Tag Archives: children

Chicken Scratch #BookReview #ReadWomen

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Chicken Scratch #BookReview #ReadWomen

Chicken Scratch: Stories of Love, Risk & Poultry 

by Kelly Chripczuk

Self-published October, 2016chicken-cover


In 2014 I headed off to a writing retreat in Virginia. On the side of a mountain is where I met Kelly Chripczuk, a pastor, writer, mother, and wife who, on the first night, shared a nonfiction piece she wrote about getting four kids to a pool for swimming lessons only to realize at the last second that one of her boys needs to use the bathroom. It was her voice, calm and strong, that I remember, but also the details, such as holding her little boy toward the toilet like a weapon of sorts as he pretty much hoses down the stall.

If you check out my blogroll, Chripczuk is on there as A Field of Wild Flowers. Though I am not a follower of any religion, I’m curious about and have respect for the connection between stories from religious texts and the ways individuals integrate those stories into their lives. Chripczuk is a master of drawing in a flock of readers. I can tell I’m not alone when I feel the magic of her words and ideas. Chripczuk isn’t simply a leader; she openly shares when she falls down — hard sometimes — and exposes her wounds so that readers may not only learn from them, but care for her, too. It’s a community, really.

In October 2016, Chripczuk self-published a very short book, Chicken Scratch, and I bought it hopes of “owning” some of the magic of her blog. I wanted those peaceful words in my  hand. At 67 pages on my Kindle, the book is short. It details the decision to get chickens to make money selling eggs, but we quickly learn that chickens have much to teach a mother with four kids (which includes a set of pre-school aged twins).

Chripczuk begins by describing her love of the Psalms in the bible, which spoke to her as narratives. She writes how the Psalmists “awoke [her] to the possibility of finding God in the world around us using language to witness the reality of that presence.” While Chripczuk studies and ministers the gospel, she notes why she loves animals. She writes, “Groping for words, for understanding of my own dawning awareness, I [concluded], ‘They help me see different ways of being’.” Here is where Chripczuk shines; instead of working so hard to be the “right kind” of person, she looks to animals and mimics the way they inhabit the earth, from stretching and sniffing around the yard on the first nice spring day, to pairing off and relying on a partner. “I guess,” Chripczuk  realizes, “if you’re the kind of person who can fall in love with a Polish hen, then life’s gonna hurt.” Readers can take a lesson from Chripczuk, even if they can’t own chickens.

chicken-reading

I love her advertising–all done by Chripczuk!

Chicken Scratch is honest. When Chripczuk visits a therapist, she tosses out that she got a flock of chickens, to which the therapists responds, “Hey, it sounds like fun . . . and it’s not big deal if it doesn’t work out.” But are we Americans good at failing? The debate between “winners and losers” vs. the “participation ribbon” generations never strikes me as a particularly helpful one, yet failing can always hurt. Chripczuk  announces to her therapist:

I know that . . . but it’s one thing to know it’s ok to fail and another to experience failure. I need to create chances to fail, so I can feel it all the way down, not just know it in my head.

To actually feel our feelings, well, feels like a no-brainer. But how often do you sit and feel your sadness? Your defeat? Your contentment?

When I met Chripczuk and learned she was a minister and spiritual adviser and mother, I was a bit intimidated; I am none of those things (not even close). I figured she had a the natural maternal instinct of an orangutan, an animal that I admire for its care of and love toward its infants. But when Chripczuk and her husband decide to attend a parenting class (despite already having two children) for families expecting more than one baby, she learns that two babies require a different kind of care because they need attention at the same time. The leader, “a mother of five including a set of twins,” explains how to breastfeed two babies at once, how to hold two babies at once, how to burp and bounce two babies at once. I could feel a wave of weirdness flood over me as I pictured such a life, but then Chripczuk, whom I had created as “Most Natural Mother of the Year” in my head, reports:

I can’t say for sure what I thought at the time, but I imagine I was something close to horrified at the thought of so many little people climbing, lounging, and feeding on me.

Though our lives are so very different, Chripczuk’s honesty made her relatable — and I felt closer to all kinds of women in that moment.chicken-quote

While the safety and value of her chicken flock and the happiness of her children weigh heavily on Chripczuk’s mind, she also thinks bigger picture. She knows her house is chaos, that there aren’t really chickens allowed in her Pennsylvania development, so looking around at her small farm, she wonders if her family’s lifestyle is bringing down the value of the surrounding homes and feels embarrassed by their choices. Don’t we all, for one reason or another, wonder if we’re doing it right? If we’re savvy enough, earthy enough, healthy or happy or advanced enough?

At her twin’s pre-school graduation, an event I’ll never understand, she worries that she doesn’t appear excited enough for the event. Will she take enough photos? Is the family dressed respectably enough? Will she be happy or tearful — or whatever society wants — enough? It’s the chickens though, those talkative, escapee, messy birds that remind her that animals do what’s natural, and that she can take less-than-perfect scenarios and see the beauty in them. She learns, “I’ve never found a hidden nest by shaming a bird. I’ve never sat a chicken down and had a stern talk eye-to-eye.”

