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The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová @RoseMetalPress

The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová @RoseMetalPress

The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová: A Biographical Collage

by Kelcey Parker Ervick

Published by Rose Metal Press, November 2016

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

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

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

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

and she came to an untimely end.


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

with heavy clouds.

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


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

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

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

The Girls of Usually #bookreview #readwomen #LGBT #Holocaust #20BooksofSummer

The Girls of Usually #bookreview #readwomen #LGBT #Holocaust #20BooksofSummer

The Girls of Usually by Lori Horvitz

published by Truman State University Press in 2015

Lori Horvitz’s first book is a memoir that chronicles her childhood as a New York City Jew, some of her travels in Europe and Asia, her creativity, and, mostly, her dating life. Horvitz dated men, then decided she was bisexual, then grappled with being a lesbian. As she mentioned in her Meet the Writer feature, Horvitz’s mother bought a photo frame from the store, but never removed the happy blond woman in the stock image. As a result, Horvitz wished to be (and later date) that blond woman. Horvitz suggests she stands out with her dark curly hair, Jewish heritage, and immigrant parents. As a kid, Horvitz loved to perform magic and hug her pet pocket poodle, the only living thing in her house she felt she could hug.

the girls of usually.jpg

I thought the book would proceed from childhood to college to adulthood, but I couldn’t make sense of the time structure in The Girls of Usually. I felt like someone had blindfolded me, relocated me, and when the blindfold was taken off, I had to re-learn where I was. Early, on page 35, Horvitz mentions a female college student she just met, who asks Horvitz if sex is good with her boyfriend. What boyfriend? I asked. He was never mentioned before. Soon, I realized this book is more like slice of life stories, one per chapter. The stories don’t always directly proceed chronologically. This drove me bonkers.

Another example: at the end of chapter 10 Horvitz booked a cheap trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway. In chapter 11, Horvitz starts with Rita, a woman she’s interviewing. Who is Rita?! I asked. Rita is a woman in her 40s. The chapter then goes back 20 years and tells the story of the Trans-Siberian Railway trip. Back when Horvitz rode the train, Rita stayed in the same compartment. The author explains that she ended up falling in love with Rita on this trip, the first time she realized she was into women. This timeline means that when we first meet Rita, Horvitz is in her 40s, too, not just out of college. Confusing! Why not end chapter 10 with saying she booked the trip, use chapter 11 to describe the trip, and have chapter 12 get into interviewing Rita 20 years later? Horvitz’s choice to tell things out of order is jolting and unnecessarily confusing.

At another point, Horvitz goes in circles. I bolded two parts to show you what I mean:

Upon my return to New York, Amy broke up with me and started dating a magician, a man she met while bartending at The Village Idiot, the tiny bar that used to be Downtown Beirut. Because of the poor economy and exorbitant real estate costs, just about every gallery in the East Village had closed down. Albert died, not from a gunshot wound but from AIDS. And Paula called to tell me about Barry, who just tested positive for AIDS. Two days later, she found out she was HIV negative. She remained friends with Barry and often brought him bee pollen and Spirulina, until ten years later when Barry was too sick to take care of himself, when he flew home to Indiana where his parents took care of him until he died in 2002, when his parents honored his request to be cremated but didn’t know what to do with the ashes. They sent them to Paula and, to this day, Paula’s not sure what to do with them. “They’re in a box in my closet,” she told me.

[paragraph break].

But now it’s 1989 and Amy just broke up with me.

Why are there so many people between the two mentions of Amy? If you’re wondering what role Albert, Paula, and Barry play here, or why it matters where Amy bartended, or that it used to be called a different name, I have no idea either.

In the last 1/3 of The Girls of Usually, Horvitz has a dog, a border collie/corgi mix, at her new house in North Carolina. In a later section, she’s getting the dog, which she learns is a border collie/corgi mix, because she moved into her house in North Carolina and can provide a pet a stable home. In an even later section, she describes her dog, a border collie/corgi mix, meeting a girlfriend’s dog for the first time. I started wondering if these essays were all published separately. If so, were they not edited for content? The reader is introduced to the dog three times! I’m providing several examples of the jumpiness of this book to show that it isn’t a one-time thing. This is the experience of almost the whole book.

