Tag Archives: divorce

Meet the Writer: Jodi Paloni @Press53 @JodiPaloni #environment #poetry #fiction #giveaway

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Meet the Writer: Jodi Paloni @Press53 @JodiPaloni #environment #poetry #fiction #giveaway

Today, Grab the Lapels welcomes Jodi Paloni to the Meet the Writer series. I’ve asked Jodi questions about her two very different graduate degrees — one in environmental studies and the other in creative writing — and you read about how poetry may serve a purpose to the poet, but doesn’t have to be published to have meaning. Read more about Jodi Paloni at her website; at the bottom of her site are numerous ways to connect with her on social media.


Grab the Lapels: What kind of writing do you do? What kind of writing do you wish you did more of?

Jodi Paloni: I mostly write realistic fiction. I’ve published a collection of short stories and a number of other stories in lit journals on-line and in print, and I’m currently working on a novel, which is hard work, but very exciting. I love to read fiction and find that getting lost in a story provides both solace and wisdom. Novels provide me with an escape like nothing else. I want to make what I love, so I write.

But when I began to write in earnest — to actually put words on paper, look them over, work on them — it was October 2001 and I was writing poetry. My first marriage was unraveling and the Twin Towers had just fallen. The poetry teacher at the school where I taught held a workshop for anyone who wanted to come and process the national tragedy through writing. My oldest daughter had been born on September 11, 1993. She was eight when the towers burned down and troubled that something like that had happened on her birthday. I wrote my first poem about her, in celebration of her coming to be. It’s still my favorite poem of the hundred and fifty or so that I have written since.

But I don’t publish poems. I keep them private, like one would a journal. Some day I’d like to pull all of my poems out and take another look at them, along with the dozen or more I’ve written in the last few years. If I find something I like, I might start sending them out. I think it would be nice to have an artifact, a chapbook or a book, that embodies the work. Poetry, to me, is the distillation of a moment, a feeling, or an experience.

My poems are mostly about the natural world as a mirror into my interior life. In troubling times, writing and reading poetry is a balm, so I tend to turn towards poetry to process emotion. I also turn to poetry when I am moved by beauty. It’s an impulse. Writing fiction is more of a strategic process for me. I get to use the parts of my brain that are both generative and tactical. It’s like figuring out a logic puzzle: the brain expands beyond the boundaries of normal thought, but is also thoughtful about boundaries. I have to say, though, all forms of writing, even writing answers to these questions, is what I want to be doing most of my time.

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GTL: What is a graduate degree in Environmental Communications at Antioch all about? And did that degree affect your time spent in an MFA program at Vermont College?

JP: I haven’t thought about that degree for in a long time, but recently, at an Earth Day brunch, I found myself reflecting on my time at Antioch with great nostalgia. I earned that first masters in 1990 (wow!) almost thirty years ago.

I had gotten my bachelors degree in education in the early eighties, but didn’t love the idea of working in a classroom. I wanted to be outdoors, exploring the natural world, enjoying it and working to advocate for it. After a few years of teaching in environmental jobs, I decided to indulge myself in environmental study. I say indulge because a lot of the classes were held outdoors. I learned how to identify flowers, trees, and birds. I took one class called, Mammals of the Subnivean Zone, a study of the little furry creatures that stay alive all winter underneath the snow. I learned tracking. I saw Snowy Owls. I was in heaven. The communications part of the degree was about writing, and I read wonderful nature essays along the way, but mostly, it was about how to bring ideas we learned to others in the form of advocacy and policy.

In the end, I went back into teaching. I found a wonderful public school in Vermont where both place-based learning and literature was highly valued. I could learn and explore new ideas along with my students. I wrote poetry at night, after my own children were asleep. I dreamed of writing a novel and would sometimes lay awake writing scenes in my head.

I guess all of this it to say, I have two great passions, the outdoor world and stories about regular people. Earning masters degrees in both environmental studies and fiction was really an opportunity to immerse in what I love.

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

JP: I wanted to be a stage actress or a famous singer, a Joni Mitchell, a Stevie Nicks, a Carol King. I loved the stories the ballads told, and the rhythms, and I loved to sing. Plays and movies were just another form of the storytelling. Ha! I guess writing fiction allows me to wear the mask of my characters and become what they are on the page, so in a way, that is a form of acting — taking on someone else’s voice, imagining how they would gesture or move across their exterior backdrop. Poetry is akin to song lyrics. It’s musical, all about sound, too. Fantastic! I got to become what I wanted to be when I grew up, just not in the way I might have imagined.