While Chicken Scratch loses just a hint of the magic I find at Chripczuk’s blog, mainly because the focus is very much on chickens and misses out on the smaller moments in between, it was a pleasant reminder to look for signs from unconventional places on how to act and think, but without heading into saccharine territories.

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Chicken Scratch is available on Amazon!

Meet the Writer: Janice Lee #writerslife #authorinterview @diddioz

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Meet the Writer: Janice Lee #writerslife #authorinterview @diddioz

I want to thank author, blogger, editor, and do-it-all Janice Lee for answering my questions. Check out her books and follow her on Twitter! I have a review of her 2013 novel, Damnation, in queue to be published Friday!

What did you want to be when you grew up?

I went through different phases: teacher, archaeologist (a la Indiana Jones), zoologist, doctor, spy, writer.

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

PE in high school. It was so hierarchical and was just asking to create tiers of “winners” and “losers.” Mostly I just chilled with my friends and we pretended we were too cool to care.

What was the first blog post you ever wrote about?

I’ve never had a proper blog. Just my website and various articles around the web. Probably the earliest “blog” I kept up most regularly (though only for a short while) was for my web design company, and the post had to do with what went into building a good website.

Do you think blogging is meant for the blogger, the readers, or both? Why?

Definitely both. It’s cathartic, in a way, for the writer. The Poetics of Spaces series I’m working on right now at Entropy, for example, is really memoir and confession disguised as personal essay. And I’ve had several readers email or message me thanking me for various articles in the series, which is always really gratifying to be able to connect with people in that way.

Are you reading anything right now?

Many things simultaneously but also in between things. I just finished The Ants by Sawako Nakayasu. About to begin Slow Movies: Countering the Cinema of Action by Ira Jaffe.

Do you habitually follow any blogs?

I’m one of those people who feel the need to say informed and connected, so I actually follow almost 100 different blogs that I get in a feed, in all topics: literature, art, culture, film, science, technology, web design, etc. I mostly just skim the headlines each morning and focus more on a few. My favorite site right now is Entropy, not only because I’m an editor there, but because there’s really some rad stuff happening there.

Troglodyte #bookreview #readwomen

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Troglodyte #bookreview #readwomen

Troglodyte by Tracy DeBrincat
published by Elixir Press, 2014

Tracy DeBrincat, whom we met in a Meet the Writer feature, writes characters that are people of the earth, the kind who will comment not on ideas, but appreciate bodily processes as something to which one should pay attention. Her stories take readers to a perhaps uncomfortable place we thought we left behind when we became “adults.” I still remember a joke my uncle told me when I was a kid: two woman are hoeing potatoes in the field when one woman pulls a potato from the ground, looks at it, and says, “This looks like my Issac’s taters.” The other woman responds, “That big?” and the first says, “No, that dirty.” Ha ha ha, right? Where did this “low-brow” humor go, and why did we once like it so much? I loved that joke. DeBrincat reminds me why.

Even though Superbaby of the short story “Superbaby Saves Slugville” was “historically, a fantastic crapper,” he held it all in to keep his aunt from visiting her boyfriend while washing the cloth diapers. The family notices Superbaby is backed up, so he’s sent to the doctor. His sister isn’t sure what this trip to the doctor’s means for Superbaby: “‘Does that mean he’ll poop now?’ Trina wonders about this every morning, making great snakes that don’t break, snakes of beautiful stink and rich color.” I’m thoroughly grossed out by the passage, but let’s be realistic: how many children (or, hell, even adults) haven’t been fascinated by the various characteristics that come out of their anuses. DeBrincat calls us out on thoughts we keep hidden to remain “normal,” and makes us acknowledge who we can be from time to time.troglodyte

The collection isn’t only made of “poo stories,” though. Her descriptions are quite lovely, even if the subject matter isn’t beautiful. This was a feature I loved of the collection. In “Gardenland,” Chichi returns home with her ex-husband Vince after she runs into him at a diner. She realizes she wasn’t “cured” of him when they divorced, that he’s still the same asshole she knew then: “Chichi pricked her ears to hear that piece-of-shit’s voice–the meaningless promises that flew like swallows from his red velvet tongue. She’d done time chasing after those birds, holding crumbs in her open hands while they hopped this way and that. When Chichi looked up he was there, all of him and so much of him was so much the same. The impudent slope of his shoulders, the Gothic lettering on his faded black T-shirt, the way he stood legs spread wide, like his nuts were too big to do else-wise.” Vince’s physical presence is animalistic, as if he weren’t meant to wear pants because his testicles are so….there (I’m personally picturing hairy coconuts). But he’s also capable of the sweet words of a man who leads a woman around. DeBrincat’s characters are often full of contradictions that make them pleasing to experience on the page.

Tracy DeBrincat’s collection stirs the pot of personalities and boils up the most unpredictable bunch ever. Whimsical, laugh-out-loud hysterical at times, Troglodyte is a must have for any larger-than-life woman who finds herself making decisions for happiness’ sake when sanity isn’t an option.

I want to thank you Tracy DeBrincat for sending me this reviewer’s copy in exchange for an honest review.

