography, published in 1965 shortly after his death. Malcolm lived exclusively in the North, whereas Moody was only in the South. Moody begins with her first memories and ends in her 20s at a church a group singing “We Shall Overcome,” wondering if they ever will. She has relationships to Medgar Evers, Emmett Till, and other famous activists.

I hadn’t heard of Anne Moody before I saw her book on the shelf at Barnes and Noble. Most famously, she was one of the protesters who participated in a sit-in at Woolworth’s.

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That’s Moody on the far right sitting at the counter. Photo for USA Today

Before that, she was a little girl who grew up poor, constantly changed addresses, gained a new sibling every year or two, and could barely get the clothes she needed to go to school. Moody worked most of her life, too, serving mostly in white people’s homes. When one racist white woman locked the front door so Moody would be forced to enter in the rear (which social norms required of black folks), Moody banged on the front door until someone else let her in. She was never subservient, though you could argue she was lucky. She saw friends and family shot, burned alive in their homes, and dragged in the woods to be stripped naked and beaten, all at the hands of white Southerners. Moody had anxiety that would earn her a Xanax prescription, plus some.

Moody is always aware of what’s really going on, even when other black people aren’t or won’t say anything. When Moody’s town gets a new high school for black students, everyone rejoices, but she points out, “As most of them, students, teachers, and principals alike, were bragging about how good the white folks were to give us such a big beautiful school, I was thinking of how dumb we were to accept it. I knew that the only reason the white folks were being so nice was that they were protecting their own schools. Our shiny new school would never be equal to any school of theirs.”

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Anne Moody, 1969. Photo for New York Times

Moody did well all through school and participated in many sports. Unlike many of her peers, she went on to college. At the time, a black student had to attend an all black college (no, Betsy DeVos, it wasn’t a “choice”). Soon, she was involved with the NAACP, which got back to the whites in her hometown. Since any hint of discontent among black citizens can easily lead to an uprising, and Southern whites know that, Moody’s membership was enough for white folks to harass her mother and ask her what Moody was doing, what her plans were, if she were coming home (she couldn’t; she would be killed). In fact, Moody worked so much for so little for the Civil Rights Movement that many times she nearly starved or was murdered.

My favorite aspect of the the autobiography as a genre is that it doesn’t try to add “flavor” to real-life events. Things aren’t reflected upon creatively; the writer needs to simply tell what happened. Moody does not add her own agenda into Coming of Age in Mississippi even though it’s her book. She doesn’t tell readers what to think about racism, but what she thought about racists during the time. Unlike Malcolm X’s autobiography, which clearly looks back from a time in the future (like when he writes about not being good at boxing as a teenager, which he believed as an adult was thanks to Allah, who kept him from “getting punchy”), Moody’s story is always in the moment. I respect this careful erasure of Moody the writer, and the focus on Moody as a girl, college student, and activist.

Moody’s book also taught me details of the Civil Rights Movement of which I was not aware, even though I’ve studied and taught the time period. For instance, when a house full of activists hear through the grapevine that a group of whites are going to kill them that night and block all the roads out of town, the young men and women lay out in the yard all night in long grass. It’s wet, hard, and they’re all shaking in terror. I felt like I was there with them. Moody’s family also turns on her quickly so they won’t be killed. Her favorite grandma treats her like a stranger. Later, I learned that in one town where Moody leads a group of activists that black people have most of the land and make up most of the population. However, land and crop contracts are only given to white farmers, so the black farmers sit on cropless land and nearly starve to death. Furthermore, I knew that activists were constantly arrested, but Moody explains that they were packed into a truck and locked in, after which the driver would crank up the heat on a 100+ degree day and leave them in their for hours until people freaked out or nearly died. When a headless black body is found, the colleges do room checks to see if it’s one of their students. The Klan shared pamphlets door-to-door with a blacklist of certain people (Moody’s picture appears on their list). This is the stuff you don’t get in your history textbook.

