Tag Archives: biology

Living with a Wild God #BookReview #Journalism #Memoir

Living with a Wild God #BookReview #Journalism #Memoir

Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything

by Barbara Ehrenreich

published by Hachette Book Group, 2014

Based on the title, I made some assumptions about Ehrenreich’s book, namely that it would be written by an atheist who wanted to investigate perhaps where religion comes from, how it influences us today, or why we still need religion in an age of mass technology. I use the word “investigate” because Barbara Ehrenreich is known most famously as a journalist. You’ve probably read all, or at least an excerpt, of Nickel and Dimed if you live in the United States. But I’m not sure what Living with a Wild God is. It’s not journalism. It’s not a memoir. It’s not fiction. It’s a hot mess.

Ehrenreich explains that when she lived in the Florida Keys she was asked by a library to donate her papers so they wouldn’t succumb to the mold so ubiquitous in that swampy area. The one thing she didn’t hand over, however, was a diary she wrote mainly from 1956-1959, when she was 14-17 years old. In the Forward, Ehrenreich explains that something “cataclysmic” happened to her, and she never wrote nor spoke about it to anyone lest they think her crazy. Like a good journalist, Ehrenreich makes some admissions:

It is true, I should further admit, that the narrative as I have reconstructed it lends itself quite readily to psychiatric explanation, or explanations: the tense and sometimes hazardous family life, the secret childhood quest for cosmic knowledge, the eerie lapses into a kind of “second sight,” the spectacular breakdown in my late teens.

Okay, so Ehrenreich admits there there are some psychological reasons that could explain this “cataclysmic” thing that happened to her (no details are yet provided)… but the entire book looks elsewhere for answers. Not a very useful admission if the author won’t explore it. However, we do get a background on this “hazardous family life.”

Ehrenreich’s first chapter, “The Situation,” describes her alcoholic parents and her original home in Butte, Montana. Ehrenreich’s father was a miner who crawled up the class ladder to become a white collar scientist after studying metallurgy. But it’s an uncle who really influences the author in this chapter: he explains that we’re all going to die, that it is a “great death march” we’re all doing. After the long Forward about the “cataclysmic” event, I figured “The Situation” would be about what happened. It’s not; the situation is that death lingers. Thus, the chapter felt dishonest.


Chapter 2, “Typing Practice,” isn’t really about typing. Ehrenreich learns that when she writes, she thinks, and thus her diary begins. The author questions everything, such as why she learns about imaginary numbers in math class. Ehrenreich figures, “If you accept imaginary numbers without raising a question, you’ll swallow any goddamn thing they decide to stuff down your throat.” Chapter 2 also wanders: the parents are drunk, her mother believes Ehrenreich has some Oedipal yearnings for her father, the family is all atheists, she digs into science, and Ehrenreich tries a church. She writes in her diary — again, she’s 14:

Modern Protestantism…is a social organization, providing basketball, badminton, bowling, dancing and a Sunday fashion show. The most incongruous thing I ever saw in “our” church was a girl praying. I was startled, really.

This second chapter isn’t really about church or family. It wanders along with 14-year-old Barbara. The book you hold in your hands is middle-aged Barbara putting together who she was when she was a teen. In many places, I had to force myself to keep reading with the expectation that Living with a Wild God would be as organized and thoughtful as her previous books. Pretty much every moment while reading I wanted to stop.

Finally, in Chapter 3, readers learn what the “cataclysmic” event was:

So from a scientific perspective, what happened to me was that every now and then I simply stopped doing the work of perception and refused to transform the hail of incoming photons into named and familiar objects. There was plenty of input still pouring in in the form of sounds and color and lights, but it wasn’t getting sorted and categorized.

For a writer, Ehrenreich is being terribly vague. How does she experience whatever these …events… are? What does it look or feel like? By the end of the book, she mentions fire on one occasion, but the image is still unclear. Very briefly the author discusses “dissociative disorder,” but not to the extent that it clarifies what happens to her when she thinks she having some sort of religious experience as an atheist. Eventually, Ehrenreich is able to spit out that she feels “menaced by hazy sunlight.”


Ehrenreich age 18, one year after she saw invisible angels.

After the biggest event to occur, though, the author is able to ask if she should tell anyone about her religious-type experience: “what would I have said? That I had been savaged by a flock of invisible angles — lifted up in a glorious flutter of iridescent feathers, then mauled, emptied of all intent and purpose, and pretty much left for dead?” Whoa! This quote is from page 163. That’s 163 pages into the book before the author is able to say in some clear language what her experiences are like — which is what the whole book is supposed to be about — and it’s so far-fetched and unreal that I don’t trust Ehrenreich anymore. What is the purpose of this book, I started asking. I’m not learning about religion, and I don’t understand Ehrenreich’s “experiences.”

And who is the audience for this book? The text suggests you must have prior engagement with Ehrenreich’s work, a firm grasp of science terminology, and be well-read enough to understand all the big words she uses: coterminous, apparatchiks, concatenation, sororal. I made the same complaint about vocabulary in my review of Bright-sided, but to heap on her personal history and physics, chemistry, and biology is too much. To whom would this book appeal other than Ehrenreich herself?


Ehrenreich today, no less confused by angels and light and whatever else is “cataclysmic.”

Every chapter wanders around, from the author’s obsession with all things science to her inability to recognize that other humans have consciousness. Yes, as a teenager Barbara Ehrenreich didn’t realize that other people had thoughts and made choices. Her philosophical questions torment her until she’s like a poor Edgar Allen Poe character. Eventually, around 17, she quit eating and was putting cigarettes out on her hand. She believed she had “developed new powers.” At this point in the book, I’m worried for teen-aged Barbara and adult Barbara Ehrenreich. The girl is not convinced she should be alive or that other people are really there. She fantasizes about life in an apocalypse. The author, about 40 years later, can’t add insight or reason to her youthful self’s narrative — no motives, no probing into her behaviors, which is why I said that the author’s admissions in the Forward were useless.

The last couple of chapters read like a 10 minute lecture on what nonreligious types call Other or Others (something god-like that isn’t monotheistic). Using more sources and careful drafting, these two chapters, expanded into a book, is what Living with a Wild God should have been. Sadly, Ehrenreich thanks her editor in the acknowledgements for encouraging her to explore her old diary instead of focusing on a history of religion. Yeesh. Absolutely skip this disorganized mess and check out Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America or Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America instead. No one else in my book club came even close to finishing Living with a Wild God.

In His Genes #science #BookReview

In His Genes #science #BookReview

In His Genes (2013) by Robin Stratton is a slim novel at 183 pages. The story follows Cassie, a woman on the verge of 40, who works in a lab with the handsome do-gooder Dr. Jack Miller. Jack is tying to find the gene mutation linked to a rare disease called Voight’s that causes women to give birth to male babies who are covered in sores and screaming. A few days later, the mother, who was otherwise healthy, dies. Jack’s own wife died from Voight’s, and he’s racing against the clock to save his son, Jeremy.