Also in the last 1/3 of the book, the stories were all the same and with no indication if they are chronological. Here is the basic story of the author’s life: Horvitz chooses to enter the online dating world, Horvitz meets a new woman who is super crazy, Horvitz can tell right away the woman is super crazy (because she is obviously drunk, lying, evading, screaming, calling ex’s, etc.), Horvitz invests time and money in seeing this woman for long visits (sometimes two weeks) but ends up leaving early because crazy women are crazy. Horvitz explains her choices: she “suffers” the abuse of these women for far longer than she should because it gives her something to write about. Horvitz explains at least three times:

  • “But I was the writer, always in search of a good story, an interesting character. No matter the price. At least that’s what I told myself.”
  • “Maybe it was the writer in me who wanted to see this play out, to prove [my girlfriend] was nuts.”
  • Here Horvitz writes in second person: “You could have predicted all of this before you arrived; you knew the end of the story before it began, but you’re a writer, so you say, and perhaps you needed to get the details right.”

I found Horvitz’s excuse weak and mean-spirited in a way that helped the author avoid digging into her motivations. If she’s dating “crazy” women to get a story and be published, then she’s being exploitative. Perhaps Horvitz is justifying her dating choices in a way that doesn’t make her feel bad for not finding romantic love, but it was her choice to lead readers to believe she’s just in it for the story fodder.

At one point, she mentions she has a therapist. So, where is all the deep reflection one would do with a therapist? Why is it not in this book? The section with the therapist is written in second person (the only section!) as if it’s not really about Horvitz, so perhaps the work she’s doing in therapy isn’t quite ready to come out in book form. But that leaves the reader without much reason to read The Girls of Usually.

Horvitz’s childhood chapters (there are only a couple) were much more reflective. She gets a lot of negative feedback about what an LGBT person is when she’s a little kid. Because she’s shy, she’s called a “queer-o faggot” by the other third graders. Later, still as a girl, she sees on TV a woman argue against gay rights: “If gays are granted rights…next we’ll have to give rights to prostitutes and to people who sleep with Saint Bernards, and to nail biters.” These memories demonstrate to the reader how impressionable children are, which is important to keep in mind when we choose our words.

There are a few gems in Horvitz’s chapters about her adult life. She works as a mentor-friend for men with HIV, and she is assigned to Nestor. Nestor, rather than tell his family that he is gay and has HIV, which is the reason he has so many needle tracks in his arms, claims he is addicted to heroin. This, he knows, will go over better with his family. Pete, an abrasive straight man, actually gets HIV from shooting heroin. In his dying days, he says hateful things about LGBT people, but tries to smooth it over by complimenting a few gay people. In these examples, Horvitz captures the complexity of being a lesbian during the AIDS epidemic, and her first-hand accounts are valuable.

There is also a big about being Jewish sprinkled throughout The Girls of Usually. There’s mention of her family members who’d survived the Holocaust, and the time she visits a death camp, which makes it all more real. At one point, Horvitz reads tons of books about the Holocaust while dating a German woman who isn’t totally sure Hitler was a bad man because her grandpa always said Hitler fixed the economy. Again, there ins’t much reflection on what these moments mean. What does a mention here and there mean to the reader? Not much.

Overall, I don’t recommend this book. It’s unnecessarily difficult to follow, lacks deep emotional digging, and gets so repetitive in the end when she’s describing how crazy her ex-girlfriends are, even though she knew they had emotional issues she could exploit. During the last several chapters, I really just wanted the book to conclude.

I want to thank Lori Horvitz for sending me a copy of The Girls of Usually in exchange for a honest review.



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
  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



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:


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!


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.


Meet the Writer: Jan Millsapps

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!

