Tag Archives: college

I Do It with the Lights On #BookReview #NoBodyShame @WhitneyWay

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I Do It with the Lights On #BookReview #NoBodyShame @WhitneyWay

I Do It with the Lights On by Whitney Way Thore

published by Ballantine Books, 2016

Procured from my local library

Note: I have not watched My Big Fat Fabulous Life starring Whitney Way Thore. I heard about this book in the new FabUplus magazine.


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


Thore’s book begins with some context and then heads into her youth. At five years old, her mother is informed that Thore needs to watch what she eats. As evidence, Thore includes photos throughout the book, such as a slender girl in her bathing suit next to the caption, “Rocking my bathing suit during the summer before my first diet.” In elementary school, Thore participates in soccer, dance, and swimming. She is labeled “baby beluga.”

Her photos show a healthy-looking young girl; her analysis demonstrates someone in mental torment:

The consensus was that my body was shame. My body embarrassed me.

Below: two dancing photos, four-year-old Whitney, and prom princess — all labeled fat by schoolmates and her father.

I found the photos particularly effective. Looking at my own photos I realize that when I thought I was fat, I look only slightly larger than everyone else around me. I don’t look at photos now and cringe at the change; I’m sad for the girl who hated herself so deeply, and in that way readers can create a personal connection with Thore.

Thore quickly became bulimic, and though many people know about it, no one does anything. In fact, at a special school all the girls get together and throw up. They celebrate for “a job well done.” Though detailing all the painful memories of youth can seem like a sob story in the wrong hands, Thore demonstrates how an obsession with weight can lead a young girl to a life of shame.

Readers who feel disgust at the fat body may think turning to healthy eating and exercise will fix everything. Thore works with nutritionists and trainers, she dances for hours per week. Unlike math, bodies are unpredictable. You can’t do X and always get Y, which frustrates the young woman. One person always checking in on Thore’s body is her father, whom she looks up to, but who might come off differently to readers:

One day in particular, as I was rushing out of the house for school, I told [my dad] I hadn’t lost any weight the previous day.

“Well, what did you eat yesterday?”

“A sandwich,” I told him.

“Well, tomorrow,” he suggested, “don’t eat a sandwich.”

Though she constantly forgives her father for his abusive remarks, it was hard for me to do so, too. Perhaps she doesn’t fully see how incremental he was to her eating disorder and self-hatred, but I don’t expect writers to fully know their lives by the end of a book. She may still be learning about her dad.

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I don’t love the full title. The “ten discoveries” part make it sound like a self-help book.

Before she discovers she must love her body to love herself, Thore struggles with chronic depression, polycystic ovarian syndrome, shame, and damaging comments. Thore fails out of college after she suffers depression and gains 50lbs in four months–the result of both inactivity/poor diet and a chronic illness. After she does graduate, Thore travels to South Korea to work as an English teacher. With her more advanced class, she goes over an article about obesity in relation to health problems. To test their comprehension, she asks:

“…what is one side effect of obesity?” A quiet, attentive student who went by the name Kerrick raised his hand.

With stone-cold seriousness he answered, “Suicide.”

His answer caught me so off guard that I laughed inappropriately. “Well, no…” I began. “The article doesn’t mention that. I’m obese, right?”

Twelve blank faces looked back at me, nodding.

“Do you think I will kill myself?”

Kerrick explained, “Teacher, maybe you have some depressions and maybe you want to die.”

This part of the memoir really struck me. It never occurred to me that other people would think fat men and women want to kill themselves.

My criteria for positive representations of fat women in fiction and nonfiction are all met in I Do It With The Lights On. Boyfriends don’t always make Thore happy, so she’s willing to break up with men. She works hard at all of her jobs, putting in more hours and effort than her colleagues (disposing of the “lazy” stereotype). She also details how weight loss takes up most of a woman’s time that could be dedicated elsewhere. For instance, when she returns from Korea after several years, her parents have her move into their house and abstain from employment so she can work on fitness. She’s counting calories and exercising with a personal trainer. Yes, you can lose 100lbs, but changing the body is a full-time job.

Thore is honest, too. Half way through the book she has still not discovered the body positive movement. She’s dedicated all of her hours to food and fitness. She notes:

Once I started to lose weight and saw how difficult it was for me to do so, I lost all sympathy for fat people who said they couldn’t lose weight . . .. I prided myself on being a different kind of fat person.

