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The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová @RoseMetalPress

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The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová @RoseMetalPress

The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová: A Biographical Collage

by Kelcey Parker Ervick

Published by Rose Metal Press, November 2016


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

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

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

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

and she came to an untimely end.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

with heavy clouds.

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

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

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

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

The Diverse Books Tag #diversebookbloggers

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The Diverse Books Tag #diversebookbloggers

Naz over at Read Diverse Books has challenged everyone to read more diversely. If you have read a book that fits into the category, share it! If you haven’t, go find a book that fits into the category with the goal of reading it. Here we go:

The-DiverseBooks-Tag

Find a Book Starring a Lesbian Character:

I’ve got this one in spades. Books with lesbians come to me easily — or perhaps I seek them out? — but mostly, I look for excellent stories, and I never shy away from those stories if the protagonist is a lesbian. In fact, in some instances, the leading lady being a lesbian is what drew me in!

Checking out the following:

Find a Book with a Muslim Protagonist:

Okay, my reading is not as great in this area. There is one book that I have read probably half a dozen times and taught each semester for several years now: The Autobiography of Malcolm X with Alex Haley. This book surprises my students because Malcolm is a Muslim minister for the Nation of Islam, which is a different branch of Islam than what you would encounter in the Middle East. After Malcolm did his pilgrimage to Mecca, he disavowed the N.O.I. and went Orthodox.

Looking at Goodreads, I would like to check out Ms. Marvel, a new comic book series. I also want to read Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah, which I saw in Barnes & Noble.

Find a Book Set in Latin America:

This is another category with which I have more experience. I’ve also seen Junot Diaz twice; the dude has stood two feet away from me (he likes to wander auditoriums when he talks). And my god, does he swear a lot (I love it). The last time I saw him, he asked where the Latino/as in the audience were. Then he asked where his Africans were. Very few people raised their hands, and he said that wasn’t his fault, but the college’s (we were at the University of Notre Dame). Here is my list:

  • Ayiti by Roxane Gay (Haiti)
  • Unaccompanied Minors by Alden Jones (Costa Rica)
  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (Dominican Republic)
  • Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War by Deb Olin Unferth (Nicaragua)
  • Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros (Mexico)
  • Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work by Edwidge Danticat (Haiti)

I have a number of books I’ve read by Latino/a authors who live in the U.S., such as Lolita Hernandez, Salvador Plascencia, and Desiree Zamorano. I’d like to read The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto Che Guevara (Mexico).

Find a Book About a Person with a Disability:

This is a tough one because I feel awkward reading a book about a person with a disability written by someone without a disability. I’ve noticed that most of the books with people who have disabilities I encounter are on the mental health spectrum as opposed to a physical disability, so I’ll keep my eyes open for more books with people who have disabilities.

  • Half Life by Shelly Jackson (conjoined twins)
  • American Genius by Lynn Tillman (mental illness)
  • Bogeywoman by Jaimy Gordon (self-harm, anxiety)
  • Sweethearts by Melanie Rae Thon (deaf)
  • Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulemia by Marya Hornbacher (mental illness)
  • Madness: A Bipolar Life by Marya Hornbacher (mental illness)
  • Annie’s Ghost by Steven Luxenberg (disabled legs and mental illness)
  • Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes (mentally disabled)
  • Lily of the Valley: Chateau of Flowers by Margaret Rome (blind)

Find a Science Fiction or Fantasy Book with a POC Protagonist:

I don’t read a ton of sci-fi or fantasy, but when I do, it tends to have POC in it. Perhaps because I find that when an author who is a POC writes sci-fi or fantasy, he or she includes deeper messages of race and gender than a white writer may.

  • Soul Resin by Charles W. Cannon
  • Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
  • Bald New World by Peter Tieryas
  • The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez

I have Kindred by Octavia Butler on my list. She wrote so many sci-fi/fantasy novels with POC; she is ultra prolific.

Find a Book Set In or About An African Country:

Find a Book Written by an Indigenous/Native Author:

  • Ledfeather by Stephen Graham Jones (Blackfeet)
  • Demon Theory by Stephen Graham Jones
  • It Came From Del Rio by Stephen Graham Jones
  • The Last Final Girl by Stephen Graham Jones
  • After the People Lights Have Gone Off by Stephen Graham Jones
  • The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie (grew up on Spokane reservation, but has heritage with several tribes)

Okay, so I’ve read a lot of Stephen Graham Jones. Technically, he would fit really well into sci-fi and fantasy starring a POC because he writes lots of mind-bending horror with time warps and craziness. I’ve read essays by Leslie Marmon Silko and Joy Harjo, and I would like to read Louise Erdrich soon. I’d also like to read Ojibwe authors, as I grew up on the Saginaw Chippewa reservation.

