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The Girls of Usually #bookreview #readwomen #LGBT #Holocaust #20BooksofSummer

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The Girls of Usually #bookreview #readwomen #LGBT #Holocaust #20BooksofSummer

The Girls of Usually by Lori Horvitz

published by Truman State University Press in 2015

Lori Horvitz’s first book is a memoir that chronicles her childhood as a New York City Jew, some of her travels in Europe and Asia, her creativity, and, mostly, her dating life. Horvitz dated men, then decided she was bisexual, then grappled with being a lesbian. As she mentioned in her Meet the Writer feature, Horvitz’s mother bought a photo frame from the store, but never removed the happy blond woman in the stock image. As a result, Horvitz wished to be (and later date) that blond woman. Horvitz suggests she stands out with her dark curly hair, Jewish heritage, and immigrant parents. As a kid, Horvitz loved to perform magic and hug her pet pocket poodle, the only living thing in her house she felt she could hug.

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I thought the book would proceed from childhood to college to adulthood, but I couldn’t make sense of the time structure in The Girls of Usually. I felt like someone had blindfolded me, relocated me, and when the blindfold was taken off, I had to re-learn where I was. Early, on page 35, Horvitz mentions a female college student she just met, who asks Horvitz if sex is good with her boyfriend. What boyfriend? I asked. He was never mentioned before. Soon, I realized this book is more like slice of life stories, one per chapter. The stories don’t always directly proceed chronologically. This drove me bonkers.

Another example: at the end of chapter 10 Horvitz booked a cheap trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway. In chapter 11, Horvitz starts with Rita, a woman she’s interviewing. Who is Rita?! I asked. Rita is a woman in her 40s. The chapter then goes back 20 years and tells the story of the Trans-Siberian Railway trip. Back when Horvitz rode the train, Rita stayed in the same compartment. The author explains that she ended up falling in love with Rita on this trip, the first time she realized she was into women. This timeline means that when we first meet Rita, Horvitz is in her 40s, too, not just out of college. Confusing! Why not end chapter 10 with saying she booked the trip, use chapter 11 to describe the trip, and have chapter 12 get into interviewing Rita 20 years later? Horvitz’s choice to tell things out of order is jolting and unnecessarily confusing.

At another point, Horvitz goes in circles. I bolded two parts to show you what I mean:

Upon my return to New York, Amy broke up with me and started dating a magician, a man she met while bartending at The Village Idiot, the tiny bar that used to be Downtown Beirut. Because of the poor economy and exorbitant real estate costs, just about every gallery in the East Village had closed down. Albert died, not from a gunshot wound but from AIDS. And Paula called to tell me about Barry, who just tested positive for AIDS. Two days later, she found out she was HIV negative. She remained friends with Barry and often brought him bee pollen and Spirulina, until ten years later when Barry was too sick to take care of himself, when he flew home to Indiana where his parents took care of him until he died in 2002, when his parents honored his request to be cremated but didn’t know what to do with the ashes. They sent them to Paula and, to this day, Paula’s not sure what to do with them. “They’re in a box in my closet,” she told me.

[paragraph break].

But now it’s 1989 and Amy just broke up with me.

Why are there so many people between the two mentions of Amy? If you’re wondering what role Albert, Paula, and Barry play here, or why it matters where Amy bartended, or that it used to be called a different name, I have no idea either.

In the last 1/3 of The Girls of Usually, Horvitz has a dog, a border collie/corgi mix, at her new house in North Carolina. In a later section, she’s getting the dog, which she learns is a border collie/corgi mix, because she moved into her house in North Carolina and can provide a pet a stable home. In an even later section, she describes her dog, a border collie/corgi mix, meeting a girlfriend’s dog for the first time. I started wondering if these essays were all published separately. If so, were they not edited for content? The reader is introduced to the dog three times! I’m providing several examples of the jumpiness of this book to show that it isn’t a one-time thing. This is the experience of almost the whole book.

Also in the last 1/3 of the book, the stories were all the same and with no indication if they are chronological. Here is the basic story of the author’s life: Horvitz chooses to enter the online dating world, Horvitz meets a new woman who is super crazy, Horvitz can tell right away the woman is super crazy (because she is obviously drunk, lying, evading, screaming, calling ex’s, etc.), Horvitz invests time and money in seeing this woman for long visits (sometimes two weeks) but ends up leaving early because crazy women are crazy. Horvitz explains her choices: she “suffers” the abuse of these women for far longer than she should because it gives her something to write about. Horvitz explains at least three times:

  • “But I was the writer, always in search of a good story, an interesting character. No matter the price. At least that’s what I told myself.”
  • “Maybe it was the writer in me who wanted to see this play out, to prove [my girlfriend] was nuts.”
  • Here Horvitz writes in second person: “You could have predicted all of this before you arrived; you knew the end of the story before it began, but you’re a writer, so you say, and perhaps you needed to get the details right.”

I found Horvitz’s excuse weak and mean-spirited in a way that helped the author avoid digging into her motivations. If she’s dating “crazy” women to get a story and be published, then she’s being exploitative. Perhaps Horvitz is justifying her dating choices in a way that doesn’t make her feel bad for not finding romantic love, but it was her choice to lead readers to believe she’s just in it for the story fodder.

At one point, she mentions she has a therapist. So, where is all the deep reflection one would do with a therapist? Why is it not in this book? The section with the therapist is written in second person (the only section!) as if it’s not really about Horvitz, so perhaps the work she’s doing in therapy isn’t quite ready to come out in book form. But that leaves the reader without much reason to read The Girls of Usually.