GTL: What inspired you to write They Could Live With Themselves?

JP: They Could Live With Themselves is a collection of linked stories about a small town in New England, based loosely on the small Vermont town where I lived for twenty-five years. My interactions with my neighbors and the landscape inspired me, for sure, and other stories I read, too. I pay attention to certain things­­ — nuances between people in a public place, gestures, objects, and am taken by a particular visual moment.

That visual moment is what I usually begin with — a lanky boy mowing a lawn, three teenage girls glommed together on a park bench, a pregnant woman sitting on a curb. I don’t write any notes or make a conscious effort to sit down and write about what I’ve just seen. The images just get stored in my brain.

I often begin a story when a first line comes to me, and I riff on that. Later, I’ll see something in a story that is a knock-off of an image in real life or one from a daydream. I love the mystery of how it all works. Once I had written a dozen or so stories that took place in the same town and found that characters were popping in and out of each other’s stories, I began to think of the ways I could do this with intention, and plan how the stories could be arrange in a linked form to give a novel-like experience of the read, while maintaining each story as a discrete piece. The stories take place over the course of one year, from May to May, in a small town. Readers can watch the evolution of the community as a character, too. It was fun.

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Jodi’s revision process for her short story collection.

GTL: Many times writers find a creative niche and community. What do you think is yours?

JP: I have a writing group that traverses place. We use Google Hang Out. We’ve met once a month, almost religiously, for six years. I also am very involved in my local writing community and the statewide alliance in Maine, which is fabulous, very active, and quite generous in spirit. I have to say, most of my friends are writers, or at least avid readers. We talk a lot about our lives as it relates to writing and books. I go to a few writing events a year, a conference or a residency. I’m currently in a poetry group and just joined two new prose groups, probably too many groups, but we’ll see. I do love spending a Sunday afternoon with three other writers discussing the work. Most of my social media connections are with writers as well, so I’m basically surrounded with writers and craft talk, books and publishing news. Works for me!

GTL: If you could change places for a day with any one of your characters, who would it be, and why?

JP: Oh, wow! Great question, a tough one, too. Let’s see. A lot of my characters are pretty sad, and for good reason. I don’t want to be any sadder than I already am in real life, or as sad as some of them. Ha! Oh, dear. But just for one day, right? I like a character named Wren, a lot. She’s a single woman in her forties. Although she has had very sad events in her life, going as far back to a childhood, she seems to be on the mend. She’s figured out that it’s okay for her to be there for others and still find ways to take care of herself, to make peace with the fact that she actually likes living alone, and, I think, though I’m not absolutely sure, she’s about to hook up with someone who could become the great love of her life, a man named Addison, who lives in a fabulous Vermont homestead high on a hill overlooking the valley. Sure, I’ll be Wren for a day. I’ll pick a lovely spring morning when the sun is hot, but there’s still a hint of melting snow. The stream is rushing. Addison’s just said good-bye to his ex-wife, once and for all. Wren and Addison both have the whole day off. 😉

In fact, there are a number of my characters who, by the end of their stories, are about to embark on something better than where they began because they’ve figured out something important about who they are and who they want to become. I’d trade places with almost any of them if I could pick up where their story has just left off.

Giveaway: If you want to read about Wren and Addison and some of the other characters living in Stark Run, Vermont, leave a comment written to Jodi below to be entered into a drawing for a copy of They Could Live With Themselves. Currently, winners are restricted to United States due to the cost of shipping. A winner will be chosen at random at noon on May 5th.

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Living with a Wild God #BookReview #Journalism #Memoir

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Living with a Wild God #BookReview #Journalism #Memoir

Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything

by Barbara Ehrenreich

published by Hachette Book Group, 2014


Based on the title, I made some assumptions about Ehrenreich’s book, namely that it would be written by an atheist who wanted to investigate perhaps where religion comes from, how it influences us today, or why we still need religion in an age of mass technology. I use the word “investigate” because Barbara Ehrenreich is known most famously as a journalist. You’ve probably read all, or at least an excerpt, of Nickel and Dimed if you live in the United States. But I’m not sure what Living with a Wild God is. It’s not journalism. It’s not a memoir. It’s not fiction. It’s a hot mess.