Find a Book Set in South Asia:

  • Palestine by Joe Sacco (Israel-ish, depending on your viewpoint regarding what to call this territory)
  • Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (Iran)
  • Love in a Dead Language by Lee A. Siegel (India)
  • The Question of Bruno by Aleksander Hemon (Sarajevo)
  • Currency by Zoe Zolbrod (Thailand)
  • The Girl on the Fridge by Etgar Keret (Isreal)
  • Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri (India) I incorrectly remembered which book this was! It is mostly set in the United States and focuses on Indian-American families. My mistake 🙂
  • Of Marriageable Age by Sharon Maas (India, British Guyana)
  • Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (India)
  • Dragonfish by Vu Tran (Vietnam) This book is half set in Vietnam and half in Las Vegas.

Find a Book with a Biracial Protagonist:

  • Sweethearts by Melanie Rae Thon (Crow/white)
  • The Family Nobody Wanted by Helen Doss (almost every person in the book is biracial)
  • Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self by Danielle Evens (black/white)
  • Quicksand and Passing by Nella Larsen (black/white)

Find a Book About a Transgender Character or that is about Transgender Issues:

  • Cloud 9 by Carol Churchill
  • Woman’s World by Graham Rawle
  • Drawing Blood by Poppy Z. Brite

I also have Janet Mock’s memoir on my to-read list, of course!

The-DiverseBooks-Tag

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

 

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.

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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.

The History of Great Things

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The History of Great Things

The History of Great Things by Elizabeth Crane

published by Harper Perennial, April 2016

I want to thank my cousin Wendi for going with me on April 21st to the Elizabeth Crane reading in Kalamazoo, MI, at the Book Bug independent bookstore, where we bought our copies of this book.

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The History of Great Things is the first Crane novel I’ve read. I am familiar with her short story collection You Must Be This Happy to Enter, which I also taught to freshman at an all-women’s college. The students deemed the stories “just silly,” but the silliness is what appealed to me. So many novels are about destruction, sadness, addiction. During her reading, Elizabeth Crane explained that she wondered if it was possible for a writer to create when he/she is not unhappy. Does art, she wondered, require misery? I guess my students would be on the side of “yes.”

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The short story collection I taught at the women’s college. Crane said she never got her Precious Moments figurine back. I think she’s lucky!

I was curious to see how this playful author would turn her special flavor into something novel-length, and when I learned she would be reading in Kalamazoo, only an hour from me and where my favorite cousin Wendi lives, I made the drive. Prince had died that day. That shouldn’t matter, except the employee of the store kept making subtle Prince references instead of properly introducing Elizabeth Crane. She even started her speech with, “We are gathered here today….” Why was she mixing business with her sadness over a pop icon? She also kept saying “Betsy.” I had no idea who Betsy was, but after a few minutes I learned that the store employee was talking about Elizabeth Crane. It turns out that the author’s husband is from Kalamazoo, so she knew several people in the audience, including the woman introducing her, and they’d been hanging out and having fun all day — and drinking based on the wondering non-nonsensical introduction. It made for a lousy reading, but seeing Wendi was worth it, and the brief passages Elizabeth Crane read made me want to buy the book.

The History of Great Things has a confusing premise, but when you start reading it makes total sense. In real life, Elizabeth Crane is fondly known as Betsy. Her mother was Lois, who was an opera singer who died of cancer.

In the book, Lois tells her daughter’s life as she understands it. Betsy tells about Lois’s life as she understands it. It’s an interesting premise that asks, “What do daughters and mothers actually know about each other?”

Since the author’s mother is deceased, she is the puppet master in all of this. She is writing the book, pretending to think like her mother, who is pretending to understand her daughter. Whoa. Explaining it feels like the Matrix, or that scene in Chicago during which Richard Gere uses Renee Zellweger as a puppet to confuse the media. During the reading, Crane was insistent that this is not a memoir. These are characters, not “real” people (even though they are/were real people). Crane wasn’t there for a lot of it, she said (I’m paraphrasing as closely as possible), and at some points in the book she time travels, so yeah, it’s fiction. Crane also points out that while both of her parents are dead and left behind a lot of stuff, she didn’t go through those things, including letters, to write this book because she “didn’t want this book to depict events with any accuracy.”