Horvitz’s childhood chapters (there are only a couple) were much more reflective. She gets a lot of negative feedback about what an LGBT person is when she’s a little kid. Because she’s shy, she’s called a “queer-o faggot” by the other third graders. Later, still as a girl, she sees on TV a woman argue against gay rights: “If gays are granted rights…next we’ll have to give rights to prostitutes and to people who sleep with Saint Bernards, and to nail biters.” These memories demonstrate to the reader how impressionable children are, which is important to keep in mind when we choose our words.

There are a few gems in Horvitz’s chapters about her adult life. She works as a mentor-friend for men with HIV, and she is assigned to Nestor. Nestor, rather than tell his family that he is gay and has HIV, which is the reason he has so many needle tracks in his arms, claims he is addicted to heroin. This, he knows, will go over better with his family. Pete, an abrasive straight man, actually gets HIV from shooting heroin. In his dying days, he says hateful things about LGBT people, but tries to smooth it over by complimenting a few gay people. In these examples, Horvitz captures the complexity of being a lesbian during the AIDS epidemic, and her first-hand accounts are valuable.

There is also a big about being Jewish sprinkled throughout The Girls of Usually. There’s mention of her family members who’d survived the Holocaust, and the time she visits a death camp, which makes it all more real. At one point, Horvitz reads tons of books about the Holocaust while dating a German woman who isn’t totally sure Hitler was a bad man because her grandpa always said Hitler fixed the economy. Again, there ins’t much reflection on what these moments mean. What does a mention here and there mean to the reader? Not much.

Overall, I don’t recommend this book. It’s unnecessarily difficult to follow, lacks deep emotional digging, and gets so repetitive in the end when she’s describing how crazy her ex-girlfriends are, even though she knew they had emotional issues she could exploit. During the last several chapters, I really just wanted the book to conclude.

I want to thank Lori Horvitz for sending me a copy of The Girls of Usually in exchange for a honest review.

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#20BooksofSummer

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

  1. Harley and Me by Bernadette Murphy
  2. On Air by Robin Stratton
  3. Single Stroke Seven by Lavinia Ludlow
  4. Girls of Usually by Lori Horvitz
  5. Retelling by Tsipi Keller
  6. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
  7. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  8. The Thirteenth Earl by Evelyn Pryce
  9. Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody
  10. Terror in Taffeta by Marla Cooper
  11. Of Zen and Men by Robin Stratton
  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: Lavinia Ludlow #interview #writerslife

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Meet the Writer: Lavinia Ludlow #interview #writerslife

I want to thank Lavinia Ludlow for answering my questions. Ludlow is a musician, a book reviewer at The Next Best Book Club blog, and the author of two novels and several short stories. You can learn more about her work on her website, or meet up with her on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads. I will be reviewing Ludlow’s book Single Stroke Seven this summer.

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Grab the Lapels: Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?

Lavinia Ludlow: I recall feeling powerless and belligerent at fourteen, the typical age when every adolescent is snarled between the unyielding desire to be independent from authority yet lacks all capability and rationale to take intelligible action. I wanted to run away from home, drop out of school, wander all night drinking Slurpee and vodka slurries, and spend every day playing drums. Had I done so, I probably would have ended up a D-picture movie-of-the-week story on the Lifetime Network.

Thankfully (I think), my hypercritical and smothering helicopter parents kept me from seeking reprieve in in drugs, sex, or other forms of self-destructive delinquency. Locked in my bedroom, I found solace in the written word. Images, scenes, dialogue, and characters rebelling in all the ways I wanted to poured out of my number 2 pencil and onto dollar store binder paper. Sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll galore, anarchy and rising above “the man” were amongst my most popular narratives. Once I was legal, I lived many of them out and realized how overrated they were and how dangerous they could have been to an impressionable kid.

Stumbling upon a newfound form of expression fueled by classic teenage angst is bound to create some fucked up shit. I wrote without respect for the art, I wrote without responsibility. Most of my early writing contained nothing more than blaming rants riddled with profanity aimed at nothing and no on specific.

Since then, I’ve matured as both a human being and writer. Over the years, writing has filled an emotional void that no other artistic expression or indulgence (physical, emotional, or other) has been able to fill. It’s also a perfect medium for a hardcore introvert who hates talking to people yet always has something to say or a story to tell.

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GTL: How have you developed creatively since then?

LL: When I read my work from the ancient archives, I cringe at how senseless and ridiculous the content and writing style. As a kid, I was naturally and constantly pissed off at the world and looking for a reason to fight, argue, or go off on someone just to release steam. But I like to assume that all painters were once kids coloring by number, and writers were once shelling out literary detritus as they discovered their true narrative voice.

Throughout the years, I’ve been an active participant in the small press community and have had the opportunity to work with talented writers, editors, and publishers. These experiences have shown me how to direct negative energy into a positive outlet. I outgrew my insatiable appetite to destroy, and my works have become more insightful, responsible, and culturally relevant.

GTL: What was the first piece of writing you did that you remember being happy with?

LL: “Percentages,” a flash fiction about being a mostly straight woman in a homosexual union with another mostly straight woman, and the typical relationship issues they encountered on top of the complexities brought on by both women keeping one foot in the straight world. I’ve adored women in my past, but as clearly stated in the narrative, being “mostly” straight causes problems for me. This amuse-bouche narrative effortlessly fell out of me in few minutes and required very little editing before it was swiftly accepted into a progressive print journal called Pear Noir! (2010). “Percentages” was not only the first piece of writing I was proud of but it was also my first published piece. 6 years later, I wrote a follow up piece called “Filtering Grace,” published in Chicago Literati. Most assume train wrecks of men have played a role in the conception of my novels, and that may be true, but the quaint and humble works in between have all been influenced by the female form. I think there’s something very telling about that.