Ehrenreich explains that when she lived in the Florida Keys she was asked by a library to donate her papers so they wouldn’t succumb to the mold so ubiquitous in that swampy area. The one thing she didn’t hand over, however, was a diary she wrote mainly from 1956-1959, when she was 14-17 years old. In the Forward, Ehrenreich explains that something “cataclysmic” happened to her, and she never wrote nor spoke about it to anyone lest they think her crazy. Like a good journalist, Ehrenreich makes some admissions:

It is true, I should further admit, that the narrative as I have reconstructed it lends itself quite readily to psychiatric explanation, or explanations: the tense and sometimes hazardous family life, the secret childhood quest for cosmic knowledge, the eerie lapses into a kind of “second sight,” the spectacular breakdown in my late teens.

Okay, so Ehrenreich admits there there are some psychological reasons that could explain this “cataclysmic” thing that happened to her (no details are yet provided)… but the entire book looks elsewhere for answers. Not a very useful admission if the author won’t explore it. However, we do get a background on this “hazardous family life.”

Ehrenreich’s first chapter, “The Situation,” describes her alcoholic parents and her original home in Butte, Montana. Ehrenreich’s father was a miner who crawled up the class ladder to become a white collar scientist after studying metallurgy. But it’s an uncle who really influences the author in this chapter: he explains that we’re all going to die, that it is a “great death march” we’re all doing. After the long Forward about the “cataclysmic” event, I figured “The Situation” would be about what happened. It’s not; the situation is that death lingers. Thus, the chapter felt dishonest.

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Chapter 2, “Typing Practice,” isn’t really about typing. Ehrenreich learns that when she writes, she thinks, and thus her diary begins. The author questions everything, such as why she learns about imaginary numbers in math class. Ehrenreich figures, “If you accept imaginary numbers without raising a question, you’ll swallow any goddamn thing they decide to stuff down your throat.” Chapter 2 also wanders: the parents are drunk, her mother believes Ehrenreich has some Oedipal yearnings for her father, the family is all atheists, she digs into science, and Ehrenreich tries a church. She writes in her diary — again, she’s 14:

Modern Protestantism…is a social organization, providing basketball, badminton, bowling, dancing and a Sunday fashion show. The most incongruous thing I ever saw in “our” church was a girl praying. I was startled, really.

This second chapter isn’t really about church or family. It wanders along with 14-year-old Barbara. The book you hold in your hands is middle-aged Barbara putting together who she was when she was a teen. In many places, I had to force myself to keep reading with the expectation that Living with a Wild God would be as organized and thoughtful as her previous books. Pretty much every moment while reading I wanted to stop.

Finally, in Chapter 3, readers learn what the “cataclysmic” event was:

So from a scientific perspective, what happened to me was that every now and then I simply stopped doing the work of perception and refused to transform the hail of incoming photons into named and familiar objects. There was plenty of input still pouring in in the form of sounds and color and lights, but it wasn’t getting sorted and categorized.

For a writer, Ehrenreich is being terribly vague. How does she experience whatever these …events… are? What does it look or feel like? By the end of the book, she mentions fire on one occasion, but the image is still unclear. Very briefly the author discusses “dissociative disorder,” but not to the extent that it clarifies what happens to her when she thinks she having some sort of religious experience as an atheist. Eventually, Ehrenreich is able to spit out that she feels “menaced by hazy sunlight.”

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Ehrenreich age 18, one year after she saw invisible angels.

After the biggest event to occur, though, the author is able to ask if she should tell anyone about her religious-type experience: “what would I have said? That I had been savaged by a flock of invisible angles — lifted up in a glorious flutter of iridescent feathers, then mauled, emptied of all intent and purpose, and pretty much left for dead?” Whoa! This quote is from page 163. That’s 163 pages into the book before the author is able to say in some clear language what her experiences are like — which is what the whole book is supposed to be about — and it’s so far-fetched and unreal that I don’t trust Ehrenreich anymore. What is the purpose of this book, I started asking. I’m not learning about religion, and I don’t understand Ehrenreich’s “experiences.”

And who is the audience for this book? The text suggests you must have prior engagement with Ehrenreich’s work, a firm grasp of science terminology, and be well-read enough to understand all the big words she uses: coterminous, apparatchiks, concatenation, sororal. I made the same complaint about vocabulary in my review of Bright-sided, but to heap on her personal history and physics, chemistry, and biology is too much. To whom would this book appeal other than Ehrenreich herself?

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Ehrenreich today, no less confused by angels and light and whatever else is “cataclysmic.”

