Tag Archives: faith

Dust Tracks on a Road #BlackLit #Autobiography

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Dust Tracks on a Road #BlackLit #Autobiography

Dust Tracks on a Road is Hurston’s autobiography, though it doesn’t read like a traditional autobiography. The book is broken into sections. First, it reads like the story of her life, but then she moves into chapters about friendship, collecting folktales in the Caribbean, bringing “true Negro dancing” to the the U.S., and what it means to be an individual instead of a member of a race. Hurston died in obscurity in (1891- 1960). As scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. notes in the afterward:

Hurston’s fame reached its zenith in 1943 with a Saturday Review cover story honoring the success of Dust Tracks. Seven years later, she would be serving as a maid in Rivo Alto, Florida; ten years after that she would die in the County Welfare Home in Fort Pierce, Florida.

How could the recipient of two Guggenheims and the author of four novels, a dozen short stories, two musicals, two books on black mythology, dozens of essays, and a prize-wining autobiography virtually “disappear” from her readership for three full decades?

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In 1975, Alice Walker (the author best know for The Color Purple) wrote an essay about Hurston, which was published in Ms. magazine. The article launched a Hurston revival, and more people have read Their Eyes Were Watching God between 1975 and today than did between 1937 and 1975.

Dust Tracks on a Road begins with a bit about the development of Eatonville, Florida, starting with two Brazilians. For reasons not fully clear to me, black and whites worked together to help black folks create Eatonville, which is sort of attached to Maitland, Florida (the geography is confusing). Hurston explains, “Eatonville, Florida, is, and was at the time of my birth, a pure Negro town — charter, mayor, council, town marshal and all.” For this reason, Hurston is not aware of racism to the extent that other black Americans are; not once to my memory does Hurston mention an incident involving race in this book.

Unexpectedly, I visited Eatonville a few weeks ago. I visited my ol’ Granny for spring break, leaving behind the mushy Indiana weather. One day at breakfast, while wearing my “Zora t-shirt,” I began to discuss the writer and explain her hometown. A quick tango with Google revealed we were only about an hour from Eatonville, so we made the trip.

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We didn’t stay too long, but we ate Jamaican lunch at Momz’s, visited the Zora Neale Hurston museum, and tried some key lime cake at Be Back Gordon’s Fish House (don’t you love that name??). Some things had a Maitland address, while others were Eatonville, though all locations were within blocks of each other. Everyone simply calls it Eatonville.

 

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Understanding Eatonville is key to understanding Dust Tracks on a Road. It’s also important to know about “the Dozens,” which Hurston doesn’t explain in detail, but is a game played in black communities that has become part of the culture. I cover “the Dozens” when I teach African American literature. “The Dozens” is cleverly insulting someone, and while the person doing the insulting may not have any formal education, people get creative. When Hurston first goes north, she learns that she is different. Southern children are “raised on simile and invective. They know how to call names.” Here is a great passage that may help you next time someone has it coming:

It is an every day affair to hear somebody called a mullet-headed, mule-eared, wall-eyed, hog-nosed, gator-faced, shad-mouthed, screw-necked, goat-bellied, puzzle-gutted, camel-backed, butt-sprung, battle-hammed, knock-kneed, razor-legged, box-ankled, shovel-footed, unmated so and so! Eyes looking like skint-ginny nuts, and a mouth looking like a dishpan full of broke-up crockery!

There is a mean little person in me that loves this list, mainly because I have learned from my own story-driven kinfolks that name-calling is one of the richest places to get inventive. Hurston uses idioms the entire book, making it a rich read.

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Hurston has a book titled I Love Myself When I Am Laughing…& Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive (ed. by Alice Walker)

This is an autobiography full of storytelling, because that’s the heartbeat of her community. One time, her “Aunt Cal’line” tripped a lady off the church steps to see if she was wearing underwear; the woman was not, so Aunt Cal’line spit on her naked bits and rubbed the spit in with her foot. One time, Hurston tried to kill her stepmother with an ax. One time, Hurston interviewed one of the last living slaves who came from Africa. He was in his 90s and wondered if his kinfolk in Africa still missed him. Sadly, Hurston’s studies revealed that whole village had been murdered the day he was captured by a rival African village and sold into slavery.

