Category Archives: Book Reviews

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


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).

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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.”

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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

Faith: Hollywood and Vine @ValiantComics #superhero #comicbook

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Faith: Hollywood and Vine @ValiantComics #superhero #comicbook

Faith: Volume #1 Hollywood and Vine

Writer: Jody Houser

Artist: Francis Portela

Fantasy Sequence Artist: Marguerite Sauvage

Cover Artist: Jelena Kevic-Djurdjevic

Color Artist: Andrew Dalhouse (occasionally with assistance)

Letterer: Dave Sharpe

Published by Valiant, 2016

faith-cover

*procured at the local library


*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 be wondering why I included all of the key players for the Faith comic book in the credits above. Typically, people don’t. However, there’s something magical about Faith — the work is done almost exclusively by women. Men add the color and the letters, but that’s it. And from what I’ve read, this makes a big difference to the world of Faith Herbert, a fat woman/superhero/writer at a pop culture blog. Faith isn’t new; she’s appeared in other comic books in which she’s ridiculed for her weight or only says ditzy quips. But Faith got a big makeover.

Faith, for the first time in the hands of a female writer and artist, is smart, funny, nerdy, and conscientious. And much like the movie Spy starring Melissa McCarthy, there isn’t one mention of fat in the entire volume. THIS is what I’m searching for in my quest for fat fiction: a woman who happens to be fat but isn’t reduced to her fatness. Her life is full, complicated, wonderful, messy, and awesome, and her size has nothing to do with it.

Thus, the Faith comic book meets all of my criteria for a positive representation of a fat women. But let’s talk about the story and images.

My biggest problem with superhero comic books is that they assume readers know something about the world and characters, which is why I don’t read them. I love other types of comic books and graphic novels — don’t get me wrong — but superhero stories that have taken place for decades are too big to just jump in. Think about it: the first Batman comic came out in 1939 . . . and his story is still going! He’s experienced things and changed and developed, and readers need to know how and why and have lots and lots of context.

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Superhero capes get an updated look that I like!

Faith, however, is relatively new. I quickly caught on that later in life she discovered her “psiot powers” (comic book speak for super powers?) and that she used to be on a superhero team called the Renegades and dated one of the guys in the group . Her name is Faith Herbert, but when she works at the pop culture blog, she’s Summer Smith, and when she’s in superhero gear, she’s Zephyr. It’s a bit Superman, except Faith is really normal. She makes Back to the Future and Lord of the Rings references, watches and squees about a sci-fi TV show, and she has a few stuffed animals in her apartment. She face chats with friends and sends text messages. Such details made Faith highly relatable and a joy to read.

Faith still gets a bit of celebrity treatment. When she’s seen flying over the city, news reports it. Her ex, Torque, has a reality TV show. He was part of the Renegades, so people know he dated Zephyr. It’s funny when she’s required to write about his show for work because no one knows Faith’s true identity or her relationship to Torque. I liked the Torque story line because he is clearly a handsome, built guy — but she dumped him because she didn’t want to be on a reality TV show. There’s no weirdness about how a fat girl can’t get love or should be thankful someone so “above” her on a hotness scale gave her a second glance.

torque

Faith asks her ex, Torque, to help her save the world. He looks like a jerk here, but he’s defensive because the Renegades saved the world and one of their teammates died.

The plot was a bit wonky. Teenagers who are just discovering their “psiot powers” are being kidnapped and, we later learn, experimented on. Whenever Faith grabs someone involved and tries to question him, the guy spontaneously combusts. The reason the bad guys are kidnapping teens seemed simplistic and confusing at the same time. I wondered if there was a background story I didn’t know.

The images have the comic book quality that make me laugh, like how mouths never seem to be in a normal shape. But Faith is drawn respectfully, and her look changes depending on the context: nerdy at work, pajama-cutsie at home, prepared for action in her superhero costume. I especially like the cape update. It’s not around her neck, but down by her waist.

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An example of a weird mouth. Perhaps an homage to The Joker?

Then there are scenes that are meant to be Faith’s fantasy. It took me a few times to realize a pink hue indicated “not real,” but just as soon as I caught on, some of the fantasies dropped the pink overlay, and I was left guessing as whether I was in Faith’s head or watching her real life. Sometimes the fantasy scenes are more anime than faith comic book. A separate artist was responsible for the fantasy scenes, so perhaps so better communication was needed.

Faith: Volume 1 Hollywood and Vines is a big step toward making comic books more accessible to a wider audience. In an industry that largely shuts everyone who isn’t a straight white male, Faith tries to kick the door open.