One thing Malcolm X and Anne Moody definitely had in common is they did not look to Dr. King for guidance. Malcolm complains King is an “Uncle Tom,” a sit-down Civil Rights activist (a play on the term for protests called sit-ins). Moody goes to see Dr. King at the March on Washington and comes to a conclusion about the black movement’s so-called leader: “I sat on the grass and listened to the speakers, to discover we had ‘dreamers’ instead of leaders leading us. Just about everyone of them stood up there dreaming. Martin Luther King went on and on talking about his dream. I sat there thinking that in Canton [a Mississippi city deep in poverty due to racism] we never had time to sleep, much less dream.” While we’re always hammered with Dr. King in school, his philosophies and actions didn’t sit well with many activists.

The most intense part of Coming of Age in Mississippi is the anticipation. Will Moody make real gains as an activist? Will she be able to return to her hometown? It’s a book that makes readers lean forward, so to speak, so the 424 pages of this mass market paperback fly by. The only complaint I have is Moody’s frequent mention of Reverend King, who is a minister from the South who helps activists. He’s the only white person she trusts, but it’s easy to confuse his name with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Sula #BlackHistoryMonth

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Sula #BlackHistoryMonth

I have two goals for 2017: read books with positive representations of fat women, and read books I already own written by black women. So far, so good.

Today’s Review: Sula by Toni Morrison

Published in 1973 by Plume, originally by Knopf


Sula focuses on a few individuals who live in Medallion, Ohio, a place commonly referred to as “the Bottom.” We begin by learning about how the Bottom came to be, how National Suicide Day started, then move to Nel, her mother, and grandmother. Then, we meet Sula, her mother, grandmother, and a gaggle of “strays” that live with them. Sula and Nel are girls inseparable until one day Nel gets married and thus Sula leaves. Ten years pass, and when Sula returns it’s with bad omens galore. Their friendship can’t stand up under betrayal, especially since the two are so different as people now.

Basically, that’s the general plot of Morrison’s book. If you’re read anything by Morrison, though, you know it’s not always the plot, but how it’s told that is magic. Toni Morrison writes black pain like few can. The trauma characters face is both severe and beautiful as a result. For instance, the Bottom is established through trickery. We learn:

A good white farmer promised freedom and a piece of bottom land to his slave if he would perform some very difficult chores. When the slave completed the work, he asked the farmer to keep his end of the bargain. Freedom was easy — the farmer had no objection to that. But he didn’t want to give up any land. So he told the slave that he was very sorry that he had to give him valley land. He had hoped to give him a piece of the Bottom. The slave blinked and said he thought valley land was the bottom land. The master said, “Oh, no! See those hills? That’s bottom land, rich and fertile.”

“But it’s high up in the hills,” said the slave.

“High up from us,” said the master, “but when God looks down, it’s the bottom. That’s why we call it so. It’s the bottom of heaven — best land there is.”

Well, if you know anything about agriculture, you know that you can’t tend land up in the hills. Seeds and top soil wash away, it tends to be rocky, and because people are up high they are unprotected from wind and cold. The result of such trickery is life-long suffering, but Morrison also describes the Bottom as a unique home, a place people return to.

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Then, one young man leaves the Bottom to fight in WWI in France, 1917. Shadrack is hospitalized for years, but doesn’t know it, and is finally dumped  out of the institution because they’re tired of his aggressive behavior (which he didn’t know he had — he remembers only a few days of those years). Eventually, Shadrack makes it back to the Bottom where he becomes the town “idiot” of sorts, exposing himself to women and girls and peeing in public. He’s a drunk, someone who shouts at white people (and gets away with it, we’re told). He invents National Suicide Day as a result of his PTSD: if everyone dedicates themselves to dying, they won’t have to be anxious about when death will come for them. Now, it death always comes January 3rd. The story of Shadrack is amusing, odd, and sets the tone of trauma for the book.

Morrison sets up a history for our two main characters, Sula and Nel, but sometimes it doesn’t quite seem needed. Nel’s mother was raised by her grandma because her mother is a prostitute. We never hear of Nel’s mother again, though her story takes up a whole chapter is this very slim book (174 pages).

