Tag Archives: 1970s

Something Wrong With Her

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Something Wrong With Her

Something Wrong With Her: A Real-Time Memoir
by Cris Mazza
Jaded Ibis Press, 2013
390 pages
Includes soundtrack, Time Stroll, composed and performed by Van Drecker (with Mark Rasmussen on tenor sax)

“The writing of this book is the story.”

Reading Cris Mazza’s memoir is a truly jolting experience. There is so much going on all at once that the emotion there is nearly overwhelming. She makes it obvious to you what she’s thinking in present time, but Something Wrong With Her is also like stepping into the past with the help of journal entries, letters, doodles, textbook quotes, jazz terms, excerpts from Mazza’s past publications, and the memories and emails of her dear friend Mark. The book doesn’t really have an ending point because it’s alive; what she wrote about is still happening. Let me back up.

“I hope this book is more like jazz than like a novel.”

Something Wrong With Her begins as an attempt to find the origins of Mazza’s anorgasmia (the inability to experience orgasm) and ends up being a love story that spans decades. You may be asking, “Why didn’t she edit the memoir so it has more cohesion, or maybe do two memoirs?” Mazza acknowledges this in the introduction. Throughout the memoir she includes jazz terms (which she defines in footnotes) and uses jazz as a model for how she pieces together this large book: “A jazz chart sometimes provides only sketchy information: the key, the meter, the main melody, something that might only take thirty seconds to play if taken literally. But no one asks, ‘What does this tune intend to accomplish?’ as readers of book manuscripts sometimes insist upon knowing up front.” The jazz terms can be complex if you’re not a little familiar with that world, but if you don’t get all of them (I didn’t), you’ll be fine (I was). They basically enhance rather than create understanding. But let’s back up again–the memoir starts out discussing “frigidity” or “sexual dysfunction.”

As time and social attitudes change, the reasons Mazza assumes for her “sexual dysfunction” change, too. Before sexual harassment laws, Mazza was harassed, like many women, but what does this do to her sense of self and her attitude toward her sexual body? When a teaching mentor suggested she masturbate to relax a bit, or when her boss suggested they needed a secretary with great legs, these moments also changed Mazza–really, what do these moments mean? Who has the right to discuss her body (or comment on someone else’s, thereby comparing one body to Mazza’s), and what are the long-term effects?

“It isn’t all about sex. But my shit is all concentrated there.”

The treatment of her male peers also dig into Mazza’s sexual self-esteem when her male “friends” in high school ask to practice feeling up her body so they’ll know what to do with their own girlfriends. One boy pins Mazza down and plays a sick game called “see if you can get out of this one.” A number of times she is told that she has nothing to offer (sexually) or that she doesn’t put out when she should or that touching her is sinful. These may be moments with which Mazza’s readers can relate, but how did they affect Mazza differently? She believes this is love, that she is meant to enjoy the way boys make her feel because everyone else seems to be into it. There becomes a lifelong desire to appear necessary or be needed, which she accomplishes by working 40 hours a week in an office during college when she is only paid for 10. She constantly is assaulted by the question, “What is wrong with me?”

The one person who is there, from 11th grade forward, is Mark (yes, the Mark who plays sax on the soundtrack). What appears an obvious (to the reader) desire to express his love to Mazza, both verbally and physically, is mistranslated into assault in 18-year-old Mazza’s eyes. How is that possible? Further back we go…

Mazza explores her aversion to the human body, namely her own. She refers to her own breasts as “blobs,” covering them with a wash cloth while in the bathtub so that she need not see them. She even mistakes the discharge that comes with ovulation for a yeast infection that comes back every month. Mazza expresses through writing and quotes from writers like Erica Jong that the smell, appearance, and overall “dirtiness” of the female body is something with which she wants no part. Why would anyone want that part of her? The writing obsesses over this theme of what makes a person: her actions, choices, desirability, her sexual body? Mark’s desire for Mazza may be viewed as the overzealous nature of a teenage boy, or it could be interpreted as Mazza taking all her previous experiences with jerks from school and placing her fears between her and Mark.

“[My writing group seems] to want the book to confine itself to one purpose and drive toward that like a train that doesn’t switch tracks, barely even glances at the scenery rushing past, and certainly doesn’t derail, as [Something Wrong With Her] appears to be doing.” 

Mark and Mazza spend years dancing around each other, never “getting it together,” and a lot of that might have to do with the way Mazza becomes stuck when she feels she is in a place where she is needed. She continues working in the same office for years during and after college, always finding new ways that allow her to stay there when she should move on. When she is forcefully ejected from the office, she completely falls apart: “Basically, I was almost constantly crying, about to cry, apologizing for crying, crying because I’d had to apologize for crying (another childish behavior), and then crying because I didn’t know what I was really crying about.” Mazza frequently calls herself childish in her memoir, but this passage to me suggests that Mazza is apologizing for being alive–for “inflicting” herself on others by breathing in the same space. I’ve read there are some women who will bump into an object and apologize to it, and I can see this young Mazza being one of those women. It’s also in this section where a connection between sex and sexual desire and being apologetic comes together: IS something wrong with her, as Mazza questions, because she doesn’t function sexually like other women seem to? It seems that every time she reaches a pivotal stage of personal development someone awful is there to suggest to her that yes, she is broken.