Here, Thore’s attitude reminded me of the 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl in which the fat characters compare one another. Instead of clinging to her attitude, Thore realizes she is delusional. Even when she is losing weight, society sees a fat women; it doesn’t matter if she’s just come from the gym. Society sees fat as a failure without any context.

Her honesty extends to her sex life. Thore seeks sexual partners for her own pleasure, but she doesn’t sleep with everyone she meets. Several pages are devoted to exploring both the flattery and objectification found in websites full of men seeking fat women to have sex with them, stand on them, or feed. Sexual relationships are presented respectfully, thank goodness. In Mona Awad’s book, you’d think fat people have sex with anyone.

One reason I wanted to find books about fat women is lack of representation. However, my quest is also to teach people of other sizes that they are privileged, not better. Fat people are asked to count calories and exercise daily so they’re better to look at. However, thin people are not questioned about their diets/physical activity, even if they eat poorly and are inactive, because they don’t look fat. Thore acknowledges she’s been on both sides of the aisle:

As a teenager, I wasn’t blind to the systematic sexualization of women . . . but I wasn’t as concerned with it because it was a system that benefited me. A young, privileged girl submits to the system by offering up her appearance as collateral, and she receives positive attention and affirmation in return for her willingness to play the game. As long as she stays obsessed with her appearance, making it a top priority, society will cheer her on for this and dole out validation accordingly.

At 130lbs in high school, Thore was praised when she dropped a few pounds. As a woman nearly 30 years old, at around 330lbs, she must prove every day she is smart, talented, cares, is valued, and deserves love.

Honest, analytical, and carefully constructed, Whitney Way Thore’s memoir is a must-read for those fighting in the #nobodyshame movement.

Living with a Wild God #BookReview #Journalism #Memoir

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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.

living-with-a-wild-god

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.”

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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?

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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.

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

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

The Summer She Was Under Water by Jen Michalski

published by Queen’s Ferry Press August 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summer She Was Under Water front only for screen

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anne of the Island #20BooksofSummer #AnneofGreenGables

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Anne of the Island #20BooksofSummer #AnneofGreenGables

Anne of the Island by L.M. Montgomery, published in 1915

Book #3 of the Anne of Green Gables series

Be sure to read my reviews of Book #1 (Anne of Green Gables) and Book #2 (Anne of Avonlea)

I want to commend Montgomery’s choice of titles. Little 11-year-old Anne first belonged to Green Gables. When she became a teacher, she represented the community, and thus was of Avonlea. Finally, Anne has left Prince Edward Island to go to college in Nova Scotia, so she now represents the island. Book #3 takes place over those four college years. This isn’t like Queen’s Academy; Anne can’t run home on the weekends! Her first year is spent in a boarding house, but for years 2, 3, and 4 she rents an adorable home called “Patty’s Place” with some college girls, including new friend Philippa Gordon. The most prominent theme in Book #3 is marriage. All girls are expected to be engaged or married, and Anne gets her share of proposals, both romantic and hilarious.

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Right on page 1 I felt Montgomery’s writing was noticeably more beautiful than it had been in Book #2. She describes the setting:

…the Lake of Shining Waters was blue — blue — blue; not the changeful blue of spring, nor the pale azure of summer, but a clear, steadfast, serene blue, as if the water were past all moods and tenses of emotion and had settled down to a tranquility unbroken by fickle dreams.

Book #3 was difficult to put down. We readers are all thinking the same thing: Will Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe EVER get it together??? And that’s why we keep reading. If Montgomery is to follow what readers want and expect (and she does and always has), then we can be happy knowing Anne and Gilbert are meant for each other, but how they get there — and all the close calls that almost prevent them from doing so — sure get your heart pounding and your eyes misty! As a result, Book #3 is my favorite so far.

The rhythm in Montgomery’s dialogue is spot on (don’t count Paul Irving in this generalization). Anne meets a variety of people, whom Montgomery capture with dialect. When Anne goes to substitute teach for a summer at a new school, she is picked up from the train station by Mrs. Skinner, who arrives with a wagon loaded with bags of mail. Anne scrunches in, and a whole chapter is spent with fat huffy-puffy Mrs. Skinner talking about how she was only recently married because there was another man after her. The whole story is funny — Montgomery makes it so by having us believe it is difficult for a fat woman to “catch” a man, but also Mrs. Skinner’s way of speaking. She cautions Anne about a swamp:

“If you take that way be awful keerful. If you once got stuck in that black mud you’d be sucked right down and never seen or heard tell of again till the day of judgment, like Adam Palmer’s cow.”