Every chapter wanders around, from the author’s obsession with all things science to her inability to recognize that other humans have consciousness. Yes, as a teenager Barbara Ehrenreich didn’t realize that other people had thoughts and made choices. Her philosophical questions torment her until she’s like a poor Edgar Allen Poe character. Eventually, around 17, she quit eating and was putting cigarettes out on her hand. She believed she had “developed new powers.” At this point in the book, I’m worried for teen-aged Barbara and adult Barbara Ehrenreich. The girl is not convinced she should be alive or that other people are really there. She fantasizes about life in an apocalypse. The author, about 40 years later, can’t add insight or reason to her youthful self’s narrative — no motives, no probing into her behaviors, which is why I said that the author’s admissions in the Forward were useless.

The last couple of chapters read like a 10 minute lecture on what nonreligious types call Other or Others (something god-like that isn’t monotheistic). Using more sources and careful drafting, these two chapters, expanded into a book, is what Living with a Wild God should have been. Sadly, Ehrenreich thanks her editor in the acknowledgements for encouraging her to explore her old diary instead of focusing on a history of religion. Yeesh. Absolutely skip this disorganized mess and check out Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America or Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America instead. No one else in my book club came even close to finishing Living with a Wild God.

Troglodyte #bookreview #readwomen

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Troglodyte #bookreview #readwomen

Troglodyte by Tracy DeBrincat
published by Elixir Press, 2014

Tracy DeBrincat, whom we met in a Meet the Writer feature, writes characters that are people of the earth, the kind who will comment not on ideas, but appreciate bodily processes as something to which one should pay attention. Her stories take readers to a perhaps uncomfortable place we thought we left behind when we became “adults.” I still remember a joke my uncle told me when I was a kid: two woman are hoeing potatoes in the field when one woman pulls a potato from the ground, looks at it, and says, “This looks like my Issac’s taters.” The other woman responds, “That big?” and the first says, “No, that dirty.” Ha ha ha, right? Where did this “low-brow” humor go, and why did we once like it so much? I loved that joke. DeBrincat reminds me why.

Even though Superbaby of the short story “Superbaby Saves Slugville” was “historically, a fantastic crapper,” he held it all in to keep his aunt from visiting her boyfriend while washing the cloth diapers. The family notices Superbaby is backed up, so he’s sent to the doctor. His sister isn’t sure what this trip to the doctor’s means for Superbaby: “‘Does that mean he’ll poop now?’ Trina wonders about this every morning, making great snakes that don’t break, snakes of beautiful stink and rich color.” I’m thoroughly grossed out by the passage, but let’s be realistic: how many children (or, hell, even adults) haven’t been fascinated by the various characteristics that come out of their anuses. DeBrincat calls us out on thoughts we keep hidden to remain “normal,” and makes us acknowledge who we can be from time to time.troglodyte

The collection isn’t only made of “poo stories,” though. Her descriptions are quite lovely, even if the subject matter isn’t beautiful. This was a feature I loved of the collection. In “Gardenland,” Chichi returns home with her ex-husband Vince after she runs into him at a diner. She realizes she wasn’t “cured” of him when they divorced, that he’s still the same asshole she knew then: “Chichi pricked her ears to hear that piece-of-shit’s voice–the meaningless promises that flew like swallows from his red velvet tongue. She’d done time chasing after those birds, holding crumbs in her open hands while they hopped this way and that. When Chichi looked up he was there, all of him and so much of him was so much the same. The impudent slope of his shoulders, the Gothic lettering on his faded black T-shirt, the way he stood legs spread wide, like his nuts were too big to do else-wise.” Vince’s physical presence is animalistic, as if he weren’t meant to wear pants because his testicles are so….there (I’m personally picturing hairy coconuts). But he’s also capable of the sweet words of a man who leads a woman around. DeBrincat’s characters are often full of contradictions that make them pleasing to experience on the page.

Tracy DeBrincat’s collection stirs the pot of personalities and boils up the most unpredictable bunch ever. Whimsical, laugh-out-loud hysterical at times, Troglodyte is a must have for any larger-than-life woman who finds herself making decisions for happiness’ sake when sanity isn’t an option.

I want to thank you Tracy DeBrincat for sending me this reviewer’s copy in exchange for an honest review.

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?