The intended emphasis of the entire novel is Nel’s and Sula’s friendship. They’re so close as girls they’re like one person. And yet, other than a brief mention of Sula cutting off a piece of her finger to scare away white boys who bully them, the big event that’s meant to convince readers that these girls are inseparable is a day when Sula and Nel play along the river. A small boy called Chicken Little plays with them. Then, as Sula swings him around by his hands, Chicken Little slips out of her grip and flies into the river, never to surface. Why these girls don’t run for help or try to save him is surprising, and the only thing I can come up with is perhaps they would be beaten for accidentally throwing a boy into the river or getting their clothes dirty should they try to save him (this is time of whippings for everything). The girls never tell anyone that they know how Chicken Little died, even as they watch his family wail at his funeral.

Since the book is so short, it can’t do everything. But I really wanted more to suggest Nel and Sula were best friends. Near the end, we learn Nel and Sula used to go with the same boys and then compare their kissing styles and pick-up lines. Why couldn’t we see this when they were girls? Overall, I didn’t feel the closeness Morrison wanted me to.

A theme I can’t fail to mention is sex. Morrison writes about sex in a way I didn’t know sex could be. Not the act, per se, but people’s feelings and reasons for it. “Empty thighs” is a concern for abandoned women. Promiscuous single women can be a help to wives, if she treats the man well, because it means the man has desirability. Sexual positions suggest power. Morrison will certainly get you thinking about sex in a new way.

However, Sula seemed like a book about Eva, Sula’s grandmother. She seemed Paul Bunyan legendary. Eva was abandoned by her husband, left with three children, nearly starved and frozen. Her youngest baby is screaming and can’t poop, so she uses the last of her lard and extracts the blockage from his read end. This story is pivotal; Eva is scared into doing something different because the baby’s death was too imminent that day. She leaves her kids at the neighbors and disappears — for 18 months. When she returns, she has money, one leg, and sets up a prosperous house.

Stray folks live in Eva’s new home: a white drunk who barely speaks who has pretty blonde hair, whom Eva calls Tar Baby; “the Deweys,” three boys who are at different times abandoned at Eva’s house. None of them look the same, yet no one can tell them apart. They are all called Dewey. Eva’s house is in constant motion, as people have sex, catch fire, are set on fire, leap out of windows. Yes, I know this sounds amazing, but it all happens. There was so much to mine from Eva’s parts that the titular character and her friend seemed back burner.

Not only that, but Sula remains unexplored in places. She goes away to college and travels the U.S., but when she comes back to the Bottom she seems almost unchanged. She values her mind, but it’s not really as a result of academic pursuit. More so, Sula isn’t hive-minded. She isn’t constrained by marriage. Is this what college taught her? What are her interests other than satisfying her sexual needs? Early in the book, Sula is an audience to events, but when she comes home she has opinions about that childhood that seem to come out of nowhere. I wasn’t ready for them and didn’t see the bridge. Again, did college change the way Sula analyzed her childhood?

Overall, the writing is superb and the story has many interesting moments, but the focus on Sula and Nel takes away from much of the rich places Morrison could have gone.

Fiction Orchestra Shakespeare #BlackHistoryMonth Films

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Fiction Orchestra Shakespeare #BlackHistoryMonth Films

Hello, there! It’s been a while since we’ve seen each other. This semester has been quite irregular for me, so let me briefly catch you up and then tomorrow I’ll post my review of Sula by Toni Morrison.

I’ve taken on a few new extracurriculars. When I was a freshman in college, I auditioned for and got into a college music program. That year was so brutal that I put away my violin and vowed never to play it again. Yet, in November 2016 a fellow faculty member learned that I had long ago played violin and talked me into joining his community orchestra. Thus, a lot of time and anxiety goes into that.

