Tag Archives: dance

Fat Girl Dances With Rocks #LGBT #ownvoices @SusanStinson

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Fat Girl Dances With Rocks #LGBT #ownvoices @SusanStinson

*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.


You may remember that Susan Stinson stopped by Grab the Lapels recently for a Meet the Writer feature. Many of you asked if I would be reading Fat Girl Dances with Rocks soon. I imagine the title and the cover both draw readers in! In case you can’t see it online, the cover is beautiful and tasteful. The girl is both naked and yet covered (no nipples on her breasts or genitals). The artist, Jody Kim, used colored pencils to give the image a soft, warm, yet nuanced look by layering the colors.

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Fat Girl Dances with Rocks (Spinster Ink, 1994) is narrated in first person by Char, a 17-year-old girl who loves practicing dance moves and riding for hours in her Pinto with best friend Felice. Set in the 1970s, the book makes reference to specific disco songs from the decade. Though they’ve been friends for a good while, Felice has just now agreed to stay the night at Char’s for the first time, and what starts innocently enough with Char asking Felice to fix her hair somehow, maybe braid it, ends with a a kiss. Felice doesn’t want to talk about it.

Char claims she likes the idea of a boyfriend and being touched. She’s had boyfriends, too. Kissing Felice seems more intimate . . . perhaps not because Felice is a girl, but because they’ve been physically close through their friendship. Thus, Char’s sexuality develops naturally. I’ve watched movies and read fiction with characters who come out, and it’s always a huge surprise to the character. My friends in high school, lesbian, bi, and straight, all came to sex at different ages. While some were shy holding hands, others had physical relationships regularly. It all depends on the person’s comfort level. Char’s feelings reflect what I remember as true of teenagers forming relationships and realizing that they want physical closeness. It’s a tricky balance, and many bloggers lament the problematic “insta-love.” You won’t find that in Fat Girl Dances with Rocks.

Susan Stinson’s novel does a lot of work in the first several pages. We get the kiss, the tension between Felice and her mother, and Char’s problematic family. The father seems gruff, the brother a bit of a bully, and the mother asks Char every morning, “Did you lose weight?” Both mother and daughter are on diets, while father and brother eat seconds because they are average. Stinson sets up potential problems to be faced head on later in the novel.

After deciding she can’t live with her mom anymore, Felice leaves for the summer. One might guess she’s running away from her feelings for Char, which you may find predictable. Felice is a unique teen, though. She loves geology and identifies and collects rocks, which she mails to Char throughout the summer. Char, with nothing else to do, must get a job, so she lands at an assisted living community. Stinson showcases a variety of rabble-rousing, demanding people with different physical disabilities. A few characters are in wheelchairs, and one can’t fully use her hands.

Though I could easily tell the characters in the home apart (usually people with physical disabilities get clumped together in fiction, as if they are the same), their disabilities were slowly revealed. While I pictured Peg, the leader of a food riot in the cafeteria, one way, later on I would learn more about her the way her body was shaped and functioned differently, and I would have to rearrange her appearance in my head. But Peg helps Char grow up a bit by teaching Char how to treat people, how to think about people, just by interacting with her. Char must figure it all out.

And that’s what I loved about Stinson’s book. Nothing is handed to Char, nothing is obvious, or a given, when it comes to Char. Even her thoughts on her body are complex. Did you forget she is fat? It’s easy to, as it is not the obsession of her life. Sure, bodies are problematic at times, regardless of size, but they bring great joy, too. Since I’ve listed so many horrible things characters say about their fat bodies in previous reviews, below are some positives.

Even when Char is told to get her hair “under control,” she admits to readers, “I love my hair. It was one of my secret vanities. Sometimes at night I would spread it out on my pillow.” Hair is easy, though. Most people can have good hair. What about fat bodies? When she goes swimming with her mother for some good exercise (yes, fat people like to exercise), she watches her fat mother:

. . . once I saw her beauty, it seemed ordinary and familiar. Mom seemed to wake up in the water. She was so loose and white, buoyed up by her fat. She could rest at the surface and make little dips with her hands and feet.

fat women beach

Char also admires an old photo of her mother, “. . . young, on a horse, with those family breasts pushing out fringe on a fancy cowgirl shirt, and the family thighs spreading wide and strong against the shining brown saddle.” Now that, reader, is an important moment. Do you ever think of fat as an inheritance? Or are you more about the family curse of wobbly arms and big butts? Did you know that features of your body, even the fat ones, connect you undeniably to your blood kin, and that when you insult yourself, you insult them, too? I was so pleased to see Char admire her mother’s body.

Granted, Char’s mother weighs herself daily and asks Char if she’s lost weight. Something toxic is trying to be passed in those familial relationships, too. And it takes it’s toll. We all know our mothers doing a chicken dinner on their own bodies affects how we feel about ours. Are you a mother? Do you still pick at your body nonetheless? Char stands in the shower, holding her excess belly and thinking that it shouldn’t even exist. What an awful thought, but it reflects the reality of her environment.

Fortunately, Char’s not fully warped by diet culture. Home alone and missing Felice, she puts on a record and dances around naked. Pretty soon, she’s hiding the rocks Felice has mailed her in the folders of her skin (under her breasts, in her sides, under her belly). Is it really just dancing, or more of a way to get Felice closer to her body? The moment is both elegant and absurd, and that’s why I love it. She also pats her thighs as she lays in bed, thinking of them as good, faithful dogs.

Fat Girl Dances with Rocks is suitable for all ages, though it strikes me as a coming-of-age young adult novel. The characters are unique yet realistic, and avoid all the pitfalls — “insta-love,” love triangle, nerdy chic, popular kids vs. your obvious choice to side with — that usually make me avoid stories about teenagers.

