Tag Archives: animals

Meet the Writer: Jan Millsapps

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Meet the Writer: Jan Millsapps

Jan Millsapps

I want to thank Jan Millsapps for answering all of my questions! Check out the links in the interview or visit Jan’s website for more information about her work examining women and space exploration, including her candidacy as a “Marstronaut”!

Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?

I have always written, so, no, I can’t remember when it all started. As a kid I wrote stories, even hand-crafted a newspaper (about dogs – to persuade my parents to get me one!). In college I wrote typically anguished poetry. I do remember that my interest in writing diminished somewhat when I declared myself an “art” major. At that time, I foolishly thought creating visuals was totally different from writing words. After college I worked in advertising/PR and soon after that I discovered filmmaking, and realized in both these pursuits I could put pictures and words together – reviving my interest in writing. My dissertation examined media “texts” that used both words and imagery to create meaning (a tough sell to the English Department). More recently, when I committed myself to long-format writing, I decided I was no longer a filmmaker, sold my Bolex and refused to think or behave as a filmmaker (even though I was Professor of Cinema at SFSU – awkward!). Guess what: Venus on Mars so far has spawned a multimedia study guide, a “sound design,” and a transmedia documentary project that involves a feature film plus interactive games and apps – all components that blend words and images. So my writing, in the paraphrased words of Gertrude Stein, has always found a way to “begin again and again.”

What inspired you to write your first book?

I’ve always gravitated toward telling the stories of those who have been marginalized. In nearly all cases, my media and literary work features individuals whose lives have not been celebrated, and whose contributions have not been documented. Unconventional women top my list – my first (as yet unpublished) novel was about a Southern hairdresser turned feminist evangelist. In my first published novel, Screwed Pooch, Laika, the small female mongrel who became the world’s first space passenger and a victim of the early space race, gets her own voice – and an attitude. Venus on Mars not only tells the story of women working on the periphery of astronomy and rocket science, but also invites its readers to contribute their own stories to the grand meta-story of the universe.

Venus on Mars books

Does your writing include any research? If so, why/why not, and can you talk about why you made that choice?

Research, always! Each of my novels is set in a specific place/time and the storyline takes place amid historic events and often involves actual persons as well as fictional characters. The research is necessary to set the scene, whether Moscow in 1957 at the dawn of the space age, Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1971 when scientists send their first space probes to Mars, or a barrier island off the S.C. coast just as Hurricane Hugo approaches. Venus on Mars was the first in which I committed myself to not only doing online and print/media research, but also visiting and experiencing as many locations as possible. I had a writer’s residency at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, spent time at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena and I checked out the Goldstone Deep Space network in the Mojave Desert. The only place I couldn’t get to was to Mars – although researching the book did inspire me to apply to go there with the Mars One mission – and I was one of 705 potential “Marstronauts” [Mars One astronaut candidates who are embarking upon two years of rigorous testing to determine which ones will be among the first humans to colonize Mars, beginning in 2025] in the running!

Did you learn anything from writing your book?

I’ve actually become quite the expert on the history of Mars exploration, in particular the early Mariner missions, and also on what many largely unsung women have contributed to our knowledge of Mars. There was one unanticipated “feminist” discovery: I set my primary story in the early years of the space age at JPL, and while researching what the workplace was like then, I talked to two former directors of the Image Processing Lab there. The first one told me there were NO women working in the lab, while the second described many female computer and rocket scientists – and provided evidence. I realized I’d unknowingly set my story on the very cusp of workplace parity for women! I was able to use this as an integral part of my story (Venus’s story is part of my own story as well – in the early years of my career, I had to deal with a lot of male chauvinist pigs!).

Is there anything you find that particularly challenges readers of your work?

I hope my books are gently challenging – that they are not easy reads and yet not insanely difficult ones either. Venus on Mars uses multiple voices and interweaves stories from three different historical eras, so the reader has to stay alert for these time/place shifts and also must stay attuned to how a passage that takes place in one era might further develop and inform the reader about what he/she may encounter in another. The transmedia components further extend the narrative and allow the reader to individualize his/her own story space – some thinking is required, but not so much as to make one’s head hurt!

Do you feel that your book would make a good Book Club pick? Why or why not?

I have no idea but would like to find out. Because I’ve created a study guide that functions as a companion to Venus on Mars, with contextual history, explanations of the science references in the novel, and questions for further discussion, I’m thinking maybe this guide would work for book clubs as well as in educational settings – or for curious minds everywhere.

*UPDATE: Since our interview, the feature documentary spawned by Venus on Mars is moving forward – it’s being editing now and they crew hopes to release it later this year. It’s called Madame Mars: Women and the Quest for Worlds Beyond.  The crew will create an interactive online curriculum to accompany the film. Congratulations, Jan!

Meet the Writer: Leesa Cross-Smith

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Meet the Writer: Leesa Cross-Smith

I want to thank Leesa Cross-Smith for answering my questions. You can read more about Leesa at her website! I also reviewed Leesa’s collection, Every Kiss a War, an amazing short story collection.

What did you want to be when you grew up? 

I totally wanted to be a ballerina. An actress, too. Also a writer.

What do you do now that you are “grown up”? 

Now I’m a homemaker and a mama and a writer and an editor. I’m also a hit-or-miss gardener, a pretty decent texter, and I make really good chocolate chip cookies and chili. I still know the ballet positions, too, so my childhood dreams are still kinda alive!

What was the first thing you ever wrote about? 

It was always something about animals. I wrote a story about two skunks lost in the rain, and another time I wrote about a girl who was wandering around her neighborhood putting up signs, looking for her lost dog. It was a white poodle and I can’t remember if she found it or not. I wanna say she did because that’s more my style. Happy endings!

Do you think there is a certain achievement a person must “unlock” before he or she can be called a “writer” or “author”? 

This is such a good question! I think the only thing that must be “unlocked” is the feeling. Feeling like you are one. And that looks differently for lots of people. For some it’s that first publication, for some it’s the first print publication. For some it’s the first book, some people need a novel or a big press. Believing in yourself plays a huge factor, fersure. I highly suggest believing in yourself and your dreams, even when it’s hard or seemingly impossible—unlocking the achievement of becoming (even more) awesome at being yourself.

Are you reading anything right now? 

I am reading the third book of the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. Some Roxane Gay, some Ben Tanzer, and every day I read these great little devotionals called She Reads Truth that simultaneously help me keep my feet on the ground and lift me. I’m also reading a book called The Wise Wound all about menstrual cycles because I love being a girl.