At first, In His Genes felt like it followed standard protocol for a romance novel: the good-looking male boss and the woman who works way below her intellectual abilities for no money because she’s happy to be near the man. The old “this woman is so smart that she should be the boss, and honestly, he can’t do anything without her” thing. The familiar “she’s like a comfortable shoe” theme. Throw in the sexy, accomplished Dr. Renee Temple, with her excellent fake breasts, who visits Jack once per month for a good roll in the sheets, and we have everything we expect. Unfortunately, Dr. Temple is written with limited emotional range: uncaring, petty, catty. She was more like a paper doll than a person, so it was hard to hater her even though she forgets Jack even has a son.


Although the cozy relationship between Jack and Cassie is meant to give readers something to root for — that moment when they admit they’re meant for each other and he stops seeing Dr. Temple — I was uncomfortable with how much they “played house” as boss and employee. Jack calls Cassie to have her come to the hospital when his son has flare ups of Voight’s disease — and she goes. He expresses sadness over being unable to pay her for all the extra hours she works. They have dinner together at his house, and she loves son and kisses him goodnight. The whole relationship is so inappropriate that I felt uncomfortable. Cassie’s life is on pause while she waits for her boss to figure out she cares about him and is acting as wife and mother in his life. It’s another movie trope, one that has women wait and wait and wait — where’s the initiative? The self-respect?

It was early on I realized I wasn’t sure how to perceive Cassie. First, I couldn’t keep track of her age (almost 40) because I kept thinking she was a post-grad student, someone in her early 20s. Whenever I did remember her age, I couldn’t figure out what she did before she worked in Jack’s lab. She’s only been there for 2  years. It’s weekends, late nights, almost no pay, so Cassie certainly works like a grad student. I felt sad that yet another woman was putting herself in financial jeopardy to play second trombone in the hopes that her boss would open his eyes and fall in love with her.

Cassie is supposed to be a nice woman: her parents love her, her boss loves her, her boss’s son loves her, she’s donating tons of her time for science (albeit so she can be close to her boss). Cassie is supposed to be a happy woman who was “a reader, straight-A student, volleyball star [who] attended Boston College on a scholarship [and] majored in anthropology.” Yet, at times, Cassie was petty enough that I was surprised by the extent of it. Jack’s sister, Margaret, quit her job to care for Jeremy. She’s an MIT grad who pays attention to the benefits of nutrition and rest to prevent flare ups. Still, Cassie is jealous of this woman, as if Jack may fall in love with his sister. Cassie mentally criticizes:

Tall and slender with long, glossy dark hair, [Margaret would] be pretty if not for her crabby pinched-up expression. Rarely smiles, never dates. Destined to be bitter and alone. I look away. Her choice has nothing to do with me.

I just… really can’t get behind this sort of negative criticism of other women, especially when it concerns a woman’s appearance or her status in relation to a man. Was Stratton trying to make Cassie seem petty?


But Stratton throws readers a plot twist: Palmer, a guy in his 50s performing Beat poetry in a cafe who is able to magically fix Cassie’s car when the battery dies on a cold winter night. He’s weird yet caring, and I hoped that the introduction of Palmer would steer the story away from the familiar “underling who loves her boss” trope. Palmer appears everywhere without reason, like he’s stalking Cassie, but he’s kind and takes interest in her work (and even knows about the incredibly rare Voight’s disease). But he won’t take her to his apartment. Has Stratton saddled us with the married adulterer theme? No, Palmer is something entirely different, which I won’t describe because it delves into spoiler territory. The plot heads into some unbelievable directions, such as when a VIP gets Voight’s and Palmer works some magic on Jack’s suffering son.

The book tries to compare science with belief (not necessarily religion), which I felt wasn’t fully executed, make the comparisons unclear. Palmer, who represents belief, wants Cassie to trust without proof, but the science in the book is more about DNA strands and other jargon, instead of principles and hypotheses, so it’s hard to see how the two contrast.

I have a couple of other Robin Stratton books that I plan to read, but for now I would recommend choosing her novel On Air for the humorous comments, genuine emotion, and original plot, instead of In His Genes.

Why We Never Talk About Sugar #bookreview #readwomen #science @aubreyhirsch

Why We Never Talk About Sugar #bookreview #readwomen #science @aubreyhirsch

Why We Never Talk About Sugar 
by Aubrey Hirsch

published by Braddock Avenue Books, 2012

Aubrey Hirsch, who we previously met in a Meet the Writer feature, dishes out 16 pieces of fiction in this collection. The key themes were physics, being stranded, childlessness, and illness. I especially applaud Hirsch for having these themes without pounding me over the head, telling me in an obvious fashion that her stories are related. She trusts her reader.

The power of belief was a major factor in the stories about childlessness. In “Certainty,” when two lesbians want to have a baby, Cris decides she wants it to genetically be their baby, and that with enough belief it could happen, despite a zero percent chance. Her partner thinks about probability and the meaning of love:

If Cris and I could have a child together, I knew that kid would be the best, most interesting kid on the planet. But I also knew we couldn’t. Every time we made love, Cris looked at me with this intense longing. She was trying to make it happen. I could tell. And sometimes, right before I came, I almost thought it was possible.

Here, I could feel the intensity of Cris trying to make something with her love (and dare I say I wanted to believe it could happen in Hirsch’s world?).

The sadness in the stories involving multiple sclerosis were the ones that broke my heart. In “No System for Blindness,” a daughter stays with her father as his disease worsens. Some symptoms are permanent while others can be managed. When he wakes up blind, they cross their fingers that it will pass. Just the description of the two eating breakfast, and the careful way Hirsch shows us that the father is blind, gave me chills (and made me want to cry):

He stares past me, to my left, tapping the table in search of his glasses. There is powdered sugar in his beard. It makes him look older. He places his glasses back on the bridge of his nose. There is a greasy white streak across one lens, but he can’t see it.

An impressive part of Hirsch’s stories is her knowledge of physics. The formulas and ideas read more like poetry and were a way to talk about life and relationships. As an example, a young man gives a woman a birthday present, even though it is their third date, because one should always give birthday gifts. His present?

“It’s a picture of subatomic particles, through an electron microscope. The technical term is ‘hydrogen event in a bubble chamber.’ It’s what happens when two particles are smashed together at very high speeds. This one’s from the accelerator at FermiLab. The lines and spots are tracks made by the explosion.” He runs a bulky fingertip along one of the swirls. “See?”

What a moment, yes? My first thought, albeit inappropriate, was, “Why hasn’t someone given me a hydrogen event in a bubble chamber?” Hirsch has this way of bringing the reader into at least one of the character’s shoes in each story, grounding us 16 separate times.

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

Harley & Me #bookreview #readwomen #harleydavidson #20BooksofSummer

Harley & Me #bookreview #readwomen #harleydavidson #20BooksofSummer

Harley and Me by Bernadette Murphy

published by Counterpoint Press, May 2016

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Harley and Me is a memoir about what it means to take risks. For Murphy, her risk-taking most noticeably began when she was a skateboarder in California. But a teen pregnancy followed by her baby’s adoption led Murphy into the arms of safety: marriage at 22 to a stable guy, 3 kids, house, university job, and what she calls a blanket of estrogen that kept her from doing anything too risky. But at 48 and contemplating divorce, Bernadette Murphy feels something unusual — something she wouldn’t image over the past 25 years of wife and mother — she wants to be fully alive, fully present, and not risk averse. Furthermore, she doesn’t want to do a “song and dance” to please men anymore.