Dust Tracks on a Road #BlackLit #Autobiography

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Dust Tracks on a Road #BlackLit #Autobiography

Dust Tracks on a Road is Hurston’s autobiography, though it doesn’t read like a traditional autobiography. The book is broken into sections. First, it reads like the story of her life, but then she moves into chapters about friendship, collecting folktales in the Caribbean, bringing “true Negro dancing” to the the U.S., and what it means to be an individual instead of a member of a race. Hurston died in obscurity in (1891- 1960). As scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. notes in the afterward:

Hurston’s fame reached its zenith in 1943 with a Saturday Review cover story honoring the success of Dust Tracks. Seven years later, she would be serving as a maid in Rivo Alto, Florida; ten years after that she would die in the County Welfare Home in Fort Pierce, Florida.

How could the recipient of two Guggenheims and the author of four novels, a dozen short stories, two musicals, two books on black mythology, dozens of essays, and a prize-wining autobiography virtually “disappear” from her readership for three full decades?

Zora maid

In 1975, Alice Walker (the author best know for The Color Purple) wrote an essay about Hurston, which was published in Ms. magazine. The article launched a Hurston revival, and more people have read Their Eyes Were Watching God between 1975 and today than did between 1937 and 1975.

Dust Tracks on a Road begins with a bit about the development of Eatonville, Florida, starting with two Brazilians. For reasons not fully clear to me, black and whites worked together to help black folks create Eatonville, which is sort of attached to Maitland, Florida (the geography is confusing). Hurston explains, “Eatonville, Florida, is, and was at the time of my birth, a pure Negro town — charter, mayor, council, town marshal and all.” For this reason, Hurston is not aware of racism to the extent that other black Americans are; not once to my memory does Hurston mention an incident involving race in this book.

Unexpectedly, I visited Eatonville a few weeks ago. I visited my ol’ Granny for spring break, leaving behind the mushy Indiana weather. One day at breakfast, while wearing my “Zora t-shirt,” I began to discuss the writer and explain her hometown. A quick tango with Google revealed we were only about an hour from Eatonville, so we made the trip.

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We didn’t stay too long, but we ate Jamaican lunch at Momz’s, visited the Zora Neale Hurston museum, and tried some key lime cake at Be Back Gordon’s Fish House (don’t you love that name??). Some things had a Maitland address, while others were Eatonville, though all locations were within blocks of each other. Everyone simply calls it Eatonville.

 

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Understanding Eatonville is key to understanding Dust Tracks on a Road. It’s also important to know about “the Dozens,” which Hurston doesn’t explain in detail, but is a game played in black communities that has become part of the culture. I cover “the Dozens” when I teach African American literature. “The Dozens” is cleverly insulting someone, and while the person doing the insulting may not have any formal education, people get creative. When Hurston first goes north, she learns that she is different. Southern children are “raised on simile and invective. They know how to call names.” Here is a great passage that may help you next time someone has it coming:

It is an every day affair to hear somebody called a mullet-headed, mule-eared, wall-eyed, hog-nosed, gator-faced, shad-mouthed, screw-necked, goat-bellied, puzzle-gutted, camel-backed, butt-sprung, battle-hammed, knock-kneed, razor-legged, box-ankled, shovel-footed, unmated so and so! Eyes looking like skint-ginny nuts, and a mouth looking like a dishpan full of broke-up crockery!

There is a mean little person in me that loves this list, mainly because I have learned from my own story-driven kinfolks that name-calling is one of the richest places to get inventive. Hurston uses idioms the entire book, making it a rich read.

zora laughing

Hurston has a book titled I Love Myself When I Am Laughing…& Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive (ed. by Alice Walker)

This is an autobiography full of storytelling, because that’s the heartbeat of her community. One time, her “Aunt Cal’line” tripped a lady off the church steps to see if she was wearing underwear; the woman was not, so Aunt Cal’line spit on her naked bits and rubbed the spit in with her foot. One time, Hurston tried to kill her stepmother with an ax. One time, Hurston interviewed one of the last living slaves who came from Africa. He was in his 90s and wondered if his kinfolk in Africa still missed him. Sadly, Hurston’s studies revealed that whole village had been murdered the day he was captured by a rival African village and sold into slavery.

It’s possible that Hurston’s unique upbringing is what makes her one of the most independent thinkers I’ve ever read about. She fits with almost no one from her time. When other blacks in America (and not all are African American, hence I use “black”) are fighting for equality, Hurston sympathizes with the black man who owns a barbershop that served only whites. One day, a black man comes in and demands to be served, but everyone throws him out. If rumor got around that the owner had served another black man, his white clients would not only ruin his business, but he would have to close the 6 other shops he owned. Hurston argues that helping one black man achieve equality wasn’t worth all the jobs the black employees had.

In fact, Hurston took a while to even begin writing a book because she was told “Negroes were supposed to write about the Race Problem.” She argues she doesn’t want to talk about the “Race Problem” and spends an entire chapter explaining why — mainly that she judges folks individually, not as a group. Hurston gives explains the feeling of “hopeless resignation”:

For example, well-mannered Negroes groan out [“My people! My people!] when they board a train or a bus and find other Negroes on there with their shoes off, stuffing themselves with fried fish, bananas and peanuts, and throwing the garbage on the floor. . . . Now, the well-mannered Negro is embarrassed by the crude behavior of the others. They are not friends, and have never seen each other before. So why should he or see be embarrassed?

