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.

Welcome!

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

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

On this site, you can find Book Reviews written by people who identify as women of books written by people who identify as women. You’ll also find interviews under Meet the Writer with people who identify as women who do any kind of writing: fiction, memoir, poetry, blogging, journalism, you name it! Not all of these authors are published, so you’ll get a variety of insight. My name is Melanie, and I’m happy you’re here! Please see the About GTL section to learn more about my reviewing process and FAQ for answers about review requests and why there are no people here who identify as men.

Writers Without a Massive Platform

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Writers Without a Massive Platform

At the end of 2015, I wrote a post about my goals at Grab the Lapels. In it, I described why I started GTL, what I read that year, and what I wanted to change. My 3rd goal was “Provide a space for women to feel confident that they can get their book some attention when they may not in other venues.” That means I want to look at small presses and books that may lack “market appeal.”

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Apparently, going with pink helps.

Surprisingly, about half of the authors I read in 2015 were women who didn’t really need my help: Jenny Lawson, Kate Beaton, and Roxane Gay, for example. My goal in 2016 was to clean up the pile of books sent by publishers and authors, though the #20BooksofSummer challenge influenced my goal.

Overall, I read 21 books by authors by authors with a solid platform, including L.M. Montgomery, Barbara Ehrenreich, Lindy West, and Ruth Ware.

Sadly, my stats on writers without a solid platform are just over 50%. I read authors like Kelly Chripczuk, Monica Nolan, Tsipi Keller, and Elaine Richardson, and those authors tended to have diverse social, economic, racial, and national backgrounds.

What I’m learning on my quest to find fat fiction in 2017 is that most authors who write fat women are self-published or with small presses. Fat fiction doesn’t have the kind of “market appeal” publishers know is safe because no one’s really doing it — not successfully, anyway. Maybe it’s all the blue covers:

A lot of fat fiction hinges on weight loss and romance, and readers have tired of that already. I have, however, expanded my list since my end-of-the-year post, a task that has taken a considerable amount of time to complete. There’s variety: self-published, big publisher, small press, fiction, and nonfiction:

  1. I Do It With the Lights On by Whitney Way Thore
  2. Dietland by Sarai Walker
  3. Skinny by Diana Spechler
  4. Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy
  5. Fat Girl Dances with Rocks by Susan Stinton
  6. Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay
  7. Fat Girl: A True Story by Judith Moore
  8. Good in Bed by Jennifer Weiner
  9. Certain Girls (sequal) by Jennifer Weiner
  10. Everything Beautiful by Simmone Howell
  11. Outside the Bones by Lyn Di Iorio <<thanks for the rec, Rosalie Morales Kearns!
  12. Fat Girls and Fairy Cakes by Sue Watson
  13. Losing It by Lindsay Faith Rech
  14. Misadventures of Fatwoman by Elizabeth Julie Powell
  15. Giving Up the Ghost by Hilary Mantel
  16. If the Dress Fits by Carla de Guzman << thanks for the rec, Rachel!
  17. Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake by Sarah MacLean
  18. Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie
  19. This is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare by Gabby Sidibe
  20. Fat Girls and Lawn Chairs by Cheryl Peck
  21. Faith, Vol. 1: Holywood and Vine by Jody Houser << thanks for the rec, Bina!
  22. Push by Sapphire
  23. The Corset Diaries by Katie MacAlister
  24. The Fat Friend: A Novel by Julie Edelson
  25. Venus of Chalk by Susan Stinson << thanks for the rec, Casey!
  26. Morning Song by Susan Simone
  27. Circle of Friends by Maeve Binchy
  28. Invisible by Jeanne Bannon
  29. Moose: A Memoir of Fat Camp by Stephanie Klein
  30. The Sugar Queen by Sarah Addison Allen <<thanks for the rec, TJ!

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.

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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.

2016: One for the Books!

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2016: One for the Books!

In 2016, I took on some new, bookish challenges in the hopes of connecting with people. First, I tackled the 20 Books of Summer challenge with Cathy over at 746 Books. I got a bunch of reviewer copies sent to me out of the way and plowed through the entire Anne of Green Gables series.