Are you writing anything right now? 

I am working on my second collection of stories and a novel, too. At this point, I’m researching a lot and also, letting things mellow. I’m in the middle of the tunnel right now, squinting to see the lights, but I think I see them!

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Meet the Writer: Debra DiBlasi

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Meet the Writer: Debra DiBlasi

I want to thank Debra for answering my questions. Debra is also a contributor (along with yours truly!) to the all-women-authors anthology, Wreckage of Reason II: Back to the Drawing Board. She has won many awards for her writing, including the 1991 Eyster Prize in Fiction, the 1998 Thorpe Menn Book Award, the 2003 James C. McCormick Fellowship in Fiction from the Christopher Isherwood Foundation, the 2008 Diagram Innovative Fiction Award, 2008 Inspiration Grant from Arts Council of Metropolitan Kansas City, and three Pushcart Prize nominations, among other awards. She was a finalist in the Heekin Foundation’s Novel-in-Progress. Her books include:

  • Drought & Say What You Like (New Directions, 1997)
  • Prayers of an Accidental Nature (Coffee House Press, 1999)
  • The Jiri Chronicles & Other Fictions (FC2, 2011)
  • What the Body Requires (Jaded Ibis Press, 2013)

What was the first story you remember writing about?

I wrote poems before stories.  Very bad poems about animals, usually dead ones.  I grew up on a farm surrounded by many different kinds of critters — dogs, cats, birds, fish, horses, pigs, cattle, and a superior cast of wild animals from skunks and raccoon, to foxes and coyotes—all of them inevitably meeting their demise, of course.  Ergo my early expertise as a eulogist. The first story I recall writing was for a Social Studies class in grade school, though I cannot recall which grade—probably fifth. We were studying Mexico, its people and landscapes and resources, and we’d been given a list of words like maize, hacienda, oro, senor and rio with which we were to write a story.  Mine was quite long, an adventure about a conquistador’s search for Mayan gold. The teacher gave me an E+ and scribbled something red and very nice about me being a fine writer with a vivid imagination. E, by the way, stood for Excellent.  In those days, our schools used the grading standard of E (Excellent), S (Satisfactory), M (Mediocre), I (Insufficient), and F (Failure).  Sometimes I think we should go back to that standard, at least in college, so that the students whose work is C (Mediocre) but think—and sometimes insist—that it is A (Excellent) more clearly understand what’s expected.

The fact that I remember quite well my first story and the how it came to be and the teacher’s comments suggests just how much influence teachers can have on a student’s course in life.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

In chronological order:  veterinarian, rancher, “movie star” (that’s they were called then; not “celebrity”), war correspondent.  I stuck with the last occupation but switched it to journalist after Saigon fell, ending the American-Vietnam War the year I graduated from high school.  I went off to University of Missouri-Columbia with the intent of getting my B.J. (yes, an unfortunately abbreviation) but got sidetracked into creative writing for a couple of years after I look a poetry writing class as an elective.

Once I’d taken all of the poetry writing courses available, including graduate level, and one fiction course (that I did not particularly love), I decided to switch back to journalism for “practical” reasons, as in “Debra, you can’t earn a living as a poet.”

I studied in the University’s then famous J-School (which Brad Pitt also dropped out of) for only a summer and a fall.  When I actually attended class, I did very well, especially in the writing courses—well enough that, when I dropped out for various reasons related to finances and general uncertainty, one of the professors looked me up at the restaurant where I was working to talk to me about re-enrolling.  But I just didn’t know what I wanted yet.  I was 20 years old and there were too many possibilities spread before me.  I was like the cat sitting in front of a box of mice when the lid is lifted: she doesn’t catch any mice because she wants all of them at once.

Case in point:  After I moved to Kansas City, Missouri, I eventually enrolled at Kansas City Art Institute where I took my BFA in painting.  Then, after traveling around Europe, I moved to San Francisco to work at increasingly higher management positions in advertising and magazine production, all the while writing articles for an arts and entertainment magazine. I took a course in novel writing at San Francisco State University where I realized my autodidactic reading knowledge exceeded my professor’s; I left the M.A. program.  I really loved my job as advertising productions manager at MacWEEK Magazine but had begun publishing some of my short stories.  I was getting up at 3am to write in a diner near my office in the Financial District.  After the major earthquake of 1989, I peered at my life 20 years thence and saw: lots of money but no art.  So I quit the corporate world, moved back to the Midwest, took a low-level secretarial job (9am-5pm versus 8am-9pm) and began concentrating on my fiction and visual art.

The rest is a long path with a few roadside attractions, but essentially undeviating.  I have no regrets.

Do you think writing is taught, that we know how to do it instinctively, or both? Why?

Having taught, for quite a few years, creative writing (particularly: experimental forms like hyperfiction and mixed media writing, nonfiction, and composition for students with learning disabilities), I’m convinced there are teaching methods to direct a student toward better writing and, most importantly, to make that person a better thinker. The creative writing workshop, however, is definitely not one of those methods.  It’s a sloppy format for lazy teachers who don’t really want to work hard. Example: One of my former colleagues complained to me—when my course was waitlisted at 18 students and his course, with an enrollment of only eight had just lost two more students — that I had all of the talented students and he didn’t want to teach anyone who wasn’t talented. My response to him:  “So, what you’re saying is that you really don’t want to have to teach.”

Really teaching creative writing requires (1) understanding and valuing the idiosyncratic aesthetics of all students to help them improve their strengths and reduce their weaknesses, while not making them write like you; (2) creating a curriculum of carefully designed assignments that teach specific elements of creative writing, like structure, musical syntax, and (significant) meaning; (3) daily improvising on-the-spot exercises that push students into learning and understanding aspects of writing and thinking that they lack; and (4) assigning reading material that complements all of the above.

Having said this, however, I would add, with emphasis, that the best writing teacher is the process of reading as much intelligent and diverse writing as you can.  Also, the best writers keep writing, and exploring, and educating themselves in history, all of the sciences, technology, global politics and socio-economics, and philosophy.  That’s something I see gravely lacking in MFA and PhD creative writing graduates.  They’re too specialized; they cannot intelligently discuss much outside of their specialization with a sophistication necessary to evolve the discipline—and the human.

On a final note:  Literary theory is its own art form; reading it does not make better creative writers, only better literary theorists.

What was your least favorite class at any point in your education? Why?

