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On Air #readwomen #bookreview #discjockey #20BooksofSummer

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On Air #readwomen #bookreview #discjockey #20BooksofSummer

On Air by Robin Stratton

published by Blue Mustang Press, 2011

On Air is narrated by Eric Storm, an aging DJ who is angry that he’s micromanaged at his classic rock radio station. He’s now being told exactly what to say and what music to play. He remembers back in the day when DJs were trusted and mattered, an attitude that gets him fired after 25 years on air in Boston. Eric has been divorced for three years, so he spends a lot of time with his Ma, a woman who maybe talks too much, but who raised Eric alone. Things start to change when Ma begins getting dizzy and falling down. Around the same time, Eric sees a young musician more than half his age, playing for donations on the street. She’s mesmerizing, so he lies to say he can help her get discovered, hoping life will change in his favor. But things take a more dramatic turn when he reads his mother’s private diary, as he braces for Ma’s imminent death.

Eric can be selfish at times, and he knows it. I enjoyed the genuine emotion in the book, even if it is the kind of emotion we might scoff at. For instance, when Eric is in the hospital with Ma, he wants a Diet Coke: “The machine doesn’t have Coke, it has Pepsi. A feeling of defeat chokes me. Will nothing ever go right for me again?” Out of context, this line seems so…whiny. But in the story, it makes sense. And don’t we all just want one thing — one thing! — to go right every so often?

on air

Is he falling into the sky? Is he doing a handstand? I don’t fully “get” the cover image.

By the time I read the line about the Pepsi machine, I had laughed many times. Ma is a Jewish woman, so she has some traditional behaviors, such as feeding her son to show love. She’s also terribly thrifty, a result of living through the Depression. Both aspects of her personality make her do wacky things sometimes. Eric arrives to take his mother out to dinner, an event they had planned, only to discover she’s made soup:

“Or we can take some soup with us. You’ll have a little nosh on the way.”

“Ma, how can I eat soup and drive?”

“What about the time you ate a salad, with me in the car? You steered with your knees. I was sure I was going to be killed. I saw my life flash before my eyes.”

“Ma.”

“Which is why I’m saying you’ll have some now, before we go.”

I sigh. Happily, she serves the soup and sits down to watch me eat. “How come you’re not having any?” I ask.

“I had a big bowl before you got here.”

“But I told you I was taking you out to dinner!”

“I knew you would suggest pizza or Chinese food, and I didn’t want any, but I didn’t want to hurt your feelings.”

And on and on it goes. I love interactions between Eric and Ma. When Ma has to be taken to the hospital by ambulance, she immediately befriends the paramedics. She asks the paramedic’s name (it’s Dave) and if he can’t just give her a shot instead of taking her to the hospital. The scene continues:

Dave tells the other paramedic to prop open the door and get the gurney, then asks Ma, “Kinda shot?”

“Vitamins or something.”

“You belong in the hospital, ma’am….”

“Get my robe,” Ma says to me, “and my purse. And my slippers — the new ones I just bought on QVC.” To Dave she says, “The old ones are so ratty looking.”

“We can’t have that,” says Dave.

Not only did I find this scene terribly funny, but it also endears Ma to the reader. She’s a self-conscious person, but she also is quick to meet people and find out what they’re all about. You can tell she’s the kind of lady who would help anyone. And she really, truly loves her son. Every one of their interactions end with “Okay, I love you” and “I love you, too.” Since Eric calls Ma a lot, we read this exchange 10 times (yes, I counted). Not only does it give a sense of familiarity (don’t we all say the same goodbye every time we speak with a parent?), but it also gives the story rhythm, like a giant poem broken into stanzas by the ends of conversations. I came to expect the exchange and felt comforted by it. I felt the same way about knowing Eric would always drink Diet Coke.

I thought it was interesting that On Air and Eric Storm engage in mild metafiction. If you don’t know, metafiction is when a book “knows” it’s a book. You know how Ferris Bueller talks to the camera? That’s metafilm. Eric visits his best friend’s mother, who is on her deathbed at home. She tells him:

“Glamour isn’t worth much at the end of the day…” and it feels like a piece of wisdom [he] should cling to and accommodate the rest of [his] life to, but at the moment [he has] trouble applying it, and [he knows] it will wind up in the slush pile in [his] brain along with all the other stuff that [he] should think about at some point but probably won’t.

Okay, maybe this isn’t quite metafiction, but where do we hear people openly using and believing truisms? It’s movies and books. Eric knows that such truisms don’t apply to real life, no matter how badly we want them to.

Near the end of the book is a better example of metafiction. Eric has met up with his ex-wife, Kelly, to talk, but he’s got that gorgeous young singer staying at his house because her boyfriend is abusing her. The singer makes it clear she’s going to sleep without panties, and to the reader she obviously wants to exploit Eric’s connections in radio. Will Kelly and the hot singer accidentally run into each other, one of them sans panties? Eric imagines the scenario, how both women would storm out angrily, and thinks, “the audience will laugh and say, Oh, he was so close to being happy!” Here, Eric knows the tropes of love triangles and how easy it is to fall into one and look incredibly guilty.

I had a lot of fun reading On Air. I didn’t quite understand why the DJs already had DJ-type names. From my husband’s time as a DJ, I learned almost everyone changes their name, either to something “cooler” or to something easier to pronounce. Eric Storm and Steven Even, for example, sound terribly made up. Finally, the ending left me hanging a bit. When things finally smoothed out and had a chance to shoot forward into new territory, the book ended. Perhaps some of you will think differently!

I’d like to thank Robin Stratton for sending me a copy of On Air in exchange for an honest review. You can learn more about Robin in her Meet the Writer feature.