The result is that this memoir circles around these key moments with inappropriate individuals, sometimes repeating the same passages word-for-word. Many moments are re-explored because Mark, who now has reconnected with Mazza (30 years later! Practically the stuff of fiction!), adds in his ideas about what happened and how their dance affected his life. Really, we see a woman trying to wrap her head around what on earth was/is going on, and this is why reading Something Wrong With Her is like existing inside another’s head for 390 pages.

An interesting point I learned is that Mazza has been trying to think through her “sexual dysfunction” for much longer than I might have supposed. Throughout the book she quotes her published novels and stories to demonstrate that her thoughts have been on sex, but she may not have realized what the reason or result was. When she writes a story using a scene that actually happened between her and Mark in a bar, she admits she implies that the fictionalized male possibly raped the woman in the past, and so things are complicated between them. Some stories are close to Mazza’s life but rewritten to be more sexual, when the author wasn’t having sex at the time she wrote the story. Also, Mazza admits most of her female protagonists have gone through name changes, significant if you consider the fact that Cris Mazza was not born with the name she now uses. Reading through Mazza’s interpretations of why she wrote what she did in stories that date back decades is interesting, like sitting down and interviewing her on her writing process. You may finish Something Wrong With Her feeling like you know Mazza, perhaps better than herself.

INTERVIEW with Cris Mazza about Something Wrong With Her–

PHOTO-CRIS-MAZZA-CROPPED

GTL: Revision can be one of the most frustrating parts of writing. How difficult was it to revise a “living memoir,” and was it difficult to know where it “ended”?

CM: Where it ended was a problem.  I thought I knew, but then while the MS was being read, or waiting to be read, there were other developments in the “real life” part of the memoir story.  That’s why I have dated boxed inserts and footnotes that are later than the date of the last chapter (which was in January 2010).  I decided I didn’t want to have that original “ending” be a false ending, or like a bombastic piece of music that just keeps coming to a finale only to keep on going afterwards.  BUT then, during a final revision, I did decide to add the last page after that ending, just because things in the “real life” story had developed so far, I didn’t want it to end on a note of that much uncertainty as far as Mark’s future was concerned.

Revising also presented the same kinds of problems.  Just fixing sentences or deleting surplus wasn’t difficult, but every time Mark read a portion, he would have new comments and insights too valuable not to include, so I would date them and get them in there.  Thus the scattering of all sorts of dates which I’m sure most readers won’t look at that closely.  Nor do they have to, unless they truly want to map out the entire evolution of our understanding of each other.  I’m not even sure I could do that, though.

GTL: While reading, I had an overwhelming sense of deja vu because many sections of Something Wrong With Her repeat, sometimes word-for-word. What made you decide to use repetition as a tool for telling your story?

CM: Partly I did it because the “core story” of the book involved such small events, partly because I was digressing so long before I answered the central question, partly because I found it interesting how much an event would change each time I referred to it or dramatized it, and partly because repeating and developing or playing with the main theme is how music works, particularly jazz.

GTL: In Something Wrong With Her, you quote one of your old journals. You wrote that you wanted people to read your work and then they “look at [you] afterwards, and [you] can see what [you] put on paper coming out in their eyes.” Have you seen this memoir reflected back at you yet?

CM: Yes, from Mark while we were finishing it, but he’s a jazz musician so things don’t come out his eyes, they always come back thought about, mulled over, and improvised to both echo the original idea and add to it (or ask a question about it).  I’m not sure my college-girl description of affecting readers has ever really happened like that with a published book.  Probably because I don’t hang out waiting for people to finish like I might have done then.

GTL: You quote many stories and novels that you wrote prior to Something Wrong With Her in the memoir because you realized that you’ve been “reflexively seeking to explain [your] sexual bankruptcy.” Do you think there will be a marked change in your fiction writing now that you’ve explored “sexual dysfunction” so in depth in this book?

CM: Good question, and time will tell.  Perhaps I will no longer be exploring that series of unresolved relationships with older men.  But I think human beings’ relationships to their sexuality and their own sexual pasts will always be an interest of mine.

GTL: Are you working on anything new?

CM: I started a project that could turn into a novella and series of related personal essays, concerning lifelong regrets, going back to pick up pieces, and (the novella) men in abusive relationships.

I want to thank Jaded Ibis Press from a reviewer’s copy of Cris Mazza’s book in exchange for an honest review. Full disclosure: I have stories published in two anthologies from Jaded Ibis Press.

Bogeywoman

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Bogeywoman

Bogeywoman by Jaimy Gordon

343 pages

Published by Sun & Moon Classics in 1999

*Gordon became a bestselling author when her book Lord of Misrule won the 2010 National Book Award. Bogeywoman, despite being on the Los Angeles Times list of best books in 2000, is virtually unknown, and a simple Google search shows there is almost no information about it. I sent an e-mail to the author recently to see if she’ll agree to do an interview, but in the meantime I’m really proud to be able to share this review of my favorite book with you and add a little to the conversation about this brilliant work!