Rainbow Valley #20BooksofSummer #YAlit #AnneofGreenGables

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Rainbow Valley #20BooksofSummer #YAlit #AnneofGreenGables

Rainbow Valley by L.M. Montgomery

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

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


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

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

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

Rainbow Valley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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#20BooksofSummer

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

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

Anne of Ingleside #20BooksofSummer #AnneofGreenGables #YAlit

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Anne of Ingleside #20BooksofSummer #AnneofGreenGables #YAlit

Anne of Ingleside, by L.M. Montgomery

Book #6 of the Anne of Green Gables series

Be sure to read my reviews of the previous books in this series! The links are at the bottom of the page in my #20BooksofSummer reading list.

After the birth of Jem in Book #5, Anne and Gilbert buy a larger home: Ingleside. The last of the story describes Anne’s deep sorrow over leaving her beloved House of Dreams. Anne of Ingleside picks up with a full house: Anne and Gilbert Blythe; their live-in maid from Book #5, Susan; and their children, Jem, Walter, Nan, Di, Shirley, and one on the way. The children’s names get confusing because they’re almost all given nicknames and are named after other characters:

  • James Matthew Blythe is “Jem” (he’s named after Captain Jim and Matthew Cuthbert)
  • Walter Cuthbert Blythe (no nickname; he’s named for Anne’s father and the Cuthbert family)
  • Diana Blythe is “Di” (named for Diana Barry) and Nan’s twin
  • Anne Blythe is “Nan” (named for her mother) and Di’s twin
  • Shirley Blythe (named for the Shirley family)
  • Bertha Marilla Blythe is “Rilla” (named for Anne’s mother and Marilla Cuthbert)

Anne of ingleside

The synopsis on the back of the book makes the novel sound like an exciting story: Anne’s going to have a baby, Gilbert’s annoying aunt won’t leave after her two-week visit expires, and Anne thinks Gilbert doesn’t love her anymore. I thought this would all tie together. What I get is the LMM curse: all the even numbered books are disappointing. The new baby isn’t much of a story; Rilla is born early in the novel. Gilbert’s aunt hangs around for a few chapters and leaves for an unusual reason. And Anne’s concern that Gilbert doesn’t love her? Not even mentioned until page 255 (the book is 274 pages long).

Instead, I was given another Windy Poplars — a book basically full of stories. In fact, LMM gets so lazy as to write declarations of how it’s another characters turn to be in the spotlight. Each Blythe child is featured in a small story arc that doesn’t tie in with the rest of the story arcs. Except Shirley. What is Shirley doing the entire book?? I forgot he existed at times. Mostly, I was bored because I couldn’t see where the book was going, even though it covered years.

The individual spotlights on a child were predictable because they were all the same: a child felt bad about something (perhaps defying a parent), live-in maid Susan threatens them with castor oil (a medicine prescribed for everything, it seems), the child solves the situation on his/her own, and then bawls to Anne about what happened anyway. Finally, the child decides Anne is the best mother ever (Jem calls her “mother dearwums,” which made me want to throw up a bit).

The adults, including Anne, tend to say stupid, hurtful things in Book #6. Walter is afraid for his mother; he’s heard she’s sick (readers know she’s in labor) and asks Susan if his mother is alright. Susan replies, “…she was never in any danger of dying this time.” Why would you tell a boy, who doesn’t know the difference between “sick” and “labor,” that his mom’s almost died, and Whew! she didn’t this time? After the birth of Rilla, Anne says, “All our babies were sweet, Gilbert, but she is the sweetest of them all.” How does one determine the “sweetness” of a baby, and why would one rank her children?

Beautiful people rule in the land of LMM, and she makes it known more than ever in Book #6. Nan and Di are twins, but they aren’t identical. Nan is declared the “much prettier” twin. In another instance, we learn Rilla loves her teacher and is so glad she got her teacher and not the other teacher, because the other teacher is ugly, and “Rilla couldn’t bear an ugly teacher.” Nan goes to meet a new neighbor and is sad to learn that she’s old . . . “and fat!” At school, Di decides to choose a best friend. Perhaps forgetting she is the not-pretty twin, she considers her two options based on looks. Di realy likes Laura. “But Laura was rather plain, with freckles and unmanageable sandy hair. She had none of Delilah Green’s beauty and not a spark of her allure.” The adults are just as bad; Anne and Gilbert visit an old college friend. Gilbert says, “she’s got fat. Thank goodness, you haven’t got fat, Anne-girl.” As if the worst thing a woman who gave birth to seven children could do is get fat. I’ve been paying attention, too, to see what fat means. Diana Barry is described as “fat” at 155 lbs. The average American woman weighs 164.3 lbs. The attention to looks gets exhausting, and you start feeling bad about yourself.

One positive was the change in the author’s descriptions. Although in past books everything was described as misty or fairy or elfin-like, LMM’s descriptions are stronger in Book #6. The author uses simile effectively:

“Snow in April is abominable,” said Anne. “Like a slap in the face when you expected a kiss.” Ingleside was fringed with icicles and for two long weeks the days were raw and the nights were hardbitten. Then the snow grudgingly disappeared and when the news went round that the first robin had been seen in the Hollow Ingleside plucked up heart and ventured to believe that the miracle of spring was really going to happen again. . . . Spring was trying out her paces that day . . . like an adorable baby just learning to walk.

