Tag Archives: environment

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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Chicken Scratch #BookReview #ReadWomen

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Chicken Scratch #BookReview #ReadWomen

Chicken Scratch: Stories of Love, Risk & Poultry 

by Kelly Chripczuk

Self-published October, 2016chicken-cover


In 2014 I headed off to a writing retreat in Virginia. On the side of a mountain is where I met Kelly Chripczuk, a pastor, writer, mother, and wife who, on the first night, shared a nonfiction piece she wrote about getting four kids to a pool for swimming lessons only to realize at the last second that one of her boys needs to use the bathroom. It was her voice, calm and strong, that I remember, but also the details, such as holding her little boy toward the toilet like a weapon of sorts as he pretty much hoses down the stall.

If you check out my blogroll, Chripczuk is on there as A Field of Wild Flowers. Though I am not a follower of any religion, I’m curious about and have respect for the connection between stories from religious texts and the ways individuals integrate those stories into their lives. Chripczuk is a master of drawing in a flock of readers. I can tell I’m not alone when I feel the magic of her words and ideas. Chripczuk isn’t simply a leader; she openly shares when she falls down — hard sometimes — and exposes her wounds so that readers may not only learn from them, but care for her, too. It’s a community, really.

In October 2016, Chripczuk self-published a very short book, Chicken Scratch, and I bought it hopes of “owning” some of the magic of her blog. I wanted those peaceful words in my  hand. At 67 pages on my Kindle, the book is short. It details the decision to get chickens to make money selling eggs, but we quickly learn that chickens have much to teach a mother with four kids (which includes a set of pre-school aged twins).

Chripczuk begins by describing her love of the Psalms in the bible, which spoke to her as narratives. She writes how the Psalmists “awoke [her] to the possibility of finding God in the world around us using language to witness the reality of that presence.” While Chripczuk studies and ministers the gospel, she notes why she loves animals. She writes, “Groping for words, for understanding of my own dawning awareness, I [concluded], ‘They help me see different ways of being’.” Here is where Chripczuk shines; instead of working so hard to be the “right kind” of person, she looks to animals and mimics the way they inhabit the earth, from stretching and sniffing around the yard on the first nice spring day, to pairing off and relying on a partner. “I guess,” Chripczuk  realizes, “if you’re the kind of person who can fall in love with a Polish hen, then life’s gonna hurt.” Readers can take a lesson from Chripczuk, even if they can’t own chickens.

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I love her advertising–all done by Chripczuk!

Chicken Scratch is honest. When Chripczuk visits a therapist, she tosses out that she got a flock of chickens, to which the therapists responds, “Hey, it sounds like fun . . . and it’s not big deal if it doesn’t work out.” But are we Americans good at failing? The debate between “winners and losers” vs. the “participation ribbon” generations never strikes me as a particularly helpful one, yet failing can always hurt. Chripczuk  announces to her therapist:

I know that . . . but it’s one thing to know it’s ok to fail and another to experience failure. I need to create chances to fail, so I can feel it all the way down, not just know it in my head.

To actually feel our feelings, well, feels like a no-brainer. But how often do you sit and feel your sadness? Your defeat? Your contentment?

When I met Chripczuk and learned she was a minister and spiritual adviser and mother, I was a bit intimidated; I am none of those things (not even close). I figured she had a the natural maternal instinct of an orangutan, an animal that I admire for its care of and love toward its infants. But when Chripczuk and her husband decide to attend a parenting class (despite already having two children) for families expecting more than one baby, she learns that two babies require a different kind of care because they need attention at the same time. The leader, “a mother of five including a set of twins,” explains how to breastfeed two babies at once, how to hold two babies at once, how to burp and bounce two babies at once. I could feel a wave of weirdness flood over me as I pictured such a life, but then Chripczuk, whom I had created as “Most Natural Mother of the Year” in my head, reports:

I can’t say for sure what I thought at the time, but I imagine I was something close to horrified at the thought of so many little people climbing, lounging, and feeding on me.

Though our lives are so very different, Chripczuk’s honesty made her relatable — and I felt closer to all kinds of women in that moment.chicken-quote

While the safety and value of her chicken flock and the happiness of her children weigh heavily on Chripczuk’s mind, she also thinks bigger picture. She knows her house is chaos, that there aren’t really chickens allowed in her Pennsylvania development, so looking around at her small farm, she wonders if her family’s lifestyle is bringing down the value of the surrounding homes and feels embarrassed by their choices. Don’t we all, for one reason or another, wonder if we’re doing it right? If we’re savvy enough, earthy enough, healthy or happy or advanced enough?

