Tag Archives: depression

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.

13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl #BookReview

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13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by Mona Awad

Published by Penguin, 2016

Procured from my local library


*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.


I first heard of Mona Awad’s book on NPR. Based on the title, I thought 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl would be 13 short stories. Instead, it’s a novel (sort of) told in 13 chapters (sort of). If I hadn’t read that Awad is a graduate of an MFA program, I could have guessed it. Coming out of an MFA program myself, I understand how difficult it is to workshop sections of a novel, so instead we all tend toward short stories. 13 Ways of Looking reads like 13 connected yet separate short stories.

The cover is interesting, as it suggests the only way to see a fat girl is to erase her. The eraser marks target the word “FAT,” but we all know that women are taught to erase themselves by taking up less space, physically and vocally. When you erase the fat and leave the girl, you’re still not getting much person.

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In the first story, readers are immediately exposed to the amount of comparison that fat women do to one another. I am well aware of how this works, as I published a short story called “Fat Woman Socializing” after realizing how much I compared myself to other fat women in the past (a habit I have since squashed after a lot of hard, purposeful work to change my thought patterns).  At this point, the main character, Elizabeth, and her friend Mel are teenagers; comparing comes naturally to adolescents. Yet, Elizabeth keeps up the comparing well into adulthood, and she’s never kind.

Much of the book is told in first person by Elizabeth, but there are point of view switches, such as in the second story in which a man only calls “the fat girl” when he’s drunk and been rejected by his skinny girlfriend. Later, Elizabeth’s husband narrates a story. These two voices are the only that suggest Elizabeth has a life beyond her weight. Drunk guy mentions she bakes, and her husband notes that she used to listen to music in the dark. Beyond that, Awad’s portrayal of a fat woman severely disappointed me. Elizabeth changes her name — Beth, Lizzie, Liz, Elizabeth — in an effort to become someone else. She barely gets through high school, but later we’re told she has a college degree. Hoping for some positivity here, I was crushed when I read that Elizabeth spends her adult years temping. But what does she do at this temp job? What are her passions away from work? She doesn’t even describe her love of baking or music, so readers are left without any indication of who this character is. She’s fat or she’s not fat; that’s it.

Awad also fails to consider differences in preferences, like all fat women are the same, as seen when Elizabeth’s husband observes the secretaries at his office:

[A co-worker] brings in a Tupperware container full of [butter tartlets] and offers some to the fat secretaries, all of whom snatch greedy handfuls and say they’re just scrumptious.

The husband suggests the women are fat and greedy, but I hold Awad responsible for suggesting that all secretaries are fat, and all fat people are greedy. It’s as if the author wants readers to confirm their stereotypes about fat people so they feel vindicated.

But the book is about Elizabeth, and readers never learn if she is an introvert or extrovert. In fact, she feels very human when another girl in high school puts eye makeup on her, which she then refuses to wash off (it’s still smeared on her eyes over a week later). In the same story, she ventures into online dating and vies for the attention of a quadriplegic who is 47. The scene in which her friend with the eye makeup realizes Elizabeth has been dating this man is offensive to both fat women and people with disabilities:

“And are you ever actually going to meet this guy? Are you really going to fly to fucking Irvine or wherever he lives? How is he going to pick you up from the airport? Do you even want this guy to fuck you? Can he even fuck you?

Awad’s characters suggest that a relationship that doesn’t end in sex is pointless, that people can’t love each other without sex. In fact, every part of this book weighs characters on their ability to 1) have sex and 2) get the partner to acknowledge in public that they had sex with a fat woman. Awad creates suspicious readers so that when someone does want to have sex or a relationship with Elizabeth, we immediately write them off as a pervert with a fat fetish.

True to fat fiction form, Elizabeth loses a ton of weight. Whereas the romance novels would have her finally get the attention of her hot boss on whom she’s been crushing for years, Elizabeth never changes — because she never had a personality in the first place. Awad reminds readers incessantly that Elizabeth eats almost nothing, works out obsessively, and that she’s still temping. By the end of the book, Elizabeth’s way of thinking has changed somewhat, though that’s a stretch to argue as she never had a “way of thinking” beforehand, as in readers never experience why she so abhors her fat body. We learn to hate our bodies when society tells us to; we’re not born hating ourselves. Imagine how bold and unself-conscious you were at a very young age, that is, until you heard your mom criticize her wobbly arms or your aunt lambaste her butt or the first time someone told you to hold your tummy in. No, Elizabeth, in the end, decides that size Large is still “fat girl,” but she’s not militant about changing.