I also started volunteering to read Shakespeare to a man who used to be one of the top Shakespeare scholars in the U.S. He has dementia now, and I felt the least I could do was read to someone who has put so much into our knowledge bank.

I read three fiction pieces at a literary festival on my college campus. I also wrote a proposal to present at the 18th Midwest Scholarship of Teaching and Learning conference and was accepted. Finally, I applied for a full-time position at my current college institution and await an interview.

Since so many films with black men and women at work were released, I’ve spent a lot of time in the theater, too. I saw Hidden Figures when it first came out. In February I saw Fences starring Denzel Washington (who also directed) and Viola Davis (Oscar winner for best supporting actress). Fences was originally a play, written by August Wilson, also a black man, and if you’ve ever been in theater, you could clearly see in the film that Fences was originally meant for stage. The only white person in the film was a garbage truck driver, unnamed.

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I also saw Moonlight, directed and co-written by Barry Jenkins, starring Mahershala Ali (he’s also in Hidden Figures), Naomi Harris, Janelle Monae (also in Hidden Figures), and several actors to play Chiron and Kevin at their various ages. There’s nothing like a film that has you on the edge of your seat from the first shot until the last. Nothing is what you might expect.

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Finally, a must-see is Get Out, written and directed by Jordan Peele. I won’t say anything about it for fear of spoilers, but it slays white liberals (yes, white liberals like me) for the microaggressions we’re guilty of. That nervous need to tell black people that we voted for Obama, to try in a pitiful, yet ultimately failed attempt to code switch and say things like “my man!” and “I’ll bet you’re really strong / run fast!” There are no white conservatives in the movie. Which, by the way, such characters are a trope we rely on to show white people are capable of serious horrors, a trope that Peele never uses to show that racism is deeper than we think.

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I think Malcolm X puts it well when he reflects on his time in a foster home, where he lived with white people who were kind to him, but would still refer him as “nigger” (almost like a name and not said with anger) and often talked about him like he wasn’t there:

What I’m trying to say is that it just never dawned upon them that I could understand, that I wasn’t a pet, but a human being. They didn’t give me credit for having the same sensitivity, intellect, and understanding that they would have been ready and willing to recognize in a white boy in my position.

The Books that Built The Blogger with Melanie from Grab The Lapels

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Review/Comparison of #HiddenFigures film and book

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Review/Comparison of #HiddenFigures film and book

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

published by William Marrow, 2016

and also

Hidden Figures directed by Theodore Melfi

released by 20th Century Fox, 2016


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If you’re from the United States, you know someone who has seen Hidden Figures and raved over the performances of leads Octavia Butler, Taraji P. Henson, and Janelle Monáe. The movie was based on a nonfiction work of the same title by Margot Lee Shetterly. No one seems to be reading the book. The film follows the lives of three black female mathematicians at NASA in 1961-1962.

The book, however, looks at decades of scientists and mathematicians at NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) with the three women from the film tenuously holding the book together to create some “story.” There are dozens of employees at NACA who are featured, and it’s difficult to know who to remember and who’s just “passing through.” I kept highlighting the names of folks who never appeared on the pages again.

While the film is delightful, honors the lives of three black female mathematicians, and clearly has an agenda, the book is scattered, confusing, and wants to be both science and narrative.

The first thing I noticed is the writing is unclear at times. Shetterly’s words come in an awkward order at times:

As Dorothy learned — the West Area Computers received many assignments from the lab’s Flight Research Division — it was not good enough to say that a plane flew well or badly….”

A simple rewrite would make the sentence clearer: The West Area Computers received many assignments from the lab’s Flight Research Division, and Dorothy learned that it was not good enough to say that a plane flew well or badly….

I had trouble staying engaged while I was reading. Long passages about various scientists and mathematicians make my eyes play a game of Where’s Waldo, except instead of searching for a little man in a stripped shirt, I was looking for the stories of the three main characters I had seen in the film: Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson. These women are few and far between, and the book rarely demonstrates a clear connection between them. Basically Dorothy is older, so she got to NACA first, thus opened the door for women like Jackson and Johnson. However, they don’t work together (to be fair, Johnson works for Vaughan for 2-3 weeks before she’s relocated).