At her twin’s pre-school graduation, an event I’ll never understand, she worries that she doesn’t appear excited enough for the event. Will she take enough photos? Is the family dressed respectably enough? Will she be happy or tearful — or whatever society wants — enough? It’s the chickens though, those talkative, escapee, messy birds that remind her that animals do what’s natural, and that she can take less-than-perfect scenarios and see the beauty in them. She learns, “I’ve never found a hidden nest by shaming a bird. I’ve never sat a chicken down and had a stern talk eye-to-eye.”

While Chicken Scratch loses just a hint of the magic I find at Chripczuk’s blog, mainly because the focus is very much on chickens and misses out on the smaller moments in between, it was a pleasant reminder to look for signs from unconventional places on how to act and think, but without heading into saccharine territories.

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Chicken Scratch is available on Amazon!

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.

Limber

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Limber

TITLE: Limber: essays
AUTHOR: Angela Pelster
PUBLISHED: 2014
PUBLISHER: Sarabande Books
LENGTH: 154 pages

A whole book of essays about trees; how is that even possible? Angela Pelster makes it happen in her sleek collection containing 17 essays, usually around 5 pages each. With titles like “Temple” and “Ethan Lockwood” and “Artifacts,” you may not immediately get the connection to trees. More so, you may not have a sense of direction with the content. But Pelster leads readers along and takes us to unknown territory that opens up like the door through which Dorothy crosses from black-and-white into a color-filled world in Oz.

In a number of Pelster’s pieces, I forgot she was behind the scenes pulling the marionette strings, which left me space to take in the information unimpeded. In the essay “Burmis,” the author describes the now-gone town of Frank, a place where people continued mining despite the dangerous work. The land has a long history of forcing people to leave. But the miners just wouldn’t–not even when a landslide took out part of the town: “The survivors on the safe side of town continued to live alongside the dead, as if their neighbors and their neighbors’ houses beneath the limestone existed in a secret other world, as if they still hung bed sheets to dry on the clothesline below ground, swept floors, cooked dinner in the dark.” Though Pelster must have researched the history of Burmis, Alberta, her authorial link is seemingly transparent, and she knows when to be “out of the way.” Occasionally, she weaves in personal experience, but with the exception of the essay “Rot,” it’s subtle.

The way Angela Pelster teaches readers about trees is enough to make those who read Limber change their minds about the very subject. Did you know that the apostle Paul apparently ate figs on his trip to Cyprus, planting trees from the remains of the fruit on his way? That the pigment Indian Yellow was supposedly made from the urine of cows that were only fed leaves from the mango tree? That in 1832 William Henry Jackson deeded a tree to itself? That tree seeds were taken by Apollo 14 to the moon, later presumed dead, then planted and grew? These are but a few of the topics that Pelster uncovers in her essays, exploring them in a way that shows readers that she’s conveying stories about living organisms that are fundamental to humanity and its history. She gives statistics and anecdotes to support her ideas.

The essays don’t read like a textbook of either science or history, though. The attention to each individual word is enormous. Some lines are lyrical and reflect the curling shapes of leaves while others are straightforward and make readers snap to attention. On finding bones in the desert sand: “Overnight, the wind reburies what took the paleontologists hours to unearth, and the desert rearranges itself, tucking its children back into bed while they sleep”–lyrical. As rot chronicles the decay of a squirrel’s body outside her window, Pelster notes how we are programed to do as much: “Scientists call this autolysis: self-digestion. It comes from two Greek words meaning ‘self-splitting.’ As if bodies carry inside themselves the potential to undo themselves.”–straightforward. Both methods appear in every essay, combining unique, factual  information with a fiction writer’s eye for pleasing word arrangement and choices.

I discovered that it was easy to get lost in these essays, to block out the noise around me. The works becomes like dreams. The collection explores nature in a way that made me care deeply about it, not just metaphorically or in a way that makes me hate technology for a day or two. The reading experience was much like a gentle, shallow river that made me appreciate the life of individual trees and the experiences they record in their bodies and the way those experiences can educate me.

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

 

Above All

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Above All

Why do covers with real people not look like the characters?