That same summer, a man named Sam, in patched trousers and a straw hat (where I come from, we call them hillbillies), asks Anne a question. I’m going to quote a bit here because it’s so funny and absurd, and Montgomery’s rhythm in Sam’s speaking is spot on.

“Wall, I’ve been thinking some of gitting a place of my own. There’s one that’d suit me over at Millersville. But ef I rents it I’ll want a woman.”

“Yes, I suppose so,” said Anne vaguely.

“Yep.” (<—notice that here you can tell this goon is just waiting for Anne to catch on!)

There was another long silence. Finally Sam removed his straw hat and said,

“Will yeh hev me?”

“Wh — a — t!” gasped Anne.

“Will yeh hev me?”

“Do you mean — marry you?” queried poor Anne feebly.

“Yep.”

“Why I’m hardly acquainted with you,” cried Anne indignantly.

“But yeh’d git acquainted with me after we was married,” said Sam. (<—get what he’s implying here??)

Anne gathered up her poor dignity.

“Certainly I won’t marry you,” she said haughtily.

“Wall, yeh might do worse,” expostulated Sam.

Anne of Avonlea

As much as the dialogue and rhythm were excellent, and the love story kept me reading, there were a number of things that bothered me. For instance: this book contains the four years Anne is at college. But not once do we learn what happens in a classroom. It’s always, “oh, and the semester flew by and everyone studied themselves nearly to death, and then it was break and Anne went back to Avonlea.” Sure, the characters might quote a professor (but who can quote a professor at length??) and the narrator might mention Anne is doing tops in English, but still.

Really, Montgomery’s series is given life through the characters, not the more intellectual stuff. Mrs. Rachel Lynde, whose bossiness is amusing, is still around and trying to be helpful:

Mrs. Lynde gave Anne a patchwork quilt [ to use at Patty’s Place] and loaned her five more.

“You take them,” she said authoritatively. “They might as well be in use as packed away in that trunk in the garret for moths to gnaw.”

No moths would ever have ventured near those quilts, for they reeked of mothballs to such an extent that they had to be hung in the orchard of Patty’s Place for a full fortnight before they could be endured indoors.

Diana Barry is around a bit to help Anne’s dreams along, too! When Anne has trouble getting a story she wrote published, Diana takes action, submitting the story to a competition sponsored by a baking soda company. The only rule: the story must include the company’s name! Some changes had to be made to Anne’s story… Diana tells Anne,

“…and then, in the last paragraph, where Perceval clasps Averil in his arms and says, ‘Sweetheart, the beautiful coming years will bring us the fulfillment of our home of dreams,’ I added, ‘in which we will never use any baking powder except Rollings Reliable.”

New character Philippa Gordon, too, is amusing. She’s a rich girl who calls everyone honey, she’s highly intelligent, and a gorgeous flirt with several beaus. But… can she really pull her weight in Patty’s Place, where the girls must share in shopping, cooking, and cleaning? Philippa’s never done those things! The “common” life affects her:

“I never noticed before what exquisite things snowflakes really are. One has time to notice things like that in the simple life. Bless you all for permitting me to live it. It’s really delightful to feel worried because butter has gone up five cents a pound.”

Yet, there were a series of pages in which Montgomery allowed her characters to be a bunch of animal killers. A cat is trapped in a box and poisoned with chloroform, and then 8 pages later Anne is reading a letter from Davy (one of the twins Marilla is raising) that says her neighbor tried to hang his dog, but it didn’t work the first time, so he did it again. I was pretty disturbed by how casual everyone was about killing animals when Montgomery has led readers to believe all the plants and water and stars are full of fairy magic people.

Anne of the Island

There’s also a pettiness in Anne that I would have accepted as normal in my youth, but with which I grew exasperated in Book #3. Anne’s nose; how many times do I have to read it’s her best feature, which gives her comfort and saves her from being hideous? Describing people’s physical characteristics: someone’s big ears or walk or the shape of their eyes. Everything is game for criticism, and it grows tiresome. One character is so pleased she could love an ugly man, and isn’t that just delightful of her! None of this is more shallow that the dozens of Sweet Valley Twin novels I consumed in my youth, though.