For most of my life, I have been that person who hates listening to most people read aloud. Remember the kids in class in elementary school stuttering along? (I actually kicked a boy in 4th grade because he couldn’t read; my behavior has since improved). Then there were those kids in high school who tried to read at 100 miles per hour to prove how smart they were, inevitably skipping over all punctuation and killing the rhythm. Even some authors at their own readings have a hard time making their words more lively than a used tissue. But when I got hearing aids a few years ago, I was told I needed to read aloud to strengthen the nerves in my ears that were still alive but very weak due to my hearing deficit. My husband wanted to cheer me on by volunteering as my solo audience. I started with Lynda Barry’s novel Cruddy, one of my favorite books included firmly in my “Girls Gone Wild” self-created genre. Not Girls Gone Wild the franchise, but truly girls (about 12 to 18) who are nearly feral. My husband loved Cruddy. And thus, we have been reading aloud to each other since. Our most recent “bedtime story” was Bogeywoman, an experimental, innovative, deeply moving novel.

Bogeywoman Cover

I left the cover quite large so you could see all the little details.

The story begins with the narrator proclaiming that she is the Bogeywoman and that she was sent to an insane asylum. Someone named Doctor Zuk got her kicked out, but then Doctor Zuk got kicked out too. The narrator says, “But first she saved me, and that’s when I lost her — if I ever had her — unless I am her. Am I Zuk? (13). Really, this is enough to make a wimpy reader quit. It already sounds existential, and it’s only the first paragraph.

Then, our narrator begins (almost as if in mid-sentence) to tell her reader the story of how she ended up in an asylum when she wasn’t even insane (according to her — she’s the narrator). It all starts at Camp Chunkagunk, the narrator’s favorite place in the world. She’s on her 9th summer there at age 16, a true devotee. The camp has all kinds of strange names for activities: Lake Twinny, Chipmunk vs. Big Bear, Wood Wiz, Upside Down Day, Lake Sci, and Evening Pro. The narrator throws all of these terms at you as if you’re a camper yourself and don’t need much explanation. She also tosses out names — Margaret, Merlin, Suzette — but doesn’t tell you who they are. They are her sister, father, and step-mother, a hands-off family, making Ursula quite orphan-like except her dad is world famous for a puppet show he does on TV. It can get confusing. Let’s be fair, though; this narrator did explain she’d been sent to an insane asylum, so you have to just go with it.

“Going with it” is a rewarding part of Bogeywoman. A lot of times I feel like a first person narrator is really just the author using a character as a puppet to say what he/she likes. A book I know that got a lot of criticism over such puppetry was Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Jonathan Safran Foer was accused of putting his 28-year-old voice into 9-year-old Oskar’s thoughts. The narrator of Bogeywoman is entirely her own teen. I met author Jaimy Gordon at a reading. She looks like the kind of lady whose mother signed her up for ballet and equestrian when she was two — no sign of the nutbar that is the narrator.

To help you out, should you choose to read this book (and you should), let me give you some summary of what happens to land the narrator in an asylum:

She’s at Camp Chunkagunk, age 16, floating on her back in Sourhunk Lake, when she realizes she wants to put her hand between another girl’s legs. It hits her like a freeway accident: she’s a lesbian. The narrator then goes back and explains that her name is Ursula Koderer, but everyone calls her the Bogeywoman. She earned the name when she was 7 after she put a snake down a chimney in the camp counselors’ cabin and thundered, “I’m the Bogeywoman.” But after she realizes she’s a lesbian, that’s what Bogeywoman actually means to Ursula. She’s an unhygienic girl whose descriptions of herself would make you think she were a potato with sprouts.

Ursula thinks she falls in love with her cabin mate, Lou Rae Greenrule, who’s also a strange girl. Ursula finds Lou Rae one day putting clay she found in the ground on her face as a beauty aid, but she’s sitting stark naked with only her long, long hair covering her. Ursula gets Lou Rae to head toward the perimeters of camp to find more clay, which is where Ursula makes a move on the younger girl. Lou Rae acts like she wants the physical contact, but then changes her mind, leaving Ursula out to dry!

Later, Ursula seeks out Willis Marie Bundgus (the “wood wizardess” who teaches tracking skills at the camp) for some solidarity after getting ditched. She finds Willis talking to a camp handyman, a really gumpy guy named Ottie Grayson (aren’t the names just fabulous?). Willis is trying to put the moves on ol’ Ottie, but turns out, Lou Rae promised Ottie she’d hook up with him! Ursula puts it all together and goes on a rampage. She runs away from camp, heading past the perimeter, which is punishable by expulsion from Camp Chunkagunk. As she walks, Ursula carves a map of the camp into her arms. She bleeds all over, so she takes off her shirt (she doesn’t wear a bra) to wrap her arms up. And that’s how the police find her: walking down the road, naked from the belly button up, bleeding all over the place. This is how Ursula winds up in an expensive insane asylum in Baltimore.