*I want to thank Bina at WOCreads for recommending this book to help me in my question to find positive representations of fat women in fiction and nonfiction.

I Do It with the Lights On #BookReview #NoBodyShame @WhitneyWay

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I Do It with the Lights On #BookReview #NoBodyShame @WhitneyWay

I Do It with the Lights On by Whitney Way Thore

published by Ballantine Books, 2016

Procured from my local library

Note: I have not watched My Big Fat Fabulous Life starring Whitney Way Thore. I heard about this book in the new FabUplus magazine.


*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.


Thore’s book begins with some context and then heads into her youth. At five years old, her mother is informed that Thore needs to watch what she eats. As evidence, Thore includes photos throughout the book, such as a slender girl in her bathing suit next to the caption, “Rocking my bathing suit during the summer before my first diet.” In elementary school, Thore participates in soccer, dance, and swimming. She is labeled “baby beluga.”

Her photos show a healthy-looking young girl; her analysis demonstrates someone in mental torment:

The consensus was that my body was shame. My body embarrassed me.

Below: two dancing photos, four-year-old Whitney, and prom princess — all labeled fat by schoolmates and her father.

I found the photos particularly effective. Looking at my own photos I realize that when I thought I was fat, I look only slightly larger than everyone else around me. I don’t look at photos now and cringe at the change; I’m sad for the girl who hated herself so deeply, and in that way readers can create a personal connection with Thore.

Thore quickly became bulimic, and though many people know about it, no one does anything. In fact, at a special school all the girls get together and throw up. They celebrate for “a job well done.” Though detailing all the painful memories of youth can seem like a sob story in the wrong hands, Thore demonstrates how an obsession with weight can lead a young girl to a life of shame.

Readers who feel disgust at the fat body may think turning to healthy eating and exercise will fix everything. Thore works with nutritionists and trainers, she dances for hours per week. Unlike math, bodies are unpredictable. You can’t do X and always get Y, which frustrates the young woman. One person always checking in on Thore’s body is her father, whom she looks up to, but who might come off differently to readers:

One day in particular, as I was rushing out of the house for school, I told [my dad] I hadn’t lost any weight the previous day.

“Well, what did you eat yesterday?”

“A sandwich,” I told him.

“Well, tomorrow,” he suggested, “don’t eat a sandwich.”

Though she constantly forgives her father for his abusive remarks, it was hard for me to do so, too. Perhaps she doesn’t fully see how incremental he was to her eating disorder and self-hatred, but I don’t expect writers to fully know their lives by the end of a book. She may still be learning about her dad.

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I don’t love the full title. The “ten discoveries” part make it sound like a self-help book.

Before she discovers she must love her body to love herself, Thore struggles with chronic depression, polycystic ovarian syndrome, shame, and damaging comments. Thore fails out of college after she suffers depression and gains 50lbs in four months–the result of both inactivity/poor diet and a chronic illness. After she does graduate, Thore travels to South Korea to work as an English teacher. With her more advanced class, she goes over an article about obesity in relation to health problems. To test their comprehension, she asks:

“…what is one side effect of obesity?” A quiet, attentive student who went by the name Kerrick raised his hand.

With stone-cold seriousness he answered, “Suicide.”

His answer caught me so off guard that I laughed inappropriately. “Well, no…” I began. “The article doesn’t mention that. I’m obese, right?”

Twelve blank faces looked back at me, nodding.

“Do you think I will kill myself?”

Kerrick explained, “Teacher, maybe you have some depressions and maybe you want to die.”

This part of the memoir really struck me. It never occurred to me that other people would think fat men and women want to kill themselves.

My criteria for positive representations of fat women in fiction and nonfiction are all met in I Do It With The Lights On. Boyfriends don’t always make Thore happy, so she’s willing to break up with men. She works hard at all of her jobs, putting in more hours and effort than her colleagues (disposing of the “lazy” stereotype). She also details how weight loss takes up most of a woman’s time that could be dedicated elsewhere. For instance, when she returns from Korea after several years, her parents have her move into their house and abstain from employment so she can work on fitness. She’s counting calories and exercising with a personal trainer. Yes, you can lose 100lbs, but changing the body is a full-time job.

Thore is honest, too. Half way through the book she has still not discovered the body positive movement. She’s dedicated all of her hours to food and fitness. She notes:

Once I started to lose weight and saw how difficult it was for me to do so, I lost all sympathy for fat people who said they couldn’t lose weight . . .. I prided myself on being a different kind of fat person.