Above All by Rebecca Brooks is romance from Ellora’s Cave (July 2014). The story follows Casey, a 34-year-old woman who had her heart broken after her boyfriend of 7 years, Nick, moves on. Casey moves 200 miles away to Paper Lake, home to a campground. When we meet Casey, she’s been living in a cabin at the campground for a year, which is part of her pay for working there. Her family sees her choice to live such a rustic life–she did abandon a PhD in Art History program in NYC–a big waste.

But Casey can’t say no to jumping into the freezing lake each morning, nor can she say no to the beautiful Bonnet mountains. Later, she finds it very hard to say no to Ben, a 26-year-old young man in cooking school who camps at Paper Lake with his friends one weekend…

Above All is a novel both predictable and puzzling. Very few romances ever surprise me; typically, surprising stories don’t end with the main characters together. Romances pretty much always have a man and woman who start off hot and heavy, spend a long time apart because something keeps them apart, one character (usually the woman) chases the other only to be heartbroken by a cousin/sibling/gay friend who appears to now be dating the person chased, and then a grand gesture that reunites the couple, elevating them to happily-ever-status. Does predictability ruin a romance? Not really; it’s a billion-dollar formula for making women squee, and Brooks hits all the right notes for squeeing once she gets her characters having sex.

Some problems in the beginning:

At first, Casey is sad about losing Nick. He’s finally published his book that he worked on for years, the one for which Casey was a dutiful reader and commenter, but Nick’s acknowledgments say, “Above all, thank you to Aubrey Peterson…” Who the frick-hole is Aubrey Peterson?! *insert rage and anger* When she does meet Ben as he checks in to the campground, Casey refers to his “puppy-dog” eyes/facial expression so many times I kind of want to hurt something. The whiny vowel sound of the “y” and the pop sound made from “pup” grated on my ears over and over. However, I am aware that not all readers think about things like word sounds and I may be alone in my complaints. Worse still was the way Ben kept showing up at Casey’s–and employee’s–cabin, which was not right near the campsites. Even Casey calls Ben a stalker at one point, echoing my own concerns. Stalking someone enough doesn’t make for a romance, it makes for a case of stalking.

After Casey accepts this young man stalking her, she decides she wants to have sex with him–his kisses are just too damn good. When she goes to unbuckle his belt, though, he pulls away and says he has to get back to his friends at the campsite. For the rest of the book, this moment is deemed one of running away, as in Ben runs away because he’s the kind of man who runs away. I was puzzled, though; Casey and Ben had only briefly talked 2-3 times. Why should he jump right in bed with someone just because he likes her? I saw him as more gentlemanly, but the moment is forever held against him as a black mark.

Once Casey and Ben start having sex, things pick up:

There is sex. Lots and lots and lots of sex. Once Casey and Ben do get it on, they don’t stop. They’re hiking, but stop for sex. They’re boating, but stop for sex. They’re going to eat food, but stop to have sex (so much wasted food in Above All). They jump in the freezing lake, and once Ben’s dick stops turtle-ing, they stop for sex. My response was very George Takei: “Ohhhh, myyyy.” The scenes are superbly written. Brooks pays attention to details, like using a condom every time (though not for oral sex), wiping up cum strings from Casey’s mouth, the clit as a pleasure center, etc. Never does the sex feel cheap or gratuitous or make me think, “Oh, please.” It’s realistic. The details are very good, and this book is bound to make you cross and re-cross your legs as you read.

The puzzling bit comes from the fact that Casey and Ben don’t really talk to each other. Ben knows nothing of Casey’s relationship with Nick, nor does she talk about being in a PhD program. He does come upon (stalk) her once and see that she is painting, but then leaves her alone. The only significant thing they discuss is that Ben wants to open a bakery, but his parents want him to be an Italian chef. I felt like food is food; it’s not like his parents wanted him to be a lawyer instead. Plus, he’s 26. But, this is a big point of contention for Ben. Other talking? It doesn’t happen when Casey are Ben are together in a situation where clothes can come off. When Casey misses Ben during their separation, she remembers “the first night in the cabin, the rock ledge on the mountain, the rowboat, the lake, the woods themselves.” These are all places they’ve had sex. What else is there? After the characters do hook up, not once do Casey or Ben say “love.” Although dubbed a romance, and despite many mentions of heartbreak and hearts wildly beating, there is no “love.”