That’s not the end, though; Elizabeth gets in some last jabs. When she returns as an adult to the store where she used to by clothes as a fat teen, she remembers the sales woman who works there. She thinks the woman’s “jewelry is still aggressively cheerful, still screams, I’m trying to make the best of things.” The assumption is that the woman is trying to cheer herself up because she’s so miserable with her fat, dreary life. Perhaps Elizabeth is the kind of character who would have these thoughts, but since she’s such a blank nothingness of a person, the thoughts can only come from Awad. Perhaps Awad’s experiences mirror Elizabeth’s own, but this isn’t a memoir. Fiction writers are responsible for the messages their characters send out.

A potential positive, one obvious way the author implies that weight loss is not the answer is by using the adjectives “lose” or “losing” without the noun “weight.” Therefore, Elizabeth is losing. I felt this tactic was clumsy and a last attempt to show readers she’s on the side of the fat girl, though if she were, her character would be well-rounded in more ways that one.

I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone. It’s demeaning, inaccurate, and full of flat stereotypes. If you are fat like me, you’ll come out of it angry, but you’ll first need to feel depressed for 212 pages.

The Woman in Cabin 10 #mystery #suspense @ruthwarewriter

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The Woman in Cabin 10 #mystery #suspense @ruthwarewriter

The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware

Audiobook narrated by Imogen Church

Published by Simon & Schuster Audio, July 2016


It feels so weird to me that I am reviewing a book that pretty much everyone else has read. That doesn’t happen often at Grab the Lapels, as my original mission was to champion little presses, find new voices, and focus on women. However, my book club chose this book, and I was mostly happy that Ware fits into my “ladies only” theme! The Woman in Cabin 10 was difficult to procure (a protest I raised when the book was chosen), and I was only able to get the audiobook. If you’re never tried audiobooks, the good voice actors tend to have more emotion and bring multiple characters to life rather than simply “reading” the story. The bad voice narrators: pee-yew! The big downside, though, is that audiobooks take what feels like forever to get through. And I listened to Imogen Church read Ware’s book for almost two weeks.

The Woman in Cabin 10 is about British journalist Lo Blacklock, who has managed to settle for a job at Velocity, a magazine about travel. Not exactly the investigative stuff Lo dreamed she’d do after college. When her boss cannot attend a work event on a luxury boat, the Aurora Borealis, Lo goes instead, hoping this is her chance to show she deserves a promotion. The night before she is set to leave on the ship, she wakes to find a man in her apartment. He traps her in her room and robs the place. Lo is frazzled, feels violated, perhaps breaks up with her boyfriend (she’s not 100% sure that’s what they decided), and boards the Aurora Borealis for a week. As a result, Lo doesn’t sleep much for days. She has a drink (or several) to calm herself down. Ware sets readers up clearly to have an unreliable narrator. Because, of course, something has to happen.

The first night, as Lo dresses for dinner, she remembers her purse was stolen during the break in, so she has no mascara. She bangs on Cabin 10’s door and borrows some from a young woman, whose room looks unkempt like that of a teenager’s. Later, sleepless, Lo is startled in the middle of the night on the Aurora Borealis, sure she’s heard a scream and a splash, sure she see’s blood on the railing of the veranda to Cabin 10. But when ship security finds nothing and shows her Cabin 10 is empty, the doubts flood in.

Imogen Church is an excellent voice actress. Her voice soothes; I wanted to listen. Church narrates Blacklock’s fear with trembles in her voice and urgency in her pleas. Every sentence is rich with emotion. However, this is what slows the reading time down. Also, the audiobook has really long stretches between tracks. The chapters of the book are each one audio track, meaning if I didn’t have 30-45 minutes, I couldn’t start a chapter for fear of losing my place. With a book, I may read 10-15 pages and stop, which takes about 10 minutes.

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Since my husband is in the book club too, he procured a copy of The Woman in Cabin 10 and was patient enough for the hardcover version. I compared his text to what I had listened to. During the break in, Lo thinks the following: “Please, I thought. Please don’t hurt me. Oh God, where was my phone?” But Church’s voice digs up the terror. I was scared for Lo! Honestly, I’m not sure I would have enjoyed the hardcover book. All the pleading might have sounded forced, and thus I recommend the audiobook over the hardcover edition.