For a long time in Book #2 and #3, I resented the narrator for not helping readers better understand why Anne refuses Gilbert’s love. It isn’t the “carrots” grudge from Book #1. What is it? It takes most of Book #3 to really understand that Anne wants nothing to change. And oh, how true that rings. Anne is caught in the middle of people marrying and dying and moving away, and houses changing ownership. There is mostly the fear that others are “growing up” without her (college doesn’t seem to count — only marriage is “grown up”). When Anne is at Patty’s Place with her college girl friends, she misses Green Gables, and vice versa. How familiar to me! When she’s with Gilbert, she doesn’t want his love, when he’s with other girls, she’s instantly mean.

But Gilbert waits patiently, as he always has. And really, he’s a good friend who socializes with everyone; he doesn’t force himself on Anne or her space. Think about movies that are deemed “romantic” that, upon further examination, normalize stalking behavior: Daniel Cleaver in Bridget Jones’s Diary, Peter Venkman in Ghostbusters, Mr. Big in Sex and the City.

Anne of the Island is my favorite book in the series so far. Montgomery hasn’t lost her sassy humor, her lifelike characters, or her ability to create suspense.

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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

Meet the Writer: Bonnie ZoBell #writerslife #interview

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Meet the Writer: Bonnie ZoBell #writerslife #interview

I want to thank Bonnie for answering my questions! Read more about Bonnie here and check out her virtual book tour that we put together here!

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The beautiful banner my husband created for Zobell’s book blog tour tour last year

What was the first story you ever wrote about?

It was a story called “The Bridle Path,” published in some obscure magazine. At least this is the first one I can remember. It was a story about kids and class and racial distinctions, but apparently the magazine that published it was made uncomfortable by some of it. They renamed one of the main characters intentionally nicknamed “Whitey” to “Whitney” without talking to me about it and other changes along those lines.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

How long do you have? I had more majors in college than almost anybody I know. The fact is that I’m slow and methodical, which works well with writing and teaching, but not so good for waitressing, which I got fired from when several customers wrote letters of complaints about me at the Bon Marché lunch counter in Spokane, Washington.

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

I think it’s some of both, to be wishy-washy about it. I think some of it is instinctive, but even much of that is shaped by our backgrounds, what we grow up to value, our experiences, and so on. I think you can learn to be a much better writer, not so much from books on craft, I’m sorry to say, but by reading as much as you possibly can.

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

Statistics. There was the WHY? factor. Why did I need to know this? (because for about a week in college I’d decided to go into fashion merchandising and it was required). But probably the biggest reason is that my brain works in a completely opposite way. I didn’t get it.

Are you reading anything right now?

I’m finishing Richard Peabody’s awesome Blue Suburban Skies, full of all kinds of strange and wonderful characters and stories.  And I’m starting Roxane Gay’s painful and beautifully-written An Untamed State.

Are you writing anything right now?

Since my new book, What Happened Here, was just released by Press 53, I’m mainly writing interviews like this one and trying to get more people to read it. Soon, I will go back to a novel I started a long time ago. I’m looking forward to that!

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

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

The Girls of Usually by Lori Horvitz

published by Truman State University Press in 2015

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

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

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

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

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

[paragraph break].

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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#20BooksofSummer

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

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

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

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

Single Stroke Seven by Lavinia Ludlow

published by Casperian Books, March 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Of course I found a GIF with heels.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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#20BooksofSummer

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

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

Meet the Writer: Shabnam Nadiya #writerslife #interview

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Meet the Writer: Shabnam Nadiya #writerslife #interview

I want to thank Shabnam Nadiya for answering my questions. You can find more about her work on her website or her tumblr, LitStop, which Nadiya says, “is more of a parking spot for bits and pieces from the books I’m reading.”

What was the first story you ever wrote about?
I had toyed with the idea of being a writer for most of my teenage and adult life, I just hadn’t been serious about it. I had numerous story ideas jotted down, and many false starts which still sit unfinished.  I still come across them sometimes in notebooks. I think partly because I was lazy, partly because I didn’t really believe I could do it, partly because I had no idea how to. Which is one of the reasons perhaps I veered toward translation: because the ‘how to’ part of the storytelling had already been taken care of.

The first story I actually completed was called “A Journey in the Night.” I wrote it in two days after I ran into someone I knew on a long-haul bus. The person had pretended to not recognize me and walked right past. I had felt a little bit hurt. At the time I would tend to think that I was a particularly unlikable person, and I was actively trying to be positive about myself and stop myself from thinking like that. So later, when thinking about the bus encounter, I tried to imagine scenarios in which someone’s rude behavior really had nothing to do with me; from those thoughts the story emerged.