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#20BooksofSummer

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

  1. Harley and Me by Bernadette Murphy
  2. On Air by Robin Stratton
  3. Single Stroke Seven by Lavinia Ludlow
  4. Girls of Usually by Lori Horvitz
  5. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (*might change ranking due to when book club meets)
  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

Bystanders #readwomen #bookreview

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Bystanders #readwomen #bookreview

Bystanders: stories by Tara Laskowski

published by the Santa Fe Writers Project, May 2016

Bystanders contains 13 short stories, ranging from 5 to 25 pages in length. Given the title, I started looking for the bystanders right away. The first story is easy; a woman sees a man in his car hit and kill a boy on a bicycle. Other stories are more difficult, making the game of finding a bystander more akin to Where’s Waldo. People might be bystanders of their own lives. A cat might be a bystander to messy human interactions.

Bystanders would have been a great book to use in a literature class I taught about 4 years ago that I dubbed “The Twisted Domestic.” I was teaching at an all-women’s college, and I wanted to show my fresh(wo)men that domestic life wasn’t just bliss or violence, that the shades in between were quite difficult. We read books like For Sale By OwnerThe Dangerous HusbandIn the House, Cul de Sac, and The Book of Ruth. First I noticed that many stories in Bystanders were about new mothers. Then came the husbands who were trying to survive domestic life, too. Sometimes, there were young women who might throw a wrench in marital happiness, but the way the relationships merged or deflected weren’t predictable.


shapiro   hamilton   baby


Bystanders has a few themes that tie it together nicely, making the characters and plots memorable. Few collections do that for me. Basically, an author’s best stories in one book don’t make a great collection, to me. Aside from domesticity, Bystanders had a lot of wind/storms. The wind was constantly kicking up, making me leery and wondering what would happen next. I wondered if the wind was a purposeful choice, or a happy coincidence. I remember when I wrote a novella for my master’s degree, everyone kept asking why the characters were always doing things with hair — combing it, playing with it, shaving it — and I had not realized they were doing so.

Another theme is ghosts or spirits. Some stories, like “The Monitor,” suggest there are actual ghosts hanging around. Others, like “There’s Someone Behind You,” which sounds like a set up for a ghost story, have people pretending to be ghosts. There are ghosts of the greatness people used to be, or what they could have been. For a collection not about ghosts, there are a lot of haunting vibes in these stories.

Many of the endings didn’t sit well with me. I went back in forth, wondering if I was demanding unfairly for the author to wrap up the stories with bows, or if she was cutting short the plot. In the end, I settled on this: the endings often come too quickly, leave me with too many questions, and gave me the sense that I stopped reading in the middle of a chapter. The stories that ended on firm footing weren’t packaged and handed to the reader, but they felt like a conclusive place, one where I wasn’t confused to turn the page and see a new story title.


kelcey parker

culdesac   lynnkilpatrick


I did like that the author gently played with narrative styles. These different styles were both accessible and fun. For example, in “Half the Distance to the Goal Line,” the narrator tells us, “Don’t judge Diane, she feels guilty enough.” Ahhh, the old talking-to-the-reader narrator, the one we see in books like Vanity Fair, is one of my favorites. In one paragraph, the narrator tells us what Diane is thinking, then what Jack is thinking, then what that narrator thinks. Weirdly, the narrator is described as “we,” like a group of people, as if the narrator represents all the other kids from high school judging a few of their peers.

There was also some terrific imagery in Bystanders. In “The Oregon Trail,” a husband, wife, and their toddler are near the Red Desert in Wyoming when their car breaks down. A truck pulls up with two teenage boys, and this is where it seems like things could go bad. One boy looks at the wife and smiles. She feels, “his smile was like peeling back a can of Friskies — cold, sharp, metallic, with a whiff of something foul underneath.” Now, perhaps this sounds stupid, but I was wondering what that smile would look like, so I tried it myself, slowing pulling back the corners of my mouth like I was carefully opening a can with a sharp lid, and immediately got it. It was terrifying.

laskowski

More great imagery is in “There’s Someone Behind You.” Ruthie, the mistress of a dentist, is going a bit nuts from being the other woman. She buys some peanut butter and drives to her lover’s home, because she knows he isn’t there:

The peanut butter is good, and as she drives through William’s neighborhood Ruthie eats more and more of it with her fingers, digging out gobs of it. She wonders if William has called yet. Oh, what would he do if he knew what she was up to! And how annoyed he’d be about what the sugar was doing to her teeth!

The story “The Monitor” is about a woman struggling with her newborn baby. What I admire most about contemporary domestic fiction is how brutally honest it is about babies and motherhood. The things people used to not say is now all over the printed page. Think about it: Doris Lessing wrote the horrifying story “Room 19,” but not once did the narrator tell her children she didn’t want them. Instead, she quietly committed suicide, but we get what’s going on. Here is what the mother, Myra, in “The Monitor” thinks about her baby:

She found herself weirdly creeped out by her child — how wrinkled she was, how delicate, how helpless, rooting around Myra’s breasts in the middle of the night like a parasite, staring off into space.

Sure, moms aren’t telling other people what they think of their kids, but they’re finally telling readers. Great imagery can change our perspectives about new babies. I’ll never forget the description of the newborn son in Paula Bomer’s short story “Baby” as being the first I’d read that was honest. Just after the baby is born in the hospital:

His tiny ears looked like two miniature, crinkled vaginas, his eyes were hooded and dark, and his head was as pointy as a birthday hat. He looked nothing like her. He upset her so much that she cried and asked that he be taken to the nursery.

Are you as appalled as my “Twisted Domestic” students were? I must say, that 18-year-old young ladies thought this was the devil’s writing, but as I get older, I hear more frequently — especially on “mommy blogs” — that being fed a dishonest tale about domesticity is incredibly damaging to one’s sanity. And in Bystanders, struggling mothers often felt alone, and like failures.

Despite some endings that left me wishing there was more, I would recommend Bystanders as an excellent addition to contemporary fiction that looks at the home lives of men and women. Laskowski gives an honest portrayal from male and female perspectives that proves to be at times unsettling, but always about persistent, memorable individuals.

I want to thank Tara Laskowski and her publisher for sending me a reviewer copy of Bystanders in exchange for an honest review.

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

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

*Author photo from The Guardian.