Throughout, the descriptions are less abstract, so I got a better picture of the setting, which I enjoyed! Distracting though, are the missing coordinating and subordinating commas. LMM’s punctuation had been a thing of beauty in her previous books. What happened?

Overall, I didn’t enjoy Anne of Ingleside. The children were boring, the adults rude, and the plot…what plot? I typically highlight a lot in the Green Gables books, as the tend to be very funny (even the books I don’t like). In Book #6, almost nowhere. The only times I enjoyed myself was when Miss Cornelia (that’s Mrs. Marshall Elliot, now) popped in for a visit. Here’s one of her gems to end on a positive note:

“What I had against Mr. Dawson,” said Miss Cornelia, “was the unmerciful length of his prayers at a funeral. It actually came to such a pass that people said they envied the corpse. He surpassed himself at Letty Grant’s funeral. I saw her mother was on the point of fainting so I gave him a good poke in the back with my umbrella and told him he’d prayed long enough.”


20booksfinal

#20BooksofSummer

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

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

The Tide King #BookReview #MagicalRealism #war @MichalskiJen @BlackLawrence

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The Tide King #BookReview #MagicalRealism #war @MichalskiJen @BlackLawrence

On Monday, I posted a Meet the Writer feature with Jen Michalski in which she discussed her new novel. The book, The Summer She Was Under Water, was published yesterday, August 9th! Congrats, Jen! Be sure to sign up for her Goodreads giveaway for a chance to win a copy.


The Tide King by Jen Michalski

published by Black Lawrence Press, 2013

I start with my admissions: I wrote book reviews regularly for Jen Michalski at JMWW and I’ve reviewed her other works, the collection Close Encounters and, more recently, Could You Be With Her Now (two novellas in one book). Jen also hired me to coordinate a book blog tour of her collection, From Here. It’s always nice to help someone get the word on her book out — assuming the review is honest. I’m often attracted to other writers whom I’ve found are meticulous, hard-working, good at her craft, and can teach me something. Jen Michalski is one of those writers, which is why I had no concerns about taking on her first novel for review.

The Tide King begins with the most current date you will encounter, 1976. A man, woman, and girl get into a cab in Poland make the driver uncomfortable: why are these individuals unusual, their eyes and mannerisms not fitting for their bodies? The young man and woman are American, but the girl is Polish, and so he speaks to her in the language, asking if she will be alright.The Tide King Michalski

Fall back to 1942 where we meet Stanley Polensky and Calvin Johnson, soldiers, and two of the main characters. We learn that Polensky’s mother has given him an herb that is said to protect the person who ingests it. He keeps it in his helmet, assuming his mother is just superstitious. After reading detailed battle scenes from World War II (impressive!), you will learn that Polensky uses the herb — but on who, or what? That is all I will tell you.

Go even further back to 1806 when we meet a girl, Ela, and her mother, whom are considered witches in their village of Reszel, Poland, because they make tinctures. They find an herb — burnette saxifrage — that grows in on land that has been struck by lightning. Through experiments with animals, the mother learns that the herb is special, causing the animals to repair even the worst of mutilation. Is this herb an elixir for immortality?

As you read, it becomes easy to discern who the man and little girl in the cab from the prologue are. But, Michalski keeps you guessing as to who the woman is. Several women are good candidates, making this novel part of many genres: mystery, war, romance, fairy tale, and — maybe? — Gothic.

 

Overall, the plot is an amazing feat of Michalski juggling characters, time periods, and languages — and she never drops a ball. The prologue, as I described, puts you at the end of the book, and the end of the book takes you back to the beginning. 1976 was a satisfying stopping point, but I can’t really convince you of that without evidence, which would blow some of the best plot points.

That’s just the thing! I am a verbal reader; I make a lot of sounds like, “Gah!” and “Duuuude!” and “Whhha?” when I get into a book. You see, these characters, especially the secondary, will bring you up and let you down. They were so… human /fickle /unpredictable! I wanted things to turn out like _________, but then the character would do something that really suited him/her, things I didn’t think Michalski would allow to happen, but she did! I tried to expect the characters to be unexpected — a mighty challenge that kept me reading way too late at night (something I haven’t done since my years with the Sweet Valley Twins in the early 90s).

Michalski gets readers thinking when she writers her characters before they are immortal. We can see ourselves on the pages, reflected in the choices the characters make regardless of the repercussions. Youth are easy to relate to, as they can ignore mortality:

He was young, and there wasn’t much to think about, in terms of consequences. He was young and didn’t know what lay ahead, which was the beauty of being young — so many risks taken before one has the sense to realize the dangers. He was young and going to fight [in World War II].