To give you an idea of how this book starts, here is a sample from Lois’s perspective. Remember, she’s writing what she thinks Betsy’s life is like in 1961:

So you’re a giant bowling ball coming out of me. If bowling balls were square. It hurts like a bitch. Honestly. No one mentioned this detail to me in advance. I may as well be pushing out a full-grown adult. Wearing a tweed pantsuit. Think about that. That’s what they should tell kids in sex ed. Not that sex ed exists now, because it doesn’t. Sex exists. Not ed.

In the next chapter, Betsy writes what she thinks her mother’s life was like in 1936:

Okay. Muscatine, Iowa. June of 1936. You’re born in Muscatine. Edna, your mother, has been a homemaker since your older sister, Marjorie, was born a couple years earlier. Before that she worked at the Heinz factory for a while. Walter, your father, is the editor of the Muscatine Journal. Member of the lodge.

And that’s how the book reads: each woman tells the story of the other…or how she thinks it was, including the other person’s feelings and motives. Here, I can see a clear distinction in the voices. Betsy and Lois are definitely different speakers.

My favorite parts of the book are when Lois and Betsy interrupt each other mid-story. Here is a continuation of the previous quote:

–Which lodge?

–I don’t know, some lodge. A lodge is a lodge.

–Don’t tell him that.

–Mom, Grandpa’s long gone.

–Well, so am I, Betsy, but you’re talking to me.

–Okay, whatever! Let’s say it’s a Moose lodge.

–Let’s say? You don’t think we should try to be accurate?

–Well, it’s not a memoir. It’s just a story.

–But it’s a true story.

–It’s not a true story, though. That’s not what we’re doing. Do you think you know my story?

–Yes. I don’t know. Maybe. More than you think.

–Lemme just keep going.

These little squabbles are both funny and significant. Imagine if you could sit down with your parent and tell them what you think their life was like. Now, imagine that parent is dead, so you have to uphold both ends of the conversation. I’m positive therapists use this tool with patients. Also, Betsy points out to her mother that she wants to skip sex scenes because, ew, why would she want to imagine that? Her mother retorts that she’s already written three sex scenes for Betsy, but the Betsy points out that really she’s just imagining her mothering imagining herself, so all in all, it’s not hard for her to imagine herself having sex. These are very playful moments in the book!

At one point, Betsy tells the story of Lois as a little girl playing with another little girl, Ginny, whose great-grandmother was black. As a result, Lois’s racist father makes Ginny leave. The way Betsy tells the story sounds accurate, but she adds on that Lois is determined to be friends with Ginny when they grow up. Lois interjects:

–Okay, you’re pretty good at this.

–Thanks, Mom.

–I mean, that might be made up, but it could have happened. Maybe it did happen.

–Well, but it’s important that everyone understands this isn’t what actually happened, only what could have happened.

Elizabeth Crane makes sure her characters remind the reader that they’re reading a fake conversation, that it isn’t real and only what might have happened is allowed in the book. I feel this is important because we’ve got some sneaky metafiction here. The book is aware that it’s a book, and I haven’t read any good metafiction lately, not since Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions in which he inserts himself in the final scene.

As the novel progresses, you start to notice similarities between mother and daughter. Lois is a professional opera singer stuck in a time when women are supposed to be wives and mothers. When she finds herself married at 19, and then pregnant, she simultaneously chases the dream of singing in New York City because she’s been accepted by a highly-coveted voice coach. Betsy imagines her mother thinking, “You do want this baby, you’re sure of it, pretty sure, granted the timing is suddenly not great, but it’s too late now.” Betsy flounders when it comes to fitting in as she should, too. Into her 30s she still is not gainfully employed and frequently moves back home. Lois images Betsy thinking, “Does everyone have to want the same thing? Does everyone have to know exactly what they want? Is there a cutoff date for knowing what you want? And if you go beyond it, what then?”

Around the middle of the book, Lois dies (just as she died of cancer in real life). This part is playful because Lois definitely wasn’t there, so there can be no accuracy in what she thinks. She has sections on how she thinks Betsy dealt with her death, everything from buying a house boat and having twins after going through in vitro fertilization, to trying for a career as a preschool teaching and dating but failing to find the right one so Betsy becomes celibate, to getting married and having twins and riding away on a whale. They’re all rather silly. Eventually, Betsy interrupts and says that she’s actually married to a man named Ben (no children). Her mother says, “–You’re with someone? Oh, sweetheart!” Now, isn’t that just cute? You could just imagine anyone’s mother saying that, but this mother is saying it from beyond the grave, as if Elizabeth Crane wanted or needed to hear it.