I also noticed that Church uses different voices for all characters. Many of the employees on the Aurora Borealis are Norwegian. Church does them all with accents in addition to male and female British passengers, some who sound husky, others who are jovial. Church captures Lo’s boyfriend, Judah from Brooklyn, too. In the hardcover version, though, none of the voices are written in dialect. It would have been easy for me to forget that so many characters are Norwegian and that the Aurora Borealis is headed toward Norway. Basically, the voices reinforce the setting.

While I tend to avoid mystery-thriller books for their predictability or outlandish plots that attempt to avoid the unpredictable, I mostly appreciated The Woman in Cabin 10 for all the smaller issues Lo points out. For example, she doesn’t feel like she belongs on the Aurora Borealis because the rooms are around $8,000 per night. Lo notices the ship is like a doll house: everything extravagant, but sized down. The staff have such small quarters compared to the guests. The staff rooms aren’t bad — the staff note that their quarters are much worse on other ships — but the smallness of the rooms for the workers strikes Lo, and I appreciated Ware’s attention to class differences.

Also, Lo points out that the women guests are tiny, sleek, hungry-looking, while the men are rotund and could survive a shipwreck for ages. The double standard — men can be fat and powerful while women must almost disappear to be noticed — stood out to me in a positive way. Ware’s narrator doesn’t float through reality, she pays attention to it. Smartly, the narrator’s attention to class and gender come back ever so subtly in the last ten or so chapters of the book. You may have even forgotten there’s a connection, but if you’re paying attention too, you will be rewarded.

Although Hollywood films would have us believe strong women must shoot weapons, save worlds, and practically be ninjas (all while wearing form-fitting leather), Lo Blacklock is a strong woman with a regular personality and body.

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Notice her breasts and abs; that’s how tight it is. She’s amazing with weapons, and the wings suggest a divine savior of sorts, like an angle. Spare me.

She can’t climb over high walls, and the stairs may make her a bit winded. But she defends herself. When security on the Aurora Borealis suggest Lo may have not seen or heard anything that first night, she tells the man to stop speaking because he doesn’t have a right to make her feel crazy or shut out her voice. Security mentions that another passenger said Lo drank a lot and that she takes anti-depressants. Such a combo is sure way to destroy a person’s authority, but Lo throws security out of her room for such utter disrespect and lack of concern. If only all women could stand up for their own voices — and that includes me — what a different world it would.

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

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

The Summer She Was Under Water by Jen Michalski

published by Queen’s Ferry Press August 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summer She Was Under Water front only for screen

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

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

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

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

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

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

Damnation #bookreview #readwomen @diddioz

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Damnation #bookreview #readwomen @diddioz

Damnation by Janice Lee

published by Penny-Ante Editions, October 2013

Damnation, Janice Lee’s third book, was an intimidating piece to take on; conceptual works often can be, as it’s never a given that I will understand that concept or theory or the context in which the book was written. If you’ve read other reviews of Damnation, you’ll learn that it is “a book-length meditation on the long takes of the Hungarian film director Béla Tarr” (3AM Magazine). “What and who?” I ask. Apparently, Hungarians aren’t big in central Michigan. This is when more intimidation mounts. Will I be “smart enough” to read Janice Lee? After I read the introduction by Jon Wagner, a Professor of Critical Studies at California Institute of of the Arts and a Visiting Professor in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California (just copying from his bio at the end of Damnation), I knew the answer: Nope.Damnation-Lee.png

Part of being a reviewer, though is having the confidence to remember that I’ve read a lot of books in nearly every genre and style (blank books, digital art/music/words books, books that were what the author copied from a newspaper–lots of “out there” stuff). I took on Damnation with my game face on.

One thing that really helped, I must admit, was that the author had pointed me to a link that would take me to a place where she explains in her own words what this project is about. Here, Lee is honest about why she started this project, where she was emotionally, and to what level she took her obsession. It is a fantastic little piece, and I personally wish it was the introduction to the book instead of Professor Wagner’s, who is clearly an intelligent and thoughtful individual, but one who assumes we all have a film criticism in our brain files.