Hurston goes on to argue that the “well-mannered Negro” feels so badly because people focus on race instead of pointing to the folks dumping the trash on the ground as problematic individuals. I know that this viewpoint will cause a lot of discussion on the pros and cons of race solidarity, but I applaud Hurston for arguing her point carefully. She has an entire chapter entitled “My People! My People!” in which she discusses what she calls race pride, race prejudice, race man, race solidarity, race consciousness, and race. “My people” is always said with an “ermehgerd” sort of tone, as if the person can’t believe how embarrassing other people in their race can be.

Overall, whether you agree with her opinions or not, Hurston brought African dance, music, and stories into the United States. She made it okay for black men and women to write using their own tongues (dialect, idioms, words that live under the words) when many authors thought they had to write in Standard English to be accepted (I wonder if some of those writers thought, “my skinfolks but not my kinfolks — my people!” about Hurston…).

If you love language, you have to read Zora Neale Hurston. If you love independent women, you have to read Hurston. My only regret is that I can’t describe and quote everything I highlighted. I’ll end with a Fun Fact:

This independent lady was a writer and an anthropologist, and it was rumored that when she would hang out with famous poet Langston Hughes in Harlem, she would stop random people and ask if she could measure their skull circumference.

Extra Goody: listen to this five minute interview in which Hurston describes what a zombie is. She met them in Haiti, you know…

zora tada

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.

Rebecca #20BooksofSummer #bookreview #readwomen

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Rebecca #20BooksofSummer #bookreview #readwomen

Welcome to my review of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier! Since this is an older book, published in 1938, I’m going to have lots of spoilers. I don’t feel bad about this, as many of you have mentioned how much you love Rebecca already. I’m also going to share images from the film, as images are awesome and the book and film follow each other fairly closely. But this is the book review.

My introduction to Rebecca came only recently. It all started with my immense hatred of the horrible movies coming out these days, which led me to my local library, where I began checking out old black-and-white movies like a crazy person. I skipped social events to watch them in the dark (you can’t watch black-and-white movies with the lights on. Everything looks wrong). And then I got to Alfred Hitchcok’s Rebecca, a gorgeous film with the indescribably expressive Joan Fontaine and the handsome (I can easily describe why) Laurence Olivier. I told my husband Rebecca is a ghost story with no ghost.

Rebecca

The novel begins with a narrator describing Manderley and how “we” can never go back. The wilds of nature have taken it over. To my knowledge, readers aren’t told who “we” is at this point. Then she explains how “we” sit in boring hotels and talk about boring subjects for the sake of their nerves, which are shattered at any memories of Manderley. Then, the narrator remembers how it all happened. Nice hook, du Maurier!

A young woman (our narrator), who is a twenty-one-year-old paid companion, travels to Monte Carlo with her employer, Mrs. Van Hopper, a gossipy, fat lady (my fellow fatties, please forgive me). There, the narrator meets Maxim de Winter, the forty-two-year-old owner of the renowned Manderley, an estate so grand it’s all anyone talks about. After Mrs. Van Hopper is laid up sick, the narrator is asked by Maxim to spend time with him. Over the course of a fortnight (that’s two weeks, folks), the narrator falls in love with him, and Maxim asks her to marry him (though he expresses no love). Should we be suspicious? Is this a shotgun wedding? Snoopy Mrs. Van Hopper certainly wants to know!

the naughty

As Mr. de Winter explains to Mrs. Van Hopper that she’s out  a paid companion, the narrator holds a book Maxim had loaned her earlier. It’s signed “Max from Rebecca.” Yes, that Rebecca, Maxim’s first wife who tragically drowned at sea ten months ago! The narrator, in an odd moment of defiance, tears the page out, rips it up, and lights it on fire. And now we’re done with Rebecca, right? Wrong.

She’s everywhere at Maderley. The servants tell the narrator how “Mrs. de Winter” did things (I put it in quotes because the narrator is also Mrs. de Winter). The woman who runs the house is the skeleton-like Mrs. Danvers, a villain in this novel, who mechanically obeys the de Winters but also schemes to get the narrator out of Manderley, even encouraging her to commit suicide! Maxim is distant, possibly because he’s twice the narrator’s age; the housekeeper is a sabotaging nutbar; and it’s always Rebecca, Rebecca, Rebecca. If only Maxim could stop loving Rebecca and love our poor narrator!

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Rebecca gets to be the title, and a woman, bur the current wife doesn’t even get a name, she’s so insignificant to Manderley. At twenty-one, she’s constantly referred to as “the child” because she’s half everyone else’s ages.

When they first met, the narrator expresses her love like that of a child:

“There’s a cold wind this morning, you had better put on my coat.”

I remember that, for I was young enough to win happiness in the wearing of his clothes, playing the schoolboy again who carries his hero’s sweater and ties it about his throat choking with pride, and this borrowing of his coat, wearing it around my shoulders for even a few minutes at at time, was a triumph in itself, and made a glow about my morning.

This scene was so familiar to me and recalled how important it was in high school to lay claims on your boyfriend’s sweatshirt, one that said his name so everyone would know you were involved. You felt like a superhero all day long in that sweatshirt.

Near the end, a sailing boat is discovered at the bottom of the sea near Manderley…and Rebecca’s corpse is in the bottom. Someone’s jabbed holes in the boat and the seacocks were opened, which you never open while afloat because the water pours in. Rebecca was an expert sailor. Was it foul play? Did she kill herself? Was she really just careless for one moment and the sea ate her up?

The pacing of the plot of Rebecca is, for the most part, spot on. Daphne du Maurier knows just when to summarize an event for us, like much of the time Maxim and the narrator spend together when they first meet. She knows when to let the plot linger. Maxim is convinced to have a fancy dress ball at Manderley, just like he and Rebecca used to do all the time, and the narrator decides her costume will be a surprise. Problem is, she can’t think of what to dress as! Mrs. Danvers suggests she copy one of the family portraits hanging on the wall, and the narrator thanks Mrs. Danvers for her kindness.