As the book goes on, Lois expresses that she feels miserable from the stories Betsy’s reminding her of — sad or painful parts of her past — and so things get a bit crazy. Together, they decide to re-do some of life. And here is where we get to the part that made me decide to buy the book: Betsy imagines that she and her mother are sisters on the day that the little African American girl, Ginny, was thrown out of Lois’s house. I’m just going to quote because this scene is fantastic:

…I run back downstairs to find Daddy smoking out in the backyard, and I say Daddy, Ginny is a person just like you, and he says You are asking for big trouble, young lady, and I say I don’t care! I am here from the future! We have an African American president! and he says What the hell is “African American”? And I say It means black, negro, colored! We have a colored president! There are two little colored girls in the White House! I’m going to wash your mouth out with soap for just for thinking such a thing! And I say I don’t care! The future is here! …Ginny really does want to go home now, and you [Lois] are rather unsure about this whole scene, and I yell loud enough for the neighbors three houses down to hear A racist lives here! A racist lives here! ….Daddy tells us we’re both grounded until we graduate from high school; that’s when I say Fuck you, I’m going back to the twenty-first century.

Oh, wow, can you imagine going back in time and righting the wrongs? I loved this moment where Betsy really gives it to her racist old grandpa! And, it pulls the story out of the sticky sadness that real life can be. Fiction is a place where people can do whatever they want, so why not?

Yet, there are some problems with the book. First, the author doesn’t keep her characters consistently named. When Betsy’s telling Lois’s story, instead of referring to herself in first person, she calls herself Betsy, which is confusing. Imagine Betsy writes something like “you’re holding Betsy after she is born” instead of “you’re holding me after I am born”). Instead of calling her parents mom and dad, they are Fred and Lois. Since the book made it so very clear that Betsy is telling the story, using Fred is strange. And sometimes he’s dad, which isn’t consistent. She also calls her grandparents what Lois calls them (Mother and Daddy) instead of grandma and grandpa. Whomever is writing should use the terms they would use to keep everything sorted.

Also, there are some language problems. Lois writes using phrases like “stupid-ass hat” and “cost about infinity more money than you have,” which sounds odd coming from a woman born in the 30s. Yes, she’s telling Betsy’s story, but it’s Lois’s voice. Could the author’s mother spoke that way? Sure, but if she’s going to insist this book isn’t a memoir, then Crane needs to adjust the voices so they are believable within the novel.

When I got to the end of the book, I wasn’t sure why we were stopping. What exactly was the arc of this book? In the very end, after the acknowledgements, the author explains why she wrote this book, but doesn’t give any new reasons beyond what’s already stated in the novel. She also includes a bunch of pictures and newspaper clippings from her and her parents’ lives, though they are small, grainy layered black-and-white images without labels, so I wasn’t sure what to take from them. And why add them to a book that purports to NOT be fiction?

Finally, the quality of the book itself could be better. I’m used to reading small press books, which are often designed with integrity, but this Harper Perennial book was cheaply made. I felt like I was trying to read print cooked lasagna noodles, and the pages hadn’t been completely been cut in the process, so I was constantly picking bits of paper fuzz from the bottom edge.

Despite my criticisms, I would recommend everyone read this book because it is uniquely told. If you are a writer, The History of Great Things could give you some ideas on how to play with style and point of view. The novel is a speedy read. You might find yourself thinking “just one more” like I did many times because of the digestible length of chapters.

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Elizabeth Crane

Scoot Over, Skinny: The Fat Nonfiction Anthology

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Scoot Over, Skinny: The Fat Nonfiction Anthology

Scoot Over, Skinny: The Fat Nonfiction Anthology

edited by Donna Jarrell and Ira Sukrungruang

320 pages

published by Mariner Books, Jan 2005

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

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

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Donna Jarrell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Favorite Graphic Novels & Comics of 2015

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I’ve been reading graphic novels and comics for a long time, but this year I turned to the form as a way to keep up on book reviews when I was bogged down with work. But once I started, I had a hard time turning away! There are sure to be many more reviews of graphic works at Grab the Lapels. Here are a few of my favorite graphic novels and comics from 2015!