I’ve been a passenger on motorcycles for 26 years. My parents have been riding my whole life. Before that, it was my paternal grandparents. You could say it’s a family thing! Go through my thousands of family photos and you’ll find dozens of motorcycle pictures from through the years, including strangers’ motorcycles (hey, if a bike looks good, you never want to forget it).

Far left: me leaning on my brother’s motorcycle circa 2004. Going to the right is my dad, brother, and granny on their newest rides circa 2016.

But Harley and Me is about a middle-aged woman getting a motorcycle, which isn’t terribly common — unless you’re my mom. Which is why I felt a great desire to read Murphy’s book when it popped up in my Twitter feed. I wanted to see how other women with nearly grown children felt about driving a “death machine,” as some paranoid people call them (as if we don’t die in cars).

Left: my sweet ma as passenger in the early 80s. Right: 4 motorcycles and 120,000+ miles later, my sweet ma today with her own award-winning motorcycle. I love the skeleton hands on the mirror!

Murphy really captures what it means to start riding a motorcycle. Her good friend Rebecca inherited a Harley dealership, which is how Murphy is lured into signing up for her motorcycle license. First, she must attend a week-long class. While most people have down the “look” of a biker (and I see this all the time — people who don’t own a motorcycle but do own an entire closet of leather and Harley-Davidson T-shirts), Murphy feels she does not. She shows up to class:

In baggy men’s Levi 501s, a stained T-shirt, gardening gloves, and hiking boots. I look more like a hired hand than a biker chick. At this moment, I’d love a pair of killer motorcycle boots.

Because I get what Murphy is saying about “the look,” I really enjoyed her descriptions and comparisons. Even when she dumps her bike the first time, she makes the scene come off the page:

I sit on the curb in front of the gas station’s convenience store. My hands shake. My mouth is dry. It feels as if all my blood has been exchanged for electricity. I am awash in shame. I don’t look like the badass biker chick I’m trying to become, but some kind of poseur who can’t control this machine, a pathetic girl trying to do something beyond her ability.

Here, I really felt for Murphy. Though pretty much everyone dumps their bike at one time or another, a woman doing so with witnesses serves as evidence that motorcycles are just “too much” for women. It’s scary to face those people shaking their heads, Murphy notes, wondering if she’s gone crazy and this is her mid-life crisis. A year later, she is divorced,and people wonder if the “crisis” caused Murphy to give up stability and comfort. The ability to take a chance, change her life, and try something brave had me nearly in tears for how safe and squishy I want to make my own life — truthfully, I felt like a wuss.

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Harley and Me provides plenty of commentary on feminism. Sometimes a whole book on feminism can be great, but when it’s woven into a personal narrative, the author can accomplish connections that might otherwise seemed forced. For instance, Murphy shares her love of Fonzie. Later, when talking to a male biker, he says he wishes he were the Fonz, and Murphy says she wanted to date the Fonz. But as the conversation changes direction, Murphy boldly confesses:

Actually, I take that back….I wanted to be Fonzie, too.

If Fonzie is cool, powerful, and slick, is he only a role model for men? Murphy proves no, and again I related to her inner complications about assigned gender roles. I often wished I had the power and energy and chaos that the men in my favorite rock bands, like the guys in Metallica, or Chris Cornell, or Tom Morello. Don’t we all wish to be seen and in control? For women, being seen is harder than men might think. We’re either invisible or on display like a prize cow.

Murphy breaks down stereotypes of women on bikes and how she doesn’t fit:

Just to get on a bike is to break prescribed gender roles even in this postfeminist age. By taking it one step further, refusing to be constricted by the typecast of the sexy biker mama or the hard-ass butch rider, is to accept one’s true sense of self. I like my motorcycle simply because I like to ride.

Her examination of stereotypes comes up again and again when she notes that her friend drives a pink motorcycle with Barbies attached to the sides, so everyone pays attention to her (and wants pictures). At biker events, women are almost always on the back (known as the “bitch seat” in biker culture) and are sure to have lots of skin showing, riding along in ridiculous spiked heels. After her divorce and bonding experience with her motorcycle, Murphy realizes she has a strong libido, and that to embrace it is not promiscuous or doing men a “favor,” but has to do with sex in biker culture.

There is a lot of useful information in Harley and Me, but this isn’t a book about discovering the love of riding. It’s about risk-taking. Murphy shares many (perhaps too many) articles and studies on the effects of taking risks on brain chemistry, how we strive our whole lives to create safety, but when safety is assured, our brains grown sluggish. We lack the brain chemistry that comes from risks, like learning a new language, taking up an instrument, sky diving, competing in a sport, getting a new job, dating, changing homes — or riding a motorcycle. I felt less wuss-like when I learned that “risk” isn’t defined by the activities from the X-Games; it’s what we personally consider risky.

I appreciated all the research Murphy did, but it really slowed down the memoir. Chapter 8 was terribly slow when she explained risk taking in a scientific sense, because she keeps explaining it. Basically, once we do something that makes us anxious because we took a risk, we get a hit of feel-good chemicals and want to do it again. This concept is restated at least a dozen times over the next 150 pages.

Part of reinforcing the theory that taking risks has made Murphy a dopamine fiend comes from personal evidence. There are many scenes in the 3rd part of the book: Murphy living in French Polynesia for three months, Murphy running a marathon there, scuba diving in the ocean, paddle boating, rock climbing, ice climbing. Each example comes with its own descriptions of how afraid she was, how she knows she can conquer fear, and how taking the risk will make her take new risks because she received those feel-good chemicals. Science was scattered throughout this section, too, and the book got so repetitive that I was forgetting the focus was Murphy’s relationship with her Harley-Davidson. I felt impatient and spacey.

The book ends with Murphy reiterating all the risks she’d experienced (though I’d just read them!) and taking a blood test to see if riding a motorcycle increases oxytocin. It was more science to prove that riding a motorcycle changed her life because it changed her chemistry, but I didn’t need it. I wanted more personal insights, more intense description that came earlier in the book, both when she described her current life and childhood. Including the numerous typos I spotted, I felt a stronger editor could have culled the best parts and made this into an educational, inspiring, feminist memoir.

I want to thank Bernadette Murphy and her publicist at Counterpoint Press for sending me a reviewer’s copy in exchange for an honest review. To learn more about Murphy’s writing, please check out her Meet the Writer feature!



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. Girls of Usually by Lori Horvitz
  4. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (*might change ranking due to when book club meets)
  5. Single Stroke Seven by Lavinia Ludlow
  6. Of Zen and Men by Robin Stratton
  7. Retelling by Tsipi Keller
  8. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  9. The Thirteenth Earl by Evelyn Pryce
  10. Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody
  11. Terror in Taffeta by Marla Cooper (*might change ranking due to when book club meets)
  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


Meet the Writer: Bernadette Murphy #interview #writerslife #harleydavidson

Meet the Writer: Bernadette Murphy #interview #writerslife #harleydavidson

I want to thank Bernadette Murphy for answering my questions! Her bio and contact links are at the bottom of the page.