What did you want to be when you grew up?
I’ve always wanted to be a writer as far back as I can remember. I wanted to be a journalist for a while (my icon was Nellie Bly), I wanted to be a science writer (Carl Sagan!), I wanted to follow in and go beyond the footsteps of Indian Bengali writer Nabaneeta Dev Sen and hop trucks all across Asia and write about it, I wanted to edit a magazine and a run a literary salon at the same time as writing my novels. The kind of writing I wanted to do changed as I grew, but the fact of writing was constant.

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

I think it is most definitely a combination of both. I do think that innate talent is necessary, but I also believe that there are many ways to hone that talent. One of those ways can be to go to writing school. This is not to say that this is the only way to hone your talent—but it is one way.  I think my thoughts went immediately to MFA programs because there’s been so much talk in the past couple of years trashing and defending MFA programs; but when I really think about it, writing is largely an act of learning. Writers who do not go to formal school—and they are absolutely the majority—learn their craft through observation, reading (obsessively!), through the give and take of conversation and debate and community building. Which of these activities is not learning? We learn about the world, we learn about ourselves, we learn about the craft of writing in many ways. I was a writer before I went to writing school, and now that the school part is over, I’m still a writer. I’m glad I had the opportunity to attend an MFA program—but it would not have stopped me from being a writer if I hadn’t. 

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

My least favorite class was a phonetics class I had to take as an undergraduate. The class itself was boring, and the teacher was fairly disrespectful of the students, where she made fun of their English accents (this was in Bangladesh where English is not our first language) or made inappropriate comments on their clothing. She decided to go after me, where she would call on me in class by saying things like, “You, the girl sitting in between two boys.” Or, “You, the girl wearing the short blouse.” It got to the point where she threatened to fail me at the end of year. She couldn’t, of course, because her class only counted for 5% of the total and it while it affected my total score, my passing or failing didn’t depend on it. I still marvel, however, especially now that I have been a teacher myself, at any teacher losing their professional calm to the extent of letting it become personal with a student.

Are you reading anything right now?

I am reading Margaret Atwood’s climate-dystopia The MaddAddam Trilogy, and marveling, as usual, at the imaginative reach, the range of distinctive voices, the tight control of time–moving back and forth and sideways. I’m also rereading a novel by a friend, Shaheen Akhter, called Beloved Rongomala (which is in Bangla but World Literature Today published the first chapter translated by Mahmud Rahman, which can be found here.

Are you writing anything right now?
I just finished the last story of my linked collection called Pye Dogs and Magic Men: Stories. Now I need to polish them all a little more, and send them out to my handful of trusty readers. Then, the big one: agent search time!

Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman #readwomen #bookreview @thelindywest

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Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman #readwomen #bookreview @thelindywest

*Author photo from The Guardian.

Shrill (May 2016, Hachette Books) is a collection of 19 essays from comedian/journalist Lindy West, who writes for The Guardian and has pieces at many websites, such as JezebelNew York TimesGQ, and The Stranger. I heard through a Tweet that her collection was being published, and I was instantly drawn to what I learned: West is smart, precise, funny — and fat. As a fat lady myself, I wanted to know more. Rarely do fat female role models appear in the United States (um, or elsewhere), so I put a hold on a copy at the library.

After I got into the book, I realized that I’ve read some of West’s articles in the above mentioned publications. I don’t often remember a writer’s name when I read an online article, but the piece she wrote that I remembered clearly describes the time a troll created an e-mail address and Twitter account using West’s recently deceased father’s name to humiliate and torment her. And then he later came out and apologized to her, which never, ever happens. The main themes of Shrill are fat shaming, rape culture, comedy, abortion, and trolls, and they’re all examined through a feminist lens.

Anytime I read about feminism, I instantly compare the work to Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist. Gay is probably the most notable feminist of our generation. After reading Bad Feminist, I didn’t feel great. I was mostly confused and disappointed. It seemed like she was either telling personal stories, talking about how she likes things that most feminists feel oppress women (like Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”), and listing what she likes and hates (movies, books, etc.). I felt like Bad Feminist started as a listicle and ended up a book. Thesis statements? Not really. Organization? More like meandering. A call to action? I have no idea what Gay thinks feminists can do to move forward. I do not write to demean Gay’s book. But I do know that many other readers, according to Goodreads, found the same issues and are perhaps seeking a different contemporary feminist voice.

bad feminist

Yes, West is a white woman and Roxane Gay is Haitian-American, but both women talk about intersectional feminism, so West is a good alternative if you are also an intersectional feminist. Both women included personal essays that appeared to have little to do with feminism. Both are hugely into pop culture (especially Twitter). But I felt West’s writing was clearer, more rhetorically sound, and presented solutions to problems feminists encounter.