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

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

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

bad feminist

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

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

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

shirll

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.

west norton.png

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.

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.

donna.jpg

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.”

ira

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.

This Time, While We’re Awake

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This Time, While We’re Awake

This Time, While We’re Awake by Heather Fowler
May 2013, Aqueous Books
328 pages
*Reviewed by guest reader Jennifer Vosters

Heather Fowler’s 2013 collection is a tour de force of futurism with just enough familiarity to be chillingly compelling. It quite frankly exemplifies the best of dystopian fiction, a hip throwback to the classic spine-tingling genre popularized by giants like Bradbury. Though much dystopian literature has (in my humble opinion) lost its edgy creativity by becoming too mainstream, Fowler’s brand of sci-fi is pushing boundaries rather than daisies, making for an exciting and intelligent read.

If there were a singular theme to this collection, it could be the delicate and dangerous relationship between humans and their technology, toeing the age-old but increasingly pertinent line of how much is too much. Juggling child-silencing devices and love drugs, practice babies and memory erasers, Fowler’s characters are forever caught between improvement and impairment. But there’s also a distinctive feminist flavor in her descriptions of a future still plagued by – or imperfectly dealing with – questions of domestic violence, motherhood, infidelity, sexuality, gender, and exploitation. So perhaps This Time, While We’re Awake is concerned less with the tension between man and machine and more about the conflict between would and should: If we would go to any lengths to be the species we feel we ought to be, are we really willing – should we be willing – to make the sacrifices necessary to get there?

It’s difficult to summarize a series of shorts, but if you need to be tantalized let’s just say you’ll find a host of colorful characters like a sweet-talking transgendered sales rep who’s bested by a farmer, giant female jailers in charge of correcting male delinquents, mysterious creatures who demand blood sacrifice from humans, and a lovesick druggy desperate for her next hit of independence. But there’s also an elderly couple taking stock of their dwindling future, a doctor caught between defending his morals and protecting his past, and a writer unable to move on from the muse that abandoned her: people who might live down our street in twenty years. Hovering on the brink of our times – probably anywhere between ten and one hundred years into the future – her stories might horrify us if we didn’t catch a startling glimpse of ourselves under the surface. For it is through her well-crafted characters that Fowler pulls her audience into the future Earth, half-alien and half-homelike, while painting an achingly honest portrait of the human psyche. These are real people dealing with real problems that we ourselves face, but amplified to astonishing heights in a world with a dark side.

The variety among her sixteen pieces keeps the collection excitingly unpredictable, but the audience remains grounded through cohesion of tone, style, and mood. Fowler is dark without being bitter, and within her sobering messages are twists of humor to keep us buoyed against the heavier questions that can leave us feeling a bit uneasy. So if you are (like I am) an infrequent customer of the short story genre, I’d recommend careful pacing with this heavy-hitter; reading too many in a row can be a little draining, and with writing this good you won’t want to soften the punch. This Time, While We’re Awake will delight readers who like a good think and are mature enough for weighty, controversial themes and some explicit content.

Please note that I will be hosting a book blog tour for Heather Fowler in late May to celebrate the June release of her novel Beautiful Ape Girl Baby. If you are interested in Heather stopping at your blog, please let me know in the comments!

*Jennifer Vosters is a Milwaukee native and member of the Saint Mary’s College Class of 2016, graduating with an English major and minors in Theatre and Italian. She was cast in the 2016 Notre Dame Shakespeare Festival, performing in Pericles and The Tempest as part of the Young Company. She is currently reading The Rover by Aphra Behn, An Actor Prepares by Konstantin Stanislavski, and Ulysses – at least parts of it (whew!) – by her beloved James Joyce.

Noah’s Wife

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Noah’s Wife

noahswifeTitle: Noah’s Wife

Written by: Lindsay Starck

Published: by Putnam; on sale January 26, 2016

Pre-Order: here

Read Samples: You can read the prologue and chapters 1 and 2 on Lindsay’s website!

Lindsay Starck’s debut novel is a loose retelling of the Biblical story of Noah’s Ark. The main points carried over into Noah’s Wife is that there is man named Noah whose purpose is to save, and there are animals, so if you aren’t terribly familiar with the Biblical story, you still know enough!

The story begins with just how rainy it is in one small town. In fact, it has been raining for years. Although a number of townspeople have left, there are many resolute individuals who won’t abandon their homes and memories. The town used to be quite prosperous due to their zoo, but no one goes to the zoo in the rain.

Lindsay Starck’s writing style is beautiful, a fact on which all reviewers comment. Here is a sample from the beginning describing the people in the town where it never stops raining:

“They are not always happy, or at peace. They miss their shadows. Sometimes when they step outside in the morning the first drop of rain on their plastic ponchos echoes in their ears with the resounding toll of a funeral bell. Sometimes when they return home in the faint gray light of evening, they cannot bear the hoarse whispers of their rusted wind chimes and they cannot bear the sight of the water steadily rising in their rain gauges. They despair; and they are sick of despair. With swift and sudden anger they take up the shining cylinders and they hurl the water into the grass and they fling the gauges with great force toward the concrete, standing and watching while the glass shatters and breaks. At the moment of impact they feel something crack within their very souls and then they go inside–repentant–to find a broom and sweep up a pile of pieces that are jagged and clear.”

After meeting the perpetually wet town, we are then introduced to Noah and told how he meets his wife. They are on a whale watching trip, and when the waves get rough and she gets scared, he reassures her that everything will work out. This deep faith that Noah has it what his wife loves about him.

The rainy town despairs greatly, and everyone stops going to church. When the old minister in the rainy town walks into the river one day and doesn’t come out (was it an accident or not?), the run-down church has a vacancy. Noah volunteers to take on the challenge of saving this water-logged town. The challenge tests Noah greatly, and his marriage strains under the weight of it. It’s hard to believe Noah could ever falter, as he is depicted as handsome, confident, and a natural leader, a man his previous congregation flocked to in droves.