There are a few situations in Above All for which Brooks provides readers with some really, truly fun dialogue or phrasing that made me like her characters. Casey’s old lady-friend Lee tries to fix Casey’s huge, tangled, curly red hair before a date, but Lee can only shake her head and say, “That’s between you and your god, but may I suggest investing in some detangler?” When Ben returns to the campground to find Casey chopping wood, she realizes, “At one point the prospect of running into him again with an axe in her hands might have been quite appealing.” During their time together at the campground, Casey convinces Ben to jump in the lake with her one morning, and I giggled as I read:

She went to pull his towel off to wrap hers around him so they would both be together in the towel, skin against skin. But Bun pulled away quickly, a look crossing his eyes.

“No way,” he grimaced. “You’ll never want to come near me again.”

“What are you talking about?” Casey paused, confused.

“The cold!” he cried.

Casey laughed and ripped off his towel with one hard tug, but his hands flew straight to his crotch.

“I’m shriveled up like a sack of times! Tinier than a fingerling potato!” he cried as he leapt, buck naked, up to the cabin, his adorable butt a moon of white bounding over the path.

Over all, I do recommend Above All by Rebecca Brooks for its hot sex scenes that are sure to get you eyeing your partner over the pages, and for the way she got me thinking differently about relationships. Who am I to assume that all pairings have to be about love? Perhaps Casey and Ben, in some unwritten future, do fall in love and say it. I’d also recommend this book just for the scene during which Ben enters a women’s restroom and crawls under a locked door.

 I want to thank Rebecca Brooks for sending me Above All for review in exchange for my honest opinion. Please check out more about Ms. Brooks writer life at her Meet the Writer feature here on Grab the Lapels!

Meet the Writer: H.D. Gordon

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Meet the Writer: H.D. Gordon

9b50ed_9e034f90870045dd9f1495fbac0b1af4I want to give a big welcome to author H.D. Gordon! You can learn more about today’s guest at her website. She has free books you can download on Kindle, and events coming up for her new book, The Company Store! Look for my forthcoming review of H.D.’s horror novel, Santa’s Little Helper, here at Grab the Lapels!

What kind of writing do you do? What kinds of writing do you wish you did more of?

I’ve just completed my tenth novel, and in truth I am a serious genre-jumper. I’ve written a series of NA [New Adult] paranormal, a fantasy romance series, a horror novel, a couple supernatural thrillers, and just recently, a YA dystopian.

My first love was poetry, however, so I consider myself both a poet and a novelist. In short, I do EVERY kind of writing. My interests vary widely, and I love to feel challenged.

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

I began writing before I really began retaining long-term memories. Okay, that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but just a bit. One of my very first influences was Poe. I could not have been more than eight years old or so when my mother handed me a book that was a collection of his short stories and poems, and I remember thinking about the words, “I’ve got to try this.” I began writing poetry and never stopped. I can’t really ever remember being unhappy with a piece. Until I began writing professionally about three years ago, it had always just been for me, and it was more about the feeling it gave me than the amount of stars I’d give it.

How do your friends and family respond to your writing?

They are extremely supportive, but save for my mother and father, it was not always that way. When I began this journey, I was 22 years old (I’m 26 now), and had made some pretty terrible life-changing decisions. I was the epitome of a “lost youth,” and at that point I’d done nothing in my life to prove that I’d be anything but a screw-up. It took a serious near-death event to open my eyes, and I fell back into words as a way to preserve my mind.

I’ll skip ahead and just say that now, nearly 50,000 copies sold and ten books later, they are all on team “H. D. Gordon,” and I’m thankful everyday for that.

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

I never had a clue, honestly. I wanted to be everything, and I wanted to be nothing. I’ve struggled my entire life with bipolar depression, and only recently had this diagnosed, so I spent a great portion of my life just trying to survive the torment in my head. I’m sure this has had a huge impact on my writing, and to me, the right words have always been worth a little suffering.

What inspired you to write your first book?

That near-death event that I mentioned earlier? That was it. I wrote the first book in The Alexa Montgomery Saga immediately after. I wanted to live in a story where the heroine was never a victim, where the MC [main character] would be tough and brave and flawed but ultimately good.

Poetry had always been my “low points” fallback, but I needed a lot more words to heal this time, and it turned out to be an entire novel. The readers were incredibly supportive, and that’s another thing I’m eternally grateful for.

TCScover9What are your current writing projects?