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Grab the Lapels: What is your writing process like?

Bernadette Murphy: I adore writing something new when it’s fresh and I have some idea of what I’m doing. That experience, unfortunately, doesn’t happen all that often. With new material, I’m often casting about, trying to figure out what I’m writing, what I’m trying to say. I hate that not-knowing stage, but I also know it’s necessary and doesn’t last forever – usually.

Revising, on the other hand, is more painless and I find it super creative. I love shaping a narrative, cutting it up into little bits and then reconstituting the whole once I’ve figured out what the main thing is I’m shooting for. I’ll often write a longish first draft, one that meanders and doesn’t quite know what it’s trying to be. But the revision stage, once I’ve done some thinking and non-thinking about “what is this about?” can be fun and magical. I love seeing how the shape starts to reveal itself, how, as I cut and hone and cut some more, the core idea begins to shimmer a bit and stand out from the background. So while I thrive on the energy that comes with starting something new and its freshness, I think I favor revising.

One of my early mentors, Leonard Chang (a novelist and now a writer for television) once told me this analogy: Other artists start out with some kind of media: paints and a canvas, a camera and an image, a piece of wood to be carved. Writers start out with nothing beyond the alphabet, little glyphs on a page. In writing the first draft, we create our medium. By the time we’re done with the first draft, about all we have is a big, wet pile of clay. The revision stage is where we really practice our art. That’s when make that clay into what we envision it as.

GTL: Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?

BM: I always wrote as a kid to make sense of life and to have someone to talk to. I grew up in a household of seven people with one bathroom. The only way to get privacy was to lock myself into the bathroom, climb in the tub and while soaking, fill pages of my Hang-Ten notebook. I never dreamed that I could pursue a career as a writer. It was just something I did.

In community college, I was double majoring in dance and marine biology (like those two go together!), obviously unsure what I was doing about a potential career. I was failing Chemistry and totally lost when the English teacher said, “Have you ever thought about being a writer?”

And the answer was “no.” I had never thought about it. It was like thinking I could be an astronaut or President of the United States. But once he planted that seed, my eyes started to open. At first, I studied journalism and started my career writing things other people wanted me to: journalism, public relations copy, ad copy. But in my 30s, I could finally identify the stories I wanted to tell, stories of the human condition and our struggles with it. I was finally ready to do so.


GTL: Did you learn anything from writing Harley and Me?

BM: Oh my! Yes! I learned that a woman’s hormones basically trick her into being a master nurturer during the childbearing years but that, as we age, we become more like we were when we were younger, around age 11. I was much more gutsy and fearless when I was a kid, but while raising children, I became meek and skittish. It was a relief to realize that my ‘coming out’ as a risk taker was totally normal.

I also learned that I’m tougher and more resilient than I thought I was. Over the course of writing that book, I rode my motorcycle across the country and back, pursued a divorce after a 25-year marriage, lived on my own for the first time in my life, dated for the first time in a quarter of a century, moved to Mo’orea in French Polynesia for a while, and learned to ice climb, among other crazy things. I was shocked and amazed at what I did. Neighbors, my kids, and friends: everyone was shocked. But in a good way. I found out I’m braver than I would have guessed.

And that’s part of why I wrote this book. I think this can be the story for many people, but that unless they try something that feels risky to them – taking a drawing class, starting a business, training to run a 10K – they may never know. My wish is that Harley and Me will encourage people to try something new and discover that untapped reservoir of courage that’s waiting inside them.


GTL: What did you want to be when you grew up, and does this choice influence your writing today?

BM: I was totally lost about what I wanted to be when I grew up, other than a dancing marine biologist! At one point, I thought I wanted to be a nurse, but that was because of cultural programming. Neither of my parents had attended college; they were emigrants from Ireland. I thought the only real choices were teacher or nurse.

The marine biology background shows up in Harley and Me in the chapter “Evolve or Die,” in which I wrote about the researchers on Mo’orea studying coral reef ecology and what they taught me about my need to “re-wild” myself. Also, I’ve been writing a couple of nature/biology pieces recently for Palm Springs Life Magazine lately that uses my biology background. My dance background led to my interest in all things fitness related, and shows up in Harley and Me when I run a half marathon in French Polynesia.

It’s interesting, though. Until you asked this question, I had no idea that those interests were in this book. Thank you for that.

GTL: You’re welcome! Does your writing include any research?

BM: All my books involve research, but this one, by far, included the most. I tapped into neuroscience, endocrinology, psychology, the study of happiness – everything I could find that would lend scientific backing to what I was exploring. I even had my blood taken before and after riding a motorcycle to see how my levels of testosterone, cortisol, and oxytocin changed as the result of riding. The basic question the book asks is twofold: 1) What in the world happened to me, that I suddenly wanted to do risky things when my kids were flying the coop? and, 2) Were these risky things good for me or harmful? I needed science and lots of experts to help me answer these questions in a legit way.

All the books I’ve written have included research because I like to use my experience not so much as the focal point of the story but as the lens to look at a larger question. For example, in Zen and the Art of Knitting, I looked into the creative, spiritual, and meditative qualities of knitting to help me understand my own response to it. I turn to science to help me comprehend what my story alone doesn’t fully reveal and to make my experience more universal.

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GTL: Finally, why do you think Harley and Me might be a good pick for a book club?

BM: We all have stories of wanting to do things that scare us and what we have to do to get ourselves over that hump – whether we’re talking skydiving, starting to date again after the end of a long-term relationship, or embracing our own creativity that may have gone dormant.

What’s fun about Harley and Me in a book club setting is that, while I found out I was stronger than I thought I was by learning to ride a motorcycle, other people have similar stories in totally different ways. We share these stories and by the end of the book club meeting, everyone has come up with a list of new things they want to try, coupled with a sense of community support as they make plans to do so. Plus, they now have the scientific backing that helps them see how and why risk makes us healthier neurologically, and the ways it enhances our neuroplasticity. (We also have fun saying big words like that, as if we know what we’re talking about.)

GTL: Thanks so much for visiting Grab the Lapels to share with readers who you are! Read my review of Murphy’s newest book, Harley and Me, HERE.

thumb_DSC04715_1024Bernadette Murphy served for six years as a weekly book critic for the Los Angeles Times, and has published three books of creative nonfiction: The Tao Gals’ Guide to Real Estate (with Michelle Huneven); The Knitter’s Gift; and the bestselling Zen and the Art of Knitting. Other essays and short stories have been in featured in anthologies, including: Knitting Yarns: Writers on Knitting, edited by Ann Hood; Wild with Child: Adventures of Families in the Great Outdoors, edited by Jennifer Bove and Mark Jenkins; My Little Red Book, edited by Rachel Kauder Nalebuff; Our Working Lives: Short Stories of People and Work, edited by Larry Smith and Bonnie Jo Campbell, and others. She currently serves as core faculty in creative nonfiction MFA program at Antioch University Lost Angeles.