I took only one class that drove me insane with boredom:  American Romanticism.  Not because of the subject matter but rather because of the professor.  Prof. Dickinson could take an otherwise fascinating writer like Henry David Thoreau and transform him and his writing into watching paint dry.  (There was a rumor in the English Department that the professor had been married four times and three of his wives had committed suicide. Hmmm.)

Are you reading anything right now?

I’m reading Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking because I’m…

Are you writing anything right now?

…working on one of my memoirs, The Way Men Kiss.  I finished the first draft of this collection about ten years ago. Recently I promised myself that when I moved to Hong Kong (I’m living here now) I’d spend mornings writing for myself rather than answering emails and sweating over the increasingly complex management of Jaded Ibis Press.

The Way Men Kiss is one of three memoirs in the works.  The writing is fairly straightforward; i.e., not an experiment in syntax, like another memoir-in-progress, Otherwise, from which comes “Olbers’ Paradox,” my syntactically-perverted essay included in the recently published Wreckage of Reason II:  An Anthology of Experimental Prose by Contemporary Women Writers).

TWMK covers the year I slept (as in, fucked) my way across Europe after my first husband, a pathological liar, left me for other women.  (Yes, plural: women.)  Some people might call my poor Grand Tour “revenge fucking” but it was not.  I adored these men, every one of my lovers and my friends who had arrived in Europe from so many parts of the world.  They were the salve to my wounded heart.  The book explores much of who they were then, and who I was then—very young, all of us, and untethered to obligations of any kind.  Audacious travelers on the same unpredictable road to a constricting future that would present itself to us soon enough.  Soon enough we’d be less free, and older, and already nostalgic for the wilder days and nights.  But until then:

“Kamal grazed on me.  And I, lover of men, grazed on Kamal.  We might have made love right there on the park bench along the Champs-Élysées, in view of amused passers-by, had Kamal not then slid his hands under my bottom and picked me up and carried me out of the light into the warm green darkness of the park, to a big shadowy circle of briers, conveniently hollow in the center—an intimate lair smelling of rabbits and black dirt and green-waxy ceiling of leaves.  We climbed inside and kissed more deeply and groped more desperately.  And then we could not help ourselves:  We made love right there, on the dirt amid the thickets of that Champs-Élysées park, on that warm September night in Paris, so many years ago.”

—from the title essay, “The Way Men Kiss”

Noah’s Wife

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Noah’s Wife

noahswifeTitle: Noah’s Wife

Written by: Lindsay Starck

Published: by Putnam; on sale January 26, 2016

Pre-Order: here

Read Samples: You can read the prologue and chapters 1 and 2 on Lindsay’s website!

Lindsay Starck’s debut novel is a loose retelling of the Biblical story of Noah’s Ark. The main points carried over into Noah’s Wife is that there is man named Noah whose purpose is to save, and there are animals, so if you aren’t terribly familiar with the Biblical story, you still know enough!

The story begins with just how rainy it is in one small town. In fact, it has been raining for years. Although a number of townspeople have left, there are many resolute individuals who won’t abandon their homes and memories. The town used to be quite prosperous due to their zoo, but no one goes to the zoo in the rain.

Lindsay Starck’s writing style is beautiful, a fact on which all reviewers comment. Here is a sample from the beginning describing the people in the town where it never stops raining:

“They are not always happy, or at peace. They miss their shadows. Sometimes when they step outside in the morning the first drop of rain on their plastic ponchos echoes in their ears with the resounding toll of a funeral bell. Sometimes when they return home in the faint gray light of evening, they cannot bear the hoarse whispers of their rusted wind chimes and they cannot bear the sight of the water steadily rising in their rain gauges. They despair; and they are sick of despair. With swift and sudden anger they take up the shining cylinders and they hurl the water into the grass and they fling the gauges with great force toward the concrete, standing and watching while the glass shatters and breaks. At the moment of impact they feel something crack within their very souls and then they go inside–repentant–to find a broom and sweep up a pile of pieces that are jagged and clear.”

After meeting the perpetually wet town, we are then introduced to Noah and told how he meets his wife. They are on a whale watching trip, and when the waves get rough and she gets scared, he reassures her that everything will work out. This deep faith that Noah has it what his wife loves about him.

The rainy town despairs greatly, and everyone stops going to church. When the old minister in the rainy town walks into the river one day and doesn’t come out (was it an accident or not?), the run-down church has a vacancy. Noah volunteers to take on the challenge of saving this water-logged town. The challenge tests Noah greatly, and his marriage strains under the weight of it. It’s hard to believe Noah could ever falter, as he is depicted as handsome, confident, and a natural leader, a man his previous congregation flocked to in droves.

In Noah’s Wife, readers are introduced to a slew of characters. Many of them are referred to by their relationships to others, such as “Mrs. McGinn’s daughter” or “Dr. Yu’s father” or, of course, “Noah’s Wife.” While all of the characters’ names are eventually revealed, Noah’s wife’s name remains a mystery the entirety of the novel.

And that is a purposeful choice.

Noah’s wife is an interesting character. Though she had never been to church in her life, she marries a minister. She is the perfect helpmate, always the assistant and never the leader: “Where else would she be, if not here [with Noah]? What would she be doing, if she were not helping him?” Small challenges appear to overwhelm her because her path is that of Noah’s, so she’s not used to making decisions. She has faith in her husband, her husband has faith in God, and that is all fine and dandy. But when the zoo in the town floods and everyone must help rescue and then home the animals, Noah’s wife struggles under the expectations put on her:

“Animals are much easier [than people], reflects Noah’s wife. Their wants and their needs are obvious, open, straightforward: they are hungry, tired, satisfied, afraid. The townspeople, on the other hand, with their emotions in knots and their hopes and dreams and fears all tangled up in themselves and their neighbors–well, what would make her think she could handle all of that? That is Noah’s job; not hers.”

Of course, given that Noah’s wife earns the title of the book, we can expect the story to challenge her to her breaking point and that she will have to make some tough choices that are not typical for her, so there is a lot of build up in the book with a highly satisfying–and surprising–pay off.

The foil to Noah’s wife is Mrs. McGinn. She basically runs the town. She barks and people stand at attention. I loved that Mrs. McGinn was this terribly unlikable person who wanted things accomplished and questions answered. She’s aggressive and bossy when no one else has direction (or a clue).

One image that really stuck with me showed Mrs. McGinn’s fearlessness. After the zoo has been flooded and animals have been rescued, there is still some damage. She pokes a boa constrictor in the gutter. And then, “Mrs. McGinn steps away from the snake. ‘That one is definitely dead,’ she declares.” There is no fear of this terrifying animal. In fact, when a new person comes to town, “Mrs. McGinn wields her umbrella like a weapon.” I love the fencing imagery that Starck expertly weaves in, giving the story a bit of a fable feel.