In Noah’s Wife, readers are introduced to a slew of characters. Many of them are referred to by their relationships to others, such as “Mrs. McGinn’s daughter” or “Dr. Yu’s father” or, of course, “Noah’s Wife.” While all of the characters’ names are eventually revealed, Noah’s wife’s name remains a mystery the entirety of the novel.

And that is a purposeful choice.

Noah’s wife is an interesting character. Though she had never been to church in her life, she marries a minister. She is the perfect helpmate, always the assistant and never the leader: “Where else would she be, if not here [with Noah]? What would she be doing, if she were not helping him?” Small challenges appear to overwhelm her because her path is that of Noah’s, so she’s not used to making decisions. She has faith in her husband, her husband has faith in God, and that is all fine and dandy. But when the zoo in the town floods and everyone must help rescue and then home the animals, Noah’s wife struggles under the expectations put on her:

“Animals are much easier [than people], reflects Noah’s wife. Their wants and their needs are obvious, open, straightforward: they are hungry, tired, satisfied, afraid. The townspeople, on the other hand, with their emotions in knots and their hopes and dreams and fears all tangled up in themselves and their neighbors–well, what would make her think she could handle all of that? That is Noah’s job; not hers.”

Of course, given that Noah’s wife earns the title of the book, we can expect the story to challenge her to her breaking point and that she will have to make some tough choices that are not typical for her, so there is a lot of build up in the book with a highly satisfying–and surprising–pay off.

The foil to Noah’s wife is Mrs. McGinn. She basically runs the town. She barks and people stand at attention. I loved that Mrs. McGinn was this terribly unlikable person who wanted things accomplished and questions answered. She’s aggressive and bossy when no one else has direction (or a clue).

One image that really stuck with me showed Mrs. McGinn’s fearlessness. After the zoo has been flooded and animals have been rescued, there is still some damage. She pokes a boa constrictor in the gutter. And then, “Mrs. McGinn steps away from the snake. ‘That one is definitely dead,’ she declares.” There is no fear of this terrifying animal. In fact, when a new person comes to town, “Mrs. McGinn wields her umbrella like a weapon.” I love the fencing imagery that Starck expertly weaves in, giving the story a bit of a fable feel.

In the end, though, we learn that Mrs. McGinn has been married four times because three husbands cheated on her (the current husband has a temper, but has not strayed). She may be the strongest character in the book, but she is still a breakable human and must be carried (sometimes literally), too.

Leesl is a third interesting character because she serves as yet another foil to Mrs. McGinn and Noah’s wife. She is practically a “nobody,” like Noah’s wife without Noah, but that’s the way she prefers it. People are worried for her because she is so alone:

“‘I’m not alone!’ proclaims Leesl, coming to her own defense when she hears them. ‘Look! Do you want to see a picture of my cats?’ The townspeople do not want to see a picture of Leesl’s cats. They have seen all the pictures before. Only Mrs. McGinn glances dutifully at the photo as she sighs. In truth, the main reason why she is so concerned about Leesl is because she believes that a place is as stable as its most unstable citizen…”

Leesl is many things: she is “never surprised” and “not expressive.” She serves as a bit of light in the story, though. When Noah’s first sermon in the new church doesn’t go as planned, and congregants break out into arguments about why the rain won’t stop, Leesl panics and begins playing the organ over them. This moment is almost circus-like, and I found it funny. But when a deeper sadness takes over the town, Leesl plays her organ in the empty church as loudly as she can because she doesn’t know what else to do, and here I was greatly saddened by the image.

There are many, many characters you will get to know in Noah’s Wife, and these are just three of my favorite. You learn each character so well that before you know it, you have the backstory and future dreams of many people, causing you to feel like you’re part of the town and these are your neighbors.

Getting to know a bunch of characters isn’t enough, though; there has to be a deeper message in a novel, especially one that is almost 400 pages. A few messages I got from Lindsay Starck’s book is that love is an abstract concept, and people’s definitions vary much more than I had personally thought. To Mrs. McGinn, love, like beauty, is not painless. For Dr. Yu, Noah’s wife’s best friend, love means that the ones we love never find mates that we feel are good enough for them. For Leesl, love means not being with the one she loves and instead yearning. For Mrs. McGinn’s daughter, who has witnessed her mother’s many divorces, love means monogamy, and she tells her fiance (the zookeeper) to list off the animals that mate for life in what almost sounds like verbal foreplay.

In a novel about people who won’t leave what is obviously a doomed town, there of course has to be a theme about hope. I was worried that the message would be we all just need a dose of hope and we’ll be good to go, which is a pill I can’t swallow. But that’s just not the case. There are times characters have hope that leads to nothing, and times when hope is just the right thing. It can’t be a safety blanket to make things perfect; hope must be used wisely.

Sometimes hope, and seeking reasons to have hope, is not good. I felt it deeply when I read, “What [Maruo’s] friends and neighbors do not understand as well as he does…is that there are no signs except the ones we choose to read.” While Mauro’s sentiment could be read in a positive light, another character is straight depressing: “Sometimes there isn’t any way to make the best of things….And I think that to insist that there is–that everything happens for a reason, et cetera–well, oftentimes that’s nothing but a good looking lie.” A third sentiment is that we don’t deserve our misery…or our happiness. These things come to us, and we navigate our lives as they are dealt. Noah’s Wife gave me a lot to think about instead of forcing a message upon me, which I appreciated and felt showed the author’s faith in her audience.

In the end, the message appears to be one about choice: do we follow or lead, be happy or gloomy, realistic or faithful? Do others define us through our relationships to them, or do we define ourselves?

Don’t forget that Lindsay and I did an interview late 2015! You can read more about Lindsay’s inspirations and how she completed this novel.

lindsayDisclaimer: Lindsay Starck and I attended the MFA program at the University of Notre Dame together from 2008-2010 where original character sketches for this novel were created and workshopped. I want very much for Lindsay’s novel to do well, and thus, for these reasons, I am a biased reviewer.