Scoot Over, Skinny: The Fat Nonfiction Anthology

Scoot Over, Skinny: The Fat Nonfiction Anthology

Scoot Over, Skinny: The Fat Nonfiction Anthology

edited by Donna Jarrell and Ira Sukrungruang

320 pages

published by Mariner Books, Jan 2005

Donna Jarrell’s and Ira Sukrungruang’s anthologies (they also have a fat fiction anthology — see below) have become important to me. Fall of 2013 I taught from the fiction anthology as part of a Contemporary Fiction class. None of my students were even chubby, let alone fat, so the anthology meant little to them–at first. I found that some of them were so thin because they had obsessive parents. One young man’s father was obese and constantly trying to work it off. Another your woman’s mother was a personal trainer who warned over and over the dangers of eating the “wrong foods” and becoming fat.

However, when I read this nonfiction anthology, I felt a deeper connection because these were real people explaining in words that I often couldn’t put together the way they felt about fat. The authors are not all fat or obese; some are quite thin, but write to explain how they feel about seeing or being with fat people.


Donna Jarrell

In “Letting Myself Go,” Sallie Tisdale weights about 165 lbs, a weight many fat people would kill to be. She is a frequent dieter. She notes, “The pettiness is never far away; concern with my weight evokes the smallest, meanest parts of me. I look at another woman passing on the street and think, At least I’m not that fat.” I myself have had such thoughts, and so Tisdale made me consider how I internalize the bodies of others.

Natalie Kusz writes in “On Being Invisible” that she takes up more space, but is less seen. She points out, “The fact is, the old racist attitude that ‘all black (or Asian or Latin) people look alike’ also applies to fat people, with the same main corollary: We look alike to other beings because they cannot see us at all.” I was surprised by this comparison and began to reassess the way I look at people I see who take up more room. Do I look away? Do I see these people as all the same because they have one shared quality?

“Tight Fits” by Ira Sukrungruang is more like a guide with examples. How does an obese person get around the challenges of getting into small places, like airplane seats or sacred temples in Thailand. The goal seems to be to avoid embarrassment, and I felt embarrassed that I’ve considered such tactics myself (only in different scenarios). The accommodations for others can feel endless when you are abandoned for being “too big.”


Ira Sukrungruang (pretty much the only man allowed on Grab the Lapels so far)

Atul Gawande describes “The Man Who Couldn’t Stop Eating” from a doctor’s point of view. Gawande is always concerned that his patient will regain all of the weight lost after gastric bypass surgery. It turns out that he learns the patient is also concerned. Is this problem bigger than his desires? I really liked seeing the exchanges between the doctor and patient outside of the hospital because the doctor could give facts from a medical standpoint while still engaging with the human patient who fears for his life and wonders how quality it can be if he remains morbidly obese.

I thought it was a fantastic choice on the part of the editors to put Sondra Solovay’s piece “Now You See Me, Now You Don’t” right after Gawande’s essay. While Gawande describes the high success rates of G.B. surgery and how it is the best option medical science has, Solovay points out immediately that she had a friend who was 310 lbs looking happy in on the steps of a pyramid in El Salvador. And how that friend had G.B. surgery and died. What this achieves is showing readers that no matter which option is the best in terms of losing weight, they can all be dangerous. Should the 310 lb friend have continued her life at 310 lbs? A friend of mine who had G.B. surgery and became pregnant and then regained most of the weight pointed out to me that she cut up her insides to get society to look at her. She has a lot of health problems now, and I’m not sure how long she’ll be a mother to her toddler.

Steven A. Shaw celebrates being a chubby man in “Fat Guys Kick Ass.” This is mostly a list of ways that fat guys are better lovers and boyfriends who are stronger but more peaceful. This is a very fun-loving piece that makes me rethink what others feel internally. Not all fat people feel bad inside, I must remember.