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GTL: Did you learn anything from writing your books, alt.punk and Single Stroke Seven?

LL: Many things, but most important: the pursuit of art should never be “all or nothing.” In alt.punk, Hazel abandons her identity and other responsibilities to focus on her writing, which is derailed by her codependency on a heroin-addicted egocentric manic depressive. In Single Stroke Seven, Lilith abandons her music, the channel keeping her connected to her best friends, to focus on conventional responsibilities under the belief that if she finally gets all of her shit together, artistic success will follow. These extreme approaches fail, and our adult subjects find themselves alone, and more lost and confused than ever.

What many don’t know is that these two books loosely represent who I was (alt.punk) and the person I’ve become (Single Stroke Seven). Today, I live a more realistic lifestyle by trying to maintain a balance between the pursuit of art and the pursuit of life. This balancing act must also be recalibrated from time to time, especially with the addition (or subtraction) of major stakeholders.

GTL: What is your writing process like?

LL: I chase the emotional high that first-drafting evokes and, often, find myself addicted to the irresponsibility of planning and organizing as I go. I wrote the first draft of alt.punk in 9 days, and the first draft of Single Stroke Seven in less than 30 days; however, I spent years seeking feedback and revising the texts for submission and, finally, publication. Despite these intense and lengthy experiences, I still underestimate the importance of revising until I step back and truly understand how polished work exceeds the book’s original potential.

However, editing is a process that I loathe more than root canals and pelvic exams. I loathe it so much that I often abandon projects in their first draft stages as I foreshadow what a pain in the ass they will be to edit. Call it a mix of laziness, restraint, and accountability, but if I adamantly dread getting something through the editing process then that means I’m not emotionally connected enough to the content, and if I can’t connect, the audience won’t either, and no writer wants to circulate mediocre unpolished work.

GTL: How has your writing process evolved since you started?

LL: I’ve learned not to disrespect or insult the reader by describing things to death. It’s important to “write between the lines” so that the audience has an opportunity to read between them. Messaging should be artfully woven into the text to create a global declaration that is greater than the sum of its parts and, left up to the reader to decipher, maybe even debate.

Innovative storytelling is not only a difficult art to master, but a subjective one. At times, finding my own narrative flow and voice associated with a particular work seems elusive, but I welcome the challenge and the unadulterated high I experience when I am in my element.

ll

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Explosion

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Explosion

Explosion by Zarina Zabrisky

published by Epic Rites Press, October 2015

“Russians do not surrender…we suffer and survive.”

I can’t even remember how I was introduced to Zarina Zabrisky’s work, but we’ve been in contact for so long now that I consider her a friend whom I would love to meet some day. Zabrisky is a Russian-American woman living in California. Her work is art meets the political, a mashup of filth and beauty. I commented on the horror in her short collection, Iron. American decadence contrasts the difficulties of navigating government institutions in Russia in the novella, A Cute Tombstone. Later, Zabrisky asked me to put together a virtual book tour for A Cute Tombstone, and I learned more about funeral portraits in Russia and the band Pussy Riot. Zabrisky later asked me to put together another virtual book tour for her first novel, We, Monsters. The banner my husband created for the tour, made from two images, is so beautiful:

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Back when I had a Weebly address!

Explosion is more like Zabrisky’s earlier short collection. There are 14 short stories (some several pages, others very short) in Explosion, and all are from the point of view of a Russian. Sometimes the setting is California, but it’s almost always Russia.zabrisky explosion

Right away I notice all the drug use; there is so much heroin. “Why?” I ask. Truthfully, my knowledge of Russia is as deep as a puddle, so I made use of my college’s database and started hunting around for articles. Hours and hours later, I felt mad but a bit enlightened. John M. Kramer, author of the article “Drug Abuse in Russia,” notes that a study from 2010 found”Russia has almost as many heroin users (1.5 million) as all other European countries combined (1.6 million)” (31).

While most of Zabrisky’s stories have characters addicted to heroin, the story with the clever name “Heroines” stands out. The narrator speaks to the reader, explaining that she wants to tell us about her friends. She says, “I have a lot of friends. I’m Russian and my girlfriends are Russian.” Next is a list of tragic stories: Alina, dead from a heroin overdose; Marina with Hep C (“We all got Hep C together”); Anna, whose husband abandoned her and their daughter, forcing her to marry again (“In Russia, if you don’t have a man, you’re a waste”); Lana the mail order bride. In many of the 14 stories, women must attach themselves to men to survive. While most of the stories aren’t about drugs, it’s always there, always present, and Zabrisky captures the essence of the setting because so many Russians are actually addicted. 

Disease, like Marina’s Hep-C, is a massive problem. According to Gregory Gilderman, author of the article “Death by Indifference,” a study conducted in 2009 found that somewhere “between 840,000 and 1.2 million are HIV-positive” in Russia, which has a population of around 143,000,000 (44). A lot of the spread of HIV has to do with dirty needles. While some countries like the U.S. have needle exchange programs to slow the spread of people contracting HIV or hepatitis, “nongovernmental organizations [in Russia] that advocate harm reduction strategies—needle exchanges, providing condoms to sex workers—face police harassment and criminal penalties” (Gilderman 45, emphasis mine). Zabrisky’s collection of stories points out the dark times of the Soviet Union resulting from the leadership, without being an in-your-face condemnation that comes off as “preachy.” Truthfully, based on the articles I read, Russia today and the Soviet Union aren’t really that different.