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Unfortunately, as she descends the stairs on the day of the party in her costume, Maxim, his sister, and brother-and-law are shocked and appalled! It’s the same costume Rebecca wore to the last fancy dress ball! Dammit, Mrs. Danvers and your shenanigans! The narrator spends the whole night standing near Maxim, not talking to him and responding the same way to everyone who thanks her for hosting the party: “I’m so glad.” This “I’m so glad” scene goes on for several pages, lingering in this horrible moment during which Maxim is distraught and won’t comfort his poor, deceived young wife.

The ending, however, gets a little slow, and I wondered if I felt this way because in the movie so many things are squished together to make the ending speedy. Maxim reveals he shot Rebecca and stuck her in the boat, there’s an inquest, Rebecca’s death is ruled suicide, Rebecca’s favorite cousin calls foul play, the police get involved, they track down a mentally disabled witness, they play with the telephone a lot, they track down a key witness, wait a day, go to the key witness, talk to him, drive home, stop at a gas station….it was so long compared to the quick dashing around in the film, in which everything is resolved in one day.

Many of the pages of Rebecca are devoted to setting. It’s not hard to picture Manderley. The rose garden out the east wing, the angry sea at the west wing, the morning room, the library with the China cupid, the brazen rhododendrons up the driveway, Happy Valley and the azaleas, the shingle beach. In many books, so much description would seem extraneous to me, but in Rebecca, the appearance of Manderley is important, not only because everyone loves it so, but because it’s appearance is all due to Rebecca’s demands: where things were placed, which flowers grew, what to hang on the walls. It’s lovely, indeed, but our narrator doesn’t care for much of it, and the decorations only remind everyone of Rebecca, emphasizing the focus of the book — REBECCA.

Now we’ve come to my two favorite aspects of the novel: the characters, and the imagining. All of the characters are memorable, distinct, and unique. Bravo! Mrs. Van Hopper is the first memorable character. She’s a gossipy fake, whose “one pastime, which was notorious by now in Monte Carlo, was to claim visitors of distinction as her friends had she but seen them once at the other end of the post-office.” Our poor narrator is embarrassed by Mrs. Van Hopper, but “there was nothing for it but to sit in [her] usual place beside Mrs. Van Hopper while she, like a large, complacent spider, spun her wide net of tedium about the stranger’s person.” I almost lost it when I read “net of tedium.” What a funny way to think of someone! When Mrs. Van Hopper is saying something especially stupid, the narrator thinks, “…she ran on like a clumsy goat, trampling and trespassing on land that was preserved…”

Maxim’s older sister, Beatrice, is my favorite after the narrator. She says any and everything she’s thinking, and she’s antagonistic to her brother, like all siblings. After meeting the narrator the first time, Beatrice ends the visit with “Come and see us if you feel like it….I always expect people to ask themselves. Life is too short to send out invitations.” When the narrator and Beatrice travel (Bee driving at break-neck speeds), the narrator feels a bit down. Beatrice wonders if she’s been experiencing morning sickness, and the narrator tells her no. Beatrice continues:

Oh, well — of course it doesn’t it always follow. I never turned a hair when Roger was born. Felt as fit as a fiddle the whole nine months. I played golf the day before he arrived. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about in the facts of nature, you know. If you have any suspicions you had better tell me.”

And in that moment, thanks to her matter-of-fact personality, I loved Beatrice and her shame-free talk with her new sister-in-law.

Jack Favell, who is Rebecca’s favorite cousin and her lover, is a slinky, memorable guy, but also a “bounder” (thanks for that word, British friends!). When Favell explains to Maxim why he’s not embarrassed to admit he was sleeping with a married woman, his sexist nature rears it’s ugly head:

All married men with lovely wives are jealous, aren’t they? And some of ’em just can’t help playing Othello. They’re made that way. I don’t blame them. I’m sorry for them. I’m a bit of a socialist in my way, you know, and I can’t think why fellows can’t share their women instead of killing them. What difference does it make? You can get your fun the same. A lovely woman isn’t like a motor tyre, she doesn’t wear out. The more you use her the better she goes.

Even the way Favell drinks is unique to me: “Favell drank it greedily, like an animal. There was something sensual and horrible about the way he put his mouth to the glass. His lips folded upon the glass in a peculiar way.”

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I’m not surprised the actor who played Favell also voiced Shere Khan in Disney’s The Jungle Book.

Have I ever told you that my imagination once almost killed me?

Yes, I was riding my bicycle up and down our long dirt drive way, which led to a dirt road. Up and down I went, and I began to imagine, though I don’t remember what. Suddenly, I found myself underwater, looking up into the sun beams shimmering through. (If you think I’m making this up, I have two witnesses). What happened: I was so deep in my imagination that I never made the turn at the end of the driveway and instead went right across the road, into the deep ditch full of water, and lay at the bottom with my eyes open (to think this is the only time I’ve had my eyes open under water). I didn’t breathe in water, I wasn’t destroyed by a car.

Long story short, I absolutely deeply relate to the narrator of Rebecca.

She’s constantly so lost in her imagination that whole mini-scenes play out. Frequently, she refers to how things would have happened in a book, but more often she imagines the scene. When she’s changing out of her costume — after the big humiliation of wearing what Rebecca had — into a new dress for the ball, she overhears the workers on the lawn who are checking bulbs on the party lights. She imagines the man’s continued narrative:

Later in the evening he would stand with his friend in the drive and watch the cars drive up to the house, his hands in his pockets, his cap on the back of his head. He would stand in a crowd with the other people from the estate, and then drink cider at the long table arranged for them in one corner of the terrace. “Like the old days, isn’t it?” he would say. But his friend would shake his head, puffing on his pipe. “The new one’s not like our Mrs. de Winter, she’s different altogether.” And a woman next to them in the crowd would agree, other people too, all saying, “That’s right,” and nodding their heads.