But what if you can live forever, as opposed to simply thinking you will because you’re young? Michalski tackles that question when she gives us truisms by which we may live. Or, we can dismiss them in favor of our own search for meaning in life. When you’re lonely finding a partner to fill the loneliness isn’t always the answer:

“I haven’t really met anyone here. But I have friends. I travel. I know that you don’t want to hear this, Heidi, particularly since you struggle with it so much yourself, but people are lonely a lot. Even if there is someone. There’s always a loneliness that people can’t fill, that pets can’t fill. And you have to make peace with it because you come into the world alone and you go out the same way.”

The sentences themselves, even when following male characters who were veterans (often stereotyped as macho), have a tender beauty. A character who lives forever describes what it means to find a woman with whom he fills a kinship:

She had grounded him. He didn’t feel essential to himself, even alive in a normal sense, but he felt tethered to Kate, her gravity keeping his moon rotating, surviving its long trip around the galaxy.

Michalski has a great talent for writing similes, comparisons that seem so fitting. A simple truck is compared to a beast, but it tells about the man who owns the truck, too: “In the vestibule, she saw her father’s truck through the front doors, its monstrous orange chassis shuddering, smoke pouring out of the damaged muffler like some ancient, grouchy dragon.” Imagine the father, who owns the truck: perhaps a broken-down (physically, mentally) man who smokes, who is unpleasant to be around.

The end of the novel, which gets you back to where you started, practically forces you to re-read that 1976 prologue to see what the man, woman, and little girl are like, now that you know who they are. But my fingers tried to trick me; I re-read the prologue and started to turn the next page to the first chapter again….

I want to thank you Jen Michalski for sending me this reviewer’s copy in exchange for an honest review.

Anne of Windy Poplars #20BooksofSummer #AnneofGreenGables #ReadWomen

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Anne of Windy Poplars #20BooksofSummer #AnneofGreenGables #ReadWomen

Anne of Windy Poplars (1936) is Book #4 in L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables Series.

Please be sure to read my reviews of Anne of Green Gables (Book #1), Anne of Avonlea (Book #2), and Anne of the Island (Book #3) first!


Book #3 left off with Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe finally getting engaged. It was so moving that Anne couldn’t even say anything; she was moved to speechlessness (how weird for Anne!). Book #4 begins with… Anne and Gilbert totally separate. Book #4 covers the three years that Anne lives in Summerside, about 100 miles from Green Gables. She is the principle at High (basically, the head teacher with students in the upper levels, not children; she isn’t a bureaucrat like high school principles today). Summerside is practically run by the Pringle family, who are so connected and wealthy that what they want goes… until a Pringle cousin is not chosen as principle, Anne is. And the Pringles try to make Anne’s life a living hell in order to run her off. But you know Anne! During these three years, she boards in a house called Windy Poplars (interesting how Montgomery’s titles always reflect Anne’s geographical home).

windy poplars

An important note: there were 21 years between Books #3 and #4 being published. Why? Anne and Gilbert just got engaged, so isn’t a wedding the next natural step? Gilbert says he has to do medical school for three years first, and Anne agrees to wait. I get the feeling L.M.M. chose to have Gilbert be gone a long time to be done with Anne Shirley. I’ll bet she was thinking, Can’t the engagement be the happy ending these darn readers want??

According to The L.M. Montgomery Reader Volume 1: A Life in Print, L.M.M. did not want to keep writing about Anne Shirley. In a letter she admitted, “I’m awfully afraid if this thing takes, they’ll want me to write her through college.” L.M.M. admits that Book #2 was the publishers idea, not hers. So, I review Anne of Windy Poplars knowing it wasn’t in L.M.M.’s heart to write it — and I think that shows in positive and disappointing ways:

First, there is no Gilbert. Much of the novel is epistolary. All letters are to Gilbert, none are from. Oh, he sends them, but the narrator’s not sharing! Anne get so excited about summer and Christmas breaks so she can see Gilbert, but the story will literally go from “hooray, summer break is next week!” to “Anne is back in Summerside for year two.” L.M.M. teased us! Retribution for being greedy readers, perhaps? Gilbert literally doesn’t show until page 154, and that’s to say he has a bit of a mustache now. No dialogue, no scene between our lovers, zip.

Second, L.M.M. will not write about what Anne’s doing in her career. In Book #2 there were few scenes in the classroom, and in Book #4 there are even fewer. Why must the whole novel be about town gossip? Why can’t we know more about Anne’s students, her lessons, the daily tribulations of being a school teacher? Avoiding the whole reason Anne lives at Windy Poplars makes Book #4 seem like a repeat of Book #2. As a result, I spaced out a few times and had to backtrack my eyes on the page.

Third, Anne doesn’t seem to be learning from her mistakes, like she promised us in Book #1. She’s as vain as ever, she’s judgmental about other’s looks, and she is still meddling in people’s romances! Much of the book is Anne playing matchmaker, sometimes for characters to whom we’re not even introduced. The same thing happened in Book #3 when Anne kept mentioning Ludovic Speed and Theodora Dix (turns out their story was told in The Chronicles of Avonlea, a short story collection published in 1912. If you want to be a truly well-read Anne fan, you need to read alllll the books by L.M.M. — there are 11).