In the end, though, we learn that Mrs. McGinn has been married four times because three husbands cheated on her (the current husband has a temper, but has not strayed). She may be the strongest character in the book, but she is still a breakable human and must be carried (sometimes literally), too.

Leesl is a third interesting character because she serves as yet another foil to Mrs. McGinn and Noah’s wife. She is practically a “nobody,” like Noah’s wife without Noah, but that’s the way she prefers it. People are worried for her because she is so alone:

“‘I’m not alone!’ proclaims Leesl, coming to her own defense when she hears them. ‘Look! Do you want to see a picture of my cats?’ The townspeople do not want to see a picture of Leesl’s cats. They have seen all the pictures before. Only Mrs. McGinn glances dutifully at the photo as she sighs. In truth, the main reason why she is so concerned about Leesl is because she believes that a place is as stable as its most unstable citizen…”

Leesl is many things: she is “never surprised” and “not expressive.” She serves as a bit of light in the story, though. When Noah’s first sermon in the new church doesn’t go as planned, and congregants break out into arguments about why the rain won’t stop, Leesl panics and begins playing the organ over them. This moment is almost circus-like, and I found it funny. But when a deeper sadness takes over the town, Leesl plays her organ in the empty church as loudly as she can because she doesn’t know what else to do, and here I was greatly saddened by the image.

There are many, many characters you will get to know in Noah’s Wife, and these are just three of my favorite. You learn each character so well that before you know it, you have the backstory and future dreams of many people, causing you to feel like you’re part of the town and these are your neighbors.

Getting to know a bunch of characters isn’t enough, though; there has to be a deeper message in a novel, especially one that is almost 400 pages. A few messages I got from Lindsay Starck’s book is that love is an abstract concept, and people’s definitions vary much more than I had personally thought. To Mrs. McGinn, love, like beauty, is not painless. For Dr. Yu, Noah’s wife’s best friend, love means that the ones we love never find mates that we feel are good enough for them. For Leesl, love means not being with the one she loves and instead yearning. For Mrs. McGinn’s daughter, who has witnessed her mother’s many divorces, love means monogamy, and she tells her fiance (the zookeeper) to list off the animals that mate for life in what almost sounds like verbal foreplay.

In a novel about people who won’t leave what is obviously a doomed town, there of course has to be a theme about hope. I was worried that the message would be we all just need a dose of hope and we’ll be good to go, which is a pill I can’t swallow. But that’s just not the case. There are times characters have hope that leads to nothing, and times when hope is just the right thing. It can’t be a safety blanket to make things perfect; hope must be used wisely.

Sometimes hope, and seeking reasons to have hope, is not good. I felt it deeply when I read, “What [Maruo’s] friends and neighbors do not understand as well as he does…is that there are no signs except the ones we choose to read.” While Mauro’s sentiment could be read in a positive light, another character is straight depressing: “Sometimes there isn’t any way to make the best of things….And I think that to insist that there is–that everything happens for a reason, et cetera–well, oftentimes that’s nothing but a good looking lie.” A third sentiment is that we don’t deserve our misery…or our happiness. These things come to us, and we navigate our lives as they are dealt. Noah’s Wife gave me a lot to think about instead of forcing a message upon me, which I appreciated and felt showed the author’s faith in her audience.

In the end, the message appears to be one about choice: do we follow or lead, be happy or gloomy, realistic or faithful? Do others define us through our relationships to them, or do we define ourselves?

Don’t forget that Lindsay and I did an interview late 2015! You can read more about Lindsay’s inspirations and how she completed this novel.

lindsayDisclaimer: Lindsay Starck and I attended the MFA program at the University of Notre Dame together from 2008-2010 where original character sketches for this novel were created and workshopped. I want very much for Lindsay’s novel to do well, and thus, for these reasons, I am a biased reviewer.

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: Lindsay Starck

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Lindsay Starck is a student, teacher, writer, and excellent chef and baker. Lindsay and I attended the University of Notre Dame as candidates in the MFA creative writing program from 2008-2010 where I had the privilege of reading early drafts of Noah’s Wife. I want to thank Lindsay for responding to my questions and congratulate her on her first novel! Please check out her website where you can find more information about this exciting new read.

noahswife

About Noah’s Wife:

In the beginning it was not raining, but it is raining now—and steadily.

It has been raining for so long that even though it has not always been raining the townspeople begin to feel as though this is the case—as though the weather has always been this way, the sky this gray, the puddles this profound.

And so finds Noah’s wife when she arrives in this gray and wet little town where it’s been raining for as long as anyone can remember. Driven by her desire to help her husband revive the congregation, Noah’s wife is thwarted by the resistance of her eccentric new neighbors and her failure to realize that her husband is battling his own internal crisis of faith.

As they strive to bring the townspeople to the church—and keep the strains on their marriage at bay—the rain intensifies, frustrating their efforts. Soon, the river waters rise, flooding the streets of the town and driving scores of wild animals out of the once-renowned zoo. As the river swallows up the houses, the telephone poles, and the single highway out of town, Noah, his wife, and the townspeople must confront the savage forces of nature and attempt to reinforce the fragile ties that bind them to each other before their world is washed away.

Full of whimsy and gentle ironic humor, Noah’s Wife is a wise and poignant novel that draws upon the motifs of the biblical flood story to explore the true meaning of community, to examine the remarkable strength of the human spirit, and to ask whether hope can exist even where faith has been lost.

bookmarksHow did the conception for Noah’s Wife begin? How did it come about?

I’ve always admired works that bring minor characters to the forefront. I’m thinking particularly of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and Sena Jeter Naslund’s Ahab’s Wife, both of which imagine rich and complex lives for characters who were mentioned only in passing in their source texts (Hamlet and Moby Dick, respectively). I wanted to write a novel full of so-called minor characters who possessed voices and lives of their own and who were struggling with their sense of their identity. How much of our sense of self is defined through our relationships with others? This is what I wanted to explore.

What was some of the more helpful advice you received while writing your novel?

The most helpful advice I received was simply to keep going. I felt close to giving up on the book many, many times, and so the affirmation and support of friends and early readers was really important.

You workshopped Noah’s Wife at the University of Notre Dame and turned it into your thesis. Can you tell me a bit about that experience?