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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

Harley & Me #bookreview #readwomen #harleydavidson #20BooksofSummer

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Harley & Me #bookreview #readwomen #harleydavidson #20BooksofSummer

Harley and Me by Bernadette Murphy

published by Counterpoint Press, May 2016

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Harley and Me is a memoir about what it means to take risks. For Murphy, her risk-taking most noticeably began when she was a skateboarder in California. But a teen pregnancy followed by her baby’s adoption led Murphy into the arms of safety: marriage at 22 to a stable guy, 3 kids, house, university job, and what she calls a blanket of estrogen that kept her from doing anything too risky. But at 48 and contemplating divorce, Bernadette Murphy feels something unusual — something she wouldn’t image over the past 25 years of wife and mother — she wants to be fully alive, fully present, and not risk averse. Furthermore, she doesn’t want to do a “song and dance” to please men anymore.

I’ve been a passenger on motorcycles for 26 years. My parents have been riding my whole life. Before that, it was my paternal grandparents. You could say it’s a family thing! Go through my thousands of family photos and you’ll find dozens of motorcycle pictures from through the years, including strangers’ motorcycles (hey, if a bike looks good, you never want to forget it).

Far left: me leaning on my brother’s motorcycle circa 2004. Going to the right is my dad, brother, and granny on their newest rides circa 2016.

But Harley and Me is about a middle-aged woman getting a motorcycle, which isn’t terribly common — unless you’re my mom. Which is why I felt a great desire to read Murphy’s book when it popped up in my Twitter feed. I wanted to see how other women with nearly grown children felt about driving a “death machine,” as some paranoid people call them (as if we don’t die in cars).

Left: my sweet ma as passenger in the early 80s. Right: 4 motorcycles and 120,000+ miles later, my sweet ma today with her own award-winning motorcycle. I love the skeleton hands on the mirror!

Murphy really captures what it means to start riding a motorcycle. Her good friend Rebecca inherited a Harley dealership, which is how Murphy is lured into signing up for her motorcycle license. First, she must attend a week-long class. While most people have down the “look” of a biker (and I see this all the time — people who don’t own a motorcycle but do own an entire closet of leather and Harley-Davidson T-shirts), Murphy feels she does not. She shows up to class:

In baggy men’s Levi 501s, a stained T-shirt, gardening gloves, and hiking boots. I look more like a hired hand than a biker chick. At this moment, I’d love a pair of killer motorcycle boots.

Because I get what Murphy is saying about “the look,” I really enjoyed her descriptions and comparisons. Even when she dumps her bike the first time, she makes the scene come off the page:

I sit on the curb in front of the gas station’s convenience store. My hands shake. My mouth is dry. It feels as if all my blood has been exchanged for electricity. I am awash in shame. I don’t look like the badass biker chick I’m trying to become, but some kind of poseur who can’t control this machine, a pathetic girl trying to do something beyond her ability.

Here, I really felt for Murphy. Though pretty much everyone dumps their bike at one time or another, a woman doing so with witnesses serves as evidence that motorcycles are just “too much” for women. It’s scary to face those people shaking their heads, Murphy notes, wondering if she’s gone crazy and this is her mid-life crisis. A year later, she is divorced,and people wonder if the “crisis” caused Murphy to give up stability and comfort. The ability to take a chance, change her life, and try something brave had me nearly in tears for how safe and squishy I want to make my own life — truthfully, I felt like a wuss.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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#20BooksofSummer

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

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

 

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

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

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

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Grab the Lapels: What is your writing process like?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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.


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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.

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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.

The History of Great Things

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The History of Great Things

The History of Great Things by Elizabeth Crane

published by Harper Perennial, April 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Which lodge?

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

–Don’t tell him that.

–Mom, Grandpa’s long gone.

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

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

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

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

–But it’s a true story.

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

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

–Lemme just keep going.

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

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

–Okay, you’re pretty good at this.

–Thanks, Mom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

elizabeth-crane

Elizabeth Crane

Jackpot

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Jackpot

Jackpot by Tsipi Keller

published by Spuyten Duyvil press, 2004

Tsipi Keller wrote an intense trio of books that all “psychological portraits” of women. In her “Meet the Writer” feature, Keller referred to the books as a trilogy; however, the novels are not related. I’ve read two, and they have the same creepy, deeply psychological feel to them. I read Elsa first, which was published in 2014, after Keller sent it to me for review. I was disturbed by it, but intrigued to read more from this author, so she sent me the other two books. Jackpot came in 2004, and Retelling came in 2006. I’ll read Retelling soon; the synopsis is chilling.