Some examples of West’s intersection feminism include the socioeconomic. She talks openly about her abortion (and created #shoutyourabortion to de-stigmatize abortion rights) and how she discovered, “It didn’t occur to me, at the time, that there was anything complicated about obtaining an abortion. This is a trapping of privilege: I grew up middle-class and white in Seattle, I had always had insurance, and, besides, abortion was legal.” Later in the essay, West states what privilege is, referring to the abortion clinic making her promise to pay her bill instead of charging her up front like they’re supposed to: “Privilege means that it’s easy for white women to do each other favors. Privilege means that those of us who need it the least often get the most help.”

West again touches on intersectional feminism when she discusses fat-shaming, which makes fat women feel like they don’t deserve anything. She argues, “Denying people access to value is an incredibly insidious form of emotional violence, one that our culture wields aggressively and liberally to keep marginalized groups small and quiet.” Throughout Shrill, West considers feminism that benefit her more than women of color, with disabilities, etc.

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The best part of Shirll is that West helped me “figure out” my own feminism. While I feel that rape jokes are never, ever funny, I would not have an answer that appeased the folks who shout about freedom of speech, say “you’re just not funny,” or call you “too sensitive” for your claims. But West breaks it down. When she was younger, West constantly went to comedy clubs and saw rising stars (who are now super famous), like Patton Oswalt, Mitch Hedberg, Marc Maron, and Maria Bamford.

One night, a comedian was telling a joke about herpes, and everyone was laughing. Except West. She analyzes why she didn’t laugh. Because the comic wasn’t making fun of his herpes, the joke was designed to shame people who have herpes. Statistically, West points out, many people in the room have herpes. So why are they laughing? They laugh, she argues, because if they don’t, they will be outed for having herpes. The joke works “brilliantly”because there is no chance that people won’t laugh, essentially, because the comic was lazy enough to embarrass everyone into laughing. Those who don’t have herpes are now vindicated in their feelings that people with herpes are gross. This moment changed the way West felt about comedy, which led her into arguing publicly that rape jokes are not funny.

Rape jokes are not funny, West points out, because they come from a person of power profiting on the traumas of people with no power. She compares it to the CEO of a company getting up at the Christmas party and roasting the janitor for barely making enough money to feed his family. Similarly, a white man will most likely never be raped, nor will he fear being raped, nor does he have a game plan for how to avoid being raped and what to do if raped (women like me know these plans in detail). Therefore, the joke is funny to men. West was invited to debate Jim Norton on a TV show over the issue. If you know Norton, you know he’s a bit if a dark comic, and I’m not surprised he’s pro-rape jokes.

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What’s interesting is that West’s rhetoric was sound, but she didn’t change Norton’s mind. Off camera, he said he agreed that it’s wrong to take advantage of victims, but he was more concerned about free speech for comics. Norton felt that comedy didn’t translate into real life — that people who believe rape jokes are funny won’t go rape people. West disagreed, and then something happened…

Jim Norton fans bombarded West’s Twitter feed, e-mail, the comment section sof her articles — all over the internet. They wrote things about raping her, thinking she’s too fat to rape, cutting her up with an electric saw, etc. Norton had to admit that his fans were being aggressive and translating the “right” to tell rape jokes into real-life rape threats. He even wrote an article asking his fans to cool it. This was in 2010. West notes that since then, the comedy scene has changed; comedians are changing their tune. Thinking about how speaking up helped, and how using the rape threats to make a point helped, changed the way I thought about treading the internet, and about the maxim “Don’t Feed the Trolls,” with which West disagrees. Why should women be silent?

West also argues that fat is a feminist issue. She notes, “You have to swallow, every day, that you are a secondary being whose worth is measured by an arbitrary, impossible standard, administered by men.” West also describes how as a fat child, she was so ashamed of her body that it kept her silent. Women, both online and in life, are silenced constantly. Heartbreakingly, West explains that as a child, “[she] got good at being early on — socially, if not physically. In public, until [she] was eight, [she] would speak only to [her] mother, and even then, only in whispers, pressing [her] face into her [mother’s] leg.” West doesn’t have these earth-shattering traumas to report (if I compare her to Jessica Valenti, for example, whose new memoir catalogs all the sexual trauma she’s experienced). Yet, she is affected for most of her life by fat-shaming and the way it shuts her down as a woman, helping me to think more about my own silences — and the voices we’re missing from other fat people. There’s no need to compare traumas (sexual, emotional, physical) and decide whose is worse by some made-up standard. Traumas that shut women down are all appalling.