Many other readers have commented on the remaining essays (written by giants like David Sedaris and Anne Lamott or that describe a thin person’s hate for fat individuals, like Irvin Yalom or the “hoggers”), but one that struck me was “Fat Like Him” by Lori Gottlieb. She was so happy when she didn’t know that Tim, who was on the other end of her email, was fat. When they are together, she is embarrassed that people will think she’s with him and she calls him a friend. At home, though, they have fantastic sex and she is very happy with him. However, I read that Gottlieb’s essay is mostly untrue. This could be the result of her stretching the truth, or it could be that her ex is humiliated, and why wouldn’t he be? This is the sort of thing that really requires prior approval since the situation is so specific (no one will not know who this guy is in real life whether we call him “Tim” or not).

Overall, this book made me assess myself and the way others perceive me and the way I perceive them, regardless of size, but with fat in mind.

My quick thoughts on the What Are You Looking At? The First Fat Fiction Anthology

The stories in this collection were really great. When I read the title of the anthology, my first thought was the Raymond Carver story “Fat,” and it was in there. BUT! I kept wondering…is this all there is out there in terms of “fat-fiction”? No one else writes any? Makes me want to write more of it…also makes me wonder if people don’t really want to read it and that is why I can’t get any published. Also, I’m really surprised that most of the reviews of this book comment that the reader expected this to be an uplifting anthology. It can be really difficult to turn a physical/psychological problem into something feel-good. I wasn’t expecting that at all.

Meet the Writer: Julie Schwietert Collazo

Meet the Writer: Julie Schwietert Collazo

I want to thank Julie for answering my questions. You can learn more about her at her website, and you can read more about her notes and advice for writers and editors here! She is on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, and Google+ (the links are easy to access via her website).

What did you want to be when you grew up?

Writing was always important to me, as was reading, and I thought I would probably teach literature at the college/university level. But I ended up taking a different path, thanks to my senior thesis in Women’s Studies at Emory University. I was studying the use of art therapy in support groups for women with cancer, and I was amazed by the clinical effects of the groups. I immediately thought, “I want to do this with writing!” I wasn’t sure such a profession existed, but once I found out that it did, I got my MSW and became a creative arts therapist specializing in the use of writing in therapy sessions. Basically, I was helping people tell their stories, but in written form. After five years in that field, I became burned out by the bureaucracy of social service agencies, and I became a full-time freelance writer, work that isn’t so different; I still help people tell stories.

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

I think some people have a gift for writing, certainly, but even the most gifted writers benefit from instruction, whether formal or informal. Writing is a craft and there are so many forms, techniques, and skills to learn, and how to use them well.

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

Pre-calculus. My high school pre-calc teacher knew I was a good student and thought I’d perform as well in his class as I had in every other class. When I didn’t, he wrote in my high school yearbook, “You are my biggest failure.”

Are you reading anything right now?

I’ve always had the habit of checking out an impossible stack of books, which feels even more impossible now that I have kids. And I always pack too many books when I travel (I’m no technophobe, but I have no interest in a Kindle or Nook). Right now, I’m reading Midnight in Mexico by journalist Alfredo Corchado and Finders, Keepers by Craig Childs; the latter is about what is done—and should be done—with ancient artifacts.

Are you writing anything right now?

My writing habits are a lot like my reading habit; I’m always working on multiple assignments. I’m a regular contributor to The Latin Kitchen, where I write about culture and food. I’m working on an article for National Geographic Traveler, several pieces for a new project being launched by USA Today, and a number of other assignments. I’m also about to start promoting Moon New York State, a guidebook I authored that’s being released next week.

Update: Julie’s book has been released and is available for purchase!

Meet the Writer: Rebecca Brooks

Meet the Writer: Rebecca Brooks

I want to thank Rebecca for answering the “Meet the Writer’ interview questions. I found her answers to be inspiring to me, and encourage bravery! You can find Rebecca in a variety of places: Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, and at her website!

Information in brackets was added by Grab the Lapels.

What kinds of writing do you do? What kinds of writing do you wish you did more of?