Lisa HanawaltMy Dumb Dirty Eyes

written and illustrated by Lisa Hanawalt

From simplistic crayon or pencil drawings to intricate water color or colored pencil designs, Hanawalt uses the full range of her talents and demonstrates that, like Picasso, if an artist learns the rules, she can break them, too. The book has no chapters or anything like that, as it is mostly pieces of small works–comics– such movie reviews, images of animals wearing hats for fashion week, small comic strips, and large two-page spreads of things like lizards wearing clothes hanging out in some sort of Keith Harring meets Hieronymous Bosch. Themes include nudity, sex, lizards, dogs, and horses.

She makes me remember that play and playfulness are good things when she remembers her love of love of Breyers plastic horses. Really, adults don’t seem to get it because we’re so repressed; the questions and observations that we have daily are shoved away because they’re too strange. Hanawalt lives in the strange and indulges in head space; it’s not a vacation for her.

Read the full review here!


pond coverOver Easy

written and illustrated by Mimi Pond (read our interview here)

Over Easy begins May 23, 1978. Margaret is the only character in a diner called The Imperial when the manager, Lazlo, comes spinning into the scene. At the time, Margaret is an art student, and the world of blue collar workers fascinates her. She exchanges a drawing for a free meal, but the restaurant is about to close for the day, so Lazlo gives her an IOU. The story then jumps back to how Margaret wound up at that diner and why she is interested in drawing.

Over Easy was a fascinating read. I always wanted to know what bitchy waitresses Martha and Helen would do next, and I wanted to see in what way the cooks were trying to be smooth poets and cool guys. Lazlo held the whole thing together with his whimsical personality and strange rules. I didn’t want to befriend these people, but I liked being the outsider peeking in.

Read the full review here!


Jillian TamakiSuperMutant Magic Academy

written and illustrated by Jillian Tamaki

A fantastic look at intelligent teenagers and their hopes, fears, and disappointments. Tamaki treats that age group with dignity by allowing them to be themselves. The students care about relationships, death, the meaning of life, systems that oppress them to make them better consumers, and whether or not to go to prom. Almost the entirety of the book is set up in one-page increments until you get closer to the end. This book was a great one to engage me and also give me space. You can easily pick up and put down SuperMutant Magic Academy thanks to the short nature of its design.

 


Marie PommepuyBeautiful Darkness

written by Fabien Vehlmann

illustrated by  Kerascoët (the pen name of co-illustrators and husband and wife Marie Pommepuy and Sébastien Cosset)

I never include books written by men at Grab the Lapels. In fact, there is no full review of Beautiful Darkness on GTL. But, the illustrations are so vital to the story, and those are done in part by Marie Pommepuy, so I’m including this bewildering fairy tale in my favorite graphic novels of 2015.

It’s easy to read this book quickly (in less than an hour). The water color images have a sort of innocent look about them, which is emphasized and shattered when the characters do awful things! There is a Lord of the Flies feel to the story, though the characters aren’t on an island; they are for some reason released from the body of a dead girl that’s rotting in the woods. Keep in mind that this book is a work of conceptual fiction, so you won’t get the full resolution you seek in traditional fiction.

An exquisite collection that you have to experience to believe.


 

Step Aside PopsStep Aside, Pops!

written and illustrated by Kate Beaton

This comic book had me in stitches. Beaton’s collection is entirely in black and white. The drawings are what some might call “cartoony” or haphazard, but the style fits the content in a way that emphasizes the playfulness of the messages, and the speedy nature of today’s society. Everything is fast and on a deadline, thus Beaton’s drawing style reflects that.

Beaton explains, “When I get asked to describe my comics, the easiest thing to say is that it is historical or literary or pop-culture parodies.” Most pieces are only 3-6 frames long, making it easy to pick up and put down this book if you only have a minute. I had a lot of fun reading Step Aside, Pops!

Read the full review here!


This One Summer coverThis One Summer

written by Mariko Tamaki

illustrated by Jillian Tamaki

This One Summer is the story of fifteen-year-old Rose heading to Awago Beach for summer vacation, just like they do every single year. Rose meets up with her summer vacation friend, Windy, who is a year-and-one-half younger. But trouble starts brewing when Rose sees her parents argue and pull apart from each other.

Though This One Summer is a slice-of-life story that takes place over about ten days, it is full in the way that it captures the entirety of the difficulties of being a teenager.This One Summer took me back to my younger teenage years. I could relate to the difficulties that Rose faced when her parents argued the whole vacation and the isolation she experienced as a result. Some of what Rose thought she knew was changed as she watched different scenarios between her parents or the older teens, or even discussions with Windy, unfold to prove her preconceived notions wrong.