Now, why did I summarize so much? I never summarize so much! It’s you’re job to read the book, right? Well, the beginning of Bogeywoman can be really hard to slog through. Even my husband, dutiful listener that he is, expressed hesitancy about my continuing after the first chapter (which is 55 pages). It doesn’t seem that complicated, though, right? Here’s the thing: readers are in Ursula’s head, so she talks like Ursula. She makes up a lot of her own words, and her phrasing is a bit off. Jaimy Gordon makes use of comma splices to keep the reading practically running. There’s little room to breath. Here’s an example of Ursula’s thoughts when she finds out Lou Rae is hiding in the bushes, waiting to hook up with Ottie, and he’s walking around to find her. Ursula is hiding in a tree watching it happen:

I guess I’d watched too many Saturday serials where Hopalong Cassidy drops on Bullet from the fiery hayloft of the burning livery stable. When Ottie, whistling, passed under the apple tree I uttered a mad gargle — Keep your mitts off her — and without exactly thinking about it I dropped on his shoulders, boxed his bubblegum-pink ears with my fists, got his skinny neck in a death grip with my skinny thighs, hung upside down gasping Keep your mitts off her and pounding his stomach, and finally I let go with my thighs and plunged to earth, tackling him on the way down. “Whoa, whoa,” he was yelling, “cool it, Bogey-woman, you’re right off your noodle, whaddaya mean, off who?” The funny thing is, I wasn’t mad at him, I swear I wasn’t. It was that dirty rotten Lou Rae I was mad at, who had loved me for twelve-and-a-half minutes and left me, but I wasn’t going to put a hand on her, was I? Lemme die first.

In the above quote, you get an idea of the pacing of the sentences. However, Ursula makes up a lot of words too! Here are some of them and their meanings:

  • buggy = crazy
  • bug house = insane asylum
  • dreambox mechanic/adjuster = psychiatrist
  • Bug Motels = Ursula’s group who play music on instruments made out of hospital items in the bughouse
  • girlgoyle = female
  • fuddy = male
  • spooky-fluted = threatening way of speaking
  • * Unbeknownst to Everybody = lesbian
  • sumpn = something
  • godzillas sake = for God’s sakes
  • momps = breasts
  • oink = fuck (as in, “go oink yourself”)
  • cheese = jeez

Ursula also gets names wrong, like calling her psychiatrist, Dr. Feuffer, “Foofer” and Dr. Zuk’s home “Caramel-Creamistan” (that should be Karamul-Karamistan). She mixes up famous people, too, like Sigmund Food and Margaret Meat. The made up names and words begin right away. You’re not given time to adjust and slowly learn them, you “go with it” or quite reading. If you read the book more than once, you realize Ursula gives away the whole plot early on, including the details, but in a first read, you’re just trying to figure out your head from your lower parts. I love this deep inventiveness from Jaimy Gordon.

new bogey

2011 Vintage cover I don’t like nearly as much as the 1999 version.

The absolute best part of this novel are the diverse voices. Oh, God, Jaimy Gordon is so good at it. Let me give you some samples with the preface that if you read this book aloud it is so fun. You can’t NOT do the voices because Gordon spells words phonetically. Please be aware that I triple checked that there are no typos in these quotes; this is how people’s voices are written:

From Reginald — “the Regicide” — an African American orderly in the bughouse insulting Ursula:

I use to think you smart but now I see you don’t have the sense to come in out the rain. You don’t know how many pea beans make five. You don’t have the sense God gave a nanny goat. You the type climb on the mental clothesline pole to see which way the storm be passing. You ain’t got the motherwit to track a rhino in four foot of snow. You don’t know which way you at, girl. You couldn’t get there if I put you there.

(My favorite Regicide insult is when, to tell Ursula how dirty she is, he says, “You dusty as a peanut too”).

From Chug, an African American man makes a living “junking” (looking for crap to sell) who thinks Ursula is a prostitute. The white fuzz is lint from her sweatshirt stuck in drying blood after she’s carved on her arms again (self-mutilation):

You the sorriest-looking raggedy-ass girl-boy ho I ever see and that white fuzz on you arms scare a hound dog off a gut wagon. Now gone home. Get.

From Doctor Zuk, a older female dreambox mechanic Ursula falls in love with, who we learn is from Karamul-Karamistan (not a real place but definitely something Soviet-like):

With you, Miss Bogeywoman, is all game. Is funny hunger for craziness, itch for crazy. …Don’t worry, I tell no one. You are crazy like hare in March, like weasel in henhouse maybe. You want to be crazy. Is some kind mating dance with you.

From Suzette, Ursula’s step-mother, who tells Ursula she’s happy Ursula’s not in the bughouse anymore (instead of an “er” sound she gives an “oi” sound):

That place was fine for a month or two…and, as I recall, the poisonnel — wasn’t his name Reginald? — was extremely kind. So helpful! But for two years, as a sort of sleepover boarding school without the school, the place was a little overpriced, don’t you think? I mean, Oi-sula, the bills are breaking your poor father’s back.

And each and every character is like this: a unique voice that you can actually hear in your head! No two characters sound the same. It’s the most amazing use of language to make characters come to life that I’ve ever experienced in a book.

