Tag Archives: history

Meet the Writer: Susan Stinson

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Meet the Writer: Susan Stinson

I would like to welcome Susan Stinson to my Meet the Writer feature. As many of you know, half of my reading goals in 2017 are to find positive fat fiction written by women. I asked for recommendations from fellow book lovers.

So far, my reading of fat fiction has been a big disappointment. Book after book falls into the chicken dinner category: fat women picking themselves apart into pieces that are then criticized. Ugh. Only Dietland by Sarai Walker and I Do It with the Lights On by Whitney Way Thore have been given my full recommendation.

However, Casey over at The Canadian Lesbrarian introduced me to Stinson’s work. I picked up her novel Fat Girl Dances with Rocks a day or two ago. Though I’m not far in, I love the unique main characters. And we have a fat narrator! She might mention she’s fat, but she’s not chicken dinner-ing (yes, I just made that a verb). Without further ado, I give you Susan Stinson!

Susan Stinson Photo by Steven Tagle (960x640) (2) (1)

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

Susan Stinson: I am a novelist who also writes poetry, lyric essays, and book reviews. My novels have varied quite a bit in style and content. My first novel, Fat Girl Dances with Rocks, was a coming of age novel in which a young woman comes into a new relationship with her fat body at the same time as she begins to explore her lesbian sexuality. It came out in 1994 from Spinsters Ink, a small feminist press. fat girlThe year before that, two writer friends and I had formed a micropress and published Belly Songs: In Celebration of Fat Women, a chapbook of poetry, short fiction, and lyric essays that examine fat oppression and celebrate the beauty, strength, and sensuality of fat women. In 1995, Spinsters published Martha Moody, which was a mytho-historical western with tall tales and a flying cow. That was a love song to fat women for me, and a pleasure to write. It had Swiss and German editions, and has recently been reissued in German in both paperback and as an ebook as Martha flog auf der Engelskuh, which means Martha Flew on the Angel Cow. I love that.

I published three books in three years because I had finished them all before any one of them were published. My next novel, Venus of Chalk, came out in 2004.

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During that time I was travelling a lot giving readings and talks with my earlier books. When I made appearances, two things kept happening. People would come up to me and tell intimate stories about the pain they were in in relationship to their bodies. It became clear to me that fat hatred was a form of social control that was causing many people of all sizes to suffer. The other thing that people who saw me read asked me over and over again was how I came to be comfortable in my fat body. I wrote Venus of Chalk as a way to give my best answer to that. It starts with a fat woman being harassed and then turning against her own body with self-harm, and then goes on a bus trip from New England to the Texas farm where she used to spend time with her aunt as a child. So it’s a road trip, but it’s also her journey of confronting the roots of her internalized fat hatred and getting to a stronger place. Carline is bossy and difficult, but I think she’s very brave. That’s my answer for how to take on fat oppression, internal or external: it’s a slow, difficult process of confronting difficult things that is also so worth undertaking. There’s no way out but through.

My most recent novel, Spider in a Tree (Small Beer Press, 2013) is very different.

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It is a deeply researched historical novel about eighteenth century Northampton, MA during the time of preacher, theologian, and slave-owner Jonathan Edwards. I live in Northampton, and, in some ways, writing about Calvinist New England is me continuing the process that Carline goes through in Venus of Chalk. My passionate exploration of fat oppression in fiction and poetry took me to confronting other difficult things, such as the long history of northern slavery and intensity of Calvinism and how it might have been actually lived by people with various relationships to someone like Jonathan Edwards.

Right now, I’m working on Lamentation Hill, which is inspired by Jonathan Edwards’s grandmother. She is an unhappily married English woman with murderous siblings and a daughter who betrays her. There is also a Pequot sailor in love with the daughter’s husband in seventeenth century Hartford. Like lampreys in the river — made by and making the landscapes around them — they burrow, wriggle, rise, and latch on.

I wish I wrote more poetry. I love poetry deeply. I read it almost every day. Poetry with clarity, emotional urgency, and live language is an intense pleasure. It’s a balm for isolation. It’s a joy.

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

SS: I thought of myself as a writer from the time I was very young. When I was in first grade, I won a school contest for best letter to my mother for Mother’s Day. I got to read the letter from the stage in the gym to the whole school. I got paid, too! They gave me a gift certificate to a local strip mall, which I used to buy a stuffed caterpillar. I never forgot it.

GTL: In what ways has life in and out of academia shaped your writing?