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Left to Right: Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (played by Janelle Monae), and Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer)

While the film would suggest Vaughan, Jackson, and Johnson were best friends and rode to work everyday, the truth is they had other best friends, both black and white women. Many women are removed from the film, to consolidate characters I would image. Kirstin Dunst’s character (not in the book) comes out looking like a grumpy “my hands are tied” passive racist. At one point she says “Ya’ll should be thankful you even have jobs at all.” However, in Shetterly’s book, NACA heavily recruited from black colleges; these women were wanted and needed.

Furthermore, Shetterly emphasizes that Mary Jackson’s “treasured friend,” Gloria Champine, was a white woman, and their relationship was “one of the most poignant of all the stories” Shetterly heard during her research. They two worked together to help all women in the workplace advance, get hired, and gain independence from men.

One of the biggest climaxes of the film, featured proudly in the trailer for Hidden Figures, meant to highlight racial tension was Kevin Costner’s character bapping down a “Colored Girls” sign from above a restroom door. He did so because Katherine Johnson was gone from her desk too long, having to make the mile trip from her desk in one building to the “Colored Girls’ restroom on the other side of the NACA campus.

I was surprised to learn that Johnson never experienced problems with the bathroom; she was light-skinned enough that she “passed.” While author Shetterly doesn’t suggest Johnson lied about her race, she does write that Johnson happily avoided racism in her workplace, and even ate and played card games with her white male co-workers at lunch. Costner’s big dramatic moment was highly unnecessary — the focus tries to be on Johnson’s humiliation at having to run for a restroom, but the focus is wobbly at best. His character, though, was necessary, as he represented a mishmash of several white men working at NACA. When I watched the film, I appreciated that he spent most of his screen time pacing behind a glass window so as to stay out of the spotlight, but based on the book, Johnson interacted positively with her white colleagues frequently.

Instead, it was Mary Jackson who, on one occasion, had white women laugh at her because she asked where the “Colored Girls” restroom could be found — they giggled because their opinion was, “why should we know?” No one tore down the “Colored Girls” sign; it was simply gone one day. According to the Shetterly, racism existed in NACA as a result of what amounts to complacency. When Christine Darden, another woman left out of the film, couldn’t understand sexism at NACA, she asked her “boss’s boss’s boss”:

“Why is it that men get placed into engineering groups while women are sent to the computing pools?” Christine asked him. “Well, nobody’s ever complained,” he answered. “The women seem to be happy doing that. so that’s just what they do.”

Now, if you feel like I’m diminishing the struggles of black women (and men) in the space race, please try to understand. I’m simply pointing out that the film added a whole lot that didn’t happen and consolidated many people into one character. It suggested NACA was very “us vs. them,” and Shetterly doesn’t suggest that in her book at all. Whether the film or author is portraying the history incorrectly is not known to me. I do know that Shetterly writes in generalities instead of citing specific examples.

Of course there was racism in 1940s-1060s Virginia. What struck me was the vicious racism that happened around NACA in town that never made it to the film. When schools legally had to desegregate, one governor took all the money from a district that tried to comply with the law and shut down all the schools — for five years. Some white mothers screamed that they would rather have their kids out of school than sitting next to “a Negro.”

To me, this seemed way more important than a dramatic bathroom sign scene. If there’s anything Vaughan, Jackson, and Johnson stood for, it was a solid education. In their own state, a whole generation of children missed a large portion of their education (50% or more).

Both versions of Hidden Figures have value, but the audience for each is not the same. The nonfiction work is geared more toward history buffs with a solid grasp of science and math who care less about the people (there are a lot to keep track of) and more about the history of the science. The movie can be enjoyed by audiences from all walks who are looking for a powerful narrative the likes of which rarely appear in white-washing Hollywood. Then again, the film creates dualism that doesn’t exist in the book.