My most recent work is a YA dystopian…Can I just hit you with a synopsis real quick? *plug plug*

Thanks to the greed of man, Earth is dying. Climate change and human greed has wrought mass destruction over the planet, and a fraction of the population remains.

The Company Store controls the last civilization, known as the Single Nation Circle.  Those outside the Circle are Outliers, outcasts and gangsters who do whatever it takes to survive.

Samuel Poe is the 18-year-old leader of the Poe Boys, the Northern Outlier gang. With resources ever dwindling, Sam knows he must be the toughest of the dogs fighting over the scraps if he hopes to keep himself and his people alive.

When Sam meets Anna Rose, daughter of Mr. Company, the most powerful man in the dying world, he finds himself in a deadly race toward resources and a new life.

Much like those of their ancestors, the choices of the two star-crossed teenagers will echo through the ages, the fate of the human race resting on their shoulders.

Lol!! That pretty much sums it up! I’m hoping to inspire the youth to make a change with this one, and I could not be more excited!

The Company Store comes out August 3rd and will be on sale for $0.99 that day only!

Thank you so much!!

Birdbrain

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Birdbrain is a self-published (2014) novel by Virginia Arthur. Clocking in at 500 pages, Birdbrain covers a lot of ground. The novel starts in Michigan in 1982 with 26-year-old Ellie sitting at home, waiting for her husband to love her more than the TV. When she accidentally goes on the wrong day to her church picnic, she discovers a group who loves bird watching, which becomes the catalyst for her divorce. Although she meets new men along the way, including one who loves and waits for her, Ellie is mostly focused on watching birds. Over a year later she eventually returns to college to get a degree in biology, but once she finishes, she realizes that there are two kinds of biologists: the academic who wants to study wildlife to write a paper for recognition, and the field biologist (a dying breed) who tries to do something about the problem of over-development of open areas. Ellie spends a good amount of time in San Diego with her sister and her sister’s boyfriend where Ellie sees that development happens everywhere, which she considers a horrible disease of mankind that breaks her heart.

Unfortunately, the choice of when to go into depth with the plot feels a bit misguided. In the first 175 pages, Ellie gets divorced and discovers she loves watching birds. For about a year she lives with her friend Patty and won’t get a job. We’re told Ellie took $2,000 from her ex-husband when she left, but in what way does this money last for a year? Though I wanted to be patient with Ellie, I grew annoyed with her. There is also a lot of repetition in the first 175 pages, such as telling the same stories and experiences or visiting certain places, which didn’t push the story forward.

However, two characters, both Michigan Department of Fish and Game employees, are introduced during this time, and while it seems convenient that Ellie might fall in love with one of them, she doesn’t and for that I was thankful. Should the author choose such an obvious way to get Ellie, with her newly-broken heart, to “move on,” I would have felt disappointed. Ellie seems in control of her relationship with men, once she’s divorced.

After those 175 pages, Ellie still isn’t a likable person; she decides to go to school for biology, a degree for which her mother is paying, and in the first semester she signs up for two classes she doesn’t need (one of them being “Camping I”) and biology. The day before school starts, Ellie decides she’ll be sleeping through the camping class, which is before her Biology class. I just really didn’t like Ellie.

Once she does get to class, though, I can see her trying to organize her life in a way that no one else around her has, so she’s a pioneer, really, in her small Michigan town. While her friends get married young, have babies, and enjoy trucks and barbecues, Ellie feels jealous but cannot settle for the life she’s told she was “supposed” to lead–and was on the path to lead with her husband.

Ellie visits her sister in California, which shows Ellie that even the open spaces of a desert area are being destroyed in the name of progress. It does take two separate trips to California (once when she starts college and once after she’s graduated) for Ellie to really get moving as a character, once again proving that Birdbrain moves too slowly for its own good. It’s after she graduates and heads west for a visit that Ellie finally battles “progress” in California. She learns that 400 acres of land–full of animals, insects, and plants–are going to be bulldozed to create lots for houses. When Virginia Arthur gets to the heart of a fiction book about biology, her work really shines. Here is an example:

It had been about two weeks since the massacre [of the 400 acres]. Unbeknownst to Ellie, Ben, and Liz, hundreds of people had shown up on the property much to the annoyance of the construction company. All kinds of people cased the place, a few looking to see if the lots were for sale yet. Flowers were thrown out across the new housing pads and roads, or stuck directly into the newly graded land, as if for a dead person. (The fact that most of the flowers strewn on the land were nonnative horticultural plants the species of which would ultimately be included in the water-sucking landscape for the new housing development, seemed fitting somehow).