If you’re using or dealing drugs, mum’s the word. But in Explosion, if you’re thinking anything you shouldn’t, you must be silent, too. A girl in 1986 writes in her diary, “Be silent, hide and keep secret your feelings and thoughts. … The thought spoken is a lie.” When the girl starts asking her father, a scientist, questions, he praises her, but the mother scolds them both for saying things that are not acceptable in the Soviet Union, including questions about God. The mother also warns, “And you better only discuss such things like [God] at home, not at school.” More research reminded me that the Soviet Union declared the nation atheist, so God talk was forbidden.

Silence, silence everywhere. In another story, a woman won’t phone the police at the request of a foreign man because she believes the police and the bad guys are the same thing. He asks, “Are you refusing to call?” and she thinks, “I’m refusing to die.” Zabrisky, ever the supporter of Pussy Riot, also fits the story of the band recording their punk prayer into one of her stories. “For the government, men with voice are more dangerous than drug pushers,” she writes, “And women with voice — even more so.” Sometimes, Zabrisky’s voice is more forceful, such as the reference to Pussy Riot, which stands out as being obvious protest in literature, but the subtle undercurrent of silencing remind me again of 1984 and the Thought Police. Such moments are as quite as the citizens, creating a parallel in content and the message.

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Explosion creates an array of women surviving the Russia that Pussy Riot protests. “You have big boobs and speak English,” one woman is told. She could work as a prostitute and get intel from foreigners. “The just under one million sex workers in Russia, for instance, live at the whim equally of pimps and the police, and have no practical recourse if they are raped or assaulted,” Gilderman writes (48). The other option is to marry foreigners. “What’s love?” one woman asks her sister, “I’ll find you a husband. I’ll get you out of here.” Women have no autonomy in Zabrisky’s collection, not even when they move away. “Unfortunately, for many adolescent boys and even adult men, the shaping of their male identity involves the debasement and suppression of girls,” (61) adds T.A. Gurko, author of “Underage Females’ Experiences Of Sexual Relations, Motherhood, And Married Life.”

Women are often seduced by the promise of marriage because they are “whores” and “sluts” and compromise Russia’s traditional values when they are single. One character is in love with a drug dealer, who promises to marry her. She feels no concern when she discovers she’s pregnant, but T.A. Gurko notes, “As the men [in the survey] put it, ‘promising her you will marry her does not mean you will.’ At best he may offer to get her an abortion; at worst he will do everything he can to cut off the relationship” (67). I don’t mean to imply that I’m fact-checking Zabrisky’s work; men abandon women in all countries. But the situations present in her collection, because they reoccur so much, made me want to learn more. Very few books encourage me to be more knowledgeable. In this case, gaining information made me sympathetic for the plight of women in Russia — they didn’t even have tampons, one character points out.

Poverty is a big factor in survival, especially for women and their children, who are almost always abandoned in these stories. Poverty can be conveyed in simple descriptions, and Zabrisky always picks just the right images: “watery mud covered everything in view: a playground with iron bars and broken swings, homeless dogs, and a skinny cow by the broken fence, chewing on a plastic bag.” That bag may not mean much to you (except concern for what it will do to the cow’s intestines), but check this out:

If Russia represents poverty, America is wealth. A young girl covets a plastic bag a schoolmate has — I know, right? — and finally trades a great deal for it. She is so happy:

I took the bag and sniffed it. It definitely didn’t smell of all-purpose Russian soap … the smell of grease, dirt, and poverty. … This bag smelled like chewing gum, like a dream: foreign, delicious, the aroma of unknown tropical countries, coconuts and pineapples I have never tried, of exotic sea ports. … Weakly, vaguely, the bright plastic smelled of America.

Zabrisky mentions good teeth and iPhones as symbols of doing well in America, choosing examples that are subtle, but easy for this American reader to compare.

Again, the theme is subtly in each story, but over 14 stories it adds up to a strong, unmistakable picture of an oppressive, anti-female Russia. There isn’t a single quote that can capture the feel of the whole collection, but when it adds up, you start to get a gross feeling in your stomach — a totally appropriate response to the massive injustices, poverty, starvation, dismissed lives, and deaths that could have been prevented. Though it is an unpleasant feeling, imagine the people who are living it and remember that literature is meant to teach us about those unlike ourselves, to open our worldview and do something about it.

I want to thank Zarina Zabrisky for a copy of Explosion in exchange for an honest review. Click HERE to read an interview I conducted with Zabrisky about her newest collection!

SOURCES:

Gilderman, Gregory. “Death By Indifference.” World Affairs 175.5 (2013): 44-50. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 11 May 2016.

Gurko, T.A. “Underage Females’ Experiences Of Sexual Relations, Motherhood, And Married Life.” Russian Social Science Review 45.3 (2004): 58-77. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 11 May 2016.

Kramer, John M. “Drug Abuse In Russia.” Problems Of Post-Communism 58.1 (2011): 31. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 13 May 2016.

 

This Time, While We’re Awake

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This Time, While We’re Awake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anonymity

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Anonymity

Anonymity
by Janna McMahan
Koehler Books, 2013
291 pages

“I guess I just never really thought about how they live. I mean I’ve been downtown for years, and I supposed I just sort of think of them as background noise. You know they’re there, but you just tune them out.” These are the words of Emily–a twenty-something who is a bit directionless, single, and worried she isn’t keeping up with the young women with whom she graduated–when she learns more about the homeless youth in Austin. You see, Austin is a place that has a great party scene, and working at a bar and being promiscuous suits her just fine; she doesn’t care that she’s different from her corporate America-loving parents. Really, Emily’s made her own choices, and I say, “more power to her and her happiness.”