Dietland by @QueSaraiSera #BookReview

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Dietland by @QueSaraiSera #BookReview

Dietland by Sarai Walker

published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co. (2015)


*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.


Dietland is a book unlike any I’ve read before. When I read the end acknowledgements, I wasn’t surprised that Walker claimed Fight Club was an inspiration to her. The novel begins with Plum, a fat woman who can’t say “fat” who works as a ghostwriter for a huge media corporation. Plum’s job is to respond to emails sent by teen girls who write in to the magazine Daisy Chain with their various teen girl issues. The woman who runs the column, the gorgeous Kitty, hired Plum to write back to thousands of messages that don’t make it to the pages of the magazine. Plum is told to work from home (it’s suggested her “look” doesn’t fit in the media world). People laugh at and make fun of Plum, but she ignores them. Every day she heads to a cafe to sit and respond to emails. She does nothing else.

Until one day she notices a girl in colorful tights is following her. And everything goes insane. The girl points her to a feminist organization run by Verena Baptist.

Verena’s mother, Eulayla Baptist, had been a powerhouse in the diet industry (perhaps like Jenny Craig). Plum had been on The Baptist Plan when she was a teen. It was her dream to be thin, and Eulayla was the dream weaver. When Eulayla died, though, daughter Verena wrote a tell-all memoir about how awful dieting was for Eulayla: the fridge was padlocked, a cook was hired so she wouldn’t see food, she stopped going to restaurants and church and seeing friends. Eventually, she had her stomach stapled to save her diet industry.

Yet, Eulayla gave fat women thin promises packed in tiny low-calorie dinners and shakes that tasted like cardboard. And Verena shut down the diet industry her mother had created, leaving women and girls like Plum pissed.

This part of the book is interesting. It shows how women like Plum and millions of others put their faith in a diet and a spokeswoman who promise thinness, which means happiness. The employees who run the meet-ups and weigh-ins make promises and keep the dream alive. Where Verena crushes the dream, women feel out of control of their lives. The feel like they’ll never be happy. Author Sarai Walker captures both sides of the dieting industry. I understand and relate to Plum’s dreams. I understand and relate to Verena’s work to expose the horrors of dieting industries. It’s also worth nothing that several real-life diet companies are not-so-subtly hinted at: Weight Watchers, Nutri-System, Slim Fast.

When Plum meets Verena in the present, about 15 years later, she’s still mad at Verena. Plum has bariatric surgery scheduled in a few months, but Verena says she’ll give Plum $20,000 to do the new Baptist Plan, which will change her life and mind about the surgery. Verena sets up difficult, sometimes humiliating tasks for Plum to teach her (sort of like V for Vendetta).

Unlike other books with fat women, readers know Plum weighs 304lbs. Bravo, I say. Authors claim they don’t give their characters a specific weight so readers can imagine themselves as the main character, but not every reader is a fat woman, nor should only fat women read books about fat women. Plus, we have this tendency to say:

I’m fat, but I’m not THAT fat.

Having an idea of what is “too fat” is basically setting up a cut-off mark for how acceptably fat a person can be. Some women say 200lbs. I used to say 400lbs, back before I thought more about weight and society. We’re saying we accept fat, but “Day-um! Not that much fat!” Don’t do that.

Dietland gets you thinking, a lot. At first, I didn’t like that Verena is thin and always has been. What does she have to say to fat women that is valid? But all women are attacked by a patriarchy. Things start happening around the globe; rapists are dropped from a plane, abusers are thrown off bridges, the media changes pictures of nude women to nude men in the same poses after family members are held hostage. The attacks seem in response to forcing women to be “fuckable,” either through sexual assault or images that perpetuate “fuckability.”

motorcycle

 

Verena thinks locally: she doesn’t help Plum see that fat is fine, she helps Plum see that all women are under attack. When Verena shows Plum how to be “fuckable” because that’s what Plum thought she wanted, Plum learns that being “fuckable” is exhausting: waxing, make-up, clothes shopping, tummy tucking underwear, push-up bras, hair and nail appointments, etc. When I read the pages in which Plum was getting made over, I was exhausted myself! Women can’t only be thin, the must behave, be sexy, be agreeable. Plum learns that thin women aren’t better off:

Because I’m fat I know how horrible everyone is. If I looked like a normal woman…then I’d never know how cruel and shallow people are. I see a different side of humanity. Those guys I went on blind dates with treated me like I was subhuman. If I were thin and pretty, they would have shown me a different side, a fake one, but since I look like this, I know what they’re truly like.