SS: That’s a big question. I was an English major as an undergraduate at the University of Colorado in the early eighties. I took a lot of writing workshops and learned a lot from them. I never got an MFA, though. I couldn’t see how I would be able to pay back the student loans if I went into debt to for graduate school in creative writing. So I moved from Colorado, where I grew up, to the east coast, where my brother, who is an artist, was living. I ended up with a job at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, giving administrative support to visual art studies and learning more about the lives of artists in that role. It was so great to have access to the museum, too. During that time, I began to participate in fat lesbian culture and began to write and think critically about my received notions of fatness. My life was strongly influencing my art, clearly.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the years in writing groups. In some of them, we critiqued each other’s work or discussed aspects of craft. I was the Writer in Residence at Forbes library, the public library in Northampton, for five years. I still facilitate a writing room there, where we gather to write every week. We don’t critique, we just write together, although we have a reading every year.

I taught Fiction Writing at Amherst College in 2014, and I’m about to do that again in the fall of 2017. That was my first time back in academia since the eighties. The students are wonderful, and teaching writing is a great way to grapple with the heart of what I think matters in fiction.

GTL: How do your friends and family respond to your writing?

SS: My friends and family are enormously generous and supportive to me. Sometimes I ask some of them to read unpublished work. Sometimes I’ve made choices not to write about things that I knew would make someone close to me feel exposed. It’s clear that my work has sometimes made some of my friends and family uncomfortable. It’s also very clear that they want me to be able to do the work that matters most to me. One of the things I love about fiction is that it makes it possible to write very honestly about the most intense emotions while also respecting the privacy of others. I think that there is there is an dance of fine-tuning the ethics of writing fiction that is informed by courage, self-knowledge, empathy, and love.

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

SS: Some people are uncomfortable with lesbian content. Some readers have been unwilling to enter imaginatively into the inner lives of fat characters and stick with them even as they imperfectly, haltingly begin to address some of the pain that fat oppression can cause. Writing pain and fatness together is tricky, because many people assume that is all that fat people are. I’m writing characters with their full humanity, which includes strength and power and fight and eroticism, and also includes all kinds of mess. Some readers find it hard to handle that.

My writing isn’t always as light and fast as that of many stories I love. It calls for some patience and attentiveness. It rewards those things, but it does ask for them.

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

SS: I always knew I wanted to be a writer, but I wanted to be other things, too. I remember having a list in elementary school: I wanted to be a writer, a gardener, a ballet dancer, and a teacher. I am happy with where I ended up on that list.

fat ballerina

Ballerina from Russia’s Big Ballet, a troupe of dancers averaging 220 pounds.

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?

Zora maid

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…

zora tada

Review/Comparison of #HiddenFigures film and book

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Review/Comparison of #HiddenFigures film and book

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

published by William Marrow, 2016

and also

Hidden Figures directed by Theodore Melfi

released by 20th Century Fox, 2016


hidden-figures

If you’re from the United States, you know someone who has seen Hidden Figures and raved over the performances of leads Octavia Butler, Taraji P. Henson, and Janelle Monáe. The movie was based on a nonfiction work of the same title by Margot Lee Shetterly. No one seems to be reading the book. The film follows the lives of three black female mathematicians at NASA in 1961-1962.

The book, however, looks at decades of scientists and mathematicians at NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) with the three women from the film tenuously holding the book together to create some “story.” There are dozens of employees at NACA who are featured, and it’s difficult to know who to remember and who’s just “passing through.” I kept highlighting the names of folks who never appeared on the pages again.

While the film is delightful, honors the lives of three black female mathematicians, and clearly has an agenda, the book is scattered, confusing, and wants to be both science and narrative.

The first thing I noticed is the writing is unclear at times. Shetterly’s words come in an awkward order at times:

As Dorothy learned — the West Area Computers received many assignments from the lab’s Flight Research Division — it was not good enough to say that a plane flew well or badly….”

A simple rewrite would make the sentence clearer: The West Area Computers received many assignments from the lab’s Flight Research Division, and Dorothy learned that it was not good enough to say that a plane flew well or badly….

I had trouble staying engaged while I was reading. Long passages about various scientists and mathematicians make my eyes play a game of Where’s Waldo, except instead of searching for a little man in a stripped shirt, I was looking for the stories of the three main characters I had seen in the film: Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson. These women are few and far between, and the book rarely demonstrates a clear connection between them. Basically Dorothy is older, so she got to NACA first, thus opened the door for women like Jackson and Johnson. However, they don’t work together (to be fair, Johnson works for Vaughan for 2-3 weeks before she’s relocated).

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Left to Right: Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (played by Janelle Monae), and Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer)

While the film would suggest Vaughan, Jackson, and Johnson were best friends and rode to work everyday, the truth is they had other best friends, both black and white women. Many women are removed from the film, to consolidate characters I would image. Kirstin Dunst’s character (not in the book) comes out looking like a grumpy “my hands are tied” passive racist. At one point she says “Ya’ll should be thankful you even have jobs at all.” However, in Shetterly’s book, NACA heavily recruited from black colleges; these women were wanted and needed.