But when she’s made aware of the homeless youth population in Austin, she can’t look away ever again. Children who are living on the streets because they are mentally ill and their parents can’t deal with it; kids who aged out of the foster care system; kids who leave home because they have younger siblings and want to be less of a burden on their parents in a down economy. Janna McMahan shows the reader an in-depth look at the homeless youth to give them a better idea of why it happened, why the kids are tattooed, if they use drugs, and how they survive.

McMahan plays off of the reader’s expectations and shows us we’re wrong. Meet Lorelei, a young girl who arrives in Austin. She’s starving; she’s alone. When Austin is flooded and Emily, on her way to her own parents house in a safe area, finds Lorelei, “Emily couldn’t, absolutely wouldn’t take this girl to her parents’ house.” Who knows if Lorelei is a thief, violent, a drug user, “Crazy”…Here, Emily echoes our own thoughts. It’s really impossible to trust Lorelei to the point where she actually began to annoy me. When Emily takes Lorelei in for a few days, when David (the man who runs the homeless youth shelter) tries to give her a place to stay, when she runs away and tells others she doesn’t need them (clearly she does if she’s taking things from them): Lorelei can be completely frustrating and hard to understand. Even worse, she adds that her mother used to take her shopping at the mall and send Lorelei to summer camps, so the reader is left to believe that Lorelei is a selfish, ungrateful girl.

Emily’s mother Barbara serves as a foil to the homeless youth. She acknowledges that she and her husband bought things at a rapid pace, but when the economy collapsed, they were left with debt. In order to survive, she and Gerald must forge ahead, but they don’t do a great job. They’re still trying to pay off three cars, one of which is an enormous SUV. Essentially, because Barbara and Gerald have credit, they are able to remain in a home. Barbara is critical of the “gutter punks” with their facial tattoos, piercings, and bad smells. She tries to be helpful when she launders Lorelei’s clothes after the flood, but for the most part she talks badly abut the girl while she’s not around (what kind of person destroys her whole life by getting a tattoo on her face).

McMahan masterfully leads the reader to this place in order to prove her wrong. It isn’t until near the end of the book that the real reasons for Lorelei’s homelessness emerge, which left me feeling like a bad person, like I am just like everyone else who walks by children without a place to eat, sleep, or be loved. Homelessness continues to be a problem (of course), and Anonymity doesn’t pretend to solve the problems put forth in its pages, which makes this mainstream novel a more challenging read for those who might not have expected to be enriched.

PHD to Ph.D.

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PHD to Ph.D.

Po Ho on Dope

Title: PHD (Po H# on Dope) to Ph.D.: How Education Saved My Life

Author: Elaine Richardson, Ph.D.

Published by: New City Community Press in 2013

For me, it’s been a long time between finishing this book and writing the review—about two weeks. I always have something to say about a book, but am careful to write an outline and decide which pages I want to point to and quote. But this book has almost scared me out of writing anything. I met Elaine Richardson at an education conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she was a keynote speaker. She was electric, charming, and intelligent in a way that intimidated me despite my own schooling and experience as an adjunct professor. When she signed my book, she was very kind and wrote, “Melanie, thanks for teaching and loving! Dr. E.”

PHD to Ph.D. is Richardson’s memoir about growing up a black girl in Cleveland. She writes briefly about her parents, a mother from Jamaica with very little education and a father who played with Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, though he was never famous (7). Richardson has some girlfriends who help her get into trouble when she is a girl, and later starts dating a much older boy, which is when things get drastically worse. He begins using her as a prostitute, and Richardson ends up prostituting until she is about 27. She has a baby with one of her pimps, and another baby whose father she doesn’t know. On many occasions, Richardson almost dies. When she finally gets things together and decides to go back to school, she never could have imagined how education would save her from certain death. The book is a compulsive read, but isn’t balanced evenly between being a drugged-out prostitute and a college student.

Richardson made me care about the people in her memoir. Her father isn’t written about much, but I still remember how cool he was in his old neighborhood. Richardson writes that her father dressed “gangsta style. When he wasn’t going to work, he wore his brim broke down and carried his pool stick in a long black case….His pool shootin friends called him ‘Bullwhip shawty from section 40’…” (5). Her father was a Black Muslim, like Malcolm X, and he had a “Black name” (meaning his Muslim name): Gulam Jameel Abdul-Rasheed (7). Richardson remembers how she felt about her father: “[My brother and me] cracked up at that name. We didn’t know any better. Daddy was also into something called Mentalphysics. He had his books and encyclopedias in a special place in the living room and couldn’t nobody touch em!” (7). Richardson’s dad is a textured guy: gangsta, pool shooter, musician, Black Muslim, reader, and I liked how memorable he was. I also like that Richardson maintains her childish voice: it’s “mentalphysics” as she remembers it, instead of “metaphysics.”

Her mother, too, was a vivid presence, though she is mentioned a lot more than the father. It really stuck with me that when Richardson was on a drugs and prostituting that her mother would call the police anytime she saw her daughter on the streets (141). The mother doesn’t necessarily want her daughter in trouble, but kept from dying.

Richardson herself is someone I care about, even when she makes terrible choices and I want to dislike her. While it may sound like Richardson writes herself in a sympathetic light, I didn’t find that to be the case. People live their lives and survive as best they can, period. Richardson describes herself as a girl: “I was a good kid. I played violin in the orchestra, sang in the choir, I was in the smart kids’ reading group, I was outgoing” (24). But, she’s also tormented, made fun of: “Other names people called me were chub, fat girl, liver lips, rubber lips, and bubble lips” (21). Down and down her sense of self-worth goes, and Richardson knows it’s important to connect her self-esteem to becoming a prostitute.