I want to end by saying that Bogeywoman is about a teenage girl trying to survive as a lesbian using self-mutilation in the 1970s, a time when you were considered literally crazy if you were gay. The novel doesn’t tell you it’s set in the 1970s, but during the reading I attended, Gordon said this book was inspired by her sister, who actually spent time in an asylum for being a lesbian. But, it’s a really funny book, too. Ursula pursues Dr. Zuk with unwavering love, gets into trouble with the Bug Motels, and escapes the bughouse once or twice. I’ll end with this passage about a strange resident in the bughouse:

Why Mrs. Wilmot was still in the Teenage Ward after all these years, nobody knew. Wilmot was a skinny-shanked, potbellied old girl of around sixty, in a buttonless (or she’d have unbuttoned it) pink chemise, with skin like a wet brown bag sliding down her bones. Now that woman was crazy, which, come to think of it, did nothing for her prestige with us Bug Motels. Mostly what she did was sit on the bench just inside the entrance to the Adolescent Wing and pull up her dress and waggle the peapod, yes I mean her graypink coochie in its skimpy ring of grizzled whiskers, in full view of us all.

green bogey

2004 cover from Green Integer press

 

Favorite Graphic Novels & Comics of 2015

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I’ve been reading graphic novels and comics for a long time, but this year I turned to the form as a way to keep up on book reviews when I was bogged down with work. But once I started, I had a hard time turning away! There are sure to be many more reviews of graphic works at Grab the Lapels. Here are a few of my favorite graphic novels and comics from 2015!


Lisa HanawaltMy Dumb Dirty Eyes

written and illustrated by Lisa Hanawalt

From simplistic crayon or pencil drawings to intricate water color or colored pencil designs, Hanawalt uses the full range of her talents and demonstrates that, like Picasso, if an artist learns the rules, she can break them, too. The book has no chapters or anything like that, as it is mostly pieces of small works–comics– such movie reviews, images of animals wearing hats for fashion week, small comic strips, and large two-page spreads of things like lizards wearing clothes hanging out in some sort of Keith Harring meets Hieronymous Bosch. Themes include nudity, sex, lizards, dogs, and horses.

She makes me remember that play and playfulness are good things when she remembers her love of love of Breyers plastic horses. Really, adults don’t seem to get it because we’re so repressed; the questions and observations that we have daily are shoved away because they’re too strange. Hanawalt lives in the strange and indulges in head space; it’s not a vacation for her.

Read the full review here!


pond coverOver Easy

written and illustrated by Mimi Pond (read our interview here)

Over Easy begins May 23, 1978. Margaret is the only character in a diner called The Imperial when the manager, Lazlo, comes spinning into the scene. At the time, Margaret is an art student, and the world of blue collar workers fascinates her. She exchanges a drawing for a free meal, but the restaurant is about to close for the day, so Lazlo gives her an IOU. The story then jumps back to how Margaret wound up at that diner and why she is interested in drawing.

Over Easy was a fascinating read. I always wanted to know what bitchy waitresses Martha and Helen would do next, and I wanted to see in what way the cooks were trying to be smooth poets and cool guys. Lazlo held the whole thing together with his whimsical personality and strange rules. I didn’t want to befriend these people, but I liked being the outsider peeking in.

Read the full review here!


Jillian TamakiSuperMutant Magic Academy

written and illustrated by Jillian Tamaki

A fantastic look at intelligent teenagers and their hopes, fears, and disappointments. Tamaki treats that age group with dignity by allowing them to be themselves. The students care about relationships, death, the meaning of life, systems that oppress them to make them better consumers, and whether or not to go to prom. Almost the entirety of the book is set up in one-page increments until you get closer to the end. This book was a great one to engage me and also give me space. You can easily pick up and put down SuperMutant Magic Academy thanks to the short nature of its design.

 


Marie PommepuyBeautiful Darkness

written by Fabien Vehlmann

illustrated by  Kerascoët (the pen name of co-illustrators and husband and wife Marie Pommepuy and Sébastien Cosset)

I never include books written by men at Grab the Lapels. In fact, there is no full review of Beautiful Darkness on GTL. But, the illustrations are so vital to the story, and those are done in part by Marie Pommepuy, so I’m including this bewildering fairy tale in my favorite graphic novels of 2015.

It’s easy to read this book quickly (in less than an hour). The water color images have a sort of innocent look about them, which is emphasized and shattered when the characters do awful things! There is a Lord of the Flies feel to the story, though the characters aren’t on an island; they are for some reason released from the body of a dead girl that’s rotting in the woods. Keep in mind that this book is a work of conceptual fiction, so you won’t get the full resolution you seek in traditional fiction.

An exquisite collection that you have to experience to believe.


 

Step Aside PopsStep Aside, Pops!

written and illustrated by Kate Beaton

This comic book had me in stitches. Beaton’s collection is entirely in black and white. The drawings are what some might call “cartoony” or haphazard, but the style fits the content in a way that emphasizes the playfulness of the messages, and the speedy nature of today’s society. Everything is fast and on a deadline, thus Beaton’s drawing style reflects that.

Beaton explains, “When I get asked to describe my comics, the easiest thing to say is that it is historical or literary or pop-culture parodies.” Most pieces are only 3-6 frames long, making it easy to pick up and put down this book if you only have a minute. I had a lot of fun reading Step Aside, Pops!

Read the full review here!


This One Summer coverThis One Summer

written by Mariko Tamaki

illustrated by Jillian Tamaki

This One Summer is the story of fifteen-year-old Rose heading to Awago Beach for summer vacation, just like they do every single year. Rose meets up with her summer vacation friend, Windy, who is a year-and-one-half younger. But trouble starts brewing when Rose sees her parents argue and pull apart from each other.