Once I got past the introduction, the work itself was just gorgeous. I was really surprised by how many quotes I wrote down to keep for later. While the “plot” (if one is to call it that) is very simple, the presentation is magical. Basically, a small town gets a package that is addressed to no one in particular. When they open it, they find inside a Bible, which is quickly passed from person to person. We learn “In a place where people both fear and revere the Word, it is also believed that certain words can manifest themselves in this plane and cause real pain and illness upon its bearers….children [start] hallucinating, having strange dreams of great destruction, and haphazardly reciting Bible passages in both their sleep and waking lives.” Since everyone is afraid to hear the Word, they make more noise to drown out the children saying the Bible passages. The town is one big, noisy hot mess. Also, it won’t stop raining. And then there’s wind, and it won’t stop being windy. The characters live in fear of being influenced by the Word: “It’s that book! You’ve been tainted with that book. I told you we shouldn’t have opened it. You insisted. God, your impenetrable stubbornness. And now look at what you’ve brought upon yourself. Endless grief and insomnia and foolish words. We should leave it alone, I said. If we don’t invite the devil in, he has a harder time getting in, isn’t that right? And now he’s here. You’ve brought him here. We all have. Perhaps, then, we all are doomed.”

This book is written in flash fiction. Some sections are just a few short sentences, while others go on for 1.5 to 2 pages. The result is there are a lot of blank pages to make sure each new flash piece begins on the right side of the page, so really the book is a quicker read than you might imagine. Sections examine what someone or something is doing during different moments. For instance, we see into the post office, but not from the perspective of the postal employee. Read about “the lovers” as they discuss staying or parting. Watch the cows or dogs move through the town. This might be what is meant by “long shot,” though I’m not sure what makes this style of writing different from other fiction written in flash. Adding the film aspect could lift the writing to greater levels for those who have the background, but it does not hinder those without. Either way, Lee’s writing is beautiful and thought-provoking. Here are some of my favorite passages (two quotes per theme):

On the past: “Everything that ever went wrong will be just a luminous dream from the past. I can unstitch this fabric and then stitch it back up.”

“What will we cling to when our world explodes? Many would answer those they hold dearest: their love, their children. That what makes them happy. But in reality, they will hold on to their pain. They will cling to their regrets and failures until the sweat and puss are squeezed from their pores.”

On depression: “The windowsill is rotting in places, but neglect and age helps one to forget these kinds of things and allows one to stay in bed longer than usual, especially when even the thought of getting dressed is exhausting.”

“The sadness, mixed with the rain, perhaps rusted around her exterior, like a hard metal coffin that held her not-quite dead body but also served as her defensive wall from misery and suffering of the world.”

On death: “Why were we only made to die?”

“-Probably I’m just anxious about aging but I can’t sympathize [with the death of the girl]. What does it matter if we’re all doomed anyway?

-Are you bringing up the book again?

-Why not? Look at what it’s done to the town. If the end doesn’t come soon, we’ll surely take on the job and finish each other off.”

The characters you’ll meet in Damnation are haunted individuals with no real set course in life. They can’t decide to stay or leave the town. They aren’t sure if hope is deadly. Things are deteriorating, though, and the people can tell: “From the depths of the earth, he thinks he can hear the dead stirring, then screaming, such horrible screaming that originates from below the ground.” If you are brave enough to get past what you’ve heard about Damnation and read the introduction knowing that you probably don’t have a background in film theory, you will easily find a seat waiting for you in Lee’s sad, ghostly world.

I want to thank Janice Lee for sending me a reviewer’s copy of her book in exchange for an honest review.

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!

Suicide.gif

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.

the costume

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.”

Jack Favell.gif

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.

20booksfinal

#20BooksofSummer

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

  1. Harley and Me by Bernadette Murphy
  2. On Air by Robin Stratton
  3. Single Stroke Seven by Lavinia Ludlow
  4. Girls of Usually by Lori Horvitz
  5. Retelling by Tsipi Keller
  6. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
  7. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  8. Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich
  9. Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America by Jonathan Kozol
  10. Terror in 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

The Diverse Books Tag #diversebookbloggers

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The Diverse Books Tag #diversebookbloggers

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

The-DiverseBooks-Tag

Find a Book Starring a Lesbian Character:

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

Checking out the following:

Find a Book with a Muslim Protagonist:

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

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

Find a Book Set in Latin America:

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

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

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

Find a Book About a Person with a Disability:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Find a Book Set In or About An African Country:

Find a Book Written by an Indigenous/Native Author:

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

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

Find a Book Set in South Asia:

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

Find a Book with a Biracial Protagonist:

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

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

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

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

The-DiverseBooks-Tag

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.