Meet the Writer: Robin Stratton

Meet the Writer: Robin Stratton

Thank you to Robin for answering my questions! Robin graciously sent me all of her books recently. Truth be told, I couldn’t pick a favorite; they all sounded fantastic! Keep an eye out for my reviews of the books pictured below, and visit Robin’s website for the synopses.

Robin Stratton.jpg

When you sit down to write, do you know the genre first? For instance, you have flash fiction, novels, and chapbooks published. How did they become what they are?

I consider myself a novelist – growing up, I never wanted to be anything else. I never wrote a short story or a poem until just a few years ago, after I participated in an intense week-long writing workshop in Virginia. The instructor impressed upon me the importance of having short fiction published in on-line magazines as a way to establish credentials and snag the interest of an agent. So the very first short story I ever wrote, “Ma Writing” (which recently appeared in a gorgeous anthology compiled by the amazing folks at The Lascaux Review) was the first step in this strategy of getting my novel picked up by an agent. Ditto, the poetry. To my surprise, I found that I really enjoyed the shorter genres. They’re fun, they can be powerful and helpful when dealing with grief (I lost both my parents within six months of each other) and they take so much less time and still provide that deep sense of satisfaction when I know I’ve gotten it “right” the way my novels do.

Whenever I think about writing a poem I get really intimidated, like I’m not “cool enough” or “smart enough” to join others who identify as novelists or poets. Do you ever struggle with switching from fiction to poetry?

This is such a wonderful question!! If you hang out with me at open mics or at my poetry group, you’ll hear me mutter, “God, I could never write like that!” So yes, I do feel that I’m definitely not in the same league as serious poets. But you have to make the choice of whether you’re going to let that stop you, or you’re going to just keep doing your own thing. Since I love doing it, I just keep going forward, and accept that I will never be in the same category.

Many times writers find a creative niche and community. What do you think is yours? Is it hard to find a niche when you write in different genres?

I began seriously writing after I got out of college – I had the kind of parents who didn’t insist that I get a “real” job and move out, so I got to indulge in my dream; but back then, this is the early 80s, I didn’t know any other writers. Living at home, writing 10 or 12 hours a day, was very isolating. When I’d meet people and they asked what I did, I’d say “I’m a writer,” and they’d ask “What books have you written?” and I’d say, “I haven’t gotten anything published yet,” and they’d say how lucky I was to be able to live at home and do whatever I wanted. Non-writers never understood not only how much work was involved, but how lonely a life it was when your friends all got married and moved away and you could never afford to do anything because you didn’t have a job, all you had was this annoying persistent need to write. So the internet was a blessing for me because I was able to connect with other writers via writing blogs, and then when Facebook came along, I really plugged into the scene and became friends with hundreds of writers, most of whom are struggling with the same issues, or celebrating the same triumphs. So now being a writer is fun; to feel like you belong to a community, it’s like being part of a family, and it’s something I really cherish because I went it alone for so long.

Read Chapter 1 HERE

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

I am a writer who does a LOT of research for my books. I like to set a plot against a backdrop I find interesting. My first novel, On Air, is about a disc jockey, so I spent a few evenings at a radio station to get a sense of what the energy was like, in addition to the mechanics of how it works. Of Zen and Men features a woman who grows bonsai, so I made a couple of trips to this wonderful bonsai garden my mother had found, read some books to learn about the philosophy of bonsai, and then contacted an expert, who was incredibly helpful when it came time to write about the actual process. The most amount of research went into my third novel, In His Genes, which takes place in a biology lab. In order to understand a concept, I had to understand about ten background concepts first – it was a real challenge for me. I was lucky to have access to a couple of biology professors and a geneticist who all read the book, gave me feedback, and answered all my questions. I have called doctors, lawyers, and other professionals to ask questions. I’m a detail freak, and for me, research is fun.

Read the first chapter HERE.

How did you get involved with Boston Literary Magazine? What’s your involvement like?

Boston Literary Magazine was step two in my strategy of getting an agent; I figured if I was editor of a magazine, I would look more prestigious. In the spring of 2006 I called up my best friend and said, “Hey, want to start a magazine?” and she said, “Okay!” I didn’t anticipate the friendships I would make, or how many contacts would come of it. It got a LOT bigger than we expected, and even though each issue is hundreds of hours of work, it’s worth it. By the way, if anyone is wondering, yes, I did get an agent!

On your website it says you’re involved in several ghost writing projects. What is that like? How did you get into ghost writing? Have you ever been a ghost writer for the Sweet Valley Twins series, which I loved and read way too much of in the 90s?!

In the 90s I worked briefly in a bookstore and I tried to read a lot of the children’s / YA books in order to be able to recommend them to parents, and I read a few of the Sweet Valley Twins books. I can see how they’d be addictive! Re: my ghost writing projects. These came about every time I met someone who wasn’t a writer, but who had a good story that they had dreamed of turning into a book. Only two of them were paid gigs; the rest I did because I knew it was the only way the person would be able to get their story out there. It’s gratifying to make someone’s dream come true, but it’s a LOT of work for no money and no glory! A few years ago I made the decision not to do it anymore. Better to focus on my own writing!



TITLE: Limber: essays
AUTHOR: Angela Pelster
PUBLISHER: Sarabande Books
LENGTH: 154 pages

A whole book of essays about trees; how is that even possible? Angela Pelster makes it happen in her sleek collection containing 17 essays, usually around 5 pages each. With titles like “Temple” and “Ethan Lockwood” and “Artifacts,” you may not immediately get the connection to trees. More so, you may not have a sense of direction with the content. But Pelster leads readers along and takes us to unknown territory that opens up like the door through which Dorothy crosses from black-and-white into a color-filled world in Oz.

In a number of Pelster’s pieces, I forgot she was behind the scenes pulling the marionette strings, which left me space to take in the information unimpeded. In the essay “Burmis,” the author describes the now-gone town of Frank, a place where people continued mining despite the dangerous work. The land has a long history of forcing people to leave. But the miners just wouldn’t–not even when a landslide took out part of the town: “The survivors on the safe side of town continued to live alongside the dead, as if their neighbors and their neighbors’ houses beneath the limestone existed in a secret other world, as if they still hung bed sheets to dry on the clothesline below ground, swept floors, cooked dinner in the dark.” Though Pelster must have researched the history of Burmis, Alberta, her authorial link is seemingly transparent, and she knows when to be “out of the way.” Occasionally, she weaves in personal experience, but with the exception of the essay “Rot,” it’s subtle.

The way Angela Pelster teaches readers about trees is enough to make those who read Limber change their minds about the very subject. Did you know that the apostle Paul apparently ate figs on his trip to Cyprus, planting trees from the remains of the fruit on his way? That the pigment Indian Yellow was supposedly made from the urine of cows that were only fed leaves from the mango tree? That in 1832 William Henry Jackson deeded a tree to itself? That tree seeds were taken by Apollo 14 to the moon, later presumed dead, then planted and grew? These are but a few of the topics that Pelster uncovers in her essays, exploring them in a way that shows readers that she’s conveying stories about living organisms that are fundamental to humanity and its history. She gives statistics and anecdotes to support her ideas.