I write contemporary erotic romance about independent women who leave their lives behind to try something new. My debut, Above All, is about an artist and a chef in the Adirondacks. [Read my review on Grab the Lapels!]. My second novel, How to Fall, is now published and features a Chicago teacher and an Australian television writer who meet in Brazil. I’m interested in stories with well-rounded characters whose sexual adventures form a larger narrative about self-discovery and fulfillment. I’ve done a lot of different kinds of writing, including poetry and literary scholarship, but there’s nothing else I’d rather be working on now!

In what ways has academia shaped your writing?

Academia is actually how I got into romance. I wrote my dissertation on the romance plot in contemporary feminist utopian and dystopian fiction. Through that project I a) got hooked on romance and b) came up with the idea that would become Above All. Although I’ve since left academia, the experience helped prepare me to write full-time. Grad school taught me how to get serious about my writing. It also made me want to be more creative. I get to explore a lot of the same issues in fiction that I was in scholarship—feminism, sexuality, identity, how to imagine alternative futures. But I have more opportunities to connect with readers, which I really enjoy.

In what ways has life outside of academia shaped your writing?

The other major influence on my writing is travel. I lived in India when I was 18 and spent time in Brazil during college and after. I’ve also done a lot of hiking around the world. It’s no coincidence I’m drawn to writing with a strong sense of place. I love hearing from readers who tell me they’ve Googled the small mountain town in Above All so they can visit and are disappointed to discover it isn’t real. (Sorry!) My beta readers for How to Fall are now dying to spend New Year’s in Brazil. [How to Fall was published in November of 2015. Congrats, Rebecca!]. I want readers to feel truly immersed in the world of the novel. It’s a great excuse for me to ditch the computer and go somewhere great so I can write about it later.

What was the first piece of writing you did that you remember being happy with?

In middle school I went to a writing camp that I hated, but one of the counselors said something that stuck with me. He said you have to write a lot of shit before you get anything good. This permission to write badly was revelatory. I wrote a short vignette asking how you can tell if your writing is shit. It’s cliché to write about not being able to write, but it felt like a risk for me to use the word shit, admit to self-doubt, and understand that I was going to keep writing anyway. I remember reading over this piece and being surprised that it had come from me. I’m less afraid of writing shit now. I know it’s inevitable. But my best writing always includes this same disbelief.

What happens when you’re not happy with your writing?

I’m rarely happy with the first draft, but that’s what drafts are for. I start tearing my hair out when I go through revision after revision and the same problems persist. That’s when I stop and put it away. The break can be anywhere from a few hours to weeks or even months. I might take a walk, work on something else, or read other novels that tackle similar issues. The important thing for me is to remember that the problem isn’t permanent. Going back to an earlier question, that’s one of the main lessons I’ve taken from academia. I couldn’t put an article in a drawer and forget about it—there were due dates. Even if I keep writing the wrong thing over and over again, I have to trust it will eventually work out.

(This all sounds much more optimistic than how I actually feel, which is like the world is imploding and I should have gone to law school.)

How do your friends and family respond to your writing?

Above All has been out since July 2014 and it amazes me how positive the response has been. It was initially a little awkward to announce, “Oh, hey. I’m finishing my PhD but not going on the job market because, um, I want to write graphic sex.” But it turns out people love graphic sex! I wrote an essay about being embarrassed to tell my mom when I found out Above All was going to be published.

Now she posts every link on Facebook, hands out flyers and postcards, and talks it up to everyone she knows. My friends who don’t typically read romance want book recommendations. I don’t take for granted how lucky I am to have this support.

The Time Garden

The Time Garden

Title: The Time Garden: A Magical Journey and Coloring Book

Author and Illustrator: Ji-Hye Song (in English she goes by Daria Song)

Translated from Korean by: Min Jung-Jo

Published By: Watson-Guptill in 2014

the time garden

I’ve always loved to color. There, I said it. Crayons are my favorite tool by far, and markers my least. I’ve always found coloring with crayons in a coloring book comforting because the objective – finish coloring in the picture without making a mess of it – is achievable within 30 to 60 minutes, depending on how meticulous you are and what you leave uncolored. This is a time in the U.S. when people frequently cannot meet goals: we struggle to pay for school, so we cannot attend; we seek full-time jobs, but they don’t seem to exist; we want to lose weight, but the food industry is pretty twisted. Therefore, completing any goal feels like a miracle, and to me, that’s what coloring can do.