In Jackpot, Tsipi Keller is a master of making the reader concerned about the well-being of the main character. Maggie is a 26-year-old woman living in New York City who has always been a middle-class, hand-me-downs kind of person. She meets 25-year-old Robin at a job she got with a temp agency, and the narrator notes Maggie is the one who really pushed for them to remain friends after their short-lived jobs are finished. Maggie feels that over time the two became close friends, but any reader will find this hard to believe on the first page. Robin loves to refer to Maggie as “sweetie” in a way that sounds demeaning. She criticizes Maggie, saying she is “naive and not assertive enough,” “insecure,” “negative,” “too cheerful,” “such a baby,” “so shrewd,” and has a “common variety of social phobia or something worse.” Notice how many of these contradict.

There is so much doubt and hesitancy in Maggie, and she has a number of reasons to feel that way. The story starts with Maggie sitting in Robin’s living room. They are supposed to go out to dinner, but Robin instead brings up going on a trip to Paradise Island in the Bahamas. A description of Robin is very important to know:

Good breeding and class; it is clear that Robin never lacked for anything. Robin. who is secretive about her exact money situation, but lets it be known she comes from wealth, every so often dropping a hint or two about her glamorous parents in L.A. She is lavish when it comes to her own needs, but calculating and quite the tightwad when it comes to others.

Why doesn’t Robin go with her friend Lucy, like she did last time, Maggie wants to know. Robin simply says she wants to go with Maggie. This is five pages in, and already I’m so worried about Maggie. In response to Robin saying she wants to vacation with Maggie, not Lucy, Maggie thinks:

So, it is all in her head. She must accept the possibility that Robin has no ulterior motives, that Robin is just being Robin, and that her own convoluted thoughts and distrust are a direct result of her middle-class circumstances, circumstances she’d do well to forget and put behind her. She should feel privileged, and frequently she does, that Robin has accepted her as a friend. At times she even wonders why Robin sticks with her.

If Maggie is worried, surely the reader should be too (*warning bells*). And since when are we “lucky” when certain people like us? A character so self-doubting is sure to be abused in some way. Robin sits there oinking on a bag of candy without offering Maggie any. When Maggie decides yes, she’ll go to Paradise Island, Robin practically throws her out of the apartment, exclaiming, “I don’t know what’s the matter with me, but I couldn’t go out [to dinner] if you paid me. You sure you don’t mind? I feel a little guilty.” Maggie says she doesn’t mind, but she cries all the way home. More warning bells.

Robin is immediately juxtaposed with Susan, Maggie’s co-worker. Susan plays a tiny role in the book, mostly to show readers what a good friend actually looks like and expose thoroughly what a horrible human Robin is, in case you doubt it. The author taking this extra step set off more bells, as if she did not want readers to forget nice people aren’t like Robin. But when Maggie is with Susan, two important things happen: she drinks way too much and gets sloppy drunk, and she admits that she was married from ages 20-23 to a man who had sexual issues. Maggie’s ex-husband claimed he didn’t like the way her vagina smelled and thus only wanted her to perform oral sex. Or, Maggie admits, he “insisted she wear a veil or a scarf over her face during sex. He asked her to pretend she was a prostitute or a stranger.” More warning bells! There is a deep problem with sex and shame waiting to bubble up in the novel…you can just tell.

There isn’t a change in Maggie’s personality until she and Robin get on the plane for the Bahamas. Robin is extra grumpy, and Maggie notices that Robin is just a bit fat. Maggie is incredibly thin and lithe, so she feels smug. Maggie immediately scolds herself for being petty. But at the hotel she learns Robin has packed beautiful party dresses, whereas Maggie packed casuals (because Robin told her to). More warning bells! Where is Robin going in party dresses that she hasn’t told Maggie about? Then Maggie sees Robin reading an airport book and mentally belittles her for reading such trash. Immediately, she feels bad again. Maggie believes, “She wants to love Robin always, she wants Robin to love her back. Everything is so much simpler when she can trust Robin.” Which means she doesn’t always trust Robin, right? There’s also this connection between wanting Robin’s love and being shamed by her ex-husband that’s rather brilliant. Tsipi Keller doesn’t have Maggie seek love in another man, but in friendship, which is different from many books. But a page later, Robin says, “Once we get there, you won’t need me, I promise. You’ll be having too much fun.” Does this mean Robin is going to ditch Maggie?