As I think you can see by the novel, I’ve always been more interested in character and voice than in plot, per se. My colleagues at Notre Dame really helped me improve those elements; I often reread their comments and incorporated their suggestions as I worked on later versions. We didn’t talk as much about conventional “plot” in workshop, and when I sold the novel, my editor said that’s what was missing. There was very little tension, no momentum. That is what I struggled with over the next few years. And yet the characters and the language are what originally piqued her interest… those elements are still the core of the novel, and for those I am deeply indebted to my cohort.

Were there ever any especially frustrating moments when you felt like this book wouldn’t happen?

Oh, yes! All the time! Three very long years passed between the day I signed a contract with my publisher and the day when the novel was finally pronounced complete. During that time, I rewrote the entire book– more than once. I had to delete whole characters, come up with new story lines. I was always worried that my editor would lose patience and rescind my contract. I would send the latest version to her, believing it was perfect, and a few days later I’d receive a letter with pages and pages of critique. I’d decide that I wasn’t a good writer and that I might as well quit; I’d usually cry and go to bed early. The next morning I’d get up and open a new document and start all over again.

How did you balance writing Noah’s Wife with other writing projects? Or were there no simultaneous projects? Sometimes scattering your attention can be hard!

Noah’s Wife has demanded the majority of my creative energy, but I’ve also been writing lots of literary criticism for my doctoral degree. I chose to study modernism because it feels like an era in which creative writers were also creative critics. People like Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound were writing novels and poetry but also a huge number of reviews and essays; they were reading each other, editing each other, publishing each other. My experience in English programs–first as an MFA at Notre Dame, and now as a PhD candidate at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill–has led me to conclude that these days there is too much of a divide between creative writers and their critics. The two are not at all mutually exclusive; writing well and reading well go hand-in-hand.

Is there anything you are especially proud of in your new novel? Any particular moments that we can read?

I’ve always loved the Prologue, which is one of the few sections that have remained unchanged from the first draft to the final version. Two other chapters that I really haven’t touched since writing them the first time are chapter 10 (where we meet Dr. Yu’s father) and chapter 20 (where we meet Stan and Nancy). They were easy to write, coming naturally and quickly. I love them both! Here is a sample from Chapter 10:

He has been spending his days over the past few months making trips back and forth to the library to check out books on the twin arts of illusion and escape. He stacks the volumes up around the edge of his desk, on the floor, constructing a small wall that he likes to think will help hold him in place as he pores over the tricks, the effects, the sleights of hand. He studies the diagrams and then tries to reproduce them himself, darkening the shadows with the flattened graphite tip of his pencil. The sketches never look quite as perfect or as professional as they do in the books, but this is the best way he can think of to memorize the many steps of the tricks. The collection of drawings is especially helpful once he must return the books to the library. He has always been a visual learner.
The other day he found a box of his wife’s colors and brushes in the cabinet below the kitchen sink and sometimes when he is feeling particularly brave or inspired or foolish he thinks about adding a few strokes of watercolor to his images. He goes to the sink and hunches down and stares at the paints between the pipes for several long minutes. Then he shoves the cabinet door shut and retreats to his office where he shuts that door too, and he rests his head on the desk and waits for the feeling to pass.
He cannot bear to touch the paints, or the perfume, or the pearls that are left still coiled on the armoire. He cannot bear to open the closet door and see her coats or her dresses and so he does not open it at all. He wears button-down shirts and corduroy slacks from his dresser and sometimes he wishes for his tweed blazer but it is in the closet and so what is there to do? He must live without it. What is one more loss, he wants to know, among so many?
Life is one big disappearing act. Things vanish all the time. lindsay

When does Noah’s Wife come out, and where can readers get it?

The novel will be released on January 26, 2016, and it will be available from major booksellers and independent stores across the country. Right now it’s available for pre-order on Amazon!

Furiously Happy

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Furiously Happy

furiously-happyLast week, I reviewed Jenny Lawson’s first memoir, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir). Since then, my number of visitors to Grab the Lapels has increased by a lot (though I will admit someone was earnestly looking for “Steven Hawkings Wife” and found me). Like most people, I had to immediately get my hands on Lawson’s brand new memoir, Furiously Happy (Flatiron Books, Sept. 2015). On the cover, we get yet another taxidermied animal, this one named Rory. Some fans have taken to photoshopping Rory around and sharing him at #WheresRory. Honestly, I couldn’t quit calling the book FUR-iously Happy thanks to that thrilled corpse.

Last time, Lawson spent ten years composing a single memoir. This time, she got it down to somewhere around three. As a result, the stories are contemporary and do make reference to current cultural markers. Furiously Happy at times felt like commentary on what’s up with people today while remaining true to the memoir genre. Again, Lawson include fights with head-shaking husband Victor (I’m so glad they didn’t divorce; I was sure they would), and there are mentions of daughter Hailey, but Lawson respects her child’s privacy and mostly leaves Hailey out of it.

In my review of Let’s Pretend this Never Happened, I complained that Lawson mentioned huge topics (like anorexia) and then ran from them, like digging deep into a certain topic was too hard. It’s you’re going to write a memoir, though, readers are asking you to go to those hard places. And, in Furiously Happy, Lawson does. She spends much time talking about mental illness and embracing a diagnosis in a way that allows her to protect and understand herself and reach out to others. Lawson explains medicine:

The side effects and troubles with taking medication are very real and (if you have a chronic mental illness) are something you have to deal with for the rest of your life. Even if a drug is working for a while, it might stop working and you’ll have to start all over again with something new, which can be incredibly frustrating and disheartening.

Lawson also explains how mental illness is one that people don’t take seriously, which is unfair:

Clearly I wasn’t as sick as I said I was if the medication didn’t work for me. And that sort of makes sense, because when you have cancer the doctor gives you the best medicine and if it doesn’t shrink the tumor immediately then that’s a pretty clear sign you were just faking it for attention. I mean, cancer is a serious, often fatal disease we’ve spent billions of dollars studying and treating so obviously a patient would never have to try multiple drugs, surgeries, radiation, etc., to find what will work specifically for them.

By Shawnte Orion @ShawnteOrion

By Shawnte Orion
@ShawnteOrion

This sort of deep exploration of American’s understanding of metal illness and how that definition affects Lawson is a theme throughout the memoir. She brilliantly encourages readers to join the conversation in order to make mental illness less taboo, as many readers have already done at her blog and on Twitter. Lawson herself reaches out for help, sharing one pleading post from her blog as an example.