“Where is she to-night? She’s not been on the terrace once.”

“Mrs. de Winter used to be here, there and everywhere.”

“Aye, that’s right.”

And the woman would turn to her neighbors, nodding mysteriously….

“Of course I have heard before the marriage is not a wild success.”

“Oh, really?”

“H’m. Several people have said so. They say he’s beginning to realize he’s made a big mistake. She’s nothing to look at you know.”

And this scene continues a page and a half. The imagined voices stir up the narrator, she confirming her own worst fears: that she’s not good enough, that she’ll never be the real Mrs. de Winter, that everyone is judging her like “a prized cow.” If the narrator were real, we’d both have Xanax.

Rebecca is absolutely a must-read book. It’s funny, mysterious, vivid, tragic, and well written. I don’t often look for books to relate to me, but this one really did. However, the fears and anxieties of this curious younger person will relate to any number of people, regardless of their unique identities. My only hesitation is that if you decide to buy a copy, the Avon mass-market paperback edition has a dozen or more typos.

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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 Taffetaby 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: Bernadette Murphy #interview #writerslife #harleydavidson

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

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

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Grab the Lapels: What is your writing process like?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Meet the Writer: Leesa Cross-Smith

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Meet the Writer: Leesa Cross-Smith

I want to thank Leesa Cross-Smith for answering my questions. You can read more about Leesa at her website! I also reviewed Leesa’s collection, Every Kiss a War, an amazing short story collection.

What did you want to be when you grew up? 

I totally wanted to be a ballerina. An actress, too. Also a writer.

What do you do now that you are “grown up”? 

Now I’m a homemaker and a mama and a writer and an editor. I’m also a hit-or-miss gardener, a pretty decent texter, and I make really good chocolate chip cookies and chili. I still know the ballet positions, too, so my childhood dreams are still kinda alive!

What was the first thing you ever wrote about? 

It was always something about animals. I wrote a story about two skunks lost in the rain, and another time I wrote about a girl who was wandering around her neighborhood putting up signs, looking for her lost dog. It was a white poodle and I can’t remember if she found it or not. I wanna say she did because that’s more my style. Happy endings!

Do you think there is a certain achievement a person must “unlock” before he or she can be called a “writer” or “author”? 

This is such a good question! I think the only thing that must be “unlocked” is the feeling. Feeling like you are one. And that looks differently for lots of people. For some it’s that first publication, for some it’s the first print publication. For some it’s the first book, some people need a novel or a big press. Believing in yourself plays a huge factor, fersure. I highly suggest believing in yourself and your dreams, even when it’s hard or seemingly impossible—unlocking the achievement of becoming (even more) awesome at being yourself.

Are you reading anything right now? 

I am reading the third book of the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. Some Roxane Gay, some Ben Tanzer, and every day I read these great little devotionals called She Reads Truth that simultaneously help me keep my feet on the ground and lift me. I’m also reading a book called The Wise Wound all about menstrual cycles because I love being a girl.

Are you writing anything right now? 

I am working on my second collection of stories and a novel, too. At this point, I’m researching a lot and also, letting things mellow. I’m in the middle of the tunnel right now, squinting to see the lights, but I think I see them!

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Kabuki Boy

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Kabuki Boy

Kabuki Boy
by Perle Besserman
Aqueous Books, March 2013
312 pages

*Reviewed by guest reader Kate Henning

Kabuki Boy, Perle Besserman’s ambitious portrayal of Japanese life at the end of the Tokugawa dynasty (1600 – 1868 C.E.), succeeds on many levels: it is lyrical, complex, poignant, and most importantly redemptive, both for the reader and for the egoistic characters within.

Written in the first-person limited with various perspectives throughout, Kabuki Boy opens, with a nod to the etymology of its form, in a novel and intriguing way.  A letter, ostensibly written by Murayama Yoso, the modern-day abbot of a Shofuji monastery in Japan, describes Yoso’s “discovery” of the works that comprise the main text. For the first two-thirds of this text, the reader will peruse the journal of young Nakamura, a boy actor-turned-priest who desperately seeks spiritual enlightenment.  The remaining third of the novel contains a series of letters written by Nakamura’s friends and acquaintances, a short play, and finally a record penned by the monk Gen, a man whose connection to Nakamura will come to define the lesson of the novel, as well as both men’s lives.  The novel is bookended by another letter from Yoso, placing the reader once again in the modern day and allowing her to apply the text to 21st-century life.

Although the panoply of forms and perspectives crafted throughout Kabuki Boy is certainly creative, Besserman’s artistry at times overshadows the content of the text.  Moreover, though Besserman likely intended the fictionalized Yoso to lend authenticity to the meat of her work, instead the abbot often serves to make the reader more conscious of the author’s manipulation, which, admittedly is already obvious; Besserman repeatedly chooses language that is too modern for the period, disrupting scenes and putting an end to the reader’s reluctant suspension of disbelief.  Falling short of postmodernism, Besserman’s endeavors ring phony and forced.