Maggie goes swimming in the ocean, and when she returns to the towel where Robin rests, she finds a man, too. He and Robin laugh at everything Maggie says, even things that aren’t funny. Robin makes sly remarks like “See what I told you?” and Maggie wonders why this guy is so tan when he says he just got in from New Jersey that day. Things feel suspicious! At this point, I’m just waiting for something terrible to happen.

And Robin does start to disappear. Maggie turns around and Robin is gone, like when they go gambling in the hotel casino. Eventually, Maggie starts thinking “fuck Robin” a lot. I feel Maggie’s change in attitude is a bit quick. While I felt suspicious building up to Robin disappearing, Maggie didn’t. She was naive and hopeful, so the quick turn around didn’t quite make sense to me.

Then Maggie slowly tries to emulate Robin. She walks around naked in front of the maid, but immediately regrets it. The author shows the reader that Maggie wants to be something new, someone who isn’t middle class, someone who doesn’t have a vagina “odor.” Maggie’s body, she believes, is better than Robin’s, and Robin’s money can’t really change that. Maggie’s body, when she feels like she’s in control of it, gives her a power she’s never had before.

Then Robin full-on abandons Maggie, sneaking into the room in the middle of the night to grab her things and leave on a yacht with an old man. And everything goes to hell. The author ties together Maggie getting drunk with her co-worker way back in the beginning with her drunken state on vacation, suggesting Maggie gets drunk more often than her sweet, intelligent character would if she weren’t so damaged. Maggie starts hanging out in the hotel casino all night, drinking, not eating, and blacking out. She becomes conscious again when a man starts to have intercourse with her. He’s not wearing a condom…but his repetitive apologies make her want to laugh at him! She then starts crying about losing money at the casino, so he leaves $100 on the bed.

While my first thought is Maggie has been raped and she should go home (Robin’s not even there anymore), Tsipi Keller continues the story in the Bahamas. Various versions of the above scene play out (blacking out and rape), and I started making the connection that while Maggie isn’t asking for money to have sex with strangers, it’s happening nonetheless. How does this continue to happen?

Woven throughout the novel are examples of sexual traumas Maggie’s experienced: as a 13-year-old girl newly in bras, a man grabbed her breast and was disappointed to find padding. Maggie remembers feeling shame that she “failed to please him” in some way. At about seven a strange man molests her after tricking her into his home. Another time, when she played hide-and-seek at a friends house, the friend’s dad pulled her aside and made her touch his genitals. So much sexual abuse in one story, the but the more I read and listen to my friends, the more I realize these examples are common. Because Maggie’s body was out of her control when she was a girl, the novel suggests, she can use her body to gain control over her life as an adult. And if she’s going to get molested and raped anyway, why not profit from it?

To be honest, it took me a while to realize this. I couldn’t understand why Maggie was totally losing it. Two of the abuses she suffered as a child are lumped together in the book. If they were spread out, or perhaps closer to the scenes during which strange men are using her body, like a moment she remembers when she regains consciousness, I may have made the connection faster.

Truly, there is a lot to think about in this book. The ending isn’t the end because women experience sexual trauma at all ages, and how they deal with it varies. I don’t feel as if I’ve given any spoilers because the book doesn’t have a “the end” feel to it. Some events in the last chapters I found difficult to put together, but after mulling over it all for a few days, I realized that I did race through this book, wondering what would happen. I was worried about Maggie and wanted to figure out Robin’s approach to life. Therefore, I recommend this book and highly suggest you read the trio together.

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

Off Course

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Off Course

Title: Off Course
Author: Michelle Huneven
Published: April 2014
Publisher: Sarah Crichton Books
Length: 287 pages
Procurement: library
Relationship to Author: None

“She wasn’t making specific plans, but that hairline crack, she knew, could widen instantly to accommodate her, and day by day, its thin blackness grew less frightening, more logical and familiar, as if she could now walk right up, touch it with her fingertips, and, with a quick last smile over her shoulder at the fading world, slip right in. She was sorry. If she ever did, he’d mistake it for the meanest thing imaginable. But the natural outcome of abandonment was a failure to thrive, to survive.” 

28-year-old Cressida “Cress” Hartley is nearly done with her economics PhD program; only that pesky “diss” remains in her way. To avoid distractions, Cress gets permission from her parents to use their weekend cabin as a writing sanctuary. The parents bought the house when Cress and her sister were girls, effectively keeping the children from friends and boys during the girls’ high school years and thus making them miserable. Cress’s father was raised during the depression, so he’s a rather stingy man and wants Cress out as soon as possible (especially since she can’t respect his wishes that she write down the temperature twice a day and keep the phone bill reasonable). The parents aren’t staying in the cabin because a new one is being constructed behind the old one. Having Cress there to keep an eye on things is a bonus.