It’s possible that Hurston’s unique upbringing is what makes her one of the most independent thinkers I’ve ever read about. She fits with almost no one from her time. When other blacks in America (and not all are African American, hence I use “black”) are fighting for equality, Hurston sympathizes with the black man who owns a barbershop that served only whites. One day, a black man comes in and demands to be served, but everyone throws him out. If rumor got around that the owner had served another black man, his white clients would not only ruin his business, but he would have to close the 6 other shops he owned. Hurston argues that helping one black man achieve equality wasn’t worth all the jobs the black employees had.

In fact, Hurston took a while to even begin writing a book because she was told “Negroes were supposed to write about the Race Problem.” She argues she doesn’t want to talk about the “Race Problem” and spends an entire chapter explaining why — mainly that she judges folks individually, not as a group. Hurston gives explains the feeling of “hopeless resignation”:

For example, well-mannered Negroes groan out [“My people! My people!] when they board a train or a bus and find other Negroes on there with their shoes off, stuffing themselves with fried fish, bananas and peanuts, and throwing the garbage on the floor. . . . Now, the well-mannered Negro is embarrassed by the crude behavior of the others. They are not friends, and have never seen each other before. So why should he or see be embarrassed?

Hurston goes on to argue that the “well-mannered Negro” feels so badly because people focus on race instead of pointing to the folks dumping the trash on the ground as problematic individuals. I know that this viewpoint will cause a lot of discussion on the pros and cons of race solidarity, but I applaud Hurston for arguing her point carefully. She has an entire chapter entitled “My People! My People!” in which she discusses what she calls race pride, race prejudice, race man, race solidarity, race consciousness, and race. “My people” is always said with an “ermehgerd” sort of tone, as if the person can’t believe how embarrassing other people in their race can be.

Overall, whether you agree with her opinions or not, Hurston brought African dance, music, and stories into the United States. She made it okay for black men and women to write using their own tongues (dialect, idioms, words that live under the words) when many authors thought they had to write in Standard English to be accepted (I wonder if some of those writers thought, “my skinfolks but not my kinfolks — my people!” about Hurston…).

If you love language, you have to read Zora Neale Hurston. If you love independent women, you have to read Hurston. My only regret is that I can’t describe and quote everything I highlighted. I’ll end with a Fun Fact:

This independent lady was a writer and an anthropologist, and it was rumored that when she would hang out with famous poet Langston Hughes in Harlem, she would stop random people and ask if she could measure their skull circumference.

Extra Goody: listen to this five minute interview in which Hurston describes what a zombie is. She met them in Haiti, you know…

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Anne Moody’s autobiography Coming of Age in Mississippi 

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Anne Moody’s autobiography Coming of Age in Mississippi 

Anne Moody’s autobiography, Coming of Age in Mississippi, was originally published in 1968. I wanted this book to see if I could get an entirely different, yet still intensely personal, side of the time period compared to Malcolm X’s autobiography, published in 1965 shortly after his death. Malcolm lived exclusively in the North, whereas Moody was only in the South. Moody begins with her first memories and ends in her 20s at a church a group singing “We Shall Overcome,” wondering if they ever will. She has relationships to Medgar Evers, Emmett Till, and other famous activists.

I hadn’t heard of Anne Moody before I saw her book on the shelf at Barnes and Noble. Most famously, she was one of the protesters who participated in a sit-in at Woolworth’s.

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That’s Moody on the far right sitting at the counter. Photo for USA Today

Before that, she was a little girl who grew up poor, constantly changed addresses, gained a new sibling every year or two, and could barely get the clothes she needed to go to school. Moody worked most of her life, too, serving mostly in white people’s homes. When one racist white woman locked the front door so Moody would be forced to enter in the rear (which social norms required of black folks), Moody banged on the front door until someone else let her in. She was never subservient, though you could argue she was lucky. She saw friends and family shot, burned alive in their homes, and dragged in the woods to be stripped naked and beaten, all at the hands of white Southerners. Moody had anxiety that would earn her a Xanax prescription, plus some.