While the story is told from Plum’s point of view, the story isn’t totally about her. What she does is a larger message that ties into these feminist/terrorist acts around the globe. For instance, clothes. Plum had been buying small clothes for her post-bariatric surgery body. Fat is temporary, she thinks, and that’s why fat women keep old clothes they used to fit into and won’t buy new clothes. Eventually, she buys bright clothes and doesn’t apologize (fat women are told to wear black).

Most of us struggle with clothes. Why? Is it because we’re trying to look like someone else in the mirror? We worry about the number on the size tag? The message is your body is not on its way to Thin Town and this is a temporary stop in Fatville. You’re life is now; the body you have is the one you live in now.

Dietland reads like a feminist fat-activist companion novel to Fight Club and gets you thinking. Truth be told, I quit wearing make-up after reading Dietland when I confessed to myself it takes time to put on and runs in my eyes by mid-afternoon.

I Need Book Recs! #disability #bookrecs

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I Need Book Recs! #disability #bookrecs

Hi, everyone! Thanks so much for the fantastic conversation that’s developed around reviewing, liking posts, leaving comments, and why you blog. I’ve learned a lot about the blogging community through our conversations.

Today, however, something new happened: I got a question from a reader!

I could really use your help and expertise, so here is what what she asked:

I read a lot about the Disability March in relation to the Women’s March on my social media this weekend. However, when I try to find fiction books starring people with disabilities, I’m not finding much…

Can you recommend any good books about people with physical disabilities?

Sincerely,

Erin Lynn Jeffreys Hodges

To be honest, the only book I can think of is Joni, a non-fiction book about a girl who dives off a dock into water that is too shallow. She is paralyzed from the neck down and later learns to live well and differently after suffering abuse from a nurse and feeling hopeless. It’s by Joni Eareckson Tada, and while it really stuck with me, it’s the only book I can think of!thinking

Bloggy Lies We Tell Ourselves?

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Bloggy Lies We Tell Ourselves?

After three years at Grab the Lapels, the trend I’m noticing is that book blogs that publish more posts tend to have a lot of likes. Those posts aren’t always reviews; I see memes, tags, updates, book hauls, and reviews of what was on the blog. But are readers actually, you know, reading what you’re posting? Do they want to? Do they have the time?

I recently shared a poll on Twitter asking how many posts per week people wish bloggers would post. The options were 1, 2, 3, and every day.

  • 47% of responders felt that book blogs should only post twice per week.
  • 29% said 3 posts per week
  • 20% said 1 time.
  • Only 4% felt that book bloggers should post every single day.

What conclusions do I draw from this poll?

Well, based only on experiential learning, I would argue that many readers are “liking” our blog posts, but not fully reading them. Have you ever “liked” a post without reading it? How about only after skimming it? Do you feel obligated to “like” someone’s post because you’re worried they won’t do the same for you and your blog?

Now, some book bloggers are very good at posting almost every day and reading everyone else’s blog posts. I am impressed and jealous.

johnny-5

But I get behind on my reading because I refuse to like any post that I haven’t fully and carefully read. I want to keep blogging honest. Thus, I might skip posts, or I might get behind my reading 1-2 weeks at a time.

That being said, I wonder: should we review better, or more? Is it possible to do both? Or, should we produce at a rate our readers can manage and schedule ahead if we’re speedy readers/bloggers?

These are simply my observations. I’d love to have a conversation with you in the comment section below! ❤