Here, Thore’s attitude reminded me of the 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl in which the fat characters compare one another. Instead of clinging to her attitude, Thore realizes she is delusional. Even when she is losing weight, society sees a fat women; it doesn’t matter if she’s just come from the gym. Society sees fat as a failure without any context.

Her honesty extends to her sex life. Thore seeks sexual partners for her own pleasure, but she doesn’t sleep with everyone she meets. Several pages are devoted to exploring both the flattery and objectification found in websites full of men seeking fat women to have sex with them, stand on them, or feed. Sexual relationships are presented respectfully, thank goodness. In Mona Awad’s book, you’d think fat people have sex with anyone.

One reason I wanted to find books about fat women is lack of representation. However, my quest is also to teach people of other sizes that they are privileged, not better. Fat people are asked to count calories and exercise daily so they’re better to look at. However, thin people are not questioned about their diets/physical activity, even if they eat poorly and are inactive, because they don’t look fat. Thore acknowledges she’s been on both sides of the aisle:

As a teenager, I wasn’t blind to the systematic sexualization of women . . . but I wasn’t as concerned with it because it was a system that benefited me. A young, privileged girl submits to the system by offering up her appearance as collateral, and she receives positive attention and affirmation in return for her willingness to play the game. As long as she stays obsessed with her appearance, making it a top priority, society will cheer her on for this and dole out validation accordingly.

At 130lbs in high school, Thore was praised when she dropped a few pounds. As a woman nearly 30 years old, at around 330lbs, she must prove every day she is smart, talented, cares, is valued, and deserves love.

Honest, analytical, and carefully constructed, Whitney Way Thore’s memoir is a must-read for those fighting in the #nobodyshame movement.

13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl #BookReview

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13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by Mona Awad

Published by Penguin, 2016

Procured from my local library


*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.


I first heard of Mona Awad’s book on NPR. Based on the title, I thought 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl would be 13 short stories. Instead, it’s a novel (sort of) told in 13 chapters (sort of). If I hadn’t read that Awad is a graduate of an MFA program, I could have guessed it. Coming out of an MFA program myself, I understand how difficult it is to workshop sections of a novel, so instead we all tend toward short stories. 13 Ways of Looking reads like 13 connected yet separate short stories.

The cover is interesting, as it suggests the only way to see a fat girl is to erase her. The eraser marks target the word “FAT,” but we all know that women are taught to erase themselves by taking up less space, physically and vocally. When you erase the fat and leave the girl, you’re still not getting much person.

awad

In the first story, readers are immediately exposed to the amount of comparison that fat women do to one another. I am well aware of how this works, as I published a short story called “Fat Woman Socializing” after realizing how much I compared myself to other fat women in the past (a habit I have since squashed after a lot of hard, purposeful work to change my thought patterns).  At this point, the main character, Elizabeth, and her friend Mel are teenagers; comparing comes naturally to adolescents. Yet, Elizabeth keeps up the comparing well into adulthood, and she’s never kind.

Much of the book is told in first person by Elizabeth, but there are point of view switches, such as in the second story in which a man only calls “the fat girl” when he’s drunk and been rejected by his skinny girlfriend. Later, Elizabeth’s husband narrates a story. These two voices are the only that suggest Elizabeth has a life beyond her weight. Drunk guy mentions she bakes, and her husband notes that she used to listen to music in the dark. Beyond that, Awad’s portrayal of a fat woman severely disappointed me. Elizabeth changes her name — Beth, Lizzie, Liz, Elizabeth — in an effort to become someone else. She barely gets through high school, but later we’re told she has a college degree. Hoping for some positivity here, I was crushed when I read that Elizabeth spends her adult years temping. But what does she do at this temp job? What are her passions away from work? She doesn’t even describe her love of baking or music, so readers are left without any indication of who this character is. She’s fat or she’s not fat; that’s it.

Awad also fails to consider differences in preferences, like all fat women are the same, as seen when Elizabeth’s husband observes the secretaries at his office:

[A co-worker] brings in a Tupperware container full of [butter tartlets] and offers some to the fat secretaries, all of whom snatch greedy handfuls and say they’re just scrumptious.

The husband suggests the women are fat and greedy, but I hold Awad responsible for suggesting that all secretaries are fat, and all fat people are greedy. It’s as if the author wants readers to confirm their stereotypes about fat people so they feel vindicated.

But the book is about Elizabeth, and readers never learn if she is an introvert or extrovert. In fact, she feels very human when another girl in high school puts eye makeup on her, which she then refuses to wash off (it’s still smeared on her eyes over a week later). In the same story, she ventures into online dating and vies for the attention of a quadriplegic who is 47. The scene in which her friend with the eye makeup realizes Elizabeth has been dating this man is offensive to both fat women and people with disabilities:

“And are you ever actually going to meet this guy? Are you really going to fly to fucking Irvine or wherever he lives? How is he going to pick you up from the airport? Do you even want this guy to fuck you? Can he even fuck you?