No matter what she’s writing about, West is ridiculously funny. She starts Shrill by describing all the fat female role models from her childhood, a list that included Auntie Shrew, Lady Cluck, The Trunchbull, and Ursula the Sea Witch. There are almost none, is the point. But did you ever wonder why King Triton is so ripped? West writes, “History is written by the victors, so forgive me if I don’t trust some P90X sea king’s smear campaign against the radical fatty in the next grotto.” Oh, man! I almost died!


auntie shrew      lady kluck3      the trunchbull      ursula2


In a nutrition class West signs up for, back when she felt like she needed to lose weight to be somebody, the teacher tells the students that if they get hungry after breakfast at 7Am and before lunch at 1PM, they should have 6 almonds. If they’ve gone over their “almond allotment, try an apple. So crisp. So filling.” West remembers, “Then everyone in nutrition class would nod about how fresh and satisfying it is to just eat an apple.” Lindy West labels this scene…wait for it… “the Apple Appreciation Circle-Jerk Jamboree.” I laughed so hard about this I called my mom and read her the scene! My mom, too had experienced such a class years ago.

Here’s one more great line: West compares her first experience in first-class flying and compares her seat to the ones in coach: “It has succeeded at being a chair instead of a flying social experiment about the limits of human endurance.” I read this passage at work and started cackling, despite the dead silence of the building.

Sometimes I wondered if I found Shrill so terribly funny and relevant because I am a fat woman. I tried reading passages to my husband, who didn’t laugh as much as I did, but he’s also a thoughtful person who may dismiss the humor and feel bad, wondering instead if I’m feeling bad for having read about fat-shaming and rape. My verdict is you must read this book. Lindy West is a feminist who’s doing something; she fought –with results — the fat-shaming that became acceptable around 2005, rape jokes in 2010, and internet trolls who make the internet unsafe for women.

Do You Keep Physical Books?

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Do You Keep Physical Books?

We’ve all heard it: the book worm whose house was filled wall-to-wall with beloved books. We see the pictures on social media of gorgeous library-like homes and reading nooks, causing jealousy and the desire to buy a home just like that, or to remodel our meager abodes. You’ve pictured yourself spinning around in a massive library, like Belle in Beauty and the Beast. You know you have.

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But I’m here to argue that keeping every book you’ve ever bought doesn’t make you a better fan of literature than the next reader. I’m here to argue that for the good of those around you, you should get rid of most of your physical books.

You: Whhaaaaa…?

I know, right? It’s my belief that we’ve been fed a narrative (haha) that collecting books and surrounding ourselves with as many of them as we can cram into our homes is awesome. Aren’t you really building a safe, cozy (a word I’ve always loathed) space to “curl up with a good book” (a cliche I wish would disappear — who curls??) and feel happy?

Here are some things I’ve learned about keeping books:

#1 They’re filthy.

According to a chemical engineer, there are several reasons the paper in your physical books breaks down. Some are pretty basic: if you aren’t dusting incessantly, your books are breaking down. If you keep food near your bookshelves, the paper can break down. Open windows, poor ventilation, and obvious problems like a leaky roof all affect your books. Now, if you’re like me and suffering from ridiculous allergies right now because the trees are trying to get it on, then you know that having items in your house that collect dust and even mold spores is bad for your health.

Then there’s bug infestations. Did you know some bugs love books? I had a friend who got carpet beetles in her apartment, and the only way to get the bugs out of her hundreds of books was to put each book in it’s own ziplock bag in the freezer for four days.

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#2 They’re a bitch to move.

If you were a book lover from way back like me, you probably moved into your first apartment with a ton of books, which traveled in more boxes that any other possession. If you went to college to get a degree (and then another and another) like me, you’ve kept all your old textbooks because, I mean, what if you need them again?? As if your professors will magically choose the same books to teach in the years ahead! And if they do, they’re not likely the same editions (publishers make sure of that). And if they use the same books and the same editions, why are you taking that class twice? My husband and I both kept all the textbooks from our major courses…and neither of us has ever read them since. There are too many new books and too much updated information.