Furthermore, Shetterly emphasizes that Mary Jackson’s “treasured friend,” Gloria Champine, was a white woman, and their relationship was “one of the most poignant of all the stories” Shetterly heard during her research. They two worked together to help all women in the workplace advance, get hired, and gain independence from men.

One of the biggest climaxes of the film, featured proudly in the trailer for Hidden Figures, meant to highlight racial tension was Kevin Costner’s character bapping down a “Colored Girls” sign from above a restroom door. He did so because Katherine Johnson was gone from her desk too long, having to make the mile trip from her desk in one building to the “Colored Girls’ restroom on the other side of the NACA campus.

I was surprised to learn that Johnson never experienced problems with the bathroom; she was light-skinned enough that she “passed.” While author Shetterly doesn’t suggest Johnson lied about her race, she does write that Johnson happily avoided racism in her workplace, and even ate and played card games with her white male co-workers at lunch. Costner’s big dramatic moment was highly unnecessary — the focus tries to be on Johnson’s humiliation at having to run for a restroom, but the focus is wobbly at best. His character, though, was necessary, as he represented a mishmash of several white men working at NACA. When I watched the film, I appreciated that he spent most of his screen time pacing behind a glass window so as to stay out of the spotlight, but based on the book, Johnson interacted positively with her white colleagues frequently.

Instead, it was Mary Jackson who, on one occasion, had white women laugh at her because she asked where the “Colored Girls” restroom could be found — they giggled because their opinion was, “why should we know?” No one tore down the “Colored Girls” sign; it was simply gone one day. According to the Shetterly, racism existed in NACA as a result of what amounts to complacency. When Christine Darden, another woman left out of the film, couldn’t understand sexism at NACA, she asked her “boss’s boss’s boss”:

“Why is it that men get placed into engineering groups while women are sent to the computing pools?” Christine asked him. “Well, nobody’s ever complained,” he answered. “The women seem to be happy doing that. so that’s just what they do.”

Now, if you feel like I’m diminishing the struggles of black women (and men) in the space race, please try to understand. I’m simply pointing out that the film added a whole lot that didn’t happen and consolidated many people into one character. It suggested NACA was very “us vs. them,” and Shetterly doesn’t suggest that in her book at all. Whether the film or author is portraying the history incorrectly is not known to me. I do know that Shetterly writes in generalities instead of citing specific examples.

Of course there was racism in 1940s-1060s Virginia. What struck me was the vicious racism that happened around NACA in town that never made it to the film. When schools legally had to desegregate, one governor took all the money from a district that tried to comply with the law and shut down all the schools — for five years. Some white mothers screamed that they would rather have their kids out of school than sitting next to “a Negro.”

To me, this seemed way more important than a dramatic bathroom sign scene. If there’s anything Vaughan, Jackson, and Johnson stood for, it was a solid education. In their own state, a whole generation of children missed a large portion of their education (50% or more).

Both versions of Hidden Figures have value, but the audience for each is not the same. The nonfiction work is geared more toward history buffs with a solid grasp of science and math who care less about the people (there are a lot to keep track of) and more about the history of the science. The movie can be enjoyed by audiences from all walks who are looking for a powerful narrative the likes of which rarely appear in white-washing Hollywood. Then again, the film creates dualism that doesn’t exist in the book.

The Thirteenth Earl #romance @EvelynPryce

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The Thirteenth Earl #romance @EvelynPryce

The Thirteenth Earl by Evelyn Pryce

published by Montlake Romance, 2016


Pryce’s newest novel is set in 1884 and stars Jonathan Vane, who is the Viscount of Thaxton. His father is still alive, but the man appears to have dementia and is rapidly deteriorating. In order to hide his father’s condition, Thaxton (as he is called) stays away from polite society and earns the name “the Ghost.”

Yet, when Thaxton’s dear friend Percival Spencer, Earl of Spencer, coordinates a two-week long house party with his new bride, Thaxton attends. Granted, he looks sloppy, drinks all the time, and his moody as hell, but friends are friends. On the first two pages, Thaxton and Spencer are fencing in the library so the new wife won’t catch them. On page three, the wife catches them. With her is Cassandra Seton, a pretty daughter of a marquess. By page five, Thaxton thinks Cassandra is hot. So quick!

The problem is Cassandra is engaged to be married to Thaxton’s cousin, Miles Markwick. She was promised to Miles when the two were born, and when she came of age they were officially engaged. However, Miles ran off to Scotland to fix up a run-down estate . . . and was gone for nine years! Certainly, such a man could not be faithful, despite his lady’s reputation slowly diminishing as a result of only time. She’s done nothing wrong — she is, of course, a virgin.

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While I dislike covers with real people on them, I found this image appropriate because it reminded me of the clothing of the time and gave a sense of an attractive man, but left his hair and eyes to the imagination.