This One Summer

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This One Summer coverTitle: This One Summer

Writer: Mariko Tamaki

Illustrator: Jillian Tamaki

Published: by First Second in 2014

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 it seems strange to have everything resolved by the time the vacation is over, This One Summer uses many common events adolescent girls will experience to navigate growing up to relate to the audience.

One key aspect of This one Summer that makes it so good is that Mariko Tamaki is able to capture accurately what it’s like to be an adolescent girl. Right away, Rose develops a sort-of crush on the boy who works at the local convenience store. It’s one of those rustic shops near beach vacation spots that have everything from marshmallows to DVD rentals–anything vacationers would require. That boy–“The Dud”–randomly nicknames Rose “blondie,” a highly unimaginative choice. Yet, Rose’s face lights up and blushes at “The Dud’s” remark.

Readers may question why Rose would have any feelings for “The Dud.” He seems pretty typical for an eighteen-year-old boy, and even a bit unmotivated. Rose never flirts with him, nor does she make an effort to get to know more about him. Yet there is that category of good girl who knows that she has a little crush but is too shy to do anything about it. Rose behaves like a regular adolescent girl when she makes excuses to get things from the convenience store just to see this boy who paid her a small bit of attention.

The Tamaki cousins also accurately represent adolescent girls by carefully choosing what activities the girls do. To distract each other from a difficult topic, Rose and Windy decide to play M.A.S.H., a game every young girl has played. Players ask fate if they get to live in a Mansion, Apartment, Shed, or House, and to whom they are married, and how many kids they have. Rose chooses the president, Justin Bieber, and Mitch (a.k.a. “The Dud”) as her potential life mate, so including “The Dud” is another insight into her feelings for the older boy. When they aren’t playing games, the girls can be found renting R-rated horror movies, a sign that they want to be grown up, but which demonstrates that they can’t really handle the screaming, slashing, and blood squirting.

In their younger teenage years, girls want to grow up, but they may not be fully prepared to handle their choices. Watching scary movies is one thing, but paying attention to older teenage girls is another. Rose and Windy watch as the local girls, who are around eighteen, flirt openly with the boys at the convenience store, which of course makes Rose jealous. Rose decides older teen girls are so dumb that she calls them “drunks” and “sluts.” Really, Rose isn’t sure of what she’s saying, but she’s trying to understand older teen girls to figure out why she’s different from them. Watching older girls has long been a big part of learning for adolescent girls. This is not to say that older teens are the pinnacle of intelligence. Rose and Windy accidentally overhear an older girl ask her friend, “Hey, Sarah, was it you who said that sperm can live, for like, three weeks in your stomach?”

Since Mariko Tamaki writes teen girls so well, it’s important that Jillian Tamaki illustrate in a way that complements the words. Each character is very specific looking, meaning that they’re easy to identify. While some graphic novels make characters less detailed, which allows readers to insert themselves into the story, the people in This One Summer are not meant to be anyone. Many of the images are highly detailed:

Uncle Daniel Tamaki

Uncle Daniel

The beautiful detail in the drawing makes This One Summer almost read like snapshots in a photo album of a lovely vacation.

Yet, Jillian Tamaki is an artist with many styles, and readers will notice that some other styles slip into the graphic novel. Windy and Rose, most noticeably, often border on a manga look:

Manga Windy Tamaki.png

Windy with exaggerated features, but no distinct mouth.

Manga Rose Tamaki

More exaggerated features, such as the mouth, but Rose doesn’t have the meticulous features of Uncle Daniel’s picture.

I was a bit confused about why Jillian Tamaki would chose to lean toward a manga style in some of her pictures when she is so capable of drawing realistically, like she does with Uncle Daniel. It might be that since Rose and Windy are drawn the most often in the book, Tamaki chose a simpler image for time’s sake. It might also be that we’re meant to insert ourselves into Windy’s or Rose’s characters, since the book is about adolescent girlhood. The less specific the face, the more likely readers are to see themselves in the character.

Despite my puzzlement over the manga style, I found all of the illustrations of the characters appealing. Windy is especially adorable. I was worried that her 18 month age difference from Rose meant this would be a story about Rose outgrowing Windy, but the girls challenge and enrich each other. Windy is constantly eating and drinking soda like a thirteen-year-old girl, and she’s not afraid to dance in a way that makes me love her:

Windy Dancing Tamaki 2.png

Windy dancing takes up two full pages. Her enthusiasm for fun is infectious.

Jillian Tamaki does just do people well; she’s also brilliant when it comes to scenery. She incorporates grass, water, siding on the houses, trees, and beach sand, all in great detail. Furthermore, J. Tamaki makes use of space in a way that makes This One Summer seem expansive to the point of never ending:

summer-beach

Rose thinks about her family’s problems on the left while Windy run towards the blue stormy-looking mass on the right. Notice that my other images don’t have this deep bluish tint. This One Summer appears to have two editions: one in the blue and one without.

This two-page image can be twisted and turned in different directions: the lake on the bottom, the lake being in front of the girls, the lake on top looking like an ominous cloud that matches Rose’s concerns noted on the side.

Another thing Jillian Tamaki does that I don’t see as much in other graphic novels is she adds lots of little words in her images, just bits of onomatopoeia. In some scenes, the words simply made the image more dynamic in an otherwise wordless part of the story, like when Rose’s dad is on the grill and Rose is taking photographs:

Words and Images Tamaki.png

Sound effects everywhere!

Readers may wonder why they need these words. Isn’t it obvious that a grill sizzles and a camera clicks? But, on pages that have no dialogue or thought captions, the words give the reader with which to engage and view the scene as active, as in something is taking place and these characters are truly moving around. In other places, the onomatopoeia helped me understand what was happening, like this scene with “The Dud” and his bike:

The Dud Tamaki

The Dud carelessly dumps his bike on the ground.