The author’s almost brutal point that the flowers people used to mourn destroyed land are also harmful because they are not indigenous is a striking point. She shows the ignorance of the common person, no matter how kindhearted.

Keen readers will notice in the above passage that there are some problems with commas. Though I try not to focus on the punctuation in books (an error or two are bound to crop up), self-published works can be some of the worst offenders simply because the author is trying to play too many roles: storyteller, editor, publicist, etc. Comma problems were the most obvious (splices, run-ons), as were the unusual use of quote marks. Instead of thinking in italics, which is common practice, characters thought with quote marks. A tag phrase of “thought so-and-so” at the end of a thought meant I had to go back and reread the passage because I was under the impression he/she said something. The quotes around and inside dialogue got confusing, too. Ellie’s friend Patty asks:

“What do you mean they’ve’ “come over from another country?” What? They all got together and decided they could make higher wages and a better life for themselves here, so they all just flew over?” Patty chuckled.

While I get what Patty is saying here, in many places I had to keep track of quote marks to be sure dialogue ended and began somewhere, though in some cases there wasn’t a closing quote mark. And, I’m not sure why one single quote mark appears every few pages, such as they’ve’. Basically, a small problem like multiple quote marks isn’t, overall, a huge deal, but it is asking the reader to do more work–unnecessarily.

The last 100 pages of the novel were some of the best, because this is where the book becomes humorous and the action takes place. Ellie tries to save the plants and animals in San Diego, which gets a lot of local attention, and the story zeros in on both biology and community, giving it life that earlier parts lack.

After the section about trying to save those 400 acres, Ellie is able to travel across America–from California to Washington and eventually back to Michigan. She is alone, but meets all sorts of people with whom she discusses birds and biology at campgrounds. By this point in the book Ellie is a woman in her early 30s who has an idea of who she is and what she wants, though not a life plan to implement, which seems to suit her okay for a time. She is in control sexually in a way that most women are not in fiction, and I respected her for that. Ellie doesn’t shy away from situations because she is alone; her family and friends may worry, but Ellie isn’t going to wait for a boyfriend or husband to take her hand and be her “protector” through her adventures:

Ellie made a mental note that the two women in her life she loved most seemed to be really curt with her lately and both very anxious for her to “settle down.” She chalked it up to their being jealous and yes, there was an element of this but what she did not fully grasp was that they were also genuinely concerned for her safety; having to worry about her on top of everything else in their lives was an extra burden. It even kind of pissed them off.

Despite the occasional humor near the end (where Arthur really seems to hit her stride) and an intelligent theme for a novel (the author is a field biologist who can speak credibly about the subject), I had trouble getting over inconsistencies in the plot. A character has a baby in one scene and the baby is gone later. A broken radio is returned to its owner only to be in Ellie’s kitchen for repair in a page or two, which then has to be given to the owner again. Patty says it’s good Ellie got a goodnight kiss from her date only to say a little while later that she feels bad that man didn’t get a goodnight kiss. In the end, when Ellie is in her 80s, the author seems to have forgotten the dates and ages she established: if Ellie is divorced at 26 in 1982 and is single into her 30s, it’s not possible in the end for her to become a widow at 64–after 40 years of marriage. And if the story ends with Ellie in her 80s, it’s important to note that readers are now in the future, somewhere around year 2040. How would development and biology and environmental concerns be different so far into the future when policies change and lands are destroyed so quickly today? It seems suspiciously like 2015 when Ellie is in her 80s.

I kept waiting for the book to be how it was described on Goodreads and in the press release: parts Tom Robbins, TC Boyle, Barbara Kingsolver, Pam Houston, Ed Abbey, Vine Deloria, and John Irving. Personally, I feel it’s a mistake for authors to compare their works to famous writers because readers go in with certain expectations that are almost never met (one of the reasons I don’t do such comparisons in my reviews) and fail to see the originality of the book they hold in their hands.

Overall, Birdbrain still has a lot of promise, which is the beauty of self-publishing; it can be edited. I loved the momentum, humor, and character development–in the last stretch–but had I not been reviewing the book (I always finish a book I review), I wouldn’t have gotten past 100 pages.