Even Victor prompts his wife to explore herself more deeply during a mock interview. Lawson admits that there were so many interviews after the success of Let’s Pretend this Never Happened that this time she’ll include interview Q & A in the book so she won’t have to suffer the crippling anxiety. Victor points out, “It seems like by this point in a book about depression you would have explained what depression is.” Lawson replies, “It’s hard to define.” Victor prods, “Well, this is a book, so maybe try.” Here, I applauded Victor for expressing my very thoughts while reading Let’s Pretend this Never Happened, and I was thrilled when Lawson tries again and again to define depression. Meanwhile, Victor says, “Hmm” and “So…?” and “I want to be helpful but I don’t know if that means that I should ask you to elaborate or tell you to stop elaborating.”

Of course, the main feature of Furiously Happy is how funny it is. Lawson combines her self-analysis with humorous storytelling. When it comes to beauty aids, Lawson doesn’t believe in adding to the body, like Botox or augmentations, but instead she is for stripping away. She writes, “Somehow that all seems healthier to me. Or at least more likely to make me less of who I am. Which is probably pretty unhealthy, now that I think about it.”

One of my favorites was when Lawson was missing, sending Victor into a panic. She can only explain how she was at a “surprise funeral”:

In a nutshell, I stopped at a nearby cemetery because I love the quiet, but unfortunately I unwittingly pulled into the cemetery minutes after a funeral procession had pulled in. I would have driven off…but when I turned to reverse I saw a line of cars right behind me and that’s when I realized I was fucked….I wanted to explain that I was just browsing but thought it would sound weird, so I just got out and went to the funeral, which was odd because I avoid most social occasions of people I know and love and here I was, willingly participating in the burial of a dead stranger.

It’s good to read that Jenny Lawson is still taking life one step at a time and promoting the #FuriouslyHappy way of thinking to combat all the assholes and bad days. I’m happy to know that Victor is still there, even when they seem so ill-matched (he has a retirement fund, whereas the author keeps change in a drawer–though not quarters; those are for gum). I was also pleased to see that while not in color, the photos were bigger/clearer this time. Overall, Furiously Happy is a much more introspective book that doesn’t lose the humor, and I recommend you read it.

By Manning The Merciless @pooinanalleyway

By Manning The Merciless
@pooinanalleyway

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened

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Let’s Pretend This Never Happened
Hamlet von Schnitzel, actual taxidermy mouse the author owns.

Hamlet von Schnitzel, actual taxidermic mouse the author owns.

Jenny Lawson’s newest memoir, Furiously Happy, was published this past September. I saw the cover with the crazy raccoon all over the advertisements on Goodreads. So, I looked up Lawson, who already has a tremendous following, originally the result of her blog, but also from the success her first memoir, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir). I wanted to read the new raccoon book, but I figured that I had to start at the beginning and picked up Let’s Pretend This Never Happened (2012, Penguin Books).

Lawson grew up in a tiny town in Texas with her younger sister, lunch lady mother, and taxidermist father. Living in relative poverty and having a father who constantly brings home animals, both dead and alive, makes for an influential childhood. Then, Lawson meets a college student in a book store named Victor, who is from a wealthy family, and the two marry. After much heartbreak, Victor and Lawson have a child named Hailey, and they live happily ever after in Texas. The end.

Sort of.

Except that Lawson has this way of exaggerating common situations. Except, she also has experiences that are highly unusual to those who grew up with enough money to not wear bread bags filled with newspaper inside their shoes in the winter. Except, Lawson also has severe anxiety that causes her to ramble, panic, and say exactly what she’s thinking, even if it’s telling her husband’s co-workers that she was stabbed by a chicken. And it’s all these “except”s that make her so damn interesting.

Lawson’s clarifications throughout the book will bother some readers, but I found it spastic and fun. Right away, she starts clarifying what she means:

Also, I just want to clarify that I don’t mean “without my vagina” like I didn’t have it with me at the time. I just meant that I wasn’t, you know … displaying it while I was at Starbuck’s. That’s probably understood, but I should clarify, since it’s the first chapter and you don’t know that much about me. So just to clarify, I always have my vagina with me. It’s like my American Express card. (In that I don’t leave home without it. Not that I use it to buy stuff with.)

The entirety of Let’s Pretend This Never Happened isn’t so circumnavigated, and Lawson’s splashes of silliness make the book light when some stories are terribly serious in content.

There are, however, serious topics that are mentioned and then fade away, and I hope the author addresses these issues in Furiously Happy. Lawson mentions she’s anorexic, but abandons the topic quickly, whereas later she devotes more than a page to a hypothetical huge labia. In the last paragraph of a chapter, Lawson has and then corrects her anorexia. In this scene, Lawson and Victor are newlyweds:

Still, I felt sorry for Victor, because he did know that I was kind of mentally ill, but he also thought I was naturally thin, so he was kind of expecting “crazy,” but I think he was expecting hot, sexy crazy. Then Victor insisted I start seeing the college shrink, who coaxed me away from the anorexia, and I immediately gained thirty pounds, which was very healthy, but which seemed not hot at all. Also, I suddenly stated eating solid food, so I cost a lot more than Victor had originally expected.

Lawson also describes her and Victor’s wedding, which was incredibly cheap, including the Sears wedding photo. The author had previously shared how wealthy Victor’s family was and that an actual wedding (not a court house contract signing), and I wondered why some information is dropped in my lap and left to sit.

The majority of Let’s Pretend This Never Happened is humor-driven, though. During a lunch break, Lawson’s co-worker mentions he saw a documentary about a woman whose top half was normal, but her bottom half was “enormous.” Lawson’s train of thought is both funny and creative:

…My God. I bet her labia is huge….If I were her, I’d roll it up with binder clips. Or foam curlers. And then on special occasions she lets it out of the curlers and bingo: spiral perm. Totally ready for prom….If you got attacked you could throw it on someone to swat them back, or you could catch children jumping out of burning buildings….You could put a lantern behind it and make shadow puppets.

Meanwhile, the coworker is getting angry because he’s brought a tuna sandwich to work that day, and Lawson works in Human Resources, adding a new level of inappropriate to the situation.

Some of the stories truly are not remarkable, but it’s all in the telling. The chapter entitled “Stabbed by Chicken” gets your brain thinking the worse, but by the end readers learn that Lawson’s dog accidentally tripped her and she cut herself on the dried chicken jerky she wanted to feed him. In the telling of the story, though, everything is disastrous, life-or-death, and hilarious. In truth, the humor is the build up of each story as opposed to one-liners, and Lawson’s funny bits are pretty much too long to quote to give you a good example. This is why you have to read the book yourself.