Only Ever Yours #bookreview #readwomen #YAlit

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Only Ever Yours #bookreview #readwomen #YAlit

Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill

published by Quercus in 2015

procured from the library

At a chunky 406 pages, Only Ever Yours is longer than I usually like to read for Grab the Lapels. However, in a search for friendship, I found a book club in my area advertised online. I was in luck; their next meeting would be 9 days later, and many of the books they had read, such as Furiously Happy and Between the World and Me, I had read too. The library, I discovered, kept O’Neill in the Teen section, which is when it dawned on me that Only Ever Yours is a young adult book. What’s the big beef, you might ask? While I don’t condemn young adult literature, I find that most of it takes societal problems and makes the issue so obvious that the book feels like a JUST SAY NO campaign. Why read YA when I can get my hands on the more nuanced adult versions? I know that YA is often an issue of sellers labeling a book a certain way, but when there are billions of book choices, I’m not really willing to take the chance.

Basically, without my new book club, I would not have picked up Louise O’Neill’s novel.

only 1

This was the cover of my library copy

Only Ever Yours is a dystopian book about women and girls (called eves). They are genetically modified and hatched in a school for the use of men and boys (called Inheritants). These girls are brainwashed through propaganda for 16 years to follow mantras, like “I am pretty. I am a good girl. I always do as I am told” and “I am happy-go-lucky” and “I am appealing to others. I am always agreeable.” Whether they become a wife who bears sons, a concubine, or an unsexed teacher in the girls’ training school, they are told to be grateful that they weren’t naturally born and conceived, because girl babies are thrown in graves. Girls and women are property, totally at the disposal of a man’s desire to procreate or get off. The unsexed school teachers are not necessary, we’re told, but they’re important because they dispense the training to be wives and concubines. Their 16th year of life, the eves are told which role they will play. Whatever a girl’s role, it is expected for boys to get married and have a lot of sex with various women.

There are rules for eves:

All eves are created to be perfect, but over time they seem to develop flaws. Comparing yourself to your sisters is a useful way of identifying these flaws, but you must then take the necessary steps to improve yourself. There is always room for improvement. — Audio Guide to the Rules for Proper female Behavior, the Original Father

The focus on Only Ever Yours is the girls about to graduate school, at age 16.  To maintain the perfect weight (about 118 lbs) they all have eating disorders aided by pills. The main character is freida, #630. Each week, she and the other eves are ranked by how attractive they are. The top ten eves are most likely to secure a wife role. While eves have zero choices, because choices mean being burned on a pyre or experimented on —  Inheritants don’t have to compete for anything, so they are spoiled, fat, greedy, and demand sex. I kept thinking this whole society is driven by the throbbing penis.

The characters in Only Ever Yours are terribly familiar. If you’ve ever been a devoted fan of the Sweet Valley Twins books like I was, you’ll remember the cast: Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield, perfect size sixes, matching golden blond hair, blue-green eyes. No one can tell the twins apart, except their family and dearest friends. Only Ever Yours has Liz and Jessie, “exact replicas” with “golden-blond hair” and “aqua-colored eyes.” If you’re thinking, the eves are genetically modified…how did they get twins? then I would say, I know, right?! The only explanation seems to be that the parallel between the two books was what Louise O’Neill was going for.

Just like in Sweet Valley, Only Ever Yours has a “bossy bitch,” a girl who wants to better than everyone else. In Sweet Valley, we’re talking about Lila Fowler. In O’Neill’s novel, it’s megan. Such girls give compliments like, “You’re so brave for wearing any old thing! I admire that!”

The eves in this book are painfully annoying because all they focus on is what they look like. This is how they’ve been trained their whole lives. They’re ranked by appearance. There are mirrors everywhere. They are weighed. One person hit 125 lbs, the FATTEST anyone’s ever been!! Then, I think back to Sweet Valley. The first book, Double Love, opens with this paragraph:

“Oh, Lizzie, do you believe how horrendous I look today!” Jessica Wakefield groaned as she stepped in front of her sister, Elizabeth, and stared at herself in the bedroom mirror. “I’m so gross! Just look at me! Everything is totally wrong. To begin with, I’m disgustingly fat….” With that, she spun around to show off a stunning figure without an extra ounce visible anywhere.

double love

Double Love, September 1984

And the eves in Only Ever Yours are exactly the same way. There’s the teeter-totter of competition for prettiest, but the recognition that both concubines and wives are part of society and please men.