While I’m no Victorian expert, I did take a class at the University of Notre Dame called “The Victorian Universe” where we learned about the culture, plight of the poor, influence of Darwin, and read three massive door stoppers of the time: Vanity FairBleak House, and Middlemarch. I’ve watched the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, and I talked with my husband, who loves Victorian lit and studied it as well. Thus, I’m not oblivious to the norms in Vic Lit. What is obviously absent? Sex. Sex of any kind. Except when Lidia Bennett runs off with a solider and must be provided with a dowry to entice the soldier to marry her and thus save her reputation.

The Thirteenth Earl‘s pays no attention to Victorian courting rituals, to the point of distraction. Right away, Thaxton asks why Cassandra doesn’t use her title. She says she prefers not to, and he replies, “Little rebel.” That expression is too bold. Also, these two are constantly alone in public. In Victorian society, women never walked alone; they were escorted by an older, preferably married, man. No contact between unmarried men and women was allowed, even hands. Only after engagement could a couple hold hands in public. Women weren’t allowed to speak to a man of a higher class than she until she was spoken to. A man couldn’t show any special attention to an individual woman unless he intended to marry her (no casual dating!). Early on, a mysterious wailing woman is heard; Cassandra and Thaxton each investigate and bump into one other. Thaxton had felt naked because he wasn’t wearing his jacket and gloves. Cassandra is in her nightgown. Remember, a ruined woman is in danger of death if no one will provide for her. The social behavior was pushed so far that I felt impatient with the novel.

I didn’t get excited about the plot for the first half of the book. The sexual tension came so early that there was no build up. The secret kissing and hand massaging in public under the table, the moaning and “growling,” wore on me. On the same page Cassandra “tried not to be distracted by how handsome he was” and “she had been preoccupied in thinking about Thaxton’s arms around her inside the waltz.” She’s practically unable to think around a handsome (alcoholic) man, a characteristic I found weak and frustrating.

But then Chapter 6 — 95 pages in — the plot starts moving. A seance is held to learn more about the wailing woman voice, but instead Thaxton is told he is cursed to go insane like his father and the 11 earls before him. The characters must find out what’s going on, and why. I plotted through my head: what could be the motive for scaring Thaxton? Was his father really insane, or was someone playing the long game and poisoning him? If he is being poisoned, were the 11 earls before him also poisoned (assuming there is some foul play)? Cassandra’s malicious, jealous fiance isn’t in line to take over Thaxton’s property should Thaxton go insane. I couldn’t figure out the mystery, and that made me really get into the book.

It also helped that I spoke to my husband, who felt that the book is clearly not written in the style of Vic Lit, but simply set during the time period. Surely, people were getting it on at parties. Just because there are norms for polite society doesn’t mean everyone is following them. I used this mid set to stop paying attention to the ways The Thirteenth Earl fails to adhere to history and started enjoying the mystery and sex scenes, which are deliciously well-written. By the time the novel was done, I was having fun and feeling saucy — but it certainly took a lot of time and thinking to get there.

I want to thank Evelyn Pryce for sending me a copy of The Thirteenth Earl in exchange for an honest review. Be sure to check out my review of Pryce’s 2013 romance novel, A Man Above Reproach, a romance set in a brothel during Victorian times!

The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová @RoseMetalPress

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The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová @RoseMetalPress

The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová: A Biographical Collage

by Kelcey Parker Ervick

Published by Rose Metal Press, November 2016


Němcová’s own life contained elements of the fairy tale:

her parentage was possibly noble, though she was raised among the household servant class;

she was forced to marry a man she did not love;

unwise decisions brought her personal hardship later in life as well as financial troubles;

and she came to an untimely end.

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What is a biographical collage? Collage is a form that has allowed me to express myself through the years when I hadn’t the words to say what I felt, but of course traditional collage focuses more on image, less on text. Why don’t we see collage writing more often? The beginning of Parker Ervick’s third book reminded me of some potential hurdles: giving the original texts proper credit, obtaining permission to use those texts, and organizing information to make meaning in a creative way. I began with an obsession: track all of the source material while I read and be sure I knew who wrote what. Parker Ervick tells readers in the introduction that we will see footnotes for the fragments from other texts and that the font would be italicized when the sources were primary. But would she note when she cut information out of an original passage and rearranged it? And where would I find her voice?

Of course, I was stupid to begin in such a fashion. It’s like I lacked… imagination.

The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová: A Biographical Collage is organized beautifully and helpfully. In “Introduction: This Is Not a Biography,” Parker Ervick explains her obsession with Božena Němcová, a Czech fairy tale writer from the 1840s who influenced Kafka. Parker Ervick began visiting Prague in 2003 and has been back many times, seeking not only to find all things Němcová, but her extended family. Due to political and historical factors, Němcová’s writing has remained largely untranslated, and thus unknown to English language readers.