Several times, Lawson pins her fears on the zombie apocalypse or chupacabras. I couldn’t tell if the author was genuinely afraid of these fictitious creatures, or if she was using zombies because they’re in vogue. Again, I wanted more conscientious digging into her fears to determine what’s going on with her mentally, and if she truly is terrified of said creatures.

Rory, the taxidermic raccoon, who I am told fell in with a bad crowd. We'll see in book two!

Rory, the taxidermic raccoon, who I am told fell in with a bad crowd. We’ll see in book two!

Lawson does work to make sure you believe her. She has photographic evidence. The photos, however, are pretty small, and all are in shades of grey. In several, I couldn’t distinguish the different parts from lack of color, and I wanted Penguin Group to pony up the dough for color photos. Then again, I can see how that would increase the cost of the book, and most likely the pictures wouldn’t appear in the right places to serve as evidence (most publishers use special shiny paper and put all the color photos somewhere in the middle of the book, which makes no sense when you see people the book hasn’t discussed yet, but also images that would have been relevant 100 pages ago).

In the end, I found myself eager to return to Lawson’s life, and I appreciated that she kept the focus of the book on her. As soon as she had a baby, I worried Let’s Pretend This Never Happened would turn into one of those books about how funny moms think their kids are. It didn’t. *Whew* I caught myself laughing out loud many times, much to my own embarrassment, and became vigilant about reading away from public places. Totally recommend.

This book was procured from the public library. I have zero relationship with the author, and all thoughts are my own. Please keep an eye out for my forthcoming review of Furiously Happy!

Face Value

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FaceValue-CoverFace Value (self-published, 2014) is a collection of ten stories by Paula Margulies. This fairly short read is set mostly in San Diego and often features a woman who cares for an aging father, though not all stories have this character.

Many times, the stories end when they’re just getting going. More than once I turned the page to find a new story and was surprised in a bad way. In the title story, an incestuous relationship later leads to the main character living as a shut-in, but the story ends when she lets a stranger in her door. Who is he? Why does she just now let in a person–one she doesn’t know? This information isn’t really a spoiler, as it’s not very informative. The same abrupt ending happened in “Weatherman,” “Labrador Blues,” and “Have You Seen Me?”

Margulies asks for an emotional response from readers when she has not invested the time to elicit such a response. In “Bird Song,” the narrator finds a wild bird that has knocked itself out on her window, so she decides to keep in. After buying tons of supplies for the animal, she finds it predictably dead the next morning. Only when she is burying the bird’s body in her yard does she cry for her lonely father, dead mother, ex-boyfriend, and the bird. However, I didn’t know enough about these characters to cry with–or care about–her pain.

“Obedience Training” and “Bird Song” both make use of easy metaphor. While the bird’s death connected the narrator’s other experiences with death, “Obedience Training” linked a bite from a strange dog that looked trustworthy to the narrator’s decision to not meet again with her husband who has left her. The author so carefully does all the work for the reader to make sure we don’t miss the connection that the metaphor loses all credibility. Had Margulies spent more time establishing who the narrator was and what her husband was like, the link to the dog wouldn’t be so obvious.

Face Value does provide some interesting ideas. In “Portal Gallery,” a woman who typically dumps crap art on a gallery promises that some kaleidoscopes she has are of great value. The story ends too quickly, too easily, and with little food for thought, but the kernel of something good was there. “Weatherman,” too, was an interesting concept: imagine being the guy who reads the weather for San Diego, a place where the weather pretty much never changes, and then one day a snow storm changes everything. While an interesting idea, the ending was quick and made little logical sense within the world Margulies had created.

There are two stories that definitely needed more development, but both had some genuine dialogue that I wanted to see a lot more of. In “Free Fall,” an aging man running away from home meets a young Latina named Leticia. At a restaurant, they discuss what the world has handed them. Leticia feels things are pretty clear for her:

“I can educate myself all I want, but the world’s still gonna see me as a dumb chola. No one cares about me. Maybe if I was born in another time and another place, it’d be different. But, hey, I’m here. This is where I got thrown down.”

That expression–“where I got thrown down”–was like magic in the middle of this story, magic that worked on so many levels: Leticia is where she is because that is where she was born, but she was already abused–thrown down–before she even was formed as a person.

“Have You Seen Me?” also had a special moment in dialogue. The narrator, a grown woman caring for her aging father, arrives home from volunteering at the animal shelter:

“There was a new rabbit at the shelter tonight,” I said. “I got to watch it give birth to two babies.”

My father grunted. He was allergic to cats, a convenient excuse for not allowing me to have pets at the house.

“You spend so much time there,” he said. “I’m surprised you don’t give birth to a few rabbits yourself.”

“It’s not that much time,” I said. “And if I wanted to give birth, it would be to something better than a rabbit.”

“I thought nothing was better than a rabbit,” he replied, the hint of a smile in his voice.

This little banter between father and daughter was delightful, as both a present love between them and an understood history of the narrator’s life as an unmarried and childless woman shine through. The exchange does double duty.

Face Value is a collection that needs revision in order to fully work through plots, make readers care about characters, and avoid cliches and stereotypes. When a story began with a unique concept, it showed promised, but that promise never fully turned into something memorable.

Birdbrain

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Birdbrain is a self-published (2014) novel by Virginia Arthur. Clocking in at 500 pages, Birdbrain covers a lot of ground. The novel starts in Michigan in 1982 with 26-year-old Ellie sitting at home, waiting for her husband to love her more than the TV. When she accidentally goes on the wrong day to her church picnic, she discovers a group who loves bird watching, which becomes the catalyst for her divorce. Although she meets new men along the way, including one who loves and waits for her, Ellie is mostly focused on watching birds. Over a year later she eventually returns to college to get a degree in biology, but once she finishes, she realizes that there are two kinds of biologists: the academic who wants to study wildlife to write a paper for recognition, and the field biologist (a dying breed) who tries to do something about the problem of over-development of open areas. Ellie spends a good amount of time in San Diego with her sister and her sister’s boyfriend where Ellie sees that development happens everywhere, which she considers a horrible disease of mankind that breaks her heart.

Unfortunately, the choice of when to go into depth with the plot feels a bit misguided. In the first 175 pages, Ellie gets divorced and discovers she loves watching birds. For about a year she lives with her friend Patty and won’t get a job. We’re told Ellie took $2,000 from her ex-husband when she left, but in what way does this money last for a year? Though I wanted to be patient with Ellie, I grew annoyed with her. There is also a lot of repetition in the first 175 pages, such as telling the same stories and experiences or visiting certain places, which didn’t push the story forward.