Moody is always aware of what’s really going on, even when other black people aren’t or won’t say anything. When Moody’s town gets a new high school for black students, everyone rejoices, but she points out, “As most of them, students, teachers, and principals alike, were bragging about how good the white folks were to give us such a big beautiful school, I was thinking of how dumb we were to accept it. I knew that the only reason the white folks were being so nice was that they were protecting their own schools. Our shiny new school would never be equal to any school of theirs.”

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Anne Moody, 1969. Photo for New York Times

Moody did well all through school and participated in many sports. Unlike many of her peers, she went on to college. At the time, a black student had to attend an all black college (no, Betsy DeVos, it wasn’t a “choice”). Soon, she was involved with the NAACP, which got back to the whites in her hometown. Since any hint of discontent among black citizens can easily lead to an uprising, and Southern whites know that, Moody’s membership was enough for white folks to harass her mother and ask her what Moody was doing, what her plans were, if she were coming home (she couldn’t; she would be killed). In fact, Moody worked so much for so little for the Civil Rights Movement that many times she nearly starved or was murdered.

My favorite aspect of the the autobiography as a genre is that it doesn’t try to add “flavor” to real-life events. Things aren’t reflected upon creatively; the writer needs to simply tell what happened. Moody does not add her own agenda into Coming of Age in Mississippi even though it’s her book. She doesn’t tell readers what to think about racism, but what she thought about racists during the time. Unlike Malcolm X’s autobiography, which clearly looks back from a time in the future (like when he writes about not being good at boxing as a teenager, which he believed as an adult was thanks to Allah, who kept him from “getting punchy”), Moody’s story is always in the moment. I respect this careful erasure of Moody the writer, and the focus on Moody as a girl, college student, and activist.

Moody’s book also taught me details of the Civil Rights Movement of which I was not aware, even though I’ve studied and taught the time period. For instance, when a house full of activists hear through the grapevine that a group of whites are going to kill them that night and block all the roads out of town, the young men and women lay out in the yard all night in long grass. It’s wet, hard, and they’re all shaking in terror. I felt like I was there with them. Moody’s family also turns on her quickly so they won’t be killed. Her favorite grandma treats her like a stranger. Later, I learned that in one town where Moody leads a group of activists that black people have most of the land and make up most of the population. However, land and crop contracts are only given to white farmers, so the black farmers sit on cropless land and nearly starve to death. Furthermore, I knew that activists were constantly arrested, but Moody explains that they were packed into a truck and locked in, after which the driver would crank up the heat on a 100+ degree day and leave them in their for hours until people freaked out or nearly died. When a headless black body is found, the colleges do room checks to see if it’s one of their students. The Klan shared pamphlets door-to-door with a blacklist of certain people (Moody’s picture appears on their list). This is the stuff you don’t get in your history textbook.

One thing Malcolm X and Anne Moody definitely had in common is they did not look to Dr. King for guidance. Malcolm complains King is an “Uncle Tom,” a sit-down Civil Rights activist (a play on the term for protests called sit-ins). Moody goes to see Dr. King at the March on Washington and comes to a conclusion about the black movement’s so-called leader: “I sat on the grass and listened to the speakers, to discover we had ‘dreamers’ instead of leaders leading us. Just about everyone of them stood up there dreaming. Martin Luther King went on and on talking about his dream. I sat there thinking that in Canton [a Mississippi city deep in poverty due to racism] we never had time to sleep, much less dream.” While we’re always hammered with Dr. King in school, his philosophies and actions didn’t sit well with many activists.

The most intense part of Coming of Age in Mississippi is the anticipation. Will Moody make real gains as an activist? Will she be able to return to her hometown? It’s a book that makes readers lean forward, so to speak, so the 424 pages of this mass market paperback fly by. The only complaint I have is Moody’s frequent mention of Reverend King, who is a minister from the South who helps activists. He’s the only white person she trusts, but it’s easy to confuse his name with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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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!

Living with a Wild God #BookReview #Journalism #Memoir

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Living with a Wild God #BookReview #Journalism #Memoir

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

by Barbara Ehrenreich

published by Hachette Book Group, 2014


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meet the Writer: Lori Horvitz #writerslife #interview

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Meet the Writer: Lori Horvitz #writerslife #interview
Lori Horvitz

Lori & Belly

I want to thank Lori for stopping by Grab the Lapels! You can find out more about her at her website. Be sure to friend Lori on Facebook!