The essays don’t read like a textbook of either science or history, though. The attention to each individual word is enormous. Some lines are lyrical and reflect the curling shapes of leaves while others are straightforward and make readers snap to attention. On finding bones in the desert sand: “Overnight, the wind reburies what took the paleontologists hours to unearth, and the desert rearranges itself, tucking its children back into bed while they sleep”–lyrical. As rot chronicles the decay of a squirrel’s body outside her window, Pelster notes how we are programed to do as much: “Scientists call this autolysis: self-digestion. It comes from two Greek words meaning ‘self-splitting.’ As if bodies carry inside themselves the potential to undo themselves.”–straightforward. Both methods appear in every essay, combining unique, factual  information with a fiction writer’s eye for pleasing word arrangement and choices.

I discovered that it was easy to get lost in these essays, to block out the noise around me. The works becomes like dreams. The collection explores nature in a way that made me care deeply about it, not just metaphorically or in a way that makes me hate technology for a day or two. The reading experience was much like a gentle, shallow river that made me appreciate the life of individual trees and the experiences they record in their bodies and the way those experiences can educate me.



Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor

written and illustrated by Lynda Barry

published in Oct. 2014 by Drawn & Quarterly

Lynda Barry is best known as an illustrator who created Ernie Pook’s Comeek, a comic strip that ran for decades. It featured Marley, and I typically think of it as the Marley comic. Later, the strip was collected in a book called The! Greatest! of! Marlys!, so it’s easy to see why I think of it as the Marley strip. I was somewhat charmed by the book, but it was when I discovered Lynda Barry’s novel Cruddy that I absolutely fell in love with the author. Cruddy is the darkest yet most beautiful book I’ve ever read. Reading Cruddy is like driving just a bit under the influence and wondering what will happen if you push the accelerator just a bit more and then a little more and then you went off-roading and your car caught fire. I identified with the raggedness of the narrator, the bare-your-teeth-to-show-you’re-crazy nature she possesses. The narrator is a teenage girl unlike any you’ve ever met. Seriously, I would not compare her to anyone.

But I’m here to review Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor. Barry explains that her former teacher, Marilyn Frasca, taught her how to keep a black and white comp book and to use it every single day to explore the world and what an image actually is. These comp books are the “most reliable route to the thing [Barry’s] come to call [her] work….” Barry has been carrying these notebooks for 20 years now. Syllabus is “a collection of bits and pieces from the many notebooks [Barry] kept during [her] first three years of trying to figure out how to teach this practice to [her] students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.” I wanted to see how this innovative woman approached the classroom to perhaps learn something for my own teaching. One main difference I must note is that Lynda Barry is so desired as a professor that students must submit applications to be in her class, and I teach freshmen in college.

Syllabus is a rare book whose physical form matches its content. Barry shares pages from a standard black and white marbled composition book. In pictures, you can’t tell but Syllabus is bound like a comp book, and its pages are thin like a comp book. Here is a large picture so you can see the cover better:

barry cover

However, the book itself feels a bit delicate, and I was worried my new present (I got this gem for Christmas (thanks, Mom!)) would get easily banged up or have pages torn–much like a comp book. I liked that the design made me feel like I was peeking into Barry’s personal unpublished work, but I didn’t like that I fretted over damage.

Upon opening Syllabus, I immediately felt overwhelmed. What had I asked for?? The pages, if you flip through, look chaotic and unorganized, and I was worried that the book would have no direction and would consist only of pages scanned from Barry’s personal comp books. You’ll see things like this:

chaotic page

Whoa! I mean, is she really just going to photocopy things out of her notebook, or will there be more to it? To be honest, I was fairly hesitant to start Syllabus. It is a book that takes a little bit to get into. Even the copyright page is handwritten and disorganized, but I can definitely see how it adds to the aesthetic to make the form and content match.

Syllabus starts with Barry explaining how she wasn’t even sure how to make a syllabus at first. Some of her friends who teach had 30 pages, and others had one sheet of paper with information on the front and back. Barry ended up drawing her syllabus to explain what she expects from her students, which is neat to see.

My fears of unclear messages and images were assuaged when I realized Barry would explain what she was up to in many places. The reason it looks chaotic on the page is because she is a comic artist who isn’t using panels (those nice, neat squares that typically contain images and words). Good comic artists will lead you around the page carefully so that you don’t get lost, and Barry is a master at getting your eye to follow her words and images where she wishes. Panels are cool, but she doesn’t need them.

That Barry is an encouraging instructor comes through clearly. She reassures students that to be in the class they do not need to be able to draw. In fact, when she goes through the applications for her class, she choose a variety of students from the arts and sciences departments so that she doesn’t get a bunch of people who already draw. The best are people who used to draw (like, when they were children) and have not done so in a long time. There are interesting exercises, like spend 60 seconds drawing a robber. The images are all a bit “childish” but interesting, and Barry writes, “In a classroom of students with varying levels of drawing experience, this way of drawing brings us to a common starting place that is like the starting place we all share: our first drawings of people made when we were little.”

bad robbers

My excitement for this book perhaps stems from my background: I had a fantastic art teacher in high school who emphasized history, technique, style, etc. so that students built up a knowledge of art and didn’t just move from one project to the next with no strands to connect them. I also love graphic novels (I’m not as big into comic books because it’s really an endurance game that costs a lot of time and money). I have three degrees in fiction writing, so I am very interested in where ideas come from and why we like some better than others. Barry points out that we made art before we had a word for it, but why? She asks big questions that blew my mind, like is there a biological function of art. So much of my interests in creativity are shallow compared to what Barry poses! Here is an example:

“How do images move and transfer? Something inside one person takes external form–contained by a poem, story, picture, melody, play, etc.–and through a certain kind of engagement, it is transferred to the inside of someone else.”

She also points out what it means to like or not like art (especially in the context of the rudimentary drawings students make):

“Liking and not liking can make us blind to what’s there. In spite of how we feel about it, it is making its way, from the unseen to the visible world, one line after the next, bringing with it a kind of aliveness I live for: right here, right now.”

Barry addresses my question about where creativity comes from. Ever had writer’s block? Barry makes an interesting point:

“We know that athletes, musicians, and actors all have to practice, rehearse, repeat things until it gets into the body, the ‘muscle memory,’ but for some reason, writers and visual artists think they have to be inspired before they make something, not suspecting the physical act of writing or drawing is what brings that inspiration about. Worrying about its worth and value to others before it exists can keep us immobilized forever. Any story we write or picture we make cannot demonstrate its worth until we write it or draw it. The answer can’t come to us any other way.”

Wow. I mean, wow, right? For all those who suffer from not knowing what to write or who lose interest in their art because they don’t know what to make–will it be unique? cool? liked? important? timeless?–these are all questions that hinder us, and until Barry said it in just those words, it didn’t strike me that writing is a physical act. You can say duh, sure, but Barry doesn’t allow tech devices in her class; it’s all pencil, pen, and paper (and crayons, colored pencils, and water color paints). The idea is to get people back to the physical act of writing in a specific way. The more I read Syllabus, the more it made sense, and not in a grumpy “kids and their technology! humph!” sort of way.