In 7th grade (about age 12) she is a victim of statutory rape and becomes pregnant. Her mother helps her procure an abortion, and Richardson reflects on it. She realizes she shouldn’t have hung out with girls who “knew” more than her, and she shouldn’t have gone into a room with a boy who was 19, because that meant that you wanted to have sex. She says she didn’t know these things at the time (43). We all know that hanging out with the cool, fast girls is a way to heal our broken self-esteem.

But, her new boyfriend, Andrew, understands nothing, and when they have intercourse, he comments on how “loose” she is. Richardson breaks my heart when she writes, “I had had an abortion in the second trimester. The baby I would have had was developed. Whatever the size of my vagina, it was the way it was because I had had a dead baby. All he talked about was how huge I was down there” (43). While dating Andrew, who is 17, Richardson continues to go to junior high, where she loves to learn. She is leading a double life of intelligent girl at school, and girl with poor self-esteem hanging out with older boys who pay attention to her. Andrew eventually convinces Richardson that if she loves him she will work the street, and he becomes her pimp.

I learned that pimps have favorite “hos” and treat that prostitute almost like a girlfriend. When Richardson has intercourse with her second pimp, AC, she knows that she feels nothing from sex. She believes it might be her experience in 7th grade or from having turned tricks for a while already, but it’s like she’s dead inside to sexual relationships (98). I felt terrible when I read her assessment. Sexual intimacy is so important, but Richardson doesn’t feel it anywhere in the book because sex is disconnected from love and partnership.

Richardson still has dreams, even when she’s drugged out and working as a prostitute for pimp #3, Mack. They plan to save enough money to open a legitimate jewelry store, and it makes sense to her 19-year-old mind (139). But not much later, Richardson is stabbed while escorting a trick (158). It’s hard to read about the author nearly getting herself killed, and later almost abducted by a serial murderer/rapist (170), but juxtaposed with her dreams, the whole story created sympathy in me. This is a woman who was broken as a girl, and she has no idea how to fix it.

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I definitely had a lot I wanted to remember as I was reading so I could talk about it later.

Almost all of PHD to Ph.D. is written in various dialects. I love the authenticity this adds to the story. For instance, the black community in Cleveland makes fun of people who aren’t from the city, and readers get a great dose of dialect: “Dat county ass nigga got dem big ass white wall tires, dat funny ass cucaracha horn and got da nerve to have air shocks on that raggedy ass green car. Dat’s a country muthafucka right dere” (20). Some people in the book use more slang that others; not every sentence is written like the previous example. Remember, Richardson’s mother is Jamaican: “Mi ago kill yuh. Yuh nuh want nuttin from life? Before I mek a dutty nigga ruin yah life, mi will kill yuh mi-self and walk downtown and tell the dyam police is mi kill yuh” (75). Richarson’s grad school advisor, also a black woman, tells her, “You have to stay in da library. You have to know the field like the back of your hand. Knowwhatumsayin? You cain’t sing upon dis Ph.D. You have to read, write and research up on dis bad boy” (233). By getting how people talk and think in those people’s own words, Richardson gives voices to those who are often told they’re wrong. Black folks in the book, from the educated to the illiterate, have a voice they’re told is “wrong” because it doesn’t sound white.

Getting back into college after drugs and turning tricks happens quickly; in fact, I have to comb through my memory to remember how she got herself clean, into support groups, and to Cleveland State University. Everything about Richardson as a girl and later prostitute made me a compulsive reader. I couldn’t put this book down! But everything about school seems rushed and not as clearly thought out. Indeed, she goes to college on page 192, but the book is only 251 total pages. Things start out interestingly; Richardson is told she needs a lot of help with her writing and is sent to the writing center. The professors and tutors are all white, and they can’t figure out what to make of this black woman’s voice, which is especially insulting because her first paper is about her own neighborhood. The tutor keeps asking, “Whadidya mean to say here?” (197). Richardson writes, “I looked her dead in the eyes and said, ‘I meant what I said'” (197). There’s a great exchange here; basically, the tutor has her own nasally Midwestern sound, but she gets to judge the author because Richardson doesn’t sound white. This is a fantastic, enlightening scene.

The rest of the college section is rushed, though. She flies through her bachelors, masters, and PhD. She gets a teaching job at a university. She moves to another university. She studies the value of black voices and argues they are not “incorrect” or “wrong,” that closed-minded white tutors and professors “didn’t see who we were or where we came from as an important part of the educational process” (201). I wanted to know so much more here. There isn’t nearly as much detail or specific anecdotes told about her time in school as there was from when she was a prostitute.

This is the biggest flaw of the book. I wish there were two books: one for the first part of her life, and one for the transition into school and the process of earning degrees. I wanted to read about her encounters with teachers, peers, tutors, and even her co-workers and students when she starts to teach. There are a couple of instances, but not nearly enough. After Richardson gets that first college paper back with a D, she talks to another student, a black man who is also older. He says, “This chump don’t know nothin about Black folks. I was using Manchild in the Promised Land as my model, and he was trippin, crossin out every other word! These lil tutors in here, too. Please! I ain’t even worried about it, sis. I got a wife and a family. My wife takes classes at night. We just need they little degrees so we can do what we got to do to take care of ourselves. Knowwhatumsayin?” (200). I love this encounter! It’s as if Richardson and this man are in on a secret about some “system” or “game” that is college.