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“To where are they leading the maiden in the white dress?” acrylic, graphite, and collage by Kelcey Parker Ervick

So readers are not confused, the author adds a brief section up front, “A Few Notes on Czech Names,” demonstrating both the complexity of the language and the sexism inherent in it: “–ova was a not-so-subtle way of adding ‘egg’ to a name to feminize it.” Thus, when Božena married Josef Němec, she was Božena Němcová. Readers learn “the proper pronunciation of Božena Němcová is BO-zhena NYEM-tsovah.” Wisely including a note on language and pronunciation gave the book a new layer of meaning and enabled me to feel close to the subject matter; if I can’t pronounce her name, how much affinity can I feel for Božena Němcová?

The collage text itself is broken in to two parts. Part I includes five sections that move through Němcová’s life, from her obscurity to her passions, her loveless marriage to her last days of poverty, illness, and starvation. Each section includes excerpts from Němcová’s writing, primarily her novel, Babička (also known as The Grandmother or Granny); letters Němcová wrote to friends and lovers; images, mostly photos taken by Parker Ervick or collages she created; and scholarly works, chiefly the book Women of Prague by Wilma Iggers. No page in the book is completely filled; these are pieces, excepts.

Readers get to know and fall in love with Němcová. In 1954 she writes, “my favorite fantasy was to enter a convent — Just because I had heard that nuns learn so much.” Often known for her aversion to traditional expectations for Czech women, Němcová surprised and astonished people. The young woman was admirably to the point: “…but you know that to have human feelings is considered a sin. . .. In my belief a beautiful sin has its moral dignity and merit — what is not beautiful about it contains it’s own punishment.”

A biographical collage juxtaposes information in a way that otherwise reads stiffly in an academic text. On the left page, Němcová’s maid recalls how Božena and husband Josef were not right for each other. On the right page, Žofie Podlipská (another Czech writer) admires Mr. Němcová and his opinion of his writer wife. The two first-person accounts almost reminded me of reality TV shows on which participants enter a booth with a camera in order to confess or vent.

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Though unknown to many, the writer made it onto Czech money.

Němcová certainly wields a talented pen. When I can’t let something go, I call it “fixating.” When she can’t let something go, she declaims:

My soul is often as a lake, where a slight wind stirs up waves that cannot be calmed.

One thought chases the other as little clouds in a thunder storm, each more somber than the next, until the whole sky is covered

with heavy clouds.

Part II contains “postcards” (they don’t actually look like real postcards) Parker Ervick wrote to Němcová about her time in Prague, learning Czech, and the conclusion of her own unhappy marriage. The postcards aren’t self-important. Parker Ervick reaches out to Němcová like a best friend or long lost sister. Her time in Prague suggests her life is a fairy tale, both lovely and painful, when she takes long journeys through the woods by foot to find monuments to Němcová and later finds a happy ending.

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Parker Ervick meets relatives: “Na zdravie,” personal photo of author, her cousin Josef, and slivovitz, taken in Okoličné, Slovakia.

The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová: A Biographical Collage brings back the passion and beautiful language of Parker Ervick’s first book, For Sale by Owner, which I so desperately missed in her second title, Liliane’s Balcony. She keenly examines her identity as it changes: Who is she in Prague? In the U.S.? In her writing? In her marriage? Thanks to the form, each postcard deftly gets where it needs to go, but without losing the pathos.

A deeply intimate and creative endeavor, The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová: A Biographical Collage could work beautifully in a classroom or on your bedside nightstand.

The Tide King #BookReview #MagicalRealism #war @MichalskiJen @BlackLawrence

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The Tide King #BookReview #MagicalRealism #war @MichalskiJen @BlackLawrence

On Monday, I posted a Meet the Writer feature with Jen Michalski in which she discussed her new novel. The book, The Summer She Was Under Water, was published yesterday, August 9th! Congrats, Jen! Be sure to sign up for her Goodreads giveaway for a chance to win a copy.


The Tide King by Jen Michalski

published by Black Lawrence Press, 2013

I start with my admissions: I wrote book reviews regularly for Jen Michalski at JMWW and I’ve reviewed her other works, the collection Close Encounters and, more recently, Could You Be With Her Now (two novellas in one book). Jen also hired me to coordinate a book blog tour of her collection, From Here. It’s always nice to help someone get the word on her book out — assuming the review is honest. I’m often attracted to other writers whom I’ve found are meticulous, hard-working, good at her craft, and can teach me something. Jen Michalski is one of those writers, which is why I had no concerns about taking on her first novel for review.