However, what Besserman lacks in authentic narrative she makes up for in beautiful imagery and in a plot to which modern-day readers can relate.  The central focus of Kabuki Boy is the end of cultural values as the characters know them.  The role of social hierarchy is called into question, as is the role of art.  Indeed, Besserman’s characters, most of whom are actors and performers, struggle to find meaning within an unusual social class.  As artists, they are repressed by an elite that on the one hand views them as threatening and subversive and on the other hand enjoys exploiting them for entertainment and sexual pleasure.  Still, though one might imagine the actors would embrace a change in the social hierarchy and an escape from such exploitation, Nakamura laments, “In the old days it was simpler.”  In the old days, actors had a different sort of power.

None of the major characters can truly be said to be ready for the inevitable change in social structure, since all of them in their own way benefit from the existing order.  However, they must all learn to adapt to the changes and also to deal with the cruelty they face, each a pawn in a system of trickle-down exploitation.  To do so, they fall back on art and its transformative, redemptive power to change an audience even after its members exit the theater.

As the scope of the novel widens, readers discover that Besserman has the same goal in crafting Kabuki Boy as Yoso has in sharing the stories he collects.  Like Yoso, Besserman yearns to connect with others and to preserve the stories of the characters she loves.  She urges the reader to pass these stories on, and in doing so she inspires the reader to share her poignant message. “I’ve been waiting for you,” Besserman writes, “since before your birth.”  You can almost hear the “dear Reader” in her plaintive cry for help.

*Kate Bradley was graduated from Saint Mary’s College with a double major in English Writing and Psychology in 2015.  She is currently in graduate school at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, pursuing a degree in speech-language pathology.  During her free time, Kate enjoys running, spending time outside, working on her novel, and finding quality time with family and friends.

Every Kiss a War

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Every Kiss a War
 (Mojave River Press, 2014) is a collection of short and short-short stories by Leesa Cross-Smith. The sentence structure tends to be fairly simplistic, and the theme is often love in Kentucky. While Every Kiss a War might sound deceptively simple, the stories within radiate with a unique light that stunned this reader.

The characters in Cross-Smith’s stories are described as extremely perceptive, even when they don’t makes choices based on what they see and know. In “And It Can Never Be Too Dark or Too Bright,” the narrator describes her two beaus. One of them “…kisses like a dying man. He kisses like he worships women. Your mouth is his church.” Here, it is less that the man is smooth, but that the woman is perceptive as the focus. Death/worship/church all go together, but the images are a bit off kilter for romance. In this case, though, Cross-Smith makes it work because the way the narrator’s beau treats her is deadly serious, which must be deduced.leesa

A moment of clarity doesn’t have to be explained, a kindness that Cross-Smith extends to her readers. In “Kentucky Sugar,” a thirty-five-year-old woman takes a younger lover. She gives him an orange ball cap to wear when he visits one day, which we learn originally belonged to her ex-husband. When the ex shows up to pick up some of his things only to see the young guy in his old hat, things get heated. After the ex leaves, the woman decides she must do something:

She snatches the orange ball cap from the floor and goes into the kitchen. I [the young lover] follow her. She shoves it into the garbage can, smashes it down. She takes a big ladle of sauce from dinner, pours it in there, too. “Alright,” she says after she’s finished.

In these brief sentences, it dawned on me that the woman had thrown the hat–a memory of the ex-husband–into the trash before. By mashing it down, she’s pushing it into the filth, but to prevent herself from removing the hat later, she makes it a mess with a ladle of wet food. None of these thoughts are told to the reader; we get it on our own in a way that allows us to join the moment.

Although the woman and her hat don’t seem definitively strong, women are in control in this collection. When a young woman leaves her boyfriend, who previously had many lovers that he dumped for her, she breaks up with him via a note stuck in his cigarettes:

Come on. I am a lioness on a big, hot rock. I told you that.

The woman makes the final decision, her way, and unapologetically. Even the repeated vowels–“o” in particular–give the words a strong sound in the reader’s ear.

Some of the strong characters may not be likable to the reader, say, if you hate cheating or women in control of their sex lives. For me, it’s not about questioning whether a character’s decisions match my personal values, but how well those decisions are sewn into the fabric of the character. Read this example of a woman who has now run away from her husband, Dominic, twice, and is thinking of having sex in the middle of the night with a veritable stranger name Roscoe in the dugout of a baseball field:

And I thought about how maybe if Dom got there a little to early, he’d catch the end of it. He’d stand there and watch Roscoe’s ass tighten and let go, my skirt hitched up somewhere by my ribcage, my brown legs and cowboy boots wilding up into the hot-breath night air. My panties pushed to the side like they were nothing. I’d say hold on, hold on, to Dominic and he’d stand there and watch us panting like animals. My mouth pressed against Roscoe’s ear, begging underneath that tight sky and half-moon.

Maybe before he threw me over his shoulder, took me home, got me pregnant and made me a good, decent wife and mom–my husband would stand there and wait until I was finished. On the drive back home I’d feel a little bad, tell him what a good boy he was. Make promises, pat his head. Let his rough, pink tongue lick my hand.

Now, readers may feel that the narrator telling her husband where she is so he can come pick her up on to see her cheat and then have him beg like a dog later is deplorable. However, given the personality of this character established earlier in the story, her strength–her ability to act without permission or guilt–is magnificent. We typically see women waiting at home for adulterous husbands, women crying because they don’t understand how sex can mean nothing and that her husband can still love her. Here, the roles are reversed, and I applaud Cross-Smith’s ability to make me understand the unsavory person.