Awad’s characters suggest that a relationship that doesn’t end in sex is pointless, that people can’t love each other without sex. In fact, every part of this book weighs characters on their ability to 1) have sex and 2) get the partner to acknowledge in public that they had sex with a fat woman. Awad creates suspicious readers so that when someone does want to have sex or a relationship with Elizabeth, we immediately write them off as a pervert with a fat fetish.

True to fat fiction form, Elizabeth loses a ton of weight. Whereas the romance novels would have her finally get the attention of her hot boss on whom she’s been crushing for years, Elizabeth never changes — because she never had a personality in the first place. Awad reminds readers incessantly that Elizabeth eats almost nothing, works out obsessively, and that she’s still temping. By the end of the book, Elizabeth’s way of thinking has changed somewhat, though that’s a stretch to argue as she never had a “way of thinking” beforehand, as in readers never experience why she so abhors her fat body. We learn to hate our bodies when society tells us to; we’re not born hating ourselves. Imagine how bold and unself-conscious you were at a very young age, that is, until you heard your mom criticize her wobbly arms or your aunt lambaste her butt or the first time someone told you to hold your tummy in. No, Elizabeth, in the end, decides that size Large is still “fat girl,” but she’s not militant about changing.

That’s not the end, though; Elizabeth gets in some last jabs. When she returns as an adult to the store where she used to by clothes as a fat teen, she remembers the sales woman who works there. She thinks the woman’s “jewelry is still aggressively cheerful, still screams, I’m trying to make the best of things.” The assumption is that the woman is trying to cheer herself up because she’s so miserable with her fat, dreary life. Perhaps Elizabeth is the kind of character who would have these thoughts, but since she’s such a blank nothingness of a person, the thoughts can only come from Awad. Perhaps Awad’s experiences mirror Elizabeth’s own, but this isn’t a memoir. Fiction writers are responsible for the messages their characters send out.

A potential positive, one obvious way the author implies that weight loss is not the answer is by using the adjectives “lose” or “losing” without the noun “weight.” Therefore, Elizabeth is losing. I felt this tactic was clumsy and a last attempt to show readers she’s on the side of the fat girl, though if she were, her character would be well-rounded in more ways that one.

I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone. It’s demeaning, inaccurate, and full of flat stereotypes. If you are fat like me, you’ll come out of it angry, but you’ll first need to feel depressed for 212 pages.

The Thirteenth Earl #romance @EvelynPryce

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The Thirteenth Earl #romance @EvelynPryce

The Thirteenth Earl by Evelyn Pryce

published by Montlake Romance, 2016


Pryce’s newest novel is set in 1884 and stars Jonathan Vane, who is the Viscount of Thaxton. His father is still alive, but the man appears to have dementia and is rapidly deteriorating. In order to hide his father’s condition, Thaxton (as he is called) stays away from polite society and earns the name “the Ghost.”

Yet, when Thaxton’s dear friend Percival Spencer, Earl of Spencer, coordinates a two-week long house party with his new bride, Thaxton attends. Granted, he looks sloppy, drinks all the time, and his moody as hell, but friends are friends. On the first two pages, Thaxton and Spencer are fencing in the library so the new wife won’t catch them. On page three, the wife catches them. With her is Cassandra Seton, a pretty daughter of a marquess. By page five, Thaxton thinks Cassandra is hot. So quick!

The problem is Cassandra is engaged to be married to Thaxton’s cousin, Miles Markwick. She was promised to Miles when the two were born, and when she came of age they were officially engaged. However, Miles ran off to Scotland to fix up a run-down estate . . . and was gone for nine years! Certainly, such a man could not be faithful, despite his lady’s reputation slowly diminishing as a result of only time. She’s done nothing wrong — she is, of course, a virgin.

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While I dislike covers with real people on them, I found this image appropriate because it reminded me of the clothing of the time and gave a sense of an attractive man, but left his hair and eyes to the imagination.

While I’m no Victorian expert, I did take a class at the University of Notre Dame called “The Victorian Universe” where we learned about the culture, plight of the poor, influence of Darwin, and read three massive door stoppers of the time: Vanity FairBleak House, and Middlemarch. I’ve watched the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, and I talked with my husband, who loves Victorian lit and studied it as well. Thus, I’m not oblivious to the norms in Vic Lit. What is obviously absent? Sex. Sex of any kind. Except when Lidia Bennett runs off with a solider and must be provided with a dowry to entice the soldier to marry her and thus save her reputation.