Because he’s texting and biking, and Rose is also biking while holding an object, I thought at first that the distracted bicyclists crashed. However, the small “DUMP” by boy’s front tire made me realize that I was supposed to see him as a careless kid who doesn’t take care of his things. Instead of putting down the kickstand, which would keep his bike out of the filth, he just dumps it on the ground and leaves it–a clear sign that he doesn’t care about much, which is part of his personality.

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.

 

Tomboy

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Tomboy

Author: Tomboy: A Graphic Memoir

Author: **Liz Prince

Published: by Zest Books in 2014

Tomboy Cover

Thirty-one-year-old comic artist Liz Prince shares her history as a tomboy. She begins with her tantrum at age three when she didn’t want to wear a dress. All through elementary and middle school, Prince is tormented. No one wants to play with her, she hates all things girly, and classmates begin to question her sexuality. High school is a huge problem area until Prince finds a group of friends who are more open-minded. While the narrator (Prince at 31) could interrupt the narrative more regularly, Tomboy is a graphic memoir that will have readers nodding along in recognition as Prince analyzes what it means to be a tomboy in a society that tells men and women how to be from birth.

For me, a good memoir is analytical. A few weeks ago, I reviewed Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home and discovered that it was the most analytic memoir I’d ever read, in graphic form or otherwise. Whereas Bechdel is very much pulling apart her motives from an adult perspective, Prince’s story almost always sticks with her younger self’s point of view. For instance, Liz notices that heroes are always boys, and girls are always being rescued. When Liz draws a picture at school of her, Luke Skywalker, and her toy Popple, the teacher asks if she’s supposed to be Leia. Liz says, “I’m a JEDI.” After thinking about women who are saved by men–Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and Repunzel–Liz Prince at age 32 pops in and adds, “So, it’s not that surprising that I would envy those born into boyhood.” Here is an example of the author interrupting her own story:

Tomboy pg 85

Adult Liz, the one drawing the comic, interrupts her own story.

It happens every so often; adult Liz shows up to add an explanation for or clarification of what child Liz is thinking. It’s almost in the style of Scott McCloud in his pivotal book, Understanding Comics.

Scott McCloud

McCloud, in cartoon form, explains how we see comics. Liz Prince does the same thing to her narrative set during childhood to explain more of what her younger self may not know.

Prince analyzes her childhood in a way that will have readers nodding along in recognition. She explains the reasons why children make fun of each other. Again, she inserts her adult self:

“Let’s take a timeout to review some of the reasons you can be made fun of in grade school. 1) Because you’re a girl who dresses like a boy. 2) Because you’re a girl who hangs out with boys. 3) Because you’re a girl. 4) Because you’re a girl who hangs out with girls. So yeah, you can get bullied for ANYTHING.”

A little later, Prince realizes that most of the time, kids are repeating what they hear: “My daddy says you bring lunch from home because you’re poor.” A classmate presents his report: “…and that’s why a vote for George Bush makes the world a better place to live.” Then, little grade school-age Liz says, “We sometimes repeat things we’re told without really knowing what they mean.” In fact, adult comic artist Liz Prince makes her younger self say that, thus proving the point that children repeat.

Tomboy Scott McCloud style

On the left is Liz Prince as a little girl. She says something grown up, then realizes that adult Liz Prince, the comic artist, made her say the grown up thing. Prince inserts herself into the story every so often.

It’s hard to be a tomboy in the world. Girls are told not only how to dress, but assaulted with ideas about how to behave and what gives them value in society. People–both children and adults–reinforce these ideas about gender without question. As a child, Prince buys into gender norms, too, and doesn’t even realize. Boys are cool, so if she looks and acts like a boy, she’s cool. Girls are not cool. But what Prince doesn’t realize is how boys see a girl trying to be a boy:

 

Tomboy pg 12

Liz Prince realizes that boys see her as an anomaly.

Tomboy is easy to relate to in a way that made me cringe. I think the camp was the most tragic passage in which many readers will see themselves. At Girl Scout camp, little Liz learns that it’s disgusting to shower naked, swim without a t-shirt, and change her clothes where others can see. The shame is heaped upon girls, perpetuated by other girls, who most likely learned from stupid comments said by parents (who most likely were criticizing other women) and weren’t aware that their children are always listening and impressionable. I remember girls in 7th grade humiliating their friend who got her first period and it leaked on her pants–they kept calling her “bloody butt.” I remember kids in 2nd grade tormenting a girl who picked food out of her teeth and swallowed it–and I was part of the tormenting crowd. We pick out the weak and humiliate them for reasons few of us fully understand.

Playing sports becomes a point of humiliation that readers may recognize, too. Liz plays baseball on the boys’ team for a number of years because it’s her favorite sport. When the coach hands out cups one season, the boys decide Liz needs to wear a chest protector, thus ending her baseball career. Similarly, some girl friends of mine and I tried to play touch football in 7th and 8th grades, but the boys said things like, “Hut, hut, dyke!” and the coach would say nothing. We were run off because we didn’t feel safe from ridicule, even in the presence of an adult.

If you’re about the same age as Liz Prince, you’ll easily relate to the pop culture references she includes. I felt thrown right back into some of the best parts of childhood when she mentioned Nintendo, Sega, Popple, Ghostbusters, and quotes from Wayne’s World. Heck, we even had the same Popple, which I thought was pretty cool and made me like Liz Prince even more. If you’re about 30 years old, you’ll have a good time traveling down nostalgia lane!

One of the biggest ways Liz Prince lets you put yourself into her story and relate to her is through the drawing style. By now, you may have noticed that the pictures are simplistic, basically line drawings without color. In Scott McCloud’s image above, he explains that a very specific image means viewers only picture one person. The more simplistic the face becomes, the more we’re able to insert different people into that one drawing. So, when Liz Prince shows picture of mean girls or boys who are picking on her, they’re vague enough that readers can stick in their own bullies. I immediately remember specific names of kids in grade school whom I hated because Prince’s drawings are not overbearing. The one character you can always easily identify is Prince herself, mostly due to a strange hat she wears in every frame.