“Whiskey and Ribbons” is my favorite piece. It stands out not only because the situation is different from many other stories in the book–Evangeline’s husband is killed in the line of duty, leaving her a pregnant widow–but because the emotions got into me and made me join in like some concerned neighbor or relative. The grief of Evangeline is so visceral, and Dalton, her husband’s friend who now lives in her house, is such a good person. Dalton sleeps in his own room, never makes a move on Evangeline, and helps care for the new baby. There are so many good people in the story that only grief seems to be the villain, which is unusual. Watching the minor characters state concern about Evangeline’s living situation and grief adds sprinkles to the flavorful story, but it also makes the reader–and Evangeline–wonder if she’s making good decisions. Eventually, Evangeline comes to a philosophy about how to live:


I listened for it then and I’m still listening for it now. I am always putting my ear down to the railroad tracks, waiting for the distant, low rattle and rumble of something coming to heal me.

trainWhat a twist! In a surprising moment, Cross-Smith describes the sound of a train, which usually spells danger, as something that could be healing. Trains are powerful and can be fast-moving. Perhaps this is what she means? Dalton might be the train; regardless, the author leaves me in this woman’s head to consider her life and the way she chooses to deal with tragedy. Never once did I feel the need to impose my beliefs on Cross-Smith’s characters because she gives them so much life that I accept them–like real people.

Some short story collections blur together, but I really remember a lot of these stories, even if I don’t remember the names of the characters: The girl who had an abortion and lives with her friend and her friend’s mom. The man who meets up with the woman who owns the coffee store. The professor who lives in France. The newlyweds who have kids the same age. I highly recommend Every Kiss a War. If you are on Goodreads, Leesa Cross-Smith loves to reach out to readers. To find out more about her, please check out her Meet the Writer feature published here on Grab the Lapels!

The Other Mother

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The Other Mother: a rememoir by Teresa Bruce

416 pages, Joggling Board Press (November 2013)

Procured from the author, whom I do not know personally.

Teresa Bruce was a dancer and gymnast as a young girl, but ends up in Mexico where she falls in love with a charming surfer, with a pack of boys who follow and worship him, named Sonny. Later, she brings her boyfriend to the U.S. to live illegally in the small town of Beaufort, South Carolina. Sonny can’t keep a job when his employers find out he gave them fake information, which lowers his self-esteem and causes Bruce to head to the courts to declare Sonny her common-law husband. Woven into Bruce’s story is the tale of Byrne and Duncan Miller, a couple about 55 years older than Teresa Bruce (age 30) who also live in Beaufort. Teresa becomes friends with the Millers and is especially taken by Byrne, who is a strong woman, a dancer, and a lover. In The Other Mother, Teresa Bruce writes her and Byrne’s memories, which is where I assume Bruce gets the term “rememoir.” The Other Mother alternates between the stories of Teresa Bruce and Bryne Miller, so the time periods vary drastically, from 2000 to the 1920s.

Teresa Bruce makes it easy to see why she loved Sonny, including the small gifts he gave her and his desire to fly above the clouds when he gets a pilot license. Bruce’s descriptions of him are like poetry: “Swells rose to lift [Sonny], crests of breakers curled water over his head like a crown. He was a dancer on a watery stage–effortlessly, unknowingly graceful. I had never met anyone so free from gravity, so full of pure possibility.” So, when Sonny turned on her, that first time he calls her a bitch, I was surprised. I wanted them to make it together, because the author led me to believe it was really, really love. As things get worse, as Sonny becomes more flawed and frustrated and his magic disappears like Cinderella’s carriage and dress at midnight, Bruce’s personal story was addictive reading.

In contrast, Byrne and Duncan had an open marriage, one that lasted for 60 years. The increasing visibility of open relationships makes me wonder if Byrne and Duncan got it right and if the rest of us are dragging our feet. I recently read an article written by a woman claiming that men and women should always live in separate places to keep the romance real, Byrne’s story suggests an open marriage can be a way to keep that love permanent. The Other Mother becomes this logical space for thinking about how marriages work, and asking do they work similarly from one generation to the next. However, the unpredictable nature of Duncan led me to believe that the couple might be lucky they remained married, or that their marriage functioned more as a safe spot where each could return home to be consoled. Whenever there were problems that Byrne discovered, such as her husband could be dark to the point of seeming threatening and unfamiliar, she still told everyone he was a genius writer so as to not shame him. But, these problems remained secret between the couple, too, causing me to see them as more cheerleaders for one another than intimate. Still, Bruce provides a platform for rethinking how and why relationships work, which is a highly culturally relevant part of her book.

Bruce makes comparisons between her romantic life and Byrne’s, but soon realizes that they don’t match up like she wants. She can admire Byrne’s relationship with Duncan, but she can’t emulate it by following Byrne’s maxims about love because Sonny is dissimilar to Duncan. When I realized that Bruce couldn’t have the same love as the Millers, I began questioning the contents and structure of the “rememoir.” I couldn’t help but feel that her story after she met Byrne made the book’s pacing slow down. What is the purpose of the book? To commemorate Byrne Miller? To acknowledge and admire the Millers’ relationship? Or to read Teresa’s story, or the story of Teresa and Byrne? The book takes on a lot, causing me to feel overwhelmed around page 300, like I couldn’t tell where the memoir would end, and having difficulty ordering the events in my head. It’s easy to understand why young women would be attracted to Byrne as an “other mother,” but because Byrne’s life is told like a biography (though at one point Bruce writes from Byrne’s point of view, which was incredibly jarring), it’s difficult to feel the warmth between them. Their time—at least the way it is structured in the book—seems so painfully short that I struggled to see how Teresa Bruce and Byrne made a connection. Byrne must have told the stories to Bruce, but those stories are told to readers from a 3rd person point of view, creating a lot of distance between those verbal exchanges, which I’m sure were warm, and what I read on the page.