What would you like readers to know about your new book, The Girls of Usually?

It’s a collection of interconnected memoir-essays, a coming of age of sorts, although a friend joked about how I never quite came of age. The essays were written over a span of ten years, maybe more. I didn’t set out to write a book, but I kept writing about subjects that obsessed me—identity, connection, and love. I grew up ashamed of being Jewish and idolizing the “shiksa in my living room,” a blonde all-American girl whose photo came in a double frame and was displayed for a decade next to a family photo from a bar mitzvah. This was my world. One reviewer said my writing is “wickedly funny,” yet some stories are wickedly sad. Perhaps funny and sad simultaneously. Among other subjects, I deal with death (my mother’s sudden death in my early twenties, and friends who’ve died of AIDS), getting stuck in a love triangle in the middle of a Communist package tour in dictator-run Romania, dating a German who didn’t think Hitler was so bad, and all while trying to figure out who I am—sexually, ethnically, culturally.

Are there aspects of your writing that readers might find challenging to them?

Perhaps readers may get frustrated with my narrator (me), who they could see as repeating similar destructive patterns. Then again, haven’t we all been guilty of making stupid choices? Bad choices make good stories.

How do your friends and family respond to your writing?

My local community in Asheville (colleagues, friends, the queer community, writers, students) has been amazingly supportive. I did a book launch a few weeks ago at a local café, and two weeks later, I read at Malaprop’s, a great indie bookstore in town. Both readings were standing room only. A number of people came out for both readings. I was humbled and heartened. I sent my father the first few chapters of the book and he read them aloud over the phone. He said, “This is very nice.” My brother who lives on the West Coast ordered a bunch of copies and was the first to post a picture of the book on Facebook.

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

I felt good about my first published piece in a literary journal—a poem about my poodle getting mauled to death at a parade by a Great Dane when I was seven. I was in my twenties when the poem was published. Every time I read it aloud at a reading, my audience cracked up.

How have you developed creatively since then?

Since the publication of that story, I went back to school for an MFA in creative writing (in poetry) at Brooklyn College, where I worked with Allen Ginsberg and Joan Larkin. Both encouraged me to open up, to not hide behind metaphors and abstractions. I then went on to a PhD program at SUNY Albany, where I studied with language poets and began playing with language, taking more risks with form. For my dissertation, I wrote a novel. I got hired to teach fiction but soon after started writing nonfiction. I sound like Madonna. Always reinventing myself. Or at least my writing.

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

I love live theatre and fantasize about being a playwright. I’ve always been interested in dialogue and getting voices down. Maybe one day I’ll write a musical.

Why do you think your book would be a good choice for a book club pick?

Everyone could relate to being an outsider, to not fitting in. Much of the book is about my character trying to figure out where she belongs in the world, always feeling like she’s just on the edge, not quite part of the mainstream. Most of us stumble along in similar ways. Maybe a reader hasn’t dated a pathological liar, or felt ashamed of her ethnicity/religion, or maybe she’s never ventured out of the U.S., but aren’t we all living as outsiders in some ways? By the end of the book, my character embraces that edge. Celebrates it. Life is about trial and error. And maybe I’ve experienced more error than trial. I’m hoping the reader can come along for the ride and connect as a vulnerable being in the world. Perhaps even recognize the beauty in bad choices, as painful as they are. And to have the courage to laugh, keep moving, and tell all.

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

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

Harley and Me by Bernadette Murphy

published by Counterpoint Press, May 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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#20BooksofSummer

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

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

 

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.

zabrisky pussy riot

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.

 

Noah’s Wife

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Noah’s Wife

noahswifeTitle: Noah’s Wife

Written by: Lindsay Starck

Published: by Putnam; on sale January 26, 2016

Pre-Order: here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that is a purposeful choice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Favorite Novels of 2015

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Novels: that fantastic art form that builds a world, sucks you in, and keeps you there for hundreds of pages as you get to know characters, settings, and live a huge narrative arc with many mini stories going on around it. Unlike short stories, you don’t have to use multiple re-entry points because you become part of the story (if it’s told well enough). In 2015 I read fewer novels that what is typical for me, but there were five that really stood out!