If you read this book, you may find yourself experiencing some intense emotions you hoped you’d forgotten upon high school graduation. Yet, the analysis Liz Prince includes will help you think about why children were so cruel, perhaps why you were cruel, and that we all share a universal terrible time in grade school (even the popular kids are hiding something awful). Because Prince wisely makes use of a drawing style and narrative in which people will see themselves, Tomboy is a powerful memoir that will have you turning pages just to see if it gets better–for her, and perhaps even for you.

**Join me Monday, December 14th to read my interview with author Liz Prince! She was gracious enough to take the time to answer my questions about being a comic artist and about Tomboy.

 

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

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Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

cover chastRoz Chast’s graphic novel Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (Bloomsbury, 2014) examines the dying process (my choice of words, not the author’s) of Chast’s extremely old parents, George and Elizabeth. George and Elizabeth were born a few days apart in 1912 and only a few blocks apart in Harlem.

Their parents were Russian immigrants who came to the U.S. with nothing but misery. George and Elizabeth’s first baby dies shortly after birth. Roz Chast is an only child born to a mother and father who were 42 (somewhat odd today, practically scandalous at the time). The author knows all the stories of the miserable Russian immigrants and the dead baby. She knows her parents consider themselves soul mates who cannot be apart. soul matesHowever, as George and Elizabeth creep into their 90s, Chast must consider their imminent deaths and what to do with their possessions and remains. However, George and Elizabeth will not talk about death!

The guilt and anxiety that fill Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? jumps off the pages. Based on her grandparents’ history, Chast’s parents feel their daughter Roz can never understand misery. It becomes clear why the author seems like a unbalanced person trying to be a good person and often freezing up—she doesn’t even drive due to anxiety.

Chast carefully details her parents’ personalities to show where her own neurosis come from. For example, her father’s thought process while using a toaster: “Now, let’s see…You put the bread into one of these two compartments…How do you know which one? Do you put the bread in first?? Or do you press this little level down first???” Chast continues, “He was bad at opening packages, like cookies or cereal. You could tell which ones he’d tried to open, because they were always torn some strange way, as if a raccoon had tried to get into them.”

Chast’s mother is completely different from her father. Elizabeth’s images are often scary, angry portrayals. Elizabeth thinks she’s right all the time, which leads to her anger. Chast notes that her mother wanted to be a concert pianist, but said, “It came too easily to me,” so she didn’t pursue the dream. This example shows the mother as egotistical and having unrealistic expectations. She also loves to yell, “I gave him a blast from the Chast!” and “I’m going to blow my top!!!” Based on these two parental personalities—nearly helpless and aggressive—the author becomes an indecisive, meek, terrified person, which she clearly details in her images and descriptions of her parents.

blow my top

George Chast and Roz Chast shaking in terror over the looming, terrifying Elizabeth Chast

The most interesting detail about the author’s anxiety stems from the notion that her parents maybe never should have had her. George and Elizabeth were such a tight pair—soul mates—that having a child interrupted their duo. When Chast leaves for college, she feels her parents are happy that she isn’t around anymore. She notes, “I left for college when I was 16. I think we were all relieved.”

As her parents get older—late 80s, early 90s—Chast must think about her parents’ wishes for after they’ve passed. But they refuse to talk about death because they are “going to 100” (years that is). Something Chast points out that I remember from when my own great-grandmother passed is how much stuff a person leaves behind. After all of my grandma’s papers and other items were sorted through (the papers took forever because who knows what letter is important or unimportant and why), Later, I couldn’t look at my own things the same way. I began to get rid of old birthday cards and dried flowers and clothes I hadn’t worn in a long time and kitschy items I’d received for presents, things I clung to for fear of losing an item of sentimental value. When my great-grandma died, I realized these things did not equal love.

Chast makes the same point and even lists the sorts of things people keep in a massive list that effectively overwhelms the reader:

An ergonomic garlic press and throw pillows and those stupid sunflower dessert plates and seven travel alarm clocks and eight nail clippers and a colander and a flatiron and three old laptops and barbells and a set of FUCKING BOCCE BALLS, and patio furniture and an autoharp, for God’s sake, and your old flute from high school and a zillion books and towels and sheets and a wok you never used and a make your own stained glass kit you never opened, and martini glasses and a yoga mat and what is THIS??? A cuckoo clock????? And so many clothes and hats and shoes and then there’s all the KIDS old stuff and don’t forget the furniture and four cameras and ice skates and whose tap shoes are these? and all the crap in the drawers and…”

When it becomes obvious that her parents cannot live alone, they are moved to an assisted living facility. I’ll leave the details for those who choose to read the book (and I recommend you do), but immediately after Chast talks about the death of her father, she includes a page just for a black and white picture of him dancing with daughter Roz Chast with the dates March 23, 1912 – October 17, 2007. It’s not often you see photos in graphic novels, but this page really gave George Chast a moment of silence and an opportunity to show he was a loving father. The author identified with her father (but didn’t understand or often like her mother).

Roz Chast includes a few varieties of images: there are the cartoon images, black and white photographs, sketches of her mother in her last days, and color photos of some items left in George and Elizabeth’s apartment that the author didn’t want to keep (the photos were enough).chast death

Roz Chast illustration

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is a moving memoir from the perspective of an aging daughter who details what it’s like to deal with parents who are so very elderly, and also so very stubborn. Chast is honest in her portrayals, including how she abandoned most of her parents’ belongings for the super of the apartment to deal with, and how using money to house her parents in assisted living was cutting into her inheritance, which did and did not concern her. This graphic novel also takes a realistic, deep look at anxiety and the effects parents have on their children.

Blow Me Down

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Blow Me Down

Blow Me DownBlow Me Down (Signet Eclipse, 2005) by Katie MacAlister is a romance novel I picked up to read with my friend. We were searching for something sexy and chose this novel as our first two-person-book-club read. Blow Me Down is about Amy, a single mom who is all business, who agrees to play a virtual reality game her daughter loves to prove to her offspring that she will try new things. Once inside the game, Buckling Swashes, Amy tries to become an officer, but she has no idea how to go about it. In her attempts, she meets Renata, a kindly madam (the whorehouse kind) and Black Corbin, the most dreaded pirate on the Turtle’s Back island. When she tries to get out of the game, Amy finds there is a problem: her virtual reality glasses don’t seem to be on her face. Locked in the game, Amy must make alliances to get herself home before her physical body becomes a useless meat sack from sitting so long, and her daughter is orphaned as a result.