Back Cover

Back Cover

Looking at only Byrne’s story is interesting for its commentary on the function of the woman in domestic relationships. Byrne thinks that she can fix what others see as permanently broken, even when the theories of the time period tell her she’s wrong: her daughter Alison’s schizophrenia, Duncan’s depression and long silences, and her protégée’s secrets that might keep him from dancing. There is this sense she knows what is good for someone else and then goes about the task of making that person be presentable and successful–if only he/she would listen and behave correctly. So, while Byrne holds the family together by keeping up appearances, she’s also keeping so much inside with a great deal of strength.

Looking at only Teresa Bruce’s story is interesting for its commentary on love, sacrifice, and growth. She takes an extra job to afford flight lessons for Sonny, who later tries to crash the plane he’s flying—with her in it. I watched as Sonny and Bruce grew apart and was able, from a distant perspective, to see patterns in their behaviors that led to the relationship’s demise in a way I may not be able to in my own relationships. Teresa Bruce is imaginative, dedicated, and patient in The Other Mother.

While both women’s stories are fascinating and make the book well worth the read, some structural and points of view issues prevent the author from fully communicating her admiration for Byrne Miller.

Green Lions

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TITLE: Green Lions
AUTHORS: Zarina Zabrisky and Simon Rogghe
GENRE: Poetry duet
PUBLISHER: Vox Nova
PROCUREMENT: author
REVIEWER’S RELATIONSHIP TO AUTHOR: none
*Guest reviewed by reader Kim Koga

When I started reading this book I felt quite unprepared and almost uncomfortable because I didn’t know what I was reading or how to access it, but I kept on reading in hopes of some kind of reveal. However, a few poems in I realized that that wouldn’t happen. As my eyes scanned the letters I could feel my brain resisting the images, the words, the sounds, and I wasn’t sure how to break my mind open. After reading a few more poems I returned to the dedication: André Breton; and I began to look towards the surrealists. I skimmed the Surrealist Manifesto again and read about Breton and the surrealists. I read on alchemy and picked up a tarot kit to review the major arcana and history of tarot. After all of this I turned back to Green Lions better prepared and was able to give myself over to the images, allowing them to melt through my mind rather than resisting them.

When my brain was able to melt through the images and words and sounds and lines, I entered into the dreamlike landscape of the poems. By dreamlike I do not mean a kind of whimsy or cuteness, or white-fluffy-cloud dreaminess, but more so the dreams of Salvador Dalí and the colors of Joan Miró, all mixed in with alchemy and the tarot’s leaky medium for divining, fortune telling, and advice seeking. The first four sections of the book are named after the elements: water, fire, air, earth. These culminate in the last section titled Ether.

In alchemy the green lion devouring the sun is a symbol for sulphuric acid, nitric acid, or hydrochloric acid and its ability to dissolve even ‘the most noble material’—gold. In other words, the green lion signifies a step in the metallurgic transformation process. Each step or transformation is symbolized by an animal (in sequence): black crow, white swan/eagle, green lion, peacock’s tail, unicorn, pelican feeding its young with blood/rooster, phoenix. The transformations in this book hold at the acidic melting point. Images are at once formed and melting, and then transformed and melting, which reminded me of Dalí’s paintings.

Green Lions is derived from a transformation to gold but fails in between. Instead of completing the transformation, the book stalls at the green lion. But because it stalls at the green lion, doesn’t mean that the book stops tumbling into future transformations when the reader closes the cover; rather it keeps transforming with each transmutation and transformation spawning a little genetic twist here and mutation there. However, when the book is picked up again the reader is snapped back to melting/devouring green lion.

These poems are not limited to poetry, nor drawings limited to visual art. I think that Green Lionsbest functions in bleeding across art forms: poems become a play, become a short story, a fiction, a dream, a drawing, a live action, a still life, an installation, etc. The language(s) and fonts create the voices of Zabrisky and Rogghe as lovers, as fishes and snakes, the headless Star card pouring out her heart waters, the Magician – each poem and each drawing mutates into something new and creates a synesthetic experience. To read these poems as poem is a mistake in that the reader’s mind is trapped by genre and other limiting definitions. To read these poems as words that are creating something other than words opens up the entire work to new angles and meanings, which is the way I think that this work was intended: a hugely multifaceted, multigenred piece of art. The words exist as a buoy in the ocean that moves with the swell continuously but never reaches a shore, thus it is and always will be moving slowly and rhythmically.

The illustrations in the book do not give anything away, but rather add to the complexity of the poems as they stretch across the tarot, alchemy, and surreal imagery. Some of the illustrations are clearly derived from specific tarot cards, but most of them are of a more muddy origin, and feel like they were created from the idea of tarot and the idea of alchemy rather than a direct correlation. Zabrisky’s and Rogghe’s poems create a dialogue between two people/characters as they engage with this morphic world of the green lion.

The language is elastic and filled with multiple meanings, undulating imagery, and the dual voices of Rogghe and Zabrisky. They are also conscious of origin and inspiration recalling Breton, Brancusi, and Magritte with a poem titled “Equestrian Seduction Duet (This Poem Is Not About Horses).” Many of the poems are duets that play out like conversations adding to the idea of performativity and theatre. The writing itself feels spontaneous and is filled with dreamlike imagery but remains highly conscious of itself with multiple poems referring to poems or poetry. At first the self-reference was somewhat irritating, but then I think that these poems and this book are investigations into literature and art. Investigations into surrealism, performance, and theatre.

Although Green Lions feels rather unfinished to me, I do not think that there could be any way to neatly wrap up an investigation into art. Rather, I feel that this book is more of a jumping off point into the depths of collaborative and limitless art forms.

*Kim Koga is a writer and editor. Her work has been published in _list, 1913, Lantern Review. and Ariel. Tinfish Press published her chapbook Ligature Strain in 2011. She currently resides in San Diego, CA.