How to Knock a Bravebird from Her Perchd bryant simmons

by D. Bryant Simmons (read our interview here)

How to Knock a Bravebird from Her Perch is set mostly in the 1970s and is about Belinda (“Pecan”), a girl with a daddy who raised her right and loved her so, but when a Ricky comes into her town, things get messy. Pecan’s daddy doesn’t really seem to like Ricky, but he can’t say too much about it, as he has a heart attack and dies within the first few pages. Ricky and Pecan get married and move to Chicago where Ricky trains as a boxer and Pecan starts having babies. Girl after girl is born, and Ricky really wants a boy. He appears to hold this against Pecan, but that’s not surprising; Ricky has a temper on him and fists trained to hit. For several years, Ricky’s Aunt Clara lives with the family, and she is often able to keep Ricky from knocking the crap out of Pecan by threatening him with a cast iron skillet. But one night, when Pecan goes dancing with her girlfriends after Aunt Clara tells her she has to, Pecan meets an honorable man.

Overall, How to Knock a Bravebird from Her Perch is novel that is able to capture many characters and render them in a realistic tone that makes it pleasurable to read in addition to the challenging topics readers will face.

Read the full review here!


Our OrbitOur Orbit

by Anesa Miller

Our Orbit, self-published in 2014 by Anesa Miller, is a novel about a family of fundamentalist Christians that gets broken up when the mother dies in a car accident and the father is taken to prison. The novel is set shortly after the Oklahoma City Bombing (circa 1994 or 1995). Although one son is already married at 20, the three younger children–Josh at 18, Rachelle at 13, and Miriam at 8–must discover new lives in the aftermath.

Our Orbit is a compelling story altogether. Without telling any spoilers, I will say that many characters have events in their pasts that could cripple them in the present, so I was constantly looking for the second shoe to drop on all these unsuspecting people. Looking for the moments when information bombs could drop was a lot of fun, though Miller doesn’t let the plot become contrived; some bombs are more like small splats, and others aren’t bombs at all. Definitely a recommended read.

Read the full review here!


GagGag

by Melissa Unger

Gag starts out with a simple idea: Peter, a native of Brooklyn, stopped eating 15 years ago. How does he fit into a society that often schedules its activities around eating? His solution is to head to Paris, the food capitol of the world. On the plane ride over, he meets Dallas, a large red-headed Texan man who will challenge Peter’s very notions of what is truth, what is reality—even when Peter doesn’t, or even can’t, believe what he’s hearing.

Gag is a story about trust and secrets, but it’s delivered in a way that seems more about the absurd and metaphor. There are a number of comma splices throughout the book, but if you overlook those, you will enjoy this curious story. So much of what’s great about this book would spoil the story if I discussed it further, so check it for yourself.

Read the full review here!


saintsSaints in the Shadows

by Alana Cash (read our interview here)

Alana Cash’s self-published novel Saints in the Shadows (2014) follows Maud, a 24-year-old woman living in New York City. Maud is from New Orleans, but left when life didn’t make sense after the death of her father. Once Maud feels confident in her job as a waitress at a ludicrously expensive restaurant, she gets her own apartment, which is where she meets her eccentric neighbor from Hungary, Lina,  who works as a psychic using the pseudonym Madam Budska. Lina decides that Maud shows talent for reading people, and that’s all being a psychic is: just listening and looking. When Lina goes away for a week for “the big reveal,” she convinces Maud to meet with her clients in her absence.

I highly recommend Saints in the Shadows for it’s smooth organization, memorable characters, and its ability to make me a believer/non-believer. I really enjoyed this read!