Honestly, I can’t tell the eves apart. freida says the eves are “almost interchangeable.” The diversity, she points out, is in “skin tone and hair color.” freida is brown, but her color is only mentioned about 4 times. At one point, frieda’s skin is compared to that of an Inheritant named Mahatma. Perhaps she’s Indian, I thought, but remembered the eves all look exactly the same. There’s no ethnicity.

But as frieda takes more and more drugs to help her sleep, she feels that she looks terrible. Is that true? I’m not sure. Like Jessica Wakefield, most eves think they look terrible (except megan). freida is our biased, brainwashed narrator. One way O’Neill tells us eves are different is by their clothes — so. many. clothes. But I don’t know kitty heels and sweetheart necklines, so it didn’t mean much. And do clothes matter on identical perfect bodies?

Half of the book is backstabbing, manipulating, and alliances created between eves. It’s catty. It’s Sweet Valley Twins galore. Girls record any tiny wrongdoing a fellow eve may commit and immediately post it on social media. I kept telling myself the author is doing this on purpose. Just go with it. It’s a brilliant choice the author made to showcase contemporary jealousy and female objectification. But, ew.

Eves are told how NOT to feel: no crying, no loving boys, no persuading boys. Eves don’t even see Inheritants until a couple of months before the big ceremony. At the ceremony 16-year-old dudes just choose 16-year-old girls to be wives based on their smokin’ hot bodies. O’Neill suggests, this just means give birth to sons and feeling superior to the concubines, who were not ranked top ten. The arrival of the boys is actually where the story gets interesting because there is less focus on hotness rankings.

The author effectively plays with the reader’s feelings. We know who the top-ten hottest eves are. But after the boys show up, eves aren’t ranked anymore. They aren’t allowed to tell the boys how they were ranked. Why? Competition kept them fit and working hard to please, perhaps? Enter Darwin: he’s the only handsome Inheritant, and the son of a judge. He’s the Bruce Patman (if you’re still following my Sweet Valley Twin comparison). Darwin shows interest in our scrappy freida — it’s like there’s some Todd Wilkins mixed in there! Hooray, I thought! Darwin can save freida! Things can turn out okay! HE’S NICE.

bruce patmantodd wilkins

Bruce Patman VS. Todd Wilkins — same person?

Um, hello? Hey, self? Yeah…since when are we interested in a boy saving a girl? And ultimately, isn’t he going to use her body to have sons while having porno relations with concubines? And isn’t he going to set her on fire when she turns 40?? And isn’t she trained to be okay with all of this??? I actually rooted for Darwin and freida for ages before my brain caught up with me. The eves are so emotionally and sexually abused (and they don’t know it) that I thought a good old-fashioned romance between teenagers was the answer. The ending of Only Ever Yours was unpredictable. It kept changing directions, which kept me interested.

If I wanted the grown-up version of this book, I could have read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. But that’s not what book club picked. Despite the aspects that annoyed me — and let’s be fair; they were necessary for the story — I would recommend Only Ever Yours.

Something Wrong With Her

Standard
Something Wrong With Her

Something Wrong With Her: A Real-Time Memoir
by Cris Mazza
Jaded Ibis Press, 2013
390 pages
Includes soundtrack, Time Stroll, composed and performed by Van Drecker (with Mark Rasmussen on tenor sax)

“The writing of this book is the story.”

Reading Cris Mazza’s memoir is a truly jolting experience. There is so much going on all at once that the emotion there is nearly overwhelming. She makes it obvious to you what she’s thinking in present time, but Something Wrong With Her is also like stepping into the past with the help of journal entries, letters, doodles, textbook quotes, jazz terms, excerpts from Mazza’s past publications, and the memories and emails of her dear friend Mark. The book doesn’t really have an ending point because it’s alive; what she wrote about is still happening. Let me back up.

“I hope this book is more like jazz than like a novel.”