Though This One Summer is a slice-of-life story that takes place over about ten days, it is full in the way that it captures the entirety of the difficulties of being a teenager.This One Summer took me back to my younger teenage years. I could relate to the difficulties that Rose faced when her parents argued the whole vacation and the isolation she experienced as a result. Some of what Rose thought she knew was changed as she watched different scenarios between her parents or the older teens, or even discussions with Windy, unfold to prove her preconceived notions wrong.

Read the full review here!


My first comics pick for 2016 is Lynda Barry’s newest book, Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor, published October 2014 by Drawn & Quarterly. How I didn’t know about this book earlier is a mystery to me, but I’ve had many individuals say it will change my professional and creative life. I got this book for Christmas this year. It seems to actually be printed on one of those black and white composition notebooks that you’d use in school. Here’s the description from the publisher:

For the past decade, Lynda has run a highly popular writing workshop for non-writers called Writing the Unthinkable – the workshop was featured in the New York Times magazine. Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor is the first book that will make her innovative lesson plans and writing exercises available to the public for home or classroom use. Barry’s course has been embraced by people of all walks of life – prison inmates, postal workers, university students, teachers, and hairdressers – for opening paths to creativity. Syllabus takes the course plan for Lynda Barry’s workshop and runs wild with it in Barry’s signature densely detailed style. Collaged texts, ballpoint pen doodles, and watercolour washes adorn Syllabus’ yellow lined pages, which offer advice on finding a creative voice and using memories to inspire the writing process. Throughout it all, Lynda Barry’s voice (as author and teacher-mentor) rings clear, inspiring, and honest.

barry cover

 

Meet the Writer: Mimi Pond

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Meet the Writer: Mimi Pond

 

Mimi Pond

Photo from the Village Voice

Today I got a chance to speak with author Mimi Pond. Pond is a cartoonist who started working in the 1980s, with work in National Lampoon, the Village Voice, and The New York Times. She won the PEN Center USA award for Graphic Literature Outstanding Body of Work, with a special mention for Over Easy. Pond has written for television, including the pilot episode of The Simpson’s entitled “Simpson’s Roasting on an Open Fire.” You can follow her on Twitter or check out her website.

At the end of October, I reviewed Pond’s graphic novel, Over Easy, and praised the marvelous characters and greenish-blue water colors to capture the feel of an era now gone. Mimi Pond was kind enough to answer my questions about Over Easy below:

Whom did you picture as your audience when you were writing Over Easy?

pond coverI really didn’t consider the audience. I really just wrote the book for myself. It was an absolute compulsion. If there was any audience at all, perhaps it was my co-workers. I just hoped that I was capturing the way things were, and, very gratifyingly, most of the folks I worked with way back when have responded very positively to it. Also, it seems to have resonated with many people of my generation who found themselves in similar situations.

At first, I was thrown off that Over Easy is described as a fictionalized memoir. What led to that decision?

Although truth is often stranger than fiction, reality is much more slow-paced than fiction. I wanted, as I said, to distill the essence of the experience without being literal. I did not want to be hindered by the day-to-day facts. I also didn’t want anyone to sue me.

I found many of the characters in Over Easy a bit repulsive, but I really loved them, too. I never had trouble keeping them apart because each is unique. How did you find that sweet spot?

Thank you! Well, so many people came and went through the restaurant that if I’d done it as non-fiction it might’ve read as a Russian novel. I had to make composites of multiple cooks and waitresses. It’s important in telling a story to make each character unique and serve as a counterpoint to the other characters.

ding dingWhat’s the deciding factor when choosing between simple square frames or a more dynamic page, such as the dinging bell that consumes the middle of the page on Margaret’s first day as a waitress?

It’s purely instinctive. Sometimes you want something big and splashy to break things up.  It’s also all about pacing. Watching movies has been probably more educational to me than looking at comics. You can learn a lot by studying the way films are edited.

On your website, you write, “Reading Over Easy, I hope you all have a sense of just how different things were in the late 1970s and early 80s.” I didn’t always agree with the choices people in Over Easy made, but I loved that it is an intimate look at a specific period and accepted the 40 year difference in time as a factor. Has the response from your readers been one of understanding, or are they holding the characters to today’s standards?

It’s kind of fascinating how many young people are completely SHOCKED by the characters’ behavior. For those of us who lived through that time, it’s just the way things were. Mostly, however, people seem to see it as a window into a different world.

You also mention on your website that your daughter Lulu is a comic artist, too. Can we expect any mother-daughter collaborations in the future?

That would be nice. Lulu isn’t a cartoonist per se, but she is fully capable of doing comics. Both she and her brother are very gifted artists. Her brother has done some comics. I would like to see both of them do more at some point, if the spirit wills them!

Thank you so much to Mimi Pond for stopping by! You can get your hands on a copy of Over Easy at Drawn & Quarterly.