The Thirteenth Earl‘s pays no attention to Victorian courting rituals, to the point of distraction. Right away, Thaxton asks why Cassandra doesn’t use her title. She says she prefers not to, and he replies, “Little rebel.” That expression is too bold. Also, these two are constantly alone in public. In Victorian society, women never walked alone; they were escorted by an older, preferably married, man. No contact between unmarried men and women was allowed, even hands. Only after engagement could a couple hold hands in public. Women weren’t allowed to speak to a man of a higher class than she until she was spoken to. A man couldn’t show any special attention to an individual woman unless he intended to marry her (no casual dating!). Early on, a mysterious wailing woman is heard; Cassandra and Thaxton each investigate and bump into one other. Thaxton had felt naked because he wasn’t wearing his jacket and gloves. Cassandra is in her nightgown. Remember, a ruined woman is in danger of death if no one will provide for her. The social behavior was pushed so far that I felt impatient with the novel.

I didn’t get excited about the plot for the first half of the book. The sexual tension came so early that there was no build up. The secret kissing and hand massaging in public under the table, the moaning and “growling,” wore on me. On the same page Cassandra “tried not to be distracted by how handsome he was” and “she had been preoccupied in thinking about Thaxton’s arms around her inside the waltz.” She’s practically unable to think around a handsome (alcoholic) man, a characteristic I found weak and frustrating.

But then Chapter 6 — 95 pages in — the plot starts moving. A seance is held to learn more about the wailing woman voice, but instead Thaxton is told he is cursed to go insane like his father and the 11 earls before him. The characters must find out what’s going on, and why. I plotted through my head: what could be the motive for scaring Thaxton? Was his father really insane, or was someone playing the long game and poisoning him? If he is being poisoned, were the 11 earls before him also poisoned (assuming there is some foul play)? Cassandra’s malicious, jealous fiance isn’t in line to take over Thaxton’s property should Thaxton go insane. I couldn’t figure out the mystery, and that made me really get into the book.

It also helped that I spoke to my husband, who felt that the book is clearly not written in the style of Vic Lit, but simply set during the time period. Surely, people were getting it on at parties. Just because there are norms for polite society doesn’t mean everyone is following them. I used this mid set to stop paying attention to the ways The Thirteenth Earl fails to adhere to history and started enjoying the mystery and sex scenes, which are deliciously well-written. By the time the novel was done, I was having fun and feeling saucy — but it certainly took a lot of time and thinking to get there.

I want to thank Evelyn Pryce for sending me a copy of The Thirteenth Earl in exchange for an honest review. Be sure to check out my review of Pryce’s 2013 romance novel, A Man Above Reproach, a romance set in a brothel during Victorian times!

The Alpine Path

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The Alpine Path

If you followed along with my #20BooksofSummer challenge, you’ll remember there was a stretch in there — an 8 book stretch! — during which I was reading the Anne of Green Gables series. At the end of each Anne book was the same bio describing author L.M. Montgomery’s own life as baby without a mother and a grief-stricken father who gave two-year-old Montgomery to her grandparents. She is described as lonely; her grandparents are too harsh. Her later marriage is not a happy one, as her husband suffers from mental illness. Montgomery continues to write, but she laments her first Anne sequels: “I’m awfully afraid if the thing takes, they’ll want me to write her through college. The idea makes me sick.”

I would have never gathered any of this sadness from my latest read, The Alpine Path: The Story of My Career. The autobiography is a slim 60-something pages, and Montgomery sounds doggedly determined and relatively happy, thus making me question the entire book as a way to please readers instead of tell the truth. In fact, the original book was published in 1917 in Woman’s World magazine over the course of six months. At the time, she had published 6 books and was very popular.

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Since Montgomery has published books and is famous in Canada, she relies on readers to be faithful. Frequently, Montgomery describes moments from her life that inspired scenes in her fiction. However, I haven’t read anything other than the Anne series, so an allusion to The Story Girl, for example, is lost on me.

Montgomery’s personal stories occasionally bored me. I didn’t care that sailors landed on her island when she was a girl, nor did her grandparents’ history interest me, except when Montgomery’s humor shines through as she describes one relative who didn’t want to be dragged from England to Canada:

Bitterly homesick she was — rebelliously so. For weeks after her arrival she would not take off her bonnet, but walked the floor in it, imperiously demanding to be taken home. We children who heard the tale never wearied of speculating as to whether she took off her bonnet at night and put it on again in the morning, or whether she slept in it.