Read the full review here!


My first comics pick for 2016 is Lynda Barry’s newest book, Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor, published October 2014 by Drawn & Quarterly. How I didn’t know about this book earlier is a mystery to me, but I’ve had many individuals say it will change my professional and creative life. I got this book for Christmas this year. It seems to actually be printed on one of those black and white composition notebooks that you’d use in school. Here’s the description from the publisher:

For the past decade, Lynda has run a highly popular writing workshop for non-writers called Writing the Unthinkable – the workshop was featured in the New York Times magazine. Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor is the first book that will make her innovative lesson plans and writing exercises available to the public for home or classroom use. Barry’s course has been embraced by people of all walks of life – prison inmates, postal workers, university students, teachers, and hairdressers – for opening paths to creativity. Syllabus takes the course plan for Lynda Barry’s workshop and runs wild with it in Barry’s signature densely detailed style. Collaged texts, ballpoint pen doodles, and watercolour washes adorn Syllabus’ yellow lined pages, which offer advice on finding a creative voice and using memories to inspire the writing process. Throughout it all, Lynda Barry’s voice (as author and teacher-mentor) rings clear, inspiring, and honest.

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Meet the Writer: Mimi Pond

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Meet the Writer: Mimi Pond

 

Mimi Pond

Photo from the Village Voice

Today I got a chance to speak with author Mimi Pond. Pond is a cartoonist who started working in the 1980s, with work in National Lampoon, the Village Voice, and The New York Times. She won the PEN Center USA award for Graphic Literature Outstanding Body of Work, with a special mention for Over Easy. Pond has written for television, including the pilot episode of The Simpson’s entitled “Simpson’s Roasting on an Open Fire.” You can follow her on Twitter or check out her website.

At the end of October, I reviewed Pond’s graphic novel, Over Easy, and praised the marvelous characters and greenish-blue water colors to capture the feel of an era now gone. Mimi Pond was kind enough to answer my questions about Over Easy below:

Whom did you picture as your audience when you were writing Over Easy?

pond coverI really didn’t consider the audience. I really just wrote the book for myself. It was an absolute compulsion. If there was any audience at all, perhaps it was my co-workers. I just hoped that I was capturing the way things were, and, very gratifyingly, most of the folks I worked with way back when have responded very positively to it. Also, it seems to have resonated with many people of my generation who found themselves in similar situations.

At first, I was thrown off that Over Easy is described as a fictionalized memoir. What led to that decision?

Although truth is often stranger than fiction, reality is much more slow-paced than fiction. I wanted, as I said, to distill the essence of the experience without being literal. I did not want to be hindered by the day-to-day facts. I also didn’t want anyone to sue me.

I found many of the characters in Over Easy a bit repulsive, but I really loved them, too. I never had trouble keeping them apart because each is unique. How did you find that sweet spot?

Thank you! Well, so many people came and went through the restaurant that if I’d done it as non-fiction it might’ve read as a Russian novel. I had to make composites of multiple cooks and waitresses. It’s important in telling a story to make each character unique and serve as a counterpoint to the other characters.

ding dingWhat’s the deciding factor when choosing between simple square frames or a more dynamic page, such as the dinging bell that consumes the middle of the page on Margaret’s first day as a waitress?

It’s purely instinctive. Sometimes you want something big and splashy to break things up.  It’s also all about pacing. Watching movies has been probably more educational to me than looking at comics. You can learn a lot by studying the way films are edited.

On your website, you write, “Reading Over Easy, I hope you all have a sense of just how different things were in the late 1970s and early 80s.” I didn’t always agree with the choices people in Over Easy made, but I loved that it is an intimate look at a specific period and accepted the 40 year difference in time as a factor. Has the response from your readers been one of understanding, or are they holding the characters to today’s standards?

It’s kind of fascinating how many young people are completely SHOCKED by the characters’ behavior. For those of us who lived through that time, it’s just the way things were. Mostly, however, people seem to see it as a window into a different world.

You also mention on your website that your daughter Lulu is a comic artist, too. Can we expect any mother-daughter collaborations in the future?

That would be nice. Lulu isn’t a cartoonist per se, but she is fully capable of doing comics. Both she and her brother are very gifted artists. Her brother has done some comics. I would like to see both of them do more at some point, if the spirit wills them!