Over Easy

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Over Easy

pond coverMimi Pond’s graphic novel Over Easy (Drawn & Quarterly, 2014) captures a period of transition from hippies to punks in the 1970s. The description “fictionalized memoir” threw me for a loop. Was the main character, Margaret, Mimi Pond? Did these stories actually happen? Is Pond simply changing names to protect the other people in Over Easy? Or is it that she can’t remember exactly what happened, so she had to make some up? According to a post on her website, Pond was inspired by a restaurant in which she worked and includes a photo of all the waitresses from that time, suggesting that the graphic novel is pretty realistic overall. I’m able to move forward with a modicum of distrust, and I will refer to Margaret as a character, not the author.

All images are pen with watercolor in blue-ish/green shades. The simple color palate gives the images an old feel, whereas a full color palate can cause a graphic novel to seem too cartoony. Bright colors would not have matched with Pond’s sketchy style, and it would have been hard to take this serious story, well, seriously.

Over Easy begins May 23, 1978. Margaret is the only character in a diner called The Imperial when the manager, Lazlo, comes spinning into the scene. At the time, Margaret is an art student, and the world of blue collar workers fascinates her. She exchanges a drawing for a free meal, but the restaurant is about to close for the day, so Lazlo gives her an IOU.

The story then jumps back to how Margaret wound up at that diner and why she is interested in drawing. Margaret attends San Diego City College during a time when grants are plentiful. Quickly, she tires of hippy students, their all-agreeing attitudes, and the crappy 70s hippy art they produce. She applies to and attends the California College of Arts and Crafts to be far enough from her parents in San Diego, but still close to home. But, before she can actually finish college, Margaret is informed that the grant money has run out.

This is when we get back to that diner. Margaret heads into The Imperial with her IOU and falls in love with the place. To be fair, the cooks are misogynistic dicks (one cook calls every waitress a “lying whore”), the waitresses are bitches (they call each other “cunt”), and these are totally Margaret’s people—neither hippies nor punks. The rest of the graphic novel introduces readers to the cast of characters in the diner, some of the customers, and describes Margaret’s climb from college dropout to dishwasher to waitress.

The plot of Over Easy sounds almost too, well, easy. Yet, Mimi Pond captures a moment of change in American history and details the internal responses of one citizen. Really, the book is character and observation driven. The characters are just delightful, and Pond’s drawing style makes the connection between what these people are saying and how they look. I especially enjoy how everyone has a cigarette hanging out of their mouths, even during work hours in a restaurant.

page 50

page 50

The cooks eye people on the streets suspiciously, suggesting their intense desire to leave right at 3:00 and not have to hang around and make orders a few minutes before the magic hour. They stare at the clocks, counting, watching, waiting. Helen’s wide open mouth and shrill directions show how dire the situation really is, even though it’s not. And so, someone must run to the door. I can picture these characters having better things to do with their lives, and they want out! The cooks and waitresses spend most of the day name calling and copping feels anyway; they’re exhausted.

For the most part, Pond uses basic square frames for her images, but some pages use a central object around which other images or words thematically tie together. Pond doesn’t do this too much, which is a relief. Some graphic novelists confuse clutter with style. Here’s an example: the bell that alerts waitresses that their order is ready tying together with the struggles (laid out like order checks) Margaret experiences on her first day as a waitress:

ding ding

The large swirling words “DING DING DING DING DING DING” intensify the feelings that Margaret experiences as she gets confused, makes mistakes, and gets it wrong.

There are a number of places where the design choices don’t work as well. A page that has six simple frames seems easy enough, but the thoughts may appear at the top and bottom of a frame. If someone is thinking or talking near the top of the next frame, my eyes would go from top of frame to top of frame, causing me to miss what’s on the bottom of a frame. Here is an example:

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I don’t typically like slice-of-life stories because they seem important only to the author. Yet, Mimi Pond shows why the 70s were an interesting time in America using unique viewpoints. While everyone around her is ingesting coke, weed, and speed, Margaret only snorts coke once after a fellow waitress offers it to sooth Margaret after a fight in the kitchen. The effect is not good, and we don’t hear about Margaret doing drugs again. She does, like her coworkers, find multiple sex partners, though Margaret’s rule is “don’t sleep with coworkers. Her coworkers’ rule seems to be “anything goes.” It’s hard for me to fathom having sex with everyone I find cute or snorting coke like it’s the most normal thing on the planet, but Pond integrates this part of the 70s culture in so smoothly and has Margaret comment on it in a way that shows she’s analyzing her surroundings. While I can’t relate, I can understand, and is that not the point of reading?

Over Easy was a fascinating read. I always wanted to know what bitchy waitresses Martha and Helen would do next, and I wanted to see in what way the cooks were trying to be smooth poets and cool guys. Lazlo held the whole thing together with his whimsical personality and strange rules. I didn’t want to befriend these people, but I liked being the outsider peeking in. The characters are like dysfunctional roommates or relatives, giving both a sense of love and hatred to each other. Riding along with Margaret while she navigates her life made this graphic novel a page turner.

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By “lying whore” she means waitress. page 71

An Unsuitable Princess: A True Fantasy/A Fantastical Memoir

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Artwork by Mary Ann Strandell

TITLE: An Unsuitable Princess: A True Fantasy/A Fantastical Memoir

AUTHOR: Jane Rosenberg LaForge

PUBLISHER: Jaded Ibis Press (2014)

PROCUREMENT: Publisher/Debra Di Blasi

RELATIONSHIP TO AUTHOR: I have work published in two anthologies released by JIP and in another forthcoming anthology. I consider Debra Di Blasi a friend, though I do not know Jane Rosenberg LaForge.