Although she’s famous, Montgomery refers to The Alpine Path as a book about her “career” — as if she doesn’t have one! As a child, she became very ill; when recovered, she devoured sausages (perfectly good ones) and lamented it:

Of course, by all the rules of the game, those sausages should have killed me, and so cut short that “career” or which I am writing. But they did not. These things are fated. I am sure that nothing short of pre-destination saved me from the consequences of those sausages.

In the early passages during which Montgomery describes her childhood, it’s easy to see connections to her writing. At least, connections to Anne Shirley. For instance, Montgomery doesn’t appreciate getting a hot lunch from her nearby home every day because all the other school children bring lunch pails, but when it’s too stormy to travel she takes her lunch and is “one of the crowd.” How happy she is those days! Childhood lunches factor into our personalities a great deal! Just ask Anne Lamott, who wrote that should you ever get stuck while writing, begin describing school lunches and you will never run out of material.

Despite her fame, Montgomery is highly relatable. She describes gentle teasing that she endured that scarred her for years. She explains that someone who hurt her feelings wouldn’t be aware that those feelings were hurt for years. Again, I felt the author relatable because even today bullies are calling people “too sensitive” as a form of insult to denote weakness and a personality handicap.

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Much later, Montgomery gets into the actual writing life. True, she wrote stories and in journals all through her youth (“descriptions of my favourite haunts, biographies of my many cats, histories of visits, and school affairs, and even critical reviews of the books I had read”), but an interest in feedback and publishing came later. I found the book tilted away from her actual writing life a great deal, making the text unbalanced, but it possibly worked much better in the magazine’s serial form.

All writers experience doubt, Montgomery reminds us, and when her father tells her that a poem she wrote “doesn’t sound much like poetry,” she stops writing for a time. Really, she is impressively unstoppable. She gets up at 6:00AM in a freezing house to write. She hates starting a story because it feels like so much work. She is surprised that she wrote a book because she just kept working and then had written the entire thing.

Montgomery wisely includes some caution, though not with instructional intent. Like many of us book bloggers, the author notes that a story with a moral is unjustified and more akin to swallowing “a pill in a spoonful of jam!” While family and friends forever have speculated on which character in a story is them, Montgomery notes, “Any artist knows that to paint exactly from life is to give a false impression of the subject.” Even strangers wrote to the poor woman, insisting that their lives are so interesting that she should write them down (haven’t all writers heard this?). One big point that struck me as particularly relevant in a time of “Girl” novels and dystopian trilogies was about money:

The book may or may not succeed. I wrote it for love, not money, but very often such books are the most successful, just as everything in the world that is born of true love has life in it, as nothing constructed for mercenary ends can ever have.

Yet, The Alpine Path took a turn 10 pages from the end. Montgomery lifelessly describes her travels to Scotland with her husband (who isn’t even named). We stopped here, we stopped there, she writes, and then the autobiography ends. It was terribly disappointing! Why she did not include more about publishing, writing, critics, and readers, I do not know. However, her now-published journals reveal her despair on her wedding day, the decline and deaths of her grandparents, and her husband’s mental illness. Granted, I have not read these journals in their entirety, but it would appear that The Alpine Path was written for devoted fans who wanted to see inside Montgomery’s life — and not find darkness.

Chicken Scratch #BookReview #ReadWomen

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Chicken Scratch #BookReview #ReadWomen

Chicken Scratch: Stories of Love, Risk & Poultry 

by Kelly Chripczuk

Self-published October, 2016chicken-cover


In 2014 I headed off to a writing retreat in Virginia. On the side of a mountain is where I met Kelly Chripczuk, a pastor, writer, mother, and wife who, on the first night, shared a nonfiction piece she wrote about getting four kids to a pool for swimming lessons only to realize at the last second that one of her boys needs to use the bathroom. It was her voice, calm and strong, that I remember, but also the details, such as holding her little boy toward the toilet like a weapon of sorts as he pretty much hoses down the stall.

If you check out my blogroll, Chripczuk is on there as A Field of Wild Flowers. Though I am not a follower of any religion, I’m curious about and have respect for the connection between stories from religious texts and the ways individuals integrate those stories into their lives. Chripczuk is a master of drawing in a flock of readers. I can tell I’m not alone when I feel the magic of her words and ideas. Chripczuk isn’t simply a leader; she openly shares when she falls down — hard sometimes — and exposes her wounds so that readers may not only learn from them, but care for her, too. It’s a community, really.