The Tide King begins with the most current date you will encounter, 1976. A man, woman, and girl get into a cab in Poland make the driver uncomfortable: why are these individuals unusual, their eyes and mannerisms not fitting for their bodies? The young man and woman are American, but the girl is Polish, and so he speaks to her in the language, asking if she will be alright.The Tide King Michalski

Fall back to 1942 where we meet Stanley Polensky and Calvin Johnson, soldiers, and two of the main characters. We learn that Polensky’s mother has given him an herb that is said to protect the person who ingests it. He keeps it in his helmet, assuming his mother is just superstitious. After reading detailed battle scenes from World War II (impressive!), you will learn that Polensky uses the herb — but on who, or what? That is all I will tell you.

Go even further back to 1806 when we meet a girl, Ela, and her mother, whom are considered witches in their village of Reszel, Poland, because they make tinctures. They find an herb — burnette saxifrage — that grows in on land that has been struck by lightning. Through experiments with animals, the mother learns that the herb is special, causing the animals to repair even the worst of mutilation. Is this herb an elixir for immortality?

As you read, it becomes easy to discern who the man and little girl in the cab from the prologue are. But, Michalski keeps you guessing as to who the woman is. Several women are good candidates, making this novel part of many genres: mystery, war, romance, fairy tale, and — maybe? — Gothic.

 

Overall, the plot is an amazing feat of Michalski juggling characters, time periods, and languages — and she never drops a ball. The prologue, as I described, puts you at the end of the book, and the end of the book takes you back to the beginning. 1976 was a satisfying stopping point, but I can’t really convince you of that without evidence, which would blow some of the best plot points.

That’s just the thing! I am a verbal reader; I make a lot of sounds like, “Gah!” and “Duuuude!” and “Whhha?” when I get into a book. You see, these characters, especially the secondary, will bring you up and let you down. They were so… human /fickle /unpredictable! I wanted things to turn out like _________, but then the character would do something that really suited him/her, things I didn’t think Michalski would allow to happen, but she did! I tried to expect the characters to be unexpected — a mighty challenge that kept me reading way too late at night (something I haven’t done since my years with the Sweet Valley Twins in the early 90s).

Michalski gets readers thinking when she writers her characters before they are immortal. We can see ourselves on the pages, reflected in the choices the characters make regardless of the repercussions. Youth are easy to relate to, as they can ignore mortality:

He was young, and there wasn’t much to think about, in terms of consequences. He was young and didn’t know what lay ahead, which was the beauty of being young — so many risks taken before one has the sense to realize the dangers. He was young and going to fight [in World War II].

But what if you can live forever, as opposed to simply thinking you will because you’re young? Michalski tackles that question when she gives us truisms by which we may live. Or, we can dismiss them in favor of our own search for meaning in life. When you’re lonely finding a partner to fill the loneliness isn’t always the answer:

“I haven’t really met anyone here. But I have friends. I travel. I know that you don’t want to hear this, Heidi, particularly since you struggle with it so much yourself, but people are lonely a lot. Even if there is someone. There’s always a loneliness that people can’t fill, that pets can’t fill. And you have to make peace with it because you come into the world alone and you go out the same way.”

The sentences themselves, even when following male characters who were veterans (often stereotyped as macho), have a tender beauty. A character who lives forever describes what it means to find a woman with whom he fills a kinship:

She had grounded him. He didn’t feel essential to himself, even alive in a normal sense, but he felt tethered to Kate, her gravity keeping his moon rotating, surviving its long trip around the galaxy.

Michalski has a great talent for writing similes, comparisons that seem so fitting. A simple truck is compared to a beast, but it tells about the man who owns the truck, too: “In the vestibule, she saw her father’s truck through the front doors, its monstrous orange chassis shuddering, smoke pouring out of the damaged muffler like some ancient, grouchy dragon.” Imagine the father, who owns the truck: perhaps a broken-down (physically, mentally) man who smokes, who is unpleasant to be around.

The end of the novel, which gets you back to where you started, practically forces you to re-read that 1976 prologue to see what the man, woman, and little girl are like, now that you know who they are. But my fingers tried to trick me; I re-read the prologue and started to turn the next page to the first chapter again….

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

A Man Above Reproach

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A Man Above Reproach

A Man Above Reproach
by Evelyn Pryce
Montlake Romance, October 2013
226 pages

It’s England, 1832. A new duke named Elias Addison enters a whorehouse known as The Sleeping Dove with his dearest friend, Lord Nicholas Thackeray. The Dove is one that caters to the nobles, who wear masks to cover their faces, but everyone knows who’s who and what’s going on. While Elias doesn’t want to be at The Dove, having been deemed a bore and the “Uncatchable” bachelor because he is no fun, he does notice the piano player. Meet the Bawdy Bluestocking (BB for short), the lady meant to add lively atmosphere to a place where women sell their bodies because they have no other options. BB’s body isn’t for sale–just her conversation. Elias can’t help but notice that BB’s skills are refined…are that of someone with classical training who has played for a long time. The mystery is too much, and he pays to talk to the woman.