Despite its too-speedy ending, I highly recommend PHD to Ph.D. You can read more about the book and Dr. E on her website.

Elaine Richardson

Dr. Richardson did sing a bit at the conference I attended. She also writes poetry and studies hip hop with her students.

Favorite Memoirs of 2015

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Memoirs really grabbed me this year. There was something about reading real lives, real reactions, real people that got under my skin in 2015. It didn’t help that NPR’s Fresh Air show often features memoirs (I have many on my TBR list). Here are some memoirs that sucked me in!


Cheryl StrayedWild

by Cheryl Strayed

I finally got around to reading this book in January of 2015. I had a disastrous time with the audiobook, but loved the film. It’s worth the time to read Wild. Strayed doesn’t romanticize her mother (in fact, she admits the reasons she could hate her mother, too). She doesn’t over-exaggerate her hiking accomplishments (Strayed admits she’d been lucky for most of her journey, that she was helped by many, and that saying she was ill-prepared is a massive understatement; she always seemed inches away from being another Christopher McCandless).

Wild also isn’t a heavy reflection; sections about her mother are smoothly transitioned into the story, so the focus is on the hike, but the motives for the hike are not lost. Though she thought she would spend the 1,100 miles thinking about Bobbi, Bobbi’s death, and the resulting poor choices, Strayed admits she thought little about those things. Instead, she is physically and emotionally broken down and rebuilt by the inclines and declines of the mountains, predators (man, animal, and weather), and the literature she reads and writes.

Read the full review here!


cover chastCan’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

by Roz Chast

Roz Chast’s graphic novel examines the dying process (my choice of words, not the author’s) of Chast’s extremely old parents, George and Elizabeth. George and Elizabeth were born a few days apart in 1912 and only a few blocks apart in Harlem. Their parents were Russian immigrants who came to the U.S. with nothing but misery.

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

Read the full review here!


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Hamlet von Schnitzel, actual taxidermy mouse the author owns.

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened & Furiously Happy

by Jenny Lawson

Lawson grew up in a tiny town in Texas with her younger sister, lunch lady mother, and taxidermist father. Living in relative poverty and having a father who constantly brings home animals, both dead and alive, makes for an influential childhood. Then, Lawson meets a college student in a book store named Victor, who is from a wealthy family, and the two marry. After much heartbreak, Victor and Lawson have a child named Hailey, and they live happily ever after in Texas. The end…sort of!

I found myself eager to return to Lawson’s life, and I appreciated that she kept the focus of the book on her. As soon as she had a baby, I worried the memoir would turn into one of those books about how funny moms think their kids are. It didn’t.

Read the full review here!

furiously-happyWith Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, Lawson spent ten years composing a single memoir. With Furiously Happy, she got it down to somewhere around three. As a result, the stories are contemporary and do make reference to current cultural markers. Again, Lawson include fights with head-shaking husband Victor (I’m so glad they didn’t divorce; I was sure they would), and there are mentions of daughter Hailey, but Lawson respects her child’s privacy and mostly leaves Hailey out of it. Furiously Happy is a much more introspective book.

Read the full review here!


cover fun homeFun Home

by Alison Bechdel

Bechdel focuses on her father, a man who obsesses over appearances, including that of his house, children, and personal clothing. The house looks like something out of a Victorian novel. He also forces his children to look nice, encouraging–and then belittling for not obeying–the author for not adding feminine touches, like pearls, to what he considers a dowdy outfit. Alison Bechdel confesses that she would rather dress like a boy, and readers discover that her father would rather dress like a girl (and has). The two exchange clothing advice in a surreptitious fashion for years, living vicariously through the other.

If you’re up for a bit of a challenge, you’ll love Fun Home. The weaving of past and present, psychology and action, is complex and reveals a person who has extracted meaning from a complicated, lonely childhood. Even better, the images as all professional looking–no cartoony images, no bright colors, no squiggly-doodly pictures.

Read the full review here!


Tomboy CoverTomboy

by Liz Prince (read our interview here)

31-year-old comic artist Liz Prince shares her history as a tomboy. All through elementary and middle school, Prince is tormented. No one wants to play with her, she hates all things girly, and classmates begin to question her sexuality. High school is a huge problem area until Prince finds a group of friends who are more open-minded. Tomboy is a graphic memoir that will have readers nodding along in recognition as Prince analyzes what it means to be a tomboy in a society that tells men and women how to be from birth.

If you read this book, you may find yourself experiencing some intense emotions you hoped you’d forgotten upon high school graduation. Yet, the analysis Liz Prince includes will help you think about why children were so cruel, perhaps why you were cruel, and that we all share a universal terrible time in grade school (even the popular kids are hiding something awful). Tomboy is a powerful memoir.

Read the full review here!


Sarah leavittTangles

by Sarah Leavitt

This graphic memoir that recounts 8 years of turmoil in her life beginning with when she suspects something is wrong with her mother, Midge, and ends with Midge’s death. Leavitt’s father, Rob, cares for Midge at home for as long as he can. Meanwhile, Leavitt, her younger sister, Hannah, and Midge’s sisters, Debbie and Sukey, help Rob support and care for Midge while her brain deteriorates from Alzheimer’s disease. Tangles refers both to the complicated relationships in the family caused by the disease and the very curly hair that both Leavitt and her mother possess.

Tangles really would be impossible to finish if Leavitt didn’t balance the challenges of Alzheimer’s with small moments that Leavitt and her family treasure.

Read the full review here!