In October 2016, Chripczuk self-published a very short book, Chicken Scratch, and I bought it hopes of “owning” some of the magic of her blog. I wanted those peaceful words in my  hand. At 67 pages on my Kindle, the book is short. It details the decision to get chickens to make money selling eggs, but we quickly learn that chickens have much to teach a mother with four kids (which includes a set of pre-school aged twins).

Chripczuk begins by describing her love of the Psalms in the bible, which spoke to her as narratives. She writes how the Psalmists “awoke [her] to the possibility of finding God in the world around us using language to witness the reality of that presence.” While Chripczuk studies and ministers the gospel, she notes why she loves animals. She writes, “Groping for words, for understanding of my own dawning awareness, I [concluded], ‘They help me see different ways of being’.” Here is where Chripczuk shines; instead of working so hard to be the “right kind” of person, she looks to animals and mimics the way they inhabit the earth, from stretching and sniffing around the yard on the first nice spring day, to pairing off and relying on a partner. “I guess,” Chripczuk  realizes, “if you’re the kind of person who can fall in love with a Polish hen, then life’s gonna hurt.” Readers can take a lesson from Chripczuk, even if they can’t own chickens.

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I love her advertising–all done by Chripczuk!

Chicken Scratch is honest. When Chripczuk visits a therapist, she tosses out that she got a flock of chickens, to which the therapists responds, “Hey, it sounds like fun . . . and it’s not big deal if it doesn’t work out.” But are we Americans good at failing? The debate between “winners and losers” vs. the “participation ribbon” generations never strikes me as a particularly helpful one, yet failing can always hurt. Chripczuk  announces to her therapist:

I know that . . . but it’s one thing to know it’s ok to fail and another to experience failure. I need to create chances to fail, so I can feel it all the way down, not just know it in my head.

To actually feel our feelings, well, feels like a no-brainer. But how often do you sit and feel your sadness? Your defeat? Your contentment?

When I met Chripczuk and learned she was a minister and spiritual adviser and mother, I was a bit intimidated; I am none of those things (not even close). I figured she had a the natural maternal instinct of an orangutan, an animal that I admire for its care of and love toward its infants. But when Chripczuk and her husband decide to attend a parenting class (despite already having two children) for families expecting more than one baby, she learns that two babies require a different kind of care because they need attention at the same time. The leader, “a mother of five including a set of twins,” explains how to breastfeed two babies at once, how to hold two babies at once, how to burp and bounce two babies at once. I could feel a wave of weirdness flood over me as I pictured such a life, but then Chripczuk, whom I had created as “Most Natural Mother of the Year” in my head, reports:

I can’t say for sure what I thought at the time, but I imagine I was something close to horrified at the thought of so many little people climbing, lounging, and feeding on me.

Though our lives are so very different, Chripczuk’s honesty made her relatable — and I felt closer to all kinds of women in that moment.chicken-quote

While the safety and value of her chicken flock and the happiness of her children weigh heavily on Chripczuk’s mind, she also thinks bigger picture. She knows her house is chaos, that there aren’t really chickens allowed in her Pennsylvania development, so looking around at her small farm, she wonders if her family’s lifestyle is bringing down the value of the surrounding homes and feels embarrassed by their choices. Don’t we all, for one reason or another, wonder if we’re doing it right? If we’re savvy enough, earthy enough, healthy or happy or advanced enough?

At her twin’s pre-school graduation, an event I’ll never understand, she worries that she doesn’t appear excited enough for the event. Will she take enough photos? Is the family dressed respectably enough? Will she be happy or tearful — or whatever society wants — enough? It’s the chickens though, those talkative, escapee, messy birds that remind her that animals do what’s natural, and that she can take less-than-perfect scenarios and see the beauty in them. She learns, “I’ve never found a hidden nest by shaming a bird. I’ve never sat a chicken down and had a stern talk eye-to-eye.”

While Chicken Scratch loses just a hint of the magic I find at Chripczuk’s blog, mainly because the focus is very much on chickens and misses out on the smaller moments in between, it was a pleasant reminder to look for signs from unconventional places on how to act and think, but without heading into saccharine territories.

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Chicken Scratch is available on Amazon!

The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová @RoseMetalPress

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The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová @RoseMetalPress

The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová: A Biographical Collage

by Kelcey Parker Ervick

Published by Rose Metal Press, November 2016


Němcová’s own life contained elements of the fairy tale:

her parentage was possibly noble, though she was raised among the household servant class;

she was forced to marry a man she did not love;

unwise decisions brought her personal hardship later in life as well as financial troubles;

and she came to an untimely end.