Around 2004 I read Katie MacAliser’s novel A Girl’s Guide to Vampires and loved that the leading lady wasn’t having any bullshit. Amy from Blow Me Down was a similar woman, which gives the book a much more realistic feel than other romances I’ve read. Amy doesn’t want to be saved, but from time to time it would be nice to see the man she falls in love with in the game–Black Corbin–when she’s in trouble, because she’s looking for support. It’s also Amy’s wits and standards that keep her from becoming smutty, though she is sexual. While Amy resides in Renata’s whorehouse, she grows to like the prostitutes and respects what they do, though Amy knows she’s a modest woman.

There are a few characters in the game who know it’s a game: Amy, Black Corbin (who is the game’s creator), Holder (Corbin’s friend and co-creator), and someone else who has infiltrated the game like a virus to trap the three players within. I thought this plot point was a bit strange. The “virus” player has made it so the gamers can’t feel the glasses on their faces, causing their physical bodies to just sit in their chairs at home. If you overlook that the book is asking you to believe the virtual reality is so realistic that the players aren’t aware of their human bodies, however, it becomes a non issue.

Early on, Amy tries to fix the lives of the computer characters, taking their situations very seriously. Corbin realizes what Amy is doing and scolds her: “The problem is that you’re supposed to be a pirate—carefree, wild, and heedless, not organizing people’s lives and setting up eighteenth-century versions of 401(k) plans.” His character serves to remind readers that Amy is too work-oriented, which is the whole reason she’s in the game in the first place. Corbin is a normal (albeit nerdy) guy who has a sense of adventure about him, but also a realistic attitude for the game. At first, Corbin appears to Amy as a chiseled blond beefcake, but when Amy points out she would never go for a man who looks like him, Corbin changes his avatar to match his real body—which is a bit soft in places, but still handsome in a realistic way. Corbin can be a real-life hero because he isn’t fakey in looks or personality.

Because certain characters know it’s a game, the plot can get quite funny, and that is MacAlister’s best quality as a writer. The three gamers must follow the scenarios set up in the game in order to further the story along. In one instance, a blockade must happen, which would cut off supplies to the Turtle’s Back, the island on which Amy resides. If she marries Corbin in the game, they will create an alliance, and he can get supplies to her from his island of residence. They are married by Holder, who gives them their vows: “Do you promise to climb no masts other than his?” Holder is a rather goofy character who serves to reassure Amy that real-life Corbin is not a womanizer, and that Corbin genuinely likes her. All three gamers say and do funny things because they can take some assurance that it is a game, even if they are trapped within it.

In another funny moment, Amy is made captain, and she gets really into it. She even starts singing piratey songs to increase her spirits. One of her crew members (a computer character, not a gamer) asks, “Is the cap’n insultin’ us by sayin’ we’re pirates who don’t do anythin’?” His question is an allusion to the Veggie Tales song “The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything.” Here, MacAlister reminds us that Amy is a mom who lives in a world where Veggie Tales exists, and I found it hilarious in the context of the game.

piratesThis is not to say that the computer characters aren’t funny, too. Bas (short for Bastard) is an orphan boy with a ratty pet parrot named Bran. Bas is fascinated with death and disease, and he hopes every scenario ends up with someone suffering or dying and that he gets to see the gory bits. He announces, “Tarts get the pox…. Me ma said they do. The pox eats away at ye until ye’re nothin’ but bloody pustlues and scabby sores and boils that erupt all over yer–” ( and then he is cut off by Amy). Even Bran is a cute character, one that squawks responses and always wants his head patted in greeting. He’s also made to take baths with his owner.

The characters are truly what make Blow Me Down a fun read. The last fifty pages (out of 359), though, seem like one big mistake. I got tired of the “my love” thing that kicks up:

“Corbin, my love, my darling…”

“Watch where you’re walking, love.”

“Come here, love…”

“Go ahead, love…”

In real life, the characters have been playing for about three hours. In the game, they’ve lived about two weeks. Either way, the deep love and cheesy language wore on me, and I just wanted Amy and Corbin to sound human. While some of the earlier plot points seem more for convenience than logic, and then ending was so poorly done that I felt embarrassed for the author. For one, it takes place in real life, meaning the reader expects a modicum of logic to prevail, but it doesn’t. The characters’ “gut feelings” about danger seemed premature, leading them to make decisions on instinct alone.

For instance, back in reality, Amy waits for Corbin to contact her. However, why is Amy so worried that Corbin doesn’t call her between midnight and the next morning after they got out of the game? It’s only been a few hours! Also, Holder now seems bossy. He talks to Amy for about three minutes in real life during which time she expresses some nerves about meeting Corbin before Holder’s decided she’s such “a woman” and a “wimp” that he needs to tell her to suck it up. Why wouldn’t she be nervous about meeting Corbin in real life? Holder also is also surprised that Corbin didn’t call Amy, but, again, a few hours. These few hours cause Amy and Holder to decide to go into some spy mode and rescue Corbin, and of course they take swords with them.

I can imagine the story ending with Amy about to knock on Corbin’s door, her stomach in knots, and when he opens the door, his eyes shine just like they did in the game, and that’s the end. The opening up of the relationship was the beauty of Amy and Corbin getting out of the game, not what the author did, which was essentially make real life like a game.

If I could erase the last fifty pages from my mind, I would without a doubt recommend Blow Me Down. But, because the ending was so disappointing, I would point readers to other Katie MacAlister novels—she has dozens.

*This review was written from my personal copy of the book. I have no personal, professional, nor familiar relationship to the author.