Something Wrong With Her begins as an attempt to find the origins of Mazza’s anorgasmia (the inability to experience orgasm) and ends up being a love story that spans decades. You may be asking, “Why didn’t she edit the memoir so it has more cohesion, or maybe do two memoirs?” Mazza acknowledges this in the introduction. Throughout the memoir she includes jazz terms (which she defines in footnotes) and uses jazz as a model for how she pieces together this large book: “A jazz chart sometimes provides only sketchy information: the key, the meter, the main melody, something that might only take thirty seconds to play if taken literally. But no one asks, ‘What does this tune intend to accomplish?’ as readers of book manuscripts sometimes insist upon knowing up front.” The jazz terms can be complex if you’re not a little familiar with that world, but if you don’t get all of them (I didn’t), you’ll be fine (I was). They basically enhance rather than create understanding. But let’s back up again–the memoir starts out discussing “frigidity” or “sexual dysfunction.”

As time and social attitudes change, the reasons Mazza assumes for her “sexual dysfunction” change, too. Before sexual harassment laws, Mazza was harassed, like many women, but what does this do to her sense of self and her attitude toward her sexual body? When a teaching mentor suggested she masturbate to relax a bit, or when her boss suggested they needed a secretary with great legs, these moments also changed Mazza–really, what do these moments mean? Who has the right to discuss her body (or comment on someone else’s, thereby comparing one body to Mazza’s), and what are the long-term effects?

“It isn’t all about sex. But my shit is all concentrated there.”

The treatment of her male peers also dig into Mazza’s sexual self-esteem when her male “friends” in high school ask to practice feeling up her body so they’ll know what to do with their own girlfriends. One boy pins Mazza down and plays a sick game called “see if you can get out of this one.” A number of times she is told that she has nothing to offer (sexually) or that she doesn’t put out when she should or that touching her is sinful. These may be moments with which Mazza’s readers can relate, but how did they affect Mazza differently? She believes this is love, that she is meant to enjoy the way boys make her feel because everyone else seems to be into it. There becomes a lifelong desire to appear necessary or be needed, which she accomplishes by working 40 hours a week in an office during college when she is only paid for 10. She constantly is assaulted by the question, “What is wrong with me?”

The one person who is there, from 11th grade forward, is Mark (yes, the Mark who plays sax on the soundtrack). What appears an obvious (to the reader) desire to express his love to Mazza, both verbally and physically, is mistranslated into assault in 18-year-old Mazza’s eyes. How is that possible? Further back we go…

Mazza explores her aversion to the human body, namely her own. She refers to her own breasts as “blobs,” covering them with a wash cloth while in the bathtub so that she need not see them. She even mistakes the discharge that comes with ovulation for a yeast infection that comes back every month. Mazza expresses through writing and quotes from writers like Erica Jong that the smell, appearance, and overall “dirtiness” of the female body is something with which she wants no part. Why would anyone want that part of her? The writing obsesses over this theme of what makes a person: her actions, choices, desirability, her sexual body? Mark’s desire for Mazza may be viewed as the overzealous nature of a teenage boy, or it could be interpreted as Mazza taking all her previous experiences with jerks from school and placing her fears between her and Mark.

“[My writing group seems] to want the book to confine itself to one purpose and drive toward that like a train that doesn’t switch tracks, barely even glances at the scenery rushing past, and certainly doesn’t derail, as [Something Wrong With Her] appears to be doing.” 

Mark and Mazza spend years dancing around each other, never “getting it together,” and a lot of that might have to do with the way Mazza becomes stuck when she feels she is in a place where she is needed. She continues working in the same office for years during and after college, always finding new ways that allow her to stay there when she should move on. When she is forcefully ejected from the office, she completely falls apart: “Basically, I was almost constantly crying, about to cry, apologizing for crying, crying because I’d had to apologize for crying (another childish behavior), and then crying because I didn’t know what I was really crying about.” Mazza frequently calls herself childish in her memoir, but this passage to me suggests that Mazza is apologizing for being alive–for “inflicting” herself on others by breathing in the same space. I’ve read there are some women who will bump into an object and apologize to it, and I can see this young Mazza being one of those women. It’s also in this section where a connection between sex and sexual desire and being apologetic comes together: IS something wrong with her, as Mazza questions, because she doesn’t function sexually like other women seem to? It seems that every time she reaches a pivotal stage of personal development someone awful is there to suggest to her that yes, she is broken.