VERDICT: Recommending with interest and questions.

When it comes to Jaded Ibis Press, I never open the cover knowing what to expect. Founding publisher and fiction editor Debra Di Blasi chooses works that wouldn’t normally find a home elsewhere because the project is considered too difficult or challenging for other venues, and I like that bold quality about JIP. An Unsuitable Princess is one of the less intimidating books I’ve encountered from this publisher. Set during medieval times, there is a definite narrative that ends with a raspberry at traditional storytelling. This is the true fantasy. Meanwhile, readers get footnotes that describe connections between moments in the story to moments in the author’s life–this is where the fantastical memoir part comes in.

The true fantasy part of the book is about a young lady named Jenny who appears to have mysterious healing powers, but she does not speak and cannot describe her feelings, methods, or circumstances. She works for Sir Robert, who is a royal nobody, though he does protect Jenny because he agreed to do so while Samuel, a young blacksmith, is off fighting in a pointless (perhaps non-existent) war. Though he loves her, Samuel cannot marry Jenny because she is an “outcast.”

As I read the story of Jenny and Samuel, I would encounter a word or phrase in bold followed by a flower. Readers are told in the very beginning that flowers indicate that there is a footnote that will pertain to the bolded information. While it might sound complicated, An Unsuitable Princesses was one of the easiest books I’ve ever read that has footnotes. Typically, they are my least favorite aspect of a book because I have to decide if I want to finish a sentence or paragraph before I go to the footnote. Then, after I finish the footnote, I have to decide if I need to reenter the narrative before or after the indication to go to the footnote. Really, it can become quite a mess that causes me to loop around and feel annoyed. However, Rosenberg LaForge’s “footnotes” don’t work that way. They’re not even really in the footer. A quick glance at the Amazon page where readers can “Look Inside!” demonstrates that the “true fantasy” is in larger font and fills the pages’ margins, whereas the fantastical memoir, or “footnotes,” can appear anywhere on the book’s page, but are in a slightly smaller (though easy to read) font that leaves sizable margins. When readers are told to go to a footnote after the first three words of the book, it’s easiest to finish the paragraph and then just move down to the footnote, which will eventually end and pick up again with the “true fantasy.” It is not hard to transition from story to footnote and back again, because the story of Jenny and Samuel is not so complicated that I would forget what I had read.

Rosenberg LaForge’s fantastical memoir portion could be difficult to pick up again, though. In the first part of the book, there were times when it was unclear if the footnotes had any connection, or if they were different stories that demonstrated why the author chose a certain name or concept in the true fantasy. Eventually, when I got closer to the end of the book, the footnotes became cohesive and told the story of the author’s young boyfriend, whom she meets at a Renaissance Fair, who is sick. Having the footnotes be separate and then united confused me a bit, but it also makes sense for the author to have it how she does. Honestly, who writes a story that is based only on one personal story? Readers might claim that Rosenberg LaForge was simply fictionalizing a real-life example instead of taking inspiration from life.

unsuitable princess

Because the inspirations are from the author’s life, there are many references I did not understand. She and I are neither in the same age cohort nor location (the author grew up near Hollywood). The authors excitement over Midnight Special and Don Kirshner went over my head, and though I am apt to look up things I do not know, there were enough unfamiliar references that I did not want to look them all up, nor do I think another reader would. However, it’s not about the specific reference, but about Rosenberg LaForge’s emotions. I, too, was a teenage girl once, and I, too, wanted people to like me. So, when the author realizes she can’t sneak out of her house to watch a David Bowie special on TV, something the author just knows all the cool kids at school will see, she and her friend try to sneak into her dad’s bedroom while he sleeps (as he has the only TV in the house) and watch the very show he has forbidden his daughter from seeing! It is worth getting caught; although Rosenberg LaForge doesn’t care about David Bowie, he’ll be the talk of the school on Monday, and she doesn’t want to be the only loser who missed the program.

The true fantasy sounds like medieval times in terms of style, but the fantastical memoir, at times, can be quite funny. During the David Bowie scene, Rosenberg LaForge describes her sleeping dad: “As my father lay in the bed like a huge mound of hibernating molten aggression, we crawled into his room and situated our necks to take in the rock ‘n’ roll spectacular.” Later, when the author describes being a teen, she emphasizes that she loved marijuana: “As the weeks went on, however, there were other packets [of weed] from other adult sponsors, and God, how I did love smoking dope, how it literally erased the sensations of the skin I was in, and turned me into a floating bowl of ridiculous gelatin.”

Overall, An Unsuitable Princess: A True Fantasy/A Fantastical Memoir is an interesting new step in storytelling. The concept behind it reminded me of the many fiction workshops in which I’ve participated. Whenever a peer wants to know how the writer came up with an idea, the writer’s typical answer is that something happened to him/her in real life that inspired the events. Workshoppers typically either say “ah” and nod their heads to show that they accept reality as justification for a choice in fiction, or they argue that just because it happened doesn’t mean readers will believe it. Jane Rosenberg LaForge is simply cutting out the middle man who asks that question and showing readers her cards.