The one criticism I have of Syllabus other than the delicate construction of the book is that I wanted much, much more. I wish Barry had added more about her intentions with each assignment. For instance, in the beginning, students must color with crayons on different types of paper, completely filling the whole page. Just… scribbling, not images. Next, students color pages (I think she means pages with images that are on a variety of styles of paper?? The instructions say that students should choose 3 pages from those pinned to the wall. Is Barry bringing the pages in?) and the rule is that no white can show through. The students must use up their crayons. What is the purpose of this? I think part of it is getting students to notice what it means to use (and wear out) their hands, to focus on one task for a long period of time. The students get frustrated, and Barry notes that crayons are a hard medium to work with.

hate crayon

But what is her theory about the value of this exercise? The author does mention several times that certain activities are modified versions of other people’s ideas, and she lists the books so that readers can go find them. Perhaps I’m just greedy and want more Barry.

The one thing I especially wish Barry explained better was the use of the comp book. Sometimes there are what she calls “X” pages. Then there are diary pages. What is the difference? I felt jealous; Barry’s students are ridiculously privileged to be able to work with her, and the rest of us are left trying to figure it out ourselves. I am going to Google around and see if I can find interviews with Barry during which she talks more about the comp books.

Aside from my wishes to know more, I cannot recommend Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor by Lynda Barry enough. She asks pivotal questions about art and its function for humans and gives enough ideas to get your brain heated up and ready to think differently about your own creativity (and teaching).



brightsided“Keep Calm and Stay Positive.”

“Everyday is a second chance.”

“S.M.I.L.E.–See Miracles in Life Everyday.”

“Positive Mind. Positive vibes. Positive life.”

I ask myself, what do positive quotes teach us, other than “every day” and “everyday” are used interchangeably without fail? Barbara Ehrenreich, a highly credible journalist with 16 books under her belt and whose work appears in college textbooks, must have asked a similar question before she started writing Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America. Published in 2009 by Metropolitan Books, Bright-Sided is the examination of positive thinking, both in the individual and how it became a product, and how positive thinking developed and changed the American landscape. Ehrenreich uses personal anecdotes, along with dozens of sources, to examine the bad side of happy. Early on, Ehrenreich defines “positive thinking” for readers, establishing her key term so that everyone works with the same definition. This move demonstrates the willingness to reach out to her audience and clarify the abstract term.

Bright-Sided is an academic text, though the content affects the average American–especially the blue- and white-collar workers. The diction is complicated at times, and I see the moves Ehrenreich makes to integrate and effectively use sources. Of course, I am an English professor, so understanding rhetorical moves is part of my job. However, I can see how the book would turn off some readers for its level of difficulty.

Bright-Sided is a book many will shun for the subject matter alone. Americans love happiness. But Ehrenreich’s credibility is not to be pushed aside. First, the author’s impressive resume establishes her credibility; she is someone we should listen to because she’s devoted her life to uncovering unfair practices in the United States. Secondly, the author isn’t only a journalist; she has a PhD in biology, from which she lends expertise to examine happiness peddlers who claim that biology and happiness are related, and explaining equations that don’t actually work in the laws of science. Thirdly, Ehrenreich uses personal anecdotes from her experience with breast cancer.

The author describes the way cancer patients are told that a positive attitude can help their survival rate, but then supports her theory that positive thinking is useless by quoting studies that find positive-minded patients are no more likely to beat cancer than those who aren’t. The only people who benefit from positive attitudes in the cancer ward, says Ehrenreich, are the nurses and family members, who are worn down by sadness and death.

The author also investigates breast cancer charities and how they (possibly unintentionally) infantilize women. Everything is pink, supporters buy teddy bears, and female patients are given care packages that include crayons. Ehrenreich wonders if men are given the same tools of self-expression. Though there aren’t as many studies and quotes in this section, the author’s curious attitude and personal experience make her argument believable.

One thing many “positive thinking” coaches tell their clients is to avoid the news. Ehrenreich furthers her argument that positive thinking is undermining American by pointing out that news allows its consumers to make change, petition, or even maintain awareness. Sure, you may be sad, but you can also send money to funds after a natural disaster, for example, to help those in need. Ignorance doesn’t benefit anyone, except the ignorant person. Looking at news consumption helps the author solidify her point that Americans are weakened by the desire to be happy no matter what.

After her personal anecdote and researching the business of selling happiness, Ehrenreich steps back to look at the source of positive thinking in America: Calvinism. People were so depressed due to their restrictive religion that practically forbids happiness that their feelings manifested in bodily illness. Now, here is where things got confusing for me. If a positive attitude doesn’t lead to a more healthy physical state, why does depression cause bodily harm? I never found a satisfactory reason in Bright-Sided, but that may be due to the book getting more complex. Take this passage, for example, a response to “New Age” positive thinkers bringing quantum physics into the happiness debate:

In the words of Nobel physicist Murray Gell-Mann, this is so much “quantum flapdoodle.” For one thing, quantum effects comes into play at a level vastly smaller than our bodies, our nerve cells, and even the molecules involved in the conduction of neuronal impulses. Responding to What the Bleep Do We Know?, which heavily invokes quantum physics to explain the law of attraction, the estimable Michael Shermer notes that “for a system to be described quantum-mechanically, its typical mass (m), speed (v) and distance (d) must be on the order of Planck’s constant (h) [6.626 x 10 to the -34 power joule-seconds],” which is far beyond tiny.

If you stopped reading my quote, I’m not surprised. I have a basic understand of biology, but here Ehrenreich is asking the reader to follow along with a basic understanding of quantum physics, which I haven’t studied, nor do I recall learning about in physics class back in 12th grade. Who is the audience, I ask? Perhaps the author had faith that her readers would take her interpretation of Shermer’s quote (“which is far beyond tiny”) as is, and I understand that she’s basically saying that quantum theories can’t be applied to happiness because our bodies are too big (for what, I’m not sure), but I do know that I don’t like guessing at what an author means.

After her exploration of quantum physics and Calvanism, Ehrenreich discusses mega-churches. Here, I was engaged again. The thing I like best about Barbara Ehrenreich’s work is that she doesn’t only research her topic, she gets in there—good old-fashioned investigative journalism. So, there she is, in the mega-church, a place I find ridiculous for its distant relationship to church, a point Ehrenreich gets to. Mega-churches don’t have crosses or steeples or communion. They’re often set up in old warehouses, staff hundreds of people, and break out feel-good guitar music. The “pastor” isn’t necessarily a religious person, but rather a spiritual peddler. There is no requirement of seminary school or Bible study or anything, other than how to SELL. Selling happiness is what it’s about. The author brings in some bemusing and amusing claims from religious leaders of mega-churches, such as the “pastor’s” wife who didn’t have money for a plane ticket and prayed (or yelled at?) God to make that plane ticket ready when she got to the airport or else. The plane ticket is an example of the “laws of attraction” principle that positive thinkers apply to happiness. If you want it hard enough, if you think about it excessively, the thing you want (money, job, love, etc.) will know you’re putting your vibe out there and come to you. Ehrenreich isn’t poking fun at the woman; in fact, the author is always a bit distant, a requirement for a good journalist whose job is to deliver information, not distort it with personal bias.