Thank you so much to Mimi Pond for stopping by! You can get your hands on a copy of Over Easy at Drawn & Quarterly.

Meet the Writer: Liz Prince

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Please be sure to check out my review of Tomboy on Grab the Lapels!

In Tomboy you depict yourself as a child drawing comics. When did you realize comics were something you could do as a job?

I’ve been pretty solely focused on drawing comics since I was 9 or 10 years old; before that I wanted to be an animator, (and before that, as referenced in Tomboy, I wanted to be a cartoon character), so cartooning in some fashion has always been a goal of mine.  It’s pretty cool that I actually did manage to be a cartoon character when I grew up, by drawing comics about myself!  3-year-old Liz would be in awe (or she would insist that it doesn’t count—who knows with 3-year-old logic).

Artist Liz Prince

It isn’t until you’re a teenager and you attend an alternative school that you find people who make you feel like you can be yourself. Do you think people who struggle with fitting in should try alternate education facilities? Or should teens look for a group within their own schools?

I think the benefit of alternative schools is that they tend to have a smaller student body, which means that there is less chance for there to be an overarching status-quo that kids are expected to conform to.  Not having organized sports and that culture of hierarchy definitely seems to keep an even keel in terms of who is valued as a student, but that isn’t to say that positive social situations don’t exist in larger educational institutions!  I feel like it really is wholly dependent on the student and the situation.

You note in Tomboy that having a boyfriend makes things easier because people aren’t questioning your sexuality. Help us all out: what is it that makes finding someone to date so darn hard? Are we just looking for that validation from our peers?

Well, that was a very specific to me situation, in that because of the way I dress and present myself, people have always assumed that I date women, when in actuality I have always been romantically attracted to men (or in the case of Tomboy, boys). It felt important to point that out, because it is a very damaging side effect of our gender stereotypes, that we have stereotypes for folks who don’t fit the stereotype!

I do think that a lot of what we consider to be romantic conquest in our teenage years is based more on what we’ve gleaned from pop culture, and less on what we actually want from a partner, but that’s totally understandable because dating gets easier with experience, and most people’s experience level when they’re 15 years old is very low.  Basically, I look back on my romantic experiences in my teen years as a total facepalm: it doesn’t mean I didn’t genuinely like the boys that I dated, but most of those relationships weren’t really all that beneficial to me beyond having someone to make out with (and hey, sometimes that can’t be discounted as a total PLUS).

Do you have many lady friends in the graphic novel/comics scene? What are they like?

Yes!  Nicole J. Georges (Calling Dr. Laura, 2013), Corrine Mucha (Get Over It!, 2014), Whit Taylor (Madtown High, 2013), Ramsey Beyer (Year One, 2012), Raina Telgemeier (Sisters, 2014). They are all totally inspirational to me, and it’s a bummer that most of them don’t live in the same city as me, because my favorite times of the year are when we’re together at a convention.

Whom did you picture as your audience when you were writing Tomboy?

Tomboy is the first book that I’ve written where audience really came into play, since I was writing it for a publisher that specializes in books for teens.  At first I was pretty stunted by the idea that this book had to conform to some sort of code of what is “acceptable for young adult readers,” but I pretty quickly decided that I would just write the book the way I wanted to write the book, and worry about what was or wasn’t “acceptable” if it came up in the editing process, and surprisingly, nothing ended up on the chopping block!  That book is pure Liz, no pandering, and I’m really proud of it.

The first comic you drew that you were really proud of: what was it about?

Haha, if you ask me now, I’d say it’s called Tomboy, and it’s a memoir about my childhood and gender stereotypes.

Ok, I’m halfway kidding, but Tomboy is definitely the most important book I’ve written, but I’ve been drawing, and I’ve always felt at least semi-confident about the results.  I think that I’ve probably been proud of my output all along, otherwise I might not have found the energy to keep going.  Of course, in the case of some of my earliest published comics, which were in a local zine in Santa Fe, NM, when I was 13-years-old, they make me cringe now, but I was totally stoked to have had comics printed in a magazine when I was in the 7th grade: not many other kids can say that!

Anya’s Ghost

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Anya’s Ghost

Anyas Ghost cover

Anya’s Ghost (First Second, 2011) is the celebrated graphic novel by Russian-American Vera Brosgol. The book is the story of a teenage girl named Anya, who believes she has trouble fitting in at school. Her mother brought Anya and her little brother from Russia when Anya was five, just before Anya entered public school. Her best friend is Siobhan, an Irish-American girl whom I mistook for a boy for most of the graphic novel. Siobhan has short hair and wears a button up shirt and tie. The images aren’t detailed enough for me to tell just by looking at the girl. The story also focuses on Russian-American student Dima, a highly intelligent runty boy in Anya’s grade. The story is set in the U.S., and so the other students are all represented as American teenagers (i.e. blond, popular, don’t appear to struggle with popularity).