Anneofgreengablesfullbookset

Be sure to note publication dates! These eight books were not published in the order in which they are now read/packaged. We read them chronologically, but the 1st publication dates are different. Also, the books below were published at varying times before all 8 books above were written. For instance, L.M.M. mentions a couple in Book #3 several times, but readers meet the couple in Chronicles of Avonlea. Read HERE for more information.


chronicles of avonleafurther chroniclesblythes


Lastly in my list of evidence that L.M.M. had almost no heart in this book is the introduction of several new and highly unrealistic children: “Little Fellow,” Elizabeth, and Hazel (though she is 18 and not child-child). All three are horribly flowery with language, ideas, and dreams. And I hated all three; they were worse than Paul Irving from Book #2. The devil twins, Gerald and Geraldine, certainly made up for it, though! Leading me to….

The main way tricky L.M.M. made this not reeaaallly an Anne book. What you get are a bunch of short stories that all have Anne in them. You could replace Anne with anyone. While it’s disappointing in the chronicles of Anne, readers pushed her into it. However, my favorite thing about L.M.M. is her characters. I especially love the “rural folk” L.M.M. drops in. I can tell she’s making fun of them; they’re uneducated, they use the wrong words, and they’re truly misinformed about how pretty much anything works because they’re so busy being nosy. But they’re colorful, amusing, and likable. It’s Anne who’s annoying with her meddling!

The following are all characters who drop in and are never heard from again (thus my argument that Book #4 is a series of short stories):

When Anne visits the Summerside graveyard, she runs into Miss Valentine, a woman knows all of the dead buried there, for its all the “old families” of Summerside, including hers. She gives the tour:

“This is Mrs. Dan Pringle . . . I’ve heard that dying was the only thing she ever dared do without asking her husband. Do you know, my dear, what he did once when she bought a hat he didn’t like?”

“I can’t imagine.”

“He et it,” said Miss Valentine solemnly.

In a different scene, Anne is invited to dine with the Taylor family. Esme Taylor wants desperately to marry Dr. Carter from Redmond college, but Esme’s father throws terrible tantrums during which he is silent. Dr. Carter will never propose if her father’s behavior suggests they are a bad family. Since the dinner is so awkward, and Mrs. Taylor and the children are all nearly crying over Mr. Taylor’s silence, Anne says, “Perhaps you would be surprised to hear, Dr. Carter, that Mr. Taylor went deaf very suddenly last week?” It isn’t a lie; she’s only asking if Dr. Carter would be surprised to hear such a thing! Mr. Taylor’s daughter Trix Taylor and son, Pringle Taylor, begin asking horrible questions, implying their father is a beast, such as, “What would you think of a man who let his aunt . . . his only aunt . . . go to the poorhouse?” The two are relentless.

Esme Taylor, the daughter trying to get a proposal from Dr. Carter, finally speaks up:

“What,” she asked quietly, “would you think of a man who spent a whole day hunting for the kittens of a poor cat who had been shot, because he couldn’t bear to think of them starving to death?”

The Taylor family then feels terrible, so Mrs. Taylor tries to help by adding:

“And he can crochet so beautifully . . . he made the loveliest centerpeice for the parlor table last winter when he was laid up with lumbago.”

Woops! It’s 1888, folks, and you can’t admit your husband crocheted! Mr. Taylor finally explodes! It’s so funny! He defends himself: “I don’t crochet, woman! Is one centerpiece doily going to blast a man’s reputation forever?” And there you have it; an entire scene that could survive without Anne Shirley, had any other character suggested Mr. Taylor was deaf.

We’re introduced in another scene to Pauline Gibson and her mother, a tyrant of a woman who must be persuaded to let Pauline (a grown woman) go to her cousin Louisa’s wedding. Mrs. Gibson reminds Pauline:

“I’m sending  Louisa a bottle of my sarsaparilla wine to drink the toasts in. I never cared for Louisa, but her mother was a Tackaberry. Mind you bring back the bottle and don’t let her give you a kitten. Louisa’s always giving people kittens.”

Another scene takes place when Anne is the bridesmaid for Sally Nelson. Poor Sally’s sister Nora is worried she’ll never get married and admits to Anne that she had a beau across the lake whom she loves, but they had a huge fight. Nora says she used to signal him with a lantern and he would come running over. What does Anne do? Signal with the lantern — but she forgets the lantern in the window. At 2:00AM, a meddling relative dubbed “Aunt Mouser” hears a noise in the house and wakes everyone:

They crept cautiously down the stairs with the Doctor at the head and Aunt Mouser, candle in one hand and poker in the other, bringing up the rear. . . .

Nora and a young man were standing in the middle of the room, which was dimly lighted by another flickering candle. The young man had arm his around Nora and was holding a large white handkerchief to her face.

“He’s chloroforming her!” shrieked Aunt Mouser, letting the poker fall with a tremendous crash.

The young man didn’t see the signal until 1:00AM and came over as quickly as possible, thinking there was trouble. When Nora saw a man coming to the house, she ran — into a door, giving herself a bloody nose. Again, this whole scene could exist without Anne, assuming anyone else put the lantern in the window.