And what’s one of the most common themes of college living? College moving! Whether it’s into or out of the dorms, just down the street to a new apartment complex, back in with mom and dad, or into your very first grown-up-person house, college students tend to move every year. So when you call up your buddies and ask them to help you move in exchange for a case of Bud Light, be kind and tell them you’ve got about 20 boxes jam-packed full of books and that you live on the second floor. They’ll smell the slave labor immediately. I used to delight in coming up with new organizing systems for my books every time we moved, shelving them by color or author or publisher, but I always ended up utter ill from handing so much dust. I mean, I’m flipping the dust into my own nose holes every time I open a book before shelving it (I’m too cautious to be a book smeller, like most of you).

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This is what $1.90 per hour looks like.

#3 Your home “library” doesn’t look like the ones on the internet.

Books can make a home beautiful and welcoming; this I admit. And of course when we get a free moment we scrutinize our friends’ shelves and judge them mercilessly by the amount of crap vs. classics (meaning what we think sucks vs. what makes us happy). But does your library really have the beauty that you see in pictures? Are your selves not haphazardly packed, books on top of the furniture, shelves bending helplessly in the middle under the weight?

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You’re picturing your home like this.

 

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This is more like what you have. There’s an excellent overwhelming sense of beige in this picture, don’t you think?

#4 You pay taxes in a bad economy.

You know that weird building with all the computers in it? It’s called the library (yes, it has books, too). If you pay taxes in the United States (and even if you don’t) the library is free for you to use. Many have unlimited borrowing agreements, so long as you don’t mess up and bring back the newest Babysitter’s Club book that you accidentally dumped a bottle of water on (sorry, Ms. Fran, but it was 1993!), there’s nothing stopping you! If things are tight financially at your house, consider checking out books from the library, which helps their stats and convinces politicians that libraries are actually being used. Think of the things you could do with all the extra cash, too. I know that when I magically appear in a book store (for I do not willing choose to go, it just happens — I swear!) I always drop at least $100. But what about highlighting amazing passages in the text? What if you really, really love that book?? Well, now you can confidently buy the book after reading the library copy. If you love it so much, highlight in it during your second reading.

#5 When you keep your books to yourself, you’re missing a community-building opportunity.

Have you heard of Little Free Library? They’re popping up all over the United States and are a great presence in communities. Leave a book, take a book. Awesome! For kids in the neighborhood who can’t get a ride to the library during those long summer days, they can walk to the nearest book box and see what’s new.

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If you have the money to buy books frequently, you’re privileged. Not everyone can even get to the library during business hours. The Little Free Library boxes are located in the center of communities, meaning people can walk to them. I put in physical copies that authors/publishers send me when I’m done with them. I feel like I’m giving a gift to someone else because the writer’s hard work gifted that book to me. Every time I drop off new books, I see which of the old books I’ve put in there are now gone, and I feel a rush of excitement and silent connection, knowing someone nearby is reading a book I’ve enjoyed. I’ve also learned that some people are a bit nervous about books. When I went to drop off some books to the Little Free Library one time, a man was there. I waved, and he ran away. I called him back, encouraging him to look at the books I brought with me. We made a small connection as I told him a bit about each one.

I’ve also recently discovered book parties! Throw a party, invite tons of friends, and request that everyone bring 2-3 books they no longer want. Everyone puts their books on a table, and however many books a person brings is how many they can take home. These events have proven successful when a person who picks up a book finds the former owner and they start talking books. I mean, isn’t that why you blog? To talk about books? Much better than “So, what do you do for a living?” or “What’s your major?” Ugh.

Getting rid of books is hard, but here’s how I do it:

I ask myself three questions:

  1. “Am I going to use this book in the future when I teach a lit class?”
  2. “Am I going to read it again?”
  3. “Can I get it at the library?”

Sometimes I’m not sure if I’ll read a book again, but I know it came from a small press and thus won’t be at the library, so I keep it. Why not, I paid for it. If it’s at the library but I’m going to teach from it (I need my own copies when I teach), then I keep it. Otherwise, if a book is at the library and I’m not going to teach from it and I’m not sure (doubts are okay) I’ll read it again, I get rid of that book. I want to share my book’s life with another. They also make excellent gifts at family gatherings where you have a White Elephant gift.

So, as a person with three literature/creative writing degrees who is a composition/literature professor, I say let some books go. A house load of dusty books doesn’t make you the bigger book worm. It doesn’t mean you love books more, or even read more than those of use who are willing to buy (or rent) electronic copies, use libraries, and donate our surplus reading materials.

Where do you keep most of your books? What does your book situation look like? How often do you buy books? What causes you to get rid of a book? I’d love to know in the comments!