Category Archives: Book Reviews

Fat Girl Dances With Rocks #LGBT #ownvoices @SusanStinson

Standard
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.

fat girl

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.

fat women beach

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

Standard
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:

misadventures

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.

Fat Girl by Jessie Carty #Poetry #Poems

Standard

*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

carty

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.”

Willendorf

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.

SONY DSC

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

Standard
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?

Zora maid

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.

IMG_20170316_140149812.jpg

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.

 

IMG_20170316_143257703 (1)

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.

zora laughing

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…

zora tada

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

Standard
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.

gravel pit.jpg

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.

russian stackable dolls

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.

peck

Anne Moody’s autobiography Coming of Age in Mississippi 

Standard
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.

anne moody.jpg

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.”

moody 1969

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.

coming of age

Sula #BlackHistoryMonth

Standard
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.

sula.jpg

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

Standard
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.

fences

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.

moonlight

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.

get out.jpg

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

Gallery

Review/Comparison of #HiddenFigures film and book

Standard
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


hidden-figures

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).

hidden.png

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.