Truth be told, Anne’s interference in ever scene felt very un-Anne-like. L.M.M. uses the titular character sparingly, and instead gives readers a short story collection that will leave them frustrated. On a positive note, I bought two new L.M.M. novels and two new short story collections as a result! She’s a great writer, just tired of Anne Shirley.

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#20BooksofSummer

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

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

Anne of Avonlea #20BooksofSummer #AnneofGreenGables #ReadWomen

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Anne of Avonlea #20BooksofSummer #AnneofGreenGables #ReadWomen

Anne of Avonlea by L.M. Montgomery, published in 1909

Book #2 in the Anne of Green Gables series

Read my review of Book #1, Anne of Green Gables, first.

Anne’s life picks up in Avonlea mostly where we left off. There is a new neighbor, Mr. Harrison, who is a grumpy bachelor with a trash-talkin’ parrot, and the story begins with him yelling at Anne for allowing her cow to escape and tromp around in his pasture. In true Anne fashion, she gets into a pickle, but also befriends Mr. Harrison. Fall comes around, and that means Anne starts her career as the teacher at Avonlea, which is awkward for many reasons: since teachers are so young (Anne is 16), some of the students with whom she studied in the one-room school house are now her pupils. New students tend to be the little siblings of Anne’s former classmates, so they’ve heard loads about her. All in all, Anne of Avonlea is about Anne’s two years as a teacher in her neighborhood and the new friends she makes during that time. The book ends when she is about 18.

Anne of Avonlea

One odd thing I noticed right away was the overuse of the ellipses. I didn’t see it in Anne of Green Gables, but in Anne of Avonlea, the annoying punctuation choice is ubiquitous and changed my reading unnecessarily. Don’t you expect something hesitant or surprising after an ellipsis? Here is an example of those three pesky dots misleading me:

There was not a seldom waking minute of any day when Davy was not in mischief or devising it; but his first notable exploit occurred two days after his arrival, on a Sunday morning . . . a fine, warm day, as hazy and mild as September.

The ellipsis here led me to believe I would get a shocking behavior from Davy. Instead, those dots are used more like a long dash, which could be confusing in many cases. Another weird fact: this book, from the same box-set as Book #1, has the same map and L.M. Montgomery mini-bio in the back.

Yet, Montgomery never fails to make readers laugh, and incorporating a group called the Improvers gives her plenty of funny fodder. Anne and a number of young people, including Gilbert Blythe and Diana Barry, set out to make Avonlea aesthetically pleasing. The young people canvas the area, asking for donations to paint the town hall. The various people Anne and Diana meet give Mongomery room to add one colorful interaction after the other, which gets the novel galloping right away.

It’s the new adult characters that make Anne of Avonlea different from Anne of Green Gables. Mr. Harrison says what’s on his mind just like Mrs. Rachel Lynde, but he doesn’t like Rachel Lynde. He grumbles, “I never was much of a talker till I came to Avonlea and then I had to begin in self-defense or Mrs. Lynde would have said I was dumb and started a subscription to have me taught sign language.” In another scene, Anne is forced to buy a very expensive platter from a woman to replace one she’s broken. The woman is selling her platter because she needs money, as she’s getting married. The woman claims of her fiance, “[Luther Wallace] wanted me twenty years ago. I liked him real well but he was poor then and father packed him off. I s’pose I shouldn’t have let him go so meek but I was timid and frightened of father. Besides, I didn’t know men were so skurse.” These little moments in which Anne converses with new characters lead to funny one-liners that kept me reading hungrily.

There are new children introduced, too, most notably a set of twins who are the children of Marilla’s third cousin who has passed away. They are brought temporarily to live at Green Gables until another relative is able to keep them permanantly. While the girl is perfectly behaved (and thus boring), the boy is always in trouble, but in purposefully mean-spirited ways (unlike a young Anne was; he’s not “new Anne”). There’s also a student who does remind me of Anne: always imagining and making things up so they seem almost real. Although the children filled a lot of space in the book, they seemed less consequential or endearing than the new adult characters. Honestly, I didn’t care much what happened to them. Mostly, the naughty boy was scolded and Anne would point out that he was always improving.

Some passages in Anne of Avonlea are long, slow scenes in which Anne walks and imagines, which feels less endearing now that she’s a teacher and on the cusp of womanhood. It was certainly cute when she was 11 and shored against the ruins of being an orphan. But the slowness made me reconsider my desire to rush. Since I’ve started the Anne books, I’ve been more apt to smell flowers (literally) and look around me and appreciate that things are alive. As a result, my impatience with the leisurely pace subsided. Anne of Avonlea feels a bit different than Anne of Green Gables, but as the title implies, our titular character is filling the space around her and expanding.

Grown up anne

Megan Follows as a more grown-up Anne. You can tell she’s a young woman because her hair is up instead of down!

I commented on Anne’s world being homogeneous and without challenge in my last review. In Anne of Avonlea, there are questions to ponder. Prominently, should teachers hit children. Residents advise Anne on the benefits of a strip over a switch when beating students, but Anne calls the practice barbaric, both to her friends, who are fellow teachers, and to adults, like Mr. Harrison and Marilla. I applauded Anne for her morals and standing up against a practices that in 1909 was expected of good teachers and parents.