Read the full review here!


santas little helperSanta’s Little Helper

by H.D. Gordon (read our interview here)

Santa’s Little Helper, a Christmas-themed horror novel by H.D. Gordon, is about the size of most Stephen King tales. At close to 400 pages, Gordon writes the stories of four children, all age five: Manny, Mikey, Emily, and Benny. Benny’s story is shared with his four-year-old brother, Tuck, so, really, there are five children total. Each child’s home receives a mysterious white box with no return address. Inside is an elf—quite possibly an Elf on the Shelf doll, though Gordon doesn’t outright say this—and a book describing how the elf is “Santa’s Little Helper,” a companion to watch children for Santa come Christmastime. But Satan’s—sorry, Santa’s—Little Helper isn’t what he seems. This elf is out to murder, and readers learn that this elf is an evil demon that sometimes appears in different forms, and has in the past…

Santa’s Little Help is a fun, scary book that I would recommend to fans of horror by authors like Stephen King because the pacing is a bit slower than modern consumers want (think about how most American horror movies don’t even reach 90 minutes), but it’s a scary-good time!

Read the full review here!


In 2016, the first novel I’ll be reviewing, and one I’m very excited for, is Lindsay Starck‘s debut, Noah’s Wife (Penguin, Jan. 2016). Here’s the synopsis from the publisher:

When young minister Noah and his dutiful wife arrive at their new post in the hills, they find a gray and wet little town where it’s been raining for as long as anyone can remember. Noah’s wife is determined to help her husband revive this soggy congregation, but soon finds her efforts thwarted by her eccentric new neighbors, among them an idiom-wielding Italian hardware store owner, a towering town matriarch, and a lovelorn zookeeper determined to stand by his charges. Overwhelmed, Noah’s wife fails to realize that Noah, too, is battling his own internal crisis.
 
Soon, the river waters rise, flooding the streets of the town and driving scores of wild animals out of the once-renowned zoo. As the water swallows up the houses, the telephone poles, and the single highway out of town, Noah, his wife, and the townspeople must confront not only the savage forces of nature but also the fragile ties that bind them to one another.

noahswife

 

Blood of a Stone

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Blood of a StoneTitle: Blood of a Stone

Author: Jeanne Lyet Gassman (previously interviewed at Grab The Lapels)

Publisher: Tuscany Press, January 2015

Blood of a Stone is a novel set during the “Jesus movement,” or the rise of Jesus as a prophet. Yet, the novel is told from the point of view of a Gentile named Demetrios, who was sold into slavery when he was 18. After killing his master, Demetrios and fellow slave Elazar pretend to be regular guys and set out to start a business with money they’ve stolen from their dead master. But when Demetrios’s secret past as a slave and murderer is threatened, he will travel all over Palestine to murder the one who could expose him: Jesus. Although I experienced some confusion about how much time passed and there was a lack of suspense in some plot points, Blood of a Stone is a highly descriptive novel that can change your vision of violence.

Many of Lyet Gassman’s descriptions are fierce, inciting shivers and repulsion. Demetrios is forced to kill his master, Marcus, because he is being whipped to death:

“How many times did Marcus strike him? Twenty? Thirty? Demetrios lost count. Blood blisters burst into streams. Strips of cloth and raw skin caught in the leather strap; a faint red mist clouded the air.”

I’ve seen people whipped in movies, so I’m always getting a fictitious version, of course, but it seems like being whipped causes little red lines. Here, though, Lyet Gassman gives me more heady images to hang onto: blood blisters, red mist, and skin actually being caught in the whip. Such images are not ones I’ve fathomed before, leaving me speechless in the face of extreme violence.

After Demetrios has decided he must stop Jesus from exposing his secrets, Demetrios follows the prophet with the plan to murder Jesus as soon as the man is alone. Instead, Demetrios sees a woman–a leper–appear just as’s about to attack with a dagger. She, too, has followed Jesus, but with the request to be healed. Again, Lyet Gassman crafts descriptions that are strong enough to cause a physical reaction in the reader:

“Oblivious to her deformity, Jesus never even glanced at her stumps, but reached out instead for the veil that shrouded her features….Tragically, her face, too, had been ravaged. Her skin was pitted and marked by former scars, like a sloping pasture eroded by rainfall. Her lips, disfigured by a missing flap of flesh, were twisted into a perpetual snarl. When she attempted to smile, she exposed decaying teeth set in putrid, infected gums.”

One visceral fear of my own is the possibility of losing a limb, and this lady is falling apart, so I had quite a strong reaction. Even that word–“flap”–disturbed me.