Readers have to wonder how dedicated Cress is to her PhD program, as she spends all day hiking, drawing, painting, and keeping up with the local mountain men. First, it’s Jakey, the older man who resembles a grizzly bear. Jakey owns a lodge where people drink and congregate. He’s also known for his broken heart, the one he got when his wife decided to leave him on the day their youngest child graduated. As a salve, Jakey becomes a womanizer, but Cress is aware of the stakes. She enjoys his body heat and presence, but also knows that he’s going to quickly move on. Weirdly enough, everyone on the mountain seems excited about the possibility of Jakey and Cress getting married–they think he just needs to fuck his way into happiness to forget his wife–though it’s clear to the reader that it isn’t a desire of either person.

After Jakey, Cress meets Quinn, a married man with a daughter about to graduate high school and a younger son. When Cress and Quinn engage in sex, everyone is appalled; news travels fast, and here we have a genuine home wrecker! To understand the double standard of the mountain community, you have to know the individual’s histories. Most of the women in this community have been cheated on. These are the worst at slut shaming. They feel the need to have “words” with Cress (sparing Quinn, of course), and Cress loses friends who have been the victims of bad marriages made unbearable by a mistress. The female characters are suspicious and controlling of their boyfriends and husbands, but what can you expect when they’ve all been deceived, left with nothing, abandoned with children, forced to hold jobs as aging waitresses? Even the contractors working on Cress’s parents’ house, Julie and Rick Garsh, talk to Cress about her behavior despite the couple having met while Rick was married. Cress doesn’t let anyone bother her, nor is she unrealistic about what an affair can result in. She doesn’t expect Quinn to leave his wife, she doesn’t believe they’ll continue their romance forever (just gotta finish the dissertation!), and she can’t believe her heart will be broken. She handled Jakey just fine, didn’t she?

I really liked Huneven’s treatment of gender bias. She gives readers what’s real in a certain kind of place. Let’s face it, the mountain communities and cities of California are going to be different based just on culture, let alone money and education. In example, Quinn is in his 40s and struggling to get work. His wife, also in her 40s, is a waitress. Quinn started college, but never finished. He and his wife were high school sweethearts and married at 18, an uncommon practice in urban communities. Quinn doesn’t feel right about his wife working, but is attracted to Cress’s brains. He thinks she makes all of them a little bit less hillbilly. The gender bias isn’t only seen in the mountains, though; in her PhD program, Cress is the only woman and is shunned when she does better than her male peers. Because she is a woman in a male-dominated field, she is praised for her work (though Huneven makes sure we know she’s talented, too). We’re reminded that prejudice takes place everywhere.

Based on the title, readers might expect this novel would have more to do with school. For the first hundred or so pages, it’s barely a factor. Cress is jealous that her friends move on in their lives–“She could join them, once the damn diss was done”–but she is her worst saboteur. For a large chunk of the novel, I never considered Cress “off course.” It was more like she was living rent-free and looking for basic happiness. I can see how she’ll be unlikable to many readers, but there is an interesting connection to contemporary late-twenties and early-thirties readers: we understand Cress. The setting of Off Course is the Reagan-era recession, but how is that different from the 2010s? People study and work hard, and as the end of that schooling nears, reality becomes an abstract thing, a toothless monster that makes moving forward seem impossible and bends adulthood into an undesirable shape.

Cress’s decisions regarding Quinn may also become problematic for many; just how many times will this confident woman go back to a man who has told her she is the most important person in his entire life (this includes wife and kids), but leave her to go play family? Ask yourself honestly, though: has it ever been so easy as one time and then separate? Isn’t life one big messy pile of feelings and decisions that are made quickly, and, we hope, rationally? Huneven captures reality in her novel, which might be why it takes so long. We are led gradually to understand the characters. She doesn’t rush us.

The closer you get to the middle of the novel, the more you’ll notice mentions of how that particular moment will be remembered, or poorly remembered, in the future. Huneven starts giving us signs of how the end will be. These aren’t spoilers, but drops of ideas planted in our brains that make the ending reasonable. How many times have you read a long novel only to be angry with an unexpected ending? Because Off Course is so long (and the pages are densely packed), there is so much for each reader to take from this book. I only hope that people who don’t agree with the choices of the characters will have patience to try to understand them.