I also found a book club in my area and made several new, amazing friends! We’ve since made crafts, played board games, supported an LGBTQ choir concert, rocked at trivia, and, of course, read books! For the sake of Grab the Lapels, I always push the book club to choose books written by women. So sneaky of me!

How did I do overall in 2016?

I’ve read 71 books. I’m proud of this number, given a full-time composition professor has a lot to read (textbook, rough drafts, final drafts), and 71 books is more than one per week.

This was a big year for nonfiction reads: 11 by women and 8 by men.

Some stand-out books were:

  1. Shrill by Lindy West: a book of essays about being fat, when comedy bullies people into laughing, and abortion rights.
  2. Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-five Years Among the Poorest Children in America by Jonathan Kozol: a masterful work by a man who listens to homeless families in New York City beginning in the 1980s, when people were happy to watch Les Miserables on Broadway but demanded actual poor children begging be removed from sight.

In this turbulent year, I needed some nonfiction to help me learn and understand what’s going on, or to help me feel situated in this world as the person I am. For instance, Carli Lloyd‘s memoir showed me the strength of women. Jon Krakauer’s Missoula reminded me of the unpunished crimes against women.

I read very little poetry and few short story collections or graphic novels.

  • 3 books of poems, 2 by women.
  • 4 short story collections, 3 by women.
  • 8 graphic novels, 6 by women. Some I hesitate to call “graphic novels,” such as Lynda Barry’s memoir/notebook Syllabus and Ji-Hye Song’s The Time Garden, which is more akin to a coloring book.

Poetry has never been my go-to genre, but that’s because I find myself steeped in academia where nonsensical poems are praised, and I just can’t connect. I prefer traditional (smartly) rhyming works or poems that create strong imagery. Yet, it’s my job to go find those works, and I’ll endeavor to do better in 2017.

I truly enjoyed re-reading The Rabbi’s Cat and discovering the joy of The Rabbi’s Cat 2. I highly recommend both graphic novels. They’re set in Africa, discuss Judaism and Islam, and are incredibly funny.

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I don’t feel bad about the short story collection count. As an MFA grad, I can reassure you that I’ve read enough short stories to last me a while. Truly, it’s novels that I can’t seem to keep up on. However…

2016 was a huge year for novels, which is uncommon for me!

23 novels by women, 8 by men.

Some stand-outs were:

  1. Reading the entire Anne of Green Gables series was a moment of pride to me for family reasons.
  2. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier was a haunting, visual joyride that I’m so thrilled to have read (and eagerly want to read it again).
  3. 1984 and Animal Farm by George Orwell: I never read these in high school, so my husband suggested them for our “bedtime picks” (we read to each other every night). I felt horrible, distraught, and had to put the kibosh on such books, as I was so miserable I couldn’t fall asleep. I wrote this about Animal Farm after reading it:

Every time I think about Boxer’s face looking out the window of that cart, I burst into tears. My husband says its because the book is an allegory and I care about people. I say its because Boxer was a good horse, a real horse. I am utterly ridiculous.

My husband and I have been talking about this book for hours. I’m mad; he’s hopeful.

Aaaaaand, now I feel like crying all over again.

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There was some diversity in my reading.

But mostly not. I devoted myself to cleaning up the books sent by publishers and authors and reading the entire Anne series. That took up a lot of time. Also, some of the authors I read who are not white don’t write diverse characters (or, if they do it’s not clear). Here are some #OwnVoices books:

  1. I got through three books in the Lesbian Career Girl series by Monica Nolan:
    1. Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary
    2. Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher
    3. Maxie Mainwaring, Lesbian Dilettante
  2. Julie Maroh’s Blue is the Warmest Color

And then there are the books with LGBTQ characters written by authors who are not, and books with straight white characters whose authors are not. Puzzling.

Goals for 2017:

Now that I’ve got almost the entire pile of reviewer copies completed, my goals are:

One: Read more books by women of color. I have a lot of them in my personal library.

Two: to read books by or about fat women. I’ve pointed this out a few times on Twitter, using the #diversebookbloggers tag, and everyone seems like “like” my Tweets, but it’s not taking off. Not once have I read a book about a fat character portrayed in a positive way (or any way at all). On my immediate list are:

  1. I Do It With the Lights On by Whitney Way Thore
  2. Dietland by Sarai Walker
  3. 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by Mona Awad
  4. Skinny by Diana Spechler
  5. Stick Figure by Lori Gottlieb
  6. Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy
  7. Possibly some Hilary Mantel, whose writing can be difficult to follow.