It becomes obvious that things are pretty dangerous, and the hope of excellent medical treatment isn’t even an option. After an attack by bandits leaves one character near death, Lyet Gassman gives those vivid, horrifying descriptions again:

“When Demetrios leaned close, he noticed the pupil was dilated; the eye focused on a place high above Demetrios’s shoulder. Demetrious waved the flies away from [name omitted]’s face. A large purple bruise swelled across [name omitted]’s right cheek. Clots of dried blood blackened the flesh around his nose….The back of [name omitted]’s skull was soft, pulpy and [the] blood soaked through Demetrios’s clothes.”

That word, “pulpy,” stuck with me as I continued to read. I kept thinking of orange juice, and the soft squishy matter we find in the bottom of our glasses. “Pulpy” indicates that nothing is going to be okay for this dying person, and should Demetrios cradle this person’s head too tightly, I imagine it would crumple into a bloody mess.

One aspect of Blood of a Stone that I didn’t find as compelling was the sense of suspense Lyet Gassman tries to, but doesn’t quite, create. Elazar, the other slave in Marcus’s home, is a Jew, while Demetrios is a Gentile. This doesn’t bother them, but when Elazar hears the King of the Jews has finally come, he decides to part ways with Demetrios. Feeling abandoned, Demetrios tries to retrieve his friend and convince him that following Jesus and abandoning their business as caravan drivers is absurd. During one meeting, though, Demetrios learns some terrible news: Elazar has told Jesus of their crime, that Demetrios killed Marcus and Elazar helped hide the body. Now Demetrios feels threatened. Should Jesus tell the Roman authorities, Demetrios could be killed for his crime. Later, Demetrios discovers that Jesus has raised a man from the dead. Panic sets in: what if Jesus decides to raise Marcus from the dead to seek revenge on his murderer? This is when Demetrios decides: he must kill Jesus. Although I knew this was meant to be an intense moment in the book (and a turning point that will cause Demetrios’s narrative direction to alter), I felt no eagerness to read forward at a speedy pace. I know what’s going to happen: Jesus will be crucified. There was a moment when I wondered if Lyet Gassman would change the story, but quickly dismissed the thought.

There are several attempts to kill Jesus. First, Demetrios follows him to a river where Jesus is speaking to people. The descriptions are good: “Demetrios pressed his palm against his breast to quiet the rapid beating. Again, he touched the hilt of his knife. It, too, vibrated beneath his fingertips. A sting of death waiting to come to life.” Yet, I did not feel a sense of suspense. I patiently waited for something to prevent Demetrios from murdering Jesus, and something did. A second attempt is made later, but Demetrios is interrupted by the leper woman. Once he sees Jesus perform a miracle, Demetrios cannot kill Jesus, for he truly appears to be a prophet.

Palestine in time of jesus

Lyet Gassman includes a man like this in the beginning of the book so you can follow along with the characters’ travels. Demetrios is a slave in Gerasa. He tries to kill Jesus in Jericho. Jews are led from Demetrios’s home in Tiberias to Jerusalem in a caravan. Elazar leaves Demetrios to follow Jesus in Capernaum. Jesus, of course, is from Nazareth.

However, Lyet Gassman does effectively create a suspenseful plot point when Demetrios, having held and watched [name omitted] die due to that pulpy skill, he gets the idea that Jesus can come and bring [name omitted] back from the dead! Here, I got pretty excited. I didn’t like when [name omitted] died and felt pretty bummed, and having Jesus resurrect this person would not too dramatically alter the story of Jesus that we all know.

Another concern I had was with the timeline of Blood of a Stone; I never knew exactly how much time had passed. We’re told that Demetrios is 18 when he becomes a slave, but the novel is so long. I was always cognizant of how slow travel is without cars (and there’s a lot of travel) and how much time would need to pass for Demetrios and Elazar to set up a business. Then, there’s the rise and death of Jesus. By the end of the novel, I had no clue how old Demetrios was, which always bothered me to a small extent.

With many harrowing, bloody scenes that brought to life the violence, Blood of a Stone is a novel that may make you turn away in horror. You may not feel drawn in in a way that has you turning pages at break-neck speed to find out what happens next, but some surprises are in store for the reader. And, I imagine that any Christian would find this novel a fascinating read thanks to its atypical perspective and themes of guilt and forgiveness.