At the end of this 235-page piece, Ehrenreich really hits her point home by looking at contemporary America, including how businesses bring in positive-thinking coaches and buy positive-thinking books for each of their employees, amounting to hundreds of books for some companies, causing works like Who Moved My Cheese? to hit the bestseller list. The funny thing is I remember my mom’s boss giving everyone Who Moved My Cheese? and reading it myself. Such books convince readers that being fired is just a “new opportunity” and that anger or sadness for losing a job is “whining.” We’ve shamed ourselves into being happy, essentially, and also made ourselves more careless:

Robert Reich once observed, a bit ambivalently, that “American optimism carries over into our economy, which is one reason why we’ve always been a nation of inventors and tinkerers, of innovators and experimenters….Optimism also explains why we spend so much and save so little….Our willingness to go deep into debt and keep spending is intimately related to our optimism.”

Again, Ehrenriech uses a source to support her claims that the desire to be happy all the time is weakening our country. In fact, she has 16 pages of end notes, for which I am impressed. When I look at my course textbook, essays are published without so much as a citation, for a reason unknown to me, but I do know that giving credit to sources bolsters Ehrenreich’s credibility and demonstrates the huge amount of research that went into the topic.

Lastly, the author looks at the flip side of the argument: if we shouldn’t be happy, are we supposed to be sad? No, the author argues. While these are polar emotions, they are not the only ones. Diligence is what keeps us from making stupid decisions. Notice how animals are always on alert, the author notes, and that if danger presents itself, animals in a group sound the alarm. The goal is to “see things as they are.” She notes the emphasis in college on critical thinking, which involves asking questions to get to the truth of things, and I can verify that lessons on critical thinking are in every Composition textbook I see. While I appreciated Ehrenreich’s response to how people should be, I wanted to see more of her sources. Mostly, she offers brief examples, such as how pilots don’t “hope” they can land the plane, and that politicians don’t cross their fingers to win an election; they work hard to make the reality they most desire happen. It’s in this final chapter that the author pulls way back on studies and anecdotes and hopes—maybe just a little—that her readers agree with reality as a better option than blind happiness.

*This book was procured from my public library. I have no personal nor professional relationship with the author.

Kill Marguerite & Other Stories


Megan Milks’s collection Kill Marguerite and Other Stories (Emergency Press, 2014) is both innovative and uncomfortable. The stories frequently use frameworks to shape the outcomes, such as the title story in which two adolescent girls battle it out for popularity and respect in a videogame, allowing them to use weapons, found objects (like jet packs and hearts), and lose lives when they are killed.  Other stories, like “Twins,” which comes in two parts (“Elizabeth’s Lament” and “Sweet Valley Twins #119: Abducted!”) use popular culture that many women today will admit they were raised on: Sweet Valley Twins, The Babysitter’s Club, and My Teacher is An Alien. The collection also uses song lyrics, Ancient Greek myth, violence, a whole lot of body fluids, and plays with concepts of gender.

The use of pop culture that is familiar to me was definitely my favorite aspect of the collection. Milks uses common conventions to make a connection to readers that also gives them the opportunity to reconsider what they thought they knew. In the title story, the girls live in a videogame world. Here, Milks is rather clever; the way players process new information in videogames and learn from it to make better choices after they die in a tough level challenges the notion that we can’t go back and have the perfect witty comment or knock the mean girl on her ass. Essentially, readers can relive their own brutal adolescence with the hope that a particular moment can be redone until it’s how we want it.

A problem with relying so heavily on popular culture is that it could leave a lot of readers confused. Had I not read hundreds of Sweet Valley Twins andBabysitter’s Club books, the references would have been lost on me. Personally, I’ve never read one of the My Teacher is an Alien books, but the title of that series kind of gives it away. There was also a story that uses lyrics from a song or band that I’ve never heard of. The relationships between the girls, though, are rather intricate but seemingly simplistic. Without knowing those relationships, some of Milks’s writing loses its power and sounds mean or trite, such as why one character is so popular and another is a loser. There is no room for expansion on these claims because they are well-known facts in the world of the Wakefield twins and the babysitters.

Another problem many readers may have is with Milks’s constant use of bodies being what we normally consider gross. Only in a few stories, like “Swamp Cycle” and “Slug,” did I have a deep-seated gross feeling (one that lasted for days). I expected “The Girl with the Expectorating Orifices” to be the worst offender, but instead I saw this story as the one that made the most sense. The girl with the expectorating orifices pukes when she’s drank too much, has snot running down her face when she’s crying, she menstruates, and gets diarrhea when she’s too anxious. This all sounds pretty normal to me, but we are so uncomfortable with our bodily functions that they are removed from public view. At first, the story seems gross, but as it goes on and the narrator shows how everyone has expectorating orifices, the story becomes almost comfortable and relatable.

Other stories, like “Slug,” explore bodies in a way I didn’t understand. “Slug” is the tale of a young woman named Patty who dates men and punishes them (I think) by shoving dildos in their assholes. She wears a strap on under her skirt and seems generally unsatisfied sexually. But when a six-foot slug climbs in through her window, suctions its way down her body, and then enters her vagina and nibbles on her cervix, Patty is sold. Eventually, she turns into a slug as well and, long story short, ends up eating off the other slug’s penis. Trying to figure out the symbolism of all of this is hard work—which doesn’t mean it’s not worth the work. At first, I thought that Patty wanted a penis and then became a penis (a slug), but then she…ate a penis? Or, the story could be a metaphor for a female to male transition (I think).

So, here is where I start to feel like both an idiot and a bad person. Because Milks’s characters are pretty gender fluid (pronouns switch, names typically reserved for one gender are used for another, roles disappear), I get that she’s writing about topics that are not discussed often in public, nor are we educated about such subjects, though I truly wish we were. I read as much as I can about gender so that I am educated, but I also recognize I am an outsider who may not fully understand. Since I don’t want to assume what Patty is doing in this story and end up looking like I don’t accept and respect gender differences, “Slug” left me feeling pretty awful.

On the other hand, “Earl and Ed” was a story that used metaphor to examine “unnatural” relationships that are shunned by the majority and how violence and sadness can result, and it was done in a way that allowed me to both learn and enjoy the story. Earl is a wasp (penetrating stinger—I’m making assumptions) that is referred to in feminine pronouns. Ed is a flower (just think Frida Kahlo) referred to in masculine pronouns. Ed can create life, whereas Earl is always leaving because she needs her freedom to fly (I kept thinking “and this bird you cannot change”). The roles of the characters change from what is “expected” and kept me reading and questioning what would happen to this bee-flower relationship.

Overall, Kill Marguerite and Other Stories stretched the boundaries of my understanding and comfort. I applaud Milks for writing challenging fiction that goes against the standard of easily-digestible reads that reiterate what readers already believe. Although a tough collection, readers who want to come away from a book feeling differently will enjoy this collection.

*Review originally published at The Next Best Book Club blog