In 2016, the first memoir I plan on reading is a book I picked up at a conference called PHD to PhD.: How Education Saved My Life by Elaine Richardson. The cover explains that PHD stands for “Po H# on Dope.” Published in 2013 by Parlor Press, the synopsis of this book reminds me of why I went into teaching. Here’s the description from the publisher:

“There was a time when Elaine Richardson was one of ‘the Negroes everybody pointed to as the Negroes you didn’t want to become.’ The title of this book is no metaphor or allusion, but a literal shorthand for a remarkable, unpredictable journey. She inherits a plain way of talking about horrific pain from a mother who seemed impossible to shock. The way too fast way she grew up was and is too common, but her will to remap her destiny is uncommon indeed. To call her story inspiring would be itself too plain a thing, hers is a heroic life.”–dream hampton (writer and filmmaker)

Po Ho on Dope

 

Meet the Writer: Mimi Pond

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Meet the Writer: Mimi Pond

 

Mimi Pond

Photo from the Village Voice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Over Easy

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Over Easy

pond coverMimi Pond’s graphic novel Over Easy (Drawn & Quarterly, 2014) captures a period of transition from hippies to punks in the 1970s. The description “fictionalized memoir” threw me for a loop. Was the main character, Margaret, Mimi Pond? Did these stories actually happen? Is Pond simply changing names to protect the other people in Over Easy? Or is it that she can’t remember exactly what happened, so she had to make some up? According to a post on her website, Pond was inspired by a restaurant in which she worked and includes a photo of all the waitresses from that time, suggesting that the graphic novel is pretty realistic overall. I’m able to move forward with a modicum of distrust, and I will refer to Margaret as a character, not the author.

All images are pen with watercolor in blue-ish/green shades. The simple color palate gives the images an old feel, whereas a full color palate can cause a graphic novel to seem too cartoony. Bright colors would not have matched with Pond’s sketchy style, and it would have been hard to take this serious story, well, seriously.

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

The story then jumps back to how Margaret wound up at that diner and why she is interested in drawing. Margaret attends San Diego City College during a time when grants are plentiful. Quickly, she tires of hippy students, their all-agreeing attitudes, and the crappy 70s hippy art they produce. She applies to and attends the California College of Arts and Crafts to be far enough from her parents in San Diego, but still close to home. But, before she can actually finish college, Margaret is informed that the grant money has run out.

This is when we get back to that diner. Margaret heads into The Imperial with her IOU and falls in love with the place. To be fair, the cooks are misogynistic dicks (one cook calls every waitress a “lying whore”), the waitresses are bitches (they call each other “cunt”), and these are totally Margaret’s people—neither hippies nor punks. The rest of the graphic novel introduces readers to the cast of characters in the diner, some of the customers, and describes Margaret’s climb from college dropout to dishwasher to waitress.

The plot of Over Easy sounds almost too, well, easy. Yet, Mimi Pond captures a moment of change in American history and details the internal responses of one citizen. Really, the book is character and observation driven. The characters are just delightful, and Pond’s drawing style makes the connection between what these people are saying and how they look. I especially enjoy how everyone has a cigarette hanging out of their mouths, even during work hours in a restaurant.

page 50

page 50

The cooks eye people on the streets suspiciously, suggesting their intense desire to leave right at 3:00 and not have to hang around and make orders a few minutes before the magic hour. They stare at the clocks, counting, watching, waiting. Helen’s wide open mouth and shrill directions show how dire the situation really is, even though it’s not. And so, someone must run to the door. I can picture these characters having better things to do with their lives, and they want out! The cooks and waitresses spend most of the day name calling and copping feels anyway; they’re exhausted.

For the most part, Pond uses basic square frames for her images, but some pages use a central object around which other images or words thematically tie together. Pond doesn’t do this too much, which is a relief. Some graphic novelists confuse clutter with style. Here’s an example: the bell that alerts waitresses that their order is ready tying together with the struggles (laid out like order checks) Margaret experiences on her first day as a waitress:

ding ding

The large swirling words “DING DING DING DING DING DING” intensify the feelings that Margaret experiences as she gets confused, makes mistakes, and gets it wrong.

There are a number of places where the design choices don’t work as well. A page that has six simple frames seems easy enough, but the thoughts may appear at the top and bottom of a frame. If someone is thinking or talking near the top of the next frame, my eyes would go from top of frame to top of frame, causing me to miss what’s on the bottom of a frame. Here is an example:

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I don’t typically like slice-of-life stories because they seem important only to the author. Yet, Mimi Pond shows why the 70s were an interesting time in America using unique viewpoints. While everyone around her is ingesting coke, weed, and speed, Margaret only snorts coke once after a fellow waitress offers it to sooth Margaret after a fight in the kitchen. The effect is not good, and we don’t hear about Margaret doing drugs again. She does, like her coworkers, find multiple sex partners, though Margaret’s rule is “don’t sleep with coworkers. Her coworkers’ rule seems to be “anything goes.” It’s hard for me to fathom having sex with everyone I find cute or snorting coke like it’s the most normal thing on the planet, but Pond integrates this part of the 70s culture in so smoothly and has Margaret comment on it in a way that shows she’s analyzing her surroundings. While I can’t relate, I can understand, and is that not the point of reading?

Over Easy was a fascinating read. I always wanted to know what bitchy waitresses Martha and Helen would do next, and I wanted to see in what way the cooks were trying to be smooth poets and cool guys. Lazlo held the whole thing together with his whimsical personality and strange rules. I didn’t want to befriend these people, but I liked being the outsider peeking in. The characters are like dysfunctional roommates or relatives, giving both a sense of love and hatred to each other. Riding along with Margaret while she navigates her life made this graphic novel a page turner.

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By “lying whore” she means waitress. page 71