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What is a biographical collage? Collage is a form that has allowed me to express myself through the years when I hadn’t the words to say what I felt, but of course traditional collage focuses more on image, less on text. Why don’t we see collage writing more often? The beginning of Parker Ervick’s third book reminded me of some potential hurdles: giving the original texts proper credit, obtaining permission to use those texts, and organizing information to make meaning in a creative way. I began with an obsession: track all of the source material while I read and be sure I knew who wrote what. Parker Ervick tells readers in the introduction that we will see footnotes for the fragments from other texts and that the font would be italicized when the sources were primary. But would she note when she cut information out of an original passage and rearranged it? And where would I find her voice?

Of course, I was stupid to begin in such a fashion. It’s like I lacked… imagination.

The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová: A Biographical Collage is organized beautifully and helpfully. In “Introduction: This Is Not a Biography,” Parker Ervick explains her obsession with Božena Němcová, a Czech fairy tale writer from the 1840s who influenced Kafka. Parker Ervick began visiting Prague in 2003 and has been back many times, seeking not only to find all things Němcová, but her extended family. Due to political and historical factors, Němcová’s writing has remained largely untranslated, and thus unknown to English language readers.

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“To where are they leading the maiden in the white dress?” acrylic, graphite, and collage by Kelcey Parker Ervick

So readers are not confused, the author adds a brief section up front, “A Few Notes on Czech Names,” demonstrating both the complexity of the language and the sexism inherent in it: “–ova was a not-so-subtle way of adding ‘egg’ to a name to feminize it.” Thus, when Božena married Josef Němec, she was Božena Němcová. Readers learn “the proper pronunciation of Božena Němcová is BO-zhena NYEM-tsovah.” Wisely including a note on language and pronunciation gave the book a new layer of meaning and enabled me to feel close to the subject matter; if I can’t pronounce her name, how much affinity can I feel for Božena Němcová?

The collage text itself is broken in to two parts. Part I includes five sections that move through Němcová’s life, from her obscurity to her passions, her loveless marriage to her last days of poverty, illness, and starvation. Each section includes excerpts from Němcová’s writing, primarily her novel, Babička (also known as The Grandmother or Granny); letters Němcová wrote to friends and lovers; images, mostly photos taken by Parker Ervick or collages she created; and scholarly works, chiefly the book Women of Prague by Wilma Iggers. No page in the book is completely filled; these are pieces, excepts.

Readers get to know and fall in love with Němcová. In 1954 she writes, “my favorite fantasy was to enter a convent — Just because I had heard that nuns learn so much.” Often known for her aversion to traditional expectations for Czech women, Němcová surprised and astonished people. The young woman was admirably to the point: “…but you know that to have human feelings is considered a sin. . .. In my belief a beautiful sin has its moral dignity and merit — what is not beautiful about it contains it’s own punishment.”

A biographical collage juxtaposes information in a way that otherwise reads stiffly in an academic text. On the left page, Němcová’s maid recalls how Božena and husband Josef were not right for each other. On the right page, Žofie Podlipská (another Czech writer) admires Mr. Němcová and his opinion of his writer wife. The two first-person accounts almost reminded me of reality TV shows on which participants enter a booth with a camera in order to confess or vent.

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Though unknown to many, the writer made it onto Czech money.

Němcová certainly wields a talented pen. When I can’t let something go, I call it “fixating.” When she can’t let something go, she declaims:

My soul is often as a lake, where a slight wind stirs up waves that cannot be calmed.

One thought chases the other as little clouds in a thunder storm, each more somber than the next, until the whole sky is covered

with heavy clouds.

Part II contains “postcards” (they don’t actually look like real postcards) Parker Ervick wrote to Němcová about her time in Prague, learning Czech, and the conclusion of her own unhappy marriage. The postcards aren’t self-important. Parker Ervick reaches out to Němcová like a best friend or long lost sister. Her time in Prague suggests her life is a fairy tale, both lovely and painful, when she takes long journeys through the woods by foot to find monuments to Němcová and later finds a happy ending.

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Parker Ervick meets relatives: “Na zdravie,” personal photo of author, her cousin Josef, and slivovitz, taken in Okoličné, Slovakia.

The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová: A Biographical Collage brings back the passion and beautiful language of Parker Ervick’s first book, For Sale by Owner, which I so desperately missed in her second title, Liliane’s Balcony. She keenly examines her identity as it changes: Who is she in Prague? In the U.S.? In her writing? In her marriage? Thanks to the form, each postcard deftly gets where it needs to go, but without losing the pathos.

A deeply intimate and creative endeavor, The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová: A Biographical Collage could work beautifully in a classroom or on your bedside nightstand.