*I want to thank Virginia Arthur for sending me a copy of her novel in exchange for an honest review. I have no personal, familial, or professional relationship to this author.

MaddAddam

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MaddAddam
by Margaret Atwood
Read by Bernadette Dunne, Bob Walter, & Robbie Daymond
Random House, 2013
11 CDs

It takes a long time to get through an audiobook, what with all those pauses and feelings the voice actors insert. Novels for the ears became just when I needed when I decided it was time to workout a bit more than not at all. After teaching Oryx and Crake last fall, I decided it was good to listen to The Year of the Flood before I forgot everything I knew about the complex characters and world Atwood created. Of course, it was my Facebook feed that led me to realize MaddAddam had just come out in September, and if I waited to listen to it, if I put it in the queue, I would forget all of book two. These are long books, people. And thus began my month-long journey with MaddAddam.

MaddAddam picks up right where The Year of the Flood left off. Atwood is good and ending her books in this series with characters about to enter the frame, but we don’t know who or perhaps why. This time, it’s the Crakers who are coming to help Ren, Toby, and Jimmy who are trying to rescue Amanda from two Painballers. Atwood takes readers both back into Zeb’s and Adam One’s past and forward into the war between humans/Crakers/pigoons and Painballers.

Most of it is Zeb telling Toby the story of who he is so that she can retell it to the Crakers. You see, they heard Zeb say, “I’m so hungry, I could eat a bear,” so now they want to know if he is a bear or has a connection to bears. We learn who Zeb’s brother is and why Zeb, who didn’t really fit in, lived with the God’s Gardeners group. If you liked Zeb in the second book of the trilogy, then this is juicy stuff for you. Zeb knows computers, he likes to swear and irritate his brother, and we get full disclosure of his sexual history. Then again, readers have to ask if we need to know more about Zeb. I felt that it was important because his fringe behavior made no sense in book two; he couldn’t simply be the rebel.

Amazingly, three characters come up pregnant at the same time, and the possible fathers– Painballers as a result of rape? Crakers as a result of a cultural misunderstanding (rape)? Someone in the Cobb house?–makes readers ask: does a child who is the product of rape deserve to be loved by its mother? Atwood takes what I consider the easy road when we learn the biological beginnings of these babies when she really had an opportunity to poke at the readers in a post-apocalyptic world and make us uncomfortable. Things started to get comfortable, is what I’m saying.

The book ends with the war between “the good guys” (humans, the Craker translator boy named Blackbeard, and pigoons) and the “bad guys” (Painballers who have been punished so severely by society that they have no human emotions). The sub-species troops of “good guys” made for some interesting juxtapositions to what we’ve read earlier, in the first book for example, when the pigoons are going to eat Jimmy. If the Painballers are captured, the “good guys” must decide what will done with/to them. I put “good guys” in quotes because the levels of good vary by specie. The Crakers have no knowledge of violence or why it would be committed, whereas the humans have person bones with the Painballers. Even the pigoons have reasons for wanting the Painballers dead, but their treatment of the bodies would be different. Atwood uses the political commentary here on the death penalty to make readers question whether justice would prevail in a post-apocalyptic world or if the personal opinions of the most affected group would win over. This is where Atwood succeeds in getting readers to think.

However, she also has characters suggest that they are the only ones on the whole planet, but we’re talking about somewhere in the United States. A medium-sized group of people, almost all of whom knew each other before the “flood,” were able to reconnect. Either this is coincidence at its best, or there are a lot of other people out there we’re not meeting. Would the biggest threat be two Painballers? What if the focus had been more on restoring order? Perhaps the potential I’m seeing in MaddAddam would rehash what we’ve already read in Lord of the Flies, which is why I ultimately wanted the book to stop after we learned about Zeb. He was a great addition to the cast in the second book, rugged and loyal, but one who couldn’t be “tamed.” I was more interested in him than Ren and wondered if a third book was necessary if Ren had been removed and Zeb’s history inserted into The Year of the Flood. Sure, Ren connects us to Jimmy later on, but did we need so many connections?

Atwood’s trilogy is so long and time consuming that you might stop at Oryx and Crake and be satisfied. If you think you’re going to come away with something–some message or final emotion on which to settle–you may be disappointed. Everyone dies because we must. This seems to be Atwood’s way of ending her books: everyone you cared about has died from natural causes or murder or reasons unknown, which isn’t necessarily fulfilling.