Adult coloring books, however, are far different from the kid versions. The images are tiny, complicated, and finishing one picture may take hours, days, or never be finished at all. This past Christmas, my husband surprised me by gifting me with this adult coloring book. At first, I couldn’t use it because there were no colored pencils in the stores. Since the grown-up coloring trend started, stores can’t seem to keep on their shelves the only tool that makes sense for such tiny details. I was skeptical, but once I got my colored pencils I gave it a go.

Like the pragmatist I am, I started on page one, planned on coloring the whole thing, then moving to the next page. I didn’t completely finish:


I got close! The wallpaper pattern nearly killed me.

I really struggled with how many lines there were on the clock. I’ve had this rule about not having the same color touch in different parts of a coloring project, but with The Time Garden it was an impossible standard. I felt like a failure when the colors touched, and I felt worse that I didn’t finish the tedious fleur de lis on the wallpaper.

Instead of giving up, I chose one thing to color on all the pages: the little girl’s skin. I had my one color and I filled in her skin on every page, happy that I hadn’t promised myself I would color in all the crazy details:


It was speedy to flip through and color the girl’s tiny body among all the details.

When I finished with the girl’s skin, I started to wonder if I was being lazy. The point of coloring is not to hurry, right? Well, I was never getting that sense of accomplishment I wanted, so yes, I was speeding! I then decided to add some color and have some fun with it:


I had some awareness of what color a thing might be, like the brown wood of the chair, but played in other places, like making the cuckoo clock totally orange.

Part of what reinvigorated me was reading Lynda Barry’s book Syllabus in which she talks about the connection between moving our hands and how our brains work. She starts her students with crayon, and they are required to leave zero white background (which means they have to color very hard). I played around with coloring hard and soft, but I still avoided most of the detailed stuff:


Do you like my mini typewriter? It’s a pencil sharpener I bought in 1996 to include in a school project. The assignment was to decide what we wanted to be when we grew up (a writer), research information (didn’t really have internet…) and create a diorama of our work space (desk + typewriter, of course).

I’ve colored in other bits and pieces here and there, but ever since I moved The Time Garden and my colored pencils off the kitchen table, I haven’t really revisited it. I can’t stand all the little tiny lines and details, which now makes me wonder if adult coloring books are increasing stress for those who sought a way to calm down and relax! I would not buy another one.


Lucky for me, I also own crayons and a coloring book. Task complete!

What do you think about adult coloring books? Have you tried them?

Meet the Writer: Debra DiBlasi

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”

Little Fish

Little Fish


Title & Author: Little Fish, written and drawn by Ramsey Beyer

Published by: Zest Books in September 2013

Note: I pointed out recently that I will be using page numbers in my reviews to “practice what I preach” to my comp students, but this book does not have numbered pages!

Little Fish Beyer

Although the cover is in color, the rest of the book is black and white.

I decided to check out Ramsey Beyer’s work because she was recommended during a Grab the Lapels “Meet the Writer” feature with comic artist Liz PrinceLittle Fish is a graphic memoir that looks at the author’s first year of college, starting with the summer before she leaves in small-town Paw Paw, Michigan, and ending just as summer begins after her spring semester at an art college in Baltimore concludes.

In the first few pages, the author introduces herself in the present. She says she’s Ramsey, 28 years old, and lives in Philly where she makes comics about her own life. I like this introduction, as it shows readers that Ramsey Beyer became a “successful adult.” Liz Prince started in a similar way in Tomboy. Prince’s adult self would jump in the narrative of her childhood to add insights she’s gained since she was a girl. Ramsey Beyer’s adult self never comes back, and I wasn’t sure why not. There were many times I wanted more reflection of what freshman-year Ramsey felt.