The Bawdy Bluestocking is careful to hide her name. By night she plays piano in a whorehouse, but by day she runs a bookstore she owns, a business left to her by her father. Part of the secret of BB is that she takes in the prostitutes who have no where to go at night, who would otherwise sleep at The Dove, because they are the most at risk for being sold to nobles and are never seen again. The only reason Elias learns of BB’s name is by stopping in the bookstore with his mother and realizing he recognizes the shop owner. He is sold a random book he grabs (he is so terribly flustered!) and is told the owner is also the author–Josephine Grant. The book is called On Society’s Ills and The Real Price of Prostitution, apropos for her experience and contextualizing the nobles who frequent The Dove.

BB–or Josephine–has a secret about her family that she fears will humiliate and ruin the duke, should society ever learn of it, if they become involved. However, with money and a title on his side, the duke forces himself into her life, completely upsetting her bookstore business, her efforts to save girls from being sold as sex slaves, and keeping her identity to herself. Selfish doesn’t begin to cover it. Elias is often described as lounging in doorways with his legs crossed, or smirking. When we are reading from Josephine’s point of view, he really is the entitled nobleman we’ve all heard of: he doesn’t take “no” for an answer, which has undertones of rape.

The sections from Elias’s point of view depict Josephine as calculating and shrewish. She’s willing to have sex with him to make him go away so she can resume her life, though from her point of view she’s a dignified woman who won’t “go there” for impure reasons. Neither character makes the other seem like a good person through their eyes.

Evelyn Pryce made a number of great choices in her novel. I appreciated that Elias was drawn to Josephine because she didn’t fit in her setting. His curiosity, and not her breasts or lips or whatever other body part, was the reason for his attraction. This choice made me take the story more seriously because it wasn’t all sex and six-pack abs and bodice-ripping.

Commentary on social gaps and sex work were also welcome in a romance novel. It wasn’t a tittering book the whole way though, making both readers and characters think about the very real implications of prostitution during a time when a woman was no one without a man. Elias sits in The Dove, thinking about how to speak to Josephine, when a prostitute sits on his lap. He thinks about the book Josephine wrote and what it means:

Elise shifted under [the prostitute] with discomfort. She was indeed pretty, but every word our of her mouth made him think of On Society’s Ills and The Real Price of Prostitution. Josephine had written with startling lucidity on the ways that women fooled themselves when they were forced to sell their bodies to men and their limited income alternatives. The calculated breath on his ear, the way this woman’s leg wrapped around the chair, even the smell of her hair…it no longer seemed to be the simple charm of a lady. It was calculated for survival.”

In the novel, it is made clear that male nobles are forced into marriages of convenience with women who don’t want to get married either, so the men “keep” mistresses they find in brothels, maintaining second homes and catering to the woman’s every desire — until the nobleman gets bored with his prostitute and leaves her. I appreciated that Pryce added social concern in her novel to create a second layer to the story.

The conversations between Elias and Josephine included a steady stream of banter that made me like both characters, even when they were unlikable in each other’s eyes. The discussions kept at a healthy pace and made the book a bit of a page turner. Pryce also has great moments of conversation between Josephine and a young woman who works at The Dove and Josephine’s bookstore. The women are both serious when needed and playful and honest with one another when the time is appropriate. If you ever get tired of the proper (a modern reader may call them boring or pretentious) characters written during the Victorian era, this updated novel would suit you fine! Readers may have the criticism of the novel not being completely true to the time period, but I overlooked any issues I suspected because I have studied Victorian literature, but am not an expert.

The male characters could be downright hilarious when put together. When Elias, his cousin Sebastian, and Nicholas head to the The Dove to do some business, Pryce uses her characters to essentially wink at the reader–to let us know that she knows that this is a romance novel set in the 1830s and that we want someone, some damsel in distress, to be rescued. Here is the exchange upon heading to the bordello:

“We are just walking in?” Sebastian asked, peeking around the back of the building. “Why not something more heroic, like going through the courtyard to employ the element of surprise?”

“It is a place of business, Sebastian. We are walking in.”

“It does not seem dashing or dangerous, Elias, you must admit.”

“I know they love me here,” Nicholas shrugged. “I have spent a fortune on drinks and on Sally until she left. Furthermore, I am not [Elias]. I am not the troublemaker.”

“You took away one of [the madam’s] girls,” Elias reminded him. He opened the front door and began making their way to the back. “I think it would be best if we went in as if we were still patrons, mingle until we can secure a conversation with [the madam].

“And what if she will not talk to use? You did knock her lackey unconscious.”

“She will talk.”