Yet, Anne can still be a petty girl. She’s always commenting on whether or not people are beautiful (and the narrator adds her own two cents constantly). Later, when Diana gets engaged, Anne can’t believe it. The engagement is not romantic nor like something from a book, and she’s displeased that Diana would say yes to “just Fred Wright.” Readers know nothing about Fred (we’ve not met him), but Anne makes it clear that he doesn’t fit Diana’s description of her dream man. Montgomery illustrates that Anne is still a girl, even though she is entering the adult society, and can feel left out when her bosom friend grows up without her.

I look forward to reading Book #3, Anne of The Island next to see if Diana gets married, Gilbert ever makes a move on Anne (the narrator tells us about his love, but he doesn’t tell Anne), and how the rest of the Avonlea community fares.

20booksfinal

#20BooksofSummer

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

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

Meet the Writer: Armen D. Bacon #writerslife #interview

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Meet the Writer: Armen D. Bacon #writerslife #interview

I want to thank Armen for answering my questions! If you want to know more about Armen’s book Griefland, co-authored with Nancy Miller, you can read my review at JMWW. Also, you can follow Armen on Twitter @ArmenBacon

Why did you start writing?

I first began writing years ago while living in France during my senior year of college. I made the trip solo, desperate to discover my inner gypsy and a voice residing deep within. I wrote elaborate letters home describing my travel adventures. Later on in life, when my son died and the world turned upside down, words became my oxygen. I was now writing about a very different kind of journey. Writing helped me sort through the chaos, sift through memories, and retrace my life’s story. During the darkest hours, putting words onto paper was living proof I was still breathing.

What kind of writing do you do?

Right now my genre of preference is creative non-fiction/memoir, although I’m dabbling with poetic prose and flash fiction, which I really enjoy. I use language to capture (or resuscitate) lost and often times forgotten moments. I’m passionate about passing stories down to my children and grandchildren. Stories save our lives. They are the invisible thread that binds each of us to the other.Armen Bacon

Could you talk a bit about your co-authored book Griefland and Sandy Hook? Is it true hundreds of copies were sent to the town?

An anonymous fan who had read and loved Griefland decided to donate several copies (hundreds of dollars worth) to the grief-stricken families of Sandy Hook. When our publisher (Globe Pequot Press, located coincidentally, in Connecticut) found out, they refused his money and donated the books. The donor still wanted to do something special, so he made a sizable donation to the “Books Heal Hearts” fund established by the Newtown Public Library. He later wrote me a letter saying, “I needed to do more than just send a teddy bear to help soothe the grief.” His words still resonate. On a personal note, watching our book sprout wings and travel cross country to help others was something I’ll never forget.

My Name is Armen

What would you like readers to know about your new book, My Name is Armen?

While Griefland was written from a place of profound sadness, my new book covers all aspects of the human condition. I’m an op ed columnist, so the book contains a decade’s worth of favorite essays and published columns. Oh, by the way, the title is reminiscent of My Name is Aram, written by William Saroyan, one of my favorite authors, who was also Armenian and from Fresno. Reading his stories as a child made me feel comfortable in my own skin. His famous words, “In the time of your life, live…” are an overarching theme of my book. One of my favorite chapters is titled, “I dare you to live your life,” and offers sacred advice given to me by an eighty-something year-old woman I met in Spain.

Many times writers find a creative niche and community. What do you think is yours?

We’re living in a time when everything and everyone is on speed-dial. I write about life’s precious moments, the ones that deserve to be savored and celebrated. My audience is anyone wanting to press the pause button and explore outside the margins of the glossy 5 x 7’s where everyone is posed, all pretty and smiling. Life is beautiful, but it’s also messy and complicated. My stories share more than “just the shiny parts.”

Because my readers know I’ve been to hell and back, they know I’m a survivor. When I decided to write Griefland and ultimately shake hands with grief, the end result was that I think I became more human. If you’re going to be a good writer and connect with readers, you have to be vulnerable and willing to stand naked with all the flaws and imperfections exposed. Doing this is liberating – not only for me, but also for readers.  Let’s face it, not every story has a happy ending.

Do you think either of your books would be a good choice for a book club pick? Why/why not?

Griefland has been read by several clubs because the topic is extremely relevant in these times. We’re living in an era of loss – people are losing aging parents, their youth, friends, colleagues. Jobs and homes. Breasts. Some, like us, have lost children. The book gets people talking about a topic that remains rather taboo in our culture.  And the reality is, no one is immune. Loss is a very real part of life.

With My Name if Armen, book clubs will experience a roller coaster of emotions and life experiences. My hope with this book was that its words would leap off the page and make a direct B-line for the soul. The book came out in early November and is already in its second printing, so something tells me it’s touching a sweet spot in the hearts of readers.  So my answer is “both!”Griefland_cover1

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

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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.

harley-and-me-front-cover-v3 copy

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!

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#20BooksofSummer

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

  1. Harley and Me by Bernadette Murphy
  2. On Air by Robin Stratton
  3. 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