The majority of Little Fish is told through lists that Beyer wrote while she was in college. I didn’t like these. They add very little insight and could have served as reminders to the author of how she was at 18, or the author could have commented on the lists and how sometimes her feelings changed really fast (like from depressed to bouncy, for example, in a matter of days). Some lists provide better insight, such as the one that talks about why she wanted to go to a school in the city. Here are a few reasons:

“–i need to push my boundaries in every way

–i’ll make better art if i’m uncomfortable and inspired

–i don’t want to be able to fall back on my friends and family. if i lived nearby, i don’t think i would end up pushing myself”

Some of the other items include immature observations, like “the East Coast seems so cool!” but there are moments where Beyer shows us she was a deeply reflective 18-year-old. It just that most of her lists don’t demonstrate that, and lists consume the pages of Little Fish.

list (2).jpg

Two lists on one page. Many pages look like this.

What I did appreciate about the lists is that they were constructed in a visually appealing way. Many were cut up and placed on top of textured back grounds, like strips of duct tape, bubble wrap, or knitted fabric (Beyer was in knitting club in college). These textured backgrounds are made of materials popular with teenagers, but also demonstrate Beyer is thinking about the composition of images.

Little Fish is also told through Livejournal posts the author made when she was 18. Ramsey Beyer graduated high school and went to college the same year I did, so I could relate to how popular Livejournal was at the time. Also, Beyer and I both grew up in small-town Michigan. I frequently drive past her hometown of Paw Paw on my way to visit relatives! I’m not sure that the Livejournal posts will add much for all readers, but to me, they added a level of nostalgia for 2003-2004.

livejournal beyer

Beyer writing a Livejournal post on the airplane.


Since this is a graphic novel, there has to be some panels like we normally think of in comics. I liked these the best, as the author drew herself asking questions and thinking about what’s going on during her first year at college. She worries that she’s not political enough, and her new friend Daniel prods her to consider her position on topics like feminism and animal rights. This was the interesting material; the conversations with her friends and subsequent reflections on the conversations are rich. The drawing style is simplistic–a bit like the cartoon Doug–which keeps the attention on the ideas and not the drawing details.

Overall, Little Fish is a slice of life story that begins and ends arbitrarily: with the start and conclusion of Beyer’s first year of college. Although she expresses frustration with her art classes, readers are never shown any of her art projects or actually see her struggling. Classes are often mentioned on a list. For instance, on the list titled “school is hard sink or swim” she writes, “–my very first assignment in drawing class was to draw 100 hands and 100 feet by the following week. thats a lot of drawing (!!) and that was only one class out of four that i had for homework that week”. I wanted to know how that week went! Was she constantly drawing? What did the hands look like? The only point of reference readers have for Beyer’s artwork is the book they hold in their hands. She also changes majors to animation, a form of art she’s never done but ends up loving after taking one class. What do they do in that class? What are her projects like? Beyer leaves readers hanging.

Instead, Beyer mostly focuses on what “kind” of friends she has and how having people who know everything about her affects the depth of her feelings for those individuals. Beyer’s friends from Paw Paw, MI, knew her since she was five. Her new friends in college are totally different. Yet, readers don’t get to know anyone well. They’re mostly described in lists! More lists! For example, “Olivia likes: activism, films, going on dates, trying new food, and veganism.” The lists don’t help the reader, but they seem to help Beyer think about what friends are and where they can come from. After living together and talking intimately for 2 semesters, Beyer’s new friends earn a place in her heart because they know so much about her. As a result, when she’s at college she wants to be home, but when she’s at home, she often misses college! This is good stuff that would be helpful for new high school grads. That is the best audience for Little Fish: high school graduates off to college.

I felt like it was refreshing to read about someone who represents straightedge life, even though Beyer hates that term–because she’s the kind of person I was at her age. Everyone wants to see their story told in media, to see themselves represented and identify with the people depicted. But, this book doesn’t push the author. It’s a lot of cut and paste (literally) from 2003-2004, causing the book to tell readers quite a bit of information without showing it, and without trusting readers to pick up on visual ques in a visual medium.