The result is that this memoir circles around these key moments with inappropriate individuals, sometimes repeating the same passages word-for-word. Many moments are re-explored because Mark, who now has reconnected with Mazza (30 years later! Practically the stuff of fiction!), adds in his ideas about what happened and how their dance affected his life. Really, we see a woman trying to wrap her head around what on earth was/is going on, and this is why reading Something Wrong With Her is like existing inside another’s head for 390 pages.

An interesting point I learned is that Mazza has been trying to think through her “sexual dysfunction” for much longer than I might have supposed. Throughout the book she quotes her published novels and stories to demonstrate that her thoughts have been on sex, but she may not have realized what the reason or result was. When she writes a story using a scene that actually happened between her and Mark in a bar, she admits she implies that the fictionalized male possibly raped the woman in the past, and so things are complicated between them. Some stories are close to Mazza’s life but rewritten to be more sexual, when the author wasn’t having sex at the time she wrote the story. Also, Mazza admits most of her female protagonists have gone through name changes, significant if you consider the fact that Cris Mazza was not born with the name she now uses. Reading through Mazza’s interpretations of why she wrote what she did in stories that date back decades is interesting, like sitting down and interviewing her on her writing process. You may finish Something Wrong With Her feeling like you know Mazza, perhaps better than herself.

INTERVIEW with Cris Mazza about Something Wrong With Her–

PHOTO-CRIS-MAZZA-CROPPED

GTL: Revision can be one of the most frustrating parts of writing. How difficult was it to revise a “living memoir,” and was it difficult to know where it “ended”?

CM: Where it ended was a problem.  I thought I knew, but then while the MS was being read, or waiting to be read, there were other developments in the “real life” part of the memoir story.  That’s why I have dated boxed inserts and footnotes that are later than the date of the last chapter (which was in January 2010).  I decided I didn’t want to have that original “ending” be a false ending, or like a bombastic piece of music that just keeps coming to a finale only to keep on going afterwards.  BUT then, during a final revision, I did decide to add the last page after that ending, just because things in the “real life” story had developed so far, I didn’t want it to end on a note of that much uncertainty as far as Mark’s future was concerned.

Revising also presented the same kinds of problems.  Just fixing sentences or deleting surplus wasn’t difficult, but every time Mark read a portion, he would have new comments and insights too valuable not to include, so I would date them and get them in there.  Thus the scattering of all sorts of dates which I’m sure most readers won’t look at that closely.  Nor do they have to, unless they truly want to map out the entire evolution of our understanding of each other.  I’m not even sure I could do that, though.

GTL: While reading, I had an overwhelming sense of deja vu because many sections of Something Wrong With Her repeat, sometimes word-for-word. What made you decide to use repetition as a tool for telling your story?

CM: Partly I did it because the “core story” of the book involved such small events, partly because I was digressing so long before I answered the central question, partly because I found it interesting how much an event would change each time I referred to it or dramatized it, and partly because repeating and developing or playing with the main theme is how music works, particularly jazz.

GTL: In Something Wrong With Her, you quote one of your old journals. You wrote that you wanted people to read your work and then they “look at [you] afterwards, and [you] can see what [you] put on paper coming out in their eyes.” Have you seen this memoir reflected back at you yet?

CM: Yes, from Mark while we were finishing it, but he’s a jazz musician so things don’t come out his eyes, they always come back thought about, mulled over, and improvised to both echo the original idea and add to it (or ask a question about it).  I’m not sure my college-girl description of affecting readers has ever really happened like that with a published book.  Probably because I don’t hang out waiting for people to finish like I might have done then.

GTL: You quote many stories and novels that you wrote prior to Something Wrong With Her in the memoir because you realized that you’ve been “reflexively seeking to explain [your] sexual bankruptcy.” Do you think there will be a marked change in your fiction writing now that you’ve explored “sexual dysfunction” so in depth in this book?

CM: Good question, and time will tell.  Perhaps I will no longer be exploring that series of unresolved relationships with older men.  But I think human beings’ relationships to their sexuality and their own sexual pasts will always be an interest of mine.

GTL: Are you working on anything new?

CM: I started a project that could turn into a novella and series of related personal essays, concerning lifelong regrets, going back to pick up pieces, and (the novella) men in abusive relationships.

I want to thank Jaded Ibis Press from a reviewer’s copy of Cris Mazza’s book in exchange for an honest review. Full disclosure: I have stories published in two anthologies from Jaded Ibis Press.