“I still think it would be more dramatic to climb the courtyard fence.”

“Shut up, Sebastian.”

The lively conversations like these made me smile and see that Pryce knows her genre and knows her readers. These bits of metafiction appear elsewhere, too, like when Elias’s sister knows a romantic moment is coming and she is asked to leave the room. She responds, “But this is the good part.” The sister knows a love story and how one is shaped. When Elias’s friends chide him for being so foolish, they also suggest (*wink wink*) that they are in a novel. Elias says to Nicholas, “It is all very epical. I am sure you are pleased to no end that I have to deal with a situation that I would not believe if it was written in a ridiculous novel.” Any faults with plot readers may find should go away when they learn that Pryce also knows the premise of the story is stretching it, but this is all good fun. This is fiction, she is telling you, even if it is silly.

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

The History of Great Things

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The History of Great Things

The History of Great Things by Elizabeth Crane

published by Harper Perennial, April 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Which lodge?

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

–Don’t tell him that.

–Mom, Grandpa’s long gone.

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

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

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

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

–But it’s a true story.

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

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

–Lemme just keep going.

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

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

–Okay, you’re pretty good at this.

–Thanks, Mom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

elizabeth-crane

Elizabeth Crane

Kabuki Boy

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Kabuki Boy

Kabuki Boy
by Perle Besserman
Aqueous Books, March 2013
312 pages

*Reviewed by guest reader Kate Henning

Kabuki Boy, Perle Besserman’s ambitious portrayal of Japanese life at the end of the Tokugawa dynasty (1600 – 1868 C.E.), succeeds on many levels: it is lyrical, complex, poignant, and most importantly redemptive, both for the reader and for the egoistic characters within.

Written in the first-person limited with various perspectives throughout, Kabuki Boy opens, with a nod to the etymology of its form, in a novel and intriguing way.  A letter, ostensibly written by Murayama Yoso, the modern-day abbot of a Shofuji monastery in Japan, describes Yoso’s “discovery” of the works that comprise the main text. For the first two-thirds of this text, the reader will peruse the journal of young Nakamura, a boy actor-turned-priest who desperately seeks spiritual enlightenment.  The remaining third of the novel contains a series of letters written by Nakamura’s friends and acquaintances, a short play, and finally a record penned by the monk Gen, a man whose connection to Nakamura will come to define the lesson of the novel, as well as both men’s lives.  The novel is bookended by another letter from Yoso, placing the reader once again in the modern day and allowing her to apply the text to 21st-century life.

Although the panoply of forms and perspectives crafted throughout Kabuki Boy is certainly creative, Besserman’s artistry at times overshadows the content of the text.  Moreover, though Besserman likely intended the fictionalized Yoso to lend authenticity to the meat of her work, instead the abbot often serves to make the reader more conscious of the author’s manipulation, which, admittedly is already obvious; Besserman repeatedly chooses language that is too modern for the period, disrupting scenes and putting an end to the reader’s reluctant suspension of disbelief.  Falling short of postmodernism, Besserman’s endeavors ring phony and forced.

However, what Besserman lacks in authentic narrative she makes up for in beautiful imagery and in a plot to which modern-day readers can relate.  The central focus of Kabuki Boy is the end of cultural values as the characters know them.  The role of social hierarchy is called into question, as is the role of art.  Indeed, Besserman’s characters, most of whom are actors and performers, struggle to find meaning within an unusual social class.  As artists, they are repressed by an elite that on the one hand views them as threatening and subversive and on the other hand enjoys exploiting them for entertainment and sexual pleasure.  Still, though one might imagine the actors would embrace a change in the social hierarchy and an escape from such exploitation, Nakamura laments, “In the old days it was simpler.”  In the old days, actors had a different sort of power.

None of the major characters can truly be said to be ready for the inevitable change in social structure, since all of them in their own way benefit from the existing order.  However, they must all learn to adapt to the changes and also to deal with the cruelty they face, each a pawn in a system of trickle-down exploitation.  To do so, they fall back on art and its transformative, redemptive power to change an audience even after its members exit the theater.

As the scope of the novel widens, readers discover that Besserman has the same goal in crafting Kabuki Boy as Yoso has in sharing the stories he collects.  Like Yoso, Besserman yearns to connect with others and to preserve the stories of the characters she loves.  She urges the reader to pass these stories on, and in doing so she inspires the reader to share her poignant message. “I’ve been waiting for you,” Besserman writes, “since before your birth.”  You can almost hear the “dear Reader” in her plaintive cry for help.

*Kate Bradley was graduated from Saint Mary’s College with a double major in English Writing and Psychology in 2015.  She is currently in graduate school at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, pursuing a degree in speech-language pathology.  During her free time, Kate enjoys running, spending time outside, working on her novel, and finding quality time with family and friends.

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.