On her walk home from school one day, Anya falls into a well and discovers a skeleton is her only company. The skeleton belongs to Emily, a ghost who can only travel a short distance from her remains. After Anya is rescued, she discovers one of Emily’s finger bones got into her backpack, and now Emily is with Anya to stay.

It’s not so bad, though. Emily helps Anya do better in school by cheating on tests and feeding Anya lines to say to a boy after reading his schedule so Anya can “bump into” him. Emily is the best friend Anya’s had in a long time (Siobhan is a testy person who is mad at Anya just as often as she is friendly). But Emily is not exactly what she seems, and Anya may regret her new life with the help of her ghost.

Vera Brosgol inserts reminders that Anya struggles with her differences. When teachers try to call on Anya, they can’t pronounce her name: “Is there a problem, Miss… Br… Bor…” and Anya answers, “Borzakovskaya. No, ma’am.” The image suggests that the teacher isn’t working to learn her students’ names. Again, Anya has been in the U.S. since she was five years old and is now in high school. It’s not as if she entered the school year midway.

Emily points out that the Russian American students should stick together. When Dima is being bullied in the school lunchroom, Anya isn’t surprised; she predicted it when Dima kept answering all the questions earlier in class, which is a total “fobby” move–“fresh off the boat.” Emily asks, “Correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t you both Russian?…Well, back when I was alive, your people were your family. You defended each other no matter what.” In this instance, Brosgol reminds readers that even individuals with something important in common can turn on each other in the name of seeming like a normal teenager.

But Anya can’t escape her mother. Whether it’s the greasy food she makes, which Anya hates because she’s worried she’ll get fat, or her mother’s misunderstanding of basic knowledge on the citizenship test, Anya is impatient with her round, bespectacled, independent mother and shows her about as much compassion as she shows Dima.

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Anya wants “normal” food for American teens.

Though the story suggests the point is to get rid of Anya’s ghost, the real challenge is to get rid of all of her that is Russian. Anya tells Emily that she goes to a private school because Dima went there, and his parents wanted Anya to be there to befriend him. She laments, “It’s not fair! I got bullied for years for talking funny, I did my time in ESL, I don’t have an accent!”

Emily is mostly a vehicle to get Anya to experience American kids and see that they don’t have perfect lives, and that she actually fits in rather easily. Anya never realizes that her low self-esteem and anger is what keeps her from befriending the other kids, but the reader can see it happening. I enjoyed following Anya and watching her do regular teenager activities, especially since I’m reading from an adult perspective, one with my teenage years far enough behind me to be wiser, but not so far as to forget what high school was like.

However, Emily seemed pretty useless (other than being that vehicle). Her statements seemed simple and too easy: “Was it something I could have helped with?” Or, “And I think that Sean boy could really like you! You’re much more interesting than that Elizabeth girl.” I never felt like Emily challenged the reader–or Anya–except the part when she noted that Anya wasn’t helping Dima.

It’s possible that Emily is the sweet to Anya’s sour. Anya is upset about her weight, her nationality, her family, and her level of popularity. Really, she seems like a regular grumpy teen who is blaming all her problems on her Russian roots.

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Anya worries that she will turn into her mother.

Emily is sweet, polite–a good little ghost girl, in contrast. In fact, I kept thinking of the little ghost girls in the animated movie Coraline. The longer Emily stays, though, the more the roles change. Anya is forced to become kinder and more compassionate as Emily demands more of her time on Earth.

The ending of Brosgol’s Anya’s Ghost seemed too easy. Anya’s changes were quick, and I felt for sure that if there were a second book that the depressed teen might go back to her sulking ways. The only growth I saw from Anya was when she tells Siobhan that she doesn’t want to share a cigarette because “[she] doesn’t think [she] ever liked it. And it doesn’t look as cool as [she] thought it did.” Perhaps Anya will change her sad attitude with some careful reflection.

In the end, Anya’s Ghost is a speedy read. There are more images than words, so I was able to get through all 221 pages in about an hour. So, even if you feel hesitant about reading this book, you can enjoy it without a huge time commitment.