Recommendations to #diversebookbloggers

  1. Fat Girl, Terrestrial by Kellie Wells
  2. What are You Looking At? edited by Ira Sukrungruang and Donna Jarrell
  3. Scoot Over, Skinny edited by Ira Sukrungruang and Donna Jarrell

I know It Was Me All Along by Andie Mitchell was on a list for best Goodreads books, but I started reading this memoir and found the voice leans toward “I was fat and now I’m not, which makes me happy, and you can be happy too.” This is an adopted tone that “encourages” fat people to “get their lives together,” one that I do not support.

Best wishes for completing your reading goals in the new year!

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.

Maxie Mainwaring #LGBT #ownvoices

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Maxie Mainwaring #LGBT #ownvoices

Maxie Mainwaring, Lesbian Dilettante by Monica Nolan is the 3rd book in the pulpy Lesbian Career Girls series. While I maintained that Lois Lenz, Lesbian Secretary (LCG #1) and Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher (LCG #2) could each be read as stand alone novels, Maxie’s story is depending upon you knowing the characters from Lois’s story.

In Lois Lenz, we hear little about Maxie Mainwaring other that she has an allowance that she gets from her rich family. Happy to loan small town girl Lois some fancy clothes for her secretary job, Maxie appears to be a generous friend.

Yet, Maxie’s own story tells otherwise! In Maxie Mainwaring, she frequently cheats on longtime girlfriend Pamela with the excuse that she can’t be tied down. While her friends on the 5th floor of her apartment, the Magdalena Arms, count their pennies and hold down careers, Maxie spends indiscriminately and runs up tabs everywhere she goes. That is, until her mother sees her kissing another girl in the power room during a socialite gathering! Maxie is cut off and forced to find employment and learn to balance a budget. The girls at “the Arms” help Maxie out by loaning her work-appropriate clothes, teaching her basic finance skills, and encouraging her to hold down a job.

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Maxie on the right and “the beautiful butch” Lon on the left.

I appreciated Nolan’s attention to women’s relationship to money, especially in this 1960s setting. It wasn’t until 1974 when the Equal Credit Opportunity Act passed in the U.S., allowing women to get a loan without a co-sign from a male relative. Maxie’s notices that she had “always made affectionate fun of the earnest ideologue [Phyllis, a statistician]; now she felt a new respect for her friend, who knew how to stretch a dollar until it screamed.”

But a dilettante by definition doesn’t typically “do” a career. Like it says on the cover, “She had experience in everything…except employment!” My guess was the plot of Maxie Mainwaring, Lesbian Dilettante would be the eponymous young woman struggling with job after job and failing in hilarious ways; it’s right in the title! However, Maxie has two actual jobs in the entire book: one is hilarious like I expected, the other is a highly-coveted position with a magazine, as if readers are to believe someone with no resume could jump into such work. To be fair, Maxie tries to freelance writing gigs, but neither play a big role in the book. Mostly, you’ll get mobs, FBI, tailing people, and girlfriends fighting. So little about employment! How disappointing!

If you’re wondering why I’m writing with so many exclamation points, it’s because Nolan uses this under appreciated punctuation mark to really amp up the camp, so to speak. The tone of the Lesbian Career Girl novels is always fun and dramatic. The book is full of puns:

“That’s government property. I know all about you and your madcap ways, Maxie Mainwaring — I’ve read your file. But this time, you’re playing with fire!”

“I’m a Campfire Girl from way back,” Maxie assured her. “I know how to stoke the flames and put them out.”

Although I enjoyed meeting new characters in the previous Lesbian Career Girl books, Maxie Mainwaring, Lesbian Dilettante overwhelmed me with names and occupations to remember. During a very brief stint writing for a volunteer-run magazine, Maxie is introduced half a dozen new women, though only one comes back later. I wished the book were shorter. By chapter 7, only 24 hours had passed! By chapter 13, I was having trouble remembering who did what and was related to whom.

Bursting at the seams, full of characters who come and go without consequence, Maxie Mainwaring, Lesbian Dilettante should be passed up in favor of the more cohesive Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher.