Tag Archives: abuse

Dietland by @QueSaraiSera #BookReview

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Dietland by @QueSaraiSera #BookReview

Dietland by Sarai Walker

published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co. (2015)


*This book is part of my 2017 search to find positive representations of fat women in fiction or nonfiction, and that positive representation will not hinge on weight loss and falling in love. Thus, books will either meet or not meet my criteria, which will factor overall into my recommendations. I purposely use the word “fat” because it is not a bad word. Using plump, curvy, plus-sized, fluffy, big-boned, shapely, voluptuous, or any other term suggests that fat is bad and thus needs a euphemism.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m fat, but I’m not THAT fat.

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

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

motorcycle

 

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

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

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

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

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

#BookReview The Summer She Was Under Water @QFPress @MichalskiJen

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#BookReview The Summer She Was Under Water @QFPress @MichalskiJen

The Summer She Was Under Water by Jen Michalski

published by Queen’s Ferry Press August 2016

*Disclaimer: I’ve known Jen for a number of years and consider her a friend. We’ve worked on a book tour together for her short story collection From Here; I used to write book reviews for her e-zine, JMWW; and one of my first stories ever published, “Hanged Cat,” appeared in JMWW. Therefore, I know I am terribly biased, but will be as honest as possible! Please check out Jen’s newest book available in both paperback and for Kindle!

jen michalski


As Jen Michalski shared in her most recent Meet the Writer feature, The Summer She Was Under Water was two novels that got woven into one. The main story is about Samantha Pinski. We quickly learn that her father, Karl Pinski, a heavy drinker and mentally unstable, was a violent man. The family learned to placate the monster that is Karl. That is, except Sam’s brother, Steve, who felt he was Sam’s protector, pinning his father down during violent episodes.

But now Sam is 33 years old, has a book published, teaches writing at Hopkins. Her book, which is woven into the main story, is about a man who is pregnant. By page 8, readers are told Sam’s book is actually about Steve. Though she sounds like a success story, her past won’t let her go. And now Sam is going to the Pinski family cabin for the Fourth of July weekend. She’s bringing her new friend Eve as a sort of buffer. Steve, who has been absent for years, may or may not come. Sam can mostly escape her family in her world of academia, but she’s alone and tends to destroy relationships before they destroy her.

Readers learn that Sam has recently broken off a two-year relationship with a man from a wealthy family, Michael. Karl Pinski is now heavily medicated and sober, so he’s like a deflated balloon of his former self. The entire story takes place Friday through Sunday, Fourth of July weekend, though we also get flashbacks to explain complicated relationships, in addition to chapters from Sam’s book.

Readers are taught to like Steve when he finally shows up that weekend. We align with him when we learn in a flashback that Steve took the blame for binoculars Sam lost in the lake when they were kids, which led to his father beating Steve during a family BBQ instead of Sam. Yet, Sam doesn’t know if she wants Steve to come to the cabin, so we know something happened that caused her to hate her brother. But what?

Then Michael shows up — yes, the Michael with whom Sam just broke up — because he was invited by Sam’s mom, Pat Pinski. Sam thinks of Pat as a sort of Shakespeare of romance, trying to arrange staunch individuals into couples. Michael’s into craft beer and soccer (totally unAmerican) and crosses his legs in such a way that suggests he’s effeminate. What did Sam see in him?

Steve quickly suggests Sam, Michael, Eve, and he go out in the boat so he can pull them behind on inner tubes. Michael is goaded into taking a turn, and Steve does his best to fling Michael off in an effort to humiliate the “rich boy.” Really, you’ll want Michael to fly off because you’re rooting for the protective big brother at this point, not the unwelcome ex.

But Michalski expertly takes readers back in time to when Michael and Sam were dating and he first met her family at Thanksgiving. The uneducated Pinskis embarrass Sam, but she feels safe there with Michael. When Steve shows up — late and drunk — he starts to make remarks about Michael not being “vetted” into the family yet, so Michael can’t take over protecting Sam. Michael defends her, saying Sam is a capable woman. Steve won’t listen to some new guy:

I’ve known Sam a hell of a lot longer than you, buddy, better than you ever will. She don’t need no fucking preppy wallet to come in and be all high and mighty to her family.”

Where does Steve’s possessiveness come from? We see time and again the suggestion that Steve won’t let another man care for his little sister. At 35, Steve seems too old to be such a bully. As a result of taking readers back in time to show Michael is a supportive man, my opinions swapped. I realized that I had been tricked into distrusting the outsider with money and different tastes. Once I understood Michael isn’t a stereotype, I became a more attentive reader and suspicious of Steve.

Some parts of The Summer She Was Under Water are familiar: rich vs working-class families, an abusive father whose children turn into damaged adults, an overly-protective big brother, a mother who will always “stand by her man.” But the beauty of the novel is learning how it all really fits together. Why is Sam so miserable? Why did she break up with Michael? Why won’t Steve come home for years at a time? I thought I knew exactly what happened in the past based on contextual clues, but I was wrong. It’s much more complicated.

Summer She Was Under Water front only for screen

Eve, the “relatively new friend” Sam brought along for the weekend, is an interesting outsider at the Pinski cabin. She has a ragged past more like Steve’s, so she relates to him, which is meant to make readers relate to him and see Steve through eyes unclouded. Then, Sam starts to worry that her friend and brother are attracted to each other. Meanwhile, the narrative implies Sam herself may be attracted to Eve when we’re given flashbacks of Sam’s and Eve’s developing relationship. Michalski easily works in fluidity: lesbian, bi, straight, male, female, both.

I did wish that Eve and Steve’s names weren’t so similar. I can’t imagine these names were chosen accidentally — “eve” is a component of “Steve,” right? But for that very reason, my eyes would fill in “Eve” to be “Steve,” and vice versa, when I read. I wondered if Michalski actually changed her characters names a few times to get them just right. In a few places the wrong person is named (surely an error in editing), such as confusing Michael for Steve, and Carol (an aunt) for Pat Pinski. Although I hesitated and pieced together what the sentence meant to say, these errors are few and didn’t hurt my enjoyment of the story.

Don’t forget that there is a book within this book, too. The book Sam wrote has its own chapters written in italics. We meet a man who discovers he’s pregnant and wants to kill the baby. Then, a strange woman comes to help him prepare for the birth. The tone of Sam’s book is different from Michalski’s, which is a delight, as it wouldn’t make sense if Sam’s and Michalski’s voices were similar.

In a couple of places the chapters from Sam’s book are really far apart (about 60 pages), which could make it difficult to remember what was happening. I would flip back and re-read the last page of one of Sam’s chapters and then pick up at the next. Had Sam’s chapters been more evenly placed, the story of the pregnant man would be more familiar. It’s easy to flip around in the paperback version, though Kindle readers may have a more difficult time.

I do highly recommend this book, my friendship with Jen aside. Even now, I want to know what happens to Michael and Sam, to Eve and Steve, to Steve and Sam. Whose relationships strengthened, and whose died after that Fourth of July weekend? I keep thinking about them. The Summer She Was Under Water is an emotional giant.

*You can read an excerpt of the novel at The Nervous Breakdown!

Rainbow Valley #20BooksofSummer #YAlit #AnneofGreenGables

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Rainbow Valley #20BooksofSummer #YAlit #AnneofGreenGables

Rainbow Valley by L.M. Montgomery

(Book #7) of the Anne of Green Gables Series

Be sure to read my reviews for the previous six books. Links to reviews are all at the bottom of this page in my #20BooksofSummer challenge list!


It’s gotta be a conspiracy, ya’ll! The odd number Anne books are delightful, plot-driven, and full of memorable characters. All the even numbers (ew) are a let down and read more like short stories set in the same place with the same people that…well, don’t really go together. Hooray for Rainbow Valley being on an odd number!

Rainbow Valley isn’t about Anne at all. In fact, it’s barely about her family. While that may sound disappointing to Real Anne Fans, I was happy to get a bit of space from the Judgey McJudger that has become Anne (she rates her children on beauty).

There is a place in the woods near Ingleside (the Blythe family home) that has a little brook and is covered is moss. Two trees’ branches intertwine, like lovers. The children hang bells in those trees and play all sorts of games. Though it was once called the Hollow, little Rilla saw a rainbow shoot across the sky that landed in the Hollow and exclaimed it beautiful. Thus, the Hollow is re-dubbed Rainbow Valley.

Rainbow Valley

That’s our setting; who are the characters? Mainly, they are the Meredith children. Mr. Meredith is the new preacher for the Presbyterian church in Glen St. Mary. He’s a widower with four children. Being a bigger space-head dreamer than any character before, Mr. Meredith unintentionally neglects his children. The only one who “cares” for them is Aunt Martha, who is old, deaf, a terrible cook, and sickly. Mr. Meredith saved her from the poor house, so he fears that getting an actual live-in maid would hurt his old aunt’s feelings. Who cares if the kids starve and look ragged, right?

Everyone cares. Not only do the church members think the children are hooligans, they judge the cat:

“A manse cat should at least look respectable, in my opinion, whatever he really is. But I never saw such a rakish-looking beast. And he walks along the ridgepole of the manse almost every evening at sunset, Mrs. Dr. dear, and waves his tail, and that is not becoming.”

If a cat swishing its tail is going to lead to criticism, the minister’s children have no hope. They have few clothes, sometimes no shoes, are apt to laugh when they shouldn’t, and really have no one raising them.

There are two things that really make this book a pleasure to read: the characters and the sustained plot. The main characters are the Meredith children. Jerry, 12, is the oldest. He’s not so much a guide to his younger siblings as we typically see. They simply like having him around. Faith is 11. She takes up the spotlight because she is so unlike any other LMM character in the Green Gables series. Faith is a tomboy, has a pet rooster, and comes up with plans to fix things and take responsibility for her actions. Some might say Faith has balls. Una is 10 and she’s “not pretty, but sweet.” Yes, there is a lot of that in Rainbow Valley, though not as much as Book #6. Una is a thinker, and she constantly considers the feelings of others. Carl is 9, and he’s also unlike any other. He loves bugs and creatures, so he always has something crawling on him or digging around in his pocket, even in church, which is a hoot. He doesn’t say much, but he adds to each scene with his presence.

While these are good Christian children, they are scrutinized fiercely. The manse is attached to a Methodist graveyard, so the children play there frequently, which the Presbyterians feel makes them look sinful to the Methodists. While gossip drives me nuts, the things people catch the Meredith children doing is often funny or sad, so either way I felt for them and wanted to help them.

The story then introduces Mary Vance. She was taken in by a woman who nearly worked her to death and beat her constantly. The Meredith children find Mary sleeping in a barn and take her in. Their father is so oblivious that Mary Vance lives with the Merediths for two weeks, but he doesn’t notice. Mary’s both annoying and wonderful. She’s such a heathen that she sticks out as a blemish in LMM’s perfect world. The Meredith children try to school Mary on hell, but she doesn’t know what it is. She explains:

“Mr. Wiley used to mention hell when he was alive. He was always telling folks to go there. I thought it was some place over in New Brunswick where he come from.”

I hate to laugh because Mary knows almost nothing, but she does insert humor into the story. She almost died of “pewmonia,” for instance. After she’s permanently homed and dolled up with nice things, she has access to gossip from grown women. Mary runs to tell the Meredith children what she’s heard. While eyeing Mary’s nice new clothes, the Merediths eye their holey socks and old, thin outfits and feel regret for helping her. And Mary’s news always upsets their world; she may tell her friends that their father is going to be let go because they’ve behaved badly and caused a member of the church who donates a hefty sum to his salary to quit attending.

Mary certainly helps the plot move along. The children respond to her news by taking action. Notably, Faith speaks to members of the church whom the Meredith children have rubbed the wrong way. Hilarity ensues, but you also admire her bravery when handling grown-up situations. There’s also a sense of sadness; it’s heartbreaking to watch her take responsibility for the children to make sure everyone knows their father had nothing to do with their behavior. She’s a tween and has no rightful business fixing adult lives, but she has to.

The plot of Rainbow Valley moves forward (THANK YOU, LMM) instead of skipping from one unrelated scene to the next. It starts with meeting the Merediths and Mary Vance. The Meredith children play with the Blythe children in Rainbow Valley. We don’t learn much about the Blythes. (Where is Shirley??? Did he die? Did Anne hallucinate him? He is in zero scenes in Books #6 and #7!). Let’s face it: the Meredith children are 100% more interesting that the Blythe youth. Then, the plot moves to the Presbyterian women of Glen St. Mary trying to hook Mr. Meredith up with someone to take care of his kids and stop embarrassing the Presbyterians, who fear the Methodists are laughing at them. A romance ensues, and there is a sort of Taming of the Shrew plot that added pathos to a few story threads. Though the romance is predictable, it’s nice to have a story work out the way you want it to.


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#20BooksofSummer

This book was read as part of Cathy 746’s challenge to read 20 books between June 1st and September 5th. Here’s the roster:

  1. Harley and Me by Bernadette Murphy
  2. On Air by Robin Stratton
  3. Single Stroke Seven by Lavinia Ludlow
  4. Girls of Usually by Lori Horvitz
  5. Retelling by Tsipi Keller
  6. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
  7. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  8. Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich
  9. Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America by Jonathan Kozol
  10. Terror in Taffeta by Marla Cooper
  11. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  12. Anne of Avonlea by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  13. Anne of the Island by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  14. Anne of Windy Poplars by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  15. Anne’s House of Dreams by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  16. Anne of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  17. Rainbow Valley by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  18. Rilla of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  19. Bobby Blanchard, Lesbian Gym Teacher by Monica Nolan
  20. Fluke, or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings by Christopher Moore

Single Stroke Seven #readwomen #drummer #bookreview #20BooksofSummer

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Single Stroke Seven #readwomen #drummer #bookreview #20BooksofSummer

Single Stroke Seven by Lavinia Ludlow

published by Casperian Books, March 2016

I write out alternate variations of the single stroke seven and point to each as I narrate the differences….[my percussion student] points to the clustered single stroke seven at the very bottom of the page and says, “I like this one. They’re all holding on to each other so no one’s lonely.”

And thus the reader learns what a single stroke seven is — a cluster of beats played on the drum. And yet this set of notes perfectly describes the main characters of Ludlow’s sophomore novel: four band mates in their late twenties or early thirties who live like homeless animals in a house (I’m now convinced you can be homeless in a house) that should be condemned. It’s all for the sake of their band of 14 years. But the problem is the band doesn’t rehearse or get gigs, and three of its members have day jobs at which they’re treated as sub-human. The emphasis is on the bad economy in an expensive state: California. Rent is $800 per month per person, the characters are starving, and one guy is on the brink of death from his diabetes and lack of insurance.

sss

One surprising element of Single Stroke Seven is that the narrator is a female drummer named Lilith. The book opens with her in the middle of a gruesome scene: she’s just mutilated a co-worker’s genitals:

Fuck. I can’t get fired, even if I am just a secretarial peon at a bottling plant festering on the lip of the San Francisco Bay like a puss-filled herpes sore. This sweatshop bailed me out of my decade-long gig as a contract janitor, doubled my hourly pay, freed up my nights and weekends, and guaranteed that I’d never have to touch another piss cake or sanitary napkin receptacle again. Four months in, I fuck up by doing something eccentric like hacking off Steve’s balls.

Okay, if that paragraph grossed you out, the whole novel is like this. The writing is hardcore and reminded me of a metal drummer — the beat never slows. When the band is all together, the wit is turned up, even if they’re discussing the grocery list on the fridge:

“Who the hell wrote organic coffee?” Nolan asks. “And what the hell is Wowgreen dish soap? We can’t afford to be pretentiously organic or pointlessly green.”

When the Lilith’s mom stops by to insult everyone, Nolan, without looking up, says, “I thought vampires had to be invited in.” These little moments of wit — a vampire trope, acknowledging the huge effort in the last several years to buy environmentally-friendly products — give the reader and characters an intellectual connection.

But, sometimes, those characters start to sound the same. You could either argue they all sound like Lilith, who tells the story from a first-person perspective, or you could say they all sound like author Lavinia Ludlow. Since other characters are quoted, and thus not what Lilith thinks someone said, the characters shouldn’t all sound like Lilith. Here is an exchange with the four band members present:

“My life is a circular wheel of death and I’m the egg salad sandwich no one buys ’cause it’s gross and soggy. That’s why I can only land champagne room and diet pill skanks.”

“You’re stultifying your narrative voice with inconsistent presentation of detail,” Duncan says.

“Thanks Maxwell Perkins, for your obscure syntax,” Nolan says. “What the hell is a circular wheel of death?”

“Those rotating refrigerating vending machines,” Colt says. “And I am the egg salad sandwich.”

“That is a fantastically depressing analogy,” Duncan says. “You’re rivaling Bukowski.”

“My purpose in society is becoming increasingly ambiguous,” Colt says.

Here, all three characters sound the same. They use larger vocabulary and make scholarly references. If the dialogue tags were removed, I wouldn’t be able to tell one person from another.

The minor characters all speak the same way, too, especially when it comes to the strange insults we use in the United States, which are often made up forms of real words. One of Lilith’s former college professors claims that Gary Busey is “acclaimed for being society’s utmost example of douchebaggery.” Her mother tells her, “You look like a child molester’s fantasy. And Plain Jane called. She wants her washed out face back.” Later, Lilith’s employer’s lawyer tells her she should resign because “there’s less paperwork for those Stretch Armstrong fingers of yours to have to fill out.” While the witty remarks are spot on in some places, when they’re handed over to minor characters, the voices all mesh, and I have a hard time believing the characters when the professionalism is absent from a professor, a psychologist, and a lawyer.

There were other places it was hard to suspend my disbelief. When Lilith is having a bad day, it’s because she’s starving, so she gorges a can of on-sale beef ravioli and then cuts her thumb on the lid of the can. She then ends up throwing up while driving because she ate too fast, causing her to crash her van onto her own front yard, which has a port-a-potty on it, causing feces to fly everywhere. When she gets out of the van to try and push it out of the yard (a fruitless effort; she weighs less than 100 pounds), she burns her face on the grill. Then, she falls in the crap, reaches into the van for a napkin, puts her hand in her own barf, and falls again. Her cut thumb gets infected/full of puss. This whole scene just seemed over-the-top. I understand fiction about rock ‘n’ roll life is mostly hardcore and disgusting, but there weren’t always enough lull moments to make the big gross moments mean something or have an impact on me.

Such catastrophes are describe with streams of hyphenated adjectives: “worlds-cleaner-than-what-I-have-caked-to-my-body clothes” and “driving-under-the-hurling-influence.” It’s just too much at times, like a drummer doing double bass drums for a whole song.

double bass heels

Of course I found a GIF with heels.

 

While the book goes at 100mph and doesn’t let up, it’s also relevant to today. Lilith describes the high gas prices, unemployment, rent hikes, stagnant wages, and lack of health insurance that affects her band over the years. At her secretarial job, she is promoted from hourly to salary, which is really a loophole to abuse workers. Lilith is at her job all day and night to accomplish work that’s due, but if she averages out her salary and the time spent at her job, she’s making less than minimum wage. Her boss heaps on new responsibilities without more wages, simply changing Lilith’s job title. She can’t protest, or she’ll be back in janitorial work. Nolan is the one who voices what a stable job actually means:

“I had to lose a great job to realize that I want structure in my life,” he says. “I want to work sixty hours a week, be part of a scrum team, and a victim of office politics and performance reviews. At least I’d know I was suffering in all the right ways….I want to feel protected under the wing of a major corporation. I need that false sense of security more than my next insulin shot.”

Lilith’s a hard to define person; she and her band live like the guys of Jackass fame. You wouldn’t know she’s a woman unless you’re told, which is a quality I like; she’s unique because she doesn’t conform to gender stereotypes. The main thing that made me hang on to this story was Lilith’s kindness. She’s always the first one to stop a fight, or volunteer to bail someone out of jail, or pay for Nolan’s COBRA insurance so he can get his insulin. Lilith surprises me.

She’s also susceptible to being used by Duncan. He’s the fourth band member, who is fantastically rich, but pretends he isn’t, and a psychopath, who watches his band mates creep toward death. He spends his days going on “danger missions,” which is how Lilith ends up with missing teeth, infected wounds, and a body ready to disintegrate. He takes Lilith’s last $40, eats her only food (condensed milk + water), and spoons her every night, which is enough love to keep her dangling so that she won’t leave the band, or him, or get a boyfriend. It’s a highly abusive relationship that Lilith returns to repeatedly. She notes that she quit “the San Jose Symphony, San Jose State University alumi band, and San Jose Taiko, even a paid gig with the San Francisco Symphony” as a percussionist to try to enact change with her music. But she admits to herself that she fears that if she leaves her band, Duncan won’t be there anymore, and an ounce of Duncan is worth it to Lilith. This abusive relationship is hard to read. Days after I’ve finished the book, I’m still mad about how sadistic Duncan is, how emotionally abusive to Lilith in a way that gets her to seek more. Lilith’s old college professor tells her she could could make six figures playing the tambourine in a professional orchestra, but she won’t hear of it, despite starvation, infection, abuse from her employer and co-workers, and eventual homelessness.

I want to shake Lilith, tell her to get her shit together and balance her life — money and art — but I have to remember that reading about someone who is unlike me is a good experience, no matter how frustrating. Women don’t need to be likable. Single Stroke Seven has some bumps from trying a bit too hard to be witty and gruesome, but it’s a good read, and I really wanted to know what happened to Lilith and Duncan’s situation, and the band’s, in the end.

Thank you to Lavinia Ludlow for sending me a copy of her book in exchange for an honest review. Read more about Ludlow’s work at her Meet the Writer feature!

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#20BooksofSummer

This book was read as part of Cathy 746‘s challenge to read 20 books between June 1st and September 5th. Here’s the roster:

  1. Harley and Me by Bernadette Murphy
  2. On Air by Robin Stratton
  3. Single Stroke Seven by Lavinia Ludlow
  4. Girls of Usually by Lori Horvitz
  5. Retelling by Tsipi Keller
  6. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
  7. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  8. The Thirteenth Earl by Evelyn Pryce
  9. Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody
  10. Terror in Taffeta by Marla Cooper (*might change ranking due to when book club meets)
  11. Of Zen and Men by Robin Stratton
  12. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
  13. Anne of Avonlea
  14. Anne of the Island
  15. Anne of Windy Poplars
  16. Anne’s House of Dreams
  17. Anne of Ingleside
  18. Rainbow Valley
  19. Rilla of Ingleside
  20. The Brothers Karamzov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The Diverse Books Tag #diversebookbloggers

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The Diverse Books Tag #diversebookbloggers

Naz over at Read Diverse Books has challenged everyone to read more diversely. If you have read a book that fits into the category, share it! If you haven’t, go find a book that fits into the category with the goal of reading it. Here we go:

The-DiverseBooks-Tag

Find a Book Starring a Lesbian Character:

I’ve got this one in spades. Books with lesbians come to me easily — or perhaps I seek them out? — but mostly, I look for excellent stories, and I never shy away from those stories if the protagonist is a lesbian. In fact, in some instances, the leading lady being a lesbian is what drew me in!

Checking out the following:

Find a Book with a Muslim Protagonist:

Okay, my reading is not as great in this area. There is one book that I have read probably half a dozen times and taught each semester for several years now: The Autobiography of Malcolm X with Alex Haley. This book surprises my students because Malcolm is a Muslim minister for the Nation of Islam, which is a different branch of Islam than what you would encounter in the Middle East. After Malcolm did his pilgrimage to Mecca, he disavowed the N.O.I. and went Orthodox.

Looking at Goodreads, I would like to check out Ms. Marvel, a new comic book series. I also want to read Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah, which I saw in Barnes & Noble.

Find a Book Set in Latin America:

This is another category with which I have more experience. I’ve also seen Junot Diaz twice; the dude has stood two feet away from me (he likes to wander auditoriums when he talks). And my god, does he swear a lot (I love it). The last time I saw him, he asked where the Latino/as in the audience were. Then he asked where his Africans were. Very few people raised their hands, and he said that wasn’t his fault, but the college’s (we were at the University of Notre Dame). Here is my list:

  • Ayiti by Roxane Gay (Haiti)
  • Unaccompanied Minors by Alden Jones (Costa Rica)
  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (Dominican Republic)
  • Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War by Deb Olin Unferth (Nicaragua)
  • Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros (Mexico)
  • Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work by Edwidge Danticat (Haiti)

I have a number of books I’ve read by Latino/a authors who live in the U.S., such as Lolita Hernandez, Salvador Plascencia, and Desiree Zamorano. I’d like to read The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto Che Guevara (Mexico).

Find a Book About a Person with a Disability:

This is a tough one because I feel awkward reading a book about a person with a disability written by someone without a disability. I’ve noticed that most of the books with people who have disabilities I encounter are on the mental health spectrum as opposed to a physical disability, so I’ll keep my eyes open for more books with people who have disabilities.

  • Half Life by Shelly Jackson (conjoined twins)
  • American Genius by Lynn Tillman (mental illness)
  • Bogeywoman by Jaimy Gordon (self-harm, anxiety)
  • Sweethearts by Melanie Rae Thon (deaf)
  • Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulemia by Marya Hornbacher (mental illness)
  • Madness: A Bipolar Life by Marya Hornbacher (mental illness)
  • Annie’s Ghost by Steven Luxenberg (disabled legs and mental illness)
  • Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes (mentally disabled)
  • Lily of the Valley: Chateau of Flowers by Margaret Rome (blind)

Find a Science Fiction or Fantasy Book with a POC Protagonist:

I don’t read a ton of sci-fi or fantasy, but when I do, it tends to have POC in it. Perhaps because I find that when an author who is a POC writes sci-fi or fantasy, he or she includes deeper messages of race and gender than a white writer may.

  • Soul Resin by Charles W. Cannon
  • Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
  • Bald New World by Peter Tieryas
  • The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez

I have Kindred by Octavia Butler on my list. She wrote so many sci-fi/fantasy novels with POC; she is ultra prolific.

Find a Book Set In or About An African Country:

Find a Book Written by an Indigenous/Native Author:

  • Ledfeather by Stephen Graham Jones (Blackfeet)
  • Demon Theory by Stephen Graham Jones
  • It Came From Del Rio by Stephen Graham Jones
  • The Last Final Girl by Stephen Graham Jones
  • After the People Lights Have Gone Off by Stephen Graham Jones
  • The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie (grew up on Spokane reservation, but has heritage with several tribes)

Okay, so I’ve read a lot of Stephen Graham Jones. Technically, he would fit really well into sci-fi and fantasy starring a POC because he writes lots of mind-bending horror with time warps and craziness. I’ve read essays by Leslie Marmon Silko and Joy Harjo, and I would like to read Louise Erdrich soon. I’d also like to read Ojibwe authors, as I grew up on the Saginaw Chippewa reservation.

Find a Book Set in South Asia:

  • Palestine by Joe Sacco (Israel-ish, depending on your viewpoint regarding what to call this territory)
  • Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (Iran)
  • Love in a Dead Language by Lee A. Siegel (India)
  • The Question of Bruno by Aleksander Hemon (Sarajevo)
  • Currency by Zoe Zolbrod (Thailand)
  • The Girl on the Fridge by Etgar Keret (Isreal)
  • Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri (India) I incorrectly remembered which book this was! It is mostly set in the United States and focuses on Indian-American families. My mistake 🙂
  • Of Marriageable Age by Sharon Maas (India, British Guyana)
  • Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (India)
  • Dragonfish by Vu Tran (Vietnam) This book is half set in Vietnam and half in Las Vegas.

Find a Book with a Biracial Protagonist:

  • Sweethearts by Melanie Rae Thon (Crow/white)
  • The Family Nobody Wanted by Helen Doss (almost every person in the book is biracial)
  • Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self by Danielle Evens (black/white)
  • Quicksand and Passing by Nella Larsen (black/white)

Find a Book About a Transgender Character or that is about Transgender Issues:

  • Cloud 9 by Carol Churchill
  • Woman’s World by Graham Rawle
  • Drawing Blood by Poppy Z. Brite

I also have Janet Mock’s memoir on my to-read list, of course!

The-DiverseBooks-Tag

Explosion

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Explosion

Explosion by Zarina Zabrisky

published by Epic Rites Press, October 2015

“Russians do not surrender…we suffer and survive.”

I can’t even remember how I was introduced to Zarina Zabrisky’s work, but we’ve been in contact for so long now that I consider her a friend whom I would love to meet some day. Zabrisky is a Russian-American woman living in California. Her work is art meets the political, a mashup of filth and beauty. I commented on the horror in her short collection, Iron. American decadence contrasts the difficulties of navigating government institutions in Russia in the novella, A Cute Tombstone. Later, Zabrisky asked me to put together a virtual book tour for A Cute Tombstone, and I learned more about funeral portraits in Russia and the band Pussy Riot. Zabrisky later asked me to put together another virtual book tour for her first novel, We, Monsters. The banner my husband created for the tour, made from two images, is so beautiful:

zarina-banner-500x263.png

Back when I had a Weebly address!

Explosion is more like Zabrisky’s earlier short collection. There are 14 short stories (some several pages, others very short) in Explosion, and all are from the point of view of a Russian. Sometimes the setting is California, but it’s almost always Russia.zabrisky explosion

Right away I notice all the drug use; there is so much heroin. “Why?” I ask. Truthfully, my knowledge of Russia is as deep as a puddle, so I made use of my college’s database and started hunting around for articles. Hours and hours later, I felt mad but a bit enlightened. John M. Kramer, author of the article “Drug Abuse in Russia,” notes that a study from 2010 found”Russia has almost as many heroin users (1.5 million) as all other European countries combined (1.6 million)” (31).

While most of Zabrisky’s stories have characters addicted to heroin, the story with the clever name “Heroines” stands out. The narrator speaks to the reader, explaining that she wants to tell us about her friends. She says, “I have a lot of friends. I’m Russian and my girlfriends are Russian.” Next is a list of tragic stories: Alina, dead from a heroin overdose; Marina with Hep C (“We all got Hep C together”); Anna, whose husband abandoned her and their daughter, forcing her to marry again (“In Russia, if you don’t have a man, you’re a waste”); Lana the mail order bride. In many of the 14 stories, women must attach themselves to men to survive. While most of the stories aren’t about drugs, it’s always there, always present, and Zabrisky captures the essence of the setting because so many Russians are actually addicted. 

Disease, like Marina’s Hep-C, is a massive problem. According to Gregory Gilderman, author of the article “Death by Indifference,” a study conducted in 2009 found that somewhere “between 840,000 and 1.2 million are HIV-positive” in Russia, which has a population of around 143,000,000 (44). A lot of the spread of HIV has to do with dirty needles. While some countries like the U.S. have needle exchange programs to slow the spread of people contracting HIV or hepatitis, “nongovernmental organizations [in Russia] that advocate harm reduction strategies—needle exchanges, providing condoms to sex workers—face police harassment and criminal penalties” (Gilderman 45, emphasis mine). Zabrisky’s collection of stories points out the dark times of the Soviet Union resulting from the leadership, without being an in-your-face condemnation that comes off as “preachy.” Truthfully, based on the articles I read, Russia today and the Soviet Union aren’t really that different.

If you’re using or dealing drugs, mum’s the word. But in Explosion, if you’re thinking anything you shouldn’t, you must be silent, too. A girl in 1986 writes in her diary, “Be silent, hide and keep secret your feelings and thoughts. … The thought spoken is a lie.” When the girl starts asking her father, a scientist, questions, he praises her, but the mother scolds them both for saying things that are not acceptable in the Soviet Union, including questions about God. The mother also warns, “And you better only discuss such things like [God] at home, not at school.” More research reminded me that the Soviet Union declared the nation atheist, so God talk was forbidden.

Silence, silence everywhere. In another story, a woman won’t phone the police at the request of a foreign man because she believes the police and the bad guys are the same thing. He asks, “Are you refusing to call?” and she thinks, “I’m refusing to die.” Zabrisky, ever the supporter of Pussy Riot, also fits the story of the band recording their punk prayer into one of her stories. “For the government, men with voice are more dangerous than drug pushers,” she writes, “And women with voice — even more so.” Sometimes, Zabrisky’s voice is more forceful, such as the reference to Pussy Riot, which stands out as being obvious protest in literature, but the subtle undercurrent of silencing remind me again of 1984 and the Thought Police. Such moments are as quite as the citizens, creating a parallel in content and the message.

zabrisky pussy riot

Explosion creates an array of women surviving the Russia that Pussy Riot protests. “You have big boobs and speak English,” one woman is told. She could work as a prostitute and get intel from foreigners. “The just under one million sex workers in Russia, for instance, live at the whim equally of pimps and the police, and have no practical recourse if they are raped or assaulted,” Gilderman writes (48). The other option is to marry foreigners. “What’s love?” one woman asks her sister, “I’ll find you a husband. I’ll get you out of here.” Women have no autonomy in Zabrisky’s collection, not even when they move away. “Unfortunately, for many adolescent boys and even adult men, the shaping of their male identity involves the debasement and suppression of girls,” (61) adds T.A. Gurko, author of “Underage Females’ Experiences Of Sexual Relations, Motherhood, And Married Life.”

Women are often seduced by the promise of marriage because they are “whores” and “sluts” and compromise Russia’s traditional values when they are single. One character is in love with a drug dealer, who promises to marry her. She feels no concern when she discovers she’s pregnant, but T.A. Gurko notes, “As the men [in the survey] put it, ‘promising her you will marry her does not mean you will.’ At best he may offer to get her an abortion; at worst he will do everything he can to cut off the relationship” (67). I don’t mean to imply that I’m fact-checking Zabrisky’s work; men abandon women in all countries. But the situations present in her collection, because they reoccur so much, made me want to learn more. Very few books encourage me to be more knowledgeable. In this case, gaining information made me sympathetic for the plight of women in Russia — they didn’t even have tampons, one character points out.

Poverty is a big factor in survival, especially for women and their children, who are almost always abandoned in these stories. Poverty can be conveyed in simple descriptions, and Zabrisky always picks just the right images: “watery mud covered everything in view: a playground with iron bars and broken swings, homeless dogs, and a skinny cow by the broken fence, chewing on a plastic bag.” That bag may not mean much to you (except concern for what it will do to the cow’s intestines), but check this out:

If Russia represents poverty, America is wealth. A young girl covets a plastic bag a schoolmate has — I know, right? — and finally trades a great deal for it. She is so happy:

I took the bag and sniffed it. It definitely didn’t smell of all-purpose Russian soap … the smell of grease, dirt, and poverty. … This bag smelled like chewing gum, like a dream: foreign, delicious, the aroma of unknown tropical countries, coconuts and pineapples I have never tried, of exotic sea ports. … Weakly, vaguely, the bright plastic smelled of America.

Zabrisky mentions good teeth and iPhones as symbols of doing well in America, choosing examples that are subtle, but easy for this American reader to compare.

Again, the theme is subtly in each story, but over 14 stories it adds up to a strong, unmistakable picture of an oppressive, anti-female Russia. There isn’t a single quote that can capture the feel of the whole collection, but when it adds up, you start to get a gross feeling in your stomach — a totally appropriate response to the massive injustices, poverty, starvation, dismissed lives, and deaths that could have been prevented. Though it is an unpleasant feeling, imagine the people who are living it and remember that literature is meant to teach us about those unlike ourselves, to open our worldview and do something about it.

I want to thank Zarina Zabrisky for a copy of Explosion in exchange for an honest review. Click HERE to read an interview I conducted with Zabrisky about her newest collection!

SOURCES:

Gilderman, Gregory. “Death By Indifference.” World Affairs 175.5 (2013): 44-50. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 11 May 2016.

Gurko, T.A. “Underage Females’ Experiences Of Sexual Relations, Motherhood, And Married Life.” Russian Social Science Review 45.3 (2004): 58-77. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 11 May 2016.

Kramer, John M. “Drug Abuse In Russia.” Problems Of Post-Communism 58.1 (2011): 31. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 13 May 2016.

 

Jackpot

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Jackpot

Jackpot by Tsipi Keller

published by Spuyten Duyvil press, 2004

Tsipi Keller wrote an intense trio of books that all “psychological portraits” of women. In her “Meet the Writer” feature, Keller referred to the books as a trilogy; however, the novels are not related. I’ve read two, and they have the same creepy, deeply psychological feel to them. I read Elsa first, which was published in 2014, after Keller sent it to me for review. I was disturbed by it, but intrigued to read more from this author, so she sent me the other two books. Jackpot came in 2004, and Retelling came in 2006. I’ll read Retelling soon; the synopsis is chilling.

In Jackpot, Tsipi Keller is a master of making the reader concerned about the well-being of the main character. Maggie is a 26-year-old woman living in New York City who has always been a middle-class, hand-me-downs kind of person. She meets 25-year-old Robin at a job she got with a temp agency, and the narrator notes Maggie is the one who really pushed for them to remain friends after their short-lived jobs are finished. Maggie feels that over time the two became close friends, but any reader will find this hard to believe on the first page. Robin loves to refer to Maggie as “sweetie” in a way that sounds demeaning. She criticizes Maggie, saying she is “naive and not assertive enough,” “insecure,” “negative,” “too cheerful,” “such a baby,” “so shrewd,” and has a “common variety of social phobia or something worse.” Notice how many of these contradict.

There is so much doubt and hesitancy in Maggie, and she has a number of reasons to feel that way. The story starts with Maggie sitting in Robin’s living room. They are supposed to go out to dinner, but Robin instead brings up going on a trip to Paradise Island in the Bahamas. A description of Robin is very important to know:

Good breeding and class; it is clear that Robin never lacked for anything. Robin. who is secretive about her exact money situation, but lets it be known she comes from wealth, every so often dropping a hint or two about her glamorous parents in L.A. She is lavish when it comes to her own needs, but calculating and quite the tightwad when it comes to others.

Why doesn’t Robin go with her friend Lucy, like she did last time, Maggie wants to know. Robin simply says she wants to go with Maggie. This is five pages in, and already I’m so worried about Maggie. In response to Robin saying she wants to vacation with Maggie, not Lucy, Maggie thinks:

So, it is all in her head. She must accept the possibility that Robin has no ulterior motives, that Robin is just being Robin, and that her own convoluted thoughts and distrust are a direct result of her middle-class circumstances, circumstances she’d do well to forget and put behind her. She should feel privileged, and frequently she does, that Robin has accepted her as a friend. At times she even wonders why Robin sticks with her.

If Maggie is worried, surely the reader should be too (*warning bells*). And since when are we “lucky” when certain people like us? A character so self-doubting is sure to be abused in some way. Robin sits there oinking on a bag of candy without offering Maggie any. When Maggie decides yes, she’ll go to Paradise Island, Robin practically throws her out of the apartment, exclaiming, “I don’t know what’s the matter with me, but I couldn’t go out [to dinner] if you paid me. You sure you don’t mind? I feel a little guilty.” Maggie says she doesn’t mind, but she cries all the way home. More warning bells.

Robin is immediately juxtaposed with Susan, Maggie’s co-worker. Susan plays a tiny role in the book, mostly to show readers what a good friend actually looks like and expose thoroughly what a horrible human Robin is, in case you doubt it. The author taking this extra step set off more bells, as if she did not want readers to forget nice people aren’t like Robin. But when Maggie is with Susan, two important things happen: she drinks way too much and gets sloppy drunk, and she admits that she was married from ages 20-23 to a man who had sexual issues. Maggie’s ex-husband claimed he didn’t like the way her vagina smelled and thus only wanted her to perform oral sex. Or, Maggie admits, he “insisted she wear a veil or a scarf over her face during sex. He asked her to pretend she was a prostitute or a stranger.” More warning bells! There is a deep problem with sex and shame waiting to bubble up in the novel…you can just tell.

There isn’t a change in Maggie’s personality until she and Robin get on the plane for the Bahamas. Robin is extra grumpy, and Maggie notices that Robin is just a bit fat. Maggie is incredibly thin and lithe, so she feels smug. Maggie immediately scolds herself for being petty. But at the hotel she learns Robin has packed beautiful party dresses, whereas Maggie packed casuals (because Robin told her to). More warning bells! Where is Robin going in party dresses that she hasn’t told Maggie about? Then Maggie sees Robin reading an airport book and mentally belittles her for reading such trash. Immediately, she feels bad again. Maggie believes, “She wants to love Robin always, she wants Robin to love her back. Everything is so much simpler when she can trust Robin.” Which means she doesn’t always trust Robin, right? There’s also this connection between wanting Robin’s love and being shamed by her ex-husband that’s rather brilliant. Tsipi Keller doesn’t have Maggie seek love in another man, but in friendship, which is different from many books. But a page later, Robin says, “Once we get there, you won’t need me, I promise. You’ll be having too much fun.” Does this mean Robin is going to ditch Maggie?

Maggie goes swimming in the ocean, and when she returns to the towel where Robin rests, she finds a man, too. He and Robin laugh at everything Maggie says, even things that aren’t funny. Robin makes sly remarks like “See what I told you?” and Maggie wonders why this guy is so tan when he says he just got in from New Jersey that day. Things feel suspicious! At this point, I’m just waiting for something terrible to happen.

And Robin does start to disappear. Maggie turns around and Robin is gone, like when they go gambling in the hotel casino. Eventually, Maggie starts thinking “fuck Robin” a lot. I feel Maggie’s change in attitude is a bit quick. While I felt suspicious building up to Robin disappearing, Maggie didn’t. She was naive and hopeful, so the quick turn around didn’t quite make sense to me.

Then Maggie slowly tries to emulate Robin. She walks around naked in front of the maid, but immediately regrets it. The author shows the reader that Maggie wants to be something new, someone who isn’t middle class, someone who doesn’t have a vagina “odor.” Maggie’s body, she believes, is better than Robin’s, and Robin’s money can’t really change that. Maggie’s body, when she feels like she’s in control of it, gives her a power she’s never had before.

Then Robin full-on abandons Maggie, sneaking into the room in the middle of the night to grab her things and leave on a yacht with an old man. And everything goes to hell. The author ties together Maggie getting drunk with her co-worker way back in the beginning with her drunken state on vacation, suggesting Maggie gets drunk more often than her sweet, intelligent character would if she weren’t so damaged. Maggie starts hanging out in the hotel casino all night, drinking, not eating, and blacking out. She becomes conscious again when a man starts to have intercourse with her. He’s not wearing a condom…but his repetitive apologies make her want to laugh at him! She then starts crying about losing money at the casino, so he leaves $100 on the bed.

While my first thought is Maggie has been raped and she should go home (Robin’s not even there anymore), Tsipi Keller continues the story in the Bahamas. Various versions of the above scene play out (blacking out and rape), and I started making the connection that while Maggie isn’t asking for money to have sex with strangers, it’s happening nonetheless. How does this continue to happen?

Woven throughout the novel are examples of sexual traumas Maggie’s experienced: as a 13-year-old girl newly in bras, a man grabbed her breast and was disappointed to find padding. Maggie remembers feeling shame that she “failed to please him” in some way. At about seven a strange man molests her after tricking her into his home. Another time, when she played hide-and-seek at a friends house, the friend’s dad pulled her aside and made her touch his genitals. So much sexual abuse in one story, the but the more I read and listen to my friends, the more I realize these examples are common. Because Maggie’s body was out of her control when she was a girl, the novel suggests, she can use her body to gain control over her life as an adult. And if she’s going to get molested and raped anyway, why not profit from it?

To be honest, it took me a while to realize this. I couldn’t understand why Maggie was totally losing it. Two of the abuses she suffered as a child are lumped together in the book. If they were spread out, or perhaps closer to the scenes during which strange men are using her body, like a moment she remembers when she regains consciousness, I may have made the connection faster.

Truly, there is a lot to think about in this book. The ending isn’t the end because women experience sexual trauma at all ages, and how they deal with it varies. I don’t feel as if I’ve given any spoilers because the book doesn’t have a “the end” feel to it. Some events in the last chapters I found difficult to put together, but after mulling over it all for a few days, I realized that I did race through this book, wondering what would happen. I was worried about Maggie and wanted to figure out Robin’s approach to life. Therefore, I recommend this book and highly suggest you read the trio together.

I want to thank Tsipi Keller for sending me a reviewer’s copy of her book in exchange for an honest review.

Meet the Writer: Heather Dorn

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Meet the Writer: Heather Dorn

I want to thank Heather for answering my questions. You can read more about her on her blog. Heather is also one of the contributors to the new anthology TOO MUCH: TALES OF EXCESS. You can find a story from yours truly called “Fat Women Socializing” and SEVENTEEN awesome poems from Heather!

Could you describe the first poem you remember writing?

When I was very young I would get into trouble and my mom would make me go to my room and close my door. I couldn’t stand being left in there, alone, to think about how wrong I’d been for asking for something in the grocery when I’d promised not to ask for anything in the grocery. I would sit on the floor by my door and yell “Mom” over and over again. Just “Mom Mom Mom Mom Mom Mom Mom Mom Mom Mom Mom Mom Mom Mom Mom Mom Mom Mom Mom Mom Mom…”

After a while, I simply couldn’t stop. I knew she was going to spank me. I could sometimes hear her coming up the stairs, but it was beyond my control. My mouth persisted. And the more I said the word, the stranger it became to me.

“Mom Mom Mom Mom Mom Mom Mom Mom Mom Mom Mom Mom…”

It didn’t even sound like the same word anymore or any word. It was something between word and music. It was completely new to me. That was my first poem.

Do you tend to work with a certain form or forms in your poetry, or you are freestyle? Why?

My style tends to be narrative free verse but I have written a range. I also do a lot of prose poems, collage, and creative non-fiction. I’d say that the poem (or writing) dictates the form. I don’t think it’s productive or easy to shove, say, a narrative poem into a different form. That’s just my opinion. I have nothing but a felt sense in my own work to support this though.

Unlike some other writing in the world, creative writing allows me the chance to figure out what I need (or want) to say and then find the form that does that best. Generally I have to send an email to co-workers, even if I want to make them happy, which is a shame because I’d much rather surprise them with a song: “The meeting has been changed to one! What fun, I say what fun! You can go for your run!!”

dorn

Do you feel it’s important that the meaning of the poem be accessible to the reader? Why or why not?

I don’t want to read poems that I don’t understand. What’s the point? It’s frustrating and I could have been learning more about bees! Time is precious when you have every channel in the world and 31 flavors of ice cream!

The thing is, I truly believe in writing to heal. Writing has primarily been therapy for me. I love publishing, and I love reading, and connecting with others is the strongest high, but I wrote before any of that and I would write without it. However, I don’t send my journal writings to be published. Nobody knows who Aunt Kendra is and why I want her to get the house with the porch that has windows (because she never had anything her own that wasn’t a man’s as well) and nobody will care unless I craft it into a poem so they will.

And this is where I see the difference between personal and private. Private is something we can’t understand.

There are other styles of poetry that are not too private, but are still inaccessible to the common reader or to most readers. If someone felt they were that kind of poet, I guess I would say you have to be really good and most of you aren’t. I guess I’m bitchy today. Oh well. If you can get someone else to buy it – good for you! I’ll buy ya a beer to celebrate.

In what ways did an academic environment shape the way you write poems?

(Heather did not provide an answer)too much anthology

In what ways did non-academic environments shape the way you write poems?

These answers are intertwined. I grew up really poor. Not only has this shaped the topics I write about but I believe how I write. This also shaped my desire to get an education and all the shit that entails. When I was an undergraduate, my mentor pulled me aside after a few workshop rounds and showed me the subtext in my poems, the enjambment, and the way my words worked tone. He showed me what I had been using. I didn’t go to the best schools. I barely knew anything, but this was something I had learned — maybe from reading, maybe from movies or TV, maybe from watching life spend our last food stamp again and I was using it, without realizing. Once I knew it was there, I set to learning how to use it.

Tools are obviously more powerful when you know how to use them. My son can tell you this is true because I just crouch down and wait for the shooting to stop when we play Halo together.

That’s kind of how I got through undergrad too: crouching and waiting. Workshops were hell. I hated them. Even when I knew someone’s feedback was shit and I didn’t respect it, I knew I would be nursing a jug of wine later that night. But I started to figure out who I trusted. And then who I trusted who could give me the bad news as gently as possible. My mentor’s wife and a few other students started meeting to workshop our pieces. Working with other poets during my PhD has also been immeasurably helpful in my development as a poet. They all write poems I am jealous to have not written.

Being in academe versus my upbringing brings with it a fair amount of tension as well. I sometimes feel a bit left out. I vacillate between not knowing what to say and being all too loud for anyone’s tastes. Everyone knows many things I don’t. They know how to pronounce “Foucault” and “duvet cover.” I say it wrong at first and so everyone knows I’m a fraud. I make too much money to say “I’m poor” now, but I don’t understand any of the people who live on my block.

How do your friends and family tend to respond to your poetry?

I think they like it? I’m very critical of myself, so all of my failures are my own fault and all of the successes came from luck and the kindness of others. I tend to think they are being kind.

 

This Time, While We’re Awake

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This Time, While We’re Awake

This Time, While We’re Awake by Heather Fowler
May 2013, Aqueous Books
328 pages
*Reviewed by guest reader Jennifer Vosters

Heather Fowler’s 2013 collection is a tour de force of futurism with just enough familiarity to be chillingly compelling. It quite frankly exemplifies the best of dystopian fiction, a hip throwback to the classic spine-tingling genre popularized by giants like Bradbury. Though much dystopian literature has (in my humble opinion) lost its edgy creativity by becoming too mainstream, Fowler’s brand of sci-fi is pushing boundaries rather than daisies, making for an exciting and intelligent read.

If there were a singular theme to this collection, it could be the delicate and dangerous relationship between humans and their technology, toeing the age-old but increasingly pertinent line of how much is too much. Juggling child-silencing devices and love drugs, practice babies and memory erasers, Fowler’s characters are forever caught between improvement and impairment. But there’s also a distinctive feminist flavor in her descriptions of a future still plagued by – or imperfectly dealing with – questions of domestic violence, motherhood, infidelity, sexuality, gender, and exploitation. So perhaps This Time, While We’re Awake is concerned less with the tension between man and machine and more about the conflict between would and should: If we would go to any lengths to be the species we feel we ought to be, are we really willing – should we be willing – to make the sacrifices necessary to get there?

It’s difficult to summarize a series of shorts, but if you need to be tantalized let’s just say you’ll find a host of colorful characters like a sweet-talking transgendered sales rep who’s bested by a farmer, giant female jailers in charge of correcting male delinquents, mysterious creatures who demand blood sacrifice from humans, and a lovesick druggy desperate for her next hit of independence. But there’s also an elderly couple taking stock of their dwindling future, a doctor caught between defending his morals and protecting his past, and a writer unable to move on from the muse that abandoned her: people who might live down our street in twenty years. Hovering on the brink of our times – probably anywhere between ten and one hundred years into the future – her stories might horrify us if we didn’t catch a startling glimpse of ourselves under the surface. For it is through her well-crafted characters that Fowler pulls her audience into the future Earth, half-alien and half-homelike, while painting an achingly honest portrait of the human psyche. These are real people dealing with real problems that we ourselves face, but amplified to astonishing heights in a world with a dark side.

The variety among her sixteen pieces keeps the collection excitingly unpredictable, but the audience remains grounded through cohesion of tone, style, and mood. Fowler is dark without being bitter, and within her sobering messages are twists of humor to keep us buoyed against the heavier questions that can leave us feeling a bit uneasy. So if you are (like I am) an infrequent customer of the short story genre, I’d recommend careful pacing with this heavy-hitter; reading too many in a row can be a little draining, and with writing this good you won’t want to soften the punch. This Time, While We’re Awake will delight readers who like a good think and are mature enough for weighty, controversial themes and some explicit content.

Please note that I will be hosting a book blog tour for Heather Fowler in late May to celebrate the June release of her novel Beautiful Ape Girl Baby. If you are interested in Heather stopping at your blog, please let me know in the comments!

*Jennifer Vosters is a Milwaukee native and member of the Saint Mary’s College Class of 2016, graduating with an English major and minors in Theatre and Italian. She was cast in the 2016 Notre Dame Shakespeare Festival, performing in Pericles and The Tempest as part of the Young Company. She is currently reading The Rover by Aphra Behn, An Actor Prepares by Konstantin Stanislavski, and Ulysses – at least parts of it (whew!) – by her beloved James Joyce.

How to Knock a Bravebird from Her Perch

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How to Knock a Bravebird from Her Perch

TITLE: How to Knock a Bravebird from Her Perch
AUTHOR: D. Bryant Simmons
PUBLISHER: Bravebird Publishing (Jan 2014)

D. Bryant Simmons has already made an appearance at Grab the Lapels when she answered my questions for the Meet the Writer series, and I am pleased to be able to review her book, How to Knock a Bravebird from Her Perch, which is the first in what is called the Morrow Girls series. D’s second book in the series, Blue Sky, was recently released, so if you like this review and read the book, the second one is available!

How to Knock a Bravebird from Her Perch is set mostly in the 1970s and is about Belinda (“Pecan”), a girl with a daddy who raised her right and loved her so, but when a Ricky comes into her town, things get messy. Pecan’s daddy doesn’t really seem to like Ricky, but he can’t say too much about it, as he has a heart attack and dies within the first few pages. Ricky and Pecan get married and move to Chicago where Ricky trains as a boxer and Pecan starts having babies. Girl after girl is born, and Ricky really wants a boy. He appears to hold this against Pecan, but that’s not surprising; Ricky has a temper on him and fists trained to hit. For several years, Ricky’s Aunt Clara lives with the family, and she is often able to keep Ricky from knocking the crap out of Pecan by threatening him with a cast iron skillet. But one night, when Pecan goes dancing with her girlfriends after Aunt Clara tells her she has to, Pecan meets an honorable man.

It’s not 100% clear to me what would be considered a spoiler, so I’ll stop there. There are two distinct aspects of this novel that stand out: the way Simmons challenges the reader to face their preconceived notions about domestic abuse, and the pacing.

It’s fairly early in the story that the reader learns that Ricky hits. Pecan tries to use her voice for the first time, but is silenced:

That’s all I could get out before he hit me again. And again. And again. I just couldn’t believe it. Not me. Other girls might have that happen to them but not me. My man was not doing that to me.

There are a series of thoughts that I had as a reader that made me feel horrible, and I believe Simmons was doing this to me on purpose. First, I paid attention to why Ricky hit Pecan the first time. Shortly after their first baby is born, Pecan packs up the baby and as much food as she can carry and tries to run away. She says that she has been lying to him to tell him what he wants to hear, but if I think back on the timeline, they haven’t been together that long. Why did she marry the first guy to talk to her, I ask, if she’s just going to lie to him? When I think about Ricky finding Pecan standing on the sidewalk with his baby and her guilt, I realize that I would be mad, too. Then comes the hitting. It’s that moment that Simmons makes readers tie together poor logic: Pecan was being a horrible person, and Ricky was just reacting. Of course, people make these logical leaps in the real world all the time. We excuse the hitters and blame the victims–and are quick to do so. When Pecan spends years and years and years getting hit by Ricky, readers are forced to wonder why she doesn’t call the police. Why she doesn’t try to run away again. Why she doesn’t ask for help. We think, Oh, she’s probably thinking he doesn’t hit the kids, so it’s okay, but once he does she’ll leave (how stupid; of course he’ll eventually hit the kids). This is where we must all stop; why are we asking questions of what Pecan does and doesn’t do and not of what Ricky does? This is one of the triumph’s of Simmons’s novel: she makes readers go to these uncomfortable places and face their own judgments.

The pacing becomes very important to making the novel realistic. The children growing are great time indicators, and part of their growth is not just age, but in cognitive function. They begin to realize what’s going on, to speak to their mother differently than their father, to realize what makes them afraid. Watching the four daughters grow into their personalities gives the book a slow, steady pace that demonstrates just how long the domestic abuse goes on. We don’t need to read about every punch and every cut, black eye, and broken bone (I remember reading these details in Roddy Doyle’s The Woman Who Walked Into Doors and feeling sick over and over) because there are other ways Simmons shows how time progresses. When child protective services gets involved, it seems like the whole CPS agent/home visits is a waste of time to the point where I felt myself getting angry with an agency designed to help children be with their parents and be properly cared for. It feels like Pecan will never be with her family and happy and unafraid because someone will always be a barrier.

Took my time going down the stairs. One step at a time. Holding onto the banister and the wall. Had to come up with new reasons to get outta bed every night. Wasn’t no sense in having both of us worry. I flicked on the lights and checked each window on the main floor. Had to wait until bedtime because Heziah was in the habit of opening a window every time he went into a room, but most of the time he forgot to close and lock it. Wasn’t his fault. He just ain’t know like I did. I knew better than to leave anything open or unlocked. We’d gotten the locks changed, but Ricky Morrow wasn’t the type to let a locked door stop him.

And it is this slow pacing that gives the book its realistic feel; separation, violence, legal issues, and parents’ rights are not easy topics to summarize and stuff in the closet. It’s a long, drawn-out process that affects so many individuals, and Simmons captures that reality in her book.

Overall, How to Knock a Bravebird from Her Perch is novel that is able to capture many characters and render them in a realistic tone that makes it pleasurable to read in addition to the challenging topics readers will face.