However, two characters, both Michigan Department of Fish and Game employees, are introduced during this time, and while it seems convenient that Ellie might fall in love with one of them, she doesn’t and for that I was thankful. Should the author choose such an obvious way to get Ellie, with her newly-broken heart, to “move on,” I would have felt disappointed. Ellie seems in control of her relationship with men, once she’s divorced.

After those 175 pages, Ellie still isn’t a likable person; she decides to go to school for biology, a degree for which her mother is paying, and in the first semester she signs up for two classes she doesn’t need (one of them being “Camping I”) and biology. The day before school starts, Ellie decides she’ll be sleeping through the camping class, which is before her Biology class. I just really didn’t like Ellie.

Once she does get to class, though, I can see her trying to organize her life in a way that no one else around her has, so she’s a pioneer, really, in her small Michigan town. While her friends get married young, have babies, and enjoy trucks and barbecues, Ellie feels jealous but cannot settle for the life she’s told she was “supposed” to lead–and was on the path to lead with her husband.

Ellie visits her sister in California, which shows Ellie that even the open spaces of a desert area are being destroyed in the name of progress. It does take two separate trips to California (once when she starts college and once after she’s graduated) for Ellie to really get moving as a character, once again proving that Birdbrain moves too slowly for its own good. It’s after she graduates and heads west for a visit that Ellie finally battles “progress” in California. She learns that 400 acres of land–full of animals, insects, and plants–are going to be bulldozed to create lots for houses. When Virginia Arthur gets to the heart of a fiction book about biology, her work really shines. Here is an example:

It had been about two weeks since the massacre [of the 400 acres]. Unbeknownst to Ellie, Ben, and Liz, hundreds of people had shown up on the property much to the annoyance of the construction company. All kinds of people cased the place, a few looking to see if the lots were for sale yet. Flowers were thrown out across the new housing pads and roads, or stuck directly into the newly graded land, as if for a dead person. (The fact that most of the flowers strewn on the land were nonnative horticultural plants the species of which would ultimately be included in the water-sucking landscape for the new housing development, seemed fitting somehow).

The author’s almost brutal point that the flowers people used to mourn destroyed land are also harmful because they are not indigenous is a striking point. She shows the ignorance of the common person, no matter how kindhearted.

Keen readers will notice in the above passage that there are some problems with commas. Though I try not to focus on the punctuation in books (an error or two are bound to crop up), self-published works can be some of the worst offenders simply because the author is trying to play too many roles: storyteller, editor, publicist, etc. Comma problems were the most obvious (splices, run-ons), as were the unusual use of quote marks. Instead of thinking in italics, which is common practice, characters thought with quote marks. A tag phrase of “thought so-and-so” at the end of a thought meant I had to go back and reread the passage because I was under the impression he/she said something. The quotes around and inside dialogue got confusing, too. Ellie’s friend Patty asks:

“What do you mean they’ve’ “come over from another country?” What? They all got together and decided they could make higher wages and a better life for themselves here, so they all just flew over?” Patty chuckled.

While I get what Patty is saying here, in many places I had to keep track of quote marks to be sure dialogue ended and began somewhere, though in some cases there wasn’t a closing quote mark. And, I’m not sure why one single quote mark appears every few pages, such as they’ve’. Basically, a small problem like multiple quote marks isn’t, overall, a huge deal, but it is asking the reader to do more work–unnecessarily.

The last 100 pages of the novel were some of the best, because this is where the book becomes humorous and the action takes place. Ellie tries to save the plants and animals in San Diego, which gets a lot of local attention, and the story zeros in on both biology and community, giving it life that earlier parts lack.

After the section about trying to save those 400 acres, Ellie is able to travel across America–from California to Washington and eventually back to Michigan. She is alone, but meets all sorts of people with whom she discusses birds and biology at campgrounds. By this point in the book Ellie is a woman in her early 30s who has an idea of who she is and what she wants, though not a life plan to implement, which seems to suit her okay for a time. She is in control sexually in a way that most women are not in fiction, and I respected her for that. Ellie doesn’t shy away from situations because she is alone; her family and friends may worry, but Ellie isn’t going to wait for a boyfriend or husband to take her hand and be her “protector” through her adventures:

Ellie made a mental note that the two women in her life she loved most seemed to be really curt with her lately and both very anxious for her to “settle down.” She chalked it up to their being jealous and yes, there was an element of this but what she did not fully grasp was that they were also genuinely concerned for her safety; having to worry about her on top of everything else in their lives was an extra burden. It even kind of pissed them off.

Despite the occasional humor near the end (where Arthur really seems to hit her stride) and an intelligent theme for a novel (the author is a field biologist who can speak credibly about the subject), I had trouble getting over inconsistencies in the plot. A character has a baby in one scene and the baby is gone later. A broken radio is returned to its owner only to be in Ellie’s kitchen for repair in a page or two, which then has to be given to the owner again. Patty says it’s good Ellie got a goodnight kiss from her date only to say a little while later that she feels bad that man didn’t get a goodnight kiss. In the end, when Ellie is in her 80s, the author seems to have forgotten the dates and ages she established: if Ellie is divorced at 26 in 1982 and is single into her 30s, it’s not possible in the end for her to become a widow at 64–after 40 years of marriage. And if the story ends with Ellie in her 80s, it’s important to note that readers are now in the future, somewhere around year 2040. How would development and biology and environmental concerns be different so far into the future when policies change and lands are destroyed so quickly today? It seems suspiciously like 2015 when Ellie is in her 80s.

I kept waiting for the book to be how it was described on Goodreads and in the press release: parts Tom Robbins, TC Boyle, Barbara Kingsolver, Pam Houston, Ed Abbey, Vine Deloria, and John Irving. Personally, I feel it’s a mistake for authors to compare their works to famous writers because readers go in with certain expectations that are almost never met (one of the reasons I don’t do such comparisons in my reviews) and fail to see the originality of the book they hold in their hands.

Overall, Birdbrain still has a lot of promise, which is the beauty of self-publishing; it can be edited. I loved the momentum, humor, and character development–in the last stretch–but had I not been reviewing the book (I always finish a book I review), I wouldn’t have gotten past 100 pages.

*I want to thank Virginia Arthur for sending me a copy of her novel in exchange for an honest review. I have no personal, familial, or professional relationship to this author.